Tag Archives: Life

When white privilege isn’t white: Confessions of a complacent Latina

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, there was a fire at a garment factory in New York City. Within less than 30 minutes, the fire had claimed the lives of 146 mostly young immigrant women. I’ve been so moved by this tragedy since first hearing about it, felt so connected to the personal stories of these women, that it inspired me to write my first novel. So on Friday, March 24 of this year, I was taking an early morning bus from DC to New York to attend the commemorative events.

Shirtwaists carried in honor of the victims.

I arrived at Union Station an hour before my bus and headed straight for the restroom, which was occupied almost entirely by homeless women, doing what we all do when we first wake up in the morning. Brushing teeth, fixing hair, looking in the mirror; some were putting on makeup. Bags with their few possessions sat open on the floor nearby.

Now, I know homeless people “live” in bus and train stations, and it’s obvious on the most basic level that they’d use those restrooms. Still, it was jarring to me. I didn’t feel like being confronted with an uncomfortable reality before six o’clock in the morning. And I wasn’t just confronted with it, I was sharing the bathroom with it, competing with it for space in front of the mirror before I’d even had my morning coffee.

Crowd gathered outside the historic factory building at the Corner of Greene Street and Washington Place to honor the memory of the fire.

Facing uncomfortable realities is a ubiquitous part of life. But it’s somehow become a daily occurrence in the nightmare shit show that’s descended on our country since last November. It’s constant, inescapable.

And I must confess, with due self-awareness, that I’d spent the past few years of my life in a state of relative complacency. Sure I’m Hispanic and have at times encountered some real doozies in prejudiced stupidity … you’d be surprised if I told you the source of it sometimes. But as a Puerto Rican, I’ve been a US citizen since birth. I am very assimilated, and my hometown for the past 20 years has been Washington DC, a known “coastal elite bubble.” My son attends a bilingual school among many other children of diverse ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and gender-identity backgrounds.

I knew these past several years that things are far from perfect. I’d just been sufficiently untouched by bad stuff that I didn’t (need to) sweat it too much. For all my education, travels, so-called sophistication, for all my pursuit of diversity and my righteous outrage over systems that oppress the underprivileged, even as a woman of color, I’d embraced the safety of a life where my privilege was hardly ever questioned, much less threatened. I liked things that way, took them for granted.  I didn’t ignore the undercurrents of egregious inequality everywhere, but I did, for all practical purposes, choose to remain silent about them.

A lot of folks have articulated well how the recent election has awoken a bunch of us out of our complacency. That it’s a good thing this is happening. Like the beautiful essay We were made for these times, which inspired the quote that appears at the top of this post. It’s all so true. If we all waited for injustice to affect us directly before we spoke out for what’s right, the wrongs we humans inflict on one another would never be righted.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. … It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing … One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.”

It’s just so easy to get bogged down, too. By outrage, powerlessness, uncertainty about what to do next. Every single day —EVERY. DAY.— I alternate between feeling grateful and determined to stay woke, and longing for the familiar comfort zone of the harbor I had known.

Back in the ladies’ room at Union Station, I noticed the homeless women were getting themselves ready to look just like any of the other travelers waiting to board a train or bus. I saw some again outside the restroom, and it worked well, they completely blended in. Had I not seen them in a more private moment, I’d never have known they were homeless.

In fact, I realized I’d seen one of them before, on a previous trip. My train was delayed, she was sitting next to me at the gate, and thinking she was a fellow traveler, I’d asked her if she was also waiting for the same train. She snapped and yelled that no she wasn’t, then grabbed her bag and stormed off. I remember feeling rather stung by her unkindness.

But you know, I’d just spent the morning doing the same exact thing as those women, dressing for a part. In my case, the part of an educated, moderately sophisticated urban wife and mother, an Americanized Puerto Rican who teaches Spanish, who reads, writes and travels. And please-god let me look the part of someone who’s written a story worthy of being read by more than 20 people. Most of the time though, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and I suffer from crippling impostor syndrome.

Every year, volunteers with street chalk visit the homes of the fire victims throughout the city, and write a commemorative message on the sidewalk. This was my first year participating. It was humbling, and an honor.

So, I could profess to feel a deep bond with women who perished in a fire over a hundred years ago, but bemoaned having to share a bathroom with homeless women on my way to honor the century-old tragedy? And this is what it boils down to. I’ve embraced, for decades, a sense of empathy in abstract, in theory, removed. Injustice hadn’t touched me in any real sense, so I could toot my own political correctness horn but remain generally silent about it. This is what we refer to when we talk about white privilege, or privilege in general, and why we need to keep talking about it. It’s something that I, even as a person of color, have been guilty of.

Something’s shifted, though, within me. It’s baby steps. One day at a time. But it’s true and irrevocable. Because our mutual destiny is inescapable and “tied in a single garment.” The homeless woman who yelled at me? I wasn’t exactly kind to her, either, on our second encounter. But she absolutely is my fellow traveler. So were the women in the restroom that morning. So are you. And remaining silent as though the plight of less fortunate sisters and brothers here and now isn’t mine and ours to bear is simply no longer an option. And so maybe I will look back on this time, and I will be grateful to my intolerant, unkind teachers after all.

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Live every day like it’s your birthday

Everyone has a favorite version of the old adage: “Live every every moment (or every day) like it’s your last.” I get it, I do. Life is precious and fragile, and if we knew we were dying (which when you really think about it, we all basically are), what would our souls yearn to do with such urgency that we’d once and for all let go of the meaningless stuff that weighs us down? I absolutely get this, particularly when it comes to loving, and letting our beloveds know they are cherished. (I sit here writing this on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.)

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I also find the idea of death as a motivator kind of dark though. Some of us take urgency a little too seriously, and this sort of message makes us susceptible to feelings of anxiety and defeat. Because if it’s all about, “quick, you’re running out of time, go go go!” well shit, I just can’t take that kind of pressure.

This is how I felt on my forty-first birthday last week. For me it was a little harder than forty, actually. Forty felt special, a big milestone birthday. I used it to look at life on a grand scale, to ask big questions. In hindsight, that wasn’t such a great idea. So I didn’t ask big “life” questions this time. Instead, I decided to focus on how I would behave, what I would do differently, to mark this one birthday day as peacefully as possible.

