Category Archives: Cultural Context

The Heartbreak of Striving

img002I know the heartbreak of striving. If you’re a dancer or a writer or anyone who has ever put your all into something, be it an art or sport or pursuit of a truth—knowing the odds of success might be questionable—you know it too.

It’s the moment “hobby” turns to passion. “Like to” turns to “have to.” “Want to” turns to “my heart will break if I don’t.”

For me, that shift happened in ballet when I was at that pivotal age of eleven. For years my friends and I had danced happily, loving the music, loving the combinations our teachers asked of us. High on childhood and music and ballet, we had a rose-colored view of ourselves. Blind to the work ahead, we could imagine that we were ballerinas already. We were being taught technique in such a loving way, it fed our dreams without building the muscles of self-critique. We soared on our dreams.

But suddenly, around the age of eleven, something dawned on all of us—especially those with talent. Ballet is hard. Really, really hard—even if you have talent for it. It’s a strange phenomenon. As you get closer to being a real dancer, as your teachers demand more of you and you demand more of yourself, you begin to feel the pain of not being good enough. Not yet. Your ability to happy with the pictures you make in the mirror must be delayed. It was a hard realization. To suddenly feel inadequate at the age of eleven. My first heartbreak.

The thing is, in order to become good at ballet, I needed to recognize that there was room for improvement. We all did. We needed to push through to become better at it. Our teachers impressed this upon us. We were not good enough yet. Those of us who truly loved ballet understood that it would take years before we were good enough. And because ballet was what we wanted, we were willing to do the work and to wait. Even though we were just kids. Even though we knew that, even with work and time, some of us might not make it. I hope I do, we’d say. I hope I make it. We were competitors, fellow strivers and fellow sufferers.

One day half the girls in my class had learned they were going on pointe. The other half—myself included— were told we weren’t strong enough and would have to wait one more excruciating year to get our satin pinks. No matter how hard we’d worked, we were not ready. A second heartbreak.

Beginning then, our four-times-per-week ballet class was extended fifteen minutes. Our teacher would clap her hands say the words—ladies, put on your pointe shoes! And the lucky half would run for the corner to wrap their toes in lamb’s wool and slip on their hard-tipped shoes, lace up the gleaming ribbons. The rest of us, with heavy hearts, joined in their special exercises in our normal “flat” ballet slippers—our dreams deferred as our classmates blistered and bled, building callouses they would later show off.

The year passed. I got my shoes, then my callouses. Another year later, no one in our ballet class could remember who had gone on pointe at eleven and who’d had to wait. But now the work of becoming real ballet dancers kicked into high gear. We had ballet class six days per week, knowing that other girls our age danced three classes per day to our one. Still, there was plenty of blood, sweat and tears. Some of us made it.

As a writer, I have revised my novel umpteen times, received great feedback, but also rejections. I will continue to revise and work until my book is good enough. Just as I did with my dancing. If you are to strive for something you love, no matter what the endeavor, there will be heartbreak along the way.

teaching at MAD LOMI saw a germ of this in one of my little ballet students just two weeks ago. I was teaching the class a new skill—a single pirouette from fourth position. We’d been building up to it, working on passé, passé relevé, spotting the head, opening and closing the arms, proper placement. This girl was ready to turn, I thought. So I stayed with her as she worked through the steps and tried the turn. I was patient and encouraging in just the right measures, I thought. She was determined—I could see it—and I would not let her give up.

“That’s it,” I kept saying, between more technical instructions. “You’re there.” I kept pushing, gently, sure I was going to get a result that delighted us both. She’d have that feeling of balance, of landing, of making the illusion of spinning.

“Once more.” As I said it, I realized it was too much. Her brown eyes were welling up, spilling over. Soon she was sobbing, having put her all into something that was not working. Not yet.

I felt awful. So guilty. I had made a child cry. But then I remembered how many times I had cried while I was striving for my dream—sometimes because I was hard on myself, other times because I was scolded by my ballet teachers. Granted, in my day, adults were more openly critical of children in ways that weren’t always good. Today, we have expressions like “It’s all good.”

Of course, in ballet, it isn’t all good. As teachers, we have the difficult task of expressing that in a non-damaging way. I don’t believe it’s necessary to be negative with children, to “draw the talent out of them,” as some teachers did when I was growing up. Instead, I think we need to find creative ways to inspire children, to nurture their passion for art or sports or science or music. When they love what they are doing, striving—having a self-imposed standard to meet—comes naturally. And, though there will certainly be heartbreak along the way, hearts are resilient.

To my little, tearful student, to all children moving from play into passion, my advice is as follows:

Whatever your dream—enjoy the journey, keep your eyes on the prize, and don’t give up when it’s tough. You’ll get there.

Mixed in America: Closing the Arch

New Profile picIn my last post, Does the “White Privilege” Umbrella cover Black and Biracial Children?, I introduced my White Umbrella Project, including a survey, about the experiences of other black and biracial people whose early guides to the world were white parents. Since the survey went live, here and on various multiracial Facebook groups, responses have been coming in steadily—people sounding off on what it means to reside on both sides of the bridge between black and white.*

This project has been brewing in me for years, but there is a reason I’m launching it now.

This past fall and winter, in the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, in the wake of the protests and the speeches and the clashes, the calls for justice and calls for dialogue, I kept hearing about an America divided along racial lines. It wasn’t a new phase by any means, but one that rears up and becomes prevalent every few years.

There is a black America and a white America and never shall the two see eye to eye, was the message—expressed most eloquently in the New Yorker cover of December 8th, 2014, by Bob Staake, a “post-Ferguson” depiction of Eero Saarinen’s iconic Gateway Arch, centerpiece of the St. Louis Skyline, in this case shaded black on one side, white on the other, the arch broken, its ends reaching in vain for reconciliation.

New Yorker image,

I took in that cover with a heavy heart, registering the sentiment loud and clear. I am one of many Americans—the president of the United States included—for whom black and white are inseparable. It is what we are.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that all the blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos I know have varied and nuanced views of the events, to say nothing of the fact that the protestors and police defenders seemed to come in all races.

