02 July 2014

For Andy

When I was young, one of my favorite shows to watch when we got our free cable promotionals was Road to Avonlea.  It's based on some of the other books written by Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery and, being the costume drama obsessor that I was (and certified Anne fanatic, even as a wee thing) I loved this show.

(Now, Andy, I know you're probably already cringing because "Anne" is your "Humperdink" but bear with me.)

The episode I remember the most from watching it as a kid was an episode where the parents of the main family leave for a few nights to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary, trusting that the kids and house will be fine in the care of their oldest daughter Felicity (who isn't quite yet fourteen  Times have changed!)  One thing leads to another and eventually Felicity is in charge not only of her younger siblings Felix and Cecily, but also her cousins Andrew and Sara.  It's a disaster.  Felicity is horribly bossy, strutting around the house with cleaning schedules and keys to the kitchen cabinet and dietary restrictions that are particularly irksome to Sara and Felix, the most headstrong.  Sara fights back.  Felix mostly just laughs (which makes Felicity more angry.)  The whole thing ends with pies in faces, and accidental haircuts, and a visit from a woman they all think is deaf but really isn't - it's a great situational comedy.

The funny thing is - when I was a kid and watched this episode, I didn't quite catch the comedy.  I felt so terrible for Felicity.  Why wouldn't they just listen to her?!  She was clearly in charge and clearly the most responsible and I loved her name and her hair.  And the worst culprit of all was definitely Felix, the obvious villain of the show because he laughed instead of got upset when Felicity was trying to punish him!

It wasn't until a few years later that I saw the episode again and realized that what I was seeing in that episode were projections of myself and my younger brother Andy.  We share a lot in common with those two fictional characters (though he'd never know it because he'll NEVER watch it.)  I was Felicity - the one who never wanted to be a child.  I knew what I wanted: I wanted adults to think I was capable and responsible and smart and had little interest in things I perceived as childish.  Nothing was worse than feeling as though I wasn't being taken seriously.

Andy, on the other hand, seemed to me to be everything I wasn't.  Where I was always too afraid to get in trouble and thus tried to avoid it, Andy pushed limits and laughed when people got upset - laughed so adorably that he'd not get in trouble at all half the time.  He was just too dang charming.  We have this great family video of him in his high chair with the remainder of his dinner, ramen noodles (I think), on his plate.  He's leaning over and holding the plate over the edge of the tray but not quite dropping it.  You can hear mom telling him not to, and you can see a sparkle in his eye and a dimple on his cheek.  He couldn't have been more than two - but he knew.  He knew he wasn't supposed to.  You can also see that he knows he can (and will) get away with it.  You can see it.  And then, giggling, he lets it fall to the floor.

The result of these two stubborn personalities?  Many many years of near constant bickering.  Over anything.  Time on TV or the computer.  Who got last bowls of cereal or bites of cake.  Where we sat in the car.  Time in the bathroom.

Like my relationship with my father and my sister, moving out changed my relationship with Andy.  Or maybe it wasn't really influenced so much by my moving out as by our growing up.  Either way, I remember coming home for Christmas one year and realizing that even though my brother still got away with more than I did because he was still more charming, and even though he was still a bit spazzy and messy, and goofy - he was awesome.  I had fun with him.  We liked enough of the same things that we could do things together and enjoy it.  We actually wanted to spend time together.  It was wonderful.  Suddenly I didn't feel so much like his big sister as his friend.  I stopped caring so much about telling him what to do and started to listen more and just enjoy him as he was.

(You see?  That charming, happy personality of his eventually wore me down too.)

What I didn't ever anticipate was how much I'd grow to admire and look up to him as well.  Andy's life and mine have, in some ways, exchanged places from what people might have expected.  I started by living the life everyone wanted of me and Andy started by testing his limits.  Now he's married, weeks away from becoming a father, and I am living a life that no one really expected and have discovered that I, too, am brave enough to push a little bit on the limits I perceived for myself.  I have a huge amount of respect for the man he has become.  I treasure the opportunities we have to talk and appreciate his unwavering support and encouragement.  We have a bit of an unspoken pact, the two of us: We are going to get along.  Come hell or high water, we will support each other and we will support our younger two siblings, because it is so, so much better when we do.  We are determined that our family will always be one of love and care.

