I just finished reading a new memoir, The Skin Above My Knee, by a woman I met through a local writers’ group, Marcia Butler. She was, for years, a skilled professional oboist and her candid and powerful memoir describes in detail both coping with her difficult family and her highly successful musical career.
She also reveals that both her parents are now dead, so discussing their behavior, abusive and deeply rejecting, could have no immediate consequences.
In journalism, we call disclosure “opening the kimono” and, especially when writing personal essays, it’s a challenging decision to know what to say and what to withhold from public, permanent view.
Now that everything can be quickly and widely shared online — and snarled at by trolls — it’s even more daunting to decide how much to tell millions of strangers about yourself, sharing things you might never have told anyone before, not even a best friend or therapist.
Our stories can resonate deeply, informing and educating (and amusing) others. While reading Marcia’s book, there were several moments when I had experienced the exact same thing at exactly the same age. That was a bit spooky!
I’ve had a life filled with fun adventures — meeting Queen Elizabeth aboard her yacht Brittania, visiting a 500-member Arctic village, traveling eight days across Europe with a French truck driver, performing at Lincoln Center in Sleeping Beauty as an extra.
But, of course, I’ve also had many moments of fear and panic — dating a con man who had done jail time in another state, a quick and ugly divorce from my first husband, bullying at the hands of several bosses. Without the dark(er) bits, it’s all saccharine sunshine.
I too, come from a difficult family and have had many years of estrangement from both parents and a step-sibling.
So, which stories to include, and which to delete?
Which to highlight in detail and which are just…too much?
I recently had lunch with two women, highly accomplished journalists with awards and tremendous track records of professional achievement. One, a good friend who has known me for 13 years, is urging me to write a memoir, and I’m considering it.
But both women freely admitted that they would not. They’d each be too uncomfortable revealing the woman beneath the professional veneer, however truthful that exterior is.
Once something is out there for public consumption, you can’t control how readers will react, whether with compassion and admiration or scorn and derision.
I read a few blogs where the writers share much more intimate detail about their lives.
Not sure this is where I want to go next.
How much do you share in your public writing, like books, articles and blogs?
In it, teachers in Oklahoma — with master’s degrees and 20 years’ experience — mow lawns, wait tables, cater weddings and drive for Uber to make ends meet.
One needs to use a food bank to eat.
If you’ve been following American news lately, you’ve seen reports of teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma fighting for higher pay and better conditions in which to teach — like textbooks that aren’t 20 years old and literally falling apart.
Last week, Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill that gives an average of $6,100 raises for teachers, $1,250 raises for support staff, and adds $50 million in education funding.
From The Atlantic:
Thousands of teachers returned to the picket lines on Tuesday in their effort to secure more education funding from state legislators, forcing the cancellation of classes for public-school students in Oklahoma City and Tulsa. The picketing marked the continuation of a strike that kicked off on Monday, when tens of thousands of educators in about a third of Oklahoma’s school districts walked out, affecting 300,000 of the state’s 500,000 students.
The Oklahoma legislature last week passed a bill raising teacher salaries by $6,000 on average and restoring education funding by $50 million, but educators say it’s not enough given the cuts they’ve contended with in recent years. They are asking for $10,000 more per teacher over the next several years and $200 million in restored education funding. The legislature had been cutting education spending for years, with the amount of per-student funding dropping by nearly 30 percent (when adjusted for inflation) over the past decade, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Oklahoma leads the nation in inflation-adjusted cuts to education funding since the 2008 recession.
The great American myth is that the nation cares deeply about “family values” — and the American dream is centered on the belief that each generation will do better economically than the one before.
“One of the most notable changes in the US economy in recent decades has been the rise in inequality. A key inflection point in inequality appears to be around 1980. It was during the early 1980s that there was a pronounced increase in the 90-10 income gap and a sharp rise in the income share of the 1%.
“With the advent of a more unequal society, concerns about a possible decline in inequality of opportunity have risen to the forefront of policy discussion in the US. To better understand inequality of opportunity, economists and other social scientists have increasingly focused attention on studies of intergenerational mobility. These studies typically estimate the strength of the association between parent income and the income of their offspring as adults.”
Not possible when teachers can’t even earn a living and students sit in dark, dirty classrooms with broken desks and chairs.
