Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Love is the Bridge Between Us


As a public health nurse, I often work with refugees, dragging my nursing bag into their humble low-income housing. Years ago, I had a final visit with a family that I had worked with for many months and that experience was one that I will never forget. 

I remember shaking the snow off of my nursing clogs as I entered the very warm apartment. This family had come from a very warm country and had not yet acclimated to cold Iowa winters and they kept their apartment as a warm oasis from the winter’s cold bite. I felt the tension the moment that I walked in the door and noticed the sadness in the eyes of each of the family members who greeted the interpreter(there to bridge the communication divide) and I at the door. Emotions were high on this final visit, as the family had become very attached to me (and I to them). There is a bitter sweetness to final visits and we were all feeling that-- the joy of the family no longer needing a nurse and the sadness that our journey together had come to an end. We went through the familiar motions of our visit; weighing the baby and scheduling doctors’ visits and talking through any needed education so that the family can live their best life. And, too soon, the visit was over and our time together had come to an end.

As I stood to leave, the mother motioned for me to be silent. She said, through the interpreter, that she would like me to not say goodbye this time-- it was far too emotional for her and she would like to think that we would meet again. In fact, she was certain that we would be together again in the after life.

She motioned for me to come over and stand by her and then motioned for her children to encircle us. I could tell by the children’s immediate move into position and the confident smiles on their faces that this had been practiced before my visit. The children were so excited that they were teeming with energy, bounding on the balls of their feet as their mother chided them with a smile, asking them to stand still.

She took my hand in hers, her dark skin contrasting completely with my blindingly white skin, and told me that we were sisters now. She said that, in her former country, when someone helps your child that you are bonded to that person for life, that life could never separate you. At this point, she began to cry and, even though I was willing myself not to cry, I could feel the wetness on my cheeks that let me know that I was failing. She stepped away from me for a moment, attempting to wipe her cheeks surreptitiously, and came back with an intricate incense burner, which was reminiscent of the one that had been used in my childhood church.

Her children began to sing a song together-- the words in a language unknown to me, but somehow known to my heart. She smiled her gratitude to her children and brought her focus back to me. She began to swing the incense around me, enveloping me in a cloud of pungent sweetness. She began speaking quickly over me, the interpreter struggling to keep up with her words.

May you live a life of peace.
May your children and your children’s children live a life of peace.

May you live a healthy life.
May your children and your children’s children live a life of health.

May you live a life of abundance.
May your children and your children’s children live a life of abundance.

The words were spoken over and over again. Incense rising. Children’s voices singing sweetly. My client, the interpreter and I were wiping our leaking tears and smiling through them. I could feel the invisible strings that connected us all together in that precious moment. 

I felt the intention of each word spoken over me and felt the words fall around me, as heavy and comforting as a thick blanket on a cold night. I believed with every atom of my being that she wished so very much for these blessings to be true that they would be.  She had no way of making sure that these intentions which she spoke over me would come to fruition and, yet, the words were bursting with the power of dynamic, heartfelt yearning.

When she was done, I looked around the tiny, shabby apartment filled to the brim with children. It was so full of love that I wondered how it could be contained by these cracked walls. I knew in my heart that I had done many things for this family in the past year, much more than was in my job description. I knew solidly that they were in a much better place than when I met them. I also knew that they had taught me much more than I could have ever reciprocated.

I gathered my nursing bag and headed for the door, quietly putting my shoes on while continuing to wipe away tears. I would not say goodbye. I was certain that she was right and our paths would cross again, even if it was just in the memories passing through are minds. Goodbye was not a word that would suffice the end of the visit.

Instead I gathered every bit of intention within me and I said, as I was crossing the doorway echoed by the interpreter behind me-

May you live a life of peace.
May your children and your children’s children live a life of peace.

May you live a healthy life.
May your children and your children’s children live a life of health.

May you live a life of abundance.

May your children and your children’s children live a life of abundance.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Out of the Darkness, a Christmas Blessing

On a hot and humid August night, just days before I was set to start fourth grade, our home burned to the ground. It wasn't a dream home or a rambling white Iowa farmhouse that I always dreamt of living in. It was, instead, a small trailer on a tiny lot inside a small square full of other trailers in a trailer park bordered by cornfields outside of the small town of Bondurant, Iowa. It was not a dream home but it was our home, a home full of love and we had lived there for years, surrounded by friends and neighbors.

That night, the night when we lost all of our Earthly belongings, was a terrible night. It also was a night full of miracles and the miracles would not end when that awful night was over.

My Mom was gone that evening at a concert at the Iowa State Fair. It was incredibly rare for my Mom to go out without the family, both because money was tight and because our family was always my parents' priority. But, she was gone that evening and my Dad, in an unusual gesture, asked if all three of the kids wanted to sleep in his bedroom and have a slumber party of sorts. We happily agreed and my little brother cozied up in the big bed with Dad and my sister and I snuggled into blankets on the floor at the foot of the bed. We watched the tiny television in the bedroom until we all fell asleep, the television still streaming light into the dark bedroom which was all the way at the back end of the trailer.