1. The first thing I did in the morning, more consciously than usual, was to give thanks for being alive. Because it’s true that life is precious and fragile. I know how fortunate I’ve been, and I happen to like it here quite a lot. And each new day really is a gift.

2. As someone who doesn’t like being the center of attention and struggles with feelings of unworthiness, birthdays feel a little awkward. So in the morning, I also made a conscious decision to remain open to the love I’d receive during the day. To not try to minimize it with the tired deflective “oh I don’t deserve it!” reflex. But to receive it fully, because who am I to stop the flow of love, all because of some stupid (untrue) script stuck in my head since childhood? I read somewhere recently that any love we deny ourselves is love we deny the world. The older I get, the truer this feels.

So I let my husband David and our son Eric, and my parents, spoil me. And it was freaking awesome.

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Sweet surprises I got to wake up to.

3. I also tried to stay centered on what matters, again, not big-picture thinking, but in the small things that arose throughout the day. Eric got into a bit of trouble at school that day. Sometimes I get kind of fixated on these things. You know, like I can control them? I thought about it and asked a little bit about it. Then I was happy, very happy, to just let it go.

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A bouquet of my favorite flowers.

4. I deliberately commented with a thank-you message to each and every Facebook friend who wished me a happy birthday. Since I’m not super popular, it wasn’t a huge number of people, but it felt deeply special. And with responding to each of them, I remember each of them still, with enormous gratitude. I’d invite you to consciously write ‘thank you’ a few dozen times one day and see how you feel!

And finally, 5. This one’s connected to 2 because it’s all about love. In this case, self-love and truth-telling, and discerning when something is, and is not, about me. A loved one called and I missed their call. I was briefly tempted to worry this had made them mad, then I … didn’t. We spoke later, no one was mad, and that was the end of it.

Another loved one whom I’d have liked to hear from on the phone sent me only a text message. <Shrug.> I was disappointed; then I accepted it, very importantly, without reading into it any messages about me.

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Here comes the ice cream cake!

My family and I tried watching a movie we’d recently loaned to a friend, and the DVD was so badly damaged that half the movie was simply unwatchable. I reached out to the friend, part of me fearing she’d be insulted at the insinuation that she’d ruined our DVD. She didn’t recall anything happening to our movie while it was in her possession, which I wholly believe, but she still insisted on taking responsibility for it, and replaced it with a new one. I’ve always highly respected this friend; now I respect her even more. Obviously I needn’t have worried. And to think I almost didn’t ask!

Focusing on what matters. Gratitude. Knowing when something is about me and the enormous, glorious freedom that so much actually isn’t. LOVE. I had a perfect birthday. Not because every single circumstance of the day was perfect  –though it was pretty darn nice–  but because I remained conscious about how I responded to everything that arose.

Again, I didn’t set out to ask big life questions at my birthday this year. But in asking how I wanted to spend the one day, I actually stumbled on some practices that could serve me pretty well every day. And since we’ve established that I’m not a fan of undertaking each moment like I’m about to kick the proverbial bucket, I figure that using lessons from a day spent celebrating life is a good approach for me. I probably shouldn’t eat every day like I ate on my birthday though…

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Churros con chocolate happy dance.

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Back to School

My son Eric started first grade last week. You’ve all seen the funny memes, gifs, and videos of parents doing a gleeful happy dance when school resumes at the end of summer. For some reason though, I really don’t feel that way. So I thought I’d break it down a little to understand why.

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First  –and I know I’m speaking as an at-home parent–  I like going at least a few weeks with absolutely nothing structured to do. I loved lazy summers as a kid, loved them as an adult before parenthood, and love them still as a parent. We get to sleep in and take a long time eating breakfast, no lunchbox needs packing, no running out the door, we travel, go out for the day or stay home … we just get to hang out. (And yes, there’s also a lot more TV. So what? It’s summer!) Why would I be in a hurry to be in a hurry every morning again? For the most part, I’m really, really not.

There’s also the part where I miss him and feel nostalgic, plain and simple. I’m sure it’s not unique of me to feel occasionally sentimental about the passage of time. You’ve heard it before: It goes so fast. And the feeling tends to hit me the hardest at the start of a new school year. When we turn a year older or mark the beginning of a new calendar year, we do celebrate, but then we go back to our relatively unchanged routines. A lot more changes with each new school year.

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Kindergarten graduation in June.

For instance, Eric graduated kindergarten in June. But it’s not until I see the new crop of kindergartners and their parents at school now that it really sinks in. There are new teachers and new classmates. He has a locker now instead of a cubby. He’s literally moved up one floor in the school building. He knows he’s one of the bigger kids now and very proudly displays a lot more independence in many different areas.

So between laziness and nostalgia, I love summer and feel less than thrilled about back to school.

And yet …

If researchers were to conduct studies on when even the most well-meaning parents are most likely to lose their patience with their kids and, shall we say, speak to them in a slightly raised tone of voice, I suspect they’d find a correlation between this phenomenon and summer, particularly its final weeks. I think both kids and parents get stressed knowing school’s about to start. No matter how much we love our school, there’s anxiety over change and the unknown.

Obviously, it’s all the togetherness, too. Let’s face it, Eric’s used to not being with his parents 24/7. And that’s a good thing. An important thing. My kid honestly doesn’t want me around all the time, and by the end of a few weeks of that, he’s probably ready to spend several hours a day where I don’t see or mediate most of his actions.

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Hugging it out in Venice, Italy this summer.

From my end, the more we’re together at home in the context of a daily routine, the greater the danger of me believing the terrible delusion that I can control all the influences my kid is exposed to, and that in the degree to which I control that, I can rest assured that he’ll mirror back and validate me and my values. I think plenty of parents, stay-at-home moms especially, are vulnerable to this. In the first week of school alone, Eric has come home saying some things that make me want to ask him where he heard it, who said it and in what context, what he said in response, and what he thinks about it all. In other words I’d thoroughly dissect everything with him. Then I’d tell myself it’s so that he has a chance to discuss and process it. But I’d bet that a good eight times out of ten, I’m doing it just so that whatever he’s exposed to goes through the filter of Mom, and I once again have the illusion of control.

