How should I talk to my white son about racism?

How should I talk to my white son about racism? This is a question I am struggling with. My son is eight. We’ve always talked about equality and fairness. We celebrate people who promote equality for all. We read the words of Dr. King, watch videos of his speeches, and bake “equality cupcakes” each year on Martin Luther King Day. I look back now and can’t help but think how woefully inadequate all of this has been. How do I explain what happened to Tamir Rice, Botham Jean, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery (and that list could go on and on and on and on)? And what happened to George Floyd—how the HELL do I explain that?

As much as I wish I could shelter my son from all that is bad in this world, George Floyd’s murder and the mounting protests made it clear that we needed to have a deeper conversation about racism. So how do I go about explaining 401 years of systemic racial oppression in our country to an eight year old white child in an age appropriate manner? I’m going to be brutally honest here—I’ll be damned if I know. Best part? I’m a history teacher who actually gets paid to do that for a living. Because I didn’t know the right words to say, I found myself avoiding the conversation. CNN teamed up with Sesame Street to host a virtual racism town hall last week (https://www.cnn.com/2020/06/06/app-news-section/cnn-sesame-street-race-town-hall-app-june-6-2020-app/index.html) and it gave us a place to start.

Before we watched the racism town hall, in simple terms I tried to explain what happened to George Floyd, the connection to racism, and that people were protesting across the country. My son had LOTS of questions about how George Floyd died and I tried my best to answer them without giving him details that he really didn’t need to know. I thought that would be the hardest part. Well, it wasn’t. Confused and disappointed, my son said “I thought racism ended with Martin Luther King.” I had no choice but to admit “Sweetheart, racism still exists today.” “Maybe people are just confused about what happened,” he said. I explained there was a video. “Are you sure it isn’t an old video from the segregation days a long time ago and people are confused and think it’s from today?” he asked. “I’m sure it’s not an old video,” I told him. The look on his face made me fear his innocence was dissipating by the second. I felt like I had failed my son. In promoting the ideal of equality, I left him completely unprepared to deal with the reality of racism. I could hear the fear in his voice when my son asked if what happened to George Floyd could happen to his teacher. My son adores his teacher. His teacher is kind, patient, supportive, humorous, unconditionally accepting, positive, friendly…all of the things you would hope for in a teacher. He also happens to be an African American man. Why hadn’t I anticipated that question? Crap! I can’t speak for my son, but I guess I’ve never given his teacher’s race a second thought. As if to soothe himself (and fill the void of my incompetent speechlessness), my son quickly answered his own question by stating “That could NEVER happen to him because cops wouldn’t be able to see into his car windows when he’s driving.” Then with a shaky voice he asked “Right?” I looked into his big, brown eyes filled with tears and uncertainty and I did something I hadn’t done before…I lied to my child. “Right,” I said “that could never happen to him.” The thought of anything else made me sick to my stomach and I didn’t want my son to worry about his beloved teacher.

Together we watched the racism town hall, which was excellent by the way. Practical advice was offered to children and parents, but more importantly, lots of good questions were asked…many of which don’t have good answers yet. My son asked lots of questions of his own. He also told me he isn’t racist and asked if he should feel bad because he is white. The weight of four centuries of racial injustice shouldn’t be carried by a sweet, eight year old white boy. Yet, I know we will need to talk about privilege at some point too. I certainly understand this isn’t going to be a once and done conversation about racism. I have no doubt that we will have ongoing conversations for many years to come. In response to his question, I told my son that everyone should feel proud of who they are and that it is our job to try to understand and stand up for one another—no matter what our skin color is. I know that may be an incomplete, inadequate response, but it is a start. When is comes to discussing racism with my son, I can’t promise I understand everything or that I will say everything right. What I can promise is that I will try my best, learn as much as I can, and keep the conversation going.

After talking, my son and I decided to make something tangible to show our support for racial equality. We used a burning tool to sear the words “EQUALITY,” “JUSTICE,” and “ALL” into a wooden block. If only that could magically sear those words into reality. For now, they sit in our living room as a reminder of what we value, what we will have hard conversations about, and what we will stand up for.

Photo credit, L.B.

