Sunday, March 24, 2019

What I Want to Tell Your Kid


Well, first off, I’m hurt.  Your intention was to hurt someone, I guess, with your nasty Instagram poll and meme.  You did.  You hurt Jack.  He obsessed all day about the kid who he thought was his friend who publicly humiliated him on social media.  So, well done.  You hurt his dad, and his sister (maybe), and his mom.  But I’m trying to put that aside and be a parent.  I think this is a learning moment.

What I’m not sure you know is that there is a suicide epidemic in this country.  Kids like you and Jack are killing themselves at higher rates than ever before.  Experts indicate that social media is a factor.  Kids on the spectrum, like Jack, have even higher rates of suicide.  I think it is because although social interactions don’t come naturally to him, he’s smart enough to observe what other kids do and try to do the same thing – and he’s constantly failing.  Do you know how it feels to know you are constantly failing at being normal? 

So, what you have done is shown him that everyone else knows he is failing, too.  In posting your poll about how happy everyone is that he’s leaving, you’ve just reemphasized how disliked he is.  For the rest of his life – because you know he has the memory of an elephant – he will remember how his classmates were happy to see him go.

And it will fester.  It will be added to all the other mean things kids have said to him that he can’t forget.  But it will mean more because it came from someone who had him over to spend the night, who went to QuikTrip with him and bought him doughnuts at DD, who worked on school projects with him.  It came from a “friend.”

It is as a friend that I want to say this next part.  Jack is not the only kid who will remember.  I’m old, almost 46.  Middle school and high school were a long, long time ago.  But I still weigh those men and women by some of the choices they made back then.  Were they a total jerk to their boyfriend?  Did they lie to the teachers?  Did they pick on the little weirdos in the class?  These are the building blocks of their character.  While allowances are made for what they were going through as kids and what they learn as adults, their actions when I knew them as young people are still part of how I see them today.  I don’t know your plans for yourself, but you might want to consider that these kind of digs might get you a few snickers now, but it will cost you in trust.

Trust.  I think that’s why this hurts so much.  We trusted you.  I say ‘we’ because my experience with Jack is that only a certain type of kid is brave enough to be his friend. I feel safe letting Jack hang out with those kids.  It’s usually someone who is smart enough not to be irritated by Jack’s incessant need to be right.  It’s usually someone who understands how valuable Jack’s unwavering loyalty is.  It’s usually someone who appreciates his sense of humor.  But it is always someone who is brave.  Because we know Jack is one of the little weirdos.  Jack knows too.  And his friends know.  Everyone knows.  That’s not really the point. 

The point is what you do with that knowledge.  Jack carries on.  He stays, for the most part, pretty happy.  So I’m hoping he doesn’t turn into one of those sad, sad statistics.  But the teenage years are crazy, so I’m scared.  The people who don’t want to deal with his weirdness, well, they turn away.  Some people are kind.  Some people aren’t. 

You had a chance here, a choice.  It was – to you – maybe a small thing on a day you were bored.  You had this little thought on how to dig on someone.  You followed through.  In that moment, you chose being unkind over kind.  You chose not to stand up for the little guy.  You chose to kick him instead.

My hope is that maybe you realize that your little dig can have big consequences, to him and to you.  And maybe next time you’ll think twice -- or not do it at all. 

Oh.  And you can go fuck yourself.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Wings


Sometimes I wonder what I am doing.  You know, with parenthood, with trying to be a fully realized person, with art.  There are SO MANY artists out there, so many wonderful, talented, driven artists with really great hair and darling babies and so much more energy than I have.  I scroll through Instagram and depress myself with all the people I follow who A) make a new painting every day --or like 3 new paintings--or B) just have talent oozing from their golden fingertips like they’ve eaten Midas. 

Then I make something that I think is really cool.  Like today.

Actually this isn’t something I made today, it is something that became fully realized today.  Or almost.  I still have a little “finishing” to do.  But, people!  It happened.  I brought some things together that didn’t go together before.  I had a problem inside an idea and I solved it.  It looks pretty.  It means something.  It WORKED.

If I were in better shape I’d be jumping up and down.

