Fatherless for the Holidays

19 12 2014

373833_204277649654867_1135091092_nIt’s nearly Christmas, and, while I’m looking forward to spending lots of time with family, I’m also reminded of the one person I will not see this year. It’s been more than two years since I’ve seen my dad, and over a year since we last communicated. If you had asked me five years ago, I would have never imagined this future.

Five years ago, when I came out and told my family that I am gay, my dad was the last person I told. After my mom’s horrible reaction, I was petrified of losing another parental relationship. So I waited. And I schemed. I planned to introduce him to Bethany a few times first as ‘my friend,’ so that she could win him over with her personality before this reality distorted his perception of her. Eventually, I met him alone. We went for a chilly walk outside, my ears rang with the sharp sounds of crunching leaves and leftover snow, and I told him. His response was, “Whatever makes you happy. I love you.”

I was floored by my Dad’s acceptance, knowing how judgmental he can be of other people. He initially didn’t even like my high school sweetheart because he had long hair and an earring. But my dad had just gone through his own experience of being an outcast. After throwing away a great relationship with a woman who loved him, he wound up marrying a young woman in Malaysia, who is also younger than 2 of his 3 children. He lied to her own father about his age, then he lied to us about her age. He knew what it was like to feel judged and ostracized.

521536_401359169946713_95406638_nOver time, my dad’s acceptance of Bethany helped to strengthen our strained relationship. Bethany and his new wife, “Meg,” were able to talk about being new to the family. His new wife was very mousy and shy, and I struggled to connect with her. They had two young daughters together, just a year or so apart, and I never knew how to act around them. Bethany spent time doting on their youngest, knowing that I really don’t like babies. I waited patiently for the oldest daughter to begin walking and talking, which is when kids become interesting to me. I looked forward to spending time teaching his girls the way I taught my niece, Claudia.

379872_194295867319712_720454205_nBethany and I got married. We invited my dad and his family to our wedding reception, along with all of our other family. He did not come.

I began to notice that Meg seemed to grow even more distant. When we would visit to see them, she would find an excuse to leave the room, returning only when it was time to say goodbye. She was never warm to me, but something had changed. My dad stopped playing the guitar, which used to bring him so much joy. I knew that she was Muslim, and my dad’s drinking seemed to be getting worse than usual, along with his general depression. I really thought the joy of children would have changed his life for the better, but I suspected that their marriage was not doing well.

That Thanksgiving, I called my dad to let him know that we were coming over to visit, like we always do on holidays. He lives only a mile from my mom’s house, and I typically make my brother go with me to spend time with our dad two days a year. But when he answered, he said they were not home.

On our way out of town, Bethany and I decided to stop by my dad’s house to say goodbye, at least. His truck was parked out front like it always is, and I walked up to the door and knocked. I heard rustling inside and waited. Nobody answered. I knocked again, and my call was ignored.

Over the next few months, my dad frequently ignored my calls. On a rare occasion, if I called him in the afternoon when I knew he had been drinking already, he would answer, and we would talk as though nothing was wrong. He became less and less responsive, and I began to grow irritated.

My relationship with my dad has always been a bit one-sided. He does not call you, unless he needs something. Next fall, he needed me to draw up another scheme for him to develop property and finally relieve his years of debt. He drove out to Ypsilanti to see me, to talk about what he wanted me to do, but did not bring the girls or his wife. He winced whenever I asked about them. After that, I never heard from him again.

I began asking aunts, cousins, friends, if anybody knew how he was doing. I was his closest family member, and he had stopped talking to me. I was very worried about his mental state, and fearful that he was not talking to anyone at all. Indeed, none of his sisters had heard from him either. But then I heard back from an old family friend, Carolyn. She knew exactly what I was talking about.

Carolyn and I had a long conversation, and she told me that my dad confessed to her that Meg did not like us being around the girls. Because we are gay. I was floored. Even so, I still didn’t understand why HE was ignoring me. I’m his daughter. He loves me. Or so I thought. I tried to put myself in his shoes, and understood how hard it would be to be forced to choose between your daughter and your wife. I just didn’t understand why he never talked to me about it, in all the time that had passed. Why didn’t he just tell me?

