Must be an American

Sitting in JFK a few hours from boarding a plane to move to England. The last few days as I've packed up all my belongings, I couldn't stop a flood of emotions and thoughts about my American identity and who I'll be (and how I'll be seen) when I'm no longer living in America.

I visited England for the first time in December of 1992. I have a vivid memory of attending a holiday service in a beautiful old church in Cambridge. A woman was walking around near the worship area with a video camera. (In 1992 those were bulky and conspicuous) A lady sitting in front of me said in a disdainful tone, “she must be an American.” I immediately slid down in the pew, lowered my head and made sure to not speak so my accent wouldn't betray me. 

I’m not sure what message was delivered from the pulpit that day. But the message my 18-year-old self received then was that being an American was something to be embarrassed about…that my people were unrefined and out of place in such a dignified setting. Who knows if the woman in the church with the camera was American. And certainly that judge-y woman was not the best representative of the English... But I did carry that insecurity about how people (especially maybe educated, fancy people) see Americans. 

Fast forward 25 years, and I now find myself moving to England and married to a British citizen. The same one I visited 25 years ago. But that’s a different story. This is the story of me leaving my homeland. And my feelings about it. 

I know sometimes Americans are a seen as a joke. I remember backpacking through Europe and meeting Americans who had put Canadian Flags on their bags so people would like them more... And truthfully, I’m not always proud of American policies and practices. And some of our history is indefensible. Sadly, I’m certain future politicians will make mistakes as well. But my story is distinctly an American one. Good, bad and ugly. I am who I am today because of my American upbringing and lifestyle. 

I am the granddaughter of Appalachian people from West Virginia and Kentucky who moved to Ohio for industrial jobs. My grandparents married in their teens. As a child, I watched my paternal grandfather struggle with his own racism when my father married an African-American woman. I watched my maternal grandmother dance to Rocky Top on top of the bar in the bowling alley lounge. I grew up in a rental community in Ohio’s most dangerous city. I played t-ball. I went to vacation bible school and church camp every summer. I was a girl scout. As a teen, my social life revolved around Youth Group and Marching Band. I took family vacations in cars to the Smokey Mountains and DisneyWorld. 

I was the first in my family to graduate from college. My dad retired from the Air Force. My first husband was a Marine. I taught high school near Yorktown, Virginia. I taught English to international students in LA. I opened my own business in Alabama. I was a PTA President and a Business Coach of the Year. I shuttled kids to play dates and after school activities. I started a somewhat self indulgent blog… 

I love country music. And Bon Jovi and Madonna. My favorite holidays are the 4th of July and Halloween. I believe you can make your dreams come true. I was taught to stand up for what you believe in and to fight injustice anywhere. And like my American idol, Dolly Parton, I know it’s okay to have a big, flashy personality if you have a big heart and generous spirit to go with it. 

So after reflection, my 43-year-old self has internalized a new message. I'm not leaving my identity behind at all. I'm taking my Appalachian ancestors and their dreams with me. I'm representing my people and forging a new future for myself. I'm engaging with the world the way I was brought up to- with curiosity and hope. And if I overhear someone in a my new hometown of Manchester referring to me with a, “she must be an American”, I am going to hold my head up high and say proudly, “she is…” 

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My Complicated Family Tree: Story of a Grateful Stepchild

Not too long after I separated from their father, my oldest daughter joked around saying she hoped if I ever got remarried the man wouldn't have kids. She said she didn't want to have any step siblings. When I asked why not, she replied, "Haven't you ever seen a fairy tale?" I laughed. Then I pointed out that if I did get remarried, I would be the stepmom of the story. Which would make her and her sister the evil stepsisters. That blew her mind a little bit! Then she said perhaps the truest statement ever, "Yes, but you're not wicked. You're just overwhelming..." Fast forward a while and now this summer my girls will be getting a stepsister (they are no longer concerned she might be evil!) and I will become a stepmom.

And so not wanting to be too overwhelming, I decided to do a little research.  As I skimmed through descriptions of books written by experts and stepparents with all kinds of advice, it occurred to me. I already know quite a lot about best practices in stepfamilies. In fact, my childhood was kind of like a Master's level course on the subject. Both my parents had stepparents. I had stepparents. Even my stepparent had stepparents.

