My name is Hollis (Part One)

We suffer losses, and it is such a Hobson’s Choice as to which one is the deeper cut. Those losses caused by death final and fatal and the ghosts that haunt from that place. Or those losses that linger and will not die and have the good grace to become ghosts.  – Charissa Grace White

Mr. Jankowski is addicted to licorice.  I flip open my notebook to page 10.  117 Spring Lane.  No name Jankowski: seen twice.  Last time on April 19 wearing pea green pants, a long denim shirt worn through at the elbows and horrible sandals.  Should not wear sandals, I had written, toe nails like machetes.  Refer to Dr. Goldberg, retired podiatrist, 402 Briar Patch Ct.  Then I added, addicted to licorice.  No one should eat that much licorice.  Refer to Dr. Bowman, retired physician, 223 Bluebonnet Circle.

I put my notebook back in my pocket and chewed my pencil a little while I surveyed my street.  Ms. Phillips had already brought out her trash.  By now she was sipping her Clamato juice and dancing to Julio Iglesias’ greatest hits.  She had been a prima ballerina and still donned pink tights, a black leotard with plunging back and a thin pink belt to exercise three days a week.  “At 81,” she said, “I deserve the weekends off.”

I like to visit her on Mondays.  She makes a pan of chocolate covered marshmallow cookies every Sunday and allows herself only one: her devotion being too great and her leotard too form-fitting to annihilate the pan.  She told me if I don’t come over, she’ll have to throw them down the disposal and no 11-year-old with a heart would ever allow such deliciousness to meet such a horrible end.  So, I make sure I’m there to do my part.

Booth Brantford lives two doors down from No name Jankowski.  I visit him on Tuesdays.  He lives in a two-bedroom ranch and the way he ties back his curtains make his house look like it’s winking.  He was married for 65 years to Barbara Ann McClusky.  She died last year, two days after Christmas and one day before their 66th wedding anniversary.  He’s been a mess since.  All he eats are microwavable meals, when he eats, and he’s worn the same sweater for five months now.  Barbara Ann knitted it for him before she died and he can’t part with it.  At least it’s been washed, but a navy blue snowflake sweater in mid-June is alarming.

When I visit he tells me about how they met and when he felt his love starting for her. He said it’s like a seed of longing was planted in the center of his heart.  As is bloomed, he realized he couldn’t be without her.  He found himself dreaming of her silken hair and how her slender shoulders would feel beneath his heavy hands.  How he could sit for hours watching her, already having memorized the slightest details of her frame and face, like how her right eye had more green specks than her left and how the birthmark at the nape of her neck reminded him of four-leaf clover.  It wasn’t really.  Just a reminder of one.

He likes to show me pictures too.  They had four children together.  Two didn’t live much past birth: one had a lung disorder; the other was taken by rheumatic fever.  The two that were left are grown now.  The oldest is a lawyer in Brooklyn, who, according to Booth, sold his soul for a condo in Manhattan.  The other is a playwright with an addiction to sadness.  They never visit, which doesn’t seem to bother Booth, but it bothers me and I’m sure it would bother Barbara Ann.

On the other side of me live Marty and Irene Buchanan.  They are transplants, like many on my street.  They’d spent most of life in Dallas in the restaurant business. Morty was the sole-proprietor of Mort’s BBQ Pit.  At the height of their smoked empire they had six locations and even bottled and sold their own sauce.  He told me what was in it once, but I’d been transfixed by a spider spinning its web (that’s not learned, you know; they hatch knowing how to do it) and missed the last three secrets to the sauce.

I think Irene was truly beautiful.  She has the softest looking skin that creases in places it should:  around her mouth for having laughed and around her eyes for having cried.  Her cheeks are perfectly round and always rose-colored.  I know it’s natural because she doesn’t wear makeup, Morty wouldn’t hear of it.

They never had children; she miscarried nine times.  The doctors never did discover what was wrong, so she took it that she was.  She named each of them and collected seashells for them, neither of which she told Morty.  He’d scream and yell about the nine vases of strategically placed and meticulously chosen shells around their home.  He didn’t know, couldn’t have known really, that they were shrines to his children.

She’d told me once about a friend of hers who had lost a baby.  Every year on the anniversary of his death she’d release 16 butterflies, one for every week of his life.  Irene couldn’t understand it.  God had already taken him so far away.  Why would she let the butterflies go too?  I thought of answering her question, but knew it was the sort you asked not expecting an answer.  The answer was in the slump of her shoulders and the wetness of her eyes.  I saw that too.

My house is in the exact middle of our street, which is perfect for me.  A noticer.  I live with my grandparents, Nan and Pop, in a retirement community in Florida.  I’ve been here for four years, after cancer took my mother and booze took my father.   Nan and Pop are special and not in the way the kids at school call me special.  They say it as a bad thing when I know it to be good.

Nan was a therapist, so she’s always encouraging me to talk about my feelings, which sometimes I do, but mostly I don’t.  I think she wants to try to right with me the wrong she feels she did my father. “Hollis, you know you can tell me anything, right?,” she always asks after she gulps a little of the air lying around.  She gets a look a little like a crappie I once caught and waited too long to put back in the water: eyes too wide, cheeks sucked in.  It pains her to say my name, I know; it reminds her of my father since Pop became Hollie long ago.

Nan makes me breakfast every morning: fluffy sourdough French toast with a little vanilla and a lot of cinnamon; thick-cut smoked bacon, which she always arranges in a heart on my plate; sausage links; a grapefruit half with a piranha-teethed spoon; strawberry pinwheels and, when I’ve been really good or she’s really sad; steel-cut oatmeal swirled with raspberry jam and chunky peanut butter.  Pop has eaten this way for nearly ninety years.  He thinks things like high cholesterol and heart disease are eventualities of a life well-lived and tells any doctor he meets just that. “When death comes knocking, I hope it’ll let me finish my French toast,” he says.  And he has every confidence that it will.

