High School Girls & Mentors—Using my Voice

Posted on August 10, 2016

March 1st wasn’t a remarkable day, it was a Tuesday, not that I remember. I had to go back to check, because while some details of what happened that morning have faded, the feeling I had as I read the email has not. My heart skipped a beat and I felt my shoulders drop and my chest rise.

We are the Co-Chairs of the Girls Take Charge Club at Shaker High School, in Latham, NY. In this student-founded and student-run program, high school girls go to our adjacent Junior High School to mentor the younger girls in subjects focusing on overcoming adversity that women and girls face while striving for leadership.

Each year we host a “Women in Leadership” event featuring prominent women leaders in our community. We will be creating a panel of women in leadership roles from our community to share their experiences and give advice to our members. This program is a great opportunity for both our high school and junior high girls to meet with and learn from women like yourself who are so well respected within the community.

I remember looking around the room wanting to shout, but not too loud. I felt imposterish and wondered how on earth they came to write to me. I wrote back and said there was nothing I’d be more delighted to do.

A month later they sent a list of questions to use in a bio they would read to introduce me, as well as another set of questions I could expect to be asked.

  1. What does a typical day in your life look like? What kinds of responsibilities does your job entail?
  2. What were your aspirations as a middle school or high school student? Were your dreams realized or did they change?
  3. What other jobs or experiences have you had that lead you to where you are today, and what techniques did you learn while in your position, or while getting to your position?
  4. What has been the most challenging obstacle you’ve overcome on your way to becoming a leader? For example, have you ever been discriminated against in the workplace? How did you overcome these obstacles and what actions did you take that you found were effective?
  5. What is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?

 

I remember fretting over what to wear, wanting to send a message of individuality, but not without the reality that how we dress influences what many people think of us. I hoped to sound polished, but not so heavily rehearsed that I didn’t sound real. My goal was for all of us in that room to feel like we are worthy. To have it make a difference for girls who still get treated as property. I wanted to unlock a future with less apologies. Mostly, I wanted to be worth their time.

I decided to follow my gut. I’m better off script. I still trembled a bit as I waited in the library for the students to come in after the bell. One by one the other panelists began arriving, Noël McLaren the weekend anchor from News10, Ashley Miller a sports photographer, reporter, and producer from WNYT and a graduate of Shaker High, Nina Marshall founder of the LYP Project, and Rachel Cassidy  a VP in patent licensing related to new technologies for GE. Eventually we made it to the table and listened as different high school students introduces us.

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I imagined other libraries across the country, places with Spanish speaking students and bilingual presenters, audiences hearing from panelists in wheelchairs that mirrored their own, or other formulas that make students feel represented. I hope that it is happening and that where it isn’t there are people stepping up to create opportunities.

We need people like my friend Elan Morgan and the work that she is doing to make sure there are women on speaker lists, and Kelly Wickam Hurst who is out there trying to make sure that race is addressed in the school system.

The opportunities we have to be role models or to pull back the curtain on something for young people is incredibly important. I remember a woman I followed in my early blogging years saying that she had no intention of raising her kids to believe that only good things happen. It wasn’t, she said, her job to send them out into the world without a scratch or hurt feeling, it was to send them out ready for the world they’d meet. I carry that with me and try to balance being honest with being optimistic about what we can do to improve the world and carve out the space we want for ourselves in it without apology.

I am sharing a portion of the event here, filmed and edited with genuine respect and care by Kelli Lovdahl, a woman who works at Trampoline. We went off record, pulled no punches, and, I dare say, enjoyed ourselves. The thing I am learning about myself is that when I give of myself, I get something back, maybe it’s insight, maybe it’s confidence.

I am so grateful to have been a part of this event, but more than that, I am grateful for the way it reminded me that we all have something to give and to learn.

 

Not Today Means Never*

Posted on July 31, 2016

I was pushing the cart absentmindedly, as I meandered through the store. My head wasn’t in it, hasn’t been in a lot lately. I think in the way trouble comes in threes, sometimes distractions come in clusters. A flurry of things that dizzy me into a rut of, “This sucks” and I let them.

