You've Got to Stand for Something, Right?

I have been thinking a lot about the recent church killings. I have been thinking a lot about religion and its role in our world and how some of us use it to guide our every word and deed. I have been thinking about how our Supreme Court just made marriage legal for all people and I have been thinking about how I do not have a single black friend. I have been thinking about some painful family experiences and I have been thinking about the moments of grace I have been given and I have been thinking about how someone wrote, "I don't believe in gay marriage" as if that would do away with the fact that it is. I have been thinking about what I do and don't believe. I do believe in kindness and love and yet I also believe that I lug around anger and hate inside of me like an overstuffed backpack I constantly forget to take off. I have been thinking of how, despite the mass of imperfections we humans carry inside ourselves, we still find ways to make beauty and art and love and joy a part of our lives. I have been thinking that so much of what we do and say is a choice and with those choices comes a responsibility. I have been thinking about how the very best we can hope for is forgiveness when we fail because we humans so often fail.

I am a person who thinks about her story and how I have written it and how I have gotten it wrong in my own telling. I am thinking of how much one single action can change a story. Yesterday, this was true and today it is not.

I have been thinking that if we harnessed the power of our minds in conjunction with the capacity of our hearts to love we reallyreallyreally could move the mountains of people who cannot be moved from their place of THIS.IS.THE.TRUTH to their willingness to ask others, what is your truth?

I know I cannot move or change those who do not wish for it to happen. I know I cannot be rude and unkind and angry and mislead and judgemental and biased unless I allow for it to happen.

The truth is I have feelings and they change because I allow them to change. 

The truth is I can do as much as I dare. I can be half-empty or half-full and that choice is always mine. I can let religion dictate me or free me. I can let hate motivate me or paralyze me. I can let the world be or I can jump in and participate and act and talk and dream and question and question and question until it seems we are getting somewhere, at a snail's pace, toward an answer, towards a glimmer of imperfect hope.

The truth is never one thing or another. The truth is never just yours or just mine. The truth, I think, is constantly evolving and we have to evolve with it.

There is some annoying country song, which played all too often in the late 80's as I cruised the rural roads of northwest in Iowa. In it there was a line I could never quite shake. "You've got to stand for something or you'll fall for anything."  I used to wonder about what I stood for. I'd think about the rural economy because my dad was a farmer, and I'd think about Aids and gay people because when it was discussed, there was fear in people's voices, disdain in their look, an overwhelming "I do not accept this" attitude that ricocheted around their very being. How do people simply say I DO NOT ACCEPT THIS when something so clearly is? I'd think about the rural south because I'd read Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and wonder how a book written by a mute black girl who came of age in the late 40's and early 50's s could have such a profound effect on my world. I'd think about white my world was and how the racial slurs spoken in my family made me cringe.

There is so much out there that clearly is whether I stand for it or accept it or say I am for or against it. To say I don't believe in gay marriage. To say I do not condone gun violence. To say I am for this or not that when it is happening anyway and will continue to happen no matter the law or my personal beliefs....I do not understand how to work within this framework of “I stand for this and I don't stand for that” because the evidence suggests that it will happen anyway.

What I do understand is that I grew up in a white rural community inside a family with an alcoholic brother. What I do understand is that my parents did the best they could with what they had. What I do understand is that love can be messy and weird and complicated and also pure and honest and true. What I do understand is that I must dig deeper into not what I stand for, but what I believe will make the world more kind and loving and open and safe for as many of us as possible. I have to look for what we all agree on and it would seem that this a simple and universal truth:  there is pain and suffering in this world. There are people who live on the fringes and are barely hanging on for any number of reasons. And there are those of us who long to use our voices and our experiences so we can simply say, "We have to stop hurting each other. I don't care at all what you stand for or against. What I care about is that we stop hurting each other."