A short time later, I was awoken by my Dad screaming. He was frantic, physically pulling us up onto our feet, holding my brother in his arms and we raced, still sleepy and confused, down the tiny hallway of the trailer that ran alongside the bedrooms. The smoke was thick and the crackle of the fire deafening. I remember my heart racing as I saw the bedroom that my sister and I shared was completely engulfed in flames.

We raced to the neighbors house and my Dad frantically pounded on the door until finally the neighbor opened the door and, still in his underwear, joined my dad in dragging out their garden hoses and focusing the water both on our trailer and his in an effort to both stop our fire and prevent it from spreading from one trailer to the next as only a tiny dried bit of grass separated the two structures.

We stood warily out in the street watching as the fire department, full of half-asleep volunteers, arrived and tried to put out the flames. Our neighbors and friends surrounded us and wrapped us in blankets as we stood shivering, even though the Iowa summer air was sweltering. We were in shock as the gaping hole in the side of the trailer became wider and wider, a sick gaping smile in what was once our family home, being licked ever wider by orange flames. I cried for my Pamela doll and my copy of Alice in Wonderland that were surely lost inside the flames. My brother and sister cried silently beside me, each of us lost in our minds thinking of what was lost as my Dad raced around, watching the fire fighters and talking to police officers.

Nearly every earthly possession we had was now gone. We mourned our favorite things. As the shock wore off, however, we were realizing that we were all together, alive and unharmed. I remember hearing my dad talking to a police officer and saying over and over again in a daze that my sister and I could have been dead. I'd never seem him so discombobulated and confused, repeating things over and over again.  In my vivid imagination, I remembered just hours before seeing our bedroom aflame. I realized, with a start, that had my mother not been at that concert and we had not been invited for a sleepover in my parents bedroom, that we would have been snuggled into our shared bed in that bedroom in a bed that bordered the wall shared with the water heater that exploded and started the fire that night. We would not have survived. 

As a child, I had never before thought of the possibility of my own death before. That night I realized that the simple act of my sister and I breathing in and out, unharmed and with our life before us, was a miracle. We were alive.

Other miracles would follow. The box of photographs that would lay untouched and completely unharmed by fire, smoke or water damage in a closet-- I remember my mother crying over that box of photos.  The kindness of strangers and friends and family, alike as we were showered with donations and love.

In the months to come there would be many struggles for my parents trying to make a new life for us on a pittance of an insurance check. There would be a new school and a new apartment that smelled faintly of the chain-smoker that lived there before us. We received new clothing and toys, but only in meager amounts as money was very tight. As a painfully shy and awkward girl, I struggled to acclimate to all of the newness.

The fall was a trying time and as we came into the Christmas season, I was weary and tired and a large part of me wanted our old life back. I cannot now, as an adult, imagine how much more challenging these times had to have been on my parents, but they did not often show the strain. I warily looked forward to Christmas as a bright spot among the weariness of the constant change.

On Christmas Eve we had a gathering at my dad's family home as always. On our way home, we kept our eyes focused out of the car windows and on the sky to try to spot Santa's sleigh, as always. It was our family tradition to open presents on Christmas Eve and Santa somehow always had our presents waiting for us when we came home from the party. I had not believed in Santa for years but happily searched the sky for bright stars that I could point out to my siblings as "Rudolph's nose". We arrived home to our meager apartment and I expected the handful of presents that we usually received. I dreamt of packages of books and, just maybe- a Pamela doll like the one I'd had before(that we had not been able to find in stores since). What we walked into was so much more than our usual Christmas, however.

In the living room was our modest Christmas tree, lit up in multicolored lights that shined across the darkened room. And, on the floor- across the ENTIRE floor- were presents. Presents stretched and stacked everywhere the eye could see. It was a child's dream. At our parent's blessing, we ripped into the presents and discovered toys and books and clothing and shoes- all of the things that we had lost and more.

After, we sat blissfully surrounded by presents and torn paper, our faces lit by the lights and by the joy we carried. My siblings played with their new toys and I stacked up my new books in my lap. My brother and sister believed that this miracle was the work of Santa, but I knew differently. My parents, out of love and sacrifice, had made this miracle happen and that was even more of a miracle and a blessing than a strange man climbing down our chimney.

Just months before, I had taken many things for granted; a cozy home, my family and even my own life. I now knew what a real miracle was. That night four months before, we lost so many things. However, my sister and I had very nearly been spared the loss of our own lives and our family was nearly broken. We were saved, in so many ways.

We had lost so much that year. My family had always been the five of us against the world and that Christmas night I was grateful for the presents around our tree but was ever so sure that the true blessing was the five of us together, in a room that held so much love that I didn't know how the walls managed to contain it. 

The unusual truth about awful happenings is that it is often in the wake of tragedy that beautiful truths can come to the light, truths that we should've known all along but had forgotten. In the midst of the darkness, there can shine a light so determined that it overcomes the darkest of nights. Out of our darkness came a series of miracles that culminated in the most glorious Christmas that our family had ever known or would ever know again. I will be forever grateful to carry those memories with me for always.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Safe Spaces

I have the privilege of being able to volunteer at my daughter's elementary school on Friday mornings. I have done so for most of the years that my three children have attended Centennial Elementary in Altoona, Iowa(my older two children are now in middle school and high school).

