Perspectives on Disability

ahnna-harryWhen I first met Ahnna, she could still get around on her crutches. That was 12 years ago, and she was 43. Up until then, she had spent most of her life getting around on crutches or, at home, crawling on her knees. A birth accident endowed her with Cerebral Palsy, which left her unable to walk without the help of her crutches. She spent many years walking on the weight of her hands and shoulders.

People are not made to support their body weight on their arms, so inevitably her joints gave out in middle age. Crawling on her knees at home had helped save those joints, but the doctor said she had basically ruined her knees in the process. Her youthful, determined self did not foresee her middle-aged self, which would resign itself to a power chair now that her joints were no longer able to keep her upright. No youth ever foresees what age and time may take away. Youth and energy seem forever.

Ahnna is now 55 and has lovely silver hair, which she refuses to color. I’m glad. I wouldn’t like it if she colored her hair. But society apparently expects that silver hair means “very old indeed,” and more often than not, she is mistaken for my mother, but not just because of her hair. The power chair also screams “very old indeed” even though there are plenty of young people out there who need them. Sometimes this assumption works for us. If a contractor is helping us out, who knows what their attitude toward a same-sex couple would be. If it’s easier for them to assume that she’s “Grandma,” then fine. We have found that people are often more sympathetic (and therefore more helpful and honest) if they assume it’s just the single mom and her mother, making do.

We laugh about this, of course. If people actually looked beyond the power chair and the silver, they would see that this is not an old woman. But for outsiders who don’t need to know, well, we just go with the flow.

My mother was disturbed that I was with a woman (she never acknowledged our marriage). She was equally disturbed that I was with a disabled woman, however. It messed with her sense of order and perfection. My daughter’s marriage was not supposed to look like THAT. My mother could not directly confront the disability without seeming like a complete jerk, though she accomplished that anyway. She worried aloud that maybe I was taking on too much, and that Ahnna would become a bigger burden as time went on. She would look at Ahnna’s feet, affected by edema, and advise less salt in the diet, as though that alone would fix the problem caused by not being able to walk like everyone else. Female and disabled. My mother’s worst nightmare.

It is true that Ahnna faces more challenges as she ages that so-called “normal” people do not. We went from a scooter to a power chair with a lift in the van. We are now transitioning to a full van conversion so that her regular power chair can go anywhere. Her range of movement has diminished even in 12 years. So, yes, she is more disabled at 55 than at 45 or 35. It happens to us all, in one way or another. It can happen suddenly, like a lightning strike. One day, you’re able-bodied; the next, it’s all gone, and you’re left with a new reality. It can strike anyone at any time. If your partner is unwilling to take that on, then perhaps you need a better partner.

Ahnna’s mother, who was an amazing woman, passed away last year. She always advocated for Ahnna, and she used to say that, in a way, she was lucky. Her disability was on the outside, obvious for anyone to see. But everyone has a disability of some kind, and in most cases, you can’t see it. Some disabilities are mental, or emotional, and they can lie hidden, unseen and unacknowledged by those who have them. Everyone has their challenges. Dealing with the mental or emotional challenges of your partner is no less trying than dealing with the physical challenges of the obviously disabled. Sometimes, it’s much harder.

When we’re in public, people tend to address me instead of Ahnna. We’re not socialized to look down. If a person is in a chair, we tend to assume that, somehow, they are not capable of discussion, as though they have lost the power of speech. It’s an unconscious thing. If you see someone in a chair, feel free to look down, into their eyes, and address them directly. They will appreciate it.

I always say that we are lucky to live in a technological age that provides the tools to help us deal with disability. Not everyone has access to power chairs or van conversions. There should be more provisions for the impoverished disabled, who find it harder to make a living precisely because of their disability. Transportation and some means of independence are vital to helping the disabled to contribute what they can, no matter how small. Their bodies may not work well, but that doesn’t mean their minds do not. Hello, Stephen Hawking.

Our children are accustomed to seeing one of their Moms in a power chair. It is just the way life is. When they see another person in a chair, it’s the most normal thing in the world. But some children are curious. It’s okay for them to wonder aloud and ask questions. How else are they going to learn?

I hope, for my father’s sake, that he never becomes disabled. I don’t think my mother would be a very kind caretaker. To be honest, I don’t think he would, either. But they are in it together, and one may very well end up caring for the other in ways that they may not enjoy. This much I know:  I am solid with Ahnna, so helping her physically is no big deal to me. She cares for me, too, when I’m sick. She’s perfectly capable. We’re a team that way.

The other day, a friend of ours said to Ahnna that “there was nothing but kindness in her face.” And that’s true. I realized in that moment that part of my purpose was to be her protector. I told her long ago that I would be her legs. And I am the strong one, the warrior. She is the gentle Buddha, tending the home fire. Yin, Yang. Perfect complements.

As you go about your days, remember that everyone has a disability that may not be obvious. If it is obvious, help when you can. The physically disabled must depend on the help and kindness of others sometimes. (This is also true for the mentally and emotionally disabled!) If there’s only one disabled stall in a restroom, take note. I’ve literally seen a woman charge past Ahnna to the only disabled stall in a restroom, forcing her to wait on her crutches, which she could not do for long periods without the risk of falling. Mind those parking spaces. People in a van conversion cannot park anywhere else.

Most importantly, remember that people deserve compassion and dignity, no matter what they look like, what they can do, or how well they can cope. A person’s world can change in an instant. Imagine how you would want to be treated, and then do that.

How to Oppress People of Color

We have a holiday named for this guy! But we still have work to do. Photo by Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer

We have a holiday named for this guy! But we still have work to do.
Photo by Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer

A black man once told me that, as a white woman, I didn’t have the right to write about racism. I understand his point; I don’t live in his skin. On the other hand, I pointed out that as a white woman, I am part of the problem, and therefore I must write about racism. I don’t believe white silence is helpful.

There can be no doubt that people of color are more likely to be killed by the police than white people are. Given the almost daily examples in the headlines, I cannot imagine how this affects people of color. Depressing? Yes. Horrifying? Yes. Outrageous? Yes. Scary as shit? Absolutely. When I leave my house, I don’t worry about being wrongfully arrested or killed by a public servant.

So, dearest white people, I know many of you care. I know many of you want to do your best. I know that, if you exhibit racial biases, you are probably blissfully unaware of it. I freely admit that I have been a complete idiot at times in my past, too. Life is for growing and learning, so let me discuss some of the ways in which white people may unconsciously oppress those who have a higher melanin content in their skin.

When we see another killing of a black person in the news, it’s uncomfortable, so our brain wants to make us feel better about it. Here are some of the things that may go through your mind:

He/she must have done something to deserve it.

This is what horror writers understand: if you’re going to kill a character, perhaps gruesomely, then you first write them so that when they die the reader will secretly applaud. No one minds if the despicable person gets eaten by zombies. Alfred Hitchcock set up Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho as an immoral woman who casually slept with men, thereby setting her up so that, as a slut, she gets what’s coming to her. So naturally, if a policeman killed someone, well, it must have been their own fault somehow. Right? See also: Blaming the victim.

If he/she didn’t deserve it, then they must have done something stupid.

