Pause. Take a Breath. And Choose a Child’s Life Over Irritation.

I’m taking my own advice many times as I write this. It’d be entirely too easy to be accusatory, snide, and even downright rude when discussing food allergies and the classroom. I could quickly fall into my own emotional reactions and simply pen a piece that would only serve to anger the parents I’m trying to reach (though would definitely get some rousing applause from the parents who can relate). So I’m pausing. I’m breathing. I’m repeating.

Peanuts.

No other legume is so hotly discussed, so feared, almost legislated as the peanut. It is the stuff of lunches, candy bars, cookies, and dreams. It’s a cheap protein, an easy meal, a no-bake staple. Creamy, crunchy, mixed with chocolate… there really is no way to ruin peanut butter, AMIRIGHT?

It’s also absolutely deadly when combined with many, many children.

This is the time of year when millions of children are headed to school, many for the first time. Backpacks are being bought, teachers are being met, and, in some schools, policies are hitting parents smack in the face: no peanuts allowed.

Not every school is nut-free. Not every class is, either. But my plea is to the parents who find themselves surprised by this news: Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over this irritation.

I live in Texas, where the phrase “try and stop me!” was basically born. We’re a stubborn, proud, independent bunch, and we instantly bristle at any rule by nature. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Yes, it’s frustrating. Believe me, the parents of the allergy kids are frustrated, too. They dream of pb&j lunches, peanut butter candies, and Cracker Jack. You’re not alone in scrambling to find equally easy and affordable lunches to send, it’s hard for sure. But pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

I know, I know, back in our day kids didn’t have all these allergies and rules. We ran the streets and ate whatever we wanted and classrooms were filled with treats of all kinds, with nary a sign warning you to turn back if you carried forbidden candy. Research is ongoing as to why food allergies are on the rise, but I promise you this: anaphylactic reactions are not made up and they aren’t for attention. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Yes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the favorites of MANY kids. Yes, there are some kids with sensory or other differences who will only eat peanut butter sandwiches. Their parents will work out those situations with the administrators and find a way to keep everyone safe and fed. Not everyone likes turkey and not everyone can afford a lot of alternatives. I offer complete empathy, I know. But pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Oh yeah, I saw that meme, too. The one with sea turtles from Finding Nemo that have absolutely no relation to the statement comparing peanut butter sandwiches to vaccines. I’ve seen it a lot. It gets a lot of shares and likes, because again, people don’t like being told what to do and don’t like feeling as though their parenting choices are being taken away from them. But if you stop and think about it, parents don’t like having their children taken from them, and that’s exactly what an exposure to peanuts could cause for some. Death. Real death. Not a meme, not a grasp at straws to connect two hot-button topics and feebly justify risking an innocent child’s life. An actual process that begins with peanuts and ends with a dead child. I won’t even delve into the fallacy of the “argument”, but will point out that a family’s choice whether or not to vaccinate is not the same as fluke genetics and how parents are afforded no such freedom of choice when it comes to food allergies. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

No, they can’t just send them all to a special school. Life-threatening allergies are recognized by the federal government as a disability, so accommodations must be made just as dyslexia or the need for a wheelchair would require. You can’t ship off all the kids who need hearing aides or insulin. You can’t demand that the kid with vision problems be moved behind your child so they can be closer to the front because they like it so much. There are needs, plans are made, and life goes on. Food allergies are no reason to ostracize the poor child who can’t control their reaction… or at least ostracize them any farther than already sitting them alone at a table in the farthest corner of the cafeteria. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

You’re not wrong to be irritated. You’re not wrong to be frustrated. You’re not even wrong to not fully understand it. You are wrong, however, when you know the risk and choose to break the rules, anyway. You are not wrong for wanting to send peanut butter. You are wrong for knowing that sending peanut butter will result in the grave injury of a child. You are wrong when you weigh the life of the little girl your child sits next to and decide the Nutter Butters are worth her life. You are wrong when you see your child’s disgust at yet another ham sandwich and decide you’d rather them witness their friend stop breathing, instead.

Pause.

Take a breath.

And choose a child’s life over irritation.

No one is saying it’s easy to leave peanuts out of the classroom. No one is shrugging their shoulders and saying, “Oh well.” Your frustrations are heard, they are real. But so is death. And death will always be more important than frustration. Always. If you have any response other than agreement to that, then please find another school for your child to attend.

Maybe you’re a parent whose school is not nut-free, but your child’s class has a student with a life-threatening peanut allergy. What a disappointment, I know. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Seatbelts are irritating. They rub your neck wrong and come across your chest at weird angles. Sometimes they lock up right when you’re reaching forward to change the radio station and you feel trapped! But they’re there for a reason – to keep you safe. It’s easy to forget how necessary they are when they’re rubbing and twisting and inexplicably pulling your hair, but should you ever find yourself saved by one, you look at the simple strap with gratitude and don’t mind the irritation.

Allergy rules are irritating. They make lunches and parties and snacks difficult. They change your plans and cause some uproar in routine. But they are there for a reason – to save a life. Did you know that peanut oil can remain on the skin for up to four hours, even after washing hands? That’s why you can’t sneak it into your kids’ lunch. Did you know that simply being in the same room as someone eating a Snickers can cause an anaphylactic reaction that leads to permanent brain damage or death? That’s why you can’t bring them for all but the allergic kiddo.

Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Go ahead, mourn peanut butter. You’re allowed to be disappointed. I’d ask that while you are examining your feelings towards Jif you explore what the other side may look like – how terrifying it must be for the parents of the child who is the cause of this policy. Man, they can’t even eat peanut butter at home. Not on the weekends. Not after school. Not at all. Those articles all over Facebook sure did make it sound like those EpiPens he carries are pretty darn expensive. I bet all the birthday parties they go to are scary. They must have spent a lot of time communicating with the school and coming up with an allergy action plan in the event of accidental exposure. They must be scared beyond belief knowing that their child’s life is in the hands of the parents packing the other kids’ lunches. Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

When my daughter was 4, yes, only 4, the parent of another child in her preschool class called her a “weak @$$ kid”. An adult man said this of a 4-year-old child who still needs straps on her flip flops to keep them on her feet. He’d just been told that the preschool class his daughter was about to start was in a nut-free room, and no peanut products would be allowed. Even after the immensely patient teacher explained that he would rather pack a different lunch than for his child to have to witness an anaphylactic reaction, he expressed his displeasure and frustration at the “weak @$$ kid”. My blood is boiling now just remembering it, and if I hadn’t been speaking so loudly I would never have heard my own words over the rush in my ears as I spoke up from behind him. No, she’s not weak – she’ll die. She did not ask for these food allergies, science cannot yet tell us what caused these food allergies, and she can actually die from these food allergies. I sometimes wonder if he still thinks about that moment, when he got caught name-calling a helpless preschooler because he didn’t like having to pack a different lunch. I wonder if he realized the weight his irritation carried when it came to an innocent child’s life and death.

Pause.

Take a breath.

And choose a child’s life over irritation.

Please accept my apology, I do recognize and sympathize that not bringing peanuts to school is difficult. I say that without an ounce of sarcasm, it really is tough. I am sorry for the inconvenience these policies cause, truly. But I will not ever – and I suspect you would say the same – ever apologize for keeping my child safe. If you find yourself at the end of this very long post and still have thoughts forming that begin with, “But…”, then please talk with your school administrators about how you can be either transferred to another classroom or another school without peanut policies. Seriously, it’s the only safe alternative. And if you can know that your rebellion could cause the death of a child and still feel okay with sneaking a Reese’s into your child’s bag, then I’ll be happy to help you fill out the transfer paperwork.

Pause. Take a breath. And choose a child’s life over irritation.

My Child Didn’t Take a Standardized Test Yesterday So Now He’s Basically Doomed

Across my great state yesterday, 4th and 5th graders gathered into hushed classrooms with bellies full of protein-packed breakfasts and sharpened pencils at the ready. Children in younger grades had their chairs removed from their desks so that the scraping sounds wouldn’t distract students rooms away, and parents were barred from visiting the campus: it was the first day of standardized testing in Texas.

