Thursday, November 29, 2018

Forward Only

How does each generation live up to its promise?

I'm a lucky woman in that I have close relationships with multiple generations of women. My grandmother was born in '26, my mother in '59; I followed in '86 and my sister came along in 2000. I've had many conversations, both mundane and in-depth, with each of these family members, and coming away from our discourse I am struck by the differences between not our numerical ages but our cultural gestalts.

So much progress has been made in my grandmother's lifetime. Looking back at everything that happened in our country over the past 90 years, I'm in awe of everything she has witnessed. Grandmere still keeps abreast of current events, an active observer, an engaged listener.

My mother, too, was a part of huge cultural shifts - she's a staunch feminist, and her understanding of politics and social justice has evolved and grown, and continues to deepen. Her first daughter - that's me - has pushed and pushed boundaries, asking questions, rebelling in tiny ways, forcing more than a few issues. My conversations with my mother are some of my greatest gifts.

And my life has been a product of a specific time period, too. I came out as bisexual in high school, when there was even less understanding of anything other than the binary of hetero- and homosexuality, but I felt safe enough to do so. What was missing was any understanding or exploration of gender, and I feel that my generation in its emerging maturity is now able to deconstruct that binary.

My sister's generation, from what I can observe, is even more compassionate, engaged, questioning. Through my sister I have been in my mother's place, learning more and more about topics which were off-limits when I was a kid. I'm so impressed by the openness of my sister's classmates, friends, contemporaries, and I find that their complexity opens doors for me. I never got to consider my gender, even though my teen idols were those who challenged gender entirely. I never got to ask why I liked the performative trappings of gender while having no particular innate concept of what kind of human being I was.

But there are other topics, too, which have needed deconstruction, which have begged for critical thought. Some of those topics seem small, some large, and all of them are weaved into our cultural consciousness. And it's those little things which have been itching in the back of my brain - things which seem obvious to me, born in '86, but which manage to challenge an established status quo.

Discipline, specifically spanking, is one of those topics. And, unfortunately, it widens the divide between older and newer generations.

When the American Academy of Pediatrics stated, clearly and definitively, that physical discipline was bad for children, I felt that it was entirely obvious. An "of course," rather than any kind of shock. I've known my whole life that harming a child for any reason is just plain wrong. Would you hit an adult? Would you even call them names, berate them, use emotional forms of punishment? Of course not. And children are even more vulnerable than adults; it is our duty to protect them.

My mother's generation grew up with parents who didn't consider that obvious, for whom spanking was a normal way to discipline a child. Her mission with me was to do better, to work harder at being an understanding parent; in the parlance of special education, my mother strove to respond to me, not to react. But I see friction, now, between people my age who are young parents and parents who didn't know any better. There's a defensiveness - a fear, I think, that those who used spanking are being called bad parents.

Similarly, I think there is a strong reaction in some to young women who demand the same respect as men. Who demand a better life; who advocate for themselves. Many women of earlier generations lived with the expectation that they sublimate their desires to their husband's wishes and requirements. From little things, like having dinner on the table at the right time, to big things, like bearing children, many women didn't have a choice. And I think, if those lives and experiences are questioned, it might make those women uncomfortable. It might make them feel unheard and disrespected. 

Some of our elders might be deeply uncomfortable with the kind of pride both my generation, and in a greater way, my sister's generation, feel free to display. When I was eighteen I went to my first Baltimore Pride and I felt nervous, giddy, and delighted, a joyful laugh at the back of my throat; when I went with my sister this year I noticed all of the families, kids in strollers, moms, dads, teenagers in bright colors and glitter. Our culture is shifting - we are more able to be out and proud - and perhaps that might appear off-putting, vulgar, frightening.

The secrets held in those quiet lives of years past are being confronted by today's openness. And that's scary. We talk about the bad stuff in hopes it might get better; other women might not have had that choice.

