33: Black History Month

“How many of you have ever been stopped by the police?” my professor asked.  Everyone’s hand went up.  “How many of you had to get out of the car?” All of the African Americans in the room kept their hands up.  “How many of you have had your car searched?”  All of the African American men kept their hands up.

I was raised in a small Wisconsin farming community.  “Diversity” in our town was defined by Mexican migrant workers brought in to work at the world’s largest sauerkraut company and two or three adopted kids.  I don’t have any memories of overt racial animosity.  I wasn’t raised around people using racist slurs, in fact to the contrary my parents would tell me it was important that people be treated equally.

Living in Charleston, South Carolina at 19 years old was the first time I lived anywhere that was truly racially diverse.  While attending a local college I interned at the Charleston County Solicitor’s Office, our equivalent of the district attorney.  When I didn’t have an assignment I was encouraged to watch court.  What I now know are totally routine hearings fascinated me, mostly because I just had so many questions.  Why were all the defendants black and all the lawyers white?  How does that even happen?  I started reading the charging documents as I did my filing.  A man wearing only socks zapped with 10,000 volts of electricity five or six times before police put him in handcuffs.  A stop that resulted in confiscating a small amount of marijuana for a tiny crack in the passenger side window.

My first job out of college was at a rape crisis center as a child victim advocate.  Part of my job was to attend crisis calls and forensic interviews of children who had potentially been physically or sexually abused.  I would follow up with their parent for ongoing referrals or crisis counseling.  I also helped to facilitate a weekly group at Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers.  Most of our clients were black.  I think back to that time and cringe thinking about how I was so worried about seeming knowledgeable and professional that I didn’t recognize my complete cultural ignorance.  Though well-intentioned things like refusing to conform to the habit of adding “Miss” before a mother’s first name or the way we went about teaching pregnant teens about AIDS in the African American community dismissed important history.

In his dense and meticulously researched book Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen highlights a number of eras in American history that have been systematically whitewashed.  What stories we tell, the hero, why they are the hero…all of these questions are answered through the lens of white people.  Not only do we not tell the stories of minorities in this country, but we actively perpetuate systems that disproportionately affect people of color.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, our  history as a nation has included racism from the moment white Europeans set foot here and that racism continues to be woven into the history we are writing now.

“So long as our textbooks hide from us the roles that people of color have played in exploration, from at least 6000 BC to the twentieth century, they encourage us to look to Europe and its extensions as the seat of all knowledge and intelligence. So long as they say “discover,” they imply that whites are the only people who really matter. So long as they simply celebrate Columbus, rather than teach both sides of his exploit, they encourage us to identify with white Western exploitation rather than study it.”  ~Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen

I am part of this.  I have accepted these simplifications as true.  I have ignored that they matter.  I haven’t always taken the time to sort out what my role and responsibilities are as a person with racial privilege. Last year at a small group talk-back session after a one-woman show about the aftermath of Ferguson, we were asked to talk about a character we identified with.  I described a white character who felt stuck about when and where to speak up for racial justice.  I relayed a scenario that happens with some regularity where a client uses the n-word in conversation with me, not directed at anyone but just as they are relaying the story of their case.  It makes me extremely uncomfortable.  I have a physical reaction.  I also never know the thing to do.  Should I stop the conversation and tell the client that language is unacceptable?  That could jeopardize the trust I’m trying to build with this person.  As I was talking about this to a group of about six people of various racial backgrounds, hearing the words come out of my mouth I immediately knew that the right thing to do was to say something.  I was embarrassed I struggled so much with this question.

Discussing race is uncomfortable.  I worry about inadvertently saying or doing the wrong thing.  It is really tough to know whether I’m doing things that help or hurt.  But I am trying to learn.  I live in a diverse city that also happens to be the most racially segregated city in the U.S.  I work in a field that requires me to be that white lawyer speaking on behalf of so many clients of color.  I am grateful to have a diverse group of friends.  I need to be better for all of these reasons.

February is Black History Month.  Why do we need Black History Month when there is no White History Month?  Because we already have a word for White History.  We just call it “history.”  For a variety of reasons, impressive African Americans who overcame all obstacles to achieve history changing things haven’t gotten the air time that their white counterparts have.

For the tenth year, friend and Milwaukee municipal court judge, Derek Mosley, invites Facebook followers to read and share a daily post about an influential African American in history.   Some posts are now receiving over 70,000 shares.  Read more HERE . The Baby Buddhist is proud to share these posts for the rest of February at my Facebook page.  Also watch for more Black History Month-inspired weekly posts this month.

32: 2 Minutes

Two minutes is long enough to feel like your heart will explode but short enough that it won’t. It is the thin line between success and failure, winning and losing, losing it and keeping it together.

Two minutes.  The length of the final jam of the last time I was ever on that track.  Eight years… four bouts this season…59 minutes this game…all behind me.  There I was.  On that line wearing the same orange fishnet stockings I wore my very first bout.  A “C” on my arm in permanent marker delineating me as the captain.  I looked left and right for the strongest and weakest part of my line of teammates and theirs.  I see them looking at me trying to read where I thought was the weakest.  I start to squat, charging my back leg, and rock slightly in anticipation of the whistle as I count down the seconds.  Three…two…one……..WHISTLE!  At the same moment as that whistle I power every ounce of my body through the infinitesimal crack between to players which immediately closes when I get there.  Pushing off right and pushing off left into the scrum of bodies and muscle and chaos.  And then somehow, a foot gets between and then an arm and then my hips.  I am low, my legs like springs know exactly how and when to push to propel me forward ducking past the last player  and hearing those two whistles that tell me I am lead jammer.  I am now in control.  If I am fast enough and strong enough, and my team is fast enough and strong enough, then I will get through and the other jammer will not and that will have to happen two or three times for us to win.  If I get stuck, or if she doesn’t then we will lose.