I’m not naïve. I recognize that the black/white rift is more stark in some parts of the country than others, that the multiracial mobs with linked arms hailed mostly from the two coasts and from university towns. But it’s my pet peeve when the press oversimplifies and disregards those who live in the middle. With interracial marriage on the rise, as well as more multiracial people than ever identifying as such, the racial “grey” area is becoming more and more populous.

It goes beyond America too. Trevor Noah, the South African comedian of black Xhosa and white Swiss parentage, who is slated to replace Jon Stewart in the Daily Show, also grew up in two separate worlds—being shuttled back and forth between his mother’s home in black Soweto and his father’s apartment in largely white Johannesburg. In a New York Times article, Noah describes being alternately embraced and rejected in both settings.

This echoes the experience of so many mixed-race Americans. The both/and-ers, the neither/nors. For some of us, like Barack Obama or Halle Berry, our African ancestry is plainly visible. For others, like Wentworth Miller and Carol Channing—not so much. Many of us have identities that resonate sometimes black and sometimes white, depending on where we are, which side of the family we’re with—regardless of what we look like.

I was raised by a black father and a white mother, but because of their work schedules, it was my mother who accompanied me most places. My early view of the world came through her eyes. Whether we went to her friend’s pool club in the summer, or shopped on the Upper East Side, I assumed—correctly or not—that I would be accepted and embraced. I didn’t grow up feeling particularly different from the white or black people I met. It was not until college that anyone demanded I choose my allegiance.

Everyone’s experience of being biracial is different, but I suspect I’m far from alone in my cringe-reflex when I hear about the irreparable chasm between my two sides.

Does the “White Privilege” Umbrella cover Black and Biracial Children? (Survey included)

Baby 1966This is the first post I have written soliciting responses to a survey—so I’m stating it up front: At the end of this post is an actual, honest-to-goodness survey for those who are interested and who fit the demographics* I’m looking for.

So, what is this about “White Privilege?” Sounds kind of political, kind of threatening, no?

The first time I heard the term “White Privilege,” I was in my late twenties and teaching at a very exclusive, private girls’ school on the Upper East Side of New York. Peggy McIntosh, PhD., the feminist, antiracism activist and associate director of the Wellesley College Women’s Project, had been brought in by the Parents’ Diversity Awareness Committee of said school. McIntosh, who is white, was there to discuss her famous paper, White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, as part of a workshop for staff, parents and students about the ways in which whites unwittingly benefit from racism on a daily basis.

I was fascinated as McIntosh described white privilege as an

invisible package of unearned assets which [she could] count on cashing in each day, but about which [she] was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.

However, as she began to list these assets and privileges, I found myself thinking: hold on a minute—I grew up with a lot of those assets and I’m not white! What gave?

As I thought it over, I realized that, as a child—regardless of my color—I had walked through the world in the care and company of a white mother. I had un-harassed entry into upscale department stores and swimming pools. Most everywhere I went, people had treated me with the same respect they paid my mother.

When McIntosh went on to list the ways in which her skin tone worked in her favor:

“I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented …When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is … Whether I [use] checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.… I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, withouthaving people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.

I started to see her point. Okay, maybe all of those privileges hadn’t been mine, but under the umbrella of my mother’s whiteness, the world had been a different, more accepting, place than it might have been otherwise.

When I was alone with my father, we visited restaurants  and little shops in Harlem—which was mostly black at the time. It was a world apart from the Englewood, New Jersey pool club my mother’s friend belonged to, where Mom and I went almost every day in the summer. As a child, I felt equally welcome in both places. However, if the whole family had shown up together in either location, there might have been stares or even questions.

My father taught me to be aware—and sometimes wary–of racism, that I might be treated differently because of my color. But my mother took me everywhere; the hostility, if there was any—was subtle enough for me not to notice. I believed I belonged anywhere my mother did.

The stories of black and biracial children raised by white parents are as varied as humanity itself. I know my own, but am curious about others. For this reason I’ve started a project I’m calling Under the “White Privilege” Umbrella: Children of Color in their White Parents’ World.

As part of the project I have created a survey where I ask adults of color, like myself, who were raised by at least one white parent, to reflect on their childhoods. My purpose is to understand the experience of growing up black or biracial** in the care and company of a white parent, to learn whether–and how–any of us benefited from the day to day privileges our white parents might have experienced.

*If you are between the ages of 18 and 70, identify as biracial or mixed, the product of a white parent and a black parent, or if you are adopted, either black or biracial/black-white, and raised by white parents, interracially married parents (one of whom is white), or by a single, white parent), I would love to hear from you.

Please note, I have no hypothesis to support and no political agenda. And here is the link to my survey.

**The reason I’m only including black and white in this project–at first at least–is to understand whether parental “white privilege,” dilutes the very specific biases directed toward blacks.

To Dance Again: Return to Self

teaching at MAD LOM

A few years back, when I started this blog about body image and identity, I was thinking a lot about my relationship to ballet. It defined me from late childhood, though adolescence and into my late twenties. It was my niche, my career, until I left to find out who I was without it.

To recap: some time in 2012, after who-can-even-count how many years of not dancing, a friend lured me back to ballet class. I was flooded with all kinds of emotions—excitement, dread, nostalgia—but most of all, an overpowering sense of return-to-self.

Return-to-self isn’t anything I learned about in social work school, but I’d have to define it as a process of acute identity repair.

Earlier this week, I had a conversation with a sixty-something-year-old guy on the table next to mine at physical therapy. I was there for my knees—the culprits who’d distanced me from ballet. He was there for a leg or back injury, I never asked what. I should mention that my physical therapist, to distract patients from their agony, has large-screened TVs on every wall, all synced, streaming sit-coms from the 1990’s—Friends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond. Depending on the hour of your appointment, you can usually predict what will be playing.

At the time of my narrative, Will and Grace was on. After my neighbor and I shared a chuckle over Karen’s alcohol-fueled antics, he mused about how the country had changed since the show had aired.

“You can’t make cracks about alcoholism anymore,” lamented the guy with the back-or-leg injury. “You can’t even say words like Jew or Black on primetime without a lawsuit.”

