I debated writing this post.
These are probably the most personal words I have ever written, yet I feel guilty about writing them.
My friend is dying of cancer. She has been given only hours to live.
Despite the tears making wet trails down my cheeks, I feel guilty about the enormity of my grief. Her husband, children, parents and even other friends are losing someone who occupied a much bigger space in their lives.
I feel guilty because they value their privacy and my friend’s privacy, and I don’t want to violate that.
And yet, as always, I feel the incredible need to write something about the situation. I feel as though putting my thoughts into a concrete form will somehow make sense of an incredibly unfair situation.
If my friend, the lawyer by education and the social worker by heart, could read these words, I know exactly what she’d say.
She’d tilt her head ever so slightly, give me a sidelong glance and say “curious.”
My friend never understood why I wrote.
I remember one particular conversation that occurred while we sat drinking margaritas as we looked out over Pamlico Sound in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
“You write for pleasure?” she asked in her trademark flat yet completely expressive voice.
We were discussing a possible career change for me, and she was trying to make sense of what she considered a completely ridiculous notion that being creative could actually be a profession.
“But who would read what you wrote?” she asked.
“You already do,” I replied.
“Yeah, but I don’t pay for it,” she said.
That ended the conversation but not our friendship.
Now, on an extremely cold February night, I’m grieving the loss of that friendship while simultaneously trying to remember how it even began.
I remember how we met, but I can’t remember how we grew from being acquaintances to being friends. I can’t remember when she became THE person I texted when I was most pissed off because I knew she would respond with some sardonic comment that would make me feel better.
Just today, despite a final visit to her hospital room yesterday, I found myself picking up my phone to tell her about a completely ridiculous situation.
That was the bittersweet moment when I realized that her diagnosis of cancer had gifted me with a reminder about the value of time, of enjoying completely inane moments and of appreciating the sometimes random events of life that bring people together.
Cancer completely sucks, but it also has the amazing ability to remind us of how beautiful life can be.
As my friend would say, “curious.”
I’ll miss hearing her say those words, but I’ll never forget how they always made me smile.
This final goodbye would be much more difficult if she hadn’t given me so many of those smiles.
Thank you my friend.
Thank you so very, very much.
If you don’t know anything about “the welfare system,” then drug testing “people on welfare” makes sense.
After all, your hard-earned taxpayer dollars are being used to support “people on welfare.”
Even on days when you don’t want to go to work, you show up because that is what is required for you to bring home a regular paycheck. Obviously, “people on welfare” are looking for an easier way to get money.
And, because they aren’t working hard like you are, they must spend their time doing whatever they want – including watching television all day and doing drugs. Since they don’t have jobs, the money that “people on welfare” use to buy those drugs is obviously coming from their “welfare check” that we, the hard- working taxpayers, provide them. If they didn’t use the money from their “welfare check” to buy the drugs, then they don’t need a “welfare check” at all.
To ensure that no one “on welfare” is using our money to buy drugs, then we have to drug test them. That way we won’t be wasting taxes, right?
The seemingly ongoing demand and state jumping on the drug testing band wagon isn’t based on facts and statistics but rather on prejudice, stereotypes and misinformation about “the welfare system.”
It’s also a waste money. Requiring drug tests for individuals who receive social services benefits has consistently been shown to increase administrative costs with little else to show for the efforts.
When the State of Tennessee started testing individuals who applied for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), only 37 out of more than 16,000 applicants failed drug tests during a six month period. Those results weren’t much different from those in other states, such as Utah and Florida.
I don’t know what the cost of administering those tests was, but I do know there is no way that those results can be spun to indicate cost-effectiveness. But then, the outcry for drug-testing people who receive TANF has never really been about cost-effectiveness or even helping families with drug addiction.
Despite public perception that “people on welfare” are lazy and don’t do much to contribute to society, the life of people who receive TANF isn’t all that restful. First they have children to raise.
TANF, which was established during the Clinton administration, is only available to families with children. It also requires recipients to participate in programs that help them learn skills and gain employment. In West Virginia, TANF recipients are required to sign a personal responsibility contract which they have to follow or they will lose benefits.
