Successful Aging

Hans / Pixabay

 

Perhaps because I am part of the demographic, and I have been sensing a tremendous shift in my priorities since turning fifty, all of my research of late has focused upon women at midlife. Apparently we are an interesting enough demographic to study, which seems ironic since women at midlife are certainly not highly valued in our society.

As I paged through study after study of women in midlife, I was exposed to terminology I had never confronted before—successful aging, generativity, role ambiguity, and distribution of marital power. I also came across many terms I am all too familiar with– Major Depressive Disorder, anxiety, weight gain, sleeplessness, menopause, stress, health, and aging. Midlife can be complicated for women.

Let’s look at distribution of marital power first. The study I read examined marital power in midlife heterosexual marriages: “An unequal distribution of marital power has shown to have an impact on overall marital functioning, including marital quality and marital satisfaction” (LaBaron, Miller and Yorgason). The researchers go on to state that women tend to have less power in marital relationships; therefore, their perceptions of marital happiness are of particular importance. While I would like to disagree with this study, and insist that as a working mother and a feminist I hold equal power in my marriage, I know this isn’t true. If I am completely honest, I would have to admit that my spouse holds more power. He has more freedom, his job takes priority (yes, he makes more money than I do), and even though I have always worked full time, I have also been the primary caretaker for our children as well as the one to manage the bulk of household responsibilities.

What are the long-term effects of such a power imbalance within a marriage? Well, I don’t have to read the study to tell you that it leads to resentment, anger, sadness and sometimes even a lack of self-worth. There have been moments over the last twenty years, as I struggled to meet my kids’ needs, get my work done, keep the house from being condemned, and put dinner on the table that I simply wanted to pick up my keys, get into my car, and drive. Away. Forever. I know there are not many women who will admit to fighting this impulse, but I know many women who have certainly felt it.

Now that my kids are preparing to begin their next chapter, it is the perfect time for me to reassess my own role in our family and in my marriage—a time to remember who I am at my core and what I want out of my life and my relationships: “At the beginning of midlife, when life course changes begin to promote a shift away from external relationships (children, friends, coworkers, etc.) and more toward the marital relationship, the immediate marital benefits of marital equality have the propensity to set the couple up for success in later years” (LeBaron, Miller and Yorgason). I have seen many couples get caught up in the anger and resentment of power inequality in their marriages. As a result, they fail to focus on the marital relationship itself, and eventually give up and part ways. In fact, many couples I know break up soon after their kids leave home, when they are forced to confront one another and the immense void that separates them. I don’t want to be one of those couples.

In thinking about how I will approach my own aging and the shifting, changing relationships that result from empty nest, I am led to another study, one examining successful aging and generativity. Aging not only involves developmental maturity and physical aging of the body; it also includes our beliefs about getting older: “Two personality dimensions that are especially salient in middle age are generativity (or the concern with passing on a legacy of value to the next generation) and anxiety about aging and death” (Versey, Stuart and Duncan). We live in a society that is not kind to women as they age. Since women are primarily valued for their youth, beauty, sexuality and fertility, they often experience anxiety as they age and no longer feel as if they have worth. I can fully relate to this; I have often gotten the message that as a woman over forty I no longer matter, and I should simply go away. This study affirms the damage that such a mindset can cause.

Women who worry about getting older lessen their chances of aging successfully: “consistently high levels of worry or concern regarding aging may lead to beliefs about one’s perceived power (or lack thereof) to overcome the challenges associated with aging” (Versey, Stuart and Duncan). This makes perfect sense to me. I know I have struggled with feeling invisible in a society that no longer values me and does not care about what I have to offer. And I have witnessed countless women fall victim to the societal pressure to remain young at all costs—turning to fad diets, over-strenuous exercise routines, needles, and plastic surgery—all in an attempt to turn back time rather than embrace their midlife selves.

Yet midlife also offers the precious gift of perspective. If we can begin to move away from socially constructed pressures—everything we are taught we “should” be as women, wives, mothers, colleagues—and move towards generativity—what we have to offer those coming up the path behind us—we can actually feel a greater sense of self-worth and purpose. And as a bonus, we can age more successfully. Maybe this explains why I have been spending so much time reviewing the road I have taken, and contemplating positive changes I can make in order to move toward a more genuine path, one which allows me to share my gifts with others within and across generations, in order to create a supportive, shared community.

To start, my daughter and I are volunteering as part of a pilot project that will connect high school students and seniors through the creation of a storytelling documentary. Talk about generativity. I can’t wait to begin.

LaBaron, Carly, Richard Miller and Jeremy Yorgason. “A Longitudinal Examination of Women’s Perceptions of Marital Power and Marital Happiness in Midlife Marriages. Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy. 13.2 (2014): 93-113.
Versey, H., Abigail Stewart and Lauren Duncan. “Successful Aging in Late Midlife: The Role of Personality Among College-Educated Women. Journal of Adult Development. 20.2 (2013): 63-75.