My stride lengthens as I pull out into the open space of the track.  These few seconds, this openness, is all I have to catch my breath and rest my legs before hitting that gauntlet again.  As I come around the turns I hear trackside fans shouting my name with an energy that is reserved for these moments in sports.  These desperate, hope-filled moments where you believe that all your wishing will come true but you know that heartbreak is just as close as victory.  I know that I’ve been here before.  In these critical moments where I so desperately want to be the hero and only to be sent to the penalty box or get trapped in the sticky web of the black widows whose only job is to get in my way.  But this time, I do not get stuck.  I leap and dodge and push and grunt my way through again to the sound of an erupting stadium.  Energy encompasses me but the fatigue in my body is setting in.  As I exhale with a groan I let my head fall and my body relax just for microsecond as I set my jaw fill my burning lungs and push hard into my skates as I make the turns.  Bracing for yet another trip into the melee, it is as if time slows down to a crawl as those iconic first synthesizer notes da-da-da-dummm da-da-da-da-dummmmmmm of  “The Final Countdown” blares from the arena speakers.  This.  This is the movie moment that happens exactly once in a lifetime.  And it. is. everything.

Into the pack again stumbling and fighting and groaning and grabbing and then through!  Free again to the cheers of the crowd and the frantic jumping of my teammates at our bench.  And as I glance up at the jumbotron with my name dancing around the bottom signifying I am lead jammer I see our score.  I see their score.  And I see the time.  It is not enough.  Everyone is screaming.  The fans for us, the fans for them.  Everyone is roaring.  And there is nothing left to do but cry.

I was a derby girl. I was.

Every January I get very nostalgic about roller derby.  The first home season bout means new team photos and trash talking floods my social media feed.  Each year I recognize fewer and fewer faces in the photos, reminders that whatever legacy I thought I left with the team is nearly invisible now.

I knew I’d miss bout day.  There is nothing like the feeling of being in that arena.  The sights, the sounds, the crowd.  My sister would come stay with me.  My family would come for the bout and out to Major Goolsby’s for burgers and drinks after.  Afterparties were epic.  I knew I’d miss my teammates. For better or worse you see those teammates twice a week for about nine months a year.  You start to count on them being there even when you’re not talking about anything but derby.  Sometime you count on them because they only talk about derby.

But the thing I REALLY knew I’d miss was the label.  Derby girl.  It was the go-to topic.  It was a unique, defining characteristic that made me memorable to people.  It brought me lots of attention.  I was even featured in local media a time or two.  This picture was front page of the Journal-Sentinel sports section in January 2011.

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Everything about my skater-self personified so many of the qualities I like best.  My derby name, Super Hera, a thoughtful combination of easy theme (super hero) and deeper meaning (Hera = Queen of the Gods, protectress of women, goddess of marriage, fertility, and families, blesser of marital unions. Defining characteristics include her jealous and vengeful nature against mortals who cross her).  Weaving together oufits that combined my signature orange color with my team’s signature hot pink to create something uniquely mine.  Style over comfort to emphasize my best (ahem) assets.  The widespread acceptance of derby language and vulgar jokes.  Leader of the team, wearer of the star, center of the action.  All of it just shy of too much making it exactly right.  It was distinctive and memorable.  It gave people an impression of me without telling them anything else about myself.

I stopped skating because I got tired.  Practices became draining.  Crowds were thinning.  Several of the teammates I was closest with were retiring.  We defied expectation making it to the top several years in a row, despite losing by just a few points.  The next year, maybe the next several, would surely be a rebuilding year.  I didn’t know that I wanted to hang in long enough to be at the top again.  And, I had just signed up for Ironman.  That yearlong goal would take so much time, even in the winter derby season.  On my first date with Noel, well into our third bar, I explained my mixed feelings about retiring.  When I said “what do you think?” he said without hesitation “it sounds like it’s time to retire.”  He has never known me as a roller derby skater.  Such a strange change from the past relationships that largely revolved around this status.  It feels like another life.  Sometimes that makes me sad.

In her podcast “Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations,” Oprah is tackling a ten-part series with the author of A New Earth: Awakening Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle.  Oprah calls the book “one of the most important books of our time” and the author describes the book’s purpose as “not to add new information or beliefs to your mind or to try to convince you of anything, but to bring about a shift in consciousness.”  The shift in consciousness, he argues, is comes from remaining grounded in the present moment and not attaching to material possessions and labels.

He talks about the concept of ego differently.  Instead of being a synonym for narcissism, he says it is our “illusory sense of self based on one’s memories and thoughts.”  For most, what makes up “I” or the idea of “who I am” is a mental image that is constructed from memories, successes, failures, things that happened to you.  Eckhart argues that this mental image of things past and things to come do not define us.  Neither do our roles in life or our opinions.  These are just thoughts.  Who we really are is contained in moments of presence and aliveness.  Those moments on the track demanded 100 percent of my presence and aliveness.  Some of the other aspects of roller derby didn’t.

“We were nostalgic for a time that wasn’t yet over.”  ~ Nina LaCour, We Are Okay

Sometimes it makes me sad that those exact moments are over but there is infinite possibility for moments that embody the essence of me.  A life overflowing with moments like that will be so much richer than a life with only a handful of epic movie moments.

31: How Marie Kondo fucked up my life

Halfway into the first episode of “Tidy Up” Noel and I were pulling armloads of things out of our closet.  I started watching on New Years Day night inevitably to avoid doing something else I should have been doing.  Now the monster has been unleashed.

