Confession: I’m glad I grew up a girl

I went birthday present shopping for a friend of my kids’ this weekend.

As I walked down the toy aisles, I tried to think back and remember if toys were so strictly segregated when I was a kid. It was pretty startling. There was the pink aisle and the ‘every other color’ aisle. There were fashion dolls on one side and, pretty much, every other kind of toy on the other.

My first thought was that being a girl was pretty limiting. You had a lot of different versions of the same toy and that seemed to be it. Then I realized how wrong I was.

I was a tom-boy. That’s a thing. That’s what you call it when a little girl acts in a more masculine manner. I played with G.I. Joes and nobody thought anything of it. I played baseball, tennis, soccer and softball and no one said it was weird. I climbed trees and scraped my knees and it was fine.

I cut my hair short and few commented on it.

The truth is that my daughter can walk down the ‘boys’ aisle at that store, pick up any of the toys in the rest of the color spectrum and no one will think anything of it. That’s acceptable.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are serious restrictions imposed on women and girls. But, in my opinion, masculine women and girls are much more accepted in our society than feminine men and boys and that’s not a good thing.

If my boy walked down the pink aisle and picked up one of those fashion dolls, people would notice. When he paints his nails, people notice. When I sit for long periods of time tending to my daughter’s hair, my son will often sit behind me. He’ll brush and style my hair, generally loading it down with so many ‘hair pretties’ that I make clinking noises with every step I take afterward. I know that the same people who give him and me funny looks when they see his painted nails would most likely look askance at that practice as well.

My daughter has been blessed in that her temperament, personality and likes align pretty well with societal expectations. She’s just naturally very girly. She loves nothing more than fashion dolls, fashion video games, hair pretties, dancing, and all things pink and princess.

My son is a somewhat feminine boy. He doesn’t identify as a girl but he’s sensitive, he likes cooking, dancing, live theater, My Little Pony and fashion. He has quite firm opinions regarding fashion, too. Let me give you an example outfit. Sneakers & socks topped by navy slacks. Then a red polo shirt with the collar sticking up and a black t-shirt worn over it. He topped that ensemble off with a brown tweed jacket and a herringbone ivy cap.

He has plenty of masculine tendencies but many our society dub feminine as well. While masculine tendencies are generally indulged in girls, feminine tendencies in boys have been strongly discouraged. Boys are told to ‘be a man’.

My son cried at the end of the new Spiderman movie and my husband won my heart yet again by telling him it was okay to cry at sad stories. I love that my husband looks on my son’s tears as a sign of empathy and, as such, something to be valued.

I’m lucky my husband isn’t opposed to letting my son wander down whichever toy aisle he pleases. I hope that we can start moving more away from our strangely segregated child rearing practices and just treasure all aspects of our children’s multi-faceted personalities, both those dubbed masculine and feminine.

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Confession: Confidence (or lack thereof)

The first thing I need to get on the table in this post is I was bullied as a kid. I’m not going to go into gory details but it was pretty bad, long standing and escalated to physical blows on more than one occasion.

I was bullied about my non-traditional family. I was bullied because of my status at school (I was two grades ahead of schedule by freshman year). I was also bullied for being really, really, REALLY into sports.

At the same time, I had awesome parents and made friends with a lot of adults who were mature enough to value me just the way I was. I was conscious at the time that there were steps I could take to be more socially acceptable and spare myself some of the bullying in school. I decided against taking such steps because I knew it would mean denying parts of myself that I genuinely liked. That’s the problem with being genuine, you don’t have anything to hide behind. If people don’t like you, they don’t like YOU.

As a result, I’m a little weird. I like people but at the same time they scare me. I’m constantly waiting for the pin or the other shoe to drop. My experience tells me that people, in general, don’t like me the way I am. I say something or do something awkward or weird or entailing too much information and they back away with that “okay, crazy lady” expression that purports to be a grin but is nothing but terror from the nose up.

I didn’t have many friends in school and it seemed like when I’d make friends, eventually they’d catch on to the fact that I had a social contamination zone the size of Chernobyl. Once that happened, they’d wander away and I’d be left alone, hurt and swearing that I’d never do it again. No more friends. No more open invitations to rip my heart out and stomp on it.

I just joined a group of writers and the initial euphoria of being invited into such a cool group of people is wearing off. My version of reality is setting in and I’m, frankly, terrified. This takes the form of me neurotically double guessing everything I say and do and, worse, over analyzing everything they say and do.