We don't have to debate gun control or equality or fairness. We don’t have to rehash every single sordid detail of our painful past. In order to move forward we have to simply start with, “It happened. I am sorry. I am human. You are human. We are woefully imperfect and we will hurt each other over and over again until we have the courage to sit face to face and say, Can we stop this? How can we stop this?”  

I am not Pollyanna. I am not a dreamer or a pie-in-the-sky thinker. I am real and hurt and confounded along with everyone else. But I also believe we can right so many wrongs if we could just sit next to each other and talk and hold each other’s hand and listen and create a shared space for all the pain in our hearts. It seems to be the only way to make room for the healing to begin.

And if we never start, we will never know if we are capable of making this world, our world, our lives, better.

I really want to know, don’t you?

A worthy pest.

"So," said Thing 2 after hearing the frustration creep into my voice yet again, "how can you love me and not my actions? I don't get that. If I were a serial killer and just plain evil, would you still love me?"

He was getting a little silly and unfocused as I had announced his need to get ready for bed, and I could not hide my annoyance.

Thing 2 likes to take me down the road of what-ifs.  At first it seems like maybe he's just delaying the inevitable (bed), but we have these types of conversations frequently at any time of day so I know my kid. He's trying to work out his worth. 

This year in middle school has found him observing that athletes are cool and kids who do well in every single class get awards. He finds himself lacking in these areas called out in our typical culture. The other night he was worried, at age 11, that he's not good at anything. I suggested that most people aren't good at much at age 11, but that is not what he sees. He sees kids with natural abilities in this or that and they get praise for it. 

So I went on to tell him that I knew his record within our family. I knew that he was funny, creative, and thoughtful. I had confidence in who he was and who he would become. I also told him the only person who could make him feel good or bad about himself was him. However, his pest-like behavior before bed was just plain annoying. I told him that I got cranky, sometimes yelled, often made mistakes, but I guessed he still felt like he loved me. He knew my record. I was there for him no matter what. Neither of us, so far, were serial killers.

He nodded his head, stepped off the pestulance train, and headed to bed.

But it made me wonder a lot about how we communicate in our culture to our youngest citizens that they have to perform at certain level to be worthy of love and attention and that mistakes undercut your worth.

Taken in this context, it's not so hard to understand my guy's confusion.

I guess I don't want Thing 2 to think he has to be anything more than he already is. I want him to know that being human means making mistakes and real love is not fragile. It is solid and deep and enduring and within it contains an endless well of forgiveness. I want him to know his value comes from simply being who he already is. I want to teach him at a much earlier age than I learned myself that he's good. Now. He and I get easily frustrated by the world- it screams at us to do more and be better. I really want to re-write the song that seems to be playing in his head and offer him a short-cut to peace. 

But real life has no short cuts, right?

Parents often want  to prevent their kids from making the same mistakes we made. We want to give them opportunities and lessons we did not have and yet I wonder if this simply derails our kids from taking the very journey they are meant to be on. Can we really make things easier? And should we?

I have no answers, but I know Thing 2 will have more questions and I will be there. That's for sure.

All The Light We Cannot Seee: Parenting in the Dark

From "All The Light We Cannot See" by Anthony Doerr

    There has always been a sliver of panic in him, deeply buried, when it comes to his daughter: a fear that he is not good as a father, that he is doing everything wrong. That he never quite understood the rules. All those Parisian mothers pushing buggies through the Jardin des Plantes or holding up cardigans in department stores-- it seemed to him that those women nodded to each other as they passed, as though each possessed some secret knowledge that he did not. How do you ever know for certain that you are doing the right thing?

    There is pride, too, though--pride that he has done it alone. That his daughter is so curious, so resilient. There is the humility of being a father to someone so powerful, as if he were only a narrow conduit for another, greater thing. That's how it feels right now, he thinks, kneeling beside her, rinsing her hair: as though his love for his daughter will outstrip the limits of his body. The walls could fall away, even the whole city, and the brightness of that feeling would not wane.