Okay, maybe they weren’t actually robbing a store or dealing drugs, but maybe they already have a record (and therefore did something in the past to deserve it), or they were just “uppity.” Maybe they gave the cop some attitude, or did something to make the officer feel threatened. While there can be no doubt that politeness goes a very long way, there is no law that says that citizens are required to be polite to the police. People become upset. They get stressed. Cursing at a police officer may be unwise, but it is not illegal. A death sentence seems a very high price to pay for inflamed passions.

He/she must have done something to arouse suspicion.

We assume that all police officers are completely rational, and that they would never harass a civilian without a very good reason. But officers (and white people in general) tend to make assumptions about people of color that do not apply if the person is white. Unlike Sandra Bland, I have never been pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. Unlike Trayvon Martin, I have never been shot dead for walking in my neighborhood wearing a hoodie. Unlike Henry Louis Gates, I have never been arrested by the police for trying to enter my own home. No, black people do not have to do anything to arouse suspicion. Their mere existence is suspicious. If you have ever crossed the street to avoid walking past a man because he is black, I am talking to you.

He/she must have been hanging with the wrong crowd.

When we see another black death on TV, there is the initial assumption that these are poor folks from the ghetto, probably doing drugs and stealing. Because those are the only kind of black people in America, right? Oh, I guess there are some middle-class black families, but those people don’t end up dead on the news, do they? Somehow, our narrative says that “poverty corrupts.” All those welfare queens come from somewhere! And if you’re poor in America, you deserve it. And if you’re black and poor in America, you’re a thug. Thugs deserve to be shot to death. If you were shot to death and you’re not a thug, then you must have been hanging out with thugs, which brings us back to: You deserved it.

I have known plenty of poor white people over the years. Most of them aren’t thugs. And I’m pretty sure that if one of them was shot dead over a traffic stop, the community would be upset. But even the few penny-ante white “criminals” (if you count drug use) that I’ve known don’t deserve that kind of fate. We should extend our compassion to everyone, regardless of their skin color.

Black people are just “like that.”

You know what I mean. “It’s just how they are.” Naturally violent. Behaving like animals. No surprise when one gets killed. (“They deserve it.”) When a black person becomes angry, a white person feels threatened. When a white person becomes angry, another white person just sees an angry white person. White people love authority, and we submit to it more easily than we think. We automatically side with authority in most cases. When a shooting occurs, our first thought is that the officer was in the right. And that may be the case. But the officer may just as easily be in the wrong. They are imperfect humans in a stressful job, carrying guns. Shit happens. Unfortunately, it happens more often to black people, because white people tend to see them as a threat.

And so on…

I have written before about how well-meaning white people can exhibit racist behavior, unaware that they are doing so. We have had around 400 years of this nonsense, thanks to a culture that thought it was appropriate to kidnap other people, put them in chains, and sell them to people who would exploit their labor. Capitalism at its finest! But hey, you gotta watch these slaves. They’re probably not too happy about this state of affairs. They might try to escape, or worse—revolt. They might even want revenge.

Yes, our legacy of White Trauma is centuries of fearing those whom we imprisoned and exploited and paranoia that they want to repay us for all we’ve done to them. It’s in our national DNA. That’s a painful thing to acknowledge, however, and isn’t it so much easier to just deny that there’s a problem? Hey, this is a post-racial society now! Go Obama! Kill the Voting Rights Act. Problem solved. Nothing to see here.

Our black brothers and sisters keep saying to us, “Please listen. We want to live side by side as equals. Your attitudes are causing us pain. Racism is still occurring. We are dying because of it.” And we switch off the news without a second thought and go to the mall. “Oh, well, I trust that justice will be done.”

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
~ Edmund Burke

5 Things I Gained By Gaining Weight

Asha and Harry at Ninja Mom Day

Asha and Harry at Ninja Mom Day

“Wow, have you put on weight? You look awesome!” Said no one EVER. Actually, someone might indeed say that if the person is recovering from a severe eating disorder, which is literally a life-and-death matter. But most women only receive praise if they reduce their size on the earth, not if they increase it.

As I wrote in my previous blog, I know I talk about this a whole lot. But since gaining 15-20 pounds and another size of clothing, I have found that I really have gained tangible benefits, and these benefits are worth talking about. So here we go.

Strength

At my skinniest, maybe 145-150 pounds (I’ve always been physically dense), I could leg-press 140 pounds. I was quite proud of that. At my more adult-sized “skinny,” I could leg-press 170 pounds. That’s what an extra 20 pounds of body weight will do for you. But not long after I put the additional 15-20 pounds back on, I raised the weights on pretty much everything, including the chest press, which is one of my weakest points. And now I leg-press 190 pounds. I think that’s awesome.

And lest anyone think my midsection is all fat:  my core is the strongest it’s ever been, too. I can hold a plank for several minutes, and that’s something I couldn’t do in college.

Power

One of the things I’ve done with my newfound strength is to challenge myself and have some fun. I’m taking Taekwondo with my six-year-old son, and I’m having a ball. To be honest, I wondered if I’d be up to the challenge. Even though I work out regularly and am quite strong, I worried about hurting myself in an applied martial art. There is no doubt that it stretches you. The kicking alone caused me to discover muscles I didn’t know I had, and my hip flexors complained for ten days straight. But then my body adjusted to this new normal.

Last week, we were practicing some kicking, and the instructor got out some fake “break-away” boards. I easily broke through four of them, and the power of it shocked me a little. But as I’m learning how to defend myself and how to physically cause pain if the need ever arises (let’s face it, that is a piece of what we’re learning), I get a great sense of my personal, physical power. This is not to be abused, of course—with great power comes great responsibility, as Spider-Man knows. But understanding my own power increases my own confidence in all areas. And I do feel good knowing that if someone attacks me, I am learning the skills to take them out. For women in particular, that’s a big deal. It’s also important for my son, who has gained a great deal of confidence (and muscles) from Taekwondo.

I must note here, that when a woman starts to gain her power, she inevitably makes other people uncomfortable. Often these other people are men. A male friend has asked more than once if it was “appropriate” for me to be taking Taekwondo with my son. What he’s really saying is that while martial arts are all well and good for my son, it’s not something he’s comfortable seeing me do. Perhaps he feels threatened. Fortunately, that’s not my problem.

Happiness

Newsflash: women age. Our bodies change. Our needs change. At our blog in The Abundant Home™, I wrote about my body’s need for more carbohydrates. I had lost a lot of weight on a very low-carb diet, and received many compliments for this effort. But this diet affected my mood in profound ways. My temper tended to be shorter. I was more anxious. Last summer, I ended up on antianxiety medication. As often happens with this medication, I started to gain some weight. I also started to reevaluate my diet. Carbs, it turns out, make your body produce happy hormones. I had been eating very few of those. Along about midafternoon every day, I craved carbs. Why not just give in and eat the damn things? So I did.

Now I eat about three servings of carb per day, which makes my body plumper than the media says it should be. But I’m so much happier. I don’t feel hungry all the time. My mood is greatly improved—just ask my wife. I’m more laid back. Less anxious. And I get to eat my own cookies. Score!

Health

Our society now conflates skinniness with good health, but it ain’t necessarily so. My body mass index is “too high,” according to the calculator. My max weight, it says, should be 164 pounds. I have been at that weight, but I’d have to go back to eating practically zero carbs and living in the land of high anxiety and reduced strength to get there again. No, thank you.