My 10-year-old woke after a good night’s sleep, ate a big breakfast, and settled in with the book of his choosing. He played with his siblings, created with Legos, and even ASKED for veggies with his lunch. He had a great day… but was not at school. I opted him out of the test.

Being a 4th grader, he’s an old pro at the STAAR, the standardized test for Texas students. He’s taken the math and reading tests before (and totally crushed them, but that’s just the mom in me needing to brag on him). He wasn’t worried about the tests and he knew they didn’t define him as a student. He was proud of both his regular grades and his previous scores and shrugged off the idea that standardized testing was stressful.

Until it became stressful.

At the beginning of the school year his teacher bragged on his writing (insert proud mom puffing her chest out here). She was very excited by his ability, his creativity – he was a good writer. We began getting examples of what the STAAR test expected in a composition, and it was clear that my boy was doing well and would score high. He could use some tweaking to get the highest possible score, but that’s what school – and the next few months – were for, helping him grow as a writer and hone his skills.

To save you the novel it would require to share all the details, it became a nightmare right after winter break. The students – 9- and 10-year-olds – were writing a new paper every day to prepare for the writing portion of the standardized test. A paper a day. Each time with a new prompt that required new creativity yet had to follow the same formula. If a child didn’t finish they were made to miss recess to keep working on their paper. The paper that was just practice. If they still didn’t finish they would have to take it home and finish it, because a new prompt awaited the next day. It started taking longer and longer for him to finish. He’d come home exhausted, in tears, stressed over not finishing a paper that was just practice, a paper that’d be thrown out in the morning so he could start all over again with another. Despite our encouragement and praises – from his parents and teachers – his self esteem took a huge hit. He felt like a terrible student that he couldn’t finish quickly. He felt like he had no ideas because it took him so long to come up with yet ANOTHER creative paper. He allowed his worth to be dictated by this repetitive practicing and completely ignored the A’s he made in all of his regular schoolwork. He has a tic disorder that only appears when he’s stressed or ill, and his face was so overtaken by tics that he struggled to make it through a sentence at times. My boy was broken. His writing suffered. Where he’d started the year bringing home papers with high grades and excellent imagery, he began handing over papers that were not finished, that were pieced together according to a formula, that had no vision, and that weren’t even a shadow of what he’d been capable of before. He handed these to me with his head down, because he knew it, too. My 10-year-old was burned out. In the 4th grade. He was exhausted, spent, suffering. I felt like a failure as a mother for having allowed it to happen, for having bought into the “Suck it up, it’s just a test” line. Not all kids respond this way, but mine did, and I had to remind myself that I am his parent, not the school district, and not the businesspeople making millions off of the test.

So I opted him out.

We spent the day together like rebels – one homeschooled kid, one kid opted out of standardized testing, and one too young to be a part of any of it. We got stares. We got smiles. And we got a lot of questions. When it became clear just how very many parents were not aware that they could opt their children out of standardized testing, I took it upon myself to post on Facebook about it. The only city in Texas that has a formal opt-out policy also has the highest percentage of families who opt out, so I decided to get the word out, as it seems the more empowered parents are the more action they take. I don’t judge those who sent their kids to school, I don’t think all kids are being damaged by the process, I just wanted to make sure parents knew they had a choice.

And, apparently, I wanted to make sure my son never succeeded in life.

There were a few comments – and some surprising “likes” on those comments – that expressed concern over his college career and his character as an adult. Yes, my 10-year-old. Who is in 4th grade. Whether those comments came from a place of well-meaning, judgement, or just being wholly ignorant, I would like to address the sentiment and make a few things clear.

He is 10. He’ll only be 10 for 6 more months, and then he’ll be 11. He does not need to be prepared for college right now. Because he’s 10. He may not even choose to go to college. But whenever that decision comes, it’s the better part of a decade away.

Not taking a standardized test does not teach a child not to take tests. They take tests all year long. They have homework and projects and book reports and quizzes, too. They must complete those and show mastery of the content. Not taking this one standardized test didn’t teach him that it’s okay to wimp out on something that’s too hard and it didn’t create a habit of avoiding tests. It was a standardized test that, at his current grade level, does not affect his grades. He’ll continue to take tests over the material he is presented throughout his school career despite having missed this one.

The idea that a single test is an indicator of future character is absurd. My job as his parent goes a lot deeper and longer than a single test. Me standing up for him when something gets to be too much does not teach him he doesn’t have to deal with hard things – it teaches him that his parents support him. It teaches him that it’s okay to say “no” to something that isn’t good for you. It teaches him that sometimes when everyone else is doing something, that doesn’t mean you should, too. It teaches him that he can come to us when he’s faced with another hard issue, and it teaches him that he can trust us to help him through it. Not taking one test out of hundreds will not make him a flake, it will not relegate him to a lifetime of looking to mommy to fix his problems, and it does not render him powerless against difficulty. Character is an ongoing education in our home, one that gets a lot more time and attention than a single standardized test.

It’s “just a test” to you, but your experience only counts with one person – you. There really are children with anxiety disorders. There really are children with the inability to write what their brains tell them. There really are kids who can’t sit still for 4 hours. There really are kids who don’t understand the instructions. There really are kids who can’t see the instructions. There really are kids whose stomachs growl with hunger. There really are kids who have failed to meet the requirements multiple times and are terrified they’ll be held back a grade. There are countless children – identified and otherwise – who have an entirely different experience when it comes to standardized testing, who approach the packet with hurdles already placed before them. Your great fortune in overcoming nerves or never knowing them at all does not dismiss their very real experiences.

This is not 1997. The tests aren’t what they were when I took them. They’ve gotten harder, are riddled with grammatical and grading issues, and come with millions of unseen strings that tie teachers’ jobs and salaries to students’ performance… on ONE test. The stakes are higher, the tests are harder, the prep is more intense, and it is comparing apples to dragonfruit when we try to compare our own standardized testing experiences to those of children today.

Nobody really asked you. That was harsh, wasn’t it? Sorry about that, but it’s true. At the end of the day, no parent needs the permission of another or the blessing of your opinion to decide if they want to opt their child out of a test. Really. You don’t have to like it – they didn’t ask you to. You don’t have to agree with it – you’re welcome to send your kids with their number two pencils to take any test you wish. You’re more than free to feel passionately – and I pray you DO! But your passions are not my guide, and I’ll raise my child how I see fit, thankyouverymuch.

Standardized testing has nothing to do with college. Nothing. Colleges don’t request STAAR scores. To my knowledge there are no scholarships offered based on STAAR scores (especially to 4th graders). Are there tests in college? Sure. There are also tests in elementary, middle, and high school, all covering the material that was taught… like college. In fact, those tests are much more like the ones college students will face than a STAAR test. Valedictorians aren’t chosen from STAAR scores, standardized test scores don’t get you extra cords at graduation, and I really hope there are no fraternities that base membership on a 4th grade writing test. I don’t even think Jostens has a STAAR logo you can put on your senior ring…

The same people who are saying it’s only a test are the ones making dark predictions about the weight of the test. If it’s only a test, then what’s the big deal about missing it? If it’s only a test, it can’t possibly determine what type of adult he’ll be, right? If it’s only a test, then there’s no way his college career will be completely derailed by it, right? If it’s only a test, then it’s nowhere near as important as my SON, and I choose him every time. And if you think that “just a test” dictates the entire academic future of a child, then what is the purpose of school? It can’t be something that’s both easily shrugged off and fatefully guiding us at the same time.

At the end of this very long post, he’s still only 10. He loves his Rubik’s cubes, drawing on graph paper, playing board games, wrestling with his brother, laughing at movies. He’s growing taller by the day and thinks the little blonde hairs on his legs are very manly. He snuggles me on the couch, his table manners are questionable, and farts are the funniest thing in the world to him (though I’m pretty sure that’s not age-specific). He’s 10. He’s still a boy. There is no need to prepare him for adulthood, for college, right now. There is no need to push him beyond where is healthy for him to go. There IS a need to stand up for him and protect him from what’s not okay, from what’s harmful to him. He has the rest of his life to be an adult, I don’t need to push him towards it when he’s just barely reached double digits. Not that standardized testing has anything to do with being a functional adult, only that there is no need to push him towards something that will happen eventually, anyway. Missing this one test does not disqualify him from future success or doom him to a lifetime of watching old 90’s FOX reruns in the dark while eating potted meat from the can. He’s 10. We live in a developed society that allows him to be 10 and not worry about tilling fields or getting the black lung down in the coal mines. He’s not being prepared for adulthood, he’s being allowed a childhood.