I often find that as I enter the building, a palpable sense of calm washes over me. I can feel my heart rate slowing and my stress dissipating as I sign in to the office and am so kindly greeted by staff as I walk down to the second grade classroom where I will work with students and make copies and whatever is needed for the morning. 

I have long thought that the reason that I love Friday mornings so much is that I get to work with children. I am a mother and a pediatric nurse so you may have already realized my love for children. However, I have been realizing lately that my love for Friday mornings and this school goes so much deeper than just the privilege of getting to work with a know a classroom of children. I love Friday mornings because Centennial Elementary is a safe space for all who enter the walls of this institution that is far more than just a place of education. It is a place of safety and love for all who enter. I feel insulated from the volatile outside world the minute that I walk inside these doors.

There has been much talk of safe spaces lately. With a divisive political culture, an election that nearly brought many of us to our knees and hate crimes on the rise, many of us have been searching for safe spaces-- family and friends who understand us, the comfort of home, building communities of likeminded people. Some are mocked and deemed weak when they talk of such a need for a place of safety, a place to be themselves without repercussions.

On Friday mornings when I walk inside the brick walls of the elementary school that I once attended myself, I see the beauty of places where children(and adults) are free to be themselves. The staff here, all of them from the principal to the janitor, have made a concerted effort to make this space a place where students can come and learn and be loved on, a place to be uniquely themselves.

As I work with students, I often notice the few in torn and dirty clothing and the few with eyes that always hold sadness. As a public health nurse in this community, I know that not all of these children will have a safe place at home. However, when they are here they are safe and loved.

Over the course of the each school year I get to witness little miracles in these hallowed walls. I've watched perpetually quiet children become animated and full of spoken thoughts. I've watched as the school organized clothing and gifts each year for every student whose family cannot afford to provide a comfortable Christmas for their family(and do so without fanfare, without asking for thanks). I've watched children that moved from another school come to Centennial very behind on educational benchmarks and, with the help of staff, learn so much in one year that the next year they easily keep up with their peers. There are many seen and unseen miracles in this school each year(and in schools around the world).

I know that this school isn't perfect. No school is. However, I've seen with my own eyes the beauty of what can happen when people come together in love and create a space where people can blossom. I've seen the beauty of what could've been a cold, educational institution instead becoming a haven for all. It is a beautiful thing. 

I will never be able to verbalize my gratitude for the staff that made this haven for my children and the other students here. I cannot imagine the work that this takes each and every day. I witness a tiny bit of that effort on my Friday mornings and it takes my breath away.

There is so much hate in the world right now, but there is so much light too. Centennial Elementary is a light in my world and in the world of many. I will forever be grateful.

Now, if only we could somehow expand the walls of this small, suburban school to somehow include us all. What a lovely world that would be. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

When Christmas Hurts

For many of us, Christmastime is a time of great joy. A time of sparkling lights, sweet treats, joining together with family and friends, caroling and gifts. A time for forgetting our worries and coming together to celebrate. I have many friends that wait with baited breath all year for Thanksgiving to be over and the Christmas season to officially begin so that they can sink into the joy of the season.

However, for many others, this time of year simply amplifies the holes that are in their hearts and lives.

When I was a hospice nurse, I realized for the first time in my life just how hard this time of year is for those who are mourning. Christmas traditions and celebrations, especially for those celebrating the first holiday season without a loved one, can feel bittersweet or empty without those that they once celebrated with.

My grandmother passed away on Thanksgiving a few years ago and now that holiday has a melancholy edge to it which I imagine will remain forever. Those who have lost spouses or children this time of year will not only have a melancholy edge to those holidays, but instead a gaping hole that may never feel filled.

As a public health nurse who works with those living in poverty, I now know that those struggling financially live in worry for this entire season. They worry not only about how to put presents under the tree, but also how to heat their homes and put food on their tables. They are often working multiple jobs and have no time to sink into the joy of the season. The strain of this time of year on these families often causes increased fighting, domestic violence and tension in the households.

Those of us that struggle with depression, anxiety or other mental illnesses often feel that the cheer around us seems false when the darkness inside us is blooming. There have been years where I hunkered down inside away from the cheer outside and avoided Christmas parties like the plague. I just simply couldn't rustle up enough Christmas cheer to join in the festivities.

I also struggle with the commercialization of Christmas. It all just seems so fake and greedy at times. I find myself channeling Cindy Lou Who and wondering where Christmas is underneath all of the fakery.

There are many reasons to celebrate Christmas and also many reasons that this season exaggerates the pain that we feel all year round.

I must admit that Christmas is, indeed, my favorite time of year. However, there are many years that I struggle and struggle deeply. For the cheer around us does little to eradicate the darkness within. Some days I just want to turn off the Christmas tunes and the Christmas tree and hunker down into the sadness a bit. And, I honor you if you need to do so, as well.

False cheer is not cheerful at all and it, in fact, always seems to intensify my sadness to pretend. If you are struggling this season, be kind to yourself and know that you are not alone. 