More Time for Being

By Allyson Wuerth

So many days have I wished for a slower pace—even just one day where I could breathe in and breathe out, a day when I didn’t run out of my house at exactly 6:21 every morning, dart off to Starbucks for my Venti English Breakfast hot tea, and then to school (usually arriving by 6:40) to start my work day. It was only just a month ago that I’d stand outside my classroom door, arms loaded with all the trappings of a long week ahead: books, papers to grade, lesson planner, snacks for my club meetings, gym clothes for the end of the work day, etc. I’d stand there frozen, knowing that to shift my arm and grab the door key from my coat pocket would upset the delicate balance of all that I held in my arms, angry with myself for *yet again* forgetting to wrap the lanyard around my wrist. Sometimes, I’d carefully squat down and place each bag, each item, gently onto the hallway floor. Drop all of it—tea, books, purse, snacks, bags—and just luxuriate in the moment of all those lost things, all that heaviness left to the side while I unlock my door and walk, unencumbered, inside the dark room behind it. Only then, after I turned on the lights, switched on my computer, would I go back for that stuff and bring it into my classroom in small, manageable batches. Other days, I risked it all—too rushed even to take that one moment of weightlessness. I’d position my Starbucks against my chest, force my chest against the classroom door (gently, so as not to squish the cup and burn myself on all that hot tea), while with my left hand (bags still saddled to my wrists) I fished around my right coat pocket until the key could be procured and jammed in the door. Then I’d leave the key in the lock so I could reclaim the Starbucks cup and carefully use my right thumb and index finger to twist the knob just enough to crack the door open. Those mornings I’d burst into the room, exasperated by all the things I held. I’d plop it all down in a big scrambled pile on my desk chair. Then I’d sort through the bags, items, everything and organize accordingly. By 9:36am, my FitBit had already logged nearly 4,000 steps—from home, to car, to Starbucks, to school, to copier, to a working copier, okay ONE more copier (for the love of god, this one better work), to mailbox, bathroom, class, copies, bathroom. You get it. When the school day ended at 2:49 pm, I’d either advise a club until 3:15 or work out in the school gym. This is when my FitBit would send me a congratulatory vibration for hitting my 10,000 steps. What next? Pick your day. Do I have a doctor’s appointment (diabetics always do)? Do my kids have sports (kids always do)? Can I squeeze in an errand anywhere in my day? Needless to say, by 9 pm, I’m showered and comatose in bed, ready to start it all over tomorrow. Every day a gauzy blur bleeding into the next. 

But not anymore.

Now, my life is a stopped clock, a suspended thought bubble waiting to be filled once again. The entire world is this same clock, this same empty thought. We all lie in wait for someone to hit the buzzer, shoot the gun, plug us in again. It occurred to me the other day, I didn’t think I’d feel this level of awareness ever again—the kind of hyper-awareness you feel as a teenager, only without the hype. But now, I’m noticing it all—the birds surrounding our bird feeder aren’t just birds; they’re grackles, Eastern blue-jays, female cardinals, goldfinches. I know this because my 10yr old and I look them up in the Field Guide of Birds of North America book we never had time to open before. 

The framed cross-stitch and embroidery I collect from thrift stores and hang up all over my house isn’t just someone’s discarded ephemera that I happen to love the look of—it was crafted by a grandmother, a child or a mother—a pattern followed with precision and grace, given as a gift or as a very tangible imploration  “Please never forget who I was or how much I loved you.” Some initialed. Others left anonymous as any mystery is, but professionally matted and framed by stores in New Haven or Boonton, New Jersey that went out of business fifty years prior. A floral piece in my living room has a pink note attached to it, dated August 13, 1972. It’s from a girl named Marylou and gifted to her (friend? Teacher? Neighbor?) Mrs. Meyers. How did I hang this picture without noticing the letter taped rather conspicuously to the back of it? Did I see the letter but just not bother to read it? Marylou wanted to do something special for Mrs. Meyers, something “unusual but original.” She thought about it long and hard before putting needle to fabric. The gift had to be handmade, because Mrs. Meyers was that special to Marylou.

One by one, I take them down from my walls, checking each for messages,  incommunicable feelings unraveled into flowers and small animals.

Another piece hangs above the French doors in my kitchen: a cat blowing bubbles. It was a Christmas gift from a great-grandmother to her “new” great-grand daughter. The year is once again, 1972. Already, she loves this baby girl, creates her something lasting and tagged with the initials of a forgotten old woman. As I begin my very first embroidery project (the simplest pattern I could find on Amazon), I think about finishing it and then being proud enough of my effort to get it framed, and prouder still to give it to a loved one. And then, fifty years later, there it is at Goodwill for $2.99. And no one is left alive to remember how very much one person loved another, how wholly love could endure in such stitches and seams. 

Great-grandmother embroidery

Marylou’s letter taped to the back of her framed embroidery

 

Please don’t misread this. Covid-19 is changing lives in terrible ways. I live in terror of the people I love, or any people, really, contracting this awful illness. For as much as I loathe Covid, I love being a teacher and having the resources and support from my administration where I can still communicate effectively with my students every day despite our physical separation. Unlike other public servants, I can still do my job without putting my life in danger. For that, I am endlessly grateful. 

As hectic as life can be, most of us, including myself, would not change ours for the world! But buildings and stores are closed. The baseball season is cancelled. Gymnastics—cancelled. Routine doctor visits—rescheduled. So, I’m going to use this time to open myself to my senses, to learn more about my children, to watch them—even smack dab in the middle of a brisk, sunny Tuesday—play basketball together in the yard: a moody teenager and his exhaustively energetic little sister, together for the first time in longer than I can remember. The thought of it catches in my throat, pools in my eyes. Their laughter cutting into the blustery day around them as the wind blows their ball off course yet again. It’s a collage of moments I harvest and sink deep inside me: the woven laughter of my children, the mid-day sun, the wind knotting up my daughter’s long hair—all of it fastened to my heart no matter how fast I need to go. 