At the end of the day, he went to bed. He wasn’t fearful about his future, I didn’t get any recruiters calling to cancel their visits, and knowledge didn’t tumble out of his head. He didn’t take a test. A very expensive stack of paper sits in a box, leftover because he wasn’t there to break the seal on it. The world will keep spinning, he will keep learning, and everything will be okay. I don’t regret our decision – in fact, I feel more sure of it than ever. We will face tomorrow – and any other tests, academic or otherwise – how we faced today: together.

How to Treat Fat People

Airplanes, buses, trains, movie theaters – there are endless places where you may find yourself seated next to a fat person. I’ve talked about it time and again here – I’m a big woman. Plus-sized. Curvy. Overweight. I’m fat. We as a nation tend to shy away from using the word “fat” when we’re describing someone we love. We flinch at it, it makes us uncomfortable, we dismiss the word and tell them that of course they’re not fat. Just big. Or plus-sized. Or curvy. “Fat” carries with it a negative connotation, it’s used in comments sections to put people down, dismiss them, describe them, always in a bad way. It’s just something on a person’s body, literally everyone’s body, just in different amounts. Like freckles or hairs. But because weight is hard to hide and obesity is rising, I feel compelled, as a fat person, to offer the world this in-depth guide from the inside on how to treat someone like myself, a fat person.

Step 1: Treat them like you would any other human being.

That’s pretty much it. Taking up more space does not mean they’re worth less.

While I get the occasional creepy Facebook message from guys who fetishize big women, I also get to see the thousands of comments every day all over social media left by people who are disgusted by fat people. Their actual words, they’re disgusted. Why? Because a human being dares to look differently than they’d prefer. Do you want to date or marry every person you’re kind to on a daily basis? The person you held the door for, are you harboring a deeply-rooted love for them? Did you profess your feelings to the person you smiled at across from you at the restaurant? Have you entered into long-term relationships with every stranger you’ve encountered without turning your nose up in disgust? No? Then why do people have to make themselves attractive for you to be nice to them? Why must someone conform to your physical ideals to not be reviled?

They don’t.

If you think your lower numbers on the scale or higher numbers in the gym make you a better person – or worse, assign you more worth – then the problem isn’t my weight, it’s your heart.

“Ah, Jen, I’m glad you brought up the heart. Obesity is so bad for you – ”

I’m gonna stop you right there. This is not a post to celebrate or encourage obesity. This is not a post where I justify my weight. Search it line by line, and you will find no excuses, justifications, or fact-ignoring celebrations. This is purely and entirely about treating people with kindness. If you react with anything that resembles a, “yeah, but…”, then you don’t get the point and should start back up at the top. Repeat as many times as necessary.

But since we’re on the topic, I’ll let you in on a little secret, something we keep hidden deep in the bowels of Lane Bryant – fat people do not have to justify their choices to you. Ever. Period. Not caloric intake. Not activity levels. Nothing. Overweight people are not dumb. They are not ignorant to the medical research on obesity any more than they are to your stares and snickers. (Yes, the snickers pun was intentional.) Every single time a fat person visits a doctor, for literally any ailment, they must first spend at least 20 minutes going around and around with their doctor over their weight. Truly. Got a headache? Well if you’re fat, good luck getting your doctor to look past your waistband. There is no greater population of people that must justify their right to be heard by a doctor. So we get it, we’ve heard it, extra weight is hard on your body. No one person in an internet comments section is the messiah of skinny news, you will not bring to them the sudden realization through your “concern” that losing weight would be healthier. Suggesting diets is not helpful. Asking an obese person if they’ve tried exercise is a lot like asking a person struggling with infertility if they’ve tried conceiving. Messaging someone about a miracle product you’re selling is just plain rude and bad internet etiquette. And heck, if you’re really so concerned about someone dying sooner, then be NICE to them with the little time they apparently have left. Shaming anyone for something on their body isn’t just cruel, it shows an incredible lack of intelligence. Really, the most obvious thing about me is the only thing you could think to talk about? Teach your kids to see the person and not the size, to describe people as, “That man in the blue shirt,” instead of “that big fat guy over there.”  They’ll be better friends – and writers – for it. While we’re on the topic, please don’t teach your children that eating too much will cause them to get fat. That’s really not the whole truth. Genetics, conditions, hormones, medications, injuries, depression, and yes, food choices, can all play a part in the amount of jiggle in someone’s wiggle. Diet and exercise are not secrets that have been kept from fat people. Most of the fat people I know diet and exercise more than the average-sized people in my life. Keep your regiments to yourself and don’t assume that just because a person looks a certain way that they aren’t working on it – or even that they don’t want to look like that.

J.K. Rowling said once, “Is fat really the worst thing a human being can be? Is fat worse than vindictive, jealous, shallow, vain, boring, evil, or cruel? Not to me.”

While there is more of me, there’s also more to me. I have two degrees, and graduated with a 4.0 GPA. I have three kids. I can quote a mind-boggling number of movies and every episode of Friends. My husband is my best friend. I get really excited really easily. I used to want to be a professional whistler. I love to laugh, write, create. I love costume jewelry and leopard print. I can sing the 50 states song in about 40 seconds. I’m terrified of aquatic plants. I am certified to SCUBA dive down to 60 feet in open water, and want to someday swim with sharks. I play the trumpet. In high school I sang with the men’s choir at UIL competition – and the women’s. I’m an insomniac, a history buff, true-crime fanatic, and a friend. I’m not the most interesting person in the world, but the outside of me does not even come close to how much more there is of me on the inside.

Do I have thyroid problems? Hormonal imbalances? Injuries, medications, genetics, or snacking habits that have led me to become overweight? I don’t have to tell. I don’t have to justify my size. For a long time I have, and out of insecurity I sometimes still will, but really, no one, from the petite to the pudgy, has to justify their size to you. To anyone. No one’s meals, no one’s choices need your approval. My weight does not define me, but your words do clearly advertise who you are. No one, not the most morbidly obese person in the stretchiest of pants with the biggest of plates, deserves to be treated with any less respect. You don’t have to marry them, you don’t have to date them, you don’t have to befriend them, but you are not entitled, ever, to elevate yourself over them with your disgust.

Treat everyone kindly. That’s really it.

So What Now?

I won’t lie and say this will be my one and only post about the election. If you’re my friend on Facebook then you probably just laughed at that first sentence. If you’re my friend in real life then you definitely fell off your seat in hysterics. I’m not interested in debating politics, the electoral college, candidates, or platforms. I’m not interested in who you voted for and I’m not going to announce who I voted for. That part is over. What I’m talking about, what is causing my heart to ache, what is flying around my head faster than my hands can type is the aftermath. What happens now.

Tuesday night a large portion of our country sat in disbelief, shock. Wednesday night a large portion of our country fumed in anger. And now on Thursday, I see an enormous portion of our country even more divided than they were on Monday. Relationships that made it all the way through the particularly vicious election cycle are crumbling. Respectable people resorting to name-calling. Hurting people being dismissed, innocent people being accused and attacked. The numbers don’t lie: our country is deeply divided. The arguments, words, fights, even violence that have erupted in the wake of our election are a more painful illustration of it.

But what few are realizing in their zeal to defend their vote is that either way we would be having these arguments. No matter which candidate won, our country was not going to be healed by the declaration of one person’s name.

Racism has been alive in our country for centuries. Sexism has been a problem always. In my white suburban bubble I was able to believe that racism really wasn’t around anymore, but after 8 years with a black president, countless terrorist attacks, and to be honest, a lifetime of living in a border state, I’ve had to admit something ugly: racism is very much alive. As a woman, well, I’ll tell you that I never doubted gender inequality and misogyny.

Racism and sexism do not happen overnight. Ableism does not happen overnight. Phobias and hatred are not formed overnight. And they are not cured overnight. No matter whose name was announced as our next president, these things were not going to disappear. One leader does not make those kinds of changes. WE DO.

