On School Shootings, 9/11, and a Generation Born Into Mortality

What child, while summer is happening, bothers to think much that summer will end? What child, when snow is on the ground, stops to remember that not long ago the ground was snowless? It is by its content rather than its duration that a child knows time, by its quality rather than its quantity—happy times and sad times, the time the rabbit bit your finger, the time you had your first taste of bananas and cream, the time you were crying yourself to sleep when somebody came and lay down beside you in the dark for comfort. Childhood’s time is Adam and Eve’s time before they left the garden for good and from that time on divided everything into before and after. It is the time before God told them that the day would come when they would surely die with the result that from that point on they made clocks and calendars for counting their time out like money and never again lived through a day of their lives without being haunted somewhere in the depths of them by the knowledge that each day brought them closer to the end of their lives.

– Originally published in The Sacred Journey, by Frederick Buechner

I was in high school when the Columbine shooting happened.
I was in college on 9/11.

But I had my first significant brush with death when I was about 13 and a childhood friend was hit by a car and killed. So while both September 11th and Columbine were sufficiently traumatic for most of us, by the time I was introduced to the world of mass casualties I was at least already aware of my mortality.

Did you know that children today (as in, everyone under the age of 18), have never known an America that wasn’t at war?

Think about that for a moment and then think about your own childhood. There are a lot of things about my childhood that I don’t remember. But I do remember my fears. They were normal childhood fears like house fires and not being invited to a popular girl’s birthday party.

Because I was born in 1982, I belong to that tiny little micro-generation of kids who graduated from high school before cell phones, email, and social media had really infiltrated our daily lives. The nightly news was on tv and in the daily paper, for sure, but not on a newsfeed updated every thirty seconds and fed to an electronic device that was always turned on in my pocket. Big news was communicated slowly, person to person.

When that friend died, my grandfather broke the news to me while I stood at a payphone in the school lobby. Someone had called the house to tell me and he’d taken the call. If the same thing happened today, I’d probably see it pop up in a mutual friend’s Facebook feed before I ever heard the news from another real person.

Even though I’m only a few short years removed from being an official “Millennial,” the Millennial Generation feels foreign to me. And it’s partially because they were raised with a digital dimension to their world and relationships that I did not have as a child. With all of its other issues, part of what came with the infiltration of this digital dimension is the omnipresent weight of mortality that it brings. They are surrounded by a constant newsfeed that reminds them of a world a war, a shooting across the country, and every potential danger in their own neighborhood. (In addition to the social pressures created by social media.)

“Kids these days” get a lot of crap for being the way they are. But I wonder how this ever-present reminder of their mortality has affected them. I wonder if what we’re seeing is an effect similar to what we already see manifested in kids raised in vulnerable situations, in violent families, or in poverty. I wonder if the kind of hope-killing trauma that used to be reserved for “those people” is now present in even the most privileged American childhoods.

One of the promises of “the American Dream” born after WWII was a certain national impenetrability and the promise that hard work, financial security, and dutiful community service would provide a sense of security for us and our progeny. But young people today look at their parents and grandparents and feel that this promise of stability and security was a lie. They have swam their entire lives in a sea of national and personal vulnerability.

It’s no wonder younger generations don’t feel the same sense of duty or loyalty to their country. The social contract of mutual protection has failed them.

I would argue that, whether conscious of it or not, young people today (and I will include myself in this) are in fact more aware of their mortality. Because of that, they are less willing to spend their lives fulfilling obligations to others, attending to social constructs, and delaying gratification etc. It’s like a child who has been told he has a terminal illness. He either clings to the familiar and never leaves the house or he sells everything, moves to California, and starts skydiving.

In addition to their general distaste for previous generations’ social norms, the post-9/11 generation is less tolerant of violence and offense in daily interactions, even in the way they communicate with each other. They have a stronger self-defense mechanism and have really spearheaded the “ally” movement that seeks to protect the vulnerable among them. They literally create Safe Spaces for themselves where they believe they can escape the danger lurking around every corner.

My parents raised me in the age of “stranger danger,” which produced a few generational quirks (like a fear of unmarked white vans). But parents who sent their kids off to high school after the Columbine shooting were afraid on a different level entirely. Parenting in this new, scary world meant keeping a close watch, keeping a tight leash, and applying lots of pressure toward the kinds of professional and personal achievements that could provide future security. But although helicopter parenting kept these kids alive, it produced the anxious and dependent young adults that are now creeping toward their 30’s and are struggling to build healthy, long-lasting marriages, afraid to commit to parenting, and cannot find (or do not want) consistent employment.

Those young people who do settle into parenthood today are parenting very differently than their parents or grandparents did. In addition to their shirking of any harsh discipline, they are highly protective of their children’s egos and independence. And in trying to raise children who will not injure others, they steer clear of ideological commitments that lend themselves to hard and fast rules. Rather than pressure their children to conform to their desires, young parents are letting their young children forge their own paths in the hope that a generation unrestrained can finally build a better world.

It should also be said that, in this “better world,” attraction to Old Time Religion has waned because Old Time Religion did not make good on its promise to keep us from killing each other.

It’s no wonder that fertility rates are declining. Often listed among reasons why people don’t want to have kids: the world is too scary. The generation raised after 9/11 has been taught that an attack–whether by a foreign terrorist or a fellow high school student–is not just possible, but imminent. Why would you bring a child into a world like that?

Yes, young people today get a lot of crap for the way they are. But I think we all–collectively, as a society–have some important questions to ask regarding the world our children live in today and how it got this way. And I don’t mean policy questions about guns and airport security and whether or not our preteens should be allowed at home alone. Those questions should be asked because reasonable laws can keep danger at bay, but they cannot truly make us “safe.” We need to also ask questions about our mental/spiritual health and our relationships, about the hopelessness and insecurity our children feel in places that used be produce stability and and peace: our homes, our schools, churches, etc.