It wasn’t until I heard the boy shouting, “Mom, mom!” that I snapped into now. The mom turned, looking every bit as not-there as I felt.

“What?” she asked in a weary and annoyed voice.

He brandished a red and blue decorated package and held it overheard as he chirped, “Crepes!” His whole face was lit up and I wondered for a minute if the girls might like crepes.

“For what?” she asked, looking at him as if he were waving a donkey mask and matches.

“For eating!” he laughed.

She turned the cart and called back a “Not today” as she strolled over to the salad dressings without giving it another thought.

His shoulders fell and he gave a last look at the package before setting it back between the strawberries and blueberries and saying, “Not today always means never.”

Standing beneath the corrugated cardboard banana tree in the produce department I felt a thousand, “Not todays” and “Maybe next times” rain down on me.

“Not today always means never.”

I was the only one who heard him and I knew he was right. She’s not going to buy him crepes. I never went back and bought that divine crushed velvet blazer at Nordstrom, I haven’t taken the girls to the places they’ve wanted to go, I haven’t followed through on playdates, and I haven’t planned an overnight with Sean.

I’d bet that we all have a whole trunk of not todays—some that we meant to get to and others we never gave a second thought.

Just last night I was saying to Sean, after he confessed to feeling some pretty negative things, “It’s so reliably relentless, the best we can do is to make a promise to ourselves that we’ll look for some measure of joy in every single day.”

He sat across from me weighing my words. I knew he was trying to decide if I was being Pollyanna or if this dawning we’ve been having is true—it never slows down, things don’t ease up and allow for cushion. We have to plant our feet wide and grit our teeth and commit to leaning into the onslaught in order to be able to say, “No, not today, because today I am doing this. Today I am saying yes to this thing and no to that.”

He heard me and we sat smiling at one another, in all honesty we may have stayed like that more out of exhaustion and a strange mix of acceptance and defeat, than in a desire to really be there.

I never realized that growing up or being a parent would involve so much effort to be in control of the flow of a day, or, if I’m being honest, of my life. In certain lights I can see the scale being tipped in the direction of, “Next time” and it isn’t how I want to live. I want to be present enough to say, “No, we are never doing that” or “Well, yes, we can’t do it right now, but let’s do it next week” and when they ask me if I promise, I want to be able to say that I really do promise.

We can do that for our kids, our spouses and ourselves. We are in complete control over the next times and one days. I’ve been watching my friend Kelly accelerate “one day” into “soon” and gloriously into, “It’s happening.” The thing I have learned through Kelly is that it isn’t an it that is happening, it’s me.

I am happening,

Choosing for myself.

Worthy of now, not next time.

MakeHistory

I am soaring by giving myself and the people I love right now. Sometimes that means doing something death defying or exerting and other times it means renting ridiculous rideable animals from a mall kiosk because the movie was sold out and why-not?

 

Mall

 

Don’t fall into the trap of next time. Say what you mean, live how you want to remember, and believe that you are in control.

 

*(thanks to the boy at the store who reminded me of this concrete truth)

 

 

Borrowing Words and Worries

Posted on July 20, 2016

Someone once said not to borrow trouble. I’m not sure who it was, but the sentiment makes a lot of sense. I went searching for a quote tonight. I thought I could find a quote to create a tidy little post, not too heavy, and not too revealing, but the perfect amount of “I’m struggling” and “I am learning everyone is struggling” and “let it be.”  I’ve wanted to write for a few days, but responsibilities, mood, and timing kept me from doing so.

Damned if I couldn’t find a single thing that didn’t seem lazy, trite, or just not right. The truth is, I am struggling, everyone has some sort of struggle or pain, and the best we can do is let it all be. No need to borrow, plagiarize, or mail it in. I have a great life with peripheral troubles that mostly can be managed. Every once in a while something is brought into focus that makes me think, “Holy shit, I’ve had it all wrong” or “Good grief, I didn’t know how good I had it” or “I am scared.”