When so and so made that comment, was she subtly voicing irritation with me?

That’s another thing: I’m cursed with an exceptionally good memory.

As I blundered gracelessly through my late teens and early adulthood many, many people made comments that were sly and subtle insults they knew would be over my head. I didn’t get them then, but I remember. As conversations would play back in my head over the years I would come to understand what was meant. I would get why this comment or other was funny to everyone but me and understand exactly how much of that laughter was at my expense.

Switching gears slightly, my son was badly bullied in kindergarten. Yes, kindergarten. Thanks to a sick teacher being replaced by several substitute teachers for months out of that school year, trying to stop the bullying proved extremely difficult. I ached watching the effect this had on him. Because the bullies converted everyone else in his class, including his erstwhile best friend, he has an extremely cynical view of friendship. He, in fact, insists that he has no friends and doesn’t want them. “You can’t trust friends.” He told me earlier this year. “You trust them and then they can hurt you.”

I feel ill equipped to help him with this because I still struggle with that fear. I am extremely tempted to leave my group because I’m afraid that I’m starting to annoy them.

I’ve had so many people say something along these lines to me, “You know, I really didn’t like you at first but now I do.” I’ve heard that or something like it so many times.

My husband’s family pretty much universally despised me for the first couple years of our marriage. They’ve all told me this because that’s what people do. Once they’ve decided I’ve grown on them or that the things they used to find annoying are endearing they feel the need to confess their earlier irritation and dislike. I think that’s helped with my fear.

I’ve been told repeatedly by well-meaning people that, at least ‘at first’, I’m not likeable.

So, what do I do?

Old me would leave the group. Old me would decide it’s better to go it alone.

Well, I’m not leaving my group. I’m going to stay for the time being and hope that, if I am annoying or graceless or off putting, that they’ll put up with me long enough for that magical ‘aha!’ moment to hit them or whatever fateful scale it is that tips in people’s opinions to tip in favor of them liking me.

It’s scary. People are freaking scary. When I’m alone, I’m secure in myself. I like who I am. When I get around people and start fearing rejection, I question my own value and I hate that.

I really like this group. I value it and the individuals that comprise it. But, honestly, I’d rather have every agent and editor on planet Earth reject my book with vile and blistering comments than be rejected by these people. I stand in absolute awe of some of them and the confidence they exude. And therein lies the rub. It’s only when you love something that it has the power to hurt you.

Story: What I Remember

Wrapping my arms around my legs, I rock slightly as I watch her stare unseeing at the ceiling. The gash is deep, exposing bone and breaching the dam of her eyebrow.

Blood pours out quickly enough to pool before it succumbs to gravity, finding different points of egress on its journey to the floor. I am fascinated by the stream that flows past her brow, turning her open eye into an island in a red sea.

“Mommy.” I whisper but she doesn’t answer.

The door stands wide and sunlight spills into her open eyes. I consider closing them but even at six, I know what that signifies and reject the impulse with a shudder.

Tears streak my face as though determined to match the volume of her blood.

She’s dead.

The certainty of the thought frightens me to the point of nausea and my teeth chatter.

“No one was there.” My older sister runs up the stairs panting. “Go!” She takes two more quick breaths before hauling me to my feet by my arm. “Go to Ms. Regina’s! I’m too tired. Go!”

I waste a precious moment hesitating and she gives my shoulders a violent shake screaming, “Now!”

I stumble down the steps and run straight to the road. Ignoring the drive way that bridges the drainage ditch, I leap over the murky water with a mighty heave.

I know she’s dead but still I run as though her life depended on it, trying to be the Susan from the Christmas movie.

I believe. I believe. It’s silly, but I believe.

I reach the familiar trailer, and my lungs are on fire.

Between the panting and the tears, I am impossible to understand.

“Home!” I finally shout between breaths. “Mommy!”

She nods and in her eyes I see a dimmed reflection of my fear.

I sit in her car, still struggling to breathe when I see the lights.

The flashing red and blue give me hope. Would they bother if she were dead?

Now I see the gurney and again I am old enough to know they don’t put an oxygen mask on a corpse.

I jump out of the car before it has come to a proper stop, running toward the box of a vehicle but the door is already shut.

Gravel pelts me as the tires spin before gaining purchase and she’s gone.

The nearest neighbor is explaining to Ms. Regina.