So with everything Eric says that comes from school, I try to stay aware, and check myself first. If it’s something that could compromise his safety or ethics, I pursue it. If it just threatens me and my delusions of control over my kid, I rein it in. His knowing I’m not a needy hovering parent is at least as important as knowing I’m there whenever he needs me.

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More summer fun!

So, do I celebrate back to school? Yes and no, I guess.

Parenting someone so young and sweet is so much more precious that I ever imagined. And the separation we experience every year at back to school, more so than at birthdays or New Year’s, reminds me all too keenly of how crazy fast these years are moving. My heart aches a little. The tug is real.

But there’s something to be said for making it through another school year and summer together. It’s not a flippant reveling in having him “out of my hair” again though. Yes, there’s relief that the end-of-summer jitters have passed and the year has started out well. Yes, I do better when I have some time to myself for a few hours five days a week, and he does better when a portion of his time and interactions with people and with information aren’t controlled by his mom. Most importantly though, my boy is slowly yet assertively making his own way in the world. I honor that. That, I celebrate.

 

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Me and Star Wars: A 35-year saga

Picture it. Santurce, Puerto Rico. Summer 1980. I’m not sure why my parents thought it was a good idea to take their 4-year-old daughter –who’d probably never seen the first Star Wars movie– to see Empires Strikes Back.

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My older siblings and me around 1980.

All I know is my 7-year-old brother was eager to see it, so all of us went. We must have gone to a matinee, because I remember the sun being very bright. It was hot. And the line outside the theater went around the block. People in the line were fanning themselves with whatever they could find, including pieces of cardboard they must have torn off some box(es) somewhere. Soon I started to feel funny. I pined for a bit of shade, and the makeshift cardboard fans provided only minimal relief. My dad must have noticed something, because he went to move me out of the sweltering sun into the shade. Next thing I knew, I was flat on my back, blinking up at the sky, at Papi’s worried face, and at the pieces of cardboard in the hands of well-meaning strangers fanning me back into consciousness.

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An old movie house in Santurce, PR.

Turns out I have an abnormally high sensitivity to heat. That was my first time fainting, but I’ve been collecting similar embarrassing stories ever since. (Just ask my husband David about our hike in the Grand Canyon when we’d been dating less than a year.)

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David and me the day after I “survived” the Grand Canyon.

Thus was my introduction to Star Wars. I don’t remember anything about the movie except for the fainting, and the incredibly jarring scene where Darth Vader cuts off Luke Skywalker’s hand. It sucked.

By the time Return of the Jedi came along, and we once again went as one big happy familia, I actually adored the ewoks, and the power of love in the final showdown between the emperor, Luke, and Darth Vader moved my 7-year-old soul deeply. But it wasn’t until the prequels came out many years later that I really got into the high anticipation for each new release, and the terrific excitement of watching them in theaters.

The Force Awakens has been an all new experience. I’m 10 years older than I was at the last Star Wars theatrical release, and am now the mom of a young Star Wars fan. There’s also social media. On opening weekend last December, friends’ Facebook statuses featured a lot of Star Wars-screening-related updates. I also saw folks who were earnestly out of the Star Wars loop and were moderately interested at best. Then there were the ones who are so above it all, who had great fun baiting their Facebook friends by faking an innocent I-just-don’t-get-what-the-big-deal-is! shrug and headshake. David and I (make no mistake about it) were super excited to see it. We were also okay waiting a couple of weeks.

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At the movie theater for The Force Awakens. Funnily enough, this was also in Puerto Rico. We loved it! And not just because I didn’t faint this time.

After some debating, we decided our 5-year-old Eric wouldn’t come with us. We really didn’t think he was ready for all that nonstop action and loudness (and drama!). Since he hadn’t yet finished Empire Strikes Back, and he himself wanted to be caught up on the stories, the decision was easy.

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Reenactments are a frequent scene in our house.

Eric had declared, right before his 5th birthday last March, that he was going to start watching Star Wars after he was 5 years old. He remembered it, too. He was a little scared in some scenes but made it through A New Hope after a few sittings. We started Empire Strikes Back with him in July. By now he was deeply invested in the characters, and as soon as things started to go awry for Luke and Han, he demanded that we turn it off.

“What if Luke dies?”

“He won’t die. We’ve seen it. We know.”

“But he could die!”

“He doesn’t.”

“BUT HE COULD!!!”

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So we let it go for a while. Eventually, the frenzy of The Force Awakens got him interested again. He finished Empire Strikes Back almost exactly 6 months after starting it. David and I were on pins and needles over the scene where Darth Vader reveals his true identity. But Eric seemed more concerned for Luke’s hand than the weight of Vader’s revelation. (I don’t blame him.) And there you go. After that, Return of the Jedi was a breeze. We watched it soon, and quickly.

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It’s dawned on me that my kid started watching Star Wars precisely 35 years after my parents took my siblings and me to see Empire Strikes Back. What vastly different experiences. I love few things more than a good hero’s journey tale where evil is redeemed by good. I don’t say this in a religious sense or to sound Pollyanna-esque. There’s immense life-affirming power in the triumph of light over darkness, and that draws and resonates deeply with many of us. This, for whomever doesn’t “get it,” is the reason why we love these stories. Experiencing and discussing them with my sensitive, inquisitive young boy is wondrous in ways I never could have dreamed back in 1980. (Not losing consciousness helps.)

My little man turns 6 in a couple of weeks. Can you guess the theme of his birthday party?

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This is Eric last Halloween, helping with the groceries.

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Three S’s for 2016

Okay. Yes. I made New Year’s “resolutions.” But no, they are not aimed at losing weight or making money. Instead, I set intentions for myself in the new year. The idea came after a bout of anxiety in the final months of 2015. Folks who, like me, are prone to periods of anxiety never know when they’re going to strike. But it’s captured quite well in this internet meme.

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My initial sneaky trigger last fall was a worry about my son Eric and illness. Think the usual worries most moms feel, multiplied by … a lot. Soon, the Paris attacks happened, and the negativity and anger that surfaced afterwards were deeply upsetting. I started a blog post about it and simply couldn’t finish it. My husband David was also travelling overseas a lot in those weeks, and I was in a state of constant fear for his safety. It was all just a little too much.