Why I Won’t Complain

These are hard times. Who can argue otherwise? A third of the world’s population is in lockdown because of coronvirus. With that comes massive unemployment rates and business decline. Close to two million people have contracted coronavirus. Over 100,000 have died of COVID-19. The days, weeks, and months ahead look bleak, but I’m not going to complain.

Why? I’ll start with the MOST important reason–my family is healthy. Not everyone can say that, so I choose to be thankful. While my husband is furloughed, I am still working. Because of this we have health insurance and a steady, albeit reduced, income. We’ll get by. Not everyone can say that, so I’ll count my blessings. We have a roof over our heads and plenty to eat. After he left his dorm in Boston because his college shifted to online classes nearly a month ago, my oldest son sat at the dinner table and said “We really live a privileged life. We are eating steak for dinner in the midst of a global pandemic.” He wasn’t wrong. I instantly thought back to stories my grandfather told me about growing up in Italy during World War II. I remember him telling me how hungry he was and because there was nothing else to eat, he ate acorns. Acorns. He said they gave him terrible stomach aches, but he ate them because he had no other choice. My grandfather ate acorns and I am eating steak. I’m pretty sure, I’ve got nothing to complain about.

I am a teacher and, like many teachers, I am learning oodles of new technology to make distance learning bearable for my students. That’s right, bearable. I understand that my students are going through a lot right now. They are emotionally adjusting to this screwball ‘new normal,’ missing out on seminal high school moments, and some have increased responsibilities like cooking and caring for younger siblings because their parents are health care or other essential workers putting in crazy hours. Some have inconsistent online access. Some are struggling financially because their parents are no longer working. Some have family members with the coronavirus, which means they will likely become infected too. So, I think bearable is a reasonable bar for distance learning. I am simultaneously helping my youngest son with his distance learning work. He’s eight with an uncommon medical condition. It’s a challenge to balance it all and most nights I am up until 1 a.m. I’m exhausted, I’m not going to lie. I’m also not going to complain about it because it’s not going to make the situation any better. In fact, it’s going to make it worse by placing the magnifying glass over all that is wrong instead of all that is right. I’m not a health care worker putting my life on the line to care for those infected with coronavirus without adequate protective gear. I’m tired. They are putting themselves in harm’s way for the greater good. There is NO comparison.

I keep reminding myself that this isn’t forever. This is for now. I can do this for a few months. I can do hard things. We all can do hard things. My all time favorite quote is from Paulo Coelho–“The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and to get up eight times.” We fell. The world fell. We will get up though. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow…but eventually we will get up. I’m trying my best to be patient until then. I’m also trying to find as much beauty as I can…and I see it everywhere. It’s in the daily walks I take with my family…a trilling bird, violet and golden budding flowers, the warm sunshine. They are all medicinal. I see pictures of my friends’ children frolicking in nature. Beautiful. Tyler Perry is paying for senior citizens’ groceries. Dolly Parton is reading books to children online. Americans are sewing protective masks for health care workers and the Patriots sent their plane to China to pick up more disposable masks. Neil Diamond and Dennis DeYoung are singing to us from their living rooms. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. Did you happen to catch the Hamilton cast Zoom-bomb John Krasinski’s SGN (or the Hamilton sing along!)? Beautiful. I just watched Andrea Bocelli’s live concert from il Duomo di Milano and when he sang “Amazing Grace,” I wept. They weren’t tears of joy or tears of pain. His gorgeous tenor voice resounded “was blind, but now I see” and I couldn’t help but think about how much adversity Bocelli had to overcome in his life. My tears were of admiration and of hope. They were tears of resilience. If Bocelli can theoretically overcome blindness in his music, then we can overcome this insidious, unrelenting virus. I refuse to let it break my spirit. Refuse. For now, I’m going to immerse myself in the beauty of nature, the arts, and random acts of kindness. For now, I’m going to take each day one by one until the time comes for us to get up again. And in the meantime, I’m not going to complain about it.

We can do hard things. Photo credit, L.B.

A new kind of village

I’m an extrovert. My cup gets filled by spending time with my people. I need them to laugh with, to cry with, to tell stories with, and mostly, to raise my kids with. I am a village person. My ideal living situation would be to join up with three or four other families whom I love and buy one big house together. 

I have always been this way because this is how I grew up. My parents’ friends became our aunts and uncles, and their children our cousins. We ate big taco dinners together on Sunday nights, played together all weekend long, and relied on each other for everything. If my parents were away, I slept at Aunt Cinda’s house. If I needed to go home sick from school and couldn’t find my mom, I called Aunt Terri. Uncle Jimmy was the only person I let pull my teeth out when they were loose. We were a tribe, a family. 