Can I tell you about it?

It’s called Flight Pattern.  Or Flight Path.  Still thinking. 

It started a year ago as a coaster – or really a remnant of resin from another project.  I had a little square silicon mold and I poured the leftover resin in it, then added some thematic elements: a wing, an owl face, some feathery ruffles, the word “flight”, a little gold.  It was cool.  No idea what I was going to do with it. 

The next time I had some resin leftover, I made another.  They developed in theme.  They were all girl power.  They had feathers and wings and metals and words about the future and flying and… girls.  Every one different. 

They weren’t even my colors.  I didn’t have a plan.  Every now and then I’d take them out and think about what they could do. 

Turns out they were lousy coasters – too uneven.  They became “tiles.”

But a funny thing happened.  They started to mean something.  I realized I was putting together little snapshots of girlhood and feminism. 

It is not new for me to struggle with how being a woman looks for me and what that means for my daughter.  I still have all the hang-ups of wanting my child to be polite and sweet, but I have seen the TED talk and the articles about how that parenting approach only ensures that she will be left behind after elementary school and trained to only follow the rules, never to push them.  She’ll be well-behaved, but never fly above expectations.  I don’t want that.  That’s what happened to me.  I want something different for her.  She’s funny and so very, very people smart in a way that I never was.  I want to praise her crazy-strong body and her loud voice, her chance-taking and her questions.  And even in wanting those things, I hold her back in little ways.  That’s on me.  It doesn’t mean I don’t see and appreciate the fierce joy and possibilities that her self holds.  I do, but I'm not always the best at fostering them.  I’m learning that I’m not going to be the one that is able to teach her how to go beyond.  I only have to get out of her way so she can rise.  All that.  Tile by tile.  A little gold.  A butterfly we found on the front porch.  Some darkness, some places clear. 

Still, these thoughts were a stack of tiles, connected in color and theme, but going nowhere. 

Then my mother-in-law brought me some ceramic pieces from a totem she made for her garden.  And I started thinking structurally, how I could connect her pieces into a hanging sculpture, or a resin piece that would echo the circle and line abstract work I’ve been doing.  And in thinking about how I could make a piece for her ceramics, I thought maybe I could make a piece for the girl tiles.

I turned a deep panel over and painted it and poured clear resin, then added a path in copper and white and blacks.  It sunk and moved as it took two days to harden, but turned out pretty cool.  Now, how to attach the tiles?  I was initially thinking I would drill a hole in the resin and hammer in pegs, but I went to Home Depot to see if I could find something better than just pegs.  I did.  I have no idea what they do in real life, but they are these little copper tubes that flare a bit on one end – just enough to hold if I poured another layer of resin, which I did.  First I had to mark where I wanted the tiles and make sure the pegs would stay in the tiles.  Found the right drill bit to keep the tiles on the copper pegs, and… (angels singing.)

I mean.  I just love this stuff.  It’s a weird sort of problem solving, making something like this.  It has absolutely no purpose, other than depicting my own sort of feminism motherhood journey. (The path goes down, gets dark, then goes up.)  The tiles are even interchangeable; it doesn’t have to be MY journey.  But dang.  I just love it so much.  It’s like pulling out thoughts I didn’t even know I had and making them physical.  That has to mean something, right?  Being able to say something with things? 

Maybe someday, when my girl and I can’t stand even looking at each other and she doesn’t think I understand a single thing about her life, maybe something I make will have a voice she can hear.  Maybe she’ll see herself in the skateboarding silhouette or the “future interests” I have sharing space with music in this piece.

Maybe she’ll understand we both make our own paths, but I tried to let her fly. 


Thursday, August 9, 2018

What Listening Looks Like


I don’t think I have ADHD.  I say this having a child who has been diagnosed with ADHD.  I see, outwardly, the manifestations of this thing in him: the constant movement, the need to be focused before he can hear, the inability to filter.

Hmmm.  Maybe I do have ADHD, without the H.  I have no problem sitting still for really long periods of time.  My head, though, my head is always moving.  When I “don’t hear” it just usually means that whoever is talking to me didn’t pull me out of my head before they started talking to me, so I just missed paying attention to the first things they said.  I caught the end.  I mean, my actual hearing is fine.  I’ve had it checked.  Twice.  You just need to call my name and pause until I’m with you.  I can hear you.  Really.