If the darkness seems like too much, please reach out. You can always speak to someone online or by phone here. The world needs you, Love. This too shall pass.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

A Letter To My Muslim Patients From a Nurse

I do not work in a traditional nursing role. I am a public health nurse who goes into low-income areas and serves those in need. Many of my patients are refugees and immigrants but I also serve many who were born in this country. In a single day I may meet with five different families, each with a different language, skin color, culture and faith. I can say without reservation that this job is both the hardest nursing job that I've ever had and the most rewarding.

The most eye-opening part of this job has been getting to know so many different cultures, traditions and faiths. It has been such a great blessing in my life. Getting to know my Muslim patients has most certainly been one of those wonderful blessings.

I know that in post-election America, there is much uncertainty right now. I know that many groups of people, including those of the Muslim faith, are scared. I know. My refugee patients are scared. My immigrant patients are scared. My LGBT patients are scared. So many of us are frightened. And, yet- so much of the hate has been focused directly on you-- my Muslim patients.

You have told me during my patient visits that you are anxious for your children and if they will be harmed, panicked at the possibility of a Muslim registry and what that may mean for you, terrified to wear your hijabs in public and are sometimes simply too full of fear to leave your home at all. I am so terribly sorry for your sorrow and fear. In the past two weeks I have left our visits with a sinking pit of shame in my stomach for what the hate that is pervasive in this post-election country is doing to people that I care so much about.

If you are my patient, I have already told you that I care for you and that will you will always receive the same quality of care as that given to my other patients. I have hugged you and assured you that the election results will not impact our visits when you voiced concern. But, there is so much more that I want you to know.

I know that your faith is not one of violence and that the actions of a few do not represent the whole. According to the Pew Research Center, the population of Muslims around the world in 2010 was 1.6 billion. Yes, I said billion. If the growth of the Muslim population continues at the projected rate, by 2030 they will encompass a full quarter of the world's population. And yet, the violent actions of those in the name of the Islamic religion are few and far between. I know that as a Christian, I am not discriminated against each time that someone of the Christian faith commits a violent crime(which happens frequently) and, yet- you as a Muslim are discriminated against for each and every infraction of those who share your faith. It saddens me deeply that so many can judge you, my beloved patients who have shown me so much love and hospitality, for something that you had no control over and are as horrified by as we are.

You have the right to health care, education and all basic human rights and deserve that such things are provided by those whose judgment is unclouded by political judgment or discrimination of any kind.  I will provide that for you and so will the vast majority of other public servants. If you at any time feel that you are provided sub-par health care, education, safety services provided by police officers or fire fighters, etcetera; I hope that you will find the courage to speak out. I hope even more that you will never need to speak out as it is my firm belief that those serving the public should have the hearts of servants of ALL people.

I know that mental health impacts every facet of your life and that living within fear means that your mental health and physical health will be impacted each and every day while we persist in this volatile and discriminatory post-election world. I know that you may need more support through this time and I am determined to give that to you. You do not deserve these burdens placed on your already weary shoulders and I will do my best to stand beside you and help you in any way to shoulder that burden with you. I implore you to ask for help if you need it.

I know that we cannot lump any section of humanity together and imagine that they are all the same. As human beings, we are all originals and are unique. However, my time working with the Muslim population has led me to believe that those of the Islam faith as a whole are extraordinary people. I have never seen such hospitality before as I have seen going into the homes of my Muslim clients.  You may have very little and yet you will offer me the last food in your fridge, the only chair in your home and likely would offer me the very shirt off of your back if you felt that I needed it. I have never felt anything but love in the homes of my Muslim patients that I have been welcomed into. I am a kinder and gentler person because of you.

I believe that my job as your nurse does not end when our visit is completed. As a nurse, it is my job to advocate for my patients, especially those who may not be in a position to advocate for themselves.  I believe that all oppressive structures, such as the talk of a Muslim registry and  of the disallowing of Muslims into our country, should be decimated. I believe that you have every right to the same rights as every other human being in this country. I am not Muslim but I am committed to standing up beside you in every way that I can to ensure your safety.  When I casted my non-Trump vote on election day, I was not only voting for myself and my families, but I was voting for you, my patients, as well. I did not take that vote likely. I have been spending my days calling my elected officials on my lunch breaks to protest Bannon's appointment and any talk of a Muslim registry. I know that this is not enough. I promise to not stop my work until we all have equal rights. I know that as a straight white Christian woman that I can never understand what it like to be discriminated against for who I am but I will keep trying to eradicate the hate.

This letter will not solve your problems by any stretch of the imagination. It will not solve anything at all. I only wish to be a tiny light of love in your life in a time of great divisiveness and hate. I only wish to bring you a small amount of the love and joy that you, by being my patients and thus a part of my life, have brought me. I wish that I could also bring you peace. I promise to do all that I can to make that peace happen for you someday.

I stand beside you, my Muslim friends and patients, with love.

Nurse Mandi

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Design the Good

This page contains affiliate links. See full disclosure here

Some of you may remember that I recently designed a submission for the Design the Good t-shirt design contest at Cents of Style. I was hoping to earn some money for a local organization that feeds hungry children. My design isn't a finalist(darn it!), but I'm sharing the ones that are because I love them!

