To My Son, Who is Turning Thirteen

Here we are, on the verge of big, bad teenagerdom.

I’m not going to lie, I’m scared. Not all the time, and not even about the big, bad things, but nevertheless, she persisted worrying. Have I done enough? Have I reminded you to please and thank you enough? Taught you how to tell a joke or to always deal cards to the left? Have I given you the confidence to do the right thing, even when the right thing isn’t the easy thing?

Most of the time I worry because I feel like I’m running out of time.

There are days when it seems you’ve already got one foot out of the door. I have to remind myself you’ve always had one foot out of the door, from the moment you were born. You were never mine, not really. You’ve always been your own. The universe merely placed you in my care for this dance, to make sure when you’re ready, you step through with both feet, confident and secure.

But that door? It will always open to you.

When you were an infant, swaddled like a baby burrito, you’d look up at me and I felt a million things surge through my blood all at once, like wildfire raging through my veins. Thirteen years later your eyes are nearly level with my own, but my blood still sings that same fiery song.

Those times you think I’m staring at you, looking for something to criticize? I’m really looking to see if the angle of your jaw has sharpened between dinner and breakfast.

When you catch me standing outside your door, it’s not to simply to tell you to pick your clothes up off the floor, it’s also to hear if the timber of your voice has begun to deepen.

I’m terrified I’m going to miss something, afraid one day I’ll look at you and that tiny boy, the one we fought so hard to bring into the world, is going to be impossible to recognize in the face and body of the young man you’re becoming.

In case I don’t tell you enough, I am proud of you, the way you treat everyone with kindness, the ease with which you saunter through life, your even-temper. Do you remember the night we sat around the dinner table and asked, who is the least likely to lose their temper? Without hesitation, we all pointed to you.

Keep your even temper. It will be your greatest gift in life, the ability to take a situation and diffuse it, to find the funny, or the good, the silver lining.

You are so unbelievably fortunate. You have so much opportunity at times it’s almost embarrassing. Use it. Use it to speak out for those who have less. Don’t ever take it for granted or feel like the world owes you more than what you’ve already been bestowed, because those invisible gifts you’ve been born into–the color of your skin, your sex, the opportunities we’ve been able to give to you? Those things are not due to you. You do not deserve them more than someone else. So use them. Stand up for those who walk through life with less ease, with less opportunity, with less help. Be aware of your privileges and of how you can use them for good.

Find something you want to be great at. It doesn’t matter if you are great at it, but it’s important to have something to work at, to dream about. Don’t take the easy way out. Get better. Be better.

Take time to settle into your mold. You don’t have to know who you are or what you want to do with your life. You just need to live your best life. Not everyday, no one lives their best life everyday. If someone tells you that, ignore them. If you’re batting one for ten you’re doing ok. Some days life hurts. Some days it’s tough. Some days it sucks donkey balls. It will get better. Don’t think it won’t get better.

No matter how many eye-rolls or ‘whatever’s, how many door slams or a thousand other stereotypes I’m remembering from The Breakfast Club and my own teenage years, we will be here. Sometimes you’ll feel like you don’t need us. That’s good. That means we’ve done our job. We’ll be here anyway.

You’re going to think we’re dumb and out of touch. You’re going to think you know better. You’re going to think every sneaky trick you come up with to fool us hasn’t been tried before. You’re wrong on all counts.

You won’t believe me. I know. I didn’t either.

We’re going to argue. I’m going to be wrong. You’re going to be wrong. If it’s truly important, stand up for yourself. But choose your hills wisely. Make sure it’s a hill you’re willing to die on before you dig in.

I’m going to embarrass you. Mostly accidentally but sometimes on purpose.

You’ll want to do things we don’t think you’re ready for. Sometimes we’ll screw it up. Sometimes we’ll make shitty decisions. But even when we do, try to remember it’s coming from a place of love. You won’t believe that either, but it’s true.

The world is out there waiting. There’s a lot of shit going down, a lot of bad stuff. But so much good stuff too. Don’t let the scary stuff stop you from experiencing the good. Don’t let the good stuff stop you from trying to change the bad.

Don’t let anyone else define you. If someone tells you that you have to be or do something? If they want to change you or set conditions on their love for you? Run the other way. Fast.

Life is going to hurt. Life is going to sing. It’s going to flutter and fly and sink and sometimes you’ll feel like you are drowning in your own breath. That is life. All of it put together is what makes it worth living.

Most of all I want you to know it will never be you vs. the world. We are tied together, you and me. For nine months your heartbeat tangled with mine until it was hard to tell where one stopped and the other began. Yours dances to a different tempo now, but mine? Mine will always skip a beat here and there, making sure there is a space for yours to return to when you need it.

