The unbreakable bonds: Who says animals don't adopt?

Three ducks and a pubescent hen waddle and peck their way around my yard. As I approach, one of the ducks--the black one--stands up straight and hisses at me. The other two ducks close ranks around the hen, which they consider to be a child, though she is quickly out-sizing them.

It all started last spring, when I surreptitiously deposited a few chicken eggs into the nest of the very broody black duck. I didn't have a drake, but I did have a rooster.

I also wanted baby chickens, but my hens are Australorps, which are perfect and wonderful in all ways, except motherhood. Somehow when their robust size, toughness and prolific production of large, pale eggs was bred into them, the mothering instinct was bred out. Most Astralorp chicks are raised in incubators.

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I tried to buy chicks. I searched all over the country. My husband drove many miles, grumbling loudly about his wife's obsession with pale eggs that can be colored in the spring. No one was selling this year. I finally agreed to get a different kind of hens, which despite proper security measures managed to get out of the chicken run. And then they were too stupid to come back before a fox ate them, leaving neat little piles of feathers in the woods behind our house.

Hence my egg plot. And it worked amazingly well. The black duck not only sat on them and hatched them, but also became a viciously protective mother, keeping cats, hawks and humans away from "her" babies. Her gray sisters were indifferent initially but as time went on, they became her vehement hench-ducks.

They did eventually lose two of the chicks, however, through no fault of their own. The chicks simply got bigger and gained more independence than survival instinct. My large yard, which the ducks live in is not exactly chick-proof. It has a fence only around part of it. About an eighth of the perimeter is nothing but a short drop off of a rock wall to the road.

Some ducks have managed to fall or fly off of this wall into the road and if not rounded up in time, they have been run over by cars or eaten by neighborhood dogs. But these three ducks have proved smarter than most and thus have lived happily in our yard for a year and a half without falling off the wall.

Two of the chicks were not so lucky. First one and then another disappeared, once they got old enough to wander a few feet away from their adoptive mother.

So, my husband and I finally decided that we had to save the last chick before he set off for a three-week trip with the kids and left me home alone with the ducks and chickens. The place for the hen is in the chicken coop with her own kind. Clearly.

Not according to adoption law, it isn't.

We spent an afternoon securing the chicken run in every conceivable way and then herding poultry by scrambling through brush and facing down the angry, pecking adoptive mother. Finally, we managed to get the chick inside the chicken run with the ducks outside and close the small door between the chicken run and our yard. I herded the remaining two adult hens and the chick inside the coop, With a sigh of relief, we closed the hens into the coop for the night.

Whew! At last. We went home in the dusk and fell into bed, exhausted. The ducks were up all night though, crying, calling mournfully into the darkness.

I lay awake in bed wracked with guilt. I am an adoptive mother after all. The cries of the duck mother were heart-rending. My own children were away at grandma's at the moment and glad as I was to have a much-needed break, the old fears always lurk around the edges.

Once while I was in the middle of my battle with unexplained infertility, I adopted a stray cat, who promptly had six kittens on my porch and then disappeared as soon as the kittens were half grown. I found homes for five of them and kept the weak runt of the litter, a beautiful little female kitten. When she was old enough, I got her fixed. I had used up every friend and acquaintance I knew who wanted a cat and that IS the responsible cat-owner thing to do.

My cat was devastated. She mooned after the young of other animals and even tried to adopt a neighbor's kitten. I was consumed by guilt and fear that a kind of karma would ensure that I would never have children. Miscarriage followed miscarriage and in the end, I never did have biological kids. A little part of me still wonders.

But my cat had never successfully adopted a kitten and I read a few pseudo-science pieces during our own adoption process, claiming that adoption is unwise because it is "unnatural" and while humans pretend to ourselves that we "love our adopted children just as much as we would a biological child," we are just deluding ourselves and setting ourselves up for a lifetime of heartache and family conflict. These articles point to the high degree of marriage breakdown and attachment disorders in adoptive families as evidence.

And as my family struggled and foundered with first one kid with attachment disorder and then another with significant neurological disabilities, a small part of me sometimes wondered about those articles in the dark hours of the night. Was all this, our adoptions, our whole family, just doomed from the start? Was I fated to be forever alone without any children that were truly mine? Or had I somehow jinxed it by getting that cat fixed all those years ago?

If you've never faced hard family choices or built a family out of rubble and ashes, you may think I"m silly. But these are the things we don't talk about out loud very much.

