Carefully considered thanks.

It's Mother's Day in a minute, and searching the racks of cards for the occasion got me wondering who so many of the cards are for? The cards that address a woman who has both given birth to the card-giver and become their best friend. Or the cards that suggest their mother was their inspiration for absolutely everything. 

I love my mother. Seriously, I do. And we are people who live differently from one another in ways that make the best friend and nexus-of-inspiration things unimaginable. The feelings I have when I look at these racks of cards is similar to the one I have when I look too long at Instagram. I find myself imagining a "better" picture of various pieces of my life, thinking about the ways it didn't go for me and the things I didn't get (like that best friend mom). Yes, I am aware of all the blank cards out there and the ones that simply say "Happy Mother's Day," but the rub here is more that I don't see my experience reflected on the racks. So when I saw a card that said, "Thanks for helping me grow," it felt like the ideal opening for thanking my mother for something I did get from her.

I suppose the cards wouldn't bother me if I weren't a stickler about only saying things I honestly mean, and I am particularly serious about this practice of truthfulness in my written correspondence. In that way, I approach Mother's Day cards with a wanting to be adoring and honest which proves trickier than it seems it should. Some of you may think I'm being overly earnest about a Hallmark holiday, but I can explain. The past 18 months I've been preoccupied with conversations about women's rights, feminism, and–in my little corner of the world–menopause. I've been marching for women, donating to Planned Parenthood, and penning a guidebook for women curious about menopause. All of these things have coalesced around the question of what does it mean to me to be a woman. Considering this question has made me think about being a mother (often women are defined by their reproductive potential), which I did not opt to do, and that makes me think a lot about my mother...

Let me begin by saying that my mother enjoys being around kids, they crack her up and seem to renew her sense of optimism and wonder. I believe she would have loved to have grandchildren. And yet, for as long as I can remember being aware of the possibility that I could get pregnant, that awareness is accompanied by memories of my mother saying that if I ever did get pregnant and did not want the baby, that I should have an abortion or give the baby up for adoption. I even remember her explicitly saying that she would never want my sister or me to have children for her.

As a result, I grew up with the worldview that a woman's choice to have or not have children was hers and only hers. Thank You, Mom.

My sister and I were conditioned to believe that we should not have children if we didn't want them. That may not sound like much, but we're talking about children here, not popsicles. No one gives a shit if I do or don't have a popsicle, but I've noticed people do seem to be invested in whether or not I have a baby. "You don't have both feet in life until you have kids, " one male colleague said to me. "Oh, but you would be such a great mother," is something I've heard from a number of people. Then there's my favorite, "I'd just hate for you to regret not having them." (Thanks?) And these are just the people talking directly to me, never mind the pervasive cultural programming that presumes kids is where I'm headed or have already been.

In encouraging me to make a choice that was right and true for me about having children, my mom let me know that I was not on the hook in any way for her getting what she wanted. It feels important to point out that this feeling of not letting her down didn't spread across all areas of my life. My mother expressed distaste for plenty of decisions I made–fair enough. In some of these instances I suspected that she hoped her upset might cause me to reconsider my choices like when I traveled to faraway places or moved across the country. There were the requisite 'I told you so' moments about boyfriends she never liked or jobs she didn't understand. BUT, never so much as a peep about me becoming a mother. Never. Not even once I was married. And not even when my husband and I were living in a three-bedroom home in a residential neighborhood. I find this amazing and even somewhat refreshing. 

I have only been inspired to look deeply into the question of why I don't want children a handful of times. None of those inquiries yielded anything juicier than a simple, "I just know that I don't." NPR talk show host Terry Gross once said that she and her husband never felt called to have children and that kind of sums it up for me too. No one is more surprised than me, being the infinitely curious person I am that I've been willing to let this inquiry rest in relative ambiguity. I credit my mother for this. She set me up to confidently make a decision for myself in an area of my life where women rarely feel free from expectations. I am sad that my mom didn't get to be a grandmother and I don't feel the guilt of responsibility for that reality. This paradox strikes me as nothing short of miraculous.

