resilience

Cracks

re·sil·ience

rəˈzilyəns/

noun

1.

the physical property of a material that can return to its original shape or position after deformation that does not exceed its elastic limit.

2.

an occurrence of rebounding or springing back.

3.

the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

****

Resilience is a big word right now. There are studies about teaching resilience and grit to children in schools. Which I think is awesome, and much more helpful to becoming a functional human than understanding geometry, or even global politics.

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose husband died suddenly two years ago, is making the media rounds speaking about her new book and foundation, Option B, which “helps people build resilience and find meaning in the face of adversity.” I admit that there is a part of me that is resistant to the idea of a celebrity making this into a movement – giving us collective permission to grieve properly and in our own ways through our losses, and teaching the world around us how to better support us. I’ve been talking to some of my friends who have also lost young children and our conversations seem to go like this: What do you think of this? Haven’t we been going there for years now? This stuff – this really tragic, really hard, really bad stuff happens so much more than people want to know. Why does tragedy need to happen to a celebrity for it to become okay for our society to finally talk about it?

But the nagging feeling I get when I look at the Option B website is this: Do we have to make something out of our losses, our challenges, our trials? What happens if we don’t?

I think most of the time, when it happens – when we develop resilience – it’s not because we did anything. It just happens. And sometimes it doesn’t, and the hard things are just hard, and they suck, and you don’t come out the other side feeling more capable of handling anything that might come next. You are just tired and you want to shout, Enough already! This effing blows!

And that’s okay. You are not a failure if you don’t come out the other side of your awful tragedy feeling stronger, wiser, or more resilient. You are not better than with resilience than you are without. There is nothing about resilience to be proud of. Resilience doesn’t have to be the goal. In fact, there doesn’t have to be any goal when life is hard except getting through a day.

Recently I had the thought that I have earned my resilience out of all that I have suffered or struggled through or overcome. But have I really? Or did the resilience I have just develop on its own? Maybe it’s even something I came into this life already possessing.

I just don’t know that I buy the notion that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger or more resilient. The idea that we are transformed into better people out of what we have lost, what we have grieved, what we have suffered. Because I would give up my resilience and strength and wisdom in a heartbeat if it meant that my baby didn’t die eight years ago and instead was a healthy girl about to finish third grade and celebrate her ninth birthday. Or that my parents hadn’t turned my world upside-down at age 15 when they divorced. Not to mention how quickly I would give back the autoimmune condition I have struggled to live a normal life with for 20 years.

Because living children are better than resilience. And physical health is better than the emotional strength gained from surviving an illness. And a stable family of origin is better than the wisdom I gained from being independent and responsible beyond my years as a teenager. All those hours in therapy and doctor’s offices and the neonatal intensive care unit took a lot of time, energy and money I would joyfully have spent otherwise. Like on a beach in Hawaii.

I get it: The human search for meaning, especially building meaning out of adversity. It’s what keeps us moving forward. It helps us to rebuild. Otherwise nothing makes sense, and it all feels like a big cruel joke.

But what if we can let it be okay to just live through adversity and arrive at the other side cracked, or even completely broken? What if we don’t have to overcome or become stronger, but just figure out a way to put one foot in front of the other and wake up each day feeling a little less shitty than the day before? What if there will always be a part of you that is keeping an eye over your shoulder for the next unexpected kick in the back of the head?

This is the thing: I don’t think we bounce back out of adversity to how we were before. Adversity changes us completely, forever. Even in our cells, our DNA. (see: epigenetics)

I think the idea of rebounding or springing back – which is often part of conversations about resilience – can be a setup for feeling 100% like a failure, even if you do manage to come out the other side a little stronger. You don’t bounce back because there is no back to go back to. You just do your best to move forward, maybe evolve a little, maybe transform a little – or maybe you just find yourself in unfamiliar surroundings, hardly able to recognize yourself, but accepting your changed self anyway. Because that’s your only option.

That kind of acceptance can require an enormous amount of forgiveness. Towards ourselves, mostly.

Maybe – not even by doing anything intentional – you even exceed your elastic limit, and you become bigger. Not better, just more expansive. Because we aren’t static. Even when we feel like shit, part of that feeling comes from knowing that there is something that feels just a little bit better. Even if we don’t exactly know how we might get there, or if we even want to.

After I lost my baby daughter, people would say things to me like,

I just don’t know that I could survive what you’ve survived.

And also:

You’ve been through so much.

With all you’ve been through, how are you as grounded and balanced (as you seem to be; meaning: How are you not a bitter, angry mess?)

You’re so strong. (Meaning: From now on, this is how we expect you to be.)

You’re so wise. (Really?)

And I would reply, But you would survive. Because you just do. Because you aren’t given any other choice.

I’ve surprised myself with what I can survive. People around me surprise me constantly, too. Friends and family battling cancer. My refugee clients at work. Everyone I know who lives with a chronic illness. I just don’t know that surviving is any great feat. It’s just what we do when shit happens.