The number on the scale that describes gravity’s pull on my body does not take into account the fact that (I know this sounds clichéd) I have Viking-sized bones, and my heavily germanic DNA is not inclined to smallness.

Given my physical strength and my excellent bloodwork numbers, I’m not too worried about the medical establishment’s one-size-fits-all approach to what a healthy physique looks like.

Self-Esteem

This may sound counterintuitive given how our society defines a “valuable” woman, but my self-esteem is greater. In the past, if I had put on some extra weight, I’d spend most of my mental life beating myself up about that. Now when I see myself in the mirror, I see a very fit warrior princess. Call me Xena. Seriously, I think I look awesome, and I’m very proud of my accomplishments.

The increase in my self-esteem is attributable to many things, of course, including a shift in my own thinking. I value my strength. I value my power, and the skills I’m learning. I value my good health. I value enjoying my good food. I value enjoying my good food without constantly berating myself about it.

So, I’ve gained all of this along with a few extra pounds. No one else will say this, but I think to myself, “Woohoo! You’ve gained weight, and you look good, girl!”

(Recovering From) Obsessive-Compulsive Body Shame

My grandmother, who did not have time to be obsessed with her weight

My grandmother, who did not have time to be obsessed with her weight

I have often said that I’m a recovering control freak, with an emphasis on recovering. I’m much better at handling chaos in my order now; being a parent will help with that. And changes to my routine are welcome and can be quite fulfilling. I still struggle with the apparent demise of the Oxford comma, but one thing at a time…

Of course, I still harbor one gargantuan area of control freakishness that, I realize, is also obsessive compulsive, and I now tend to think that they are basically the same thing. I am obsessive compulsive about my diet and weight, which is ironic and not at all surprising, given that my mother was, too. I touched on that in these articles:

But wait, there’s more evidence of my obsession on our web site, The Abundant Home™. In order of appearance:

Yes, five articles detailing my adventures with different ways of eating in order to attempt to maintain some sort of ideal state of health, fitness, body image, what have you. I am aware of myself, and being aware is a bit like observing two different people. First, there is the rational grown-up who is laughing at herself and saying, “Sweetheart, you’re forty-something, bore two children, and who gives a rat’s ass what your size or weight is.” And I know this. But I also observe that there’s this other person, a veritable Pavlov’s dog who has been trained to respond to the seeming “authority” of the male view, which basically says that if you’re attractive enough to sleep with, then you have a value, but if you’re not, then you are the object of ridicule. And that attitude really pisses me off. And yet, it’s in there, like a time bomb, ready to explode the moment swimsuits appear in the stores.

I used to go to the movies once a week with my ex and friends. Bear with me, this really is relevant. One week, the movie available was “Shallow Hal.” I wasn’t sure I wanted to see this film, because I was afraid that it would be 90 minutes of fat jokes. But I was pleasantly surprised, and I really liked what the movie had to say about judging people based on their appearances. After the movie, we adjourned with our friend to the coffee shop across the way and discussed the movie. This friend was a twenty-something, unmarried fellow who worked with  my ex. When asked whether he liked the movie, he said no. He was hoping it would have more fat jokes in it, and he was disappointed by the feel-good message. Thank you, Shallow “Hank,” for your honesty. If only overweight women would stick to being the butts of jokes instead of having feelings.

The world has plenty of Shallow Hals, alas, but there also plenty of good guys out there with realistic expectations. Men are not the issue here. That voice inside my head that judges what it sees in the mirror and coaxes me toward obsessive-compulsive craziness is the issue here. I wasn’t born with that voice. It came from many sources, including my mother and other family members, the media, and yes, society. But at this point, that voice is my concern, and I’m the one who has to silence it. I will not lie and say it’s easy. It’s not.

I’m not the only one with this compulsion, though. I fancy I’m not as far over the edge as, say, Gwyneth Paltrow, but what if I have been? Or still am?

“I would rather die than let my kid eat Cup-a-Soup.”
~ Gwyneth Paltrow

Okay, I’m probably not that bad. My kids eat Goldfish, candy, and potato chips, for crying out loud. Whew! Poor Gwyneth… Let me just say that while I have tried many different diets, I have not tried Gwyneth’s personally. I also have never been a raw vegan, because I hate to be hungry.

I ordered a swimsuit this weekend. It’s not a bikini. I’ve never worn a bikini, even when I was relatively skinny (for me). No, I ordered a pretty polka-dot swimdress. I think I’m going to like it. I’m going to put it on and stand in front of the mirror and say loving things to myself. No, really. I’ve started saying loving things to myself every time I look in the mirror. I’m beautiful, and the rational grown-up me knows it. The inner child who absorbed all that crap about not being worthwhile if she didn’t look a certain way needs to come along now. (Sadly, I see all too easily how some women become anorexic or bulimic.)

I’ve been thinking about my mother’s mother. She was not skinny, except for the last time I saw her. She was skinny then because she was sick. She would be dead not long after that. I remember my grandmother as being big and beautiful and fat and loving her food. She had 11 children and spent most of her life cooking for them. I doubt that she cared one whit about her weight. I’ll bet she never looked at herself and thought, “Gee, Ivory, you should lose a few pounds before swimsuit season arrives!” I’m pretty sure she never owned a swimsuit. I’m pretty sure she couldn’t swim. The rooster’s crowing. Better get up and start cooking breakfast. Then lunch and dinner. And after that, there’s the gardening to do. Diet books did not figure into her daily routine. Having enough food of any kind in the house to feed 11 kids did.

I can’t promise I’ll never write about diet again (is this number 8?), but my task now is to obsess less and enjoy more. It’s also to accept myself, particularly as I move into the middle years. Most of the women I’ve known who were my age or older did not look like their twenty-something selves, and why should they? Whom are we trying to please? The answer should be, ourselves.

Self-awareness brings great responsibility. Seeing myself, if I don’t change, then it’s my responsibility that I didn’t change. I’m not going to let me down. Bring on the swimsuits!

My Body Is Not Your Concern

Asha at age 12

Asha at age 12

It’s Throwback Thursday, so today I did something I rarely do:  I looked at pictures of myself in my “fat” middle school years. I have instinctively avoided looking at these pictures for a long time, because they have historically made me feel now just like I did then. Fat. Ugly. Worthless. Unlovable. As a result, I hated myself in these pictures.

But today, I wanted to look. 1982, then 1981. 1980. As I looked at my 10-, 11-, and 12-year-old self, I was no longer disgusted by what I saw. This little girl had a little extra weight, yes. She was not skinny. She was plump. But she was not this horrible creature that lived in my emotional memory. In reality, this child was not really all that heavy. Not really ugly. And I wondered, as I revisited the pictures, just how much less I should have weighed in order to shut up the huge number of critics who felt that they had a right to say something about my body, even then.

My mother always criticized my weight and often spoke about me in the third person when I was right there in the room. “Such a pretty face,” my aunts and grandmother would lament, as though my face were somehow wasted on my unpleasant body. My classmates let me know on a daily basis just how fat I was, and I resented having a birth name that rhymed with “jelly” and “belly.” One boy called me a fat slob every day, until I got tired of it and fired back an epithet that I knew would wound, and it did. I was sorry to hurt him, but then again, I wasn’t. He had hurt me every day.