I asked Carolyn to reach out to my dad, to have another conversation. She did. She urged him to call me, and to tell me the truth. When he didn’t call, then I called him. The reaction I got was a complete gut punch. He was angry at me. Angry because I had LIED and told people that Meg didn’t like that we are gay. He claimed that everything Carolyn had told me was NOT true, and that I was spreading vicious rumors. At that point, all reason had clearly left his body. I was furious at him. For lying to me, for avoiding me, and then continuing to deny the reality. He lives in a distorted reality, and I try to blame it on the alcoholism.

392008_204277769654855_263811023_nToday, I think about how lonely my dad gets this time of year. He’s no longer allowed to celebrate Christmas because his wife is Muslim and forbids it. He drinks to forget, which is also forbidden. Last year, my dad cancelled his phone number, and he picked up his family and moved to somewhere in Florida without telling a soul. I don’t know if I will ever get to see him again, or to say goodbye before he’s truly gone.

Most of all, I think about those two little girls of his. I feel sorry for them and the life they have been given. I hope he doesn’t do as much damage to them as he did to me. I wonder if they’ll even remember that they have 3 half-siblings from their dad’s previous marriages, or if he has been forbidden from mentioning his past in front of his new family.

61053_399925590090071_1086442852_nBefore my dad moved, I wrote him a long letter, forgiving him. I told him that I understood his dilemma, and I still loved him. I told him that I wished for him to be happy, whatever that takes. I wish that his happiness could include me in his life, but I have no control over that. It took me 12 months to heal the hole in my heart. I’ve been blessed in so many ways, to live a joyful life surrounded by such amazing people who love me. I know my dad still loves me out there somewhere, but around the holidays, I still wish I could stop by and hear him playing James Taylor songs on his guitar.

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Polarity and Duality: Dwindling Debates in America

12 12 2014

In my life, there are many issues that are close to my heart that also generate a lot of debate. But I am never looking to pick a fight, or shove my personal viewpoints in someone’s face. Start a dialogue? Sure, as long as it is reciprocated.

 

WRPM Lunch LineOne day, in a professional luncheon as part of a fairly conservative conference, I was making conversation with the man standing next to me while we waited in line.

 

Me: Looks like a great spread!

Gentleman: Yeah, it does. Good thing, too, cuz I’m hungry!

Me: (to the server standing nearby) Excuse me, can you tell me what is vegetarian?

Server: Yes, everything but the bean salad and the chicken is vegetarian.

Gentleman: You don’t eat meat, huh?

Me: Nope. I’ve been vegetarian since I was 11.

Gentleman: You know there’s a lot of overpopulation of deer. If we didn’t shoot them they’d be destroying everything.

Me: Oh, are you a hunter?

Gentleman: Yep. Just went out last weekend and we shot 3 of ‘em.

Me: (showing restraint) Well, I have a lot more respect for someone who actually kills their own meat, and appreciates the life they have taken, compared to most Americans who buy processed food product without even knowing which life it came from.

Gentleman: Yeah. So where do you get your protein?

Me: Do you realize that most Americans eat too much protein? And protein is rather easy to get without eating animals? Or that excessive protein consumption from animal sources has been linked to increase in cancerous growth? You’d be far better off asking about cholesterol levels and risks of heart disease…

Actually, That’s not what I said. Because I’m a professional. I’m not at a conference to get in an argument about my nutritional status, or why my choice to not eat meat is the right choice for me. I didn’t bring up the morality of murdering living beings, or the issues of chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are poisoning our land and water, or how artificial growth hormones lead to disturbing changes in your children’s bodies, or how cruel the conditions are in factory farming, or how we could literally end world hunger if we fed people a plant-based diet instead of the inefficient process by which we lose nutrients by eating them second hand. Nope, I just left that all out there, because it was not the place or time.

 