I don’t get knocked down easily anymore.

I have survived “the worst” already, but I also know that doesn’t mean there definitely isn’t any more “worst” to come.

I know that I can handle what life is going to dish out next.

Maybe partly because of resilience, because of strength, because of wisdom.

But mostly because I just know I have to.

Perhaps that’s all resilience is. One step in front of the other. Forgiveness. And being really, really gentle with ourselves and each other.

Because life is hard, and it can be good too. That much I believe.

ports of call

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“Have you been to Brindisi?”

His eyes grow wide, he smiles, and there is recognition.

“Of course! Brindisi, Izmir, Haifa, Ashdod, Piraeus, everywhere!

“My father is from Egypt.”

“He is, really?”

“Yes. My family is Jewish, they were forced to leave Egypt in the late 1950s when the country was nationalized.”

His traveler’s eyes – which have seen every port of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea, the Persian Gulf – remain wide.

“My grandmother and her second husband – he was in the shipping business – they moved from Alexandria to Venice. Then to Beirut, then to Haifa, and then to Brindisi. She lived 50 years in Brindisi and is buried there.”

“Brindisi is at the very bottom of Italy. I have been there many times.”

“Yes, on the edge of the heel of the boot. I visited her there.”

****

He was a ship’s captain for thirteen years. Large ships, ocean liners and cruise ships. He tells me about all the people he met from all over the world, fellow lovers and laborers of the sea. People of all religions but you kept religion and politics separate. He has seen what happens when you don’t.

He looks like a sailor. Hearty. Warm. Bright. Strong.

Again, that quality I continue to encounter in the refugee communities I work with: resilience.

He tells me that he swam across a river to escape his country, through one new country and into a third. His wife is still in that third country, where they met, waiting for the right visa to join him permanently.

He tells me that he has a green card but no passport. I understand what this means: He is stateless. Like my father and his family when they had to leave their Egyptian passports and nationality behind.

Refugees.

He can’t work on a ship again until he becomes a citizen.

“Perhaps in two years,” he says.

****

He asks me if I think he should try to apply for refugee status in another country, in Europe, where maybe they help refugees more. (Perhaps he is wondering if there is a place where maybe he can be more sure of what the future holds for refugees?)

“My friends in Germany, they get help paying for apartments, for medical care, for education.”

I suggest that he not do anything right now because everything is changing daily. I make sure he knows not to leave the U.S. right now, though I know he can’t without a passport to elsewhere.

We look at education programs because he wants to learn about something completely different in the meantime, something practical when you live far from the sea, far from your profession.

He tells me that if he were twenty years younger when he had come to the U.S., instead of in his late thirties, he thinks he would have more opportunities, more possibilities ahead of him.

Then he says, “I have one more question. Can you help me understand why the gas company takes so much money from me every month? I am just one person.”

We spend the rest of our appointment switching gas companies to cut his bill in half. I find a coupon code that gives him an extra $100 in account credit.

This makes him very happy, because an extra $50 a month is a lot, not just on principle.

the golden door

golden-door

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

– Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus

They come through the doors of the tiny office where I work every day. I am one of three staff working at a small nonprofit refugee organization in Atlanta, Georgia. They are the women, men and children who have come seeking refuge in the United States.

They walk through our door as they begin to “resettle” into new lives in an unfamiliar place where they rarely speak the language. They are refugees, asylum seekers, and those with special immigrant visas who worked to support the U.S. military – our military – in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. They are individuals who left everything they knew to escape persecution and death.

They carry trauma like I cannot ever imagine. But you would never know it from their kindness, their patience, their graciousness, their humility. Their resilience. They come to us at the end of a long journey that has taken them to places I cannot even begin to imagine.

Their homes and the lives they have always known turned to rubble.

The loss of livelihoods, careers, educations, family members and friends. Community.

The dangerous journeys into unknown temporary places where they wait, often for years.

Weeks and months of vetting before it is deemed they are “safe” for us to accept into our country.

Do you know how much vetting a refugee has to go through before they can come here?

They arrive with the clothes on their backs and the few items they were able to bring with them, all this way; nothing compared to all they have lost.

They are resettled into tiny apartments for often large families, nothing like the places they knew before.

They are given the minimum they need: a family of five gets five plates, five glasses, five forks, knives and spoons, one set of pots and pans, five towels, two or three beds.

They get help finding jobs – but not the jobs they used to do utilizing the skills they have; instead jobs for $8 an hour with no benefits, unreliable hours, long distances to travel, harsh and often dangerous conditions.

Do you know what goes into preparing the chicken we buy wrapped in Styrofoam and plastic wrap at the grocery store? Do you know the people who do this work?

They sign up for English classes at the local community college, but the community college doesn’t provide childcare, so some with small children – usually women – get left behind.

