Sunday, May 31, 2020

White Balloon





When my mom dropped me off at school one morning my sophomore year in high school, we could never have predicted that hours later, a police officer would be escorting me back to the car.

I'm telling this story in an attempt to understand what I have witnessed this week. I realize that no matter how much I write, question or attempt to empathize, I will never be able to fully understand what racism means because I will never experience it firsthand. I have never been judged for the color of my skin or a victim of discrimination and therefore have no way of feeling or defining it. But I also don't believe that should stop me from trying so here I am, trying.

The first time I remember being confronted with the concept was age 15, which I understand is a significant entitlement itself. It began as a good day. I had been nominated to attend an off-site leadership conference with about 100 other students from my school, and I was excited. We loaded a bus and were taken to community center in town.

After arriving and gathering for a keynote speaker, we were divided into smaller groups for breakout sessions. I remember being separated from my friends, and placed as the only underclassman in my group. For our first activity we were taken into a room and seated in a circle, where the presenting teacher pulled out a colorful bag of deflated balloons and handed one to each of us.

He then explained that this was an exercise in public speaking, and that we were to each take turns standing and making a case to the group of why our color balloon was the best. I looked down at mine. It was white, and I felt defeated. White, seriously? Why couldn't I get ocean blue or sunshine yellow or heart red. What even is white? All that came to mind was toilet paper.

As the others began taking turns and I knew that toilet paper wasn't going to cut it, I racked my brain for ideas and finally came up with a wedding dress. Wedding dresses were white. I specifically imagined the wedding dress of my sister, who had been married just a few months before.

When it was my turn, I stood, conjured an image of the dress in my mind, and awkwardly made my case. "Hi, I'm Katie. Um, I have white. White is the best color, because...it's like, clean and pure and can be really beautiful."

And that was that. We shuffled through a few more sessions, ate our boxed lunches and were bused back to school in time to attend our final two classes. Shortly before the end of the day, my teacher approached and said I had been asked to pack my things and report to the front office.

If I was confused when I arrived, I was even more confused when I was escorted into the principal's office, and downright shocked when I walked in to see a police officer waiting for me. Honestly, my first thought was that someone in my family had died and they were there to deliver the news. My hands started shaking as I sat in the chair.

The principal reassured me that I wasn't in trouble, but said there had been an "incident" at the conference that day. Incident? I looked around, certain they had called up the wrong person.

He went on to explain that someone in my breakout group had interpreted the description of my balloon as racially motivated (say what), and that by the time we returned to campus a plan had been hatched to rough me up on the way home from school. Another student had overheard and reported it to a teacher, prompting the administration to contact authorities.

I was gobsmacked. My mom was called to pick me up, and when she arrived the officer escorted me to her car. I stayed home the next day, too scared to attend, and for a long time after that my heart pounded when I passed students in the hallway, wondering if they had been part of the plan to hurt me.

That experience would become a defining moment in my understanding of racism. What was initially a feeling of defensiveness eventually gave way to an awareness that perspective is not just about what we see, but where we're seeing it from.

All I could see that day was a balloon. But another person, from where they sat, could see race; and a host of other things I couldn't see. They may have seen memories of hate they had felt or slurs they had heard; opportunities denied, privileges rebuffed or the pain of those who had gone before them. And when they saw it it hurt them so badly that they wanted to hurt me. And for that, I am so sorry.

Last night, I watched the riots from the perspective of my living room, and not from inside them. I saw the pain and pressure explode like an overinflated balloon. And while I can't defend the looting or burning down of local businesses, I also believe that these things happen for a reason. As much as I detest the violence, I also desperately want to understand where it's coming from. What do they see that I don't see? What have they felt that I can't feel?

"I think America must see that riots don't develop out of thin air...But in the final analysis a riot is a language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?" (Martin Luther King, 1967)

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Easter Best






Winter in Virginia in 2013 was brutal.

The snowfall was constant that year. We had so much of it, in fact, that school was cancelled a record eleven times. I had four kids under eight and was living in a fixer upper with insufficient insulation and no garage. When I look back on that winter I can only remember doing two things - hiding in a hot bath in the middle of the day, or debating whether getting the kids out of house was worth the misery of scraping the car.

What got me through was dreaming about spring break. Spring break, I decided, would be our happily ever after. When it was spring break, the sun would shine and the sight of cherry blossoms would welcome us outdoors. I envisioned leaving the house without chipping ice off the car or zipping everyone into layers, driving with the windows down, and picnicking by the monuments.

And it finally did arrive, on a Monday in late April, along with five inches of snow. On Tuesday, I was diagnosed with a sinus infection which by Wednesday reached my stomach, and knocked me out for the rest of the week. By Wednesday afternoon the house was a category 5 disaster. I think it actually smelled, although my sense of smell was gone, so that is pure speculation. To add to the fun, we lost the remote, cutting off access to the TV and leaving the kids to work out for themselves whose turn it was to use our one iPod Touch. Think Hunger Games, minus the hunger part, as they had also managed to gain unfettered access to the Costco stash of goldfish.

As I spent the week in bed, I now dreamed about Easter. 

On Easter, the disappointment of the week would be behind us. By Easter, the antibiotics would take effect, and my energy would return. On Easter, the house would be restored to order, and so would the kids. I envisioned scrubbing them clean, dressing them up, and watching them discover their basket treasures. They would delight in their egg hunt and forget all the times during the week I neglected or lost my patience with them.  Easter would make everything better. 

And then I thought, isn't that true?