 

 

Reclaiming Ourselves at Midlife

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Lately it seems that everywhere I turn, in real life and in fiction, I come face to face with women who are struggling with the harsh realities of midlife. I recently watched Boyhood, the Oscar nominated film twelve years in the making that follows one boy through childhood and adolescence. While Mason’s story was certainly moving, and the awkward dance of adolescence remains fresh in all of our memories, causing us to cringe as we relive those uncomfortable moments through his character, it is his mother’s story that moved me most.

We are introduced to Olivia in the first scene. She is six-year-old Mason’s mom. Later we learn that she and Mason’s father married young when Olivia became pregnant with Mason’s older sister. However, Mason Sr., for much of his kids’ childhood, is an absent dad, and the bulk of parenting duties fall to Olivia. On one hand, she is strong and determined. She goes back to school, eventually earning her Masters degree and a position teaching psychology. Yet along the way she also experiences two relationships with alcoholics who physically and emotionally abuse her and her children. As the film comes to a close with Mason packing to head off to college, Olivia is once again alone, living in a small apartment, watching her youngest child as he prepares to leave their home. He enters the room to find her crying. When he asks her what’s wrong, she looks up at him and speaks her last line: “I just…thought there would be more.”

Days after watching this film, I picked up Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, without having any idea what it was about. Once again I had stumbled upon a story of a child – this time a daughter who has died under mysterious circumstances. Yet as we travel back in time to trace the events that led to her death, it is her mother’s story that resonates: the mother who not once—but twice—gives up her own dream of a college degree and medical school because of unplanned pregnancies. The first time she is just a few classes shy of her degree, but she chooses to marry and settle into family life with her husband and their daughter, followed by a son. Yet her dream never dies, and the desire to finally pursue it grows so intense that she leaves her family—simply disappears—in order to find her self. Nine weeks after she leaves, she realizes she is once again pregnant: “Everything she had dreamed for herself faded away, like fine mist on a breeze. She could not remember now why she thought it had all been possible” (Ng).

I closely identify with both of these women. I find myself filled with regrets—about not living the life I want to live, not choosing a career path that would have made me happier, not making a real difference during my time on this planet, not being a good daughter, sister, wife, mother, and friend. My life has been filled with imperatives. When I was in therapy for my eating disorder at age nineteen, my therapist, a German woman I could barely understand because of her thick accent, wrote on her note pad in large red letters, should and have to. She held the pad up to me and said, “These are the words that run your life. If you let them, they will destroy you.”

I feel like I have wasted so much precious time, expending energy trying to be someone I’m not in order to make others happy—yelling at my children at the end of a long day because I’m tired and have no energy left to help them with their homework, when all I really want to do is snuggle with them and feel them near me— arguing with my husband instead of welcoming his love as a safe haven in our chaotic lives—spending hours cleaning my house instead of living my life because that small satisfaction is safer than larger pursuits—working in jobs I have no passion for because it’s prudent, pays some of the bills, and allows me to avoid the risk of following my genuine path. I’m stuck on auto-pilot, in what I call survivor mode, doomed to replay the negative patterns that have become my life, unless I make a conscious effort to break the cycle, to change the storyline, to rewrite the ending—for myself, for my daughter, and hopefully others as well.

One of the first steps for me is to accept the decisions I have made thus far in my life, and to realize that those choices don’t have to define who I am from here on out. I think many women get stuck in the pattern of negativity because they come to expect it. Whether it is in our genes, or due to our lack of self-esteem and self-love, we can’t find our way out of the darkness. We can blame our pasts, or heed the lessons learned and change what lies ahead for us. I have been aware of what my issues are for years now. I know the roadblocks that keep me from flourishing. I would guess that many women are cognizant of their own issues. Yet so many of us are unable to move from awareness to action. Taking that step is daunting for us. We don’t trust our innate abilities. We don’t believe we are worthy of true happiness. We feel we are a burden to those who try to love and support us. Some of us, overcome with the sheer exhaustion of the fight, give up. Others continue to survive but don’t ever take the step that might lead to change. We continue the battle, but we never take action that might allow us to thrive. Instead we just exist, functioning, coping, but not truly living.

We need to find the strength to break this cycle. We need to learn from those who fought the battles before us, and we need to pass those lessons on to those who are coming up behind us. We have an obligation to ensure that today’s girls and young women have the support and the education they need—the life lessons of all of the women who have walked the path before them—so that they know they are not alone. They can turn to any one of us, and we will guide them. We also need to break the cycle for ourselves. Only when we do that will we be able to prevent our daughters and their daughters from slipping into the same darkness.

I can’t go back and change my childhood. I can’t change what influenced me, or didn’t, early in my life. But I can change how I deal with it now, as a middle-aged woman, wife, and mother. I can take my issues out of their dust-covered packages, carefully open them one by one, examine them, get angry about some, grieve over others, perhaps even laugh at a few, and then determine if and where they fit into my life right now. I can put some of them on a shelf, not to cling to and fall back on, but to keep handy in case I need to be reminded of some of the pitfalls that my own daughter might face. And I can discard other issues—finally, at long last—savoring a rush of freedom as some of the burden is lifted.