They connect with other refugees who speak their language, perhaps some who have been here longer, and they form new communities.

Word of mouth brings them to our door.

We help them with basic needs – diapers for their children, feminine hygiene products for the women, laundry detergent, dish soap, toothpaste, shampoo, linens, items to complete the kitchens of women who love to cook, cooking oil, rice, lentils, cribs, car seats and toys for the children.

We help them understand and file their paperwork for food stamps and Medicaid, help them navigate the transition when those benefits end, help them read confusing letters from landlords. We help connect them with emergency aid when an unexpected event prevents them from making their rent.

Do you know what it’s like to arrive in a new country needing open heart surgery, and then to not be able to work to support your family? Do you know what life is like in a refugee camp when your heart is failing?

We help them find better jobs with better pay, perhaps even benefits. We help them register for training and credential programs to improve their opportunities. We help them research what it would take for them to do here what they did in their home countries.

Do you know how many years of school it takes for an Iraqi dentist who had a private practice for twelve years to become a dentist here? How does he go to school for four years while supporting his family?

When they come through our doors I do all I can to welcome them, to let them know in a small way that they are home. The people who walk through our doors are scared, apprehensive, unsure. On top of the traumas they carry and the challenges of their new lives, the messages they hear in the media are not those of welcome. They, too, read the words of accusation thrown their way in the media: that they are a threat, that they must be terrorists, that they are undeserving of our help, that they are overwhelming our system, that they are Muslim. Even their faith is thrown at them as a flaw, a danger.

Do you know how it feels for a traumatized person to be retraumatized?

I hope they also read what the media wrote about the thousands of people who rallied at airports around the country this past weekend to protest the anti-refugee, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim executive orders of our new presidential administration.

These are men, women and children like all of the men, women and children you know. They had lives before like the lives you and I live. They took their children to school in the morning in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and welcomed them home with a snack and helped them with homework in the afternoon. They went to college, built careers, went to their jobs, celebrated births and weddings, prepared meals for family and friends. They sat and watched ball games and shows on TV.

Before they were refugees, they were people. They are still those people. When I look into their eyes that is what I see – humanity. If ever you aren’t sure, just look into their eyes.

The lamp beside the golden door of our small office remains lit and the door remains open. All are welcome here.

welcoming the refugee

I work with refugee women and their families at the Refugee Women’s Network in Atlanta. We were asked by Reuters to provide one of several “expert views” about refugees and the incoming presidency. The piece we are a part of can be found here. What follows is the complete piece I submitted to Reuters yesterday.

The words immigrant, refugee, Muslim, walls, and terrorism have ignited fear, hostility and division throughout the 2016 presidential election cycle. The refugee communities we work with at the Refugee Women’s Network in Atlanta, Georgia, arrive to the U.S. from countries where conflict, war, persecution, killings – and terrorism – have torn them from their homes, their families, their cultures and everything they know.

In spite of the images we are bombarded with of boats packed with people off the coast of Greece, or long lines in a camp in Lesbos, a refugee is not an abstract identity. Refugees are people who had homes and careers, who studied in universities, fell in love, built families and raised children with an eye toward a better future. They hoped for the same simple things we strive for as Americans.

In their home countries, they are no longer safe. When they arrive in the U.S. and are resettled in Atlanta, we do everything we can to not only ease the transition to life in America, but also so that they know they are welcome here. With limited funding from federal and state governments, the resettlement budget per person is extremely tight, and the months they can receive support are few. Most refugees receive help finding work in often-dangerous food production or manufacturing jobs, even those who bring medical degrees or doctorates from their home countries.

Our clients bring with them the traumas of all they have experienced and lost – homes that have become rubble, spouses who have been killed, chronic or terminal illnesses they have contracted from all they have suffered. Our job is not only to help them adjust to their new lives so that they can gain social and economic self-sufficiency, but to help them begin the long process of healing.

Refugees are scared right now. Their safety and future here feels more tenuous, and the messages they have heard throughout this election have in many cases revictimized and retraumatized them. They are concerned their missing family members won’t be allowed to join them in America. They fear they will lose their green cards or be deported. Like their American counterparts, they worry about how they will get health insurance, whether they will be able to go to college, if their food stamps will be lowered, if they will lose the social security disability coverage they began receiving after an injury at one of the local chicken factories where many of them work.

There must be continued funding at the state and federal levels to support the work of both large and small refugee organizations nationwide. These organizations must be well-staffed to provide a continuum of care that supports the range of needs of all members of a family – not just for the first 120 days after their arrival.

As providers of this support for refugees, we look to the presidency of Donald Trump and his administration to remember that we are a nation of immigrants, and that our diversity is not our weakness, but what makes us strong. For 130 years the Statue of Liberty has stood as the symbol of our welcoming shores for all those who come from tyranny and oppression. The nations of the world are watching to see whether we will open our doors to welcome refugees into our democracy. Our hope is that the incoming presidential administration – supported by the legislature on both sides of the aisle – will retain a spirit of inclusion that makes refugees feel not only welcome, but safe.

dear california

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Dear fellow Californians, from your friend who left the Golden State seven and a half years ago:

I’m having a hard time with all the posts – both humorous and serious – about California seceding from the union. I’ll tell you why.

