Wherever I go, I am Italian.

Napoli Giorno Uno:
I sit here on the train from Roma to Napoli, texting my cousin Lucia whom I haven’t seen for over 20 years, bursting with excitement to see her and my other cousins; I realize this is the first time since we arrived in Roma, 3 days ago, that I feel a familiarity and sense of family here. In Rome I was a tourist, which is a feeling I am not fond of, especially in our current political climate. I am 100% Italian and I LOOK very Italian; if I keep my mouth shut, use Italian hand and head gestures, I can pass for a local. It’s when I open this Seattle mouth that I insert foot.

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My visit in 1995 – clockwise from top left, Zia Milla, me, Zia Ceccelia, cousin Lucia, Nonna Maria and cousin Carmella

The last time I saw this family, I was 19 years old. I traveled with my birth father to Italy and met that entire side of the family for the first time since I had been there as a baby. I was named after both of my paternal grandparents, Maria and Angelo – and women’s names end with an A in Italy, so that’s how they got Mariangela. My grandmother, Nonna Maria, was one of the only consistent memories I had from anyone on that side of the family. The aunts and uncles I had met a few times but I had connected with Nonna Maria and she always felt familiar to me. She was a little sneaky, funny, endearing, doting, and witty. And oh, so stubborn! It was clear I didn’t speak Italian but she didn’t care. She would speak at me, over and over, willing me to understand her. “Nonna! Non capisco!!” (Nonna! I don’t understand!) I would say and laugh so hard. But after two weeks, I started to understand some phrases and words. She got her way, ha! To this day I understand more Italian than I can speak.

Day One, we were tested by the infamous thieves of Napoli right when we got off the train (they did not win) and then immediately following that, had a serendipitous Seattle encounter that was clearly written in the cards. We (barely) survived the tumultuous cab ride, and arrived to our beautiful hotel on the sea to find my dear cousin waiting outside the entrance to our hotel with tears in her eyes and hugs built up from 23 years of absence. It was only a welcome that could happen in Napoli and to the Abeo’s. It was epic.

Giorno due a Napoli:
I pick this paragraph up after now being in the city for four days; two carved out places in my heart.

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My 3 first cousins, Alessia, Lucia and Angelo

First was the day we arrived. My three cousins took us within an hour of our arrival and immediately immersed us into Neapolitan culture. No tourist anything. “We will just walk a short distance to the downtown where everything is happening” said my cousin Lucia – which I soon learned meant “We will walk three miles to where thousands of people of all ages are walking down cobblestone music-filled streets at all hours and it will resemble a celebration in Rio.” Via Toledo, the main drag of Naples, had chalk paintings on sidewalks that resembled oil painting masterpieces of Mary and Jesus, fire breathers, graffiti artists, small children driving vespas at shocking speeds down populated streets, and decadent street food carts amidst high end fashion stores. It was magical.

The next day, we went to my family’s home to reunite with people who had last seen me at age 19. This was the original home of my Nonna Maria, and now my Zia Carmilla and her husband Zio Ernesto lived there. There are photos of me in that home when I was no more than five years old. When they last saw me I was young, a bit broken, sad and searching for some kind of emotional connection with people related to me.

It took everything inside me to not burst into tears seeing the faces of the people who lovingly embraced me so many years ago, who greeted me with the exact same level of affection.

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My Zia Milla

My Zia Milla, a silver-haired small woman with the smile and eyes of a film star. Her raspy laugh and voice from years of smoking reminded me of Kathleen Turner, as she whipped around the kitchen refusing any help no matter how many times we offered; she was the ultimate host. Food just kept coming, and we sat and rotated between espresso, wine, aperitif, bitters, from noon until 8pm. It’s the kind of meal and experience that’s now my goal to achieve.

Everything in her house, she offered to us. She had so little space but made it seem like a small palace. As the food courses came out, she would pull food that had been waiting its turn, from random holding places around her kitchen: the microwave, oven, cupboard, shelf, almost like magic. You think it’s a bookshelf…NOPE, it also had Pizza a Escarole in it! That microwave is empty, right? Wrong, it’s full of roasted sliced pork! I may start hiding food around my house now, just FYI.

Zia Milla was a master at making us all feel special, fed, and loved. We started to talk astrology and as I was excited to go around the table to see what sign all of my family members were, she exclaimed “Naturalmente io sono un Capricorno!” – “Of course, I am a Capricorn!” OF COURSE. I had been modeling myself after this woman since meeting her at 19 without realizing it. Her huge smile, her electric eyes, her ability to control the space and meal and keep the conversation going; it was her goal to make sure everyone was fed and happy. To observe her made me see exactly where my love, and almost NEED, for serving people in my home, which made me feel so connected to her spirit.

Right now, I write you on Day 5 in Napoli, from a small cafe facing the sea. The youth are across the street, sitting on the railings, laughing and singing songs. A few young couples are arm in arm, clearly infatuated with each other. Young couples in love and making out isn’t a weird scene here. The display of love is common and seen as lovely and beautiful. Such a difference from America where people are shamed and even told to “get a room” or accused of being cheap or slutty. An elderly man is playing the guitar and 17855286_10155947906514256_142994628054257623_osinging beautiful songs with his guitar case open for euros of thanks. I chuckle to myself as I watch this, because Justin Timberlake is playing in the cafe I am sitting in. The waiter keeps singing random verses as he walks by, smiling to show me he can kind of speak English. An Italian couple comes in with an adorable dog, to which of course I immediately turn into a Kristen Wiig character talking to the dog and going to pet it, and it looks at me like I am insane, then I realize, oh he has NO idea what I am saying. “Cute puppy” and “good boy” are alien words to him.

The cashier uses my transaction as his English lesson: “It has been my many pleasures to serve you.” I don’t correct him because part of me loved it being phrased like that. He introduces himself as Gianluca and after I tell him my name, he says to me “Your name is very Italian, why you no speak.” I told him in broken Italian, “Il mio sangue e il cuore è italiano ma il mio cervello è bloccato in America” which means “My blood and heart is Italian but my brain is stuck in America.” He laughed and told me, “Il cuore è ciò che conta”“The heart is what matters.” And it was then that I realized, he was correct.

I could take you through every day of our trip – but I have decided to keep some things for myself. This trip was a personal journey in many ways, and as much as I am excited to share the cultural and family experiences, I am going to keep the special moments close to my heart. I learned a lot about real family, and real love when I was there. I learned what I deserved as a person and realized what I needed to receive from those that cherish me. I was shown a love that transcended language, time, family drama, and gossip. It was a love that I learned had always been there for me, but was kept from me for years as a child. For the first time as an Italian-American adult, there was no guilt or resentment, not even a hint. When you are raised with that as the norm, it’s kind of a weird feeling, quite honestly! There was only joy, love, and inclusiveness. Unconditional everything.

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Zia Milla in the center, surrounded by her daughter, grand daughter and nieces

This trip catered to the parts of me that were in such need of care. It made me realize how important it is to teach and model self-care to my daughter, at any age. But this is not like going to Olympus Spa, shopping for shoes, a solo lunch date, or ‘take a nap’ kind of self-care. It was about being given what you need without being asked about it. I was cooked for – like REALLY cooked for. That may seem trivial, but as the eternal host, you may not understand how big this is for me. I am always the host. I love opening my home to people, cooking huge meals, and taking care of people’s every want and need. When people come to my home for a meal, I don’t let them help, I want them to be my guest. I love caring for my guests in the form of food. It is intimate and says a lot about how much they mean to you, in the way you prepare their meals and serve them with love. I can count the number of full meals I have had cooked for me as an adult, excluding potlucks – on two hands, barely. No shame to anyone and most people have admitted it’s because they are intimidated to cook for me.

SO when I was literally served and cooked for, for two weeks straight, it was such a treat. Restaurants got old after about five days, but family cooking for me, that truly fed my soul. I know when you see the photos, you think it’s about the food. But for me, that was just the cherry on top. What my family and friends don’t realize is that it’s not about the quality of the food, but about what is put into the food spiritually when it’s prepared and served to you. There is a level of care that goes into filling someone’s glass before it is empty. A care in finding out what they cannot eat before hand so they don’t have to worry. A care in making sure all things they COULD want on their plate are accounted for. Next time you are fortunate enough to be the guest at someone else’s dinner table, see what things you notice that make you feel special and considered. They may surprise you.

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This trip taught me the power of attentive love from family (whether blood or chosen). We all need to feel loved and thought about, whether we admit it or not. And it’s not about asking for what you need and getting it. It’s also not about conditional love – that is receiving love that has strings attached with guilt and resentment. It’s really about people that love you, anticipating what you need, and doing it without being asked first. Doing it and then not being attached to the outcome or afterthought, just giving the love unconditionally. There is something very special that happens in your heart when you feel that kind of love.

  • My husband anticipated that we needed a special celebration just us, for our anniversary. He also knew if we ever DID get the money, I would spend it on bills and things our family needed. He made the choice for me.
  • My Uncle anticipated our need to have connections for restaurants and outings, and made special plans and reservations for us, without us even asking.
  • My cousin anticipated my need to see family when we arrive in Naples, and was standing at the door of our hotel when we drove up.
  • My Zia anticipated my every want during every meal she cooked for us. From my recipe inquiries, to my last sip of wine. She was there to walk me through her process, fill my wine glass, and all the while, squeeze me tight and even with a language barrier, through her food and the labor she took in cooking these huge meals, she let me know how much I had been missed and how much I was cherished.

And my daughter was able to see all of that through my stories, and even just my happiness, and hopefully internalize it as a standard — a base standard for what she deserves and should expect from both her blood and her chosen family. It is my hope that the feeling my Zia gave me, I am able to give to her and our other guests when they share a meal with us in our home. It is my hope that my daughter’s needs in love are anticipated like mine have been, and that she feels cared for. It is also my hope that she is able to learn from my journey, and give the same kind of attentive care to those she loves. This is what it means to be Italian to me. This is what it means to live your culture and be proud of your heritage. As an Italian, I don’t feel it’s about mob stories, green-white-and-red flags, guilt trips, or pasta. It’s about everything that is felt and spread without words.

