IDENTITY IS ASSIGNED

I am an outraged white, middle-aged woman who understands the unconditional power and privilege this white face affords me. I can drive in any neighborhood without being pulled over. I can walk down a street without arousing suspicion. I can go to jail without fear of being killed. I can wear a hoodie, walk into an apartment building, panhandle, sell cigarettes, sleep in my own bed, and even walk away from police without being murdered. The privilege my white face provides is shameful. It is something I never wanted. As a child I rallied against my own father as he directed filthy names at my friend, a fourth-grade classmate as he stood innocently on my back porch, schoolbooks in hand.

The horrific acts of violence and racism perpetrated against people of color across the United States by police do not remotely reflect my feelings about how people should be treated, or how people must act in a civilized, intelligent society.

I am NOT leaving, by the way. I am as American as my friends and family of color and we are as much a part of the fabric of this country as anyone else. White skin is not more valuable. White skin is not more acceptable. White skin in just another color in a sea of possibilities. We need e v e r y o n e.

You and I and all of us did not choose to be who we are. WE DID NOT CHOOSE. We are all doing the best we can with what we have. It is beyond time for us as a nation to stand up and make things right.

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In Plain Sight

I sat transfixed, fingers poised mid-sentence on the keys of my laptop, watching a man who appeared to be foraging around in the foliage outside our building’s west entrance. I wouldn’t have noticed him at all, but I had looked up, giving my eyes a stretch by gazing across the lobby through the large, double-paned picture window facing the street.

My job was communications administrator. It was a new position, and I had only been at Community House for three months. Part-time hours meant little money, but the work was inspiring. I could barely pay my bills, but classes of small children routinely walked by my office, some not even two years old, smiling and waving. What could be more fun than that?

The center was in an impoverished, crime-prone area, which was a little worrisome. Things were hard at this point in my life, but at least I was doing something meaningful. I had been sitting at my desk composing copy for our new web site, absorbed, when I saw him.

He moved in a manner that seemed odd. What was he doing? Picking up garbage? I rolled my chair, got up and walked toward the window. Neatly dressed in faded blue jeans and a light jacket, he had a handsome, lined brown face, and he was clean shaven except for a meticulous salt and pepper goatee and sunglasses. I could see a black leather strap on the stick he maneuvered back and forth.

I gasped. The stick! It was white with a black handle. The man was blind! He had obviously lost his way trying to find the entrance!

My heart thumped and he tap, tap, tapped on the wall.

The memo! It had been distributed weeks earlier about the dangers of answering when someone buzzed the bell. “Ask what they want before opening,” the written warning had come from the executive director. Apparently, there had been an incident where an unknowing staff member opened the door and was promptly robbed by gun point. “If you are unsure, do not open.” Once, before I knew about the risk, I opened the door to a large, innocent looking woman.

She walked right in, turned to me and said, “What do you do in this building?”
It was obvious she suffered from some unseen torment. Fortunately, a program flyer was all it took for this poor soul to be on her way.

Now I stood there ringing my hands. A split second passed when Alvar our maintenance director came up the stairs. “Oh Alvar,” I said, can you help? Look at this man!” I motioned to the window. A tiny trickle of doubt began to permeate. What if Alvar hired the man to pick up garbage? What if the stick was only a device used to pierce candy wrappers or Styrofoam? Was the white girl being dramatic?

“Oh my gosh,” Alvar said, springing toward the door, “this man is blind!”

We walked outside and Alvar spoke. “Can I help you sir?” The man turned toward the sound of Alvar’s voice.“I’m trying to find Community House,” he said, patiently. “I’d like to get some enrollment information for the teen program.”

“You are here,” Alvar said, gently leading the man inside. “You missed the doorway by a foot or two.” He looked at me. “Lydia, are you able to take this gentleman to the east lobby reception area and see that he gets the applications?”

“Yes,” I said, and linked my arm with his, the gentleman with the white cane.
I steered us toward the door. As we walked, I talked.