The Republican governments of “red” states where teachers are walking out in protest believe in cutting taxes to the bone — while offering generous perks to employers and corporations.
I don’t have children or young relatives in the American school system, but my blood boils at the inequity of this.
On a radio call-in show this week, one New Jersey teacher — annoyed she had lost $12,000 in income — said she earns $90,000. That earned spluttering disbelief from a teacher calling in from another state where he earns half that amount.
I moved to the U.S. years after completing my formal education in Toronto and Montreal, which, thank heaven, was well funded and excellent.
The book came out in 1988, but rings true today; millions of American students face a kind of educational apartheid if they live in tightfisted states and low-income neighborhoods where school funding comes from local taxes.
It is deeply disturbing and powerful; he examined the wide and brutal disparities in education funding across the nation.
You want to get schooled?
Watch how poorly and unevenly this country handles education.
We met — how better for two career journalists? — thanks to a magazine assignment.
I was writing for a women’s magazine about what was then an exotic, little-discussed way to meet someone, called Internet dating. Long before Tinder or Bumble, it was considered sad and declassé, something you might do if desperately lonely but definitely not cool.
I got 200 replies to my on-line profile from around the world — with the truthful headline “Catch Me If You Can.”
I stopped reading after 50.
Luckily for both of us, my husband Jose was in the top 50.
I had hoped to find, for my second husband, someone modest but accomplished, a world traveler, someone with a strong spiritual life, if not religious. Someone funny, smart, goodhearted.
And handsome would be nice.
He is, like me, an accomplished career journalist — a photographer and photo editor for The New York Times for 31 years, who covered three Presidents, two Olympics, multiple Superbowls and the end of the Bosnian war, sleeping for six weeks in an unheated shipping container in December.
Sept. 17, 2011, Toronto
We met for our first dinner in midtown Manhattan on a cold March evening, and he wore a red silk Buddhist prayer shawl (his practice) as a muffler.
At the end of a long and lovely evening, he wrapped me up in it, warm and scented with his fragrance, a classic scent called 1881.
That was it, kids.
Eighteen years later (!), here we are.
18 things I’ve learned:
1. Everyone carries some emotional baggage. If you’re lucky, maybe a duffel and a carry-on, so to speak, and not 20 enormous unpacked trunks. But we all bring it with us.
2. Which is why humility is essential to sustaining an intimate relationship. No one, anywhere, is “perfect.” If you think they are, you’re deluded. If you think you are, get a grip on your inflated ego.
3. Affordable access to a good therapist can be the best investment you’ll ever make, for yourself and your partner/spouse. Until you can safely unpack, name and number your personal demons, they can destroy your life and that of anyone trying to love you. This includes addictions.
4. If you find yourself — as we both did on separate occasions — shouting at your sweetie in a blind rage, allow for the possibility you’re shouting at a ghost, at someone from your past who’s still living inside your head. Yes, of course, we can get angry at the people we love, but this is different. Sometimes it’s not about you at all.
5. It can take a long, long, long time to trust another person, and that might have nothing to do with you or how much they love you. I’m forever moved by this verse of this song by John Mayer…
I know a girl She puts the color inside of my world But, she’s just like a maze Where all of the walls all continually change And I’ve done all I can To stand on her steps with my heart in my hand Now I’m starting to see Maybe It’s got nothing to do with me
6. So don’t ever try to force or rush physical or emotional intimacy with someone you love. Let them feel safe with you and relax. Some of us had scarring childhoods and need a lot more time than you think we should or you expect or makes you feel comfortable. True love is not all about you.
7. If your sweetie never laughs, why not? If you never laugh with them, what’s up? Laughter is a daily constant with us, and deeply healing. Depression is also real.
8.Bad shit is going to happen to you both, no matter how thin/pretty/hard-working/wealthy you are. Parents will get sick and die. Friends will get sick and die. We will suffer illness and injury, surgeries and recovery. We’ll lose jobs and face periods of unemployment. Your partner must have strength of character for your relationship to endure without resentment. You, and they, will have to step up and be a damn adult, many times, no matter how painful or expensive.