Whether that’s true or not, I kept listening. Soon, the conversation led to the guy sharing some of his history with me.  He’d been an outdoor sports guy, he said. Hunting, boating, motorcycle racing. Sure, he’d suffered various wounds from these high-risk diversions. He’d been shot Cheney-style more than once (he showed me a shoulder scar), thrown from bikes and boats—all minor events he’d shrugged off at the time. But the injury he faced now (again, he did not specify, but later I saw he walked with a severe limp) had sidelined him from everything he loved to do. Everything.

“But my faith is in him,” he aimed a thumb at our PT, “and Him.” He re-directed said thumb toward the ceiling. “You watch. I’ll get back on that bike if it’s the last thing I do.”

I could see he meant it. Getting back on his motorcycle was worth that much to him. Life just wasn’t life without the thrill-rides he loved. That I understood.

For me, the sine qua non endeavor was ballet, as I wrote back in 2012, when I went back to ballet for the first time. I didn’t stick with it back then; my knees wouldn’t permit it. But I kept ballet in my heart, blogging about it, watching my favorites on YouTube, penning a novel about teenage ballet dancers in New York City. Through my characters, I still lived ballet, still danced in my mind and through my fingers on the keyboard. I kept thinking, should I try dancing again? Or should I let this be enough? I ran for exercise, so it wasn’t like I was completely sedentary. (Running, oddly, has no negative impact on my knees.) But every so often I’d wonder: is it really over? Will I never dance again?  That sounded so sad, so final. I pushed the thought away, rather than try to challenge it.

I still dreamed I was dancing, though. One night I even dreamed I was still good. I got back my arabesque, my turns, my elevation. The very next day, I got an email from a friend, a former dancer who runs a dance, theater and drumming school in town. Would I teach ballet for her one night a week, she wanted to know? Two classes, for ten to twelve year old girls? I thought it over and rose to the challenge. How could I possibly say no? Especially after the dream I’d had.

So back again I went. It’s been over a month. I never thought I’d love teaching children to do something that could be painful and frustrating as well as beautiful. But, guess what? I do. Because I value ballet for its elegance, its purity and the way it lets you merge with the music, I believe I’m giving these children something precious. I’m stricter than I thought I’d be, but also loving, because I can see that they love what I’m sharing with them. I don’t allow them to not point their feet; I don’t allow them to give up. But I do lavish praise on effort and hard work. I say things my teachers used to say—grow taller as you plié, drop the tailbone, roll back your shoulders and keep breathing!—and I mean them.

I have begun taking a weekly ballet class in addition to the ones I teach. What has happened is curious and hard to describe. I don’t do everything full-out, but as I dance, I can almost hear my soul clicking into place.

I still have my psychotherapy practice; I am still writing fiction—both of which I love. But now, the dancer in me is back from hibernation.

So what about you? How many years has it been since you did that thing you used to live for? It might have been a hobby or a passion—dirt-biking, fly fishing or found-object sculpting—any activity that completed you, that was your dessert after a hard work week. Maybe you performed with a band whose members all had day jobs. Maybe you wrote poetry you never shared with anyone, but that sustained you nevertheless. Or maybe you were one of the lucky few whose passion—be it acting or football—was once your career.

What took you away from that passion? An injury? The practical reality of needing to make more money? Lack of time? Maybe you can’t immerse yourself in the activity like you once did, but there might be a way to reconnect yourself with it. For example, one woman I danced with years ago, benched by a back injury, became a dance photographer. A friend and former performer—another psychotherapist—writes plays in her “spare time.”

If you ever look back on the days when that activity was part of your life, and think: That was when I was most fully me, you deserve this. Dust off your old passion and find a way to take it back, in any way you still can. Whatever it is, I wish you hope, courage, and a safe return to your Self.

Don’t hate your Thighs, Baby!

DSC00276


 

I almost rolled my eyes at the PC police. Granted, as a member of three at-one-time-or-another oppressed groups, I tend to applaud the PC police. When something is politically incorrect, that means it has the power to hurt someone. And why is it okay to hurt someone if only to get a laugh out of someone else who’s standing there going, “Lighten up already?”

But this time, I almost said, “Lighten up already.”

Until I thought the issue over for half a second. The issue is a onesie for babies, printed with the phrase: “I HATE MY THIGHS.”

It’s funny, okay? It’s funny because it’s so ludicrous. I mean, who doesn’t love fat thighs on a baby? And what baby has any opinion whatsoever about his or her thighs? What baby even knows he or she has thighs? I am sure that’s what the people at WryBaby were thinking when they created said onesie as part of their infant apparel line, marketed at new parents and their friends.  I am sure they did not expect the uproar that came.  Who, us? Fat-shaming babies?

Were people really getting up in arms about baby clothes? I wondered. Even if the baby did have body image issues (like that could seriously happen) babies can’t read!

But then, I remembered who else might be reading. The babies’ older siblings and cousins, for a few. My daughter could read by the time she was five. I used to stand in line at the A+P checkout with her, wishing I could cover up all the tabloid headlines waxing catastrophic about Jessica Simpson’s cellulite. Check out all the best and worst beach bodies! Guess who gained a hundred pounds? (Answer on page 27.) My daughter would study the pictures, read the headlines and then ask me questions I had to come up with answers for.

“Mommy, why does it say Kirstie Balloons?”

“She was blowing them up for a birthday party.” Thinking fast, Mom.

Remembering those days, I could only imagine what a newly reading four-year-old might think about seeing her baby brother suited up to declare loathing for his own little gams. Kids that age are concrete thinkers, yet absorb every piece of information around them. Wondering why Baby Ezra hates his thighs might lead a young child to wonder if he or she should start hating his or her own thighs.

Doesn’t seem like a big deal? Think I should lighten up? Take a joke? Well, maybe you’re right about that. Often, it takes much more than a little joke to set body image issues and disordered eating in motion. But, just as often, all it takes is a passing comment, a few misguided words.

Just saying.

P.S. Since the controversy, WryBaby has replaced the onesie with one that makes the healthy declaration: “I Love My Legrolls.”