I did not decide to have children–I'm thankful I live in a time and place where that's an available choice–but I did decide to love and relate to people in my life in the way my mom related to me about having kids. Freedom as a foundational value in relationships is a concept I first learned from her. In my marriage, this looks like me being more committed to my husband and I being our full selves than to our relationship staying the same (or even intact) forever. In my professional life, this has looked like me repeatedly telling employees that the only way they could disappoint me would be to keep working for me after they no longer wanted to. And with friends, this looks like me being supportive even when what they're doing is sad or confusing to me, like moving to a faraway place or in a radical direction. 

Relationships, where people love one another in this way, are the most generous and stable relationships I know. Selfless and selfish at once, the happiness or dissatisfaction of one partner in the relationship never rests on the shoulders of the other. In this way, though my mother wasn't my inspiration for everything nor my best friend, she was my inspiration for my best relationships. And that is a message I hope to find in a Mother's Day card someday–for myself, of course–and also because that card's existence would let me know that my sister and I aren't the only ones lucky enough to have a mom like ours.

#youtoo?

A companion experience to the #metoo movement is the steady thrum of surprising and disappointing news I hear about men, whose work I like and admire or who I just like personally, being accused of sexual misconduct. I am angry. I am frustrated. And I am also more than a little bit afraid of the potential this has to make me distrustful of all men.

Recently I read "You Don't Have to Say You Love Me", and like a number of other works by author Sherman Alexie, this memoir was something I read and loved so much that I couldn't resist telling everyone who crossed my path about it. It has all of my favorite things: incredible storytelling that gets straight to the heart of things, humor, poetry I can understand, and gorgeous writing. 

I was excited to share an interview he did on Fresh Air. When I went looking for the link to that interview last week I found something else entirely. Sherman Alexie has been accused by multiple women–10 who spoke with NPR alone, 3 on the record–of sexual misconduct ranging from inappropriate comments to non-consensual physical contact. 

Learning this news, my shoulders migrated up towards my ears and my back hunched as I leaned into the screen. Until I read those accounts in detail and Alexie's own statement that, "there are women telling the truth," I felt utter disbelief at the idea that someone, like Alexie, who had personally experienced–and could so thoroughly explore in his writing–the pain and suffering caused by neglect and abuse of power, could inflict this precise harm upon another person. On some level this news made me doubt my ability to accurately assess trustworthiness.

Like so many others, I can relate to the shock, anger, and disappointment expressed by the women speaking out about Alexie's behavior because I have had experiences of unwanted attention and advances by men in personal and professional contexts. I've read many accounts from the #metoo movement (and before it too) that made me outraged but this one touched a specific nerve. This man felt like someone I knew. His writing opened my eyes to contemporary experiences of some Native Americans and to a sense of humor with unimaginable tenderness considering the deep pain and trauma of its origins. 

I spent a few days debating whether I still want to recommend this book. Ultimately I do and here's why. We won't change the mechanisms of abuse by removing evidence of the abusers. It felt weirder to me to not say something about this book because it seemed like I was tangentially being shamed by his actions. As if it meant something bad about me that I had enjoyed a book written by a man who has been abusive to women. 

While there is a part of me that's glad I read this book before I knew about Alexie's behavior, there's another part that's curious to read it again and see how it lands differently. There are so many incredible books to read, even just within the category of memoir, that I would understand if you just decided to steer clear of this one altogether.

But I do wonder if maybe our best path forward in this deluge of stories about abusers is one of listening and curiosity?  (but then, I pretty much always feel that's the best path forward.) Until we understand and openly discuss what leads an abuser to abuse, I am doubtful we will see less of it in our society. 

Perspective

Perspective is something we often desperately want. Unfortunately, as our desire for perspective increases, it usually becomes more difficult to access. Why is it like this? In order to have a shot at a fresh perspective you need to get some distance between you and the thing you're trying to get perspective on. In other words, you have to take your sticky little fingers off the thing and walk away for a period of time that’s often longer than you're comfortable with.

The more something--job, relationship, project--matters to you, the harder it is to convince yourself that you can set it down for any period of time. The stakes are high, right? If you walk away you might lose the thing, the thing might fall apart (or worse, it might do just fine without you), or you might find that you don't want to go back to them. Those are just a handful of the frightening possibilities.

AND YET, until you put it down and allow for some space, you won’t know.

You won’t know either the scary thing or the beautiful thing (or both!) that might happen if given the opportunity.

