I am a worrier.
I worry about my kids, the decisions they make and if they are happy.
I worry about having enough money to meet my family budget and having enough money to meet my office budget.
I worry about whom our country will select for our next president.
I worry about drugs and crime in our community, individuals who are homeless and people are being abused by a family member or by the system.
And I worry about people who are too self-centered or narrow-minded to care about anything or anyone but themselves and their own self-righteous and generally misguided opinions.
But I have never once worried about the person in the bathroom stall next to me.
Until this year, I never even considered that a birth certificate could prove or disprove whether that person in the next stall posed a risk to me or my children.
Birth certificates are just pieces of paper that capture information provided during one single moment in time and reflect societal norms of the past.
Heck, my own birth certificate isn’t even accurate. My mother’s name is misspelled. Apparently, in the excitement of my arrival, she didn’t put her professional proof reading skills to use.
Even worse, my birth certificate lists my mother’s profession as a housewife. My mother was never married to a house. Neither did she spend the majority of her adult life staying at home cleaning, cooking and caring for kids. She was an extension agent, a Peace Corps volunteer, a substitute teacher, a journalist, an editor and even a librarian.
But, at that time I was born, she was not an earning an income outside the home. At that ONE point in time.So, even though my birth certificate states my mother was married to a house, which I find a frightening thought, I can’t find any information on my birth certificate that indicates whether or not I pose a danger to others. The information on my birth certificate is so irrelevant that I’ve never even considered carrying it with me.
In the past 30 years, the only time I’ve even taken it out of a safe deposit box was when I needed it for proof of identification. If I ever need it to get into a public restroom, I’m out of luck because it stays locked away in a box that won’t burn.
This whole debate over which sex can use which public bathroom seems as ridiculous as the dress code a former employer tried to implement years ago. The man was getting ready to retire and was trying, for one last time, to impose his prehistoric beliefs on those who would be left behind.
(This is the same man who insisted I should never be put in a position of authority because I breastfed during a work-related meeting. He never considered that I attended the meeting while on maternity leave because I was just that committed to my job.)
To provide some perspective about just how prehistoric his dress code was, it required women wear hose with skirts or dresses. It also required women wear appropriate underwear and noted that thongs were not appropriate undergarments for the workplace.
When I read the dress code (which, by the way, I fought against and eventually had overturned) , my first question was how it would be monitored and enforced.
I feel exactly the same about a law that require people to use the public restroom that corresponds with the sex on their birth certificate.
It is, in two words, absolutely ridiculous.
Shortly before I graduated from college, I sat in a friend’s apartment listening to the song “I’m an Adult Now” by the Pursuit of Happiness and thinking it would soon be included on the soundtrack of my life. (Back in those days, life soundtracks were limited to 60 or 90 minute cassette tapes.)
I was 22 years old, and I had absolutely no idea what being a grown up really meant. But I was convinced that once I had my college diploma in hand, I would quickly learn.
Now, more than a quarter of a century later, I’m still trying on various hats in hopes of discovering the one that will officially make me feel like a grown up. So far, none have worked.
Yes, I lived on my own and paid my own bills. Yes, I dealt with mortgages and debt and the IRS. Yes, I got married. Yes, I gave birth and became a parent. And yes, I even discovered that I can sound more like my mother than I ever imagined.
But despite all of that, I’ve never felt like an authentic adult. Instead, I feel as though I’m pretending to be an adult when I’m actually more like that 22 year-old still trying to decide which songs should be on my life’s soundtrack.
Maybe that’s because I’ve never been able to answer that one question that so many adults think is incredibly important. It’s a question that was asked of me hundreds of times from the time I was a toddler all the way through high school.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Ironically, the younger I was, the more easily I could answer the question.
When I was five, I wanted to be a trapeze artist. That dream was short-lived when my dad hung a wooden trapeze from a tree in a backyard and I made him lower it because its height five feet off the ground scared me. By the time I was ten, I had my heart set on being a best-selling author which, by the time I was 15, and evolved into a desire to be a journalist. And, at what I considered to be the mature age of 20, I truly believed I was destined to produce documentaries that would change the world.