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People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people

In the first decade of the 20th century, we had the women’s rights Suffragette Movement protests. The 30s was the decade of the Great Depression. The 50s and 60s had the Civil Rights Protests. The 70s was mainly known for the student rooted Vietnam Protests. The 80s had the Iran Contra and The Cold War. The 90s was known mainly for the WTO riots, of course based here in the Northwest. The first decade of 2000 was when the longest war in US History began, the Iraq War. It was also full of protests involving Occupy Wall Street and the big banks.

black_lives_matter_900x400Now as we near the closing of our second decade into the 21st century, it seems history is repeating itself. We have Black Lives Matters protests, which are being sparked by events that are reminiscent of the horrible acts displayed back in the 50s, but now we have the internet and social media to bring these acts of injustice to the pubic eye as they happen. The protest to halt and ban the continuation of the Dakota Access Pipeline that is drilling into sacred Native Lands, and violating a treaty made between the US Government and the Sioux Nation back in the 1850s. 11 million people world-wide participated in the women’s rights marches the day after the swearing-in of our 45th President, who is the first person to hold that office that has been both a reality TV personality as well as has been accused of multiple acts of sexual assault and harassment prior to taking office. The first week of his time in the White House he has signed executive orders banning immigrants from Muslim countries entry into the US, stopped funding for various art and rights organizations while also imposing gag orders.

People are scared of what their government is becoming. They are scared that history is repeating itself. But one thing is different now than it was 60 years ago: we, as a people, are more educated in our rights and right to protest, and have found our voices. We will not back down.

gallery-1478026024-gettyimages-595927228So as a parent, how do we teach our children about not only their right to assemble based on their First Amendment Right but also to incorporate that behavior in every part of their lives, to not be afraid to question anything.  This is not just about their rights, but the rights of others. To be courageous and vocal on the behalf of people who may not have a voice or are having their rights violated. To teach them to NOT be selfish and have the “it doesn’t affect me” mentality but rather, realizing it affects us all, and that whatever level of privilege they are born with, to use it for good rather than evil.

“Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.”  – Leonardo de Vinci 

I recently saw an acquaintances social media post that stated “Children should be in school, not protests”. This affected me so deeply. This had insulted me both as a mother and a human. Insinuating that parents that let their children protest were bad parents. Even worse saying children that protested were bad and shaming them for having a voice. It was then I realized I had to break down our process, and how we taught our daughter to fight for both her rights and her voice, to show people that it in fact exercising that right can be the best teaching tool you ever give to your children.

I was raised with a “Don’t speak unless you are spoken to” mentality. I didn’t have my own beliefs or things that I truly FOUGHT for until I was over 18 years of age. I had never done a lick of community service or fought for anything that didn’t directly involve me. Then I moved out and realized – SHOCKING – the world did NOT revolve around me and there were things that my voice COULD help with. And more importantly, I could fight for what I believed in.

flag-kidsWhen Madison was very young, as I have mentioned in other posts, she often stood up for those around her being mistreated because of racism or classism. She had our voices early on, but the power and importance of protests wasn’t introduced until a bit later. First march – was on MLK Day. We talked to her about the real things Dr. King stood for, and not just what was taught to her in school. We joined the march being organized by people locally and not large organizations. The march started in south Seattle, NOT a parade downtown with bells and whistles. We then began the process of Unlearning her from what school taught her that was exaggerated and fabricated.

It is important to note that “protest” isn’t just gathering in groups chanting in the streets. We must teach our children to protest daily. To RESPECTFULLY but FIRMLY stand up for what they believe in, in all aspects of their lives. Some of the things we taught our daughter to have a voice about as she grew up:

  • Is a teacher mistreating a minority student? STAND WITH THEM, BE VOCAL. 
  • Is there a community event but you have to go to school? Tell us why you want to go and how you can help – we will not only support you but get you out of school the correct way.
  • Do you feel like you are being mistreated by someone in a public place? Make eye contact, raise your voice, find support, CALL US. 
  • Are the police or other city officials misusing their power to intimidate a minority in your presence? Take video, CALL US, Do NOT loose your cool or be disrespectful, stand by the side of the person being victimized. Normalize the discussion, be supportive. MAKE EYE CONTACT.
  • Are men around you sexualizing you or being sexist in their behavior? Have a voice, BE strong, do NOT ignore it and DO NOT allow it. 
  • Is your school teaching things about history that are fabricated and false? Raise your hand, respectfully question and disagree. Be informed. Inform your peers. Stand up for the real truth.
  • Are you ANGRY about something that’s happening in the world? Take a breathe. Don’t be reactive. Do your research. Don’t believe everything on the internet. Once you know your facts, organize and assemble, DO NOT be impulsive and reactive. Be informed, organized and intelligent in your actions. 
  • See something that makes you sad? i.e. homeless, animal cruelty, racism, xenophobia, homophobia? Find out what you can do in YOUR immediate surroundings to join the fight. We must work from the inside, out. Donate, march, volunteer etc. 
  • See someone homeless or hungry outside of a store and you are going in? Buy them a bottle of water, and something warm to eat. Make eye contact, smile and learn their name. Then make plans to volunteer at the nearest shelter. 

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These are the things that I wish were said to me as a child and teen. These are the things that would have not only helped empower me as a young adult, but helped me figure out who I was as a human being, earlier in life. It of course helps the immediate issues at hand but there is an underlying effect on the human condition, on our souls – that happens when these things are implemented at a young age. It shows us the depths of ourselves as people, and shows us the power and potential we have to change more than ourselves,  to change the world.

So in response to those that think children should be in schools not protests – I say – the WORLD is the best education system for our children. In school my child was taught math (kind of), geography and biology, and a very biased and fabricated history. In the world of protest, rallying, marches and social justice, she was taught: compassion, kindness, fierceness, realness, government power, civilian power, amendment rights, LGBTQ and women’s rights, religious rights, human rights, animal rights…shall I go on?

429482_432946613465645_392765791_nWe as parents raise our children with the lessons they need so they can turn them into tools when they grow up and go into the world, properly prepared for being confronted with all kinds of injustices.

My hope for you as a parent is that you can be that support for your child as they figure out who they are and struggle to find their voice in fighting for what they believe in, regardless if it aligns with your beliefs.

My hope for you as human being, is that you are able to use the things happening in the world, as a syllabus of sorts for your parenting, and use it to create a level of compassion that sometimes is hard to find.

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“To Eat Good Food is to be close to God”

Food is my most favorite thing in the world. We all need food to survive, but as an Italian, it’s more than that, it’s in my genes. People joke, okay just one person – a close friend’s husband (yes, you Justin) has joked before saying, “Wait – is she Italian or something??” because I use it as the reason for everything. Fact of the matter is, it IS the reason for everything. When it comes to food, it is the reason for it all. Whether it be shopping for food, preparing food, cooking the food, or eating the food – it is the way that I love, the way that I hate – it is both the way that I relate to people and the way that I hide or avoid, I use it to meditate or to expel and it is clearly my main form of therapy. All avenues of food do different things for me. Shopping, preparing, cooking and eating – they are all part of who I am.

Before we are even born, our love for sustenance is created. It is said that whatever is consumed when we are in the womb has a great affect on what we love as we grow.  Italians are pretty infamous for their ability to introduce tiny babies to intense foods. In addition to the “Pastina”(small pasta stars) that are lovingly fed to babies as early as a few weeks old, and usually smothered with butter and freshly grated parmesan – I have seen Italian babies as young as 2 weeks old given meatballs, fish, wine, and of course, all of the rustic Italian bread they can eat. It’s our version of a Gerber zwieback biscuit – just gum until it’s mushy enough to ingest.

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Me as a small baby in Naples, Italy (of course eating bread) with my father Bruno and his mother, Nonna Maria

I grew up seeing food two ways: In my younger years it was used as a tool for discipline. My house was an “If you don’t eat what’s in front of you, it will be your breakfast” kind of house. There were hours of stand-offs and tears from being force-fed things like breaded smelt, liver, brussel sprouts, creamed spinach, etc. I became a master at hiding portions in random places when no one was looking. We weren’t allowed dessert on school nights because it was said that sugar made us hyper and we wouldn’t do as well in school. One rule that still puzzles me to this day: we weren’t allowed roquefort dressing. Roquefort is like a creamy cross between Blue Cheese and Ranch. We were told it was an ADULT dressing. All I know is it tasted 100 times better than Ranch, and made you sometimes have a messy mouth, and for that reason I wanted it super bad. The no-dessert thing was hard. It made my sister and I create plans of action when sweets were in the house.  Our parents had special Italian chocolates called Baci (‘kiss’ in Italian) they were wrapped in blue foil and had messages of love written on the inside of the wrapper. My parents kept them in the garage, hidden on a high shelf only to bring out when we had guests over. We would keep watch for each other and sneak them, and eat them under the covers in our room. When company came over and they would pull the box out, there were like four chocolates left and it would be an awkward moment for them, as my sister and I shared shit-eating grins and flushed cheeks, giggling to each other.

“Sometimes the Spaghetti likes to be alone..” – Secondo, Big Night

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Nonna and some of her grandchildren on a Sunday at their house. From left: Me, my brother Jimmy, cousin Paolo Jr. and sister Antonella.

My solace when it came to food – my vacations of sorts – was when we went to Sunday dinner at my grandparents house. My Nonna and Nonno (the Italian way to say Grandma and Grandpa) – Ada and Vince Mottola, Sr. – were the King and Queen of the Garlic Gulch.  They would have the whole family over and it was all the food of my dreams in one place. Nonno would be grilling steaks and pork chops, Nonna would be in the kitchen all day, cooking her family Ragu or Roast. There were always sweets and wine, and there was a never-ending supply of bread. I was never limited and what I ate was never forced or controlled. Things that were not allowed at home were always allowed there – like soda, sugary cereals, Nutella spread on everything, sips of wine for the kids, anything. My Nonna even kept a bowl of Jordan almonds in her fancy living room, and I could always have one if I asked her first. I hated them because I always felt like I was going to break a tooth, but it wasn’t about that, it was about it being unconditional and accessible.

When I was about 13, Nonna started vocalizing things to me as she cooked. She would ask for my help even though, looking back, I know she didn’t need it – she was simply making a place for me to learn. She was spicy, impatient, and her steps were quick like lightning, but I loved the intensity of it. It was like watching a speed chess game. I was determined to figure it out. Nothing was measured or labeled. The first thing I learned to make was her

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Nonna’s Ragu

Ragu. A pork-based red sauce, simmered several hours, usually served with Penne pasta and a piccolo (small) amount of ricotta mixed in with the pasta and sauce, freshly-grated parmesan, and pork pieces on the side. The pork is cooked in tons of garlic and onions, then simmered in the tomatoes. The fats cook down to create a delicious velvety smoothness in the sauce. That dish will always be home to me. It is what I make for the people I want to show love to. It takes some time, finesse, and attention. It is the first dish I ever made for Ryan, and he said he decided that day he was going to marry me.