If you don’t know about this show or Marie Kondo (first of all I don’t know where you’ve been the last few weeks), she is an organizing consultant and author who suggests that we decide what to keep and what to throw away by determining what “sparks joy.”  All I could think about watching her tutorials with a couple that needed a divorce more than a Japanese organization expert was this olive green polyester shirt with an awkward cowl neck that I bought on clearance from Kohl’s nine years ago.  I hate that shirt. WHY am I still keeping, let alone EVER WEARING that shirt?

I am not generally a saver of things.  I have come to realize that horizontal surfaces just become places for clutter to collect.  I also am fairly ruthless when it comes to saving keepsakes.  Only the most special, most unique things make the cut.  The one exception is clothes.  I think the reason for this is two-fold.  1) clothes = all the memories and 2) I never want to look boring.

Growing up new clothes were the sign of some important event.  We got new dresses for Christmas and Easter church.  We got a new first day of school outfit.  As we got older, a school dance was an occasion befitting something new.  Money was tight but our mom would rather walk around with holey socks (literally) than see us go to the stupid Snowball Dance without a new dress.   We would make the trek 45 minutes to the mall, twittering in anticipation about colors or features that might be nice to look for.  We’d walk the whole mall to all the usual tween places looking for just the right thing.  But of course “just the right thing” also meant finding the bargain.  And then there were the shoes.  Always the shoes had to be the perfect compliment, also at a bargain.  In the end I was so sure we found exactly the right thing for this occasion.  We would stop over at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house as we arrived back in town so they could oooooh and ahhhh the latest ensemble.

As the years have gone by I realized that I have just found more “occasions” to dress for. First dates.  Job interviews.  Trial.  Dinner party.  Vacation.  Holiday.  My closet became my scrapbook.

As Noel and I stood in our giant walk in closet, the one we cut our master bedroom nearly in half to build, pulling out garment after garment I had to tell the stories.  First garment out, that hideous green shirt.  I bought this shirt nine years ago on clearance at Kohl’s when I was staying with my parents over Christmas break my 2L year.  Lucas had just broken up with me and I was so sad.  My parents convinced me to come out to some dinner my stepdad had for a professional group.  It was at one of those cook-your-own steak places.  I had three dirty martinis.  I definitely got drunk and cried all the way home.  I literally think about that night every time I wear that stupid shirt.  It fits awkwardly, it gives me pit stains.  The only reason I still wear it is because I can easily layer it with a black suit coat and pants.  That is possibly the dumbest reason ever.  Gone.

A lot of the things were like that.  Shirt, Banana Republic clearance, so I could wear under a suit.  Almost everything I’d owned for at least five years and most close or upwards of ten.

This pair of pants was the first thing I bought after I got married the first time in 2004.  We finally had a spare $40, so I bought these and this shirt from Anne Taylor Loft clearance because my mom always said that place was perfect for me.

This shirt was $3.50 at Charlotte Russe in 2005.  Krissy and I bought “going out” shirts at the same time and then swapped them like three years later.

This shirt is fine for work if the safety pins hold.

And there it is.  The oldest thing in my closet.  A black polyester suit dress with a matching knee-length jacket.  My mom and I bought it at the same time we got my confirmation dress.  That’s 10th grade.  18 years ago.  Maurice’s clearance.  She said I’d need something to wear to job interviews.  Little did either of us ever think I’d still be wearing it to the office, every time thinking “I probably shouldn’t be wearing this anymore.  It’s too short even when I wear black tights.”

None of these things spark joy anymore.  They were things I bought because they were colorful, I found a bargain, and I wanted things around for those time when I *might* need to wear it.  They weren’t special, they didn’t fit right, they certainly didn’t make me feel my best self.  The time had come to keep the memories and lose the garments.

Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of things I held on to simply because of those memories.  Not gonna lie, I still get into my Homecoming Queen dress sometimes just because I can.  Even some garments that will never fit me again, there’s still something there.  Something special and joyful that tells me it’s not time to shove it into a yard-waste bag.

We were able to completely reconfigure our closet.  About four bodybag-sized bags went to Goodwill.  Sometimes I get anxious when I go in my closet and only see fifteen shirts hanging there.  But at least I know that whatever I put on I’ll feel good in.

So that’s just the closet.  Marie says you’re supposed to do this with your whole house.  Little by little I take 20 minutes to empty out this drawer or that.  It is truly freeing to feel like you can see and find the things you need in your house.  It also got me thinking about my life, like the stuff you can’t see.

What are the things that spark joy? What are the things I’m hanging on to that don’t?

It was no accident Netflix released this show at the time of year when people are focused on change and self-improvement.  As I mentioned in my 2018 year in review post, I, too, use the new year to refocus and create some goals for the upcoming year.  This year I was challenged to come up with a word. One word to become a mantra or a touchpoint.  A word came to mind immediately: unapologetic.  Almost as quickly I dismissed it.  That’s not what I mean.  That’s selfish.  It sends the wrong message.  Until I realized that’s exactly why I needed to stick with it.

Unapologetic doesn’t mean never making amends for doing something hurtful or for making a mistake.  It isn’t about walking through the world unaware of how the things I do affect other people.  It is about not apologizing for who I am.   Who I am is very flawed.  It sometimes means being too loud, bossy, overbearing, demanding and inflexible.  These qualities are also sometimes wrapped up in this package we call power, qualities that if I were a man or in a different profession or a different community may not be something I feel I have to question so much.  These qualities have a flip side: outspoken, leader, encouraging, setting clear expectations, focused on the mission and vision.  All of my qualities are that way.  There are some that are more obviously “good” and easy to accept.  There are others that I have to actively work on to stay on the positive side.  That’s a journey that never ends.  But it’s all me.  Good, bad, or ugly it is the stuff that makes me up and has brought me this far.