For the Soon-to-be Obsolete Mom Who “Leaned Out”

images[1]So you leaned out—not in. Now what?

For some time now, you’ve been a full-time mom—A.K.A. a cooking, errand-running, laundry-doing, schedule-making, care-taking, house-yard-and-pet-managing chauffeur. Or maybe you’ve been a mostly-full-time mom, working part-time like I have, arranging your work schedule around your kids, knowing yours is a second income, and sometimes a wash when you factor in expenses like childcare. How often have you looked at back wistfully at your pre-kid life, when you put on nice shoes, skirts and blazers every day for work, when your hair was coiffed, when you had fast-paced, intelligent discussions with other adults, when you went to the gym on your own schedule, and met your spouse for dinner after work without worrying about a sitter? Of course, back then, all you wanted was a baby. You got one—or two or more—and the subsequent years have been the most fulfilling imaginable. You wouldn’t trade a single day.

Also, you’re thankful to have been in a position to “lean-out” in the first place. Not everyone gets such a choice. You’re grateful to have a spouse whose income supports the family, grateful to be able to devote yourself to parenting.

Still, some part of you looks back on your full-time-work days, thinking what a great deal you had. You knew exactly what your purpose was, who you were. Your nose may have been to the grindstone, but that was what it took to compete in the “real world.” And now, every weekday morning, looking out of your kitchen window, you can see your leaning-in neighbor—in her suit and smart haircut—dashing, briefcase in hand, for her train to that same “real world.” There she goes, you think. She’s still in the running, still excelling. Fully competent, responsible for her family’s economic well-being, dependent on no one. Her children look up to her. They miss her when she travels, are still excited when she comes home. With a queasy mix of guilt and jealousy, you think, there but for my own choices go I.

And where did you go, exactly? Besides the pediatrician’s, the barber’s, the Tae kwon do studio, the PTA executive board meetings, the grocery store, the playground, Petco and Home Depot? Besides driving to two thousand piano lessons, three thousand dance classes, four thousand soccer practices and thirty thousand playdates? Sometimes it feels like the self you once had got submerged under all those obligations, crushed under the tires of your own SUV. I used to be competent, you think. I used to get respect. But the fact is, the daily endeavors of full-or-mostly-full-time mothers frequently go unnoticed and unapplauded because they are a given.

You and I know that supporting the status-quo of a family takes enormous effort and stamina. But if you do it right, no one else notices. It’s a mother’s job to render herself obsolete, right? Bit by bit, you’re supposed to do less and less for your children, so that gradually they learn to master their own lives and become happy, self-assured people who can care for themselves. That’s the challenge of being a full-or-mostly-full-time mom. If they don’t need you to do everything for them anymore—if you’ve achieved your goal of obsolescence—then who the heck are you?

I remember pushing my daughter’s stroller through our Brooklyn neighborhood, later pushing my son’s through our New Jersey suburb, thinking Now I am complete. Now I am fully me. I had wanted to be a mother so badly, for so long—after working in schools and adoption agencies for seven years—I felt actualized at last. Most of my leaning-out friends feel the same way.

Now, however, our kids are big, at least bigger than they were. We still drive them some places, but they walk to soccer practice and no longer need us to make playdates for them. We have no hand in their social lives whatsoever. As they race out the door, heading to school (without us taking them there), we shout after them that they must text to keep us apprised of their after school plans.

Then they’re gone. And here we are. Ready for something else to make us complete. What will it be? You’re a different you than you were before you had kids. You can’t go back, so what does forward look like?

Some moms look at what they used to do and combine it with the life experience they’ve gained over their parenting years. For example, a former neighbor whose child had verbal delays went back to school to become a speech-language pathologist after spending years immersed in that discipline. Another mom I know followed her passion for fashion and is now an executive for a clothing company. Still another mom—a former attorney who has spent several years advocating for her special-needs child, demanding services that the school district was slow to provide—is considering a run for office.

It might seem like a luxury to take stock and branch out like this. In most cases it does require significant resources. But some of my mom friends, suddenly under pressure to support themselves and their children following a divorce or job loss on the part of their partners, have done it out of necessity, scraping together help and support from friends and family.

A single mom whose ex is much less of a financial support than he could be,  took out loans for a degree in social work. Through connections, she landed her dream job while still in the MSW program. Now that she has her license, her career is moving in a direction she’s happy with.

Another mom turned her parenting blog—begun when she was pregnant with her second child, chasing the first around a playground—into a parent coaching business. Another blogger and mom-friend began researching her ancestry, blogged her efforts, and has transformed her life in the process. She has written a book and given lectures on her family’s remarkable history and the process of her search. (You can read her amazing blog here.)

These women looked at what they knew, combined it with who they were and what they loved. Each added some research and a little elbow grease and gave herself a second act in the work force. On her own terms.

What would it look like if you filled out this home questionnaire:

 

What did I do before I was a Mom?

What kind of paid and unpaid work have I done since becoming a mom?

What else have I done that might look nifty on a resume? (e.g. PTA treasurer, Local Soup Kitchen Volunteer Coordinator, or—in my case, choreographer of elementary school musicals.)

What have I learned about myself since becoming a Mom?

What skills and interests have I discovered?

What are my Passions?

 When you’re done, look to see if there is any overlap among the categories.  If so, is there a field out there that might combine your special mix of skills and passions? If not, is there one thing on your list that jumps out at you, begging for exploration? Once you cast your net wide—looking at all possibilities—the next step is to focus. Pick something, zero in and deepen.

To be honest, I didn’t “lean” in or out specifically. Instead, I’ve “leaned” a whole bunch of different directions. I’ve been a dancer, a choreographer, a teacher, a writer and a clinical social worker/psychotherapist. Instead of doing so many different things, I could have gotten farther in each by “zeroing in” more. For every field I’ve sampled, there’s an alternate reality I can picture where I’ve focused all my professional energy on that one thing—writing, psychotherapy, ballet—and achieved a higher level success. My fellow social work trainees at the Ackerman Institute are now faculty members who have published papers on their specialty areas of family therapy. Those I started out with in the corps of various ballet companies are now renowned ballet teachers and choreographers. n particular, a fellow classmate from the first and only creative writing course I took in college, is now a literary household name.  Jodi Picoult.