“We’re going to pass through a double door, then all the way down this corridor to the other reception desk,” I told him. The man seemed tense, but why wouldn’t he? A stranger had him by the arm.

“I want my nephew to come to Community House” he said. “I came here when I was a kid and it changed my life.” He mentioned the names of staff members he had loved and talked about field trips and games.

We gathered the forms he needed, and I walked him to the door.

“Thank you,” he said and away he went, tap, tap, tap.
I walked back to my office, happy and grateful to have not lost sight about what’s important.

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Choices

Dear young teenage boy who sexually assaulted me,

I saw you that day before you saw me. You were on the other side of the street. I noticed what you were wearing — blue windbreaker, blue jeans and blue canvas tennis shoes.

You didn’t know me, a bittersweet new wife and mother, just 20 years old. You didn’t know that I grew up hard. You didn’t know about my broken heart. That I started drinking and smoking young or that I had a baby and gave her away. You didn’t know that I had been adopted, or that I dropped out of high school and hitchhiked across the south, unconcerned about living or dying.

You didn’t know that I had been kidnapped and date raped by an older man, or assaulted by a stranger on a city bus. You didn’t know that I had been whistled at and catcalled since I was a kid, long before I even knew what it meant.

All you saw was a young woman walking down the street pushing a stroller. Somehow you ended up behind me. And like many males in our society, you acted on your impulse instead of practicing self control. You grabbed me.

The stroller wobbled and nearly fell over in the scuffle. The intensity of my rage when I turned around to look at you was astounding. My son began to cry.

I’m not proud of what I called you to your laughing, leering face. I wanted to rip you apart (I felt like I could) but suddenly you took off running.

You must have lived nearby, because the cops couldn’t find you. They picked up another young kid, made him get out and stand in front of the police car so I could look out the window, check if it was you. My husband and brother went out looking, too. (Blue windbreaker, blue jeans, blue canvas tennis shoes). Lucky for you they weren’t successful.

You must be in your 50s. I sometimes wonder about you. The choice you made that day changed me. Did it have an effect on you?

 

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It Was In the Cards

It was well after midnight when I opened my eyes, awakened by two nurses who had come into the room.  I watched them  in the beams from their flashlights–Sci-fi protective masks, head-to-toe coverings, goggles and gloves–as they gently repositioned my mother’s failing body. The two expertly re-tucked the blankets around her and left without a sound.

Eyes shut, cheeks sallow, lips pulled unnaturally taut – my mother’s had changed considerably since they moved her here that afternoon from the ICU.  “There is nothing we can do,” her doctor said, sympathetically. Infection had spread. My sister and I stood there, stunned.  In tears, denial and disbelief, we begged.  Surely there was something?

Did they know who this was? Our Mother! A woman who raised four kids! A woman who hated to make a fuss, who was the last one to eat so that everyone else had enough, a good woman who worked as a nurses’ aid for 30 years! She was a wife,mother, friend, cousin and sister who loved a good joke and liked to have fun. “Hungry?” we’d ask and she’d answer her familiar, “you BETCHA!” and we’d all laugh. She really loved Chinese food, NCIS and made lots of memories at family weddings, especially if they had a  good Polka band.

Now the only sound was the inhaling and exhaling sounds from her nicotine-scarred 86-year-old lungs. I suppose she had lived through a lot. In addition to smoking, she drank her entire life. She ate bad. She had adored my father and was devastated when he died just two short years after retirement, and so the last decade plus she had spent a lot of time alone. She and I had our ups and downs and her  life had not been perfect, but we loved her (she was so loveable) and cared about making her life fun.  We ate a lot of dinners together. We lit candles after many Sunday masses. We took her to the State Fair. And, because it was her favorite, we played an endless number of what felt like 40 million card games of her favorite game – Uno.