I left California with my nuclear family seven and a half years ago so that we could pursue a better future, and it has been a good move for us. It was hard to leave, believe me. I love California, and it will always be my home. I consider myself a native, even though I only arrived from abroad at the age of seven in 1978, also so that my family (of origin) could pursue a better future. I still have my 415 area code, and I won’t let that one go easily. California made me who I am, and I am proud of that.

But for seven and a half years now, I have lived outside of California – in places that have been good to me and my family. I spent four years in historically conservative Southwestern Ohio, where I got to be part of the vote in Hamilton County in 2012 that gave President Obama his victory. After voting in California since I became a US citizen in 1994, 2012 was the first time I could really feel my vote counting. It felt amazing, and I was not alone. I met really good people during our time in Ohio. People who love their children as deeply as I love mine, people who care and who work for justice and hope, people who may speak a different language or have different beliefs or religions than me but who ultimately want many of the same things. When we moved into our home in Ohio, a neighbor I didn’t yet know literally brought us cookies to welcome us to the neighborhood. I know, cliché, but I remember saying to my husband, “I love the Midwest. People are so nice here.” And I was right, they are. For the first time in my life, in the Midwest, I had African American neighbors and friends, and my daughter went to school for the first time where her fellow students did not all look like her. It took leaving my Bay Area bubble for this to happen. Because in spite of the great diversity of California, my world in the Bay Area was incredibly homogeneous, and I take full responsibility for that.

We adopted our African American son just a few months before we left Ohio. He is my gift from the Midwest, and because of him and the people I met while living there, I will always feel a connection to Ohio. To the “Middle America” I got to know for the first time because I left California.

We now live in the South, in Atlanta, Georgia. This is the second time I live in a red state. Again, I have African American neighbors and friends. Again, my son isn’t the only black person in our neighborhood or community. He isn’t even the only black person in our Jewish community. Here in the South I have also met good people – heart-driven people who also fight for justice, who are as dismayed by bigotry and hate as my family and friends in California, and as my friends in Ohio. I have friends who voted for Hillary and I have friends who voted for Trump, and both of those friends are raising really good children. I have met GLBTQ friends here in the South. I have met transgender men and women here. I have met friends of all colors and races. I have met friends who are native Southerners and others who, like me, are transplants with other area codes in their phone numbers. For the first time here in Georgia, we were able to buy a home. We couldn’t do that in the Bay Area.

California will always have my heart, and I will always feel like I am home when I land at SFO, drive past the Pacific Ocean and breathe the delicious mixture of salt and bay leaves. But a piece of my heart is also in Ohio. And now, it is also in Georgia.

Dear Californians, I know you know this, but I have to say it: You are not better, smarter, more focused on justice and what is right, more civilized, more progressive, more traumatized today after the election, than other Americans. 26% of people voted for one candidate, 26% voted for the other, and 47% didn’t vote – because either they were disenfranchised or apathetic. But not all of the 26% who voted for your candidate (who was also my candidate) came from California or the Northeast. They also came from Ohio, from Georgia, and from all the states that are so easy to dismiss as foreign, as different, as backward, as stuck in the past.

This is not a time for divisiveness. We need California’s elected officials in the U.S. legislature to partner with the elected officials of all the other states. We need your progressive messages. We need your activism. This is not a time to separate yourselves, to protect your bubble. This is a time to get out of that bubble, to sit in that uncomfortable place and connect, to reach out to understand – not to get to know “the other America” but to realize that we really aren’t different. We are all America. And we need you – not to be separate, but to work alongside us for unity.

the way back

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As I got into bed last night around 2:30am, I told my husband that I felt like I had fallen through a hole in time and landed in an alternate reality. Like the dystopian fiction my father introduced me to when I was my tween daughter’s age: Huxley, Orwell, Bradbury, Camus. As if real life were still moving forward somewhere in the place I had fallen from, and I just wanted more than anything to find my way back there.

I lay awake for a while, knowing sleep was going to be elusive even though I was physically, mentally and emotionally sucked dry. I thought of all the people celebrating the 2016 election while I was lying in shock, the depth of sadness I feel today only barely registering. I practiced the words I would tell my daughter in the morning, when she woke up and realized that we hadn’t woken her up from sleep to hear the victory speech of the first woman president.

I don’t believe people are inherently bad, but I do believe that when we act from a place of scarcity rather than abundance, of fear instead of trust, of individualism over connection and collaboration, that we can do incredible harm and create rifts that can take generations to heal. I don’t want to be a part of that.