2019 needs to be about living as authentically as possible.  Connection feels good to me.  Being unafraid to stand up for what’s right feels good to me.  Using my skills and abilities to benefit myself and the people I love feels good to me.  Appreciating the comfort and beauty of our home feels good to me.  Enjoying the taste of good food.  The sights of places I’ve never been.  The feeling of a fit, healthy body.  The pleasure of rest and quiet.  Soaking in and moving with the energy of the world.  Continuing to discover this city that I love.  All of these things bring me such monumental joy.  I just cannot allow myself to be weighed down by the worry of what others think about it.  I will be too much for some people.  I will fail despite the best of intentions.  I will still encounter all of the challenges that life brings.  But maybe I’ll soar higher heights than I’ve ever known without the weight of the shoulds.  I suspect the greatest critic will be myself.  It’s a world of possibility out there.  I hope to take it for a spin with a lightness and freedom that will make this joy multiply beyond my wildest dreams.

Happy New Year.

29: Fighting a Peaceful Heart

This office has decided to terminate your employment, effective immediately.  Sent by email.  At 5:39pm.  On a Friday.  I was already out for early dinner with a friend so I received this about midnight when I got home, drunk.  I just closed the laptop and stumbled to bed.  At some point in the wee hours of the morning my eyes popped open and I sat straight up in bed.  “FUUUUUUUUUUCK!” I shouted.

Although I knew I wanted to go to law school, it took a couple years after I graduated college for the timing to be right.  In the meantime, I decided, to focus on getting a job as a legal assistant.  I had never known any lawyers and, but for the kind of lawyers I saw on crime shows, knew very little about what the possibilities were in the legal field.  I was thrilled when I got a call from a small firm in Virginia.  I was ready for a move, the firm agreed to my meager salary request and even offered to throw in a couple hundred bucks for moving expenses.  I just knew this was it for me.  The turning point I needed.  The start of the rest of my life.

Not so fast.

Looking back, this was absolutely the wrong job for me at any point in my life.  The nature of the work, the culture in the firm, it was just the worst.  I graduated magna cum laude with a double major three and a half years after graduating high school.  Still, during my interview my would-be boss asked me if I’d ever attended school anywhere he might have heard of.  It was only when I mentioned starting college at West Point that he seemed to perk up.  Day 1 of the new job, the boss asks me to come into his office and then tells me there is one rule in this office: when he shouts, I come.  There were five employees in the whole firm, one was his son (who was my age), one was his best friend, and everyone but the son was female.  I was instructed to call everyone Attorney and Ms. and Mr. So-and-So but they all called me and each other by first name.  I once got pulled aside to have a conference about my stapling.  It was just weird.  Worse than weird, my misogynist boss would say borderline, if not fully racist and classist things.  I still regret not having enough self respect to quit, but remember, I didn’t know any lawyers so I just thought this was how it was everywhere.  It just made that stupid quitting time email a bigger slap in the face.

This was a very difficult time in my personal life.  I was a mess to be sure.  I was trying to hold it together but not doing a great job of it.  It was one of those “when it rains it pours” kind of times in life, and it was only with the benefit of hindsight that I saw I was making a lot of choices that perpetuated what I perceived to be bad luck. I never got an explanation for my termination.  During the process of filing for unemployment the investigation revealed a claim of unauthorized use of the internet which was deemed unfounded.  And, of course, at-will employment meant it didn’t matter the reason.  It is entirely possible they just didn’t like me.  As much as I could rationalize how much better off I’d be not working at this place I obsessed about getting fired.  I thought about how I could stick it to my boss and his stuck up, Junior League associate who was his mouthpiece for the dirty work.  Five years later when I won a professional award for being an Up & Coming Lawyer I thought seriously about mailing him a copy of the article.  There was some allure about the satisfaction of revenge.  The image of a giant two-fingered fuck you to this jerk of a man brought a smile to my face.  See, it was a mistake for you to fire me.  This article proves it.

Christmas marks the end of Advent and the end of my four part series reflecting on the weekly principles of Advent.  See my previous posts here:

26: Arrival of Hope

27: Daddy Issues

28: My Obituary

Like the other three principles (hope, love, and joy) it is so easy to use peace superficially.  Think of “Miss Congeniality”:

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When I attended church growing up there was always time in the service to pass the peace.  You would shake hands with the people around you and say “peace be with you.”  It was so awkward.  People seemed to want it over as soon as possible.  No one was really extending heart felt wishes for peace.  It was just going through the motions.  It’s too bad.  Wishing peace for someone may be one of the most compassionate gifts we can give to others.

“Anatomy of Peace” is a book authored by the Arbinger Institute.  I read it after a drug court participant described it as “life changing.”  The storyline is corny but is an effective way to get across the lessons.  The book argues that the way we treat others in conflict whether in day-to-day interactions in our own lives or the way countries treat each other in war is a reflection of ourselves.  Behavior that is destructive comes from thoughts that are destructive and usually the root of the bad thoughts about others is actually negative beliefs about ourself.  We then build walls of justifications around our bad behavior so we can rationalize our beliefs and actions.  “…when I betray myself, others’ faults become immediately inflated in my heart and mind. I begin to ‘horribilize’ others. That is, I begin to make them out to be worse than they really are. And I do this because the worse they are, the more justified I feel.”

Chicken or egg.  Harm done to me or harm I cause myself.  Who knows which is first.  “As painful as it is to receive contempt from another, it is more debilitating by far to be filled with contempt for another.”