Even if they do all that is required of them, federal law prohibits them from receiving more than 60 months of assistance during a lifetime.
For a small amount of cash assistance (in West Virginia, a family of four receives an average amount of about $385 each month), TANF recipients must go to classes, do volunteer work and actively seek employment. Studies show that the average time any individual receives TANF is 24 months, and that is usually the result of unfortunate circumstances like the loss of a job or divorce. Much like an insurance policy, TANF was available to these individuals who had been taxpayers but fell in tough times until they could once again be taxpayers.
I have many more friends who never used TANF not because they never had financial difficulties but because they had the resource friends and family to help them through the crisis. Not everyone is surrounded by people who have the resources to help.
But even when we look beyond the stereotypes about who receives TANF, there are even bigger issues.. For example,what happens when someone does test positive for drugs? What will happen to their children (since they must have children to even receive the assistance.) Just as critical, who will be responsible for treatment and recovery services? In my community, those services are usually unavailable and inaccessible to low-income and rural individuals. Advocates have been complaining for years about the lack of treatment programs. Before we focus on drug testing anyone, we must have the community capacity to help those who struggle with addiction.
The call for drug testing “people on welfare” only makes sense to those who either don’t understand the social services system or who don’t want to understand it. It only makes sense to people who don’t mind stereotyping low-income people or who don’t realize that’s what they are doing. And it only makes sense to those who think that subjecting people who are already struggling to additional accusations is more effective than subjecting them to a helping hand.
At the same time, I’ve been told that sometimes the behaviors that annoy us most are the ones we revert to when we are at our worst.
I was at my worst this week.
Nothing horrible or life shattering happened. I just had to deal with some difficult and taxing situations at work. By the time I got home each night, I was too exhausted to do much more than complain about how tired and stressed I was.
I deal with people who struggle to meet their basic needs on a daily basis, so I should recognize how fortunate I am to have a warm and safe home to take shelter in each night. I have friends who are struggling with serious health issues, so I should wake up grateful for a (relatively) strong body and mind. I know people who go to jobs in which their only reward is a paycheck, and I should realize that being passionate about my work is more gratifying than any financial reward.
And yet, I forget.
This week I forgot so much and complained so much about my stress that I was even starting to annoy myself.
Which is why, when my cell phone rang at 6:30 on Friday night, I almost didn’t answer it. The caller i.d. showed that a volunteer from my office was trying to reach me, and I thought I had reached maximum capacity for anything work-related. At the same time, the responsible side of my personality (the stronger one that completing despises my whining and self-pitying side) had to answer the phone.
So I answered it, and the call served as a wonderful reminder of why I should be grateful for feeling overwhelmed at times.
The volunteer actually wanted me to speak with his wife, who was also interested in being a volunteer. The couple recently retired in another state and moved to my town to be nearer to their children and grandchildren.
I’d never met the woman who I spoke with on the phone, but on a cold evening in February, she was the only person who was able put my week in perspective.
I initially tried to hurry her off the phone. After confirming when she would come in to discuss volunteer opportunities, I said, “Have a good weekend.”
She wouldn’t let me go that quickly.
“I’m just hoping you can help me,” she said.
That shut me up.
“My mother is 94 years old,” she said. ” That means I likely have 30 years of retirement ahead of me. Everyone tells you that retirement is great. No one tells you that no one values your skills anymore.”
She went on. “I used to take pride in my work. I liked contributing something. I don’t feel as though I’m doing that now.”
I told her I understood.
And I did.
I may complain about all the stress in my life, but that stress means that I’m overwhelmed by demands on my time and talents. That stress means that others depend on me and need me. That stress means that I’m valued and that others recognize how important my contributions are.
In other words, the type of stress I experienced last week is a reflection of what I value most: the ability to make a difference to others.
The woman I talked to on Friday night may or may not decide to be a volunteer at my office. But whether she does or not, she’s already made a difference in my life.
Sometimes, strangers can do that.
