Monday, November 07, 2016

What I've Learned from the Election


Had you told me twenty months ago the salient details of what will now go down in history as Election 2016, I would have laughed you out of the room, down the front walkway, down the street, and into the woods. Because seriously, what kind of psychotic mushroom would you have to be on to come up with THIS? 

If America can agree on anything, it's that this election season has defied our expectations, and, indeed, even our wildest imaginations.

But that is not what I am here to talk about. I am here to talk about how this election has changed ME.

Amid all the negativity, all the ups and downs, all the bizarre turns (sexual harassment and sniffs, oh my!), I have learned some interesting things along the way, and I am better for them.

CALL ME LILLARY
In July, my daughter told us one night at the dinner table that she wanted to change her name from Lilly to LILLARY, so that she could become a girl president. It was so simple, yet so profound. The fact that Hillary exists, that she may be our president come tomorrow, MAKES A DIFFERENCE. Earlier in the campaign Trump complained that Hillary kept playing "the woman card"-- claiming that she was a good candidate BECAUSE she was a woman. To which I, and many other people, thought HELL YES it makes a difference that she's a woman. If she were a woman WITHOUT qualifications, that would not make her a viable candidate. But the fact that she is one of the most qualified candidates for president in the entire history of this country AND SHE'S A WOMAN? That's important. 

I grew up in the 1970's. While we had Wonder Woman Underoos and Legos were still a unisex toy, there were lots of professions that still weren't without a gender prescription. Doctors were men, nurses were women. Pilots were men, stewardesses were women. Presidents and senators were most certainly men. 

Hearing the possibility of a woman president was made real to me by hearing Lilly take ownership of it through Hillary. Because there was an example, there is possibility. 

MOMS DEMAND ACTION
I had supported Hillary from the beginning of the primaries. I had lots of friends who were "Feeling the Bern" and I kept quiet on Facebook about my convictions. I loved seeing their passion for a candidate who promised a more just and equitable society. Yet I had real differences with his foreign policy ideas and experience. Also, he was nowhere near as staunch a supporter of Gun Sense Legislation that Hillary has been from the start. 

I took one of those online quizzes where you answer questions on your positions to find out which candidate you most closely align with. I ended up with 96% agreement with Bernie, and 92% with Hillary. But what the quiz didn't take into account is how important the issue of gun violence in this country has become to me. 

Earlier in the year I was so excited to meet women who were starting up a local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America in my town. I immediately jumped in with both feet. I knew the organization mostly from engaging with them on social media. Their gun sense positions, which focused on finding ways to make real progress on issues like Universal Background Checks and closing the loopholes that allow guns to flow without detection-- issues which an overwhelming majority of Americans actually agree on! 

As we got closer to the election and the organization endorsed Hillary as a gun sense candidate, I decided to do everything in my power to get Hillary elected.

So many of the issues that our society faces-- whether they be racism, terrorism, or violence against women-- ALL of them can be bettered by strengthening our gun sense laws and working together to keep guns out of the hands of people who shouldn't have them. 

THE BIG AHA
Inspired by Lilly's letter from Hillary, our family went public with the letter to set an example, and to advocate for a tone of decency. Our argument was simple, and in many ways, nonpartisan: We should all be speaking to each other with the kind of respect that Hillary spoke to this 7-year-old girl with. 

It was a big limb to go out on for us as a family. There has been story after story about bullying, harassment, the so-called "Trump effect" of violence and derision spreading throughout the country. Although in a normal election season, our "release" of the letter would not be perhaps anything more than a small human interest story, in this season, it felt dangerous. The letter and story went viral. It was written about in the Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Time Magazine. The Washington Post did a video of Lilly reading her letter and an accompanying article, the local news covered it and that video was shown on local tv stations throughout the country, and I wrote a piece for the web site Scary Mommy. A few days later, the letter was shared by Wonkette, and we got a call from the Ellen DeGeneres show. We didn't end up doing the show, which was ok with us-- by that time we had had so much exposure, we were happy to shrink back to normal life.

I was in equal parts attacked and praised in the comments sections across the internet. Women said that it changed their minds about Hillary, and others said that I was a bad mother for giving my daughter a bad role model to follow. Our friends fanned out across the internet and defended us, and the writers of Scary Mommy welcomed me with open arms into their groups where I found lots of catharsis, strength, and humor. 