As for me, I’m a psychotherapist with a private practice I keep manageable enough that I have time to write, be available to my children, and teach ballet (a new development I’ve added to my plate). Or I’m a writer who’s a licensed psychotherapist and ballet teacher. Or a ballet teacher who … you get the idea. It’s working for me. Though I’ll admit, it would be nice to have a simple answer when someone asks what I do, there’s no part of my mix-n-match career that I would give up.

It’s an amazing thing to put together the pieces of you and—with equal parts focus, patience and effort—begin a journey to the next phase of your career. You’re doing it for yourself, but you’re also modeling something invaluable for your children.

“Latkes and Paper Birds” or “How I Took Back Christmas”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn 1995, the year my father died, the eighth candle of Hanukkah fell on December 25th. I could not have been more relieved. Though my father had died months earlier, as the December holidays closed in I was feeling increasingly anxious and ambivalent. How would I, could I, do Christmas without my father? For me, Christmas revolved around Dad.  Of course, my mother did all the baking, all the cooking, as well as the bulk of the shopping. But everything was orchestrated by Dad. The tree, the decorations, the annual four-letter-word-enhanced battle with the strings of lights, which would devolve each year into a massive tangle in their box. The music on the phonograph—from early morning gospel (despite Dad’s atheism) to Handel in the afternoon, to late night Louis Armstrong. It was all Dad. Who was, after all, the child of Christians—real ones. For whom Christmas was not about gift-giving and shopping and cookies and sweeping up glass because the damn cat got into the tree again.  No. Christmas, for my paternal grandparents, was about the guy himself. Jesus. It was His Day. And for my grandmother—who died long before I was born—this involved Church. And cooking and gifts and keeping the dog out of the tree. But first and foremost Jesus.

So with Dad around, I could embrace Christmas for what it was to my family. An annual tradition of sharing—gifts, music and food. Inviting loved-ones from around the area, telephoning loved-ones too far-flung to see in person. Taking the time to pause and love one another. My mother participated wholeheartedly. Being Jewish was her history, her family background, but not about religious affiliation. Besides, there was nothing in my family’s “Christmas” traditions that went against Jewish culture or values. (See above: love, food, music, sharing.) My parents had co-created a unique family culture during their long marriage and Christmas—Williamson-style—was just part of it.

We did Hanukkah too—there was a Menorah, dreidel, chocolate gelt and actual gelt coins which came tucked in little pockets of specially designed cards. And of course, latkes.

But Hanukkah is neither the Jewish Christmas nor the Jewish answer to Christmas. Hanukkah may be the most famous Jewish holiday as far as gentiles are concerned; it’s the one all of them know about. Because it coincides with Christmas, Hanukkah has taken on a commercial meaning in the same way Christmas has. (Why should Jews be left out of the December shopping frenzy?)

It starts for little kids in school. In planning the Holiday art project. Children are asked—not are you Jewish?—but which does your family celebrate, Christmas or Hanukkah? (Now, they are including Kwanzaa and Ramadan, but they didn’t even when my children were little.) The teachers just want to know how many trees to cut out, how many Menorahs. But what is created is a false sense of balance. They have Christmas; we have Hanukkah. So it’s fair.

But the analogy is half-baked. Hanukkah is not as to Jews as Christmas is to Christians. We have our High Holy Days and Hanukkah is not one of them. Instead, it is a beautiful holiday commemorating a miracle, celebrating freedom.

But this mini-rant wasn’t the point of my post.  The point was Christmas 1995—my first without Dad—and the coinciding last night of Hanukkah.

For some time, I had been struggling to justify celebrating Christmas as a Jewish person. What right had I? On the other hand, as a person of color, constantly questioned about my claim to Jewishness*, how could I call myself a Jew if I grew up celebrating Christmas anyway?

Clearly, the problem was celebrating Christmas itself. If I took that off the table, I’d have nothing to explain, nothing to justify. So how convenient was the timing of that eighth candle? I think it was a relief to my mother also, not to have to recreate the Williamson Christmas without Dad at the helm. It would have been too sad. Too soon.

What we did instead was throw a big, beautiful latke party. We invited all the friends of the family who used to join us at Christmas—most of whom were Jewish anyway.  There were about three or four Hanukkiahs but no Christmas tree. There was loads of food and plenty of music—klezmer, Jewish folk songs, Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah!, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena! As well as some Louis Armstrong thrown in for good measure. It was a wonderful, healing night.

And for me, it was a send-off to Christmas itself. My father was gone. I had new traditions to make. Christmas was part of my past. It was time to say goodbye. Things went on smoothly from here. I got married to Jon, who was Jewish—more culturally than religiously, like me. We celebrated the Jewish holidays with family in a low key sort of way, ate Chinese food on Christmas, took it as a given that our future children would do the same. We’d explain Christmas the way many Jewish families do—as a holiday for others. I didn’t miss Christmas; neither would they. As American conspicuous consumers, we’d make fanfare and share gifts for Hanukkah.

And so we did, until our children were one and three.  Something changed my mind. No, it wasn’t a visitation from some spirit of Christmases past. It was a shopping mall, frankly. One of those spectacularly American, sprawling malls, where you can buy everything from fine furs to motor oil. I went to this mall with a friend—another mother of two, who was there to do her Christmas shopping.

And, while I can think of nothing more bah-humbug-eliciting than a mall at Christmas time, there was something there that touched me. It was not the Christmas Carols, pumping aggressively from every speaker; not the endless array of oversized wrapped faux-presents or oversized branches of faux-holly or gargantuan faux pine trees sporting gargantuan balls and lights. It was not the cloying scent of too-sweet cookie samples on trays outside every chain bakery in the place, or even the mile-long line of sweating parents with screaming children determined to sit in the well-worn lap of Santa. (What’s wrong with that man? My daughter asked, pointing at the red-suited sage.)

