5.05.2013

Birds and Anxiety

When the kids were very young, I made a habit of pointing out the beauty around us in ordinary moments - the white swirl of clouds larger than skyscrapers, the dramatic and also subtle hues of sunset and sunrise, the towering grace of trees, the ever-present chirps and songs of birds.  I would tell them that one of the amazing things about living on this planet was that its beauty was always there, right in front of us, at every single moment, and that no matter what was happening for us in that moment, no matter how bad a day they were having, there would always be this, here for them, and all they had to do was remember to notice and enjoy it.

I did this in hopes that I was giving them a tool, a means to cope, to find solace and balm.  I didn't realize how much it would take root for them.

The boy, now 8, has become a bit of a junior ornithologist and naturalist.  He knows things about species, particularly birds, that I had never known, and I'm 44, and I read a lot and have been a nature lover and explorer for years.  And he still stumps me, and also his stepdad.  When he first started to rattle off facts and information to us, some of it sounding a tad implausible to our skeptical grown-up know-it-all minds, we would say, Really?  Are you sure?  I don't know, that doesn't sound quite right.  And then we would look it up, and the boy would have been right.  About all of it.  So we've learned.  Tonight, DH couldn't help himself, because the boy was talking about the cookie-cutter shark.  I would have thought, with a name like that, I would have heard about it by now.  DH apparently felt the same way, and during dinner he whipped out his phone, looked it up, and sure enough, the boy was right again.

I now know things about birds that I would never have known if the boy didn't love them so much.  I know that the female cardinal is a warm, nutty brown next to her more flamboyant partner, and I can tell their song every time I hear it.  I have a deeper appreciation for the singing prowess of mockingbirds.  I never realized how many birds around us are marked with yellow.  I have seen and correctly identified a red-winged blackbird.  I have watched a woodpecker and its mate build their nest.  I have seen a green heron on the phone line, fluffing its feathers in the cold morning air.  And I love all of this, this amazing gift of appreciation from my 8 year old son, but it also scares the hell out of me.  Because, something about going through what we've been through, it leaves you with a large residue of anxiety.  Now you know that horrific things happen.  Not just on the news, not just to people whose FB page your friend "liked" and it showed up in your feed.  They happen to you, in your life.  And once one horrific thing has happened very close to you and ripped through your own life - and worse, the lives of the people you love most of all, it feels like the next horrific thing is lurking in the wings, hiding behind the furniture, waiting for its chosen moment to leap into your life and wreck you and what you love again.  So for every joy, there is a frame of anxiety around it, like the photo frames at Target that say "Friends" and "Love" and "Family", except yours says "The Next Disaster Could Happen At Any Moment".  And how do you argue with that?  It's true.  You know it. 

So along with my delight in all of this new-found appreciation given to me by my son, my anxiety has also stepped up, because I've realized that birds now will always remind me of him, like looking at a rock makes me think of my geologist dad.  I feel so naive not realizing how much my kids were imprinting my world while I was deliberately trying to imprint theirs.  Anxiety is a patient bastard, I have to say.  I'm fortunate not to be plagued by depression, that constant gnawing monster.  But anxiety, mercifully mild most of the time, is a regular visitor.  I believe this is part of what's to be expected with post-traumatic-stress-disorder.  I believe, with time, it is supposed to be self-correcting.  Sometimes I look at how much has passed in these last three years - half a lifetime for the kids, but sometimes just a blink for me.  And I tell myself, you're doing fine.  Keep moving forward.  Everyone's safe and okay.  Tomorrow will be beautiful and ordinary and good, even the feisty bits.  And then I notice all of the art from the kids hanging around the house, the many "I love you" notes, and I try to focus on that and ignore the frame.

4.25.2013

Why Separation of Church and State Means Churches Must Abide by the Laws They Don't Like

I guess there have always been attempts by churches to be excused from following the laws that go against their religious teachings.  I am being careful not to say laws that go against their morals, because morals and religious teachings are separate sources of what's right and wrong, that for some people are very connected, and for others - are not.  So I'm speaking here only about the church's interpretations, based on their particular dogma and doctrines, for what is acceptable conduct and what is not.

Recently, several churches, hospitals, universities and private individuals claiming religious belief have argued, and even sued the federal government, for their right to go against current legal requirements for allowing their female employees access to birth control under their health insurance (even if the insurer pays the full cost, which they're willing to do because family planning is much cheaper than the alternative), for example, or for recognizing the homosexual marriage of employees, patients or students who are legally married in states that recognize them (or the legal civil unions and associated medical power of attorney in states that do not).

There has also been a steady drumbeat from the very far right that Islamists in America are trying to create Shariah-law friendly zones and to implement Shariah law in jurisdictions across America.

I want to sit these folks down and explain to them very carefully that the one thing they are trying to do above, opens the door for exactly what they most fear and oppose.  I think most people understand this, but in case they don't, I'm going to spell it out, step by step, so that folks understand that when we stand up and say, no, the church cannot pick and choose which laws it will abide by, it's to protect them and the rest of us, not to harm them and not to disrespect them.

