Saturday, November 28, 2015

Choosing Chanukah

When people find out I’m a Jew by Choice (otherwise known as a convert), one of the first questions I get is, “Was it hard to give up Christmas?”

The short answer is yes. Christmas seeps into your soul, and is a primary part of every Christian person’s happiest childhood memory log. Could I give up a tree in the corner of the house? Red, green, and gold presents heaped on a velvet skirt under the limbs? The adorable ornaments? Stockings hung on the chimney mantle (or, in my childhood chimneyless home, on the wood paneling)? The carols! The mistletoe! The gingerbread houses! How could I give all that up?

It was a process, and one that I wasn’t too happy about at first. I won’t get into my reasons for choosing to be a Jew, mostly because I consider spirituality deeply personal, and I by no means consider my choices to be the “true” ones or the only path. But please rest assured, before I go any further, that this choice came after years and years of soul-searching, an intensive class taught by a wonderful rabbi, prayer after prayer, symbolic dreams, and a happy heart. It had nothing to do with my husband, who happens to be a Jew. I just happened to mostly be attracted to Jewish guys, which I later found out is fairly common for those of us also attracted to Judaism.

So, I’m going to leave the religious components out of this talk, and focus on the traditions of the holidays, if you don’t mind. 

My first Christmas as a Jew was incredibly difficult. All the traditions that had, at one point, been my traditions, were others’ now, and I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do. Although I’d never been too vigilant about decorating my tiny New York City apartment for Christmas throughout my twenties, I suddenly found myself yearning for a tree and lights. I wanted to blast the carols throughout the apartment. I needed to make a batch of Alton Brown’s eggnog – STAT.
So I did what every good convert does – I clung onto Chanukah like a life preserver. If I couldn’t have Christmas, by God, I’d make the most out of this other holiday.

And frankly, that’s how I viewed it. As the “other” holiday, the substitute Christmas. No tree? Well, then, I’d hang some blue and white lights around the window. No stockings? That’s OK, I’d find the most beautiful menorah in town. No holly? An assortment of dreidels would have to suffice.

We ate homemade latkes with applesauce and sour cream every night. I demanded we play dreidel all eight days – despite the fact that it was just Dave and me and no kids – and we ate the chalky gelt that I picked up at the nearby drug store humorlessly. I wanted to give eight gifts, but Dave told me that was a bit extravagant for just two people, so we just gave one gift the first night. We sang the only two Chanukah songs we knew – “The Dreidel Song” and “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” – on an endless loop, and always at my request. I was trying to get that same Christmas feeling throughout it all, and it just didn’t happen. Finally, I gave up, bought a peppermint mocha latte at Starbucks, and locked myself in the bathroom to sing “Deck the Halls” while weeping like an idiot.

As the years went on, it got easier to view Christmas as belonging to others, but my love for Chanukah was stagnant. Every year in December, I’d watch the evergreen go up, I’d hear songs about peace and joy in every store, and I’d resignedly polish our menorah and buy those tiny bags of overpriced gelt. 

When Stella came along, I had a newfound desire to make Chanukah more meaningful, and I really put my back into it. We bought her eight gifts – one for each night – and the house was an explosion of Stars of David and dreidels. I plugged “Chanukah songs” into Pandora and heard every instrumental version of “The Dreidel Song” you could imagine. And while my husband and my daughter seemed delighted by my efforts, I wasn’t as pleased. I still felt incomplete. I still yearned for that Christmas feeling, and I just couldn’t conjure it up via Chanukah.

Over time, I grew to like Chanukah more and more, but it wasn’t until this year – eleven years post my conversion – that I find myself yearning for Chanukah, grateful for it, beyond happy that I’m a Jew during the Christmas season.

What changed? I stopped trying to make Chanukah into Christmas, that’s what. I started to look at Chanukah as the holiday it is – a minor one, meant to light a spark in our hearts during this dark time of year, and to reignite our pride in our Jewish heritage. It’s not as big a deal as Christmas, because it’s not our major holiday. And it doesn’t have to be. And now I absolutely love that about it.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t have fun with it. We bought a cheesy electric menorah this year, because Dave mentioned he had one as a kid and always loved it. We bought both of our kids eight gifts each, and even have theme nights (book night, chocolate night, art supply night, etc.). We plan to eat latkes most if not all the nights, and I went to a local chocolate store to buy the “good gelt” (i.e. the stuff that actually tastes like chocolate). We’ve already finished decorating our house, an effort led with seriousness and dedication by my 7 year-old, and composed mostly of hand-made crafts.

And we have more meaningful activities planned. Like going to our local nursing home to light the menorah and sing Chanukah songs with our older neighbors. (We discovered, after some work, that that are more than two Chanukah songs, and Dave can play them beautifully on his guitar.) We’ll meet up with our Jewish chosen family here for a few different parties – one at our beloved synagogue. Stella’s going to invite over her best friend, a sweet Catholic girl, to teach her about Chanukah. And every single night, when I light the shammos candle, I will say a prayer that will have great meaning to me.

