Saturday, November 7, 2015

When God Speaks to Me This Is What He Says

My dear child,

I have given you yet another test and you are thinking, why?  Why me?  

Your struggle has been long, and constant.  I have given you few breaths and you've relaxed your weary feet only as little as the time between your challenges has allowed.  

You have wandered through darkness.  I've given you a candle along the way.  In the darkness you have stumbled.  You have fallen.  You have scraped your shins and elbows. You have felt your way along at times on your knees.  You have learned to not just listen, but to hear. To see things in the dark that others do not see.  There have been times you have lost the light and I have relit it for you or I have given you the stars.  

When you have stopped altogether and sat down on the rocky ground, gazing through streaming tears at the endless night I hummed you to sleep with the sound of my waters then woke you up with the wind of my breath on your face.

Do you remember the morning your baby brother returned to me with his wings?  That day I sent your grandfather to you.  I breathed his words.  I spoke through him.  His arm around you was my arm.  His tears were my tears.

Do you remember the day you were teased on the bus and you felt like you just couldn't go another day?  Do you remember running off the bus, straight into the house past your mother and into your room, then broke into sobs?  Do you remember the sound of your mother's voice, so comforting?  Her hand on your back?  Her gentle words were my words.  Her hand was my hand.

Do you remember the shame you felt in junior high when your peers teased you because of your clothes? Do you remember how heavy their words were and how you felt like you would never be good enough?  

Do you remember the years of enduring your father's alcoholism?  The abuse?  The shame of poverty?

 Or in college, when your "friend" attacked you in your sleep and took what makes you a woman without your permission?

When you received news that your father was in critical condition because he was drinking and driving?  Do you remember when you finally told him he could not be a part of your life anymore?  Do you remember the guilt you felt when you said those words?

When you were pregnant with your firstborn and your husband's family would not allow you to share your joy with them because your sister-in-law had suffered a miscarriage?  Do you remember how they pretended you were not pregnant and the one time someone asked you how you were feeling when you were five months and you had no idea how to respond because you had not been allowed to discuss the pregnancy?  

Do you remember after how you almost died in childbirth with your first born and carried the grief of being a new mother?  How you sat up breastfeeding, looking at her, wondering why?  Thinking terrible thoughts and feeling such shame and guilt because of them?

Your car accident when you were six months pregnant with your second born?  How you thought you would die?  Then how I brought you to your knees again four days after her birth and you spent five days in the hospital, aching for your new baby?

When your husband told you he loved you but he was not in love with... then you discovered he loved another?  How you cried every day for a year and hid the tears and pretended?  How you woke up everyday hoping to return to your sleeping because your living was a nightmare?

The shame when you filed for a bankruptcy because you could not pay your bills?

Then I gave you your health and you rejoiced. Then I took it away.  You experienced the physical pain of a ruptured disc and the pinched nerve that never healed and you thought that was the worst it could be.  Your surgery and your helplessness as you felt humiliated, asking for others to care for you?

Then I gave you cancer and you realized that the physical pain you'd experienced was not the worst.  Looking at your daughters and thinking of how you would say the forever goodbye was the worst.

And then, I gave you the death thoughts.   And you realized that it wasn't saying goodbye to your daughters that could be the worst.  It would be watching your daughters from heaven, dying, and not being there with them as they perished.

Then I gave you more three more diseases and the pain of bone and ache of heart at dreams dying and yet you fight still.

My child.  I describe these few moments of your experience because you must know that your ordeal has been one planned.  You are my warrior.  You have risen each time and battled.  

Have you not seen how many times I have sent my wounded to you, for you to comfort them, to extend your wisdom, to embrace them.  To heal.

Do not be bitter.  Is this latest trial more of a challenge than the others?

You do not see how strong you are.  I have made you strong. 

You, my warrior, my child, have important work still to be done.  You must be my voice, my gentle word, my loving grace.

When you question my judgment, when you wonder why, how could you not know that
I have given you each challenge because you have a mission on earth and your mission can not be accomplished until you have known as much terror, ache, lovepain as life can inflict.  

You are my warrior and you are strong.  
Now dry your tears.  

I am with you and in you and have both created your journey as well as walking it with you.
Trust in me.


Friday, May 22, 2015

Shame When Kids at School Talk about Their Summer Vacations.

"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you may know nothing about."