I went into a bit of a personal hibernation (despite the abnormally mild start to the winter) in which I was just productive and present enough in the daily wife & mom grind, but rendered pretty powerless in most other respects. I rallied and cheered up for the holidays, yet the start of the new year still found me feeling more than a little bit vulnerable.

So I set three intentions for 2016. Coincidentally, they all start with the letter S.

The first one is self-care. I’m sure you’ve heard it before: It’s often hard for moms to take time for ourselves. Even when you’re at home, like me, the time your kid is in school can easily be spent dealing with family and household stuff. Add to that a lot of stressful stress, and toward the end of the year, I wasn’t writing or seeing friends or going to yoga class. I was barely exercising, and wasn’t even reading much. I thought of returning to New York City, a hugely re-energizing solo trip I’ve made every February since 2012, but then wondered if I could justify it, since I’ve finished my novel set in the City. I usually know better than to be a martyr mom or to draw all identity or worth from parenting, but it’s such an easy place to hide when feeling emotionally lousy, that I found myself using family as the excuse for everything I simply had to or couldn’t do.

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On the second day of 2016, David and I watched the sunset off the West coast of Puerto Rico, and talked about what self-care means to me.

Thankfully, my knowing better caught up with me, as it usually does. And I realized I was in woeful need of some serious self-care. For me, it starts with taking time for myself without feeling guilty about it, or trying not to … baby steps, you know. Time for my writing, for reading, for exercise, for personal space and quietude. It’s eating right, and while I’m on the subject of what I take in, also learning to discern amongst the many —many— thoughts that enter my head. I mean, I can be discriminating about food but then accept every wild and crazy thought (and I have some real doozies) that assaults my mind like it carries a truth about me and my world? Uh, no. Right?

My self-care also entails saying no to things I’ve been accepting, which compromise who I am and my values. When I was in the throes of some internal struggles right around New Year’s, I came across this beautiful article. The highlight:

“The sapling doesn’t look to its elders for approval. It just grows toward the light … it all comes down to how each of us dares to say no when asked to be other than who we are.”

It can be hard to say no, but sometimes there’s too much at stake not to. I’m talking here about no as a complete sentence, without apologizing for it. And oh — yes, I am going back to New York City this month!

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Clichéd but true.

My second intention with the letter S has to do with my relationship with the concept of should. Because come on, think about it. If you’re anything like me, you obsess over what you should be like. And over how someone else should be behaving (usually someone who’s pissing you off). Or exactly what a given scenario should be, look, and feel like. Frankly, I am exhausted! The thing about should is, it conjures expectations. Obviously, right? And I don’t know about you, but I could seriously use a reality check on expectations, and a firm, honest sense of what I can and can’t control.

Which brings me to my third and final S, the Serenity Prayer.

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I think of the term change in this prayer as closely paralleling control. Iyanla Vanzant says that the greatest human addiction is the addiction to control. That we fear what we can’t control, and since we don’t want to be in fear, we try to control, control, control. Something like that. Though I may not be in a 12-step program for substance abuse, I must honestly confess that I have been addicted to control, in one form or another, my entire adult life. And it has been at the heart of So! Much! Needless! Suffering! I suspect I’m not alone in this. Enough, please.

Among the many reflections I’ve made on aging and life since turning 40 recently, maybe the most important lesson learned is, growing pains never really end. And at the same time, growth is always worth it. So, time to grow up, like the sapling, toward the light. Time to say no when it matters. Time to seek wisdom about what I can and can’t control. To embrace acceptance when something’s out of my hands, and courage when I do have power over it. Most times, the only thing I’ll be able to control is the story I choose to tell myself about what’s happening within and around me. And maybe, that’s power enough.

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Grace (Ask and it shall be given, Part 4)

Confession: I, like roughly 9.9 out of 10 of you, suffer from feelings of unworthiness. Thankfully, I also believe in grace. It’s because of grace that I ultimately rarely let such feelings run the show. (There’s a reason why people always talk about saving graces.) I’ve had good reason to count the extraordinary blessings of my life in recent weeks, and I’d like to share some of them with you. Sorry if it sounds like bragging. I assure you, it’s nothing more than overwhelming gratitude. It’s a short (very short) list of some the past month’s gifts, and a story about how these gifts are helping me heal the feelings of unworthiness.

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I’ve spoken before about my love for Elizabeth Gilbert, and for my 40th birthday, I decided to try to see her again at an event. After a very quick search, I saw she was going to be one of the speakers at one of my favorite places ever (the Omega Institute), just ten days after my birthday. Done, and done!

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I also learned she’d be visiting DC one week after the Omega Institute retreat, to promote her new book Big Magic. Obviously, I bought a ticket for that, too, just for good measure.

The weekend of the retreat arrived, and two minutes after I checked in at Omega, I ran into one of its co-founders, a personal beloved hero, Elizabeth Lesser. I was tongue-tied and in hindsight feel silly and shallow (see how easily the self-berating happens?) that all I did was ask for this photo. Thank goodness I did also remember to tell her I love her and that it was an honor to be there.

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Saturday morning Liz Gilbert took the stage. It lived up to every expectation. One of my favorite quotes from her talk was, “No creative act can take place until you stand in the arrogance of your belonging … against the terrorist inside your head that says, ‘Who do you think you are?'”

Later on … can you believe it? I ran into her and got to give her a hug and snap this photo!

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It then seemed like an embarrassment of riches that I’d be seeing her again in DC just one week later. That week, my mother was coming into town, and I decided to try to take her with me. I felt that if I at least shared it with her, then I would feel more deserving. But the event was four days away, my husband was headed to Morocco, and we didn’t have a babysitter. It would have felt pretty lousy to go by myself and leave Mami behind, but even if I tried changing my ticket to her name, I doubted she’d go by herself. And by then I really wanted her to go. My first step was to go online and see if there were tickets left. There were, and I bought her one. (Later that same day I looked again out of curiosity: Sold out!) You know what else? I found a sitter just two days before! So, Mami and I went.

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And she was as inspired and energized by Liz Gilbert’s talk as I knew she would be. My heart swelled with gratitude that things had fallen into place so perfectly.

One of my two favorite quotes from that evening was, “You need magical, mystical thinking to do creative things because it’s an absolutely irrational thing to do.” That I possess such weird and irrational ways of thinking is without a doubt one my graces in this life.

