“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.

 

Your purpose in life is to find your purpose and give your whole heart and soul to it

Brad: Why don’t you get a job Spicoli?
Spicoli: What for?
Brad: You need money.
Spicoli: All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.

– Fast Times at Ridgemont High

This post is dedicated to my daughter. I thought it was apropos, because at 19 she got her first REAL job ever last week — and not at the local QFC bagging groceries, or bussing tables at Olive Garden, but a real life professional contract union dancer job with the Pacific Northwest Ballet starting this fall.

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Madison House Retirement Home 1992

At 19, I was on my third  job, waiting tables at the family restaurant chain, as well as working in the dining room at an old folk’s home.  I saw jobs as a way to get paid, be social, and talk to people. Working was fun part of the time but not all of the time. Like most teenagers, I didn’t love it. I was a good worker but it was really just an opportunity to look cute, get free food, and flirt with boys. Those were my main employment objectives.

Ryan was a hard worker, doing store inventory and hotel bellman jobs. He was a hustler, and his work ethic started at a young age. So from the beginning, we had this dichotomy:  two parents with very different work ethics, raising a child to be a functioning and productive member of society.

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Festa Italia Seattle 1991

I was raised with chores being a part of life. We had a chore list, and in our formative years, my siblings and I worked like dogs. You did the job and if it wasn’t done right, you were made to go back and do it again. You missed a spot in the bathtub, the entire bathroom had to be cleaned again. Here, iron all of your dad’s shirts for the week. Here is every stray sock our family’s had in a decade, find their matches.  Your allergies bothering you? Tough, go mow the lawn, or pull all the weeds in the garden.  It gave me such a distain for cleaning and work that I’m sure that’s what contributed to my desire to find cake work in my teens. I thought I had already paid my dues; I didn’t want to do it again in the real world.  Even when working for family, there were no free rides; they were harder on me than anyone else on staff.
The common thread in all of these posts is: I grew to be a parent that would do things differently. Chores were healthy, important, necessary – but not at the expense of kid stuff or your child’s self-respect.  Thankfully, our child is a Virgo.  We were blessed from the beginning.

Virgo: Perfectionist. Whether it is balancing a check book to the penny or measuring something five times until they are sure it is precise, Virgos are perfectionists.

We had an 80/20 success with this Virgoism. Plus side: clean, tidy, reasonable, hard-working. Down side: It took her 20 minutes to unload the dishwasher because “Ew, I got something on my fingers,” or an hour to vacuum – because she had to get EVERY spot.

Then came the controversial topic of allowance. Madison came home one day and said a friend was getting $10 a week to do “chores” and got $5 for every A on their report card. This is where old school Italian Mariangela comes in. I think rewarding children for expected behavior is asinine. You want to bribe them to be functioning members of society? What kind of expectations does that set them up for as adults — that they can be assholes unless you pay them? They don’t have to be good people for free? You want an allowance? How about I make sure you don’t WANT for anything. You have clothing, food, neccessities, fun things you want within reason. You have my TRUST (until you break it), you have my undivided attention when you ask for it, and you have every bit of my love. That is your allowance.

“I wanna be an airborne ranger
I wanna lead a life of danger
Before the day I die
There’s five things I wanna ride
Bicycle, tricycle, automobile
Virgin’s mother and a ferris wheel…”

In the summer of 2004, we made the decision that would light Maddi’s fire for dance, plus change our lives and her worth ethic for the better. That decision was to take her from her once-a-week, small town dance class to Cornish College in Seattle,  three days a week.  Her dance teacher said, “She has talent — if you have the means, she should really try to go to my alma mater, Cornish, just to see if she likes more structure.”

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Cornish Prep Dance 2005

One day a week turned to three days and then four. The world of the infamous Dance Mom was a weird fit for me. But as I stood and watched her dance in class from the window, that made it all worth it. Close to that feeling was also watching other people watch her dance. A beloved Cornish teacher, Ms. Dishy, coined the phrase “Maddi Magic.” Ms. Dishy said Maddi had an air about her when she danced, a presence and a work ethic every teacher loved.  To this day, that phrase is still used. The Cornish College program will always be the place that nurtured her love for dance. They showed her how to navigate the dance world with a firm but gentle hand, which was a loving approach to molding young dancers.

