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Giving Up or Letting Go?

I love podcasts. I seriously don’t know how I once managed to get through walks in the woods with my dog, regular household chores and long car drives without them. They are amazing. I can be productive AND entertained AND informed by just popping in my wireless earphones and going about my business.

I especially like the ones in which I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation with good friends. The hosts don’t pretend they are perfect and sometimes talk about some of the same struggles I often face. These aren’t polished productions with professionals who guarantee they will provide the best advice about how to improve our lives, our budgets, our families, and whatever else self-help gurus talk about. I don’t need anyone telling me my life would be so much better if I just did “this” – whatever the latest, shiniest “this” is.

The podcasts that I prefer don’t have origins in board rooms with the primary purpose being to create productions that ensure shareholders and CEOs get even wealthier. My favorite podcasts started out in basements or at kitchen tables or in living rooms in which the hosts just want to tell stories or talk about something interesting. They don’t need fancy productions or perfectly polished delivery. They just need to be relatable, and relatable they are.

Just this week, the hosts of a podcast I regularly listen to were talking about New Year’s resolutions with a twist: instead of trying to do something new or better you choose something to let go. (This wasn’t the primary content – it was just a conversation the hosts had before they delivered the primary content. Again – I’m not into self-help as entertainment.) They weren’t discussing giving up something – like junk food or drinking alcohol or watching too much television. They were talking about something completely different.

Up until then, I’d never thought about how giving up and letting aren’t the same thing. Giving up can be good (I’m giving up candy) or it can be bad (I’m giving up trying to write the great American novel.) Letting go is about lifting a self-imposed weight that drags you down.

Giving up is about making a sacrifice, like people do during Lent, or about failure. It’s rooted in negativity and requires regular, conscious, decision-making. It’s about trying to maintain control in a chaotic world. Letting go isn’t about sacrifice at all. It’s about choosing to not think or worry about something that generally serves no helpful purpose.

I love this perspective because, like many people, there is so much I need to let go of: automatically feeling like I fall short when I compare myself to others; worrying that I could have done a better job raising my kids; ruminating over past decisions; obsessing about people who have treated me poorly or about people I’ve treated poorly. None of that is helpful to me or anyone else. It serves no purpose other than to create obstacles to appreciating all of the things I do right and enjoying life to its fullest.

In 2023, I’ll do my best to let go because I am at a point in my life that I don’t want to give up things I love (like podcasts). Besides, giving up seems to be more about what you show the outside world you can or can’t do. Letting go is about the stories we tell ourselves. This year, let’s all tell ourselves some great stories.

Superficial

I absolutely love when a fictional character says something that completely resonates with me to the extent that I’m still thinking about it days, or even years, later. For example, I don’t even remember which Scott Turow novel I was reading or which of his characters made the observation that teenage relationships teach you how to break up not how to stay together. The concept rang so true to me that I still reference it.

More recently, my husband and I were watching Three Pines, the television series based on Louise Penny’s books featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. During one episode, the detective tells another character, “Grief is love that has nowhere to go.” That simple statement captured the essence of grief in such a meaningful way that I know I will remember it forever.

But no quote has ever rang as true as one in the most recent Peter Robinson novel when his character Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks makes the observation that “Superficial people have superficial morals.”

(I’m going to make a brief side note here: Peter Robinson is one of my favorite authors, and I actually got to meet him at the National Book Festival in 2008. Unfortunately, he passed away just a few months ago, and his final novel will be released this spring.)

The statement about superficial people having superficial morals was a reaction to how some people are quick to judge other people’s relationships based on some shallow moral code. No truer statement could have ever been made. Shallow morality is a moral code rooted not in love and compassion but in judgement and fear. Ironically, most people who spout shallow morality don’t think they are superficial. Many think they are spouting a gospel that can not be questioned.