I realized with Lilly's letter that not only was I impressed with the message it sent to HER, but that I, a "grown-ass woman" of 42, needed to hear those words. I needed someone to say to me that I should carve out a space for my own voice. I cried because those were the words that the little girl who I was  really needed to hear and never heard. They emboldened me to take stands and push forward.

"GRAB THEM BY THE PUSSY"
Trump's ridiculous, sexist, misogynist proclamations and his ACTUAL ABUSE OF WOMEN has triggered many of us. I have revisited the many (yes, MANY) experiences of abuse I have had in my life. The father of a friend of mine who kept pressuring me (then five) to take a bath with his daughter, who slapped me on my bare bottom when I proclaimed that I didn't want to and he couldn't make me. (Years later, we found out that he had sexually abused his own daughter her entire childhood). The high school boyfriend who raped me on my prom night when I came down with a stomach flu and repeatedly asked him to stop. The high school "friend" who would give me a ride to school in the morning and who would say humiliating sexual things to me and proposition me almost every morning. The time when I was living in Spain and a naked man jumped out of a tree and started masturbating in front of me. The college boys who talked about me behind my back and challenged each other to try and bed me. 

You may be wondering WHY IS THIS GOOD that I am remembering all these things? Because after Trump said what he did, I realized I WAS NOT ALONE. The internet was filled with women who were recounting the ways that they had been assaulted, the way they never told anyone about the assaults because they felt ashamed. Until that moment, I had forgotten most of these things because I had tried so hard not to remember them. But now, I remembered them, and realized THESE THINGS HAPPENED. THEY WERE NOT MY FAULT. My indignation and my care for others who publicly spoke of their stories rubbed off ON ME. I realized I am as deserving of comfort and compassion as they are. I realized that I didn't just have bad luck. I am a woman, and this is the story that I and many women like me have lived. It was nothing we did, nothing we said. And that by having Trump's words trigger us, we became stronger. We spoke out, and we will continue to speak out.

Before this time, I had spoken to my kids about body safety in very general terms. One night, while cuddling before bed, I talked to my 11-year-old son about the word that Trump used, what it meant, and what I thought about it. I did this because he rides the bus to and from school, and I remember being a kid on the bus-- it's an environment where bullying can slip under the radar. Where things are said and even done without an adult being able to watch over it. (Bus drivers are DRIVING). I told my son the story of how I was almost in that bath with my friend, the one whose father molested her. I told him that it is not ok to talk about others' bodies the way Trump did because that is abuse. I talked to him about consent-- both for his body and for others'.

I WILL NOT DISAPPEAR
Emboldened by this strange and amazing and difficult season, I have pushed forward for the issues I care about. I have continued to show up for my work with Moms Demand Action. I have volunteered my butt off for the coordinated Democratic campaign (while still maintaining a full time job and two other major volunteer commitments and keeping my two children and husband alive, albeit in a state of disarray). 

I have met my congressman Mark Pocan and my Senator, Tammy Baldwin, so many times that we joke that I'm a friendly stalker. Ditto for candidate and hopefully soon-to-be returning Senator Russ Feingold. I have met Chelsea Clinton, Elizabeth Warren (whom I gave one of my Wonder Woman bracelets), and the amazing Vice President Joe Biden, who gave me a smooch and nuzzled Lilly nose-to-nose. 

Amidst all of that, what I will remember more is the people who volunteered WITH me. Samara, my local Moms group lead, who now shows up in my phone's camera album more than my husband (!), the brilliant young organizers with Hillary's campaign who inspire me with their optimism and kindness. And the other people-- the people volunteering to canvass, to train, to phone bank, to work events. The Secret Service guys who made sure that when the crowds crushed, that my daughter and I stayed safe. The educators and labor folks who turned up and turned out. Who brought their students, their friends, their co-workers, to help further the cause.

I'm exhausted, but make no mistake-- I'm exuberant. I'm done fretting over 528 polls. I'm done with the worry. Yesterday, in the sunday edition of the Wisconsin State Journal, they asked both Secretary Clinton and Donald Trump for closing statements. My name was there-- the first three words in Secretary Clinton's OpEd. I didn't know that was going to happen. But I own it 100%. I am a progressive Democrat. I am a mother, and I am a believer that all the hell we've gone through is a part of our future purpose: to live freer, with more understanding, with less shame. To speak truth. To use respect, even when we aren't given it. To seize the opportunity to carve out a space for our own voices.

In the words of our Wisconsin State motto: FORWARD.