At the age of 16, I became old enough to work in the family restaurants. Vince’s Italian Restaurant and Pizzeria was started by my grandparents. With a combination of their recipes and love of food, and my Nonno’s perfect pizza-making skills, they opened their

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The first Vince’s in the Rainier Valley

first restaurant in 1957 in the Rainier Valley (at that time known as the Garlic Gulch). At one point in my life, they had seven restaurants around the Seattle area. I started bussing tables and helped as a hostess when I was just 16 years old. As the years passed, I was allowed to do a little prep cooking and some cooking when Nonno wasn’t watching, as well as waited tables. I watched Nonno train the cooks, and loved to watch the process. Even though it wasn’t given the time and love that Nonna would show in her kitchen in Seward Park – it was still given more than other restaurants during those years.

Watching Nonno make a pizza was a sight to behold. Oftentimes the pizza cooks would want to have a “Pizza Battle” with him. He would raise his brow and give a devilish smile (to which some compared to a young Jack Nicholson) and of course rise to the challenge. I would watch with pride, amazement, and intrigue. He moved a great deal slower than the quick-fingered cocky cooks who wanted to beat him. Nonno would say, “My food isn’t fast food, its takes time. If you can’t wait, go eat Dominos.” By the end of the battle, his perfectly-spaced pepperoni, soft but also somehow crisp crust, was evenly cooked and flawless. The cooks would always shake their heads with amazement as he snickered and laughed to himself. He was famous for arguing with customers that wanted a rush on their food or wanted a larger table than they needed or to change an ingredient. The customer was NOT always right in his restaurant, and he had no problem reminding people. When the smoking rules changed in Seattle, he battled it for months, keeping his back room the smoking area, so he could enjoy his cigarette and espresso after each meal.

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Vince Mottola Sr. aka Nonno – doing what he did best

I learned a lot in that restaurant. Not just how to hold a job and work hard, but I know my fierce intensity and sometimes unwavering stubborn side that comes out when I am busily cooking a meal for a big group was learned from my Nonno. He was very hard on me during those restaurant years. When I was 18, I had my first apartment around the corner from the QA Vinces, and I did a variety of tasks at the restaurant. Partially for the steady paycheck but in reality it was my way of having the food and the family as close to me as possible. By 19 and 20, I was making good tips (upwards of $700 a night because of Sonics games – RIP SONICS). I liked to party and went to raves and nightclubs on my off time, and sometimes would pull all-nighters – going from dropping acid at a rave to serving pizza at the restaurant the next day without any sleep. Nonno wasn’t stupid, he saw my wild side and I could tell it frustrated him. At one point I remember thinking he hated me. Still, no matter how rough I looked the next morning, he would tell me to sit with him as he had his coffee and cigarette, eating Margherita pizza, and he would say, “Mariangela, what’s the matter with you, eh?” The tough love that I give younger people today is very reminiscent to those smoke-filled espresso and pizza sessions with Nonno.

“It was very pleasant to savor its aroma, for smells have the power to evoke the past, bringing back sounds and even other smells that have no match in the present.”

-Tita, Like Water for Chocolate

As a mother, it was important that I pass down my enduring love of food and the sacred process of preparing it to my own child. There is so much to cover here that I decided when in doubt, just make a list. So here is a list of “to do’s” as I see them. They are all over the place but they properly cover what I did over the years. Included are some of the rules I put in place to help shape who Madison is today, and also who I am as a mother and foodie.

  1. Never force your child to eat. If they don’t like what you make, give them the option of finding their own food, and or they will eat when they are hungry enough.
  2. ALWAYS have dessert.
  3. When in doubt, Pasta al Burro e Parmigiano (pasta with butter and parmesan).
  4. No cheese on any pasta with fish (i.e. clams, muscles, etc).
  5. If you ever eat Hawaiian pizza, deny it afterwards (Nonno is watching!).
  6. Spumoni is the ice cream version of Fruitcake, don’t do it.
  7. If your child is old enough to hold a toy they are old enough to help with dinner.
  8. According to Nonna, the key to perfect Rum Baba recipe is: 1 shot for you, one shot for the cake.
  9. Meatballs only turn out if you test them first with family before company arrives.
  10. The only way to make a frittata is with cold leftover pasta with red sauce.
  11. Give your kids a sip of wine, IT’S GOOD FOR THEM.
  12. Ranch/Roquefort/Blue Cheese dressing is good at ANY age.
  13. Always cook for at least 10 people, even for a family of 3. You never know who will drop by.
  14. Per #13 – never just DROP BY – because most Italian moms look like death while cooking a big meal, and then transform into Elizabeth Taylor just before company comes.
  15. Always take seconds, even if you are full, it really does haunt us.
  16. Never make your child feel guilty for not liking your food, just riddle them with inquiries about what else they ate that day and find an excuse for their taste bud inaccuracies.
  17. When making any sauce, if your fingers don’t smell like garlic the next few days, you did something wrong.
  18. The key to the perfect pizza dough is a small pinch of sugar.
  19. If anyone throws pasta on your wall, show them the door.
  20. Lastly, good food is made with love. If you don’t love the people you are cooking for, or the ingredients you are using, don’t cook – just order take out.
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Ada and Vince Mottola also known as Nonna and Nonna

Vince Mottola Sr., King of the Garlic Gulch, passed away in 1998. His favorite location – the restaurant on Queen Anne Avenue – was closed shortly after. It is now a restaurant called Pesos, and the window into the kitchen that was once the window into the pizza maker, where kids would line up to see Vince and other cooks throw pizza dough high into the air – is still there as a reminder. The Queen of the Garlic Gulch, Ada Mottola, passed away last month, surrounded by all of her children. I saw her a week before she passed, and she shared her last full moments of lucidity with me and Madison, sharing laughs and jokes. I asked her what she needed, as she was clearly in pain and didn’t have much time left, and she said, “I don’t need nothing, except maybe a pizza and some Campari, thank you bella. You are my first granddaughter, you know me.”

I have made a separate page for all of the recipes mentioned here, as well as a few I feel like everyone needs in their cooking arsenal. Click HERE for the recipes.

Remember, food isn’t just our life force, it is our path to the hearts of others. If you put your heart into it, you will get the hearts of those you served it to back, tenfold. Take all of your energy from that day and pour it into your food like a special ingredient. Show those you cook for what you have been through as they eat. They will be grateful for not just a full belly but also a full heart. If not…forget them, they didn’t deserve you anyway! And if that happens, you let me know – you can always come to my house and we can dish over some wine and a homecooked meal.

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Me making my annual holiday Timpano – literally a “timpani drum” made of pasta dough, filled with pasta, ragu sauce, meatballs, hardboiled eggs, genoa salami, provolone, parmesan and LOTS to love.

“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.”

Body image. Body shaming. As a grown woman who still struggles with this topic, you can imagine how hard this has been having a daughter. And not just ANY daughter, but one that has chosen the difficult industry of Professional Ballet – a place where body type is a huge part of the job requirements.

I like to tell people that I have been queen-sized my whole life, but that’s not really true. I’ve been womanly my whole life. I was one of those girls who fully developed at age 13. I could easily pass as 19 or 20-years old and was treated as such by men at that age.  

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Me on the far right, age 16

“A cultural fixation on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty but an obsession about female obedience.” -Naomi Wolf”

I was raised in a home where appearance was very important. Whether it was the pets that matched the home decor, the dining room we weren’t allowed to go into, or the matching dresses and haircuts – it was all done for the sake of appearance to the outside world. As I got older and attempted to pick my own outfits, I was told things like “You should stick with vertical stripes, it elongates you, never wear horizontal stripes, it will make you look bigger” – to this day, I still can’t bring myself to wear horizontal stripes because of this – and “Solid colors, not a lot of patterns” or “Solid black is always slimming.” To this day, black is 90% of my wardrobe. I look at full-figured women I admire, like Lindy West or Marika Malaea (both amazing writers and beautiful women), who are secure and able to wear bright colors, patterns, short sleeves, and even dresses (I haven’t worn a dress in YEARS) and I am always so envious of them. I have a dress in my closet that I bought years ago, very vintage pin-up style, that I’m convinced would look horrible on me – but in reality, I think I could rock it.

In regards to sex ed, it was your typical Italian Roman Catholics. When I asked how old I had to be to have a real boyfriend, the response was “You can date your husband when you are married.” As for sex, I was told “Just don’t have it.” So I did what any girl back then did: Went to Planned Parenthood. Because of their privacy policy, I knew my parents wouldn’t find out, so I got on the pill. When my parents found the pill, I used the “It regulates my heavy period” excuse, but in reality I was just trying to be responsible and smart as a sexually active teen. Any knowledge I had about sex was from friends, boys I dated, and the archaic sex ed presentation in health class. To say the least, I was misinformed, undereducated, and playing Russian Roulette with my body. I have said on several occasions, retelling my time in the late 80s and early 90s, that I was “lucky I wasn’t found dead in an alley, in jail, or contracted STD’s…truly, God was watching out for me.”

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Me on the far right, age 18

In the 90’s, I went from being a homely, teased girl to graduating and beginning to blossom, which was mostly fueled by the attention I got from men.  It was empowering to me, a power that I was completely stripped of at home. I moved out and discovered I had agency over myself – makeup, hairstyle, clothing and outfits. I routinely went to clubs and raves, dressed in what I felt were rebellious statements, but I felt good in them. I had men and women hitting on me left and right during those years; most of the time it was welcomed, as I loved the attention. But sometimes I just wanted to close my eyes and dance (yes, partially due to LSD sometimes, lol). One night, I was approached by a guy who told me how beautiful I looked. I thanked him and said I just wanted to be alone. He responded, “Well you aren’t dressed like you want to be alone….”. A pretty frightening statement when I look back at it, and I didn’t understand that at the time.  That is the moment that my small window of positive body image ended abruptly.

I started questioning every choice by repeating a series of questions to myself with each outfit:

  • Do I look hot?
  • Will I be noticed?
  • Can I pull this off?
  • Am I trying too hard?
  • Do I look like a slut?
  • If I randomly saw a family member while wearing this, would they think badly of me?