With the exception of a few months I spent as a radio news reporter, I never achieved any of those goals. I could consider myself a failure, but that would discount all my accomplishments never on my “I want to” list. Nor would it take into account how the experience of living life to its fullest sometimes gets in the way of the expectations we think we are supposed to meet.
I don’t think I could have known, at the age of 22, how life’s river of circumstances has a generally steady and sometimes ferociously rapid current that can easily sweep us away from where we thought we belonged to the places we are needed most.
I was thinking about that river this week when my son celebrated his eighteenth birthday. In only a few months, he’ll be starting college, so he’s regularly being asked what he’ll be studying. To me, that’s the more mature equivalent of the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?”
And, even though I understand why everyone feels compelled to ask, I think the more meaningful question is “are you keeping your heart and your mind open to making adjustments to your plan with each new opportunity and complication?”
If my son does that, he faces the danger of ending up like his mother – nearly 50 years old and not entirely sure what he wants to be when he grows up. At the same time, he might also learn that being an adult isn’t about reaching a certain age or about achieving a certain status. And he might figure out that making mature decisions doesn’t mean letting go of the child within.
Instead, getting older should be about learning to adjust to the currents of life even when you aren’t confident you are headed in the direction you had originally planned.
I never thought I’d spend a Friday night waiting for a prescription drug to prevent someone from dying from heroin.
But then, I never thought heroin would be a part of life. I never gave it much thought at all.
When I did, it was only to shake my head in disbelief. I remember the day River Phoenix died. I was in New Orleans at the time, and I was watching the news in my hotel room as I wondered why he would use a drug that I associated with society’s outcasts.
But that was before heroin started creeping into my life. It made its stealthy entrance during conversations while friends shared their fear for family members who were using. It crept in when a co-worker mentioned the number of years she’d been in recovery.
And then, one day, I realized that it had simply arrived and taken up space as a constant, heartbreaking presence in my life.
Now, every time I hear about another overdose in my small community (as I write this, there have already been 20 this month, and it’s only March 5), I worry that I might know the person. I check the Facebook page that posts all of the overdoses and the location where they occur. Only then can I sit back in relief.
Only last weekend, I couldn’t sit back in relief. I knew one of the addresses and the person who lived there. He wasn’t the person who overdosed, but on Monday morning he admitted that he’d been using with the person who had.
And this sad epidemic has spawned something else in my community: virile hate.
The administrators of the Facebook page that posts the overdose information also express disgust at efforts by emergency responders to save lives. They even encourage followers to post hateful comments.
I just don’t understand
How can the lives of others be so easily dismissed? How can some people fail to realize that addicts have friends, parents, children and others who care about them and might be reading those posts? Most of all, how can people be so cruel?
The individuals making comments on the Facebook page may not approve of the addicts behavior (who does?). But I don’t approve of the haters’ behavior nor their obvious ignorance about the nature of addiction.
While I’m also far from an expert, I do know a few thing these Facebook posters obviously don’t:
- Degrading other people will never make any situation better.
- Pointing fingers doesn’t make a problem disappear. It does make those involved more likely to hide in shame. We can never solve a problem when people are trying to hide it.
- Every single person has potential, even those who have hit rock bottom.
Just last week I was speaking with a former heroin addict who has been clean almost twenty years. She was telling me how her mother never knew she was an addict. She never even informed her mom when she overdosed and was revived by paramedics. “And now look at me,” she said. “Thank God someone thought I was worth saving.”
But because my friend is an addict, she also knows secrets.
“People think they know who addicts are,” she said. “But they really don’t. There are doctors and nurses who got clean and now are helping people every day. No one looks at them and says, they weren’t worth saving.”
Her words have resonated with me.
As my community, like so many others, continues to struggle with the heroin addiction, I have to believe that her voice and the voices of other caring people will continue to raise awareness and interest in solving the problem while simultaneously quieting the hateful voices.
