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What I wanted so badly I could taste it

I had just started therapy. The chance to talk about myself, and only myself was relishing. I loved being able to sit in the chair and have someone listen to me. There were a few questions, but very few. Yet somehow, a thing began to open up in me, a tenderness and an honesty. Really it was a sadness. A deep sadness and grief. I felt like a failure. I’d poured years of my life into my job and my family and my husband and my church and my activism and my looks and all these things. But the one thing, the only thing I’d ever wanted to do, was missing.

I realized it while driving down the road. My thoughts opened up like a firefly from the bottle where he’s been housed by a small child. All I wanted, was to write. I knew, as I’d always known, that if I didn’t get myself to write and tell my story, I would carry this sadness the rest of my life. Suddenly the make-up of success and perfection melted off me. I was left grey and plain and alone. But not so alone, because the honest confession that I was missing all that I really cared about, was my new companion. To write. I believe it, felt like a distant dream. Like knowing myself, in some future state, the ability to know who I really am. The ability to accept myself and be free to feel, fully. It wasn’t just the dream of success, the dream of being published and known by the identity of writer. It was the realization that I could only be alive if I was writing.

From that moment on I was changed. I knew writing was all that mattered. I was still so far away from being able to do it, but at least I’d changed my course. I’d admitted to myself that I’d been led astray. I think perhaps my fear of failure led me away in the beginning. Then my mind did that thing where you have to justify the choice you made by continuing to make choices that lead you down that same path. Never having to admit wrong doing. That was what was important to me.

These moments of honesty, they are so powerful, but so fleeting. I am so good at lying to myself, pretending that everything is fine. Numbing myself with business and duty. I love the positive feedback of doing what I’m supposed to do and someone tells me they “don’t know how I do it.

But all those choices at the end of the day have nothing to do with who I am and what I want. I don’t want to admit that I gave that all up a long time ago, but as the years tick on, the realization that I don’t have forever is getting the better of my fears. To have to write is my seed. When I pursue that life, the life where I need to write, and where I have a purpose, and writing helps me get there, that is when I feel most alive. I don’t know why I ran away from it for so long. I had an idea of writing, and it looked like a quirky short story, or a fully developed novel. My idea of writing always looked peculiarly like someone else. I hadn’t yet accepted that the story I needed to tell had to be wholey mine, and that I might not like it.

After my divorce, that voice inside my head grew a little louder. It was only a little louder, but loud enough to hear, all the time. I began to write until the goosebumps rose on my arms. Writing became like orgasming. I think it was myself coming out of a dark shell that had finally, permanently cracked. I was feeling what it was like to be me, in many ways for the first time ever. Writing became my identity. Not because I was known to the world as a writer, but because I was known to myself as a writer, I was writing. Writing it down in bursts of pieces of feelings and images. Honesty about the world and the pain that lives inside me could start to come out. It would take years to actually be comfortable writing anything, everything, writing freely and fluidly. The voice inside is loud now, the voice inside is my voice, the one I speak out into the world and the one I write with. I have been and always will be, a writer, I know this, but slowly, surely and each day a little more, I am this.

Why I call Bullshit on “Thank You Essential Workers”

“You have arrived.” 

The voice from my phone taunts me as I squint out the window of my van, panning slowly across rustic-style doors and perfectly arranged porch furniture for, please god, a house number. I’ve got an order of food to deliver but all the houses on this street clearly want to keep their address a secret. There is a message drawn in a child’s hand and pasted in the window of a blue front door, it says “THANK YOU ESSENTIAL WORKERS.” I stare at it, and then see, nailed above, the shine of metallic numbers. Of course, this is the house.

The first time I saw one of these handmade signs, I felt special, and it put a little extra bounce in my step as I walked the food delivery up to the house. An envelope was taped to the door with “Thank you!” written across the front, a bigger than usual tip left inside. But now, after the hundredth sign, and the thousandth delivery, these signs have started to betray something hidden,

“I’m so thankful you’re out there, so that I can stay put and stay safe in here.”

I am an essential worker at a bagel shop in Upstate NY. I happen to own the place, but as any small business owner knows, I still have to do the work. I am grateful to have a job. It’s even nice to have somewhere to go, a reason to get up and get dressed in the morning. I even enjoy getting some human interaction, joking around with co-workers and most importantly, bringing home a paycheck. But essential work is hard and repetitive. The pay is the lowest in the labor market, and the jobs are often not very rewarding.

Essential workers perform tasks essential to the health, safety and community wellbeing of the larger population. One of the biggest differences between essential and non-essential workers is that the essential jobs require the worker to be in a specific place, away from home, usually among other people. Whether it be a janitor who cleans and sanitizes after each teacher leaves with the next week’s work or an aid who lifts her patient into bed at night, essential workers have to use their bodies as well as their minds to do their work. 

This type of work often carries increased risk, from traffic accidents for truckers, to working heavy machinery in a factory, to handling dangerous situations as first responders. Since the pandemic swept our country, that risk, and the related stress, has increased. Essential workers have struggled with a lack of personal protective equipment. And for those who deal directly with the public, sometimes that risk comes from the brazen disregard of public health recommendations on the part of consumers. 

