Different

The doctor said the red spot on my nose was an overgrown blood vessel left over from pregnancy.

“Unless you’re hiding a serious drinking problem.” Knowing me, he chuckled.

He referred me to a dermatologist to get it removed. I made the appointment on a school holiday, because that’s what teachers do with their days off. It’s too much work to be gone and we don’t like to leave our students to someone else.

I left the dermatologist’s office with a wad of gauze on my nose attached with surgical tape. It was so big I could see it and had to keep myself from staring at it as I drove.

I stopped at a Walmart to pick up painkillers to get through the rest of the day. The parking lot was crowded and I wove around looking for a spot, then walked toward the store, trying not to walk in front of cars or people.

By the time I got to the door, I realized I was attracting a lot of glances. I felt like turning around and heading for the car, but my nose was starting to throb and I wanted relief. I told myself that I didn’t need to see any of these people again and headed in.

I passed many more people on the way to the pharmacy, who all displayed their discomfort with my appearance in one way or another. It surprised me how they fit neatly into categories. Small kids gazed with open faces, no judgement. Adolescent boys gave me looks tinged with disgust or horror. Men stared as well but kept their faces neutral. Girls and women glanced at me, then quickly looked away.

My average looks and appearance generally attract little notice. I walk through life and Walmart anonymously. This visit was unsettling. I was in pain now in more ways than one, hovering on the edge of tears.

None of this is surprising. We are wired from birth to notice differences. What is remarkable is our ability to overcome our natural human instinct to shun those that are different. My guess is that that comes with practice. Those with experience with people who are in some ways different than themselves can learn to see the similarities. My physical difference was in place for only a short while. I can only imagine the bravery it would take to face those reactions day after day.

I turned a corner and came face-to-face with another woman. She was a little taller than me, with dark wavy hair framing her cheerful face. She looked me right in the eye and continued smiling, before side-stepping to go into the next aisle.

I have thought of that woman often over the years and I am grateful that we crossed paths that day. Her smile restored my humanity in that moment.

This Thanksgiving I choose to feel thankful for the kindness of strangers. I feel thankful that more majority voices are rising in solidarity with minority ones. I am encouraged when advertisers who keep their fingers on the pulse of the general population put kindness in their ads to appeal to the masses. I love that the number two movie box office totals for last weekend were for a kids’ movie based on a #1 best-selling novel that sends the message, “Choose kind.” I love that when our leaders display other qualities, many, many more of us are coming out in favor of decency and altruism.

This holiday I wish you hospitality, graciousness and goodness, but above all, I wish you the chance to choose kindness.

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Time for a Rant

I open my eyes on Sunday at my usual 6:30AM, except it’s only 5:30. I pretend for another hour, but it isn’t the same. I give up when it reaches 6:30 because the dog doesn’t know about time changes.

While she eats her bowl of food, oblivious to my grumpiness, I change the time on the microwave with a few easy clicks. Then I drag a chair over to the counter so I can climb up and adjust the clock on the wall. On my knees, I take the clock down, fiddle with the wheel at the back and hang it back up, leveling it with the border on the wall, because the ceiling isn’t quite flat. It’s an old house.

Later, sitting on my couch, I stare with annoyance at a clock on the shelf. Sighing, I stand up to change that one too.

At least I’ll have time for a nap today.

On Monday I wake up at 4:32 and quickly do the math. I have two hours till my alarm and my body still thinks it’s 5:32. I convince myself to go back to sleep for a while.  I wake with a start at 5:48, a minor victory.

Then I head into school where bleary-eyed kids do not understand why they’re so tired. None of us will feel like working, but we’ll plod through the week.

I hate the time change.

It will take several days to adjust, at least a week for my students. When we spring forward, it will take twice as long. If you expand that to the general population, just think of the loss of productivity twice each year.

I get a cold every year about now. I always figured it was due to stress and kid germs and frosty days closed up inside. But it turns out, the seasonal loss of sleep is also associated with increases in illness and even heart disease.

So, who’s bright idea was this anyway? Ben Franklin suggested waking people up early, but the US didn’t jump on the bandwagon until 1918. Back then, the idea was that if people were awake more in daylight hours, we’d save on energy consumption. But it doesn’t work out quite that way in our gadget obsessed age.