“Can I complain for a minute?” she asked.
“Sure,” I answered. And I meant it.
One of the reasons I love my job is that I work in an environment of open doors and open ears. Most of us have ever-growing “to do” lists, are trying to meet multiple demands from multiple people and are always aware that we may have to drop everything in order to meet the needs of the people we serve. Despite that, or maybe because of it, we always make time for each other.
And so it was when the immigration attorney in the office next to mine needed to air her grievances.
And when she did, I understood.
She was recently listed in a professional directory with a Miss in front of her name. “There’s nothing to indicate that I have a law degree or that I passed the bar exam,” she sighed. “Basically, the only thing people know from this publication is what my job title is and that I’m single.”
I glanced through the directory noting that all of the women were listed as either Miss or Mrs. Since I’m neither (I’m married but didn’t take my husband’s last name), I had to question why, in this day and age, the terms are even needed. I’ve been married 21 years, have two children and have never once felt that my life would be better if people called me Mrs.
As we discussed the issue, a male colleague chimed in.
“I understand the need to differentiate between male and female,” he said. “There are women that have my first name, and I want people to know I’m a guy. But my wife and I have had this conversation on numerous occasions, and she thinks Ms. and Mr. are is all we need”
I’m with him (and his wife).
With all the advances women have made, I don’t understand why we often still address them based on marital status (or questionable marital status) while we address all men the same, regardless of marital status.
I know the distinction is probably a result of days when men were in charge and women (supposedly) embraced marriage as the ultimate achievement. But those days are over (except for extremists like the Duggar clan.) Women who want to take the traditional path of changing their last name when they marry can and should.
But women who are listed in a professional directory should have the assurance that people are much more interested in their qualifications than with their marital status.
Besides, I doubt anyone under the age of 50 (other than the Duggars) would even notice if the term Mrs. goes missing.
In a life that requires me to fully participate on an almost constant basis, I truly appreciate days when I can simply be the observer. At those moments, I have the luxury of recognizing how total strangers are always touching my life.
Sometimes we barely brush against each other – like the shoppers in line at the grocery store or the other patients in the waiting room at the doctor’s office.
But every once in a while, when I have the opportunity to be more observant, complete strangers can provide insight, spark curiosity or simply remind me that sometimes the world is much less random than I generally think it is.
So it was last Saturday.
My son was spending the weekend playing music at a local university, and my husband was working. Recognizing the opportunity, my daughter suggested we “do something.”
What Kendall was really suggesting was that we “go shopping.” But having spent plenty of time and money shopping during the recent holiday season, I suggested we go into the city instead.
In our case, “the city” is Washington D.C., which offers plenty of opportunities to “do something” without having to “go shopping.”
She agreed, and, after dropping my son off for his music audition and subsequent day of practice, we headed to the Metro Station.
As we parked the car and headed toward the entrance, I noticed a young couple walking in front of us. I don’t know why I noticed them as they were quite ordinary. The boy (he looked like a boy to me although my daughter insisted he was at least 20) wore khaki pants and glasses. The girl, who was slightly taller than him, wore boots and a black coat. We lost sight of them as they punched in their SmarTrip cards while we had to purchase Metro farecards.
After changing trains once, our first stop was at the National Archives. As we crossed the street toward the ornate structure, Kendall poked me in the ribs and giggled.
The couple we had first seen as we left our car and headed toward the Metro Station was once again in front of us. I don’t know if I was more surprised that our destination had been the same or that my daughter had also noticed the pair.
Kendall and I soon forgot about them. As we went through security at the Archives, she was incredibly amused by the security guard who tried to put some humor into the “no photographs can be taken” rule.
Or, as he put it, “That also means no selfies, no me-sies, no we-sies, no you-sies.”
While Kendall was amused, his words made complete sense to me. In this day of constant access to cameras, you have to be as clear as possible. Even more importantly, people really understood and heeded his words.