vegan-label (1)Had I been seated at the same table as this man, I might have gently continued the conversation, but I also had to be careful not to color myself as somehow not credible because of my choice to not eat animals. I was representing my institution, not my personal beliefs. I can only hope that being a ‘nice, knowledgeable lady’ will somehow change his view of vegetarians in the future, and he won’t be so quick to expect a personal attack because of his differing choices. I don’t want vegetarianism to be viewed as some radical, hateful subgroup. I am so much more than just that one label.

~~~~~~~

Polarity

stereotypesRecently, I was watching an interesting TED Talk about polarity and duality. Specifically, it was about our tendency in America to feel like we must cling to one extreme or another for any given topic of debate, and that those tendencies like to divide us, often among party lines. The polarity is exactly what causes us to believe in stereotypes, and incorporate them into judging strangers based on very limited information.

 

My mind immediately jumped to this question: “Why are we so polarized today?”

entertainment_news_stopimageNews outlets today portray things in neatly wrapped packages: “Pro-Gun” over here and “Anti-Constitution” over there. Or, “Anti-Gay” there and “Pro-Equality” next to that. You never see an interview showing two people representing ‘the middle.’ No, that’s not good entertainment. And that’s what news is considered today, much of the time. Entertainment.

 

What catches our attention IS controversy. We are drawn to the scene of the accident. It’s a natural reaction- perhaps even an evolutionary need to react to potential threats- and most producers prey on this.

 

The Middle

Your_Argument_is_invalid_ponyThe reality is, however, that many of us do live in the middle. We are not 100% anything. We are a complex tapestry of social, fiscal, moral, and human reactions. Yet, people want to be able to affix pretty white labels to us, to make it easier to categorize and judge. Well, are you pro-life or aren’t you? It’s a simple question, right?

 

It seems challenging, in this environment, to find enough space to even have that internal dialogue. I’m not 100% ‘pro-’ anything. I believe that there are guiding principles, but there can always be exceptions to the rules. I may not even be able to fathom, at this point in my world of experiences, what those exceptions may be, but they could exist out there, somewhere.

 

Redefining the Goal of Debate

stupid debateThis concept of deciding NOT to pick a side, is a tough one for most of us. I’ve been in countless ‘debates’ with family or acquaintances who clearly have set out to pin me up against the wall and prove that my opinion is wrong. They start out with a staunch belief, picking one ‘side’ of a debate, and then push me to explain why I disagree. I will happily engage in conversation for the sake of shared learning and growing empathy and compassion for other viewpoints. So, I typically will accept their challenge, but I refuse to slink to the point of name calling or degradation. When I calmly explain that my position is X, but I’m always open to being convinced otherwise, I am immediately seen as a weaker opponent, and they feel instantly gratified that they have already won. But what did they win?

 

If you approach an argument or debate, with a goal of ‘beating’ the other person, what exactly have you accomplished? Did you persuade them to transform their own view? Did you feel like you earned a gold medal? Did you get off on the ability to say out loud what you’ve been mumbling at the newspaper every day? Most importantly, what did you learn?

 

My idea of a successful debate, is one in which I am exposed to something new. It could be a fresh perspective, or a new resource to research. It might be a personal story that sheds light on why this person is so passionate. If all I achieved was espousing my own sense of smugness, and nobody learned anything, then it was a failure, and a waste of everyone’s time.

 

Delving into Duality

vegetarian1I enjoy surround myself with diverse friends. Many of them have some similar stances to my own, but not on every topic. Some of my friends are very religious, some are agnostic. Some are knocking on the state capitol doors demanding the right to marry, some have a very narrow definition of who should be able to marry their soulmate. Some of my friends are morally righteous vegans, some identify heavily by their hunting traditions. Some of my friends can engage in civil conversations about these sensitive subjects with respect for both sides, and others must avoid the topic at all costs.

 

keshia-thomasWhen Keisha Thomas stopped the attack on a KKK member at a rally, she saw him not as a man who was hates all black people, but as a man. Period. She knew that he had family, and friends, and although she disagreed with him heavily, she knew that he did not deserve to die. Her actions astonished people who felt succinctly aligned with one side or the other at this rally. She is an embodiment of duality.

 

If all of my friends agree with me, I have failed myself. I enjoy engaging in conversations about items of disagreement. I like learning about other people’s realities. I believe that there is no absolute ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ which allows me to entertain an opposing viewpoint, despite how passionately I feel about my own. I like being an enigma of political stances, and throwing people off by not falling down ‘party lines.’ If only we could all embrace duality, and realize that, no matter what divides us, our differences do not define us. We can still connect on some level, as we are all human.