Friday, October 28, 2016

Everybody CALM THE FUCK DOWN and STOP BEING ASSHOLES.

This election season has been so divisive, with so many twists and turns, it makes roller coasters look tame. Let me be clear: I DO NOT LIKE ROLLER COASTERS, actual OR metaphorical ones. The cognitive dissonance, the finger-wagging, name-calling, the media pile-ons, the live on TV tell-offs… I hate to tell you America, but this election makes are butts look big. And by butts, I mean our culture. Reasonable discourse has been thrown out the window not just by Trump, but by the culture that WE co-created which MAKES TRUMP POSSIBLE.

If we didn’t have a culture of online shaming and bullying, we might not have Trump.
If we didn’t have a culture of aggression towards women, we might not have Trump.
If we didn’t have a culture of accusations with no regards for proof, we might not have Trump.
If we didn’t have a culture of deep-seated implicit racism, we might not have Trump.
If we didn’t have a culture of economic inequality BY DESIGN, we might not have Trump.

But we do. We do have a culture where people shame strangers publicly in online forums. We have a culture where adults AND CHILDREN are using social media to bully other people not just whom they know, but people who they DON’T know. We have a culture where, when women are asked, “Have you ever been assaulted?” the answer is usually which time?

We have a culture where people read headlines and share articles WITHOUT HAVING READ A DAMNED WORD of the article. And without having looked at the source, the kind of news they report, and thought about what kind of slant they might be presenting the news with. We have a culture which has thrived on implicit cultural and structural systems that are rooted in, and perpetuate, racism. 

We have a culture where we value the haves (of course their money must mean they are successful, which means they must have earned it). We have financial and governmental systems in place to protect the wealth of the wealthy, while letting those with fewer resources suffer because, by extension, if the wealthy have ‘earned’ their status, the poor must have ‘earned’ theirs as well. 

We have a culture of brutishness, selfishness, and incivility. We, Americans, are assholes. Now before you get all defensive (who am I kidding? You already are. I ALREADY AM), please look at that list I just wrote up there. NONE of us is immune to this. Have some of us committed bigger sins than others? Sure. But who am I, and who are YOU to judge that our own actions weren’t equally as awful? 

I hate to quote the bible, but I’m going to do it. Let them without sin cast the first stone. There’s a reason why this metaphor is so powerful, so timeless. Those who live in glass houses…. And it’s not for nothing that we speak of a glass ceiling. It’s this invisible barrier, just like the invisible bubble that we have around ourselves, which we all like to pretend doesn’t exist. 

But glass houses exist. Glass ceilings exist. We act as though we are immune to the tenor of discourse and don’t participate in it, we act as though women are treated equally to men, even when we know that we are not. We jump to conclusions based on headlines and here say without doing our due diligence. We all— yes ALL OF US— have implicit bias which is not only meant to otherwise people, but also to shore up our own identities, systems, and self-worth. And we ALL know that the economy is not an even playing field, and that the decks are stacked against those with less in favor of those with more. 

So let’s all (yes, ALL) of us take a deep breath, and look for ways that WE can be better. Ways we can change the culture, and stop tearing each other apart. Refuse to take part in petty discourse (even though it feels satisfying at the moment, it rarely results in anything more than hardening of positions). 

People on the right AND left have been finger pointing, calling each other stupid, decrying the other side’s opinions. As I said to a friend the other day, “there’s no Mason-Dixon line for idiots.” They are north, south, up, down, in, and out. And guess what? You and I? We are probably idiots too. And it’s a quick hop, skip, and a jump from being an idiot to being an asshole. 


So yes— do better, want better, expect better. But don’t be an asshole to other humans while trying to further your ‘cause.’ Be assertive about your arguments, but be well-informed AND well-intentioned. 

Thursday, October 06, 2016

You want to win an argument? Here’s how.

It seems like we are ALL spending a lot of time arguing with other people these days— whether it’s about the current election, about issues that we feel strongly about, or whether it’s about something as “simple” as which way to run a fundraiser for the school.

There is never ONE best way to deal with conflict. To tell someone who is an introvert to “just go out to parties and socialize more” doesn’t solve anything. Likewise, changing someone’s conflict style isn’t likely in the cards. But, there ARE lots of things that we can LEARN to do which can help us to relieve our inner turmoil, and perhaps— just perhaps— get others to see things our way.

Take it back to preschool

When I was in high school, one of my best friends had a way of arguing that really cut me to the core. If I said something about someone else which was grossly unkind, or treated her in a way she didn’t appreciate, she would say “That is NOT OK.” 

