4 kids in 3 years: reflections on motherhood, art and life.
Midweek last week I had one of those strange moments where two very different things that are deeply related rubbed up against each other. Those are generally my favorite moments, because those friction-filled moments are generally where real learning happens. Often those moments are beautiful. I love them in my artwork, joy and pain, sadness and hope, innocence and knowing. But this moment was none of those things exactly and maybe a tiny bit of all three.
I was listening to NPR on my way to pick up the kids from school like I generally do and I was listening to President Barack Obama’s last press conference. The week before I had listened to President Elect Trump’s first real press conference. For someone who loves words and living thoughtfully in the gray area, you can imagine what a startling difference those two felt to me.
In the end, President Barack Obama, for better or worse, held onto a hopeful point of view. In closing he talked about our children being the future, and specifically about Sasha and Malia not moping, about how they look toward the future with plans for how they can contribute.
Then the press conference finished and my children begged me to turn on the book on tape we were almost finished listening to.
The book is called Jefferson’s Sons: A Founding Father’s Secret Children by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, and it traces the story of Sally Hemings and her four children Beverly, Harriet, Madison and Eston, along with another young slave belonging to Jefferson, Peter. It’s a gorgeous, lyrical story, this work of historical fiction, and hearing it read aloud brought to life the voices of these people whose lives have gone before ours.
There were powerful moments when I would stop the player and say to my children, did you hear that? Like when Sally Hemings pointed out that no one is actually a slave on their own, it takes someone else to make them that. I remember I pulled over into the parking lot of a CVS as we were driving. I remember exactly where we were when we listened to that part together, and I can’t help but wonder if they will remember it too.
So there we were on the way home from school, two presidents, Jefferson and Obama, both orators and revolutionary in their ways, both dedicated to the concept that all men are created equal, somewhat similar in their roles as rulers and men, but a world apart in how they lived these beliefs, rubbing up against one another in my minivan.
The final words in the book were startling. My children and I sat in the driveway after we got home so that we could finish the last couple minutes. Jefferson’s youngest two sons were freed in his will (they were the blacksmith’s apprentices.) Then the names of so many of the people we had come to know throughout the story were called out as they were sold off at the auction block after Thomas Jefferson’s death, due to the lavish way he lived his life and the many debts he owed. Sold, the narrator said. Peter Faucet, the last young boy who the story had followed, sold.
That final word hung in the air at the end of the book as a hush fell over our minivan, now idling in the driveway. Sold.
I vividly remember my first formative thoughts about diversity and human rights as a child. Besides the concepts of diversity that came from being born into a family with disability, one of my earliest moments of realization was The Sneetches, by Dr. Seuss. First it was great to have a star on your belly, then it wasn’t. Then it was great not to have a star on your belly, then it was. Back and forth, the Sneetches were being valued by the star on thar’ skin rather than the content of their character.
And all the while the greedy guy who came into town with a special star making and taking machine rubbing his hands together, with mountains of money piling up on either side of him. That stayed with me.
Then I remembered, I think it was in seventh grade, my teacher sharing that poem from Lutheran pastor Martin Niemoller in response to the intellectuals in Nazi Germany who did not speak out:
First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unions
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.
I remember the grain of the wood on my graffitied desk as I heard that, the placement of the green chalkboard, the posters on the wall. This then was my lesson on responsibility. This is when I realized we were all in this together, to sink low or rise up as a people, indivisible.
So there it is, my childhood’s diversity lessons. Who we are is what matters, not who someone else says we are. And the safety and well-being of our brothers and sisters is each and every person’s responsibility.
And so in small ways throughout my life, mostly as a teacher or diversity coordinator at a school and now as a mother, I thought deeply about the things I teach the people around me. We should all do what we can to help one another. If we have more to give, then we should. (I learned this one in my conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran church, too.) And people should be judged by the content of their character, not by the stars on their bellies.
But it was during this election season that I was struck by how little I was actually doing. On the morning of November 8th, I woke up and felt lost, because what I truly believe to be the right thing did not happen.
I had meant to make phone calls like I know some of my friends had done, but I was afraid of conflict. I meant to speak up to friends or family members or at least have difficult conversations about human rights, women’s rights, politics, but I ended up walking away feeling broken without the words to explain how important this thing is. I meant to do more but I know so little about all the facts and specifics, I did not want to become a liberal version of the ignorance of the Trumpettes on TV.
So I literally did the least I could do. I voted. And then I mourned.
But now it’s time for change. Now it’s time I do more. I googled “senate versus house of representatives.” I found a fifth grade explanation, and I read it carefully. Because I’d forgotten exactly who does what. I’d let it drain out of my head sometime between 7th grade and puberty, ten minutes later. See that? See that ignorance? I’m almost too ashamed to write it. That ignorance silenced me.
One morning last week I had my kids make cards thanking our representative for the work he’s done, and to ask him for the things that they believe children should have, a roof over your head, food to eat, clean water, and a good ‘egukashon’, spelled so poorly that it’s apparent that they haven’t had one.
And then I went with a group of strangers and friends as part of the indivisible group (find one near you at www.indivisibleguide.com) to my representative’s office. And because he was headed to the inauguration we met with his district director. It wasn’t scary, and I didn’t need to know any more than I already knew. I learned a lot.
A few days later I brought my children to a small Women’s March in a neighboring town. I explained the signs and the speeches. “This is freedom of speech,” I said. “This is what democracy looks like.”
This week we began watching a weekly Government Crash Course on PBS that’s clever and self-deprecating that explains how government works and how laws are made. I sat on the couch with my kids and said, “This is important. Let’s learn this together.”
I’m looking for the silver lining here, and it’s not always easy to find. I will miss listening to a president who has deeply thoughtful things to say about people and policies, who weighs his words, and balances his thoughts, who speaks and acts with grace and dignity.
But today is an opportunity. This is my opportunity to teach my children what I should have learned before. That government is our responsibility. We are not just responsible for the people around us who we know, but the system in place in this country and world in which we all live. We have voices and we should use them. That’s our job. That is what democracy means.
If I feel ignorant, then I need to figure it out and become less ignorant. If I believe in something strongly, like LGBTQ rights, and the importance of quality education (or egukashon) for all, in the recognition of all of our roles in poverty, the importance of universal healthcare for all, in full and fair healthcare for women and their right to make choices for their own bodies, in the value of every person’s life, no matter their skin color, ability, religion, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic background, and nationality, that it doesn’t matter if you have a star on your belly or not, then I need to do something.
Even if it’s just a postcard, or phone call, donation or march in a New England town. (Check out www.wallofus.com for great easy ways to make your voice heard about policies you care about every week.) Even just a visit to my representative’s office with my new indivisible people. I owe it to my children, and to Sasha and Malia, and all the children who will become our future. There are wrongs to be righted, there are things to fight for, but there is hope, too.
“But what we’ve also tried to teach them is resilience and we’ve tried to teach them hope and that the only thing that is the end of the world is the end of the world. And so, you get knocked down, you get up, brush yourself off and you get back to work.”
~President Obama, January 18, 2017
It’s time to get to work.