 

 

Fighting for Simple Human Kindness

“Part of what’s different now is the existence of organized misogyny, with groups of men who are angry at feminism gathering under banners such as the Men’s Rights Movement…. ‘There is this cadre of incredibly enraged men who have all found each other’” (Washington Post).

 

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As I sat reading Michelle Goldberg’s Washington Post opinion piece, “Feminist writers are so besieged by online abuse that some have begun to retire,” I could feel the arteries in my neck constrict, and the muscles in my shoulders tighten; I could sense my breaths grow shallow and my pulse begin to pound in my temples. Fight or flight. My nervous system catapulted into overdrive. And then it hit me. This is exactly where I live most of the time now, overwhelmed by the level of vitriol being hurled at women whose only wish is to see everyone treated equally.

Organized online misogyny forces us to acknowledge that we live in a society where those in positions of power have become so fearful of losing their privileged status that they must attack those who are seeking equal treatment. Such attacks are increasingly hostile, and include threats of rape, disfigurement, and death. Just look at the recent fallout from Gamergate, or the rape and death threats that resulted when Caroline Criado-Perez suggested that Jane Austen appear on the British ten pound note: “’I’m going to pistol whip you over and over until you lose consciousness then burn ur flesh’ and ‘I will rape you tomorrow at 9pm” and “a bomb was placed in front of your house’” (Slate).

And the hatred spreads well beyond the Internet, appearing in everyday microaggressions that have become so expected and accepted that they don’t even cause us to blink. Recently, South Carolina state senator Tom Corbin provided a prime example of microaggression when he spoke at a state legislative dinner, addressing 45 male legislators and one lone female senator: “’Well, you know God created man first,’ he said.  ‘Then he took the rib out of man to make woman.  And you know, a rib is a lesser cut of meat’” (msnbc).

I have dedicated much of my career to advocating for the rights of girls and women. Yet every day I experience pushback—from my students, male and female, who have grown up in a postfeminist world where feminism is considered the f-word and all feminists are men hating extremists; from the university, which is still very much a man’s domain (at the University of Colorado, 67% of professors are male, a percentage that hasn’t shifted much in the last decade); from online critics whose primary purpose seems to be to silence all women; from those who feel women should not share their truths and tell their stories.

I dared to do this work because other women dared to do it before me. And I don’t want to give it up, as it is clearly evident that there is much work still to do. Yet Goldberg’s article gave me pause. I don’t think women will be bullied off the Internet. I do believe, however, that some may change their approach. Pro-choice advocate Jacklyn Munson gave up writing online and plans to attend law school. Abortion rights activist Lauren Rankin moved away from online activism and is researching different approaches that will allow her to feel less exposed while still making a positive difference (Washington Post).

As for me, it may well be time to reevaluate my own course. I am proud of all the work I have done. I don’t regret putting my own story out into the world, even though it made me vulnerable and subjected me to criticism, because I know it also had a positive impact on women who identified with my experiences. I am incredibly grateful to the women who came before me and risked their own careers and lives in order to tell their truths and stand up for the rights of girls and women. If they had not had such courage, I never would have found the strength to share my own story or to teach theirs.

But I sense my focus shifting. I need to move away from the negative backlash, and move toward positive change. I would love to work on a project that would bring more women into the K-12 curriculum, or work with young children on issues surrounding healthy relationship development, tolerance, and respect. I would like to step back from reaction, and move toward a more proactive approach to equality. I would simply like to teach human kindness, empathy, and understanding so that we could all know what it is like to walk in each other’s shoes. Perhaps such a simple approach to a complex problem could actually make a difference. What do you think?

 

Jumping off the Hamster Wheel

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My life doesn’t allow me much time to take in films. If I truly hoped to catch up on all the films I wanted to see, I’d have to go back twenty years. The other night I only went as far back as 2007 to watch The Bucket List starring Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson. The film was not overly deep. Two older men from very different backgrounds meet when they become roommates in the hospital. When they are both diagnosed with terminal cancer, they create a bucket list of things they would like to experience before they die. Freeman’s character, Carter, had once dreamed of becoming a history professor, and had just begun college when he found out the woman he was involved with was pregnant. They married, and his dream was quietly set aside. Instead of becoming a history professor, he worked for 40 years as a mechanic while raising three children. He did what was responsible and right, and got on the hamster wheel in order to provide for his family. Now, just as his life was ending, he was given an opportunity to achieve a few dreams. And he felt guilty for even thinking about going for it.

Two days later, I’m still thinking about this film—not because it was a stellar movie—but because it hit a nerve. I don’t know what it is about turning 50 that causes you to pause and reflect on every little bit of your life, but that is what I have been doing. Perhaps it is because I realize that even if I stay healthy and avoid catastrophic accidents, I have fewer years ahead than years behind. Or maybe it’s because my 18-year-old twins will be leaving for college next year and that phase of everyday parenting will end. Or it could be that I am waking up, realizing I bought into the hamster wheel approach to life hook, line, and sinker, and now I am angry and grieving lost years I will never get back.