The other one was, “When someone tells you they are brutally honest, it’s rarely about real honesty; they’re asking for permission to be brutal to you.” Holy crap. I’d never thought of that before, but it’s true. I can’t stand snark disguised as sophistication; you know … that person with a mean streak who tells you you can’t take a joke? Oof. Steer clear, folks, steer clear. I know I do!

But my favorite moment of the evening came when a cancer survivor got up to speak, and offered Elizabeth an engraved bracelet (sadly I forget what word(s) it was engraved with) as a gift. Elizabeth accepted the gift, and said something like this: “I used to say no to these types of things. Then I realized, they are grace, and I don’t want to stop the unfolding of grace.” Boom. Wow. A few minutes later, Elizabeth gave the bracelet to another cancer survivor who stood up to speak. I cried.

And there it is: Grace. If nothing else, grace is what definitively inspires me to overcome thoughts and feelings of unworthiness. Because it’s not about me. None of this is about me. It’s about something so much bigger than me.

I’m not really sure how to stop the cycle for myself. The script of unworthiness seems so deeply and irrevocably embedded in me, it’s like my constant annoying companion. It happened just a few nights ago when I visited a book club as the guest author. The awesome women who asked the read my manuscript described it with words like “page-turner … a great sense of place … deeply-developed characters … ” and most importantly said, “don’t give up, you’ve got something good here.” I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t spend most of the drive home telling myself they were just being nice. Two days later, the night after some details for a new family project in the works for 2016 (which will likely involve stamps on our passports and shedding a few lbs in preparation) began to fall into place –I’m not exaggerating– thoughts of undeserving ‘who-am-I’s kept me awake for hours.

But I have now amended my script from ‘who am I to receive such gifts?’ to ‘who am I to stop them?’ Who am I to stop grace? Who the hell is anyone to dare mess with the ever unfolding poetry and dance that is grace? That’s what your “friend” is doing when s/he wants to be brutally “honest” or tells you you can’t take a “joke.” It’s what I’m doing when I dwell on feeling undeserving. Why don’t we stop the cycle, or at least turn it around? It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about keeping grace in motion. Seeing Liz Gilbert for my 40th birthday taught me this. Grace begets grace. Love begets love. And what the world needs is love.

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A short to-do list, because YOLO (sort of)

It’s been a month of milestones in our little familia. My son started kindergarten at a new school that we’d been hoping to get into since before he was born. He’s been adjusting well and we are loving the community. I turned 40, and have returned to teaching (college Spanish) part-time. But I want to share with you two “smaller” parenting firsts that happened yesterday, and the things they made me think about.

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Yesterday was the first time since starting my new day job that my husband wasn’t home in the hectic final minutes before we have to be out the door in the morning. I had to get my son to school, and had to be at my job by 8:40. After being a stay-at-home mom for 5 years, this made me feel like quite the independent working parent: It was So Damn Stressful. And that’s with an only child and teaching just two mornings per week! More importantly? I believe with all my heart that single working parents who still manage to be present with their children are the greatest unsung heroes of our society. Hats. Freaking. Off. I bow to you. That’s all I will say about that for now, even as I acknowledge that no words can do justice to my deep and abiding awe for these superheroes.

Yesterday was also the first morning I dropped my boy off for school at the curbside, instead of parking the car and walking him in. The school’s driveway is a few feet away from the entrance, and there are adults lined up to help escort the kiddos from the parent’s car into the school. Full disclosure, I had trouble sleeping the night before. What if, in those few feet between my car and the school entrance, someone intercepted him? What if, once inside, he didn’t go straight where he was supposed to go? Are kindergartners really ready for curbside drop-off? What if it made him upset, and made me late for class?

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When we finally pulled into the school driveway in the morning, the school principal happened to be there. She walked over, opened his car door, and with a huge warm smile, offered her hand. He went so happily and proudly with her, I had to call him back just to give him a kiss goodbye and wish him a good day! (I also wanted to give her a hug.) I drove off to work basking in a soft wave of relief and of pride in my big boy, and only the slightest stirrings of “he did make inside, right … ?” It was a small milestone, but a milestone nonetheless.

As a fervent believer in reincarnation, I don’t subscribe to the old adage of You Only Live Once in a literal sense. That said, this lifetime is the one that matters to me now, and boy is it a precious one. After delving into deeper questions on the passage of time in my previous post, this time I got to thinking about more practical aspects of the question, what do I really, really, really want?

I prefer talking about to-do lists over the idea of one big bucket list. For example, I’ve started thinking about an empty nest to-do list. Oh sure, that’s roughly 13 years away. And you know what? I remember 13 years ago like it was earlier this morning. So I have a good sense of how fast the next 13 will go, and I want to at least have a plan when the time comes. Part of the plan is to travel more with my husband. Also, if I haven’t had the opportunity, to learn/perfect more foreign languages. I will research and write more books, hopefully (in theory at least) at a faster pace than now. I’m also looking forward to binge-watching all the TV shows I keep hearing about which I never have time to watch. (Was Mad Men really that good? What about Downton Abbey? No spoilers please!)

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Our little familia riding the London Underground from the Natural History Museum to the British Museum (April 2015)

But enough about stuff down the line. Assuming good health, what do I really, really, really want in the years ahead of me now? Here are some things, in no particular order.

  1. Research and write more stories (and be less scared about pursuing publication)
  2. See Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher
  3. Eat “freshly” smoked salmon in Alaska (and Norway)
  4. Learn to make handmade pasta … in Italy
  5. Have a Thai massage in Thailand
  6. See the Danube River separating Buda from Pest
  7. Shower my family with crazy wicked fierce lovin’
  8. Eat street food in Vietnam (my palate is more excited about this than my heartburn-prone gut is)
  9. Amsterdam: Pay my respects at Anne Frank’s hiding place, and ride a canal boat … and a bike
  10. Learn to knit?
  11. Eat a Belgian waffle purchased from a street vendor in Brussels
  12. Dance more
  13. Sydney Harbor
  14. African safari
  15. Learn more about wine
  16. Walk on the Great Wall
  17. Edinburgh …

Sensing a trend here? Yes, with me, it often comes down to travel. Beautiful, restless, put-a-stamp-on-my-passport-NOW-please, Wanderlust. By the way? I hope to do most of these things with my beloved husband and our sunshine boy. And I’m leaving a lot (like, all of the Americas) out. Not to mention the many places we want to take him where we’ve already been! It’s okay if we don’t do all these things. But I believe we can do some –even many– of them. What’s not okay is to not even dream them. I’ve never been shy about dreaming big, and it has never led me astray. Dreaming big and loving big, that’s the plan.