We have been listening, talking, learning, and that exploration is going to continue. Even I, still a young woman, find myself confused by a lot of the terminology which exists as obvious for my sister's generation. I didn't know until recently that the word for me is pansexual; it doesn't make that much of a difference at this point, but I think it makes a big difference if young people can find words with which they identify. I didn't have the knowledge, didn't have the benefit of new information - and that doesn't scare me. It makes me happy that the world is getting better.

And when it comes to other things, harmful things like spanking - I would hope that our combined reaction might be, thank goodness, we know better, now. Even if it happened to us, even if it happened to our parents, we have been told that there are better ways to raise children. And what a miracle it is, to evolve, to learn more, to make each generation happier than that which came before.

And for women like me, for people like my sister - what a joy that we can stand up and become something other than a lifestyle accessory for someone else. Does this invalidate our parents' or grandparents' marriages? No! And I would never attempt to criticize the necessary choices that other woman have had to make. But our openness - too often seen as selfishness - means that our relationships with others and our identities within ourselves will be richer. Might be more joyful. We might be working towards a more equitable world. We might say no, sometimes, and that might make our yeses even more powerful.

There's a sense of ugliness which comes with independence. We've been taught to value others even to our own detriment. We've been taught to keep quiet about who we are, lest we offend, and we've been taught to respect our parents' methods even if they have harmed us. It's a culture of silence and a culture of secrets; it's not dissimilar from the way I dress up, the performative feminine, to hide my mental illnesses or my chronic pain.

I'll leave you here with a silly image, one suited for the holiday season. In 1964, the Rankin-Bass "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was released. Beyond Mrs. Claus trying to fatten up her skinny Santa, beyond the silver and gold, it was a deeply subversive film. It was a movie about people who didn't fit in, who were innately different no matter how much the world wanted them to submit, to assimilate. Rudolph is physically other, and Hermey is drawn to an unacceptable career - one might even say, lifestyle.

We see the film through a modern lens, now - it's obvious to us that "Rudolph" is a work of fiction designed to challenge discrimination and bigotry. But that message has been bubbling away, near to boiling over, since 1964, and it's a gift that so many of us can now openly identify with the misfits. Can identify with a demand to be recognized. Can identify with the beauty within all people. With kindness. With compassion.

I don't know what the world will look like for my niece and nephews, for the children of my sister's contemporaries. I think it will get even better - I think it will live up to the promise of all the things we wish for, now. And I want to keep improving, to keep questioning, and I think that whatever new words or concepts or identities emerge will help me become a more complete person. And that evolution won't negate my life, just as our modern understanding of parenting doesn't harm our parents or grandparents, just as a new word for who I am doesn't erase who I've been, just as my dedication to intersectional feminism doesn't erase my mother's early experiences with an emerging political consciousness.

We are designed to move forward, only. And I can't wait to see what comes next.   

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Invisible Woman

When I was twelve, I couldn't get out of bed.

It wasn't depression - though that was on its way - but it was the beginning of chronic pain. Upon waking, my back was stiff, a grinding, twisting feeling at the base of my spine. Sitting up was agony, and I still remember my mom hugging me as I tried to rise and get ready for school. She was probably as terrified as I was - watching your child in pain is a parent's nightmare.

I went through many tests - it was the first time my blood was drawn, and I had x-rays, doctor consults. And they couldn't find anything. All of my bones were where they were supposed to be, all of my blood work normal. And, for the first - and definitely not the last - time, I was told by a medical professional that this debilitating pain was all in my head. That I was making it up.

I was unlucky enough to experience early what many, if not most, women go through at some point in their lives; my very real medical concerns were brushed off. The following years were marked by this callous indifference - I can't tell you how many times I've been told that what was wrong with me was entirely fictional.

The reasons to ignore my illness increased as I got older. I'm mentally ill, so of course, any pain I might have must be psychological. I was overweight, so my chronic digestive problems, neurological problems, even hair and skin problems, were assumed to be weight-related. When I first talked to a doctor about what I knew was a gluten sensitivity, she told me to take vitamins and eat more vegetables. When I got a concussion, the neurologist was so helpful, so understanding, until he accessed my medical history and concluded that my pain was due to anxiety.