It can, and should, be. In fact, I suggest that everyone ask the following questions before dropping a judgement bomb:

  • Do you believe that a relationship can be immoral even if both partners are of age and are not hurting each other? If so, you might have superficial morals.
  • Do you use fear and scare tactics as a justification for judging others. For example, do you tell others that trans individuals are stalking potential prey in bathrooms or that gay men are more likely to be pedophiles. If so, you might have superficial morals.
  • Do you spout passages from the Bible out of context or without considering that some passages even contradict each other. If so, you might have superficial morals.
  • Do you think that you have to be a Christian to be a moral person? If so, you might have superficial morals.
  • Do you blindly follow your brand of Christianity, its rituals and its dogma without question or challenge. If so, you might have superficial morals.
  • Do you protect your own and circle the wagons to protect others who think like you even if you know they are hurting others? If so, you might have superficial morals.
  • Do you make sweeping judgements about other people’s difficult decisions, such as whether to terminate a pregnancy, with no understanding why the decision was made or the consequences of other options. If so you might have superficial morals.
  • And finally, do you believe that whole groups of people are less moral than you are and therefore need to be treated differently – whether it’s Muslims or Mexicans or African Americans or refugees or immigrants? If so, you definitely have superficial morals.

The bottom line is that morals should never be used to make us feel superior to other people. In fact, they should instead be used as an opportunity to learn about, care about and love people who are completely different than us. They should make our world and experiences bigger not smaller. They should be based on inclusivity not exclusivity. And most of all, we should recognize that they are subject to change as we have new experiences, meet new people and learn more about the science behind human behavior. To me, superficial morality isn’t moral at all.

I know not everyone will agree with me. I don’t care. As the late, great Leslie Jordan (who like Peter Robinson passed away in 2022) said, “What other people think about me is none of my business.” Thank you Leslie and thank you Peter for your moral guidance.

The Chair

The chair on the side of the road gave me pause. From what I could see, it was in great condition, but the logical side of my brain told me that no one could possibly throw out a perfectly good chair. So I didn’t seriously consider stopping, checking it out, and, if it seemed ok, throwing it in the back of my car because one of my kids might be able to use it. Yet, something about the abandoned chair niggled at the back of my mind.

I couldn’t help but wonder if it actually was a perfectly good chair that someone just didn’t want. Maybe it was the wrong color, or the wrong shape, or the owner had just gotten bored with it. People do that with pets, so they would have no problem abandoning inanimate objects for the same reason.

Regardless, I felt an unexplained empathy with the chair. Yes, I have probably seen Beauty and the Beast too many times and automatically personify inanimate objects, but I have also developed a deeper relationship with chairs after spending a significant amount of time with them a couple of months ago. The organization where I work had an online auction, and a donation of new furniture, including chairs, provided numerous items to offer up for bid. I had the responsibility of photographing and researching each chair to determine its retail value. Of course, I did this as part of a team, and I quickly realized people can have really strong feelings about chairs.

Everyone loved the rockers and recliners, which were mostly in neutral tones. But the accent chairs were quite controversial. Some people loved the bright, floral ones. Others thought they were obnoxious. I was particularly fond of a paisley chair that my co-worker deemed “absolutely ugly.”

It was simply a matter of taste, and no one tried to convince any of us that we were right or wrong. Because of course, no one was right or wrong. We just liked different chairs. Yet, I felt oddly hurt that someone thought a chair I liked was ugly, and I momentarily questioned if maybe I was wrong. We live in a society that tries to define beauty for us and reminds us on an annual basis what is “in” and what is “out.”

I will be 56 years old next month, and, when I’m honest, I admit that I still worry that my wardrobe isn’t cool enough and that there is something wrong with me because I have nothing to contribute to a conversation about the latest trends in interior paint colors. I tell myself that I don’t care, but a part of me does care. I tell others “you do you,” and “the only person you have to make happy is yourself,” but I worry that they may be putting themselves in a position of ridicule. I feel the constant hum in the background of daily living is telling me what I should look like, how to decorate my house, what music I should enjoy, and even whether or not my kids choices are normal.

The constant pull between being true to myself and true to the dictates of society is a struggle. A part of me will always be that kid whose peers made fun of what she wore when she started a new school in a community very different from the one she had left. I will always be that young woman who downplayed her intelligence and pretended she liked music she didn’t because she thought that’s what she had to do if people were going to like her.