I have been reading this book for some time. I can't help it; I read fast and then slow down because I don't want it to end. Set during the time when Germany occupies France, it's told mainly from the point of view of two characters who are observant in different ways. One is a blind French girl and the other is a German boy facninated with machines, particularly radio waves. Each character is attuned to the natural world in different ways. So real and so full of life despite evidence to the contrary, the book is really hard to stop reading. Though you know it can't end well, it certainly does not stop you from hoping. 

But the above passage did stop me because I have been turning over these two ideas in my head for quite some time.

Panic is something most parents feel if they are honest with themselves. So much of parenting is good intentions set up inside a crapshoot. Combine this with books and articles and recommendations from the world wide web, we can get locked out of tapping into our own gut for fear of doing the wrong thing. And yet this single dad living during WWII is expressing the very same fears simply from observing those who seem to know something he does not. 

I often look back to my park days, days that seemed so long. I'd spy happy moms and dads pushing swings, playing, always pulling out just the right thing when they needed it- a bottle of water, a snack, a band-aid. I never had the right thing. I thought so many times that other parents aways seemed to be wearing  an "I got this" look, but really who gets it?

The narrator was preparing to leave his daughter. He suspects he may not see her again, and he is wondering--have I done enough? have I done it right? Yet he feels enormous pride for who she is now. He thinks, I have done what I could and she is astounding. 

I have been pondering this myself. Now is the time of year where pride is on full display . My Facebook feed is ripe with soccer trophies, spelling bee awards, prom poses, academic achievments, graduation announcements, scholarship claims. This makes me think of what makes my heart swell. So often it feels like whenever my kids reveal to me little bit of who they may become, it has little to do with me. Pride feels like the wrong word--how can I possibly take credit when it seems so evident that I have very little control. I have joy in their discoveries and I watch with interest in how they develop. Of course I  try to pay attention and capitalize, but in end they are individuals who will eventually determine their own path. What I think I do is provide love and a safety net. Yes, you can practice getting mad or skulking in your room. You can make mistakes and you can try again and fail again and here I am still just loving you. I think about my son's insistence about understanding a situation clearly, his line of questioning to suss out details, his literality, his astute assessments of the people that often has me calculating his age, his ability to accurately interpret a person's mood simply by the tone of their voice. Or my daughter's dogged determination, her homework completed on Friday night, her up late and rising early to get it done. Or how she GLOWED like a blushing bride upon her trip to Japan, a trip I had no part of. Her once fluttering wings now seem to be beating madly- explore! Let me explore!  These kids are part of the same family and yet their desires and how they approach the world is  radically different. Often, I just feel like dumb luck landed in my lap, an opportunity to raise two children- each calling on different reserves in the parenting arsenal. Do I have pride? I struggle with that word- it suggests I have influence. I think, in the trenches, it never feels like I have influence. It feels like a battle every single day. And then when I sit back and do my own observing I see that maybe, somehow, some molecule of my most secret hopes and dreams has dripped into a small part of them and I see, yes! You are mine and I had some part of this person you are becoming.

I don't know, really.

What I do know is that when I read this passage, I was struck by the need we have to unravel how we feel about our parenting. Fiction writers create characters to explore the heartwrenching nuances of how to care best (what is best? is there even a best?) for a child. I don't know who or what inspired the father in Doerr's book. Maybe this father is compilation of life and imagined experience. In the end it doesn't matter because when I read those words, I knew those exact feelings.

This is the polar opposite of parenting, a place where I often feel like I don't know. After carrying tiny seedlings of doubt for so long, they start to feel like old friends, part and parcel of the course. When a blossoming occurs, when my kid reveals his or her character and passion and humanity, I am dumbstruck by my good fortune for simply being allowed this front and center seat. For a full minute, maybe, I feel pride but it is quickly replaced with love which is settled, constant, deep.  

It strikes me that the title of this book can be a metaphor for parenting:  we cannot always see what will become and so we wait and weather the latest storm knowing, trusting, believing the light will come even if it has yet to reveal itself.