My Grandmother Lived

Of all the things my mom did for me growing up, the one I'm the most thankful for is when she married us into a large, crazy family on Feb 6th, 1981. I was 7 years old and suddenly I had a step-father and new uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents. All of whom welcomed my sister and me and always treated us like family. Even saying "treated us like family" seems wrong. They didn't treat us like family, we were family. We are family.

And in the center of that family was my Grandmother, Nellie Austin. She died yesterday Dec. 13, 2014. And so this post is for her. And for my step-father and his 5 brothers and sisters who loved her. And for my sister and cousins who shared her with me. 

Grandma Nellie was not what you think of as a traditional grandma. She didn't sew or bake cookies. She didn't offer sage advice. She didn't solve problems. Truth be told, she sometimes caused problems. She was loud. She was confrontational. And she was real. And I hope to one day grow up to be just like her.

Grandma Nellie lived. She was not afraid of life. If there was music playing, she was on the dance floor. You always knew she was in the room. As a child, that was sometimes embarrassing. But as an adult, I find it admirable. She lived out loud. She did not sit in a corner worrying about what others thought or how she should act. She jumped up and danced. 

Grandma Nellie confronted society's norms. She loved and married James Austin, a black man, long before it was socially acceptable. She wore pants. She used curse words. She partied. And you knew what she thought of you. She lived by her own standards. And she loved her family. Of that, there was never any doubt.

Grandma Nellie was authentic. What you saw is what you got. And what I saw was a fierce, strong woman. A woman who loved without discrimination. A woman who danced. A woman who lived.

Nellie Lee Austin (Aug 28, 1936- Dec 13, 2014) Rest in Peace Grandma. 

 

For My Ferguson Cousins

I intentionally do not post about politics, religion  or other generally controversial topics online. In fact, I try to stick to amusing stories, funny pictures and optimistic statements. In part because I own a small business and don't want to offend any potential customer, but in a larger part because I've always tried to follow the advice of Saint Francis of Assisi, "Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words." 

Now the "gospel" in that advice has changed over time to mean "values" for me. But even though my concept of what I want to "preach" has changed, the core message of living what you believe through your actions has remained a guiding principle. I sincerely hope I have made enough intentional choices to reflect to those who know me that I value tolerance and diversity. But today, that doesn't seem to be enough. It seems necessary to use words. 

In response to the decision to not indict, Stephanie Jordan, a friend I admire a great deal, posted on Facebook, "Thank you for the invitation to keep the conversation going. Let's DO this then." And she moderated a very thoughtful discussion amongst her friends. What struck me is that I had nothing to say to add to the conversation. Those who know me will be able to tell you that it is a RARE occasion when I have nothing to say.

And as I thought about it more, I realized I had no vocabulary at the ready to join the conversation. I have truths I hold dear.  I have values that guide my actions. I know how to act respectfully.  I know how to seek out opportunities to experience and learn from genuine diversity. I know how to support my friends. I know how to not belittle or bully someone for their beliefs, or for any part of who they are. What I don't know how to do is to easily continue a genuine discussion about race problems in our country. But it is time to learn. It has become necessary to use words.

It occurs to me that perhaps one reason public discourse has become so polarizing, so extreme, is because good intentioned, moderate people stay out of the discussions. We believe our actions speak for themselves. Since we do not feel racist, we don't feel the need to enter into discussions of race. We like to believe we can change the world through good example and right actions. And I'm not saying that we can't, but maybe sometimes that example has to include naming things. Maybe the right action is to make it clear through words, that we too see the problems. They are not just the rantings of the inflamed. They are also truths that the middle see.

And so here are some necessary words I'd like on my record: I believe that we have overt and covert racism in this country and in our systems. I believe that white privilege exists for all white people whether we feel it or not. I believe that our criminal justice system is broken. I believe that good people join law enforcement. But I also believe that law enforcement officers need better training and a systemic culture shift.

And in trying to find my vocabulary to continue the conversation, I remembered another value of mine: I know that we are one big global family. Since I value that, I've been volunteering with AJ Jacobs and his Global Family Reunion (GFR) project to help people celebrate our one big family. And I'm realizing now that working on the GFR can help me continue the race conversation through a lens I've already been holding up...

We are all connected. Literally. Through blood and/or marriage the Global Family Reunion Project is connecting up the world. There is only one human race. This is not a belief; it is a fact. Now we have to decide how to act like a family. We are all cousins. We may not like all of our cousins. But shouldn't we have some responsibility to our family none the less? The age of tribalism is over.  It no longer needs to be us versus them. It need only be us. But what does that mean? How does that conversation go? How do we hold up our cousins in Ferguson? I honestly don't know yet. But I'd like to thank my friend for the invitation to keep the conversation going. Let's DO this then...

