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.

 

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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.

inheritance of laughter

 

Bday Smile

I have her voice, exactly. Her laugh, too, is the same as mine. Hers hits me most deeply of all the voices I hear on the cassette tape I have unearthed from a box in the basement.

She’s laughing so much. She sounds so happy, so present, so engaged.

It is a recording of my mother interviewing my great grandmother – her mother-in-law’s mother – about her young life during the first half of the twentieth century. They are speaking French. My great grandmother’s voice is exquisite – exactly as I remember it from the years I knew her, maybe a little stronger than it was at the end of her life, when she was in her nineties. I think she is 85 in this tape, visiting us in California from France. Her sense of humor is contagious, she is witty and opinionated and she makes my mother, my father, and her daughter, my grandmother, laugh constantly. It’s been 27 years since she died and I can still feel the soft skin of her incredibly clean, porcelain white hands. I can still see the twinkle in her blue eyes that could no longer see the world outside of her memories.

I was 10 years old when this tape was recorded, and I am not there. But every time my mother speaks or laughs, it is as if I am. Her voice is mine. Her laughter too. She is younger in the tape than I am now, but we sound so much alike.

I am struck by the palatable joy in my mother’s voice, how amused she sounds by the stories my great grandmother shares, how curious and inquisitive she is. I am reminded that there was a time – before the storm that started a few years later – when we were all really happy. That’s what I remember when I go back that far in my memory – a feeling of ease together.

Side one of the tape ends and the tape player I had to borrow from a neighbor to listen to it clicks off. I open it, flip over the cassette and press play again. For a few minutes, they continue talking, and then the recording ends and there is silence, but the tape keeps playing.

Then a new voice: My own. I am 13 years old and I have decided to record myself reading the family history project I am writing for my 8th grade social studies class. I have no memory of this, but I am so glad I decided to record myself because the information I collected over 30 years ago about my family is priceless.

I stand next to the tape player on the kitchen counter with a smile on my face and tears in my eyes. That’s me, young me. Funny little animated me. Already a lover of stories and words. I am so cute, so lovable. I think my daughter would like 13 year old me, too. It’s been a really long time since I’ve reconnected with my younger self in such an intimate way. It’s a little like rereading my old journals, but different because this is my voice.

I put in the next tape and it is 1997 and I am interviewing my grandmother. Her voice is strong, too, more raspy than her mother’s because she was a smoker for more than half of her life. Her memory is sharp and she clarifies some of the questions I have after listening to my great grandmother’s stories. I didn’t remember that I’d interviewed my grandmother, but again I am so thankful. Five years later she had a stroke and she could no longer tell me her stories. I felt like I had lost one of my closest friends; this grandmother who was not even 50 when I was born. So young and beautiful and so present in my life for so many years, in spite of the distance between California and Italy.

She’s been gone for seven years. Her sister, who was like my third grandmother, for three. Their mother for 27. My maternal grandmother for 30. But it’s not their absence that I feel in this moment. What hits me most deeply is their presence in my life, still. Like they’ve settled in somewhere deep inside me and they’re always there for me to connect to.

To hear their voices again just brings me back to them more suddenly.

 

 

(im)permanence

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Last night was the first StoryWell storytelling event hosted by The Well, a program of The Temple in Atlanta, GA. I was honored to be among six storytellers sharing personal stories based on the theme of permanence. Here is my story, both the audio and the text.

(im)permanence – StoryWell audio

I had a dream that she came out of my belly. She came out to tell me that she was a girl, and that her name was Tikva. She came out to tell me and then she went back inside.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the dream. In the morning I asked my husband, “What do you think of the name Tikva?”

“Hope,” he said. “That’s nice.” That was it, in that moment. It was still early, I was only halfway through my pregnancy. We put the name aside – a possibility. We didn’t know if she would be a girl or a boy.

Ten days later we got in a cab and drove to the other side of Jerusalem for the ultrasound – the big one you have in the middle of your pregnancy. The one to make sure everything is okay with your baby.

We took our older daughter, she had just turned four. It never occurred to us not to bring her. At her ultrasound the doctor had happily told us, “Everything looks perfect. Enjoy the rest of your pregnancy.”

There are three words you never want to hear from a doctor. Three words that change your life forever:

“THERE’S A PROBLEM.”

We had told him we didn’t want to know the sex of the baby, that we wanted it to be a surprise. But as soon as he told us something was wrong, it became so important to know this simple thing that would allow us to connect with our baby.

