A Birthday Memory

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My mom’s beloved butter roses. August 2018

Today, I’m remembering my mom on her birthday. To honor her this birthday, I’m thinking about the things that made my mom so special to me–the aspects of her that I carry with me daily and that bring me so much comfort as I navigate through this new(er) journey without my mom in physical form.

For starters, my mom had excellent foresight that guided me throughout my entire life and continues to guide me. She always knew exactly what I needed well before it was a blip on my radar. On the very first day of college, after my family helped me unpack my dorm room, my mom pulled me aside and said, “When you graduate, don’t forget about your student loans and health insurance.” I smiled and nodded, thinking that these issues would work themselves out by the time I graduated. Graduation seemed incredibly far away, and I would most certainly deal with those things later. Throughout college, my mom continued to offer me advice on various things like applying for internships, writing resumes and cover letters, the kinds of courses I should take, etc. I, wanting to assert my independence, always said I’d figure these things out myself. I would agonize and by the time I had “figured it out,” I ended up heeding whatever suggestions my mom had made. Therefore, by the time I reached my senior year, I saved myself the heartache by simply asking my mom what she thought and following her advice immediately. By the time graduation rolled around, I found myself armed with a diploma, a thick envelope with a bill for my student loans, and a pamphlet on how to get health insurance now that I’d be off my parents’ plan. Reality started to sink in especially since I was still without a job. Student loans and health insurance! My mom had known all along that these things would plague me forever if I didn’t consider them upon graduation. She had been so right.

My mom showed kindness and care in everything that she did. Whether it was cooking, gardening, teaching, traveling, or just being with family, she took great care in all of her endeavors and did it with kindness. After I had lived in Boston for a few years, I decided to move back to Wisconsin where my parents were living. My mom was gracious enough to allow me, a twenty-six year old who was more than capable of living on her own, to move into the apartment above our garage. I promised her it would only be for a month. Two and a half years later, I was still living there. Once, my good friend and neighbor told my mom that she should pull the rug out from under me, that it was the kick in the pants I needed. She laughed but of course would never force me out of the house. With my 30th birthday on the horizon, I decided it was probably time for me to fly the coop for once and for all. There was something about being a thirty year-old living in her parents’ garage that didn’t sound so appealing to me.

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Mother/Daughter cooking adventures. Christmas 2013

My mom’s love of food and hosting dinner parties has become part of the fabric of my being. I always observed my mom in the kitchen and because she was very good at delegating cooking tasks when preparing for a dinner party, she gave me plenty of opportunities to develop my cooking repertoire. When I was ten, she taught me how to make Julia Child’s tomatoes Provençale. By “taught,” I mean my mom was more like, here Sonja, here’s the recipe and the ingredients, make it happen. At twenty-six, during my live-at-home stint, my mom and I often prepared dinner together in the kitchen. We had the same approach to cooking, a dash of this, a dash of that. We joked that we would start a mother/daughter cooking blog that I wanted to call Joanie and Sony’s Food Delights. We had numerous cooking adventures including my favorite during Christmas 2013 wherein my mom finally taught me how to prepare a turkey, complete with putting my hand up in the carcass to season and stuff. I had always avoided dealing with bird carcass, but no longer! Thankfully, we had gone for gel manicures first, so our hands looked lovely while inside the turkey (and the gel manicure meant the color lasted for weeks).

My childhood bedroom. July 2018.

My mom knew I needed to feel special as a middle child since we middle children often feel overlooked. To me, feeling acknowledged meant self-expression. Thus, I was allowed to decorate my room in whatever way I wanted, which meant I taped up pictures of friends and magazine cutouts over my teddy bear wallpaper. When it came time to redecorate the house, once we were all in college, my mom kept my room in tact the way I’d left it. I wasn’t ready to let go of my childhood room, and she validated these feelings (however ridiculous they were). Even when she turned it into her office, she continued to do her research amongst the teddy bear wallpaper and magazine cutouts of 90s’ hunks.

