Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Taking Inventory

Over the years, I have been a loyal person. When I decided someone was my friend, I basically stood by that person no matter what. When I was in my late teens and twenties, a lot of people abandoned me when I had kids. They moved on with their lives and stopped inviting me to do things. I was very grateful for the few who remained. Probably too grateful. There were two women in particular who remained that became increasingly toxic presences in my life.
As I look back, I can see the ways they damaged me. I remember asking my therapist again and again what to do about this or that that these two had done to me. And I contributed to the cycle by complaining about each of them to the other.
After many years, I figured out I was in abusive relationships.
I'm not going to say all of it was bad or all of it was their fault. It wasn't.
I had to figure out my own shit and learn what was good.
In a way, rebelling against their definition of who I was helped me become a better person.
In their own way, they were both very good and very toxic people. And they had their own demons.
I do wish I had cut off the friendships much earlier in my life.
But I suppose I still had things to learn.
And that is the lesson here that I take inventory.
What did these lousy experiences teach me? A lot. So much.

One of the women, I'll call her Maria, she used to support my dreams by "understanding" that I had them while shooting them down and telling me if I was a good mom, I would stop pursuing them. And she would pretend to support me but at the same time regularly sabotage me.
The other woman, I'll call her Katie, she said something not long ago that was instrumental in making sure we weren't friends any more.
I was discussing my plans for my next big project. And she said "I believe that you'll do it. You'll accomplish it. Looking back on us when we were fifteen, I never would have believed that girl would accomplish anything like this. But I can see you doing things now."
And I am sure she meant that as a compliment. But it wasn't. It was a clear message that she never saw my potential, though it should have been obvious to anyone who was paying attention. She was supposed to know me so well, but I now realize, she only saw in me what she decided to see-- and I think she never really saw me.

Many years ago, a girl I worked with at Cicero's was hanging out with me. We got into a deep conversation about hopes and dreams. I told her I wanted to make movies and write and direct. I can't remember her saying much about that. It was what I was dreaming about and also what I was pursuing in school.

Many years later I saw her again, out with friends. By this time I had made a couple of movies. She said these words to me. "I remember when you used to talk about what you wanted to do when we were working at Cicero's"
I said "oh yeah, I was pretty angsty back then."
She said "I confess - when you said all that, I thought to myself, she's never going to do any of that. And then you did. I was surprised."
I smiled a little. But it kinda made me mad at the same time. Why would you tell me that? What is the purpose of that confession? Is it to make me feel bad?
So, I went back and asked my best friend, the woman who has known me the longest- if she had seen potential in me.
She couldn't believe I was asking her that because she said it was obvious I was going to do things.
And I thought about the people I knew that I saw accomplishing great things.

I'm so blessed with so many good friends now at this point in my life. And it is because of these missteps that I am able to appreciate this all the more.
I've been able to learn from all this pain.
I've been blessed to have recognized and overcome all these abusive and toxic friendships.
Yes, I hung on to them too long. I tried too hard, I forgave too much.
But what did I learn? What did I take forward?
I learned to write well about complex relationships. I learned to appreciate really good friends. I learned that it isn't the end of the world if you end a friendship.
I learned that sometimes you still get to walk away and hurt for years, but it was the right thing to do.
A couple of months before I made the decision to walk away from Katie once and for all, she said to me "I'm afraid I'm going to lose all my friends, I have almost none left because I drive people away."
And as usual, I assured her that I was loyal and would stand by her.
And then I woke up when she was abusively texting me a few weeks later, accusing me of imagined wrongs. A symptom of her mental illness and extreme anxiety.
And I realized I had a choice. I could just walk away from her and not go back.
That I probably should have done it years ago.
That I shouldn't need to go to therapy because my friends were being toxic to me.
That the relationship was abusive and needed to end.
That it is possible to be in an emotionally abusive relationship with a female friend.
That it had been many years since I had any fun with her because every interaction was stressful and involved me walking on eggshells to try not to set her off. Though I should have known that I can't control her mental illness symptoms, but I can control my involvement with her.
That her refusal to get the mental health therapy she desperately needed was pretty much my final clue that things weren't going to get better.

I realized that my damage was where I was operating from when we began that friendship and that I have worked hard to repair my damage. That not all my friends were reflections of my damage but I had trouble recognizing when I needed to end it.
That my loyalty has hurt me- a lot, but I am not sorry that I try to work things out.
I don't give up easily, which is why I have had some minor success in accomplishing things.
But I am now learning when to walk away and that it is okay to walk away. That not all things need to be forgiven, that sometimes we can just move on.
I'm always going to have feelings about all of it, I'm just grateful now for the lessons.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Uber Stories: On Women and sex