It wasn’t any of that. But it was sort of all of it. All around me—as far as the eye could see—was stuff my dad would have poked gleeful fun at. The cartoonish decorations, the over-the-top promotions, the music, the urgency in the eyes of the shoppers (acquisition as a competitive sport!), the music, the clawing one’s neighbor for a spot in line to see Santa, the absurdity of the whole thing, would have just tickled my dad to pieces.

As I walked through it all, pushing my son in the stroller, checking occasionally to make sure my daughter was holding on tight, I found myself flashing back.

I’m five or so, Christmas shopping with Dad, heading for Gimbels on East 86th Street, to buy my mother a present. Normally I love Gimbels because of the lights and colorful scarves and exotic smells of perfume, but today I am frightened because of the men in red suits who guard all four entrances. They have white hair and beards and say Ho-Ho-Ho in a deep, throaty growl. When we get close to one of them, I begin to scream and refuse to take a step further.  My father is used to this. Each year, he and my mother assuage my fear of Santa Claus by assuring me that he is only pretend. Well, this guy looks pretty real to me. My father slips guy a five dollar bill to make himself scarce long enough to get me into the building. Inside there are no more scary men, just beautiful things to see and touch and smell. At home, my mother is baking gingerbread men that I will decorate later. Then I will fasten my special family of paper birds with wire feet to the lower branches of our Christmas tree.

All these years later, pushing a stroller through a mall in New Jersey, it occurs to me that I still have that family of birds—or my mother does—somewhere in a box, wrapped in tissue along with the other decorations from my childhood.

And it also occurs to me that maybe—regardless of my religion or lack thereof—these birds and the traditions that went with them are still part of me. And part of my children’s birthright.

So, before I left the mall, I bought my children each a painted wooden Christmas ornament—one in the shape of a toy train, the other shaped like a dancing doll. Later that night, I shared my epiphany with my husband, who understood—about my dad, about the birds, about my wish to share it all with our kids. Let’s get a tree, he said. We’ll do this.

And from that year on, we did. Christmas—in our modified, Rosenberg kind of way.

_________________

*In truth, the two components of my ethnic identity have never felt mutually exclusive to me. But as a social work grad student, for whom the topic of racial identity came up in class just about every day, I kept finding myself in a position of having to explain and frequently defend who I was. How can you be black and Jewish? If you claim Jewishness, aren’t you also claiming whiteness and rejecting your blackness? If your Jewish Grandmother rejected you, how can you in any way identify with her culture? And so on. It is one thing to know who you are inside, but another to be put on the spot to explain it every day. I did not always have the right words ready to defend myself. Why bother? To whom did I owe an explanation? Ultimately, to no one but myself.

 

 

 

Tears for Bridget Jones

Zellweger before

Zellweger before

Everybody’s talking about Renée’s face. Part of me—the self-righteous, PC part—is thinking, here we go again: women scapegoating other women. When will the madness end? Why don’t we live our lives and leave each other alone? But honestly there’s another part of me, clicking on the gossip link along with everyone else, comparing Bridget Jones to modern day Renée, thinking, okay, I can see it, eyes a little wider, forehead a little stiffer, speculating on what exactly she had done, hanging on every word as the Hollywood nip and tuck experts weigh in.*

Why is it so fascinating when one woman—a woman in the public eye—changes her appearance? From Jennifer Lawrence’s hair chop to Jennifer Hudson’s weight loss, we can’t get enough. On one hand, many of us are tempted to do something daring with our hair, our noses or our necks.  Many of us fantasize about dropping a load of weight or adding new boobs. Celebrities have the cash, the time, the clout, the personal chefs and trainers to pull these things off. But there’s more to this woman-on-woman voyeuristic judgment than living vicariously through the stars.

There is also a subconscious—or in many cases conscious—identification with these famous women, perpetually on display thanks to their publicists and the paparazzi. Recent studies suggest that women who spend time on line, bombarded with images of Hollywood stars, feel worse about their appearances than those who spend limited time on fan sites. It may be natural for women to compare themselves to other women, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be destructive. That automatic impulse, honed since adolescence, makes us look at a female peer, then check ourselves. Am I ok? Do I measure up? It that peer is a celebrity, chances are you don’t measure up. Why should you? It’s not your job!

As we age, it should get a little easier. Self-acceptance should come into play as we learn to value ourselves for the things we accomplish, the women we are inside as opposed to our outward presentations. But the checking still happens.  Women in their seventies have Jane Fonda to contend with; women in my age range have Jennifer Aniston and Halle Berry as guides to “what’s still possible.” Demi Moore looks pretty fabulous too, as does Helen Hunt. How are the rest of us holding up? Unfair question.

“Well, she must have had work done.” It’s a comforting way to explain another woman’s physical age defiance. It’s helps us feel okay about aging appropriately and, in many cases, it’s true. Plenty of women, famous and otherwise, go under the knife. For every woman out there who swears she would never consider such a thing, there is another secretly contemplating it, checking out celebrity “before-and-after” pictures, holding them up to the mirror, wondering what if?

It’s my guess that Renée Zellweger had her reasons for doing whatever she either did or did not do. Whatever those reasons were, it was her business. Some critics say, yes, but as a celebrity, she’s a role model like it or not. If she was dissatisfied with her naturally adorable face—how are the rest of us supposed to feel about our own?  I say, if Renée thought she had crows’ feet starting and sought to nip them in the bud, so be it.  To say that she abandoned me and other women with burgeoning wrinkles is like saying that Jennifer Hudson abandoned plus-sized women when she dropped her weight. We are talking about Renée’s eyes, not mine.

Other critics say, By removing her imperfections, Renée has lost her charm! Now she looks like everyone else in Hollywood. Again, they’re her eyes, to make as commonplace as she sees fit. Maybe Renée did have surgery because she couldn’t love the imperfections that gave her so much character. Or maybe she thought surgery would help her maintain what everyone loves about her. She can’t win. Her face and body—like those of all stars—are part of the public domain.

So, mourn if you will for hapless Bridget Jones, but leave Renee in her round-eyed peace. And swear off toxic comparisons to anyone you see online–Facebook friends included. Take comfort in the knowledge that the image you see in your mirror is beautiful because it is belongs to no one but you.