Like most of the homes here, ours is a ranch.  It’s painted a slate blue, that reminds me of my mother’s eyes, with big white shutters.  There are flower boxes beneath every window, some with berry-colored impatiens and others with miniature roses, and a red door with a silver-plated knocker.  Hanging outside the kitchen window are Nan’s wind chimes.  She gets lost in a sea of bubbles when they play, washing the same dish again and again.  Sometimes, when the wind is sleeping, I run my finger lightly across the front of them anticipating their canorous pings and tings.  The sound is soothing, just like Nan says.

My room is the best room in the house (for obvious reasons).  Nan said I could do whatever I wanted to the walls and even volunteered to help me paint.  On one wall, I have a Scrabble board with the word combinations needed to make a 2,044-point move using the SOWPODS dictionary and the word sesquioxidizing (it’s not in the normal dictionary, but it should be).

I’ve always been into words.  They fascinate me really.  At age 6, I started reading the dictionary.  I started with the letter a, which is an obvious beginning, and have continued since then.  I study and memorize seven words a day, since people smarter than me say that that’s the magic number.  By my calculations, that’s about 12,775 words to date, give or take.  But, when I feel like I’m going at a snail’s pace, I let myself pick a word from elsewhere, like the SOWPODS dictionary (I know it’s a little renegade, but it seems to work) to let the color back in.

On another wall, I have a painting of Einstein, which I did myself, and one of my favorite quotes of his: The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.  Actually, it doesn’t really look like Einstein; it looks more like Amos Slade from The Fox and the Hound.  But whatever.

On the third wall, is a painting of my house.  The house where I lived with my parents before Mom got sick and Dad got lost.  Nan and I had a picture to paint by, although I didn’t need one.  I even remembered to put in the tulip garden Mom had planted and her garden maker: what is for you will not pass you.  She spent hours out there, especially once she found out the cancer had come back.  I think that’s why those flowers bloomed long after they should have died, like she did.  I think they lived off her tears.

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Compassion is a muscle

Image via Pinterest.  Must say I L.O.V.E it!

Image via Pinterest. Must say I L.O.V.E it!

As much as I would like to, I don’t believe we are born with compassion.  I think we are born with the desire to be compassionate; a desire which becomes as useless as the most beautiful words never spoken, if not acted upon.  I think of compassion as a muscle, which gains strength as we use it.  We activate its fibers when we don’t avert our eyes and simply walk past the person holding a cardboard sign.  It grows and tingles when we offer a hand, a shoulder, or our heart to someone who’s mourning.  And it tears and grows stronger still, when, even at our most rock-bottom moments, we extend it to ourselves.

Compassion.

It’s a muscle.

It’s an intention.

It’s a practice.

It’s a choice.

Beyond blessed to be a small part of this.

Beyond blessed to be a small part of this.

I am over the moon to list my name among the many that have stepped forward, with heart and pen in hand, to take part in 1000 Voices of Compassion.  #1000Speak is the brainchild of the fabulous Lizzi Rogers and the talented Yvonne Spence and is based on Lizzi’s post, which tells us WE are the Village. And WE are responsible for the health, heart and well-being of those sharing this big, beautiful, blue sphere of ours.

We all inhale and exhale under the same sky.

We ALL do.

With that in mind, one month from today, on February 20, we will be flooding the webwaves with messages of compassion.  And you can take part.  At this very moment, there are 869 members.  You could be 870.

Below are some links for those bloggers who crave involvement:

Pinterest: 

The Facebook Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/306227992909657/

The Facebook Fanpage: 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion

Twitter:  When tweeting, use the hashtag #1000Speak

And if you’re not a blogger, but want to spread some compassion (and hopefully, get a little on yourself), you can do so here: #1000 Speak for Compassion or email 1000Speak@gmail.com and someone will gently guide you through the process.

Whatever you do, do something.

Tear some muscle.

Don’t let it atrophy.

Be. Connected.

And be changed.

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What do you breathe into others?

“My next breath may very well be in your lungs. Store it wisely, because my life depends on it.
”
Jarod Kintz, This Book Title is Invisible

At the gym this past weekend, a woman struck up a conversation with me. I believe she complimented my bag (nearly everyone does) and asked if I’m a quilter.“No, no”, I responded, too eager to tell her it was lovingly made by my mother-in-law and has been my exercise catchall since.  She mentioned she didn’t realize Saturdays were so busy, that she only comes to swim, that she lives in Hampshire, that she’s a writer, a widow…And my heart vernacular translated her ease of detail to this: she is very, very lonely.

I told her my husband comes to swim too, but I come for the classes. And yes, Saturdays are always packed.  Later in the conversation, I mentioned that he loves to go dancing, but that I’m more of a homebody, to which she replied, “Your husband likes to dance and you don’t go?  That’s terrible. Shame on you!” I wasn’t prepared for her candor, but immediately reminded myself that perhaps her husband was like mine and perhaps she was like me.  And now he’s gone and she’s left remembering no’s instead of yeses and dance floors that could have been explored by anxious feet and a sacrificial spirit.

By this time we were joined by another woman, excusing herself as she wiggled past me wrapped in the club’s small white towel, length-appropriate only for those aged 8 and under.  I responded then, with both women’s backs toward me, “Well, I breathe into him in other ways, so I don’t feel too bad about the dancing.” “What was that,” miniscule-towel-woman asked, “you breathe into him?  That’s a lovely thought.”  “Well, I do,” I responded.  “We all do.”  And there it was:  we. all. do.