I was reminded of this very recently as Michael and I just spent two weeks in Japan. Not only was Japan too far away for me to be of any help should anyone have needed me, but it was also so foreign that the parts of my brain and personality that are used to running the show were swiftly relocated to the back seat. While it seems that going somewhere this challenging would mean that I would return home exhausted, I didn’t. Instead, for the first time in years—maybe even a decade—I feel like I have access to an internal source of energy that has been in hibernation for a long, long time.

I tend to forget that when I’m tired and worn out I don’t make great decisions. That can look like overcommitting or overindulging but ultimately both of these happen because I give up a little on the person I really want to be or the life I want to have because I’m exhausted. I know a lot of people who feel particularly exhausted these days and I encourage any of you who do to take an actual break which could look like two weeks in a confusing country or an afternoon of ambling around in your neighborhood or the woods--the Japanese call this Shinrin-yoku or "forest bathing"-- with no specific goal in mind other than to notice what’s around you. They both work!

Knots, Hope, & You

A dear friend gave Michael and I a book about knots as a wedding gift. It was something that I loved seeing on the shelf but hadn’t taken time to open up and explore until one morning five years ago when I found myself sitting on the floor by the bookshelf and indulged my curiosity.

The introduction stopped me in my tracks:
"Anyone can tie a knot or two...or the 100 (and more) contained in this book. If you cannot, it is merely because you have not yet learned to do so. For knotting is one of those basic skills, like the ability to swim or read a map, that is accessible to all who choose to acquire them and separates self-sufficient and confident folk from the rest."

This passage delighted me. I read it as riotously optimistic about our capacity for learning, and scathing in its critique of our hopeful tendencies. I decided in that moment that hope was lame; that choosing hope was like getting into bed with expectation—a risky bedfellow. Not surprisingly, I also decided that practice was the bomb; the thing that could carry us, by way of repeatedly doing and iterating, through even the most complicated of passages.

My belief about practice has held up, less because of its connection to doing (though that’s still my go-to solution for most things) but more because of the implied repetition which further implies a cultivation of patience and relationship. Practice is inherently not immediate, and I also know that through practice we can encounter ourselves in deep and meaningful ways; it is an ongoing negotiation between our expectations and reality.

Hope, on the other hand, remained at the bottom of the conceptual barrel for me until quite recently when I read an essay by Rebecca Solnit in her small book titled “Hope in the Dark” which was originally published in 2006 and republished in 2015 with minor additions. This is the opening paragraph:

On January 18, 1915, six months into the First World War, as all Europe was convulsed by killing and dying, Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” Dark, she seems to be saying, as inscrutable, not as in terrible. We often mistake one for the other. Or we transform the future’s unknowability into something certain, the fulfillment of all our dread, the place beyond which there is no way forward. But again and again, far stranger things happen than the end of the world.

Solnit argues that hope is, “…an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things you can know beforehand. You may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone."

After sitting with this, hope has been re-cast in my mind as a critical and sorely misunderstood tool of humanity. It is antithetical to our culture of certainty and prediction to not only embrace uncertainty but to mine it as a source for inspiration as she is suggesting.

Am I about to tell you to celebrate the darkness, to live in the mystery? Yes. (spare me the eye rolling). But I am not advocating for uncertainty alone; we must balance it with practice. If hope represents the sky—impossible to touch or directly experience but through some conceptual understanding of its existence and infiniteness—then practice is the ground—the thing you can touch and trust and know intimately day to day. The place in between or rather the intersection of the two is the place where the growth of something as magnificent as a giant sequoia or a revolution is possible—who could have imagined that?

I talk to a lot of people who are freaked out about changes, proposed or happening, in our country. I think this is a conversation that could benefit tremendously from these principles of hope and practice. If you are feeling twitchy, rage-y or resigned, I share these reflections as a way of inviting you to develop a practice of civic participation for yourself. I don’t care what it is so long as it is something you engage with at regular intervals, something that you can sustain over the long haul (think eternity), and something that you feel connected to.

Maybe that looks like educating yourself.
Maybe it looks like tithing--contributing a set amount at regular intervals to organizations doing work that is meaningful to you.
Maybe it looks like volunteering monthly to repair forest trails, feed the hungry, or teach English and offer warm smiles of welcome and encouragement to recently arrived refugees.

You get to choose the piece of darkness where you'll practice the hopeful art of illumination.