We the people, we speak up. We the people, we defend. We the people, we make change. If we are willing to defend our vote then we must be willing to defend each other. We have to use the same determination we had walking into the polling booth to walk up to a bully and say “no more”. We have to have the same fire within us in person as we do on social media. It’s a huge responsibility, change. These cancers did not pop up because of a candidate and a president will not be the one on the ground to treat them. It’s up to us, regardless of who we voted for, of who we have in charge, the responsibility has not changed: we have to make this country better. Our job would be no different today with a different president. Our job today is the same as it was Monday, as it was in 2012, 2008, 1980, and before. A different president-elect would not lessen our burden to effect change around us.

So I beg of you, friends, accept your responsibility. My conservative friends, people are genuinely afraid, genuinely hurting, and just because you don’t understand or agree with it doesn’t make it any less real. My liberal friends, all hope is not lost and the country is not as hateful as you fear – someone’s vote is not all there is to them and is rarely about what you may think. My white friends, we have the opportunity every day to listen, extend a bridge, and stand up for those who don’t look like us. My friends of color, I can never pretend to imagine how you’re feeling, but I can tell you that you have allies and support, more than you may feel you have right now.

This is not intended to bash or endorse either candidate. This is my first election cycle I’ve experienced without having loyalty a political party, and it’s been awkward to say the least. I’ve mourned, grieved for our country, for months, as someone in between all the screams and ideas and anger and pain I have no answer but love. With feet in all political camps I can tell you that there is no one answer, there is no one candidate who would leave everyone pleased, there is no one person who will unite us. Fiscal policy, foreign policy, education policy, healthcare policy, guns, abortion, marijuana, religion, race, gender, rights…. we will never all agree on all of these issues, but we are all capable of love. We can listen with love rather than listen with comebacks. We can attempt empathy. We can quiet ourselves long enough to hear the other. We can not allow ourselves to stereotype or generalize or name-call. We can approach one another with love and correct to teach, not to win. We can make change happen.

Our job remains the same, regardless of the winner, regardless of our skin color, regardless of our religion, socioeconomic status, gender, or political beliefs. Our job is to rid our country of hatred. It has always been our job, and hopefully someday we’ll work ourselves out of it. Hopefully we’ll be so good at our jobs that our kids won’t have to inherit them. Let’s stop putting our blame and our hopes into a candidate and accept our own responsibility to make this a better place. Sexism was not going to disappear if a woman were chosen as our president. Racism did not disappear when a black man was chosen as our president. Ableism is only JUST becoming recognized. There’s a quote that is sometimes attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “The US Constitution doesn’t guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.”  We the people have a lot of work to do, and the sooner we stop fighting with each other, the sooner we can get started.

 

 

Part One: I Am the Mom of “That Kid”

I see them.

The looks you toss my way. How your eyes narrow and your eyebrows shoot up. I’ve felt the room quiet and tense when I walk in with my son. I’ve noticed how the class pictures, special projects, birthday parties and candid shots you share don’t include him. I feel your judgements, your distaste, your impatience, your discomfort, your dislike. Sometimes, if I’m really unlucky that day, I catch your words, hear your thoughts, get wind of your opinions.

And so does my son.

My child, who doesn’t act like yours, he hears you. He feels your stares, feels the isolation of being left out of the pictures, the projects, the parties. He sits alone and is not oblivious to it. Because my kid, “that kid”, he’s still a kid.

He has a birthday. He has a favorite stuffed animal. He laughs at tv shows, has bad dreams, scrapes his knees, and doesn’t always want to eat his vegetables. He plays, he reads, he draws. He has Legos, he uses his sleeve like a napkin, he has dreams for when he’s a grown up and fears for right now as a kid.

Because he’s still just a kid.

That child, the person you resent, dislike, the boy you make assumptions about, the one you give up on before trying, he’s a kid. The boy who needs help, he’s a kid. The child who has trouble making or keeping friends, he’s a kid. The boy who so obviously doesn’t mesh with whatever environment you’re judging him in, he’s just a kid. Yet somehow it’s been decided that he’s “that kid”, the one who gets in trouble, the one who causes trouble, the one who just can’t seem to act like the other kids around him. You’ve allowed his obvious struggle to be the one trait that defines him. Kids do well when they can, and for whatever reason – or for many reasons – he can’t do well, not at what you’re asking of him. So really, when you roll your eyes, when you shun him away from your kid, when you refer to him as “that kid”, what you really mean is he’s not your kid. And you’re right, he’s not.

He doesn’t act like your kid. He doesn’t have the benefit of your doubt like your kid. He doesn’t get included like your kid. He doesn’t get your advocacy like your kid. And the best part of all of it is that he isn’t your kid. He’s mine. He’s unique to us, our family, our dynamic. His struggles aren’t your job, but neither is his assessment. He is mine, my snuggly boy, my loving boy, my creative and hilarious little guy who has so much more to offer than just his classroom behavior. There isn’t a child in any classroom shared with yours who doesn’t have at least one parent aware of their child’s behavior. Your opinion isn’t needed in the raising of any of them.

Yet still you stand, a little straighter when you see him, in judgement. Casting your thoughts down upon a child. Narrowing your eyes to create a tunnel vision that only allows you to see what he struggles most with, allows you to place sanctimonious blinders on and miss the great things about him in your peripheral. You feel indignation towards him, as though “that kid” is a wrong that needs to be righted. The superiority  you feel in having identified “that kid” fills you with comfort and relief that it isn’t your kid. So you avoid him, judge him, make assumptions about myself and our home. You expect the worst and are irritated when you’re proven right. Because my boy can’t act like your kid. He isn’t like the other kids. He does struggle, daily… with issues you haven’t even bothered to consider. Maybe the kid who won’t talk to you has a speech delay. Maybe the girl who flinches away from you has a sensory processing disorder. Maybe the boy who ignites in anger has a legitimate emotional disorder. Maybe the girl who won’t stop talking at inappropriate times is just looking for someone to listen because no one at home does. Maybe the bully is being abused. Maybe the kid who brought the wrong snack didn’t have anyone at home to help him. Maybe the grumpy guy in the corner didn’t get enough sleep. Maybe the clingy kid on every field trip isn’t handling her parents’ divorce. Maybe the boy who asks for everyone else’s leftovers is eating the only meal he’ll get that day. Maybe the sweet little boy who sits away from everyone has a mind that far exceeds his abilities to control. Maybe their behavior is telling us something, not backing up your opinion. Maybe “that kid” is “that hurting kid”, “that hungry kid”, “that lonely kid”, “that kid in therapy who is really trying”.

Because they know they’re different, these kids. They know they’re left out, avoided, whispered about and looked down upon. And for every empty seat next to them, it reinforces their immature belief that something is wrong with them. Kids have a very narrow understanding of the world, of themselves. Much of what they think about themselves they’ve built buy comparison to others, so when others – especially adults – shun them, roll their eyes at them, or even speak harsh words, they don’t have the capacity to consider whether it’s true or not. They see they don’t act like others, they see the activities going on without them, and by comparison now believe that something is wrong with them – not the society that would avoid or blame a struggling child for being different.

“That kid” stays “that kid” because you keep treating him like “that kid”.

Imagine if we stopped resenting “that kid” and started remembering they’re JUST a kid.  Imagine if we stopped searching for ways to be RIGHT about them and started looking for ways to be KIND to them. They’re different from your kid, and that’s okay. They’re not fitting into the mold, and that’s okay. They’re most certainly lonely, and that’s not okay. Kids are not the people to shun or judge, and what does it say about us as adults if we’re holding so tightly on to wanting to?

Again, kids do well when they can. So let’s stop putting up social roadblocks that make it even harder for them to do well. I’m not expecting invitations for play dates, but a smile instead of a scowl wouldn’t kill ya. My struggling apple won’t spoil your whole bunch.