Also, it turns out Daylight Savings Time costs us money. The increase in daylight hours apparently causes us to spend lots of money. Then the economy suffers when we switch back in the fall. Maybe that’s why they made it another couple of weeks longer?

I would argue that daylight savings time is bad for the environment. All those extra awake hours of daylight mean more hours in the car, which automatically means more fossil fuels, which explains who was behind the extra hour of DST in 1986.

My husband likes Daylight Savings time better than Standard Time. I just wish we’d pick one and stick to it.

It’s even affecting the quality of this essay.

It’s obviously a conspiracy.

But I have a plan. One day, when I finally retire, I’m going to dutifully change my clocks like I always have. But come spring, I will go to bed an official hour later than I do in the fall. The time will change, but I will not. So there, DST!

Expectations

My young friend is expecting her first child. She pats the hard bump, already missing her flat stomach.

I say, “Remember how A. stayed her usual tall and slim, with just a basketball sized baby bump?”

She does.

“Everyone is different. I played golf when I was pregnant and the only shorts I had with pockets were two pairs of bib overalls, one red, one blue. I had big babies in my short body. I looked like Tweedledum or Tweedledee.”

She laughs.

I stop myself from going on. She’ll hear enough about all the changes her body will go through. Her nausea and fatigue are lessening. Her bump won’t be the only thing growing bigger. Soon she’ll feel the fluttering of life inside.

Right now, her heart is beating stronger and harder, with increased blood flow. But nothing will prepare her heart for the intensity of the love she’ll feel when she meets her newborn. No love at first sight could be as strong.

Nothing will prepare her for her physical need for her baby, to inhale his scent and kiss his soft cheek. No one tells you that sensuality and intimacy need not be sexual.

Nothing will prepare her for the dread she’ll feel when she’s scheduled to go back to work at a job she once loved. Driving to her first day back she will cry, wracked with grief and guilt for not being with her child, unprepared for the physical loss she will feel at not holding him in her arms.

If she chooses, and is fortunate enough to choose, to stay home with her baby, nothing will prepare her for the mind-numbing isolation of spending your days with an infant. Sleep deprived, she may go all day without a shower, starting and stopping the household chores she was sure she would accomplish, at the mercy of a tiny wailing being that takes all her feelings of worth and accomplishment and rips them to shreds.

Whether at work or home, life will go on. As her infant grows and she finds a routine and gets a little more sleep, as her baby grows rounder and more alert, as he lights up at the sight of her when she comes in the room, nothing will prepare her for the unconditional love of her child. She will be the center of his world and he, hers.

Once living in a world of the mind, the schedule of importance will shift. Having laundry done and food in the house will be measures of success.

Once measuring her worth through work, nothing will prepare her for the delight she will feel at her son’s rolling over, sitting up, crawling. Nothing will prepare her for her joy at the sound of her baby’s laugh. When he takes his first steps, her arms will be open, her smile wide.

Nothing will prepare her for the emotions of her son’s first words. They may be dada or dog, but the day will come that he calls her mama. While she has several names in the world, in that moment, that will be her favorite name of all.

Nothing will prepare her for all the years to come. Nothing can. But so many mothers have been unprepared. Everything will be fine.


Positive

I feel powerful today. I can affect change in others at the cellular level. You can too.

I can’t actually alter DNA, but I can change the way people’s genes are expressed. (Just Google epigenetics.)

Have you heard of the ACE study? All it takes to hijack someone’s future health and well-being is to create chaos in their lives. Of course, if you add drug abuse, food scarcity, or domestic violence to the pot, that could accelerate the change. But it could be as simple as berating them daily or shoving them or breaking things around them when they least expect it, so that they think about it and anticipate it all the time. It could be any of the ten categories of risk. The more adverse events are layered on, the greater the chance their health will be impaired. And those epigenetic markers will help pass those health issues on to their offspring as well.

What does this mean for you? It could be you or someone you love. Two-thirds of the people surveyed had at least one risk factor. Most of that group had two or more. By the time you reach four risk factors, your chances of experiencing health impairments like heart disease, addiction and alcoholism, auto-immune disease, even divorce, rise dramatically.

