Why our reactions to tragedy matter.

When a mass tragedy occurs, we react. We exhibit compassion, fear, anger, revulsion, confusion, or some unidentifiable emotional cocktail. Strong feelings can move us to act and this is a good thing. Intense emotions can be harnessed for positive actions and God, we need so much positivity right now.

We react most effectively when we feel a connection to trauma and we’re naturally wired to care about the issues which directly affect us. It is how we function best in a community because it fosters the understanding that what impacts one of us impacts all of us.

Take, for example, that I am a straight, cis-gendered woman. Despite this, Orlando broke my heart thinking of my LGBTQ friends and how it could have been one of them at Pulse.

Or how I am a Christian, but when I hear fear-mongering Islamaphobic comments, my heart hurts considering how those words fall on the ears of my Muslim friends.

Or that I am white, but when I hear the skepticism regarding the validity of the Black Lives Matter movement, I am horrified when contrasting this sentiment with the individual stories of fear and systemic racism experienced by my black friends.

And when I read about Nice, France last night, I felt a visceral fear over the safety of my Maman Français, with whom I lived just outside of Nice on a college study abroad- a city and country which has shaped so much of my adulthood.

Each of these mass tragedies moved me to speak up and speak out because I felt connected to them despite all of the ways which, at first glance, would place me separate from those immediately impacted. I have to constantly push myself to seek to understand those around me even though my natural reaction is often to retract inside of the safety of that which I am comfortable. It is hard, emotional work to overcome the apathy which threatens to mute my words and silence my actions.

Friends, we can no longer tolerate apathy in ourselves.

Apathy is at risk of creating more dangerous outcomes than fear and hatred. When we see tragedy replayed and repeated, our inclination is to shrug with the sense of futility in it all and then tune out completely. It is a defense mechanism which we must actively fight to reject.

Danielle, my Maman Français, in Nice upon a return visit to introduce her to Ryan, my husband.

Danielle, my Maman Français, in Nice upon a return visit to introduce her to my husband.

Ideally, individual relationships bring about the most change but they take time and, because of this, the power of first steps cannot be underestimated. We can start by looking up open community events, visiting a museum we may not have otherwise considered visiting on a vacation, reading literature written by authors outside of our race, religion, lifestyle, gender identification, or native country, and considering joining a Facebook group open to those willing to learn. Relationships stem from a genuine desire to listen and understand. First steps, even small ones, matter.

Our hope in the midst of such brokenness is our connection to faces, names, and stories. They move us forward. They bring the macro back to the micro. They refocus our perceived futility. This we can do, WE CAN DO THIS. We must take the small steps, friends, so we may be well equipped to bring light in the midst of darkness.

Listen well.

Read widely.

Extend a hand.

Lend an ear.

Love well.

Reject the apathy.

 

 

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When it’s better to be broken.

Parent-teacher conferences were tonight at my school. I love the chance to talk with my families about their children. I love laughing at the stories and I love sharing our concerns about the child for whom we both care. They, in turn, love hearing about how a teacher enjoys their child and I never have to pretend that I do. (Even the ones who exhaust me in every sense of the word. Even those little crazy babies.)

Sometimes though, once in a while, there are families who break me down. Kids in these families? Their chance at getting out of poverty, out of trauma, out of a life of hardship born of limited choices… it seems bleak at best. The adults in their lives just can’t seem to get themselves together and the weight of that falls so heavy on their kids. Those little humans hold it all but have to act like they don’t and so it comes out as hyperactivity and anger and poor grades which means they leave one stressful situation only to come to school and have to handle an entire other set of rules they can’t seem to get straight.

I try to make my room a safe place. I try to love them well. I try my damnedest to be a shelter. I try to find the upside, to stay positive, to shine light into darkness when my mind wants to sit there, depressed in the corner.

Most times I can manage it.

Tonight, I could not.

I cried after a particularly tough conference. I can’t fix it for this kid, I can’t take away what he’s heard and seen, and I can’t produce for him a parent who is capable of supporting and caring for him the way he so desperately needs. It isn’t in my power; I’m just his teacher. I see him only enough to love him and see his potential, but not enough to actually make those imperative changes for him.

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//School garden–Goldfish pond\\

I know all the pat answers about what a difference a teacher can make. I know all of that. (I even believe it sometimes.) But the children I work with, have worked with for more than a decade? I see the same things year after year after year and it wears on you. I know about trauma; I’ve been around it for a long time now. I see what it does when combined with poverty. You have to beat down the cynicism.

Usually, I can pull myself out. But sometimes, it is good and right to sit in grief for a little while and stop trying to reboot. I will continually stand by my belief that we are worse for the wear when we listen to society’s advice on rushing through grief. Deep sadness is useful for reminding us why it is important to continue to rage and fight and stand up for the change you want to see. It removes calluses and strengthens your resolve and in a job in which you are continually confronted by brokenness, you will not survive if you do not stop to do this work of mourning from time to time.