What It’s (Really) Like to Have a Gifted Kid

What It's (Really) Like to Have a Gifted Kid

 

I know, I know. You probably rolled your eyes at the title. I did, too, if we’re being honest. The term “gifted” is what does it. It has an elitist air to it, seems snooty, sounds like I’m bragging. But the truth is, most parents of children who have been identified as gifted, those having an IQ score above 130 or two standard deviations above the norm, they aren’t bragging, they’re BEGGING. Begging for help, for understanding, for answers, for a system that will recognize and meet their child’s needs. You see, giftedness does not look at all like you think it does. Some of you know my tale of tears, the years of counseling, testing, praying, dieting, oiling, reading, and sobbing, all to be told that what was “wrong” with my child was giftedness. The years spent searching for a diagnosis, knowing something was different about my boy, knowing he was miserable and hurting, wanting desperately to help and find an answer, but always falling just short of sensory processing disorder, of bipolar disorder, of oppositional defiant disorder, of autism spectrum disorders, of ADHD. Really, THOSE are the labels that came to mind before I had to be told that my child was gifted, and that the behaviors he was exhibiting were NORMAL. Those extremes are what I thought about my child, never a high IQ. I knew he was bright, don’t get me wrong, but bright and the actual classification of “gifted” are two very different things, and what I knew of giftedness was chess champions, piano prodigies, and tiny little adults. My emotional, sensitive, intense child who never slept and always worried couldn’t possibly be a – gasp – genius.

Except that he kind of is.

It’s been a year and a half since we “found out” about him, and every day I learn more about what it means for him to exist in a world that is built for people different from himself. Many days I find myself advocating, emailing, sticking up for him. I’ve been asked more than once what’s “wrong” with him. I’ve asked that myself on many occasions. Some days I have people roll their eyes. Lots of days people feel the need to question or disprove his label. One day I even had someone walk away while I was mid-sentence. There are a lot of misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding gifted kids – their parents are pushing them, their parents are bragging, everything is easy for them, they’re perfect kids, they can handle it. One of the most hurtful ones I’ve encountered is the apparent belief that there is some finite amount of intelligence in the world, some IQ pool that kids draw from, and my child having withdrawn more than the others somehow left less for their son or daughter. Those are the people who see him as a threat, who resent him for skipping a grade, who feel slighted that he earned a place on a math team that their child did not. Those are the adults who approach him with the sole intention of proving him wrong, tripping him up, who have made up their minds to blame him for something he cannot help and something he didn’t do. Who make no attempt to understand what it’s really like for him, how scary and overwhelming it is to have a brain that doesn’t turn off, to be able to take everything in but have no idea what to do with it.

People who think giftedness looks like this:

But have no idea it also comes with this:

 

People who assume the school sends us this:

But don’t realize they also send us here:

That’s what it’s really like, giftedness. To exist in a world that doesn’t understand you, that even resents you. To watch athletes be praised for their form of giftedness but to have yours dismissed. A world where a gold medal is earned but a grade skip is bragging. Sure, it can be high grades, athletic achievements, musical gifts and artistic abilities. But it’s also asynchronous development, where “cognitive abilities and heightened intensity combine to create inner experiences that are qualitatively different from the norm”, to have the brain of an adult, the body of a child, and the emotional stability of a toddler. It’s overexcitabilities, where the brain’s intensity creates disorder-like reactions to stimuli, creates more intense emotions than the norm, more intense physical needs than the norm, more intense everything than the norm. Giftedness is everything inside you going at 1,000,000% and not knowing how to cope, because no one else around you is having the same problem, no one else is bothered, bored. It’s having trouble finding friends because you read so many levels above your classmates but socially are so many levels beneath them, not being able to have peers because they don’t want to talk about politics in the second grade and don’t understand why you hide in your locker when things get to be too much.

It’s sometimes making great grades, but it’s also sometimes struggling with being twice-exceptional – having both a gifted IQ and a learning or emotional disorder. Yeah, that’s a real thing. It turns out there’s a lot about gifted kids that most people don’t know. I share these things not to brag, not to garner sympathy, but to educate, to help. Ever since I first shared our journey to discovering our son’s giftedness, I have received almost a message a week from a friend, or from the friend of a friend, seeking answers, wondering if their child might also be gifted, looking for support once they discover that they are. So I’ll keep sharing, keep talking about it, for the parents who feel overwhelmed and alone, for the parents desperately looking for an answer to their child’s behavior that doesn’t seem “fixable”. I’ll endure the eyerolls and the sighs, the people who think I’m bragging, and I’ll continue to share about how we endure tears on a daily basis, emotions and thoughts that are too big for a little guy to handle, how we are caught in a never-ending race to meet his intellectual needs. I’ll tell about the testing, the never-ending testing, the 504 meetings and the IEP requests, the phone calls from school, the guilt and doubt I face when it comes to school at all. I’ll share about the anxiety, the overwhelming fear I have when he’s walking the halls of school or running on a soccer field, not knowing what will trigger HIS anxiety, what will reduce him to a crying toddler or ignite him to become a raging monster. I’ll tell you about how he doesn’t have birthday parties because they’re too much for him to handle, and he doesn’t really have friends to invite to them, anyway. I’ll write about how embarrassing it is to walk into a school office, knowing how a lot of the adults in there feel about your child, how humbling and remorseful it is to message another parent about what my own has done. I’ll tell of the expensive specialized psychologist we can’t afford and the hour it takes to get to her. I’ll share about how futile it feels to try and find a place for your square peg child in a world of round holes.

I’ll also tell you about how hilarious he is, how he makes jokes far beyond his 7 years and has mastered sarcasm on an expert level. I’ll tell you about how intensely sweet he is, how he snuggles me still and says he never wants to grow up and leave me, how his love literally makes me ache. I’ll write about how thoughtful he is, how he makes crafts and cards for people he loves, includes money, Starburst, or anything else he thinks the person may enjoy. I’ll definitely tell about how creative he is, how his brain works in a way that never ceases to amaze me, how he’s able to see things from a new perspective, from a place you didn’t even know existed, how he’s able to create entire worlds and mythologies with just 10 minutes and his toes. I’ll roll my eyes as I tell you about his love for Star Wars, how he has learned every single fact you never even knew was out there.  I’ll shout from the rooftops about the advocates he has on the inside, the teachers who have helped him AND me, who get him, love him, encourage him, support him, and want the best for him. I’ll marvel publicly at how naturally he picks up math concepts, how he reads novels in a day, his herding-like abilities on the soccer field, how he can identify insects and read Roman numerals and tell you about cultural customs all the world over. I’ll share wistfully about his infectious smile, his giant blue eyes that sparkle with mischief, and his sweet little feet that still have some of the toddler chubbiness left on them. I’ll declare firmly and confidently that I know he has a purpose in this world, and I believe it to be huge.

I love my boy. My gifted boy. My intense, emotional, overwhelmed, creative, hilarious, loving boy. He is not what people think he is. Giftedness is not what people think it is. It is a wonderful, exhausting, never-dull and never-easy experience. And for the last time, it’s not bragging.

The (New) Stages of Grief – and How We’re Doing it Wrong

The (new) Stages of Grief - and How We're Doing it Wrong

Our world is grieving right now. World events, news, relationships, health, wealth, dreams… there’s a lot happening every day to process and mourn. And faster than we can heal, there’s another breaking news story, another blow, and we’re left reeling and feeling all over again. Grief is not new to this divided world – it’s been felt and studied and survived since the beginning of mankind. In 1969, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the world to what are now widely accepted as the 5 stages of grief, basically the 5 steps to how one copes with extreme sadness and loss.

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

These stages aren’t always experienced in this order, and sometimes a person may skip a stage entirely, but in general this is the best way to understand the way that grief moves through us and how we, in turn, respond to it. This does not minimize the experience, rather it is comforting to know that, if nothing else, there is acceptance at the end: You will make it through.

However, at some point in our culture, we’ve begun to rework these stages, tossing out some, renaming others, and really just making a mess of Elizabeth KR’s work. A very powerful, very moving, and very, very destructive step was added and it began to eat away at the other steps, as well as us. It has taken over and assumed the role of trailblazer when we’re faced with grief, leading the way and dictating our actions and reactions from the moment we first hurt. The stages have been whittled down to only the one remaining, distorted stage that doesn’t allow for acceptance on the other side.

Blame.