Notice none of those questions included how I felt about myself or how I felt in the outfit. It was all outward. This was sparked by the man’s comment to me but reinforced by a combination of movies, tv, magazines and, of course, a strict Roman Catholic family.

No one finds that kind of body shame or fragility attractive, so what do most women do? We bury it. We bury it SO deep. Deep under our comedy, or shyness, or even our diva ways. We don’t want to feel any more vulnerable or weak than society already makes us. We think by burying it we can just forget about it and one day wake up feeling gorgeous. Sadly, that’s not how it works.

When I realized I was having a daughter, this is the first topic that came to mind. How on earth would I teach her to love herself in a world like this, being that I couldn’t be a healthy example? I needed to teach her to value not only her body but also to respect herself enough to demand others value her body, as well. My only answer at that time was: Hide from her all of the terrible things you feel about yourself, and any hurtful things you’ve experienced from others, so she doesn’t follow suit.

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Me: Age 22 , Madison 3 months

“Life is short and the world is at least half terrible, and for every kind stranger, there is one who would break you, though I keep this from my children. I am trying to sell them the world.” – Maggie Smith – Good Bones

In the early years, we nurtured her to be confident and also encouraged what we liked to call her “Harriet the Spy” look; big colors, gender neutral and fun combos. This lasted until about 12-years old, when the ballet classes got more frequent and middle school began; all places of social cliques and societal judgements. Small amounts of makeup started and she became much more conscious of what she was wearing. I began hearing things like “No, I can’t wear that, people will laugh” or “No way I can pull off something like that.” The only thing different from me was that she was saying these things out loud. I had no idea where it had come from; I’d done my best to hide my insecurities. This had to have come from the outside. Her dialogue with herself (and us) was a trigger for me to try to convince her of the exact opposite:

“You can pull off whatever you want to pull off!”
“You need to just wear it, and OWN it and WERK it no matter how people look at you or what they may say!”
“Who cares what people think? The outfit isn’t FOR them, it’s FOR yourself!”

I clearly understood the irony of this. All of these things were things I needed to be saying to myself. I needed to be LIVING EXAMPLE for her. But instead, I was breaking a fundamental rule of parenting – “Do as I say and not as I do.” It was also affecting my marriage. I would ask Ryan things like “Do you get embarrassed when your friends think you have a fat wife?” or “Do people ever think you married down?” or just stating “I feel like I’m just the chubby wife with no reason to be on your arm.” Looking back, it was pretty sad and pitiful.  One day, Ryan said something to me that made me turn a corner and start the journey to a more positive body image: “If YOU would own who you are, and what you have, I would love it more. How can I give and love 100% to you if you don’t love 100% of yourself?” Little did my husband know back then, but he was summing up my favorite RuPaul quote from the future:

“If you don’t love yourself, how in the HELL you gonna love somebody else?!”

So it was then, when Maddi was about 12, that I began the process of “Fake it til’ you make it,” both for my daughter and for myself. I am a firm believer in willing things into existence, I do it often, in fact. The mind is a powerful thing. Now I’m also a super realistic person – I could use tons of excuses as to why I didn’t work out like a mad person and get “fit” or your idea of “fit.” But then I would be excusing who I am FOR YOU and anyone else reading this. Instead of the treadmill, I needed to own the person I was now, not try to excuse it and cover it with comedy. No more baby weight jokes. No more junk in the trunk analogies. It was time to hold myself the way I wanted to feel. To speak with the kind of conviction I wanted to have, so that maybe one day, I would actually believe it. In the meantime, I would do a damn good job convincing people I was already there.

Back to the wonderful world of dance. Martha Graham said:

“No artist is pleased…There is no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

And boy was she correct. As the parent of a recently-turned professional ballerina, I can attest that the dance world is one of the most difficult industries for body image. Madison was told, from a young age, that starting dance so young was such a good thing — that her body would become “trained” to be a dance body. 

Then puberty happened. I won’t lie, I was TERRIFIED. She is half me, and that really scared me. I watched the teen ballerinas around her eating like 15-year old boys that played video games: hot Cheetos, sodas, candy. I remembered my high school diet and how I would have NEVER been able to be a dancer because of it. I tried to gently guide – by changing my own diet, cutting things from our house as an example – like soda, fast food, junk foods. Made it a choice for us all, and made sure to lead by example. She fought hard to balance her body’s changes. Stayed strong and kept herself within the small box that ballet asked her to fit in. She struggled emotionally with the fact that girls around her didn’t have to work as hard for it. They could eat like shit and stay rail thin. At first I thought her frustrations were from my own frustrations – but soon I realized part of it was the industry.

Through the dance world, I’d connected with a young dancer named Sydney. She was in her 20s and a ballerina in NYC. I felt motherly towards her, and we talked about her dreams of being in a company, her pending nuptials and how it all fit into her big picture. We were chatting about ballet photos and I was telling her the ones she recently posted were gorgeous. Said she had such a presence, such great lines, feet, and looked so strong. Now those of you who know me, know that I don’t blow smoke. I don’t compliment if it’s not deserved, I don’t embellish. So when I give them, I mean them. Her response to me “Well if you ignore my fat arms, my chubby legs and my weird foot there, yeah it’s ok.” I was in shock. What the WHAT? Were we looking at

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Sydney @theblackswandiaries

the same photo? And it’s not just Sydney! I’ve heard this from almost EVERY dancer I know. The ability to pick apart a photo of themselves until they are left with nothing positive. The idea that they must find every “mistake” and fix it. It is SUCH a hard thing to watch a dancer do to themselves. If you watch a class, or listen to a teacher correct someone – it’s what they do. It’s what dancers (men included!) hear every day. It creates this cycle of perfection, and a need for approval, that can be so dangerous if the dancer isn’t well-rounded, grounded, balanced (no pun intended) and doesn’t have a strong support system of family and friends around them. We can’t blame the dance industry 100%. The facts of the industry are laid out in front of you from the jump. Nothing is hidden. It’s HARD. It takes TOUGH skin and a self-esteem that can take a beating. It’s your choice, if you let your child climb into that box and they decide to stay in it for the long haul.

“It’s okay to be skinny, and it’s ok to be fat. If that’s what you wanna be. Whatever you want, it’s ok.” – Little Miss Sunshine

Then there is society and the media’s role in this issue. Body shaming in the media that then spills into our daily lives and is passed off as acceptable behavior. Double standards and oppressiveness being handed out by our governments and local officials all the way down to our educational systems. From what we are fed in commercials, magazine and movies about what a woman should look like, complete with air brushing, photo-shopping bodies, and altering real photos to look more “perfect.” Then, of course, the real life version of this – which is plastic surgery and body modification. Body wraps, body sculpting, anti-wrinkle, anti-aging: ANTI-REALNESS. Also the presence and instant availability of porn and the warped mentality it creates for young people as to what body types, sex and relationships are supposed to be like.

As a mother of a now 20-year old daughter, I have worried, daily, for years about her relationships and the expectations set on her and her self-worth because of the media and porn industry and what they put in the minds of young men in particular. I watched a movie about five years ago that REALLY helped me mother her in this area. The movie is called “Sexy Baby” and it’s a thought-provoking documentary about how porn, social media, and pop culture affect all women and girls. It follows a 12-year old navigating the Facebook world, a 22-year old college student that yearns for “normal” private parts and undergoes reconstructive surgery because of teasing from college men about them, and an ex-adult film star trying to start a family who struggles with conceiving because of her previous sexual activity. It is SO stirring and SO poignant. I think everyone should watch it together with their teenage kids. It’s such an important dialogue and really opens your eyes about the issue at large.

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“We are like the first generation, to have what we have…so there’s no one to like guide us…I mean we are, the pioneers.” –
Winnifred – 13 years old- discussing her generation and the Digital Age – Sexy Baby

Of the many things I learned from the documentary, one thing stood out in the way I could parent my daughter on a daily basis: COMMUNICATION. Not just the old “birds and the bees talk.” It is now so much more than that. Unlike my upbringing and upspoken topics that seemed to be shadowed with shame, I wanted to lay everything out on the table for my daughter. I prefaced everything with this point: “If you are too embarrassed to say it out loud or talk to me about it, you are too young to be doing it.” That set the timeline for our conversations about intimacy, sex, and how to both respect and protect yourself as a woman in today’s instant gratification and digital age.

I think the young women of today need to be given tools, information, and a voice to counteract all of the crap social media, tv and adult entertainment, puts into the minds of everyone in society. It’s not enough to just know it’s there, we have to give them answers and responses to situations when they are confronted with them so they are confident and prepared for what’s to come. I don’t know about you, but most of my mistakes during my youth were from impulsive decisions that I made when I didn’t know what to do, and didn’t want to seem “uncool”. We have to give our young females the opportunity for an empowered and strong future, and to do that, we are responsible for saying the unsaid, revealing the truths, and getting past the uncomfortable – in order to give them license to be in control of their self-worth and find their fierce female voice.

YES, parents, this means talking about birth control, talking about porn, talking about expectations in a relationship. Talk about their rights as women to show their bodies or NOT want to show their bodies. To take selfies that show whatever they do or don’t want, their rights to be beautiful for themselves and not for someone else. Their rights to be strong, sexy and smart. Their right to say YES and NO whenever they want

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Madison – age 19

– whether it’s to friendship, a date, oral sex, friends with benefits, one night stands, making love, sexual exploration. To own who they are in whatever form they feel beautiful and to act in whatever way makes them not only happy and feel empowered but also feel respected and safe.

I know my views are SUPER liberal and may seem very extreme to some people, but please consider something: I am a victim of sexual assault. I truly believe that if I’d had the education and knowledge that my daughter did, that I may have been able to prevent that from happening. We owe it to our daughters to not only give them tools to be healthy and feel empowered, but we also owe it to them for their safety and as defensive tools to battle the violence that happens as a result to these oppressive behaviors. So you can try to shelter them, hide them from the world, limit all social media, keep the uncomfortable details from them, and HOPE they will wait until they are adults – in turn risk them rebelling, running away from home, reacting severely, and possibly putting themselves in a dangerous or harmful situation because they are naive and uninformed – OR lay it all out there, give them trust and freedom that’s coupled with information and education, and support them in their decisions and mistakes so that as they make them, you are part of the process and can gently guide while still letting them live and learn.