The apparently hideous extra pounds came off naturally when I was in high school, as though Nature knew what she was doing all along (what a thought!), but even then, I was still a big girl, of Viking and northern European descent, and I was never going to be skinny. When I was in college (and working out), one of my male “friends” helpfully pointed out that when I sat down, my thighs spread out a little, so maybe I should lose some weight. Ouch!

Asha at age 21

It didn’t occur to me, at 19, to wonder what gave this or any other person the right to comment on my body. After all, it had been happening to me for years. This is just what people did! Critique my body! Sometimes daily! I spent years cursing the genetics that gave me big thighs and wondering how my body could ever be considered beautiful.

In my twenties, I was (by my standards) thin and fit, which resulted in men hitting on me. A lot. And in ugly ways. One guy stared at me when I was in the coffee shop with my boyfriend. The entire time. Glaring back at him did not change this. Finally, I asked to leave. My boyfriend got in his face about it, but the result was the same:  we left.

Men invaded my personal space. They leaned in. They cornered me at the bookstore where I worked, a captive audience. They made suggestions. Once, when walking with my boyfriend and some other friends, two guys circled back after asking for a cigarette. One put his arm around me and asked me why I was hanging out with my boyfriend (with whom I was holding hands). He was insistent. My boyfriend told him to knock it off. “Oh, you want a piece of me?” And he has a gun in pants. Holy shit! He has a gun in his pants! We just kept walking. We don’t want any trouble. We’re almost to the apartment. Keep going. Dear God, these two guys followed us to the door. They eventually left, but we were shaken.

I learned that there was a price to be paid for being too attractive, too fit. A few years after I married, I put on weight again. I think I wanted to protect myself from the gaze of men.

Asha at 37

Asha at age 37

After I had my children, I decided that I wanted to lose weight. Not that I needed to lose weight, or that everybody else thought I should lose weight (though, no question, some did). I wanted to. Me. The person whose opinion on this mattered. And I did lose weight, and I eventually started to work out again and change a few things about the way I ate. I did this in order to feel good, physically and emotionally.

My weight is reasonably stable, but it still goes up and down. I don’t want to be a control freak about it, so I have my share of snacks and goodies. I try to make good choices, but live and enjoy myself. I had to start taking an antianxiety medication last fall—truly, it was not a choice and panic attacks are not fun—which may be affecting my weight upward a little. I’m going to live with it, because I feel better and, to hell with it, I’m nearly 46 and who the heck cares? Whose business is it but my own?

And that’s the point, really. Whether I weigh 120, 180, or 240 pounds, what’s it to anyone but me? I’m allowed to take up space on the planet. Oh, I know. The judgers still judge. The critics really feel that they must say something, because, you know, they care about your health. I don’t believe that, actually. I’ve been on the receiving end of that kind of “love” long enough to know that what people are really saying is, “I find you repulsive the way you are.” Because the fashion magazines say so. Because Hollywood says so. Because the Photoshopped and airbrushed images oppress our minds and spirits and reduce us to mere flesh and fat, and there’s nothing else you have to offer the world if it’s not perfectly packaged.

Asha at age 44

Asha at age 44

No one has the right to comment on my body, whether you think it’s ugly or beautiful. I didn’t ask for an opinion, so keep it to yourself. No woman asks for an opinion, but she gets it daily, anyway. Let me explain something. If you decide that a woman is overweight, telling her so, however “kindly” you think you said it, will not induce her to lose weight. You don’t think she didn’t hear that same suggestion yesterday? And the day before? Did she miraculously take a pill, go on a diet, or apply for “The Biggest Loser,” where they will criticize and judge her and run her ragged “professionally” on national TV and make tons of money off her humiliation in the process? No, she didn’t, and your comments aren’t helpful.

I can finally, finally, finally look at my middle school pictures without hating myself. That has been a long slog. I am now wise enough to know that the only person who can validate me is me. I am now wise enough to know that I am more than my body. I am now wise enough to accept my big thighs, the belly that came with two babies, the wrinkles that are appearing on my face, and whatever the hell else my body wants or needs to do. It’s a great body. It’s healthy. It lets me do things I want to do. I really love my body. And if you don’t, well, that’s not my problem.

Burying Abigail and Learning to Reconnect

My daughter and Abigail, back in healthier days

We had to put a beloved cat to sleep this week. This was painful and difficult, but as with all things, it came with its own set of profound lessons.

Abigail came to us as a middle-aged cat, and we enjoyed her for five years. For the past year, we knew that she was ill—likely some form of cancer—so we watched to make sure she wasn’t suffering too much. This past week, we could tell that she was suffering, and she hadn’t been able to eat in at least two weeks. It was time.

We don’t believe in spending hundreds or thousands of dollars that we don’t really have to try to prolong the life of an animal with a terminal illness who will probably just be made more miserable by the process. Death is another part of life, and we will probably see Abigail again in a new, healthy kitten body one day. But parting is still painful.

When I had her put to sleep, we didn’t really have the money for the cremation, too, so I opted to take her body back home for burial. At the time, I wasn’t very happy about it, because I was already so upset, and dealing with her mortal shell seemed overwhelming to me. But in retrospect, I’m so very glad that I did. I learned something important, and so did the entire family.

When we told the children to say goodbye to Abigail, they did so almost casually, as though she’d be back again in an hour. They are 6 and 8, and death did not seem real to them. They couldn’t really grasp it, although we had lost other cats before. But when I returned home at dusk with Abigail’s lifeless body, they began to understand.

I asked our dear friend Jonathan to help me bury her, in the dark and the rain, out underneath our “Christmas tree,” a large, tall fir tree in the corner of our yard. The children came out in their coats and galoshes to see what was up. I handed the flashlight to Wren, so Jonathan could keep digging, and then I went to the car to get Abigail.

She was still warm and heavy, and I petted her and invited the children to do the same. This was their first visceral experience with death:  here was the lifeless body of their old friend. This is what death looked like.

When the hole was ready, I laid her in it gently and made her “comfortable.” “She looks like she’s sleeping,” said my son Harry. I said a few words and sobbed, and then she was covered in dirt. This had a profound effect on my son, who worried that she would not be okay beneath the dirt. “Her soul is gone, Harry,” we told him. “Her body is like an old coat that she outgrew. She doesn’t need it anymore.”

My son, who had so nonchalantly yelled “Goodbye!” to Abigail, now understood. He went to his room and cried. My daughter, seeing my distress, was sad and subdued. Death was now real.

I don’t believe in hiding “the real world” from my children, and death is an important experience that happens to us all. I was thankful that we buried Abigail, and for the lessons that this brought to us. But even more than that, I began to realize—viscerally—how disconnected we have become.

Our society has become so specialized that the bodies of our loved ones disappear out the back door, are “prettied up,” and laid in the ground (possibly sight unseen) or cremated without our direct involvement. Most of us in the west have no idea how to produce—much less prepare—our own food. We have no idea how to make our clothes, build a dwelling, or teach our children about the trees and the stars. We are isolated from one another in little boxes, performing specialized functions while others take care of our dirty work for us. And it’s precisely our “dirty work”—the stuff of life—that connects us to one another and to the planet itself.