After five years with Cornish Prep Dance, she was thirsty for more. She asked her teachers for more classes, and was told that their curriculum was structured to give the dancers the

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Cornish Prep Dance 2006

workload best for them at every age. Up until this point, Pacific Northwest Ballet was the school we had only heard crazy rumors about. The place that would “burn her out as a dancer” and “break her spirit” — we heard they injured dancers and created bad body image. We were told the Pilates room was a “TORTURE ROOM”  that they used to stretch young dancers feet and legs into what they wanted them to be.

Despite these scary stories, Madison still wanted to try. I clearly remember her, at almost 13 years old, saying, “If that’s the best ballet school in the city, I want to go there, I have to.” So we told her there were open auditions for the school in August.  We notified the artistic director of Cornish Prep Dance and had a meeting with her to explain the decision. At the meeting, Madison was humble and grateful for all they had done for her, but expressed her need for more and that she would be auditioning for Pacific Northwest Ballet.  What happened next would become one of those pivotal moments in life – one of those moments where you can clearly see things going one of two ways, depending on the will of the child and the support they had. The director responded to Madison with this: “You have flat feet and bad extension. You will never be a Balanchine ballerina at Pacific Northwest Ballet.”

My heart dropped. I wanted to crawl across the desk and strangle this woman. What on God’s great Earth gives you the right or authority to tell my child what they can or can’t do, especially in regards to ART? And what in your mind leads you to believe that you are the leading authority in all things ballet?! I was livid. I will never forget Madison’s response – she sighed, met the teacher’s gaze with her head held high, and said, “Well, I can try my best — and if I don’t get in, at least I tried.” My heart swelled with pride and we walked out of the office.

For three months, she trained. She took open classes on the side, sat and watched TV with her toes turned under the couch, used her theraband ‘til it broke, and did sit-ups for days.  She was our little warrior, so determined. But she had her doubts, as we all do.  Many nights she would tearfully want to give up, saying that she didn’t think she could do it, that she was born with flat feet and inflexible hips and that maybe she was wasting her time. Did I think that was true? I didn’t know anything about the dance world or if there was a place for my daughter. What I did know is that we raised her to not be afraid to try.  And as unhealthy as this may sound, I personally showed her – through my own life experiences – that SPITE can be a powerful tool, if used to motivate or improve yourself, or just prove some people wrong. So we kept giving her fuel. We kept reiterating, do all you can and TRY, and let’s just see what happens. You never know.

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PAFE Competition 2009

She did a small competition the summer before auditioning that was at the PNB Bellevue location called PAFE (Performing Arts Festival of the Eastside) and won first place. She was told by the adjudicator, retired PNB Dancer Kabby Mitchell, “Honey, you are a beautiful dancer, why aren’t you dancing at the PNB School?” to which Maddi said, “My teacher said I had bad feet and bad lines and that I could never do it.” He could see the tiny crack in her determination and said, “Girl, listen, I was the first BLACK dancer at PNB. If I can do it, anyone can!” And with that, he spent 30 minutes showing her the way to give the illusion of good feet. Working through the ankles and learning to work that part of your foot, in order to shape it.  He gave her so much more than a lesson that day, he gave her something she needed much more: HOPE.

Three months later, she went to the open audition for the PNB School in Seattle… and got into their program. The first thing she did after finding out? She emailed her teacher from Cornish who told her she would never be able to do it.  Did I prompt that email a little? ABSOLUTELY, and I would do it again.  She was kind and humble but also proud. The fuel was finally lit. I saw it in her eyes, the realization that she could prevail against the haters if she put her mind to it.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet School Performance 2010

Unsurprisingly, the next seven years were blood, sweat, and tears — she wanted the work and PNB delivered. But it was not without reward. She was given amazing opportunities, then a partial scholarship that turned into a full ride and a generous donor. The scary rumors around the Pacific Northwest Ballet School? False, every one of them. The administration was always supportive and dealt with things immediately, whether it was in response to bullying or eating disorders or interpersonal issues.