It will be wonderful, fun, and festive, and it won’t be Christmas. And while I’ll always treasure my childhood memories of Christmas, I’m relieved to be released of it now. 

Christmas is beautiful, and I have no ill feelings toward it. But Christmas is work and effort and it demands of most of its followers at least a month of dedication. It involves decorating and shopping and high expectations from your kids. Many people I know derive great meaning and joy from preparing for Christmas, but others can seem quite stressed and frazzled by it.  As someone who’s struggled with anxiety for much of my life, it is a great relief to sit at home with some candles and fried potatoes while the rest of the country bustles around in the traffic outside.

So this year, my heart swells with love and gratitude at coming of the holiday season. The carols in the stores make me smile and fill my head with sweet memories that I’ll treasure forever. One night, we’ll pile the kids in the car to look at the gorgeously-decorated homes in our neighborhood, and will drink some hot chocolate when we return. We’ll even gather with my Christian family around my mom’s sweet tree, and watch our cousins’ faces beam with joy at the gifts we gave them.

But what I’m most looking forward to is my 2 year old son’s look of wonder when all eight candles are lit, at watching my daughter hug an elderly woman who’s missing her own grandchildren, and singing Matisyahu’s “Miracle” and really meaning it when I belt out the words: “eight nights, eight lights, and these rites keep me right, so bless me to the highest heights with your miracle.”

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Perils of Being a 20-Something Woman

At my bachelorette party - age 29 - with my gorgeous friend Sara. 
Not feeling particularly pretty myself.

There is one thing I'm grateful for every day of my life: that I'm no longer in my twenties.

While commercials and ads constantly try to remind me that my impending 40th birthday is a cause to panic and spend hundreds of dollars in "anti-aging" products, all I ever really feel is gratitude for this age, and for the wrinkles and gray hairs and jiggly skin that accompany it.

This weekend, Dave and I went to a very popular local music festival. As we jockeyed for any sort of spot that would provide the least amount of cigarette smoke for my poor asthmatic lungs, I noticed a group of young women. There were three of them, each in their twenties, each lovely. Two were very, very thin - their long, tan limbs snaking out of tiny shorts and crop tops, bangly bracelets and long necklaces adding the right punctuation. They sported long, lustrous hair that looked salon-fresh, despite the boiling hot temperature and sadistic humidity.

The third woman was lovely, too. She also had beautiful hair and skin that looked like it didn't contain a single pore. Unlike her friends, she was not teeny tiny. She wasn't a large woman at all - probably a size 8 or so - but her upper arms had a bit of flesh, and her thighs looked muscular and strong. She wore more clothes than her friends, and had a habit of pulling at her shorts, as if willing them to cover up more and more of her. The way her head darted around, it was painfully clear to me that she did not feel wonderful about how she looked, and she couldn't stop comparing herself to her friends.

I desperately wanted to pull her aside and give her a pep talk. I wanted to reassure her of her beauty, and remind her that she's not in a competition with her friends. I wanted to tell her I know how tough it is to be her age, to not know where your life is heading and who - if anyone - you'll share it with.

But I just stood back and watched. Her friends danced wildly and sometimes suggestively. She bounced carefully and self-consciously. When everyone needed a beer, she was the one to run off and get them. When her friends talked to guys, she hung back and pretended to listen to the band.

I used to be her. When I look back at pictures of my younger self, I'm struck by how conventionally pretty I was. I had no clue. I felt big and awkward and cumbersome. I felt like I could never compare to my friends' beauty.

I've always loved to dance and frankly, I'm quite good at it. But I can't tell you how many times I went to concerts or similar events and barely moved. I lived in fear that my breasts would bounce too much, that my stomach might peek out of my shirt, that someone would make fun of me.

And these fears were not unfounded. When you're a woman in your late teens and twenties, your appearance is up for public judgment. As men walk past you, many of them either eye you appreciatively, or make grossed-out faces to show how horrible you are, or - worst of all - laugh and poke fun at someone who looks like you daring to have fun. My weight has fluctuated a lot in my life, so I've been at the tail end of every single one of those reactions. And every single one infuriates me.

Going to this event as an almost-40-year-old woman is a very different experience. It's almost like being invisible. Men's eyes glazed right over me on their way to find young women. When I wanted to dance - I danced. People looked, because people always look at you when you dance, but nobody seemed to care once they realized I was not part of the meat market. I was just a goofy older woman shaking her butt to Houndmouth.

I can forget for a moment about the rampant sexism and objectification and sometimes even misogyny that are still just a huge part of our culture.

Until I remember that Stella will have to deal with it one day. And then I get angry all over again.

I'm so grateful not to have to be in that place anymore. To not feel ugly and awkward and unworthy of love. But I also feel motivated to try to change this place enough so that maybe, possibly, hopefully, my daughter can be able to enjoy her 20's more than I ever did.

Being the kooky middle-aged woman who loves to dance and is annoyed by all the smoke.

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Five Minute Snippet

What a good mom! Taking her kids to the zoo on the first sunny day in ages!