“She had a seizure and looks like she banged her head on the door jam. Seemed to be a pretty nasty gash, too. Stacy tried to get me but I wasn’t dressed and Susan had already gone to get you by the time I got here…”

I tune him out and watch my sister cry. The urge to go to her is strong but I stand as though locked in place. Her sobs turn to choking coughs and she vomits violently.

The adults finally turn from their conversation and comfort her with shameful blushes.

Mommy doesn’t come home. They tell us Daddy is with her at the hospital and she’s okay. I nod but I don’t really believe them.

I begin imagining my life without her, obsessing over details. Daddy works two jobs, a living specter among us. I don’t see him so much as occasional evidence of his existence. Who will look after us?

I awake the next morning in tears, shivering from the ghoulish vision of her blood soaked eye staring at me in my dream as her disembodied voice asks why I wasn’t faster.

My sobbing wakes my sister and sends my Daddy running to my side.

I am inconsolable until he brings me to their bed and shows me her bruised, bandaged, yet smiling face. She invites me under the warmth of the covers and I snuggle incessantly, an atom’s separation filling me with dread.  I cling to her and fall asleep watching her chest rise and fall.

Life goes on and the next morning it’s as though nothing happened. Daddy is gone before I wake and Mommy herds us to school.

I fidget through the day, pecking at lunch, my stomach churning until I see her again. I hug her with all my strength as she chats brightly with my kindergarten teacher.

“What happened to your Mom’s face?” My teacher is smiling. “Did you do that to her?”

I fold.

The tears are immediate as I howl from the floor. Her expression transforms from bright smiles to shocked horror as I scream, “I would never hurt my Mommy! I love her!”

I am enveloped in gentle arms and lifted up as they rush to reassure me.

It was a tease, a joke they insist, but I have looked into her sightless eyes and seen the misery of life without her.

She still coos softly, her chin resting on my head as she carries me out of the building. I revel in the love I almost lost and swear that I will always be mindful of this woman and how blessed I am to love her.

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Review: The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon

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Author: Siegfried Sassoon.

Genre: Poetry

From the Cover:
“Sassoon, who lived through World War One and who died in 1967, was, as the introduction to this book tells us, irritated in his later years at always being thought of as a “war poet”. Understandable perhaps from the point of view of the poet: readers on the other hand might wish to demur. The poems gathered here and chronologically ordered, thereby tracing the course of the war, are an extraordinary testimony to the almost unimaginable experiences of a combatant in that bitter conflict.”

Review:
Sassoon is a surgeon of a poet. He can quite simply cut out your heart in ten lines.
I think he should have lived in the twitter era. If anyone could make 140 characters sting or sing it would be Sassoon.

He sucks you in with banality (the happy young soldier, the troops marching past a general) and then smacks you with a harsh reality (happy soldier commits suicide, the general gets those jovial troops slaughtered). Or he does the opposite when he describes a heart broken man mourning his brother’s loss and then ends it with a banal comment about how such men have lost “all patriotic feeling”. A century on, he makes you want to scream and yell at the doting old fathers.

I used to call poetry ‘sweetened condensed thought’ but that’s not adequate anymore because there’s nothing sweet about Sassoon or others I’ve read since but there is that element of condensation. Of taking these huge events, feelings and impressions and expressing them in so few words.

He was an amazing talent and this is a truly wonderful compilation of poems. I highly recommend it.

Rant: Aunt May is making me ranty (Spiderman Spoilers)

It was free comic book day this past Saturday. My son got so many awesome comics we had to constantly stop him from read-walking. My daughter got to take a picture with a guy dressed as Spiderman and won a comic book quiz. It was shaping up to be a great day.

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We took the kids to see the new Spiderman movie and they really loved it. Walking out of the theater with two kids excitedly prattling on about the experience always makes me feel better about the ticket prices and time spent.WP_20140503_029[1]
We ended the day with a nice dinner together and then sat around the living room reading comic books.
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It was an awesome day, right? Pretty much a perfect one for me. My son nailed it when he described it as “nerdtastic.” But something would not leave me alone.

I kept flashing back to that scene with Aunt May.

SPOILERS!!!!! TURN BACK NOW!!!!!!

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I mean it. They’re coming.
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Okay, so Peter is trying to figure something out about his dead parents and Aunt May knows something she hasn’t told him. Then she outright refuses to tell him when he asks and goes off into this hissy fit.

The thing that really disturbed me was when she starts ranting about how Peter’s parents left him and she was the one who wiped his nose and raised him. She’s crying and yelling, “You’re my boy! Mine!”

What?