 

Proud to be from Whitehall: Ohio's most dangerous city

So my hometown of Whitehall, Ohio was recently ranked #1 on a list of Ohio's Most Dangerous Cities. I'm not sure if it was that dangerous when I grew up there or not. I do know that my mom still lives there, and when I visit, things seem about the same to me. So maybe it was. But let me share my thoughts on growing up there...

This is not going to be an "I made it out of there" story.
I do not think I am where I am today despite growing up in Whitehall, OH.
I think I am who I am today because I grew up in Whitehall, OH. 

I learned that the quality of your house or apartment has nothing to do with your character. I loved growing up in a duplex rental community. Loved my friends being so close we could play 10 houses down until dark because my parents could always reach me by yelling loudly out the door. Most of the adults I knew had not attended college. Some of my friends were raised by single parents. Some by grandparents. Many (including me) with a step-parent. But from what I saw, most of the adults worked hard and made the best lives they could for their families whatever their structure. 

I developed a sense of independence that has served me well my whole life. My friends and I walked all over the neighborhood. We walked to school, and we walked through the Beer Dock on the way home for candy. In junior high, I would take a bus with my friends to the mall and other places. I know I was able to do some of that because 30 years ago it was a safer, simpler time. However the ease of getting around town, and the independence that fostered, was enabled by the lower-income nature of Whitehall. We had public transportation for one thing. And we had a mixed-use urban community. Unlike my friends who lived in more affluent suburbs of Columbus. Those friends had nothing but nice houses on large lots near them. There were no stores to walk to and no bus to take anywhere.
  
I had fantastic teachers who instilled in me a love of learning.  Our schools may not have been the best equipped, but we had some really great teachers. After taking Dr. Bradshaw's History Seminar, I was honestly over-prepared for college the first year! And I learned first hand that a great education is not about money. It is about great teachers. 

I experienced the power of community.  I knew my neighbors. I knew my friends' parents. I felt supported and loved at Eastview United Methodist Church. I was part of the Ram Band with all the Ram Pride that came with it. I took class trips to DC, NYC and Chicago. I performed in plays and sang in choirs. And I honestly never felt limited by resources. Our community found ways. Our parents found ways.

Since growing up and moving away, I have traveled the world with little fear and with confidence in my ability to use public transportation. Naive or not, I do not let worry about potential crime stop me from living my life to the fullest.  I know that bad things can happen anywhere. But I also know that good things can happen anywhere. 

Now I'm not saying that raising children in a lower income area is the right place to raise them. But I am saying, that it is not the wrong place. Among the friends I grew up with, there are now teachers, and lawyers, and business executives, and Phds, and great parents, and even greater human beings. I can think of way more success stories off the top of my head than I can of failures.

So yes, I am proud of where I came from and proud of the lessons I learned there. They have served me well. So thank you Whitehall, Ohio.  

 

I Dwell in Possibility

My 7-year-old got in the car after school the other day and announced, "I still believe in Santa, but I'm getting kind of suspicious of those Elves on the Shelf." Not much gets past her.

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This revelation got me thinking about a blog post I've been writing off and on in my mind for the last 20 years or so. You can see at that pace why this blog only has a handful of entries...

The year was 1992. I was in college watching one of my then all-time favorite movies "The Lost Boys" with a friend who shockingly had never seen it. When the vampires in the movie fly around, the camera angle is from their perspective. So my friend asks, "Are they flying as bats or men?" "I don't know, men I guess." To which she says, "oh that's ridiculous. I don't believe that." Still makes me laugh. Vampires- fine. Vampires turning into bats- fine. Vampires flying around like Superman- ridiculous.

And so through the years I've been mentally collecting these lines people draw in what they are willing to believe. One of my favorites was when my then 4-year-old cousin was watching Rocky and Bullwinkle. He looks up from the tv and calmly says, "Squirrels can't talk." Yep. There you have it. The only logical flaw in the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show...

These lines come up at my The Little Gym often too. Just recently I walked into a 3-year-old class just in time to hear a girl tell her teacher, "those snakes aren't real." True. Because the "snakes" were actually just scarves tied around the beam. But notice she didn't say, "those scarves aren't snakes." She said, "those snakes aren't real." So part of me thinks she entertained the idea of them being snakes in her head just long enough to draw her line. And even as she made her statement, she was looking for reassurance... 