Lots of people ask me when they get in my car and notice my gender. Aren't you scared to drive at night? Not really. Most people are pretty cool and I don't mind so much. The rewards have been pretty significant. I'm interested in humans and when people get in my car, I get a piece of their story, little by little.
Here is a snapshot of several stories of women I have driven.
They often open up and they open up in so many interesting ways. Sometimes we tell deep truths, sometimes the deep truths are beneath the surface and we never speak of them.
I picked up two women around 11 pm. They were sharing the ride and going to work in different places. One was going downtown to waitress at a Hookah Bar and the other was going to the Hustler Club to strip. I spent many years as a waitress, so we had a long drive and a nice discussion about the benefits and perils of waitressing. I was not really clear on the relationship between the women but I noticed there was complete acceptance for one another's work situations.
It was very much "gotta make a living" going on.
The fact that the stripper was so open about where she worked with no measure of shame was interesting to me. I have never felt the extreme need to hide my profession but I have often felt a little bothered by working in places I considered beneath my overall skills.
One time a girl I went to high school walked into the restaurant I worked in and happened to see me behind the bar dropping off cash for the bartender that night. She looked pityingly at me when she said "oh, you work here?" and I said "Yeah, I'm the manager."
At those words, her face physically brightened. This was a more acceptable job for my exclusive private school education, I guess? I was upset and humiliated. She has no idea that bartenders more often make more money and work fewer hours than restaurant managers. Sigh. And she had no idea I bartended twice a week to bump up my earnings.
But somehow, the title made HER feel better. Which bothered me. And I guess it still does. But mostly, I'm beyond caring about someone else's definition of me. Those jobs, they humanized me in a way that make my writing better, richer and give me more empathy to people than working higher up ever will be. So, while I will get where I want to go career wise, this was never a waste of time.
So, I try not to judge people by their professions so much. I know I am going to find people working at McDonalds that have genius level IQ's and probably can't get a job elsewhere. And I know that there are just a whole lot of regular people out there making a living and we are more than the definition the job gives us. We are humans.
We all have to make a living somehow.
After I dropped the waitress off, I had another twenty minute drive with the woman who worked at the strip club. I asked her how she was treated. She had a few stories. "I wish guys wouldn't be so gross with me all the time. I don't want to hear how they want to lick my asshole."
And I was thinking-- damn, that's not so far off from my waitress days, where I heard statements like that every day from some drunk fool.
Except I'm not naked while they're saying it to me. I try to imagine how vulnerable and tough she has to be to stand up to that, and to deal with being kind to people that don't deserve her kindness.
Still, she said she didn't mind it most of the time, that she was able to find gratitude in the many good people that worked there and all those who stuck up for her and held together to protect one another. That she always felt safe and protected by so many people.
I find I want to poke through her statements with my own pre-conceived notions about stripping. But I fall silent. I don't know enough about this world and I realize what I need to do is just listen to her and accept her and even support her decision to work there. Though I want to smash the patriarchy that allows this to continue to exploit women while old white men make money off their naked and vulnerable bodies, still I support the choice a woman makes to go into sex work. Though honestly, I wish it could be something different. When I think of the damage it does...but I let that go in that moment, and decided to just be there with her.
I told her this as I dropped her off.
"I want you to know that every man or group of people that I drop off at any strip club, I say these words 'I want you to remember to tip well. Tip your bartenders, your servers and your strippers well. And I want you to remember that every single one of these people who wait on you and strip for you, they are human. And you should treat them respectfully and decently. Don't be a dick.'" She laughed at that, and thanked me for the ride.
It really was the only way I could sit right with myself for driving people to the strip club to participate in something that I don't sit right with was to remind them of our shared humanity.
The second story I want to share with you is a woman I picked up from a dive motel at around 11 at night. She was nervous to get in my car, it was her first Uber ride.
I smiled big at her and said "Aren't you glad you got a girl to drive you for your first time?"
She said yes and smiled a little more easily.
I assured her I was going to treat her really well and get her to where she was going and make her first uber ride really great. I had wondered briefly at the location I was picking her up. It was a no tell motel, the kind you know you can rent by the hour.
This in itself was only one piece of evidence, so I tucked it back in my mind as I spoke to her and asked her about herself. We landed on the topic of her son, as so often happens with women, we discuss our children. In there are our hopes and dreams and how we define ourselves because our children change and shape who we become. They alter us in little ways. This woman found so much joy in her child and it made my heart happy. She talked about her divorce and the shared custody and when her boy got really good at video games. She spoke of how he excelled in school and was put in the gifted child class. She glowed when she talked about his future, the one she knew he would have.
And in that, I could see she was burying herself, but I loved her joy and her pride and the smile in her voice.
She began to prepare me for the journey we were taking. It was a long drive, forty five minutes out to a little town in Missouri I had never been before.
The ride was not on her credit card, but on a mystery man paying for her journey. He had texted me instructions and a cell number to let her know when I had arrived to pick her up. This was not unusual in itself either. I often gave rides others would pay for. But there was something about the two pieces of evidence that clinked together. She began to speak of the mystery man and his wealth and affluence.
She described how many cars he had and how fast he drove in them and her first trip out to his house.
"What does he do for a living?" I asked.
She was not really sure or she had asked and it wasn't really clear, but he was super loaded-- that was what she knew. She also mentioned he was nice to her, that he treated her well and was a pretty good guy.
She talked to me about the first time she went to his house.
"I was terrified." She said.
Huh, terrified? That seems an odd reaction to going to someone's house.
"We kept getting further and further away from everything and we started going deep into the country. Finally we get to this really thick woods and we keep going further and further into the woods and the further we went, the more scared I was that I wasn't going to make it out. He was driving really fast and whipping around every corner."
And I wanted to ask why. Why did you keep going?
But I didn't because after all, I knew the answer. You do the things that scare you when you talk yourself around the fear. When you try to convince yourself you're being crazy, that there's no reason to be afraid and your instincts are wrong. And when your instincts are dead on, you berate yourself and when your instincts are hyped up and it turns out okay, you tell yourself you were just crazy all along. Even if you aren't. You convince yourself. It's pure survival. Sometimes our fight or flight is out of proportion to the situation and other times it is not.
And as I drove through the night and we started to get further and further away from civilization and the lights of the city and the perceived safety...I began to feel the little fingers of fear creep into my stomach and crawl around and begin to wrap around my heart and squeeze.
But this third and fourth clue in the little mystery was starting to cement my theory. And I knew at this point that I didn't have to ask this woman what she did for a living because there was no doubt I had picked up a prostitute on her way to servicing her client.
I briefly considered asking her. I thought about it, hard because I wanted to know, and I had a thousand questions to ask her about what she did and what led her to this point in her life and the curiosity distracted me from asking myself too strongly-- what are you driving into?
I decided to refuse the curiosity and deny it satisfaction. I wanted this woman to keep her dignity and let the stories of her brilliant boy and her pride in him and keep her warm with safe and good conversation. I liked her and I didn't want to shatter this moment and make her wonder if I was judging her.
As we drove through the last leg of the journey, through those thick and dark woods, I turned on my brights and kept the conversation witty and light to take the edge off the fear. She said "He wants you to go down the driveway and wait for a minute so he can bring you a tip."
"Oh, how nice." I say out loud but those fear fingers are working overtime squishing my heart.
My heart beats strong, throwing off the fear. Got your stun gun on the ready? yeah you do, Vanessa. This guy won't know what hit him...
We arrive.
I see him open the door and the anticipation is a tangible crack of light streaming from the door.
She gets a text.
"oh, he's not coming out. He wants me to come get it. He's such a dork."
I breathe relief. He's afraid of ME seeing HIM.
Good. I feel safe. She comes out with a ten dollar bill and thanks me for the ride, the company, the conversation and for making her first uber ride a good experience.
I want to hug her, but I don't. Instead, I smile brightly at her and wish her well. She's going to be one I remember.