It landed like a punch straight to the gut, and it really upset me. I talked to her about how it made me feel, and I realized that it had a very powerful effect on me. It is one of the most direct ways of verbally stopping someone in their tracks. And the reason I think it’s so powerful is because of its simplicity. It sounds like something a preschool teacher would say to little Joey when he’s actively biting his classmate. 

Other things which work similarly: “That is unkind,” or “That’s not how we talk about x.” Again, firmness, and standing your ground that you have boundaries, and there is behavior going on that you are unwilling to accept.

Use your strong, kind voice

Both those things are key— strong AND kind. When you are addressing others (especially others who are behaving badly), you need to be forceful, and yet kind. That doesn’t mean you have to be solicitous, or to agree with them. It simply means that you don’t get down into the mud. Mudslinging might feel great at the moment, but it immediately alienates the other person. Yes, you may say “They started it first!” However, as your mother said, if everyone jumped off a bridge, would you, too? 

Mudslinging does nothing to convince the other person, and actually weakens YOUR position. Do you want to be treated with respect? Do you want to have a meaningful discussion? Do you want to change people’s minds, or even just agree to disagree? Then DO NOT DO IT.

What does winning look like?

Think about someone/something you disagree with. What is your ultimate goal? Is your ultimate goal to change something, or is your goal just to feel like you’ve won? Because, spoiler alert: If you feel like you’ve won, you actually haven’t. 

No matter what anyone says, there IS NO SUCH THING AS WINNING AN ARGUMENT. There is helping someone to see your point of view. There is helping someone else to think through THEIR point of view. There is working together to make change, or even compromise. But if your goal is proving yourself right without actually doing the work of trying to understand where someone else is coming from, you’ve actually lost. 

Yep— that’s right. Even though you schooled Grandpa, you didn’t change him. Your goal in speaking to other human beings should not be to humiliate them. It should be to find common ground.


How do you find common ground when it seems like there is none?

People who say things that are offensive to you often have a reason for their beliefs. It may not make rational sense to you, but there is a reason that they cling to it. Whether it’s just habitual thinking, whether it’s based on a misunderstanding of facts, whether it is a distortion of facts to fit their own story in their head… we ALL have emotional investment in our own point of view. 

When people say things that are hurtful to us and/or that we think are misleading, one of the most potent things to do is ask that person

HOW DOES THAT MAKE YOU FEEL?

Whether you agree with them or not is not the point— the point is trying to understand what emotions are running the show. Without knowing what emotions are running the show, you are missing key information which will help you identify the facts, opinions and arguments which THIS PERSON needs to hear.

One of the most potent ways to get someone to see another perspective is by asking them to look at the opposite opinion. To, in a sense, play devil’s advocate to their own argument. Ask them to put themselves in the other side's shoes. 

Take, for example, that you have a friend who is a really picky eater, and they drive you nuts with their critique of your food. Ask that person to have a chat with you. Start by showing compassion. “I know you have stomach issues. I really try to imagine how hard that must be for you. But yet, it's really hard for me, too. How do you think I feel when you tell me that you can't eat anything I make?"

Give someone the benefit of the doubt

I know, this is a hard one. Let’s face it— there are lots of buttfaces out there who don’t deserve the benefit of the doubt. Yet I think the actual number of those people is probably a lot less than we would all assume. I will say this to you, just as I say it to myself: YES, THERE ARE DEFECTIVE HUMANS. BUT MOST HUMANS ARE NOT IRREPARABLY DEFECTIVE. Many humans have bad coping systems. Many humans have erroneous beliefs which fuel their disdain for other humans. But most humans are not evil. Most humans are not only capable of finding human connection, but they actually crave it. 

I’m not saying it’s all going to work ALL of the time. But I really want us to consider how we speak to one another… even (or perhaps especially) the people we disagree with. If we actually want to BE the change we wish to see in the world, that’s going to take some tough listening, and doing the emotional work. 

It’s ok to say “I can’t right now,” or to disengage. It’s also ok to re-engage. It’s ok to talk to those with whom you disagree and say, “Can we set up some ground rules about how we talk to each other? I really would like to hear your opinion, and I would like to have a conversation with you.You need to feel that I am respecting you, and it’s important to know I am being respected as well.