Have things really changed in the past 30 years?
Are we really less safe or more vulnerable than we were before, either as a country or personally?

Maybe; maybe not.

In some ways, I’d say that the perception of constant danger, which is perpetuated by fast, digital news media and social media, is mostly “fake news.” We are all far more “safe” than we’ve ever been in some regards. But any statistics that measure our security can only tell part of the story. More now than ever, we are aware of the dangers that do exist and feel more vulnerable because of it. And, the nature of the dangers have changed so, with them, our ability to reconcile with and prepare for those dangers has changed, as well.

We are less likely to die in a plane crash, of pneumonia, or of a random act of violence than we’ve ever been; we are more likely to die of a premeditated terror attack or of cancer.

Has the post-9/11 generation responded to their mortality differently than their predecessors?

This is not the first time that American citizens have, collectively, had a sense of imminent danger lurking nearby. My parents may not have rehearsed for active shooter scenarios, but they probably had regular bomb drills. And I’m sure every wartime since the dawn of time has reinforced a sense of mortality among both young and old. Heck, there are kids in our country’s most dangerous neighborhoods who have never known a “safe” day in their lives.

What can we learn from the wisdom and experience of those who survive and thrive through dangerous times?

Another important question is: how is the American reaction to mortality different than the reaction elsewhere?

One of the benefits of our digital age is a new awareness of what goes on around the county and around the world. We know that the presence of danger and the nearness of violence and war may be new to American children, but not to children elsewhere. How are those children coping? What are their parents doing to help them cope?

What makes some children more resilient to trauma than others?

I worry that, though American children today are more sensitive and more empathetic toward each other and the evils of the world, they may be less resilient to that evil. And that leaves a generation that is not only frightened, but also helpless and hopeless.

I often think of the entire generation of European children whose parents sent them off during WWII to live with strangers or distant relatives in places they had never been. They did not know how long they would be gone, how long the war would last. They did not know if they’d ever see their parents again.

I think about entire nations of refugee children fleeing war-torn nations today, right now, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and memories of shell-shocked homes and dead neighbors.

Could American children survive that trauma?
Could mine?

It’s easy to poke fun at “snowflake” Millennials, to call them weak and to roll our eyes at their ambivalence about all the things they’re “supposed to” care about. But then I think about what it must be like to grow up believing that someone is always standing on the other side of the door, ready to shoot. Or that every airplane is destined to end up lodged in the side of a building.

I can remember, as a young child, lying awake at night convinced my house was going to burn down. But I never worried that I would be blown up in a mall or shot by a classmate in the lunchroom.

Kids today are growing up in a scary world and they are afraid. They are afraid so they are grasping for security. And because they can’t find security, they are surviving with new axioms that many of us simply don’t understand. Among them: sometimes the easiest thing to do at the end of the world is to throw caution to the wind and try and enjoy your life until the bomb falls.

Instead of bemoaning the ways they’ve learned to cope, what are we doing to help?

How I’m Surviving This Year Of Homeschooling

Have you heard the joke about cleaning with kids in the house?

It goes like this: Cleaning with young kids under foot is like brushing your teeth with oreos in your mouth.

Well if that’s true, then homeschooling with young kids around is like brushing your teeth with oreos in your mouth while holding a baby and reciting poetry.

Translation: it ain’t easy.

If you count the year I “started preschool” with my eldest child, then this is my fifth year homeschooling. I’m currently teaching third grade, first grade, and something akin to preschool with a one year old baby along for the ride.

In some ways, this year has been far easier than years past. I know my kids a lot better, I’ve learned a lot of teaching tricks, have an ever-growing inventory of tools and books at my disposal, and I’m more confident in what I’m trying to do (even if I’m still learning as I go).

Logistically and emotionally, though, this year has been rough. At the most base level, I’m struggling with the 24/7 presence of four children in my home (though that struggle is nothing new for me). And, with a young toddler in the house, the chaos is over the top. It seems like as soon as we get started with a lesson, the baby falls off a chair. (Literally, he falls about a dozen times a day.)

Some days I can take the chaos with good humor, but other days leave me exhausted and overwhelmed. These past few months, there has been a lot of (both me and them) crying and hiding in the bathroom, counting down the minutes until I can get the baby to sleep so we can focus or the hours until my husband comes home.

Not all days are that hard. Most weeks, we have about one or two awesome school days that make me feel like a superhero teacher/mom/housekeeper/wife and make me want to shower my kids with candy and cupcakes all day and then publish a book about how awesome my family is. We also have one or two days a weeks that feel only marginally successful but (thankfully) go along without too much drama. And then there are always the one or two days that seem absolutely impossible until the day is finally over and I take a deep breath and honestly can’t believe we survived.

But we do survive.
We’ve survived 22 weeks of the school year, in fact. And I’m certain we’ll survive the next 14.

For anyone else in a similar overwhelmed-but-hopeful situation with homeschooling, I’d like to share how I’m surviving.

I’m slowing things down and doing less. I am saying “no” to invitations I’d really rather accept. I am ignoring cool events around town that I would normally love to bring my kids to. We are staying home more and not feeling bad about it and, while at home, I am keeping lessons quick, simple, and not forcing things that aren’t working. I’m not letting myself feel guilty for not enrolling the kids in sports or swimming lessons or art classes. I’ve also been taking one morning a week (like today!) to get away from the house, work on some writing, take care of personal/family business, run errands, etc. Even three hours a week makes a huge difference in my mental stability. I leave two or three easy, independent tasks for the two school-aged kids to do while I’m gone so they don’t completely waste the time and so we can jump back into “school” when I get back. It’s a life saver.