In light of these realities, how does a thank you sign actually help?

Everyone is struggling during the pandemic. Many Americans are juggling new responsibilities from homeschooling to housecleaning. Essential activities are disrupted, and access to essential goods is more difficult. Suddenly a trip to the grocery store requires extra preparation and special timing. Doctors visits, scans and surgeries are postponed until further notice. Everyone is more aware of the things we used to take for granted. Things that used to be part of our day-to-day life are now disrupted and it’s out of our control.

The impulse to thank essential workers comes out of this lack of control. We feel we have to do something. Being able to say something kind, like thank you, makes us feel a little better. Maybe saying thank you feels like a small insurance policy against the threat of life unraveling any further. In reality, the thank you essential worker messages highlight a deep divide in American society between the haves and the have nots. The signs are created in an effort to lessen that divide. 

When I look at our society, I see the opposite of gratitude for essential workers. 

We may look up to reporters and doctors, but what about truckers and housekeepers? Truckers are nothing but a nuisance on the highway and housekeepers literally stay out of the way so that we don’t even have to see them. How many parents of those kids hand making signs are imagining their children will one day come home satisfied after an honest day’s work of garbage collection? Not one. It’s sad to me that bumper sticker-like sayings are all that we have collectively been able to say about the moment we find ourselves in. And like so much of what is said nowadays, I think the “thank you essential workers” messages betray a deep disconnect between what we say, and what we really mean. 

When I deliver to poor neighborhoods in the inner city, or trailer parks, I don’t see the thank you signs. Rather they pepper the fancy neighborhoods, the ones with solar panels on their roofs and perfectly curated front porches. Does that imply that the poor, the folks who make up the majority of the essential workforce, are not thankful for each other? Of course not. Because that’s not really the point of the message.

American society says thank you to the essential workforce only as long as we are forced to notice them. As more of the country returns to work, society’s focus will shift off essential workers. Pretty soon the signs will start to come down.  Getting back to normal will mean that as long as there are fresh tomatoes to pick over at the market and the bus arrives at the time the schedule says it will, no special attention is required.

Grocery work will be treated again as just grocery work. Nothing to strive for.

Thankfulness for essential workers is not actually directed towards people, rather it’s about relief that someone (doesn’t really matter who) is out there to do the jobs we would not want to do ourselves. The signs make us feel better about the fact that as a culture we have never really seen essential workers before. Essential workers have never been anything more than fully stocked shelves and resolved power outages. 

If society didn’t value the essential workforce before the pandemic, I don’t see how a bunch of thank you signs have made any difference. Not one sign has put food on a family’s table or made working conditions any safer. The thank you messages haven’t forced policy makers to address income disparities and crack down on abusive corporate policies. They haven’t made worker’s unions any stronger. They haven’t made people pay more for essential services allowing for a universal basic income. And the signs certainly haven’t stopped racism from dictating the terms of our country’s economy and society.

So, as long as making signs is all we can come up with to bridge the wide gap between people who are safe, and people who are struggling, then the essential workforce will remain invisible, and the divide in our nation will continue to rip us apart.

When we use our personal stories to create Holiday traditions, the loss of a loved one becomes a part of the true meaning of the season

Holiday time is all about planning. We plan our trips to see loved ones, we plan our wish lists and our shopping lists. There is a plan for how and when to get the tree, or to get the decorations down from the attic and put them in their pre-assigned places. 

The radio stations play the most predictable music of the year, and the color palette of every store, every party and social gathering is basically the same hues. 

But for many of us, the Holidays include the un-expected, and the tragic. Scientific studies have even shown that there is a rise in deaths during Christmas and New Years, though scientists have not been able to explain why.

Since much of the holiday traditions we enjoy tend to operate on a sort of auto-pilot, most of us aren’t prepared for how to reconcile our experience of the holidays with our grieving over the death of a loved one.

We may even feel guilty when trying to enjoy the spirit of the holidays if there has been a death of a family member or close friend during this time of year. 

Even though the experience is common, there is little discussion about how to deal with this loss of equilibrium.

Holiday traditions and rituals all began somewhere, some are very old, and some originated within the timeframe of our own personal memories. No matter where these traditions started, their origins had to do with real people, and those people’s real life stories. 

In many cases, holiday traditions we now find simple and even trite were complex and fraught with human struggle at their inception.

The biblical Christmas story begins with the mother Mary’s fear at her miraculous pregnancy and culminates with the naked, vulnerability of the infant Christ Child.

The Christmas card was invented when a harried, overworked businessman found himself unable to muster the energy to write the customary, expected, personal Christmas letter. Unable to get his act together, he hired someone to create a stock Christmas letter that would suffice for his lack of personally addressed prose, and the idea spread from there. 

As our lives unfold, so do our personal and family histories. Holiday traditions offer us a chance to tell our own stories, our memories of joy, and our history of loss. We can infuse our genuine feelings of sadness into our existing traditions as a way of acknowledging and honoring our grief.