Strangely, this is not what I was going to write about.  I was going to talk about how I can’t seem to settle into one kind of art, one kind of career, one kind of… anything.  But that’s a decent illustration about how I get off on a tangent.  What I’d love to be able show you is that these tangents are all parts of the same thing.  I’m going to try to tell you.

My fascination with art supplies is only rivaled by… every other artist’s fascination with art supplies.  You see it on Instagram all the time – pics of mounds and mounds of new paint tubes or brushes or shipments of canvas.  We all love it.  How could we not?  It represents endless possibilities.  However, I can’t seem to stick to one thing.  I don’t abandon anything completely, but I don’t want to reexamine the examined.  When I say that I mean I don’t want to redo things.  There are lots and lots of artists out there whose work is instantly recognizable because they basically paint the same painting over and over again.  It’s sort of a variation of Monet’s haystacks.  He sat himself in the same spot and painted the same thing, painting it at different times of the day.  These artists are exploring some sort of expression or body or movement over and over. 

That is so hard for me. 

I have found that if I do a work and I feel it is successful, that when I try to do something like it again, it is usually worse than the first one.  I’m not passionate about it.  I’m not feeling it.  I’m not hearing. 

However, if I am saying something with a different material (aha!) then the work can be as interesting and challenging and the end result can be as “good.”

As you can imagine, in my work this looks like a hot mess.  In my studio, too.

When you start to look around, though, it begins to make sense.  I do a flower piece in resin that collects papers and metals and thoughts about selective beauty.  I do a flower piece on canvas with different papers about education and the arts with a really dark back ground.  I do a dark background in encaustic that shows light filtering down.   I do an abstract in oils that explores the light changing from dark to light and the prismatic effect in between.  I do another mixed media piece that has the prismatic effect with elements of flowered papers in different colors that viewed from far away look very neutral. 

Of course, then I make a coffee table and it throws the whole thing off.  But I’m ignoring that right now.  You should too. 

My point is, it’s not different.  Not really.

If you look at my resume, you won’t find this at all surprising.  I went to school for English/Psych and got an Econ minor.  I went to grad school for gerontology/social work.  I got a job in IT, worked help desk, did some network admin work, some coding.  I went back to school for poetry.  I taught at the college level, worked in reading centers.  I had a kid or two.  I taught fitness classes, did some writing on the side.  I started my own business. 

Where’s art?  Art was always there.  It is in the background, in the art supplies I brought to my teeny weeny college dorm and used to make gifts.  It is in the painted television I made for myself in grad school (the first time.)  It’s in the classes I taught at the half-way house where I did coursework.  It’s in the design I built for the website.  It is in the light fixture I made for myself, the painting I made for a friend, the class that I took at the community center.  It is the market that I entered at the gym. 

I forced (or I allowed) art to be a side.  Until now.  Now it is the focus.  I heard it call my name and pause. 

And you know what is great about art?  It doesn’t require that I do the same thing every day.  Clearly, that is not for me.  I have too many interests and too many fairies in my head for me to sit down and explore the same answers to the same projects every day.  Art welcomes my ADHD – or whatever it is – with open arms.  Ultimately, my art exploration has a path.  If you pay attention, that path is a path of learning.  It is learning how materials work, how colors work, how to build, take away, or change. It is exploring. It is paying attention to the world around me and putting it down in another form. 

I think, all along, that’s what I’ve been doing.  Paying attention.  Even if it doesn’t seem like it. 


Monday, August 6, 2018

Wake Up, Becky


I want to talk about Becky. 

Becky is a work of art.  She’s beautiful, graceful, confident, maybe even smart and well-meaning.  Becky is white.  Becky is safe.

Becky is a mixed media piece I made last year and she is a product of some things I’ve been learning about myself and where I fit into the world. 