I woke up this morning and recognized a familiar feeling. It’s hard to describe, but it reminded me of the day over eight years ago when I woke up from a dark and brief sleep and realized that I had – the night before – said goodbye to my baby daughter Tikva as she breathed her final breaths. In that remembering, I felt a combination of shock, bewilderment, disbelief, the beginnings of a grief that I would (will) never quite completely shake, and this question:

How will I ever reconnect with hope?

There is one difference between that morning in 2008 and this one today. I have the gift of hindsight, the gifts of my experience, and the big picture of all I have gained since then. I know how I found my way back to hope.

It was a dark time, and for days, weeks, months, and even years I felt it all – anger, sorrow, fear, regret, doubt, hopelessness, aloneness, grief. So much grief. I cried and I wrote and I cried and I wrote and I questioned every single moment of my daughter’s short life and I screamed WHY at the universe, which had no answers for me.

And then, as I did all those things, I began the long, slow work of healing. And I did it, without realizing at the time, like this:

I connected. I met other parents who had lost their babies. It was painful and terrifying because all of a sudden there were a million ways babies can die, and I became aware of how often it happens and how many cracked hearts there are in the world. But those parents – they saved me. We saved each other. Connection saved us. It saves us every day.

I wrote. I wrote as if my life depended on it. I shared my experience for my own survival. I shared in others’ experiences as a witness, as a friend on the most difficult road. I put aside shame and self-consciousness and fear of not being good enough and I spoke openly about my experience. And I heard from others that they understood, that they felt understood. And I was able to turn some of my pain into a love that I could share with others.

I owned my story. I took responsibility for it, recognizing it as the greatest gift my daughter had given me. I started to practice radical self-love, forgiving myself for the ways I thought my body had let her down. I told my story in a new way – as a story of the mighty power of unconditional love. As a story of resilience. Even as a story of hope.

I reached way beyond my comfort zone. I sat with the discomfort until its edges softened and ease sneaked in. I trusted that I could contribute to the collective healing even as I was struggling to heal myself.

I became relentlessly determined to be a light in the world. Because I have held both life and death in my arms, and I don’t take anything for granted. Because on my daughter’s headstone are the words, “Love is all you need.” Because I know that I came here in this lifetime simply to love and to connect.

This morning I said to my husband, “I really need to read something today that is going to give me guidance on how to move forward. How to regain hope in order to dissolve the fear and sadness I feel.” I held my children tight before sending them off into a world that feels changed from how it felt yesterday. I went on Facebook and found comfort there, in community. I cried. I listened to Paul sing Let It Be and Hey Jude. I cried some more.

I don’t know that I’m going to find that single piece that will tell me what to do because I think the knowledge of how to move forward is going to come out of each one of us – together. But I am determined to find my way back to hope, so I promise you this:

I will connect.

I will write.

I will be responsible for the story I choose to tell and the words that I use.

I will dare to do uncomfortable things and put myself in uncomfortable places in order to bring about justice for all people.

And I will remain relentlessly determined to be a light in the world.

Will you join me?

for b.

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There are two trees in front of the house next door. They bloom twice a year, once in the spring along with all the other trees, and again in the fall after they have lost their leaves. I never knew trees could do that, and even though I’ve seen them bloom twice before, this year again it amazes me. It feels rebellious, audacious. Generous. These beings of nature that do their own thing but manage to give of themselves in the process.

I’ve been connecting with some very old and very dear friends the last few days, some with whom I haven’t spoken in years, following the passing of a friend we all shared. It hit me that I am at that age – when friends my age start to go. I’ve lost important people in my life – grandparents, friends, my child. I’m not new to death or loss or grief. But this hit me differently.

Life feels tenuous today. I feel hyper aware of something I know but manage most of the time to ignore: that nothing is guaranteed.

And yet here we are. We bloom when we can, we fall when we can’t stay up. And then sometimes we manage to bloom again, like those trees.

Like those trees, we reach out to each other, but sometimes not enough. Sometimes it takes a loss to remind us.

This is for you, B. Thank you for your adventurous and generous heart, for your wit and humor, and for all you gave of yourself to all of us who love you.

 

on cankles and self love

ClavicleExcerpt from Shrill, the amazing book everyone should read, exploring our views about fatness, by the incredible Lindy West.

Dear 15-year-old French boy I had a crush on the year I was an exchange student,

I still remember your name, I probably always will. I can almost remember your face 30 years later. You were adorable and you had a nice smile. You wore v-neck sweaters and button down shirts and nice pressed jeans like French boys did then, in the eighties. You were popular, you made your friends laugh, you made me laugh as we all sat in cafes after school and drank coffee from small cups and shared cigarettes, like French teenagers do. You and that one other guy, you were like the ring leaders, but no one seemed to mind because you made us laugh.