So Andy, on your birthday, I want you to know how very much I love you - and how glad I am that we have both grown out of the extremely childish states of our early years to be the great friends we are now.  You are an incredible example to me of the power that Christ has in our lives and I am so, so excited for the adventures this new year is going to bring for you.



24 June 2014

For Alli

I'm not really good at remembering things relating to the nitty gritty details of my life.

I'm great with useless trivia.  Ask me what floor in Hogwarts Harry's (x) class is in and I'll tell you without the aid of Google, but when it comes to my life I forget lots of things.  I listen to my grandparents recount stories of their childhood and think: "Yup.  I'll never be able to do that."

But I will be able to tell them one story with utter clarity:

I'm eleven.  I'm sitting at the kitchen table on a chair facing the living room and right next to the doors leading to the patio, holding a hand-made card I found at the end of a scavenger hunt mom arranged for us letting us know that the last, surprise baby in our family would give me a long awaited sister.  I burst into tears.  (Jared, across from me, does the same, but for completely different reasons.)  A girl!  My sister!

I have lots of memories leading up to when she was born.  I remember sitting in the basement and voting on what name we would give her (only stipulation: It needs to start with "A", as the pattern of naming Newman children to that point had coincidentally ended on a J-A-J pattern thus far, and that would be cool.)

I remember picking out fabric to make her baby blanket (which I insisted on making) and, consequently, also remember feeling utterly annoyed at every other blanket gift she was given.  She could have all the clothes and toys and diapers she wanted but she had to like my blanket best.  She just did.

I remember driving to the hospital to go get her with my grandparents, both of whom got increasingly frustrated as they tried to navigate down town (which isn't that big but made more complicated by one way streets).  We could see the hospital, we just couldn't GET THERE.  I was in the back clutching her blanket on my lap.

I have memories after she was born too.  Like the timer we had to set at home to take turns holding her because everyone wanted to.  Like one of the first times I was left to babysit her and how much I loved the time I had to just sit and be with her.  Like watching her in her first dance recital.  Like that time mom accidentally shaved a patch in her head (oops.)  Like endless rounds of "In the Mood" and "Shipoopi".  Like Blue's Clues and the curious little "uhhhA?!" and "All gone!"

Things get a little foggy after that - because I moved away.  And a thousand miles is a long distance to travel for a weekend visit.  My long awaited sister and friend was here, and I left her.

I remember the first time I came home, seeing her down at the end of the hall in the airport.  She immediately burst into tears and ran towards me.  We're going to be fine, I thought.

And we were, for a while.  It was easy, at least for me, when Alli was little.  It wasn't until a few years ago when I realized she wasn't so little any more that I felt the pain of lost time.  I missed it, I thought.  She grew up and I missed it. 

The last few years have meant trying harder to get to know the young woman that Alli has become.  We're a little different - she's far more emotionally open than I am.  I have a hard time lying about what I'm thinking, but I bottle it up.  Christmas morning is a series of polite thank you's from me, even if it's a gift I'm particularly excited about.  It means that sometimes people see me as cold or aloof when I'm really not.  Alli leaves no one in doubt of her emotions.  She feels deeply and openly - squealing with delight and crying over the pain of someone else.  She's as soft hearted and kind as they come in how she loves and reaches out to others.   She's more giddy-girly than I ever was.

What's been so rewarding to see as Alli has grown up, though, is utter relief that we may not be quite so different after all - home for Christmas this last year, I saw her roll her eyes at jokes from Dad she didn't like the exact way that I used to.  She loves music and performing.  She has a deeply ingrained desire to do what's right and good.

So, Alli - on your birthday (especially since I can't be there), I want you to know and never forget that it kills me that I'm missing so much time with you.  It's cruel, really - that I waited so long and only got six precious years with you before I left home - years you probably can't even remember.  Cruel that now we're old enough to really enjoy and get to know one another, you still live so far away.  But your being older does come with perks - I'm so glad that we're both getting better at calling and talking and texting each other.  I love that time.  I'm excited that we get so much face to face time this summer.  I'm proud of you and how hard you've worked to overcome the challenges you've faced.  You are a great example to me, Alli - and best of all - you are mine!  Happy Birthday, sweet sister.  I sure love you.

05 June 2014

For Dad

I remember the first time I heard my dad swear when he was angry.  (As opposed to the times when he fake swore, like with the "What did the fish say when it ran into the wall" joke we all thought was so funny.)