——————————————

*No post that touches on the topic of plastic surgery would be complete without homage to the late, great Joan Rivers, the brilliant, ground-breaking comedienne and tireless plastic surgery enthusiast. I am sure I am not alone in wishing Rivers were still alive—if only to weigh in on the burning topic of Renee’s new face.

“Pretty” is the Wrong Question

imagesCASDTSYLWhen I was in fourth grade, the boys made a list of the ten prettiest girls in the class. My best friend was number one. Though I was not on the list at all, I don’t remember being terribly upset. Being one of three non-white girls in the class, I hadn’t expected to make the list. My parents told me that I was beautiful every day, but even at the age of nine, I understood that there were different standards of beauty in different environments. At home I might be beautiful, but at school pretty and me didn’t even fit in the same sentence. In some ways not being pretty freed me. I was able to be the funny one, the fast runner, the flexible gymnast, the one who wrote stories.

In other ways, though, it made me feel less than the girls who had made the list. The fact that there even was such a list made me start thinking about “pretty”—the thing I was not. In fact, this list may have been one little brick out of many that built my road to an eating disorder.

Today these boys would be considered bullies, now that the definition has expanded to include all those who put down and victimize in ways to which they themselves are not susceptible. At the time, however, they were only making “personal observations.” I like to think that they didn’t mean to hurt anyone, that they were simply oblivious to their power.

In any case, the list popped into my mind while I was reading an article in last Sunday’s New York Times. It involved a girl with poor body image and a fragile sense of self, a YouTube video and some brutal comments from angry, mean-spirited people. The result wasn’t, but could well have been, tragic.

In the New York Times article, Tell Me What You See, Even if it Hurts Me,  by Douglas Quenqua, a thirteen-year-old girl turned to YouTube to answer a burning question: Am I Ugly or Pretty? The responses she got ranged from positive to brutally honest, to downright cruel. Another girl posting a similar video received a comment recommending suicide.

Thankfully, the girl didn’t take that dire advice, but another child might have. We all know that cyber bullying has led more than a few targets to take their own lives. The internet allows anyone—of any description, any position, any age—to be a co-conspirator.

In my day (we’re talking the 1970’s and 1980’s), you knew who the mean kids were. They name-called, stuck signs on people’s backs, sent notes with nasty messages, played tricks, and made crank phone calls. They tripped people the cafeteria or stole their clothes during gym. They made exclusive lists. These were awful things at the time, but they seem quaint and cliché—the stuff of John Hughes’s films—compared with what today’s bullies can dish out with the click of a mouse.

Pre-internet, anything a mean kid (or adult) did could be traced back to the perpetrator with minimal effort. Victims might keep quiet for fear of retaliation, but they knew the faces and names of those who picked on them. Today’s bullies have the luxury of total anonymity. A clever username, a cute cartoon character or slick silhouette image masks anyone’s identity. The comments section serves as an arena to tear down the self concept of anyone who dares venture in. The “haters” are a group anyone can join with no ID card, and more importantly, no consequences.

What hasn’t changed—despite our efforts, as parents, educators, therapists and bloggers, despite Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth and Dr. Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia—is the abundance of young girls with poor self images, who seek approval from the most questionable sources.

I looked and found, as Quenqua reports, that there is a proliferation of “Am I pretty?” videos on YouTube. Some of the girls look as young as nine, imploring viewers: “Be honest, I can take it.” While some comments are supportive—for example, “U R beautiful. It doesn’t matter what other people think”—other comments are pretty ruthless. One compares the subject to human excrement, another says, “Yes U R ugly, plz die.”

This directed at eight- to fifteen-year-old girls. You might ask, what did these kids expect? This kind of query, posed on the internet, is an open invitation to the most vile among us. Why would anyone post something like this? Because these girls are young, because they are afraid to ask people close to them—afraid to hear lies or truth from those whose faces they know—and because they think an objective opinion from strangers will reassure them, rather than feeding their fears of inadequacy.

I remember the self-doubt of being thirteen. By that time I’d moved beyond the list from fourth grade. For better or for worse, pretty no longer felt unattainable. But suddenly looks mattered more—for more reasons. I remember asking those questions. Do I look bad? Do I look fat? When you are a dancer, as I was, you stare in the mirror for hours each day, constantly checking for—and attempting to correct—flaws. What you see starts to play tricks on you. Whether you approve or disapprove of your image depends on your mood. How many times did I say to a friend—or have that friend say to me,

“I can’t tell what I look like any more. Am I hideous?”

Of course we knew we weren’t hideous but we needed constant reassurance. We were young and driven; our bodies were changing and so were our perceptions of ourselves and the world. We were also ashamed—not just of our bodies—but of this very need to hear that we were okay. That’s why “Am I pretty?” was the kind of question a self-worth-doubting young girl would pose only to a close, trusted friend. Maybe to her mother or sister.

Now, girls turn to the internet—the anonymous, opinionated majority—with their most intimate questions and confessions. The sharks are ready and waiting.

As a therapist and writer, I always seek to understand the motivation behind bad behavior. I do not believe that anyone is innately evil. Nevertheless, there are some people out there who are always in the market for a victim on whom to work out their own personal rage against the world. The internet empowers the inventive cruelty of these cowards. Again and again their victims are young, vulnerable girls.

It’s up to all of us—parents, teachers, therapists, all responsible adults—to stop the cycle of damage. That means teaching our children to love who they are—which sounds hokey, but it’s essential—not what they look like.  I’d love to take each of these self-flagellating video-makers aside and ask her, “Who are you really? What matters to you besides how you look? What do you love to do? Do you play sports? Music? Write poems? Make your friends laugh?”

Those are the questions we need to encourage these girls to ponder. Not “Am I pretty?”

I’m not saying appearance doesn’t matter. I know there have been numerous studies suggesting that good-looking people have better lives—get treated better, make more money—than so-called unattractive people. But are those studies—which measure inborn physical gifts as opposed to aspects of ourselves that we can control—helpful to anyone? Instead of encouraging our daughters to present themselves nicely, let’s teach them to embrace who they are as individuals. Let’s take time to learn who they are for ourselves while we’re at it.