While I certainly don’t regret marrying my husband and having children, I am resentful that for my generation, jumping through those hoops didn’t really seem to be an option. It wasn’t a matter of if—it was a matter of when. I had no clue at the time that all of these hoops were socially constructed. It was just what everyone did. I stepped onto the work-marriage-motherhood-mortgage-debt treadmill, and haven’t yet found any way to step off. I have worked non-stop for 35 years. I didn’t stop working when I gave birth to twins. I was back at my desk before their original due date, since they were born seven weeks early and I only had six weeks of unpaid family leave. For much of my career I have worked more than one job at a time, while raising more than one child. As a result, I have missed a lot. I have spent more time teaching other people’s children than I have with my own. I haven’t taken many vacations. There has always been work to do and debt to pay.

And that isn’t changing anytime soon. After all, I have two kids starting college. How in the world will we pay for that? Yet even though the hamster wheel keeps spinning, and there are more hoops to jump through, I am beginning my own quiet rebellion. Somewhere deep inside me my soul is begging to be fed, nurtured, cared for, loved. Somewhere deep inside me is a woman who simply wants to be. Right now her voice is a whisper; after all, there is college to pay for. But I know her voice will continue to grow louder, and she will demand to know why I am choosing this existence when there must be healthier, happier ways to live. I need to pause and listen to her. I need to question. I need to find the courage to step off the wheel, or to jump. I need to stop feeling guilty. Who am I trying to impress? I don’t want to wait until I am actively dying to start living.

I often hear people criticize today’s young adults. Why aren’t they taking on more responsibility? Why aren’t they using their degrees, pursuing careers, paying off their loans, buying houses, getting married, having kids? What do you mean they are taking on seasonal work and then taking off on a trip to Costa Rica? Well, maybe they are onto something. Maybe they have looked long and hard at the lives their parents are living, and they have decided that their parents don’t have all the answers. Maybe they will choose different paths. I, for one, hope they realize they have options. I hope I have options, too.

An Unfinished Woman

This post continues my efforts to share the stories of women whose lives and works should be taught in the K-12 curriculum, but are not. Girls can’t be what they can’t see, and they aren’t being shown the breadth and depth of women who came before them, paving the way in every field. I started with Frances Perkins and Marayam Mirzakhani (look for their amazing stories in my previous posts).

I remember reading the works of famous playwrights in middle and high school. A dozen Shakespeare plays. Tennessee Williams’ A Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen was certainly the most radical play I read during those years. I even remember reading one play that had been written by a woman: Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Yet who was the most famous American female playwright of the twentieth century?

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Lillian Hellman

Don’t feel bad. I didn’t know either. Her name was Lillian Hellman, a woman whose tenacity and grit made her unfit for mainstream society: “If Hellman is remembered at all, [biographer] Kessler-Harris says, she’s remembered negatively. Fellow writer Mary McCarthy prematurely and effectively closed the coffin lid on Hellman’s legacy when she appeared on the Dick Cavett show in 1979 and famously pronounced about Hellman that: ‘Every word she writes is a lie, including and and the‘” (NPR).

Where did such horizontal hostility stem from? Why was this talented woman ostracized during her own lifetime, and why are we not learning about her today?

Hellman was born into a Jewish family in New Orleans in 1905, coming of age in the 1920s. From the age of five, she split her time between New York City and Louisiana. She studied at both NYU and Columbia, although she never completed a degree. She began her career by reviewing books and publishing short stories, but life opened up for her once she accepted a job reading scripts for MGM in Hollywood. She was married to playwright Arthur Kober for seven years, and after their divorce, she returned to New York, where she began a tumultuous on and off relationship with mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, which lasted until his death in 1961.

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Perhaps she was vilified by her contemporaries for her numerous affairs, or the fact that she smoked and drank heavily. Perhaps it was her liberal and leftist politics that made her so controversial. Or maybe it was simply because she lived life on her own terms. If she had been a man, her behavior and actions would not have been called into question. But because she was a woman, she was judged harshly. A difficult man is simply a difficult man. A difficult woman is scandalous and deserves to be ostracized.

The body of work she produced was impressive. Her first success was The Children’s Hour, a story that describes the destruction set in motion when a child accuses her teachers of being lesbians. She followed her much maligned second work, Days to Come, with These Three and The Little Foxes, a play based in part upon her own memories of the south. After a successful run on Broadway, the play was made into a film starring Bette Davis.

In the 1940s she adapted many of her works into screenplays, and she wrote Watch on the Rhine, which was also adapted to the big screen and once again starred Bette Davis. Hellman was blacklisted for her political views from the late 1940s until the 1960s, and was even called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, where she refused to name any associates who might have Communist ties. She was not held in contempt, and was instead excused by the committee: “Why cite her for contempt? After all, she is a woman…” (Books and Writers).

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She returned to playwriting in the 1960s, writing Toys in the Attic before turning to teaching and memoir writing. While it is believed that her memoirs are wildly inaccurate, they capture the essence of this talented and tenacious woman who dared to live life outside of her gender’s socially constructed box. Lillian Hellman died in 1984. I wish I had learned about her when I was in high school. I wish I had met her. I now plan to read her work, starting with An Unfinished Woman.