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This brochure for a trip to Thailand and Bali came in the mail recently. My son and I spent that afternoon poring over the details, and it was the best day-dreaming conversation we’ve had … so far!

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Coming to Manhattan

teaching-in-the-dark-learning-to-love-what-we-fear-23-638Tomorrow I’m going on a two-day trip to New York City, as I have done every February since 2012. I like to call it Mama’s Annual Pilgrimage (previously documented here, and here). My plan for this year is to attend a tour at the Tenement Museum, called Exploring 97 Orchard Street. This is like a dream for me. Besides that, I’m going to find a nice café (or a few different ones), and work on my whittling.
Whittling tools. If only they could help me in this situation!

Turns out the novel I’ve spent the past three years writing is too long. “Debut novels” in my genre are supposed to be no longer than 100,000 words. My first draft was–wait for it–147,000. Stephen King says the second draft is the first draft, minus ten percent. That, I can do. On draft five now, I’ve so far hacked off 10,000 words; ten percent looks well within reach. Will I get all the way down to below 100,000? Not sure. And if I can’t, odds are pretty good no agent will even look at the manuscript. Don’t think I haven’t thought about giving these pseudo-dogmatic standards this treatment. But I’ve had them explained to me recently in a way I understand (almost) better; and so, I hack away. Hacking doesn’t sound very artistic though, hence the term whittling.

In a recent Google search on book word counts, I found that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is approximately 150,000 words, similar to my original word count. I like to look at it and think it’s what my novel will look like once it’s published.

Momentum has admittedly slowed down. It’s partly due to feeling disheartened. Also, though, recent family needs compel me to re-evaluate things. No, I’m not pregnant. But there could be change on the horizon, which will be felt on many levels within my family. The meme posted by my hero Elizabeth Gilbert on her Facebook page today couldn’t be more timely.

For the past three years, I’ve been going strong–creativity-wise–fueled to a significant degree by this sort of feel-good inspiration. I tend to dislike gratuitous cynicism. I find it so one-dimensional, and we can do so much better. Lately, though … ? How do I distinguish between good old reality check and caving to cynicism? Here’s another recent meme.

A few months ago, I would have shared this, lived by it, maybe even written a blog post about it. The thing is, though, I also think that people who think they’re above paying their dues are idiots. Was that unkind? I’m sorry. The message about being born for something greater and more profound still resonates with me deeply. I’m not trying to be unkind. I swear I have a point.
My point–aside from having fun with social media memes–is that I strive to not be an idiot. And I know that, at age 39 and a half, I’m nowhere near done paying my dues. My own practical form of dues-paying will likely–hopefully, and for very happy reasons–mean finding gainful employment again, and soon. We just can’t continue the sponsoring at this time. I’m excited about it. I’m also panicked: That if I can’t get my book down to the desired word count by the time I start a new job, I’ll have to give up on writing. Dramatic? Please. This is nothing.
Because I work well with to-do lists, here’s the plan for now.
1. Keep whittling.
2. Pack vitamins and cold meds for NYC. (I caught my son’s recent cold, because sharing is caring.)
3. Attend some super-fun writers conferences this year–yeah!
4. Find new job and start it. Resume getting up at 5AM to write/research for an hour before the rest of the day starts, and again after boy goes to bed. It’s been done before, it can be done again.
5. Love my family. Love hard, in general.
6. Write down ideas (coming fast and furious lately) for second book. Give myself permission to be excited about it.
7. Remember that life is good, very.
8. Reread the article about 12 historical women, as needed.
9. Enjoy New York.
10. Write blog post about the trip.
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On Martin Luther King, and teaching kids right from wrong (spoiler alert: It’s hard)

MLK1-19-Martin-Luther-King-ftrMy four-year-old son was asking me a few days ago why school will be closed on Monday. He doesn’t care for school being closed, and asks to know the precise reason why he has to endure this. I told him it was in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and asked him what he knew about Martin Luther King. Here’s what he said: “Martin Luther King was someone who used very big words when he grew up. And then he died.” Technically, what he said wasn’t inaccurate. Still …

My first reaction was to take issue with his school for not teaching him in better detail about MLK. Then I got over my momentary lapse into short-sighted self-righteousness, and remembered that I am the boy’s mother–oh, riiiight–and it is not, ultimately, the school’s responsibility if he hasn’t learned about Dr. King.

So I began to start to try to tell him. That’s when I realized he may not know, at this age, the difference between black and white, or any of the races, for that matter. I mean, it’s just not something we have talked about explicitly in our house. Apologies to anyone who feels that my husband and I have been negligent in this regard. The boy is four years old, and he gets along with everyone (with about two exceptions) of every race that he’s ever met. He knows he is half-Puerto Rican. His friends have been white, black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed like him, etc. I simply don’t think it’s ever occurred to him that these differences can cause people to act differently–more importantly, unfairly–toward each other. In a sense, the reason why my boy doesn’t have school on Monday is because of racism. To explain the holiday to him was to burst his bubble. And that made me kind of queasy.

But I started. It was Friday afternoon. We were driving to Baskin Robbins after I picked him up from school. (I highly recommend surprising your kid with an impromptu after-school ice cream run.) I told him Martin Luther King is an American Hero, on the hunch that using the term hero would hold an appeal for him. I was right. He perked up, and instantly became interested. I fumbled and stumbled my way through a summary of how once upon a time, black people were treated very, very unfairly in America. Fairness is another concept that I know resonates with him. Naturally, though, my mind was screaming in protest about the once-upon-a-time part. If recent events in our country have revealed anything, it’s the staggering, nauseating, deadly pervasiveness of prejudices and inequalities based on racial differences. But. MLK was the topic at hand, and I told myself there’s no reason to force dire nuances on the kid if he’s not asking to know them at this time. He will learn soon enough–and no, I do not and will not defer to school to do the work of teaching him about this.

