Category Archives: perspective

The Difference Between Like and Respect

I was having dinner on a friend’s deck with a group of like-minded women when we got the news: Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.

We all reacted differently even though I’m certain we were all feeling the same way. One of us burst into tears. Another just sat silent while a third stood up and started clearing dishes. Me? I cussed. I cussed because Notorious RBG was a role model and a heroine. I cussed because I know what is at stake. And I cussed because some people I know will see her death more as an opportunity than a reason to  mourn.

The following words are for those people: I may like you, but I can’t respect you.

I like you because we might laugh together or share common interests or talk about our children.

But I can’t respect you because your vision of what our country’s future holds for those children isn’t one of diversity and inclusion and equality.

I can’t respect you because you believe your narrow definition of Christianity is the only legitimate religion.

I can’t respect you because you can’t discern the difference between journalism, opinion pieces and fake news.

I can’t respect you because you share information on social media that validates your opinion even if when the information is a complete lie.

I can’t respect you because you support political candidates and listen to pundits who claim that liberals aren’t real Christians.

I can’t respect you because you are a one-or two-issue voter who makes decisions at the ballot box based on dogma rather than on the scope and impact of a variety of policies on people’s day-to-day lives.

I can’t respect you because no matter how many times someone has tried to explain the difference between “gun control” and “taking away your guns,” you choose to listen to propaganda from the NRA,

I can’t respect you because you are voting for politicians who care about money more than they care about the well-being of people.

I can’t respect you because you think patriotism is marked by saluting a flag rather than by honoring the first  amendment.

I can’t respect you because you throw around the word socialism when what you are really saying is that you don’t want your tax dollars being used to provide services for people you have decided are “undeserving.”

And most of all, I can’t respect you because you are supporting politicians who have shown general disrespect and even criminal behavior toward women.

I know these words will offend some of you, and now you probably won’t respect me. I don’t care.

I’m 53 years old, and I’ve fought hard to become a strong, opinionated woman who cares about minorities and immigrants and the poor and people of different faiths.

I’m writing this because even though there are a lot of people I don’t respect right now, I couldn’t respect myself if I left these words unsaid.

Also, I’m fairly confident that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would approve.

The Experiment

When I was about five years old, my mother pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter so I could watch what she was doing.

She got a soup bowl out of one cupboard and a container of cornstarch out of another.

“We are going to do a science experiment,” she explained.

She poured the cornstarch into the bowl then slowly added water. When the mixture was exactly the texture she wanted, she told me “stick your finger in until it touches the bottom of the bowl.”

I tried, but the mixture was solid, and my finger didn’t even dent it.

“I can’t,” I said.

“Yes you can, ” she replied. “Try again.”

I poked at it again with the same results.

“It doesn’t work,” I complained.

“Yes it does. Look.” she said as she put her finger in the bowl. I watch in amazement as what had felt like a rock to me oozed around her finger.

She removed her finger and told me to try again. I did and was once again met with resistance.

“Don’t poke it. Instead just lightly touch it.”

I followed her instructions and was delighted when my finger began to sink into  a gooey substance.

I don’t remember if my mom talked about the science behind our experiment, but apparently it had a lasting impact as I’ve been thinking about it recently.

From an early age, my approach to dealing with problems has never been subtle. I’ve been called blunt,  forthright and outspoken. I’ve taken in pride in the fact that I always let people know where I stand and, most of the time, exactly what I’m thinking. I’m not good at quietly expressing my thoughts and then letting them soak in while I patiently wait for a response. As my husband knows, when I don’t get a response, I keeping poking until I get one.

Generally, that works, but sometimes it doesn’t.  Recently, I’m not only getting resistance when I make a stab at addressing a situation, I feel as though every effort is bouncing back and bruising me. I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about that experiment at the kitchen counter with my mother more than 45 years ago.