“But I am not yet old enough to like the past better than the present, although there are nights when I have a passing sadness for the unnecessary pains, the self-made foolishness that was, is, and will be. I do regret that I have spent too much of my life trying to find what I called ‘truth,’ trying to find what I called ‘sense.’ I never knew what I meant by truth, never made the sense I hoped for. All I mean is that I left too much of me unfinished because I wasted too much time”  (An Unfinished Woman).

 

Liebster: Discovering New Blogs

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Before being nominated by Tess Bartlett at Whisperings of Life , I had never heard of the Liebster Award. After doing some research, I discovered that the Liebster award was created to recognize and/or discover new bloggers and welcome them to the blogosphere. In the digital world of the Internet, this seems like a nice gesture. Many thanks to Tess Bartlett for nominating me. I like the idea of discovering and promoting relatively new blogs that may not get the attention they deserve. And participating is kind of fun. Thanks, Tess, for nominating me.

Here are the rules:

1) Nominate 11 bloggers with less than 200 followers.

2) Acknowledge and link back to the person who nominated me.

3) Answer 11 questions the person who nominated me has asked me.

4) Tell you 11 random facts about myself

5) Give my nominees 11 questions to answer on their blog when they post about the Liebster Award.

My nominees

(I couldn’t always tell if my nominees had fewer than 200 followers. My apologies if they had more. Also, if they have already been nominated, congratulations! I found all my nominees through the Women Writers, Women’s Books Facebook group).

1) Marie Murphy Duess

http://blog.marieduess.com

2) Suzanne Montz Adams

http://livingatthecenter.com

3) Roz Dekett

http://rozdekett.com

4) Elizabeth Rose O’Callaghan

https://ermurray.wordpress.com

5) Julia Park Tracey

http://www.juliaparktracey.com

6) Carol Hunt

https://abeautifulbadpuppy.wordpress.com

7) Steph Kelly

https://reimaginingmyreality.wordpress.com

8) Iqra Asad

https://mykeyboardlife.wordpress.com

9) Lauren Faulkenberry

http://therightsideof30.blogspot.com

10) Kerri Casey

https://kerrinicolecasey.wordpress.com

11) Mindy A. Early

https://mindyaearly.wordpress.com/communicate-blog/

My 11 questions for nominees:

1)    What is your favorite book?

2)    Why is it your favorite book?

3)    Whom do you admire most?

4)    Why do you write?

5)    What is one thing on your bucket list?

6)    Where are you most comfortable?

7)    Where are you least comfortable?

8)    What puts you in a writing mood?

9)    What prevents you from writing?

10) What is one thing you hope to accomplish this year?

11) What is one word you would use to describe yourself?

Here are the 11 questions Tess posed, answered:

1) What did you want to be when you were a child?

I wanted to be an archaeologist. I was fascinated with discovering who and what had inhabited the planet before me.

2) What makes your heart and soul sing?

My children, my dogs, sunsets, quiet walks, writing my truths and reading the truths of others.

3) What is your favourite topic to write/blog about?

I write my truths. Writing my truths helps me to heal, and it can also help others. I like to write about the importance of keeping women and girls subject of their own lives.

4) If you could do one thing every day until the day you died what would it be?

I would get out in nature and walk, quietly taking it all in, feeling myself breathe.

5) What is your biggest fear?

The state of the world that I am leaving behind for my children to deal with.

6) How do you overcome fear?

By doing what I fear the most, and by putting myself out there and telling my truths.

7) What does creativity mean to you?

Living, not existing. Taking risks. Doing what you love, and helping others.

8) What does home mean to you?

Home is where my heart sings, where I feel accepted, where I can breathe and be myself—whoever that happens to be in the moment—without being judged.

9) If you had to pick one word to describe how you intend to be in 2015 what would it be?

Present.

10) If you could travel somewhere tomorrow where would it be, and why?

Italy. A large part of who I am originated there, yet I do not feel a connection to my ancestry because I have never been there. To walk through the town of Parma–where my ancestors lived, to experience the culture—would be a dream come true.

11) What is your secret talent?

Apparently I have a pretty intimidating “look” that I can call upon when necessary, and it shuts people down in their tracks. I imagine this has been honed over 25 years of teaching.

11 random facts:

I am an avid sports fan, primarily baseball and hockey.

I used to enter sweepstakes, and I won quite a few prizes, the biggest being trips to exotic locations, and the smallest being a roll of Tums.

I moved 14 times in 17 years, and no, I wasn’t running from the law.

I am the mother of twins, who are about to head off to college, leaving me an empty nester all at once.

I feel most at home near the mountains and the water.

I love digging in the dirt. Gardening helps me feel grounded.

I am a feminist.

I have held more jobs than I can remember. My first job was stuffing envelopes at Sealfons for $2.65 an hour.

I am originally from New Jersey, and I still have a crush on Bruce Springsteen.

I was a first generation college student.

I drive a 15 year old Subaru (and I love it).

 

 

Death, Grief, and the Power to Heal

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October 6th

I was driving to a meeting when my cell phone rang. It was my sister, Donna.

“Where are you?”

“I’m driving.”

“Pull over.”