We no longer gather around the fire as a community and sing and dance. We have “talented” professionals whom we pay to watch instead. We no longer gather in a circle and participate in our own unique spiritual experience. We have “professional” religious people who tell us what our experience should be instead. We no longer participate in the cycle of the moon and the seasons and its impact on our world and spirit. Instead, we shop for certain holidays and curse the winter snows or the summer heat, confident that Safeway’s shelves will continue to magically fill. We no longer mark the passage of time by the stars or retell the stories that they illustrate and wonder why they matter to us as human beings in this plane of existence. We no longer see the stars, and we don’t notice their absence.

We are suffering from a profound spiritual malaise because we are disconnected from the source of our spirits:  the Earth, the trees and plants, the waters, the stars, the entire cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. We have forgotten the ways of our ancestors, whom we dismiss as “primitive” and “superstitious.” We believe that we can control nature and bend it to our will. Our hubris and arrogance are precisely what is killing the planet we depend on for survival.

There is a cure, of course. We can reconnect to the earth and with each other. We can reconnect with our inner divine spirit. We can see it everywhere we look in the world. The trees have a spirit. The waters have a spirit. Everything is alive and One, and we are a part of that. I miss Abigail terribly, but I’m so grateful for her final lesson to us. Bury me, experience me, honor me, remember me, and then look for me again! Love is eternal.

A Mother’s Love-Hate (or, More Tales of a Narcissist)

Every now and then, this meme makes the rounds on social media:

mother meme

For many people, what it says is probably mostly true. Most mothers love their children, and many try to do so unconditionally, accepting and loving their children for who they are. But not every mother loves unconditionally. Some mothers love very conditionally, criticizing their children when they don’t measure up to their standards. Some mothers cannot accept the children that God gave them, preferring to remake them in their own image. And some mothers are so mentally ill that they are literally incapable of loving in any kind of healthy way.

I’m a mother myself, and my own mother falls into the mentally ill category. For many years, my experience of my mother was one of confusion, frustration, and anger. I could barely spend ten minutes in my parents’ presence without becoming seethingly angry. I thought something was wrong with me. They certainly thought so. It took a long time to understand what was really going on.

I understand that my mother suffers from narcissistic personality disorder, and this brings with it a whole host of toxic behaviors that simply felt normal to me. But the most difficult piece of her toxicity was the splitting. Ultimately, this is why I had to cut off my parents.

The Golden Child vs. The Black Sheep

Photo by Böhringer Friedrich

Photo by Böhringer Friedrich

I was an only child, so I didn’t have to compete with a sibling. I’m not sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I tend to think that if I’d had a sibling, I would’ve lost him or her, too, so maybe it’s just as well.

As the sole child of a narcissist, my mother could only see me as an extension of herself. Therefore, I needed to have all of the qualities that she liked about herself. This aspect of me is The Golden Child, or the “All-Good” person. When I was the Golden Child, I was her. She couldn’t separate us in her mind. No loving devotion was spared for the Golden Child. The Golden Child could do no wrong, and woe to those who disagreed with that assessment.

Unfortunately, the image of me as the Golden Child often conflicted with reality. Perversely, I insisted on becoming a very different person than my mother. I had my own likes and dislikes, my own ideas and opinions, my own beliefs, my own personality. So the Real Me was at odds with the Golden Child. How could I be both things? Of course, I couldn’t.

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM-IV), splitting is defined as “A pattern of unstable and intense interpersonal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.” In other words, you’re either all good, or you’re all bad. The actual gray area where most human beings live is not an option for someone who is a narcissist or who suffers from borderline personality disorder.

So, some days—some minutes—I was the Golden Child. But then I might do something to reveal my Black Sheep side, the part of me that was the shameful, disgraceful failure. Failure, in this sense, meant that I was not behaving “correctly” and that I was not fulfilling my mother’s fantasy of who she wanted me to be. On any given day, this fantasy could be a moving target, so you can imagine how often I might find myself exiled to Darkest Black Sheep Land, for no discernible reason.

The Golden Child is Thrown Under the Bus

After spending many years being confused by my mother’s irrational splitting behavior, a series of events solidified my status as Black Sheep and eventually led to my enlightenment about her mental illness. The first event was that I left my husband, and then I moved in with and later married a woman. This did not fit my mother’s fantasy of who I was supposed to be at all, so the Golden Child part of me began to disappear at this point. My mother was so upset by my lesbianism that she avoided me. She would not come to our wedding, nor was she interested in visiting.

The second event occurred a few years later:  I had a baby with my wife. This child physically came from me, so this was a genetic grandchild. Suddenly, my mother wanted to visit.

My parents visited us five times over the course of the next two and a half years, and each visit was worse than the one before. One thing was clear:  my relationship with my mother had changed. I was a Black Sheep, all the time. The Golden Child was now my daughter, whom my mother saw as the new, better extension of herself. In fact, she said as much. I mentioned to her that I was disappointed that she did not send me a birthday card one year, and she replied, “Out with the old; in with the new.”

My mother had thrown me under the bus.

“Saving” the New Golden Child

When my parents visited, it became clear that my mother only had eyes for my daughter Wren. They came to help us with a move to a new house, and at that time I became seriously ill. I had a high fever that developed into pneumonia, and the morning after my parents arrived, there was something really wrong with me. My lips were blue. I was trying not to pass out.

My mother did nothing while I sat in distress; she just held my daughter and told my father to get me some orange juice. I couldn’t speak for myself. My wife finally saw what was happening and asked my father for her cellphone so she could call 911. He hesitated. She had to ask again. My mother said I was fine and just needed some juice. My wife asked for her phone again. My dad finally gave it to her.

The paramedics came and diagnosed me with tachycardia, which meant a first-class ticket to the hospital’s cardiac ward, later followed by a cardioversion. Before the EMTs took me out of the house, I remember vividly feeling that my mother secretly hoped I would die, and then she could have my daughter. I didn’t imagine that feeling. My wife told me later that after they took me to the hospital, my mother closed the door and said, “What’s for breakfast?”

I could see that my mother wanted my daughter to herself and that she had found a new Golden Child. This also meant that I, the Black Sheep, was in her way. She began to thwart me in every way possible. Whatever I asked her to do regarding my child, she did the opposite. When my daughter was old enough to talk to, my mother began to whisper things in her ear, about “mean old mommy” and “good Granny.” My daughter, who was confused, began to act out. After the last visit with my mother, it took about two months to get our family back on an even keel again. I realized that this kind of “divide-and-conquer” behavior from my mother was only going to get worse. I couldn’t have her visit and then spend months trying to put my family (and my emotional state) back together again. So I ended my relationship with my parents.

Embracing The Black Sheep

One of the last times I spoke with my mother, I really saw her. I was having a “fierce discussion” with her about my child and how certain things were just not okay with me (like jerking her by one arm, a tactic she’d used on me as a child, which resulted in frequent shoulder dislocations). I used “I” language (I feel that…), and I kept my cool. But I also stood my ground while I spelled out my boundaries. No one had ever really done that in our family, and the person who emerged during this discussion was fascinating. My mother screamed and literally spit venom. I had never seen her act like that before. Then she’d stop and cry, and I could see that she was in pain and really just did not know how to deal with me. I also understood that, truly, you cannot reason with a narcissist. She just wasn’t capable of it. I was at a dead end.