I’m adjusting my daily expectations for my kids and myself. The bulk of my school planning is done at the end of the previous year when I assess the work we’ve done and make lists of goals and attainments for the next year. The specifics come together over the summer as I research and purchase new materials and then it’s all re-calibrated as we near the end of each term. My planning documents for each term are not organized by day. Instead, I have a subject-based lesson checklist for each week. This means I have a lot of wiggle room on a daily basis to adjust my schedule and our content based on the needs of the day. In a season like ours, this is the only way to keep on track without getting constantly discouraged about not meeting goals like how many chapters we’ve read today or how many math facts my kid has memorized this week.

I’m learning to turn on a dime. Thriving in a season like ours requires being able to change course quickly. If something is not working, if the baby never fell asleep, if the weather is suddenly sunny, sometimes the best thing we can do is change the plan for the day. With so much to do and so many moving parts in a big family, I don’t waste time making myself or my kids miserable. Instead, I’m learning to stop the train before it derails and redirect quickly.

I’m trying not to compare my family to any other homeschooling families or myself to other homeschool moms. Maybe it’s a symptom of the social media age or maybe just a symptom of womanhood, but I’m constantly looking over my shoulder at how we compare to other families. It’s unhealthly and emotionally taxing. It’s a distraction. And I’m learning to stop it before it steals the joy from homeschooling and parenting. So what if my school room isn’t as beautiful as yours? Who cares if I don’t look photo-ready while taking my kids on a walk to the library? And is it really a big deal if my 6 year-old is still working to differentiate between “b,” “d,” and “p?” No. It’s not.

I’m putting the kids to work. This is admittedly one of the hardest parts of parenting for me but something I’m working on. Teaching kids to clean and cook and take care of themselves takes patience that I don’t always have to spare. But the investment in teaching my kids now will pay off in a huge way as they grow. One of my favorite new things to remind the kids, when telling them for the fifth time (or sixth time or seventh time) to clean up after themselves is: “This is not a punishment; this is your responsibility.” Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all, as adults, understood this for ourselves?

I’m reminding myself the “why” and keeping it in the front of my mind. People homeschool for many different reasons. Some, for example, have children with special needs or gifted children who require special attention or direction. I wrote a post a few years ago, when my son was in the first grade, about why I’m choosing to homeschool our kids and I re-read it every so often to keep myself focused. (While some of that post is outdated, it’s still mostly true. Check it out if you’re interested.) Keeping the reasons why I’m doing this in the front of my mind help me keep my priorities straight and make better value judgments about the work we’re doing (or not doing, as the case may be).

I’m keeping my head in the game. I keep reading, researching, and refining my beliefs about child development, parenting, and education. I don’t want to follow a method of schooling blindly or without thoughtfulness. Part of my responsibility as a mother and educator is working at it like a job, like it matters as much as any other career or vocation. That requires focus and energy in developing my skills so I can serve my family well. As I adopt an educational philosophy and method that excites me to teach, it makes walking through a difficult season a lot easier.

I’m leaning on community. Making “girlfriends” is not easy for me, but I’m trying to stretch myself. Some of this involves presence on social media and using it be inspired and encouraged by other homeschooling families. Some of this involves inviting myself into the lives of other women who are further along in the journey than I am. And some of this involves making time for friendships with women of all ages and life stages that hold me up through a difficult season and vice versa.

(Sidebar: Please, if you know me in real life and feel like we should be friends, let’s make it happen.)

And, lastly, I’m reminding myself that this is just a season. Kids grow fast and the one year-old who is driving me crazy today will be talking tomorrow and then riding a bike and, someday, driving a car. (WHAT!?)

This year is hard. But this too shall pass. And I’d rather make the most of the luxury of keeping these kids around the house all day than wish them gone.

Peace, Love, and Understanding

I watched a Twitter firestorm yesterday.
In the scope of the entire “twitterverse,” as they call it, it’s probably small potatoes. But this particular storm made my heart hurt and got me thinking (again) about the nature of communication and the prevalence of misunderstanding, as well as the resolute “your opinion doesn’t actually matter”-ness of contemporary American culture.

We are obsessed with being heard.
I submit, as evidence, the existence of Twitter in the first place and the very existence of this blog.

Sometimes, wanting to be heard is justified as there have been many marginalized voices in our country (and in our churches) and amplifying those voices is appropriate. But being heard, I’d argue, is not enough. We want to be understood.

But being understood is much, much more difficult. And understanding requires much more work than most of us are willing to put forth–especially for the sake of strangers.

At one point, a hallmark of liberalism was open-mindedness and the ability to tolerate a difference of opinion. But most modern-day liberals have no interest in either of those things. Liberalism’s new cousin–progressivism–is a different animal entirely and is just as intolerant and other-phobic as its original enemy: conservatism.

I mean this criticism in good humor because I have plenty of friends and family on both sides of the equation and I think most of them (ha!) are decent people with good intentions. I would gladly defend them to their opposition if the need arose but, if I’m honest, I’ll admit that they are most all plagued by an inability to understand each other.

In fact, most of us are.

The twitter “fight” I saw yesterday was between a prominent Christian thinker/writer and a contingent of his personal and ideological critics. It was an honest-to-goodness “cluster****,” as they say, and it was ugly.

I know it’s not really my job to moderate the conversations between strangers, but I always feel like I need to do it. People are just so unfair to each other, often attributing only the worst of intentions to their opposition. They are inflammatory. Derogatory. Absurd and dishonest. All the while, they assert their own personal integrity and moral superiority.

I’ve done it too.
There have been times when my disagreements were so intense and I was so indignant and proud that I stood by things I did or said that I should have never done or said, even after I knew they were wrong to do or say. And it didn’t matter a lick to me how my words or actions affected the people around me. All I wanted was to win. And I most definitely did not want to learn from someone else or change.