Over the decades, the part of me that needs to fit in has grown smaller with every year while my allegiance to my true self has strengthened and grown. I may still worry about what others think of me, but I rarely make decisions based on that. And every day, I strive to be a champion for individuals who don’t feel they can be true to themselves without being discarded and isolated.

Maybe that’s why the chair on the side of the road made me so sad. It was a reminder of how easily anything – or anyone- can be discarded when they no longer meet someone else’s wants, needs, or sense of what is right and wrong.

I didn’t go back for that chair, but I hope someone else did. I hope they saw its beauty, and purpose and uniqueness and that it’s now sitting in a place of honor in someone’s house or apartment.

Everything and everyone belongs somewhere.

The Challenge

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day, and the hosts were bubbling with excitement about having just received their 2022 year in review from Spotify. Since I had just received (and of course shared) my year in review from the language app Duolingo, I realized that these reviews are just another marketing tool to suck us in so we share our results while providing free advertising.

Because they are intended to make us feel good about ourselves, these fluffy, feel good, reports don’t capture a realistic snapshot of what really happened over the course of the past year.

I’m always up for a challenge, so I decided I’d try to create my own (realistic) year in review.

Here’s my best shot with the disclaimer the following may or may not be based on valid data:

Hours I spent listening to true crime podcasts: 836

Hours I spent cleaning my house: 12

Phrase I said the most: “The day I don’t make a mistake is the day I’m dead.”

Phrases I never said, “I’d like to live in Florida.” and “I think Texas would be a good place to live.”

The number of times I went to Google to make a diagnosis based on my symptoms: 18

The number of times I went to a doctor to get a diagnosis based on my symptoms: 0

Pounds I lost trying to get healthier: 8

Pounds I gained from stress eating: 10

The number of times in conversation I said, “I have a story about that:” 422

The number of times in conversation someone said “Trina always has a story:” 421

Minutes I spent doom scrolling the internet: 3,523

Minutes I spent reading serious literature: 0

The number of times I’ve stopped my car in the middle of the street and gotten out just to pet a neighbor’s dog: 43

The number of times I’ve stopped my care in the middle of the street and gotten out to help a neighbor: 0

Tears I shed from dealing with a narcissistic bitch who was gaslighting me: 2,530

Tears I shed from laughing so hard I cried: 3,403

The number of times I’ve said “I feel like I’m a bad mother:” 46

Number of children I have: 2

Number of children who are college graduates: 2

Number of children who have been arrested or gone to jail: 0

Number of children who are gainfully employed: 2

The number of times I’ve fallen down while walking the dog, or going down the stairs, or carrying something heavy: 19

The number of black eyes I had: 1

The number of bruises I had: 1,748

The percentage of words that I uttered that many people would consider inappropriate or swear words: 18%

The percentage of times I regretted not telling someone I loved them: 0.

(If I love you, you will know it – especially if you are a dog.)

This year I’ve learned that sometimes justice isn’t possible, and you just have to walk away from a bad situation even if it means also walking away from unachieved goals and people you care about. I’ve learned that if you are a genuine person who cares about the underdog, you will attract genuine people who care about the underdog. And, most importantly, I continue to learn not to take myself to seriously. I’m the only person who has to spend 100% of their time with me. I might as well enjoy that time.

So here is to 2022 and an even better 2023. Here’s to the people who listened to me cry and rant and to the people who I never want to see again but who have taught me important life lessons. And here is to you. I hope you are your own best friend and that you take care of yourself regardless of what others think. It’s a challenge we can all continue to pursue.

The Cover Up

I had an unexplainable flashback to my early childhood the other day.

For some reason, I was thinking about an object that sat on the back of our toilet when I was barely out of diapers. The object looked like a beautiful doll with a large, crocheted skirt, and I thought she was stunning. So stunning, in fact, that I was devastated when my mother told me that I couldn’t play with her because she wasn’t a toy but instead was a toilet paper cover.

She said the skirt was so full because it covered an extra roll of toilet paper.

Her explanation confused me. Why would someone waste a perfectly good doll on toilet paper? But even more curious to me was why we needed to hide the extra roll since there was already a clearly visible one of the holder next to the toilet. If toilet paper was that embarrassing, shouldn’t all of it be covered?