Every moment as a dancer with the PNB School has molded her into the dancer and employee she is today. They guided her but didn’t force anything. The incentive of seeing the professional dancers in the same building, day in and day out, was her motivation. She would come home and say, “Mom, I didn’t get much homework done in the halls before class because they were rehearsing Romeo and Juliette and I couldn’t take my eyes away from it!” Watching her passion for this artform unfold in front of our eyes was better than any homework to me. Seeing her set goals and priorities for herself that were way above what I would have done at her age was inspiring. Remember,  I was waiting tables and dancing at raves until dawn at her age, not training non-stop for my career. PNB showed her the mile markers for achievement, and gave her the tools to reach them.

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Pacific Northwest Ballet     Balanchine Nutcracker 2015

Seven years she’s been with the PNB School. Countless classes later, numerous Nutcrackers, several wonderful opportunities performing with the company, and hours of work later…she has reached the finish line. Not just any finish line, THE finish line. She was hired as a professional dancer at the ballet that helped mold her as a young adult. I was honestly in shock for days. Never in my life have I achieved something of that magnitude. Never in my life have I aimed for something that I loved with all my heart, had the support team behind me that she has had, set my eyes on the prize, and achieved my ultimate goal. It’s astounding to me, and I admire every inch of her.

img_2451Going back to my drab job after her big news, where I was unhappy, anxiety-ridden, and horribly stressed – I had a revelation. What inspires me? What would I do, if I could do ANYTHING? Is it what I’m doing daily? Not even close. While the reality of things like rent, bills, and adulting make your dreams seem far away, I realized that I was a hypocrite. I had spent the last 15 years being the ultimate cheerleader to my daughter, but wasn’t doing it for myself. What kind of example does that set? She’s reached her goal, the first of many, and I was a major part of that journey. Now it’s time for my own journey and search for fulfillment to begin, to be my own cheerleader and set my own happiness goals. Once again, my child – now young adult – has inspired ME to be a better person.

 

Cornish photos by Colleen Dishy Wes
PNB photos by Angela Sterling

 

“Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimized by Regina George.”

As I write this, I am at home, berating myself for catching feelings because I was left out of an outing that a bunch of coworkers are going to after work today.  Would I have gone if asked? No. Does it still hurt to know I was left out? Yes, but why does it hurt? Why do I, and so many of us, have the incessant need to feel included and liked by our peers?  Why do we let what people think of us affect us?

We all grew up with cliques.  My generation was just before the “anti-bullying” trend.  It was before vintage thrift shopping was cool and grunge became a fashion statement.  There were the cool girls who told you what was okay/not okay to wear, the cheerleaders who we all wanted to be like whether we admitted it or not, the jocks who only dated cool girls and cheerleaders, the athletic girls who could kick most of our asses, the goths everyone thought were bazaar on an “Allison from The Breakfast Club” level, and finally the outcasts and nerds. Of course, with a little life experience, people realized later that not everyone fit into those categories. There was a small group of us that I referred to as “the invisible ones.”  The kids that faded into the background, that weren’t considered or really cared about — the kids who were too boring to fit into any said groups. The kids who, ten years down the road at a reunion would get the, “What was your name again?” or “Woah, I didn’t know we went to school together.”  That, in a nutshell, was me.

img_2167“I’m sorry I called you a gap-toothed bitch. It’s not your fault you’re so gap-toothed.” ~
Mean Girls

I was bullied for my clothes, my seemingly undeserved self-esteem (which vanished pretty quickly), my lack of makeup (I wasn’t allowed), and for my sheer naiveté.  There are many vivid memories of teasing, hazing, and tearful walks home in West Seattle.  I chose this one because today, as a 41-year old, I was brought back to this childish feeling so easily.

In middle school, I would ride the bus home and sit near the front because, of course, the cool kids sat in the back.  I would often look back to where they were sitting, because it was such a Narnia world to me. I wanted back there so badly, I would glance back and smile and gaze, sometimes daydreaming. Maybe the next time I looked back, they would ask me to join them! Maybe they would randomly decide they liked me today! I was truly that naïve and that much of an idealist.  One day, one of the cool girls decided she didn’t like it. Anytime I turned around, she would say, “Turn around ugly, no one wants to see your face!” loud enough that everyone heard, and the whole bus would laugh.