While this post focuses more on the journey of empowering our girls, I am very aware of the urgency to teach these same issue to our boys. I understand that all of the issues in this post are deep rooted in a male dominated society, and the ONLY way to fix that, is through a more progressive approach to parenting, one that explores new concepts of gender fluidity, gender roles and gender norms.  I can only speak to what I know, and that is being a woman and being the mother of a woman. Empowerment not Oppression from ALL of us, on every level.

“Hey, Sal, how come they ain’t no brothas on the wall?”

It’s time to talk about race. Time to talk about how we are raised and how that changes over the generations into what feeds or [mal]nourishes our children. How social media, tv, movies, and the ever-powerful, unreliable fictional world of “the news” affects it all.

I was raised in Seattle during my formative years: West Seattle, Beacon Hill, and Capitol Hill. As a second generation Italian whose father immigrated from Naples, I was raised around different views on race. The stereotypical Italian racist definitely exists in my extended family. They will argue that they aren’t racist ’til their deathbed, but use statements like, “The guy was so black, in the dark all you could see was his teeth,” and “I’m not racist, but all the black people I know steal things.” That kind of racist. My maternal grandfather was, surprisingly, the LEAST racist in my observations. He condemned it when he saw it, was matter-of-fact and blunt in the face of it, but didn’t give it too much of his time.

When I was four, my mother remarried, and my stepfather and his family came into the picture. I truly feel like, in my tweens, I had my first taste of a race discussion and remember how it made me feel. My stepfather’s youngest sister was just 10 years older than me, so we got along well, and I always felt close to her. As I neared 10-12 years old, it was made evident through the careful but sideways comments of our family that she liked to date black men. I found these statements so confusing, and didn’t understand why this mattered, or what the whispers and shady looks meant. At one point, someone even said, “I think she is trying to pull out the inherent racism in people by dating black guys.” I remember clearly saying to my sister, “I am confused as to why it’s a bad thing…”

There was never outwardly obvious racism, more like the passive-aggressive Seattle thing. Clearly pointed questions and awkward moments, never blatant but always skirting. It was clear my aunt was aware of the change in atmosphere when she would bring a boyfriend home, and I remember her staying respectful but standing firm. To this day, thinking back, I was impressed by her resolve.

“Racism is a disease of white people” – Albert Einstein

1196_10151612837739256_719642336_nI went to middle school and some of high school in West Seattle and Beacon Hill. Back in the 80’s, the Seattle Schools had a program where they made an attempt to diversify. So although I lived in West Seattle, six blocks from West Seattle High School, I was bussed 45 minutes south to Cleveland High School in Beacon Hill. There were lots of mixed opinions about this decision. Some parents saw it as the district putting their children into “bad neighborhoods” for the sake of diversity, and others appreciated the opportunity for their kids to be around a more diverse peer group.  Cleveland High School’s race statistics when I went (I know this because they sent them out with a letter to parents explaining why their child was being bussed) was approximately 30% Black, 65% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 5% White.  I only attended Cleveland for one year, but that one year gave me almost a decade of learning. It was socially rich, and a year that will forever have a part in making me the person I am today. It was evident that my parents thought the school was unsafe and they needed to remove me from the city to the suburbs. So at the end of my Freshman year, we moved 20 miles outside of the city to Issaquah, and I started my Sophomore year at Issaquah High School.

The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. – Radio Raheem/Do the Right Thing

I moved from a diverse school, where I was the minority, to an almost all-white school in the suburbs — where the drugs were just more expensive and the kids had less to do, so pills, coke, and meth were there to help them pass the time. The first day of school, on the bus, I naturally gravitated to the only person of color on the bus. I sat next to her and started to chat. There was a loudmouth jock with a letterman’s jacket who clearly wanted to be the center of attention, trying to tell a joke. I wasn’t interested and kept talking to the girl next to me. Clearly Mr. Jerkface didn’t like that, so he walked to the seat in front of us and said loudly, “Hey newbie, why don’t you and your N*gger friend shut up so I can tell my joke!” I was INSTANTLY heated and looked to my left. The girls head went down, horrified, but she said nothing.

REMEMBER: I was coming from CLEVELAND HIGH SCHOOL, where I watched a Samoan girl smash another girls head onto a toilet seat for calling her a “Sole in a skirt.” So this? Nope, not on my watch – my year at Cleveland had taught me well. I stood up, punched him in the mouth, and was suspended for two days. Quite a first impression.

For the rest of my three years at IHS, I avoided the “cool kids” and spent most of my time smoking weed and cigarettes in the woods between the high school and the alternative school with the few friends I had. I tried out for the dance/cheer team with a routine to “Burn Hollywood Burn” by Public Enemy, and needless to say, I didn’t make the cut. I bought N.W.A.’s album “Straight Outta Compton” on cassette, and liked to play it loud from my room. I believe I bought it a total of four times. Why four times? Because my parents heard the lyrics and threw it away each time, saying it was trash. So I would just go and buy another one.
Fear_of_a_Black_PlanetI’ve been wonderin’ why
People livin’ in fear
Of my shade
(Or my hi top fade)
I’m not the one that’s runnin’
But they got me one the run
Treat me like I have a gun
All I got is genes and chromosomes
Consider me Black to the bone
All I want is peace and love
On this planet
(Ain’t that how God planned it?) – Fear of a Black Planet/Public Enemy

When I met Ryan, as I’ve discussed in other posts, he was part of the Baha’i faith. I have a lot of love for the years I had as a member of that faith. We traveled to other countries during that time, one being Zambia, Africa. I truly thought I would be able to get a grasp on racism and how to “fix it” by traveling to Africa. I was so mistaken. I witnessed such different race issues than the ones in America. I witnessed cultural practices and issues that almost need a post all of their own because of how deep that rabbit hole goes. Everything you have learned about freedom, slavery and equality here in America – as twisted and horrible as it was – it’s a different level and whole other world in Africa. In short, let’s just say I was incredibly humbled by my time in Zambia (almost two years), and learned that the complexity of economical and racial poverty-stricken areas have taken generations of colonization and racism to get to the state they are in. They can’t be figured out or fixed by any expat or missionary with quick repair. It will take time, humility, and a lot of listening and learning. The experience gave our young daughter, who was there between the ages 2-4yrs old, a great view of the world – however, it exposed her to a lot more than most kids her age. When we returned to the states, and moved to Monroe, one of the first things she asked us was, “Where are all of the black people?”

“My people, my people, what can I say; say what I can. I saw it but didn’t believe it; I didn’t believe what I saw. Are we gonna live together? Together, are we gonna live?”                         – Mister Señor Love Daddy/Do the Right Thing

I realize that during my time as a Baha’i, some of the things I encouraged, some of the things I said about race as part of the teachings, weren’t helpful or acknowledging real issues at hand. They were incredibly dismissive and while, seemingly unifying, didn’t address the current problems. Things like “We are all part of the Human Race” or “I see no color” or even “One Planet One People.” In theory, of course, they are lovely sentiments — but when your “PEOPLE” aren’t treated as one, when ALL COLORS aren’t equal, that problem needs to be handled first.

Our first situation as parents regarding racism was when we lived in Monroe in 2004. Monroe, a small logging town northeast of Seattle, was where we gravitated upon returning to Washington after 10 years. A lot had changed and we could no longer afford Seattle, so had to go out of the city for cheaper rent. Monroe was predominately white in those years, and the largest minority population was Latino. Our family rules in regards to race and racism have never wavered. You never treat anyone less than you would want to be treated. And if you ever witness anyone being treated badly because of who they are, you stand up for them and help them – at the very least, stay present and be vocal.

One day, Madison had a friend over from school. The little girl’s dad worked for the city, drove a monster truck, and her mom stayed at home, always making excuses for her husband’s angry exterior. Their daughter seemed sweet enough, and so she came for a sleepover. As they hung out, one of the neighbor kids, Pati, came to see if Madison wanted to play. She was Latina and one of Madison’s favorite kids on the block. Madison was excited to introduce her two friends to each other, but the little white girl wasn’t thrilled. She looked at Madison and Pati, then looked like she had tasted something bad. Her attitude was downright rude. I was watching from the kitchen, ready to step in, if needed. Pati clearly felt the weird vibe and decided to go home. After she left, the schoolmate looked at Madison and said, “Why do you play with THOSE people? My parents said they are dirty and we shouldn’t play with them.” I put down what I was cooking and made my way to the living room, trying to stay cool, knowing this was a learned behavior and not this little girl’s fault. Before I could get there, Madison stated “She is one of my favorite friends and nicer than you anyways. I have decided I don’t want you to spend the night anymore. It’s not okay to treat people that way. I want you to go home.” The girl, in tears, looked at me for some validation or help. Madison looked at me and said, “Mom, she is going home I am going to play with Pati” and that was that. She wasn’t mean or angry but blunt, truthful, and real. She didn’t excuse or brush it off, she handled it immediately, and had the courage to speak up and stand her ground.

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu

The current state of the American race problem is volatile and painful. I have lost friends, grieved over my rapidly diminishing respect for certain family members, and have tried my best, as a white person of privilege, to find my voice and use it. I have had discussions with friends, who fear for their black children every time they leave the house, looking to me as a white mother of a white female, who is now a young adult – for support and help. I have debated and pleaded until I am out of words, to try to wake up other white parents who claim “ALL LIVES MATTER” and that ALL mothers and parents worry about their kids when they leave the house every day! It is exhausting. Here is how I am explaining it to EVERYONE I know and to other youth that may still not get it:

One of our dear friends has an amazing son; we will call him Q. He is 18 years old, six-feet tall, handsome, plays football, gets good grades, is going to college in the Fall, and is an all-around good kid. My daughter Madison, 19 years old, beautiful girl, dancer, went to PNB two-year program, got good grades, now starting her career. She is also an all-around good kid. They have known each other for almost a decade. BOTH are the kids of rappers, both kids are WOKE, and both kids know their rights. Madison is white, Q is black. NOW – lets say, hypothetically, both kids are stopped separately on the street by a police officer for a “broken tail light”.

Now those of you who know Madison, know she inherited her dad’s fire. I am willing to bet she would be mouthy, sassy and MAY even snap back about her rights to the officer. And yet, since Q was in his young teens, his mom has told him the following: “Son, if you are ever stopped by police, don’t talk back. Do everything they say. Lay on the ground, hands on the wheel, whatever. Don’t sass. Don’t move. Call me as soon as you can.” What are the odds that our kids will NOT be treated the same? What are the odds that Madison will get off with, WORST CASE, a call to her parents and a slap on the wrist, but if Q displayed that same behavior we would be seeing it on the evening news? What are the odds? I will wait.