Now like everyone, I have some issues stemming from my upbringing. Because the adults in my life, like all other adults, had their faults. (I could list both my issues and their faults over a drink some time if you like) But I promise you that none of my issues stem from my parents' divorce or being part of a stepfamily. Because when it came to modeling the right way to blend families, the adults in my life were the very best. Here's some of what I learned: 

It is much easier for a child when all the important adults in their life seem to like each other. No one ever made me feel like there were sides to choose. They didn't even make it look hard to get along. A fact that now as an adult looking back, I can appreciate how difficult that must have been at times. But I have no memories of either of my parents ever saying anything bad about the other. My stepfather and father would go play basketball together. And while I had friends with divorced parents who had to have two of everything because their parents couldn't be in the same room together, in my family, we spent holidays and birthdays with anyone in town to celebrate: ex-husbands, new wives, grandparents from all sides with their 2nd (or 4th!) spouses. My uncle lived in a trailer in his ex-wife and her husband's yard for years to be close to my cousins. My father's mother and her 2nd husband were so close with my mom and my stepdad, you would have assumed they were one of their parents. And in a way, they were. 

The adults in my life growing up taught me that commitment makes a family. Not blood relationships. And once you've made a commitment to someone, you can change the marital status, but they are still your family. And their family is your family. And everyone is always welcome at the party. Crazy ex or not. And even when someone messes up in a big way, if they come back knocking on the door, then you let them in like the prodigal son. And this open, accepting family policy helped me to grow into an open, accepting human being. And I am grateful to my complicated family tree for that. 

As much as I appreciate and learned from all sides of my messy family tree, I am most thankful for the lessons taught to me by my stepfather and his family. Or rather my family on my stepfather's side. My mother married my stepfather when I was 7 years old and suddenly I was part of a huge family. He had 5 brothers and sisters, and they all had kids. My sister and I were the only stepchildren. And yet no one ever made us feel like we were any different from any other child in that family. My grandparents and aunts and uncles treated us the same way they treated all of their biological grandchildren and nieces and nephews. That sense of belonging was a blessing. 

My stepfather was only 20 years old when he married my mom. And my sister and I already had a dad. One who was a part of our lives. And yet for most of the year, we lived with our stepfather and our mom. Again, now as an adult, and future stepparent, I am beginning to appreciate the complexity and difficulty of his position. But as a child, I never sensed there was an issue. 

Because even though he didn't replace my dad, he was absolutely one of my parents. When I fell off my bike and needed stitches, he carried me to get help. He taught me how to drive. And  when I ran out of gas, he brought me some on the side of the road. When I got lost (which happened all too frequently!) I called him for directions. He coached my t-ball team and never seemed to mind that I spent all the games picking dandelions. He grounded me when I came home a few minutes past curfew. He came to every school event and band concert. He took me bowling. He read me stories. He played with me. Sometimes he yelled at me. But always he loved me. And he never asked for anything in return. Just like a real parent. 

And yet as much as he was absolutely a parent to my sister and me, we did not call him dad. Even as we called his parents grandma and grandpa, and his brothers and sisters aunt and uncle, we always called him by his name. If that bothered him, he never let it show. He certainly never made me feel guilty about it. But I always thought he deserved his own title. 17 years ago when my first niece was born, he got one. Papaw. And now my girls have 6 grandparents (soon to be 8) and yet they only have one Papaw. A papaw we all love. 

Grandma and Papaw with their grandchildren

Grandma and Papaw with their grandchildren

I am a grateful stepchild. Thankful for the lessons being a stepdaughter taught me. That family is a living, growing organism. And children need to feel the important adults in their lives like and respect one another. And there is room in the heart for so many. And when we add new members, we never need to replace or push out the old ones. Maybe just do some rearranging. Love is not a competition. And neither is parenting... 

 

 

 

My We the People

I became an American in Nagasaki, Japan. Well, not literally. I was literally born an American in 1974. But 23 years later, teaching English in Nagasaki, Japan, I found my American identity. I felt connected for the first time to the larger collective. The We the People. 

Prior to living in Nagasaki, my identity was tied to more local groups. Schools and church and family and friends. I do think I was proud to be from Ohio (Go Bucks!), but as a recent college grad who enjoyed feeling righteously indignant, when I thought or talked about "America" at all, it was most often to go on about what was wrong with it. And then I moved to a city our country had destroyed with an atomic bomb. 