Finally, one of the great things about my mom that often flew under the radar was her sense of humor. After I moved home from college (the first time), she would often respond to me, “well why don’t you marry it?” whenever I was going on about how much I loved her cooking, or the book I was reading, or my boyfriend at the time. When I asked her to read my cover letter, she pointed out that I had written the word love five times in the letter and that it was way too enthusiastic–nobody loves working that much. Or, she would razz me for that fact that I had an incredible ability to show up at the front door just as she was putting dinner on the table.  It was true. I always arrived home from work just as she was placing a hot dish on top of the table.

I could go on and on about the wonderful things my mom did for me, her incredible talents, or the beautiful memories that shared, but I’ll pause for now. Instead, I’ll raise my glass to my mom’s memory on this day and continue to carry on her legacy by being kind, caring, passionate toward everyone and everything I encounter.
To Mom!
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Who is Qualified to Run for President of the United States?

gbush_dukakis-p1When I was in five-year old kindergarten, our teacher had us participate in a mock poll for the upcoming ’88 election. She set up a private voting area to simulate what the actual polls were like. All we had to do was cast our vote on the ballot provided to us by our Scholastic News Weekly Reader and place it into a desk.

Having no prior knowledge of the issues or who George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis were, I took a long hard look at the ballot, which had photos of both candidates, and tried to determine who looked more presidential. Ultimately, I decided that George H.W. Bush looked more presidential than Michael Dukakis, so I wrote an X next to his photo and placed my ballot into the desk. I remember feeling a sense of satisfaction after hearing Bush had won; I must’ve had an innate knack for determining outcomes of presidential elections.

Back then, as a five-year old, I had no idea what made someone qualified to be the president of the United States, so I based it on looks. If you look at the two men side-by-side, you’ll notice that Dukakis has darker features than Bush. By this time, I was already socialized to instinctively believe that a well-coiffed, Anglo-Saxon man made the best leader and would naturally fill the role of president. Unfortunately, too many of us still hold this same archaic belief–whether consciously or unconsciously–that to truly be qualified to be president, one must still be a white male.

93339875_obamalaughingDon’t believe me? Remember President Obama? How many times was he criticized for being under-qualified to be president despite the fact he held a law degree from Harvard? I don’t know about you, but I certainly want someone with a deep understanding of the law to be involved in the law-making process. Another criticism was that he wasn’t in the Senate long enough to run for president. Or how about the incessant requests for him to prove that he was born in the United States? Did anyone ask to see George Bush’s birth certificate? Or Bill Clinton?

So, people weren’t satisfied with a Harvard Law degree or a short stint in the US Senate. Then, what actually makes someone qualified to be the president?

Take Oprah. Oprah delivers an impassioned, intelligent speech at the Golden Globes and suddenly everyone is declaring that she is not qualified to run for the presidency of the United States despite the fact she has not even announced her candidacy.

A successful, intelligent, well-connected, empathetic, charismatic black businesswoman is not qualified to run for president? I’m not concerned about whether or not she’d make a good president; I’m deeply concerned at how quick people were to discredit her qualifications. The only true qualifications required to be a candidate for the presidency are you have to be 35 years of age, a natural born citizen, and a resident of the US for 14 years. Yet, we’re holding on to this false idea that to be president of the United States you have to somehow meet a magical set of rigorous requirements that never actually existed in the first place.

Just look at Hillary Clinton. Given her experience in foreign policy and tenure in the Senate, Hillary Clinton was extremely qualified to run for the presidency. However, people questioned her qualifications, too. Some couldn’t even see beyond her gender and believed that people were only voting for her simply because she was a woman and not her wealth of experience. Others didn’t want just another career politician in the White House especially not another Clinton. Some of these same naysayers are now urging the public to embrace Rep. Joe Kennedy III as a viable candidate for president. A Kennedy Democrat in politics? That is something I have never heard of before!

So, I suppose to be truly qualified to run for president, you should have experience in politics, but not too much, and you shouldn’t be related or married to someone who’s already held the office unless he was a charismatic, attractive white male, and you are too. I think I’m starting to get the idea of what truly qualifies someone to run for president.

As we set our sights on Decision 2020, I urge us all to take a deep look at the unconscious biases that cloud our judgments of what makes someone qualified enough to run for the presidency of the United States. It’s time to rewrite the narrative so that someday, in the classrooms of tomorrow, when kindergartners are holding another mock election and some five year-old girl is looking at the pictures of the candidates on her ballot—what she deems to  “look presidential” does not resemble a well-coiffed, Anglo-Saxon male.