How many of you WHITE parents can honestly say you have had this discussion about how to behave if stopped or challenged by a police officer with your WHITE child? How many of you have worried daily about the chance of your child being a victim of racism from the very people paid by all of our taxes, to serve and protect?  Again, I will wait.

917c2ad79833e32c830f6a706700b279_c0-25-4181-2462_s885x516“The irony of American history is the tendency of good white Americanas to presume racial innocence. Ignorance of how we are shaped racially is the first sign of privilege.
In other words. It is a privilege to ignore the consequences of race in America.” – Tim Wise

I can go on asking questions for hours. I can try to UNLEARN people and WAKE them for days. But how can we help and try to move forward and rebuild? That is the million dollar question right now. Many, including my husband, think that you can’t rebuild until the current institution displaying bigoted racist power is taken down. There is truth to this, but it won’t happen with one person, or even two. It will take the constant and loud voices of MANY, and my feelings are that it won’t go down with violence, but rather with intelligent and courageous voices that multiply with each day, no longer letting these acts of terror by without accountability. I have to make sure I am doing what I can and need to, before I can preach and tell anyone else what they should be doing. So how do I become an example of a woke, informed, privileged white ally for my daughter? How do I use my voice to no longer tolerate the abuse and murder that continues to wreak havoc on just a select group of humanity?

To be completely transparent, this entire blog was written early last week, with the exception of this paragraph. Then late last week, my experience as a parent dealing with fear and violence took a dramatic turn. I have spent the last week lamenting and trying to find the words to explain what happened, and realized that I needed to share from my perspective as a parent.  We hosted a gathering at our house to discuss the issues of race, fear, media driven violence, police violence and how we can make a difference and start to change things at a local level. A few close friends of varying races and our daughter were in attendance. The discussion got heated, and very heavy. We went outside for air, as a group, to be unified — to take a moment to refocus and breathe. Oh, the irony in that statement. As we stood in the alleyway at dusk, near the street lights, a young white male in a hoodie came around the corner with a gun in both hands. He pointed at us and opened fire, yelling “Get off my property!” In that moment, several things happened. In slow motion, I watched the faces of people I love change to total and absolute fear. I saw my daughter, closest to the gunman, with a weapon mere feet from her face. I saw myself become fearless in the line of fire, only concerned with making sure my daughter and husband were out of the way. Within moments we all looked around, realizing no one was hit. They were blanks. We were all alive. We could have been dead and we were all alive. But the aftermath continues: processing, consistent relooping of the event in our heads, more processing, anger, and now trying to heal and move forward.

As parents, we focus on the importance of teaching our kids about things like morals, safety, responsibility, finances — but how much time is spent on social justice? There is a book I read, several years ago, called Lies My Teacher Told me, which discusses the lies in American history that are fed to our children in the school system, and how we can UNLEARN ourselves. It was my first look into how controlled and manipulated we truly are when it comes to the past, the history of America, and how we have been lied to for so many years. I challenge you all to do some real unlearning. Don’t believe what you see on the news. Show your children how to investigate the “truths” they are taught and to understand the difference between what is real and what is exaggerated. To listen more than they speak. To nurture truth and weed out racial sensationalism and bias. When ALL people matter EQUALLY in the eyes of the police and other government agencies, then and only then will ALL lives truly matter.

“Even death has a heart.”

Death, Loss, Grieving. Those aren’t things we set out to teach our children how to deal with, like we do with things like sharing, saving money (HA what even is that?), or the “facts of life”. Death unfortunately cannot be on the list of lessons.Technically it can, but it doesn’t have the same effect as living and processing through it in real time. We can prepare our children for heartbreak and loss, but it’s like preparing for a bee sting or a tattoo. It hurts, and it’s hard to describe to someone that hasn’t had one, you have to just feel it, and learn to exist within it.

The first death I experienced was Grandma Hattie, my step dad’s paternal grandmother. We would go to Grandma Hattie’s house after school in the early 80s. Hattie had an old house that was full of treasures and she would chain smoke and watch wheel of fortune while we played. She was brassy, kind and cursed like a truck driver, so of course, I adored her. She had apple trees in her backyard and made a mean apple pie. Hattie would skillfully balance her precariously long cigarette ash as she baked. I often found myself trying to catch it in fear it would fall on things, but it never did. At one sitting I am pretty sure I tasted a chalky morsel that very well could have been a trace of cigarette ash in that delicious pie.  We would play and climb the trees and pick apples for her to bake with. Then one day she was just gone.

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Grandma Hattie

Our family all joined together in helping pack up her house. “Take a box, and start to fill it. You start in her bedroom.” My young love of scary movies and horror made the entire activity fascinating to me. I found myself thinking morbid things like, Did she die on this bed? What was the last thing she touched? Maybe it was a poison apple like in Snow White!? Then as I was near her sitting chair by the window, I felt a VERY warm spot in the air. I looked down thinking I was standing over a heating vent. No vent. The window was even open next to me, maybe I stepped into a sun ray? Nope it was cloudy. I was pretty convinced Hattie was still lingering that day, and that I had had a brief moment that she was with me.  

Through my life, the rest of the loss and deaths I experienced were distant. Third cousins, great aunts, distant relatives. I would watch the adults in my family grieve and found their processes odd and perplexing. Depending on the cause of death, the grieving process that I grew up with usually had one of the following characteristics:

1) Someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness, and not only were family and friends uninformed of the illness, but when the person dies, no one is told. Informing family is on a need to know basis and usually months (sometimes years) after the death.

OR

2) Someone dies unexpectedly or tragically.  They wear dark glasses, all black everything, wail often and become the eternal martyr. Then use said death to manipulate those in their lives that are alive, to be at their beck and call and guilt them into things as often as possible.

As I grew up and moved out of the house, I wasn’t clear about what my process would be. I knew I didn’t connect with how my family did things. Not that it was “wrong” but it didnt seem to give me comfort. There had to be a more productive happy medium. But again, you don’t know truly, until you experience it. Like those friends that give you parenting advice who don’t have kids. NOPE, BYE. You call me when you do, then we can talk.

We like to think we have raised Madison to be a deep spiritual being, when it comes to life, death and whatever comes after this life. I never worried about how she would or wouldn’t handle death when it did hit her close to home. I was raised with family members who would routinely ask me when I was young “What are you going to do when I die?” and it used to terrify me. There was never a right answer to that question. It seems to be an Italian thing that I am certain is part of my anxiety issues to this day.  Madison has had a few friends lose people close to them, and while I don’t think she truly understood the loss of the person, what DID affect her was watching her friends grieve. She immediately turned into a caretaker and the eternal shoulder and hand to hold. She was assertive to needs and always worried about saying the wrong thing. She grieved for the living is what I realized. She hated seeing people she cared about in pain. It’s hard to watch those left behind, suffer and process a loss. As a friend, family member, loved one – we search and search for how we can help. It’s our natural human response to want to do anything we can because the alternative is so hard to talk about and feels so bad. We want to do good and help, not only to assist the person that has lost, but to make ourselves feel better. Usually this comes in the form of a casserole, or someone to mow your lawn or even a free babysitter, regardless, we try to do our part, to offer solace where it is needed.

“When one person is missing the whole world seems empty.” – Pat Schweibert

June of 2007, my entire experience with death changed. The air was taken from me like cabin pressure from an airplane. A  fog rolled into my surroundings so thick that I couldn’t see past the end of my nose. Like when you were a child, learning to tread water. That stage where you are SORT of doing it, but your chin keeps dipping under the surface and a little water gets in your mouth. Your toes can’t touch the bottom, that tiny  bit of water that you ingested seems like gallons and you start to panic, sure that you will perish. That is what grief felt like to me. My eternally prepared, calm and organized self was knocked off my center, and I started to loose my footing, slowly drowning in shock and sorrow.

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Jimmy in Peru

James Vincent DuRuz, my 26 year old brother, after a seemingly Pollock-style psychotic break (paint and all) had jumped out of the 9th floor window of his work, at the Americorp offices in  Atlanta, GA – and died immediately. Most ironically, Ryan, Maddi and I were on our spiritual pilgrimage as Bahais, to Haifa, Israel, where the World Center for that faith is. We were on our first day of what was to be special journey for the spirit, a milestone for our religious path.  As you can imagine it was a LONG journey. We had just arrived late the night before, woke up groggy and adjusting to the huge time difference. Ryan was showering. I wasn’t able to receive calls but told family, if they needed anything to text me, as it was cheaper. Madison was sitting with me, and we were enjoying the view out the window. Then I got a text from my cousin Sergio that said “Mariangela, you need to call home, now.”  I was confused. Why was Sergio texting me? I texted my sister “I just got a strange text from Serg – saying I need to call home, wtf is going on??” No response so I call her.  All I remember is her saying “We didn’t want to ruin your trip, we were going to let you have a few days vacation first. Its Jimmy. He is gone.” The rest is just bits and pieces, me asking things like “What do you mean GONE?” and asking random things that now I realize weren’t important. My mind was swimming. Our trip was just 9 days. They convinced me to stay, said they had to wait on an autopsy and such anyways so there was time. They would schedule the memorial a few days after my return.

I am the servant of the power behind the Nothing. I was sent to kill the only one who could have stopped the Nothing. I lost him in the Swamps of Sadness.” – The Neverending Story

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Maddi and I in Haifa, Israel

I was sitting on that hotel bed, suffocating from the fog that resembled The Nothing from the Neverending Story. The noises in the room were separated like a mutant hearing for the first time as a superhuman: I could hear the water in the shower. Each drop was deafening and so loud. I could hear Ryan sneeze, but it was in slow motion.  I heard the Israeli weather person on tv speaking in Hebrew, I assumed about how hot it would be that day.  I watched a bird dive into a tree near the window. I felt a tugging at my arm and heard a voice far away. It sounded soothing, and familiar. My eyes darted through The Nothing to find the voice. I tried to find my footing, just staring at the mosaic hotel carpet, shuffling my feet, forgetting how to use them. I lifted my chin from the edge of the water that I was drowning in and caught my breathe, looked to my right and the soothing voice was that of my then 10 year old daughter. “Mom. What happened to Uncle Jimmy? Mom. Are you okay? Mom here have some water. It’s going to be okay. Mom, he was having a hard time lately right? Do they think it was drugs? Mom. It’s okay. It’s okay Momma.” I felt her hand on my back, rubbing in slow, repetitious circles. Then I heard the water stop in the shower. I saw Ryan’s face and he was my center. I regained cabin pressure and began to breathe again.  For 9 days I walked through the foreign land, within The Nothing as my protective cloud, putting food into my face when I had to, walking with no direction and holding on to my family like a stray puppy. I had no connection to my grieving family back home. All I had was a memorial website that people were posting on and Instant Messenger.