My husband and I hung on through storms that do, according to statistics, tear the vast majority of families apart--infertility, attachment disorder and having a neurologically and behaviorally disabled child -- to name a few such rocks and shoals.

And now this. The crying mother duck in the night. By the next morning she was hoarse and exhausted but still crying out for her disappeared, last-surviving child.

I went up the hill and let the chickens out of the coop and into their enclosed chicken run. We had put a roof on it and secured every corner and nook. I was sure the chick was far too large by this point to fit through any of the little holes in the wire.

I went back down the hill to have breakfast. And after breakfast I went out into the garden, only to find the happy family, the mother duck, the overprotective aunties and their wayward adopted child, all pecking around the raspberry bushes.

Somehow--that chick had gotten out. That afternoon my husband and I grimly worked on the chicken run again, We closed pieces of mesh wire into the gate, so that even around the hinges there would be no way out. I also got a large pair of heavy sheers ready in my pocket.

We then herded the ducks and chick again. This time was much harder. They knew what we were doing and they protected the chick valiantly. It took a lot of scratches and pecks but we finally got all of them into the chicken run. Then, I grabbed the chick, while my husband herded the wildly squawking ducks out again. I then handed the sheers to my husband and let him clip the chick's wings to be on the safe side.

Again, we left the chick inside with the hens and again the ducks spent another miserable, grief-stricken night. The next morning, I let the chick and the hens out into the chicken run and watched for awhile as the chick tried to force her way into the space around the gate. Sure enough, that was how she'd done it last time. Well, with that mesh stuffed in there, she wasn't going anywhere.

I went down the hill again.

And when I came out to check two hours later, there was not a duck nor a chick to be seen. The adult hens were still there, but not the rest. I checked everywhere in the chicken run and coop. The chick was gone. And so were the ducks from the yard.

I was panicked, realizing that when their family was threatened, the ducks had done what any of us would do in the last extremity. They had gone on the run.

I started a desperate search of every inch of the yard and garden, including the street below the rock wall. Finally, in the last place I could think to look, I found them, all hiding together under the kids' trampoline.

I was just about ready to give up, but my husband was leaving for the three-week trip in the morning and the fact was--I will remind you--that our primary reason for trying to put this chick in with the hens was the untimely deaths of her two siblings. This adoptive home had not turned out to be safe.

So, one last time, we checked the entire chicken run, made a new and better roof and made sure that there was no way in the world an animal larger than a golf ball could escape from it. Then we herded the ducks and the chick with grim finality until we separated the chick and locked her inside the chicken run.

Then, I got my tablet with some work to do on it and sat on a rock near the chicken run to watch. I was taking no chances this time. She spent an hour on top of the chicken coop, trying to fly through the new roof and she wandered around to every corner of the chicken run, trying to get out. After another hour, I was convinced that she was stuck and I finally went home.

The next morning... You guessed it. The chick was back with the ducks and my husband was gone and herding unwilling poultry alone is a losing battle.

So, the unnatural laws of adoptive family solidarity have won for now. The chick has now grown into a young pubescent hen, ready to lay her first eggs. She follows the ducks through rainstorms, while other self-respecting chickens hide in their coops. She doesn't go swimming in the duck pond, but she watches from nearby.

She cannot physically survive this way much longer. Cold, wet autumn winds would give her pneumonia if she lived like a duck in the wet and rain. Someday, she'll have to get in touch with her trans-species adopted roots, just as my children will no doubt need to go their own way someday, but for now she is still convinced she's a duck.

Note to younger self

If you could send a message back in time, what would you tell yourself as a child being bullied?

I was recently asked this question as an intellectual exercise, but I had to wonder at the deeper reasons for the question. Is there something we can learn from adult memories of bullying or retrospective advice that might provide some practical help for those in similar circumstances today.?

My experience is only mine. It is particular and specific, possibly too specific to be applicable to others. But I do know this. There are things I did not hear from adults or peers that would have helped and some things I heard a whisper of but not enough. I know there are ideas that would have helped because I eventually found these ideas myself and they helped a great deal.

But I had to invent this wheel and the chariot that rode on it. No one gave ,me the pieces. It is possible, of course, that someone tried and I didn’t listen. Or that I wouldn’t have understood these things as a child, even if someone had told me. But I don’t think so. I think these words would have helped.