I doubt you remember me. I was only there for one semester, visiting your school all the way from California. The American girl who spoke fluent French because she had lived in France as a little kid. The one who wanted so much to fit in, to be as French as she possibly could be, who bought her own v-neck sweaters and smoked her first cigarette and drank coffee along with you and all your friends. It was so exciting to feel like I could fit in, like I could belong, even for just a little while.

You were nice to your friends, you were nice to me. Until that day you weren’t. But I doubt it even registered. I doubt you even knew what you did was hurtful.

You don’t remember, but I do. 30 years later, an amazing life, an amazing partner, an amazing family and an amazing community of my own, and I still remember.

We were sitting in a cafe with our friends and I was sitting next to you. I’m sure I was beside myself with excitement that you had sat next to me that day. I’m sure my heart was beating really fast. I’m sure it was the moment I had written to my friends back in California about, the moment I had hoped for. When you would notice me. You looked down at my legs next to yours, and you put your hand on my thigh, and you looked at me. I can’t remember exactly what you said, but the look on your face said everything: Look at the way your thighs expand when you sit. 

I can’t remember what I said or did in response. I know I must’ve been stunned. I know my heart cracked into a million pieces. I’m sure my face turned red. Nobody noticed. Nobody said anything. I think I looked at you questioningly and you laughed it off, the cruelty already dissolving in your mind, I’m sure. Then you started to tell a story to the group, and I sat there, still next to you, invisible but stuck in that booth between you and the wall.

I should have fucking hated you. I should have slapped you and asked what your mother would do if she heard you talk to a girl that way. But I didn’t. Instead my heart cracked, and I looked at my thighs, and it stuck. For life. The way my thighs expand when I sit. As all thighs do, by the way, even your skinny little French boy thighs in your pressed jeans.

I hope you grew up and never hurt another person like that. Or if you did, I hope you got shit for it from some girl more confident, at 15, than I was.

****

Dear friend from freshman year in high school who invited me to your slumber party,

Some years ago I was watching 30 Rock for the first time, catching on to the Tina Fey craze a few years later than everyone else. There was an episode where Tina Fey made a comment about a part of the body I’d never heard of before: her cankles. I laughed so hard I cried. And I cried, too. That’s it! I yelled to my husband. That’s what I have! Cankles! 

I didn’t know whether to be happy, relieved, proud, or incredibly sad that I had cankles. But at least, in that moment, I didn’t feel alone. If there was a word for it, if Tina Fey had them too, clearly I wasn’t the only woman on earth with thick calves and not-very-defined ankles.

Did you know that word 30 years ago, even though your legs were the opposite of mine? Even though you had thin legs and thin calves and thin lovely ankles, and you could wear heels without feeling like a duck? Do you remember what you said to me at your slumber party, when all of us were lying on your bed and we had our legs up against the wall?

This is what you said: “Ohmygod! You don’t have ankles!” You probably don’t remember, and maybe you can’t believe you even said it. Maybe you would feel terrible now if I reminded you. I hope so. But I remember. And it stuck. I’ve held it for all those years. My ankles that are barely ankles. My fat calves that go right to my feet. My cankles.

I thought about my cankles when I took a walk this morning. I thought about the way they hold my legs up, help my feet move, allow me to be able to take my morning walks. They work well, as well as your thin ones, I’m sure. Sometimes I joke that in my next life I’m going to have kick-ass amazing ankles and thin lovely calves, maybe I might even wear 4-inch heels. But does it really matter? Do I really care, or was a seed just planted that night at your slumber party that no longer belongs there?

****

Dear cute guy I had a mad crush on my freshman year in college,

Somewhere on some ancient diskette somewhere I have a computer diary I kept during the year I knew you. Probably 90% of it is about you, and the insane all-consuming crush I had on you. I don’t think you had a clue how in love with you I was, partly because I was only one of probably a dozen girls – maybe more – who felt the same way that year. But also because you didn’t see me.

I don’t mean you didn’t know I existed because you did. We were friends. You were nice to me. You were nice to everyone. You shared your beautiful smile generously. You flirted generously, making all of us who adored you feel like maybe, if only…

But for me there was one problem with that: You didn’t see me. Not that year, when I carried 60 extra pounds on my body, more than I felt comfortable with. You didn’t see me that year, after I had spent the previous year emotionally eating Ben & Jerry’s after my parents’ divorce. You didn’t see me when I was fat. You didn’t see me because I was fat.

Then one day, during my junior year, I ran into you on campus. I had lost much of my extra weight by then and I wasn’t fat anymore. You noticed me as I walked by and you invited me to sit down. You asked me how I’d been and you gave me your undivided attention. You were still nice to me, but in a different way. Because for the first time, you could see me.

I was flattered. I probably ate it up. But it hurts now, when I think about it. Because nothing about me had changed in those few years except my exterior. Well, maybe one other thing had changed: I was more confident without those extra pounds. But should I have been? Could I have learned to be a big girl and also love myself unconditionally? Could I have been a confident fat girl? Would you have seen me, sooner, then?