I realize there is much out of my control, which is oftentimes why I refrain from watching the news, reading the paper and do a daily dodge of Yahoo News clips.  Because here’s the thing: bullets, terror and hatred are out there.  They’re in every country and every city on this great big, blue planet.  And when we hear of them and see the faces of those hurt or killed by them, I believe something Divine is silenced within us…something that inherently whispers goodness and tells us we’re more.

I’ll remember that Divine voice then next time a terror plot is foiled or carried out, the next time someone is trafficked, the next time a life is senselessly taken, the next time skin color is a reason for profiling, the next time a child is abused for being “different”, the next time a newborn is dumped in a trashcan, and the next time one person’s trauma is put upon another through acts of violence or emotional indifference.

I’ll remember.

And then I’ll remind myself that while I may not be able to change the hearts of the man wielding a machete in Nigeria or the woman setting her newborn alight in New Jersey, I can choose how and what I breathe into others.

I can choose kindness and love, instead of malice and hatred.

I can choose grace and forgiveness, instead of frustration and hostility.

I can choose Fullness instead of fear and life instead of death.

And if I breathe goodness into you, and you breathe it into others, and so on and so forth, then perhaps we will be the paddles which shock emotional hearts into rhythm. And perhaps then that Divine voice, our Divine voice, will whisper once more.

Our circle might seem small and our impact even smaller, but if we don’t act for fear that our actions won’t be enough, we extinguish our flame before it has even met the breath of opposition.

Make the choice to act.

Breathe Truth, light, Fullness and love into those who cross your path.

Be changed.

And then do this…

ask that they might be, as well.

The curse of looking happy

Only if it's the "fruit" of contentment

Only if it’s the “fruit” of contentment.

You’ve heard it before, “Well, [insert appropriate subject pronoun here] look(s) happy”. And so they are pronounced as such.  We go about our way.  They often go home and cry.  We too easily forget that smiles are often a coaxed response of self, not Soul.  In that way, they don’t equate to happiness that exists; oftentimes, they equate to happiness one hopes we believe exists.

I write this because I have a contagious smile.  It has opened doors and closed them gracefully behind me and it has also led others to believe that I am boundlessly happy at all times.  I was recently told this: “You’re always happy, Dani.  That’s a wonderful thing!” As I sat there perplexed by her comment, I asked myself, what is wonderful about that?

If I have learned anything, it’s that we were gifted a spectrum of emotion for a reason.  Every emotion is valid and deserves to be felt deeply, even sadness.  But many are uncomfortable with that.  We’re fed images and stories of others who “laugh through pain” and “smile through tears” and somehow that abnormality becomes what’s expected.

A dear friend told me in conversations past that, “an apple tree can no more grunt out an orange than an orange tree can grunt out an apple.”  That’s not what’s inside them.  So that’s not what will be manifest outside them.  As humans, we are a bit more complex than fruit trees, which complicates the matter a bit, because we can be wading waist deep in despair and still grunt out the” fruit” of happiness:  a smile.

Honestly, I think this goes deeper, much deeper, than we realize.  And since I’m a heart and soul excavator, I’m unafraid to search those depths.  I believe there is a certain discomfort for others when our feelings are not in line with theirs, like we might upset the balance of their happiness if we anchor into our sadness.  Or, a greater discomfort, that our anchoring into that sadness, makes them more aware of their own.

Take this example: last week we hosted a visitor from Brazil.  During a long car ride, R had an emotionally-charged phone conversation with a manager of ours.  My chest began to tighten and I seriously thought of making a run for it when he came to a rolling stop.  You see, I don’t deal well with words spoken loudly or harshly (actually, let’s be honest, I don’t deal with conflict well. Period.), so my immediate reaction was to shut down and find the nearest exit.  L, our visitor, was distressed, as I turned inward and became notably quiet, to which she asked, “Dani, can we just make the time nice?  I’m only going to be here a few days…can you just be happy and normal again?”  I thought about that and about the self-sacrificing person I have been for most of my life and responded:

No, I can’t.  I’m upset right now and it’s okay to be upset.  I’m not going to pretend that I’m feeling something I’m not to make everyone else feel okay.  I need to feel what I’m feeling in this moment so I can move past it.

And that was that: feelings were felt, subsequently moved through, and richer days followed.  My world didn’t end because I was sad, but in that moment, perhaps she felt hers might.

A few days ago I had another conversation.  It went like this:

P: “So, how are you?  I thought I was going to have to gather a search party!”

Me: “Well…I’ve been pretty sad lately.  You know this time of year is hard for me.”

P: “It is?  Why?  I thought you loved Christmas!?!”

Me: “I do, but this time of year everyone is out with their children making memories and creating traditions and I miss mine.  I miss the ‘would be’ of them and it makes me sad.”

P: “Well, I think you just need to work yourself past that.”

Me: “I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with being sad.  I want to feel it and feel it deeply.  If I do that, I’ll be able to get past it.  For now.”

And the conversation continued.  You see, she didn’t want me to feel sad.  My sadness made her uncomfortable because there was nothing she could do about it.  But if I moved past it, often by walking around it rather than through it, she would have nothing to feel uncomfortable about.

A few months ago, a beautiful friend wrote me this:

Dani, it is curious that when I read your replies on my iPad, a red heart appears at the end. On my computer, I see a heart with the less than symbol and a 3. I believe your heart is greater than 3, through the heartache you have suffered and your choice not to allow pain to define you.