“There are two kinds of evil people in this world. Those who do evil stuff and those who see evil stuff being done and don’t try to stop it.” ~ Mean Girls

I was so embarrassed, trying to figure out what was wrong with me. Was it my hair? I did have a weird bob haircut that was not very cool.  Was it my shirt? It was Hypercolor and I was so excited about it, but maybe it was too bright. Was it my braces? They did make my lips chapped, maybe I should put on some Carmex. I wanted them like me so badly that I continued to turn around and sneak peeks, hoping that the next time I turned it would be different, but it never was.

When my stop came, I felt all the eyes on the back of my head as I walked down the center aisle, my face red with embarrassment and shame. As the bus passed me, I glanced up at the open windows, tears streaming down my hot red cheeks, only to see the girl – and her friends who all cheered – yell, “HAHA, LOOK SHE JUST HAD TO LOOK AT US ONE MORE TIME! SUCH A LOSER!”  Everyone started to cheer and clap as the bus drove away; one of the band kids even accompanied them with his trumpet.  It felt like something out of a movie. This was my middle school experience and why I started walking home.

image“I wish we could all get along like we used to in middle school. I wish I could bake a cake filled with rainbows and smiles and everyone would eat and be happy.” ~ Mean Girls

It got worse in high school. I was hazed, beat up, tied to a flagpole, jocks pretended they had crushes on me as jokes, I was made fun of for my thrift store clothes and lack of makeup.  When I told my parents, they said to just ignore them — “They should be so lucky to be your friends, they’ll stop once you ignore them for long enough.”  But it didn’t really stop. So I told myself I would never let my child be bullied. I would be that warrior parent who would stand up for her kids, and show them how to stand up for themselves. I would slay the dragons.

My daughter Madison’s first bully was a boy in grade school. She came home stating that he took food from her lunch and made fun of her big beautiful eyes.  She wasn’t crying, but she was angry and hurt, looking to me for assistance and guidance. My reaction was visceral. I wanted to rip his head off. The rush of blood to my head made me want his full name, address, and phone number.  It was a reaction I wasn’t expecting, but knew I had to redirect, and who better to help me do that than my other half? A man who wrote a rap about the principal speaking up against her new school policies, and performed it onstage at the school dance, and had his parents taking his side and supporting every word.  A man who’d been the kid in school everyone liked, who had gorgeous girlfriends, who deejayed all the dances and was a friend to practically everyone.

image“I would rather be a little nobody, then to be an evil somebody.” Abraham Lincoln

Together our advice and guidance for her was in harmony. I was able to give her that immediate satisfaction of someone reacting emotionally, someone to be supportive and fired up because she was hurt. The person who says “They did WHAT? I got your back,” and even though we don’t need them to intervene, it feels good to know they would. Ryan was able to give her the level-headed reaction, teaching her ways to respond intelligently and still come out on top.  He taught her to never swing first and never resort to violence — HOWEVER, never let someone disrespect who you are in any way, shape, or form.  The baseline we always tried to teach Madison and follow ourselves: What people say about you does not define you.

One day, when Madison was about seven years old, a neighbor girl came to our screen door. She was an acquaintance, but kind of a bossy, rude kid from the block.  She yelled through the screen, telling Madison to come out and play. Maddi came to the door and told her she didn’t feel like playing but would possibly be out later. The girl got sassy, said FINE, and SPIT on the screen in her face.  Stunned, Madison just stood there.  As the girl walked away, I stood up, ready to handle it, anger making my blood boil. Ryan then said to Madison, “Either you handle this or I will.” She proceeded to go outside where the girl was sitting on Maddi’s bike. My daughter, with every bit of confidence, snatched her off that bike and said, “DON’T SPIT ON MY DOOR AGAIN.”  She then walked back inside, high-fived her dad, and resumed coloring. I just stood there, mouth open and in shock. I just witnessed a mini-warrior. In that moment, she embodied the kind of confidence I’d only dreamed of having.