****

I have been the fat girl. I have been the thin girl. I have been somewhere in between. Regardless of my weight, my thighs expand when I sit. My ankles aren’t fat and neither are my calves, but I am built a certain way and I didn’t get well defined ankles this time around, and my calves are thick. But the thing is, even when I was fat, when I wore a size 16 and not a size 4, I was still me. I was still beautifully perfectly me.

Here’s another part of my body I discovered I had as I got older, as the weight came off: clavicles. It’s true, well defined clavicles are for thin girls. When you’re fat, they hide. My clavicles now can hold oceans. I love them. I used to love them because they meant I was thin. Now I love them because they are part of me.

And I love my flabby thighs that expand when I sit, with the stretch marks that remind me, each morning when I get out of the shower, that I was once fat. They used to make me cringe, my stretch marks, and fill me with regret. If only I hadn’t eaten all that Ben & Jerry’s… If only. But they don’t make me cringe anymore. Because they’re mine, part of me, and they tell a story.

I used to tell this victory story about how I gained weight really fast because of what was going on emotionally in my life, and then lost the weight in a healthy way; how I refound the body that felt like me. But I don’t tell that story anymore, it no longer serves me. The only victory, I understand now, is that I learned to love myself.

I think 90% of why I was miserable when I was fat was because I felt invisible and unworthy of love in that body – ashamed, ugly, hidden. We are cruel about fatness in our society. I’ve been cruel about fatness – my own and others’. And we raise thinness way up next to holiness, that thing we should all aspire to be: Thin. And if we get there, all of a sudden we are seen.

Take a moment to question why that is. Take a moment to question whether we can do better. As women. As men. As a society. Toward ourselves and toward others.

****

Dear 15-year-old girl I used to be,

One day you will be 45 and you will be thin. You will have clavicles that can be seen and they will hold oceans. You will be seen. You will see yourself and know you are beautiful.

You will also wish your boobs were bigger, not smaller. You will wish you had more curves, not less. You will still joke that one day in your next life you will have kick-ass ankles and wear heels. You will still wish your thighs were more firm.

But you will love your body. And you will appreciate all that you can do in it. And you will find comfort in that. And you will feel gratitude for all that you are. Because you are amazing. Your body is amazing.

Trust me. I know. And I love you.

what we fear, what we hold dear

All lives matter. It’s everywhere, this debate that it’s not just black lives that matter, but all lives. Every few hours on my Facebook feed, I see a comment to someone’s post with those three words: All lives matter, with the unwritten but inherent but before them. Usually a back-and-forth ensues, where someone then has to explain why those three words – All lives matter – are hurtful and actually part of the problem. Why saying that all lives matter right now, in this challenging and necessarily uncomfortable place where we are trying to talk about the value of black lives, is dismissive of those very black lives we are being called upon to recognize.

It’s not complicated in my mind and heart. It’s clear to me why all lives matter hurts, dismisses, ignores. Because we aren’t all the same – not in the eyes of our culture, our society; not in the eyes of each other; not in our experiences; not in our status. Even if in a perfect world we would and should all be equal, right now and for centuries leading up to this moment, we are not yet seen or treated as equal.

I am white and I have not lived as a black person. There are experiences that my black son will have that I will never know personally because of my white skin. Because my identity in the eyes of society, in the eyes of others, does not show on my skin. Because you can’t know just from looking at me that I am Jewish, that I am an immigrant, that I am bilingual because I came here from somewhere else.

So when I see all lives matter it makes me wonder, What is it that we fear?

What makes us feel threatened – as white people – when we hear that black lives matter that we should need to reply so quickly, so defensively, that our lives matter too? Are we afraid – even subconsciously, even as the good people we are – of losing our status, our importance, our value? Are we afraid of losing our privilege? Because the thing is, we do have privilege. Our privilege as white people is in the fact that it has always been a given that our lives matter. We have never had reason to doubt the value of our lives. We have not been told by the inherent messages and structures around us that we are inferior, less important, our bodies and our lives more disposable.

Black lives matter doesn’t take away from that. It never can and it never will, because in a systemically racist culture – our America, our world – white lives have always mattered more. That won’t be undone easily. And it won’t be automatically undone when black lives begin to matter, too. The thing is, all lives will truly begin to matter only when black lives begin to matter.

Maybe it’s just semantics, but I think it’s more than that. There is no such thing as color blindness. None of us is color blind, even if we are raised in the most open, loving and diverse communities, even if we are taught from the very beginning that each of us is created in the image of God, perfect and precious exactly as we are. Even my three-year-old black son has already noticed that his skin is a different color than my own, than his sister’s, than his father’s. What he doesn’t yet know is what that difference will mean in the bigger picture, to him, and as he grows up in a society larger than his immediate family.