I've waited for hours in urgent care facilities, only to be treated with irritation and condescension. I've been laughed at. Imagine what that feels like - to have something going wrong with your body, to be scared, to be derided. And I know I'm not alone in this.

Women are treated appallingly in the doctor's office. Double that if you're overweight, and triple it if you're mentally ill. No one takes us seriously, and we're just as likely to be accused of prescription-seeking behavior as hysteria.

I felt this, by comparison, when I recently went to urgent care for a sinus infection. I'm thin again. I was in and out, given a course of antibiotics, within 20 minutes. What a privilege it was! My smaller body made me more credible and more important. Two years ago, when I went in with a concussion, I was there for so long, basically ignored, and sent home with the suggestion that I might take Advil.

So - my back pain. It started when I was twelve. And no one, no one thought to consider the fact that I was entering womanhood. Last year, my primary care physician told me to adjust my posture and never followed up with me, my pain brushed off yet again. And almost 20 years from those scary mornings in middle school, I've finally been diagnosed with endometriosis.

Endo has been observed in girls under ten years old. It's the cause of significant chronic pain in a significant percentage of women. There are very few courses of treatment - either continuous birth control or surgery. And it can cause infertility, which matters to me not at all, but I can't help but think - I went un-diagnosed for 20 years, and what if I had been trying to get pregnant? Would I have received care? Maybe I would have - maybe adequate healthcare for women is focused on childbearing. Maybe we're more valuable if we're the vessel for someone else.

I'm facing the rest of my life with chronic pain. The last course of treatment I attempted caused my mood to plummet, a side effect of birth control that nobody seems to care about. I'm hopeful, more than I ever have been, because at least now I have a doctor in my corner, a woman who listened to my concerns and, in what feels like a miracle, actually believed me. And I do wonder if I was believed because I weigh less. I wonder if I was taken seriously because I did all the research ahead of time, because I stayed calm and collected, because I didn't disclose my mental health status. I thank the universe for this wonderful gift of being taken seriously, because I know what it's like, I have 20 years of experiences of being told "it's all in your head."

About a third of my life is spent sitting on a heating pad, now, and popping Advil, and researching homeopathic analgesics. It's not the worst, because I have another privilege - I don't go to an office, I don't run after kiddos anymore, I don't need to interact with others. But looking at the types of pain which come with female bodies, looking at how we're treated by those people we should be able to trust the most - it makes me wonder how much other women suffer in their daily lives.

Income lost. A lack of confidence, a lack of respect. The grin and bear it method of capitalism. Problems with fertility, a sense of personal failure. Little girls who hurt and who learn too early that the world doesn't care. My mentally ill sisters, my overweight sisters - and let's not forget women who face even more barriers in the doctor's office, like ethnicity and gender identity.

Bodies are tricky and they don't always do what they should, but medical care shouldn't be this hard and doctors should do what they've sworn to do. We shouldn't have to spend all of our time doing the research about our pain - sometimes learning more about illness than our doctors might know - in hopes that we might be heard. We are not less valid because we have reproductive systems. We should not be seen as vessels, as objects, as hysterical. We shouldn't have to lose weight just to prove we are worthy of care; we shouldn't have to keep quiet about our other illnesses to get respect. 

I lay in bed last night, that grinding pain taking root in my left hip, my pelvis, my thighs, and I thought, what would my life be like if I had been diagnosed 20 years ago?

No girl should have to grow up like that. No woman should have to ask that question.   

We know what it's like to be invisible.

All we want is to be seen.  

Monday, November 5, 2018

To be True

My new fall tradition seems to be doing things in advance.

Last year around this time I was hard at work on my novel, and inspired by the final scene - taking place on Christmas day - I made big pots of sauerkraut and cranberry sauce. It was well before Thanksgiving and certainly ages before Christmas, and yet I felt the need to eat my favorite holiday foods.