I don't remember what he was angry about or who the shouting was directed to (it wasn't at me, I know), but I remember standing at the top of the staircase leading to the basement room my brothers shared at the time and being surprised.  I was old enough to know that my dad got mad, but he never yelled like that, and he never swore like that either.

I don't remember what I did next, exactly.  I know I ended up in my room.  I have vague memories of my brother being there with me - maybe both of them.  Sometimes in this scene, I am crying from shock and fear, other times I am calmly trying to keep my brothers out of the way so that things could calm down.  The one thing I do remember is not very long after the noise of the basement, my father, who has always seemed to be the tallest person in the world (although I know that at 6'1" he is hardly considered overly tall), hunched into my room a broken man.  With tears rolling freely down his face he apologized profusely to me and to my brothers (if they were there) for his anger and for saying what he did.  I think we hugged him.  I remember him leaving the room slowly, still downcast.

I remember feeling an overwhelming surge of love for my father as he left.  It was clearly not his proudest moment, but the speed and honesty of his apology left me without doubt that my dad loved me.  That he was not so proud or grown up that he couldn't apologize to those some would consider beneath him.  I ached that he hurt so much and wished that he could know how much it meant to me that he would be so very open and raw with what he felt.  It wasn't a stiff or brief apology, it was sincere and intensely honest.

I have a very special relationship with my father.  Unlike my mom, with whom I have always gotten along with easily, dad and I had to work to get along.  We share a similar personality gene, he and I - a gene that is often dominated by stubbornness and a strain of perfectionism that means that we expect the best in others and better of ourselves.  It means intense conversation and the tendency to say more than we really need to to make a point.  It also means a rough exterior that is easily misunderstood because on the outside we can appear mean or judgmental or oblivious.  It meant a childhood of regular bickering between the two of us (with poor mom stuck in the middle playing referee.  She hated that.)

But I can tell you - my dad has the softest heart of anyone I know, even if it isn't obvious by casual observation.  I know this because he is quick, so quick, to rectify a wrong when he recognizes it.  Because of the time he took when I was young to take his little girl to the theater, even when she was too little to really appreciate the experience.  Because when they did go to the theater, he dressed up for her.  Because he sat through any number of lengthy recitals and ridiculous children's plays.  Because when I didn't get cast in my first school play, he let me cry on his shoulder and promised me in the way that only my dad could that it would get better.  Because of how intensely and earnestly he loves and honors my mother.  Because he is careful to take time to help me feel special and important and loved.  Because of Starbucks gift cards on my birthday.  Because of trips to the bookstore. Because my dad is the model to me of hope in trying again.  Changing yourself, improving yourself - it's hard.  It's so discouraging.  But my dad has shown me a model of how powerful humility is.  How valuable a virtue it is to cultivate in your life.

So today, daddy, on your birthday - I hope this gives you a tiny bit of a sliver of understanding for the special place you have in my heart.  It's yours forever, and I am so glad that it is.


03 June 2014

The Thing About Modesty

I remember where I was the first time I saw the phrase "Modest is Hottest!"  It was on a hand-made t-shirt a girl at a church camp was wearing.  "Awesome!" I thought.  After growing up in an area where my religious beliefs were by far the minority, it was novel to have someone proclaim what I believed was true too.  Bodies are meant to be appropriately covered!  You tell them, stranger!

When I went to college I worked for the IT Department helping people fix their internet and other computer problems over the phone.  We could work on homework after a while if call volume was low, but for the first half hour we were supposed to review documentation we needed to know and also to familiarize ourself with current campus events by reading the school paper (which was still a paper.  Funny how fast things change.)

My favorite section to read was the Opinion section because there was guaranteed to be some crazy in there at least once a week demanding something totally ridiculous, like the bookstore needing to take down their Halloween decorations because Halloween is evil or that the cheerleaders were crazy immodest and needed to cover up or whatever.

The funny thing is, the longer I read the paper and the longer I attended BYU, the more often I heard comments about the cheerleading uniforms being inappropriate.  It always seemed centered there, and occasionally on the gymnasts.  It was never on the track and field uniforms or the swimming uniforms.  Something kind of tweaked in my head - what is it about modesty that is so completely and thoroughly centered around women alone?  I thought that maybe people just saw cheerleading as superfluous and unnecessary and therefore a waste of "compromising standards".  Fortunately as I talked with the people I was around, most of them agreed that those people who were annoyed with the uniforms were ridiculous and that people need to wear clothing appropriate for the activity they are doing.