These conversations, these connections-- they mean something to me to have this human experience in that short time I get with people. Every ride is its own story.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Reflections on Eleven

When I was eleven years old, my mother had a discussion with our next door neighbor about me, in front of me that I remember pretty well. The neighbor was asking how old I was and they both agreed that eleven was just about the perfect age. My mother revealed that I still played with barbie dolls (I was mortified and considered myself too old for dolls even though my bff and I had so much fun with them, it was our little secret we never told) and both women went on to wax poetic about the age of eleven, how much they had enjoyed it, how sweet they had been, how much they loved spending time with their mothers and how simple things were before the complications of teenage angst came along.
I have never forgotten this conversation and it had a profound effect of me as a young girl. I haughtily did not consider eleven to be a perfect age. I was frustrated and wanted to do things and be more grown and felt as if my brain was always more adult and mature than my body and no one took me seriously because I was only eleven.
I had listened intently to every word those women had said, though I don't think it was anywhere near a very important conversation or that it had reached the level of something significant but nevertheless had revealed something very important about my mother and though I chastised her soundly when we got inside for embarrassing me by telling the neighbor I played with dolls, for some reason it always stayed with me.
When each of my daughters reached the age of eleven, I have recalled this conversation and replayed it in my head. I can remember tossing around the seedballs in my back yard while pretending not to be paying attention so that I could listen longer. Time has convinced me that my mother was right in ways I could not understand that day. The age of eleven might be perfect for mothers and daughters for their relationship is more pure than it will be ever again. It is the last time we will look at our mothers before the cloud of hormones overtake us and rush us into a resistance. It is the time before everything changes in that relationship when we both want to be with one another. it is the time before I didn't have to see my mother as a woman, not understanding womanhood and being sure she could still do anything because she was more than human.
Isabella is my last daughter and though that conversation will be with me forever, this is the last time I will look into the familiar eyes of the eleven year old that is a small representation of the me that I used to be, and the girl that my mother was, and the barest glimpse of my grandmother and her mother. In her eyes, I feel that precious purity of what was and hope for what will be.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The De-Escalation Choice

Last night I was driving uber at my usual time and hanging out near the bars and college. Around 3 am I picked up a solo passenger. He said "Can you wait one extra minute while I get some water?" I said "Sure"