I had noticed the less than symbol and the 3 but I hadn’t made that connection until her words brought me the much needed heart treasures of perspective and Light.  I know my pain doesn’t define me, neither does my sadness, or anger, or frustration or jealousy.  And I would much rather my face be a canvas painted by the raw emotion of Heart, than the domesticated emotion of expectation.

There is purpose in pain and sacredness in sadness.  When we allow ourselves the gifts of emotion, we open ourselves up to a better understanding of Soul.  So, the next time you see a smile, don’t assume it’s the fruit of happiness. And, especially during this Season of outward celebration, remember the inward suffering of those who received that diagnosis, are struggling without that/those loved one(s), or are complexly lost in a found place.  Extend some grace to yourself and those around you.  And remember: the world won’t come to an end if you let yourself feel, but your world might if you don’t.

Unless you extend your heart, do away with expectations, and ask.

Unless you extend your heart, do away with expectations, and ask.

When you needed a neighbour, was I there?

There is a lot that happens around the world we cannot control. We cannot stop earthquakes, we cannot prevent droughts, and we cannot prevent all conflict, but when we know where the hungry, the homeless and the sick exist, then we can help.  – Jan Schakowsky

Below you will read bloomingspiders’ very first guest post. My friend, Lizzi, has started a campaign called Kick Cancer’s Ass and is writing in exchange for contributions to a very worthy cause (you can read all about it here). Either directly or indirectly, we have all been affected by Cancer, and I applaud Lizzi for using her platform and gifts to raise awareness and encourage donations. I will return in a couple of weeks, but until then…pull up some couch, wrap your hands around a warm mug of cider, and settle in (oh, and consider pledging your support,as well). Now, without further ado, I give you, Lizzi:

The Homeless bug me.

That they exist at all in Western society is ridiculous; and testament to any number of corruptions and imperfections and levels of greed and selfishness in The System. But equally, I suppose, there are groups and institutions in place to try to support them, and if (for whatever reason) these Homeless are unable or unwilling to access them and stay off the streets, then they’re going to remain an unsightly and unwelcome part of our society.

They’re going to be there in shop doorways with their mean-looking dogs and their grubby sleeping bags and their grimy unwashedness, asking for hand-outs or spare change.

And that bugs me.

It bugs me because each time I encounter a person like this, I get slammed headlong into a wall of my own judgement.

‘The Homeless’ – that sweeping category which brings to mind all the stereotypes I just mentioned, and depersonalises each member of that group to the point where we as a society (in large part) and I as an individual can walk past a person in the street, can hear them calling out their need to me, and can just be irritated that they’ve highlighted the disparity between our wealth statuses, and that I’m being silently damned by my lack of response.

It sucks.

There are things which I tell myself are good (enough) reasons to keep walking:

“I’m in a hurry today”

“I don’t have any ‘spare’ change”

“I am a lone woman – it might not be safe”

“What if they just spend it on drugs or alcohol?”

“What if they’re just scamming?”

“Other people have clearly given them something – they’ll be okay”

My reasons suck, and they leave me very convicted that I’m not yet evolved enough as a person to rest easy with my own conscience. There is work to be done in me, if I will engage in doing it, and I think I need to. I often say (or write) things like ‘together we’re stronger’ or ‘we all belong to each other’, and I profess to believe those things. I do believe them. I just need to stop acting like I don’t.

Because homelessness doesn’t stop someone being a person, and that’s the bit I sometimes often neglect to remember. I bring my judgey attitude instead and imagine all the awful things and use them as an excuse, if I don’t just let myself off the hook entirely with a ‘higher priority than stopping to help’ reason.

It’s not my place to judge, and it’s certainly not ‘letting myself off the hook’ to avoid acts of compassion. Yes, it’s important to remain safe, and I wouldn’t (as a lone woman) stop for someone if there was no-one else around, because that’s common sense – but the instances I’m talking about are in broad daylight in busy streets. I keep walking, and it does me no credit.

I recently saw a video which made me really angry. We were in church, and the vicar showed it to us as an example of how (as a society) we value status and appearance above people. In it, an actor dressed as a homeless man collapsed to the pavement, coughing, in the middle of a busy street. He then lay there, not moving. No-one rushed to help him. No-one even stopped to ask if he was okay. They just kept walking by, their eyes sliding over him and away again as they carried on with their days. The subtitles showed a time-stamp which moved onwards and onwards as people looked at him (if they bothered to notice him at all) and walked away.

Then the same man, this time dressed in a suit, as a businessman, was shown collapsing in the same manner, on the same street (on a different day, or at a different time) and people immediately started going over, and others stopped to check that he was receiving help before walking on.

I was angry at the attitude of people who would so readily allow their negative preconceptions to prevent them from reaching out to another human being in need. I was angry because their assumption that a homeless person lying flat on the floor calling for help was just ‘doing what homeless people do’, whereas a businessman clearly had no place lying on the floor. I was angry that the stereotypes we hold are so strong that they blind us to the plight of another human being – a precious soul with likes and dislikes and interests and family and pet-peeves and big problems and little niggles and a past and a future – and they allow us to completely, utterly ignore them when they need help.

I was angry at ‘Homelessness’.

And I was angry at myself, because I know, deep down, that I probably wouldn’t have stopped either.

Don’t get me wrong – I try to do my bit. I give to a local food bank; I sometimes buy food for a homeless person in preference to giving them cash; I buy the homeless magazine which gets published in England. But I still judge. I still look at a person in need and make a call on whether or not they’re deserving of my money or my time or my intervention, based on their appearance.

That’s not the ‘together we’re stronger’ I want to display – one with provisos and conditions.

That’s not the ‘we all belong to each other’ I want to buy into – one with exclusions and expectations.