I won't make a habit of putting merchandise up on this blog. This blog is mostly a place for raw and real writing that hopefully moves people and helps others to feel less alone. I would also like to start sharing items that fit with my internal desire to project love out into the world and support businesses that make a habit of helping others, like Cents of Style does.

Here are some of the finalists that did get their t-shirts made this year!

I own multiple t-shirts from Cents of Style and they are cozy and true to fit. Here is a picture of me in one of my favorites because, darn it- normal IS boring!

My favorite of the Design the Good finalists I think is the 'We are strong' shirt because I need that reminder most days. Which one is your favorite? Feel free to comment below. 

If you want to pick one of these shirts up you can go here. Be sure to use the coupon code 'DTG1' to make the shirt only 16.95 with free shipping. 

If you buy one, I'd love to see a picture of you wearing it, Loves! 

Be the good in the worlds, Dear Ones. We need the good more than ever. 

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Love Cannot Trump Hate if We Are Silent

I am scared. Yes, even as a white woman living in suburban Iowa, I am scared. I am scared as a sexual assault survivor. I am scared as someone who works with refugees and immigrants. I am scared as someone that loves many in the LGBT community. I am scared as someone with Muslim friends. I am scared as someone who loves many people of color. I am scared for my hispanic friends and co-workers. I am just plain scared.

I am terrified for the rash of violence and hate that has risen up in this country. For the people that now feel free to use painful words, to grab women "by the pussy" without permission, to scrawl graffiti aimed at those in oppressed populations. I'm terrified for my friend that had her hijab pulled off, for my son's classmate that was told to "go back to Africa", for my Hispanic friend whose classmates chanted "build a wall" as she walked in the lunchroom.

What scares me even more than the actions of hate, if such a thing is even possible, is those that are choosing to be silent in the wake of these actions. Those who are are decrying and denouncing the right to peaceful protest and asking the media to not cover the outrage. Those who are asking for Facebook to again be full of children's pictures and puppies because they don't want to look discomfort in the eye. Those mocking those who are hurting instead of wrapping them in love. Those who I thought would stand firmly beside me that are so painfully silent.

We must not be silent when violence against any our brothers and sisters is present(yes, this includes Trump supporters. Violence against anyone is wrong). We must not be silent when the anti-LGBT, anti-people of color, anti-Muslim slurs are used. We must stand beside them, especially those like myself that are straight, white Americans that have never experienced such hate against ourselves.

We must not go quietly into this dark night. We must not be silent.

How many of us have asked ourselves or had our children ask us what we would have done if we had lived in the time of Hitler's Germany. This is our time to find our answer. Will we be silent as others are persecuted for who they are or will we stand beside them? Will we allow for those who are different from us to have the same freedoms as us or we will allow them to have their rights stripped away?

We must not be violent. We must not be hateful. We also must not be silent.

This isn't about politics. This is about people. People who are hurting and scared and suffering.

No matter your political affiliation or the vote that was cast, I ask you to find the tiny place inside yourself that knows that we all deserve to be treated with kindness and respect. I ask that you stand firmly when you see hate or injustice. No, it's not always going to be easy-- nothing that matters ever is. A silent ambassador of peace and love is not an ambassador at all. 

I know many of you are scared. You are not alone.  I promise to stand beside you. It is not enough, I know. But, I promise to not be silent. I promise to raise children who will also stand beside you and not be silent. I promise to rise up and be a light in the darkness.

Friday, November 11, 2016

I Choose Love

I was speaking with one of my co-workers today, a woman who was once a refugee from Sudan. I asked if she was scared. 
There was a pregnant pause and then she asked if I was on Facebook. I replied yes and she asked if I've seen all the funny things on Facebook since the election ended.
I was confused. I replied that I've seen hate and anger and sadness, but not funny posts. 
She proceeded to tell me, while laughing heartily, about posts where black people paint themselves white and Barack Obama packs his bags to leave the country after seeing that Trump is elected president. 
This time I was the one with the pregnant pause. I replied that I didn't find those things funny but I was glad that she was able to find joy in this.
Her face hardened and she leaned into me and said, "I have seen what hate can do and I am choosing laughter instead of fear." 
I have officially been schooled by someone with a larger capacity for love than I. I'm choosing love over fear in honor of my refugee friends, coworkers and patients. You inspire me to the ends of the earth. You make this country the amazing place that it is. I love you.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Invisibility is Not a Superpower

I remember the days before motherhood when I believed that invisibility would be the superpower that I would choose if I were given the option to choose any superpower at all.  As an introvert who is often exhausted by large groups of people, the idea of disappearing at will has always appealed to me. In fact, I often joke that having Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak at large parties would be a godsend as my personality tends to send me into a lone corner avoiding conversation at all cost.

Motherhood has been a great joy for me and I am so grateful for my three wonderful children and all that they have taught me. However, my time as a wife and mother has also been a study in invisibility. I have lost myself inside the busyness and the role of motherhood.