So I continued. I told him that Martin Luther King thought that everyone should be treated the same, whether they were black or white, or of any color. I consciously choose to use black as the more accurate term. Extreme political correctness all too often comes off as trite and inauthentic, in my opinion. See the story about CNN’s Chris Cuomo just last week using African-American incorrectly. So I try to stick with more transparent language. I told my son that MLK suffered injustices for defending everyone’s right to fair and equal treatment. That he was very brave, and never gave up. So we honor his birthday on Monday, again, because he’s a hero. My son seemed satisfied enough with this explanation. Once we got to Baskin Robbins, the one item on the agenda was chocolate ice cream on a sugar cone.

The challenge One of the countless challenges in teaching a young child ethics happens when doing so entails him being aware that sometimes in life, it feels as though things really suck, with no rhyme or reason. It’s “easy” enough for him to grasp this concept when he is affected by it on a very personal level, like when the answer to something he wants has to be no, and he’s pissed about it. In those moments, my response tends to be something along the lines of, “I know you are disappointed, I’m sorry you’re upset, we all feel that way sometimes, I love you, the answer’s still no.”

For about a year when he started watching the movie Toy Story, we skipped the Sid scenes completely. Dude, Sid’s toys are flippin’ scary to a three-year-old. Then there’s the whole meanness issue. Over time, though, when we thought he could tolerate the scariness, we let him watch those scenes. We’ve used them to talk about kindness and unkindness. About consequences. About bullying and abuse. And about disabilities, how Sid’s toys might seem scary at first because they look different, but they aren’t “bad.” Some great conversations have come out of this. Ultimately, it’s a fact that there are mean people in the world, odds are good my son will encounter a few of them; why not discuss these topics at home, first?

When the world at large becomes involved, it obviously gets trickier. We see the entitlement in this generation of kids. And we don’t wish to contribute to it. But there’s a way of teaching kids about others who are less fortunate that can lead them to feel like wretched beings who are to blame for world hunger. To a degree, I was subjected to this type of morality growing up, and I really, really don’t want to do that to my child.

At Christmas, for instance, we make a shopping trip for non-perishables that we then take to a food bank. We also collect some of his old toys to give away. The idea, as we try to convey to him, is that if we want to receive gifts, we first make room in our hearts by giving and sharing. Again, though. I struggle finding the balance in teaching him that there are others less fortunate than ourselves, without feeling as though I’m guilt-tripping him. Nor do I like the idea of doing something like it’s an obligation you take care of and check off, then pat yourself on the back for it. “So be right(eous) for righteousness sake?” Uh, no thank you.

For now, I think he knows his actions have consequences for others, both good and bad. Beyond that, I strive to lead by example, and stay focused on one thing: that we are all the same. That–on the most basic, logical level–it makes no sense to do to someone else something we wouldn’t like being done to us. For what it’s worth, I think he has a sense of that. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

You know, you have a baby, and you spend the early stages just trying to keep him alive, safe, fed, clean, and content enough. Then the realization dawns on you (or maybe it was just me being slow on the uptake) that you are responsible for delivering to the world a well-rounded human who’s not a pushover but who also gives a genuinely empathetic sh*t about others. Who knows he is worthy of love and joy, but doesn’t feel or act entitled. You know, all that fantastically easy stuff. No pressure. No big deal. And then … ? We all just do the best we can. How do you talk to your kids about (in)justice?

 

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Am I a Feminist?

feminism

Yes. No. I don’t know.

A bit of background.

I grew up in a pretty traditional Hispanic family. I enjoyed Disney princesses and all things girlie. I was scared of the term feminism because some men in my family thoroughly discredited the concept, and dismissed feminists as angry man-haters.

I also loved playing with my older brother’s toys, which were about 100% gender-specific. And I got into plenty of trouble for straight-up scoffing at things I saw and heard that simply made no sense to me, like a wife always (always) preparing her husband’s plate for a meal at family gatherings, or men making macho pronouncements about their macho superiority and authority. I saw so many husbands being mothered by their wives (with apparently no one seeing anything wrong with this), that I vowed to never get married. Naturally, as I grew up, I started to wonder whether maybe I was one of those “man-haters” that had so scared me as a young girl.

One thing that made my original nuclear family awesome was that they supported–indeed, they championed–its female members in achieving high-level education. My mother, sister and I are all doctors (sister is physician, Mami and I are PhDs). It was in large part thanks to this wonderful support that I finished my degree in Spanish Linguistics before age 30, and before I was married. This made me feel pretty bad-ass at the time. I lived alone for seven very happy years during graduate school in DC. During these years, I also got to see the world a bit. Alone.

The pyramids in Egypt; cappuccino in Florence; wine on a gondola ride in Venice; the Parthenon in Athens.
Eventually, I was pleased to realize that not all men are grown children. Then one day, I fell in love! My husband David and I did “shack up” before getting married (though, after I read some of the research at the time, not before getting engaged). While most people wouldn’t bat an eye at this, if you’d known me growing up, you’d know that this sort of decision could set many an eye to batting. Upon becoming a wife, I kept my own name–don’t care much for calling it my “maiden” name–instead of taking my husband’s name. Why? Simple. Thank you, Daniel Day Lewis.

I like that David talked to my father to discuss with him his intention to marry me. Of course it’s absurdly traditional, yet it didn’t make me feel like either man’s property. Maybe because I know I am no man’s property, and that these two men love me very much. Could it actually be that simple? Oh, I also love that my mother was a little p.o.’d that the phone call to “ask for my hand” was addressed to my father and not her. And when we were married, I did kind of look like a princess at our big fat Puerto Rican wedding, which we held in a church.
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May 2005