“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. “ ~ Eleanor Roosevelt

Over the years, her growth and confidence with this issue has ebbed and flowed with the times. The rise of social media and the internet has increased the chances of being bullied, not to mention how one is bullied. You aren’t just judged at school for wearing the same pair of jeans two days in a row, or talked about in writing on the bathroom wall. Now you are judged in photos, videos, texts, tweets, and snaps — and the hate and gossip travels so much faster than it used to. As a parent, it’s overwhelming to watch your pride and joy question their worth because someone devalued them for whatever reasons on as many public platforms. With every test, she grows, and I feel like I also heal a bit more. As I give her advice, I realize what I’m saying is exactly what I needed to hear when I was dealing with these issues as a child. I have also made a lot of mistakes in how I have tried to help her at times. I have made girls and boys cry because of my momma bear roars and exposed fangs that instinctively come out when something deeper is touched. Watching her become this secure, confident, kind, good-hearted and forgiving person, when dealing with hateful people, has taught me a lot about my own anger and helped me file down those fangs.

image“Be Kind. For Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

I’m reminded of the tale of the baby bear who growls at the big lion and scares him away. Unbeknownst to the baby cub, Poppa Bear was behind him on his hind legs, also growling ferociously.  That is the image I think best explains our way of teaching this lesson. All kids want to be protected and supported. All kids want someone to stand up against those trying to be hurtful — it feels good, even as an adult, to see people defend or protect you. However, that baby bear growled not because the parent was growling behind him, but because he felt like his roar was powerful enough on its own.

Over the years, we’ve tried our best to give our daughter the level of support to instill the courage in her to stand up for what she believes in, to have a voice when she sees injustice or in support of a friend in need.  To not be scared to look someone disrespectful square in the eyes, or to challenge authority with intelligence and reason when it lights a fire in her.  The best way to do that is to let her see us do it ourselves and lead by example. To battle our own challengers with a level of integrity and self-respect that inspires her to do the same for herself. To know our daughter can fight her own bullies and disappointments, to know she can growl on her own two feet, is a great reminder that I can, too.

This has been the essence of guiding her to find her inner fierce, and in turn, I am rediscovering my own.

Daughters will Love like You Do…

With the media-driven, marketing day of love just around the corner, I thought a post about love was timely. More specifically, how Ryan and I learned to love each other — I like to say we grew into love rather than love at first sight — which, in turn, taught our young adult daughter how to love.

378292_10151367303944256_375540392_nWhen Ryan met me, at 20-years old, I was CRAZY. I was an unstable, insecure girl with the relationship mental age of 16, coming from a dysfunctional situation. Up until then, all the men I had met were sought out and used to fill a void, as most girls with daddy issues do. Self-medicating to kill the pain of family divorce, affairs, bullying and abuse in high school – I was what some might lovingly refer to as “a hot mess.” It was at this volatile point in my life that I met Ryan.

Then known as Ryan McKinney, this guy was a ridiculously handsome and rebellious 20-year old with a shaved head and beard. He was an aspiring rapper and DJ, who rode a motorcycle and went to Cypress Hill concerts and got into trouble with friends. By trouble, I mean he got pulled over because of a headlight out; they found opium on him and the rookie cop didn’t know how to classify it, so he got charged as a minor in possession of cocaine. But I digress.

19126_10151629155594256_1037084813_nThis young man was the kind of rebel that most girls at that age, including me, find incredibly attractive. He wooed me with evenings filled with corner store Chianti, frozen chicken patty sandwiches, 3-foot bong tokes, and Sade’s ‘Love Deluxe’ on repeat. My insecurities were everywhere this poor guy looked, but instead of making me feel like a damaged piece of meat that he didn’t feel like digesting, he showed me something others did not: patience. It was in those little moments of clarity and love that I saw potential for more.