#shatterthetaboo: Time to Talk About Mental Health & Opioid Addiction

The following is a guest post written by my dear friend & colleague Morgan. We’ve shared a lot this year: a classroom, ideas for several creative projects, and the grief of losing a family member.

Morgan lost her brother in February from a Fentanyl overdose. In an effort to #shatterthetaboo around mental health and opioid addiction, here are the words Morgan penned about her family’s experience as well as a video of the eulogy she delivered at her brother’s memorial:

On February 9th, 2017, my 27-year old brother Jamie died from a Fentanyl overdose.

Jamie struggled with mental health for the last 10 years of his life and he was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

At some point, he became an opioid user. Opioid addiction is often deadly because you need more and more to feel high each time. Eventually, he started to use heroin.

We assume that when he died, he thought he was using heroin, but he was in fact using Fentanyl. It is 100x more potent than morphine, and 50x more potent than heroin. When you die from Fentanyl, there is very little chance of resuscitation. You die almost immediately. It looks almost identical to heroin.

Jamie was an advocate for his mental health struggles for a long time. He wanted to champion his diseases; he did not shy away from telling people about them. However, he never divulged to us his battle with addiction. Being that addiction is a family disease, we were in complete denial and couldn’t see the truth right in front of our faces.

Perhaps if the stigma didn’t exist so heavily around addiction, he would have come to us. Maybe he would still be alive.

After his death, many friends have come to us with similar stories of mental health and addiction struggles. In the light of the opioid crisis, it has never been more important to shatter the taboo. To see just how bad the crisis is, take a look at these graphs: https://goo.gl/SgsfMo

As I said in my eulogy, “If you are struggling, if your family member or your friend is struggling, tell someone. Reach out. Ask how can I help. Suggest resources, share experiences. Just show up. If you know someone who is clearly an addict, speak up. Tell their mother or their siblings. Tell their friends. Tell someone.”

I miss my brother with every breath that I take.

We can not let this continue to happen. We have to #shatterthetaboo and build a community of people who help each other through this crisis.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, the resources below may be of some help to you:

https://www.nami.org/
https://www.ncadd.org/
https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help

You can also reach out to local health providers, as laws are changing daily in regards to opioid treatment, prescriptions for suboxone, and safe injection sites.

You don’t have to go through this alone.

Click below to see Morgan’s powerful eulogy:

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We Are What We’ve Been Waiting For

img_0997As I went to bed late Tuesday evening, realizing that Donald Trump would actually become the next president of the United States and no, this wasn’t some horrendous nightmare from which I would magically wake in the morning, I thought to myself, how on Earth am I going to get up and explain this to the children I teach? My students, who are mainly low-income minorities (many of the Muslim faith), have expressed their deep concerns and fear about a Trump presidency throughout the last year. While they expressed the fear of being targeted on the street and the fear of having family members deported, I continually reassured them that they had nothing to worry about. There is no way anyone who talks like that would ever be elected president, I had said to them, sometimes while wiping up their actual tears.

There is, in fact, a way that someone who talks like that could be elected president and that way is white privilege. My own white privilege blinded my ability to see that a Trump presidency was not only plausible, but also highly likely. In hindsight, I see how I should’ve taken his campaign much more seriously and actively spoken out much earlier.

img_1004So, when I woke up on Wednesday morning with deep dread in my heart, I asked myself: what kind of person would I want to see today, on this day after the election? Someone who’s trying to fight back tears or someone who is optimistic and unafraid to face the brutal reality of what’s to come? I opted for the latter option.

I didn’t want my students to feel any worse than they already did and as kids absorb the feelings of their environments, I wanted to them to absorb feelings of hope. As they entered the classroom, I played uplifting music including my favorite Bob Marley song, “Three Little Birds.” I did this not to trivialize their feelings, but to provide the hope that some how, some way every little thing would be all right.

We had our students write in their journals and their responses moved us to tears. Why do people hate me, one child asked? I guess slavery never really ended, another one wrote. We talked about how the biggest demographic that supported Trump was white people without a college degree. Several of them laughed out loud as if I just given the punch line of a joke. Good thing we’re in school and going to college, they said.

