Wednesday, October 18, 2017

How I Have Seen Men Treat My Daughter

(Sophia, happy as a clam, in her Daddy's pick up truck.)

A heavyset, gray-haired man, short and jovial, honed in on my cautious, serious daughter the moment she arrived.  She was eight or nine at the time.  He was a volunteer at Vacation Bible School that week, she was just entering a room full of kids she didn't know in a church we don't attend and her face reflected the concentrated reserve of an introvert confronted with a room full of strangers. 
“Smile!” he commanded before welcoming her or offering his name.  Reluctantly, awkwardly, she obeyed, he was in charge, after all.
Standing nearby, I felt a strong desire to whack that man in the face.  Maybe not exactly, but mostly.  The mama-bear in me recognized, immediately, the inappropriateness of his command and, in it, I heard the echoes of all the men who've commanded me to smile over the years. 
I too was a quiet, serious girl.  I cannot tell you the number of times men, mostly in passing, reminded me to smile. 
“Smile!” they demanded, as they passed me in the mall, in the lunch line where I worked, or walking down the street with my friends.  "You're too serious," they would sometimes add, "you'd be prettier if you smiled." 

Sometimes it felt like a harmless flirtation, a backward compliment of sorts.  At least I had a chance at being pretty, if only I would be less, well, less me.  I didn't realize then that these comments and complaints had nothing to do with me.  Nothing.  I didn't understand they reflected masculine insecurity, the desire for me to be easier, but not, of course, too easy. 

Over time, I got the message that it wasn’t ok to be me.  To be a woman, young or old, who rests serene in her own quiet seriousness is to shirk cultural expectations of the bubbly, giggly girl who lights up the world around her, flashing her pearly whites.  In tending to my own internal fires, I was letting down the male egos in the room, those expansive egos so often in need of continual support.
//
About a month later, I took my daughter to the pediatrician. She was suffering from a baffling array of symptoms and we had no idea what was going on.  Was it allergies, a cold, a stomach bug?   
She sat alone on the high examining table wrapped in a paper gown, while one of our favorite pediatricians, a gentle, thoughtful man, tried to puzzle things out.  My daughter was inordinately worried about the possibility of needing a strep test.  She fears and dreads the test, gagging every time and occasionally vomiting on whoever administers it. 
Finally, reaching for the large q-tip in its white paper packaging, the doctor announced that he wanted to test for strep.  My daughter's eyes grew wide in fear and, seeing her anxiety, the pediatrician offered a few simple tricks to help endure the swab.  Then, he asked whether she wanted to sit on the exam table or in my lap. 
She climbed down from the paper-clad bench, hopped into my lap, and I wrapped my arms around her.  Pulling up a chair, the doctor leaned in with the swab, but my daughter held out her small hand and stopped him mid-motion with a clear and simple request.  

“Can you wait until I’m ready?” she asked.   
“Yes,” he said and sat back, waiting for her command.
She paused, gathering courage, then blurted a quick, “OK.”  She gagged a little, but then it was done, and while we waited for the results, I sat there marveling at this girl of mine.
I was amazed at her centeredness, the way she drew from her own deep well to tell the doctor to pause, to make the space necessary to do difficult things on her own terms and in her own time.  

Reflecting on the situation now, I can see how the pediatrician helped protect and reinforce my daughter's sense of strength and autonomy in a vulnerable situation.  He took her concerns seriously and then helped to allay them by offering concrete strategies for dealing with the awkward swab.  

He was not offended by her fear; not belittling or dismissive.  With his ego completely off the table, he didn't feel the need to chide her into compliance or, worse, to barge ahead with the swab (as I've seen other pediatricians do).  He made space for her to connect with her own resources - sitting in her mama's lap, setting her own timing - and, in the end, my daughter was empowered by the experience. 

This, I want to tell her, is how it works.  This, I want to remind myself, is how it should be.  This is how two people interact with grace and respect, how a healthy man doesn't ask you to weaken yourself to fortify his own ego, but rather lends his strength to create a safe space for you to be who you are - loud or quiet, smiling or not.        

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Road is Wide, The Rain is Falling


Cold rain turned his thin, white t-shirt translucent as he bent his body, like an umbrella, over the double stroller.  The newborn baby cried and he cradled it against his chest with one hand while rooting in a diaper bag with the other.  The girl, a big sister at three or four years old, sat quietly in the stroller - her brown eyes wide, her dark hair and pierced ears glinting in the early morning light.  

Hundreds of strangers had lined up throughout the morning, eager to bargain hunt at the annual thrift sale benefiting United Way.  A friend of mine, a veteran shopper of the sale, had arrived at the door by six thirty.  Among the first in line, she had staked out a coveted position as the best deals went very, very quickly. 

I rolled in a few minutes after seven, with a mug of coffee in hand, and took my place thirty to forty people behind my friend.  I waited behind a young Hispanic man with two children in a stroller and in front of an old-timer who'd brought a plastic crate to sit on.  The line stretched out, single-file, across the parking lot, growing steadily as we waited for the doors to open at eight.  

Time passed slowly.  The old-timer held my spot for me while I went to find a toilet.  The newborn in the stroller woke and cried and was jiggled back to sleep again.  Pleasantries were exchanged in that guarded but polite Central Pennsylvania way.  

The old-timer behind me carried on a long conversation with a woman two people ahead of me, bemoaning his no-good sons-in-law who couldn't keep a job, couldn't even change a tire.  The woman, in exchange, revealed she'd recently been laid off after twenty years on a job.  "Ain't nobody wants to hire you when you're my age," she said.  "Believe me, I know."  The general consensus between them seemed to be that young people weren't worth much these days.  The Hispanic man and I, both younger by far, exchanged uncomfortable glances.