Go forth and engage in meaningful conversation. Or, sit on the sidelines, and add a word of support for someone else while they’re having a tough conversation. Be a force for positive engagement. Lord knows, we all need more of that!

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

Take it Down a Notch!

This year has been a real whopper. My anxiety about the state of the world has been through the roof. Even more so, my anxiety about the way we treat each other on the internet, and how that bleeds over into how we treat each other in real life. 

Because, actually, many of us interact MORE with each other on the internet than we do with people in the flesh.

I try to practice good media hygiene. I try to only engage when I have something clear and effective to say. I think about another person’s perspective when I am trying to convince them of mine. I try to shy away from ad hominem attacks. 

(Though sometimes I have to write out the attacks and then erase them. Calling someone a buttfaced douchecanoe can be eminently pleasing and rewarding. It rarely, however, has the desired effects.)

I decided to make a list for myself of things that I can do to help manage my anxiety about the world because, let’s face it, when the anxiety strikes, it’s good to have an easy list of things which will help us cope.

Paper, pens
There’s a reason I’m not saying ‘laptop’ or telephone. Anxiety thrives on disconnection. Believe me when I say to you that you need to connect with something PHYSICAL. Pushing a pen over paper (whether it’s to write out your feelings or to doodle or draw) can be greatly cathartic. 

Connecting with your inner flow, your inner thoughts, can help you shift attention positively inward. TURN OFF NOTIFICATIONS ON YOUR DEVICES. Tell people who need to reach you how to contact you. Everyone else can wait. 

People
Not people who you know are self-centered, or people who are going to push your buttons. SAFE people. People who are there for you, just as you are there for them. 

A friend of mine told me about her two-minute dumps (and no, we’re not talking about poop). She has a group of friends with whom she has a pact: when they are feeling ovewhelmed, they can call each other and do a two minute emotional dump. Set a timer, get it all out as quickly as possible. Don’t leave anything in there. It’s like a colon cleanse for your brain. 

Often it gets pretty comical by the end because we realize that we’re trying to do too much, process too much, solve too much, and our minds are like magpies, picking up any shiny emotional thing that crosses our path. Then, let your friend do her 2-minute dump. Sometimes listening to someone else’s problems actually gives you perspective on your own. 

Exercise
First— don’t throw things at me for mentioning this. OR, go outside and DO throw things. My favorite way to exercise is kickboxing, where in my mind I beat up on all the villains of the world and of my thoughts. 

The first rule of emotional exercise is that if you don’t feel like doing it, that’s usually a sign that you NEED to do it. 

If you’re not a regular exerciser, go for a walk. Make yourself concentrate on certain things— maybe it’s sounds; maybe it’s colors, or textures (yes, I’m telling you to go feel things). There’s a practice called ‘grounding’ which sounds kind of weird, but I’ve tried it before and it’s super helpful. Take off your shoes. Go outside and walk in the grass. If you feel so moved, lay in the grass, or in the sand, or in the snow. Get contact with the ground. Try and concentrate on feeling gravity in your limbs. 

Crafting, cooking, coffee
Drink a beverage of your choice. Pull out some crafting materials. Don’t have materials? Steal some from the kids. Fold paper fans. Do some knitting. Work on your kitten drawing skills. 

Cook up a huge batch of something which you can share with someone else (there’s always someone not feeling well, stressed, busy, struggling. Share your food with other people. They will be thankful, and you get the emotional boost from compassion). 

Do something which takes some concentration, but is enjoyable. Aren’t crafty? Take your own advice and TRY something new.

Salon, spa, or at home relaxation
One of my favorite things is having my hair shampooed at the hairdresser. I get my hair colored every three weeks, and I’m pretty sure that it’s only 1/2 because I’m 50% grey. The other half is having someone rub my head

But, you don’t have to spend money to take care of yourself or your body. Take some time to do your own toenails, or to rub lotion in your hands. Do it with intention. 

Volunteer
Go for the low-hanging fruit. Something you can do easily. I know that we all are over-committed these days. But maybe it’s because we’re over-committed to things that don’t feed our souls. Ask ME to bake something for a fundraiser, and I’ll do it grumblingly. Ask me to submit images for your Instagram account, or to proofread your flyer, and I’ll have it done in two shakes of a baby goat’s tail. 

Do what comes easy to you, and what you enjoy. If things lose meaning for you, or you’re ready to move on, the move on. You don’t have to be the energizer bunny, and you don't have to do ALL THE THINGS. But doing SOME of the things can help you to feel connected and grounded.