Can I Touch Your Hair?

5 12 2014

20120809_FRONT+Kids+running+_Chasteen_IMG_4182When I was a little girl, my big brother, Kurtis, was already competing on a track team. Our dad was the coach. Although I was only 6 years old, accompanying my mom to sit on the metal bleachers had become a normal part of my life. At one particular track meet, I don’t honestly remember if Kurtis won his races, but I certainly learned about my own race that day.

We were living in Texas, and it was an away meet. We drove out to a neighboring community and parked the car. I helped carry our load of stuff required to keep myself and my other brother, Brian, satiated over the course of a couple of hours. Like every other track, there were bleachers on both sides, a concession stand near the entry, and bathrooms were underneath the bleachers on the far side from where we were sitting.0

It wasn’t crazy hot, but still Texas. My mom had a big, blue-and-white-striped golf umbrella set up to grant us some shade. I had a towel to sit on so that my legs wouldn’t get scorched by the bleachers (again). I felt a bead of sweat fall down the back of my neck, where my hair was parted and pulled up into two blond curls.

I asked permission from my mom to go buy a snack from the concession stand, and she handed Brian three dollars for us each to get something. I’m sure it was a worthy price to get rid of us for a few minutes! Brian ordered the ubiquitous stadium nachos with liquid agent-orange cheese that tastes sooo good when you’re a kid. I ordered a pixie stick- basically straight sugar with artificial color and flavor added to make it neon and taste like ‘orange.’menu 0 00 00-01

After the novelty of the concession stand with no money wore off, we returned to the bleachers, where I quickly got bored and decided that I needed to visit the little girls’ room. Within minutes I was off on my own, exploring the entire place by myself! The restrooms were housed in a cinder block building, painted with grey paint that looked sticky from countless hands grazing the walls.

I stepped inside and discovered a line of other young girls waiting to use the restroom. Most of them were several years older than me, and I didn’t pay much attention. I leaned my back against the concrete wall, feeling the cold, yet clammy, relief against my skin. The other girls all seemed to know each other, as they chatted away, barely noticing me. Then one of them turned, looked at me, and her eyes lit up.

images“Whoa, look at her hair!” she exclaimed. I paused, trying to figure out what was wrong. I reached up with my sugary hands to check my head. My pigtails were still located roughly on either side of my head. The other girls were now all staring at me. “Can I touch it?” Another girl asked. Now I felt awkward, and not in any position to say, “no.”

“Okay,” I replied, and multiple hands reached out to gently stroke my blond hair. “It feels like a Barbie dolls!” One girl squealed, and they all agreed. At this point, I should clarify that I- a 6-year-old blond girl with a southern bronze glow- was white. All the other girls in that concrete room with me were black.il_570xN.405260420_jfin

 

That was the moment that I will remember for the rest of my life. THAT was the first time that I realized that we are different. That I was different. That race exists.

 

I studied the other girls’ features, as they continued to marvel over my hair. I started to notice that their hair looked different from mine, but not in the same way that my hair looked when it was permed to be curly. No, there was something else. All of them had different hairstyles, yet I could tell that their hair was not the same. It was stiffer. It stood upright. It held its shape when it was styled into unique formations that my limp hair would never allow.

Track Meet, 1983I was surprised by how much they seemed to enjoy meeting a ‘white girl’ up close, as I never saw myself as such before this encounter. I was a little embarrassed by all the attention, but I remembered to say “thank you” at their compliments, because that’s what I was raised to do. Then, it was my turn to go into the single stall. When I was done, I washed my hands in cold water, said goodbye, and stepped back outside. I smelled the hot asphalt, echoing with the sound of the crowd cheering on the current runners. I squinted back up at my mom in the bleachers, and began walking back to my life.

o-YOU-CAN-TOUCH-MY-HAIR-FILM-facebookI’ve told this story many, many times over my life, typically when discussing race among my peers. It became particularly relevant in recent years, when this topic of “You can touch my hair” came up and stirred controversy. It was like peering into a bizarre crystal ball. I heard women complaining about the objectification of black hair, and others calling out for creating a channel for communication. I followed the debate pretty closely. It was fascinating to me, having been the object of said attention myself. Yes, it was weird. Yes, I felt like an object. Yes, it was enlightening. Yes, I felt like I learned something about a culture different from my own. Would I let someone today touch my hair, if asked? I would have to say, yes.





Ferguson Today, Your Street Tomorrow (Unless YOU Do something About It)

4 12 2014

 