It’s not a new concept. It’s not always an undeserved one. But it has become the sole obsession of our world when faced with tragedy. Politicians, religion, parents, culture, schools…. Read any single news story shared on social media – seriously, any – and then check the comments. You will find blame. Finger pointing. Assumptions, judgements, name-calling, armchair quarterbacks, “experts”. People who claim they would never have allowed such a thing to happen to them, people who claim such a thing would never have happened if someone else had been in charge. People who blame mothers for accidents and parents for crime.

Blame abounds where pain confounds and comfort – what of comfort? There can be no peace where blame exists. Blame is the exact opposite of acceptance – it is projecting responsibility onto someone else, literally putting your ability to heal into the hands of another person. Blame is justified bitterness. Blame being the opposite of acceptance means that acceptance cannot be achieved, one cannot heal, get over, get through, get better, so long as they blame someone else for their pain.

“But this isn’t my fault!” No one said it was, friend. Sometimes tragedy is just tragedy. Sometimes bad things happen. And never in the stages of grief is “blame” listed as healthy or necessary to the process. Sometimes there’s no one to blame, only feelings to feel, and those feelings are really hard to deal with when you feel alone in them. You can feel powerless, weak, exposed. Blame creates a false sense of justification, of power, as though blaming someone else enables you to rise above the waves of grief with the dignity of someone who should not have to experience them. Blame is a bandage, a temporary fix, an attempt to curb the very real pain without aiding in any actual healing. Blame fuels the fire, makes it easier to feel indignant than hurt. Blame is a poison disguised as a defense mechanism that will, eventually, fill the void with bitterness – something much harder to rid yourself of than grief.

Blaming your husband for your lack of finances, for the long hours he works. Blaming your kids for your lack of free time or loss of happiness. Blaming your friend for the breakdown in your relationship. Blaming your pastor for your offense. Heck, blaming your pastor for religion. Blaming your boss for your career path. Blaming world leaders for tragic events. Blaming parents for their children. Blaming your ex for… well, everything. Blaming an entire group for the actions of one. Blaming society for the actions of one. Blaming God for the actions of one.

As I type, my 3 wild kids are just feet from me, doing one of their favorite things: all out wrestling. Seriously, tripping, grabbing, pushing, rolling, all over the floor, it’s wild and chaotic and they LOVE it. They’re all giggling and smiling and having a blast… until someone knocks a little too hard or a fall is a little worse than expected. It happens, every time, and every time the crying kid is pointing at someone, blaming them, and the guilty kid stands over them, defending themselves. Through the tears, the scratches, sometimes even the blood, they are more concerned with whose fault it is than helping the hurt kid feel better. And always, before I hear opening statements from both parties, I have to remind (force) the accused to get down on the level of their hurt sibling, apologize for them being hurt, and see if they can help. Sometimes it’s an accident. Sometimes it’s on purpose. But no matter what, someone has been hurt and the important thing is to help them. Someone is hurting and needs to heal, and assigning blame has yet to be proven to help.

Sometimes there is someone to blame. Sometimes there is a systemic breakdown and a societal failure. Sometimes imperfect people act imperfectly and really are buttheads. But they still can’t heal you. And blaming them implies that they have control over your emotions, blaming them puts the responsibility for your wellness in their hands. There will be a time for assigning blame where blame is due, but I urge you not to give into the temptation to allow blame to become your first reaction, the only step in your grieving process. Do not allow blame to create a false sense of righteousness in you. Do not believe that your opinion of another is their reality. Heal, friend. Feel. Pain and tragedy are so, well, painful and tragic, that it’s easy to want to avoid them. None of us are immune. That doesn’t mean we’re deserving. That doesn’t mean the person to blame gets away with anything. It means you’re human, and you’re getting through it.

I’m no fitness expert (pause for laughter), but I do know that muscle is built by creating small tears that then heal to be stronger. You go to the gym, do werk, and are sore. You’ve created tiny tears in the muscle that now need the opportunity to heal in order to grow. Feel the burn, some might say. No pain, no gain. Well, at the risk of sounding super cheesy, the heart is a muscle. You have to be able to heal to get better. Blame is nothing you want any part of when it comes to healing. Blame is acid on the wounds, a distraction, and a missed opportunity to care for your self.

So please, the next time something comes across your path that is heartbreaking, pause. Feel the sadness. Allow the grief. Watch Inside Out to see how necessary sadness is to the healing process. Cry. Mourn. Be vulnerable. Don’t judge. Don’t react. Let yourself feel so that you can sooner heal. And get a hug if you can.

 

A Love Letter to People of Color (To Be Read By All My White Friends)

My Dear Friends,

First, let me say that I know I don’t speak for everyone, and I know I’m not an expert on race relations. I get it. I have (mostly) blonde hair, live in the ‘burbs, watch Friends and drive a minivan. I’m super white. I won’t do the thing where I give you my background and tell you about the places I’ve been and the life I’ve lived to try and qualify my statements, to make it seem like I know what you’re going through. Because the truth is, I don’t. I won’t tell you about all the friends I’ve had in an attempt to present myself as an ally. Because the truth is, having friends is not the same as standing beside you and it does not cancel out centuries of hatred. I won’t burst through your mourning with defense or rhetoric, with anything that begins with “not all white people…”. Because the truth is, you hurt, and those words do not heal.

I fear, my beautiful friends, that I’ve been grossly misunderstanding racism up until now. I’m afraid that I allowed my understanding of it to become my definition of it, when in reality they’ve been two very different things. I assumed that because there are no signs separating your family from mine while we eat that racism was a thing of the past. I thought that because I struggled with paying the bills that white privilege was not real. And I reasoned that, while ignorance still runs rampant, my generation had been taught to be color blind… which I again associated with the end of racism.

I’ve discovered, however, that in our earnest to remain color blind, we’ve dismissed the idea of color bias. I’ve discovered, through my introduction and attempts at understanding cultural appropriation, that color blindness was never the goal. Color blindness strips you of your glorious heritage, your sacred rituals and histories. Color blindness makes the assumption that you and I are alike, when we very much are not. Color blindness has led me to believe the lie that because we are equal in personhood, we are also equal in experience. Color blindness caused many to blame the victim before they ever listened to the outcry. Color blindness spurred on #AllLivesMatter. Color blindness, in an attempt to mix this melting pot we call America, instead brought it to a boiling point where everything is in such a rolling turmoil that we’re clashing, banging, picking, blaming. Color blindness told me I was an ally, while all along I was just the stubborn friend who meant well but didn’t know what the heck she was actually talking about.

I reach out to you now, my friends of color who are hurting, who are scared. I was wrong. I was ignorant. So often we associate the word “ignorance” with “stupidity” so we are reluctant to identify with it, when really it means I just didn’t know. I was ignorant. In my passion to declare you the same as me, I was dismissing your loud cries to the contrary. I was ignorant. In my attempts to make sense of your experience, I listened to my own reasoning instead of your words. I was ignorant. In my own firm belief that I was not racist, I ignored the fact that a lot of people are. And a lot of people are ignorant to what racism is. I thought my declarations of equality were comforting to you, but in my ignorance did not see how they drowned you out. I hate it when I’m sharing a story or struggle with someone, desperate for someone to hear, only to have them respond with their own. That’s what we’ve been doing all this time, isn’t it? When we bring up stories of white people in seemingly similar situations, when we spout off our own experiences. We’ve been using our words in an ignorant attempt to relate or explain, when all along you’ve just wanted to be heard.

So here we are, friends, at the crux. Where do we go from here? I imagine you’re tired. Tired of explaining to white people how things are different, tired of answering ignorant questions, tired of seeing your race represented on the news more than primetime shows, tired of being told things about yourself by people who just don’t know. So I will urge my white friends to listen more than they speak, to hear your answers without forming a response. I cannot promise to not ask patience of you as I work around my lifelong ignorance. I cannot promise to always get it right. I cannot promise that things will get better starting now. But I can promise that I will try. I can promise that I hear you now, and I will listen. I can hope that each day will get a little better, that maybe as the roar becomes deafening some will be unable to hear their own ideas over your words. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow. I don’t know what will be said next week. But I know I will listen. I will hear you. I will not attempt to make sense of it, because my own experiences can never equate to yours, and because so much of it is just senseless.

 

Image from here.  I have no idea what they say or support, I just needed to use the image!