With those two words, I knew. I knew it wasn’t my elderly parents, one crippled with arthritis and one suffering from lymphoma. I knew she was calling about my oldest sister, a fifty-two-year-old woman addicted to prescription painkillers. I pulled over.

“It’s Pat. She’s gone.”

Of course she was gone. She had been gone for thirty years, ever since she took her first pain pill. And in those thirty years, my parents had supported her and her children, providing money for rent, electricity, food, and clothes. And all the while, her addiction grew. She eventually lost what little she had, and my parents took her in. What else could they do? They had enabled her for so long; we all had. It was there, in my parents’ home, that she overdosed. At the time of her death, my sister was taking eleven medications. Four of them were narcotics.

“Are you all right?” Donna’s voice pulled me back to my car on the side of the road in Thornton, Colorado.

“Yes,” I answered. I hung up the phone, drove five more miles to my meeting, walked in, and completely broke down.

December 25th

I never heard my dad say the words “I love you” to anyone, even my mother or his own mother. It used to be a game to me. I would say “I love you” just to see what he would do. He would nod uncomfortably and utter “Uh-huh” or “Yep” before turning away. The game stopped a long time ago, though, and it was the last thing on my mind when I made my Christmas Day call to my family.

Dad hated to talk on the phone. In part, I think that his hearing loss later in life made it difficult for him to carry on a conversation over the phone. And the tumor growing on the back of his tongue made it increasingly difficult to speak clearly. Yet Christmas was an exception, especially as it had only been two months since my sister’s death. When I called my family in Vermont from my home in Colorado, I spoke to everyone who was there, an ever-shrinking group that included my mother, my sister Donna, my nephew, and finally my dad. When I heard his weak and struggling voice on the line, my own voice faltered. The man I had once feared, the man who had used alcohol as a weapon, the man who had to maintain power and control no matter the cost, was gone. In his place was a weak, frightened, vulnerable human being who had recently lost his daughter and was facing his own mortality. I don’t remember exactly what we talked about during our brief conversation, but before I hung up the phone, I said the three words I always said: “I love you.”

His reply came without a moment’s hesitation: “I love you, too.” The line went dead before I could comprehend what had just happened. I hung up the phone and wept until there were no more tears. I had no way of knowing then that these would be the last words my father would ever say to me—words I had waited a lifetime to hear.

April 28th

The first call came at 10 am on April 28th, the day before my last classes of the semester. Once again, it was my sister Donna’s voice on the other end of the line.

“Dad’s taken a turn for the worse. I think you need to come.”

I had wanted to go for weeks, ever since he stopped chemo and started home hospice. Yet every time I asked, my sister and mother, in chorus, chimed “not yet.”

My sister was leaving the country the next day on a trip that had been prepaid for a year. She was the one who lived close to my parents, who handled their day-to-day care. She was the one who handled all of the arrangements for my sister. She had been there for all of them every day, while I simply checked in from a safe distance.

“Of course you should still go,” I insisted. “I’ll catch the first flight I can.

The phone rang for the second time at 7:40 pm.

“He’s gone,” she whispered.

I cannot replicate the sound that emanated from my very core. It wasn’t quite human. I sank to the floor. He didn’t wait for me.

Enveloped in a thick fog of grief that soaked me to the bone and slowed my steps, making me feel as if I was walking under water, I held my last classes and collected my students’ final papers. My sister flew out of Burlington International Airport hours before I flew in. I was overcome with a haunting sense of déjà vu as I traveled the same route I had taken six months before—from Denver through Philly to Burlington. When I arrived at my parents’ house, my mother was alone for the first time in her life. She looked smaller than ever. I held her. Neither one of us said a word. Neither one of us cried.

The next day I climbed into my father’s old Buick and pointed it in the direction of the funeral home, where I was now on a first name basis with the funeral director.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“Hi, Walter.”

I picked out an urn. I signed all the paperwork. Then we went  to see my father. Walter opened the door and allowed me to enter the ice-cold room before him. I turned and said, “Walter, I have things to say to my father that you might not want to hear.” He nodded solemnly and whispered that he would be waiting for me just outside the door. As I approached my father, the first thing I noticed was that he was wearing the Colorado Rockies shirt that I had sent him the previous Christmas; somehow, that realization nearly brought me to my knees. I took the time to say what had to be said—that he had not been the father I needed, but that I was all right now, and most importantly, I had broken the cycle with my own family and my own children. I wanted him to know that.

My father did not want a memorial service of any kind. So after he had been cremated, I simply had to go pick him up and bring him home. It had been raining in Vermont every day since I had arrived. The lake level had reached a record breaking 104 feet, and countless homes, roads, and businesses had been flooded. It was a once in a generation spring storm season. My dad would have loved the drama of it.

When I arrived at the funeral home, Walter was waiting, and he held the door open for me as I stepped through to the familiar vestibule, where I knew my father would be waiting on the front table, where my sister was waiting a few months before. The urn, a solid Vermont marble box with a jumping fish painted on the front, was too heavy for me to lift. I was terrified that I would drop it on the rain soaked steps and it would shatter, scattering shards of stone and what was left of my father all over the parking lot. So Walter carried it for me. We managed to make it down the steps to my father’s old Buick, and I opened the passenger door so that Walter could place my father on the seat. Officially finished with his duties, Walter was quick to offer condolences so that he could sprint back inside, out of the cold April deluge.