The more culturally aware I've become, however, I've started having some serious problems with the way modesty is discussed.  Here are some of the things I have observed that I have issue with:

1. Discussions of modesty are culturally centered around how it makes you more physically beautiful.
(As if the only way to con girls into covering their shoulders and knees is to train them from birth to believe that their shoulders and knees are ugly or evil or bad because they are enticing in the wrong way, so you need to cover them and then you are enticing in the right way, because, by the way, that's the most important thing you can do.)

2. Discussions of modesty are centered almost completely around women and women's clothing choices.
(As if it was impossible for men to be immodest.  And I'm not just talking about wearing your pants around your knees or having long hair.  I'm talking about how tired I am of teaching our girls and boys to focus on the "errors" in fashion choices instead of, you know, actually getting to know the person they are with.)

3. Discussions of modesty often focus on the relationship between clothing trends and the statement that God's standards never change.
(The simple response to this is that garment lengths and styles have changed significantly since the 1850s, so if you believe that God's standards never change, and I do, then you have to believe that modesty isn't a principle that revolves entirely around clothing and that there is a greater truth we are missing out on.)

I would like to submit that that melding the discussion of modesty only to fashion is a red herring to what modesty really is.

Modesty is not a principle that excludes clothing choices, but it is not a principle dominated by them either.  If it was, then the church would be calling for women to wear burqas.  Current discussions (like this one here) or the recent issue with the school editing what girls' pictures looked like for the yearbook can only lead in the "girls must cover everything because their bodies are dangerous" train of thought.  I could go on and on here about how much I hate that girls are led to believe that they control the thoughts of men with their hemline, hate that men are claimed as being incapable of controlling their own thoughts, hate that the intense focus on a woman's clothing choices encourages rape culture; but that discussion has happened elsewhere and better than I can do it here (it's tech week for my show.  My brain.  My brain!)

What I want to say instead is this:

Modesty is a principle of respect for yourself and respect for others.  This can manifest itself in many ways.  It includes dressing appropriately for the activities you are doing.  It involves being kind and encouraging to the self image of others, and to your views of yourself.  It means accepting no for an answer when a person denies you the chance to kiss them, hug them, hold hands with them, touch them in any way that they do not want.  It means speaking honestly about what you see and hear and giving a fair evaluation.

Modesty is historically associated with the principle of moderation.  Unfortunately, it is also historically associated with the clothing of women and very closely linked with the word "shame" in Old English.  So it isn't as though the rhetoric we are using is new - blaming women for the actions of men and focusing on women as objects to be carefully covered until the appropriate time comes to uncover them goes back centuries.  Isn't that sad?  It does make it somewhat easier to sympathize with how hard it is to change the trends of discussion.  But those discussions need to happen, and change needs to come or we are totally selling ourselves short.  So instead of focussing on a negative value, let us instead focus our discussions on the true positive aspects of being modest.  Let's focus on presenting ourselves well in our clothing choices, yes, but also in how we respect and honor others.  Let us remember that the Lord doesn't look on the outward appearance, He looks on the heart - and it is our job to be strong enough and smart enough to see past the exterior foibles of people and to see them.  Really see them.

27 May 2014

The Suicide Survivor's Club

Teaching teenagers is a funny thing.  The longer I teach the more I realize that my perspectives and views when I was a teenager were not the norm.  For example, while many of my friends were in the throes of obsession over Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, I was in the throes of thinking that it was perhaps the weirdest and dumbest movie I'd ever seen.  (I still think it's moronic to introduce teens to Shakespeare via. the two "greatest lovers" in his canon.  I didn't/don't understand the draw to obsession over two characters who make stupid and reckless and extreme decisions.)

Now I think that obsession over dramatic death may be something of a hormone related rite of passage for many of my older teens.  Every generation seems to have its romantic death story.  They're all pushed through Romeo and Juliet, and they couple it with cancer stories galore (my generation had A Walk to Remember.  Now we have The Fault in Our Stars.)

I don't fault them for this fascination with death.  Most of them have experienced it at some level by the time they are in junior high and high school, but may not have been old enough to be included in many adult conversations about what happened, why, how. . .etc.  There is an allure of mystery about the entire process for many of them, and that mystery often has its blanks filled in with fiction.  I'm not entirely opposed to this either.  Our imagination is a powerful tool to help us understand what we have not personally seen or experienced.