My mom couldn’t answer my questions, and, in hindsight, she probably had the same questions I had. The doll/toilet paper cover thing was definitely not my no-nonsense, practical mother’s style. I’m guessing that it was probably a gift from someone, so Mom felt compelled to use it. My hypothesis is backed up by the fact that the thing never resurfaced when we moved a couple of years later.

I’m not sure why I remembered the mysterious toilet paper cover more than fifty years after I last saw it. But I do know what it represents to me: the tendency for some people to hide what they don’t want others to see by creating distractions. These individuals also shut down anyone who asks questions about what is actually under the full skirt.

Hiding anything is generally problematic, but it can also be particularly traumatic for people like me who question everything and who value transparency.

Over the past few years, I had to deal with a person who wanted to shut down my questions while simultaneously surround herself with people who would swear the object on the back of the toilet was simply a doll with a big skirt and was most certainly not covering up something like toilet paper.

It took its toll on me. I questioned my questions, my self worth, my skills, and my expertise. I could clearly see the toilet paper and wanted to know why it was hidden. But when I asked, I had my hand slapped again, and again, and again and had to deal with a chorus of the hand slapper’s loyal followers who practically chanted “There’s nothing to see here. Just go along to get along.”

I know they probably all saw the toilet paper but were in self preservation mode. I just can’t do that. It’s not who I am. If I don’t call out the hidden toilet paper, I’m fairly certain my brain will explode.

Thankfully, the people I most respect affirmed my questions about the toilet paper and my integrity. They held me up when I would have otherwise crashed. They are what kept me sane.

As I write this, I realize that individuals who don’t know anything about the situation are probably wondering why I am writing something so cryptic, but I have my reasons.

First, a lot of people have asked me why I haven’t been writing. The truth is, when you are beaten down, it’s hard to do anything but survive. For the past three years, I was just trying to survive.

Secondly, I want to emphasize the importance of surrounding yourself with people who build you up instead of tear you down and are willing to look under the big full skirt with you to see what is really there.

And most importantly, I want to publicly state that I have put that entire situation behind me. One of the people who didn’t let me fall actually offered me a path to get away from the toilet paper deniers. I am now walking down it, starting to heal, and starting to write again.

Soon, the situation I left will just be a memory like the weird toilet paper doll cover thing on the back of the toilet, It will continue to fade as more important and current issues occupy my brain. But I know I will still take out the memory from time to time, brush it off, and keep asking questions. One of those questions will always be why so many people denied seeing the toilet paper because, if they had, it could have been used to clean up the load of crap they were also ignoring.

The Place You Belong

I hated feeling like a stranger in my own life.

Thankfully, I rarely experience that feeling anymore, but it used to creep into my psyche like an unwanted encounter with a mean girl from high school. I did my best to present as confident and competent, but I actually felt like a pretender and an invader in the lives of people who really belonged.

I have, after all, spent my entire life living in places where I don’t have a family connection. Or so I thought. Because sometimes, one tiny piece of information can change everything.

For me, that small shift was seeing a headstone at a park where I walk my dog on a regular basis. The last name on the marker is Mowen, which is my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Initially, I just thought this was interesting. After all, I live in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, wedged between Northern Virginia and Maryland. My dad grew up in Massachusetts, my mom grew up in Michigan, and my family moved several times when I was a child. I didn’t grow up around any extended family.

This is probably why I embraced genealogy with a passion and became the family historian. When my grandparents passed away, the treasures I inherited might have had little value for many people, but to me the old photos, ledgers, deeds, and birth certificates are priceless. I’ve done a DNA test, convinced my parents to do a DNA test, and spent hours trying to figure out the puzzle of my family tree. What I never expected was to randomly stumble upon a headstone of a distant relative.

And yet, I did. After logging onto my laptop and doing some simple research, I determined that I was indeed related to the Mr. Earl C. Mowen, who is memorialized by a simple marker on a forest trail in Poor House Farm Park. Granted, the relationship is rather distant as Mr. Mowen and my great-grandmother had the same grandparents.