Everyone there has a story about August 9, 1945. I will never forget the one the man in the picture below shared with me. He was a student in one of my classes. After he retired, he had decided to learn English. Because he loved America. And he had scars all over his back from flying glass blown out of windows in the blast radius outside of where everything had been obliterated. And he told me how after the bomb, his family hid in the mountains fearing the American troops coming into the city. Expecting the brutal treatment they knew conquering Japanese troops to inflict on their enemies. Instead, they were met with kindness (and chocolate!) by the American soldiers. In those first days after the bombing and in the rebuilding. I could hear his genuine affection for those American soldiers. And I was proud. The arguments about what my government had done and why fell away. In that moment, those soldiers from 52 years earlier became my we the people. I was proud on behalf of their actions. My American identity was born. 

And I've carried that with me for the last 20 years. That sense that I belong to a nation of good people with kind soldiers. And I've tried to be that kind of American. A kind one. 

After this election, listening to our new President's hateful rhetoric, I felt despondent. Untethered in a way that was surprising to me. It wasn't just that my candidate lost. That has happened before. This was not about policy disagreement. I felt like my American identity was being challenged. Because he did not represent me. Or the good people I thought made up our country.

 Apparently there are many, many people in America who have felt for years "forgotten." Like the government didn't represent them. Well now I know that to be a horrible feeling. To feel like you don't belong to our We the People. To feel unrepresented. It is disheartening. Luckily for me, the feeling didn't last long... 

me with two of the kindest Americans I know. At the Women's March in Birmingham, Alabama 

me with two of the kindest Americans I know. At the Women's March in Birmingham, Alabama 

There have been a lot of "Why I Marched" posts this last week. I honestly don't know exactly why I marched. I wasn't going to. I had a lot of things to do that day. But that morning I felt called to go. I asked my Dad to cover driving and picking up my girls to their events that day, and I set off on an hour and half journey to Birmingham about an hour and a half before the rally was set to start. So I don't know exactly Why I marched. But I do know why I am glad I marched. I found again my We the People.

The park outside of the Civil Rights Museum was packed with the biggest, most diverse crowd I've ever seen in Alabama. Apparently there were 5,000 marchers. They had been expecting a couple hundred. And it was a joyous day. I overheard someone say, "we're just preaching to the choir." Yes. Yes, we were. But sometimes you need to do that. Sometimes you need to see how big and beautiful your choir is. And how diverse. That day in Birmingham, and in photos from marches all over the world, I found again that I am part of a bigger collective. I do belong, and I am represented. But not by politicians. Because politicians and governments should reflect our We the People (and we should fight to make sure they do!), but they are not our We the People. I am represented by all the good people and each action they take to make our world a better place. 

I no longer feel untethered and unrepresented. My We the People are the Woman Marchers all over the world. My We the People are those who believe Black Lives Matter. My We the People are those who speak up for the rights of our LGBTQ friends. My We the People care about immigrants and refugees. My We the People want to take care of our planet. My We the People believe in science and in facts. My We the People value diversity. My We the People respect all religious beliefs. My We the People bring chocolate. My We the People are kind. And My We the People are a mighty number...  

The Space In Between...

This is another post where I don't know how to begin. Because I'm not sure where the story starts really. In some ways it starts in 1992 with a boy. Let's call him Steve (mostly because that's his name). And in some ways it starts in 2017 with a ring. Let's say it looks like this (because it does)...

That's my hand wearing the ring. And this is my engagement announcement of sorts. Because I'm going to marry the boy from 1992. This summer in 2017. In Ohio near where we met 25 years before while working at a camp together. And then my daughters (and my dog) and I are moving to Manchester, England where Steve is a Drama Professor. I know that's a lot of information to process. You see why I didn't know where to start? 

Let's go back to the ring. Isn't it lovely? When Steve gave it to me, he explained that the sparkly bit on one side represented our history, our relationship in 1992 and the sparkly bit on the other side was our present, our relationship now. And the two bits are joined by a silver band representing the 25 years in the middle that we carry with us, including our daughters. And that the ring isn't a complete circle, because we haven't arrived back where we started all those years ago. We are in a close, but different sparkly place. (A magical place with email and facetime! In 1992, when he returned home to England after that summer, we had to handwrite and mail letters. But I digress...) 