Whatever you choose to do— realize it doesn’t all help all of the time, and if something isn’t working for you, try something new. Of course, if you feel like your anxiety is unmanageable, it is probably time to speak with your primary care provider and find a path for dealing with it. There’s no shame in anxiety disorders or panic attacks. But know that there ARE treatments which are helpful and effective, and that you don’t have to feel frightened and alone with it.

Monday, September 26, 2016

First Person



Things that I expect in my mailbox (in no order):

Spiders
Dust
The Shopper Stopper
Special offers for AAA members
'or Current Resident'
Solicitations for Money
The New Yorker
AARP applications
The magazine I work for
COUPONS 

Things I do not expect in my mailbox:
Actual correspondence from the next president of the United States, addressed to my 7-year-old daughter.

I wrote Hillary Clinton on a lark. 

My daughter, a few months ago, declared at the dinner table, "I want to change my name to LILLARY." Me: "Why, hon?" Her: "So I can be president of the United States." 

Both of my kids are seriously thoughtful, funny kids. (I know, I'm biased). But as a writer, I do think that the way their minds work is fascinating. The words they choose to express their thinking, surprising. Their sense of justice and fairness, admirable. 

I mostly thought what the heck-- I thought this was funny, why wouldn't a Hillary staffer? Poor things. It's probably some intern who is sitting in a windowless basement, forced to read all the crazy pants stuff that people write to Hillary from her web site. Maybe I could give them a chuckle. Or maybe they could feel inspired, as my daughter obviously did, by this woman who is the first female major party nominee for President of the United States.

Fast forward to last Thursday. Mailbox open. No spiders (thank GOD! I mean, I appreciate them eating bugs and all, but I don't really want to touch one). Shopper Stopper? Check. And nestled into its nest of newspaper-print want ads and offers, a slim envelope with a red arrow. A letter. A letter addressed to Lilly.

I'm kind of a ninny and, at 42, I really don't care who knows it. I'm the person who signs petitions about endangered animals. I care deeply about issues, and about fairness, about the poor, the underserved, I care about gun sense laws that we can all agree on. So I get a fair number of form letters from my legislators about the issues I've written that I was a bit skeptical that this was something real.

But OH MY GOD. It was real. It was realer than real. And it was written for my daughter. Very specifically my daughter. 

If you're reading this, you probably know most of the rest of the story. I'm not here to retell it. What I am here to do is to say THANK YOU in this day of trolls and cynicism and sexism and racism and anxiety for reading those words in the letter. If you feel unhinged (like I feel right now), read them. Replace my daughter's name with your daughter's name, or your OWN name. 

We need to hear these words, and we need to speak them. As one of my idols, Glennon Doyle Melton says, "There is no such thing as other people's children." We are all a part of this one thing-- this life, and we need to show up and stand up for each other. We need to encourage each other's voices, we need to hold each other's hands. We need to read and write each other's stories, and our OWN stories. 

Let's write our own history. Together. Now. Forget the haters. Come sit by us. There's room on the bench right here. There's room for humanity, there's room for love and respect. We make it. 

"If the space you're in doesn't have room for your voice, don't be afraid to carve out a space of your own."

With love and peace, 
Jennifer

Friday, May 27, 2016

Ironing Naked

Read at the 2011 Madison Listen to Your Mother performance 

(click here to view)

The week before Mother’s Day it seems everywhere you turn, someone is sharing some great piece of wisdom their mother has bestowed upon them.


Well, ladies, today I will share with you one of the greatest pieces of wisdom my mom has shared with me.  Are you ready for it?


NEVER IRON NAKED.


The first thing I thought after she told me was, “YOU iron?”  And second, had she tried ironing naked before, with “consequences”?  Or maybe this it just a piece of bizarre-- though well thought-out, you gotta give it to the woman-- advice?


To give you some perspective, let us view my first memory of my mom.  It is the blizzard of 1978-- the snow up to the lids of the garbage cans.  Everyone and everything stops.  And my mom decides to walk outside into our backyard naked


I watch her in disbelief (already at four years old I know it’s strange for someone to go outside naked, let alone into waist-deep snow.)  She is out there for three or four minutes-- it seems like an eternity-- just looking around, as my father and I watch from the kitchen window.


When she comes inside, I ask her why.  She shrugs her shoulders, “I wanted to feel what it was like.”  “Why did you come in?” I ask.  “My feet got cold.  Otherwise I would have stayed out there.  It was wonderful.”