Obviously, my marriage is traditional in one important sense: It’s between a man and a woman. And there are other traditional elements when one looks at it on the surface. I cook and bake and plan parties in our house. David typically deals with plumbing and electrical issues, takes out the trash and recycling, and shovels snow. These happen to be our respective strengths. But the balance between tasks has always been equal.
Four-and-a-half years ago, we had a baby boy. When I became pregnant (biggest shock of my life!), I always thought I would go back to work before our son had celebrated his first birthday. And then, I didn’t. And this is just us, okay? But David and I determined that we wanted one of our baby’s parents to be the person who spent the most time with him in his early years. Given our respective salaries (I was working as a Spanish professor, he’s an attorney), deciding who stayed home was a no-brainer.
I would make the same decision in a heartbeat if given a do-over. Once again, though, like the choice to keep my own last name after getting married, I am in no way making pronouncements or statements by means of this choice. It was a simple case of two spouses discerning what their gut told them worked best for their family, and acting on that. Thankfully, and very importantly, we have a choice in the matter to begin with.
Now. I don’t know how parenthood impacts the roles of each parent in same-sex marriages (hallelujah for that, by the way). But here’s something I think a lot of married hetero moms like me can tell you: There is no bigger game changer and gender role divider in a marriage than having a kid. Boom. It’s crazy. This recent article is an excellent example of the apparent inevitability of this dynamic.
No matter how awesome a husband is at washing dishes, changing diapers, doing laundry, being there when the kid is sick (and in this regard, I have hit the PowerBall in the husband lottery), you’re the mama. Robert DeNiro’s prosthetic “manaries” in Meet the Fockers were funny. Ha ha. But only mamas can do the nursing. My kid looks to Daddy for rough-housing, and to Mamá for …  well, softness. And once the mom makes the decision to stay home? Fuggedaboudit.
The single most important reason why I am able to be an at-home wife and mom without feeling like a doormat is because of the kind of husband I have. Because I’ve always felt like his equal. And there is not a minute of his time outside of his day job when he takes for granted that I will be the parent on duty. This is key. This is critical. Therein lies my jackpot.
My loves in November 2010.
The thing is, my current uber-traditional family role still compels me to reevaluate the issue of being a feminist. And I’m not even sure of the answer right now. Let me break it down a bit more.
 
Gloria Steinem is one of my all time personal heroes. Any time I see a man acting like a baby, or pontificating (ugh, ugh!), I have to actively remind myself to breathe, in order to curb the sudden and urgent desire to smack him someone. Articles like this one make my stomach churn. I have been judged and chastised my entire life, by both men and women, for being too opinionated and assertive.
On the other hand, I’ve also been referred to as “floofy” on account of my taste for girlie things. And I was recently teased by friends because I liked receiving flowers from my husband. The latter two were by women. Striking a nerve on both sides of the equation? Now there’s something I find interesting.
Some of my favorite Gloria Steinem quotes.
But then I’m further confused by mixed messages. Like some married women not wearing wedding rings, and others straight-up rejecting engagement rings as barbaric. And apparently, they’re not barbaric because of unjust and violent diamond mining practices (this is actually a conversation I would be interested in having), but because of the old, awful, misogynistic trends associated with marriage and engagements back in the day. Way back in the day.
Wait, what? It’s based on this that we’re rejecting engagement rings? Please. Then why get married at all? If we were to really examine old practices and how they’ve been used to oppress women over the ages, no thinking woman ever would willingly get married to a man, much less leave her body open to the possibility of making a baby. Who, after all, gets to dictate the terms of what an object like an engagement ring symbolizes for two grown individuals in the 21st century?
Then there’s the wedding ring itself. Once, many years ago, I asked a married woman why she doesn’t wear a wedding ring. Boy, did she pounce! Something about how she shall not wear shackles because she is no man’s slave. Let me tell you something. This is a woman I love and adore, and have done most of my life. She is one of the kindest people I know. But ring or no ring, she does very little outside her capacity as daughter, wife, and mother, and her life basically revolves around the needs of the men in it, with no pursuits of her own, not even a “coffee can plan” down the line. It breaks my heart to say it. But who cares about whether or not you wear a piece of metal around your finger? I’m left scratching my head (more like shaking it) at the utter pointlessness of making statements for statements’ sake. Empty words, man–I mean woman! Here’s an idea. How about we lighten up, and get smart about picking our battles? Okay, that’s two ideas, but you get the idea.
I now, finally, understand Wayne Dyer’s frequent statements about how we should focus on being for things rather than against them. He is likely referring to the reactive “anti-” types, the very same types who seem fixated on making statements for statements’ sake. You know them, ’cause they’re all over social media. And there’s almost always something riling them up. I’ve noticed this particularly among particularly cynical women–this blog post is, after all, about feminism.
An example. Any time that “good feelings” are too readily available, such as the warm and fuzzy feelings associated with fall or the winter holiday season, or romance, such good feelings are rejected almost on principle. I think–I think?–these women view “feel-good,” or anything pleasing on an accessible, simple level, as incompatible with critical thought and/or intellectual sophistication. Which leads me to wonder, is cynical the new cool? Oh dear. If so, I am hereby cementing my status as uncool for life. That’s okay. With the exception of a very short-lived and confusing time in the fourth grade, I’ve never, ever, been one of the cool kids. All I know is, I grow weary fast when gratuitous reactivity distracts from the stuff worth fighting for, and god(dess) knows we women still have plenty of worthwhile battles to wage.
Another example. A lot of feminist women are dead against being asked by men to smile while they are, say, walking down the street. I get that. And I don’t. I remember being the target of cat calls one time when I was taking my baby for a walk in our neighborhood. I mean, this was very disrespectful and crude. Make no mistake. I laid into that guy like Hannibal freaking Lecter. That said, I like to smile. And I once asked a man to smile, and that got me an expedited passport for a trip to Mexico (the story is here).
My point is, there are enough mixed messages that I don’t always know where I fall on the question of feminism. It’s a question, like so many others, that can’t–and should not be–oversimplified. Clearly.
For now, my plan is this. I will continue to be the cook, baker, event planner, and travel agent in my household. I will also be the parent who is consistently home when our kid comes home from school. Most of my decisions in the foreseeable future will be conditioned by the needs of my family. I will also continue to go by the family name I was given at birth. And I will continue to pursue my writing and other passions. I will not become a martyr mother. Furthermore, I will not mother my husband. What is up with that?! And I will fix a plate of food for him mainly in direct proportion to him doing the same for me. Next time I’m in the presence of a pontificating narcissistic male type, I will actively remember to breathe. Next, I’ll remind myself that smacking the offender is never rarely the answer. Most times, not even trying to set him straight will be worth it. Instead, I will endeavor to recognize the equality and full humanity in him, too, in the spirit of Gloria Steinem’s quote above. And maybe then I will know I’m a true feminist!
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