Again, like my last post, a disclaimer: This is NOT to say that things have been perfection. In fact, the first 5-7 years were ROUGH. That “seven year itch” thing is true. Life is rough to begin with, but add lack of time together and a baby to that mix, and it’s not ideal. I’d felt the emotional effects of divorce (twice), and however cliché it sounded, I refused to give up without a fight. Thankfully, I married to a fellow Earth sign: hard-working, loyal, and resilient. We both agreed divorce wasn’t an option.

The baby years are easy because you think, ‘Oh, she won’t remember this fight, she’s just an infant!’ Then all of a sudden, she was seven and watching us battle over things like money, friends, family, life.  Ryan and I had to learn to be friends, spouses, and parents at the same time. As we learned to cohabitate and be a functional parenting team, we were also teaching  Madison. Often our lessons were learned together.

Then one day we woke up and she had her first crush. How would we handle it? I wondered if Ryan would be one of those dads with a shotgun he cleaned when boys came over. So I asked him. His response: “I don’t need a shotgun. She can date whoever she wants, and if it doesn’t work, it’s cool. All I ask is that she is respected and feels safe. You don’t like her anymore? Cool, just tell her. You cheat on her or make her feel less than the young queen she is, then we need to have a discussion and I may pay you a visit.”

1930843_42092439255_9246_nIn that instant, he became the dad we all wish we had. The dad you knew to fear but you also knew would give you space and let you wander and discover. He was the dad that took her out to dinner periodically as a young teen, explaining to her that she needed to respect herself so that others would follow her lead. The dad that took her to buy her first red bikini when she was headed to a summer intensive in California at 15-years old (even though I asked that she get a one-piece because I was raised Catholic, I can’t help it). He was a quiet mentor, a trusted advisor, her emotional guide. He was the perfect yin to my yang. He balanced her need for quiet confidence, because she had a mother who embodied every Italian mother stereotype that there ever was.

I grew up with my daughter. I was a hurt and damaged daughter myself, who had to overcome a lot of psychological conditioning.  I continually second-guessed my choices as a mom, never wanting to make the wrong decision. I was/am/will always be filled with constant worry about Madison’s well-being.

Image (50)There have been so many years of anxiety about my choices as a mother and her choices as a growing independent. I’ve battled my need to use guilt as a parenting tool, but have also learned to go down other avenues. When someone hurts her, I turn into a fierce momma bear, a moniker lovingly used by her friends for me to this day. That’s what a mom does. We all want a parent that will pull out a sword and battle the dragons for us, at least I did — so I decided to be that parent. And now, almost 20 years into parenting her, I’m learning she can wield her own sword, and that I can holster my own.

To the parents who have insulted me (on purpose or otherwise) by saying, “I would never want to be my child’s best friend!” that’s your rule, not mine. As the parent of an only child, it is just who we are. Even as a parent to multiple kids, it is possible to be a parent and a friend. You are their parent, their friend, their confidant. You lay down the law but instill trust, and display the kind of unconditional love that allows them to talk about whatever: sex, drugs, or Yeezy. It’s “all Gucci,” as my niece, Bailey, would say.

So when I was informed by a 13-year old Madison that she wanted to hold a boy’s hand for the first time, you can imagine how it affected me. I got this weird feeling in my heart that’s hard to describe. It felt like a combination of adrenaline, heartburn, and bliss. I tried to contain my desire to shriek and sit cross-legged on her bed and ask her all the details. If 20636_304831019255_7190897_nyou know me at ALL, I rarely am able to contain myself, and this time was no different. I let my idealist, romantic young girl ooze out, and relished this intimate mother-daughter moment that I’d never had growing up. I was being a girlfriend, but also finding the line as a parent. I was sharing in her first crush bliss, mmhmmm-ing and OMG-ing right along with her. She gushed about his “baby blue eyes” and “sweet texts,” and I gave her mom advice on how to handle it and move forward.

Later that week, I watched the hand-hold take place, and I may have shed a tear. Not because my baby was growing up, but because she wanted to include me in one of her milestones, something I didn’t echo at her age. As a mom, I am proud to say I have been included in all of her milestones. As a friend, I am proud to say I celebrated them with her.