As a child, you sort of think of your mom as normal, because you have nothing to compare her to.  As you get older (especially as a teenager), you think of all the reasons why your mother is abnormal (or obnoxious, or embarrassing).  Because she’s your mom.  Somehow her very being seems a reflection on your being.


It is not until recently, as an adult and as a mom myself, that I’ve been able to put together some of the pieces-- start to understand who she was-- the quirky, but emotionally and intellectually present mom-- with who she has become.

Who she has become.  Unreliable, for a start.  At times emotionally irretrievable.   


She and her common-law husband, in the past years, bought a fixer-upper to start a B&B.  She has spent all of her savings, her retirement.  She has racked up credit card debt.  The business failed.  Her health has been up and down.  When I talk with her on the phone, she monologues.  She hasn’t seen me or my children in two years.


And, as my sister found out one day, she’s growing pot.  Not just a little pot, A LOT OF POT.  Yes, kids, Granny grows weed.  She’s got an A-1 grow operation in her basement.  $25,000 worth of the best hydroponic growing equipment and exhaust systems.  Granted, it’s “medicinal marijuana”: Somewhere between illegal and legal, but still.  When I confronted her, I could hear her partner in the background yelling, excitedly, “We’ve even been featured in High Times!”


Now, no, I have never seen the TV series Weeds.  I don’t really feel like I need to.  My mother satisfies any need I might have for crackpot entertainment.  And aside from that, I was honestly upset at first. Upset about the bad decisions that led to her precarious situation. But also, as someone who loves and adores my mom, I somehow feel threatened.  (Might I lose my grip, too?  Could I go from intellectual, creative-type to crackpot in my old age?) 


And laughter aside, I do worry about my mom.  I don’t want her to end up eating cat food.  I don’t want to have to strip her of her independence, move her into my basement with my misbehaving tomcat.  But every time in the past four years my sister and I have staged an intervention, helped her along with advice, she hasn’t followed through.  She’s indignant, or she has cleaned up her act just enough to keep going. 


I can’t help but think that there’s some middle ground to find here between laughter and horror.  There is nothing at the moment that I, my sister, or anyone else can do to “solve” my mom or her problems.  She doesn’t want us to; she doesn’t see them as problematic. 


So here is my decision.  I’ve decided to accept our relationship for what it is.  She is allowed to be the caring mom she wasand the absent mother and grandmother that she is.  She is allowed to be her past (and MY past) as well as her present.  Mom doesn’t have to be perfect.  I don’t need her to be perfect.  And just because I am a mom myself, that doesn’t mean that I have to solve her problems.  I can love her and shake my head.


There are a shitload of things in life I learned from my mom.  How to think, how to love-- even, perhaps, how to mother.  And apparently, how to iron.  Or not iron.  And how to accept her and myself for who we are.  Really.  It’s good.


Epilogue

This piece was read at the American Family Dream Bank on Thursday, May 26, 2016, as a part of the DREAM BIG series: "Listening to Our Stories, Realizing Our Dreams" with Listen to Your Mother. It is a follow up/partner piece to my original piece "Ironing Naked" from the 2011 Madison cast of Listen to Your Mother.

*


“Hi mom, how’s it going?”

Mom (tentative): “Good, I think. Better than it has been. My memory is getting better.”

“Hi mom, how are you?”
Mom: “I’m getting much better. It seems that I had some big event, and it was causing me to not remember things. But now I realize, wow, I was really out of it.”

“Hey mom, it’s Jenny. How are you?”
Mom: “Okaaaay. Jim tells me I was having issues with my memory. But I can’t remember them. It’s very strange.”

After years of worry, of cajoling, of schlepping my mom to memory clinics where she was pronounced “very intelligent,” and showing little or no cognitive deficits, the bottom dropped out. One night she collapsed in a seizure, and wasn’t coming out of it. Airlifted to the next big medical center, we received a diagnosis. 

The MRI showed, along with anecdotal evidence, that she had been having seizures without us knowing it, probably for years. This time, though, the seizure had knocked the needle off the record, and her brain was having trouble booting back up because of dementia. This was the word that had been the terrible centerpiece of conversations about my mom for at least the past decade, with no medical corroboration until that point.

But see, here’s the rub. When you get a diagnosis, you say OF COURSE and at the same time you feel guilty, even when you did everything you could.