They were also polite as we all patiently stood in line to see the most popular documents on display: the original Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. But that peaceful order was disrupted when a group of young beauty queens (they advertised this by wearing sashes inscribed with their titles) and their mothers entered the rotunda. The girls pushed their way through the patiently waiting crowd to see the prized displays. I was reminded of the spoiled Veruca Salt in Roald Dahl’s classic novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but kept my opinion to myself, even when one of the mothers encouraged her daughter to crowd her way to the glass cases that displayed the Constitution.
The woman behind me wasn’t as reserved and spoke up about their rudeness. “The people who try so hard to be important usually aren’t,” she said. “And the people who don’t try to be important usually are.”
She had a point, and her words made a lasting impression on me.
After getting our opportunity to see the documents (with no pushing involved), Kendall and I were debating where to go next when we noticed that the couple from the Metro were now patiently waiting in line to see our nation’s beloved documents.
Kendall gave me an amused look as we decided to head to the National Gallery of Art. Our short walk there wasn’t without incidence. As we approached the corner of Madison Drive and 7th Street, we heard yelling. The reason soon became obvious.
A man in a pink (yes pink) funnel cake truck was yelling at a security guard to let go of the handle on his truck door. “You are going to break the door!” he yelled. The guard had a bemused look on his face and a hand on holster.
“You need to move your truck” that security guard yelled back. I didn’t know how the driver could move his truck when the security guard was gripping the handle so tightly, but that was none of my business.
The yelling continued when the guard noticed all of us on the sidewalk.
“Civilians stand back!!!” he yelled.
We did. My heart was thumping as I willed the red hand on the crossing light change to white.
We had no such luck and were forced to watch the drama between the funnel cake vendor and the security guard escalate. The funnel cake man got out of his truck, and the security guard drew his gun.
And the crossing light did not change.
Then, out of nowhere, two police officers appeared and told the guard to put away his gun.
That’s when the crossing light finally changed. As we walked away, I could hear the funnel cake guy yelling, “He’s tripping! Did you see that? He’s tripping.”
“They’re all tripping,” Kendall said.
She had a point.Their anger and potential violence were totally unrelated to criminal activity and demonstrated the power struggles that so often precipitate violence.
As Kendall and I walked into the the National Art Gallery, my heart was still beating faster than normal. Fortunately, the peaceful halls soon calmed it. Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time there. But then, we wouldn’t have had enough time even if we had arrived when the museum first opened. We were awed by the paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Renoir, Monet and Manet.
We weren’t so awed by the work of Jackson Pollack.
“I just don’t get it,” I said as we stared at a painting that looked like paint dripping. I got as close as I could, staring at the paint and feeling a bit like Cameron staring at the painting in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The more I looked, the less I saw. I wasn’t the only person who didn’t “get it.”
Kendall and I were joined by two college-age women, one of whom who was questioning the artistic value. Her intellectually superior friend tried to put her straight.
“What is aesthetically pleasing isn’t the same as what is artistically lovely.”
I’m sure that meant something, I’m still not clear what. Maybe if I understood Jackson Pollock I would understand her words.
But while I didn’t get her point, I did appreciate that she sees the world in a totally different way than I do. Besides, I was more interested in the fact that the couple from the Metro Station was now in the same room in the art museum.
We stayed in the building until a guard announced that the museum would be closing in 2,000 seconds. Apparently, humor is part of the training for Washington D.C. museum security guards.
Kendall and I left, took the Metro to another destination for dinner then finally decided we needed to head home. Our energy level had dropped with temperature – or so we thought. As we got off the train and were headed to our car, Kendall challenged me to a race. Because I was so cold, I was all in. We giggled as we ran to the car.
Then, we both stopped abruptly.
There was a couple walking in front of us. The boy wore khaki pants and glasses. The girl, who was slightly taller than him, wore boots and a black coat. Kendall and I giggled and she took a picture on her phone.
That couple will forever be a part of our lives.
They serve as a reminder of all of the strangers we pass each day. Some go completely unnoticed. Some provide us with memorable quotes or life lessons. And some stay with us forever like the shadows in a photograph. Those are the ones that remind us that life’s best teachers aren’t always the most obvious. Instead, they are the ones that require us to take a backseat and observe all that life really has to offer.