“She’s a girl,” he told us. Of course she was.

“Tikva,” I said to my husband. “Hope. That’s her name.”

We went home broken. Scared. The known had become unknown. My vision of what awaited my family was blurry. Frightening.

Would Tikva live past the moment of her birth? Would she overcome this imperfection that made her wellbeing so tenuous? Could modern medicine save her so that she could live a long, full life as our daughter?

How long could I keep her inside me, safe and held?

My husband walked to the Western Wall to pray. I gave him my prayer for my daughter on a tiny piece of rolled up paper.

Please, God, don’t make me bury my daughter. I won’t survive.

It snowed outside that January in Jerusalem. The city shut down as its single snowplow struggled to clear the streets. Somehow I made it for a second ultrasound and an amnio.

I made phone calls to specialists all over Israel. I sent emails back home, to San Francisco, connecting with experts there who understood our daughter’s condition. All of them encouraged us to come back home.

I cancelled our lease and packed our suitcases, and we landed in San Francisco the day before Valentine’s Day.

****

She was born 4 months later.

MY TIKVA. MY HOPE.

The moment I pushed her out and my husband cut her umbilical cord, she was swept away to be put on a ventilator.

I developed a love-hate relationship with that ventilator – this machine that kept her alive, weakened her airways, required a feeding tube so she could be nourished by my milk, and made holding her so complicated.

There was a brief period that started around day 30 when she didn’t need the ventilator, only oxygen. The doctors talked to us about what it might look like when we brought her home, how she would need oxygen probably for many months. We were ready for anything.

Please God, just let our daughter come home.

We held so much hope.

Tikva struggled. Our tiny seven and a half pound girl fought for her life. She wanted to stay, I really believe that. But her body was too fragile. She could never get enough air.

On the morning of day 58, as I pumped my milk for her, showered and got dressed, I had a feeling it was time. I didn’t say anything to my husband about what I felt, but later he told me he also knew. I headed to the hospital, and after taking our older daughter to preschool, he met me at Tikva’s bedside.

She had had a rough night in the critical care bay of the NICU. Her oxygen numbers had dropped frighteningly low. Twice the doctors and nurses rushed to her bedside as the words “CODE PINK” resonated over the hospital loud speaker. This time the code pink was for her.

I looked down over her and asked for her guidance. She opened her eyes to look at me and she told me she was done struggling, and it was time for her to go.

Please Tikva, please know how much I will always love you.

We took her outside for the first time in her short life, and her last breaths were of fresh misty air, no ventilator.

I held her as she died, and I did bury my daughter. And I survived.

****

She came out of my belly in a dream that winter to tell me her name was Tikva. She came out of my belly again in summer to teach me these three things:

She taught me how to hold onto hope when everything is unknown.

She taught me that all I needed to do in my powerlessness was to love her unconditionally, for as long as we had together, and forever after that.

And she taught me that everything is both finite and infinite. That nothing is permanent except love. That impermanence makes each moment so incredibly precious. And that we survive our losses and our struggles because even those don’t last forever.

In that time each fall when the milkweed seeds float around, or when I look up to see a red tail hawk flying overhead or perched in a tree, I feel like Tikva is there.

And as soon as those brief moments end and the milkweed and the hawk float away, I know she is still there.

Infinite.

My greatest teacher.

 

women’s bodies, women’s power

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I’ve watched Beyonce’s Formation video several times. It’s amazing. I’ve read the lyrics. I’ve followed along with the lyrics while watching the video, just to make sure I really heard what she was saying. I recommend watching it more than once to make sure you didn’t miss anything the first time(s). It’s challenging. It blows me away every time. It also makes me a little uncomfortable, which I experience as a good thing. I like getting out of my comfort zone, especially my white girl comfort zone.

I saw Beyonce own the Super Bowl halftime show, preaching black empowerment – on television – in front of millions of Americans. And was that a stadium full of rainbows at the end, in support of the freedom to love whoever you want? At the Super Bowl in the San Francisco Bay Area? Perfect.

I read discussions in my social media universe and in the larger media among women who were disturbed by how revealing Beyonce’s outfit was in the halftime show. These are intelligent, sensitive and feminist women, and they were understandably troubled that their children had to see a woman dressed in so little – showing so much skin, so much leg, so much ass, so much cleavage – while expressing her power. They wished out loud that we lived in a society where it was okay for women to be powerful while also fully clothed. I get that, I really do. And I agree – women should be able to be powerful and regarded and HEARD however they want to dress. I will never deny that our collective culture dishes out some messed up and contradictory messages to women and girls about our bodies and our voices.