My step-father hid his weed under a chair in our living room.  When he had enough money to buy himself his favorite chocolates, a yellow box of Whitman's Sampler, he slid it right under the chair next to the small covered box of pot...

That is the truth.  I'm pretty sure I've never vocalized those words and this would be the first time I've ever written them....

This is a hard entry for me to write.  I have lived my entire adult life as two people.  There is the woman you know, who is the mother of two darling girls, a teacher and a reliable friend.  Perhaps you've followed a memory I've written about my divorce, my real father whom I've never met, or my struggles with cancer.

But there is another person who is constantly right below the surface.  She grew up in adversity.  Struggled through challenges that no child should have to endure.  When I look in the mirror I see her.  She is begging me to tell the truth.  She is pleading to be heard.  She knows if she tells, that other children like her may feel hope.  Sometimes I'll smell something or wake from a dream and it takes me right back to her.  I want to put my arms around her and hold her.  Comfort her.  Then I realize she is me.

She has spent her entire adult life with a mask, ashamed of that part of her that has made her so strong.  She is me.  And today I'm going to take off the mask and embrace her.  I can only share with you a moment of what 38 years has felt like.  I can only provide a glimpse of what it was like to be a child living in fear.  Feeling alone, isolated, left behind, abandoned.

Even one moment of light shed on the adversity may make a difference.  After all, that's why I became a teacher in the first place.  And as a teacher, this past week, I've seen so much anger. So much hate.  I don't know what caused the young man to commit suicide, but what I do know is that his death has caused me to feel the need to write this today.  My heart is full, so full of words and words and memories that are haunting me.  And I know that there are children that are out there that grew up just like me, that have become adults, and are living still in fear, wanting more from life.  Wanting to escape their life.   Not knowing how.

Let me share a piece of my story.

My step-dad was a drunk and then there were times he was not a drunk.  It was like that.  We lived never knowing.  Never knowing what Dad we were going to get.  When he was not drunk he was a fairly good dad.  He played basketball with me and catch and always whipped the ball as hard as he could and told me to toughen up.  He went to my softball games and watched from the end of the parking lot, ashamed to get out and sit in the stands with the other parents.  To this day, I love hate my step-dad.  It is a difficult feeling to have.  To love someone who has crushed me, but who put food on my table, took me to practices, accompanied me in my junior year prom dress shopping.  The man who taught me how to stack wood, measure with a ruler, and coached me with my algebra homework. The sober dad who loved me, even though we never said those words to each other's face.

But there is another dad.  And he was a product of his own tragic childhood.  He had his own personal hell he endured and how can I judge him as an adult when I know his drinking was his mask.  This dad, this drunk, stoned dad.... he was not a good dad.  He was angry and violent and sometimes came home after a night at the bar and sometimes he didn't.  He was a man who cracked a Milwaukee's Best for breakfast with his morning cigarette.  He was and is a man who was such a drunk that when you got close to him you could smell the alcohol reeking from his body.  He never laid a hand on the girls, but he would hit my brother with a belt.  I can remember the sound of him doing that, hurting my brother.  And my brother's cries.  And I felt helpless.  I didn't want him to hurt my brother but I was too afraid to say anything.  Because if I did, maybe he would hurt me.   My mom never let him get close to us.  She protected us and she tried to protect my brother.

I'm guessing you're judging my mom right about now.  You're probably thinking, How could she have let that man do those things?  Why didn't she just leave?  

If life were so simple, then there wouldn't be so much hurt in the world.

My mom gave birth to me in May of 1977, six months after her fifteenth birthday.  I believe that she was a "child having a baby".  As a teacher, I see it all too often.  Girls becoming mothers, just like my own mother.  Sometimes I wonder about their life.  Is their spirit as crushed as my own mother's was at times?  It is not for me to relinquish the secrets of my mother's own troubled childhood.  It should be enough to say that she had even bigger hurdles than I did.  She did what she could with what she had.  She loved us, she comforted us, she sang lullabies to us at night and she kissed our boo-boos.   She read us stories, baked cookies with us, sang Christmas carols and talked to us about life.  It was important to her that we talk about our problems. Under the circumstances, her having been an 8th grade drop-out, I applaud my mother for what she did succeed with... and eventually she did succeed.

When I was 8 years old everything changed.  Tragedy changed us all, and even changed my step-dad for a time.  When I hear people say out of our darkest places, true hope is born, I know this is so.