But, see, I’ve also been on the other side.
My words have been twisted into something I never intended. I’ve been called names I didn’t deserve to be called. I’ve had friends become enemies because of what they heard instead of what I actually said. And I’ve felt that terrible, aching feeling of being deeply misunderstood.

Empathy is not my strong suit, but I empathize with those who feel misunderstood, whether it’s because they are simply not good with words or because they’ve been backed into a rhetorical corner by someone who is better. It feels terrible. And it’s a terrible thing to do to someone.

Our disagreements aren’t going away anytime soon. Polarization seems to be the flavor of our culture today. And though I am not the arbiter of mutual understanding, I can’t walk by such ugly fighting without at least suggesting the rules change. If we don’t practice a little ideological empathy, we will eventually be incapable of actually hearing anyone the way they intend to be heard. And that will be a sad, sad world indeed.

 

 

 

Some Suggestions for #GivingTuesday and Beyond

When the holiday season rolls around and minds wander to gift lists and shopping trips, I know a lot of us also consider an extra boost in our charitable giving. I worked in the non-profit sector for 11 years. My husband has worked in the sector for over 9. My parents are on a missionary salary. And one of my brothers is a pastor. So, heck, I don’t care if the only reason you’re giving is for a tax deduction. I know that nonprofits depend on your giving and I’d like to encourage you to give more this season.

Tomorrow (November 28) is #GivingTuesday, a global day of charitable giving organized in response to Black Friday, Shop Local Saturday, Cyber Monday, etc. Nonprofits all over the world are making a push for your donations and, if the projections are correct, giving tomorrow will be enormous.

Whether you donate tomorrow or not, I’d like to offer a few organizations that my family loves, supports, and would suggest for your end-of-year donation.

Local (Cincinnati) and National Organizations-

Habitat for Humanity of Greater Cincinnati a non-profit Christian housing ministry that seeks to eliminate substandard housing locally and globally by building and renovating simple, decent, affordable homes to sell to low-income families in need.

Imago an ecological education organization that is rooted in the concept that living in harmony with the natural world is not only good for the planet, but good for ourselves, our families and our communities. They work for the preservation of urban nature, and provide hands-on green workshops and education programs for youth.

Keep Cincinnati Beautiful “KCB’s education, revitalization and environmental initiatives build community and foster pride in the places where we live, work and play. Our grassroots network of neighbors, sponsors and volunteers put passion to work across all 52 neighborhoods, creating safer, cleaner spaces and a higher quality of life for all Cincinnatians.”

Koinonia Farm– this intentional Christian farm community in Americus, GA is “a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God.” It is the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity.

Life Forward Cincinnati provides free, confidential, and comprehensive prenatal and parenting services to women in crisis.

MORTAR“Our mission is to enable under-served entrepreneurs and businesses to succeed; creating opportunities to build communities through entrepreneurship”

The Play Librarya library, but for toys!

Point Perk a full-service coffeeshop in Covington, KY, that provides job training and community interaction for adults with disabilities.

United Ministries of Northern Kentucky- a Christian ministry assisting families by establishing a comprehensive system of response to the emergency needs of persons in Southern Kenton County and Boone County.

Woven Oak Initiatives– providing small programs focused on education, mentorship, and community-building in Norwood, Ohio.

Internationally-

Aruna Project, Cincinnati, OH/India- “We free, empower and employ those from the brothel system and bring them into an environment marked by holistic care to help build a bright future.

Leadership Resources, Chicago, IL/worldwide- training indigenous pastors worldwide, especially in places where a seminary education is unavailable or unattainable.

The Parative Project, Cincinnati, OH/India- Designing and selling “products made by businesses that are bringing fair wages, stability, and healing to those who have been freed from human trafficking and poverty.”

Restaurants on Mission, Columbia, South America- “Our goal is to create a global chain of non-profit restaurants that will hire and train individuals from reformation and reintegration programs and provide a step towards a better life. All profits from each restaurant go back into the neighborhoods in which they are located to improve quality of life.”

Real Good For Free: the creative process, fame, and my once-upon-a-time music career

Before I was Liz McEwan, I was Liz Bowater. And, back when I was Liz Bowater, I fancied myself a songwriter. And it’s true that I was a songwriter if all it took to call yourself “a songwriter” was, literally, writing songs. But that’s not enough, is it? Part of the creative process requires not only creating and releasing the product of our creativity, but also having an audience to receive it and (hopefully) appreciate it.

For ten years or so, I spent every extra moment writing and playing music. And those years were a lot of fun. I played some fantastic shows, met some amazing musicians and music lovers, traveled a bit and learned the joys (and loneliness) of days on the road.

When I moved to Cincinnati, my music was a first point of contact for me and was how I met many of my first friends. Cincinnati gave me a warm reception but my “career,” for what is was worth, was short-lived.

The truth is, I was never cut out for a music career. I don’t deal well with criticism and am really uncomfortable with the idea of fame. I’m a decent writer but a poor guitar player. And I don’t collaborate well. I didn’t know the first thing about promoting myself and I guess I simply “didn’t want it badly enough” to push and push and push.

So I self-released one last (mediocre) album back in 2011 and, when it didn’t really get any attention, I just sort of walked away. It was painful but not crushing. Realizing my music was never going to be a big deal was more of a slow acceptance than a moment of shocking realization.

At the height of my songwriting, I was deeply embedded in a crisis of my faith. I was having a hard time connecting with people. I was processing confusing thoughts and relationships and music became an outlet for expression and connection that I didn’t really have anywhere else. It was a bridge from me to other people. (For a taste of my greatest inspiration during this season of my life, read this quote by Frederick Buechner.)