I lay listening, the blanket pulled up over my face. It is March 20, 2012. We are in a hospice. My mother is dying. There are no machines. No one is trying to save her. There will be no more doctor appointments, prescriptions or trips to the grocery store. No more home medical equipment, bottles of pills, ointments or emergency rooms.  There will be no more scoreless games of Uno over dinners at the homes of her children or at the rehab center, recovering from a fall or pneumonia or infection. There will be no more Bobby Vinton concerts, late night ice cream cones, wheel chair spins through the cow barn munching on cream puffs.   

She was gone within 24 hours.

Life without her has been hard. The first few weeks were excruciating. Anyone who has lost someone they cherish understands the starts and stops, unexpected tears, irrational questioning and propositions with God. I spent a lot of time talking to her while out walking my dog. Did she know how much we missed her? Did she know that we wanted her back?

My answer came one overcast afternoon in early April. Tears ran like rain as I walked the three blocks to Lake Michigan with my dog. I may have been speaking out loud as I crossed the street to the grassy bluff where I routinely tossed a tennis ball for our Border Collie mix. “Mom,” I said in a ragged croak, “did you know that I loved you? Did you love me?”

I threw the ball and the dog took off. I looked down. There was something in the grass. I  reached down to pick it up. I gasped as I unfolded a crumpled playing card from an Uno deck.   I looked around and smiled. I was holding a Reverse.

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Name change update: It has happened. I am now known in one (very important) place by a new name! It’s been interesting and kind of crazy — sometimes I don’t answer to it! And, when I talk about myself, I use my old name! Sigh. Challenges. But nothing that bad. More soon. 

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When Adopted Student is Ready the Mother Appears

It’s a typical Friday night. The three of us sit around the dining room table, playing cards. From the living room, reruns of the Golden Girls or Law & Order blare from the large screen TV. Mom drinks her wine and seltzer while my husband and I have coffee. We chide each other in friendly Uno competition.

“Oh so it’s gonna be like that,” my husband teases my 84-year-old mom when she hesitantly puts down a draw 4. “You reversed it, otherwise she would have gotten it,” she says, smiling and nodding her head towards me.

We come by as often as we can and hang out. Sometimes we bring take out and play cards like tonight. Other times we load mom’s walker into the car and go out to eat, grabbing an ice cream cone or slice of her favorite, lemon meringue pie on the way home. We visit the doctor, dentist and grocery store. On Sundays we shuffle into a pew at church. Afterwards, without fail, mom lights a candle for my dad.

I never thought I’d be at her side helping her navigate these sunset years. Bet we are both surprised. Born challenging the status quo, I was loud, argumentative and insistent. Mom and I were polar opposites.

She was quiet. Oh, she liked a good joke and might gently tease now and then, but mom avoided confrontation. Modest clothing, make up-free, she acquiesced to my father’s will. His word was law! If she had an opinion different than my dad’s she kept it to herself. Terrified of conflict, driving a car, and rocking the boat, she routinely used alcohol to escape the chaos that my dad’s drinking invariably seemed to ignite.

We were mother and daughter but nothing alike. I asked a lot of questions; refused to take no for an answer. Their third youngest adopted kid, I was not only assertive, I was angry. She wasn’t angry, my mom, she was scared, uncomfortable. Worn down by my relentlessness, she’d reluctantly give in, hoping for the best. Only at a last resort would she involve my dad. But challenging him came with the highest price. Any perspective different from his inflicted sores that smoldered and never healed. No, forgiveness was not in my father’s taking-things-personal heart. He held a grudge tighter than his bottle of Old Milwaukee. When I finally left home at age 17, we all hoped I was gone for good.

Years passed. Eventually so did my father, which opened the door for reconnection. As mom’s health declined our relationship grew. Now I’m driving the car and she is next to me.

“Got your seat belt on?” I ask. She apologizes.
“No worries, mom, take your time,” I say, my heart overflowing with love for this hazel-eyed, curly, gray-haired, Shrimp Lo Mein-eating Uno champion.