I am probably forever The Black Sheep now, if not worse. The Big Bad Wolf? Who knows. But that is her perspective. It’s not the truth. The truth is that I’m a wonderful, fallible, healthy, and happy person. My children are neither Golden Children nor Black Sheep. They are who they are. They’re wonderful people, and I’m privileged to know them.

I always tell my children that there is nothing they can do, say, think, or feel that will make me not love them. To me, that’s what unconditional love looks like. I do my best to give it to them, and to me. I deserve it.

The Subtle Shades of Racism

subtle racism america

Photo by Frerieke

Let me be clear:  I am a privileged white woman. As such, I feel that I have a responsibility to write about what I perceive as a “white problem,” the problem of being willfully blind to the oppression and humiliation that “other people” suffer on a daily basis. By “willfully blind,” I do not mean that all white people are engaged in any kind of conscious meanness, or that white people are constitutionally incapable of behaving with humanity. No, by willful blindness, I simply mean that many people (of any color) would prefer not to examine themselves too closely, lest they discover something that they might not like. No one wants to be uncomfortable with their own psyche, and shining the light in the dark corners of the mind makes people naturally uncomfortable. But this is what we must do if we are to solve a problem that I believe is harmful to everyone, not just any one race.

I last wrote about racism in my blog “Haters,” and some of the experiences that I write about there are the sort of blatant racism that gets included in Oscar-winning Hollywood scripts. This is the sort of racism that progressive white people can view and say, “How simply horrible! I would never behave that way to my fellow man. I’m so glad we’ve moved on past those days.” And then we leave the theater and go to Starbucks.

The truth is, a lot of racism is not that blatant or that obvious—to white people, anyway. It’s more subtle, it’s unconscious, and it’s just not something we see. If we could see it, there would be greater understanding that, yes, White Privilege is a real thing, even if you’re white and poor and don’t have much.

Racism in all its forms requires an enormous amount of mental gymnastics to rationalize and maintain. My ex-husband grew up in rural Louisiana in the 1950s. His parents were unabashed racists, yet they hired a black woman to be his nanny (his mother was unusual for the day because she worked outside the home). My ex could never quite wrap his head around the idea that this supposedly “inferior” person was entrusted with his upbringing. She loved him and was probably more emotionally present for him than his own parents were. He told me that he was uncomfortable when she told him that she loved him like her own children, whom she was not able to be home with to care for. She was taking care of him, all day, after all.

My ex’s parents were also poor, and one particularly hard year when my ex was little, a family down the road brought them a Thanksgiving dinner. This was probably hard enough on his old man’s pride, but the family who brought the food was black, and that was more than his pride could bear. That must have been a rough day, because my ex never forgot it or his father’s reaction.

An old southerner’s bruised pride and anger, his debasement of the woman who worked for his family, this is “Classic Racism,” yes? This is recognizable, and it happened “back then.” But let’s fast forward to the 2000s.

I once worked for a white man who was vegetarian, recycled, drove a Diesel car with good mileage, liked yoga, and who was, by his own definition, a progressive, liberal voter, who no doubt would applaud any Oscar-winning portrayal of racism by Steven Spielberg. As head of my office, he had the final say on a number of matters, and many of his decisions reflected his own unseen biases.

When we interviewed for a new quality assurance engineer, we had about 5 candidates. One of them was a black man whose resume was just as good as the other candidates’ resumes, and who seemed to have a lovely personality. The quality of his interview and the questions asked were not the same as for the other candidates. When he left, there was never any serious discussion about considering him for the job, whereas the other candidates were discussed quite animatedly. No doubt, many people would say he was simply not as well qualified as the white candidates, but that would be false. He was marginalized from the moment he walked in the door.

Later on at this same job, I had to write scripts for a DVD that we would make for medical providers’ waiting rooms. My task was to write scripts for an “Oprah-type” show, only showcasing medical services. I wrote a number of episodes of this show, taking pains to specify minorities in many of the roles (I wrote the host as Hispanic). I particularly took pains to write a strong character for a black female in one of the scripts. Casting day came, and… my boss had changed everything. My strong black female was now white, and the sole person of color cast was now given what I considered to be the most “downtrodden” role. My boss’s casting was the worst kind of racial stereotyping. My complaints did no good, but I learned a lot from this experience.

I learned that people who think they aren’t racist can be the worst kinds of racists. I learned how pernicious racism really is, and I could see how it hung on into the 21st century, in spite of all the back-slapping and congratulating that we now live in a “post-racial society.”

I don’t think that my old boss is a “bad” person, but I do think he is an unconscious one. I think if he saw himself, truly saw himself, he might actually be horrified. Looking into the mirror and acknowledging the ugly truths about ourselves is the only way that we can begin to heal them. As a white person—as a person!—I believe that my job is to heal myself:  “Physician, heal thyself.” Healing is my gift to me. It also happens to be my gift to the world.

I invite everyone, of any color, to examine the feelings that come unbidden when you look upon another person. Are you instantly afraid? Do you instantly clutch your purse? Are you comfortable? Do you even notice the other person? Fears based on stereotypes—merely viewing the physical appearance of another—are learned and become automatic. But they can be unlearned. In order for that to happen, you have to acknowledge them. (Fears based on outward appearance are different from psychic feelings that you get when something is wrong—gut instinct. Learn to recognize the difference.)

I invite everyone to shine their light into dark places and free yourself from the tyranny of your own fears. Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.

Why Do I Feel Angry?

My grandparents were angry, my parents were angry, my ex-husband was angry, and I myself sometimes feel unreasonably and even uncontrollably angry. So I get angry people. You could say I’ve made a lifelong study of it. Here’s what I’ve learned.

Anger Has 3 Primary Expressions

why do you feel angry

Kids feel angry, too

To understand anger, it’s helpful to understand how differently people can express it. Anger can be expressed in any of these ways:

  1. Violent, externalized anger
    This is what most people envision when they think about anger. This kind of anger may be characterized by yelling and screaming, maybe even hitting or verbal abuse. This kind of anger is the scariest and most upsetting, but what is really happening is that the angry person is unable to deal with whatever is troubling them, so they try to “get rid of” the bad feelings by directing them onto others.
  2. Passive-aggressive behavior
    Passive-aggressive behavior is an expression of anger, except no yelling or arguing is involved. Instead, the passive-aggressive person gives the appearance of agreeing with what you say or what your stated goals are, but then they passively undermine you by consistently doing the opposite of what you want or thought you both had agreed upon.
    Passive-aggressive behavior is the perfect mask for “stealth anger.” It is so effective that passive-aggressive people often believe—even insist—that they are not angry. They do not see their behavior for what it is and are typically unaware that they are doing it.
  3. Depression
    Depression is the opposite of #1, in that this form of anger is directed inward. Instead of directing their anger onto other people, the depressed person directs it onto themselves instead. By taking it all onto themselves, the depressed person may resent that they have effectively martyred themselves in this way (instead of communicating their anger to their loved ones in a healthy way), which may make them even more depressed over time.

Anger is Masking Deeper, Scarier Feelings

If you or someone you love frequently expresses anger in any of the ways listed above, please know that the anger itself isn’t the real problem. Anger is a symptom, which is why simply releasing the anger occasionally (by exploding, going into a dark depression, being more passive-aggressive) doesn’t work in the long run. In order for the anger to be managed, the underlying feelings have to be understood.