If you were to observe me out in public with my kids, you'd think I'm an incredible parent.

Or an indulgent one.

Or an angry one with a terrible attitude.

Or a completely average one.

Because I am all of the above. As well as an emotionally sensitive parent (both in the good and bad way), a tired parent, a hilarious parent, an immature parent (both in the good and bad way), and a frazzled parent.

Today, for example, I had looks from people that gave me the feeling they were summing me up based on whatever five minute snippet they observed.

The woman who smiled kindly at me as I laughed with my kids at the goofy sea lion doing tricks. "What a good mom, taking her kids to the zoo and having so much fun with them."

The other woman who raised an eyebrow a few minutes later as I checked my buggy phone to see if my doula client had called. "Why can't parents today stay off their phones and play with their kids for ten minutes?"

The guy who glared at my kids as they ate ice cream at 10:45am because it was punishingly hot, I was tired of fighting the battle, and I didn't realize the splash park that my kids were dying to enter wouldn't be open to the general public until 11:00am. "Does she WANT her kids to be obese? Ice cream BEFORE lunch?"

The employee who beamed at me as I walked around with Sam, getting drenched with water to make sure that he didn't walk up the water slides or run wildly into the other kids. "Why can't other parents keep an eye on their kids like this woman? Look at those unsupervised brats reeking havoc on everyone else!"

The grandmother who watched me hover over Sam in the water park, picking him up when he cried and pulling him into the shade to get him some water to drink. "All the parents today are helicopter parents! It wouldn't hurt that boy to cry a little bit."

The dad who gave me the side eye as I barked at Sam to stop kicking me as I buckled him in his boiling hot car seat, then later barked at Stella to PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, go ahead and buckle her seat belt so I could get Sam home in time for his much-needed nap. "Geez. Those poor kids. It's the zoo! Why can't she loosen up and have some fun?"

Of course, it's highly possible that some or all of these people thought nothing of me, that they were busy with their own lives and couldn't care less.

But if social media has taught me anything, it's that people are VERY keen to judge parents they see in public based on five minute windows. Friends on Facebook moan about incompetent parents who sit on the subway and do nothing as their kid screams (even though I know it's possible that the parent has tried every trick in the book and is simply hanging on by a thread). Moms on parenting message groups moan about the parents who bark at their kids in public, wondering why those people need to procreate at all (even though I'm fairly certain we all have those moments, though some of us try to contain them behind closed doors). People post pictures of babywearing dads and crafty parents who create intricately staged photographs of their kids during naptimes and moms who take their kids to Comic Con to Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #ParentingDoneRight (even though we know absolutely nothing else about how those people parent).

What you see in public is but a drop in an enormous Pointillist painting. Of course, if a kid is being hurt physically or emotionally by a parent, we as a tribe should intervene to help. But otherwise, you should take that five minute snippet of parenting you see with a grain of salt. That wonderful/mediocre/terrible parent is probably a little bit of all of the above.

What a terrible mom! Leaving her toddler unsupervised for a moment on that horse so she can fiddle with her phone!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Card for my Dad

One of the last times I saw my dad. From left: My neice Claire, Stella (around 8 mos), 
me, Dad, my brother Jason.

This morning, in between making biscuits and gravy for Father's Day breakfast and refereeing a sibling fight over a balloon and trying to keep the household volume to a level low enough to allow Dave to sleep in, I scoured through Facebook on my phone. Picture after beautiful picture of my friends with their dads, most of them at their weddings. Their dads were stout and thin, bearded and clean shaven, dressed to the nines and in t-shirts and jeans. They all held their kids and sometimes their grandkids close. They smiled. They emanated love.

I "liked" every one of these pictures. Even though my heart stung with jealousy. Even though tears welled up in my eyes. I "liked" them because I do like them. Because I want the world to have good  fathers.

But my heart hurts today. My sister and I used to joke about how hard it was to find a Father's Day card for Dad. He didn't play golf. He didn't do yard work. He didn't have a workshop where he made things out of wood. He didn't wear a tie. He didn't fix the toilet. He wasn't always there for us. He wasn't our best friend. We weren't "Daddy's Little Girl."

There were no cards that said, "Thank you for not killing Mom the last time you beat her up." Or, "We kind of missed you when you were in jail." Or, "I guess the abuse you heaped on me could have been much worse."

Sorry. We tend to have a dark sense of humor in my family.

My dad wasn't at my wedding. We were estranged at that time. There was an awkward moment when I tried to figure out what it should say on the wedding invitation. Just listing my mom's name made it seem like my dad was dead; putting his name on there would make people wonder where he was when the big day arrived. I was disappointed that printing companies didn't offer an invitation that said, "Estranged Father Mr. William Randall Skaggs and Actively Involved Mother Mrs. Judy Miles Skaggs request the pleasure of your" bla bla bla.

My "father-daughter" dance was with my mom. It was kind of strange, but I didn't want to omit it altogether, and my mom certainly fulfilled many of the duties that *should* have fallen on my dad. But if I'm going to tell the truth, I wanted a father-daughter dance with a father. It's just that my father wasn't the right man for the job.