As the day progressed, our kids said they were starting to feel a little better. After much discussion, one girl mentioned that she simply wasn’t going to let someone like Donald Trump get her down. Another found solace in the knowledge that checks and balances will make it challenging for some of Trump’s proposed policies to become law.

img_1003I guess you could say this day was like any other day at school; we were just teachers guiding our students through the world’s uncertainties. Except on that first day post-election and all the days going forward, our work together feels  more immediate because we are on the brink of a presidency that legitimizes hatred. Who’s going to speak out against this hatred if not us? No one. Who’s going to teach our children how to stand up against the injustices they will absolutely face if not us? No one. Who’s going to help our children navigate through these times so that they can do better when they’re grown if not us? No one. As President Obama said when he was a senator campaigning for office, “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek,” and I’ve never felt that more than now.

The evidence that a Trump presidency will legitimize hatred already surrounds us. As outgoing Senate Minorty Leader Harry Reid stated, “The election of Donald Trump has emboldened the forces of hate and bigotry in America.” Already the media have cited examples of Trump supporters harassing women and minorities in the days following the election. On Wednesday, two Babson College fraternity brothers drove to Wellesley College, Hillary Clinton’s alma mater and all-women’s college, and waved a Trump flag around campus while allegedly harassing and yelling racial slurs at students. On Friday, a Baylor University student said a student walked into her while she was walking on campus and then called her the n-word all in the name of making America great again. England has seen a similar backlash since Brexit with a reported increase in racial crimes.

Or how about the fact that Vice-President Elect Mike Pence has a bigoted track record? Our future Vice-President signed a bill in Indiana that said businesses could refuse service to gays and lesbians based on religious reasons, required that all aborted fetuses have burials or be cremated, advocated for the teaching of creationism in schools, and also advocated for the use of public funds for conversion-therapy, which is an anti-gay therapy that seeks to change one’s sexual orientation from gay to straight. This man, who also thinks smoking doesn’t kill, will be governing our country.

Is this real life?

The sad truth is that this is real life and it has been for quite some time. But now, I will no longer stay silent.

I’m reminded of the poem written by Pastor Martin Niemöller , “First they came…” in regards to the Nazis rise to power in Germany and the lack of a response from German intellectuals. It feels applicable in these times:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

 
img_0999Going forward, I urge you to show up and speak up. Yesterday, I attended a love rally in Washington Square Park and marched with hundreds of others to Union Square in support of Black Lives Matter, the planet, gay marriage, Muslims, a woman’s right to choose what’s right for her body, and refugees. Walking up 6th Avenue, my heart raced several times when I saw cheers from onlookers and honks from supporters in their cars. I was reminded that there are still so many people in this world who believe that diversity is what truly makes America great.

If there’s a silver lining to be found in this election, it’s that now I feel a camaraderie amongst strangers where I haven’t before. I’ve seen and engaged in conversation with strangers at the bodega and in the subway when before we would’ve simply kept to ourselves.

As we embrace the inevitable Trump presidency, I hope all of us, regardless of our political affiliations, will be the ones we’ve been waiting for and boldly speak out against bigotry and social policies that unfairly target already marginalized groups.

I know I will.

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Be Brilliant At It

“The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside us while we live.” -Norman Cousins

This is the book my friend loaned me years. I really should give it back!
This is the book my friend loaned me years. I really should give it back!

 Several years ago, a friend loaned me his copy of Words I Wish I Wrote, compiled by Robert Fulgham. As a young professional, not too far removed from my idealistic liberal arts college days, my mind was blown by the nuggets of wisdom contained within its pages. As a writer, I wished I’d written every single one of these words as the title suggested. The above quote from Norman Cousins completely resonated with me and I’ve thought about it a lot recently as I’ve returned to the teaching profession.

 I’ve been thinking a lot about what we let die inside ourselves in the past few months as I made the choice to get back into teaching and the career path from which I strayed so far. I was starting to feel like I’d let so many things inside me die as I struggled to figure out exactly what I wanted to do career-wise. When I left teaching five years ago, I never gave myself a timeline as to when I’d return, but deep down I always knew I’d find my way back in some capacity.