I didn’t grow up in the town where I now live, and no significant life events have occurred here (yet). Despite that, I can’t shake the nostalgia that often hits me at the oddest times.
Take, for example, my daily mail run during the work week.
My office is located two blocks from Patterson’s Pharmacy, where a mailbox sits just outside of the picture windows.
Almost every day, when I am dropping off the office mail, I glance in at the patrons sitting at the old-fashion soda fountain.
For the most part, these individuals are, at a minimum, a couple of decades older than I am. Most are at least 30 years older.
Sometimes they wave at me, but often they don’t because they are too engrossed in conversation. Despite their general camaraderie, there is always at least one person who hides behind the daily newspaper, with his head stuck in so far that I’m not sure he’s reading or using the paper as a shelter from the outside world.
I’ve never noticed what or whether people are eating or drinking, but my guess is they are generally sipping cups of coffee rather than the homemade milkshakes, malts and sodas that interest the younger generation. These are the treats that my children and friends enjoy despite, or maybe because of, the old-fashion counter, historic photos and the general slow pace of the place.
Last Friday, my daughter and her friend asked me to take them to Patterson’s. We took our seats on the soda fountain stools, even though no one was behind counter.
The old woman next to me in the knitted cap didn’t say anything. The two elderly gentleman on the stools at the end of the counter were quiet for about five minutes until I asked the girls if they were willing to wait or wanted to go elsewhere.
“She’s at the bank to get some cash,” the one man told me. “She’ll be back soon.”
No one said who “she” was. Everyone knew it was Ginny, whom I also see daily and has worked at Patterson’s since I moved to town.
No one seemed concern about Ginny’s absence. That’s the slow pace of business at a place like Patterson’s.
No one is worried about following the rules of corporate America in which money is often more important than people. Patterson’s is a local business in a small town. It caters to older people as well as 13 year-old girls who want a genuine root beer float and are more than willing to spend time chatting with each other at a old-fashion soda fountain rather than demand that their drinks are available immediately
At Patterson’s, people are important.
I know this because they are one of very few pharmacies that provide services to the people whom Catholic Charities, where I work, helps. These are people who often can’t even afford the $1.00 co-pay needed for a prescription. But Patterson’s works with us to ensure that people who need help get help.
And sometimes that help doesn’t come in a bottle but instead comes in the form of a safe place.
“How old are your girls?” she asked me.
“Thirteen,” I said.
“Thirteen? They are awful big for 13!”
I looked at my daughter and her friend. Neither was wearing makeup and both were wearing t-shirts and Converse tennis shoes. To me, they looked exactly 13.
“In my day, kids were a lot smaller,” she said.
“When was that?” I asked.
“Back in the 1950’s,” she said, “I had kids in the 1950’s when Martinsburg was still Martinsburg.”
“Hmmm,” I responded. Ginny was back, and I ordered the root beer floats.
“I grew up here,” the woman in the knit cap said, “but you wouldn’t know it. I don’t know anyone here now. I don’t even know what happened to the bars. Back in my day, there were bars here but there wasn’t the traffic we have today. There’s too much traffic now.”
“Hmmm,” I said as Ginny filled glasses with root beer and added a scoops of ice cream.
“What is that?” the woman asked looking at a glass with a bit of suspicion.
“A root beer float,” I answered.
“I can’t drink that anymore,” the woman said. “It does something to my stomach.”
“Hmmm,” I said.
“I don’t like this town anymore,” the woman in the knit cap said. “It’s full of people I don’t know doing things they shouldn’t do.”
She shrugged then looked at my daughter and her friend.
“What are they drinking?” she asked.
“Root beer floats,” I answered.
“I can’t drink those anymore,” the woman said again. “It does something to my stomach.”
And so are conversation went. She asked me the same questions and when I answered, she gave me the same responses and the same complaints.
When the root beer floats were gone and the girls were ready to go, the woman said goodbye then struck up a conversation with Ginny behind the counter.