When I stopped writing music about six years ago, it wasn’t on purpose. I tried and tried to put words on paper and to music and it just didn’t work. The proverbial well was just dried up. I think it was a mixture of a) embracing a new season of life that I hadn’t yet figured out how to process creatively and b) lifestyle changes that no longer allowed the same late-night-alone-with-a-glass-of-wine-and-a-cigarette writing method. I was now married with two young kids and things were just different now.

Somewhere along the line, I started pouring my creative, late night energy into blogging and then freelance journalism. These days, my writing gravitates more toward the cerebral. I’m writing more about other people. More about ideas. My own emotional processes, I suppose, are being handled differently.

It’s kind of embarrassing to think back on all the time and energy (and money) I spent trying to build a career from a few dozen decent songs. (And, oh Lord, the promo photos! What a joke, right?) Some of the songs themselves are worth forgetting altogether, to be honest. But I really do miss it. I miss the manic writing sessions. I miss the performing.

Most of all, I think I miss being able to package myself into a song and deliver it to friends and strangers so easily.

When I consider the future of my writing, I do a lot of self-evaluation. I ask myself why I feel so compelled to do this. Why am I willing to stay awake until 2am after a long day of taking care of four young kids just to get the words down? What is so important about these words (musical or not) that I absolutely must get them out of my head and out to someone else? What are my intentions?

I guess the answer to “why” is that it’s complicated. (For a peek inside the introvert writer’s head, read this.) I have sometimes written for selfish reasons and sometimes for idealistic reasons. Sometimes it’s just because I love language and I love ideas and I love engaging with other people about those ideas. Sometimes, especially in the past, it’s because I’m hurting or confused and I don’t know how else to reach out.

I don’t think I can stop writing. But I’m never sure what I’ll write next.

I have ideas for blogs and children’s books and non-fiction books and all sorts of exciting writing projects, including some church music if I can ever find my way back around to that sort of thing.

But one of the things I’ve learned from my experience of trying (and failing, I guess) at building a career at songwriting is that it’s never really just about the music. It’s about the connection. It’s about the bridge that music builds between people and the community those bridges shape.

I’ve also learned that our greatest artistic contributions to the world are only as great as our motives in producing and sharing them. The world can sniff a rat a mile away and can tell in an instant if we’re just one more clanging cymbal, dying to be heard at all costs.

And, lastly, this:

Some people love the things I write. Some people hate them. Most people simply don’t care who I am or what I have to say. A failed music career taught me that. (And taught me to be okay with it.) My job is just to speak the truth as it is and let things fall where they may.

Sidenote: Have you hear this song?

Real Good For Free– Joni Mitchell

I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green*
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free.

Now me I play for fortune
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money

Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.

Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony…
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free**.

* This is the namesake of my blog, by the way.

** Part of what inspired this post was my decision to dig up all of my recordings and release most of my songs online for free. You can find them here. I kept the most embarrassing ones for myself and those who were there the first time around and have the original hard copies. If you take a listen, let me know which is your favorite. It’s always fun to know.

Protecting Our Kids from Sexual Abuse

I guess I knew it happened sometimes to some people, but I didn’t understand the pervasiveness of sexual abuse among my peers until I was a young adult and the stories started coming out in deeper conversations. The thought of so much abuse going on around me felt a bit scandalizing at first. But now, 35 years old and a mother of four young children, the statistics are maddening and make me flat-out pissed.

How is this even possible?
Why have we been pretending for so long?

As a kid, sex was not something I spoke about openly with my parents or my peers. And things like molestation and rape were like a plane crash–the chances are so slim that you can’t lay awake worrying about them.

But it turns out we were wrong.

Abuse is everywhere.
It’s in the Church, in our families, in sports and schools and the entertainment industry. (I read this article this morning, which is why I decided it was time to write this.)

We can certainly mince words about what, exactly, qualifies as “sexual abuse.” If I’m totally honest, I’m not really comfortable accepting the most extreme definitions of “abuse” because I do believe there is a difference between an abuser/predator and a confused kid (or an honest misunderstanding about intentions). Human sexuality is more complicated than most of us give it credit for being and the ins and outs of sexual relationships between people are not always cut and dry.

But, that said, nearly every woman I know has a story of sexual misconduct, whether it’s flat-out abuse, molestation, and rape or less overt indiscretions like sexual pressure from a partner, come-ons from a superior at work, or ugly cat-calls on the street.

When I take an honest look back at my life, the picture becomes pretty clear. I have my own share of stories, too.

The flasher who showed up at my 6th grade birthday party. The flasher in the church lobby (!!). The note from a friend (in 7th grade) that said her boyfriend kept pressuring her for oral sex (of course, she didn’t use the word “pressure”). The stories in high school about people having sex just to keep a boyfriend (or girlfriend) but him leaving anyway. The first time I heard someone openly profess to being molested as a child. (And other stories I’d rather not share here.)

Our culture has a sex problem.
And I could write and write and write my thoughts about what the problem is, where it comes from, and how to change it. But I don’t have time for that right now.

Instead, I want to share how I am protecting my children from sexual abuse. And I want to hear your ideas, too. Because even though I can’t keep every danger from our doorstep, I can at least teach my kids what to do when they see it and how to overcome it.

These are some of the steps we are taking as a family:

We talk openly and frequently with our kids about sex and sexual abuse. From a very young age, we teach our kids about sex and anatomy, what their body parts are called and what they do. We encourage them to ask questions when the questions come up, not only when we are having an official “sex talk.” But we do have official lessons about sexuality as a part of our school curriculum because sometimes it feels awkward to bring it up out of nowhere. Our kids are encouraged to use us (not peers) as a first resource and, if at any point they don’t want to talk to us about sex, we have promised to find another adult they can talk to instead of us.