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-Charles Bukowski

However, in the last five or so months, I felt as though getting back into a career I felt passionate about was beyond my reach. Five years had flown by and my most recent stint as a full-time server made me feel as though I’d reached the point of no return.

Naturally, when you feel so far from your desired path, feelings of self-doubt creep in. How did I get here? How could I possibly have let all of the things that make me who I am just fly to the wayside? It was almost paralyzing to think about all of the potential I was wasting. Was it gone permanently? It had been so long since I’d worked in an academic setting I questioned my ability to secure a job in that field. Had I inadvertently closed the door to teaching forever?

IMG_0779_4To me, there are few things more tragic than wasted potential. I love the way John Updike beautifully paints this melancholy picture of wasted talent in his poem, “Ex-Basketball Player.” He tells the story of Flick Webb, the best basketball player in his town’s history who now pumps gas for “he had never learned a trade, he just sells gas/ Checks oil, and changes flats.” Remembered for his hands that “were like wild birds,” Flick spends his free days at the diner smoking cigars, playing pinball, and drinking “lemon phosphates.” Instead of playing in front of adoring fans, he faces only “applauding tiers/Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads” at the diner. There are several Flick Webbs from my hometown who haunt my memory with their athletic and artistic prowess that went unrealized.

Your potential, rekindled.
Your potential, rekindled.

On the bright side, there is always triumph to be found in tragedy. The good thing about potential is that it is only wasted if you allow yourself to waste it. It can be rekindled. Though I felt so far removed from where I’d begun, I applied for teaching jobs and eventually found my way back into the classroom. All of the things about myself I missed were still buried within me. It was just a matter of bringing those missing pieces to the surface.

On one of my last days of waiting tables, I explained to a group of guests that I was leaving to teach writing. An older gentleman at the table simply smiled and replied, “Be brilliant at it.” Not a congratulations, but a you have an obligation to yourself and to the world to be brilliant at whatever it is you decide to do. This gentleman’s simple words have inspired me far more than he probably ever imagined.

Be brilliant at it. 

I challenge all of you to focus on whatever it is that makes you alive and be brilliant at it. The world is depending on you.

The Dark Before the Dawn

“Remember,” they say, “that the darkest hour of all is the hour before day.”- Samuel Lover

The actual dark before dawn.
The actual dark before dawn.

It’s been far too long since I wrote my last blog post. I could give you a laundry list of excuses as to why this is the case, but I don’t believe in excuses. It looks like I’ve allowed myself to fall victim to the “busy trap” once again.

My last blog post was about letting loose and de-stressing, which is ironic, because at the time I wrote it, my stress levels were at an all time high. New York City was wearing me down and instead of attacking back with a can-do attitude, I let it run me over.

In my two-and-a-half years of living in New York City, I’ve found that city life is a constant give and take. Some days I feel the city takes more from me than it gives. Yes, it’s extremely expensive (I’m looking at you, income taxes). Yes, it feels overcrowded at times, bordering on extremely claustrophobic. Yes, people can be rude, not to mention pushy. At the same time, I love everything the city has to offer. Botanical gardens, surfing lessons, Broadway shows, art museums, French films, awkward poetry readings, garage band performances. You name it, New York City has it.

Just another day of reaping what New York is sowing.
Just another day of reaping what New York is sowing.

There’s so much to do in New York that it can be distracting. I still have to make money and even save it, too. It’s hard to save money when I’d rather be out reaping all that New York is sowing. I feel a constant struggle between making money and doing what I love. Part of the issue is that I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do professionally. Being unsure of what you want to do in a place like New York City where you have to be cutthroat to get what you want doesn’t work out so well. For too long, I’ve put what I love to do professionally on the back burner.

Until recently.

A few months ago, I made the decision to return to teaching. Teaching is where I’ve always belonged, I just didn’t realize that until I took a six-year hiatus. Last week, a few days before my 31st birthday, I accepted a classroom teaching position. I couldn’t be more thrilled. I’ve finally turned a professional corner, or at least returned to the right road.

I’m excited to start a new chapter in New York, which is working in a field I so strongly believe in, in a position I’m passionate about. It will be challenging, stressful, and a whole slew of other adjectives, but I’m looking forward to being a position where I can give back to the community of which I’ve grown very fond.