Because silence about the problem will do nothing to stop the epidemic, and cruel voices can only make it worse.
For several years, National Public Radio ran a series called This I Believe that encouraged listeners to share short audio essays about core beliefs that defined who they were and how they lived their lives.
I always had a secret desire to submit my own essay, but I never did.
I just couldn’t identify only one belief that defines me.
I believe in karma.
I believe that the worst circumstances in our life are intended to teach us critical lessons that, in the end, will make us better people.
And I believe that angels show up in our lives when we need them most.
So it was last night when I got home from work in a foul mood. I was worn down by trying to do the right thing in a world often controlled by manipulative people. I was so angry that I had an almost physical need for everyone else to know exactly how I felt. I was already writing the words for this blog in my head,
But that was before I saw the package on my front steps.
My curiosity immediately overshadowed my anger. The return address was from my long ago babysitter, Carrie, in Oregon.
Growing up, I adored Carrie just as I had adored her mother, Ruby.
My childhood was spent living thousands of miles away from my own grandparents, and Ruby had stepped up and stepped into the role of foster grandmother.
Since Ruby had several daughters of her own, I never understood how someone as special as she was could possibly think I was special too. Not only was she was kind, gentle and loving, but she had the innate ability to draw into the light all the good in people while ignoring all that was ugly. When spending time with Ruby, you couldn’t be angry at the injustices in the world because you were too busy rejoicing in all its beauty.
When Ruby died in January 2007 at the age of 92, I never thought I’d hear from her again.
I was wrong.
The package on my front steps contained a photo album with the letters, announcements and photographs that my mother and I had sent Ruby over two decades. It also included a note with instructions.
As I read the note from Ruby and flipped through the pages of my life since I’d left Oregon, tears streamed down my face and my anger disappeared.
I had been touched by an angel who was reminding me not to focus on the negative. There is just too much in life to celebrate instead.
And so, thanks to Ruby, that’s exactly what I did.
When I told the following story to my co-workers, they shook their heads and said, “This would only happen to you.”
When I told my husband the same story, he shook his head and said, “You know, you create these situations.”
I agreed with both statements, although I had to remind everyone that I do attract more than my share of odd people.
Take, for example, the random stranger who stopped me in the greeting card aisle at Target to ask how to get to Dunkin’ Donuts. Since the nearest Dunkin Donuts is on the other end of town, I had to wonder 1) why she was looking for the doughnut store in Target, 2) out of all of the people in Target why she chose to ask me, and 3) if I looked like I eat too many doughnuts. (For the record, I don’t. I may have my weaknesses, but craving doughnuts isn’t one of them.)
As I was giving directions, the woman took out her smartphone, presumably to take notes. Since most people use their smart phones to access maps so they don’t have to ask strangers for directions, I began to wonder if I was being recorded on a hidden camera somewhere.
I wasn’t. The woman happily left Target presumably in search of Dunkin Donuts.
But I digress. This story isn’t about doughnuts or how I have an innate ability to attract odd people. It’s about my crazy, obsessive love of animals and how I make really weird and not always rational decisions because of them.
And so it was on a frigid morning before dawn when my beloved German Shepherd, Rodney, insisted on going for a walk. He’d been cooped up because of an injury and was going stir crazy. So I layered up. (Winter cap with built in light for walking in the dark: check. Sweatshirt with hoodie: check. Hood to cover my face: check. Winter jacket with hood: check.)
Yes, I was bundled up and had four hats covering my head, but I was visible and I was prepared.
Or so I thought.
I hadn’t planned for Artemis, our tuxedo cat who thinks she’s a dog.
Her inability to understand her that she’s a feline and not a canine isn’t an issue as long as she’s in the house. But when she’s outside, she thinks she’s a dog.
That morning, while I was bundled up with no peripheral vision. Artemis got out of the house and tagged along as Rodney and I set out for a brisk jaunt through the neighborhood. Rodney stopped frequently, smelled often and did his business. Artemis dashed, hid, and pretended to stalk us. Everything was fine until, halfway through the walk, Artemis was no longer happy.