I'm going to call him Floyd.
Floyd returns with a cup of water and gets in the front seat. This is pretty common for single riders so I won't say I over worried about it.
He asks me how I am doing, then he offers me some of his water. I thought this was kind of weird but I say no thank you and keep driving. It's kind of a regular, very usual conversation about the work he does and who he is and all that until suddenly, Floyd says.
"Hey, why don't you come over and smoke some pot with me?"
This is not really the first time I have had this offer. It's usually a little more tentative or respectful. And it's pretty easy to turn down. One time a group of bachelorettes wanted me to eat breakfast with them at Eat Rite diner and I truly thought about it because they were a lot of fun.
I figure he's drunk and lonely, so I just say "That's awfully kind of you, but I have to drive the rest of the night and I can't do that high."
Floyd then starts attempting to convince me.
I say "Thanks, that's really nice of you, but I'm going to say no." But honestly, I am out and out lying at this point because his offer isn't nice or kind. It's rude and threatening.
And Floyd isn't having that "no" word.
He takes out some money (a ten or a twenty, I think, I didn't look) and places it on my dashboard.
"There, I've paid for your next ride, you can come in, just take one hit and leave. I just want to smoke with you."
And now I am realizing he thinks he can buy me.
Like a hooker? I'm truly annoyed now. But I bring out Bartender Vanessa who knows how to make a cranky customer calm down. I start the de-escalation process by just letting him talk and allowing him to think for the rest of the ride that he is getting his way.
I start wondering what this scenario looks like as he tries to shame me into going inside with him. I just stop saying no for the rest of the ride because I have already said it at least three times.
I think about all the times this has happened to me before. I start going back in my head to the incidents of times I said no when a man has not respected me.
I've come a long way with the word no.
When I was a teenager, this kind of pressure was extremely difficult for me and I ended up in some situations that were extremely uncomfortable. When I was fourteen, I was nearly date raped by another fourteen year old. He escalated quickly. That is another story but I feel as if it might have been my first experience with not just lack of consent but repeatedly saying the word no and some asshole just not hearing a word you say.
I realize I have two choices on how to deal with this.
The teenage Vanessa was meek and quiet and tried to "nice" her way out of things. It always ended up making me feel weak. The Vanessa in her twenties started to feel her feminist power. She learned to say to the gropey guy in the bar "Get your hands off me." and walk away. She has real chutzpah! She gets it. She can say no to any inappropriate stranger. But she is terrible saying it to her friends. She lets them walk all over her sometimes. Even worse, this Vanessa ends up in some brutally abusive relationships with very pushy men. I think about all the ways I have had to say no in my life and every time I say it, it comes with guilt.
Why is that? Why do I feel shitty for saying no to a clearly inconsiderate person who has no respect for me or my feelings? I have no idea.
Is it the empath in me that knows I am wounding his ego and can just feel all the insecurity oozing out of him. He had struck out at the bar, was feeling all those feelings that were coming at me and now this uber driver was telling him no. How dare she.
I don't want to feel all that. He is now saying to me "When is the last time you did something like this? You need to do this."
And I am quietly super annoyed now, but I keep that smile on my face and even throw a laugh in there. Does he really think I live some dowdy, boring life and I need HIM to provide me with some pot smoking couch sex? Yes, he does. He doesn't know me at all. He hasn't bothered to ask one thing about me. I am the four am chick he thinks he knows is as desperate as him. Except I am not. And in the light of the car, I can feel his loud, sweaty, needy feelings.
But I am better at no, now. I can do this. But most of all, I have to do this. I have to get him to get out of my car and get myself out of this potentially dangerous situation. I start to review my self defense techniques. I take a deep breath as I pull up in front of his place. The money is still sitting on the dashboard. I'm not taking it. I realize I have two choices about how to say no to him. There is the firm, aggressive "Get the fuck out of my car." that I really, with every fiber of my being want to say. I want to do that. I am a strong woman and I have been so disrespected in the last five minutes that I want to make a super strong statement about "No means no." But I am not at the bar and this is not a public place. And I am more vulnerable in this place.
I might need my anger next. I may need to get scary and crazy in a minute.
He starts off with "Okay, let's go."
I decide to go with firm, business like Vanessa. She de-escalates without judgment. She thanks people kindly for the interest. She says "fuck you" inside her head while telling him to "have a nice day." and smiling.
I said "Look, Floyd, like I said, I appreciate the offer, But no."
I think about pulling the husband card but I hate that. It takes away so much of my power as a female to say something like "my husband/boyfriend is waiting for me/ he'll be here any minute" but don't think I won't use it or have any less respect for women who do use it. It's sitting in my back pocket.
My arsenal of how to say no is swimming in my head. I am ready.
At this point, I have chosen to use deescalation and it is making me feel like a shitty, weak, bad feminist. Just tell him NO MEANS NO. Show him your power! Using the words "I appreciate the offer" is just the worst. I want to choke on those words. Fuck those words. Get out of my car, you inconsiderate piece of shit, trying to shame me, trying to coerce me, refusing to hear any of the words I say. But I fight the shame down. Try this first, I tell myself.
And ladies, I say this to you--- if he won't hear the word NO from you in this polite circumstance, he isn't going to respect you later at any point.
So Floyd says "I guess you think that something is going to happen and I can see the reasons that you might not want to do this."
Code, I think he might be setting me up for an assault of some kind.
Yes, Floyd, I do think this. And you know I think this. And I think this because this is exactly the scenario in which it often takes place. And your platitudes of trust me mean nothing to me. Because I have been in this situation a thousand times before. And I'm not flattered and I don't think you find me attractive and I don't give a shit about your feelings right now because you haven't given mine a single thought.
Yes, Floyd, I think about the other girl who might have gone into your apartment and you served her some drugged drink and she woke up hours later, sore on the floor with her pants around her knees. I think this. It may not be true or accurate, Floyd. You might believe you are charming enough on your own but I know one thing about you at this point. No means nothing to you, so I expect more of that. I expect if I go into your place and smoke one hit of a joint with you, and I say "I have to leave" because this is what we agreed to. One hit. I expect that you will not honor that by saying "see you later" Instead, I expect that this one interaction leads to more of "no thank you" and you not hearing that little word a hundred more times. Because I know this one thing about you. Floyd, you haven't been nice about me saying no. In fact you have been coercive and brutish. Every tactic in your arsenal is to shame.
So I don't respond to him trying to reassure me that I'm not going to get assaulted because - whatever dude, it's not like you're going to be honest with planning a sexual assault!
And maybe you are just a harmless dickhead but guess what-- I'm not willing to take that chance.
So- I'm sitting in the car trying the de-escalation tactic first.
Floyd takes the money slowly off the dashboard. "Really?" he says, dripping sarcasm.
As if I give a shit about that money.
"Yes, Really." I respond.
He holds the money above his wallet and repeats "REALLY?"
And I say "have a nice night"
And you all know what I meant by that.
He puts the money away.
Then, I breathe a little sigh of relief as he gets out of the car without any more fight. He thinks he has humiliated me by taking away the money. I laugh a little on the inside as I drive away.
Now, I realize that there are some of you that are going to tell me "you need to stop doing what you're doing, you are going to end up in a worse situation next time, it's dangerous."
And I am going to tell you something-- just by living your life, anything could happen to you. Being out at night does not mean you will get raped or that you are at a higher risk for rape. I realize that some of you will never be convinced by this but shit can happen to you anywhere. I could just as easily have been able to de-escalate that situation as it could have spun out of control. I think about this all the time because I have to. And in spite of all the preparation and thought, this may not save me.
I made a choice to go with de-escalation. I often make this choice. I'm trying to feel good about it but it still makes me feel sometimes as if it's the weak thing to do. I want to say to men, stop asking me to make that choice, to have to decide between my dignity and my safety and just respect the word no. Because it all comes down to that and if that would happen. If every single person would just do that, I wouldn't ever have to be in that position because my consent, whether it is consent to come inside your house or consent to kiss you or consent for anything. I should not have to fight for the right to be treated with common respect. This was not a date. It was a ride. Fortunately 99% of uber riders understand that. In more than 100 rides, this has not happened. It is not common. It's literally more common that this happens to me when I am out in socializing that some guy just randomly disrespects me.
I'm not going to lie about it scaring me. It scares me. But I refuse to let fear of something that might happen stop me from living my life. But it gave me plenty to think about.
And the best part of what happened was that I had a plan. I had an arsenal of self defense. I had an idea of what I was going to do and how I was going to handle that situation and there is no part of knowing this kind of thing that makes that not helpful.
So, I would encourage everyone to play out that scenario, I want guys to play out that scenario, to understand what that feels like for us, too.
I encounter more levels of having my consent disrespected in a thousand small aggressions a day. And my most ugly fear in that if I don't attempt to de-escalate, I will somehow inadvertently incite your anger and this anger will kill me. Though there is not one thing I can do to make sure you don't become angry. Floyd's anger was always out of my control.
I feel soon I have to take this to the next level and look at how education is dealing with this and think about my role in it. And to those that will say to me, "how can you put yourself in that situation?" I say this to you- I did NOT put myself in that situation. Floyd put me in that situation. Let us be clear in that now and forever.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