“How are you feeling today, Shirley?” Ginny asked.
“Not good,” said Shirley. “I don’t know anyone in this town anymore.”
“But they know you,” I thought as my daughter and her friend smiled at her and said goodbye as we walked out the door.
“Sometimes, the history that captivates us most isn’t the one that has shaped who we are,” I thought. “Instead is the one that has shaped and is shaping others. And sometimes there is noting more magical than watching it shape very different generations at the same time.”
But as I look back on the past year, I find myself appreciating all of the wise women who were a part of it.
These are the women that may not have made a loud splash in my life but instead helped me quietly navigate both rough waters as well as the still waters of day-to day living.
Their experience, intelligence, kindness, humor and support refilled my toolbox with gems I will treasure for the rest of my life.
And just as the following gems have helped me deal with difficult people and tough circumstances, I have no doubt that the wise women in my life would want me to share them with others.
And so I will:
“The older you get, the less and less you care about what others think. That’s the beauty of getting older and the reason we can take joy in embarrassing our children on a regular basis.”
“Sometimes we just have to sit back and watch other people implode when their desire for importance exceeds their ability to actually be important to anyone else.”
“Men will never laugh so hard they pee their pants. That’s kind of sad.”
“Some people are intimidated by a strong woman, but that doesn’t mean you should stop lifting your intellectual weights. Take pride in the fact that they can’t win an arm wrestling contest with your mental muscles.”
“Keeping your mouth shut is sometimes much more powerful than saying anything at all.”
“We rub elbows with delusional people every day. These are people who think they are leaders but never turn around to see that not only is no one is following them, but many are running as far as possible in the opposite direction.”
“Being honest in a resume is far more important to the soul than getting a job based on half-truths.”
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sleeping in a pretty dress if it makes you feel good about yourself.”
“Mean and angry people are actually very sad, broken people who don’t realize how unhappy they are until they are standing by themselves yelling at an empty room or, even worse, standing silent in an empty room because there is no one left to listen.”
“Life is one big choice. Choose to embrace those things you love, forgive the people you don’t love and let go of everything in between. In the end, all that matters is that you weren’t hateful.”
As I review these gems, I can only look forward to yet another year with wise women who can once again fill my tool box.
When that happens, our only choices are to get mad or to laugh at ourselves.
I choose to laugh.
I laugh a lot.
I have to. If I didn’t, I’d constantly be mad.
But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t say and do things differently if I could turn back time, or at a minimum, give just one piece of advice to the young woman I once was – a young woman with a college degree in her hand and ridiculous ideas about life in her head.
If I could give that advice, I know exactly what I’d say.
“Don’t make plans without the expectation they should sometimes be broken.”
That’s it. Those words might seem trite, but after spending nearly 27 years as an official adult, they are extremely meaningful. They would have saved me from hours of worrying that I hadn’t lived up to my own expectations and have greatly expedited my understanding that life generally happens as life is supposed to happen. Sometimes our missteps are our greatest teachers and sometimes they lead us in a direction we would never have chosen when left to our own devices.
For example, just over two years ago I wrote a blog about how I was leaving the nonprofit world. I had worked for nonprofit organizations for nearly 20 years and was feeling both frustrated and under appreciated. I wasn’t happy with how decisions were being made and felt I had to spread my wings.
I may have spread my wings, but I certainly didn’t soar. In fact, I flapped around for over a year until finally landed exactly where I belong – in a nonprofit organization.
I can’t say my current job is easy. It’s not. In fact, it’s hectic, demanding and challenging. I also have some of the same complaints I had over two years ago regarding how others don’t appreciate the skills, education and competence that are required to work in a social service organization.
Yet I couldn’t be happier.
Sometimes experiencing where we don’t belong is exactly what we need to recognize where we truly do belong.
And sometimes, not getting what we want is exactly what we need to recognize that God gave us a specific set of skills and gifts for a reason. That reason generally isn’t to continue down the path we want but instead it is to make the world a better place in our own unique way.