Of course, children are the most vulnerable. But traumatic stress affects adults as well.

The good news is that we can also epigenetically improve a child’s life.

An earlier study was done with newborn rats. According to Moshe Szyf, they found that rats whose mothers groomed them more were better adjusted and calmer than rats whose mothers didn’t. But the best part is that when they put the baby rats from lesser groomers with foster calm mothers, the extra grooming enabled the baby rats to become well-adjusted calm adults. So, nurture, not nature.

 The ACE study found that a single caring adult can buffer a child from the effects of the stressors in her life. A loving parent or grandparent, a family friend or a committed teacher can be the support needed to keep the demons at bay.

Nadine Burke Harris developed ways to intervene and reverse the damage. We can improve a child’s future and, by extension, the future of their children. We have the power. Providing the resources to create a safe, stable home, with adults who love and care for them, with nourishing food and enriched education, much of the damage can be reversed.

And then, what if we could intervene in small ways? What if the smallest kindnesses are not just moral choices, but biochemical ones, like drops in a bucket that added together could affect a change for the better?

Extend that to us and we can combat the chaos by providing that consistent positivity to those in our lives. The next time your coworker becomes angry, wait for calm and then ask if everything is okay. When an exhausted parent with a screaming child is in line behind you at the grocery store, offer to let them go ahead. When you know someone is going through a tough time, offer specific assistance. When something is off, but you’re not quite sure what, keep watching and waiting. Offer to lend a hand even when you aren’t sure the help is needed. Trauma isn’t always visible to those around.

Give the small kindness of a smile. The small service of a listening ear. The small gift of a calm presence.

Why should we care?

Because adverse childhood experiences affect all of us.

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If you want to assess your own risk, click here.

Questions

On my way home, my gas gauge drops down to its last bar. My computer strongly suggests that I plug it in. My phone requests that I put it in low power mode. The world is conspiring to send me a message. Slow down? Fill your tank? I don’t know what metaphor it has in mind, but I’m definitely low on fuel.

My mind is whirring with work and deadlines, but what has me in a funk is my overwhelming confusion about my country and the world. Over and over I find myself asking why.

When you picture an American, what does that look like? If you are one of millions of Americans, the first thing you picture is someone white. Why? Why would the tired and poor, “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” come only from European countries? Where, by the way, many are not white anymore either.

What does that feel like, to think you are somehow more entitled, more worthy of being an American, simply because of the color of your skin?

How does it feel on the other side of that assumption? And if your family is white, but you are a person of color, do you still feel different?

Not so long ago, the lines were drawn finer, between WASPs and Catholics, between Italian-, German-, Irish-, and other immigrants, Jews from any country. My ancestors were here during the Revolutionary War and came through Ellis Island, similar to endless generations of immigrants since we wrested the land from the Native Americans. Why do we always draw lines?

Do you wonder why wealthy football players would kneel during the anthem? Or why it would be less patriotic to peacefully protest than to stand with hand on heart and remain silent? Or why the press missed the point? As protests go, this one inconveniences fewer people than any major protest in my memory. It costs taxpayers nothing. No blood is being shed. So why are so many people so angry?

I want to know why, when the majority of Americans believe politicians are dishonest, a large percent, many of them well-educated, are willing to believe them when it comes to corporate tax breaks creating jobs and global warming being a myth. When did science become suspect? When did rationality and bias become so intertwined that people can’t or won’t follow a chain of thought to a logical conclusion?

Why is it so hard to imagine that others are facing difficulties that we ourselves don’t? When can we have a national discussion about bias without finger pointing and flag waving?

Most of all I want to know, why has the discourse gotten so much worse over the last few years? Have opinions changed that much? Or has the current atmosphere simply bared the faces that were already staring out at us?

Mourning

I drive to the church and enter the foyer, joining the line of mourners waiting to pay their respects. The length we wait will increase through the morning, a testament to a life well-spent.

The flowers and photographs have been arranged to keep us engaged as we alternately step and pause on our way to speak to loved ones lined up along the front. I wave to old friends ahead of me. They smile but it doesn’t reach their eyes.