I seriously want to find whoever wrote this script and give them a verbal lashing. Is this really how they see adoptive parents? Or parents in general?

First of all, he doesn’t belong to you, fictional character Aunt May. No child belongs to another person, whoever wrote this scene. Also, you suck because now I can’t help not liking this version of Aunt May. She’s ruined for the whole series. Thanks a lot!

Both of my children are their own people. They belong to themselves and no one else. My daughter has two mothers. And just because her biological mother was drug addled, irresponsible and selfish, doesn’t mean she didn’t love her daughter. It just means that she wasn’t particularly good at being a mother at the time her daughter needed her.

When my daughter is older and has all the school trips, daily dinners and good night stories part taken care of, I fully expect her to make contact with her other mother. I hope they can connect and have a good relationship. I hope that my daughter doesn’t feel bitter or angry about the things that happened in her past and can just be happy with having two maternal figures in her life and getting that special love in a double dose.

I’m not exposing her to her mother right now because she’s a kid and she gets freaked out about it. She was repeatedly abandoned and has issues related to that. She has dreams of waking up in an empty house or waiting for someone to pick her up at school but no one comes. I run upstairs and hold her as she shivers and cries then sing her back to sleep. She’s traumatized and there’s definitely a part of her that’s scared this is all some long session of being left with someone else and one day her mom will show up, take her away, spend a few months with her and then leave her with another family. That was her pattern for years and it freaks her out. Every year, every month, every day is just a little bit better. The only thing that’s going to heal this is consistency. The fact that I run up those stairs. The fact that someone always comes to get her after school. It’s been years and it will take even more but the only way to prove you’re not going anywhere is to just keep not going anywhere. It’s very passive and difficult for me because I want to DO something to reassure her. Some kind of gesture or therapy session that will instantly fix this anxiety in her and make her perfectly secure and happy. But that’s not possible. I just keep being there day after day and every time I am there for her, that fear diminishes a tiny bit more.

So, no. I’m not arranging visits or phone calls with her biological mother. I’m not reaching out to her incredibly unstable half brothers and sisters either because she’s still a kid and traumatized and needs to table all of this long enough to be a kid. She gets to focus on dance performances and spelling tests for now.

But, make no mistake, she knows these people exist. When she asks questions, I answer them as honestly as I can. I word things nicely, “You’re mom loved you but the judge decided she just couldn’t take care of you.” That kind of thing. But I tell the truth. I never hide things or lie to her because it’s her life and I don’t have the right.

One of the major red flags for me when dealing with her biological mother right now (I send her pictures and keep her informed) is the way she constantly tries to claim ownership of this little girl. Her reaction to everything related to our daughter is to try to stamp it “Mine!” Everything about her is turned around to be about her mother. In short, her mother has given me no reason to believe that she has evolved from the incredibly self-centered state of mind that allowed the neglect and abuse that led to the state intervension in the first place. She doesn’t get to claim this wonderful person and neither do I.

It’s not about her. It’s not about me.

This beautiful little girl is not a toy and this isn’t some playground.

I hashed the Spiderman scene out with my husband and he somewhat defended Aunt May. He said he thought she was hurt or threatened by Peter’s interest in his parents.

Again, what?

They act like his parents left him in a ditch or like they think they’re still out there yucking it up. They abandoned him? Seriously? They left him with responsible relatives while they were sorting something out and almost immediately died. They died. They didn’t escape to the Bahamas. The actual story doesn’t back up all these abandonment issues the writer forced into it.

And even if they had been horrible, monstrous people, Aunt May doesn’t get to lie and keep secrets from a grown man because she’s afraid or threatened. Well, she can but that makes her a bad guardian/parent. Sorry, but that’s my honest opinion.

It is a common adoptive parent nightmare that they will one day be rejected by their adopted children. But, one, you don’t have to be an adoptive parent for that to be a possibility. And, two, letting that dictate how you parent comes off to me like you’re only in it for yourself. I would argue that you care much more about yourself than your child if you’re choosing the path that makes a better outcome for you than for your child.

I’m not advocating full disclosure from day one, by the way. It’s sometimes necessary to hold off on the truth to allow kids to heal and be kids. But that doesn’t count when they’re to the point that they’re asking questions and it certainly doesn’t extend to the point that they’re adults.

Just, no!

I don’t care how many drippy noses you wipe. I don’t care if you changed dirty diapers. That person isn’t yours. You just had the privilege of getting to share their childhood. You don’t get to segregate them from their history in order to try to make them exclusively yours.