What concerns me is, like all great romances that end with the engagement, most of these stories of death end with the death.  From a writing standpoint, it makes sense.  Writing about grief is tedious and reading about it perhaps worse, because, from a plot standpoint, it's a disaster.  It's not linear, grief.  It's all over the place.  It's the Picasso of emotion.  And because of this omission, the romance of death remains in most of these stories.  The stories, perhaps rightly, focus on the tragedy of an early death and use the remaining space to pay tribute to a life so short lived.

I bring this up because of a Facebook thread a teacher friend of mine commented on that got posted on my feed as a result a few times over the weekend.  The thread was started by a student asking how anyone can tell another person that they can handle every trial they are given when things such as suicide exist.  The comments in response to the post, on the whole, made me feel rather sick.  They ranged from quick responses of trivial to more heartfelt encouragement, but included several responses from fellow teens agreeing that suicide was "not an easy out" and, in fact, a complicated and - although not overtly said, certainly implied - a brave thing to do.

So as a card carrying member of the Suicide Survivor's Club, I have a few words of my own on the subject:

First - I don't know and will never judge the mental state that someone is in when they turn to suicide as an answer.  In the months and years after my uncle killed himself, I sat through dozens of lessons in school and church and heard conversations from friends where jokes were made about killing yourself, or comments made about how people who kill themselves will go to hell - dozens of things that just hurt.  My uncle was not a perfect person.  He made a lot of bad choices, and the older I get the more aware of them I am.  But he was my uncle.  He was my father's brother.  And he loved me.  And he was sick.  Mentally he was really, really sick.  It isn't my job to judge what made him do what he did as right or wrong.  It's my job to love him.

Furthermore, I have never been in a position where I felt that suicide was an answer to my problems.  I struggle with depression - there have been many times where I felt like it was better for everyone if I disappeared for a while - but seeing the impact of my uncle's death on my family has ruled out suicide for me forever.  So while I can't speak from personal experience on the side of wanting to kill myself, I can speak from three times over experience in people I know killing themselves, and in feeling and watching that grief that suicide is literally the worst.  It is not romantic.  It is not beautiful.  It is not the "only way out of this hell hole" as one commenter put it.  There are thousands of other and better ways out of hell than with a gun.

I can't speak for the so-called bravery or courage of ending your own life, but I can tell you that there is no romance when it is over.  You may cease existing but the rest of the world continues because that's the job of the world, and what is left is an incredible, immense, indescribable pain that never, ever leaves.  It's earth shattering, that grief.  It wrecks an entire body, and yanks the fabric of friendships and families hard.  What's left behind is a different world and that world requires a very patient form of detoxing that is different than other sudden forms of death.  Horrible accidents, for example - are horrible, but they are accidents.  With suicide you have an endless string of guilt and blame over what you could have or should have or might have done differently.  Wondering if it would have made any difference.

I don't want to start some kind of pain or "my grief is stronger than your grief" war over this.  Grief is grief and pain is pain and no matter the source, those emotions deserve to be treated with care and understanding and kindness.  Grief and pain, whatever they are, are not a competition.  We all have moments, or weeks, or months, or years, where we feel alone or misunderstood or abandoned - and those times suck.

What I can tell you is that suicide, however justified or helpful or perhaps even needed for the individual involved is still a very selfish thing to do.  That there is always always a better option than ending your life.

What I can tell you is that being a member of the Suicide Survivor's Club is not something I would wish on anyone.  It's a horrible club.  It's a club you are forced into before you've even really understood what it means.  No membership dues to ignore that will get you kicked out.  No playful initiation.  It's all out hazing - not by fellow members, but by your own guilt, and by those who tell you that you could have changed your membership by doing X or Y. (X and Y are both lies, by the way.  No matter what anyone tells you - X or Y would not have changed anything.)  It's not a club you're ever happy to be a part of, but it is a club that, after a while, you can learn to wear as a badge because speaking out is better than staying silent.  My way of speaking out is to hopefully call maybe a bit of attention back to the fact that approximately two million teens will attempt suicide each year in the US alone.  According to the last census, if that information is correct, then it means approximately one in every ten teenagers attempt suicide yearly - and many of those can be prevented with more open, more frank, and more honest discussion, and more earnest attention to understanding each other.