You always remember the first time you vote

Voting. When I was growing up, it was something I was going to do when I was eighteen. That was a given. My parents always let me know how important it was to cast a vote. Society told me how special it was that we got to vote. My school taught me that it was a privilege to vote and other countries didn't have the right to vote. I grew up somewhere between cynicism and optimism about our future and our government. My father was very pessimistic and angry and always spoke very negatively about government. I often heard the sentence "Guess I'll have to hold my nose and vote for this guy." What was the point in that? Why would you vote for someone you had to hold your nose around.
I maintained my optimism in spite of this.
Growing up, I did not see a lot of women in politics right away. When I was born, it was full of white men in office and I just kind of thought-- women must not want those jobs. Not that we couldn't have those jobs but that we didn't want them. Because I was optimistic and I had a working mother who, frankly was kind of badass and I was sure that if not me, women could do whatever they wanted once they broke out of their shell.
I watched my mother push back against the patriarchy every single day. I watched it wear her down and then she would gather strength and go after it again.
Frankly, it didn't seem like politics was a job any woman would want. Talk about thankless with no reward. That was what I saw as a little girl. I wanted to do something artistic though. I did not yet understand how those women in politics were going to change what my world looked like.
As English Professors, the Liberal arts seemed about as far away from politics as it could get. And I had no concept that my mother did not have maternity leave. I had no concept that in fact, our political system was going to change every life in our country. Some for the better. Some for the worse.
No one in my house ever discussed with me WHY it was important to vote.
I wasn't interested in any of it because no one really explained to me why I should be interested in it, why it was going to make a difference in my future.
As I approached my first presidential election, I was twenty one. And suddenly when I had a voice I knew it was important. I had not wanted to vote in the smaller elections when I first turned eighteen. (I realize now I probably should have but I wanted my first ever vote to be for president) I had not even registered until the summer before the presidential election. But coming up on my first election, I did not ask the advice of either one of my parents. My mother would always say that her vote was private and she did not have to tell anyone who she was voting for. In fact, as outspoken and opinionated as both my parents were, they taught me very little about what government was. And frankly, except for some high minded and bloated ideals, school had taught me very little. I was never told- examine the issues, look for things that you care about. I was taught in a dry and boring way what government was. Look, it has three branches. The President is commander in chief. This is the song where a bill becomes a law. I was not even sure why I should care about any of that.
BUT IT IS IMPORTANT TO VOTE. (Okay, but why?) It just is!!!
Cause that is your constitutional right.
Cause...cause... no wonder people don't vote.
In history class, women getting the vote in 1920 was kind of a footnote (at an all girl school, that seems disgusting and disgraceful in retrospect, they should be ashamed of this, the section on this barely covered it)
So, who did I turn to? My friends.
I had some smart friends, some friends who did a lot of self educating and lots of reading.
I had one friend who loved to read biographies.
I was not interested in biographies. She wanted to give me the highlights of women getting the vote and I tuned her out. Because that history was dry and who cared and whatever, it didn't matter. She was going to tell me some boring shit, I thought. So, I did not learn that totally fascinating and engrossing, interesting history for several years.
In fact, I think I was frustrated that I was turned off from history by some dry ass terrible teachers. It makes a difference.
There was one friend who I was talking with a great deal during the election year. She was about five years older than me and we discussed a lot about who was running and what they stood for and it kind of opened up things for me. I listened to her, I was influenced by her, I asked her questions.
There were not a lot of people I could ask in my life.
There was no way I was talking to my dad. Politics made him angry. He was going to end up screaming about the goddamn government. Or he was going to talk until I fell asleep from boredom. The conversation would only go one way, the way he explained everything with his narcissistic one sided point of view. He was very knowledgeable but he was not going to share this wisdom in any kind of accessible way. If I asked questions I would be ridiculed or screamed at or he wouldn't be able to hear me.
Once in sixth grade, I was doing a report on the Nixon administration and he just hollered names and facts at me and I wrote things down. He ended up ripping the paper away from me and writing things down for me. God forbid I be involved in the process. Or learn anything.
I know for sure he did not treat his students like this. But he treated me like this. I never went to him for help on anything. That was the last time. But this for me was government.
I felt the pull to KNOW something, to figure it out, to understand it in some real way. I didn't want to get into the voting booth and just hit choice A or B without knowing anything about either person. I had heard some speeches, but I didn't trust that rhetoric. I was at least smart enough to know that these two candidates were presenting their best sides. I needed to know facts. I wanted to cast the most intelligent vote.