Maybe my mom was attempting to tell me that sometimes you have to stop trying so hard to make something happen and  just need to let the situation unfold. In some circumstances, that may be the right approach.

But here is my other take away from that long ago experiment: when you let things rest and happen at their own pace sometimes all you get is covered in muck.

History tells us that change only happens when people are willing to poke their fingers at the problems and keep poking until they make cracks.

I don’t need muck. I need change.

And Now For Another Lie

When I was growing up, my mom baked a cherry pie every February in honor of George Washington’s birthday. The tradition was tied to the story about how, as a child, the first President of the United States chopped a cherry tree with his new hatchet. When his angry father confronted him, young George admitted what he had done because he couldn’t tell a lie.

The story was the basis of many elementary school lessons, and only as an adult did I learn that the story of the cherry tree was itself a lie. Author Mason Locke Weems added it, along with other heartwarming stories, to the fifth edition of his book The Life of Washington. Historians believe that Weems included the story to make Washington a virtuous role model that could influence the behavior of children.

He wasn’t alone. The history I learned in school almost always portrayed honorable men who built a perfect country on unquestionable values. In truth, the men were imperfect humans who built this country on the backs of others.

But for more than a century, history was written by people like Parson Weems, who wanted to shape it into a tool that could be used to control what people believed, and therefore how they behaved.

My elementary school classmates and I were taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. We used crayons to color pictures of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria while reciting “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” No one taught us about the genocide he perpetrated on the people of Haiti.

In Junior High, I had to memorize the presidents of the United States and their accomplishments.  I was taught that Andrew Jackson was the seventh president, was nicknamed “Old Hickory” and founded the Democratic Party. I was an adult before I learned how he abused his power to remove Native Americans from their homes and was  responsible for what is now known as the Trail of Tears.

In high school, the lessons about World War II covered how America helped defeat Germany and end the Holocaust. There was never any mention about the Japanese internment camps on U.S. soil.

For the most part, what I was taught was factual. It just wasn’t truthful. America may have been established on the principles of equality and freedom, but those principles only applied to white men. When the south tried to leave the United States to preserve slavery and its economy, the Confederate message was clear: equality and freedom weren’t the most important values; power and money were.

As a nation, we are still struggling with those conflicting values.

On Thursday as I was leaving work, a pickup truck stopped in front of my office. A large confederate flag with the handwritten words ‘heritage not hate” was flying from the back. I winced.  I wanted to stop and ask what heritage meant to the driver, but I knew that would be pointless.

Some people think they have to hold on to relics of the past to justify their belief system.

Instead, we need to distinguish between erasing the past and learning from it.

We can still eat cherry pie on Washington’s birthday because we like eating cherry pie. We just shouldn’t eat it because we think it makes us more patriotic. Taking care of each other and honoring our true history is the only way to do that.

The Racist In Me

My kindergarten school picture

Nearly fifty years later, I don’t clearly remember my first day of kindergarten, but I know I was miserable and complained that I didn’t fit in.

What I really meant was that I was the only white student in my class.

That didn’t last long.

On the second day of kindergarten,  Mike Donahue switched classes and joined mine.

I have a few other memories from that year: sitting on the floor at the feet of an elderly tribe member who taught us her native language; participating in the annual root feast; wearing the wing dress my mom had sewn, and being chased and taunted when I was walking home from school. My tormentors, a group of older children, told me I didn’t belong and I needed to move off of the reservation.

The next year I did. I started first grade in a classroom full of white students like me.

When I was younger, I used to tell people that, because of those experiences, I knew what being a minority felt like and that I had experienced discrimination.

I didn’t and I hadn’t.

When I complained about being the only student with my skin color, my white, well-educated parents stepped in to ensure I had a friend in my class. When I lived in a place with a very different heritage than mine, my professional parents bought a house elsewhere among people with similar backgrounds.

In other words, what I actually experienced as a child was white privilege.

I’m still experiencing it.