I love my ring. And the metaphor Steve created when he gave it to me. (Although his daughter thinks it's the sappiest thing she's ever heard!) But I want to expand on the metaphor. (Because I'm even sappier.) What makes this ring design work is the space in between the two sparkly bits. The space gives the diamonds room to shine. The ring looks delicate and precious because of the space. And at the same time, the space makes the ring more resilient, more able to grow and expand as my finger might. The space is what makes it beautiful and strong. 

My younger daughter told me she was glad it hadn't worked out with me and Steve in 1992 because it meant that she and her sister and Steve's daughter all got to be born. And she added she was glad it is working out now because she gets nice new family members. I told her I couldn't agree more. I don't regret for a second one minute of the space between those sparkly bits. Not to mention there were plenty of other sparkly bits over the last 25 years. And I am certain there will be many more. And what makes my whole life beautiful, and my spirit strong, is all of it. All of the space and all of the shiny. 

Right now my life is all about change. I'm in the process of selling my house and my business. I'm transitioning out of volunteer roles I've held for years. I'm preparing to move to a new country. And as I look back, I am so proud of the life I've lived. And thankful for all of the people who occupied the spaces with me. And I appreciate the highlights, the sparkly bits, all the more because of the space, the living, that surrounded them. Take my business, The Little Gym of Huntsville, for example. Opening it in 2007 and handing it over in 2017 are both beautiful highlights from my life in Huntsville, Alabama. Moments in time I will always treasure and remember. But those moments, those sparkly bits, only shine because of all the work that happened in the space between. All the bills I had to pay, all the staff meetings I had to run, all the marketing decisions I had to make, all the windows I had to clean. 

This time of transition is not all just nostalgic musings. I have a lot of work to do to facilitate all these life changes. Sometimes all the work feels overwhelming. But when my stress starts to rise, I try to remind myself that I am living in the space next to a sparkly bit. And that is not a bad place to be. That is the space after all where living takes place. The space that makes the beautiful moments shine and the space that supports the spirit as it grows.  

Stratford-Upon-Avon. June 2016. Steve, his daughter Eleanor, family friend Grace, my daughter Julia, me, and my daughter Alaina. 

Stratford-Upon-Avon. June 2016. Steve, his daughter Eleanor, family friend Grace, my daughter Julia, me, and my daughter Alaina. 

My children are listening...

So this morning my 9-year-old was laughing about a sign she had seen which made fun of Trump by calling him names. I started to tell her how mommy prefers we disagree with people on their policies and how we should engage in critical dialogue about their plans and actions, but I prefer we not actually call people names. To which she replied, "but Trump started it." I sighed. And I was disheartened a bit.

And so all the way to school this morning, I half heartedly talked to both girls about how people can disagree with us on things and that doesn't make them bad. But as I said, it was a half hearted attempt. Because as my daughter had said, Trump started it. And I feared that with all the hateful rhetoric now being so up front in american politics, I might be fighting a losing battle by asking my daughters to use respectful dialogue. And again, I was disheartened. 

Then after I dropped them off at school, I checked my email. My nearly 13-year-old daughter had sent me an email last night. Strange. I'm not usually on her social media list. In fact, I've promised to never comment publicly on her Instagram... but anyway, I opened the email to find she had sent me a poem she wrote with her friend. And that brings me to this moment. When I'm going to share the poem now with you all. Because she has been listening. And I could not be more proud of the message she has heard. And she has reminded me that despite all the negativity around them, kids will hear positive messages. So we have to keep saying them...and I am hopeful once again for our future... 

Humpty Trumpty

Humpty Trumpty’s mother turned on Fox News
Humpty Trumpty’s mother loved Donald’s views
The idea of a border wall sounded so great
It would keep her and her son Humpty safe

Humpty Trumpty sat on the wall
Humpty Trumpty had a great fall [into Mexico]
All of Mexico’s horses
And all of Mexico’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

Mexico’s leader assembled the humps
Gluing him together with quite a few bumps
They chucked him back over
Trump’s border wall
He was back in America
Humpty and all

So even though Humpty was full of hate
Mexico still found it in them to make him great [again]
So this is where many people hit quite a slump
You should be kind and respectful to everyone
Even Donald Trump [even though he’s a nutjob]

— By Dukie Momo & Jojo Pickles