Love,
Mom

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The Lion Queen

I spend a good deal of time watching women hack through the jungle of self-doubt with a dull, rusty machete.

Scratch that. With a pair of cuticle trimmers.

I’d like to say it’s difficult trying to figure out why so many unbelievably smart, successful, frankly kick-ass women have trouble valuing their self-worth, except it’s not, because at times I am one of those women. You see, I’m not just talking out of my increasingly expanding ass when I say that women, on the whole, have a confidence problem.

There’s a saying going around at the moment which resonates with a lot of women I know.

Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.

On the surface the statement is a flippant way of looking at the way society is set up to benefit and glorify the accomplishments of  men, (many of whom absolutely deserve the accolades). But dig a little deeper and you’ll get to the self-deprecating heart of the matter. Female confidence is a tricky tight rope to walk. Too meek? You get walked all over. Too strong? You’re a bitch in heels. Speak up? You’re called shrill, loud, overbearing. Don’t speak up? Well, no wonder you don’t get that raise. What’s seen as confidence in men often comes across as entitlement in women. What comes across as assertiveness and leadership among males is perceived as aggressiveness and ball-busting in women.

If women have to constantly recalibrate the poles they use for balance, to find some Goldilocks just right version of confidence, is it any wonder we fall flat on our faces a lot of the time?

But surely we get a little bounce back from a safety net of other women underneath us, right? Oh, honey…no. Plenty of times other women are more than happy to watch you fall flat on your face. Whether this is simply human nature, decades of conditioning, or a combination of a thousand other factors is up for debate.

I write nearly every day of my life. I have a successful blog. I’m published. I’ve won contests, been nominated for Pushcart Prize, been paid for my work, completed a novel….and yet when someone asked me to tutor their child in writing, I balked.

Surely I’m not qualified! (Yes, I actually said those words.)

When do you become enough of a writer to qualify guiding others in the writing process? When do you become good, better, best enough to do anything? Is there a magic formula to feeling qualified enough? If so there seem to be a lot of magic formulas kept under lock and key and away from the manicured hands of women.

I have a witty, whip-smart friend in the UK who is a lawyer. Another who is a doctor. And this summer I  listened to both of them tell me how unqualified they felt as they returned to positions they’ve been educated and trained for, positions they’ve held before. Sometimes while pregnant, managing a household, morning sickness and a toddler who refuses to pee anywhere but the corner.

Ah, women. I love ’em, but man! Even when we are good at what we do, hell even when we are great at what we do, we doubt ourselves. Forget locusts, if women suffer any kind of plague, it is the plague of second-guessing their worth. We under-value our contribution. We give our work and time away for free. We volunteer instead of assuming we should be paid. We politely inquire when we should expect. We’re happy when people recognize our talents, when they flatter us, and our bank accounts wither and die as our expertise is taken for granted, our time and effort devalued and expected to be given for free.

I’m not saying you should demand the PTA pay you for helping hang Halloween decorations. I’m saying we need to value our work because when all we do is volunteer? Our work ceases to have value.

Your grandmother was right. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? We can lip service volunteer work all we want, and we absolutely should all do it–from time to time–but when we give too much of the milk away for free, the cow develops low self-esteem, doubts herself, and undermines her worth. And as loathe as I am to compare women to cows, when the metaphor moos….

But more than monetary payment is what happens when your work ceases to be valued–internally and externally. You convince yourself  you’re not as good as, worth as much as, as qualified as. The chips on your shoulder get heavier over time. They weigh you down like a bra full of bricks until you can’t stand up straight, until you can’t walk with your head held high, until you start believing it yourself.

In my day-to-day life I meet and talk to countless women who doubt themselves, who disqualify themselves, who dismiss their qualifications as not enough.

I do it myself.

The men I meet? They rarely worry they’re unqualified. They assume a natural position of qualification that’s been inferred upon them since birth. Like Simba the Lion King cub, they wear the crown of accepted leader. Their position is accepted…and expected.

Sisters! Lean in, lift up, whatever it takes. Look into the mirror everyday and channel Al Franken’s Stuart Smally character: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh-darnit, people like me. Whatever you need to do.

Because some days Sarabi** isn’t good enough. Go out and demand a crown of your own.

 

**Sarabi is the name of Simba’s mother. I had to look it up. You see how ingrained this shit is? I didn’t even know the name of Simba’s mother!

 

To My White Friends…We Have to Do Better

If you’re white, I need you to stop for a minute. Take a deep breath. Actually, take ten, this may take a while.