I guarantee that no one has ever clutched their purse a bit tighter when they’ve seen me in a  parking garage. No one has ever called the police because I look suspicious when I’m walking my dog in their neighborhood. I’ve never been patted down or had my car searched when I’ve been stopped for speeding.

But I have been the person who has clutched her purse a bit tighter when she’s seen a black man in a parking garage.

And I absolutely hate that.

My parents raised me better. They taught me not to judge people by the color of their skin. My education specifically addressed prejudice. I am a licensed social worker whose professional ethics are grounded in fairness and equality. My children and friends, who are all strong advocates for diversity, expect more from me.

And yet, I’ve had those moments when my immediate reaction is to clutch my purse tighter.

Living in a racist society has influenced my reactions, but, I am still responsible for them. I am responsible for acknowledging them and I am responsible for changing them.

America should be too.

People Who Don’t Like Dogs (And Other Warning Signs)

My husband told me to write this.

Well, he didn’t tell me to write these exact words.

I was complaining that I can’t relax because I can’t stop thinking, and he told me that I should write. When I said no one wants to read about what is currently going on in my head, he suggested I discuss the weather.

Since today is stormy and perfectly reflects the thoughts cycling around in my brain, his suggestion wasn’t very helpful.

Here’s the thing: the devil on my right shoulder wants me to write about the people who I prefer weren’t in my life right now. The angel on my left shoulder is telling me I can’t always control who is in my life nor can I control their behavior. I can only control my reaction to them.

And right smack dab between my right shoulder and my left shoulder is my head with all those thoughts blowing around like the gusts of wind currently rattling the windows. Since my brain is centrally located in the neutral position, I guess I should feel safe sharing some thoughts about the types of individuals who are currently setting me on edge – people I don’t trust.

I don’t trust people who never challenge authority. History provides dozens of examples of what happens when people blindly follow the leader rather than do what is right. When people are more concerned about protecting their status than they are about protecting those who are most vulnerable, I will never be able to trust them,

I don’t trust “suck ups” and “brown nosers.” Anyone who uses a significant amount of time and energy trying to impress those in power is doing a disservice to people who actually have integrity. If your words and behaviors don’t provide any evidence of your personal values, I can’t trust you.

I don’t trust people who don’t like dogs. According to my baby book, one of my first words was “doggy.” When my mom took me to the library as a toddler, I gravitated to the books with pictures of dogs.  The worst moments of my life have always improved when I’ve been able to wrap my arms around a nonjudgmental furry friend and sobbed uncontrollably.  And yes, I do have human friends who don’t like dogs, but they’ve had to earn that friendship and my trust.

I don’t trust people who have college degrees but still don’t use proper grammar or punctuation. I understand language is learned, but going to college requires a lot of reading and writing. It should also involve professors who demand the use of correct grammar. If you leave college still using mismatched verb tenses and confusing “wonder” and “wander,” you either didn’t truly earn your degree or there is something significantly wrong with your education.

And finally, I don’t trust people who try to buy my friendship or my approval. I don’t need gifts or flowers or disingenuous compliments. If someone has to give me something in order to validate the relationship, it’s not valid at all.

As I was writing these stormy thoughts, I realized my husband’s suggestion was actually a good one. Because as I went through my list of the types of people I can’t trust, I realized something really important.

In all of the aspects of my life over which I have control, I have surrounded myself with people whom I do trust. My friends are social justice advocates who always question authority. They are the people who call me out when I say or do something stupid and allow me to do the same to them. They are the people who give me the gifts of time and understanding. They are people who want to build a better world for others rather than for themselves. And yes, for the most part, they are also people who love dogs.

The Break

I’ve been making a conscious effort to appear as though I’m maintaining my mental health during the past few weeks. But on Friday, I fell apart. I only got out of bed when my puppy Jasper jumped on top of me insisting I pay attention to him.

Paying attention to Jasper always requires getting out of bed.