That’s not the ‘love for your fellow human’ that I want to demonstrate.

When you are sick or hungry or lost or alone or imprisoned or hurting or just struggling, and you need a neighbour, I want to be able to say “Yes – I will be there.”

And it shouldn’t matter to me who ‘you’ are.

Lizzi

Lizzi is a Deep Thinker, Truth-Teller and seeker of Good Things. She’s also silly, irreverent and tries to write as beautifully as possible.

She’s living the life of Silver Linings and *twinklysparklygoodness* because two miscarriages and a subsequent diagnosis of spousal infertility will rather upset anyone’s applecart. She borrows other people’s children in the meantime.

At the moment, she’s trying to help kick cancer’s ass by ‘selling’ her writing in exchange for donations to your favourite cancer charity. Give her a hand, if you will, and get in touch if you want her to write for you.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Considerings

Twitter: https://twitter.com/LRConsiderer

Google+:  https://plus.google.com/u/0/+LizziR/posts

Pintrest: http://www.pinterest.com/LizziConsiderer/

The Secret Keepers

My friend and recovering Secret Keeper, Karen Perry, has written a heartrending account of childhood sexual abuse and its tentacles of secrecy and shame. My comment to her post was this:

“Thank you for this…and for declaring: You’re not alone and you don’t have to be a secret keeper anymore.

I decided, just yesterday, that I will finally be writing a piece about my rape. I have never done so, but was asked to submit to another site and that is what’s been heavy on heart and soul. I’ve been so scared, for so long, to let my hands write out the words of acts done to me. I’ve been so scared to let myself sit in that truth and yet know…that I am a survivor. That I have worth. And that those soul-searing thrusts didn’t make me less, they made him less.

Thank you for your courage, Karen, and for helping me find my own.”

I never ask, but please share this, dear reader.  It’s important that we are Secret Keepers no more.  It’s important to those who suffer(ed) abuse (and for those who love them) to not only survive…but to thrive.

With heart, healing and hope,
Dani

Speaking up for Gender Equality: “If not me, who? If not now, when?”

All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for good men and women to do nothing. –Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

Image courtesy of www.imaginepeace.com

Image courtesy of http://www.imaginepeace.com

I turn 35 in nine days and, as is customary for this time of year, I take some heart notes on where I am and, more importantly, who I am.  I’d like to say that I have it together.  That I know every scar and tear in my soul’s heart, but that would be a lie.  And I don’t lie.  Not anymore.

This past year my thoughts have drifted over the length of who I am.  I have chosen my emotional metric to be strides taken, words spoken and moments of self shared.  I have looked beyond my shell to the soft center of my personhood.  And there…I have found pearls.  Among them sits this:

I am a woman.

And blessed to be so.

I recently watched a speech given by UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, for a campaign called HeForShe.  It is a global movement calling for gender equality.  It is also a formal invite to men to take part in this discussion and to be ambassadors of change within their hearts and homes, cities and countries.

I want men to take up this mantle, so that their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice.  But also so that their sons can have permission to be vulnerable and human too, reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned, and in doing so, be a more true and complete version of themselves. 

-Emma Watson

While many have signed in soul ink since the campaign launched, others have sought to reeducate the masses through an already prevalent and prejudicial gender narrative.  There were character attacks on Ms. Watson and threats made to her person.  As well as renewed enthusiasm toward the angry bitch theory that has plagued the feminist community since its conception.

I can tell you that I have never identified as a feminist.  I have never liked the word and have always found it laced with exclusivity instead of dripping with needed inclusivity.  Because here is the issue:  if inequality is the problem, women and men must work together to solve it.  It is not enough for me to speak and write about the gender imbalance to other women, men must be a part of the dialogue, as well.

I realize that I am privileged in ways I never understood before.  I am a straight, white, middle-class, Christian, cisgender female living in a country where I have rights, worth and power.  I am given access to platforms because it is often determined I deserve them.  And I am given access to locations because it is often assumed I belong there.

I am one of the lucky ones.  I See that.  I was not deemed unworthy by my parents when I was born female.  I was not subject to the horrors of female genital mutilation or forced to marry when I was still a child.  I was not sold into slavery, denied access to education or told I would go only so far in life because of my womanhood.

I have been born to privilege.

Many have not.

I have always believed in equality, humanity and crossing divides, but I have not always spoken up.  I was afraid:  afraid of being cataloged, criticized and critiqued.  But here’s what happens when you’re nine days from 35:  you realize that saying nothing is synonymous with saying that it’s okay, that it isn’t an issue, and that it isn’t worth the dialogue.

Having this platform, for me, is a privilege, wrapped in silver, dipped in gold and rolled in diamonds.  And with privilege comes responsibility.  So this is me taking mine:

I am an “inadvertent feminist”.

I am not a “man-hater”.  I am not “aggressive”.  I am not “power-hungry”.  And I am not “a bitch with an agenda”.   I am, however, a bit bossy, a bit enraged, and wholly invested in this campaign for human rights.

I suppose if I were a child of the 50’s I would have been lying in front of tankers and placing daisies in gun barrels.  But I’m not a child of the 50’s.  I was born in 1979 and I am writing this in 2014.  In that span of time, much has changed.  And, sadly, much has not.

In Ms. Watson’s speech she declared, “It is time that we all perceive gender on a spectrum, instead of two sets of opposing ideals”.  She closed with the following thoughts and I will close with them as well:

If you believe in equality, you may be one of those inadvertent feminists I spoke of earlier, and for this I applaud you.  We are struggling for a uniting word, but the good news is, we have a uniting movement.  It is called HeForShe.  I’m inviting you to step forward, to be Seen and to ask yourself, If not me, who?  If not now, when?