By 7:30, the sky was growing darker, not lighter, and the forecast of possible rain turned certain.  I ran back to the truck and grabbed my rain coat when the first drops started and my friend, still stationed at the front of the line, brought me her extra umbrella.  

Scattered drops turned steady and an icy wind picked up.  About fifteen feet away, the building we were waiting to enter offered a small triangular overhang.  The old-timer was the first to take cover, leaving his plastic crate to hold his place in line.  The father followed soon after as the wind forced rain past the double stroller's shabby shades and the baby woke again, crying and hungry.  

He pushed the stroller the ten steps to the overhang and sidled it as close as he could against the wall.  The old-timer scooted over to make room in the tiny triangle of shelter.  The rest of us in line, some with rain coats and umbrellas, watched this father without a coat, trying to protect his children while also mixing a bottle of formula.  We were rooted in place, rubberneckers, observing one small family's drama unfold. 

//

I can't name the force that held us in line, that kept us from offering to help or heading, en masse, to wait under a large catering tent nearby.  Whatever it was - fear, longing, desire - the feeling was palpable, like a force-field keeping us all apart, causing us each to suffer the storm in isolation, single-file in the passing cold and rain.  This force, I believe, thought I can't put my finger on its exact shape or name, is one of, if not the signature evil of our times.  Under its sway, as Naomi Shihab Nye predicts in her poem, 'Shoulders,' "the road will only be wide, the rain will never stop falling."

Somehow, we must kindle the courage, the imagination, necessary to enact an alternative to our chosen isolation.  What will it take for us to break out, to break through, to one another?

//

It was the way he curved his body over the stroller, the rounded defenselessness of his back as he leaned, rooting in the diaper bag; it was the way he sheltered them that caused my feet to move, that broke me out of line.  My feet moved, of their own accord, and then I was there, behind him, my body blocking him from the wind, my friend's umbrella held high at an angle over the two children and their dad.  

He turned, slightly, at my approach, acknowledged me with a nod, and carried on preparing the bottle, then feeding his infant son.  We stood close, awkwardly close in the small space, and didn't speak a word.  I smiled at the solemnly shy little girl with her deep brown eyes that drank in the world.

The rain passed, the sun peaked out, and we moved back into line.  The old-timer caught my eye.  "That was a nice thing you did," he said, "real nice."

//

Somehow, we must kindle the courage, the imagination, necessary to enact an alternative to our chosen isolation.  What will it take for us to break out, to break through, to one another?

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Some Days, We Nap Together (What Tragedy Demands of Us)


Some days, after working in my office all morning and eating a quick lunch at my desk, my body grows heavy and slow and my thoughts turn to molasses.  With just an hour left before the first child arrives back home, before I leave to work an evening shift at the library, I close my laptop, grab my phone and head for my office door.  My dog, Coco, half-sleeping in her corner chair, lifts her head, then jumps down and follows me outside across the blacktop soaked with sunlight, up the back steps, and into the big house. 

Inside, I pause while we each get a drink of water – her at her metal bowl and me at the vintage water fountain near our kitchen door.  Then, I grab a blanket or beach towel – whichever is warm enough and near at hand – and head into the winter room where the wood stove sits heavy in the corner, squat and round, a cast iron Buddha.  Coco follows at my heels and watches patiently as I hunt one room, then another, in search of our sole throw pillow. 

Pillow in hand, I lay down in the same position, always.  Pressing the pillow into one end of our old, leather love seat, I lay down on my right side, curling my long legs to fit on the too-short sofa.  Coco watches with patience and focus as I spread the blanket or towel over myself, then stick my legs out straight off of the couch, offering a pathway to the pocket of empty space at the far end. 

I pat the leather with my hand, twice.  Coco pauses, very still, and looks me in the eye, double-checking her permission.  “Come on, Coco,” I say and up she jumps, then turns and settles in the corner.  I bend my legs again and tuck in around her, careful to keep from bumping her muzzle with my feet.  The warmth of her soft, sweet body adds to my own and we sleep, tucked together, her head resting on my ankles. 

Her presence, as I rest, is pure gift.  The gift of quiet, undemanding companionship; the gift of with-ness that cannot be measured save for the way it softens and steadies the human heart. 

She wakes, when I wake and shift.  Or, sometimes, too warm and close for comfort, she hops down before the nap gets under way.  Some days, if I'm lucky, our handsome black cat notices our napping nest and jumps down from his solitary leather chair and comes purring along into my arms.  On those days, the cat settles opposite the dog, in the space in front of my chest.  Together, we form a sort of yin-yang arrangement of fur and flesh, the cat in front of me, the dog behind.  

//

I experience a profound goodness during these naps, which may seem a small thing amidst all the world’s evils and sorrows, not to mention my own small entanglements.  But I am wondering whether tragedy really demands the trivializing of such moments of beauty, wonder, and grace – moments when the human soul stretches and softens, relaxed and at ease?

Perhaps tragedy and sorrow, worry and fear, require instead, that we linger and luxuriate in these moments.  Maybe Love itself invites us to spread them out wide for the world to see or to tuck them in somewhere safe, like a golden leaf in fall noticed, gathered, and pressed between the pages of a book where it can be rediscovered time and again in the long winter months ahead. 

I love these moments with the dog, the cat; they are precious to me and I cannot pass them off as something less than mercy and grace.  Evil is never defeat by casting what is precious aside.  Evil is defeated when we gently welcome, gather and share what is good and holy and true.  In this way light and life and love are born and borne and multiplied in our midst. 

The world is a heavy and troubled place.  It is also riddled through with mercy, grace and love.  In these days of naming darkness, let us remember also to gather and spread the Light we're given, casting it high and wide, like a million stars lighting up the night.



 Coco and I sharing a little pre-nap love. 

Where are you finding Mercy, Grace and Love these days??