But I wasn’t outraged because my 12 year old daughter was watching with me, seeing all that skin Beyonce was showing. To be honest, what actually came out of my mouth was, “Wow! Check out her strong-ass legs!” Followed by, “That woman is a total BAD ASS.” Followed by our own discussions in the week that followed about what the messages were in her performance, and why it’s a big deal that she is daring to and able to share those messages.

How often are women told it is beautiful to have real legs, thick legs, muscular legs, even short squat legs? When does it feel safe to show off those legs to the whole world – knowing the whole time that you will either be critiqued for your flaws, dismissed as the victim of a system that controls you and tells you what to wear and how to look, or condemned for being a slut?

Apparently it’s not that safe for a woman to be sexy and proud and loud and powerful. A Google search for “Beyonce post-Super Bowl backlash/commentary” shows that. Thankfully I’m not the only woman defending a woman’s right to be powerful and to make a statement in public – in whatever she wants to wear; the same Google search leads to some great commentary against the backlash. Commentary that also acknowledges and honors Beyonce’s blackness, rather than fears it.

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The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue came in the mail this week, one out of 52 issues that is not about sports. Well, sort of not. They actually had real athletes in this issue – female athletes with strong bodies. No lengthy stories about them, but photos of athletic women in the same skimpy bathing suits worn by the issue’s other models, along with short blurbs and quotes. And they had “plus size” model Ashley Graham, who in her little blurb spoke about cellulite; even if said cellulite was airbrushed away in her photos. She may be proud of her body exactly as it is (as she should be), but clearly we’re not quite ready to communicate a larger message to the public that cellulite is actually okay. I would love to see us get there.

The SI swimsuit issue made it to the bottom of the recycling bin before my daughter could see it. And I thought to myself as I buried it underneath flattened cereal boxes, “Why am I hiding this from her? Is there a difference here between the messages conveyed in the magazine and what Beyonce was saying in her halftime show when she bared her skin? If so, what is the difference?”

There’s a lot of sex in the SI swinsuit issue. The message is sexual, tiny bikinis cover large breasts, women posing in a way that makes their boobs and booties stick out the most. Waists are Photoshopped to be extra narrow so that everything else looks extra wide. There is desire in their faces, girlish innocence mixed with come-hither looks. They are sweaty, their hair is wet. It’s sexual. It’s confusing. And it contributes to the ways in which boys and girls grow up confused about how to relate to each other and to their own and each other’s bodies. I don’t want my daughter to grow up afraid of sexuality; at the same time I want her sexuality to develop in its own right time, in a healthy way.

She is 12 years old, almost an adolescent. Do you remember adolescence? Am I the only one with such deep imprints from that time, still, 30 years later? That time when girls and boys start to notice each other – girls noticing boys noticing boys noticing girls noticing girls. Girls competing with other girls, boys competing with other boys. Insecurities. Bodies starting to change, many girls finding themselves suddenly a head taller than many of the boys around them. Flirting starts, shyness grows and is overcome, first crushes happen and happen hard. Young hearts break for the first time. Sexual identity starts to form, in all its complex layers.

I don’t envy my daughter that she has to go through adolescence with social media everywhere – and I’m postponing letting her have her own phone for as long as possible because I’m not ready to navigate that yet. But for some reason I’m still trying to understand completely in myself, I don’t worry about her sense of herself and her body and her self-confidence. Maybe I’m mistakenly not preparing myself enough – or her – for the years ahead, maybe there are things she thinks about herself that she doesn’t share with me. I doubt I’m missing the important things, though. She and I talk about things, these conversations began many years ago.

And my daughter is different than I was at her age.

She is confident – in her skin, in her sense of herself, at school, in the world. She is outgoing, friendly, and not remotely shy. She is loud and funny and full of energy. She is athletic and active. Basically, she’s totally cool. Cool to her core, from the inside out. She is unique, she has always had her own style. And she is whip smart, strong willed, opinionated. She questions what she sees.

She has understood since she was little that women don’t look like Barbie or Bratz dolls. She knows that models in magazines are airbrushed, that their bodies have been manipulated by Photoshop. She knows what eating disorders are, and calories for her are units of strength and energy, not things that need to be counted or measured or controlled.

I don’t speak around her about the parts of my body I don’t love – and being her mother makes me question why I feel that way about those parts in the first place. I am very aware that I was even younger than her when I started hating my thighs.