In my journal that Sunday in 2013, I wrote -

"This Easter morning, more than most, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for my Savior. The laments of my week were so trivial, but I know that even they were included in His sacrifice. He is the answer to every disappointment, and the source of every happiness. I imagined His resurrection today, and compensation for all my failed expectations, and I was genuinely happy."

I'm very aware, looking back, of how inconsequential my troubles were that week, but the lesson remains. I had high expectations but don't we all, in life. We want to be healthy and happy. We want great relationships and perfect children and jobs and homes that turn out the way we envision.

But the older we get the more acquainted we become with disappointment. Our bodies don't always do what we want them to. People get sick, and pass on. We're confronted with pain and loss and betrayal and children that don't arrive or turn out the way we hoped. Economies fall and jobs are lost and pandemics bulldoze our normal.

And somehow the answer to all of this, is Easter.  In whatever tunnel I find myself, no matter how small or vast and regardless of how I got into it, I know that when I can't see light at the end, it can always be found shining from the empty tomb.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Elimination Diet




I plan out my days in the notes app on my phone, and March 11th was a doozy. All four kids had dental appointments, and there were errands to be run. I volunteered in my daughter's careers class, took the boys to and from two soccer practices and attended both their parent teacher conferences, with an assortment of to-dos crammed into the margins.

When I finally fell asleep that night it was late and I was exhausted, leaving dishes in the sink piled by kids who had fended for themselves while I was too occupied to feed them.

And then the next day, one by one, all our commitments fell like dominoes.

My daughter's prom was the first thing to be cancelled, and then school. Church was indefinitely delayed, as were sports. My son's school play was postponed. Playdates, parties, plans with friends, gone.

In succession, it was like I was watching every commitment run down my calendar as though written in fresh marker on a white board, then hosed down by a global pandemic.

Well look at that, I thought, we've begun an elimination diet.

Years ago, when my daughter first exhibited signs of attention deficit, her pediatrician suggested we try an elimination diet. Sometimes behavioral issues in children, she explained, can be triggered by a reaction to certain foods.

Because there was no telling which foods - wheat, dairy, soy, artificial dyes - she advised that we remove all of them from her plate for several weeks, then reintroduce categories one by one and monitor how she reacts. If she was calm, for instance, when eggs were eliminated but became hyperactive when fed them again, we would have uncovered our culprit.

A few years later, I heard the term "elimination diet" again when Whole 30 became popular. I had a few health-conscious friends on the diet and was fascinated by their ability to subsist for an entire month on seafood and a mysterious substance called ghee. ("But you can eat potatoes!" they would tell me, as though this was a flavor of Ben & Jerrys. "But not nightshades," which I pretended to understand before going home to nervously Google "nightshade.")

Now, in the days of quarantine, the concept of elimination diet has once again entered my mind.

Just like my attention-deficient daughter without any sugar or artificial dyes in her system, I too began behaving differently when commitments were removed from my calendar. I have been calmer. More present. Experiencing each moment rather than anxiously anticipating the next.

Since our family began sheltering in place, we have sat down together every night for dinner, something we can rarely pull off lately amid the juggling of work, activities and spring sports. What will it feel like, I wonder, when we re-introduce soccer and baseball into our diet? How we react?

My teenage daughter, who is never without plans on Friday and Saturday nights, can now be found spending weekends in her younger brother's room, laughing over a video they made together, or listening patiently to detailed explanations of his latest conquest on Fortnite.

My younger daughter, who relies on special education teachers to shepherd her through middle school now just has me and the kitchen table.  As we have struggled together to try and navigate through her classes, I've been rewarded with small moments of joy, discovering abilities in her I didn't realize she had.

We're more rested these days. Our mornings are no longer rushed. We're not eating out or spending money on things that are unnecessary.

Of course we have also been confronted with the awful reality of pandemic and anguish of economic uncertainty. There have been real fears, and there have been tears. But in the midst of it we also uncovered an unprecedented opportunity to to reconfigure what matters most. And what doesn't really matter at all.

I can't wait until my house is once again filled with friends from the neighborhood. I miss going to church and sending my kids to school, and dream about sitting in the bleachers to watch my boys play baseball. But when all of that resumes, when the mask and gloves come off and my calendar begins to reach it's previous capacity, I worry that if we go back to the same life we lived before, a critical opportunity will have been lost.

So for now we stay home and keep washing our hands, trying to scrub away anything that could threaten the safety and balance of being inside.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Socially Distant Sundays






What a week.

One of the strangest adjustments for me has been the feeling of days running together. I've always thrived on routine. There are certain things I do on certain days so that Mondays feel like Mondays and Fridays feel like Fridays, etc. 

But now, with Jack working from home, school canceled and the rest of life suspended, it's been disorienting to not be able to instinctively tell what day or time it is, or whether I should be in pants or pajamas. 

But then mercifully, Sunday arrives. 

Sundays have always felt different, but lately especially so. After an entire week that felt like one giant day, I wake up on Sunday and turn off the news. Jack closes his laptop. The boys unplug Fortnite (who are we kidding, I unplug Fortnite). We fix our hair and change into our nicest clothes. 

On Sunday we're given the gift of being able to set aside everything in the world that overwhelms us. Instead we pray and Eddie leads us in songs that admittedly sound terrible, but have beautiful lyrics nonetheless. We read the kids stories from the scriptures, and talk about all the reasons we have to feel joy and hope for the future. 

Tomorrow it will start again, that feeling of wading through a MonTueWednesday. But for now I feel renewed and ready to face it, knowing that hard as things get there will always be easy, like Sunday morning. 

White Balloon

When my mom dropped me off at school one morning my sophomore year in high school, we could never have predicted that hours later, a...