Mother-Daughter Dance

I tried to reconcile with my dad years later. He'd softened. He was no longer terrifying. He'd lost a lot of weight and had health problems and seemed feeble. I was shocked and a bit confused by how badly I wanted this to work. I wanted my daddy. He'd done some heinous things to me in my life, but I was ready to forgive. I was ready to give my kids a grandfather.

But it was too hard. Dad never apologized for sexually abusing me, for physically abusing my mom, for abusing my siblings in multiple ways, for psychologically controlling and terrorizing us our whole lives. It sounds simplistic, but had he just owned it, had he told me he'd been mentally sick and he was sorry, I would have melted. I wanted my daddy. I was ready to love him whole-heartedly.

But that's not what happened. He bought me stuff. A $3,000 Chanel purse (for the crunchy mom who doesn't care for labels). He treated me, Dave, and Stella to airline tickets to see him in Vegas and fancy dinners and expensive shows. He flaunted me in front of his professional gambling pals, bragging about my talent and gumption and generosity.

He was trying, I know. But it hurt too much. I found myself melting down over nothing weeks before and after our visits and phone calls. I'd hold it in around him, but if one thing went wrong away from him, I was filled with rage or despair, screaming and/or crying over every little thing. I was triggered. I kept having flashbacks and nightmares. I was scared to be alone with him.

So I cut it off again. He called me, he sent me a couple of cards, he complained to my brothers about me being ungrateful. I felt guilty. I felt like a terrible person. But I started to get better, little by little, especially when I went to therapy to confront what he'd done to me and how I could heal.

And by the time I was ready to reach out again, to frankly confront him about our past in the hopes that we could move on, he passed away. And I had to figure out how to mourn a father who'd hurt me so much.

Dave is an incredible father. He's emotionally available, compassionate, hilarious, warm. This morning, he played his guitar and sang songs while Sam danced like crazy. He snuggles up to Stella and reads her books. He wakes up with the kids to let me sleep in, he gets up in the middle of the night to rock Sam. He asks Stella about her day at school or camp, and really listens to her responses. He lies in bed next to me and worries out loud about our lack of college funds and why Stella's best friend is not talking to her and if Sam is thriving at daycare or not. He loves those kids more than anything in the world and always will. He'll never hurt them. He'll always be there for them.

Dave took Stella to the Girl Scouts Father Daughter Dance this year.

I used to say that this made up for my lack of a good relationship with my dad. That was a nice thought. It is healing to see how a truly involved and mentally healthy father interacts with his kids. And I'm so grateful that I never have to worry that my kids are getting anything less than they deserve. And it does make me love Dave more than ever to see him fulfill his role so perfectly.

But it doesn't replace the hole in my heart. Father's Day will always be a conflicted day for me. So much joy for my own kids, so much sadness for myself.

As I've gotten better, I've begun to realize there were some good things about my dad. He had a love for travel and new experiences that he passed down to me. While some of my friends in our tiny rural town never left the state, we'd frequently travel across the country or down into the Bahamas during the years when his illegal bookie exploits yielded actual profits. He ate escargots at the French restaurant in Disney World and dared me to do the same. He pushed me to learn to swim and drive a car, even though my fear of getting hurt was crippling.

And he told stories. Hilarious stories, captivating stories. Stories filled with voice and suspense. Stories that inspire me today to walk up on a stage and tell my own.

So Hallmark will never make a card that I could get for my late father. But if they did, maybe it would say something like this:

Happy Fathers Day, Dad. Thank you for motivating me to be a world traveler and a constant seeker of new experiences. Thank you for inspiring me to tell stories, and for giving me enough kooky and intense experiences to serve as endless fodder for those stories. Thank you for trying to reach out to me, even though it ultimately couldn't work. I'm sorry we didn't dance at my wedding, and I'm sorry you were too sick to see how much you hurt us all. You'll always be my dad, and I'll always love you.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Careful the Things You Say

Don't you feel sorry for my poor kids? Look how disconnected they are.

It hasn't been a great morning.

I'm in a pretty deep funk. Sam's going through yet another sleep regression, and I can't function without sleep. He's also testing boundaries constantly. The way he kept kicking me - hard - as I attempted to change his poopy diaper without getting crap all over both of us. The way he constantly took off his shoes the moment I got them on him (and of course we were running late). The way he broke away from me at the park, sprinting to splash pad, clogged and flooded and nasty from yesterday's storm, and dove head-first into the water (and no, I didn't have any backup clothes). 

Moments before he submerged himself in the nastiness.

But I was determined to make it better. I stripped him of his wet shorts, put on a fresh cloth diaper, and took my pantsless son in his drenching wet shirt to Mama's Hip, a local kids store, for a toddler art program.

I was with my tribe - cool and smart and low-key mamas. Although I wasn't really in the mood to socialize, I'm an extravert, and so I feel better if I can get out and be around other adults, even if I just sit in a corner and look at my phone the whole time.