I’m taking some time to mourn. It is the only way I know to keep going into my classroom everyday, every month, every year and seeing the same scenes replayed- different players, same game.

I try to be positive. I look for the good. But sometimes, you have to be broken anew in order to remember why it is you’ve got to do the unrelenting but necessary work to remain there.

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//Classroom window–class plants bizarre antique store find\\

The beautiful after.

THE BEFORE:

In the last few days, I’ve posted a few joking remarks about starting up fertility treatments again. As an Instagram example:

Chicken meds: yellow. Fertility meds: blue. Chicken meds: yellow. Fertility meds: blue. Damn you, refrigerated medications! #infertility #chickens #tagwinner

Chicken meds: yellow. Fertility meds: blue. Chicken meds: yellow. Fertility meds: blue. Damn you, refrigerated medications! #infertility #chickens #tagwinner

Obviously, I intended it as the joke for which it was taken. When I was pulling out that ball point pen fertility syringe for another round of IUI injections last night, I found it ridiculous that my Follistim was hanging out with the barnyard penicillin and Land O Lakes. It’s funny, right?! Of COURSE it is! (Maybe just the teeniest tiniest bit neurotic.)

THE BEAUTIFUL AFTER:

When things are difficult for me, writing and humor are my outlets. The tricky thing about humor is that it can actually serve to convince me that I am in good spirits. The tricky thing about grief is that it can come and go in waves and humor can mask that, too. While dwelling in the negative isn’t healthy, ignoring emotions isn’t either. I value humor highly, but I can also use it as a crutch.

After I posted the joking comments, friends and family reached out to me. “I’m praying!” they said. “I’m so excited you’re doing this!” they wrote. With each new message, I became more and more thankful that people could see past my joking to comfort me when I didn’t even recognize I needed it. That being said, I equally appreciate those who joke back because it IS funny. Humor can buffer pain in the best possible way. I just failed to recognize my cover up and probably should have addressed some of the emotions behind the scenes. Oops.

This is all to say that:

1) If you have friends who joke about difficult subjects, consider reaching out to them to let them know that you’re cheering them on. Still joke back! (Thinking about even HOUSING chicken meds next to your butter is nutso!) But also know that you seeing through some of the facade is deeply appreciated too. While it honestly does make me feel better to make cracks about infertility, I also have a really hard time being positive about it so letting other people carry excitement for me is an enormous relief and blessing.

2) If you are going through hard times, please think twice (or three… four… five times…) about keeping it to yourself. Having a behind the scene cheer team often does more than you could ever do for yourself. Trust others to carry you when you are just tired or incapable of doing it yourself.

 

Thanks for laughing with me and thanks for cheering for me. I love your hearts. (Even more than chickens.)

Sweet little babies.

Sweet little babies.

Mother’s Day for the rest of us.

A year into my infertility, I went to church on Mother’s Day. I had no qualms whatsoever, but about 20 minutes in I realized how horribly I had misjudged the effects of Mother’s Day when your  journey as a mom doesn’t fit society’s pre-defined role. I was held, sobbing, after the service by a mom who got it: who’d walked before me and said she’d been praying for me throughout the service. She knew what I hadn’t foreseen and her recognition of my unexpected and unprepared for grief was a blessing for which I wasn’t even aware that I needed.

This Mother’s Day, allow me to pass on her blessing by recognizing the unconventional, the grieving, the hopeful mamas in all of their beautiful, painful, and honest forms…

I see you mama, you who have been trying and trying, poking and medicating, charting and waiting. You who melt onto the bathroom floor when you recognize another month as a wash; when you have to tell your other half that it didn’t work. Again. I see your grief and I recognize you as the hopeful mama you are and so deeply desire to become.

I see you mama, you who suffered a terrible loss after carrying your child for all of those 9 months. You, who visit the shore or tiny gravestone where you lay your baby down. I recognize you as the mama of the children who are physically with you- and the one who isn’t.

I see you mama, you who have a family of tiny, precious embies. I know there are many who can’t see those little embryos as your babies, but they have never walked in your shoes and they do not understand how you could cherish something so small. I recognize you as the protective mama I know that you are.

I see you mama, you who have miscarried. People rarely grasp the magnitude of the grief felt when a child, for whom you were the vessel, doesn’t arrive how you’d anticipated. I recognize you mama, and how deeply you love and how carefully you carried that child.

I see you mama, you whose child was carried by another whether by adoption or surrogacy. I see the genuine joy in your face as you watch your baby grow up and I also recognize the pain that comes with never having had the chance to cup your baby’s foot as it protrudes from your own swollen belly or, perhaps, missing out on entire months or years of your child’s life. I recognize you as a real mother, as carrying a child in your womb is not the defining characteristic of a mama.