We choose friends and a church community that takes sex and sexual abuse seriously. Because we know that most people who are abused are abused by people close to them, we surround our children with people we trust. It can’t guarantee that they will escape abuse, but it will guarantee a community that will act on abuse and support them rather than an abuser. (We are proud to be members of a denomination that has a firm stance on and policies for protecting its children from sexual abuse.) We teach our kids to look out for each other and for others.

We teach our kids to have boundaries with peers and adults. We teach them to respect the words “stop” and “no.” Once they are bodily-aware (which kicks in somewhere around 3-5 yrs old), we talk about the need for respecting privacy and for expecting the same from others. We tell them that, unless they need help dressing or using the bathroom, it is not appropriate for someone else (adult or child, even family members) to see them naked or touch them in their genital areas. If someone insists on seeing or touching them inappropriately, they need to tell us immediately. (We’ve taught a few “poke their eye out or kick them in their groin” lessons, as well.)

We don’t keep secrets and we teach them that there is never a good reason to keep secrets from us or to keep secrets with other people. (This is one part of the “tricky people” concept, which is a great safety skill for kids and much preferred to the “stranger danger” of my youth.)

We teach them to keep all physical affection and sexual activity in its place. From birth, we work to establish proper attachment with our kids and show consistent, physical affection within our family to help them develop healthy expressions of love and affection. When they are young, we teach them the role of sex in a marriage and reinforce married sex as the standard for behavior. As they get older, this conversation will develop more nuance as we talk about all expressions of sexuality and help them navigate dating and courtship, love and lust and desire.

We introduce the dangers of pornography early and, as they age, will teach them to recognize objectification and sexual idolatry and how they contribute to sexual exploitation and abuse. We will help them avoid sexually explicit materials and images by cultivating a healthy attitude toward the human body and an appetite for better expressions of love and devotion.

We will encourage them to avoid abusing drugs and alcohol, especially in mixed company and with people they don’t know. We will be honest about the connection between intoxication and negligent behavior/abuse.

We encourage immediate, judgement-free conversations about sex. We promise to listen and to answer honestly. We will believe them when they are victimized. We will help them navigate confusing/frustrating situations that arise as they age. Nothing will be a taboo in our house.

 

I’m sure this doesn’t cover everything.
What are you doing to protect your kids from sexual abuse?

Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, and (some thoughts on) Religious Syncretism

It’s Halloween!
Or All Hallow’s Eve!
Or Sahmain!
Or whatever.

“Happy Holidays.”

My earliest memories of Halloween are of me donning my older brother’s football uniform so I could do the absolute bare minimum for the school costume parade in the third grade.

When I was young, our family’s participation (or lack of participation) evolved over time but, in general, we did not celebrate Halloween. By the time I was in middle school, I sometimes went out looking for candy with my friends, but my mom had adopted a full-on boycott. No candy for visitors. Front porch lights out.

I didn’t quite understand it then. But it makes more and more sense to me now.

Most of us don’t think too seriously about the finer points of syncretism and how it manifests itself in culture and in our religious traditions. Either we take for granted that all our favorite traditions are purely ours or we take for granted that no tradition can be pure. And, either way, we don’t really care too much.

Whether we admit it or not, much of what we do in church (and in life) is influenced by our own culture and the world around us. And some of us fight this influence more strongly than others. In the context of Christian worship, some churches follow a Regulative Principle of worship that says “whatever is not explicitly commanded/affirmed in the Bible has no place in Christian worship,” but most of us are not in this camp. So most will admit that many traditions are a matter of cultural preference–like the difference between an organ and an acoustic guitar–and most of these preferences are really benign. They may have theological implications, but they are not theological prescriptions.

The farther back we go in church history or the more we develop “new” traditions, the more they tend toward two extremes–either the church develops it’s own symbols and traditions based on their distinct Christian-ness or it adopts symbols and traditions of other religions/cultures and “christianizes” them for their own use (aka syncretism).

In 2017 America, since we seem so far removed from First Century paganism and Eastern religions, most Christians don’t give two thoughts about where their traditions came from. It’s assumed that, at this point, the potentially worldly roots of our traditions don’t matter anymore. We are, after all, a culture primarily influenced by Judeo-Christian traditions. And everyone else understand the Christian-ness of our symbols and traditions. Right? Well, maybe sorta. Or maybe not.

For most of America, today is Halloween. It’s an excuse to dress your kid up in funny or scary or ridiculously adorable costumes, visit with neighbors, and collect candy to get you through the long, cold nights until Thanksgiving (our next gluttonous holiday).

But for some people–primarily Catholics and some other Christians who fancy Catholicism–it’s All Hallow’s Eve. In some way or another, it’s a day to revel in the reign of Christ over evil and to mock the devil. (Some Catholics fast today in preparation for tomorrow’s Feast Day of All Saint’s Day so they save their candy for tomorrow. Bummer, right?)

 

 

People think I’m all kinds of crazy when I tell them we don’t celebrate Halloween. Apparently, it means I a) hate talking to my neighbors and giving them things; b) don’t want my kids to enjoy life; c) am just a stodgy old coot. In actuality, none of these things are true about me, I am a reasonable woman, and I have thought this through quite a bit.

Though my level of commitment to abstaining is still evolving–Will I hand out candy? Will we buy a pumpkin for the front stoop because it’s fall and pumpkins are cute? etc.–I am perfectly comfortable saying that, as a family, we don’t do Halloween. I believe this is a matter of personal conscience. It’s not something important enough for me to fight with friends over and it’s not something I’d draw a line about between myself and people I love. But it’s something I’m pretty committed to and I’m going to try and quickly explain my reasoning about the issue because, every year, someone seems surprised that I actually care enough to think about it.

So, here.
Reason with me now.