I know.  I’m too old to be having an adolescent, coming-of-age story.  I’m 45, a little overweight, going gray, can’t see or hear, and smile too much.  But I’m still figuring out where I fit in things.  I don’t think that’s bad.  In fact, that’s one of the things I like most about myself: that I’m still thinking about things, that I’m still looking around and reassessing what I “know.”  Despite how I present myself sometimes, I’m not infallible.  I don’t know everything.  I am wrong.

Josh says I never say it.  But there it is in black and white.  I FEEL it a lot, but I don’t always let it in – I don’t always explore what makes my blood pressure and voice rise in a discussion.  Usually, that means I’m defensive about something.  Granted, I think there is a possibility that those things happen when someone isn’t listening to the points I’m making; however, they can also happen when the points the other person is making are hitting some soft spots. 

Becky is about some seriously soft spots.  It’s really the first time I’ve explored something so directly in my artwork, which I why she gets a feature here. 

Here is your warning.  I’m going to talk about race here.  I’m going to talk about sexism.  I’m going to talk about white women and their role in white supremacy.  If that alone makes your blood pressure rise, well… you might need to stop reading and think about why that is.  You might have some soft spots.  If you’re still with me, great.  Please understand that I made Becky because I have those soft spots.  Not because I’m spot-free.

So, I’m struggling with my spotted self in this spotted world.  My brother and I share this self-examination gene and it often gets us in trouble, because we become mired in blame and disappointment because our expectations are not met in reality.  We analyze how we should be moving through this life pretty harshly.  I don’t think that’s what this is.  I think this is a reflection of what I see going around me and what I want my contributions to be.  It’s about learning.

And nothing’s wrong with learning.  Can’t think of a single thing.  OK.  Except maybe learning too early how horrible people can be.  Clearly that’s not the case here.  I’m way too old to be just getting around to this. 

Really, that’s part of what Becky is.  She is me learning about me.  And she’s me learning about how horrible people can be.  She’s me learning I’m part of how horrible people can be. 

Maybe that’s given you pause.  (And isn’t pausing a wonderful thing?!  That’s another essay.)

Am I saying I’m horrible?  I hope not.  But I’m not independent of all the things that happened before me.  I am dependent on all the things that have happened.  I am where I am because they happened. 

When I say that I mean:

My parents had the right to go to good schools in Alabama in the 50s.

My dad got to go to college and dental school because his parents benefitted from the sharecropper system that allowed them to own and farm land.    

My parents don’t really remember what Birmingham was like in the 60s.

I grew up in small town in Georgia.

I lived in a mostly white neighborhood surrounded by black neighborhoods.

My schools were not segregated, but the social groups were.

I was a debutante.

My family mostly attended Baptist and Southern Baptist churches while I lived at home.

I fill a traditional role in our family, as a SAHM (mostly) and the one who shops, cooks, etc.

Etc., etc., etc.

You probably have the idea.

If you look, these are all facts.  None of them bad, per se.  It is what it is and I am grateful for all the opportunities I have had and have.  I have benefited by these things in my life.  I’ve gotten peace, protection, money, love, inclusion, and… everything. 

BUT

This kind of life ignores – and even encourages – the kind of systems that result in the ugliest things in our society.  Because I have benefited from these ways of doing things, I am a racist.  There, I said it.  It’s kind of freeing.  I am a racist.  I’m not wearing a hood.  I want the best for all kinds of people.  I have a pretty good heart.  However, I’m part of the problem if I am not actively trying to break down some of these systems; that makes me a white supremacist.  I’m figuring out what I’m doing with that.  I won’t go into what charities I give to or where I spend my volunteer hours, but I’m doing something.  It doesn’t change the world, but it changes something, and it changes me. 

And Becky?  Becky is made of album notes.  The artist has a big ol' country beehive with one of those scarves my grandma wore between visits to the salon.  Becky is made of the lyrics to those country song -- racist, sexist songs that I sung without realizing what I romanticizing.  Becky is made of wedding lace and maps of witch country (Salem) between her legs, because I was taught white women are some sort of mysterious vessel.  Becky is made of pictures of buses from the 60s because that is my past’s past.  Becky is made of little white girls who are princesses and little white boys who are cowboys, because those are lives we are taught to emulate.  Becky has a chicken at the pit of her belly because I am scared to be wrong.  Becky has the word “sad” caught in her throat. 