This Blog is Not About You – Which is Why You Should Absolutely Read it

I like blogs. I like reading them. I long for the time to write more of them. I see blog posts shared multiple times a day in my social media feeds. A bunch of them are open letters, which I tend to skip most of, but blogs are an enormously untapped source of information, perspectives, encouragement, and personal journeys. Whether it’s renovating a home or educating on a childhood disorder, there are blogs by anyone and for anyone. They exist to share information, for free, quickly and easily. Yet they go largely unread.

A friend texted me a few months ago, a friend who has children with special needs and regularly shares blog posts pertaining to those needs. She asked if I thought anyone ever read the blogs she shared. I told her, sadly, that there were probably very few who do, because they think it doesn’t apply to them. Not having a child with those particular struggles, they see the title and move on, figuring there’s nothing for them to gain.

After a big news event, there is always an influx of blog posts (especially those open letter ones). Gorillas, guns, Miley Cyrus…. everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to share theirs. Which is totally fine. They’re as free to share their opinion as I am to share mine. I won’t turn this into a rant about how many of these opinions are about assigning blame rather than dealing with the issue. I won’t. But I will address the issue I take with these opinion pieces: we’re not reading them. We see the title, decide we disagree, roll our eyes and move on. It’s not for us, so we don’t click.

Here’s the problem with that: we don’t learn. When we don’t read anything new, anything that is outside of our own perspective and experience, we fail to grow, we miss the opportunity to learn how we can support someone else. We cannot be so arrogant as to believe that our perspective is the only one and our opinion may as well be fact.

A major part of blogging for me is the catharsis that comes from giving my thoughts words, sharing my experiences, and hoping that someone else who is in a similar situation can find some encouragement in at least knowing they’re not alone. But another reason I do it is in the hopes that someone will read my words, stop, and think, “Wow, I had no idea that’s what it was like.” I want to educate others on topics that are important to me, topics that I don’t see discussed. When my friend shares a blog about children with mitochondrial disease, I read it. I can’t relate to it, but it helps me understand her struggle a little better. When my friend who lives in Australia shares links to the political happenings in her part of the world, I read them. I can’t vote down under, but it helps me gain an understanding of her beliefs, and keeps me abreast of world issues. And far more sensitive, when my friends of color share blogs about their experiences, about what it means to be black in America or the discrimination they face because of their religion, I READ THEM. And you know what else? I really, truly, learn a lot from them.

Unbeknownst to me, I grew up in a bubble. I was surrounded by people who believed similarly to me and lived similarly enough to me. I came of age at birthday parties where I was often the only white girl, and since I truly didn’t see color and my friends didn’t seem to mind my lack of it, I thought racism was dead. Because we got along I assumed we had similar lives and nothing was different for us. I live in a town now that is pretty devoid of melanin, but my feelings never changed, so when the term “white privilege” first started popping up I rolled my eyes. In my bubble, there was no such thing. Then a friend of mine, a brilliant sociologist, shared a blog that I thought I at least should check out. I gave a deep sigh at the title and prepared myself to come up with a biting defense, but the words were so…. true. I wasn’t racist, but my experience as a white woman was far different from that of a woman of color. I could not presume to know what it was like to grow up not seeing people like me on TV. I’ve never gone to a doctor’s office and been unable to communicate my symptoms because no one spoke my language. I get stereotyped and people make assumptions about me, but that doesn’t mean we’re the same. Equal as humans, yes. But our experiences are not the same, and me dismissing that fact was never going to help anyone. Not agreeing with it doesn’t make it go away, and acknowledging it doesn’t make me a racist. In discussing parts of the Black Lives Matter movement with a very dear friend, who is black, I went from annoyance to understanding. No one was saying other lives didn’t matter. No one said Black Lives Matter More. They just were saying, “SEE us. ACKNOWLEDGE us. REALIZE that our experience is not the same as yours.” Because every time we dismiss the notion, we tell them that black lives, in fact, do not matter. I’m not here to discuss riots or shootings, only people. People who are trying to tell us something that we are too entrenched in our own beliefs to listen to. Admitting that our experiences are different is not admitting to being a racist. It’s listening to someone and expanding your horizon. It’s caring about someone else and doing what you can to make sure they know they’re heard.

Your friend who shares a personal post about the struggles of parenting a child with autism – read it. You may not be dealing with special needs in your home, but it will never hurt you to learn what her experience is like. Did you realize how much she spends on therapies? Did you realize how many different therapies she schedules? Were you aware that some schools have no programs in place… or that some states will pay for private school if your district cannot meet the child’s needs? Do you know how little sleep she gets and how badly she needs a pedicure date? Do you know what a big deal it is that her son finally took a shower without screaming? It doesn’t apply to you, but learning these things sure do help you in empathizing with her, in understanding more about her experience. It cost you a few minutes to be a better friend, and she’s better for having someone who hears her.

Your cousin shares ANOTHER link to homeopathic treatments, or FDA conspiracies, or essential oil cocktails. Read them. They are sharing because they are caring. They genuinely believe they can help people, they have seen a change in their lives and want others to experience it. You don’t have to give up your ibuprofen, but you could stumble upon a nugget of information that could boost your energy, or give a name to a symptom you’ve been experiencing, or help you find an entirely new way to treat an ailment that you’re tired of dealing with. Just like when someone blessedly shares some glorious cheesy bacon chicken something or other recipe, they see something great and want to share it with others. They say, “This is AWESOME, I have to make sure everyone knows!” You may think they’re off their rocker, and sometimes they may be, but they want to help and are offering you tools to try something new.

There’s that post again, the one about foster kids sleeping on the floors of offices. I don’t have foster kids, so I don’t need to read it. Except that children need homes, and you may be the one to offer it. If nothing else, understanding their heart-breaking circumstances can give you a new purpose in your prayer or giving. You may have thought foster kids just slept in bunk beds and carried everything in their backpacks. You may have thought it looked like Annie. But when you take the time to read about the plight of these children who did not ask to be in such dire straits that an office floor is preferable to home, your heart can grow. Those kids deserve to be known about. Clicking the link won’t get you a knock on the door with unruly teenage foster quads, but it will offer you a look into a life you know nothing about.

Your friend posts a blog entry that is going viral, you’ve seen it a few times already, and haven’t read it a single time because of the title. It’s political, and you can already tell you won’t agree. But let me challenge you – how do you know you won’t agree? Unless you read the words, unless you take the plunge and consider another perspective, how do you even know that your opinion is truly yours and not just a collective opinion formed by the people you surround yourself with? Until you’ve seen all the sides, how will you know which one you land on? One of the reasons we send our children to – gasp! – public school is because  I want them exposed to different people, different songs and ideas than they’d get at home. I want them to come home and talk about them with us, so that they can form their beliefs and KNOW WHY they believe them. I don’t want my children to blindly follow my opinions, I want them to think, listen, and form their own. So I challenge you, friend, read that blog. Read it even if it makes your blood boil. Know what’s going on beyond your own bubble, beyond your own viewpoint. You don’t have to agree with it. You don’t have to enjoy it. But challenge yourself to test your opinions against the perspectives offered by others. Because we do all have different perspectives. We all have our bubbles we’ve grown in and the internet has given us the amazing ability to pop them. Sometimes it’s shocking, sometimes it’s enfuriating, but sometimes it’s enlightening. Get out there and LEARN. Funny enough, the more you learn about another opinion, the more educated it can make you about your own.

I hate stereotypes. I hate assumptions. I hate being lumped together with a group of people based on the way someone else views me. The longer we resist learning about the experiences of others, the more we allow stereotypes to perpetuate. Having a child with autism isn’t just a kid who rocks back and forth and won’t look you in the eye. Having a kid with severe allergies doesn’t mean she has to live in a bubble. Having a gifted child does not mean the day is full of chess and math (I mean, there’s chess and math, but there are a lot of struggles that come with it, too). Having a parent with an illness doesn’t just mean a retirement home is in order.  Being black today is not the same as being white today, and ignoring that fact won’t make it change. A lot of posts about modern feminism aren’t for me, but I’ve learned a lot of facts that are. I’ve read new perspectives and theories and my mind has been opened to learn. People need and want to talk about what they’re going through. All they’re asking is that we listen.  Not every movement is one I want to join and not every political party is one I want to jump on board with (seriously, there are NO parties for me to claim now). But I can still learn, educate myself, consider other perspectives and strengthen my own position.