 

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Family and Friends at Jimmy’s Memorial

I don’t even remember the flight home. I did not register or store anything, it was all consumed by The Nothing. My next memory isn’t till the day of my brothers memorial. I hadn’t seen anyone. My dad and sister had asked me to help organize the main sections of the memorial. They wanted me to speak for the family. They handled the food and getting the word out. I told Ryan, I wasn’t sure if I could do it.  How on EARTH was I supposed to speak in front of hundreds of people!? What could I say to properly represent my family and my brother? How could I look at my sister and my dad without losing my shit. I will never forget what he said “Your family clearly needs you to be the strong one. Hold it together. Be the glue they need. Save your tears and when we get home, you can let go and I will be here for every single tear.”  

When I walked into my dad’s kitchen, my Aunt Martha looked at me, dropped what she was doing, started to cry and rushed to me. “We have all been waiting for you..” I didn’t cry.  “Whew, okay I didn’t cry, that’s shocking, maybe I can do this!” I told myself.  Various Aunties, my grandma, a few friends, came to greet me. Lots of hugs, checking in with each others emotional states. Seeing my sister was hard. I immediately became the strong one, swallowing my emerging sob – I remember looking into her eyes and asking if she was okay. To my niece and nephew, I tried to put on a smile and gave big strong auntie hugs. I then asked about our dad. When I saw him, he was pale and stoic. He looked at me and gave me the grief smile, you know the one, the “I would cry with you right now but I am afraid if I start I wouldn’t be able to stop so let’s just be pleasant and move on” -smile.  I took a deep breath. I could do this. I was good at organizing. I was a leader amidst chaos, I could rally.  As these thoughts came into my head, my grandmother motioned to me and whispered “Dearheart there is something sensitive that needs attending to downstairs that I need your help with.”

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Superman ❤️

I followed her down to the basement and in the dimly lit room sat the shipping box from the coroner, containing my brothers ashes. I will never forget, on the box it said: To the Family of James Vincent DuRuz. The lump in my throat was the size of Texas. I looked at my grandmother, not able to process what was needed. “I had to do this for your grandpa not too long ago, we need to separate his ashes for your parents, you and your sister, and anyone else you see fit. I even have some containers here for you.”  

“I was John Coltraine. I was Miles Davis. I was Bob Marley. I was, I was John Lennon.
And I, I was. And I would have been”  – James Vincent DuRuz – Yale Daries

I stood, motionless for what seemed like an eternity. I knew my brother had always been more than his body. His soul, his aura, his being – those are what touched people. I had to be the strong one. I had to get past the physical and do what needed to be done in the moment. I methodically opened the box, careful to not rip the tape. Inside was a plastic bag with his full name and birthdate. As I prepared the containers, Madison suddenly appeared and said “Hi Momma, are you okay? Whatcha doin? Can I help??” I froze. I wasn’t prepared to explain this process to her. I wasn’t ready to break down how I felt she needed to learn this fact of life. It was just too much for me in that moment.  So that’s what I told her “I am not prepared to explain this to you right now honey, I’m sorry. Please go back upstairs and see if Grandpa Dev needs anything. I will be back up shortly.” She stood for a moment, head slightly tilted, trying to figure out what was happening.  Her brow furrowed and she seemed to plant her feet securely to where she stood, to relay to me that she had no plans on going anywhere..  This is how the convo went:

Maddi: “I am not going anywhere. I can handle it. I want to help, and I am not leaving.”
Me:  *mouth dropped open for a long second* “You are an an amazing alien child. Okay, you want to know what I am doing!? The ashes in this box, this is your Uncle Jimmy. He was cremated and now I have to put them in little containers for family so we can each have part of him.  This is his physical self.”
Maddi: *blinks a few times, looking at the box and me, and then back to the box*
“I want to help. I saw a few sheets of superhero stickers in one of his boxes down here. Can I put hero stickers on each container? He would like that.”

And just like that – my grandmother, daughter and I – started the process of separating his ashes.  At one point Maddi said “It’s so lumpy!” and it was like Jimmy spoke for me, I had NO time to filter what came out of my mouth as I said “Not even FIRE can break Jimmy all the way down – he had SUPERMAN bones…clearly.” and we giggled a bit, as morbid and inappropriate as it was, it was exactly how my brother would have wanted that moment to have be handled.

“Can you plug me into the world? My character design is ready. Throw me in on medium. I already beat the game on easy.” – James Vincent DuRuz – The Yale Diaries

 

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Me speaking at the Memorial

 

The memorial was beautiful. I spoke to the people coming to remember him, and did so with a quivering voice and a few heaves but no tears. I breathed through it like a champ giving birth naturally to triplets. I channeled my inner Wanda Maximoff aka The Scarlet Witch. My brother had linked me to her the Christmas before he died. Saying “She is the superhero that your personality and spirit is the most similar to in the Marvel Universe. You are Wanda” and back then I was like “cool, that’s fun” (translation: I don’t speak Mutant). But the day of his memorial, I was searching for strength. I needed guidance on a superhero level. I posted something on Facebook – explaining my new superhero comparison, begging for any details on Wanda that friends may have. Just as I was about to stand in front of hundreds of people to speak about the trauma that had rocked my universe – I got a Facebook notification on my phone. A friend had commented and said “The Scarlet Witch is arguably one of the most powerful heroes in the Marvel Universe. She can alter matter, control the elements of the earth, and mankind’s reality…your brother must have seen you as incredibly powerful to give you Wanda.” And that was power I needed to deliver a speech to family and friends of Jimmy on that difficult day. I tried to look into the eyes of every person as I talked. I made the conscious effort, going from person to person, wanting to give them a piece of me as I spoke. But then got to my cousin Katie, who was sobbing and exuding exactly what I was feeling on the INSIDE, and I couldn’t go on with that. That was my Kryptonite, seeing each pain individually.  Again it was about seeing the pain of the those left behind.  Even looking back at the photos today, I look at every face, and each has such a different type of sadness and grief. I had no idea there were so many shades of sadness. I cried as I skimmed the pictures, looking at each of them and their level of sorrow.

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Madison sitting on her cousin Camille’s lap while I spoke

 But then I see my daughter’s face in the photo, she was watching me speak, and even to this day, I am comforted by it. It was like the face of a loved one watching a recital or speech, humming along or mouthing the words, hoping their energy will help you come out victorious and error free. She was my solace. She was my anchor. She was my heartbeat.

“Only after disaster can we be resurrected. It’s only after you’ve lost everything that you’re free to do anything. Nothing is static, everything is evolving, everything is falling apart.” – Fight Club

This month marks 9 years since we lost my brother.  My daughters grieving was brought to my attention 4 years after his death when she was in High School. She wrote and performed her first (and last) spoken word poem. She warned me that it would be hard and emotional; that it was about her Uncle Jimmy. I was shocked and moved by her words. Her grieving process was directly linked to mine, however hers was stifled and sometimes lost along the way, and I had no idea of that fact until I sat there, listening to her vulnerable heartbeat pound between the words of her poem. She tried to not get emotional but it breached like a dam, through every part of her, voice quivering with so much to share. For the first time I saw her process. It was raw, it was emotional and it was something to be proud of. I will end this post with the poem she read that day. I like to tell people we grieve together. In loss we can never get back what is gone, but we can discover new parts of ourselves that are broken open and exposed from the loss. New lessons can grow from the depths of the sadness and cracks in our being, if we just remember to expose them to the air and let them breathe.

Inside…

The confusion sets in…
No. Jimmy? He was always so…
Normal.
Or maybe he was as normal as Grandpa wanted him to be, as normal as a comic geek had capacity for.
And as normal as his moving from my house to my aunt’s
house was.
Just a mouse moving from hole to hole,
Escaping traps.
Another message from family saying to come home now to
help with this mess Jimmy made…
hold on, my uncle did not make any mess; he only tried to
make everyone happy,
about what my so-called “loved ones” wanted his life to be.

His schizophrenia pushed his body right out of that window.
Along with his Yale graduate thoughts.
I remember that trip to Connecticut, we saw him graduate.
Everyone wanting to talk to him about the future,
Tell him how proud they were of him,
How anxious about his prospects,

He just sat and talked with us kids.
Himself, a kid at heart.

Memories…memories…

My mother holds onto my dad tightly,
Tears streaming, overwhelmed with shock.
She makes another phone call, to my aunt,
Confused, uncertain, no idea what to do.
“We just got here, should we come home?”
“Here” was a world away.
Haifa, Israel, day one of a pilgrimage, gardens, musty air, and humidity.
I suppose it was a good thing that our journey was to such a
Holy place.

Nine days of “vacation” ended,
Return to chaos.
All I really felt was compassion for my mom.
I couldn’t release my own emotions. At all.
Memorial service, coroner’s reports, and family feuds, shoved down my mother’s
Throat right as we stepped through the door.
Too much for one person to handle,
Out of respect my emotions remained
Chained up, in the bottom of my throat,
Aching to be noticed.
Helping out with as much as I can,
Doing dishes, sorting photos, and packaging his ashes.

My Grandfather, losing his only son.
He was white, like stone; like a freshly painted wall;
At times incomprehensible.
At the memorial, tears fell, and many embraced.

But again I had to be there
For my family.
I was their rock…
But inside I felt like I had a piece of me missing, whether that
Was a kidney or lung…
It didn’t matter…
All that mattered was not taking things for granted.
Four years and four months
Have passed,
My emotions still remain inside…

By Madison Abeo- age 14

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Madison and her Uncle Jimmy

http://jamesvincentduruz.virtualmemorials.com/

“Lead me Not into Temptation. I can find it Myself…”

“Religion is to do right.
It is to love, it is to serve,
it is to think, it is to be humble.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Faith. Religion. How do we teach, instill and guide our children toward their own idea of faith? The generations before mine were of the mindset that you followed the faith of your parents; you did not question, you did not doubt. You just followed. But like most Gen-X parents, we questioned. We rebelled. We wanted to know what else was out there.