My children and my husband love me- I know this to be true. But, so much of my daily actions are unnoticed. I wake early to clean, make breakfast and help the kids get ready for school, go to work for the day and come home to run kids to activities, clean, make dinner, run errands and the myriad of other duties for the day.  It is never-ending and exhausting.  I don’t believe that my husband or children have any idea just how much I do for them and for the household—and I imagine that I have some responsibility for that fact, as well.

 I have gratefully given up so much of myself for my family and wouldn’t change that for anything. I love my children and would do anything to help them to be healthy and happy. However, it would be nice to just be seen—to truly be seen for who I am as a person and not simply for the contributions and sacrifices that I make for this family.

There are times that I will speak (ahem, holler) to my family to help me with something—cleaning, cooking, etc.  Many times no one will answer me. In fact, some days it seemed that most everything that I have said within the walls of my own home fall on deaf ears, whether it be a request for help, an opinion or an ‘I love you’.  I have begun to wonder if I am, indeed, invisible.

In fact, this invisibility seems pervasive and happens outside of the home, as well. As a mother, I think the world tends to marginalize me as simple and void of important opinion. In a college course that I once took, the teacher asked us all to say what the most important thing we had ever done was. I immediately answered that being a loving mother would be the most important job of my life. My reply was greeted with laughter from around the room. The room, full of mostly single men, seemed to find my response hilarious—disbelieving that this would be a job of pride for me.

And so,  living inside of this invisibility for the fifteen years that I have been a mother has made me realize that invisibility-- the idea of which has fascinated me for years-- is not the superpower that I imagined it to be. It is painful and lonely. There are days when I wonder if anyone would notice if I was missing from the world or if only the pile of unwashed dishes and the empty cupboards would be noticed.

I no longer know who I am without a litany of daily tasks before me. I am lost somewhere underneath the never-ending to-do list, the invisibility of a strong-willed and opinionated woman lost underneath an anonymous life of repetitive motions, unseen by the words at-large.

I am in here, underneath this cloak of namelessness. I am crying out to be seen. I renounce the “superpower” of invisibility and instead choose the power of voice. I am ready to be heard.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Under the Mask

I sat in a brewery last night with my husband. We don't get out much without the kids and I was trying to sink into the moment and enjoy myself. I was sipping on yummy beer and listening to a man play piano and sing. I should have been happy. And, yet-- I felt melancholy.

The piano man was delightful, really. He was singing popular songs but changing the lyrics so that they were often funny and upbeat. The brewery was full of lively, tipsy people singing along and laughing. The mood in the brewery was upbeat and full of life. I didn't feel full of life, I felt sad and wanted to be still and quiet.

One thing that I usually like about small, neighborhood type bars is that people relax, have a few drinks and often have conversations about serious things. As an introvert and empath, I loathe small talk and long to dive deep under the surface and talk about the dark things that swim where they can't be seen. Yet, last night the mood was different and I felt an expectation to put on my face of false cheer, the face that I am often required to wear when I wonder outsides the confines of the walls of my home. It is exhausting to constantly be someone else.

There was one moment of the night were I sat at the corner of the bar and had a talk with someone about how suicide had impacted our lives and what we wanted to do to help prevent it from impacting others. That, oddly, was the time of the night that felt most real and true to me. All of the small talk and giggling over silly songs felt false. I just wanted to talk on a real and true level with someone instead of skirting over our pain without acknowledging it. It made me feel even more sad to realize how alone I felt in this feeling with people around me in celebration and that I only felt "at home" when talking about such serious things.

I often feel overwhelming sadness. I always have. As a young child, I would cry whenever a classmate was sad or hurt. I became very familiar with my parents or teachers telling me to "stop being so sensitive" or to "stop crying". I learned to wear a mask that would belie the pain that was constant under the surface.

When I was a teenager girl, in the months following my rape and in the midst of multiple suicide attempts, I dropped the mask. I was too swallowed by the blackness to care what people thought of me. I became awash in my emotions, blasting out sadness and anger at anyone in my path. Years of pain were coming to the surface and was far too tired to hide it.

Even though I was drowning in the black beast of depression and would nearly succeed in taking my own life, there was a freedom in no longer hiding the pain. I wore all black, as if in mourning of the girl that I used to be and took to chain-smoking and drinking cheap vodka straight from the bottle out of a paper bag and had a death-stare that warned all around me to not come near. It finally felt as though my outsides matched my insides.

In the months after my final suicide attempt, I was in a day treatment program at a local hospital. Yes, in the psych ward. What shocked me most there was that this place was not full of society's rejects. It was full of straight A students, a star football player, a quiet young girl that was a genius and was on track to go to college at a very early age...they were like me. The ward was full of kids whose bodies and minds were full of extraordinary pain but felt burned to appear perfect always on the outside. We were the best actors and actresses of all, but our veneer had finally cracked open. Our darkness was exposed to the world. We were terrified and thrilled for the world to see what we really were underneath.

Over the past twenty years I admit that I've begun to hide under the happy veneer again, especially after having children. I wanted to be the kind of mother that my kids would be proud of and, at times, have tried nearly desperately to fit in with the other moms, which meant wearing a mask of sunshine and happiness. Of course, its not always a mask and I have found happiness in my life. However, I have and always will have a shadow side. I am a highly sensitive person that feels the pain of others acutely. It is a blessing and a sickness. It hurts profoundly and yet it also makes me a better mother, nurse, writer and friend. It makes me who I am.