My 18 month old brother died when I was 8.  He died in my mother's arms as I watched from the backseat.  She had taken him to the doctor countless times,  Potsdam Hospital, Crouse in Syracuse and back to Potsdam.  He's just got the flu, they said.  Give him some children's Tylenol.  Maybe no one took her seriously because she came in dressed like her clothes came from a second hand store, which they did.  Maybe it was her unsophisticated speech, her "ain'ts" and "gonnas" and her errors with subject verb agreement.  Whatever it was, no one took it seriously and so my two sisters and my brother and I watched our baby brother die.

And after that, my mom changed.  Not immediately.  I was only 8 and I watched her lie on the couch with her back to us, covered in a multi-colored afghan blanket.   She did that for a long time.  Too long.  We were kept close to her.  No, you aren't going to ride your bike across the street....

But she did eventually return to school and get her G.E.D.  And as years passed, I found myself helping her with her college work.  I edited her papers and she and I would discuss her coursework.  I was in junior high school at the time.  When other kids were playing sports or hanging out watching tv, I was coming home to babysit and have dinner ready if mom was working.  She would leave me a note on the table.  A list usually of things that needed to get done.  And I was responsible for making sure we each divvied up the chores equally and got them done.  And then, when she needed me, I was  a sounding board for her struggles with college.

But let me back up.  Because I've lost a bit of what I wanted to share and instead got ahead of myself. This entry today I hope, if it leaves you with no other impression, then I want you to understand a little of what it was like to grow up in poverty.  I want to give a voice to all those kids eating free and reduced lunches... kids who might not have a mom like mine.  No one to cuddle them, sing to them, no one to love them.

Just a few thoughts on what poverty means to me:

  • Eating government food.  It comes in cans with white labels.  The cheese is so bright yellow that as an adult I refuse to eat orange cheese.
  • My mom and my family getting on a bus and leaving one state to go to another thousands of miles away to get away from my step-dad.
  • Not knowing who my real father is and never hearing a response when I finally write to him.
  • Eating our dinner from a picnic table in our dining room when we had no table.
  • Being cold.  
  • Refusing to eat school lunch because we had a ticket that the lunch ladies punched and everyone would know I was on welfare if they saw my ticket.
  • Waiting until no one was checking out at the grocery store and rushing to check out so no one would see me using food stamps.
  • Watching my mom cry because my dad was off on a binge.  
  • Watching my mom cry and pack my dad's things in a box and put them on the porch because my dad was off on a binge.
  • Watching my dad take an axe and destroy his own truck when he got home and my mom was not there.
  • Locking my dad out of the house because he is drunk and we are afraid.
  • the sounds of adults partying while I am in my room, trying to sleep.
  • My bedroom, without a door, and with plywood on one window and plastic over the other. My dresser missing two drawers.
  • Shame when kids at school talk about their summer vacations.
  • Getting one pair of sneakers and one outfit from Ames for the new school year and wearing them to bed the night before because I'm so excited to have something new.
  • Being afraid in the middle of the night that he might come in and do those things to me again.
  • Shame when kids at school tease me about my clothes.
  • Wanting to take a shower but we have no water.  Knowing I'm the stinky kid, wishing I could change it.
  • Knowing there's no Santa by the time I'm 9 years old and faking it so my brother and sisters can experience the magic a little while longer.
  • Crying silently because the kids at school exclude me.  
  • Shame when my parents pick me up and they are driving a car that is rusted and falling apart.
  • The smell of smoke, thick.  Cigarettes always in the air.  My clothes and hair smelling like a cigarette and knowing I smell like that, but not being able to do anything about it.    
  • Studying.  Studying.  Focusing on school and sports and doing everything I can so I can graduate and not ever have to live this way again.
  • Being called a lesbian by the guys at school who have no idea that I have no interest in boys because he did those things to me.
  • Hearing screaming at night.  Always hearing screaming.  And one morning the screaming is my mom... screaming at dad to call an ambulance,
  • Watching my brother die.
  • Not wanting to raise my hand because I don't want to be noticed by teachers.
  • Meeting my grandfather at 5 years old for the first time and being afraid to let my grandfather hug me because of the times when the bad man touched me where he wasn't supposed to.
  • Knowing my mom can't afford a good Christmas, and wanting one so bad.
  • Finally telling my mom about the bad touches.
  • Getting a job when I'm sixteen and spending my money on my younger sisters and brother, taking them places like the fair, because I want them to have some happiness.