My daughter once asked me why I never wear shorts. My answer is always the same: I prefer skirts. Maybe when she’s older, or maybe soon, I will tell her the truth and we can talk about bodies and women and all the complexities of being a woman in a body. I will tell her honestly that I am constantly remembering to love and cherish my body exactly as it is. That I care for my body because of that self-love. I will tell her that if I had Beyonce’s legs, I probably would wear shorts.

It’s so confusing being a woman and a girl. The messages are constant contradictions:

Be feminine. Be sexy. Be smart and unafraid, speak out. Don’t be too loud or people will think you’re bossy or whiny.

You are flawed. You are imperfect. There is always something you could improve about yourself. Get fit. Get strong. Get thin. Get toned. Watch what you eat. Dress in a way that flatters your body type.

Love your body as it is. Accept yourself as you are. Natural is beautiful. And if you try to fix something about your body so that you feel better about yourself, you will be judged for being shallow, insecure, vain.

I’ve done it, I’ve judged. I confess. Women and girls are each other’s finest critics. And we are hardest on ourselves.

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So I’m watching the Super Bowl with my family and out comes Beyonce and her shorts are shorter than her backup dancers’, and no one can deny that she is a beautiful woman who looks completely hot. She dances and she sings while the whole world watches – and her music has a message, a powerful message. Her costumes even have a message. And all I notice is her POWER. That this bad ass BLACK woman (with real, strong legs) has all eyes on her in that moment, and she is communicating something powerful, something that challenges the status quo. At the Super Bowl.

It’s been 25 years since I took Women’s Studies in college, even longer since I woke up to the concept of feminism. I was a photographer for the women’s newspaper in college, met female students who were putting themselves through school doing phone sex in the evenings. I learned about the first wave of feminism, the second, the third (my generation). I’m not sure what wave we’re in now. But feminism has changed, it has evolved, it is constantly evolving, and it cannot be just a movement of and for and directed by white women.

This is the thing I know now that I didn’t know in college: Nothing is black and white. You can’t say that women are always objectified if they are showing skin. I’d bet money that Beyonce felt amazing in that stadium a few weeks ago, or when she saw the final cut of her Formation video.

And then there is the race and color piece: White women or men – or the dominant white culture – don’t get to tell black women or men – or black culture – what they should or shouldn’t wear. Period. Bootie shorts or black hoodies. Skin or no skin. I don’t care how much of a feminist I have always considered myself to be: It will never be up to me as a white person to have an opinion about how Beyonce should dress or what’s appropriate for her. And I don’t want to dismiss or ignore her power because it is delivered in clothing that might make me blush or might feel inappropriate. The only female I’m in charge of besides myself is my daughter (until she is 18), who doesn’t wear short shorts because she is 12 years old.

I don’t see Beyonce as a victim of the messages she has been taking in all her life, thrown at her by our mysoginistic society. I see in her a powerful, successful, intelligent, iconic superstar who actually gets to decide – herself, for once – what she wants to wear when she shares her message of substance on the national stage. Maybe we can spend less time debating her clothing choices, and give more attention to HEARING what this empowered black woman is trying to tell us. Recognizing that her message is one we need to hear, even if it makes us uncomfortable.

In the very last line of Formation, Beyonce says, “You know you that bitch when you cause all this conversation.”

Think for a minute about the power and feminism in that statement…

let’s talk about trauma

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trauma: 1. an emotional wound or shock often having long-lasting effects. 2. any physical damage to the body caused by violence or accident or fracture etc.

Big, powerful word. It summons up thoughts of war, genocide, violence. Veterans who come home with the invisible wounds of PTSD after having fought in wars. It makes me think about my grandparents who were Holocaust survivors and what they carried deep inside them from what they had lived, from all they had lost. It makes me think about friends who have battled cancer, friends who have lost spouses, friends who – like me – have lost babies. It makes me think about all of the ways life can turn on its head in an instant, when we least expect it, and change us forever – change us down to our very cells.

Did you know that our cells carry our traumas?

I’ve been thinking about trauma lately, naming it, recognizing it inside myself. I’ve been looking at the trauma I still carry – even now, when I am feeling so much better – from the years I felt like such crap because of the auto-immune illness I live with. From the years I was so sick and struggling so completely to feel just a little bit better.