No one seems to agree about the exact origins of Halloween. Did the Catholic Church institute All Hallow’s Eve as a distinctly Christian holiday, or was it an attempt to christianize the ancient Celtic festival of Sahmain by slapping a Christian name on the same tradition? Were you there? Me neither. All you need is a quick Google search to prove that the jury is still out on this one. And this is true for many of our other holidays, too.

Young in our family life, we decided to try and focus on as many distinctly Christian traditions as possible and avoid pagan, secular, and Eastern traditions if we could. We downplayed Christmas (in the secular Santa sense) and embraced the season of Advent. We skipped the Easter Bunny entirely and focused on Resurrection Day. We tried to “purify” our family expressions of these great holidays as much as possible while admitting that it’s simply impossible to avoid all syncretism. The truth is that even our best intentions have left us with half-baked American traditions like Easter egg hunts and Christmas stockings. Whatever. Imperfect is better than nothing.

One of the biggest questions in my mind has always been about what, exactly, is the nature or intent of the thing we’re appropriating into our expression of our faith? Is this a purely cultural expression? Or is it a religious expression? Can the two every be truly separated?

Take for example Indian culture and the practice of yoga.
A few months ago, I asked my friends on Facebook whether they believed the practice of yoga was a) inherently spiritual, b) imputed with spirituality by those participating in it, or c) purely secular. Responses were mixed. But it has always seemed clear to me that a practice created specifically as a spiritual practice for another religion cannot be stripped of its spiritual element and simply secularized or christianized by another user. We are not dualists; nothing done with our spiritual bodies is purely biological.

But, wait! I eat Indian food! Isn’t some Indian food somewhere prepared by Hindus (potentially) offered to a Hindu god? Well, sure. And if someone came to my table and offered a prayer to Vishnu over my food, I could still eat it (Biblically speaking), but it might make me feel a little weird about it. But knowing someone next door in the YMCA may be doing yoga isn’t the same as actually doing yoga myself, is it? So I see eating Indian food as less like doing yoga and more like wearing yoga pants. Which might be wrong, but for different reasons. (That was a joke. Maybe.)

So, back to Halloween.

Some of my friends seem to think that the only people still celebrating pagan Celtic festivals like Samhain are the 12 Druids living on a commune in New Hampshire. But I can tell you for a fact that pagan Druid spirituality (along with Wicca and actual Satanism) are real. They exist in 21st Century America. And if I had not once stood in a room of a few hundred totally normal American citizens worshiping the planet Earth, I probably wouldn’t believe it either. (Ask me and I’ll tell you the story sometime.)

And this is not even to mention the absurd world of horror movies and haunted houses that capitalize on the scary sentiment of Halloween just to scare the crap out of you and your children. And I won’t even talk about actual spiritual warfare. Ugh.

Okay.
So you’ve decided that Halloween is still no big deal because you want to meet some neighbors and your kid looks really cute as Elsa from Frozen (you returned the Moana costume because it’s culturally insensitive).

Well, my Halloween loving friends, you’re not alone. And I don’t think you’re a terrible person or a devil worshiper. I just think you need to ask yourself some questions about how you’ll celebrate the holiday well.

First: if you are going to use the “All Hallow’s Eve” excuse/clause, you have to ask whether your observance of Halloween really resembles the Christian tradition at all. If you want to know the truth about your family traditions, ask your kids. What do they believe they are celebrating? What do the symbols mean to them?

If I ask your kids can say to me “Oh! We’re mocking the devil because Jesus is King!” I might say, “Well, heck. Right on!”

Second: are you neglecting some of the distinctly Christian traditions in place of the more “fun” ones? If you are a Protestant, did you even tell your kids about Reformation Day today? If you are a Catholic, did you take the opportunity to throw eggs at my car? (Joking again.)

And how should you celebrate? Well, consider how much your family and children miss out on the Christmas story when the entire Advent season is not observed. The same goes for the season of Lent and Easter. If you really believe Halloween is a Christian tradition, then express it as one and go all out. Slip some Testamints into those candy buckets. (Joking. Don’t do that. They taste gross.)

But, here’s the thing about celebrating Halloween: you might think that it’s totally cool and in good fun for Christians to go around the neighborhood merrily mocking the devil by wearing cute superhero costumes, but your neighbors are probably not in on the joke. They might be watching a movie about serial killers to commemorate the occasion or could be waiting in a bloody clown costume to scare the crap out of your kid when she rings the doorbell or could be standing around a tree in the woods chanting about their sacred mother.

Or maybe they’re all in superhero costumes, too, and it’s really no big deal. I’m willing to admit that kids in superhero costumes are really cute.

The short story is this: participating in Halloween just seems really confusing to me–less like wearing yoga pants and more like sniffing the yoga mat. (Gross, I know. Sorry about that picture.) And if I’m not going to do yoga, I’m not gonna sniff the mat. (Most you probably do yoga, so you just realized I wasted all your time.)

Okay, so that was a lot to say about something that, at the end of the day, isn’t really a big deal. Like I said, it’s not a line in the sand for me.

But I do kind of take Halloween seriously. At least seriously enough to think more about it than just what candy I’ll buy.

For the record, I bought kit-kats and fruit snacks. Because we don’t celebrate but we also don’t ever turn away a stranger who knocks on our door, no matter how they’re dressed.

 

 

Field Notes From A Gentrifier, Part II: Class, Culture, and Race (and Racism)

This is Part II of an ill-advised series of “field notes” from my experience as an unintentional gentrifier in Over-the-Rhine, Cincinnati, Ohio. Consider it the purging of my current thoughts on/observations about gentrification, urban economics, class, race, and $3.50 tacos. Three related posts are planned so far. There may be more to come. Or not.

 

One of the reasons gentrification is such a hard thing to talk about is that it pricks our sensitivities to complicated social structures of class, culture, and race. But it doesn’t take long into the conversation to realize that we not only disagree about how these things play into urban development, but also what these things even mean.