Recently I heard a professor at SLU discussing they were going to have a workshop there so people could experience what it's like to live in poverty.  I felt a strong desire to speak up, but didn't.  Anyone who hasn't endured poverty's wicked ache, can't attend a two day training and know its hunger, its isolation, its shame.

That would be like saying we could watch the movie Lone Survivor and saying we experienced what it is like to be a marine.

Poverty is a cycle.  It's vicious.  It's brutal.  And, saddest of all, for many children, it's a life of secrets, lies, and despair.

I was lucky enough to have a mom who finally stepped out of the mold and broke the cycle. 
I was lucky enough to have teachers that made a difference just like so many of our teachers at MCS do.

There are so many other truths about poverty upon which I could expound, but even this little bit I think is enough.  I've always had the dream that I could help others like me... give a voice to the voiceless.

I'd like to end by connecting this to what I've witnessed as a teacher.

In the MCS school district I've studied the numbers for Free and Reduced lunch as provided by the state of New York.  The heaviness in my heart I feel when I see the numbers creeping toward and toppling 70% in the elementary schools, and only in the 50% range at the high that number decreasing because the disadvantaged are dropping out of school?  That would be my guess.

 If you look at the data regarding how students living in poverty perform compared to their counterparts.  The difference is obvious. It's widespread across the state.  We KNOW that poverty is THE biggest problem.

And yet, I hear so much blame placed on poor people.  Name calling.  I am certainly not making excuses for people who take advantage of the system.  What I'm trying to do is lead you to see.  Living in poverty is almost always synonymous to living without an education.  Living in ignorance.

When uneducated people make uneducated decisions, we, the educated, should not be surprised when their decisions are misguided, inappropriate, sometimes hurtful and even illegal.  We've got an entire generation of impoverished adults who have been living in a system in which welfare has become a way of life.  Who makes the decisions in our culture?  Educated people are supposed to do that.  We can keep pointing fingers and placing blame.

And while you're wasting your time doing that, there is a hungry child somewhere, sitting on a mattress that is laying on a living room floor, watching her father sleeping, taking care not to step on the heroin needles.

It takes a village to raise a child.

And if you're living in poverty and it feels hopeless, it's not. It starts with an education.

No blame.  Only change.

“Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. It is a bulwark against poverty, and a building block of development, an essential complement to investments in roads, dams, clinics and factories. Literacy is a platform for democratization, and a vehicle for the promotion of cultural and national identity. Especially for girls and women, it is an agent of family health and nutrition. For everyone, everywhere, literacy is, along with education in general, a basic human right.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential.”

~Kofi Annan

Saturday, January 10, 2015

"My Broken Body Does Not Deserve to be Limited by the Victoria Secret Angel" Thoughts on the cultural hype to vilify body types not given the Victoria Secret Stamp of approval

"My Broken Body Does Not Deserve to be Limited by the Victoria Secret Angel"

This is me.
I was once a size 2.  Do you see?
I lifted. Did burpees until I was red faced and puke ready.
I squatted and lunged and jump roped and planked.
Then I ran.  I ran and I ran,

I "T-25'd".  I "Piyo'd", "ellipticalled" and biked
and every other machine with a motor.

I was a superwoman and my abs were my
badge of honor.

But my body fails me,  it controls me.
It is a prison and it is also my home.
And while I must acknowledge that,
I do not have to accept the feeling that 
I am not good enough
because my hips are curvier than yours are sharp.

I am a warrior still, softer perhaps,
but no less indomitable in spirit.
Breath in, breath out, smile.

And while my battle is no longer bigger biceps,
I respect if it's your battle.

But understand my broken body does not deserve to be limited by the expectations of the Victoria Secret Angel or any others.

There are bodies beautiful that are not defined 
by breasts and thick tree trunk hips.
We must desist punishing the other for fitting a design
that is not a mold that we hold high.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

His Family Became my Family and Then We got Divorced

What do you do when the family you had and cared about when you are married, is no longer your family after you are divorced, even though you still care about them?

You see, before I was born I was abandoned by my own father. That kind of damage takes a long time to heal.  Then, my step-father and I had our outs.  He was a recovering alcoholic for a long time, but lost his footing when my Mom and he divorced (I was in college at that point).  I had to learn to shut him out of my life, and he has at times put a foot through the door that I've had to again, shut. That kind of hurt similarly takes a while to heal.  That hurt is only prolonged when the people you cared about as your family, suddenly disappear from your life.  They die too, in a way, and you must grieve them... but what happens when they really pass from this earth?  What are the "right" feelings to have?