The truth is I have no wisdom on this. I am doing that adult thing of being torn between terror and taking it minute by minute. No matter what, I know that the best things in life are being present (not in a judgey stay off your phone way, but in a screw-ten-pounds-from-now or until-I-have-blank-number-of-dollars-in-the-bank, what I have now is awesome kind of way) and acknowledging you can’t control everything.

Yeah, it’s cryptic, a quote would’ve been better. Instead you get me, fretting and yet completely in love with my girls and the way they dive in and then explode back into a moment.

I guess all I needed to do here tonight is say thank you for being with me and I am wishing you happiness in the moment you are in.

Swim

Too Fast to Track, Too Late to Hope?

Posted on July 8, 2016

Time is moving with little regard for my hopes or desires. The predictable chapters of dating, marriage, first house, first baby, jobs, deaths, second baby, then third baby blur, pages racing faster than I can read or write.

I didn’t imagine time would slow, but maybe I thought I could catch up to it.

I was going to sign my daughter up for dance, then it was too late.

“Most girls are already beyond intermediate, she’ll never catch up.”

I was going to create a plan for spring outings, but the season passed.

I was going to make dates with my daughters, my husband; I was going to go back to pilates.

I didn’t.

I haven’t.

Not sure that I will.

I’ve gone from saying, “I promise” to “I’ll try to look into that,” but it never happens. I get sucked into laundry, I peek at Twitter, I take on a commitment, I mend a stuffed animal. I look up and I have the wrong month on the calendar because I missed June ending.

 

It takes my breath away that we are more than halfway through Briar’s childhood; there was so much I was going to do and it’s too late.

 

I’ve started writing more about my experiences as a girl and a woman that don’t belong on a resume or suit dinner table conversation.

 

I was going to voice my support for Hillary Clinton earlier, but I worried about my business.

 

I was going to speak out against the calls to end NY SAFE act, but again I feared what it would do to business.

 

I was going to be a louder advocate for LGBTQ, but then I wondered if I did enough.

 

I was going to write about Black Lives Matter and I did, but not enough.

 

I was going to write about Alton Sterling, but I wasn’t sure what to say.

 

I was going to write about Philando Castile, but then Dallas happened.

 

Too late. Too little. Too hard.

The “too” of it all will silence you, daunt you into believing you could never make a difference. My chest feels heavy, my heart feels fluttery, and my cheeks flame as I read and listen to the words of black and white women raising black boys.

 

I fear swimming pools, date rape, and texting while driving for my girls.

 

Being shot in a park for looking dangerous? Never.

 

Getting roughed up for wearing the universal hoodie of the teen years? Not a chance.

 

Being too angry? Nope.

 

Too loud? Uh huh.

 

The most looming threats to my girls are that they’ll feel the need to be thinner, sexier, or more liked on social media. Sure, there’s workplace crap, misogyny, harassment, work life balance lies, but there is very little chance they will be killed for taking up space in the wrong way. Neither will my husband.

 

Yesterday morning I was sitting on my back deck sharing a post written by a local blogger about the increasing violence in our country. Briar sat beside me, clearly wanting to talk. My pull to finish the post was frantic. I gave her a just a minute and then another. She kept watching me. I thought about talking to her about Philando Castile or, more specifically, his girlfriend and 4 year old daughter. I shook my head, her eyebrows lifted in question.

 

I took a deep breath and set my computer aside.

 

“Honey, I haven’t been writing much lately and right this minute I have something I can share that, well, I just feel like I have to.”

 

She shrugged and smiled, “It’s ok, mama. I can wait.” I wanted to cry.

 

I took a deep breath and my voice shook. “Yesterday a man and a woman were driving, their four year old daughter was in the back seat. The family was black. A white police officer pulled them over because their tail light was out.” I scanned her face to make sure she was listening.

 

“When the police office asked for a driver’s license the man explained that he had a gun and that he had a permit to carry it.” She interrupted me.

 

“He had a gun?”