This post isn’t about making anyone feel guilty. I’m not going to call anyone a racist. I’m certainly not going to tell anyone they don’t deserve whatever they’ve worked to achieve in their lives.

I’m just going to say this: We need to do better.

We’re waaaaaaaayyyy beyond the ‘this makes me uncomfortable so I’m just going to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist‘ phase of the game. You know those stories about your mother’s friend’s cousin Gert, the one who smoked two packs a day, coughed up blood for years but chalked it up to cat allergies? The one who, when she eventually went to the doctor’s, found out she had stage 4 lung cancer? That’s where we are. We are at Stage 4 racism.

We, as white people are the cause. We, as white people could have done something about it earlier. We, as white people bear the responsibility for fixing it and cleaning up the fallout.

We need to do better. Big things, little things, every damn day things. We must do better.

Do better. Stop the “…but my great-uncle was denied a job because he was an Irish red-head” anecdotes. Stop using ‘some of my best friends are black,” as a get-out-of-jail-free card. Stop using ‘black on black crime’ as a justification for refusing to acknowledge the killing of black and brown men and women (or even more importantly, a refusal to look at the institutionalized racism of the judicial system itself). Stop using “it’s how things used to be” as an excuse not to change.

Pointing to a red-haired uncle on the family tree or having watched The Cosby Show growing up, touting hip-hop as your favorite music genre or being appalled by the word ni**ger does not absolve us of complicity in this mess.

Because make no mistake, it’s a mess. It’s a fucking mess. And not only do we bear sole responsibility for this mess, for centuries we’ve been forcing/asking/expecting people of color to clean it up.

Do better. Own the damn mess.

Do better. Get over the fact that being called racist may hurt your feelings. Understand those were our ancestors, not us is not a valid excuse. Know that as whites we don’t get to turn away from the cancer of white supremacy by whining about history.

Why? We forfeited the right to put our feelings at the forefront or to play the fairness game way back when the US had to go to war over the issue of whether it was ok to own other human beings to bolster our profits.

Do better. The history of racism in the United States is not told in bronze statues and marble monuments. And it doesn’t begin with importing and trading human beings, but when white Europeans thought the genocide of Native Americans was a proportionate response to needing a place to live. It’s not about statues of men on horses. It is about systematically oppressing, subjugating, ignoring, raping, kidnapping, belittling, demeaning, and overlooking Native, black, and brown Americans–not only what they have endured, but what they have as accomplished as well. Not only in the past, but ever since. Right damn now.

Do better. Acknowledge just because black Americans are not in literal chains doesn’t mean they are not still bearing the weight of them.

Do better. Stop diluting the black experience. Stop saying All lives Matter. The BLM movement does not mean the lives of white people don’t matter. ALL history, past, and present points to the opposite–that white lives do indeed matter. In fact, statistically they matter MORE than black, brown, and native lives.

This is not an either/or situation. This is an ‘in addition to’.

When whites insist all lives matter because it hurts their feelings that someone might think or insinuate their or their white child’s life doesn’t matter? That’s diluting the message. And the message is this: We have always put the hurt feelings of white people above the very lives of black and brown people.

Do better. Stop turning away from racism with ‘hey, at least things are better than they used to be‘. I know this one is true… because looking back, I did that my whole life. Post slavery, post MLK, Jr.– no one ever taught me how deeply ingrained racism is. But it’s more than that. No one taught me about black girls like Ruby Bridges. No one taught me about whites burning the busses of Freedom Riders in Anniston, Alabama. No one taught me what happened to Emmet Till. No one mentioned the Tulsa Massacre that wiped out the wealthiest black community in the United States in one fell swoop. But equally importantly, no one ever taught me of the accomplishments of Pauli Murray, Amelia Boynton Robinson, or Katherine Johnson. When listing off successful business owners, no one mentioned Madam C.J. Walker, the first female self-made millionaire.

As a white girl growing up I learned Harriet Tubman helped slaves escape and Rosa Parks sat on a bus and now we’re all equal. That’s it.

My history was whitewashed. The bad AND the good.

Do better. Learn the names of black women and men who have always been there making history and never getting any credit. The ones who have been begging us to listen. The ones who we’ve been tuning out because we’re only tuned to hear our white skin frequency.

Do better. It’s easy enough to threaten to wash your kids’ mouths out with soap if you ever hear them say ni**er.  It’s not so easy to teach them the sneaky, serpentine ways that institutionalized racism runs like an electric current under everything we do.

Do better. It’s easy to say, don’t treat someone differently because of the color of their skin. It’s harder to say we are treated better because of the color of ours.