My great grandmother’s family is actually from Washington County, Maryland, which is only minutes from my house. I have ancestors buried in cemeteries in nearby Hagerstown, and a few geographic locations actually bear the last name of some of my ancestors.

While all of this is fascinating, it shone a light on something even more important: having a family connection to the area where I now live hasn’t affected my feelings about being a stranger in my life. I rarely feel that way anymore not because I have historical ties to this area but because I’ve been able to build my own life. Instead of being a stranger, I’m a main character surrounded by people who accept me, and care about me, and support me even though we don’t share the same DNA or childhood memories. I don’t have to pretend or feel like an invader.

I can create the place where I belong.

Five Questions

In the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, I noticed a trend on Facebook. Trump supporters were posting false information and then complaining when the Facebook administrators called them out. Apparently, some of these individuals were even getting private messages telling them about the consequences of posting false information. When discussing this, one person said, “everyone is getting that message.”

I wanted to comment, “I haven’t received that warning because I don’t share false information.” I didn’t though, because I was fairly confident I would have been called a lying libtard or told that Facebook was targeting conservatives and protecting progressives.

The irony of all of this is that the people who kept posting false information were the same individuals ranting about “fake news.” While they were definitely projecting (unconsciously taking unwanted emotions, traits, and behaviors they didn’t like about themselves and attributing them to someone else), they were also acting like spoiled children. In their delusional brains, something is only a fact if it justifies their beliefs or meets their needs. 

Before the election, I rolled my eyes at their temper tantrums and self-centered posts. After the election, I realized that this twisted thinking, encouraged by President Donald Trump, was dangerous. When Trump and his allies told his minions that the election had been stolen, they believed them. Even when every avenue was pursued to ensure the election results were accurate, including re-counts in Republican-controlled states and court cases, these Trump supporters were convinced, or pretended to be convinced, of some grand conspiracy to steal the election. In an attempt to get their way, they filled busses and airplanes during a global pandemic and went to Washington D.C. to demand that Trump remain president.

The mayhem committed at the capitol building in Washington D.C. on January 6 is unforgivable as are false assertions that members of “Antifa” disguised themselves as Trump supporters and were the actual perpetrators. 

Following the events on Wednesday, Trump followers are now complaining that actions taken by social media and technology companies to address hate speech and violence is fascism. Considering the education level of most of the people I’ve witnessed saying this, I’m fairly certain they would be unable to define fascism without being given a computer to Google it. These are, after all, the same people who call any policy with which they don’t agree socialism. The icing on their hateful cake is that many are proclaiming themselves Christians while calling people with different beliefs evil.

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe people have the right to different opinions just as they have the right to organize and participate in peaceful protests. What they don’t have the right to do is demand that our country revolve around their belief system. And for those who say that’s not what they want, I have five questions:

  1. No one disputed that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 but that Donald Trump won the electoral college. If Hillary Clinton had proclaimed the election was stolen, filed multiple lawsuits trying to get the results overturned, and tried to convince a secretary of state to find 11,000 votes, what would you have done and said?
  2. In Italy, the birthplace of fascism, people noted that the scenes at the United States Capitol on Wednesday were reminiscent of events in Italy in the 1930s under Mussolini. You call people who have taken a stand against police violence and for basic human rights as “Antifa,” which is short for Anti-fascists. Does that mean that you are pro-fascism?
  3. In America, where the economy is rooted in capitalism, the wealthier you are the more access you have to political power.  Donald Trump used his wealth and celebrity to win the 2016 presidential election but has yet to publicly share his tax returns. Since taxes are used to pay for public education, public safety, roads, and numerous other services that are equally available to all citizens, the amount he pays in taxes is one mechanism of demonstrating how he much he has or hasn’t contributed to the public good. Taxes are a contentious issue for many conservatives who constantly worry that their taxes might increase (even though they are benefiting from those public services). If the amount people pay in taxes is so important to you, why haven’t you held Donald Trump accountable to ensure he contributes his fair share?
  4. This week I saw a heartbreaking post from a young woman whose father berated her for not supporting Trump. He told her that college was giving her the wrong ideas. This isn’t unusual. I’ve witnessed numerous Trump supporters complain that colleges are turning young people into liberals. A college education is intended to expand a young person’s knowledge, expose them to different ideas, and teach them critical thinking skills.  Are you afraid that people who think for themselves or are better educated than you are a threat who will challenge your belief system or demonstrate that your way of thinking may not be for the greater good?
  5. A vast number of Evangelical Christians have continued to support President Trump even though he has never been actively engaged with the church or behaved in a Christ-like manner. Among his many behaviors, he has bragged about grabbing women by the genitalia, engaged in name-calling, endorsed policies that separate families, and lied on a daily basis. He cheated on his wives. In order to gain the support of Evangelical Christians, he chose Mike Pence as his vice president, but last week put him in danger when he didn’t “follow orders” to disrupt the electoral process. And he has supported a health care system that operates on the principles of making money rather than on ensuring all Americans have access to it.  None of these actions are in the least bit Christian. And yet so-called Christians have supported him in part because of his ability to put in place conservative judges. How do your reconcile the Golden Rule, the beatitudes, and the Ten Commandments with supporting a man who has demonstrated he worships wealth and power more than anything else? 