Becky is naked, asleep, blissful, against a dark background, a black garden growing behind her that she doesn’t see. 

I am Becky.  I think that much is clear.  The face even looks like me a little.  I never really intended her to be a self-portrait, but she is in the way that matters.  She is my acknowledgement that I am the product of some sick shit. 

So I met an artist this week, a young artist I found on Instagram (@negress.supreme) who makes beautiful woodcut work of women of color.  She has this way of doing portraits that are looking right at you, so direct.  I told her they make me feel beautifully indicted.  She has this one piece where the woman is made up of motherboards, currents, and code.  It made me think of how we are all influenced by our programming, but it doesn’t MAKE us.  She calls her piece The Architect. 

I made Becky.  She is my programming, my code.  She is my distant and recent past.  She is some of my darkest secrets and regrets.  But Becky doesn’t make me.  I am the architect.  I will make my own choices, my own mistakes.  I will own the ones I’m made in the past (so many) and I will try to do better in the future.  I will make Becky my past self.  I will build the new woman from new pieces, new books, new articles, new hope.  I made Becky.  Now I will unmake Becky.  Wish me luck. 




Saturday, July 7, 2018

Reluctant Grownup


I heard from an old friend this week, someone from college.  He was in our wedding, in quite a few of the pictures of dorm life, is one of those intense connections you make at that time of your life when you are intoxicated with self-examination and the bigness of the world.  For me, that means he and I have had actual conversations about the person I wanted to be (and who he wanted to be.)

And then suddenly, I'm a 45-year-old woman who is a stay at home mom, living in the suburbs, overwhelmed by millions of small tasks I leave undone so I can play at being an artist.  Not quite what I had pictured in 1992.   To be fair, I was never one of those people with a laser clear vision of what they wanted to be when they grew up.  I’ve known a few of those; they find their path and they follow it.  How wonderful.  My path is scribbled in pencil – watercolor pencil – rather than set in stone. 

So here I am, chatting (not even a “real” conversation) with this guy that I met 27 years ago.  Back then I was a bit… brash.  I was kind of a bully with my ideas.  I understood words, but not feelings.  I wrote gobs and gobs of poetry.  I made a few good friends.  I had long-distance boyfriends who were willing to spend hours on the phone (remember long-distance fees?!) but who weren’t actually there. 

Now, I am married.  Two kids.  I clean up messes and drive kids to soccer.  My husband and I talk about schedules, the future, money, our kids’ quirks, and what is going on at work.  There’s little talk of philosophy, unless it is in the form of politics. Someone is around and needs something from me all the time. I write a few poems a year, which no one reads.  We are on auto-pilot, letting the stream take us.  There’s no thought of jumping the banks. 

So, for the duration of our chat, I had to reconcile this gap.  What I discovered is that I’m a) quite boring and b) jealous and c) unsure quite what to do about that.

I won’t go into his life because I don’t have his permission, but I’ll say he’s very successful.  He has the trappings of success.  I’m jealous because he built something.  And though I never even WANTED to have that sort of life, I am jealous that he worked, quit/failed, went back to work, changed things, and worked some more until… he got here.  I’m also jealous that he got that chance.  It seems like since he’s a man, it’s ok for him to fail.  That just makes him a high-stakes risk-taker.  It makes me a flake. 

I feel pressure to be satisfied with the life I have.  After all, it is soooo much better than most people get.  I was privileged from the start and have stability and luxury that quite a few people would envy.  This is a white woman disease (although the white men are the ones who kill themselves over it – or kill other people.)  The trappings of the cushy life we’ve created are actually trapping us in a solitary, sad place where we post how we fill everyone else’s expectations, but we don’t feed what actually makes us good, solid people. 

I talk to my kids (or I used to – time for that talk again) about making choices that make them their best selves and I think now it is time I make a few of those choices for myself.  Less phone, more reading.  Less sitting, more walking outside.  Less anxiety about people who don’t get back to me, more following-up.  Less despair about this world, more doing small things to repair it. 