Children raised in households with alcoholics often live in a hypervigilent  state and have profound fight or flight instincts.  One article gives the top ten commonalities found in adults raised in households where alcoholism was present:

  1. They are more concerned with others than themselves.
  2. They have difficulty following a project through.
  3. They exhibit black and white thinking.
  4. They have difficulty having fun.
  5. They judge themselves harshly.
  6. They constantly seek approval.
  7. They feel different from others.
  8. They ‘love’ those who need rescuing.
  9. They feel guilty standing up for themselves.
  10. They are extremely loyal.

The majority of these characteristics describe my default personality, some I’ve overcome more than others.  These defaults are ever-present for me.  When criticism and judgement, extremely high standards, and overall rigidity gets directed at others it becomes a huge barrier to interpersonal relationships.  But it’s not so easy to just flip a switch and change it. Everything I’ve ever achieved in life has been the result of fight, fight, fight.

In yoga and in Shambhala instructors often talk about softening.  The idea of physically letting go of tension in our bodies that holds us back.  Emptying the mind of distracting thoughts, coming back to the simplicity and nowness of our breath helps to relax the muscles, slow the heart rate, and ease tension.  Softening is a foreign concept to me.  The most difficult yoga poses for me are the heart openers.  Relaxing the shoulders, opening up the arms, letting go of the stomach, pressing the heart out and up.  I want to keep working at this.  Softening the body.  Softening the mind.  Remembering that peace with others begins with peace in me.  Sometimes the fight just isn’t worth it.

For years my New Years goals have included some form of chilling out.  Peace, acceptance, letting go, softening.  It’s the hardest because in addition to self-love, cultivating joy from within, allowing oneself to dream and be hopeful…all of the lofty ideals that conscientious people spend a lifetime striving for… it also encompasses all the things you’re not proud of.  Failure, falling short, letting people down, not reaching that goal, not being the person you thought you were.  It can be the thing you fight with your whole life. What this year has shown me is that my default characteristics aren’t just a barrier to interpersonal relationships, but my intrapersonal relationship.  The projection outward is the reflection of the lingering internal tension.  So, there is still work to do.

When we were in Washington D.C. this Fall, we walked around the National Mall at night to see the monuments.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s was very impactful.  Standing in the darkness staring at the carved granite, I could see and touch the words that become anchors for who I want to be.  Justice.  Dignity.  Humanity. And…

Peace.

It’s time to find that within so that in every interaction with others I can truly pass the peace.

“We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

 

 

 

 

28: My Obituary

Only about ten people knew it was my wedding day.  Noel and I decided on a surprise wedding before we even got engaged.  After being a total bitchy basket case the first go-around, I was on the lookout for the best way to do things better.  How do I make sure that we have the experience we want without feeling pressure to do things a certain way?  The idea of eloping didn’t appeal to us.  Having the people we love around was too important.  A few days after Noel’s dad was hospitalized, I pitched the idea and held my breath.  “I love the way your mind works,” he said, and then went to sleep.  Over the next few days we talked more about how this would work.  How do we get people there if they don’t know it’s a wedding?  What are the things that are important to us?  Can we afford to do this in less than three months?  Is it even possible to find a venue?

A few weeks later we were officially engaged and sprung into action planning our wedding and our strategy for keeping the whole thing secret.  Ten weeks goes by quickly so we didn’t have a lot of time to be engaged, which was just fine with me.  The business of getting married, thinking about finances, working out logistics, running all the errands people typically have months to do…all crammed into ten weeks.  All the while, Noel’s dad’s illness was progressing and each week was a reminder of how uncertain we all were about how much time he had left.  One thing I hadn’t considered when I convinced Noel to do a surprise wedding was that when no one knows, there is no one to offload things on.  The time was stressful to be sure.  It didn’t help that things were tense with my sister.  She was going through some tough stuff and despite living with us, there was more distance between us than we’d ever had as adults.

The morning of our wedding Noel and I woke up together on the futon serving as our bed.  He went off to start wedding day tasks.  I headed to yoga.  On the way out the door I hastily texted my sister (who was in on the wedding secret of course) “I’d really like some berries and some eggs when I get home please.  Can you help me out with that?”  “Yeah,” she said apathetically.  Great, the one request I have as a bride and I’m going to end up doing that too, I thought.

As I put on my jacket and socks after the yoga class, I checked my phone.  “Look at this dress I got just for your party” one friend had texted with a picture of a full length sequined gown.  “So excited to see you tonight” said another friend.  I drove the five minutes home on the verge of tears.  I walked into the house and there on the table was my bathrobe folded next to a plate of meticulously arranged berries, a giant toy diamond ring sat on top of the robe.  I just burst into tears.  The most genuine and grateful tears of my whole life.  All of these people, doing things for me because they cared, on a day they didn’t even know was my wedding day.

This is the third week of Advent.  After a week of hope, and then a week of love, this week is about joy.  Catch up on previous posts for the first and second weeks’ posts here:

26: Arrival of Hope,

27: Daddy Issues

Summer 2015, I was in Minneapolis for the weekend.  I visited a UU church and to this day the sermon is the most memorable I’ve ever heard.  The topic: joy.  Specifically what makes joy different than happiness.  “Joy,” the minister said, “is a visceral spiritual reaction to deep connection.”  Happiness can be experienced in isolation.  It is in the mind.  If we were on a desert island with a funny movie we could be happy.   Joy is only possible through connection.  It is felt in the gut and soul.  Happiness interrupts pain, but joy encompasses it.  “Joy is grief turned inside out,” she went on.  Think of that feeling you get when you look at a person you love so much and simultaneously think about the pain of losing them.  Softening to create the connection that forms joy ultimately means the grief of deep loss when that connection comes to an end for whatever reason.  But the depth and experience of joy makes it worth the difficulty of losing it.