As I buckled my seat belt, I glanced beside me and wondered if I needed to buckle in the fish box. I decided against it and instead started the car, a boat compared to the old Subaru I drove back in Colorado, and began to ease my way out of the lot for the thirty-minute drive home. Just me and dad—two people who would never have chosen to be alone together when he was alive. I couldn’t stand any of the country stations he had programmed into the radio, so I hit the search button. A tune that sounded like something I could tolerate hit my ears. I didn’t recognize it. I later learned that it was “Better Days” by the Goo Goo Dolls. As I listened to the words and the rain and the windshield wipers, I began to smile, then sob, and continued to do both in equal amounts all the way home.

 

 

Campus Culture is Not a Rape Defense

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Sexual Assault Prevention Ribbon

Today attorneys are preparing to deliver closing arguments in the Vanderbilt rape trial. While every rape case is deeply disturbing, this particular case could set a precedent for future rape prosecutions—and defenses.

The victim in this case woke up in her boyfriend’s dorm room after a night of heavy drinking. She could not remember what had taken place the night before. When she questioned him, he told her that she had gotten drunk, had been sick in his room, and he had cleaned her up. She was embarrassed, and she apologized profusely. Yet something about his story didn’t add up, and soon rumors began swirling.

In an odd coincidence, university officials began investigating acts of vandalism that had occurred in the dorm on the same night. As part of their investigation, they were combing through security video from the dorm when they saw something shocking—an unconscious 21-year-old female student being carried into an elevator and then down a hallway by male students, all members of Vanderbilt’s football team, one of whom was the young woman’s boyfriend. The male students took compromising photos of the woman in the hallway before dragging her into a room.

The university took immediate action, interviewing the players captured on the video, and then contacting police. The police quickly found evidence that the woman’s boyfriend sent videos of the violent gang rape that ensued behind closed doors to his friends as the attack was taking place. They also discovered that a number of other witnesses saw the woman being carried into the dorm by the players. Others, including another member of the football team, saw her lying unconscious in the hallway with red hand marks on her buttocks. He did not report what he saw to anyone, nor did he try to intervene, even though he knew the woman.

All four men were charged, and two, including the victim’s boyfriend, are defendants in the current trial. Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey, who pleaded not guilty, are facing charges of aggravated rape and aggravated sexual battery. Vandenburg, the boyfriend of the victim, is also facing charges of tampering with evidence and unlawful photography (Huffington Post). Their defense attorney has stated that the young men should not be held responsible for these horrific crimes—acts caught on video and therefore not in question—because they were intoxicated and did not understand what they were doing.

Here is where my mind gets blown. The defense included the testimony of a neuropsychologist, who stated: “Because he was this intoxicated, he was not his normal self. He was doing things he would not have done normally” (FOXSports). The expert witness added that these young men were influenced by a campus culture that encouraged binge drinking and sexual promiscuity. Essentially, the same flawed logic used to blame victims for causing their own assaults is now being used to excuse perpetrators who assault. He was too drunk to know what he was doing, so he was not to blame. She shouldn’t have gotten drunk, therefore making herself vulnerable to such an attack. What message does this defense send to college students, and to society as a whole? How much longer are we going to ignore the fact that sexual assault is rampant on college campuses? When will we reach the tipping point where we will no longer be able to ignore the epidemic? How much sexual assault is too much?

When we lose the ability to respect and have empathy for one another, and when we no longer see each other as subject, but treat each other as object, we will eventually hurt one another. When we lack compassion and cannot feel human suffering, that is the inevitable result. If we then dismiss these crimes because the perpetrators were too drunk, or were influenced by a toxic culture, is there any hope of changing this culture of rape we have created?

 

Maryam Mirzakhani: Math Mastermind

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Fields Medal, Wikipedia.org

 

This past fall, Maryam Mirzakhani was awarded the Fields Medal, the most prestigious honor mathematics has to offer–the “Nobel Prize” of the math world. She was the first woman to earn the award since its inception in 1936. Mirzakhani, who was born and raised in Iran, received the prize for her contributions to the fields of geometry and dynamical systems.

I am drawn to her story for many reasons. She has defied the odds in countless ways in order to reach a pinnacle of success that few ever achieve. She was among the earliest female participants in the International Mathematical Olympiad, a prestigious problem-solving contest for high school students. The Olympiad began in 1959, and today over 100 countries take part. Mirzakhani participated in 1994 and 1995, winning gold medals at both, and achieving a perfect score in 1995—an amazing feat considering that even as late as 2014, only 56 girls participated in the Olympiad, compared to 526 boys.

I can also connect to her story on a personal level. Her original career goal was to become a writer; however, when she was exposed to geometry an entirely new world opened up to her.