In our 19 years of marriage, we’ve had more than our fair share of parenting tests, and have learned the lessons that we’ve passed on to our daughter. Would people write a book about our process? Probably not. Would they learn from it and find it helpful for their own style of parenting? Maybe so. I am often asked for advice from friends just starting their parenting journey. When teaching your kids about love and relationships, the best thing you can do is show off your accomplishments while letting them walk next to you during your mistakes. When you learn together, you grow together.

This John Mayer lyric said it best:
“Fathers, be good to your daughters
Daughters will love like you do
Girls become lovers who turn into mothers
So mothers be good to your daughters too.”

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What even is an ABEO?

1. Abeo
[3 syll. a-beo, ab-eo] The baby girl name Abeo is pronounced aa-BEH-ow. Abeo is of Nigerian origin. The name Abeo means ‘I bring joy’.

It’s 1995. Two 21-year old’s, who have known each other less than a month, find out that they are pregnant. Before this day, their few weeks together had been filled with the normal partying and young person debauchery. That came to a halt on an afternoon in late December. We decided to just deal, and change our lives for the baby, but first: we had to decide if we even liked each other. There was potential, but it was so new and we were both far too self-absorbed. The Cliffs Notes: Nine months of pregnancy is a powerful way to connect, and our love began to grow.

IMG_1972We found out we were having a girl and the panic set in. I was a girl having a girl. My mother once said to me, in a fit of rage, “Just watch, when you have your OWN daughter, God is going to get you back with a daughter worse than you!” So of course, I was petrified.

What would I teach her? I knew nothing. How would I raise her? I knew more about the best raves in town and memorizing Toad the Wet Sprocket songs than I did about raising a baby. I’d had a pretty tumultuous life up until that point – did I really think I knew more than my own parents? I was still the self-absorbed Gen-X kid BUT I WAS DETERMINED TO DO BETTER.

As the due date crept closer, we tried adjusting our lives. New work, new little apartment; a baby shower gave us some new necessary things. One night we realized: what surname would our baby have? Ryan was the last in his immediate family that carried his father’s name, a man who had taken his own life and left his mother alone with two kids when he was just seven years old. I had recently found out that my legal last name wasn’t my stepdad’s, but my father’s – who I’d had very little communication with throughout my childhood. Bottom line, neither of us wanted to pass along our surnames, or the baggage that came with it, to our child. So we had to decide. What name would she get?

As an adult, I love my name, but I was always one of those kids that grew up hating how long and Italian it was. So the idea of picking our child’s first AND last name made me ecstatic. Of course, I tried convincing Ryan to name her things like “Madonna” and “Venus” and even “Saint Laurent,” but failed. I like to say we decided on “Madison” before the rest of the world jumped on the bandwagon, but after 19 years, it’s a story that Ryan and I have never agreed on. I think it was a combination of watching Splash a few weeks before she was born and the fact that I went to Madison Middle School, but whatever the reason, Madison was her first name. What were we going to do about her last name, and ours?

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Fact: Once the state confirms you aren’t evading taxes or an escaped convict or a horrible sex offender, changing your name is easy and like $35.00. So we spent a few days researching names at the public library, and found the perfect name for us: ABEO. She brings joy. We both agreed our new last name would be an affirming reminder of why we were doing this and taking the leap. That moniker would remind us daily of why we were together and what we were working for.

Now trust me when I say: The last 19 years of parenting have NOT been PURE JOY. I’m not here to put pretty pink bows on our life or focus on only-the-good stuff. No one has the perfect journey. Many people have questioned the decisions we’ve made in regards to our marriage, our daughter, and the way we have raised her. We’ve had family and friends side-eye a lot of our choices, judging it all as we went. But somehow, we have made the best of our unpopular or sometimes wild choices, to the surprise of all the haters, and sometimes even ourselves.

IMG_4015When we chose the name ABEO, we hoped it would become a beacon of light during the harder times, a reminder of all we were working towards. But it has become so much more than that. It has become our coat of arms, our trademark, our standard. It is the reason that all of our failures have morphed into successes, because we are all still working together. It is the loving label friends and family use to describe our home and our aura. Abeo – HER JOY – is the reason for it all.