Anger is a defense mechanism, really. It’s an attempt to keep you emotionally and maybe even physically safe. This often doesn’t work very well, but if you approach it from that understanding, it begins to make sense. Your inner child is trying to protect you from feelings that, from his or her perspective, are even scarier than feeling angry.

So, what kinds of feelings might be behind the anger? Here are a few of them:

  • Anxiety
    Some people are naturally anxious. It may be biology, it may be upbringing (perfectionist parents, for example), or it may be some of both. We live in an increasingly complex world, and a mundane task for one person may feel completely overwhelming to another. If someone feels like they “have to” do something that makes them anxious, anger is likely to make an appearance somewhere along the way.
  • Frustration
    A frustrated person is likely to feel angry:  angry that they aren’t heard, angry that they “have to” do something that makes them uncomfortable, angry that they are faced with a scary challenge that they aren’t sure they can handle.
  • Lack of Control
    No one likes to feel like they are out of control, but of course, everyone is. Nevertheless, it’s a terribly scary feeling. Think of a child, raging against the forces trying to control or constrain his or her spirit. We all understand this, because we know somewhere inside that we are free, so what’s with all of this “behave” nonsense? The two-year-old child having a tantrum is really no different than a grown-up expressing their own frustration at being out of control.
  • Guilt
    Everyone does things they aren’t proud of, but one of the ways in which we protect ourselves is to avoid feelings of guilt for what we have done, because they make us feel bad about ourselves. Avoiding guilt doesn’t work, of course, so a guilty person will either start trying to give away their guilt to someone else in the form of anger, or they will stuff it inside and let it fester away as depression.
  • Fear
    Everyone is afraid of something, but sometimes certain fears can rule our lives. For example, the fear of failing or the fear of appearing “stupid” can make people behave in angry ways. What are you most afraid of? Be honest with yourself, and ask your inner child. He or she knows the answers.

Anger Isn’t “Bad”

Part of what makes anger so difficult to understand is the huge amount of judgment that surrounds it. People who “get angry” are judged to be “bad people.” Now, it is true that angry people sometimes do bad things. Anger puts blinders on good judgment. But many people assume that someone who is really angry has no right to be, which is the same thing as saying, “You shouldn’t feel that.” This is like telling someone whose parent just died that they shouldn’t feel sad.

All feelings are messengers, and anger is no exception. What is your anger trying to tell you? What are the underlying issues behind your anger? Discover and begin to deal with those, and you will have begun your healing.

The goal in life is not “never be angry.” This is unrealistic. You are going to be angry. Some days, you might even be really angry. It’s just a feeling. What’s important is how you deal with and express this feeling.

Learning New Ways to Cope

If anger has been the first emotional door that you open, then it’s going to take time to learn to open other doors. There are a number of strategies you can adopt to help you along the way. Knowing what lies behind your anger will help you find the right strategies for you. For example, I gradually came to understand that I’m not an angry person—I’m an anxious person. Stressful situations make me very touchy because I’m having a hard time coping. Once I understood this, I could take steps to lighten my own load. Below are some ideas for helping you manage your anger.

Reduce anxiety

When you can, avoid the things that make you feel really anxious. If you can’t avoid some of them, then at least try to minimize how many of them you have to deal with at one time. Ask for and accept help. Lighten your load! Give a voice to your anxiety. Treat yourself to some “me time.” Give yourself a gift every day. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. It could be a walk, a cup of coffee, a few minutes with a video game. Just whatever makes you feel happy and relaxed.

If too many things are making you anxious, talk to your doctor. Homeopathic solutions may help, or you may need a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication. There is no failure in getting help.

Say and act what you feel

This is a two-part solution. Part one is to understand how you really feel—not how you’re supposed to feel, not how you should feel, or not how you’d like to feel. How you really feel. You may not be accustomed to knowing. It’s time to find out. If no one had any expectations of you, if you had no obligations whatsoever, how would you feel about a given situation?

The second part is to speak what you feel, and wherever possible, act what you feel. In life, there may be some constraints on what you can do. You might like to take a trip around the world, but your family might need you to keep drawing a paycheck and take junior to soccer practice. Life is compromise, after all. But if you say “no” too often when you feel “yes,” or you say “yes” too often when you feel “no,” then you are making yourself miserable and breeding resentment, which makes you angry.

Make healthy changes, slowly

Make a list of the things that cause you stress, that you don’t enjoy, or that you may resent in some way. Look at the list and pick one easy thing you can change or get rid of altogether. Maybe someone else would like to pick up the gauntlet. Or maybe the world won’t end if you stop doing it. Let it go, and remove it from your to-do list.

After a few weeks, come back to this list and see if there’s something else you can change or offload. Try to work with the easy things first. Over time, you may discover that you have made incremental positive changes that make you feel happier and less stressed. By doing this slowly, you also give yourself a chance to adapt to change, which can be stress-inducing in itself. Life isn’t a contest. You don’t have to change everything overnight, and you shouldn’t try.

Take responsibility for your feelings

No one else is “making you angry.” That’s a cop out. Other people may inadvertently do things that just happen to trigger your anger, and all of the feelings underlying it, but no one else is making you angry. You are choosing to react angrily to the input or actions of others, and you’ve been doing it for so long that it’s a habit, which means it doesn’t feel like a conscious choice to you. Nevertheless, you are the one who is choosing to respond with anger. Own it.

Switching gears from anger may seem impossible at first, but it can be done. Once you realize that you are being triggered by something that makes you feel a) anxious, b) frustrated, c) controlled, d) guilty, e) fearful, f) all of the above, then you can name that trigger and you can name your historic response to it. And then you can change it.

Let’s say you your spouse asks you to do something, and you feel angry as a result. What is the real reason you are angry? Do you feel controlled? Does it feel stressful because it’s “one more thing” you have to do? Are you afraid that you won’t be able to do it well? When you can identify what’s really going on, you can give a voice to that and respond in another way.

Don’t live in the past

No doubt people in your past have betrayed you, wronged you, or even egregiously hurt you. But when you think about those events, you are effectively reliving them, which means you are reliving the pain. This only harms you, not the person who wronged you.

Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.
~The Buddha

When these memories and feelings come up, gently release them. Resolve to live today, in the present moment. The memories of past pain cannot harm you anymore if you do not want them to.

Forgive yourself and others

You know this already. I barely need to say it. But so often, we hear this, and we secretly think, That’s too hard, or even, That’s impossible. It is neither of these, but if you believe it is, then it will be so for you. There is huge power in simply stating to yourself that you have decided to forgive yourself and others. Just saying, “I am deciding to forgive” is huge. It may not really feel complete in a day, a month, or even a year, but it will put you much farther down the road than you think.

So much of anger is resentment. You may resent others for controlling you or putting constraints on you or even doing actual harm to you. You may also resent yourself—what else is guilt?—for something you have done or something you are. Resentment becomes hatred and hatred bubbles out in anger at some point. Let go of all resentments and guilt. If you do this, you will magically transform your relationships with others, and with yourself. You can do this. I believe in you.