And she let us know.
She began to talk, and talk and talk.
If you aren’t fluent in cat language, you aren’t alone. Neither am I. I thought she was tired or cold and just wanted to be picked up and carried for the rest of the walk.
I was wrong.
What Artemis wanted was for Rodney and me to follow her through a shortcut that involved navigating the neighbors’ backyards rather than taking the long way home via the street.
Apparently, Artemis thought Rodney and I were idiots for opting to take a longer walk in frigid temperatures when we could trespass and get home more quickly.
And, because I love my cat and didn’t want to disappoint her, I followed.
With a cat leading the way, with a German Shepherd in tow, and a bright orange hat and light on my head, I decided to cut through the neighbors’ yards to get home.
That was a mistake.
At the same time I was navigating trees and branches, the city police were investigating a break-in at a house in my neighborhood.
To be more precise, they were investigating a break in at the same house whose yard Artemis decided we should take as a shortcut.
I can’t imagine the police really thought I was a burglar. What thief wears an orange hat with headlamp, has a large German Shepherd on a leash and takes directions from a cat?
But my neighbors’ house (the one whose yard we had been trampling) had an alarm system. And that alarm had recently gone off prompting the police to arrive. And when the did, they had to stop the only human suspect they had: me.
“Ma’am,” one of the officers asked, “Is this your house?”
I didn’t just say no. I gave him my own address as proof that I belonged in the neighborhood. What I couldn’t easily explain why I was tramping through the neighbor’s yard before dawn in frigid temperatures. Tying to justify trespassing because you are following your cat is always rather difficult.
So I didn’t try. Neither did I stop my trespassing,
Apparently, though, I was suspicious enough to warrant further investigation. The police officer turned on his extra powerful flashlight and shined it directly on Artemis.
“Ma’am?” he asked. “Is that your cat?”
“Um, yes,” I answered.
That seemed to satisfy him, and he starting shining back and forth across the trees.
I don’t know why he expressed interest in Artemis. Maybe he thought she was the cat burglar who had tripped the alarm. Maybe he was looking for a cat of his own to adopt. Or maybe, just maybe, he too is an animal lover and understood that love can sometimes make us behave in crazy and irrational ways.
Whatever his reasons, he let me and my animals go home with yet another story to tell.
Something tells me it’s not the last.
When I was in high school, my fellow students begged our teachers to grade on a curve. Their theory, of course, was that if everyone did poorly, no one would fail. That wasn’t necessarily true, but we were self-absorbed teenagers with little concern for broader implications.
If you’re not familiar with the grading curve, it’s a tool used by some educators to distribute grades on a bell curve. When an assignment or test is scored, the average score becomes the average grade. The scores above and below the average are distributed accordingly. That means, if you get a really high score, you might skew the curve for everyone else. It also means some students are guaranteed to land at the wrong end of the curve.
Back in the 1980’s, my teachers rarely actually graded on a curve. But when they did, I knew two things would happen:
1: I would get grief from all the other students in class warning me not to do so well that I would mess up the curve, and,
2: I had an opportunity to prove that I didn’t need a curve to do well. And that opportunity far exceeded my concern about anyone else’s grade.
At the time, my self-worth was completely wrapped up in academic success. I truly thought that the only thing at which I could excel, and which made my existence matter, was getting good grades. (Yes, I completely related to Brian in the Breakfast Club).
I also believed that getting good grades was simply a matter of working hard, and that anyone could work hard. I had little tolerance for my peers who got mad when I did well. To me, they just needed to try harder.
And so, I shamefully admit, I always tried to burn the curve.
Needless to say, I’m embarrassed that I used to think that way. I now realize that I had so many advantages: educated parents, good nutrition, a safe place to sleep, a home free of violence, a family that embraced education, a mother who believed women didn’t need to depend on men, and a father who expected as much of his daughter as he did of his son. My list of advantages could go on and on and on.