That year, I was pregnant. I was due November 2 and the following Tuesday was election day. I was late, I was overdue. I was up all night in labor. I knew I was in labor. Early labor. The kind that takes a really long time to get going. I knew I had hours to go but it was real.
So, there I was at seven am, miserable, in pain. Feeding my son breakfast and weathering through small but steady contractions.
I didn't say anything to my dad. He tends to panic and it was nowhere near time to go to the hospital. So, I kept my mouth shut. Pretty soon, my dad started pestering me, though.
"Are you going to vote?" he asked
"Yes." I responded.
"When are you going?"
"I don't know. Today." I responded, dripping with sarcasm.
"When, today? Because I would like to vote and if you're going now, I could go later. But if you're going later..."
I couldn't take it. He was going to keep talking. Meanwhile, there was another nasty contraction.
"Can I have breakfast?"
"Are you going after breakfast?"
I resisted the urge to murder him on the day I was voting for the first time. That was not the type of irony I needed in my life. I wondered briefly if I could be acquitted because I was in labor. Temporary insanity. Extreme duress. Nope. Not worth it.
"I'm going now." I announced.
I put on my comfy sweatpants and a clean sweater and maybe even some makeup. I can't remember if I put on makeup. I think I did, it seems likely. If I wasn't nine months pregnant, I might have walked up there. It was only three blocks away. But I drove. The line was not that bad. I remember expecting much worse but there were probably only about fifteen people in front of me and the whole process went pretty quickly. The entire thing took all of about twenty minutes. I punched a bunch of holes through a card and presto, I was done. I handed my card in and it was all over. Huh. That seemed like no big deal. I had hesitated over my choice in the last moment. It was so final. Was I sure I wanted to vote for this guy? Was I positive? It seemed like I didn't know enough, that I was still rather woefully ignorant of everything I needed to know. And I was right about that.
That process spurred me to know more. To understand more. To take my vote as seriously as I should.
These days I actively discuss politics and policies with my children. I don't expect my kids to vote for the same person I vote for, but I feel like they have a pretty good grasp on what is going on. They have much more information but the downside to that is that they also have much more misinformation. Satire websites that they are taken in by, opinion pieces that are slanted. Whole tv channels that only present one side of the story. And lies and more lies. It's hard to figure things out.
What means something to me now is that I finally found the story of how women got the vote. I finally became interested enough to let go of the boring history teachers and the past prejudices I had and I saw a movie called "Iron Jawed Angels". (A small reason why I know that movies are not just entertainment but they change the world) and it changed me and the way I looked at my vote.
In 1776, we declared independence and waged a war which (eventually) gave all male white citizens the right to vote. Somewhere around a hundred years later, black men got freedom and a right to vote (which people spent a lot of time surpassing and shutting down and all the rest that went with that but that is another story). And women, all women, white women and women of color had to fight and demand and be jailed, beaten, force fed, etc. Suffrage sounds like suffering to me. But if not for these women, I would have no right to vote on November 8th. And this woman running, just four years shy of one hundred years of having the right to even vote would not have the right to seek political office.

And representation in government is crucial. No matter how you feel about this election, having people from different backgrounds, people of color, different genders, different sexual orientation, these things matter. Because of the people, by the people, for the people means all of us. So the representation of all of us is important.
The hardest thing is finding people who actually care and are not just self serving fame and power whores. Because to be in government is to serve a community. To do your best for the people you represent. High minded ideals. And politics is made of lies and back room deals and unsavory things. Sometimes they mean well and the law of unintended consequences steps in and bites you hard.
But every now and then something wonderful happens. Slavery is abolished. Women get the right to vote. The Civil Rights Act. Gay people get the right to marry. Pre-existing conditions no longer matter when seeking health insurance. Every now and then some amazing piece of change happens and I marvel that it happened.
And these things happen because we voted for people who were integral to making this happen. So, yes, your vote does matter. It's a small piece of a larger world and it belongs to you and only you. Try to use it wisely with your best conscience and your highest ideal. When I walk into the voting booth, I stand on the shoulders of those women who suffered before me, who believed it would matter to me that I was represented and knew that I could change the world with one vote. I know that their battle was worthwhile, that their sacrifice for me humbles me and I honor it.
For all of you, this should be meaningful. To make your vote a part of history.