I have spent years – literally years – guided by my primitive/ancient/reptilian brain, living in fight-or-flight mode. I have spent years being cautious, fearful, and so completely careful about every bite of food I took, worried about how each bite would affect my body, frustrated to the point of rebellion that I couldn’t just fucking eat. I developed a superpower during these years: It’s an internal radar that allows me to find a bathroom – anywhere, anytime – within minutes if not seconds. I learned how to manage my condition in often obsessive ways that allowed me to trust my body just a little bit while taking away my ability to ever completely relax.

I developed other superpowers living as a sick person with a hidden illness: I got really, really good at managing my medical care, managing medical paperwork, getting reimbursements. I am the master of customer service calls, especially to health insurance companies. I got really good at researching EVERYTHING and taking what I had learned and the many resulting questions to my doctors. I got really good at developing supportive relationships with those doctors.

Do you see the theme, here, though? I am a fighter, a survivor. If shit hits the fan, I’m exactly the kind of person you want on your team. I fight. I’m persistent. I’m smart. I think 10 steps ahead at all times. I consider all possibilities in advance and I’m always prepared for anything.

But this is a crazy exhausting way to live. Especially when I was already feeling physically unwell. And especially now when I am feeling better.

(Do I even dare write “now that I am feeling better?” Am I really truly feeling better, for real? Can I trust that to be true?)

It’s a difficult lifestyle to unlearn because the trauma is still there – all the way down into my cells.

I was first diagnosed with this condition 19 years ago, after several years of other body challenges. I’ve had years of terrible illness and years with no symptoms at all and no need for meds. I’ve been surprised repeatedly when the symptoms returned, until eventually I came to expect they always would at some point – at least that’s what doctors tell you when you have a chronic condition. I’ve wrestled with whether or not to go on medication, felt frustrated when medication didn’t work or stopped working, and felt tremendous fear at how the medication might be hurting more than it helps.

I am so accustomed to living in a constant state of alert!-caution!-prevention!-attention! that it’s really difficult to turn off. To relax.

To trust my body. To trust that I am well.

The irony: Stress worsens my symptoms. That has always felt like a cruel joke. Just relax and you’ll feel better, I’ve been told, usually by people who are not living with an illness. I ate paleo – gluten free – grain free – vegan – raw – macrobiotic – (whatever) and healed! Try it, it will heal you too! This never helps me, just makes me feel like I’m chasing rainbows. Like I am never doing enough. And it makes me even more terrified of food. And I really enjoy food, a lot. And it’s not like I can just stop eating. Another cruel joke.

So how do we do it – how do we unlearn the fight-or-flight response once it is so familiar, so deeply ingrained in us? Is it possible to release, to heal some of the trauma, to lighten our load?

This is how I start: By writing these words. By naming it. Calling it by its name.

I think we all hold trauma in some form – big or small. I think when we keep it to ourselves, inside ourselves, we allow it to grow bigger, big enough to overwhelm us and drag us down. We are all fractured in some way, aren’t we? We are all imperfect and vulnerable. There is no shame in that. No need to hide our cracks, our scars, our wounds. Our traumas.

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And you? Is there a wound you hold that you’d like to name, to diffuse a little, even to release? How do you do it?

 

 

look for the helpers

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“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”     – Fred Rogers

You’ve probably seen this Mr. Rogers quote before. It comes up here and there, especially in times of national or global crisis. It shows up in a Facebook post after a tragic murder or some other senseless event that is difficult to understand. It comes when we are scrounging for hope, for faith in humanity. For faith in each other.

I thought about that line, Look for the helpers, as I read an email late last night about the passing of a very special man. The email was from his incredible wife, and I could feel the love and the heartbreak in her words.

He was a minister, a leader, a father, a grandfather and a friend. I met him and his amazing family during the most difficult time in my own family’s story  – during the period surrounding the short life and death of our infant daughter, Tikva, almost 8 years ago.

We didn’t know them at first, but we knew their daughter who had been a fellow parent a few years before when my older child had started preschool with her children. She reached out to us, and with her, so did her parents.

They offered their love. They offered their help. They offered the support of their incredible community. They collected furniture from their community for our empty home, baby clothes for our still unborn child, linens for our beds and bathroom, pots and pans and silverware and dishes for our kitchen. With grace and unconditional generosity of spirit, they held us when we needed it most. They brought ease so that we could focus on our family.

They weren’t the only ones. Friends and family left meals daily in a cooler on our doorstep for the entire two months of our daughter’s life and for two months after that. Relatives came through for us in uncountable ways. The Jewish community opened their arms and gave us a place to land. The parents at our older daughter’s preschool instantly loved her and cared for her and brought her home with them after school so we could stay late at the hospital with Tikva.