But now, all these years later, I recognize how some children start off at disadvantage simply because of the family they are born into or because of a disability. Some struggle to read. Others struggle to overcome loss of at least one parent in the house. Others were never encouraged or never had an adult who even recognized their potential. And when you are struggling just to get by, studying for test isn’t a priority.
That’s why, more than 30 years later, I may be ashamed at who I once was, but I am also ashamed of some of the former classmates who still embrace the bell curve. Some of the same people who encouraged me not to exceed are now blaming their neighbors for falling at the negative end of the curve. I know this because I see their posts on social media.
They complain about people “on welfare”and how they don’t want their hard-earned money going to support people who are lazy and just don’t try. The want to drug test individuals who receive SNAP (food stamps) because they aren’t deserving. And they have the misguided belief that if people just try, they can find a job that pays more and provides benefits.
When I read such opinions, I can’t help but wonder if my former classmates remember back to the days when I, the person at the top of the bell curve, had similar thoughts about them.
But, over time, I learned that each of us has fought both visible and invisible battles to get where we are, and success looks different for everyone. No one’s achievement shouldn’t be denied or belittled. But neither should we think everyone has the ability to achieve what we have.
Such thinking only accomplishes what the bell curve does: ensures an elite few stay on top while someone will always be struggling to just get by.
When I was a little girl, I fell out of bed on a regular basis.
Sometimes, I’d pick myself up off the floor and climb back under the covers. Sometimes, my father, who must have heard the thud, would come into my bedroom, scoop me up, and tuck me back into my bed.
I don’t remember being particularly concerned or afraid of falling out of bed, nor do I remember my parents worrying about it.
It was just something I did until, one day, I didn’t do it anymore.
Like so many childhood memories, my habit of falling out of bed was locked away in a part of my brain that only opens with the right key. Sometimes that key is a piece of music, sometimes it’s a smell, and sometimes it’s a conversation. But there are times when I have no idea what key unleashed a memory. It just pops into my mind, and I can’t shake it. Those are the moments when I realize my memories have come out of hiding and dusted themselves off because they are trying to teach me something.
And so it was last week with my memories of falling out of bed.
As I thought back to those nights decades ago, I realized they represent all of life’s struggles. Those times I fell out of bed were only a fraction of all the tumbles I’ve taken. And yet, I only remember a very small percentage of them – the ones that left behind scars and a good story.
But almost every time I stumbled or even completely fell, I had the choice to wallow in the pain and humiliation or to pick myself back up. Those few times when my struggles were so great that I couldn’t just pick myself back up, I was fortunate to have someone nearby who heard the thud and immediately responded with a helping hand.
There are so many individuals with no such people nearby. On almost a daily basis, I watch the stream of people coming through my office doors for financial assistance or other social services. I realize that most of them had very few, if any, people nearby listening for their thuds. And I wonder if it’s harder to pick yourself back up when you know that no one else is paying attention to your struggles.
I also wonder if knowing that you are safe and that someone has your back makes it easier to teach yourself not to fall. When you trust that people care and realize that falls are part of the learning process, it’s easier to have the fortitude and the ability to prevent self-inflicted bruises.
My memories were reminding me that I, like everyone else, needs to pay more attention and react to the thuds when someone nearby, no matter who they are, falls.
Earlier this week, a colleague stomped into my office expressing indignation about an injustice.
That unto itself wasn’t the least bit unusual. Someone is always stomping into my office to complain about something.
I work for a social service agency with a mission to alleviate poverty. My co-workers and I comprise a group of passionate people who won’t accept that the odds are simply stacked against some people. We try to change those odds.
Often, we feel as though we are tilting at windmills, and we even get discouraged.
But we don’t give up. After all, our heroes didn’t give up.
And the treatment of one of those heroes is the reason my co-worker was upset as she stormed into my office.
“I can’t believe that the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has become just another day for sales for some people,” she said. “The day is supposed to be about honoring of one of the greatest men in history. He changed the world.”
Indeed he did.