I was always very smart and did well in school. In junior high I was the first girl to win the science award. I took many classes early, including math and science classes. One of my first dreams was a career in aviation; flying fascinated me. Also, when I was in eighth grade, I was selected to travel with a group of students to the Koster dig site in Illinois. It was then that I decided that becoming an archaeologist was also a possibility. That, however, was before I set foot in Mr. Hummiston’s geometry class. Although I did well in algebra, geometry was a different matter. When math became spatial, I struggled, and Mr. Hummiston was quick to point that out to everyone in the class: ‘Diane seems to be having trouble proving this theorem. Can someone please help explain it to her?”

Moving from biology to physics brought similar struggles, and before long, I dreaded all math and science, and let go of the dreams of aviation and archaeology. Similarly, at one point I toyed with the idea of becoming an interpreter, since I loved to travel and had a good grasp of the Spanish language. In graduate school, I was the only student in my program who passed the foreign language exam, which required translating literature from a foreign language to English. But again, I began having doubts because I hadn’t spent time abroad and wasn’t fluent; therefore, I didn’t feel I was good enough. I certainly didn’t want to fail. So I remained an English major, which was the safe thing to do.

 

geralt / Pixabay

geralt / Pixabay

 

Interestingly, Mirzakhani did not do well in her first math class at Farzanegan middle school for girls in Tehran. Her math teacher didn’t believe in her abilities, and undermined her self-confidence: “It’s so important what others see in you. I lost my interest in math” (quantammagazine.org). Yet the next year she found a teacher who believed in her abilities, and she never looked back. Some of the biggest stumbling blocks we experience as women stem from a lack of belief in ourselves. We aren’t taught to be confident in our own abilities, or if we are taught this, somewhere along the way the images and messages we are bombarded with slowly erode our belief in our own competence, and the self-doubt that results can be overwhelming.

Today Mirzakhani is a mathematics professor at Stanford University, where no doubt she encourages other young women to believe in themselves and their abilities. Her story should be included in the middle school curriculum of all schools; this is such a critical time for girls as they face the pressures of conforming to gender stereotypes and can begin doubting their abilities in math and science. Perhaps this explains the fact that only a handful of US girls have ever qualified for the International Mathematical Olympiad. We need to do better, and if we share her story, Maryam Mirzakhani will certainly serve as inspiration.

To learn more about Mirzakhani in her own words, click here.

Who was your most inspirational teacher in math or science? I would love to hear about teachers who sparked your passion.

Somewhere in America

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I was floored when I watched this performance by three brave and talented young women. It is a message that must be seen and heard numerous times; there is so much truth to digest. (Click on the link below to view the video).

Changing the World, One Word at a Time 

“But the greatest lessons you will ever teach us will not come from your syllabus…”

When I first heard these words, before I had listened to the rest of the performance, I nodded knowingly. As a teacher, I am well aware of this fact. The teachable moments—the ones we all learn the most from—are spontaneous, and usually take place when we least expect them. They are moments of candid truth telling that happen rarely, when the space and place are deemed safe and the environment is ripe for increased awareness and action.

Yet that is not at all what these young women are talking about, as I quickly learned in their very next breath.

“You never told us what we weren’t allowed to say; we just learned to hold our tongues.”

They are addressing all those other moments that occur in education, the ones we never admit. Implicit bias—an unconscious bias that comes into play even when people have the best intentions—I wonder how many times I have been guilty of this in the classroom, even though women and gender studies is a subject I teach. Issues of intersectionality are so easily ignored. I experience privilege because I am white, straight, and middle class. I am oppressed because I am a woman. How often does my own unconscious bias impact my teaching?

“They build us new shopping malls so that we’ll forget where we’re really standing—on the bones of the Hispanics, on the bones of the slaves, on the bones of the Native Americans, on the bones of those who fought just to speak.”

If we are continually distracted by shiny objects, we will never have to face the ugly truth. If the objective is self-satisfaction and consumption, we do not need to acknowledge our tainted history or teach and learn empathy, tolerance, and kindness.

“Transcontinental railroad to Japanese internment camps—there are things missing from our history books.”

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Chinese Railroad Workers

I was never taught the truth about the slaughter of Native Americans. Instead I was taught to celebrate Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving. I was never taught about the abuse of Chinese laborers or the imprisonment of Japanese Americans. I also didn’t learn about the women’s movement or the Vietnam War. Perhaps it could be argued that when I was in school the wounds of the Vietnam War were too fresh, and therefore ‘US History Civil War to Present’ stopped just before our involvement in the war. Yet the same argument cannot be made for the second wave feminism. I did learn about the Civil Rights movement, yet the women’s movement was not part of the curriculum. I didn’t even learn about first wave feminism and the suffragists.

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National American Women Suffrage Association 1913

“Women are killed for rejecting dates. A girl is black-out drunk at the after-party. Take a picture before her wounds wake her. How many pixels is your sanity worth?”

We need to stop and take a long, hard look in the mirror. Not only must we acknowledge inequity and issues of intersectionality. We must act to change our course—for our children, and for ourselves. We need to answer the challenge that these young women were brave enough to stand up and force us to confront.


To learn more about the incredible program that led to the creation of this video, visit http://getlit.org/getlit/