 

“Yes, but he had it legally. He had a permit, just like a fisherman would get to fish, that let’s him carry a gun. He told the officer that he was going to get his driver’s license.” Now as I explained this I didn’t talk about the fact that passengers in cars don’t usually have to provide their license. I didn’t explain that there is a phrase: Driving While Black. I stuck to the most basic of facts. “As he reached for his wallet the officer shot him.”

 

 

I didn’t tell her he still had his seat belt on. I didn’t explain that I had watched the Facebook video of the man’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds. I didn’t say that she couldn’t lay her hands on him and kiss his forehead. She couldn’t comfort her daughter. I just said, “He did nothing wrong and the bullets from the police man killed him. I almost stopped, but then I said, “The police officer never called anyone to help the man.”

 

 

She looked into the air, her face turning softly back and forth and her lips moving like she was trying to form words that would make sense from thin air.

 

 

“Mom, what is it though. Why? Why do they kill black men? Do black men look evil? Do they seem too strong to live?” She was moving her arms and searching my face expecting me to have something else to say, a way to make sense of people dying. She has been preoccupied with death and what it means, how to avoid it, what happens after we die, this new proposition that some people will lose their lives in such a way rocked her.

 

 

“For blackness?”

 

 

I swallowed. “Yes, for blackness. He was killed in front of his daughter and girlfriend. Gone forever. Are you ok? And are you ok if I share this?”

 

She nodded, her eyes welling, “You have to.”

 

I really don’t know where to go from here, I only know that I’m no longer going to be a victim to too.

 

There is no too late if we start now.

 

There is no too hard if you commit to trying.

 

There is no too hopeless if we refuse to give up hope.

 

I will never be black, but I will never be silent again.

 

 

 

Young Guns

Posted on June 22, 2016

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As we walked through the furniture store Finley lagged behind. I slowed my gait and listened for her, wanting to allow her the feeling of being able to go at her own pace, while also staying close enough that I didn’t lose her.

 

Sean and I were discussing chair colors when I saw her leaning against the wall, her lower lip was trembling. I walked over to her.

 

“What’s up, babe?”

 

She shook her head and bit her lip. I knelt down, “You ok?”

 

She shook her head. “What is it?”

 

“I was standing in the store and there was a bunny or a squirrel with a gun in its hand pointed at me,” she started to cry. We walked over to the creature, which was indeed a taxidermy squirrel with a mini-shotgun in its claw. I whispered, “I think that’s kind of awful. I understand how you felt. That one isn’t going to hurt you, but I am glad it made you uncomfortable. Trust that instinct.”

 

We are vehemently anti-gun in our house. I respect the right of others to have guns, but playdate planning begins with, “Do you keep guns in your home?” I haven’t had anyone answer yes, but my plan if they do is to say that we’d be happy to host a playdate, but that our kids won’t be playing in a house with guns. It is a strong position, but it’s one on which I won’t budge.

 

We’ve talked with the girls about what to do if someone offers to show them a gun. Say a cheerful but firm, “No thanks” and what to do if someone goes to get a gun: Leave. We also went over what to do if someone shows them a gun, say “I can’t be around guns” and then leave. My mom’s cousin was shot dead in the back by her boyfriend. I was at a house party where my date’s “best friend” pinned him to the ground with his foot and held a shotgun to his head. When I can, I don’t want to leave room for doubt.

 

Guns are becoming a part of our day-to-day life that I cannot control. The political discussions online immediately spiral into name-calling, politicians seem bound by scripts that are immune to outside input, and people keep dying.

 

Ever since Newtown it has gotten harder and harder to know which news stories to talk to the girls about and which to let go by as “too much too soon.” More often than I would have imagined the girls come home having heard about something I didn’t talk to them about, from ISIS to the Zika virus. I have no problem with them hearing about the world we live in, the part that troubles me is when someone else frames the story for them; Donald Trump is a perfect example.

 

“People say he tells that truth,” they said, “And that Hillary is mouthy.”

 

“I saw a bumper sticker that said, ‘Trump that bitch’. How is it ok to swear for politics?”

 

Other times I ask if they have heard about police brutality or white supremacy and they look at me blankly, those headlines not even a ripple in the conversations at school.