It’s hard having a newsfeed with so many differing ideals.   It’s hard to see those memes you hate and statements that sting. It’s hard to see yourself lumped into a group who someone just made a joke out of, and it can make you pretty rage-y when disrespect is paid towards a topic you are passionate about. But we’re also adults. I hope I never find myself back in my bubble, sealed up with only people who agree with me and concerned only with things that relate to me. My wonderfully diverse group of friends have introduced me to countless ideas, shows, songs, foods, perspectives, struggles… all because I was willing to read them. I still know who I am and I still know what I believe. I have not been swayed to join any dark sides and my head did not explode from reading about a presidential candidate I’m particularly fearful of. Debates have happened, and we’ve all survived. I don’t unfriend anyone for disagreeing with me, and I’m delighted that most of my friends don’t, either. We’re all so much bigger than one topic, anyway, it’d be a shame to lose out on what else I could learn from them just because we disagreed on an article. Surround yourself with like-minded people, yes… but be open to considering far different-minded peoples’ perspectives, as well. Just read the stuff. Learn the stuff. Be prepared to be wrong sometimes, or at least lacking in knowledge. Embrace your friends’ experiences. Take an interest in something other than your immediate surroundings. Push yourself to take it in, then prove yourself as an adult by loving them all anyway. The people with differing opinions, the people who are in very different places from you, the people who don’t share your beliefs and the people who bash your beliefs – love them anyway. They don’t have to agree with you, either. Though, hopefully they’ll have read this blog and will and least respectfully consider your stance.😉  In this age, in this climate, in this election year and this country constantly divided by one thing or another, be the one who is big enough to reach over. Don’t let yourself be part of a split. Don’t let your friends’ experiences go unnoticed. Read. Learn. Consider. And then move on and have a great day. Because it’s not about you. It’s about a better, more considerate, more educated, more sympathetic you. Go you.

Mind the Hazard Lights

I should be embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until I became a driver myself that I knew what the hazard light button was. I remember noticing it for the first time in my stepmom’s little red Civic, the newest vehicle I had ever been in and thus the epitome of technological advancement in automobiles. I saw that red triangle button on the dashboard among dozens of other doodads and whatnots I didn’t understand, but the imagery of it was such that I instinctively knew it meant “DANGER”. This could only mean one thing, of course: an eject and/or self-destruct button. Like Batman. I was always very careful in the front seat, afraid that I might inadvertently hit it while changing radio stations and send us both flying into oncoming traffic. This story doesn’t really have an application, I just wanted to share it.

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I was reminded of it when my own daughter asked a few weeks ago what the red triangle button meant. “They’re for when you have a problem, ” my husband explained, “so people know to move away from you.”

This struck me.

My husband is the most selfless person you’ll ever meet, so this isn’t a reflection on his character, only on what the hazard lights have come to mean: when did “I’m in trouble” become “move along”? Hazard lights are intended to alert the other drivers that something has gone wrong with the car or driver, that they can’t go on as normal or at the same rate as the others on the road. Their distress signal has become an annoyance to others. Rather than pulling over to offer help, the other drivers see the blinking red lights and move off to the side in an attempt to get past them quicker. We see the trouble and worry only about how it affects our commute.

I once sat on the side of a highway for more than 6 hours with my hazard lights blinking. 6 hours. I’d experienced a tire blow-out going 70 miles per hour and miraculously maintained enough control to safely come to a stop on the shoulder, yet I did not have the knowledge, skills, or tools to change the tire. I made phone calls until my cell phone died (the car charger was still years away from being common), I missed all of my college classes that day, I was starving, exhausted, scared, frustrated, angry. I waited and waited while hundreds of cars passed me by, not one stopping to offer assistance. Could they have been a crazy axe-murderer who wanted to chop me into tiny bits? Sure. Those exist anywhere. But could they also have helped? Yes. But no one did. Despite the very obvious signs I was giving that I needed it.

“But Jennifer,” you say, “I don’t have time to stop and help a stranded motorist!” Well, friend, I can promise you that the stranded motorist probably didn’t have time to be stranded themselves. They had work and appointments and responsibilities still waiting for them, too. How much faster would they get to where they were headed, how much faster would the flow of traffic be restored if someone took the time out of their own schedule to just help?

“But Jennifer,” you say, “I don’t know how to fix a car!” Well, friend, sometimes just having someone there with you can ease the stress of a motor emergency. My stepdad was in a car accident a while back, a bad one. It was raining and he was alone, trapped. I can’t imagine how scared he must have been, let alone hurt. The wreckage made it impossible to reach his cell phone to call for help, he must have been there wondering if anyone saw, if anyone noticed, if anyone was coming, if anyone would help. Alone. Until some wonderful Samaritan took it upon themselves to climb in there and keep him company, keep him calm, until help arrived. Someone took a detour from where they were headed, got out into the rain, and comforted someone who was very much alone. Someone saw the hazard and responded.

You probably see by now that I’m not just referring to car troubles.

It applies across the board to life. The depressing social media shares, the mother juggling groceries and children in the parking lot, the elderly neighbor who can’t start their mower, the overweight first-timer at the gym who can’t figure out how to start their machine. People need HELP. Hazard lights are blinking all around us. Yet all too often we just rubberneck the wreckage, slow down long enough to see how bad it is, thank God it wasn’t us, and move on. We glare at the man whose car won’t start in the middle of an intersection, as though he didn’t already know he was inconveniencing the people behind him, when getting out to help him push the car would be much more impactful. We silently judge the single mother who can’t pay her bills when a helping hand, a tank of gas, or a night of babysitting would be much more helpful. We hate the way our depressed acquaintance makes us feel so down when they’re around, when helping them feel better when we’re around could be the difference between life and death. The mom you’re scoffing at for using formula – did you offer her breastfeeding support? The man you’re taking cell phone pictures of because his pants are slipping down – did you tell him and save him the embarrassment? The friend whose marriage is crumbling – have you offered an ear or just observed the wreckage? The relative who is battling a disease – have you visited, listened, helped, or just thanked God it wasn’t you?

People all around us need help, every day. It could be as easy as sharing a post from a friend’s business or as involved as taking in a family.

“But Jennifer,” you say, “I’m having car trouble, too.” I know, friend. Depression and anxiety are all around us. Financial struggles, relationship battles, health troubles, existential crises, kids, school, work… we’re all struggling. I know. And sometimes all you can do is climb inside the broken-down car and cry together. Acknowledging someone else’s struggle does not negate your own. There’s no way to measure who has it worse, nor should there be. We’re all in this together, all traveling the same road, and we all benefit when someone in need is helped.

There’s an actual, documented phenomenon known as the Bystander Effect. In a crisis, individuals are less likely to offer help to a victim the more people there are around. Seriously. The MORE bystanders there are, the LESS likely anyone is to offer any help. Victims will wait and wait for help that doesn’t come because everyone around them assumes someone else will do it. It’s mass apathy. It takes someone taking charge and giving specific instructions to specific people to get anything done. You can’t just yell, “Somebody call 911!”, you have to point to a person and say, “YOU, call 911.” While I’ve seen this portrayed several times on the always-accurate Law & Order: SVU, I recently witnessed it first-hand. I was in a situation that required police interference, and people just stood there. Watching. Some were in disbelief, some had their cell phones out to video. I had to be the one to call the police, because the bystander effect was in full force.

This idea, this stopping to help when others don’t, it’s important enough to have made the Bible. In Luke 3 we’re told of the Good Samaritan, the man who stopped and offered assistance when so many others before him didn’t. Jesus Himself offered up everything He had for the good of all of us. You may not have riches, you may not have influence, you may not have extra time, but if the Son of God can offer Himself to help everyone, even the jerkiest jerks and the buttiest buttheads, who are we to just keep on driving by? When did “I need help”, when did “love your neighbor as yourself”, become open to interpretation, prioritization, and impassivity?

We cannot live this way. We cannot allow our dependency on others to rid us of any responsibility. We cannot see flashing hazard lights and shrug because they don’t affect us. People need help, WE need help. So what are you going to do about it?