I see you mama, you who were the first and whose child is now being raised by another. I know that you are overlooked and undervalued as a parent. I recognize you as a real mother regardless of how your story has played out.

I see you mama, who are missing your own mama. You who are grieving the loss of the woman who raised you up, comforted you, was your support system. I don’t need to, but maybe you need someone to give you permission to not have to fake it through this holiday acting like you’re fine when you’re not. I’m so sorry for your loss.

To all of you who deeply desire a child, those who are mamas though unconventional means, to the mamas whose children have gone before you, to all of you who experience some level of sadness over this holiday: I recognize you in sharing your experience. If you are in a place where the grief is raw, may you be blessed by a woman who sees you and comforts you this Mother’s Day. Alternatively, if you know this grief but have walked in it long enough to have tamed the intensity, may you be wide eyed in recognizing the woman who hasn’t. May we bless each other through our shared experiences and recognize mamas in all of our many forms. Happy Mother’s Day, to ALL of you mamas.

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One year.

As of tomorrow, it will be exactly a year since Isaac’s first mom unexpectedly passed away. We are going out to the cemetery to meet up with some of his other family members for a bit after work. I haven’t told Isaac yet because he processes deeply and I’d rather him mull over it for the hours before as opposed to the days before. Navigating death with a 5 year old is strange and our circumstances make it stranger.

When his granny called me a year ago tomorrow to tell me, shock immediately turned into grief. I felt sad that a friend had died, but sadder that my son’s mom had died. He was four.

I grieve that she:

– doesn’t get to hear how he is THIS CLOSE to riding his bike without training wheels

-misses the intense concentration he musters to practice piano

-can’t cringe at his froyo store concoctions- always the gummies- or sneak bites like her mom (Isaac’s granny) does

-isn’t here to see how much her daughters adore their little brother, and he them

 

I grieve that he:

-can’t ask her the questions that have formed/are forming/will form for her, many to remain answerless

-won’t hear her praise him

-isn’t able to see the way she always looked at him

-has experienced such a staggering level of loss before he’s even entered school

 

I grieve a lot about her being gone.  I know that there are things that she could have provided him that I just can’t. We’re able to provide him with much, thank God, but there are some things… I just can’t.

Less wallowing. More chickens.

Tonight I worried a lot about the size of my ass. (A little bit just now I worried about what some of you would think of me for writing ass instead of butt. I will continue to worry about it after I post this- probably even more so- but, as a lover of words, I firmly believe that there are times when an obscenity just suits better than its watered down counterpart.) I was worrying about my ass because I haven’t been working out as much as I’d like and I fear it is getting closer to the point of no return. I worry about this because I am self-centered and conceited.

I have also cried a lot this week. It was for a number of reasons: infertility crap (aaaaaaagain), my new chicken pecking Chicken Bicken’s comb to the point of bleeding in introducing the two, feeling overwhelmed with balancing the mom and the teacher and the wife and the working out and the relaxing, over the spilling of the chicken waterer late at night causing me to have to go back inside and refill it again, and about the sudden and unexpected death of the father of one of my favorite students who, God knows, already had more than his fair share of trauma on his 7 year old plate. I cried because I’m a perfectionist , because I try to do too much, because I’m dramatic, and because I have an occasional Messiah complex.

In between all of THAT, it has occurred to me that I am really, really content to be sad or angry or pitiful. You know how I know? Because at one point this week, the type of thought I recognize as a Jesus shoulder nudge noted, “Despite these things all being worthy of grief or anger (some more than others…) it seems like maybe you’d rather just nurse the junk instead of making something of it,” and I immediately recoiled. As in, there is no daaaaaang way I want to stop being sad/angry/pitiful because I’m totally comfortable here.

I saw this quote the other day:

“For those habituated to high levels of internal stress… it is the absence of stress that creates unease, evoking boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. People may become addicted to their own stress hormones, adrenaline, and cortisol… To such persons stress feels desirable, while the absence of it feels like something to be avoided.” (Gabor Maté M.D.) 

I am totally comfortable with wallowing. I can admit that I’ve completely become addicted to the sensation of feeling overwhelmed or sorry for myself or angry at the status quo. I’ve been doing it for so long now that I’m just stuck here and despite it being a place I don’t like inhabiting, change is hard. (Once, I teared up because Ryan wanted to replace the tiny, crappy tv stand I’d bought on clearance and had ZERO attachment to with a larger one that looked nearly identical. I actually devised arguments as to why we shouldn’t replace it which was idiotic because our new tv wouldn’t even fit on the old one.) Change is hard.