Here are some ideas to get your daughter’s mind off “pretty”:

  • Don’t fuss over your daughter’s clothes or hair more than she does. (It took me years to learn this. I think I got there in time. I could fill a whole post with that lesson, but I am honoring my daughter’s request that I stop blogging about her.)
  • Encourage activities that capitalize on something other than the physical: coding, robotics, music, writing.
  • Encourage sports, which emphasize what the body can do more than how it looks doing it.
  • If she dances, or acts, or does anything stage-related, compliment her on the achievement; don’t focus on her appearance. (With dance, you can say, “you danced beautifully,” which celebrates the images she creates with her body, but not her body itself. It’s a fine but important line).
  • If your daughter asks you if she is pretty, tell her she is beautiful inside and out.
  • Then ask why she is asking. It could open the door to an important conversation. Is someone bullying her—cyber or otherwise? Did someone make a hurtful list? Did someone criticize her in a deeply painful way? Open the floodgates. Have the discussion. It just might save her years of self doubt. It might save her life.

Not Everyone will Like You–and That’s OK.

Yesterday, which happened to be Father’s Day, I was invited to give the keynote address at the Annual Empowerment Celebration at a wonderful organization called Sister to Sister, which provides professional women in my town with an opportunity to mentor teenage girls aspiring to college and careers 

I decided to post the body of my talk because even though it was aimed at high school girls, I think it fits here. The theme is knowing and liking who you are, regardless of how others may feel about you.

 

??????????????????????????????????????This is June, a season of moving up, moving on, graduating, saying good bye—if only for the summer. It’s a good time to say to yourself—so what is next? What is next for me and how can I make the best of it without getting sidetracked by negative influences, without listening to people who might bring me down and stand in my way?

So in the spirit of father’s day, I’m going to share with you a piece of wisdom my dad gave me.

I was about ten at the time, and I had a lot of friends. Kids liked me, because I was silly and made them laugh. Grown ups liked me because I knew when to stop being silly and at least look like I was paying attention. Things went along pretty well until I went to Gymnastics camp and I had to room with two of my teammates who were a little older than me. These girls, Cece and Lila, they didn’t let me hang out with them, they made fun of me for being homesick, and when I finally made another friend, they made fun of her voice and made us both feel bad. Since I’d made another friend, camp got okay, but I still lived with Cece and Lila; I still dealt with their meanness every day.

Well, when I got home, I didn’t say anything to my parents about it at first. Then one night, in tears, I told my dad. We’d been talking about something else and I just unloaded on him. I didn’t usually talk to him about social drama, that was mom’s area. I don’t remember why I used him as a sounding board this time, but I did. Anyway, Dad listened carefully to my story, thought it over, and finally laid one on me.

“Not everyone,” he said, “is going to like you.”

Well. As you can imagine, this piece of information came as quite a shock. I was not accustomed to this kind of candor. I was used to my mom, who would have reassured me that no one meant me any harm, that I must have misunderstood their intentions. Not Dad. He got it. These girls did not like me and I would have to live with that, because sometimes there is just no changing someone’s view of who they think you are.

Dad wanted me to understand that who Cece and Lila thought I was didn’t matter. Cece and Lila themselves didn’t matter. What did matter was who I thought I was and those girls should have no bearing on that. I would never have Cece and Lila for friends, but I did have me. And as long as I liked who I was, I was going to be okay.

The thing is, to like who you are, you have to know who you are. What does that mean—to know who you are? It’s more than, hi I’m Jessica, I’m from Montclair, my mother’s family is from Trinidad and my father is African American and Irish. It’s more than I play the cello and I’m allergic to peanuts and I’m with T.J.. It’s way, way more than I’m with T.J. Sure, those things are part of it, part of who you are, but they don’t define you unless you want them to.

Who you are is what you love, what matters most to you, what you won’t stand for, and what you will always stand up for. It’s what you are passionate about, what you dream of, but also the little parts of your personal reality. I don’t like crowds, I get insomnia if I drink coffee, chocolate makes me happy. No one can change those parts of you unless you want to change them.

Who you are comes from within (that sounds like a cliché, but it’s true). How you feel inside, what you want in your heart, that sixth sense you have when something is not right for you. That voice that helps you decide between what feels good right now—like someone else’s approval—and what is going to lead to something good for you long term, like working hard in school.

A girl once came to me for therapy. This was about ten years ago. She was in a pretty good state over all. Got along with family, did well in school, but she was lonely. She liked going out and meeting new people, she loved to dance at parties, but since she didn’t drink or smoke weed, she never got invited to any. She did have friends at school, girls who didn’t drink or smoke, but they had no interest in parties. So her choices were either start drinking or else be bored. I’d like to say she joined a club where she found kids who were like her, but she didn’t find that until college. MHS is bit—you don’t always find everyone who is there. She dealt with parties where kids made fun of her for not drinking, or she hung out with the girls who didn’t like to dance. Still, she remained true to herself, and found ways to be happy in this. She knew who she was and had to be true to that.

More recently, I knew another girl who really liked this guy. They got together at a party and sort of became a couple. I say sort of, because in my day, you were going out, but I know the rules and definitions are different now. Anyway, she was with him for a while—just hanging out, kissing, but no sex. He wasn’t pressuring her at first, but after a few months, he started to and she started to feel like she should. And did, though she didn’t feel she was ready. What she didn’t know was that he had been giving his friends updates on his conquest of her. What she also didn’t know what that he had found a way to film what they were doing. What she didn’t know was that it was all over Youtube before she got home. And she hadn’t even wanted to do it.

She learned the hard way how important it is to be true to yourself. You know deep down when something or someone isn’t right for you. You owe it to yourself to listen to yourself.

Some people will pressure you to do things you don’t believe in. Others will judge you for holding those beliefs. Not everyone will like you. You have to be able to hold your head up and be proud and happy with yourself even when others are not. Never be afraid to stand out, never be afraid to take a stand.

This is a women’s organization, but in honor of father’s day I will close with a fatherly quote by Dr. Seuss (who, by the way, never had any kids of his own): Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.