If any of Trump’s supporters read this, they will probably be angry. That’s fine with me. I’ve been angry for four years and during that time the most controversial political action I took was to wear a pink, knitted hat. And, for the record, I didn’t even have to purchase it thus contributing to a politician’s coffers. Someone made it and gave it to me for free because that is what genuinely nice, not evil, people do.

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.

The Criminal

My soul hurts when I think about the incident at a local church. Apparently, the minister provoked a member of his congregation with a sermon about racism. The individual was  so offended, he actually left in the middle of the service. As he walked out, he loudly muttered, “George Floyd was a criminal.”

This happened in a Christian church.

I may not be a Biblical scholar, but the last time I checked, the Christian church is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. You know, that guy who taught about mercy, forgiveness and taking care of each other? I’m fairly certain that Jesus wanted us to interact kindly with all human beings – not just the people we like or respect or who make us feel comfortable.

I know that’s not always easy, and sometimes I feel as though it’s almost impossible. But labeling someone a criminal and then using that label to rationalize their mistreatment hurts all of us. That’s because we are all connected.

No one lives and shares that message more loudly and bravely than Father Greg Boyle. Father Boyle is a Catholic Priest who founded Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention and rehabilitation program in Los Angeles. I had the privilege of hearing him speak a few years ago, and his words resonated. Like him, I am incredibly fortunate to have a job in which I can learn from people who others might dismiss.

There is the woman experiencing homelessness who once proudly told me she was featured in a documentary about women in prison. She was, and I’ve since watched it. I’ve had her bags of medication for various mental illnesses in my office. I unintentionally taught her to beg in Spanish when she asked me how to say “I’m hungry” and “I need money” in Spanish. She recently stopped by the office to tell my coworkers and me that she had a place to live.  When I opened the door, I had to firmly tell her she couldn’t hug me because of COVID 19. I don’t call her a criminal. I call her a fellow human being.

There is the man who showed up in our office lobby loudly declaring “I just got out of prison and I don’t know where to go for help.” He had grown up in foster care and is functionally illiterate. He is demanding and difficult, but he was also sweet and helpful. He’d give staff cards and help clean our offices. After he went back to jail for rape, he still called the office on a regular basis. I don’t call him a criminal. I call him a fellow human being.

There is the young man with no place to live because his family kicked him out. Before COVID-19, he would stop by the office almost every day to make a cup of coffee. Occasionally, he would use the shower and do his laundry. He was always polite and followed the rules. When my co-workers and I hadn’t seen him for several days, one of us would look on the jail site. His mugshot would be there, and his charges ranged from battery to robbery. He stopped by the office last week to ask for a tent. I don’t call him a criminal. I call him a fellow human.

These individuals, like thousands of others, have stories to tell about what they have endured and survived. These individuals, like thousands of others, don’t have the support, resources, and connections that many of us do. And these individuals, like thousand of others, are so much more than a label or a criminal record.

Do I believe they should be held accountable for their actions? Absolutely! But I also believe that I should still care about them.

As Father Greg Boyle says, “There is no us and them, only us.”

I care about us.

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.