My 15-year-old eyes saw a woman lacking courage. Thirty-plus years later they see someone who wisely held her tongue to keep the peace. The 16-year-old me could not understand her lack of motherly encouragement – at fifty, a mom and grandmother myself, I know now that we can’t give away what we never learned ourselves. Awareness is a gift not everyone receives.

Being there for my mom is how I am putting years of learning into practice. Acceptance and gratitude is what I have for her today. Maturity has (blessedly) washed up on the shores of my consciousness.

My mom and I are distinctly different. Neither one of us is sure if it is nature or nurture or whether the best way to handle life is with dogged determination or quiet submissiveness. But fate brought us together and we are still in progress. We figure we’ll stick it out to see what happens next. Pass the pie.

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Doves Cry and We do Nothing

We sit on a jam-packed, double-decker bus traveling from the Windy City.

The bus fills up, and a seat in front of me remains unoccupied. A young woman carrying a baby looks down the row of seats, frantic. Several of us beckon her, pointing to the seat. She smiles gratefully, shuffles down the aisle and plops down as the bus begins its cumbersome roll out of the city.

Minutes pass and the baby, perhaps six or seven months old, begins to fuss. The woman in the seat beside the young mother quickly shoves earphones into her ears, busily pushing buttons on her phone. The rest of us do nothing, collectively holding our breath. Then the mother starts talking.

You shut your mouth,” she hisses. The baby sobs again. “You shut your mouth now, do you hear me? SHUT YOUR MOUTH. She spits words through gritted teeth…”I am not puttin up with this bullshit.” The tiny hairs on my arms rise up, along with my consciousness. She fidgets in her seat, 90 pounds of mom with what could not be more than ten pounds of baby. Tick. Tick. Tick. We wait and we sway back and forth, vibrating in our seats, men, women and children rolling across two states at 70 miles per hour.

Miraculously, the baby stops.

 

 

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Restaurant Reviewer

Restaurant Reviewer

Writing about food has its advantages….

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The name game

Do you like your name? If you do, why? If you don’t, would you change it? Changing it is no small undertaking. Depending on someone’s age and who they are, of course, our name has been flung far and wide, leaving an imprint not easily erased by an official sweep of the pen.  I’d like to change mine for many reasons. I want an identity update; a fresh start, a clean palette.  I’d like to see how the next part of my life progresses, by calling myself something else. Katherine Paterson said, “The name we give to something shapes our attitude toward it.” We shall see. Stop back for updates on the results.

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Front seat pileup

Someone is talking. I am listening, but my own thoughts begin to pile up on the front seat of my conciousness…..my friend might say, “guess what happened?” I’m looking at her, waiting, but without warning possibilities race forward, swirling, darting, almost dancing in anticipation of release. Am I really listening? Rebecca Z. Shafir, in her book, “The Zen of Listening,” writes, “Concentration is like a river. The stimulus or object of our attention may trickle into consciousness. Our interest heightens and other ideas (associations) enter our minds, similar to a stream being fed by other streams.”

Real listening, Shafir writers, comes when we are willing to “gain another’s perspective.” Mirroring what is being said, demonstrating “listening” sounds like, “mmm hmmm,” or, “I see,” and, “so what you are saying is.”

Example of ineffective communication:

A: I heard someone talking about Smith today. They hated him!

B: Smith sucks!

A: What? He does not!

A frustrating cycle ensues. What started out as a friendly conversation becomes a debate.

More effective communication:

A: I heard someone talking about Smith today. They hated him!

B: Wow, bet that got you going!

A: You bet it did!

While B may not like Smith, A does, and A wasn’t asking whether B liked Smith, they were telling B about their experience, expecting to be heard. In this second scenario, A feels heard.

It can be tricky. It takes practice. This type of conscious, meaningful listening has helped me to talk less and listen more. When we allow other ideas/associations out (from the front seat) we are not being effective listeners and no one gets heard.

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