As I think back to the 22 year-old woman I once was, I know I had a strong sense of where I wanted to go in life. That makes me laugh, but that laugh is full of joy.
Most of the plans I made have been shattered, but picking up the pieces and rearranging them has been an adventure. It has allowed me to create something even more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.
He was telling my parents about places where he hadn’t been allowed to go.
I couldn’t understand why, so I asked.
“It’s because I’m black,” he said.
I didn’t understand and I told him so.
“Some people don’t like black men and some people are just afraid of us,” he said.
I still didn’t understand, and neither he nor my parents could give me a good answer. Treating him based on the color of his skin made absolutely no sense to me.
I’m not telling this story to illustrate how children aren’t born prejudice. I’m telling this story because it’s not the story at all. Instead, it is the introduction to a more complex story about how children, just like adults, can fool themselves about their capacity for prejudice. It is a story that illustrates how blind some of us can be to the complexity of human beliefs and behaviors, particularly our own, I’m telling this story even though I hate what it says about me. I’m telling this story because it demonstrates how someone can claim not to understand discrimination and racism while they are in the process of developing their own prejudices.
In the early 1970’s, I was one of only a few white families living on an Indian reservation, and I knew I didn’t belong. My knowledge wasn’t a result of the fact that I looked different from most of my peers. They told me I didn’t belong, probably repeating the words they had heard their parents and other adults say.
That might explain why I cried on the first day of kindergarten when I was the only white child in my kindergarten class, even though my teacher was a white woman named Mrs. Short. My tears must have had an impact because schedules were manipulated so the only other white child my age was put in my class.
That was the year of increased concern that my peers were losing their cultural identity. To address this, members of the tribe came to class to teach us native language and traditions. That was the year we had to learn native dance and participate in a root feast. That was a year when I was taught that the white men were the bad guys. That was the year I was taunted, teased, bullied and chased home from school.
According to my parents, that was also the year I began to hate people of a certain skin and hair color. My mother says once we moved off the reservation, I insisted I never wanted to go back. We did, and I don’t remember being particularly upset. Of course, I also don’t remember ever having the disdain for an entire group of people based on the actions of a few.
I’ve spent most of my life trying to overcome this embarrassing piece of personal history. I like to think I don’t make rash judgments about people and that I treat everyone with the same fairness. But when I’m completely honest with myself, I have to admit that I can be as judgmental as anyone else.
But here’s the thing – I admit that to myself. Maybe that’s because I was raised by parents who expected me to be accountable for both my beliefs and my actions. Maybe it’s because I have personal experience being different, and therefore threatening, to others. And maybe, just maybe, it’s because the young child still in me would be disappointed with anything less.
Whatever the reason, I wish other people would take the time to look inward and realize that any words or posts on social media about an entire race or social class are always going to be wrong because they are based on limited experience.
Groups of people are not an experience or an incident. They are composed of individuals, and each individual is a complicated mix of good, bad, funny, sad, right, wrong and most of all humanity.
This holiday season, I encourage everyone to embrace that humanity and push aside the limited experience.
When we do, the child still in all of us will celebrate.
Of that, I have absolutely no doubt.
I’m not questioning their gratitude.
I too am thankful for those gifts.
I’m also thankful for hot showers, coffee, the internet, my car’s heated seats, wine, Netflix and a husband who sends me roses when he knows he’s made me mad. And I’m not going to feel selfish for saying so.
There is, after all, something to be said for heartfelt thanks, such as that expressed by my fourth grade classmates in November 1976.
In those days before word processing, personal computers and printers, my teacher typed her students’ responses to the question “What are you grateful for this Thanksgiving?” Later, she gave each of us a mimeographed copy of our responses.
In reviewing the gratitude in that booklet, I am completely in awe of the wisdom of a group of fourth grade students in a rural community in 1976.
We knew to be thankful for our bicycles and birthdays and toys.
We knew to be thankful for teachers and doctors and friends.
Reading the words of a group of children who are now middle-aged adults marked by the scars of experience, I can’t help but smile and recognize something else for which I am extremely grateful.