That is, until I overheard a certain conversation. I'm a natural eaves dropper. I have great hearing and I'm curious about everyone's stories (hence my obsession with the Moth storytelling programs). These two moms were talking about being moms in older years, a topic I'm familiar with, having had my kids at 32 and 37 years of age. I was just getting ready to pipe up with my own story, when one of the moms said something like this:

"I'm so grateful we had them so close together. I see these moms with their kids 4, 5, 6  years apart and it makes me sad. That's just long enough for the older kid to know what they're missing when the little one comes along. And you know those kids will never really be friends."

These moms had no way of knowing that my pantsless toddler has a sister 5 years his senior. In fact, I was so quiet they may not have noticed I was even there. But even if they didn't notice me, I wonder if they noticed all the other moms around us. Moms whose personal stories aren't on their sleeves. Moms who might have also been offended by their remarks.

I let it go, and continued to check out Facebook. I figured these ladies would move on to a different topic, something I might be able to contribute to while simultaneously avoiding conflict.

But no. Sam nursed, played with toys, had a meltdown, ate some snacks, and received 3 hugs - and these ladies were still going on and on about why having kids more than a couple of years apart is a really detrimental thing to do. 

I tried to muster up my compassion and outgoing nature to have an empathetic, informative talk with them. I tried to think of something to say like, "While I get that having kids close together is the best choice for you, I just wanted you ladies to know that some of us have kids much further apart and are really happy." I thought about telling them what a help Stella is, how close her and Sam's bond is, how he said, "Bye bye Stella"when I dropped her off for camp this morning. I considered tell them about the horrible post partum mood disorder that tortured me after Stella's birth. How it took a while to recover and find the courage to go through the process of having a baby again. I thought about a lot of things. And I guess I could have turned this tense moment into a positive, loving, learning experience.

But not today. With all that's going on in our country right now, I'm all out of compassion for anyone who can't take two seconds to think about others. I know that I've messed up and I've hurt others' feelings with my words. I know I'm being a hypocrite. I know I'm not necessarily right. But I'm over it, I'm done, I'm depleted. I can't tell people what to say or how to feel. But dammit, this would be such a better world if people could take two seconds to think about others' experiences and frames of reference and have just a tiny bit of tact and friggin' empathy.

So I gathered my diaper bag and my ragamuffin kid and said, "Some of us have kids 5 years apart and it's just peachy" and stormed out the door. And then I made a passive aggressive post on Facebook so all of my dear friends could tell me how right I am.

What I didn't have the patience or energy to say is this. It all boils down to the fact that there's no one way to parent. We pick and choose what works best for us as people, for our romantic relationships (or lack thereof), and for our kids' personalities. I do things that I feel strongly about as a mom. I also feel strongly that they wouldn't work for everyone. I love nursing Sam at 22 months, but I totally get that that wouldn't work for another person. So you'll never EVER catch me talking about how every mom should nurse her toddler. Both my kids sleep alone in their own rooms. Dave and I are not good at cosleeping (and neither were my kids, really, when I tried). But I'd never say that someone shouldn't cosleep.

And I'm not afraid to defend parenting decisions, even in the midst of a friendly conversation, even if it's a decision that's not my own. People know my passion for my own unmedicated births, and for helping other women who want to pursue unmedicated birth. So you wouldn't believe some of the hateful things I've heard about moms who want to use an epidural or moms who delivered via c-section. And they're shocked when I tell them that unmedicated birth isn't for everyone, and that I'm grateful for c-sections because they save lives. Or the moms who trash formula when they see me breastfeed, then get a mini-lecture from me about how Sam needed formula because I couldn't produce enough milk to give him at daycare, or how some women can't breastfeed due to former childhood abuse, or how parenting is hard enough, so why don't we cut women who weren't able to or don't want to breastfeed a little slack.

Ladies, stop it. Just stop it. We don't need parenting labels or sides or teams or what have you. We need empathy. We need understanding. If we're going to make this place better, more loving, safer for all of our kids, and free of the hatred that is consuming us like a plague, we have to lead the way.

Careful the things you say. You might hurt someone without even realizing it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

We Weren't That Good

Look at that rambunctious 2 year eating ice cream with her bare hands back in 1977. 
Sometimes, it feels like my Facebook feed is just bursting to the seams with posts about how kids today are brats and how much better they'd be if their parents just smacked them around a bit.

"When I was a kid I didn't get a choice - I ate what my mom cooked."
"If I talked to my dad the way that kid did, he would have popped me in the mouth."
"I wouldn't have gotten anything to eat at all if I threw a fit like that in the restaurant."
"My mom wouldn't have let me looked at her IPad - had such a thing existed - while on an airplane."

While this is, by no means, the only way modern parents are criticized (we look at our phones too much, we breastfeed too long or not long enough, we obsess over organic food or feed our kids crap, we hold them too much), it's quite possibly the criticism that bugs me the most.

Why? Because the insinuation is that we, as kids, knew our place. We didn't talk back, we ate our brussels sprouts, we didn't dawdle while getting dressed for school, we went out to play the moment our parents asked us to.