I am in a discussion group at church.  The group is intended to foster deep listening  and sharing about spiritual topics.  We get the topic a month ahead of time along with readings, activities and questions to consider.  Last month the topic was “memory.”  One of the activities was to speak with people you are close with to ask them what three memories they would share at your funeral.  I thought of a number of people to ask, most of whom I don’t see very often but remain a very important part of my life.  So I sent an out-of-the-blue text to some of my favorite people to see what I’d get back.  I should not be surprised with how in stride my friends took a random text about memories for my funeral, but I was.

Here were some of my favorite responses:

I can’t remember the bar we went to for drink the very first time, but I remember the scene perfectly. We sat on a high top in a corner of the bar. You had short hair and a huge smile. We talked about life. Your accepting and understanding led me to talking all about crazy things from my past. It was weird how much it felt like we were lifelong friends. I don’t know why that memory is so vivid. But I can still feel that warmth and closeness with you. It never went away.

Your raw emotion. You seem determined to feel emotions whether good or bad, like it’s a part of life that you relish. I find that really admirable, especially your ability to control your emotions while still feeling them.

When we broke into the pool to go skinny dipping. I’d never done anything like that before and was so scared we’d get caught but you had this way of pushing my boundaries and making me try new things (that wouldn’t hurt me if course). And it was exhilarating!!

Just always there: we’ve talked about this before, but your mantra is that you show up. I remember you saying to me “it’s what we do, show up.” I think of that often and try to live my own life that way. Showing up.

When you randomly sat down and made me take of my headphones while I was working hard in the lunch room. Ha!  You are fearless. And you genuinely care about people and their stories. It’s one of my favorite things about you. You are willing to take chances that many other people aren’t.

There were so many responses.  Ultimately I categorized them so I could find patterns: connection, emotional openness/sharing, FUN!, inspiration, showing up.  The assignment asked us to consider what others would take away from our life if we took our last breath today.  I was comforted to know that the things I try to prioritize in these relationships seems to be working.  In the end I decided the best way to share these takeaways with my group was to write my obituary.

The Life and Memory of Katie Kegel

Katie Beth Kegel’s life ended on (date).  Katie’s affinity for thoughtful writing and her need to be in control has culminated in a self-written obituary. 

Katie’s life cannot be defined by labels: daughter, sister, wife, lawyer, athlete.  It also cannot be defined by qualities: intense, energetic, persistent, intimidating, over achiever, leader.  These words cannot capture the fullness and complexity of a life so defined by intention.

Katie lived her life to tell the stories.  Through her work, stories of people who have done terrible things and had terrible things done to them.  Dotting the chapters of her life with the long, arduous journey to physical and professional achievements.   But most importantly the stories of shared memories with the people she cared most about. 

Katie will be remembered for the connections she made.  Whether friend-at-first sight or succumbing to her persistence, you saw something special in her and she saw it right back.  There was an energy; you were special, someone she had to know, because you were like her or maybe completely unlike her, but whatever you were, you were interesting with a story all of your own, a story she needed to intersect with her own.

Early and often Katie showed you who she was.  Whether clumsy or effortless the rainbow of her emotions shone bright for all to see, her thoughts and feelings never a secret, but instead poured out in her words or her touch or her laughter.  Her strength captivated you but her softness kept you there. 

It kept you there because she was there. Physically.  Her motto “just show up” guided everything about the way she spent her time.  Just show up for people, however big or small.  For one never knows which of life’s events will be life changing.  And she wanted to be there, for all of your life’s wonderful and terrible changes.  Just as she pulled you willingly or unwillingly into the adventure of her life replete with drinking or dancing or nudity or costumes, so she asked to join you on the adventure of yours.  She challenged you and was challenged by you and wouldn’t have had it any other way.  Her relationships were not easy because life is not easy.  But life certainly can be fun and Katie found all of the crackpot ways to make things fun.  “Wanna come do this with me?” she’d say out of the blue. Yes, just say yes most learned.  It was always worth it.

All those intersections of lives wove a fabric of armor.  A fabric strong enough to withstand time and distance and hardships.  Break ups, break downs, years long breaks in conversation were no matter because when the time came to be together again it was as if nothing changed. 

And now something will change.  Katie is not here to lead the charge, have the ideas, or make that phone call. The stories are what you must share.  SHOW up.  SHARE the stories.  Be brave.  Be vulnerable.  Big or small, sharing creates connection, a connection that honors what you most loved. 

The stories…the stories you created together are what Katie thought about until her last breath.  Her stories will live on through you, and what an honor for her story to be woven in with yours for all of time.

In the end, it won’t be about the accomplishments.  The things that are defining my life are the people in it.  “Surely joy is the condition of life,” Henry David Thoreau wrote.  Indeed sir.  Indeed.

27: Daddy Issues

After having almost no contact with my dad for 10 years, he sent me a text one day asking to talk.  That night several years ago, I put on my running shoes.  It was already dark.  It was a damp, foggy night.  I started running.  And then I called him. I jogged all over the city for well over an hour.  I was guarded.  The history was long and complicated.  Though I felt maybe I could have some conversation with him after all these years, there was no way I was just going to spill my guts.  Where do you even start trying to explain your life now to a person whose memories of you stopped a decade ago.  So I mostly listened.  There was no earth shattering news, nothing in particular he needed to talk to me about.  As we wrapped up the conversation he said “Your dad loves you Katie” and without a thought I just said “Love you too.”