I grew up with a rule when adults came to the house: Don’t speak unless you are spoken to. Then the adults would create rules between them, like “No talking politics, money, or religion.” Those are hard and sensitive topics for many. I struggled with the reality of this post for months, claiming “I’m not ready to offend that many people.” I hate having to make a disclaimer for my blog posts, but the truth is, this post will offend people in my past, present, and possible future religious paths. Please note this post is not meant to DEFINE your own beliefs, but rather defines what faith is to me and how they relate to my job as a parent. In all fairness, I will do my best to offend everyone equally.

Ryan and I were both raised with strict religious practices in place; he was Baptist and I was Catholic. The only difference between the two that I ever found memorable was Baptists drink juice as the “blood of Christ,” and Catholics got real wine. For some reason, I found that fascinating. In addition to the booze, there was confession. I was baptized, first communion, catechized, confirmed, and with that – came confession. It is still the most vivid memory I have from my years as a child in the church.

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We learned in catechism that you confess your sins on Saturday so you can take communion the next day at Sunday service. As an 11-year old, I just wanted one of those wafers and a sip of wine, to be honest. So I sat and thought, WHAT could I confess? What sin had I committed that week? I was a fierce young Capricorn who thought of every avenue before making a decision in my daily life. To my knowledge, I hadn’t ever sinned. From my perspective, no one sinned, they just made choices. I’d heard my neighbor friends were “going to Hell” because they were Muslim.  Our friends down the road were Jehovah Witnesses, and they were also going to hell, according to those around me. What about the Atheists in my stepdad’s family? No comment from the peanut gallery, but I rightly assumed: HELL. So one day, after months of hearing everyone on our block was moving to Satan’s neighborhood, I finally voiced what was in my head. “How can Hell be big enough for everyone but us? Maybe everyone is right? Or maybe, just maybe, we were wrong.”

I was informed that if I was looking for a sin to confess, I had found it — but again, it was not a sin in my book. And technically, my first confession was a lie. I made up a story about throwing a fit with my parents and breaking dishes on purpose. Mostly so I could have a sin to share and have snacks at communion the next day. The next Saturday went like this:

Father: Welcome, Mariangela, what have you come to confess?
Me: Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was seven days ago, and these are my sins (which I had written on my hand because I didn’t have it memorized yet).
(Long pause)
SOOOOO you know the story I told you last week? About how I yelled at my mom and told her to shut up and threw a dish at her? Well, that never happened ‘cause in real life she would KILL me if I did that and I made it up so I could have the little wafer and wine on Sunday with everyone else. So I lied.That is this week’s sin! Feels so much better telling you about it!
Father: Mariangela, that is not how this works…
Me: Can’t you just give me 3 Hail Marys and 1 Our Father or something? Please don’t tell my mom.
Father: I am going to tell Sister Anne instead, she teaches your catechism class, and clearly you aren’t getting it.
Me: (Pause) Sorry.
Father: It’s fine, you are excused.
Me: Father, quick question…
Father: Yes, my child.
Me: Sooooo can I still take communion tomorrow?
Father: (Pause) No.

And that sums up my personal relationship with Catholicism. Ryan has his own stories, which are not mine to tell. I can tell you, however, that early on in our marriage, his mother shared A TAPE of him and his sister singing in church. He couldn’t have been older than seven or eight. It was mesmerizing to me. In my church we had HYMNS. There were no faith-based songs that were secular and modernized; that wasn’t acceptable. But here on this tape, Baby Ryan was signing a song called “Jesus, I Heard You Had A Big House.” Incredible, on so many levels.

Throughout my late teens and early 20’s, I had no faith. I wasn’t spiritual, I wasn’t searching. I was just being. Some would say I was lost. I felt like I was trying to be found.

IMG_2827When I met Ryan, he was loosely affiliated with the Baha’i Faith, which up to then I had never heard of. The main principles that were shared with me were exactly what my 11-year old self had been speaking of: Unity, Diversity, One Good, Love All, Prophets, etc. I jumped headfirst – we did – into this new Faith. I am KNOWN for being a bit impulsive in my choices during my 20’s and even my 30’s, but this just had such a great message and the people were so amazing. I had to be part of it. So Ryan and I decided to be Bahais and raise Madison that way.

There were strict rules about no drinking, no gossip, sexuality, gender in office, politics, sex outside of marriage, and looking back now, it was incredibly extreme for me. I was very swept away by the Unity in Diversity mantra, and admit to not doing enough research into the tenets that meant a lot to me. I want to make it very clear that I don’t regret any of my years as a member of the Baha’i Faith. In fact, the Faith served a loving and great purpose for Madison’s formative years. Taught her discipline and unity and gave her a great moral foundation on things like race, other religions, and service to humanity.

In our last few years as Bahais, I started to have real doubts. I was seeing strange behavior that was exclusive, judgemental, and biased. They welcomed the seekers but shunned the people who changed their minds about the Faith or had found other paths. I had questions on the writings in regards to women not being allowed to serve on the Faiths international governing body, and then discovered the religious writings against homosexuality. It clearly stated that homosexuality was a disease, that is was not natural and you were free to be gay, but you could not ACT on it. When I asked about both of these topics, I was referred to vague writings that basically said it would all be “As clear as the noonday sun someday.”

“Faith is a house with many rooms.
But no room for doubt?
Oh plenty, on every floor. Doubt is useful, it keeps faith a living thing. After all, you cannot know the strength of your faith until it is tested.” – Life of Pi

I could not continue to raise my daughter in a faith that had tenets that I disagreed with so strongly. Ryan had his own doubts and disagreements, as well as shared my own concerns.  We had to be the example for Maddi. We wanted her to make her own choice in her faith or religion, when she felt old enough to do so. I came to terms with the idea that if she came to me and wanted to be Buddhist, Christian, Atheist, whatever – I would be not only okay with it, but loving and supportive. Whatever speaks to her soul, her faith – and inspires her life – that is good enough for me.

230731_10150288763559256_4899493_nWe wrote our letters. Made our announcements where needed, and officially left the Baha’i faith in 2011. Because Ryan and I were married in the Faith, we also felt the need to renew our vows.  We wanted to show ourselves, our daughter and our family that we were on a new path, a path that properly reflected our hearts. We wanted her to know that Faith isn’t about adjusting your morals and feelings to commit to a doctrine, but rather living a life as a person that is faithful to your own internal doctrine, and prove it through your actions.

A story I think is important and that shows the moment I realized we had created a specific path for ourselves and our daughter – is when Madison and I took a SHORT turn in a local church after leaving the Baha’i faith.  Don’t be shocked. I didn’t “find Jesus” and I was not “saved,” much to many of my family’s dismay. I did, however, have a fond place in my heart for the feel of a community church. Secular music that made you FEEL something. Heartwarming stories of real people. Pastors that wore t-shirts and drank coffee with you after. We both decided it was fun, and still believed that God is God, no matter where you worship, right?

All was good. We would go once or twice a month. Ryan thought we were crazy and still calls it “that weird rock and roll church phase,” but we really liked the band more than anything, but I digress. It was 2012, and the Sunday right before Referendum 74 was voted on here in Seattle.  The service started as normal, then I noticed the air got heavy. The pastor announced that today’s topic was going to be “sensitive,” and that if there were small children present, they should be taken out to the kids area. He then started a discussion about the next day’s vote on Referendum 74. He stated that if we wanted to consider ourselves a member of the church, and part of the family of God, we needed to vote a firm NO on the referendum at hand. That the bill supported everything unGodlike in humanity. That marriage was sacred and that if we support the bill we may as well support beastiality.

I need to take a moment to breathe as I type this, as I feel the anger rising in my throat. In the moment it was happening, right when he warned of the “sensitive topic,” I knew what was coming. I started to shake my head, and whisper frustrations and curse words. I was LIVID and  thinking, HOW could I bring my daughter here. HOW could I expose her to this?

More importantly, HOW was I going to get her out of here? I was red-faced with steam coming out of my ears. I gathered my purse and jacket to make a quiet but quick exit. I looked over and Madison was clearly just as angry as me, if not more so. This was also the day I realized she’d inherited our tendency to pop off when we are passionate about injustice. Like us, she is sometimes impulsive and mouthy and not thinking, just saying what she feels, something that had gotten us in trouble over the years.

While I tried getting us out of there in what felt like slow-motion, Madison shot out of her seat like a bolt of lightning. Every inch of her 5’2” frame stood there and said, “THIS IS BULLSHIT. WE ARE OUT OF HERE.” And then she STORMED out.  Stuck in slow motion mode, I went after her. In the car, she was rattling off things she was going to do. “I need to write the pastor a letter. Explaining why this is so wrong. Do you think I should do this? Mom? I think I need to do it when we get home…Mom?” I was just sitting behind the wheel of the car, staring at her in amazement and with a SHIT TON of pride.

Hilary Faye: Mary, turn away from Satan. Jesus, he loves you.
Mary: You don’t know the first thing about love.
Hilary Faye: [throws a Bible at Mary] I am FILLED with Christ’s love! You are just jealous of my success in the Lord.
Mary: [Mary holds up the Bible] This is not a weapon! You idiot.
— Saved

1107-GAY-MARRIAGE-washingtonIn one moment, she threw caution to the wind and stood up for everything we as a family believed in. She immediately added ACTIVIST to her Faith priority list. She stood up for friends and family whose right to love and be married were in question. It was impulsive, a bit expletive and angry, but it was passionate and from her heart. Before Same Love and before it was COOL in the media to support what was right, this 15-year old had the COURAGE to stand up to a congregation of 1000+ people and display her disappointment with their bigotry and hate. It was definitely near the top of my “Parenting Wins” list.

“The only appropriate attitude for man to have about the big question is not the arrogant certitude that is the hallmark of religion, but doubt. Doubt is humble, and that’s what man needs to be, considering that human history is just a litany of getting shit dead wrong.” – Bill Maher

It was then I realized it has nothing to do with your path in the outside world, and everything to do with your path inside yourself. My family is full of all types of religious people. I can say in all honestly that there is a small group of people in my life – one is Christian, one is Jewish, one is Buddhist, and one is Muslim – who have LIVED the life of Faith rather than preached it to commandeer new members. They show their faith in how they speak to people, in how they serve others, and the decisions they make in their lives. That is a “faithful” person to me. THAT is what RELIGION means to me. As parents, we are examples for our child, but we can also teach them that religion isn’t a list of doctrines and rules you must follow to become a good person. Rather, faith is a path we all take to finding the good in ourselves and others.