Monday, September 19, 2016

How we connect when we serve

Last night, my daughter asked me a question, kind of a simple question. She said, "Did you like being a hotel manager?" Immediately, I said "No."
Then, I gave it a little more thought.
The real answer is sometimes I liked it. Most of the time I was bored out of my skull and there were times, I outright hated it but I got to thinking about the parts I liked and the parts that made a difference and spilled over into other parts of my life.
The parts I liked were these. I like learning new things, I like feeling competent at my job. I take pride in doing things really well and the thing about being a hotel manager or a restaurant manager, a server, a bartender, all the things in the hospitality business was that I did those things really well. I excelled at those jobs and I liked doing things that I do very well. People didn't want me to quit. I was almost always offered obscene raises (relatively speaking) to stay in those jobs and keep doing them. But I couldn't stay happy. It got old, it got stale, it became the same. The challenge was mostly gone and once it wasn't a new thing I was learning, I realized I was just miserable again because I had only been distracted from the thing I was supposed to do.
But back to the parts I liked. I loved working with people. I loved meeting new people. One of my favorite things to do was to do something that made someone really, really happy. So, whether it was getting them to a hotel bed in a beautiful room where they were comfortable or serving them a warm and delicious meal or giving them a perfectly created drink that that person had been craving all day. I loved that. If someone was unhappy, I would work extra hard to find that magical thing that would create satisfaction somehow. I would move them to another room that was awesome. I would bring them a luscious piece of dessert. Sometimes, all I would do was just care enough to listen to the problem and make a safe space to communicate it.
In my job, I would create a connection and create a happiness that had not existed before. I would be a conduit to serve something greater in this world. Sure, a lot of times our interactions were brief and seemed meaningless but I knew that a smile to a weary traveler, it meant something, if even just for a moment and understanding the value of that was one of the reasons I was good at my job.
It would wear me down, though. It's really hard being that empathetic in a job like that. People will just take and take all I gave and I would be left swimming in pain sometimes.
I got the residue of their anger, their frustration, their snappish rude behavior. And often I took it home with me.
And when I would reach the point where I was numb or desensitized to everything at the job, I would often leave, both as an act of self protection or because I was no good to the public doing a half ass job.
So, why couldn't I keep it up? Well, it's exhausting and it isn't my true calling after all. I have always known this, but when my daughter asked me that question the other day, I thought about it in a way I had never really realized before.
When I make movies, direct or act in plays, write a story...I'm doing the same thing. I'm connecting to the world in a way that makes people happy. I'm using all of me and what I am good at to create good feelings in others. I am directly connecting with people in a way that makes them smile or cry or think or feel.
We used to have regulars in the restaurant and business regulars at the hotel. In the hotel, they were away from home and I was often fascinated with the way people would behave when they were far from their home life. Sometimes, the railroad guys would come and sit in the lobby and tell me their stories. I loved that.
When certain businessmen would checkout, they would ask me to take off the $50 in dirty movie charges off their bill so they could pay cash. No one needs their boss to see that on the bill, and I would do so with a poker face, all the while thinking, he didn't look the type or he looks exactly like he would be totally into that. And I would scroll past the titles, "Barely Legal" or "Hot Nurses" because you never know what someone is hiding anonymously far away from home.
And I would think to myself about how many stories there were to tell that lived inside these people, how many people were just lonely or meeting up or finally coming together after a long separation. Valentine's Day was an adventure, so many high hopes of a perfect night and there I was the quiet witness to what goes wrong and what goes right.
I realized that in many ways hospitality is another art that connects us. I still love to cook for people, to create food that makes them warm and satisfied, to serve a cold drink or a warm hot chocolate. I want to create something superior that will connect me to the world in more ways. This is how I serve humanity. I have been called to a higher calling, but in the simple ways I was taught to do this. This is why serving is worthwhile. It has taught me tolerance, patience and to manage lots of personalities. I have been taught to quietly listen to the troubles of others and try to find a way to fix a problem, and if that cannot be done, just to listen and comfort. There are times when all you have to do is just understand.
It also has shown me that people who are operating from the ego and not from the place of connection, these people are missing out on that real joy. If you're in it for the applause, the attention, the superficial- that won't last. To create and share, that is when I realized I was on track. Even the solitary writer puts pen to paper to push her thoughts out into the world. I do this to serve and to connect.
In a way, every thing I have ever done has been to serve and connect to the world, to share in a higher consciousness, to understand humanity better and when I make people happy in some way, I find extra joy. There are lots of stories out there waiting to be told, I may not have time for all of them but I am grateful to have witnessed them all.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How the Silence changed Everything