I was with my ex-husband from 19 to 30 years old. He was my first real boyfriend. I loved him with an intensity only a silly girl can, entrusting him with all my secrets and desires. His family became my family.  In college, his grandfather, Grandpa John, lived only about a mile away and he quickly became my "Grandpa John" as well.  The same went for my family.  My grandfather (with whom I am very close) and "Jack" became quite close as well.  Our grandfathers met and spent time with each other.  My own grandfather continues to speak very highly of Grandpa John.

Grandpa John, who was born the year women got the right to vote and the White Sox threw the world Series, was getting along in years even then and "Jack" and I visited him often for dinner, helping him around the house or running errands.  Even after we graduated and moved an hour away, we visited continued to make the short trek to Plattsburgh to check in on him.  We helped him put up his Christmas decorations as we listened to his stories about the War and his early days.  He loved history and he loved telling stories.  He was a remarkable man in so many ways.  Even though he was getting on in years, he was quick witted, sharp at calculations, and as a retired accountant, he still provided advice and accounting services to his family and friends.

Grandpa John was my grandpa for ten years.  He sent me birthday cards, talked to me on the phone (he called Jack almost every afternoon at the same time), and sent Jack and me Christmas cards.  I reciprocated.  I made him dinners (I still remember the time I made him Venison in the crock pot.  Epic fail), sent him our family Christmas cards, bought him his birthday gifts.  I continued that even one year after Jack and I separated and then divorced. I loved Grandpa.  He was important to me and that didn't go away just because Jack didn't want me anymore.

But, unfortunately, after the separation and ensuing divorce, I never received anything in return.  And I never again saw Grandpa John after the Fall of 2007.  

I guess I will never know why he chose not to reciprocate my birthday card or Christmas gift.  Maybe he wanted to, but felt it would mean he wasn't being loyal to his grandson.  And knowing how close they were, I can understand that and respect it.

What is terribly hard for me to understand or accept is how. on November 14, 2013, when Grandpa John died quietly at my ex-mother in law's house, no-one told me.  I didn't know until a week later, when one of my daughters mentioned how sad they were.  It was a punch right in the gut.  Grandpa John had died.  He had died and a week had passed and no one had told me.

How do you deal with that blow?  I spoke with my ex-husband and offered my condolences.  I guess I was hoping I would be given permission to attend his wake, but I wasn't.  The information I was given was very limited (most came from the internet) and what little bits my daughters chose to divulge.  I did not press them because I did not feel it was right.  They were hurting too, missing their great grandpa.

After this, I felt even more abandoned.  My ex-husband, I know, was hurting because the man he had called Grandpa had died, but was I allowed to also grieve?  I wasn't allowed to publicly or in the traditional way, and so it was privately.

Now, after all this, you may be thinking that I would be bitter.  I must admit, a little part of me continues to be hurt, but not bitter.  I try not to take it personally.  I know that how a person treats another says more about who that person really is and what their fears are.  I know that moving on means accepting that there are reasons I will never know and some pains that only heal if I put them aside.

What I know with certainty is that I heal each time I encourage my ex-husband to be a part of my grandfather's life.  After the divorce, my Grandpa and "Jack" continued to speak periodically.  And finally, when my ex-husband invited my grandfather over to his home with his new wife, I was taken aback a bit, but I realized that it was about love, not about my petty jealousies.  My grandfather had come to love this man, as I had once, and who was I to severe those ties? (Especially when I so wished I had been able to remain in contact with Grandpa John).  My grandfather still visits Jack, his new wife, and their new baby daughter every once in a while, however it is much less now as he  approaches 80 and his health declines.

As he continues to age, I promise that I will continue to keep my ex-husband abreast of my grandfather's progress, and encourage my ex to call my grandfather when it's his birthday or he's not doing well.  I will continue to do that because it is the right thing to do.  It is what I wished for myself....

And as a final word, I'd like to add, that I wish for Francis John Collins, Grandpa John, peace in his final resting place.  May he be reconnected with Connie and spend the rest of his days in her loving arms.  I will always remember you, Grandpa, sitting in the kitchen at the typewriter, your glasses perched on the edge of your nose, piles of paperwork on the table (rubber banded together) the biggest smile on your face, and Sammy by your side.