Some definitions:

Class-
a :  a group sharing the same economic or social status    the working class
b :  social rank; especially :  high social rank    the classes as opposed to the masses

Culture
the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also :  the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time     popular culture     Southern culture

Race-
a :  a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock
b :  a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics

 

Gentrification is almost always perceived as a racism problem. This is evidenced by the fact that people complaining most about gentrification are almost always implicitly (or explicitly) referring to “rich white people” taking over “poor black” neighborhoods. But we know that redevelopment (in both equitable and inequitable ways) happens in all communities and at the hand of white and black people alike.

Yet, still, this is how the conversation usually goes:

Someone (usually a white someone) of influence in an urban development project will speak of the urban community as one plagued by blight and crime. They will point to their plan to “clean up the neighborhood.”

Or someone (usually a white someone) will move into a neighborhood and claim they’re interested in “helping make it better.”

But, instead of hearing the kind hearts of well-intended people trying to make the community a better place, we think they mean “I want to get rid of the poor black people in this neighborhood.”

Now, we know that there are many terrible people in this world, people who are legitimately racist or spiteful or simply ignorant. And they have done terrible things to other people including, but not limited to, taking over entire neighborhoods for their own interests. But let’s pretend for a minute that not all white people with the means or influence to change a community meet the description of Racist Colonizer. Cool? Cool.

Then, let’s be honest about urban blight and crime.

Because those who fight hand over fist to stop gentrification don’t seem to think there’s a problem to solve, but they’re wrong.

Over the past 50(ish) years, our urban communities have seen a devastating amount of economic and social disinvestment. There’s good reason why the urban stereotype is dirty, dangerous, and disenfranchised (I love alliteration). We can argue about why cities became such a dump at the end of the 20th Century (spoiler: racism has a lot to do with it) but you can’t deny it happened or that it was/is a problem.

In the almost ten years I’ve lived in Over-the-Rhine:

In alleys and on sidewalks, alongside your standard littered garbage, I’ve picked up (and properly disposed of) used condoms, used tampons, used heroin needles, and dirty underwear.

I’ve watched a well-dressed young woman drop her drawers and defecate on the sidewalk in broad daylight and then walk away like nothing ever happened.

At least weekly, in full view of my kitchen window, someone uses our alleyway as a urinal.

Human feces appears a couple times a year.

We’ve had 5-6 incidents of theft from our front yard, back yard, or vehicle. Twice it has happened right in front of my eyes by people who acted surprised that I was surprised by their stealing from me.

For a time, someone was hiding stolen electronics in our yard.

I once found a man sleeping under a tarp in our backyard in the afternoon.

I’ve watched countless (literally countless) drug-dealing interactions on and around my street.

I’ve found people passed out on the sidewalk from drinking or doping.

Gunshots. Lots of them.

A man was shot by police within view of my second-story window on a sunny afternoon.

At our old apartment, a woman rang our doorbell late at night and begged for help and said she was running away from her violent boyfriend and could I please save her?

I once woke (with most of my neighbors) in the middle of the night to a woman screaming that she had just been assaulted around the corner and needed help.

Strangers ring my doorbell just to ask for money.

(Oh, golly, city living sounds great, right?)

So, what’s my point in listing these incidents?
I want to illustrate that there are things that happen on a regular basis in mixed-income, dense, urban areas that simply do not happen with any comparable frequency in other places. (Other place have other problems, to be sure.) And that you’re crazy to try and justify and protect these characteristically urban blight and crime issues the same way you’d fight to protect an ethnic food eatery or the right for homeless people to loiter in public parks (both of which I support, btw).

But, what does this have to do with racism?
Well, I didn’t give you any indication whether the people involved in these incidents were black or white. And I can promise that it’s a nice, healthy mix. So my bigger point is that the desire to “clean up the city” it not about getting rid of black people. For most normal residents, it’s about simple quality-of-life things like making the city a place where kids and moms and old men in wheelchairs don’t have to dodge human feces while traveling down the sidewalk.

And for someone to call a white person a racist because they’re willing to say people shouldn’t crap in public is like saying that public defecation is somehow related to being black, which is a flat out, evil lie that should offend all of us.

So, okay. Maybe I’m right.
Maybe gentrification isn’t really about race.
But then what is it about?

It’s about class and it’s about culture.

And class and culture are more complicated and are issues of justice and personal responsibility and values, which means getting at the root of what actually makes us different from each other. So I understand why we would rather make it about race.  We are not responsible for our race or ethnicity. Even a marginally ethical person can and should be ideologically offended by racism. But we all get personally offended by criticisms of our class or culture.

If you ask me–which you didn’t, except that you’re reading my blog so you kinda did–the real gentrification conversation is less about what race of people are moving in or out of a neighborhood and more about

a) how to build a community where there is mobility between social and economic classes, facilitated through our means of housing, educating, socializing, and employing our residents and

b) how to design the community so that the cultural landscape (food, art, aesthetics, etc.) is truly representative of all the residents in the community, not just the new ones with money.

 

But where does that leave us?

I am a young, white, middle-class urban dweller. I may feel powerless at times in my neighborhood but, compared to some of my minority or lower-income neighbors, I have great influence. So I (and my peers) need to be pressed on these two questions. And we need to hold community leaders, investors, and developers accountable to them.

But we can’t have these really important conversations across class and cultural lines if we can’t, first, agree that there are some things about our shared community that none of us should be defending.

Some things are simply uncultured and class-less–
Things like heroin.
And stealing my kid’s bike.

And crapping on my sidewalk.

 

 

 

(Possibly) later in the Field Notes series:

How to Solve the Affordable Housing Crisis

My $13 Box of Macarons

Stay tuned!