In 2002, I finally got to do my study abroad trip that I had wanted to do for a long time. I was so excited, three whole months in London, all the theater I could handle in a big city. No car. No phone. No kids. No television. I was beyond thrilled to be doing this. My mom had just the month before purchased a flat in Central London since she worked over there so much and she was letting me stay there for the duration of my time in London. This was great. I didn't have to stay in the dorms and I didn't have to have a roommate. Part of the reason I was doing this was to experience what I had missed out on.
When you get pregnant at 17, there isn't any time to transition into adulthood. You just do it fast and you get it while crying in a corner and feeling overwhelmed in between taking care of a newborn and dealing with your parents and the rest of the world telling you that you better grow up now. Which I did. Without really even thinking about it. And I started college before my son was even a year old because I knew I had to get my shit together or just be one of those single mom statistics. One day I looked up and noticed everyone else was having a very different college experience than I was. Parties. Late night conversations of the soulful figuring things out variety. Self discovery. Epic mistakes that didn't involve you messing up your kid's life while trying to figure out your own.
I had gone from a turbulent and traumatic household with my parents to a turbulent and traumatic year of living with my drug addicted, verbally and physically abusive boyfriend and several certifiably insane roommates to getting pregnant and moving back in with my parents when I was about six months along. I brought two cats and a bunch more emotional trauma than I had left with. From one loud household to another and then back again, this was my life.
I had dropped out of college twice and after a long break, a terrible job, and many painful changes, I was back. My life now included four children of my own and a loving and stable relationship. I no longer lived with my parents and suddenly I was desperate to finish my degree. This was my third and final attempt to finish college. I would successfully end up with a degree, graduating on the Dean's List with a solid GPA to be proud of. But it was a rocky road to there.
My college experience was not like the others. I could never start my homework before ten pm, after the last child had given up the last gasp of "One more drink of water." and me yelling "Get back in that bed right now!" Luckily, I was a night owl naturally and I loved being in college. I loved my teachers, I loved my classes, I loved learning and reading and writing everything. And I was old enough to appreciate my teachers as peers and not some mature people who intimidated me.
When I got on the plane to London, right after we hit cruising altitude, I started to cry. Part joy. Part terror. Part guilt. I would miss my kids, though I knew they were in very good hands. Between my long time babysitter, my parents and my boyfriend, and the rest of the village, those kids were going to be more than fine.
This is one of those things men do all the time. They go out of town for business or school or any number of reasons and no one blinks. It's different for moms. Probably always will be. I hope not but the fact is people just look down on you. It happens. I don't care. I've never been a PTA mom or a traditional mom and I wasn't about to start caring what anyone thought of me. It's too exhausting. I had already been a teen mom, a statistic, a person to be judged one way or another. I was beyond giving a damn. My life was what it was. I could only live it the way I thought was best. Trying to please anyone is beside the point.
I waited a long time to do this study abroad. Until I thought things were reasonably stable. I chose the summer program because it was the shortest and would require the least time away from the kids. But, I knew I wasn't going to get points for that! I was still leaving.
Part of the reason I did this was to do this cool theater program in London but I admit, the large part of this was to go back and find that transition path to adulthood that I had missed out on. I was going to be a grown up, with a small apartment, in college, taking care of just me. I was going to live by myself for the very first time in my entire adult life. It was always something that I had felt was missing in my life. And I had given up getting it back. I thought, maybe this is something I will experience when all my kids have moved out and I am on my own. Maybe then it will happen. But more and more desperately I wanted to stop resenting everyone and everything that interfered with my solitude. I wanted some quiet to finish a thought, to write a play, to just leave the house without a multitude of planning babysitters and feeling as if I was stealing time to myself that was limited. I wanted to be able to sleep in the next day or say I feel like going to see a movie without second guessing my ability to for sure get a babysitter or feeling closed in and frustrated because there was never enough time.
I'm sure to some of you, that sounds incredibly selfish. I chose to have kids. I chose to be a single mom. (Let us not even deal with the fact that there was no single father sharing that burden) I didn't opt out of it, I wasn't as careful as I should have been. YES, I get it. I have been suitably punished for having underage, unprotected sex. I do not need anyone to remind me of the consequences of my actions because I lived with those beautiful children every single day. I was responsible and diligent and I made the sacrifices. So- please, spare me the lecture some of you are forming in your brain.
But I am very self aware of needing what I needed no matter what anyone else thought I deserved or should have in my life. And what I needed was a stretched out length of time that was not a vacation. I needed to take care of just myself. I needed to find myself without the noise. I needed to figure out me inside of just me, with no one tugging at me or needing me get the picture.
So, I arrived in London on a Sunday. It was my birthday and for the first time in my life, I spent my birthday alone. I followed the directions my mother gave me about getting from the airport to the flat and dragged all my luggage up the the fifth floor. I put the key in the lock and opened the door to my life for the next three months. I think I did a joyful lap when I first got in the flat. Gone were the tears-- but what was there instead was silence.
The first thing I wanted to do was turn on the television. But there was no television. I was sure there must be a radio but I couldn't find it. Eventually, I did but the batteries were dead. Now I was surrounded by this eerie quiet and I had no idea what to do. London is a huge city. Busy. Populated. But the flat was silent as could be. I could hear no traffic. No chatter. No noisy neighbor. No friendly meow. No ear piercing, crawl up your spine, escalating, vibrating, pound into your brain stem screaming child. Just this dead quiet. You would think I would welcome this. Instead it was causing me stress and anxiety. I needed noise. Where were batteries? What did I have to do to make this radio work? What the hell was this??
I ran around the flat in my exhaustion for twenty minutes thinking there must be batteries. There were not. I finally fell into a fitful nap of frustration with no television to lull me to sleep. I was too exhausted to search the streets for some place that sold batteries. England is not like here. You can't just go to Target for your every need. There is no Target. It took me two solid weeks to find a can opener. I finally discovered one at a hardware store around the corner... but I digress.
This silence, this thing I hated, this thing I was afraid of, this thing I did not understand, it grew on me. Yes, I did find music and noise and a way to live. I learned to cook for one person. I took much pleasure in being able to do my homework any time I wanted but the biggest and most unexpected thing that happened was that I learned to embrace the silence. And in the silence, I found my own thoughts, my own voice, my own needs and desires and quiet yearnings of my soul. I found the answers to the interrupted questions I had been asking myself. I found twenty seven books to read. Sometimes, I just turned off the radio so I could hear the thinking going on in my busy brain. It turns out that silence does not really drown out the world as I feared, but opens your senses wide.
When I returned from London, I was a different woman. I was more confident, more physically strong from all the walking, more thoughtful and more sure. The resentments I had were gone because I had been granted enough time. I'm so glad I had no television to distract me. I'm so glad I didn't really make any friends. I went out to eat by myself. I read the Evening Standard. I went to the theater and movies by myself. Sure, I did a few things with people but mostly I just reveled in how cool it was to just be with me. I felt as if I had finally grown up. Crossed that invisible passage to adulthood. I wasn't hanging on to anything any more. I wasn't just thinking, how long will it be until I can get out by myself again (this is part of what postpartum depression does to you, something I would discover much later), I was spending time enjoying my kids in a way that was a revelation.
Sometimes, when I am on road trips, I deliberately turn off the radio to feel the silence around me. I think through plot points and engage my imagination. I plan out the next day. I access the thing that has me stuck and work it out while I chew it over. The silence changed me. The alone stitched me together. The silence seeped into the cracks in my soul and filled me up. Maybe I would have found another way without that, but I feel strongly that I knew what I was yearning for and what I needed in many ways. But I never suspected my greatest need would be silence.