I went to a neurologist’s appointment with her shortly after her diagnosis, and she got really agitated and upset by us talking about her, and she put her hand on her hips and said, “Well, I’m not STUPID. Everyone is talking about me like I’m stupid and I don’t understand. I have a very well-developed vocabulary. You aren’t stupid if you have a master’s of fine arts and are the recipient of a national endowment for the arts individual artist grant.”

And she’s right, I remind her. She’s not stupid. No one is saying she’s stupid. We’re just saying she can’t remember shit. 

It sounds almost cruel to say it that way, but it ALWAYS makes her laugh. Then she snipes something back at me about me not being a piece of cake either. 

Today, she is no longer having seizures, but the medicines have taken away much of her independence. She feels unsteady on her feet, she’ll never be able to drive. I guess the good thing about having memory problems is that the bar is re-set every day. Every day you’re winning that race. Every night, like sisyphus, the rock rolls down the hill again.

Last year, we moved my mom and her partner to Grand Junction, so that they could be closer to their doctors. Most of the boxes were labeled “living room- books” or “decor” (that really could be anything— believe me). 

One box had a sticky note on it that read “No idea” in a shaky hand. And as I opened the box, the lifted flap revealed a perfect pizza. I mean, the most perfect pizza you could imagine. And I thought HOW COULD THERE BE A DAMN PIZZA IN THIS BOX? As soon as more light hit the surface, I realized… this is not a pizza. This is a perfectly felted, life-sized facsimile of a pizza.

She can’t remember her own medications, or what they’re for. She mourns her parents’ deaths every time someone tells her that they’ve passed away. But she can create— over days— a physical object out of hanks of colored wool that has an aspect of genius to it. There are moments she still seems alive in— when she tells a joke, offers advice, muses about her felting. But there are still parts of her that are (and will be) missing. 

I still don’t have the mom I had when I was a child, or a teen, or as a young woman. I don’t have the same mom I did ten years ago, or the mom I thought I had when I wrote “Ironing Naked” in 2011. 


Just like life, the box, marked “no idea”— it’s a truthful rendering of where we are at the moment. It can contain moments from the past— the waist-deep snow— almost forgotten— or a surprise. A pizza for no reason. A woman who dives down deep, and resurfaces every day the same woman, but perhaps different, when you open the box. My mother. 


**

Friday, July 05, 2013

Fear(some)

I have turned 39. Turned. Rounded the edge to 39. 39, the almost forty. The epically almost. ALMOST.

And on my 39th birthday, I got a message that I had won $650. For filling out surveys. Really. Really? Yup, really. I usually don't do that kind of thing (I won't win, so I shouldn't do it), but somehow when I filled them out I thought, shit, I've got something to say that they want to hear, so I'm gonna win that money. And I did.  The. Fuck?

And you know what I realized? I realized that all of the things I didn't enter, didn't venture do because I thought I wouldn't win... I could have won. But I never did. I never won because I stopped myself from ever trying. In my mind I had lost before I had even started.

Before this starts sounding like a motivational speech that a high school football coach might deliver to his group of rag-tag losers, let me say that none of this should be particularly epiphanic. I'm not the smartest person in the world, but I can be pretty insightful sometimes. Sometimes.

How can it be that I made it all the way to 39 without calling myself out on my bullshit? WHO ELSE HASN'T BEEN CALLING ME OUT ON MY BULLSHIT, BUT SHOULD HAVE? YOU? YOU OVER THERE? Did I need more than 10 years of therapy only to NOT GET TO THIS?

Or is it true that I had to "come to it myself"... because, really, that is TOTALLY UNSATISFYING and I dare say really fucking late. I could have come to this at 29 and still had a really productive decade behind me. But no.

As much as I hate to say it, are THEY right? The people who say with age comes wisdom? I think that doesn't fully describe this scenario. I'll work on a catchy headline to try and describe my utter lack of emotional ability to, in a timely manner, recognize this easy truth...:

With Age Comes Giving Less of a Fuck About Failure

Optimism for No Good Reason Might Have Changed Life for the Past Ten Years

I've Done a Lot of Shit, But I Should Have Done a Lot More

"I like to sleep too much!"-- Local Woman Laments

Too many amazing things have happened to people around me-- random people. Now these amazing things are going to happen to me, too. (I happen to have just finished watching the last few minutes of the Muppet Movie with my son... and I may just be high on Muppet fumes), but all Muppet-related disclaimers aside,

I'm Gonna Do Some Shit. And It's Gonna Be Awesome.