But the thing is, I have a really good memory. Part of my love for storytelling comes from the fact that much of my life just hangs out right below my surface, begging to be examined from time to time. And I need to tell you guys that we kids of the '70's, '80's, and '90's were no better than kids today.

Like most kids of my generation, I was spanked. I lived in a house where parents were in control, and the rules were clear and explicit. And yet, every time we went out to eat, I hid under the table, tickled my mom's legs, and stood up in the booth to stare at other diners. I threw fits for toys I wanted in a store. I refused to eat certain foods and cried until my mom made me something else. I came up with excuses for not going to bed, not getting dressed for school, not cleaning my room. I will testify that my parents did not spoil me. Not at all. But testing boundaries was pretty normal for me (and my siblings).

And I hate to burst your bubble, but you did the same thing. Maybe you, like me, were afraid of a spanking. And maybe that fear kept you from breaking the rules. Sometimes. But that urge to test out your parents' limits? Well that was too strong to resist. And so you, my friend, were a brat when you were a kid, too. And if you don't believe me, feel free to call up your parents to confirm the fact.

So what's different? We are living in a time when people are more free to live an adult life without kids. Whether a person's child-free life is by choice or circumstance, more and more people are walking this path, and society is learning to be accepting of it (though we have a ways to go in that department).

This is good news! Having kids is not for everybody, and it makes me happy that people are able to live a life that feels authentic and meaningful to them, even if it deviates from societal norms.

But the fact of the matter is that most people find other people's kids annoying. I have two of my own kids, I taught kids for 13 years, and I STILL mostly get annoyed by other people's kids. But I have a strong sense of empathy for other parents. So today, at a local story time, I smiled at the mom whose toddler screamed over a broken crayon, because I knew it was only a matter of moments before my own son would scream (over a folded piece of paper). When someone's baby cries on an airplane, I put in my headphones and remember that time Stella pooped her diaper right as the plane was descending and the seatbelt sign was lit and she screamed at the top of her lungs for 30 minutes while I tried every trick in the book to get her to stop. When a dad lets his son look at his IPad while the family waits for their dinner, I remind myself to give it a try with my own ansy kids next time we eat out.

Are there jerky and entitled parents? Oh yes. No doubt. And I'm sure someone reading this is just dying to talk about the screaming baby at the 10pm movie screening or the toddler in a bar or the kid who ran around and knocked everyone's plates over at a wedding. But again, and forgive me if I blow your mind here, there were crappy parents in our day, too. But in those days, you probably envied their kids for having cooler parents than yours.

So as we read more and more stories about parents getting kicked off of airplanes for having a crying baby and news article after news article about how our kids lack grit, I urge you all to find empathy for modern parents. We are doing things a bit differently. We're learning as we go, we're making mistakes, and we're doing our best. Many of us don't hit our kids, but we do provide boundaries for them. When they act out, we are seeking out ways to curb their negative behavior without obliterating their curiosity (a trait that often causes kids to test boundaries). We're in the trenches, day after day, trying to raise a capable, kind, not-as-neurotic-as-we-are generation to inherit this earth. And that 5 minutes of bratty behavior you're witnessing doesn't tell you the whole story.

Imagine of all someone knew of you was that time you were a brat when you were little.

Monday, May 18, 2015

She's Back

Sassy Little Randi

When I was four years old, I was often described as "sassy." I was outgoing, funny, interested in talking to everyone around me (absolutely zero stranger danger). At my oldest brother's high school basketball games, it was expected that I would run out into the court during time outs, clad in a cheerleading costume my crafty grandmother made for me, and dance to the band's rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown." I expected everyone in that gym to love me, and they did.

Now, at age 39, I finally feel like that little girl again. Some things happened that pushed that little girl down. Things my dad did to me in particular, horrible things, combined with the general trauma of growing up in a house ruled by a violent narcissist who relied on the unpredictable (and illegal) world of being a small-town bookie as means of supporting his family.

But those bad times are not what this post is about. This post is about the joy of finally being myself 100% of the time after 35 long years.

I was silent on this blog for a long time. I've compared my recent lifestyle shift/mid-life crisis in birth terms before. And I've just survived a really dark period - hours of pushing, if you will - followed by an incredibly wonderful period - my sweet, naked baby on my chest.

It seemed, for a while, that I would not be able to follow through with my plans. Money, lack of benefits - these were and are very valid concerns. I cried a lot, feeling in my heart that this seemingly insane mixture of storytelling, teaching, and birth support was exactly what I was supposed to do with my life, but would never be an acceptable path for a mother of two.

But one day, I just let it go. I stopped worrying, and I started putting as much energy - physical, emotional, mental - into my goals as possible. And the result was instantaneous and powerful.