And it wasn’t until I had my own children that I realized how important this is to me, how necessary to my own survival. With both of my girls, I suffered from postpartum depression. With my second, it was much less intense because the second time I had a tribe. 

I was the first of my girlfriends to have a baby, so with my first daughter, I was alone a lot of the time. Friends who visit, but no one really understood what I was going through, and the loneliness mixed with the depression nearly destroyed me. The second time around, two of my best friends had babies within weeks of my daughter’s birth, and each day we would rotate whose house we would spend time in. Mostly, we sat around feeding babies and crying and laughing and sharing our deepest, darkest feelings. Sometimes, my best friend Amy would force me to leave the house even when my anxiety was at its highest. One day, she called me and said, “Today we are taking the babies to the movies. I don’t care what we are going to see, but we are going. Get dressed.” We ended up seeing the Entourage movie with our two month old babies strapped to our chests. It was just what I needed. 

And this is why the last three weeks have been so challenging for me. Because everything I need in order to nourish my soul right now has been stripped from me. While I need physical connection to heal, the world needs just the opposite. As a good citizen of the world, I will do my part, but it’s killing me. 

And I know that I am lucky. I am in a privileged position: I still have a job and so does my husband. We have internet access to do our work, food security, a house. No one in my home is immunocompromised. We can weather this storm more easily than many other people. But knowing all of that doesn’t stop me from inching closer and closer to the kind of sadness I have experienced many times before. Only this time, my medicine is out of reach. 

There have been some dark and hopeless moments in the past three weeks, but there have been other moments, too. And I am trying desperately to cling to those ones more than the others. 

Like last week, when both of my girls had to celebrate their birthdays in quarantine, but their friends still drove by and beeped and left presents on our doorstep. Like when my daughter had trouble with her math homework, and my colleague Facetimed to help her with it. Like when I took an online yoga class with my favorite teacher whom I haven’t practiced with in months, or when I had a girl’s night on Zoom with some of my very best friends, and we toasted each other and thanked God for the ability to see each other’s faces. Like today, when I will join my school friends for lunch from the safety of our own homes but where we can still laugh at each other’s terrible jokes. 

I am reminded in those moments that I am not alone, that we are not alone, and that in some ways, we are even more connected to each other than ever through this shared experience of fear, and loneliness, and uncertainty. We can find new ways to lean on and connect to each other. The village is still there. Just a little further away, just waiting for you to reach out and say, “I’m here.” 

Find the Silver Linings

I’ve been staring at this page pretty much for the past few days and I’m struggling, hard.  I just cannot come up with something to write about.  Well correction, I suppose what I mean is, something that is uplifting or enlightening or hopeful. It’s a strange time.  Usually my life is going 100mph, and truthfully has been for years, although a little more insanely since mid-January.  I’ve also been fighting colds since mid-January and honestly still am.  Can’t say I haven’t questioned all of it at this point given our current state of the world and not had to talk myself off the ledge.  My life and my family’s lives have come to a grinding halt.  I overthink everything and with every cough, sneeze, ache, pain, headache, and so on…Thankfully I’m able to work from home and have been for a while now but there is no shortage of worry.  My folks live with us, schools are closed, my husband is not working, making my girls quit their jobs and seeing friends and businesses struggle.  The last month has made me question everything in this life to try to figure out what is “right”.

I have found myself emotionally distraught in all the spectrums of emotion one can encounter.  Much like the stages of grief but all at once and sometimes multiple times a day.  We have all lost something or had a dream shattered in some way and feel like we are continuing to lose. They say only 2 things are certain in this life, death and taxes…..well dammit, not really even sure on the taxes part now.  But the death part…I’m not ready, for any of it, for anyone.  It has forced me to take stock of where I have been, what I have done and what I have yet to experience in this life. I’m not even close to fulfilling my purpose.  I want more.  I want more for my parents, my husband, my kids, my brothers, my whole family, and my sweet friends.  And by more I mean, more joy, more love, more experiences, more memories, more laughing and crying, more time.  I want my heart to feel more and theirs too.

I find myself afraid, anxious, and concerned.  I’ve decided it’s ok to feel all of this.  We need to feel all of this.  But we also need to find the silver lining in the fear.  I need to find the hope.  That involves making some tough decisions.  Changing our lifestyles for a while.  Moving to a simpler time in a complicated world.  At the end of the day, I believe we all choose life and family.  This time is going to test many things.  Our resilience, our patience, our commitments, our love, our energy our willingness to put aside criticism and bolster our ability to lift each other up because god only knows NONE of us were meant to spend THIS much time together in one place. But god, we get to spend THIS much time together in one place!  In the end, we only have each other.  The goal would be to find “emotional correctness” in how we respond to one another.  Let the best parts of ourselves shine brightly to keep out the dark.  Procuring the best parts of humanity like what we are seeing in our first responders, our nurses and doctors who give all they have.  It comes in many forms and that is what I’m choosing to focus on.