 

We don’t have it figured out, but we do have issues that for our family are important. Lately we’ve talked a lot about women’s rights and gun control, and when it comes to gay rights we always talk with them. Three years ago we were preparing for their Nana’s wedding. The girls were brimming with excitement as they prepared to sing, “Marry Me” and plotted the colorful bracelets they would wear.

 

“You can be flower girls and you can wear fancy dresses,” we said laughing. “One more thing girls, we are all happy about this, but not everyone thinks it’s ok for two women to get married. If you ever have questions or if someone says something mean, you can talk to us.”

 

I felt funny telling the girls not everyone believed in marriage equality, but I didn’t want them to be caught off guard. I believe that a part of our responsibility in raising informed and compassionate human beings is to illuminate the full range of opinions on subjects. The wedding was a beautiful affair, full of joy and acceptance, but there was the tiniest tickle of a held breath. Being gay is not safe, acceptance, or even tolerance, isn’t promised, and there is still so much hate.

 

I explained to the girls what happened in Orlando. “The other night a lot of people went to a place to dance. It’s a place where gay people can go and dance with each other.”

 

“Girl gays or boy gays?” they asked.

 

I stammered, “I think mostly men, but women too.” They nodded, ready to hear more.

 

“A man went to this place and he killed 50 people. There are 53 more who are very badly hurt,” I said as I scanned their faces.

 

“Why?”

 

“Because the people were gay. He didn’t think they deserved to be alive.”

 

“He killed them for being gay?”

 

“Yes,” I said.

 

The girls were silent until Briar said, “Nana and Jeannie?”

 

Finley said, “Did he kill them?”

 

“No,” I said.

 

“Will they? Will somebody kill them for loving each other?” Finley asked.

 

“No. I don’t think so, but what I need you to know is that there are people who hate. I am sad, but I am happiest that we don’t hate in this family.”

 

Briar tilted her head, “How old was the man? The man who killed them?”

 

“29.”

 

“That is such a waste. I remember when I was like 4 and we were going to Deb’s house and you told me about the two men loving each other. I was confused, I was thinking ‘two men?” but now I am almost 12 and I know gay is ok. I mean he should know by 29 how to understand it. You can’t kill it. I mean, he killed them, but he didn’t kill gayness. You can’t kill love,” she explained.

 

I had nothing to add. I just nodded. After a few minutes I said, “I don’t know what you’ll hear at school tomorrow. You don’t have to talk to anyone and if you have any questions you can ask me. I do want you to know that there are good people too. Right now there are lines of people who don’t hate gay people and they are lining up to give blood.”

 

Finley said, “Why would they give blood?” Sean and I explained that when people lose blood they need it replaced.

 

“Will you give blood?” she asked me.

 

“I just might,” I said.

 

“Can I love all the gay people without giving blood?” Finley asked. We chuckled softly.

 

“You’re too young to give blood.”

 

“Not too young to love gay people and really, really not like people who kill.” She nodded her head and looked at us.

What do you say to that? She was right.

 

We try to define right and wrong without bias, but inevitably it is there; I hope that I err on the side of compassion. We strive to send our girls out into that world with the message that hate is not an answer, love is not a crime, disagreeing doesn’t mean killing, and that ultimately reason will triumph.

 

I didn’t know what to say to them when the US Senate failed to agree that exploring the way we regulate guns isn’t something they were willing to do.

 

“But why? We all have rules. What are they doing instead?” I had no answer.

 

Hours ago Democrats staged a sit-in on the House of Representatives floor demanding a vote on gun control. They were called “childish” by some for “halting the political process.” Representative John Lewis, one of the organizers, said, “By sitting down we are really standing up for the very best in American tradition.”

 

As I try to explain our world to the girls, I can’t help but think that demanding that our elected officials do everything in their power to ensure that Americans are as safe as they can be is the most important thing.

 

I believe the right to feel safe does not belong solely to people who feel safer with guns. There must be a middle ground.

 

I will continue to demand that families like mine have a voice in the gun debate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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