I don’t see color, I see only humanity. We are all one. That’s a beautiful sentiment, and it isn’t untrue. I wish it were that simple. But this ignores our unique experiences. It ignores that my experience as a white person and my son’s experience as a black person will always be different because of the privilege I have that he won’t. Because of the implicit bias that is in each of us.

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Two nights ago I marched with my black son and my white husband at an NAACP and Black Lives Matter rally in defense of the value of black lives. For blocks I walked behind someone who held a sign that read, We’re not trying to start a race war. We’re trying to end one. And that was it for me, the reason why I don’t see color, we are all one is too simple. Because racism is alive and well; it is systemic and has been for centuries. Most of these precious, powerful black people I marched with – my young black son included – have ancestors who were brought to this country as slaves. That is the race war and it isn’t new. Black and brown men and women make up a disproportionate amount of the prison population in this country – that is the race war and it isn’t new.

There was a black man walking to my right for a while who had written on the back of his jacket, Am I next? His question is not one I will ever have to ask about myself, but it is one I will have to ask about my son. Could he be next if he isn’t careful, as a black boy, as a black man? That is the race war and it isn’t new. It isn’t new, but it needs to be recognized, questioned, challenged, dismantled.

I think more than anything, each of us – whether we are saying that black lives matter or all lives matter – needs to feel seen, heard, known, valued, recognized. As humans we want to feel safe, cared for, held by our communities. We want to be a part of something rather than feel isolated or alone. We want to know that we are each important – because we are. When that is threatened, we fear invisibility, we fear our disappearance. We feel the loss of our identity. So we yell out, I matter too! And you do! We all do.

Right now, though, I am putting aside how much my life matters because it is something I just know. My importance, my value as a white person is not in danger. It’s not going anywhere and it is not something I need to worry about. But the value of my son’s life, the value of the lives of all black men and women, is at stake. So that is what I mean when I say that black lives matter. Because black lives have to begin to matter as much as all other lives. Until they do, the race war – the one that divides us and lifts some of us up by keeping others of us down – will be alive and well for decades and centuries to come.

it’s personal

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I have a black son.

I have a black son and I am his white mama.

I have a black son who is too young still to know that society

fears him,

mistrusts him,

doubts him,

considers him a threat.

I have a black son and I am his white mama.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

For now my black son is just adorable, charming, beloved, everyone’s friend.

He trusts because he should,

because he is only three years old.

I have a black son and I look at him and wonder,

When will he change in the eyes of those around him?

When will he begin to look scary, criminal, less capable?

When will his teachers begin to overlook his talents?

When will he be punished for misbehaving, considered deviant, while his white friends are dismissed for “just acting like children sometimes do?”

When will I have to tell him that he shouldn’t wear the hood of his sweatshirt on his head?

When will someone cross the street for the first time for fear of him, their heart racing?

What will that do to my son’s heart?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

When we filled out the adoption paperwork we were extremely clear that the child who would join our family did not need to be white.

We knew that he probably wouldn’t be.

We imagined a black son.

We knew – abstractly – that we would be taking on a great responsibility as the white parents of a black child.

I’ve been asked by both black and white friends,

“What is your plan for preparing your black son for this world?”

What is my plan?

Nobody asked me what my plan was when my white daughter was born 12 years ago.

I didn’t have to have a plan beyond loving her and giving her the world.

But my black son?

I want nothing more than to love him and give him the world.

And I know how brutally that world can be taken from him – in an instant – because of his gorgeous brown skin.

How do I prepare him for that without taking the world – his promise – from him?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son.

His ancestors came to America on slave ships.

The racism that binds him – something he doesn’t yet know – is systemic and has not ceased for two and a half centuries.

I have a black son and I have a responsibility to teach him that.

How do I give him that knowledge, that understanding which is his right, without the promise that things will get better

for his people who are not “my own,” but to whom I am still accountable?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son and he is a lover.

When he was three days old I held his tiny body inside my shirt, brown skin to pinkish skin, his head against my heart.

I promised my black son that I would care for him and protect him until my final breath.

I promised him that I would teach him how to be a good man.

How to be a black man.

Can I teach him that as his white mama?

What does it mean to be a black man, now, today?

What will it mean for him when he turns 18?

Will he remain safe – will he remain alive – until then?

Will he get the long, full life that is his right,

His promise?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

I have a black son and he likes to wrestle, to tackle, to do karate chops, to yell, “Hah-YAH!”

How will he be seen for that, how will he be judged, as he grows older and becomes “a threat?”

How will I teach him that, around people in positions of authority, he will need to be submissive, compliant?

And that even then his safety – his life – is still not guaranteed?

Still not protected?

Still considered by some to be less sacred than mine,

or his sister’s,

or his father’s?

Why should I have to teach him that?

I have a black son.

It’s personal.

 

Those men, those boys, those women who have been killed for being black,

Whose names are a list we read and reread and speak and call out

to remember,

Those precious lives that matter,

They could be my son.

They are my son.

My son’s life matters.

 

I have a black son.

It’s personal.