Your child is a gift, yes, but not your property.

Story: We’re all human, even when we’re not.

“Remember that time I stabbed you?”
A barking laugh issues from my lungs as involuntarily as a tortured scream might and I blush.
“Not the best way to start a conversation, Broski.” I say looking over my shoulder but no orderlies rush in to separate us.
We share a moment of silence as I take in the bruises on the left side of his face.
“You been stabbing people?” I ask and he knows it’s a joke. They’d never let me see him if he’d been violent.
“These?” He gestures at the patterns of subcutaneous healing. “Nah, just being annoying. Pissed someone off.”
His index fingers are curled and rubbing the backs of his thumbs even though the skin is raw and blistered. He shakes his head, hitting his forehead three times with his right hand without giving his thumbs a respite.
“No! Stop it.” He gestures at me with those contorted fingers. “Changing it. You’re changing the story. You remember.”
“It was a fork.” I try for a soothing voice but he glares and I nod. I’ve broken the rules. I’m trying to ‘handle’ him. My eyes drop to my shoes. “I remember.”
“I’ve been thinking about it.”
“Why?” I look up at his tortured face and want to touch him. I want to wrap him in my arms and sing away his nightmares the way I did when he was small.
“Why did I do that?” He stares me down but I’m a coward. I shrug.
“You know.” He stands so quickly that he upends his chair and it slides laboriously down the wall in the cramped space of the visiting room.
I stand too and take his hands, forcing my fingers over his mangled thumbs. Tears fall on our clasped hands and I’ve broken two more rules.
“I want to be me.” Now he is crying too. “I can almost do it. It was easier before but it keeps getting harder. I can’t control the things I do. I’m the stabber and not me. I’m the crazy guy shouting and screaming and angry. He’s not me and he’s taking over. I want to be me.”
I don’t know what to say. I never have. He’s my only constant and he’s slipping away.
“You are you.” I watch the tears pool and run in patterns across our hands.
He snorts. “Yeah, except when I’m not.”
“You’re the most important person in my life.” I finally look him in the eye. “You’re my whole world.”
“God, that’s sad.”
I wince and pull back.
“I’m sorry, sis.”
He squeezes my hands and pulls me close.
He used to sit on my lap as I recited poetry and soothed him to sleep but he’s far too big now. A towering gentle giant, except when he’s not. The other is so consumed with rage over what was done to him, he lashes out blindly.
Now I am the child, the tiny one being pet and comforted.
“It’ll be alright, sis.” He speaks softly into my hair. “I think I know how to fix this. I can stay me and save you.”
I cry harder because I don’t believe him.
The man in the pink scrubs is back with his clip board. “Hey!” He scowls at us and I almost fall in my haste to create the proper space.
I clasp my hands and Jason begins to rub his thumbs again as the orderly scolds us.
He turns to his door and I reach out and touch his shoulder. He takes my hand.
“There’s a lot more to this world than me.” He lets go and smiles. “You’re going to be great, sis.”
I frown and start to ask “At what?” but he’s already disappeared behind door number two.
That night I try to shake off the sadness that comes from saying goodbye again. I want to bring him home with me but I know I can’t handle the other him and he’d never forgive himself if he hurt me again.
The doorbell rings and I frown. No one visits me.
My heart trips at the sight of the officers. They come in and ask if there is anyone else around. They want me to call someone and the tears are threatening because I’ve heard this script. I shake my head and the tears fall. They exchange looks and begin their terrible work.
“So sorry to have to inform you…discovered his body…apparent suicide…”
“You’re wrong!” I shout when they finally stop speaking and I flee to the kitchen and my phone. I call the hospital and as I listen to the ring I suddenly wonder what I will say. I can’t ask if he’s dead. It’s so absurd they might make up a room for me. How do I ask?
“Greenwood Hospital. How can I help you?”
“My brother is a patient there and I just need to check on him.” The tears are choking me but I keep going. “Jason Porter. He’s on the fourth floor. Dr. Brent Miller is his doctor.”
“Uhhhh,” The hesitation causes my body to clench as though waiting for a physical blow. “I thought, I mean, the police said they would notify you-”
I scream and throw the phone across the room and follow it to the floor, just as shattered.
The officers have rushed in. They want to know who they can call. They won’t leave until I tell them.
“No one.” I answer at last through the sobs. “There’s no one.”

Every day I reach out a little farther. I force myself to smile and speak, building bridges to other souls. I heal. There is a world waiting for me and I have no more excuses.