9. Which is why, if you’re choosing a life partner, pay very careful attention to their values, ethics and principles — in action. Words are meaningless without consistent follow-through. Choose someone with a strong work ethic or you’ll forever be broke and anxious, pulling their weight and pissed at their entitled laziness.
10. Go for long walks, whatever the weather. Alone, to think. With them, for company.
11. Put down your damn phone.
12. Talk to your sweetie every day for 30 to 60 minutes, (even in 10-minute bits!), uninterrupted by children or work or outside forces. Make them your entire focus when you do, because undivided attention is the greatest gift we can offer someone we love.
13. Take time every day to nurture yourself, spiritually, emotionally, intellectually and physically. Don’t rely on someone to be your “everything.”
14. Have deep, sustaining friendships beyond your dyad, (but protect it fiercely.) If you fear someone’s about to poach, (hence my second marriage), pay attention.
15. Make sure you both have wills, beneficiary statements, advance directives and health care proxy paperwork signed. You never know when you might suddenly need to use them.
16. Create a document, updated every 6 months and printed out, with your every PIN and password and emergency contacts. Include your medical record and the medications you take so your sweetie can easily take charge, should you be incapacitated or die.
17. Celebrate the hell out of your partner’s every success, no matter how small it may feel or seem. Few of us will win an Oscar or ever make the big bucks. Small wins matter too.
18.Savor every minute you’re given with a loving spouse or partner. Too many will leave us far too soon.
I used to bite my tongue and hold my breath Scared to rock the boat and make a mess So I sat quietly, agreed politely I guess that I forgot I had a choice I let you push me past the breaking point I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything
You held me down, but I got up (hey!) Already brushing off the dust You hear my voice, your hear that sound Like thunder, gonna shake your ground You held me down, but I got up Get ready ’cause I’ve had enough I see it all, I see it now
— “Roar”, Katy Perry
If 2017 taught women anything, it was this…
It’s time to assert ourselves and stop deferring to the toxic bullying and sexual harassment of sooooooo many men.
But it’s also an ongoing personal/individual challenge and one that never gets easier, no matter how loudly we roar — I still remember Helen Reddy’s second-wave feminism anthem, “I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore”…
That was in 1971.
The sad truth is, when women roar — even whimper — we’re too often dismissed, laughed at, overlooked, ignored.
By women and men alike, people who cling to power and are scared to lose it.
We’re told to “pipe down”.
That we’re “over-reacting.”
It’s also deeply cultural, how at ease we feel (or not) asserting ourselves and our needs — whether the honeyed silk-sheathed steel of “Bless your heart” from a Southern American woman to the “Fuck you!” of a ballsy New Yorker. (Neither one of which might win us what we want, by the way.)
I was struck by a friend’s experience boarding a plane to claim the seat for which she’d paid extra — to be confronted by some guy traveling with his large family who preferred (!) to take her seat so they could all sit together.
My friend chose to defer, and it was interesting to see how differently her friends reacted. Some of us would have told the guy “Not a chance. Move!” and others would have “kept the peace” by allowing him to usurp her spot.
Because when women don’t defer, it can get ugly, even violent.
So we often opt to defer, not because we want to or because we agree with you or because we think it smart or powerful — but because we’re scared of what will happen if we don’t.
It’s a perpetual and not-fun seesaw of being polite (or a doormat?), or being assertive (or perceived as a bitch?) and one that is never going to be perceived the same way by the next person we encounter. That alone makes for exhausting calculations.
I grew up in a family where my deference — like yours, possibly — was expected, taken for granted. I remember little to no negotiation, so I learned that many of my needs were less than.
That’s a deeply female experience.
And yet I was taught, outside the family, to boldly assert myself intellectually and athletically — like a man, really.
Being Canadian by birth and upbringing confuses this further for me, as it’s a culture more attuned to the collective good than the individual-focused U.S., and certainly elbows-out New York City.
How about you?
How do you balance being assertive and deferential?
These few weeks can be a tough time for many people — thanks to social media and the mass media, we’re barraged with endless images of group cheer: parties, family togetherness, piles of presents under a decorated Christmas tree.
My husband and I now work as full-time freelancers, which means no office holiday parties for us, no matter how much profit our skills have added to many others’ bottom line. Even if you actually hate office parties, it’s important to have some social face time with the people you work with to help build those relationships.