The rest of the day, my emotions cycled between anger and despair. I was feeling powerless in almost every aspect of my life. And I hate feeling powerless. I’ve always been someone who believes in dealing with problems instead of ignoring them. But confronting the biggest problems in my life hasn’t been working for me lately.

The impact of the new reality of social distancing due to COVID-19 is only partially to blame. The truth is, I’m struggling with a lot of negativity. One particular situation is getting progressively worse, and I’ve been foiled at every attempt to address it.

I loathe the thought that anyone describes me as helpless, but that is exactly how I was feeling yesterday. And since self pity has always been one of biggest pet peeves, feeling that only made me feel even worse.

So I did everything I could to “snap out” of my funk.

I spoke with a couple of friends who encouraged me. I did my best to celebrate my husband’s birthday. I posted silly photos celebrating National Siblings Day on Facebook. I took a couple of long walks. I ate healthy food and took my vitamins. I sent silly text messages. I reviewed the daily devotion I’d committed to read every day for Lent. And I cried. I cried a lot. And then I got mad at myself for crying.

This morning, I woke up to the sun shining and to Jasper once again jumping on me.This time, he didn’t need to drag me out of bed. I was prepared to face the day even though my circumstances were exactly the same as they were yesterday.

I’d like to say that, through some amazing self talk, I’d been able to improve my attitude. But that would be a lie. Instead, I think I needed a day of self pity and crying before I could move on.

That probably goes against the sage advice of any self-help guru. (I don’t know for sure since I’m as resistant to reading self-help books as I am to giving up, giving in or being deferential to people who don’t earn my respect.)

But yesterday, I was absorbed in self pity. And while it felt horrible and went against the essence of whom I like to believe I am, I think my psyche needed to stop fighting. For at least one day, I needed to put down the boxing gloves and just feel the pain of every punch life has been throwing at me lately.

It’s humbling to admit that, but it’s also liberating. I realize that I wasn’t giving up or giving in. I was just giving myself a break.

Life sometimes sucks, and despite our best efforts, we can’t always fix it. Sometimes we can’t laugh our way out of a bad mood or find the silver lining in the grey clouds. Sometimes we just have to hold on tightly while we ride out the crap storm with the understanding that this too shall pass. And it will pass even though it won’t happen as quickly as we’d like.

In such cases, a little self pity might actually be acceptable.

Life Is Chaotic – Listen to the Peeps

I am writing this on a Saturday that is the punctuation mark on what is perhaps the longest week of my life.

The Covid-19 pandemic has elicited some of the same raw emotions as September 11, 2001. Only instead of witnessing the amount of damage human beings can intentionally do to each other in a matter of hours, this week felt like watching a failed rescue attempt in slow motion. I can see a person standing on railroad tracks in front of an oncoming train. That person is not only oblivious to the danger, but he’s inviting all of his friends to join him. And that scenario repeats itself over and over again.

Because I work at a social service agency, this wasn’t a week of self isolation or working from home. I oversee four offices that provide a variety of programs, including two food pantries. So this was a week of making plans, then changing plans then making new plans. It was a week of worrying about keeping staff safe, and clients safe and volunteers safe. It was a week of witnessing leadership failure and self-serving decision making.  It was a week of hearing fear in the voice of a learning-disabled client with autism who had been living in his car when he first arrived at our office. He had finally been able to get his own apartment by working two jobs at two restaurants as a dishwasher. And this week he lost both of those jobs.

All of that was weighing heavily on my mind when I took my energetic puppy Jasper to a local park for a long walk in the woods on Thursday evening. The temperature was unseasonably warm,  so a lot of people were taking advantage of one of the few recreational venues still available to us. Several fathers and sons were fishing. Athletes were running around the parameter of the park. Families were walking their dogs. And several people were standing still just listening to the spring peepers.

The tiny frogs were raising their voices to welcome the evening and provide me with a reminder that no matter what is happening in the world, we can always find beauty, peace and comfort among the chaos.