I realize this post is a tiny pebble tossed into a very deep well.  For more depth and further information on HeForShe and the campaign for gender equality click here.

And please, watch Ms. Watson’s speech in its entirety below.

One last thing: this song was too perfect not to post.  Enjoy!!

The T Word: Transgender

You don’t get to decide the truth. Other people have their own experiences, just as valid. This is easy to forget. Your slice of life seems so large and unmistakable, like a mirage of wholeness from where you stand. But it is your job to know better and not confuse your small piece for the whole, even if you sometimes forget. Life is big—much bigger than just yours. This is the only note to self: other people are real. That’s all there is to learn. 

— Frank Chimero – The Only Note To Self

At an event earlier this month, I sat reading over the only flyer available: an advertisement for The New Three Tenors.  As I glanced over the neon page, I saw two sandled feet standing inches from where I sat.  I found the feet peculiar, noting that the toes weren’t bare but layered with seamed stockings, and followed them until they took a lengthy pause outside the men’s room.

The figure, dressed in a black ill-fitting suit, had broad shoulders and legs as thin as jump rope.  I looked further and saw a black purse, worn at the edges; brown hair, thin like gossamer; and glasses, square-rimmed and smart.

While I gathered my things, the figure crossed my path once again, this time walking around me to hold open the ladies’ room door.  I said “thank you” and saw her weathered hands, then heard her deep voice in reply.  As I walked through the door, I looked at her…cobbling together her frame, her hands, her voice and the way she looked away when I Saw her.  Suddenly, her long pause in front of the men’s room made sense:  she was transgender.

The National Center for Transgender Equality defines transgender as “a term for people whose gender identity, expression or behavior is different from those typically associated with their assigned sex at birth.”  In other words, being biologically male, but self-identifying as female and vice versa.

We have the tendency to catalog the people we see, often by gender followed by any number of sub-catalogs:  attractiveness, body type, level of friendliness, assumed personality type, etc. As those who identify as transgender may not fit our internal catalog system, we may be left feeling stymied and thus catalog them in the following way: Other.

Whenever I look at a person I remember that she or he is an iceberg.

Only one-tenth of an iceberg’s volume is above water; as with us, its true form and balance of content lie beneath its surface.  If all we see when we look at a person is the layer of skin stretched over muscle and bone, then we don’t really See.  Our True shape is only visible beneath our blue veil, but most don’t go to those depths.

Perhaps they don’t want to.

Perhaps they’re afraid to.

I recently went to those depths with a dear friend.  She is tried and true, remarkable and resilient.  She is what everyone hopes for in a confidant:  open-hearted, clear-minded and stalwart in soul.  She has been happily married for 33 years and through that union has been blessed with four living children.  She is a giver of kindness, a doer of good, and a lover of people.  She is also transgender.

Because of her desire to walk in her truth, she has lost friends, been ostracized, vilified, and more recently, fired from a job where she put in three plus decades of service.  All of this because they choose to see the skin stretched over muscle and bone, nothing more.

On October 17, a pastor and fellow blogger, John Pavlovitz, published a post titled “The Lost Christian Art of Giving a Damn”.  In it he wrote:

We’ve stopped seeing people, (especially those we disagree with or who disagree with us), with the kind of softness and compassion that should mark us as followers of Jesus; the deep empathy that comprises a clear calling upon our lives.

I would like to extend his words even further, past Christianity, to our master status: that of human beings.  It should not matter if someone is black or white, gay or straight, trans or gender conforming, Jew or Muslim.  People are people.  We all deserve to be Seen, where we are, as we are.

Often we are touched only by what touches us.  I am a prime example of this: I only understood the horrors of rape once I experienced them, I only understood the heartache of pregnancy loss once I had my first, and I only understood the injustices and discrimination the trans community faces once I befriended a transgender woman.

It is easy to let our hearts break for ourselves and for our own suffering.  But the true test of our humanity is letting our hearts break for others and letting our empathy and gifts make a difference in their lives.  It is not enough to be a friend in the dark.  You and I have been called to be friends, advocates and Seers in the light of day.

The next time you see someone transgender, look at them and truly See. Perhaps dare to smile or even say, “hello”.  They are not the bogeymen they’ve been made out to be.  They are not “its”, “abominations”, “freaks”, or “mistakes”.  And they are certainly not “Other”.

They are human beings. So here’s some heartfelt advice:

Treat them as such.

P.S.  To the woman I crossed paths with in the ladies’ room:  I find you brave.  I find you lovely.  And I See you.

Additional information can be found at:

http://ai.eecs.umich.edu/people/conway/TS/TS.html

http://www.apa.org/topics/lgbt/transgender.aspx

http://www.jenniferboylan.net/

Cruel Beauty

**This fictional story contains delicate themes (e.g. bullying/coming of age sexuality/rape) and coarse language.  If you are sensitive or averse to either, please refrain from reading.**

I am a keeper of secrets. Not just the hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck kind, but the kind that make you want dive into the peanut butter jar and eat marshmallow fluff with a spoon. I’ve never been pretty. I’m the girl who stands in the mirror, towel on her head, pretending to be beautiful: Disney-princess-beautiful with long-flowing tresses, big eyes, and a perfectly heart-shaped mouth. I know I’ll never be her, but I dream to be.

I live in the country; I’ve lived here all my life. I spend my days wading through corn fields and my nights down by the creek. I like to listen to the silence there, to all the things hidden in it. I like to bring my diary too. I write about the things I hear and quietly muse how it would feel to catch my name dancing on the wind. The wind that kisses and caresses. The wind that doesn’t harm.