The holidays can also be a time of intense loneliness — no matter how many people you know, if there’s no deep, growing intimacy with any of them, you might as well know no one.
For several friends, this year marks their first as a widow, and for one, her first in a nursing home far away from her home city, friends and lovely apartment.
People can feel lonely even when surrounded by lots of people, especially if the relationships are not emotionally rewarding. In fact, Dr. Carla Perissinotto and colleagues at the University of California at San Francisco reported in 2012 that most lonely individuals are married, live with others and are not clinically depressed.
“Being unmarried is a significant risk,” Dr. Holt-Lunstad said, “but not all marriages are happy ones. We have to consider the quality of relationships, not simply their existence or quantity.”
As Dr. Nancy J. Donovan, a geriatric psychiatrist and researcher in neurology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said in an interview, “There is a correlation between loneliness and social interaction, but not in everyone. It may be simplistic to suggest to people who are lonely that they should try to interact more with others.”
I’ve struggled with loneliness for years since moving to the United States — despite having made good friends quickly in Toronto, Montreal and Paris.
I’m happiest deep in lively, long face to face conversation on a wide range of subjects, not merely texting.
I’m also just not much of a “joiner”, maybe because — being a professional observer as a journalist — I’m more at ease one-on-one, not in a group. And because I have to market my skills all the time to make a living, the effort to get out and forge new friendships just really feels like more work.
I hate that very American thing of “Heyyyyyyy!” that’s outwardly “real friendly” — but often comes with no curiosity to go deeper and to nurture a more solid and enduring emotional and intellectual connection. In a culture focused, it seems, so relentlessly on economic survival, many “friendships” here (certainly in New York) are purely transactional — after you’ve each exhausted one another’s professional or social utility, that’s it.
True friendship can also withstand less-sunny moments.
I recently spent an afternoon with a new-ish friend, (we met in June 2016), and I was snappish that day.
I was in terrible pain, between my arthritic knee and damaged right ankle. A bitterly cold wind whipped through the canyons of downtown New York, where we met near the World Trade Center, a place that brings up too many awful 9/11 memories, so an area I usually avoid.
And the place we chose to meet was costly, noisy — and closed early, ruining our plans for a long, relaxed lunch.
I apologized the next day, fearful my horrible mood had hurt our friendship.
Thankfully, it had not.
Hoping that each of you — wherever you are this holiday season — are enjoying it with loved ones!
And, if you’ve got extra space in your home and at your holiday table, be sure to include someone who might be lonely, but too shy or proud to ask for an invitation.
If — like me — you’ve left behind the country where you were born and raised, let alone if you’ve moved many times domestically and/or internationally — you can end up feeling rootless.
I have three young female friends, ages 26 to 33, whose lives look like a game of Where’s Waldo? moving between Guam and Virginia and Luxembourg and Baltimore and Brussels and more, each thanks to their father’s work.
I also belong to a far-flung tribe of fellow journalists, web mavens and photographers, who are — to name only a few of them — in Madrid, Colombia, Berlin, London, Mexico City, California and Kabul, either permanently or on assignment.
I was born in Vancouver, lived in London ages two to five, Toronto five to 30, (with stints in Paris, Montreal and Cuernavaca, Mexico in those years), then New Hampshire and then, finally, New York, a suburban town north of Manhattan.
Despite living for decades in the U.S., I’m still, in some ways, not very American, clinging to some of my Canadian roots in terms of my political values, (the collective over the individual, single-payer healthcare, stronger unions) and also in shared cultural references that only fellow Canadians — here or there — can appreciate.
What is it that roots us deeply into a place?
What is it that keeps us there, for years, or a lifetime?
Is it family?
A political climate that best suits us?
A place — for me, Paris, where a year-long fellowship launched my career in earnest — that forever, and for the better, changed your trajectory?
Our parents die — freeing us to move anywhere. To live anywhere. To root anywhere.
I’m headed back up to Canada for the third time in four months tomorrow, a 12-hour train ride. It’s a lot of travel in a short time, the first time, to Montreal, for work, but the second and third for pleasure, and to see friends.
I’ll be dog and house-sitting for a friend, someone I met when she worked in New York at the Canadian consulate and with whom I’ve stayed in touch.