Find and accept help

You do not have to heal on your own. In fact, having a catalyst will help you heal much faster. This person could be a therapist, a counselor, or a close friend. Whoever it is, it should be someone with whom you feel completely safe, and with whom you can be completely honest. A good catalyst will tell you the truth, gently, and listen with understanding and compassion.

Life is a journey, and so is healing. There is no perfect way to do either, except for the way you are doing it. Whatever path you feel you may be stumbling along is the perfect path for you. And that’s okay!

Spirituality for Kids: The Origins of Santa Claus

The children love Santa Claus, so I thought it would be fun to discuss his origins with the children. There are many good articles on the Internet, and I have relied heavily on those to create a cobbled-together, simplified, and more child-friendly take that I can read to my kids. All credit is due to the following sources for this information:

All of these posts make for fun reading for older kids and adults.

Odin

Odin riding Sleipnir by Arthur Rackham

Odin riding Sleipnir by Arthur Rackham

Once upon a time in northern Europe, the great God Odin, or Wodan, reigned over all the Norse Gods. It is from him that we have the name Wednesday, or Wodan’s day. Odin was the god of wisdom, magic, runes, poetry, and war. His name means, “The Inspired One.”

Odin could travel between the worlds like a shaman does. His two black ravens, Huginn (Thought) and Muninn (Memory) brought him news of what was happening in the world. Odin flew overhead on his white horse Sleipnir, who had 8 legs. Odin was said to be a tall, old man with a white beard and wearing a cloak. He was beloved among his friends and followers.

Odin only had one eye because he had offered one of them in exchange for wisdom at the well of Mimir. This was given to him, and he was able to see the outer world with his good eye, and he could see the inner worlds with his black, removed eye. This ability to see both worlds made him a powerful and enlightened being.

Odin represents light and darkness, white and black, which are both part of the Oneness of all things.

In some traditions of Odin’s Yule-time ride, children would place their boots near the chimney, filled with treats for the horse Sleipnir. Odin would reward them for their kindness with food, candy, or gifts. This tradition still continues in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands. In other germanic countries the practice has been replaced with hanging stockings.

The Celts and the Holly King

The Ghost of Christmas Present

The Ghost of Christmas Present from Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” looks like the Holly King.

From the ancient Druids, we get a pair of kings who fight for supremacy at Yule.

The Oak King (or king of the waxing year) kills his brother, the Holly King (the king of the waning year) at the time of the Winter Solstice, or Yule. The Oak King then reigns until the Summer Solstice when the two battle again, this time with the Holly King winning the battle. Holly and mistletoe are traditional at Yule because they commemorate the battle. The holly was hung in honor of the Holly King, and the mistletoe (which grows high in the branches of oak trees) was hung in honor of the Oak King.

Although the Oak King and the Holly King are mortal enemies at Midsummer and Yule, they are two sides of a whole, and neither could exist without the other.

After the Holly King’s victory at the Summer Solstice, he begins preparations to save and maintain his people through the cold winter. In order to accomplish his mission, he travels the land to hunt, fish, and harvest. He transports these life-saving gifts in a wagon or sled pulled by eight deer (these animals were sacred to the Celtic Gods, and there were a total of 8 solar sabbats per year). He shares them with all of his people, and in exchange, the people provide care and comfort to his team of deer.

The Holly King has been depicted with a Holly wreath as a crown. He traditionally wore green garments with red accents, just like a holly tree.

The Holly King lived up north, where he could survive in the cold during the reign of his brother in the spring and summer. The Oak King, who needed the warmth to survive, lived in the warm forests of the south, and he falls asleep while his brother of the cold reigns over the world during the fall and winter months.

Other Legends

The Norse god Thor rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats.

A folk depiction of Father Christmas riding a goat. The Norse god Thor also rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats.

The ancient Romans celebrated Saturnalia, which featured big feasts with a lot of merrymaking, dancing, and the exchange of gifts. This festival was meant to celebrate the return of the sun on the shortest days of the year and to counteract the depression due to lack of sunlight.

In the Norse myths, Balder is a Sun God and the son of Frigg, a Goddess for whom Friday is named (Frigga’s Day). Frigg was a loving mother who went to earth and asked all of the animals and elements not to hurt Balder. Rocks and metal agreed that they wouldn’t form arrows and kill him, and others promised her as well. But Loki, a trickster, discovered that Frigg had not asked the lowly mistletoe not to hurt her son. So Loki made an arrow made of mistletoe and tricked the blind God of Winter to shoot it into the air. The arrow hit Balder, badly hurting him, and therefore the Sun. The Yule (Winter Solstice) was a vigil to see if the wounded Sun would live another summer.

In the 1840s, an elf from Nordic folklore named Tomte or Nisse started delivering the Christmas presents in Denmark. The Tomte was portrayed as a short, bearded man dressed in gray clothes and a red hat. He rode through the sky in a chariot draw by goats.

In many of the early legends, presents are given to children or young families to represent abundance and fertility. After all, this is the time of the rebirth of the Sun. Presents were exchanged to honor that rebirth and to give wishes or hopes for abundance and good crops in the coming year.

Saint Nicholas

A 19th-century Russian icon of St Nicholas, in the St. Nicholas Center collection

A 19th-century Russian icon of St Nicholas, in the St. Nicholas Center collection

In the 3rd and 4th centuries, a Christian bishop named Nicholas was said to have lived in Myra, Turkey. He had a reputation for goodness, benevolence, and for performing miracles for the people. Many stories are told of his generosity and caring, especially for children. In those days, the primary color for the robes of priests and other church officials was white, although the colors changed over the years, and he was often portrayed in red robes later.

It isn’t certain that Saint Nicholas was a real person. As a result, the Catholic church demoted him and removed his feast day (December 6) from their calendar.

Sinterklaas and Santa Claus

Santa gets his name from the Dutch legend of Sinterklaas or Sinter Klaas. Dutch settlers in the United States brought this legend with them, and he was popularized by writers such as Washington Irving.

This Norman Rockwell painting shows the modern Santa, but he still bears the holly in his hair.

This Norman Rockwell painting shows the modern Santa, but he still bears the holly in his hat.

Sinterklaas is an old man with white hair and a long, full beard. He wears a long red cape over a traditional bishop’s alb, or long white tunic.

The name “Santa Claus” was first used in the American press in 1773. By then, he had lost his bishop’s clothing and looked like a large-bellied man with a pipe in a green winter coat. In the poem Old Santeclaus in 1821, he was described as an old man on a reindeer sleigh who brought presents to children. In the poem A Visit From St. Nicholas, the author Clement Clarke Moore included details such as the names of the reindeer; Santa Claus’s laughs, winks, and nods; and the method by which Saint Nicholas (whom he refers to as an elf), returns up the chimney.

One of the first modern images of Santa came in 1863 by American cartoonist Thomas Nast for Harper’s Weekly. In 1869 a color collection of Nast’s pictures were published in which Santa appears in a red suit. A poem by George Webster called Santa Claus and His Works places Santa’s home near the North Pole in the ice and snow. Over time, images of Santa in red became more popular.

Discussion

Your children will always lead the way with their own questions, but you can also use these to get the ball rolling:

  • How are these stories similar? How are they different?
  • Why do you think the image of Santa changed over the years?
  • Which of these stories did you like the best? Why?
  • What is the Spirit of Santa Claus? What does it mean to you?