As a mildly pudgy middle-aged mom of two crazy kids with a day job I gave myself and no actual title or significance, maybe I can let go of some of that self-examination (self-recrimination?) and instead remember the intoxication of the big world.  My inspiration has always been the marvel of how things go together.  My job is to enjoy the marvel.  Help others remember it.  Strengthen it.

I’m still in here.  The blessing is that the brash has been worn off a bit.  I can listen a little better, maybe hurt others a little less.  I’ve also learned lessons in… staying power.  I have some perspective on who really gets hurt in this world: everybody.  If you’re alive, you’ve probably struggled against loss, or addiction, or glass ceilings, or prejudices, or violence.  But let’s face it, some people have it way worse than others.  I didn’t really know that in college.  Not really. 

So yeah, maybe I turned out a little more boring than I’d hoped, but what put me here are my own choices, not cultural injustice or misfortune.  I’m not at all jealous of his commute or his lifestyle or the pressure he feels.  As for what I’m supposed to be doing, I’m doing it. I need to trust myself a little more.  Maybe I'll fail in this stage in my life, too.  Maybe I'll lose more relationships.  Maybe I'll continue to suck at the things I've always sucked at doing.  I'll never get "success" from my art.  However, if I’m really lucky, I’ll paint a piece; it’ll make someone’s day; they’ll buy it; and every time they see it, it will give them warm fuzzies.  My initials will be on it – all three.  Because Shelley Helms from 1992 didn’t have quite what it takes to be this person, but Shelley Helms Fleishman in 2018 does. 

A poem from last year:

What I am Not


It has taken me a long time
to grow up,
past independence into dependence, again.
I raise my own and still cannot say I have
a hold on what it takes to
make a life – more
make a life full and worthy and clean,
if there is such a thing.

But what I can offer is progress, the moving
of the stakes:  I do not accept
how things were
as how things are.
I am not unthinking about the seasons
of light or who lies at the right hand.
I am not the person I was;
I will change and change.

Maybe it was a gift to be a child
who stayed a child too long:
the angst of differentness
rolling mostly down my back
and now the lagging mindfulness bloats
onward with creeping surety.  Wisdom
being the property of the aged,
my aging coming slow and stupid,
fast as a glacier, but steady,
steady on.

- SHF

Monday, August 14, 2017

A Little Nazi

I've been wrapped up in our own family drama this week -- Lila had her appendix rupture -- so I sort of missed much of the news this weekend. But got on social media and I see people denouncing nazis and I'm like, "duh." Like, that's so obvious. Why would you even post a meme about that? So now I see the news in Charlottesville, Va and I see WHY we have to denounce nazis. My summary is this: a group of guys had a klan rally sans sheets. They held a bunch of Tikki torches (well done Tikki for denying any associations with this group and their agenda) and marched for racial purity and the plight of the white man. The inevitable counter-protest happened and a nazi ran his car into this crowd, killing a woman -- blood smear on the street, dragging bodies, gory undercarriage.

I cannot believe this is happening. Yes, it was in one city, one gathering. But it was so...blatant. Even in the 60s klan members wore sheets when they burned stuff in yards. Part of them was ashamed. It seems like no one is ashamed now. People feel they have the right to be awful to other people.

Here is my FB post, my meme. I actually was going to post this, but it just got too long and felt too important to just throw up there under "What's on your mind, Shelley?" Just for the record: I don't think having light skin makes a person any better than someone who has darker skin. I think it is wrong to kill people because they are different. I am against anyone who is a white supremacist or fears that the white man is under attack. I live a life of privilege, but I still see the mothers who have to drop their sons at school and have to fear for them because they are starting to look tall and strong -- and therefore "dangerous" because they are black. I see women of color who have to work twice as hard to be recognized half as much. I see my Muslim neighbors who deal with automatic fear. I see people who want to make lives in our country but are exploited and despised. I want the value of a person to be judged by how hard they work and how much they love. It is how I judge myself and why I fail.