Do better. It’s easy to say hey, that’s not right. But it’s harder to say, here’s how we fix it. Because that means facing up to the fact that we all of us, ALL of us, have benefited from white supremacy. Even if we didn’t know it. Even if we’re poor. Yes, even if your Irish great-uncle with the red hair was barred from applying for a job. Even if you’ve been the victim of racial prejudice. Even if, even if, even if.

I walk through my life, a white skinned woman, with all of the privilege that confers upon me. The biggest privilege of all? I can turn away from racism. I can have a few dinner table conversations with my kids and pat myself on the back. I can convince myself I’m not like those hood-wearing triple K Klansman. I’m not even like everyone’s great-aunt who makes racist jokes at the Thanksgiving table that nobody blinks at.

Or.

I can do more. I can read and listen to voices of color. I can elevate them above white voices, support them and give them an amplifier in any way I can.

I can reexamine the way that I benefit from this skin I wear.

I can do better.

I acknowledge my life is different because of my white skin. Regardless of any hurdles I have faced, those hurdles would be magnified ten-fold if I was black. None of this invalidates my life, or me, or my accomplishments. No one is trying to take anything away from anyone else. Remember, it’s not either/or. It’s in addition to.

Do better. Stop demanding people of color explain themselves or educate you on racism. Our mess. Our responsibility.

Do better. Stop refusing to look at white supremacy as a political tool that has been used to keep the power in the hands on ONE group.

Do better. Stop using the success of black Americans as evidence of being post-racism. Lynching isn’t merely done from a tree in the back woods of Alabama. Black Americans have succeeded despite every roadblock we, as white people, have erected for them. They’ve had to be ten times better to get there. Recognize it for what it is.

Do better. Start branching out. One thing I try to do is diversify my go-to portfolio. Instead of using the first white woman or man who comes to mind, I seek out a woman or man of color to  hold up as examples. Use them. Whatever the opposite of dilute is, do it. Throw some color into the pool. It’s been over-bleached for too long. Representation matters.

Do better. Realize this centuries old mess is not going to be cleaned up in a day or a month or a year. Realize you’re going to fuck up and people are going to, rightly, call you on it. Listen to what they say and do better.

Now take ten more deep breathes and do better.

 

 

Sorry I’ve Been A Shitty Friend: A Multiple Choice Form Letter

Dear (fill in name of friend here),

How are you? It’s been way too long, I know. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of you and then said to myself, I should really (call/write/at least click like on your vacation photos) but I’m sure you know how it goes. No matter how organized I am, it seems like (life/the news/a hangover) is always getting in the way. It’s so true what they say. Time sure does have a habit of flying when you’re (procrastinating/bemoaning the state of humanity/binge watching Better Call Saul), doesn’t it?

Funny thing is, your name came up just the other day. Someone asked me, “Hey, how’s (fill in name of friend here)? (He’s/She’s) got to be almost (ready to move/ready to have a baby/done with school), right? And it really drove home how long it’s been since I (emailed/tweeted/tagged you in a photo)!

I’m so sorry I missed your (birthday/anniversary/relative’s funeral), I really have no excuse other than the fact that I am spending far too much time (arguing with strangers on the internet/drowning my sorrows in Pinot Noir/in the midst of an existential breakdown). Most days it seems all of my time is taken up by (numb shock/carpooling/debating the continued existence of humankind). I keep thinking things are going to settle down in the next few months, at least enough to (stop refreshing Twitter incessantly/clean my house/remember my kids birthdays), but who knows? Crazy world we live in, right??

And here we are half way through the year already! It seems like yesterday (the world was normal/school started/you moved). Time really does go by quickly. Did I say that already? Lol. Oh, God. I really have to stop using (texting/Snapchat/emoji) abbreviations before I lose all ability to (speak/reason/write) coherently!

But hey, (fill in name of friend), listen. You should know that despite how bad I’ve been at keeping in touch, I’m totally (stalking you on Instagram/following your exploits on FaceBook/relying on what my mom tells me). But it’s nice to get a (letter/email/social media comment longer than 140 characters) sometimes, isn’t it? Despite my (radio silence/passive aggressive comments/emoji reduction correspondence) I do think of you often and wonder how everyone’s doing.

So, in case you’re wondering, it’s not you! It’s (me/Brexit/Trump/Camus level existentialism). I really do feel bad about not keeping in touch, though. Honest!

Anyway, hope you’re all (well/sane/not contemplating the meaning of life from a ledge). Please keep me up to date. And let’s not let this long go by again!

All the best!

(Fill in your name here)