Throughout April and May, I was completely engrained in my new lifestyle. I got a work-from-home job as as consultant with an online company that manages pregnancy and parenting apps. It's fairly flexible, challenging, and fun, and is a great backbone for my other projects. One of my doula clients gave birth, and I was reminded, again, of how gratifying it is to support a woman and her birth partner as she crosses the bridge into parenthood (all of my clients, so far, have been first time moms). I also had the absolute honor of working with a local high school to coach student storytellers and help produce my area's first high school story slam. The bravery those kids displayed as they got on a stage (for the first time, for many of them) and bared their souls in front of strangers was awe-inspiring.

Every day was different. I felt busy, alive, vibrant, busy, excited, optimistic, busy, and strangely peaceful. I was running all over town to fulfill obligations, fighting Derby traffic, my phone buzzing frequently, and in my heart, I felt absolute peace. That's when I knew I was on the right path.

The two months of joy culminated with a trip to New York City to perform part of my Grand Slam winning story in the Moth Ball, the Moth organization's annual (and fabulous) fundraiser. To say I was honored to be asked to go is a blatant and vile understatement. I couldn't believe it was happening - from the moment I got the email invitation to the minute I landed back in Louisville International Airport. I'm still scouring through photographic evidence to make sure it wasn't all a dream.

The trip to NYC was the real proof that I'm finally the brave, confident, people-loving person I once was. I had no fear on this trip. For a person who's lived with anxiety for most of my life, that's an unbelievable thing to admit. No detail - from my kids' well-being back at home to making friends at the show to getting around town with my luggage - made me sweat.

And NYC welcomed me back with open arms. My flights into the area were easy. I stepped out of Newark Airport right as my shuttle bus pulled up. My shuttle bus deposited me at Port Authority, where I easily remembered the trail to the subway. As soon as I swiped my newly-purchased Metro Card (on the first try, like a real New Yorker), the train pulled up. I transferred from the A train to the F train and, again, it pulled up the moment I arrived. If you've never spent any significant amount of time in New York, you may not realize what a miracle it is for so many modes of transportation to cooperate so nicely.

The Moth put us up in the adorable Ludlow Hotel. I highly recommend it to anyone traveling to NYC. It's stylish and in a great, not-quite-as-touristy neighborhood. Plus it comes with a decent breakfast special - actually good food and not some sad buffet.

I had a few hours to kill before I could officially check in, so I took a stroll around the Lower East Side and East Village. There could have been no more fitting place for my revisit to NYC to begin. From the moment I moved to New York in 1998, this was the area where I spent the most time. I began working with WOW Cafe Theater - a feminist, anarchist theater collective - on E. 4th Street right away. I wrote, directed, and produced two plays there, in addition to acting and doing tech work for countless other shows. I was also a frequent visitor to the LES treasure, Bluestockings Bookstore, a feminist enclave that served as the library for my political awakening, as well as a meeting ground for fellow activists.

I got a slice of pizza (required) and walked past my old window on E. 6th Street where Dave proposed to me in 2004.

Me and the ring, which once belonged to my mother-in-law. 

As the young folks say, I was having all the feelings. I felt like no time at all had passed, then I'd remember that actually over a decade had passed, and I now have kids, and I don't live here anymore, and it was, in an inadequate word, weird.

It was also required that I become a curmudgeon about how much my old neighborhood had changed. I was appalled by some of the precious and over-priced new restaurants and stores. I was heartbroken about the loss of some of my old haunts (like B&H Dairy, the first kosher restaurant I ever entered, where I asked the guy behind the counter if their split-pea soup had ham in it - d'oh!). I couldn't believe how little trash there was curling round my legs in the breeze. 

After checking in, I luxuriated in a shower, during which nobody banged on my door or yelled "Mom" repeatedly. I hung out for an hour, just going over my story and reveling in my alone-ness. I was so happy about it that I even took a picture.

Ah, this is the life!
And then it was time. I got gussied up in a cute dress, and even wore makeup! I looked pretty damned cute. But, because I'm an idiot and I assumed everyone in the world would snap my photo and share it with me, I didn't take any pictures of myself. Well, that's not entirely true, I took one dark selfie at the end of the night, around 2 in the morning. 

Wow. That's 3 selfies in a row. I think it's time to change my last name to Kardashian.
The fellow Grandslampions (as our Moth guru, Jen, called us) were fantastic people. I bonded with them immediately and strongly, as if we'd gone to summer camp together. When storytellers get together, there is no small talk. I can't tell you a single thing about how any of their flights were or what the weather's like where they live; but I know intimate details of their lives and their guiding philosophies on the world. 

The venue was beautiful, and Ophira Eisenberg, the host of the event and NPR celebrity, had the audacity to be down to earth and totally approachable. We did our sound check, learned the quirks of the microphone, then settled in to attempt to calm our nerves before the show.

The food was great, the bar was open (but off limits to me and my fellow performers until after our performances), and the room began to fill with people you think you recognize but can't stare at long enough to figure it out. I was grateful the former New Yorker in me insisted I wear flats, because I was on my feet a lot. 

And before we knew it, it was time to perform.