I am fully aware I have my own prejudices. I rarely see the sort of institutional racism that I know is out there. I am extra-attentive, less real, to families and children who have a different background. I find that I unconsciously make eye contact and smile at "sketchy" people I see on the street to let them know I see them; I realize that means I am afraid, instead of what I want it to mean. However, I am trying to understand the world we live in and the experience of others.

And to me, it seems like the current mood of our country is due to mostly anger and fear, but also a sort of selfishness. I don't want to fall into cliches, but the spirit of it all seems to be a graspy sort of fear about losing something. I don't know any of the men holding Tikki torches (I don't think) but I know people who have a little bit of the mentality in those guys. They may not be men. They certainly don't call themselves white supremacists, but they fear that letting otherness into our communities is bad for America. By "bad for America," they mean it is bad for them. They fear loss of jobs or safety or status. But also the "Love" side seems to only love certain things and certain people. They shun and ridicule the people who disagree with them. They see the opposition as 100% stupid and worthless. The fringe on either side seems a little crazy and desperate.

Inside of it all, there seems to be a plea to be acknowledged, to be valued and appreciated. In looking for a way to understand others, I want to be able to see the value in them. I can (and DO) absolutely reject the stance of those men in VA, and still I can find value in some part of their person. How can I condemn them for their close-mindedness and be close-minded myself?

For whatever reason, this morning I remembered a woman from my childhood. Her name was Sheila. My mother has a history of collecting stray people, bless her. Sheila was one of those. She came in from time to time to help mom cook and clean. She never finished High School, though I think she was very smart. She was young and black and uneducated in a small, southern town, She lived in the projects. She had gold teeth and a bad perm. She was addicted to something, not sure what. She had been in jail. The outside indicated that she was a bad bet. But she was so loving. She had a wonderful smile. She did a great job for my mom. Her fried chicken was to die for. I'm not sure her fried chicken was worth the many thousands of dollars she cost taxpayers in government housing or assistance, but SHE was. It is over 30 years later and I remember my joy in seeing her. I also remember my fascination with what her life must be like and how she saw our lives. She could have hated us. Maybe she did. I'm sure I was not all sweetness and light to her. But we were able to talk about books we loved. We could talk about boys. We had life in common. Sheila never got better. She never beat her addiction. She died a violent death.

I'm sure I never told Sheila that I admired her. I should have. I will tell you instead. I admire you. I admire your hard work to get through school or to get a job or to raise a family or to get clean. I admire your service to your country, your church, your community. I admire how you get up every day, go to a shitty job under someone you don't respect, and still do good work. I value your persistence in teaching your kids discipline. I appreciate your abilities to create, build, manage, and grow.

Nazis, no one is trying to take those admirable things away from you.

If there is a kernel of beauty in Sheila, a criminal, a freeloader, an addict, then there must be a kernel of goodness in all of us. I choose to find it. I choose to look for the good. I choose to not be afraid of others. I choose to help when I can. I choose to keep my mouth shut when I don't have anything important to add. I choose to be my best self and look for the best self in you.

I teach my children that tearing down someone else never lifts you up (though I'm still working on that, myself.) Right now, that mantra doesn't feel true. I hope it still is. I might be naive about how to handle these hate groups. Don't get me wrong, I am sad and angry and scared. However, even as they want to be better than someone, I want to be better than them. I want to distance myself from everything they say and they do and to treat them as if they are something less than human. I don't have to like them. I don't even have to respect them. I can abhor their actions. However, I will love them and feel for them. I will hope they get better, that they don't live a hellish life filled with soul-sucking hate, always viewing the world around them with suspicion and sneers. I will fight them, but I will do it with compassion. Otherwise, there will be a little nazi in my soul and I won't let that happen. Because, duh.


Thursday, August 18, 2016

Gabby Douglas, Thank You for Not Being the Best

This morning I woke to Gabby Douglas getting bullied and people condemning the bullying… and I’m just really over it.  I’m over this presidential race and the s***show that is my social media feed.  Some days I just wish I’d be re-diagnosed with a deadly case of cancer so I could say all the really honest things that I want to say to my online friends.  Things like, “When did you go bat s*** crazy?” and “Please stop posting pictures of your overweight kid eating donuts and ice cream.” 