I choose to be purposeful with my words.  I choose to check in and reach out to as many of you that I can each day to make sure you are doing alright and to offer what I can.  Whether it is to listen, to find an alternative, share food, share a laugh, fill your soul with music, anything I can do to lift a burden or ease anxiety.  I will share all that I have.  And I hope you will do the same with me. The biggest gift, yes I’m going to say gift, with our current reality is that for better or worse, we have to trust that we will be there for each other in ways we have not been before.  The world is stopping to take a breath and we are all forced to take that breath together.  Don’t let it be for naught.   Take it as the opportunity for the “more” I mentioned above.  Make good decisions.  Protect your families.  Protect my family.  Be your best selfless version.  Share your gifts and your gratitude abundantly.  Let your tears and your fears flow out and breathe in a higher vibration of life and love.  We will need this in order to hold on.

I choose to find hope in the corners.  I hope you will join me.  Big love to all your hearts today and every day.

Panic in Pictures

A little over two weeks ago I wrote a piece called “Corona Craziness.” I thought people were overreacting about the coronavirus and were unnecessarily panicking. Two weeks feels like a lifetime ago. So much has changed-so quickly. At the beginning of March, most cases of the novel coronavirus were in China and China responded by enacting a quarantine in the Hubei province. High population. Highly authoritarian government. I understood how this could happen. It didn’t seem likely these actions would be repeated elsewhere. Sure, the virus had spread to other countries. South Korea, Iran, and Italy were most impacted, but their coronavirus infection numbers were relatively low. ‘It would be like the flu,’ I told myself. ‘Some of us would get it, but the vast majority of us would be just fine.’ When comparisons were made to the Spanish flu after World War I, I presumed things would be okay because we have antibiotics to treat secondary infections today. I thought our daily lives would hardly be impacted. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The daily lives of millions, perhaps billions, have been impacted. And there is no end in sight.

Monday, March 16, 2020. Not one package of toilet paper or paper towels in the grocery store. Photo credit, L.B.

I don’t remember much talk about COVID-19 potentially overtaxing our health care system then. I certainly don’t recall hearing about having an inadequate supply of ventilators to treat the disease, leaving it up to doctors to decide which patients live and which will be left to die. COVID-19 hadn’t exponentially exploded in countries outside of China yet. Now countries like Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Poland, Ireland, Denmark, El Salvador, and New Zealand are in lockdown or have sealed their borders. Many other countries have enacted various degrees of travel bans. Schools and businesses across the United States have voluntarily or been forced to close…indefinitely. Indefinitely. Phrases like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing” are ubiquitous.

Kind of wondering how long it will be before we see a fully stocked hand sanitizer shelf. Months? Years? Ever? Photo credit, L.B.

People have been panicking for weeks, but things are different now. The panic is palpable. Just take a walk into the grocery store to see and feel it. It goes way beyond hand sanitizer shortages. Toilet paper, paper towels, disinfectant wipes, bleach, meat, pasta, even frozen foods are luxury items at this point. I long for the glory days of only hand sanitizer shortages. The looks on people’s faces as they walk up and down the store aisles?…Confusion. Disbelief. Frustration. With the limited stock on the shelves, you’d think we were living in a war zone. The stock market roller coaster ride is just too much to take. If I pay attention too closely, motion sickness might set in. I don’t even want to know how much I may have lost. So I don’t look.

No bleach, disinfectant sprays, sanitizing wipes, or liquid soap in sight, but a few bars of soap remain. I guess people didn’t “consider their neighbors and communities when purchasing these items,” Photo credit, L.B.

I think about how much has changed in two weeks and I can’t even begin to predict what the next two weeks will bring. Such uncertainty. My oldest son is home from Boston and will be completing his first year “in” college online. My eight year old is home too. I am helping him complete his school work via distance learning, while I figure out how to create distance learning for my own students. I’m developing mad audio and video file conversion skills (through trial and MUCH error), so that’s a silver lining–I suppose. I’m wondering if either of us will return to school before the school year’s end. It’s anyone’s guess, really. While we are becoming social distancing pros, my husband still has to go to work each day. I worry he’ll be exposed to the coronavirus, but I try not to think about that.

Don’t look. Don’t think. Don’t panic. Yeah, the coming months should be interesting.

Monday, March 16, 2020–the meat aisle. Photo credit, L.B.
Even the frozen vegetables couldn’t escape the panic. Photo credit, L.B.
The contents of a hastily packed college dorm room are presently housed in our basement, Photo credit, L.B.
Hope?, Photo credit, L.B.

The One Without a Clever Title

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

This was supposed to be a graduation shout-out at the end of May. But last Thursday, life as we knew it came to an abrupt standstill, and now it’s a mid-March, rainy Tuesday tribute to my youngest instead.