I’ll mourn the deep cuts in my hometown newspaper and former employer, The Globe & Mail, and its weird new re-design.
I’ll savor some Canadian treats like butter tarts, (sort of like mincemeat, but better.)
I’ll ride the Red Rocket, aka the streetcar.
I’ll visit with friends I’ve known for decades, renewing deep ties and hearing their news.
Then I’ll get back on the train and head south again — for a brief few minutes suspended between my two countries on the bridge over the Niagara River, its spume just barely visible — and return to the United States.
It’s recently become a place I’m deeply ambivalent about, with rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, relentless gun violence, climate change denial and an administration determined to damage the lives of all but the wealthy.
My life is now neatly bisected, divided into two exact halves, between the nation of my birth and upbringing and the place I chose to move.
I wonder more and more these days about whether it’s time to uproot.
It’s an annual tradition — my carefully chosen list of holiday gift ideas I hope you’ll find fun and inspiring.
I post it early so you’ll have time to ponder, order and still have things arrive in time.
None of these are sponsored, and in a wide range of prices — and, yes, a few are a big splurge.
While there’s nothing for children, and no tech suggestions, many of my picks are unisex and could be enjoyed by teens to seniors.
All are from online sites and all prices, unless otherwise stated, are in U.S. dollars.
This small ceramic bowl, the palest blue of a summer sky with a gleaming gold glazed interior, is stunning. Perfect as a ring holder or bedside or holding tiny flowers. From Summerill & Bishop, a British website (they ship internationally) with some of the prettiest homewares and linens I’ve ever seen anywhere.
I lovelovelove everything on this American website, Mothology, whose aesthetic is industrial/vintage/rustic but never twee. Roam around for glassware, furniture, lighting, textiles and more. Here’s a vintage-y looking hook — a whale’s tail — perfect for a coat, an apron, a towel.
Also from them, an indigo print cotton napkin, 20 inches square — my trick is to buy two and stitch them together, add a pillow insert and voila! Instant throw cushion.
Ooooooohh, this duvet cover is it! It looks like someone spent years embroidering it in jewel colors, on a charcoal background. It’s from mega-retailer Pottery Barn, (whose duvet covers I’ve used and loved for years.) If the duvet cover is too spendy, the matching pillow shams start at $60.
Don’t forget to give to charity — whether foreign or domestic. So many people need our help! Selfishly, I’m linking here to the Writers’ Emergency Assistance Fund, which can give up to $4,000 within weeks to a qualified, experienced writer of non-fiction or journalism. I sat on their board for years and I know, as a full-time independent writer, how difficult life can become, especially if serious illness or injury strikes, when you have no paid sick days or reliable paycheck.
Also from Hermes, this yummy soap, in their Terre d’Hermes fragrance, which I’ve been wearing and loving since I got it for Christmas last year. It’s an expensive piece of soap, certainly, but sure to last for at least a month or more, so call it $1 a day. “Reminds me of rainy fall days spent at my family’s cottage in the mountains,” said one online reviewer. Technically a male fragrance, but I love it, subtle but layered.
If you don’t know Muji, a Japanese brand established in 1980, you’re missing out: great quality, smart designs and some bits of quirk. If actually getting to New York City is too expensive or complicated, here’s New York in a bag! Six smaller versions of its iconic buildings and six cars, all made of wood. Oh, go on!
For years I’ve been using personalized stationery and love getting and sending it. How about offering a set of personalized notepads? This site, Paper Source, offers dozens of attractive options, a nice choice for that person who already has everything! Here’s a simple design, but there are cockatoos, flowers, succulents and many more.
Few stores still exist in New York City of this vintage — Porto Rico Coffee and Tea has been in business since 1907 — and their fragrant Bleecker Street store is my definition of heaven: a tin ceiling, weathered wooden floorboards, battered huge tins of tea, overflowing sacks of coffee beans, teapots and string bags and everything you could want. They do mail order and here’s their chocolate cinnamon coffee beans, to get you started…
It’s winter. Your skin gets all scaly and dry and a eucalyptus scrub might be just the ticket. From another of my old-time New York City favorite stores, C.O. Bigelow, founded in 1838. They offer a staggering array of lovely products, including obscure/fab European ones like Marvis toothpaste, so make time to roam around their site.