Unlike the regular Moth, where the house lights are so low you can't make out a single face, I could see everyone in that audience, but especially Louis C.K. - the honoree of the night. I had to keep putting it out of my mind that he would be there, because I'm such a huge fan of his work. But smack in the middle of my performance, I made eye contact with him, and he was looking at me in that way that showed me he really heard me and he cared about what I had to say, and for a second I almost forgot what to say next. But then that confidence resurfaced, and I finished my piece and allowed myself to feel thrilled and joyful that I got to perform on such prestigious a stage.
Super Blurry Shot of Louis C.K.

I ran offstage and lined up for my Manhattan (the perfect drink for a Kentucky girl in the city). Just then, my phone buzzed. It was my dear friend from college, Lisa, telling me she was there.

Tickets to this event were insanely steep. It is a fundraiser, after all. So I didn't expect to see any of my friends in the audience, least of all my friend who lives in the San Francisco area. But Lisa had flown in for a visit, and she joined our other college friends Sara and Jessica, who are New Yorkers, to watch the show.

The tears I'd been holding back started to flow. I couldn't believe they would come. I felt so loved, so happy, I almost felt like there was no way my emotions could stay contained in my body.

There was dancing, so much dancing. Great conversations. Amazing costumes at which I openly stared. An after party at the home of a celebrated New York storyteller whose work I've used with my students for years. People telling me how much they liked my story and wanting to hear more. New York City alive and hopping at 1am on a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. It was thrilling.

The next day, I met up with some of the storytellers for more soul-baring and breakfast. I had a hard time thinking about how I might never see them again. It sounds extreme, I know, but it's true. It was like the most beautiful, emotional, group one-night-stand in history.

Later, I walked along the High Line which was still being constructed as we were fleeing NYC. I had a beer on the open air deck with my college friends and sampled only-in-NYC-food, like my Japanese/Mexican fusion spicy tuna taco. We had dinner at a cute restaurant, then headed to a West Village gay bar to watch my incredible friend, Lillian Bustle, perform in a burlesque show.

Middle of the Day Drinking with College Buddies - Just Like Old Times

Lillian Bustle is not her real name, I know you're shocked to find out, but I'll just call her Lillian anyway. Lillian was my best friend in NYC. I met her when I cast her as myself in a play (narcissism, much?). We used to sit around and talk about the parts of our body we hated the most. Like it was a game. "Oh, God, my upper arms are disgusting. I wish they made more light-weight long sleeve shirts for the summer." "Oh, but have you seen my thighs? I can't wear shorts without them riding up in the middle and making some sort of v pointing at my lady parts." 

Now Lillian performs her fantastic burlesque and even gave a Tedx Talk to show that sexiness, happiness, and healthiness come in all sizes. I'm so proud of her I could burst.

The show was everything I missed about my edgy NYC life. Two beautiful drag queens opened the show, one of whom became my soul mate after I accosted her and praised her for covering a song from The Last Five Years. The burlesque performers were creative and funny and edgy and, of course, sexy. But my favorite was Lillian. She surpassed my expectations of her, and that's saying a lot.

Glamour Personified
I got to reconnect with some wonderful people. I made the best friends of my life in college and the NYC years right after - and seeing so many of them in one trip was soothing to my soul. I love Louisville and our lives here, but, like many people, I find it hard to form those strong connections I used to have. But I'm working on it - I'm working on it.

My Friends are Pretty

The next day, I spent a long time just walking around my old West Village neighborhood and down into Tribeca. I needed to see One World Trade Center from where I witnessed the towers falling. Yeah, I know it's a downer, but that day is burned in my memory, and I hoped that seeing the new building from that same perspective would be healing, somehow. And it was.
I love it.
I walked the path from my Houston Street apartment to 1WTC, the path I was supposed to walk to the unemployment office for my appointment that morning of 9/11, but slept through like the aimless twenty-something I was. I wandered to the reflecting pools of the memorial, closing my eyes to remember the towers that were there, and the fountain that stood between the two where I sometimes ate my lunch. I grew appalled at the tourists smiling and even making duck faces for selfies in front of it. I wanted to shake them and tell them what it was like that day - the acrid smell and the people coated in dust and the knowledge that people were dying and there was nothing we could do. But I just walked away and met some friends for breakfast.

By the time I needed to board my shuttle bus, my shins were splintered and my feet blistered. My heart was sore from all the joy and memories. I was craving the smell of my babies' heads like an addict. I was ready to go, but absolutely in disbelief that, when I woke up the next day, NYC would be so far away.

And now, here I am, back in my living room in Louisville. Outside, I see lush greenery and hear frantic Spring birds chirping. I'll pick up my daughter from school today to take her to her dress rehearsal for her dance recital. I'll breastfeed my son before bed. I'll make dinner and fold laundry and try to figure out a way to tweak our budget to accommodate all the spending I did while away.

But like my new friend and fellow storyteller Neshama Franklin said in her out-of-this-world piece, and I'm paraphrasing, we are all like Russian nesting dolls. Underneath the mom that you see today, I have layers and layers of lives I've lived, experiences that might surprise you. And all those layers are now working as one as I move forward to forge my new life.