I’ve never met a kid who loved his high school more than my son. From the pro/con list he made the first time he set foot on campus (13-year-old boy pros: beautiful campus, good donuts, unlimited milk) to the day we moved him into his dorm, GS was where he belonged. He wasn’t even a little nervous, although he did express concern at the fact he would be attending a Quaker school and the only thing he knew about Quakers was that they wore funny hats and were pictured on oatmeal boxes.

I had to attend every single soccer game freshman year to see him. He had such FOMO that I couldn’t even bribe him with dinner to leave campus, although sometimes he’d counter my offer with an invitation to join him in the dining hall. He threw himself into every activity he could—tour guide, live music weekend, dorm treasurer, hottest freshman boy (the latter came from another parent, not him). When he finally did come home on fall break, he sweet-talked me into doing his mountains of laundry with a huge hug and the World’s Best Laundry Folder crown, and I was more than happy to do what I needed to keep my title.

The summer after his freshman year, we told our kids we were divorcing, and the look on his face nearly killed me. The next morning, he said that it was a good thing he’d gone through peer counseling training because now he knew how to deal with his family being in shambles.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. 

His academic grades weren’t always what I (or he) would have liked, but he excelled in his art and woodworking classes. Yet without fail, every trimester his report card had multiple nominations to the Head of School list. Knowing his teachers, dorm parents, and coaches recognized his kindness, leadership, and love for his school helped overcome any GPA misgivings. 

When he was 16, he was stranded alone overnight in the Denver airport. He called me the next morning to tell me that he’d found Chick-fil-A and a charging station, that he’d gotten to travel to a new state, and that he’d ridden the escalators the wrong way because there was no one to yell at him. I learned a lot about perspective that day.

He was chosen to be a prefect his senior year, and spent hours planning his room and the bonus room where his prefectees would gather. He ordered an entire wall of photos and couldn’t wait to show me which ones he’d chosen. He loved going to Costco to pick out the best snacks for the kids who would come to play video games and hang out after study hall and on weekends.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. 

Last Thanksgiving, I woke up to a lengthy text about what a great mom I am, and how much he appreciated me. I cried in the bathroom that morning, and then cried again when he told me he’d sent similar texts to 22 other beloved friends, family members, and adults in his life. 

When my grandmother passed away last December, he had to miss the final few days of school before Christmas break. He asked if I could give him an extra day to say goodbye to his friends, knowing he wouldn’t see them again until after the holidays. He spent a long time in the dean’s office that day, discussing life and death and family and other things he wasn’t ready to share with me.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

In February, we went to rent a tux for the upcoming prom. He somehow convinced me that buying a custom tux and suit would be a good long-term investment because he had finished growing. A very patient salesman spent more than two hours with us as my son painstakingly chose the style, fabrics, and taglines on the inner jacket labels. He was so happy to finally own pants that fit his 6’2”, 160 pound frame perfectly.

He swung between JV and Varsity lacrosse his freshman year. It was the first time in 10 years of playing sports there were conflicts with his graduating sister’s game schedule, but he reassured me it was okay to go to her games because he still had three seasons left. He filled out the team captain application as a junior and while he was sad not to be chosen, he knew he still had one more year. I couldn’t have been prouder when I saw Captain next to his name on the roster last week.

When he learned his spring break service trip to South Africa was canceled two days before he was supposed to leave, he declared that although he was really disappointed, now he had time to catch up on sleep and work on a new Instagram account for his art.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Last Thursday evening, he came downstairs to let me read an email from the Headmaster that the rest of the 2019-20 academic year would be held online. Senior portraits, lacrosse season, and college sweatshirt day all vanished in less time than it took to say Coronavirus. Prom and graduation are TBD, but even if they do happen, with students all over the US and abroad, it is unlikely he will get to say goodbye to many of his friends before they head off to college this fall. As the person who has protected him more fiercely than anyone over the last 18+ years, my heart broke for all the long-awaited milestones that he’d miss out on.

Sixteen hours after the school email came, he walked into the kitchen and announced that his worst fear—homeschooling—had finally come true the last three months of his senior year. And in the midst of all the uncertainty, heartbreak, and tears, I laughed–hard–and knew he’d be okay.

Underlying Conditions

By Allyson Wuerth

So, you wouldn’t know by looking at me, but I’m one of those “high-risk” individuals with “underlying conditions,” one of those unfortunate groups likely to become seriously ill if they contract COVID-19. I’m 42, I exercise regularly, I eat pretty well, and, oh yeah. . .I have type 1 Diabetes, also incorrectly known as “juvenile diabetes.” This means my pancreas suddenly stopped producing insulin, and it didn’t matter how old I was, or how much I did or didn’t exercise or eat. It means that my small intestine spends all its days cradling a dead organ, like a grieving mother whale carrying her dead baby across the sea again and again, hoping maybe one more good push and it would heal within the magic of all that water.