For the more ambitious writers and bloggers in your world — who would really use and appreciate some practical advice, insights and tips to get them closer to their goals, (like more readers, finding an agent, book publication, etc.) — why not offer them one of my webinars ($150 for 90 minutes, one on one at their time of choosing, by phone, Skype or in person) or an hour of my coaching, $225/hour with a one-hour minimum?
An award-winning two-time author and career journalist, teaching these skills for decades, I’ve helped many writers worldwide, winning them readers and bylines in outlets like The Guardian and The New York Times.
I’ll close with two of my most beloved books, which could be intriguing to a wide array of readers.
Skyfaring is written by a British Airways 747 pilot, (the iconic aircraft is going out of service), and is full of some of the most beautiful prose about what the world feels and looks like from 35,000 feet long-haul flights. If like me, your giftee loves: travel, airplanes, the sky and wonderful writing, this is a great choice, a New York Times best-seller.
Twyla Tharp is a New York based modern dance choreographer and a ferocious talent. If you work in any kind of creative field, I highly recommend her book The Creative Habit. Like her, it’s smart, practical and no bullshit.
Today in the U.S. is Thanksgiving, a huge holiday that the fortunate will spend with people they love and who have welcomed them into their homes with food and drink and kindness.
We are in suburban Maryland, just outside D.C., with a dear friend and her husband, a fellow journalist who stood in Toronto in September 2011 as our official wedding witness. We’ve visited them many times, but this year were grateful she was able to also welcome a younger friend of ours, a freelancer in D.C. whose mother died a few years ago and whose father lives far away.
We were also grateful recently in Ontario when our friends there welcomed my former sister-in-law to stay the night and dine with us — we live in a one-bedroom apartment, so we can welcome at most two people, (if Jose sleeps on the floor and I get the sofa and the couple get our bed.)
When people have room to spare, (and we always bring gifts and wine and pay for groceries and write thank-you notes!) it’s a blessing.
The opening of one’s home, heart and table are great gifts.
I’ve recently begun following a smart, tough Christian writer and pastor named John Pavlovitz, and his new book, A Bigger Table, brings the same spirit of generosity and openness in a time of deep and bitter social and political division.
I haven’t yet read his book, but I follow him on Twitter and like his voice and his point of view.
Wherever you are today, I hope you’re safe, solvent, healthy, well-loved and well-fed!
I was struck recently by a social media post by someone I know who works in a demanding healthcare specialty. She had treated herself to a fantastic day trip to a nearby natural wonder and a gorgeous splurge of a breakfast.
What struck me most was the sense this was something, perhaps, to apologize for.
That taking —- making — time to care for herself and her soul was somehow suspect or self-indulgent.
I think being consistently kind to ourselves is essential and something too often overlooked or dismissed as silly, by others and worse, by ourselves. Women are so heavily socialized to take care of everyone else’s needs first and foremost that, when there’s a lack of time or money — and there often is — we get the short end of the stick.
I’m not someone who advocates self-indulgence or hedonism, (and who draws the line?) but I’m absolutely committed to what is now called self care.
For me that’s everything from playing my beloved vinyl on a Sunday morning to making home-made meals I can enjoy during the week, with my husband and on my own.
I spend real money at our local florist, sometimes as much as $25 a week, to fill our apartment with blooms and greenery, whether fragrant eucalyptus or bright gerbera or the tiny purple orchids that come all the way from Thailand. To me, it’s an investment in daily joy and beauty.
I go to a spin class at the gym to burn calories, manage stress, to enjoy the music and see familiar faces. It offers me a low-key social life and human contact when I work alone at home, now 11 years into that isolating workstyle.
I make play dates with friends, meeting them face to face for a coffee or lunch or a concert or ballet performance, creating memories we can share years later. I went to a fantastic Iron & Wine concert this week at Town Hall with a dear pal and made her spit with laughter over Manhattans at the bar in Grand Central. Priceless!
I love to travel, so am always looking a few weeks and months ahead at where we might be able to afford to go, and for how long. It refreshes me, whether seeing old friends back in Toronto or meeting new ones, as I did this summer in Berlin and Zagreb.
I commit a few hours each week to my favorite television shows. (Poldark!)