Amid the challenges of this week, family and friends reached out via phone calls not just text messages. Volunteers went beyond the call of duty to make sure our clients received the help they need. My amazing co-workers never complained about the increasing demands on them. When life gets scary, there are always kind people to help navigate it.

The sky was almost dark as Jasper and I finished our walk. As the last person in the park, I stopped for one last time at the edge of the pond. I took out my phone and did my best to capture a short video of the moment. The ducks called to each other as the peepers raised their voices in a joyous chorus.

“It’s okay,” they chimed. “It’s okay.

 

Horton, Jo Jo, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

For the past few month’s, I’ve been feeling like Horton the Elephant in Dr. Seuss’ classic children’s book Horton Hears a Who.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, the Whos live on a speck of dust that is floating through the air, which means their entire civilization is at risk of being destroyed.

Because Horton has such big ears, he is the only jungle animal that can hear the Whos. Initially, he saves their community by putting the speck of dust on a clover so he can carry and protect it. His efforts are undermined and ridiculed by the other jungle animals, who try to destroy the clover. Horton rightly believes the only way he can save the Whos is by ensuring their voices are heard by the other jungle animals.

Nothing works until Jo Jo, the tiniest Who of all,  joins the effort.

I may not be carrying around a clover, but I am carrying around a lot of concerns. I’m worried that something I’ve cared for and nurtured is going to be destroyed, and the people who could truly protect “my speck’ won’t listen.

Fortunately, unlike Horton who felt all alone in his efforts to protect his clover, I know I’m not alone. Many of us carry clovers. And, like Horton, we persevere because we have to. We are responsible for those who have less power.

Dr. Seuss understood this and passed the message on through his books.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood it and passed the message on through his speeches.

And they both understood that no voice is ever too small.

Jo Jo had a tiny voice that made all the difference to the survival of the Whos. Members of the Civil Rights movement were the voices that changed the world.  And all of us can be a voice for someone who needs our support.

Be a Horton. Or be a Jo Jo. Or be both. But most importantly, be someone who does what you can to make the world a better place for others.

Hypocrisy and the Art of Forgiveness

I was a bit irritated when I walked into the retail establishment and saw both clerks were already helping other people. I had specifically planned to be at the store when it opened so I wouldn’t have to wait in line. A couple of uncooperative traffic lights had disrupted my plans, and now I was stuck waiting.

The assistance I needed was simple and could have been quickly addressed, but the guy ahead of me was in no hurry. Instead, he seemed oblivious to anything but the long list of complaints he was making known to everyone in the store.

Being forced to listen to him was making me even more irritated,

And so while I waited, I judged him.

I judged him to be an uneducated, racist, redneck. I also guessed that he was about my age, which is why his anti-technology rant was so intolerable.

He was in the store to pay a bill and was complaining about the late fee. His bill had been due on Christmas, and he told the clerk that he couldn’t pay it because the store was closed. The woman politely told him that didn’t have to pay the bill on the day it’s due but could pay it in advance. He ignored her statement and told her that his previously bill was due on a Sunday, and he couldn’t pay it because the store was also closed. The salesperson politely told him the store IS open on Sundays. She also noted that he could pay his bill online.

And that’s when the anti-technology rant began. The man used his limited vocabulary to explain that the one time he tried to pay a bill online, the bank  had taken the same amount of money out of his account every month. When he called to complain, he had to talk to someone who couldn’t speak English very well.

“I’m an American, he said. “I speak American. If people are going to work in this country, they need to speak American too.

That’s when the clerk surprised me. “My husband is from another country. He’s working to learn English, but it’s been hard.”

She said it nicely without any note of condemnation or disagreement with the customer. She was just stating a fact, and, surprisingly the man said little else. He didn’t apologize, but his rant stopped. He paid his bill with cash and left mumbling to himself.