But instead, the pancreas remains unresponsive, shrivels up like one of those jarred baby shark souvenirs. Remember those? The ones that stared back at you like pickled rag dolls in blue water? I haven’t actually seen it, my pancreas. But since becoming diabetic, I’ve always imagined the organ inside me like this, all slick and puckered.

I was diagnosed at age 25, and it took almost dying for doctors to diagnose me. . .because children get type 1 diabetes, not 25 year old women. It was easier for them to believe I’d developed diabetes when they found out that my father was also a type 1 diabetic. Of course, I only know this second hand, as I was unconscious and unknowingly suffering from a diabetic complication called ketoacidosis, which is often triggered by illness or infection. If the body does not get the insulin it needs, it will begin turning fat into fuel. Acids clog the blood and the body simultaneously shrinks in size and bloats in confusion and disorientation. The body tries to die, is actively dying, but you’re too gauzy-brained to notice. Ketoacidosis is why illnesses like the flu or Coronavirus make me panic. I’m one of the people who needs to be vigilant despite the slim-chance statistics that apply to most everyone else my age. Keto Week ‘03 flashbacks are enough to make me rage when sick colleagues or sick students come into school. Remember, your “little fever” could be a near death experience or worse  for the immuno-compromised. I didn’t fight my way back so ketoacidosis could try and ruin me again.

After four days in the ICU, I was transferred to a regular room where I had to practice injecting oranges with saline, and then finally myself (the orange) with insulin (the saline) before I could go home. It’s silly now, but at the time I thought I’d rather die than stick a needle in my own stomach. And as insulin dripped off the tip of the syringe, I thought, this is exactly the smell of the blue bath.

My father’s bathroom in the house where I grew up was hideously blue. Seventies-made sky blue-tiled walls and a matching toilet,  blue floral wallpaper, even a blue tulip-shaped plastic trash bin where my father dropped used alcohol pads, over-used syringes, blood speckled cotton balls—the scraps of diabetes. I’d sit on my mom’s side of their bed and tell him about my day as he took his evening dose of insulin with the blue bathroom door opened just a crack so he could hear me. Through the crack, I could see him with his shirt off, plunging a syringe deep into the subcutaneous fat of his abdomen. And that smell that I always imagined was just the smell of the blue bath, was actually the sting of insulin. I have no idea why, but the moment in the hospital when I connected these two smells, was one of the first and last moments I’ve ever felt true self-pity. Diabetes had always been a part of my life—that smell contained its permanence, its vice grip over the many rooms of my life. Spaces I hadn’t even seen yet. Doorways with walls I couldn’t begin to imagine.

Would this illness wreck my life? Would my future be all Julia Roberts tearing out her freshly coiffed hair, orange juice staining her wedding dress? Would I die on the floor of my kitchen surrounded by boiling pots of pasta and my screaming toddler? Would I even have a baby at all? After all, that’s what killed Shelby in Steel Magnolias. They warned her not to have a baby (Later my fiancé, who is now my husband, told me the first words I spoke to the nurse when I regained consciousness were: “Can I still have kids?”). Spoiler alert: We have two amazing and healthy children, though they challenged my body in ways my pre-diabetic self never could’ve imagined.

Alone in my room, I wonder what this virus will mean to me in two weeks, a month, a year. Will it spare my family? My 70yr old, diabetic father? Myself?

Alongside all these ‘what ifs’, I also know I must be vigilant. This means doing my best to keep my blood sugar within a normal range. Too high and I’ll be more susceptible to an illness like COVID-19. Too low and I could put myself in immediate danger of passing out. The line is fine and difficult to navigate, dependent on so many variables. It’s not just food that affects blood sugar; one also must consider hormonal shifts, stress, exercise, fatigue, temperature, etc. Any one of these variables and 20 minutes time could find you and your oh-so-confident-I-can-drive-with-a-blood-sugar-of-175 self  in a fugue state in the Kohl’s parking lot with a blood sugar of 13 and your five month old baby in the backseat. And no matter how many times you crunch the numbers, you’ll never know where you went wrong, though your OB will suspect nursing is the culprit and urge you to consider formula.

These variables were my first thought when I got a call last Thursday night that my school would close indefinitely due to the spreading Coronavirus. Before I put my phone down, I thought about the number of steps I usually take by 9:36am on a school morning (nearly 3000) and how my insulin needs would change if I cut those steps in half or ¾ even. Do I change my basal rate in my insulin pump now or do I wait and see how things go? If I wait, how many days do I let my blood sugar remain in a higher range before I put myself at risk for infection? Is this when the virus will get me? The questions overwhelm me.

But instead, I pick up my phone and text some colleagues—“God, I knew I should’ve brought those mask projects home to grade. What the hell was I thinking?”

 

Do the Shoes Make the Life?

This month I had nothing to write about.