Unless you are a hermit crab, it’s been pretty hard to avoid the topic of race in America over the past few weeks. Not that this is really news, per se, but the most recent clustering of cases involving unarmed black men being killed by authorities has brought things to a head. What I mean by that is, this happens EVERY DAY. It happens in every major city. It happened TOO often, leaving wives and daughters and families distraught and asking, “why?” So why does it suddenly feel like this topic is gaining traction?

 

12774_2In the 1990s, news did not flow like it does today. I would read in the Sunday paper about some person killed in Detroit, and then, that was the end of it, from my perspective. These types of events never got enough media coverage to persist in the public sphere, let alone gain a following. There was no general awareness about how often this really happened.

 

Today, the same changes in our world that enable Flash Mobs to be created by a group of strangers, also enable passionate, concerned citizens to remain connected to these once nameless victims.These unarmed black men are no longer forgotten shadows lost in the crease of the paper. Instead, they get retweeted, reposted, and go viral.

 

Ferguson-StandoffOn the day that Ferguson, MO broke out in protests that quickly burned hotter into riots, I was able to remain current on exactly what was happening hundreds of miles away. My Facebook feed was streaming with informal reports from friends and friends of friends. Over the course of what followed, there were heated online debates about what was right or wrong, and who was to blame. Deep divides were revealed between family members and close friends who suddenly felt ashamed that someone they thought they knew could say the things they did to defend the other side.

 

mlk-jrIt’s hard to imagine what our world would have been like if Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had had Facebook; if Rodney King had held a smart phone; or if Rosa Parks had been on a bus with wifi? Would the onslaught of outrage at the injustice have been too much for America to handle at that time? Would racial tensions have toppled into a racial war? Or would it have accelerated progress by forcing people to address the core reasons behind these incidents?

 

gty_rosa_parks_mug_kb_ss_130203_sshRegardless of the long list of historically significant events that have brought us to where we are today, this is our current reality. Racism is not dead. Fear drives people, on both sides of the police line. There are numerous groups doing great things to work towards change, but it has not come swiftly in the past, nor do I suspect it will in the near future.

 

A rioter breaks a glass door of the Criminal CourtDo I understand the riots in Ferguson? Destroying and looting from your own neighbors? No, how could I? (By the way, the photo of a looter breaking a window is from the Rodney King LA riots).

 

Do I assign blame, and ‘tsk-tsk’ at the looters on my television screen? No, who am I to judge? Is it okay to riot if you’re a white college student because your football team lost a game? Is it justified to riot when you’re against the political system in Boston? When is resorting to riots justified? Is it even a conscious decision, or just a result of human nature and sociological mob mentality?

 

rodney kingHow can I possibly know all the things that have faced any one of these people? In my daily life, I try to remind myself that we are ALL facing battles that no one else can see. You never know when something will be the last straw that breaks the camels back, and many of the people in the poorer parts of Ferguson have been already trampled on, long before the news story broke. So, yes, it seems crazy to break windows and steal liquor in a supposed protest against a man being killed. But if I had been personally brutalized through a long history of ‘driving while black,’ job discrimination, and overt racism, I too might be swept up in the mob mentality. “Why don’t I deserve something for myself in this messed up world?”

 

hair-ferguson-mike-brown-hypehair10If my brother had stolen a candy bar, or sold someone cigarettes, and been shot multiple times by police, I would be rightly outraged. There was no due process. No ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ Why didn’t they just shoot a leg instead of shooting to kill? No life should ever be taken rashly.

 

If my brother was a policeman who was in a dangerous, unknown situation, fearing that his own life was at risk, would I have supported his decision to shoot? He’s the ‘good guy,’ so shouldn’t he have a right to protect his own life too? It’s hard to really understand what it would be like to be in these wretched shoes. Is it better to have a cop gunned down than a dead unarmed suspect? It doesn’t matter which side of the news story you’re on, nobody ever is prepared to hear those uttered words, “I’m sorry to inform you, but, your loved one is dead.”


There is hope.
What matters now is this: Don’t stop talking. Don’t stop sharing. Don’t let this die. Invisible racism- institutional racism- is the worst kind of racism. Nobody is immune from this work, whether you live in a white flight suburb, a diverse city center, or a poor outskirt neighborhood. There is no one ‘right’ viewpoint. We all live in our own unique realities, and the key is understanding other people’s realities to build compassion. You have a civic duty to address this, to understand your white privilege, to reach across your comfort zone, and to engage in dialogue with people different from yourself. It’s going to take years, decades, of hard work on both sides to rebuild trust. All lives matter.ferguson-free-hug








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