As soon as I hung up the phone I wondered whether that was the truth or a lie.  Had I just said I love you too because that’s what you say when someone says it to you first?  Or was there something about the relationship between parent and child that just supersedes logic.  It’s like some inescapable and unexplainable truth.  Even if you despise your parents you love them.  One thing was sure: hearing those words from him didn’t bring me any kind of comfort.  I believe they were entirely sincere, but it didn’t stir my heart.  It was just another thing he said.

On the other hand, memories of my grandfather (pictured above) are only positive.  He was a very good man. He and my grandma raised five kids in the small town he grew up in. He fought in World War II and then was a mailman.  He was active in the church and seemed to know everyone in town.  He walked every day until he couldn’t anymore.  He taught me how to twiddle my thumbs and run the Dustbuster.  He never yelled and always had a twinkle in his eye.  Banter was his specialty.  Playful teasing about anything and everything was the norm.  “I’ve gotta give you a little crap” he’d say.  He loved when you’d give it right back.  But he was not affectionate.  Hugs seemed to make him uncomfortable so he preferred the spaghetti handshake.  He never said I love you.  I lived in another state the last years of his life.  When I learned he was in his last days I called to talk but really had just one goal in mind.  Our conversation was short, probably just a little about what was new with me, but at the end I was very deliberate in saying “Ok Grandpa, we’ll talk later.  I love you.”  “Ok, talk to you soon,” he replied.  I smiled and shook my head as I hung up the phone.   He didn’t have the words, but he asked my mom to be sure I was the one who spoke at his funeral.

Growing up, my idea of romantic love came from what I saw in movies.  My mom and I watched a lot of chick flicks and she loved Turner Classic Movies.  I was raised on Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies.  There were also the contemporary classics.  Basically every Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock movie from the 90’s.  The torture of unrequited love.  The way people always bumped into their soulmate through some serendipitous twist of fate.  The way the couple always seemed to hate each other before they realized they loved each other.  Men courting women.  Women being aloof and standoffish.  But always, always the way they always lived happily ever after in the end.

I was never the person who thought life was going to be a fairytale.  I certainly was never a princess so the idea of a prince charming was never part of the equation either.  I related more to Claire Danes in My So-Called Life, the one season cult classic, about angsty Angela trying to figure out where she fit but lusting after Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) and being constantly tormented by the way his mixed messages keep her on the hook.  So heart wrenching.  So reflective of my own teenage heartache.  So awkward, so wishing I could wear a flannel tied around my waist so uncaringly, SO wishing I’d be in the middle of a dance floor dancing to Haddaway’s “What is Love”, and so wanting to be liked by a boy.  I had desperate crushes and plenty of guy friends but was basically the same person in a younger body which was a *little* too intense for a teenage boy.  In middle school I was overweight and awkward and was teased a lot.  In high school I couldn’t be cool around older guys for the life of me.  I was focused on doing all the sports and activities.  I had pretty strong ideas about the way the world worked and spoke up about them all.  My junior prom date ditched me ensuring one of my teenage nightmares came true. I didn’t have my first real boyfriend until I was a senior in high school.  I married him when I was 19.  We divorced when I was 23.

**If you haven’t read the previous installment of my four week Advent series, please catch up HERE**

The second week of Advent another purple candle joins Hope and represents Love.  I have a complicated relationship with that word.  Love.  You can feel it without being able to say the words.  You can say the words without feeling it.  There’s just one word to describe the love you have for your family and your partner and your friends and your job and everything you own.  I wish that in English we had nuanced words to describe love like they have in other languages.

Forelsket – Norwegian

That overwhelming euphoric feeling you experience when you’re falling in love with someone. This is the word to describe that giddy feeling when we haven’t reached the point of “I love you,” but are past the initial crush phase.  The way I felt about the first man who seemed to like me just as I was.  He was 20.  I was 17 years old doing a summer exchange in Italy.

Koi No Yokan – Japanese

The sudden knowledge upon meeting someone that the two of you are destined to fall in love.  The way I felt when I saw the man who would become my (now) husband when I saw his picture on Match.com

Gigil – Filipino

The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute.  The way I felt about a law school classmate of mine who I just adored but knew I’d never date.

La douleur exquise – French

The heartbreaking pain of wanting someone you can’t have.  The feeling I tried to ignore for years in the relationship with the man I thought I would marry.

Ya’aburnee – Arabic

This phrase translates to “you bury me.” This is the hope that the person you love will outlive you so you can spare the pain of living without them.  The way I feel about my sister.  I truly do not know what I would do if I had to navigate life without her.

Queesting – Dutch

When you invite someone into your bed for some pillow talk.  A man whose kindness and closeness was what I needed most when I was at a low point.

L’esprit de escalier – French

The inescapable feeling you get when you leave a conversation then think about all the things you should have said.  The end of my first marriage.

Razbliuto  – Russian

The sentimental feeling you can often feel towards someone you used to loved but no longer do.  Two people who were my closest friends at one time.

Sobremesa – Spanish

The conversation at the table that continues after a meal is over.  The food, the drinks and the laughter can make for great memories.  The reason our favorite thing is to host dinner parties.

Ilunga – Bantu

A person who is willing to forgive abuse the first time; tolerate it the second time, but never a third time. This is from a language spoken in a region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It may be one of the hardest words to translate because it has so many layered meanings. This one little word touches on patience, forgiveness and breaking points.  It describes a person who will forgive someone for the first offense against them, tolerate it a second time, but will not forgive them for a third time.

Maybe this is the one that best captures it.  That feeling I get when my dad says “I love you.”