An example of this may be including a meaningful song that reminds of us of our loved one and not feeling bad about playing it alongside the customary Holiday playlist.  

But we can also build new traditions for the holidays, ones that honor our missing loved ones.

We might create a special dish at the holiday table, one that the person who died used to make regularly, or was their favorite to eat. We might take some time one day a week, or daily at meals during the holiday season to light a candle in honor of those who are no longer with us. Or we could take a portion of our holiday spending and give to a charity that in some way honors what our loved one was passionate about in their lifetime. 

These are just a few suggestions to get you thinking about how to incorporate your feelings of  sadness into a time a year that rarely makes space for it. The idea is to be empowered to make the holidays about your family’s story, and use the traditions you practice to honor that story. We also encourage you to make entirely new ones.

Remember that without sorrow, there can be no joy, without loss there can be no appreciation of all that we are given. This is not to diminish the pain and suffering of losing a loved one, but rather to help incorporate those experiences of pain and loss into the true meaning of the holidays. 

The holidays are a time to be deeply human, and to embrace all that makes us so. For us northerners, it is a time when darkness grows to its fullest point of the whole year, before it gives way to the light. This process of darkness to light continues year after year, cycling as birth and death. 

If we allow ourselves to feel sadness at this time of year, we will be tapping into true stories of countless who have gone before us, and through acceptance, we can find our way, time and again, back to joy.

Raising Women

Yesterday, Cokie Roberts died. My afternoon commute was peppered with women’s voices remembering their friend and mentor for her role in their lives and in the history of journalism. Clips played of her strong, defiant voice, challenging the legacy of patriarchy and the way women’s contribution to a news story were discussed and recorded. Her leadership in the industry was apparent by the number of women in positions of prominence who said she helped pave the way. In each recollection of her significance, the speaker endeavored to explain the most distinctive aspect of her leadership, her kindness. Strong and opinionated, she conducted herself with an unfaltering commitment to decency and manners in a city of cutthroat ambition almost bordering on barbarism. Her specific mix of authority and consideration of others was all too rare. This is especially in the world of politics, where the most visible women are either laughing stocks (think Sarah Palin or Elizabeth Warren) or singular targets of vitriol (Hillary Clinton, Nancy Pelozi and Kamala Haris).

It all got me thinking about my daughter, about all our daughters, and what we are raising them to be in this world. For certain we need more women as CEOs, more women in houses of government, more women’s voices on the news. We need women leaders in emerging fields of science and technology, where the future and it’s implicit biases are being researched and invented. But more important than what our daughters become, is who they become. If we aren’t focusing on building up their strength of character, their ability to consider others, and their commitment to kindness, than what is the point of having women replace men at their half of the table? What our world lacks is not simply women, but compassion and perspective. In a culture where power is equated to the number of losers in your wake (just look at our presidency), are we raising a generation of girls to serve these same gods of ruthless ambition?

We need to not only encourage young women to speak out and step up, we must warn the next generation what is at stake if they sacrifice their integrity while climbing the professional ladder. There exists no world where a woman (or a certain race, or people of sexual orientation or whatever) is a better choice for a position simply because of her gender. We should be instilling in our children judgement based on Dr. King’s “content of their character.” We should be spreading the message that our everyday choices matter enduringly. It’s in a world where women and men, and everything in between, value kindness, that I’d like to set my daughter up for success.

The Scary Beginning

We all know the feeling of beginning something, the rush of nerves, or the uncontrollable excitement. There are new beginnings that happen in rhythm, the beginning of a new day, the beginning of summer, the start of a new fiscal year, or a new school year. There are beginnings we launch into with intention, a new job, a product launch, a fresh workout class, welcoming a baby, But then there are beginnings that creep up on us, without a rush of adrenaline or even a moment to prepare. Sometimes we find ourselves at the beginning of a journey we didn’t choose, like unemployment, a market crash, a breakup, a new body pain that won’t go away, life after the death of a loved one. It’s just as we relax into a sense of routine and familiar patterns that some new affair pulls us off course. Like a ferris wheel bench that comes behind and hits our knees before we are ready, we fall into an awkward position as something we haven’t felt before, carries us upwards. 

Perhaps what is most scary about beginnings is the possibility that we won’t get past them, that failure will overcome us and we will lose this chance to become something new. Like training a new puppy where every opportunity, whether seized or missed, sets the course for what type dog he will become, the beginning of something requires focus. Our attention can’t be elsewhere, we have to commit to caring about the outcome.

A friend of mine recently started her own business. In looking over her website I was struck by the polish of the design, juxtaposed with empty spaces inside. Pages with intentional titles were followed by Lorem ipsum dolor sit ame. This is similar to much of our lives. The design may be flawless, or at least polished enough to get by. The titles of our internal pages are the categories of our care, kids, work, finances, parents, hobby… But how many of those internal places are fully written? How often do we open the books on our mind’s shelves and read the deepest desires we have stored there? How many blanks spaces are left unnoticed? How much chaos uncleared? How many times have we begun at this and turned the light off, to begin something else instead? Maybe the next beginning we choose could be to go back and finish what we started.