“Wow,” I told the clerk, “that was amazing. You have so much patience.”

“I have to. I work retail,” she said. “I have to forgive people because I can’t go through my day angry.”

“I’m still impressed,” I said. “Especially since he was so angry about people from other countries. Where is your husband from?”

“Honduras. He’s been here nine years, and he still struggles with the language.”

“Honduras,” I repeated.  “Wow, I bet he came here for a good reason.”

“The cartel took over his family farm,” she said. “We are still trying to get the rest of his family up here but we aren’t having much luck.”

I chose not to engage her in a conversation about the current immigration system or political environment. Instead, she asked me what I needed, and, as expected, I was soon out the door.

But the encounter stayed with me for much of the day. I was angry at the man but impressed with the clerk. I envied her ability to remain unruffled and almost kind to such an ignorant fool.

Only that night, when thoughts about the day raced through my mind as I was trying to fall asleep, did I recognize what a hypocrite I was.

My job is to advocate for people who struggle.

My job is educate the public about how stress, and adverse experiences, and lack of early childhood education can have a lifelong impact.

My job is to work with people who have few resources and little exposure to other cultures or countries.

My job is to help people just like that man.

For all I knew, the man was illiterate or have a learning disability. He might have grown up in an abusive, hate-filled environment. He might live where there is no access to technology because of geography or finances. He might have emptied his bank account to pay that bill.

Standing in that store wearing my middle-class, well-educated, self-righteous attitude, I had judged him based on nothing but how he was behaving in what was probably a very stressful situation for him.

I did exactly what I am always complaining other people do: I made judgments based solely on my personal perspective and experiences.

I could have spent a sleepless night worrying about my hypocrisy, but I didn’t.

Instead, I took to heart the words the clerk had uttered that day: I have to forgive people because I can’t go through my day angry.

She was right. What she didn’t say was that sometimes the person we have to forgive is ourselves.

And that’s exactly what I did.

Was Every Single Nazi Mentally Ill?

I woke up on Sunday morning to the news of yet another mass shooting. It wasn’t the one in El Faso Texas that I went to bed hearing about. It was yet another one –  this time in Dayton Ohio.

After texting to check on the safety of a college roommate and her family, who live in Dayton, I almost thew up.

I’m not exaggerating. I was literally sick to my stomach.

I felt completely powerless and angry.

When a friend called to check on me, she expressed the same thoughts. She was on her way to church and said she’d be praying.

“Pray that people actually elect leaders who care more about people than they do about money.” I said. “Because right now? They obviously don’t.”

She agreed.

We are both furious at the NRA, which is all about ensuring the gun industry continues to make money, that ignorant people fall for its propaganda, and that politicians remain in its pockets.

The current resident of the White House is no exception. Like so many politicians who think they need the support of the NRA, he’s pointing his fingers at mental illness and not at a problem with gun availability. In fact, too many so-called leaders do everything they can to avoid addressing the fact that there is a huge gap between responsible gun ownership and arming citizens with semi-automatic weapons. If they did, they’d be admitting there is plenty of opportunity for compromise.

In all the history books I’ve read, I don’t remember one that claimed America’s sordid history of racism is linked to mental illness. Can you imagine claiming that every member of the Klu Klux Klan or of a lynch mob was diagnosable? They weren’t. They were full of hate and fear.

The reign of terror carried out by the Nazi’s prior to and during World War II wasn’t linked to mental illness.  Sure, the case can be made that Adolf Hitler was mentally ill, but not every single Nazi. They were full of hate and fear.

And now, do we claim that every perpetrator of domestic violence or that every racist is mentally ill? No. They too are simply full of hate and fear.

I can’t predict the future, but I do know that our present times will soon be history. And I can only hope that my grandchildren don’t have to read about how mass shootings became an acceptable risk of every day life. Instead, I hope they read about how concerned and compassionate citizens refused to let corporate interests control America and voted out the politicians who allowed that to happen.