While I’ve been snubbing my nose to this gentle shoving out of my comfort zone, I’ve been raising an interested eyebrow to what that could mean. MAYBE, if I stopped worrying about my ass, I could start enjoying working out again as opposed to putting so much pressure on my sorry-self to work out specifically to reshape said ass. MAYBE, if I stopped feeling so sorry for myself for being overburdened, I could spend the time reading a book and learn to listen to my husband when he tells me that the world will not, in fact, implode if I leave the laundry for the weekend. (I am not kidding there. It honestly feels like something really, really awful will happen if I don’t do those dishes. I don’t know what. But bad.) MAYBE, if I stopped moping over the weight of the beyond depressing day-to-day life that most of my students experience, I could spend more time searching for actual solutions like looking into ways to help that newly widowed mom raise money for funeral expenses.

Let’s be honest, this is a far larger issue than a crappy, particle board tv stand. I’m working on it, albeit reluctantly. As in so many situations, this is a perfect opportunity to fall back on wise, blunt, Anne Lamott, who writes:

“Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper. So I keep trying gently to bring my mind back to what is really there to be seen, maybe to be seen and noted with a kind of reverence. Because if I don’t learn to do this, I think I’ll keep getting things wrong.”

I don’t really believe that I want to stay here… I just need to train that puppy a little more. A lot more. But no drop kicking. Maybe a few more chickens would help though.

 

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Less drop kicking of puppies. More chickens.

 

On thankfulness.

To be clear: I am not overweight. I am not of a minority race. I am not starving. If I get sick with a curable illness, I have access to the medication to heal me. I do not fear over a very real threat that my child will be sex trafficked, nor did my parents worry about this when I was a child. I do not fear that my child will be brainwashed and drugged and forced to fight in a war when he should be in elementary school.

Things have always happened easily for me or I was able to work to make them happen.

Until, that is, I entered my 30’s and began the walking the road of infertility. It has completely shaken my faith. Please, hear me out on this. I am not comparing infertility to child warfare in the Congo, malaria outbreaks in Africa, or a typhoon in the Philippines.

What I am comparing, is the trend in my life for things to work out to what we consider GOOD and for the lives of so many others to trend to what we consider BAD. The realization that I didn’t have to manage long term struggle until I was well into adulthood devastated me because it served to reaffirm in a huge way that things in the world in which we live are desperately, intensely unfair.
Last week at school, one of my first graders was called fat by her peers. She is 6. It deeply and quite possibly punctured a wound in her that she will bear for the rest of her life.
I have a son whose skin is darker than mine and so has a life ahead of him that will need to be navigated more carefully in many areas than his Caucasian friends, solely as a result of his genetics.
I cannot personally relate to these obstacles. I don’t think that shame is the correct term, but it confuses me that I feel without a doubt that my heart was made to break for the overlooked,  under-served, underprivileged, and defenseless when my life has been a comparable cake walk. I’ve been mulling this over and over for months. It does not reason out neatly.
There are, however, small breakthroughs. I watched this viral video of a woman named Ash Beckham speak at a TEDx conferences about homophobia specifically, but more broadly about society’s propensity to be uncomfortable with what we don’t understand. She said,
“Hard is not relative. Hard is hard.” 

I related to this thought. Going through hardship is personal AND universal. Although this is not to say that my hardship is even remotely on the same scale as the hunger that some of my students experience, it IS to say that hardship has a way of breaking down some of those barriers between the lot of us. Working through difficulty puts people on something of a common ground- it makes us seem so much more HUMAN. Weakness makes us vulnerable and I want to believe that seeing vulnerability in others makes us more compassionate which God knows we need more of. I want to be able to look around at deep need and move to act because righting wrongs is what we do when ONE of us is connected to ALL of us as opposed to seeing the distribution of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and feeling hopeless.
Another breakthrough is this verse, which I have been trying to focus on for the last few weeks, though often failing miserably. In Luke 6:45, it says this:
A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

I have been so deep in grieving the brokenness around me at work in my urban school, in my son’s past without me, and in the global community for the last year that it has sometimes almost completely overwhelmed me. There is SO MUCH BROKENNESS and SO MUCH UNFAIRNESS that it literally clenches my heart to think about it. Unfortunately, it has had a tendency to break me down and create in my heart anger and frustration which speaks out of my heart instead of the good which I should be storing up to even remotely combat the evil around us. We are called to continual thankfulness because it is the only thing to keep us from sinking into despair over the negativity we face on a daily basis. Being continually thankful is an art. It is learned. It is a process. I’m working on it, because I want desperately to focus outside of myself in a manner that is proactive. Grieving has a place, but so does activism. When the outlook looks too bleak to handle, thankfulness pushes us to action. I want to be there.

Rejoice always, pray continually, 
give thanks in all circumstances.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18