I was a just over a year old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, so I never knew a world that hadn’t been impacted by his actions, his words and his ability to change the system. But for years, what I knew about him was limited:
- He was a Civil Rights leader.
- He made a speech about having a dream that all people would someday be treated as equal.
- He believed in using peaceful tactics instead of violence.
- He was shot and killed at a hotel in Tennessee by a guy named James Earl Ray.
Those facts paint a picture of a great man who made a difference in the world. But those facts never really inspired me because I couldn’t relate to the charismatic leader. His ability to make such a huge difference in the lives of others had absolutely nothing to do with my potential.
At least, it wasn’t until I learned that he, like the rest of us, struggled with imperfections.
He apparently tried to commit suicide when he was 12 years old. His grandmother passed away after a heart attack while King was off disobeying his parents by going to watch a parade after they had prohibited it. When he got home and learned that his grandmother had died in his absence, he jumped out a second story window.
Martin Luther King, Jr., the man who delivered one of the most iconic speeches ever, received a C in a public speaking class during his first year in seminary.
King is rumored to have had numerous extra-marital affairs, which even resulted in his becoming a target of the FBI.
On the day he was killed, King was out on that now famous hotel balcony because he was smoking. He tried to keep the fact that he was a smoker hidden, so he didn’t want cameras around when he had a cigarette in his hand. According to Rev. Kyles, after King was shot but before he was taken away by the ambulance, Kyles removed the package of cigarettes from King’s pocket and got rid of the cigarette butt. This was an attempt to hide the fact that King was smoking at the time he was shot.
None of these facts minimize the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, in my eyes, they make them even more impressive. Like all of us, Dr. King struggled with being imperfect. But despite that, he changed the world.
He is my hero not just because he acted on the same beliefs that I hold dear. He is my hero because he didn’t let his imperfections get in the way of taking action and changing the world.
This Monday, when the United States celebrates the federal holiday that honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., that’s what I’ll be thinking about.
I’ll be remembering that every person who makes a difference in the lives of others has a personal story lying just beneath the surface. These are the stories that involve failing from time to time but persevering anyway. They involve making mistakes or saying the wrong thing while we still attempt to do the right thing. And even though many of us feel like we are trying to lead when no one is following, we have to keep trying to blaze trails anyway.
These stories sometimes aren’t visible to those around us because we try to hide them just beneath the surface. But these are the stories that make us strong enough to take on the world and try to make it a better place.
Just like our heroes did.
I hadn’t been out on my bicycle in a week, so I was determined to get in at least one ride over the weekend. Before heading out, I checked the hourly weather report for the third time. The skies were clear, and I calculated that I had time to get in a 15-mile ride before the wind picked up and the temperatures began to drop.
I forgot that weather reports aren’t always accurate.
The first ten miles of my ride were perfect, but just as I reached the top of the steepest and most dreaded hill, the sky went suddenly dark. Within moments, the rain pelted down while the wind almost knocked me off my bike. Since there was no option but to keep pedaling, that’s what I did.
But it was a struggle.
Fighting the elements, I climbed another hill. While it wasn’t as steep as the last, it was more difficult than usual because of the weather conditions. Then, just as I reached the top, the sky lightened, the rain stopped and a one of the brightest rainbows I’ve ever seen spread across the sky.
I stopped to look at it in wonder. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clear and brilliant colors in a rainbow, and I regretted that I couldn’t capture the beauty of the moment in a photograph.
But I could capture it in my heart and soul, which is where it needed to be.
That rainbow was the exact reminder I needed after a week full of more downs than ups.
The rainbow’s message was simple: life is rough. Sometimes, just when we think we are facing our toughest battle, the fight gets even harder. Despite that, our only option is to just keep going. If we stop trying, we won’t be any less miserable while we don’t get anywhere. And so, we must persevere. And when we do, life eventually gets better, and the moments of beauty it provides are even more precious.
I know the rainbow and the message may seem a bit cliché. But sometimes? A cliché is the exact reminder I need to remind me that life isn’t perfect but that some moments are. We have to treasure those moments.