So for Halloween this year I will watch those around me parade around in costumes to hide who they are and pretend to be someone else for one night. I will do something different. I will take off the heavy mask of false cheer that I carry around all year long. This Halloween, I will go out into the world as someone new-- as myself, happy and yet always a bit melancholy. It's who I am, underneath the false mask of perpetual happiness. And, it feels damn good to strip it off for a day.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Refugees and The Lessons They Teach Us

I have always been a book fanatic and buy books, both new and used, and have a house in which every shelf is swimming with novels and tomes of non-fiction. Having a home full of books that I can pluck from a shelf at will has always made me feel measurably abundant. That is, it did until the day that I met a new refugee family.

In my job as a public health nurse I work with many refugee families, helping to ease the transition from years of life in a refugee camp into the startlingly different life as a resident of the United States. Working with these families and hearing their stories of their former lives has been one of the greatest blessings of my life.

This day I walked into the tiny apartment of a new refugee family with an interpreter at my side to bridge the communication gap. I was no longer startled by the stark emptiness of the apartment, as I had been when I was new to working with those in poverty. As a direct contrast to the consumer society of America, refugees come here with nothing and are grateful for every simple pleasure- the roof over their head, food on their plate, the lack of gunshots outside their window- and often live in tiny, low-income apartments without a single piece of furniture. This apartment held only a single chair and a shelf proudly nailed into the opposite wall.

The solitary chair was immediately proffered to me, with reverence. I never fail to be humbled by the grace and kindness offered to me in these homes. I declined to sit on the chair and instead sat on the worn carpeting, the family and my interpreter and I forming a circle in which their preschool-aged daughter, born amidst gunfire in the middle of a military uprising in their home country, spun within as though we had made the circle for her joy alone.

They did not stop their daughter from her joyful dance as many American parents would have- cautioning their daughter to sit quietly and let the adults speak. Instead they grinned and laughed and we all watched her spin and giggle. The conversation came in stops and starts as it often does while communicating with an interpreter, as we discussed their health, doctor referrals, food supply and community resources. The daughter continued to spin and giggle and we smiled at her with each pause in conversation. The family seemed to light up at my apparent joy in watching their daughter and this shared joy created a kinship beyond the fragile bonds of a nurse on her first visit to their home. There was a moment of pause and the father met my eyes and gestured to his daughter, “There is nothing so beautiful as a child who has no fear, no?” he said as the interpreter scrambled to interpret into English. The world stood still for a moment as I measured the words in my heart and nodded yes, at a loss for words, imagining the life that she had lived in her first few years.

He stood on shaky legs from sitting cross-legged for so long and walked over to the solitary shelf tacked to the wall. On it sat a single book, one of the books made for toddlers learning to speak with one picture and its accompanying word on each page. He handled the book with a reverence that I had never seen someone hold a book, even though I surround myself with bibliophiles that love books with fervor.

He sat, again completing our circle, and opened the first page. On that page was a photo of a perfect apple and he pointed at the picture, saying in clumsy English, “apple”, and nodding for his daughter to do the same. She stopped her spinning for the moment and carefully annunciated the same word in beautiful English.  They completed each page of the short board book in the same way. When they were done, he replaced the lone book on the shelf and bowed to it as he walked away. I thought back to my shelves stacked with books and suddenly did not feel abundant, I felt gluttonous.

He somberly said, though the voice of the emotional interpreter, “My daughter will learn English and go to school and live the American dream. “ I watched her dancing with such joy, no longer encumbered by the violence in her homeland or the constriction of the refugee camp, and I knew that he was right, she would find her own version of the American dream.

I was humbled and inspired and reminded of the importance of literacy and vowed to stop hoarding books and share them with those who have few and to treat each and every book with the reverence that I saw that day. Even more importantly, I was reminded of the American dream and how it still lives today in the heart of every citizen, whether born on this sacred soil or across an ocean.


Wednesday, October 12, 2016

To Sexual Assault Survivors They Are Not "Just Words"

Last year, after twenty years of silence, I came forward as a survivor of sexual assault. It was one of the hardest things that I have ever done. You can read my original post here.

Last week, I was paralyzed by the comments made by the Republican candidate for president. He was bragging about sexually assaulting women.

I waited for his followers to be horrified.

And, then waited some more.

And then realized,in horror, that they were defending this man and coming forward in droves stating that this was "just words" and "just locker room talk" and that, they too, have said such things and heard such things and as Scott Baio said-- we should just "grow up".

Why was I surprised? After all 1/3 women in this country have been sexually assaulted and 1/6 men have, as well.( I think these numbers are actually low- nearly every women that I know has been assaulted) The abusers, so infrequently prosecuted, must be out there somewhere- everywhere. Here the abusers and their protectors now were, out in the light. I suddenly felt more unsafe that I have in years, scared moment-to-moment for my daughters, for all of us.

Still, frozen in my grief which now felt fresh again with the painful things being said everywhere about sexual assault, I chose not to write about it.