And this year — for the first time in my life — I’m driving a brand-new car, a luxury vehicle we’ve leased. Despite my initial trepidation, it is sheer bliss: quiet, beautifully designed, with intelligent and helpful technology. Our other vehicle is 16 years old, dented and scraped and, no matter how much money we drop at the mechanic, always has the check engine light on; freedom from that anxiety alone is a form of self care for me now.
It can feel weird, even guilt-inducing, to put yourself first, to say no, firmly (and mean it!) to others’ demands on your limited time and energy.
But without adding even the smallest pleasures to our days, and to our lives, we can end up stewing in resentment and self-denial.
If you’ve ever been a “trouble-making” student — or have tried to teach one — this recent op-ed might resonate:
The Department of Education estimates that 7 percent of the student population — nearly 3.5 million students in kindergarten through high school — was suspended at least once in the 2011-12 academic year, the last for which these data are available. Despite the Checkpoint Charlie climate in many urban high schools, where students are herded through metal detectors when they enter the building, suspensions are rarely prompted by violence. Ninety-five percent are for “willful defiance” or “disruption.”
African-American students are hit hardest. They are more than three times as likely than their white classmates to be suspended or expelled. As a result, as early as middle school, many black students have concluded that when it comes to discipline, the cards are stacked against them. They stop trusting their teachers, and their negative attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They fall behind when they’re suspended, and many drop out or are pushed out…
In short, this kind of discipline is a lose-lose proposition. What’s to be done? Enter empathy.
This one hit me hard.
I’m white, female and grew up with privilege.
None of which exempted me from being in a lot of trouble, and eventually asked to leave the private all-girl school I’d been attending since fourth grade, when I was eight, which was when I went into boarding.
I spent every summer at summer camp, all eight weeks, so my life between the ages of eight and 14 was largely spent, (except two years living with my mother at home), surrounded by strangers and subject to their rules.
At the end of Grade Nine, I was told I would not be welcome there again.
If you’ve ever been suspended, expelled or told to leave a school, you’ll also know the feelings of rage, shame, humiliation and possible loss I felt then.
I loved our uniform, (a Hunting Stewart kilt and tie), and the rambling Victorian buildings of campus, its ancient chestnut trees and long afternoons of playing sports in the sunshine.
I would lose contact with some close friends, girls whose names I remember clearly decades later.
I lost my place as someone whose intelligence, and writing, had been winning prizes, respect and recognition for years.
None of which, of course, was ever discussed.
My bad behavior never included drugs or alcohol or physical fights — it was all very WASP-y and Canadian.
Instead, I talked back to teachers.
My bed and dresser, (we were marked every morning on neatness on a sheet of paper at the entrance to our shared bedrooms), were always a mess.
I once thew an apple core across the room, aiming at a waste basket below — instead it hit ancient paper wallpaper, leaving a tell-tale stain. I was 13 at the time.
I was excoriated for my deliberate vandalism.
It was nuts.
I’ve since taught at four different colleges and have had a few tough students.
I’ve not had the challenge of fighting, shouting and blatant disrespect of me or other students — so I wouldn’t presume to say how to manage that.
But I will say this — if a child or young adult is behaving like a monster in class, they’re quite likely plagued by demons outside of it.
They might be being bullied.
They might have parents or siblings with substance abuse issues.
They might be being abused.
You can be sure they are deeply unhappy and may well have no one who cares enough to get past their rage and rebellion to find out why. I still wish someone had done that for me.
You will only know if you care enough to ask them, kindly.
In my case, it was parents who were rarely there, off traveling the world for work or pleasure, or just not particularly interested in knowing I was troubled, just as long as I kept winning academic prizes and keeping my grades high enough to get a bursary.
I was sick to death of being ignored.
Instead of empathy, I was shouted at by ancient, furious housemothers, increasingly disdained by fed-up teachers, shunned by scared fellow students, and moved from bedroom to bedroom to bedroom as punishment.
My worst punishment made me very happy — a room all to myself.
I was later bullied for three years in high school, and didn’t much enjoy my four years at a very large and deeply impersonal university.
As a result, I pretty much hate school.
Also not fond of (useless) authority figures, most of whom insist on obedience with no interest in empathy.