I let a woman pass me so I can speak to a friend in line behind. We talk about other deaths and funerals, the importance of letting others know you care.

That’s the thing about helping someone else grieve. It brings back every parting. I can’t help thinking of my own losses. Time has faded these, but there are moments like this, that they sharpen again.

I remember being in that receiving line, surprised by the faces that came into view, touched by those who came based on childhood friendship.

I say, “I know it meant a lot to me that so many showed up for my father’s funeral.”

My friend agrees, and then we talk in low voices about our families, his new job, because everyday life goes on.

This is one of probably hundreds of visitations I have attended. As a teacher in a small town I have a wide circle of community.

As a child, I went with my father to pay our respects to any extended family member who passed away. In my stiff, black patent leather shoes and scratchy tights, I’d look up at the adults talking over my head, faces serious. Later were the deaths of the great-uncles and -aunts that readied me for the more difficult goodbyes. My dad taught me to honor the dead.

But my mother taught me that visitations and funerals are for the living. Although I was acquainted with the man who died, I am here for his children, who are old friends. As I near the front, I hear snippets of stories.

We tell our own life stories, until the end. Death is one story we can’t tell ourselves.

This man lived a long full life and has a large, loving family mourning him as a legacy. Many are not so fortunate.

I have known people who knew it was time to go. But even after a long illness, their loved ones rarely seem to feel the same. No matter how much or little time we get, we always want more.

I reach the front, holding hands and expressing sympathy, then hugging as I reach the friends I am here for. I remember them when they were young and joyful, then young parents, and now, the generation between. They have been greeting and shaking hands for an hour now and, like pros, steer the conversation to the periphery of loss, the flowers, their kids, introductions to the next down the line. How else to get through a day like this? I feel their grief, but know that with time, life will go on.

Back in my car, I drive home, the whiff of a woman’s perfume following me like the scent of grief.

Waiting at the Airport

I’m celebrating my first blogging anniversary by sharing my favorite posts. This was first posted October 19, 2016

 

So, a few years ago, there I was sitting at the airport in Frankfort after a sleepless overnight trans-Atlantic flight, waiting for my flight to Dublin. A friend had told me something about the Frankfort airport, but I couldn’t remember what. The Germans put up few signs in English, expecting, I guess, that people who come to their country should learn some German. (Gosh! The nerve!) I couldn’t see any sign that my flight left from this gate, but I checked and rechecked my boarding pass.

There were plenty of open seats around me, so when a young, tall, blond German woman sat next to me I assumed she would be interested in starting a conversation. We chatted briefly, but although her English wasn’t bad, I could see that speaking English was uncomfortable for her. I learned she was a nanny, heading to visit a friend who was working as a nanny in Dublin. It was her first trip abroad and I’m betting someone suggested she sit by an older woman for safety. Just her luck to get talkative me.

After awhile we moved toward the desk to see if we could figure out where we would board. We couldn’t see any planes or any typical gates. There were stairs leading outside.

Others crowded around and a dark-haired woman about my age came up and asked slowly if we were waiting for a flight to Dublin. She struggled so, that my German companion said, “Use your German.”

The woman said, “I….speak…..French.”

Now something you should know about me is that my best high school French response (in French of course) is, “I’m sorry. My French is very bad. Do you speak English?”

So I slowly told the woman in English that I thought she was in the right place. When she further asked how I knew, I said, “Je vois,” (I see) and pointed to the stairs. Using gestures and a few words, the French woman urged me to ask at the desk. So off I went.

“Is this the flight to Dublin?”

“Yes.” Very efficient speakers, those Germans.

I went back and reported to my new friends.

About then an announcement came on. It was long, sounded like absolute paragraphs, all in German. I turned to my tall German speaker and asked what they said.

“We take a bus,” she said.

The French woman eagerly asked me, “Do we go now?”

I said, “L’autobus.”

“Ah,” she said.

We smiled.

I said, “Tres, tres peu de Francais,” holding my thumb close to my finger.

She said, “I..speak…a….little…English.”

As we boarded the buses, I waved goodbye to my German nanny and turned to my new French friend. “Ca va.”