When Kelly Oxford wrote a tweet calling for people to join in with their sexual assault stories, I cried as I read the MILLIONS of tweets. I realized for the first time that I am not only a rape survivor but that I had a list, a fucking LIST, of times that my body had been violated and that I had been told to keep quiet about it. Still, I was too frozen to write here, even after I joined in the chorus on Kelly's Twitter wall.

However yesterday, a member of my own family posted a meme stating that the words spoken by the Republican candidate for presidency were "just words". This person, knowing that I nearly took my life in my pain and grief after being raped, decided that it was okay to post such a thing knowing that I would read it. It felt as small as an ant, easily crushed under the weight of the words on the meme and every like that was posted underneath it.

Today, I speak

When I was a girl, maybe 7 or 8, a friend's father would always hug me uncomfortably close and lay his hands on my chest or bottom, sometimes even underneath my dress. We had just watched a Berenstein Bears video about inappropriate touching and I knew to tell an adult. I did. Three adults in fact. All of them said that I was just being "dramatic" and that Mr. --- was a nice man and I must have misunderstood. I kept being sent over to play with his children. That man would later be convicted of molesting dozens of children.

When I was 16, I was involved in a serious car accident. I was strapped to a spinal board, immobilized  with an oxygen mask over my face so that no one could hear what I was saying. In the back of the ambulance was my dad and a volunteer medic. My dad sat at the end of the ambulance, calling family members over the rush of the road noise and the beeping of the equipment. The volunteer sat on a bench next to me, his knees pressed against me. He first tentatively pressed his hands against my breasts as we rode over bumps and I thought that it was unintentional. Then, he became more brave, eventually slipping his hands under my shirt and fondling me while watching my dad to be sure he wasn't caught. I kept asking what he was doing and tried to wiggle away, but was strapped down and he pretended not to hear me. He stopped when my dad put his phone away. When I arrived to the hospital I shared my experience with the ER nurse, who told me that I must have misunderstood. I later heard her talking in the hallway with other nurses saying that several patients had similar complaints about this man. The nurses seemed very upset but I am unsure if any action was ever taken against him. I was learning that I did not have a voice against men who touched me. I learned that I was "dramatic" and prone to "misunderstanding".

When I was 17, I was brutally raped. In the aftermath, doctors, nurses and police officers would ask me questions over and over again like "what were you wearing?", "why were you drinking", "were you a virgin" and "did I try to turn him on". I chose not to press charges, an action that will haunt me for the rest of my days. A police officer assured me that a young women who had been drinking would be torn to shreds in court and that he would never be convicted. I learned that a young women drinking while underage was considered more of an offense to many than being a rapist was. I hid the  experience of that rape for twenty years, the shame of it becoming heavier with each passing year.

These occurrences, particularly the rape, have colored everything in my life since. I became a nurse and a writer to help others crawl out of the blackness that I lived in for years. I cannot separate myself from the sexual assault survivor inside of me.  Every cell of my being has been permeated with those violent acts. This is who I am now, who we-- the millions of sexual assault survivors-- are now. We get to have a voice, too. 

Every time that you minimize the braggart's words when he is so proud of his sexual assaults as "just words", you are telling us that our experiences-- our assaults and rapes-- do not matter.

Every time that you tell us, the survivors, to "stop being so dramatic" in our horror of the words being said, you are telling us that our feelings and horror and revictimization do not matter.

Every time that you tell us to "grow up", you are telling us that being offended by sexual assault and the bragging of it is childish and we should be seen and not heard as good children are told. We are told that we cannot be vocal as women, as survivors...that we should simply shut up in order to make you more comfortable.

Every time that we are told that we should dismiss this as "locker room talk", we are frightened. Are men everywhere bragging about sexual assault casually as they dress for a workout? We already know firsthand that the perpetrators are out there, but now our world seems terrifyingly full of them.

Every time that you deflect others' attention away from these words with your "but, but, but... so and so did THIS and that is so much worse", you are reminding us of why victims do not come forward and why the attackers are not persecuted and jailed often; because we live in a society where rape, even violent rape,  is viewed as a minor crime and is just "boys being boys".

I am a single sexual assault survivor who is standing here before you and begging you to take a second look at your words before you repost a meme or make a status about how bragging about sexual assault is "just words" or tell a survivor that she is being "dramatic" or to "grow up" because we are rightfully emotional. I am a lone sexual assault survivor who is standing up for the many that are too afraid to stand publicly, knowing that we are still a society who will shame and demean us. I am one sexual assault survivor that knows that there is an endless sea of others standing, loudly or quietly, beside me. 

Words matter. They always have and always will. Choose wisely. Someone out there is feeling every word in the most painful and personal way. As you think about the people on your friends list, remember always that many of them are survivors of brutality that you may not even be able to imagine. Reach down inside and have some compassion and understanding for us, too. You've so easily been able to find compassion for a man who is proud of being a sexual abuser... I hope that you have some compassion left for the survivors, too. 

If you are a sexual abuse survivor and are struggling, please reach out. RAINN provides online chats and phone support 24 hours per day. You are not alone, Loves. You matter and you are needed here. You can find RAINN here