Complicated, complicated, it all gets complicated, but among different cultures, religious traditions, and literature over decades there is one common theme: love and hate cannot exist in the same space.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.

~Martin Luther King, Jr.

For as ilunga implies love doesn’t come without pain.  Sometimes we are the ones in pain and sometimes we are the ones causing it.  The only way this love thing works is to forgive.  Others.  And ourselves.  To be forgiven by others.  And maybe we get to that “third time,” the breaking point where the relationship needs to be broken.  But even then, letting go with love rather than hate is the thing we do for our own heart.  It seems as complicated as it gets, love in ALL these forms makes the soul richer.  Love is always worth it.  Whether it is easy or hard, life will always be better in the light of love.

26: Arrival of Hope

My mom went all out for Christmas decorating at our house.  Practically every horizontal surface had fiberglass angel hair covering small twinkle lights with the nativity and snowmen and other Christmas figurines.  Sparkly snowflakes hung in the picture window framed by more twinkle lights.  Vases would be filled with special holiday silk flowers and shiny beads and, of course, even more twinkle lights.  Every light fixture in the house could be off and there was this softly colored glow that felt warm and special.

Keeping the Christ in Christmas was always very important to her.  We attended church every Sunday so it was easy to incorporate the traditions we saw there into our home.  Every year one of the earliest signs of Christmas, often even before the tree or the twinkle lights, was the Advent wreath on our kitchen table.  Four Sundays before Christmas the church put up their huge Advent wreath, three purple candles and a pink candle in a wreath of evergreens, and we put out our Advent wreath at home, the four colored candles often left over from year to year in a modest and very used brass candle circle.  The first week just one purple candle was lit.  The second week a second purple candle was lit.  The third week the pink candle was added and the fourth week the fourth and final purple.  Every night at dinner the candle(s) would be lit.

Similarly, at the beginning of the month a colorful poster board Advent calendar would be nailed into the wood panel wall behind our kitchen table.  Our parents had to be at work very early in the morning so it was usually quite a chore to get us out of bed and down to breakfast.  But during Advent, my sister and I took turns opening the tiny numbered doors each day.  The years we had an Advent calendar with little chocolates behind the numbered doors were the best, but even when there was no chocolate there was a teeny tiny picture that got better and better as the days counted down.

If someone had quizzed us about what Advent was or why we had these traditions, I suppose I would have said something like “it’s the countdown to Baby Jesus being born.”  Obviously, I know now that the tradition and symbolism go much deeper than that.  I fell away from the church before taking care to learn the deeper meanings and since my beliefs are different now, I won’t even try to talk intelligently about what those meanings are.  Generally, Advent is a time of preparation and planning but patience for the goodness to come.

So much of what I love about Christmas is about the traditions, the things you do every single year.  When I started attending a Unitarian Universalist church, a place that does not have a single doctrinal (i.e. biblical) foundation and openly welcomes atheists I just assumed that many of the traditions I became accustomed to in that were based in my church would never be a part of my adult life.  Color me surprised to listen to a sermon last December all about the tradition of the Advent wreath and the importance of incorporating this, or something like it, into your family’s rituals.

December is the darkest month and as Christians are waiting for the birth of God’s s-o-n, those who are not of this faith are waiting in anticipation for the s-u-n to come back.  The candles can symbolize light triumphing over darkness.  They can also symbolize the cardinal directions or the elements of earth, air, fire, and water all acting in tandem with each other to create balance in our world.  In the Christian tradition, the candles represent: Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. Focusing on one of these each week serves as a check in an often ties into a gratitude practice and that’s what I am going to do to honor the Advent tradition this year.

Week 1: Hope.  Hope is a funny thing.  I am notoriously impatient so hope has always felt more like dark desperate terror-filled demands than some magical beacon of light out there in the distance somewhere.  My sense is that the only difference between desperation and hope is the fear of powerlessness.  Hope is something you want or a vision you have that you aspire to, though you are perfectly happy with what you have now and would be happy even if that vision never comes to be.  Desperation is the fear that you won’t reach that vision, and that life will be somehow less than because of it.  I have lived my life largely in desperation.  The things I do, I do because I don’t know or don’t like what life looks like if I don’t.

What’s the antidote?  Acceptance I suppose.  Accepting one’s powerlessness.  Giving up control.  I’ve written how 2018 has been a difficult year, and it has.  Dealing with the hope, and then the expectation, of having a baby.  There was a turning point midway through the year.  I’d picked a fight with Noel for not doing everything I thought he could do to pull his weight.  I realized immediately after that this exact fight was precisely what I had always said in my mind I wouldn’t let happen.  I’m not the person who wants a child for having a child’s sake: I want a child that is the product of a strong, loving, healthy relationship.  We had to do things differently.  We are still figuring out that balance of trying but not trying and all the while not losing the essence of what makes us us.  I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time.  Things feel easier.  The things I need to do to try for baby are the things I don’t mind doing that are now just part of the routine.  Physically and mentally I feel great.  Acupuncture, herbs, whole foods, more sleep, less stress, more restorative activity, it’s all working to keep me feeling strong and fit.  And most of all, I don’t feel alone in this.  I have a partner and people who care about me who have been wonderful.  So, yes, I want the vision of my future to come true but that can’t be all of my hope.  My hope must rest in the refuge of all that is good now.

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.

-T.S. Eliot, Wait Without Hope

I will not see this month of darkness and waiting as something to merely get through.  I will accept the darkness and fight against my impatience to accept this time of rest and introspection.  Without winter’s blustery cold, the warmth of the summer sun would not feel so sweet.  Perhaps the hope I’ve place in my vision of the future falls woefully short of what is really meant to be.  Afterall, Adventus means arrival.