I woke up this morning with no meal plan for the week - and I just finished popping sauerkraut, cranberry, and mashed potatoes in the crock pots. Leftovers are definitely in my future. And, of course, I put Christmas choral music on as soon as I poured my first cup of coffee. Once I got in the car it was Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, all the way to the grocery.

In the months after Halloween we are inundated with Christmas advertisements, decorations, music - and we are often drowned in a backlash of commentary, by the frustration of those who don't want to rush things. And there's a significant problem with assuming that Christmas is central to American life - in a diverse culture, it is wrong to focus entirely on a Christian holiday.

But for me - a former churchgoer, a woman of ambivalent spirituality, and too frequently a stickler to protocol - I'm finished with waiting.

Too often the holidays don't live up to the hype. Halloween serves as the top of a hill; I find myself strapped to a sled and careening down into the canyon of Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's a busy time and it goes so quickly, so many people to see, so many meals to eat, so many smiles and nods and hugs. The few days surrounding Christmas go by in a blur until I'm down in the valley of fatigue, my sled wedged in a crevasse.

And I can't help but feel that life is like that too. We race forward, pushing towards the next deadline, the next event, birthdays, weddings, funerals, friends made, family lost. As we get older our experiences grow, each day feeling shorter and making up a smaller and smaller percentage of our lives. If we're lucky, we mature, and we realize the value of every moment - it's not the things you do which form your life, but the person you are.

I used to think that I had to reserve certain tasks for certain times, or that I had to follow specific rules in order to function in my family, my society. For years I wanted things that I didn't reach for - now, still at the beginning of my life, I'm asking myself what has held me back. I know that if all I worry about is adhering to other people's expectations I will miss the opportunities which are afforded those who dare to be themselves. I've been afraid of making waves or making a mistake; I've been afraid of getting a second set of piercings in my ears, or a tattoo, or saying no.

And I'm aware that I was taught a set of values - no, not values, but rules - which dictated everything from the books I was allowed to read to the appropriate day to hang up my Christmas lights.

Our lives are so small, and in their insignificance they are as expansive as the universe. 

We have a brief time here - but since our internal lives are all we can perceive, our experiences are our entire spiritual existence, and they are vast. Our senses are limited and yet they are how we find meaning - there is a world in the smell of cranberry sauce, in the memory of crystalline snow, in the soft wool of a coat, in the sugar and salt of pecan pie.

And it is because we are both so small and so large that our actions are meaningless and terribly important. Rules are useless - kindness is without price. Authenticity with others is the only way forward because it brings us back into ourselves.

I've been lucky enough to have a close friend in my life who listens to Christmas music whenever she feels like it. At first that blew my mind - to flagrantly defy the protocol - and then I realized how honest it was, to advocate for oneself. To follow the heart. To be true, to be happy.

That friendship has encouraged me to do the same.

So I've got holiday food simmering away, Christmas music all through the house, and I'm thinking a lot about the things which hold me back and those things I wish to leave behind. I'm thinking about how small my life is - an amalgamation of values and objects and my fair share of neuroses - and how big my soul is, mostly made of love. Because my days are nothing, my moments are everything. And all I need to focus on is how to be kind, how to be compassionate, how to be authentic.

I'll make sauerkraut and remember Christmas in Bolton Hill, the fat flakes of snow falling on the holly tree, cooking with my Grandmere in the kitchen, laughing as my Grandpere presided over the table with a joke and a boyish grin. 

I'll eat cranberry sauce and remember that I was small, that I called it cannedberry sauce when it popped out of the tin, that my mother was so young as she worked hard to feed me.

I'll listen to choral music and remember my father's lucky red socks, the smell of incense too thick, the giggles of choristers at two in the morning, a race with my Dad to the first chocolate doughnut in the rectory, the taste of pink Tokay and the rice paper host.

I'll write about all these experiences, knowing that they are so precious to me, so heavy in my mind, so weightless in their insignificance.

And I'll do all of that whenever the heck I feel like it.

Life is too short to wait.

Life is too long to waste.