She mimed wiping her brow. “Stress!”

I laughed. “Very American!”

As we went our separate ways, I called, “Bon chance!”

Life Around You

I’m celebrating my first blogging anniversary by sharing my favorite posts. This was first posted October 14, 2016

When we moved to this property twenty-some years ago, the trees were sparse and the only birds that summer were a persistent flock of killdeer that landed in the front yard and poked around the yellowed August grass. I had never seen killdeer and had to look them up to see what they were. We had none of the other common Midwest residents and migrants you usually see. But the killdeer were just a promise of the life to come.

My husband planted more trees, then more trees, and put out a feeder. He piled seed in the driveway and watched out the window to see what would come and eat.

Nowadays we are rich with birds: robins, cardinals, sparrows, finches, chickadees, big flocks of black birds that might be starlings and occasional glimpses of hummingbirds. A pair of chimney swifts nest in the rafters of the garage every spring.  Recently, in the tree outside our open window at night, we caught brief glimpses of a big dark bird and heard a low hooting. We have had big flocks of mourning doves too (accompanied by one confused pigeon) but since the arrival of a red-tailed hawk the doves’ population has gradually diminished. We find scattered gray feathers of the occasional meal, but not enough to account for the missing and I have to think somewhere in their little slow dove brains they have finally realized there might be a better place to call home.

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Of course all the food my husband puts out doesn’t just feed the birds. When the first ground squirrel showed up, we started calling it his “little buddy.” Now his buddies have a series of holes and tunnels throughout the yard. In the spring they pop up out of their holes and chirp, grabbing my dog’s attention, before ducking down out of reach. When she catches them out away searching for food, she’ll race at full speed across the yard, but hardly ever gets to them before they hightail it to a nearby hole. Only once she caught one. As I ran up to save it, it lay on its back, little feet clawing the air, or her nose if it got close enough, baring its tiny teeth and squealing a high-pitched squeal. When I grabbed my dog, it flipped over and ran, disappearing suddenly in the grass.

The ground squirrels aren’t the only critters benefitting from the bounty. Rabbits creep around the yard in the early morning and at dusk. My dog, about the same size as the rabbits, loves to chase those too. Where she is satisfied to race toward the birds and send them flying, her rabbit chases may involve long zigzags across the yard or racing circles around the pine trees before she listens to my calls and stays long enough for me to jog over to pick her up and end the chase.

The rabbits periodically appear, multiply and disappear. This may have something to do with the coyotes that we hear in the summer out in the fields beyond our yard, baying at the moon. Once, sitting at the kitchen table, I looked out to see three strange dogs (coyotes!) trot quickly in front of the house in broad daylight.

One of my favorite finds in the yard is the occasional toad. I read somewhere that when environments are poisoned, the frogs and toads are the first to go. So those toads are my canaries in the mine, telling me that, surrounded by non-organic farms fields, I am safe.

Of course beyond the mammals, birds and amphibians are countless multi-legged critters. There are always crawling and hopping insects, buzzing flies, swarming gnats in the summer. There are worms, caterpillars and roly poly bugs. There are countless spiders after them all leaving glistening webs in the grass and across the doorway to the garage. The first summer, clinging to the window screen, we saw a huge corn spider with bright yellow bands across its back. The occasional praying mantis can be just as big. My dog’s favorite crunchy snack is crickets in the fall and she’s learned the hard way to stay away from the stink bugs.

As I walked my dog this morning in the early morning light I heard a few tweets from the trees, but all our usual visitors and residents were hidden. It’s so easy to walk through life oblivious to life all around you.

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Unfolding From the Fog

(This is the post that I wish I’d thought to write to start the blog. It was first posted April 27, 2017.)

I am up before dawn, cursing this stage of life that doesn’t let me sleep late on a Saturday. I grab sweats from the floor and dress in the bathroom, while my husband sleeps on.

Downstairs, my dog prances around my feet, eager for her food and walk.

I bundle up for December, unprepared for the mild outside air. I step out the back door into another realm, my backyard transformed. Grateful now for an early awakening, we wander and linger as the sun rises through the fog.

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