Confession of an older sister

I have a sister who is 3 years younger than I am. I know this because as an adult she has been a tremendous source of love and support for me. Truth be told though, my memories of her as a child are sketchy. Almost non-existent in a weird selective amnesia way. And as I watch my own younger daughter trying desperately to get the attention and approval of her older sister these days, I sometimes shake my head in shame... 

One day a few years back, my sister said something about my 16th birthday party. I was like, "oh, were you there?" She assured me she was... but perhaps the worst thing I have no memory of is the day she entered puberty. She says she was home alone with me the day she got her first period. My loving response? Allegedly I told her to walk to her friend's house for help (and to get supplies!) because I was about to be picked up for a date... This sounds like it could be true to me....I mean, if I had a date, right?!? And when she told me this story as an adult, I asked her if I knew it was her first time having a period, she responded with a pretty emphatic, "OH, YOU KNEW!" 

So I'd like to say sorry to her now for that abuse. And for all the other slights I don't even remember making. And I'd like to tell her that I see and remember her now. I see the wonderful woman she grew up to be. I see her strength and her compassion. And I'd like to take some of the credit for those things, I mean clearly my ignoring her led to her learning to be strong. And I imagine gave her a sense of compassion for others mistreated and marginalized... Wait. No.... 

There is research to show that the biggest predictor of personality is birth order. This gives me some comfort. I can't be the only older sister in history to have overlooked my younger sibling... So on behalf of older sisters everywhere, I'd like to apologize. It's not that we didn't like you little ones. We never thought about you enough to not like you. It was nothing personal. And hopefully you will give us the chance to be real friends as adults. To see you as you are, and appreciate all you offer the world and our family. Like my sister has.

Thank you Kristy for coming down to take care of me recently after my surgery. Thank you for always being there when I need you. And when you need me, I will never again pawn you off on a friend so that I can go on a date... 

The Gift of Authenticity

A friend told me recently she has never been happy in her whole life. And while that might sound heartbreaking, it was honestly one of the most beautiful, hopeful interactions I've had in a long while. 

We were not in a bar commiserating as old friends. In fact, we're barely more than acquaintances. And yet we found ourselves in the middle of a crowded lobby talking authentically about our real selves. The beautiful part. And she was sharing not out of despondency or to complain; she was sharing about taking control of her future by owning her past story. The hopeful part. 

It's all too rare in life to have genuine, life affirming interactions with good friends. Not because we don't care about one another, but because life is moving fast. And we're all busy trying to be so many things to so many people in so many settings. So experiencing moments when all pretense is gone, and core emotional truths are open and vulnerable is a gift. And so to have one with a casual friend on a random day in the middle of a crowded room was an especially unexpected gift. One that I will now treasure. And one that reminds me to be open and hopeful for more of these interactions- not guarded and cynical of sharing my true self for fear of being real. 

I am an ally because...

I heard an inspiring talk today by Brett Jones author of Pride: The Story of the First Openly Gay Navy SEAL. Brett instructed as all to take the high road in moving equality issues forward. He was open, authentic and giving in his sharing of his story. When his eyes filled with tears as he recounted his parents kicking him out of the house as a teen for being gay, we felt his pain. And it would have hardly been surprising to hear an angry, bitter response to that and to his outing while in the Navy. But that was not his tone. Instead, he modeled compassion and integrity. He called for all of us to be our best selves in response to injustice. He reminded us progress is made by good people making tough decisions and taking difficult action. 

I didn't actually just hear the talk; I helped to organize it. Because I am proud to say that I am an ally working toward equality in my sweet home Alabama. Because the LGBTQ cause is my cause. It is my cause not because I share a sexual orientation, but because I share a human orientation. Their story is my story. It is one of vulnerability and longing for acceptance. It is one of trying to find yourself and learning to be comfortable with who you are. It is often a story about friendship and acceptance. It is also sometimes a story about loneliness and isolation. And it is all too often a painful story to tell.

And so I write this to thank Brett for his willingness to so publicly share his story. And to say to anyone who might not yet feel comfortable telling theirs, we are here to listen if you ever need to tell it. And to anyone who might think this is not their story, not their cause, I encourage you to listen again. To hear the truths and vulnerabilities common to us all. To our human orientation.

My Formative Tree- for David Duckworth

I clearly remember the moment I first realized it was possible for me to be wrong. I was 18 and in the middle of an argument with a friend's sister in England. I was defending our American lifestyle and feeling righteously indignant. My favorite state of being really when I was 18. Then she said something about how if we were serious about the environment we could build public transportation systems to decrease our dependance on cars. And it hit me. She might be right. I had nothing to say back. A rare occasion for me up to that point. 

I tell that story not to say anything about the specifics of transportation policy or my opinions now of it. But rather to illustrate a formative moment in my life. Whenever I've felt myself digging into a position without looking at the other side, I remember that conversation. And that feeling of realizing there was another side. Someone else might have a reasoned point. And I'm grateful to her. To my friend's sister I only knew for 2 weeks more than 20 years ago. Grateful for an interaction in all likelihood she has no memory of having.

Formative experiences are like that. Something seemingly small and insignificant to one person, could change another person's whole life. Wouldn't it be interesting to map out these formative memories the way we do our family trees? In the same way we trace back to find our ancestors to gain insight into our DNA, perhaps we could make a formative tree with those people who had real impacts on our emotional maturity. Really see everyone who helped make us- us. To honor and remember their contributions the way we honor our ancestors.  

Some people might appear on our formative trees as tiny twigs signifying short encounters like the conversation I remember with my friend's sister. But other people, old friends, might be represented with huge branches or even large parts of our root systems. Friends who were there being fused to our hearts while we were being formed.

One of my formative friends, David Duckworth, passed away last week. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to spend an evening with him and his wife a few years back in London where they lived. That was the only time I had seen him over the last 20 years. And yet when I heard he had died, I felt real sadness and a need to mourn. For a second, I felt like that might be inappropriate. Like I had no right to mourn for someone I hardly knew anymore. That I should feel for his wife and children (which of course I do) but not sadness on my own account.

Then after hearing of his death, two other old friends reached out to me through messaging about their feelings, and I've read other friends' comments on Facebook, and I realized, of course I should mourn for David. We all should. He was important to me and to so many others. If I can feel affection for an ancestor I've never met, how much more appropriate is it to feel sorrow at the loss of someone so important on my formative tree? We are intertwined. He is a part of me. And when a part of you dies, you mourn. 

I'm not sure if David knew how much I admired him. How much I thought of his character. But I hope he knew I was glad to have been his friend. And if you're an old friend reading this, please know I was blessed by you too. I am certain you would appear on my formative tree. And no matter how long it has been since we've spoken, just like David, you'll always be fused to my heart. My memories of you- make up me.

 from my 18th birthday party- Anna, Dharmesh, Sheri, David, Stephen- some of my favorite branches.

from my 18th birthday party- Anna, Dharmesh, Sheri, David, Stephen- some of my favorite branches.

(Written March 1, 2015)

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. 

(Written December 14, 2014)