What also amuses me is the flip side- the leaps we'll make to justify a belief. (And now I'm just speaking about kids here, so no one extrapolate this to apply to any adult beliefs...) Back to my daughter and Santa. So last year for Christmas my older daughter asked for a robot toy from Santa. She received a blue penguin robot. Blue being her favorite color and penguins her favorite animal. When her younger sister saw this miraculous gift, she said, "see sissy! Now do you believe in Santa? Who else would know you liked blue and penguins? I told you Santa was real!" Indeed. Who else....

A couple of weeks ago my 7-year-old Elf skeptic came home and announced she had "scientifically proven fairies existed." She added, "My friend saw one. And you know, if you see something you can believe it. And if your friend sees something you can believe it. Right, mom?" I had a small moral crisis about how to answer her. Wasn't sure if I I wanted to crush her belief in eye witness testimony. Her dad however, had no such crisis. He told her that wasn't scientific proof. He explained that was the least reliable kind of evidence. Then he listed for her reliable "hard" evidence she would need to prove their existence. The best being capturing a live fairy, but they decided that if she found a piece of a wing or some pixie dust, that would be good enough. So the hunt continues... at least till her belief line in fairies moves... 

As for me, I like my lines widely drawn. I leave room for lots of things to fit. I dwell in possibility...

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –
— Emily Dickinson

Hobby: thinking

My 7-year-old daughter self-identified "thinking" as one of her hobbies for a form I was filling out about her. At first I chuckled, but then I wrote it in realizing that "thinking" is one of her hobbies. So much like any proud mommy sharing products from her child's hobbies, here are some of my favorite of her "thoughts":

 -One day when she was about 5, she heard on the radio a news story about someone who had just died. She says to me, "Mommy, if we are all connected, we should have a funeral for that person." Huh. I was a bit worried about the logistics of that request, so I said, "well, we are all connected and that is a beautiful idea, but unfortunately too many people die a day for us to have a funeral for everyone. How about we have a moment of silence for all of them before bed time?" This was acceptable to my thinker. That night we started the practice. I said, "and now we will have a moment of silence for all those that died today. We are thankful for all the ways our lives have been made better by the people who came before." My thinker adds, "Yes. Like Abraham Lincoln." To which I say, "yes, like Abraham Lincoln and members of our own family who have passed on but whose lives touched ours." She gets the last words in, "but mostly Abraham Lincoln." :) 

-One day not too long ago, my thinker was playing "house" with her best friend. They both wanted to be the mom of the baby. A potential landmine of conflict...but my thinker saves the day,
"I know, we can be gay." -my daughter
"What's gay?" -friend
"You know, when someone has two mommies or two daddies."
"Oh, yeah, right. Sounds good." 
And so the age old question of who gets to be the mommy was solved. I promise you that thought would have never occurred to me as a child. But then my hobby wasn't thinking... 
(and if you are wondering what the friend's mom thought about this- the girls were actually playing at her house, and she was equally proud of their problem solving. She's cool like that.) 

-Back in the summer of 2013, my thinker carried a Slinky named Michelle around with her everywhere. One day on the way to a party, she asked, "what if someone has a toy with them cooler than mine?" I started to answer with some wise words about sharing or jealousy, but before I could get any words out, she chuckled and said, "I'm just kidding. What could be cooler than a slinky?" 

- August 2012 new kindergarten thinker's homework was to "draw 3 objects." She drew a mudpie, onion grass in a sink, and the big red chicken from Dora. When I asked her why those 3 objects, she said "I thought they would be interesting choices." Indeed. 

And finally for my visual thinker friends, I am going to share a few photos of her costume choices through the years. Because she can never just dress up like a simple character. That's not how thinker's think... 

While some toddlers choose to be Cinderella, she created "Fairy Princess Meow"

While some toddlers choose to be Cinderella, she created "Fairy Princess Meow"

At a spaced themed party with her friend Buzz. She chose to go dressed as a black hole.

At a spaced themed party with her friend Buzz. She chose to go dressed as a black hole.

Most recent Halloween costume. She chose a Doc McStuffin's costume off the rack. Then she added accessories from home- result: Doc McStuffins dressed like a cowgirl.

Most recent Halloween costume. She chose a Doc McStuffin's costume off the rack. Then she added accessories from home- result: Doc McStuffins dressed like a cowgirl.

I have no doubt one day this "thinking hobby" or hers will transform the world. So stay tuned for that. And for more from this one random angel...