I write about sad things too. Like what Swan Anderson told everyone last week about my being a curse. That ugly people like me shouldn’t be allowed to live. I write about it because I know it’ll hurt less if I put it down on paper. If somehow I peel it off myself and plaster it to the pages of a book that can be closed.

Swan is one of those girls who was gifted with good looks and vexed with bad manners. She’s beautiful. She knows it. And so does everyone else in Drexel. Because of it she gets anything she wants. Her heart is black though, I’m sure of it. Just like I’m sure I hate tomato juice and that strawberries make me sneeze.

I watched her once after gym class, parading around half-naked in the locker room. She was talking about Nick Berry, the cutest boy in school and with whom she’d recently “done it”. Everyone hung on her every word but all I could pay attention to were her breasts. They were perfect−barely touched by the finest hairs, and transparent on both sides. Her nipples, deep pink and button-sized, were unlike my own which are huge and fleshy, like the breasts of the women in the nudie pictures my father hides in his chest of drawers.  I’ve always found them ugly too.

Swan has never talked to me. We’ve sat next to each other in homeroom nearly every year−Anders before Anderson and all that−but she’s never uttered a word. The closest she has come to acknowledging my existence is that cool flip of her hair. She almost looks at me when she does it. Almost. I get a faint whiff of her strawberry shampoo every time and afterward secretly pinch my outer thigh, careful not to let her see my silent reprimand.

Everyone loves Swan. Teachers praise her. Parents want to adopt her. Boys want to date her. Girls want to be her. But me, I simply want to survive her. I had a dream last night that she got run over by Willis Watkin’s tractor. She didn’t die, but the accident left her mangled, unrecognizable really. In my dream, I felt a frisson of joy and then a cold, deep stab of guilt at her misfortune. But then I woke up and realized she was still inimitably beautiful and horrible, so I cried myself to sleep.

I took off toward the creek this morning trying to forget. It was near dawn and I knew my father wouldn’t miss me.  Too much drinking.  Again.

I cut behind the Miller’s farm and followed the long fence to where it ends and climbed over. The grass was still somewhat wet and slimy beneath my sneakers, but the air was light, crisp even, for a summer morning. I hadn’t been in the Miller’s house for over a year. Not since Sil died. It didn’t seem fair for her to be taken so young: 37, full of life and love. She’d had a massive heart attack eight days after the birth of their fourth son, Jack. They found her prone, wearing her ruffled apron, the green telephone receiver just out of reach.

I babysat for them off and on until Mr. Miller, Sheriff Miller’s son, decided Swan would be a better choice. She is the first of nine siblings, a child-rearing cognoscente if there ever was one. “Surely, with all her experience, she’ll be able to handle my boys…better,” he told me. “I hope you understand, Margaret.” Sure. I understood perfectly. For a second, I had a wicked thought about Mr. Miller. But before it and my anger consumed me, I turned around and walked home.

The Miller’s property backs right up to Thunder Creek, but isn’t part of it. Their property is, however, one of only two ways to access it and since I’d been their babysitter and am not a known deviant, they’ve let me come and go as I please. They probably take pity on me, like most others do. A person knows when he’s being pitied, I assure you. There’s something unmistakable in the flattening of one’s lip and the squint of one’s eye when they’re trying too hard to be happy around you−like if they don’t, you’ll find the nearest bridge from which to hurl yourself. It’s ridiculous really, but then so are they.  Turns out ugly doesn’t trump ridiculous. Who knew?

The creek, calm and steady, was just beginning to warm from the dawning sun when I arrived. I closed my eyes to its music and let my body gravitate to my favorite rock, the huge one nestled beneath the wedlock tree, where my haunches had worn a perfectly-positioned settee.

Everything about this place is lovely. If I were an artist I could try to do it justice, but since I’m not, I just let its beauty wash over me. There are trees everywhere, both skinny and fat; and rocks−of all different shapes, sizes and colors−pepper the creek’s outer edges. Farther off there is a small sunflower field, which looks too perfect to be natural, and a wooden shack the fishermen used when the fishing was good. From what I’ve heard, it was also a prime make out place, but it’s been abandoned for years, the lower quarter now giving way to the creeping kudzu.

As I looked, I saw a strange light coming from the shack, like prisms dancing on the panes and swore I heard a scream. I decided to investigate since the odds were quite favorable that someone “up to no stinkin’ good,” as Pap always said, would be more scared of me than me of him. Besides, I hadn’t had the Cook’s tour of Thunder in a while and convinced myself, and my erratically beating heart, that now seemed like a perfect time. I remembered my father’s words: “Don’t worry, Mags. Wait long enough and you’ll find your fear.” And I had found it; it was skulking within me making the underside of my knees sweat and my bottom lip quiver.

I thought of how my father despised me as I crept. How he was a small man−not in stature, but in character−who had never forgiven me my mother’s death. How he held me responsible for it. Me, who took my first breaths as she took her last. Me, stuck with a drunk of a father who wouldn’t give the slightest damn if I simply vanished. Who would talk you dead for twenty-five hours with no bathroom breaks. Who, after deciding to take one step down the wrong path, decided to take another and then another and then another. Cruel he could be, but mostly he was just inconvenient and foul− a weighty addition to the laundry list of why-to-leave-this-hellhole-of-a-town.

I was cut by another scream, followed by sounds of struggle, as I eased my way alongside the shack and then to standing beneath its window. I saw him first, one hand over her mouth, the other between her legs. His body, moving grotesquely into hers in rapid bursts, was rigid with wrongdoing and heavy with shame.  “Is−this−how−you−like−it−pretty−girl?” he asked, then answered, “Yeah−this−is−how−you−like−it.”