Yeah, I know.  I’m an awful person.  It’s true.  But if there’s one thing I took away from my upbringing, it’s original sin; we’re all a little crappy.  I don’t trust the people who look perfect.  I’m sure that could be analyzed and over-analyzed and maybe it will be.  I’ve certainly got my issues, but… isn’t that what makes us human?  There’s all that psychobabble bumper sticker philosophy about the importance of the journey.  I’m working on the assumption that we believe that – a little bit. 

So back to Gabby. 

My daughter doesn’t participate in gymnastics.  We tried it; it didn’t stick.  Fine.  However, she watches the Olympics and she watched The Gabby Douglas Story.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s exactly what you think it is: an uplifting story about a gifted athlete who overcomes physical, financial, and emotional difficulties to become a champion.  My daughter loved it.  Because of this movie, she know the name of this gifted athlete.  She knows about the health of Gabby’s mother.  She knows about how weird it would be to live in someone else’s house in order to train.  She knows about getting discouraged and about the pressure to succeed. 

I’m not saying it’s a great movie, but it’s probably been the most inspiring movie my kid has seen.  You know what I like about it?  Gabby was weak.  You know I don’t mean that she had a lousy back handspring.  I mean that she doubted herself and cried and quit.  Then she changed her mind and started again. 

I think it’s important that my kids see that – that my girl and my boy see weakness.  Every adult knows life is a series of failures.  You don’t always win the elections.  People say bad things about you.  You fall.  You have people who stab you in the back.  The real story happens after the game/match/set/event. 

Watching the Olympics, my daughter wanted to know why Gabby Douglas wasn’t in the all-around and we explained about the cutoff and how difficult Simone Biles’ combinations are and how strong she is.   So then my girl questioned why Ms. Douglas would compete if she knew she wouldn’t win. 

That’s the question, isn’t it?  For me, that hits the heart of why people are so pissed right now.  Everywhere.  All the time.  We know we aren’t the best.  We aren’t the one percent.  Life isn’t quite as awesome as we thought it would be when we were 7.  I haven’t won American Idol.  Not once.  No Nobel Prize.  Not even a Pulitzer.  The Met is not clamoring to have me do an installation of my Avant Garde artwork.  I don’t even have a self-published book out.  I have failed. 

This week, my daughter saw Gabby Douglas as a failure – and I was GLAD.  Here is this hero, a glowing, smiling child who conquered the balance beam and floor routine with spirit and hard work, who has grown into a woman I’d like my children to emulate.  She understands fortitude.  She also understands good luck.  She knew Simone Biles, if healthy, would win.  She may not have the same glow as 4 years ago, but I don’t need her to glow.  She owes me nothing but her best.  This Olympics, we both knew her best was not good enough to win unless someone else stumbled.  But I am so, so very grateful she went anyway. 

I am not the best painter.  I am not the best writer.  I am not the best mom.  I am not the best wife.  I’m not the best daughter or sister. 

Most likely, my kids won’t be either.  I also know they won’t be going to the Olympics.  Instead, I want them to be the Gabby Douglas of their own lives.  My hope for them is that they will have the grit to keep tumbling in the face of their own doubts, their own shortcomings, and the disappointments of others.  When a coach benches them, I hope they stay on the team.  When their friends laugh at their choice of footwear, I hope those shoes don’t go in the trash.  When they have to work a part-time job while their friends don’t, I hope my kids get promoted.  I hope that they will continue to work hard and enjoy life when they are not the richest and the tallest and the skinniest.  I hope that they can be teammates with those who work hard to create beauty and those who appreciate effort.  I hope they will fail and fail and fail… and then keep going.  I want them to have big dreams, but for them to know that the days between the dreams are the best.


In the meantime, thanks Gabby and Ally and every other gymnast out there for coming out to compete even though you knew Simone Biles was gonna kick your butt.  Thank you, Laurie, for your absolute joy.  Thank you, Aly, for your leadership and your hilarious/painful parents.  Thank you, Gabby, for your composure.  Thank you, Madison, for your grace.  Thank you for not being the best, but for being pretty darn awesome anyway.  Way to stick the landing.