Well, maybe that isn’t exactly true. Topics swirled in my brain but none seemed quite appropriate to write about. The current political primaries would be too divisive and personal. Bernie vs Biden vs Why Not Warren? A few former students have a sense of where I fall on the political spectrum and I wasn’t about to get into that mix. Then I considered anything to do with my religious/spiritual journey since motherhood. Again, no way. Heretical and traditional at the same time – nobody wants to read about that mess, and most would get offended at some point. Moving on. Then I considered something close to my heart: the way that mothers sometimes do not support other mothers and quickly deleted that in my head before it even took a phantom shape of an essay. Finally, I realized my Momma brain is currently too fatigued, worried, and occupied with some weird virus thing-y to focus at 11pm. But no one wants to hear about my hypochondriac brain freeze.

So. What to do? What could I share and write about?

My eyes glanced down at the magazine on the couch and the movies in my Amazon cue. My own very private survival, keep-your-sanity kit. How do I negotiate the mess in my head and heart that I just described above? Well, here goes.

My mother and I subscribe to and swap Victoria, Country Living and Southern Living magazines. (I hear some of you starting to scroll away from this page. Bear with me.) Of all three, Victoria is probably closest to my literary and intellectual preferences – tea settings, English cottages, book rooms, gardens. This magazine is a favorite portal to a calmer, prettier, more intellectual perhaps made-up world. Now, Country Living and Southern Living. I stumbled upon these and guess what? They are fun. I am not about to redo my house in some Low Country style. We don’t have a front porch to paint light blue. My cooking skills would never allow me to replicate those recipes. And I will NEVER look like a Southern belle with the huge bouncy hair, perfect manicures, and lipstick for every occasion. My nails are bitten to the quick, my Yankee hair has had one side part since my junior year in high school, and these days I can’t even keep track of my chapstick. But these magazines allow me to imagine living in a world so unlike my own and at the same time, give me a tip or two to maybe, just maybe, organize my house or myself one degree neater or stylishly….this afternoon, or…someday.

Then I looked up at my movie cue. Recently, I have returned to a plethora of movies made at the peak of “good movies” between 1999 and 2006. These were the movies that got me through my 20s – while I was trying to figure out where I was going, what my life was going to be about. The favorites were Tortilla Soup, Monsoon Wedding, Tango, Chocolat, Under the Tuscan Sun, Bridget Jones’ Diary, The Devil Wears Prada, you get the picture. I realize now they share one thing in common – a young heroine trying to find her voice and herself in the midst of life’s challenges, all while looking trim, stylish and vibrant. And usually wearing really great shoes.

At the time, the very beginning years of the 21st century, these movies were touted as having “strong female characters”. As I re-watch them now as part of my late-night sanity restoration, I wonder how many of them hold up to the feminist standards of our time. I suspect most fail miserably. In the age of #metoo and a woke sense of checking your privilege, most of these heroines succeed partly for using and manipulating their sexuality (as defined by the male gaze) and by living and using whatever privileges they have (as defined by a narrative primarily comprised of a Northern White gaze.)

But here’s the thing. These ladies were all striving to live something we now call #bestlife. How many of us say we are “living our best life”? What does that even mean? Is it up to each of us to define it, or is there a subtle underlying unifying definition? I get the sense that it means ‘I am doing the best version of “me” which implies some sort of post-modern feminist freedom, expression of creativity and sexuality, and ability to do what I want to make myself feel good when I feel like doing it.’

How far have we really come?

The irony to me is that sometimes living your best life in fact means invoking those very privileges we are trying to check everywhere else. And it all leaves me a little confused.

What I do know is that at 11pm, as I fight the urge for my Momma Wine 0’clock or food o’clock, as I avoid any more news before bed and pick my early 2000’s nostaglic feel good movie, I feel neither trim, stylish or vibrant. There are days I want that Girl back so badly. The freedom to swing my hips in really clicky shoes and appropriated ethic prints down the streets in New Haven, grad backpack in tow. Hair full, lips colored, mind engaged. I remember her so vividly. But she was also a bit selfish, elitist, and ignorant. Was she living her best life? On my couch tonight, I do no purport to be woke or checking my privileges, and I don’t know at all if I am currently living my best life.

But I do know that I am living a messier life, and I am living a realer life. And I am living into a much more realer “Me”, even as I scan these magazines and movies. And in that messy realness, my feet have widened from Birks and sneakers, my face has wrinkled and softened a bit, and my heart has swelled. And my brain, well, she will stay engaged anyway she can these days, even if it means a late night walk down Nostalga Lane. I am living a life where I know to avoid more facebook comments, make more phone calls, pray a whole lot harder, and get over the little things that just don’t matter. And focus on the things that do.

As I don’t know if I am living my best life (according to facebook), I don’t know if this is my best essay. But in both, they are real, they are driven by love, and always, always in search for that perfect pair of shoes in whatever place/way of life I currently call my real home.

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