And a vast community of parents who had also lost babies – some further along on their own journeys and some right where I was – held me as I grieved, for as long as it took. Tikva’s loss brought the gift of new friends to my life, friends I cannot imagine my life without.

The helpers.

I didn’t have to look for them or seek them out; they just showed up. I didn’t have to ask; they just knew. Because of them, I know how good people are. Because of them, I survived. Because of them, I knew I was held and never felt alone. Because of them, it is impossible to lose faith in humanity.

 

 

 

resilience

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We not only care for our children because we love them, but we also love our children because we care for them. The process of taking care of our children is in fact immensely bonding. Our experience of difficulty altogether is where we come to know ourselves.  

~ Andrew Solomon

Writer Andrew Solomon has a TED talk called Love, no matter what. It’s my favorite TED talk ever, at least a dozen of its 3 million + views are mine. I first listened to it two and a half years ago, during a drive across three state lines with my baby boy sleeping in his carseat in the back of our packed car – we were driving behind my husband’s car, headed to our new home in a new city.

The description of his talk on the TED website reads: “What is it like to raise a child who’s different from you in some fundamental way (like a prodigy, or a differently abled kid, or a criminal)? In this quietly moving talk, writer Andrew Solomon shares what he learned from talking to dozens of parents — asking them: What’s the line between unconditional love and unconditional acceptance?”

I cried as I listened, thinking of Tikva, my daughter who had lived such a short but powerful life. I thought about how, in the 58 days she lived, she taught me my greatest lesson; she taught me about unconditional love and unconditional acceptance. Because I had only to love her as she was, for as much or as little time as I would have with her. Because I had to completely surrender every idea I had had about what she would become, how she would grow up, even that she might survive more than 58 days.

All Tikva needed was my love, pure and present. Unattached. Relinquishing any idea of being able to fix, to rescue, to save her. It was all bigger than me, I was whittled down to my core – and at each of our cores there is only love.

As I listened to Solomon’s words on the headset of my phone, I looked in the rearview mirror at the tiny boy asleep in his 5-point harness, a blanket wrapped around his brand new little body. He had been alive for three months, for just three months he had been my son. I thought about how before those three months I didn’t even know he was coming, I didn’t even know how he would change my life. I thought about how intricately connected he was to Tikva, how her story had become his story, how all of our souls were already intertwined.

I thought about what it would mean, for every year of my life until my very last breath, to raise a son, to raise a black man, to mother a young child again, to be an adoptive parent. To love again. To love unconditionally.

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I think of myself as a resilient person. I have experienced pain. I have sometimes survived and sometimes overcome loss and illness, heartbreak and grief. I have been cracked and stretched in ways that have not always been comfortable. I have grown, hopefully evolved in good ways. I have learned – I continue to learn – about what really matters, and about what I can let go.

After Tikva died, I had such little patience for petty complaints about trivial things (those of others as well as my own). I wanted to make a t-shirt that read, Remember what matters, as a reminder to others and also to myself. When you experience great loss, as you experience the deepest sorrow, the really important things come into the sharpest focus.

Would I be the same person if life had beat me down just a little bit less, if I’d had to put myself back together a few less times? Was I born resilient, or is it something I learned? Where did the optimism I have always seemed to carry come from? Is resilience a gift? Is it something I can teach my children, or will they learn it on their own through their own challenges?

There is comfort in knowing that the challenges have had some value, that out of them I have come to know myself.

Resilience is peaceful. When I allow myself to feel my resilience, I experience calm, acceptance, confidence, trust, strength, hope, wisdom and compassion. Resilience isn’t blind faith; for me it holds the knowledge that, while more shit will surely happen, I have the experience – the resilience, the ability – to get through it.

When I first learned about Tikva’s birth defect 5 months before she was born, almost 8 year ago, I didn’t think I could ever survive losing my child. But there it is – resilience. I survived because I had no other choice. I loved the only way I knew how – completely. I learned to love the only way that is worth loving – unconditionally. No matter what.

My heart cracked open into a million tiny pieces. Each day I recognize and connect with my resilience and I put one more of the pieces back together, polishing the rough edges, re-forming myself into something new, something better. Choosing to thrive.

Isn’t that what we all do, in tiny ways and huge ones? I think this is the opportunity offered by our resilience: Choosing over and over to love – ourselves and others – unconditionally, no matter what.