Let's say, for example, that a law is passed that says churches and organizations affiliated with churches may submit applications for waivers from local and federal laws that would otherwise require them to go against their religious teachings.  The way laws work, it would not be possible to say specifically which type of churches are allowed this privilege.  For example, it would not be okay to say only Christian churches could exercise this privilege, because that would be a state endorsement of a specific religion, which I think we all agree is a no-no under the First Amendment.  So the law would be written to generally allow religious institutions and their affiliates to be excused from following laws that go against their teachings.

All churches, of all faiths.

The effect of a law like this would be to create a massive loophole in democracy for all religious organizations to do as their holy books, cardinals, imams, rabbis, elders, etc. instruct instead of what the law requires.  A child denied life-saving cancer treatment on the basis of the parents' religious beliefs?  Excused.  Daughters denied education on the basis of the parents' religious beliefs?  Excused.  Polygamy?  Excused.  Chopping off a hand as punishment for theft within the community?  Excused.

This is the problem.  Once it is put into law, in any degree, that religious belief is allowed to override laws that conflict with faith or beliefs, the principle that religion trumps the democratic process has now entered the law and become legal precedent.  This is exactly what you do not want in a free country.  It is an extremely dangerous path to start down, and it opens the door to religion - any religion - to override secular principles of justice and individual freedoms and liberties, including most importantly the right of freedom of conscience, that are the foundation of our country's legal and political system. 

Those who follow a specific religion are already, right now, free to make choices in their own, personal lives to live as they see fit:  don't believe in gay marriage?  No one's forcing you into one.  Don't believe in science?  Then forego your own medical care and stop using the internet.  Don't believe in birth control?  No one's forcing you to use it.  But the examples given above are all cases where members of a religious organization would require others to also live by their particular religious beliefs rather than by the individual's own conscience.  You can't have it both ways, folks.  If you want freedom of conscience, which is the law right now, then you have to respect everyone else's freedom of conscience, too.  Even if you disagree with how they are living their lives.  It's their choice, their life, but most importantly, it's the law.  It's the result of the secular, democratic process.  And once we give special dispensation to avoid the law based on  religious beliefs, we open the door for all religious beliefs to avoid the law.  This is a sacred boundary, and it cannot be breached, for anyone, ever.

4.15.2013

We're On Your Side

My teenage years were hard.  I entered them with little to no resources for taking care of myself emotionally, for recognizing and protecting myself from people who would use me, manipulate me, disrespect my personal boundaries and treat me horribly.  I sought out attention from my peers, however I could obtain it, and was desperate for anything that resembled affection.  I was also in a lot of pain, felt isolated and worthless, and sought to numb all of those feelings with substances.

It's a wonder I survived those years. 

I came out of it rather early, and somewhat painfully, around fifteen.  I had a life-altering moment in which I realized, in a crystallizing epiphany, that the person who would ultimately live the consequences of all of my choices was not any of the people who were telling me what to do or that they knew better than I did what was best for me.  It was me.  I alone would have to live out the effects of these decisions.  And therefore no one - No. One. - had the authority to tell me how I should live my life.

This was the beginning of a long road of learning what it meant to be a successful, happy human.  A road I'm still discovering and building.

There's something important that I want my kids to hear, so I've started to say it to them, because the older one is eight, and soon things will start to show up in his life that carry more consequences, more traps, more risks for screwing up.  I want them to hear that their stepdad and I are on their side.  I said it to them the other day.  No matter what they had done, no matter how upset it might make me to hear about it, we're always here to help them.  They can count on us.  We will comfort them.  We will protect them.  We will be on their side.  Always.

One of my biggest fears as they grow older is the emergence of a space between us where I become on the outside of their lives, of what's happening to them, inside of them, and that I'm not even aware of how large this space has become.  I know that there will be some space.  It's a necessary part of becoming an adult.  But I want to be sure that if something happens to them that really scares them, no matter how ashamed they feel about it or how badly they think they screwed up, that they will come to us, because they will know that they don't have to carry it alone.  So I've started telling them now, and trying to practice good empathetic listening, and staying calm and non-judging when little things go wrong, so that when big things go wrong later, they'll still come to us. 

When I was a teenager, people already talked about how different and more dangerous the world was for my generation - AIDS, cocaine, gangs, and the explosion of pornography with cable tv and VHS recording all preyed upon the future of youth.  And that was before the internet.  Before this insane proliferation of guns in homes and purses and car glove compartments.  Before Mexican cartels moved into our neighborhoods.  Before human traficking and forced prostitution warranted their own budgets and departments in local crime enforcement.  Before organizations dedicated solely to protecting and advocating for child victims of sexual abuse even existed.

So besides keeping the computers in the family room, talking with them about how to choose their friends, teaching them bit by bit that there are dangers out there that they need to watch out for and avoid, I also want to add in, and if (when) you screw up, come to us.  Whatever pain you are in, we are your parents, we are strong, let us carry it with you and help you through it.  We will listen.  We care.  We will always be on your side.

I hope and pray that by the time they become teenagers, the bridge we have built will be strong and familiar enough that they will meet us on it, by habit, no matter how large the spaces between us have become.