Her white panties circled her ankles and her head shook back and forth, occasionally smacking the filthy floor, finally breaking her butterfly clip as she fought him. But it was no use. He was too strong and too crazed. He began to hit her, to bash her slight frame, and that’s when I heard a scream, recognizing it seconds later as my own. I started hammering the glass shouting, “Get off of her! Get off!”, and hurled every foul word I knew at him, calling him a shitdickass, or something like that, as I ran around the side of the shack screaming that I’d kill him. “I’ll kill you,” I promised, through a rush of adrenaline and moxie, and then was nose to chest with him, his open fly and his horrified expression. Son of a bitch, I thought, looking into the ruddy face of Mr. Miller, and behind him, to a cowering ball of flesh: Swan Anderson.

For every Goliath, there is a David, but staring into Mr. Miller’s eyes I realized I was no David. I took a step back as he raised his fist, and felt a warm trickle run down my inseam and pool in my polka-dotted socks, as I waited for its weight across my face.  “You leave her out of this,” Swan warned, trying to pull her panties up her shaking legs. “You touch her and I’ll tell everyone about this−your father, your children. I’ll tell them everything,” she seethed. “I’ll even go to the graveyard and tell Sil.” Something in him broke then. He looked around the shack−suffused with heat, sweat and regret−to Swan, and then to me as he lowered his arm, stepped back and disappeared into the woods.

“You won’t tell anyone about this, Margaret,” Swan said, as her teeth chattered against her bent knees. She wouldn’t look me in the eye and kept smoothing her hair and her dress. I stared at her in disbelief, not for what she asked me to do, but that she said my name. It seemed a small victory to hear it pass her lips. Somewhere deep down I waited for her to melt at the utterance of it, like she’d warned many times before.  Nope, I thought, and shook my head back and forth.  “Good,” she whispered.

I stood in the doorway, not knowing where to be or how to act, as she walked toward me dusting herself off. She pinched her pale cheeks, which quickly came to life, and brushed her hand through her hair as she looked at me and walked away.  The faint smell of strawberries lingered for a moment as I pinched my outer thigh, not as a reprimand, but as a prayer, as a keeper of secrets.

**I wrote this story last year, yet until yesterday only one other soul had read it.  Obviously, it’s not what you’d expect from bloomingspiders, but it is an artistic expression of deep themes, as are all of my posts.  In the future, I plan to post pieces that may stretch and scare us both.  I hope you will welcome that, but if you don’t I understand.  My ultimate goal as a bloomingspider is to spin truth to net hearts.  Rape and bullying are deep-searing truths for many.  And while they may not be yours, I pray you’ll be sensitive to those whose they are.  I close with the sacred blessing of my dear friend, Charissa Grace:

“Do justice
Love mercy
Walk humbly”

What a dying mother taught me about living

You may have seen her in the news. And if you haven’t, you likely will.

Her name is Ashley Bridges. She’s 24. And she’s dying.

Ashley and two-month-old daughter, Paisley, in their California home.  Image courtesy of CNN.

Ashley and two-month-old daughter, Paisley, in their California home. Image courtesy of CNN.

What caught my attention, other than the precious image of Ashley and Paisley, was the story’s title: “Mother’s Ultimate Sacrifice for Newborn”.

I thought of those words. I thought of the daily and hourly sacrifices mothers make. Then thought of the sacrifices mothers-in-heart make for babies that will often never be: round after round, poke after poke, loss after loss. And I had to know hers.

I watched a short news clip about Ashley: how last November she found out she was expecting, just 10 weeks before being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a malignant bone cancer. How the doctors told her to terminate her pregnancy and start treatment. And how she’d immediately refused.  Her response was complex in its simplicity:

“There’s no way I could kill a healthy baby because I’m sick.”

Ashley kept herself as healthy as possible.  She made plans, tried to live normally, and shortly after reaching 8 months gestation was given another diagnosis: a terminal one. The cancer had spread. Delaying chemotherapy had robbed her of time. And hope.  Her doctors suggested inducing labor, followed by aggressive chemotherapy, but warned it would gift her a year, if that.

So there she sits, as the camera zooms in: blue-eyed, lovely, and dying, with little Paisley nestled sweetly at her side. I watch, feeling guilty for my intrusion, and wonder:

Will she ever realize what a supreme sacrifice her mother made?
And more…
Will she ever understand how it’s possible to be loved that much?

As the extra chambers of my mother’s heart swell, I hear the answer. It taps at the door of my soul and solemnly whispers: Yes. She will understand. When she is a mother.

The truth is this: whether we believe it or not, whether we accept it or not, we are all terminal.  Sure, we may not walk the same path as Ashley. And perhaps our hourglasses will have a few more turns than hers, but we all have an expiration date. Her doctors know hers, just as the Great Physician knows ours.

I don’t pretend to know cancer intimately. And I don’t pretend to have the answers. But maybe Ashley does. Maybe living in and loving through every second is hers. Maybe being here, heart-tethered to this space, this moment, and this unique “blessing” is hers.

Those answers don’t mean she hasn’t cried, cursed and cowered. I’m sure she has. But she is confronting her choice, her ultimate sacrifice, with a lion’s heart…a mother’s heart.  And her answers are her own.

Her closing comment about Paisley is heartrending in its clarity:

“Maybe I’m not supposed to be here and she is.”

Maybe not, Ashley.

But know this: you personify the greatest and most noble of gifts: love.

And that gift will outlive us all.

If you’d like to see the interview, click here

And if you’d like to donate to Ashley’s Recovery Fund, follow this link: https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/wl34/save-smash-ashley-s-recovery-fund