So for what its worth and in case someone out there must give advice to a child facing pervasive bullying or social ostracism, here is what would have helped me: .

Yeah, the kid in red and black with unmatched socks looking hopefully toward all the kids in pastel colors, that’s me in first grade.

Yeah, the kid in red and black with unmatched socks looking hopefully toward all the kids in pastel colors, that’s me in first grade.

1. It is not you. It is them.

2. It is not you. It is them.

3. It is not you. It is them.

4. Even if there is something you could do to make them bully and ostracize you less, it would only be less. You didn’t do something to “bring it on yourself.” Adults who say that want to believe it because they don’t want to believe kids will really do this to a disabled child for no good reason. It makes them really uncomfortable about the state of the world and the nature of humanity. And they don’t want to take responsibility for making ethics education a major priority. It is not your fault. You don’t have to figure out how to be more perfect. They are the problem.

5. “Social skills” are good. You should pay attention to well-meaning adults who try to tell you how to respond in ways that will help you. BUT those adults do not know what it is like. The social skills are a band aid to an epidemic. They are not worthless but your social skills are pretty average. You can figure out how to be a little more perfect, and maybe that will help. It will definitely help you win in job interviews someday. But it is still not your fault. It is them.

6. You are being bullied and ostracized because your eyes look different, because you are physically different and because of your family background. None of those things are actually bad about you. You are not the problem. The problem is in the minds of other people, in how they were brought up to be judgmental and bigoted and in the kind of society we have. It is not you. It’s them.

7. All the constant hype about how the most important thing in life and happiness is your friends, their number and their fun-ness, is wrong. People are only saying this to help kids who don’t get good grades feel that they aren’t a failure. There are plenty of ways to be happy without a bunch of friends. Find fun by yourself and with one or two friends. Being alone is not shameful or a failure. It can be lots of fun.

8. You are inherently an introvert. Even if you didn’t have a disability and you looked just like everyone else and you came from a typical family, you wouldn’t be the life of the party or the center of a crowd of friends. Some people get their energy from being with people. Some people get their energy from being alone. You will have fun with people but you need to be alone a lot. Being alone is not shameful or sign of a failure. Being alone will help you to be energized and to have fun with your friends when you do go hang out with them. Look at the things you actually like to do. Most of your hobbies, the things your really love, are hard to do in a big group and work better alone or with one or two friends.

9. Decide to be happy, even if no one will accept you. You will one day do this and you will be much happier. No one told me this, so it took me a long time to get. Maybe you could do it earlier and be happy sooner. Build yourself a happy life. Discover the joys of creating, art, writing and nature. Find work you love, no matter how little it pays. Focus on your passions and those good people who will stand by you, even if they aren’t perfect or if they live far away. You don’t need the rest of them to be happy.

10. Bullies shame themselves. Bullies destroy their self-respect. Self-respect is crucial to happiness. Your self-respect gets battered and bruised by being bullied but at least you still have yours. Theirs is gone forever, at least any honest self-respect. They can only ever lie to themselves about being a good person. I never did stoop to their level. but there were times I wanted to.

11. Don’t worry. Those adults who tell you that you have to fight back to stop bullying, even though you’re blind or one against ten and it is clearly a stupid idea—those people are just wrong and they think bullying is something completely different from what it really is. You really are worthy. Their sickness is their own problem.

12. You will be told to be quiet a lot. The people you trust most, your family and close friends will tell you to be quiet because it is hard for them to hear what is happening to you. When people exclude you, they will tell you to be quiet. They will tell you they are excluding you BECAUSE you are not quiet enough. They want your silence. A lot of people who have a disability or other difference have been silent. It does not help. Silence can help you to survive for a moment or two. Don’t be ashamed of the times you were silent to survive but know that it is not what you have a right to. You have a right to speak the truth. You have a right to be heard.

13. Those who love you need to listen, but it is hard for them to hear when you have been hurt so much that mostly what comes out is screaming. Start with “I feel…” State the feeling first. That helps them hear. When they still don’t listen, it is not your fault. It is not your fault that you are emotional or that your words don’t come out all concise and coordinated. Keep working at expressing yourself in ways people can understand. It is helpful. But there is no perfect. Being gentler and calmer will help sometimes. Sometimes it will make them comfortable with dismissing you. Being concise will help sometimes. Sometimes it will let them make their own assumptions.

14. You are enough. It won’t go away because it is them, not you. And you can’t change them without a major change in society. But you will escape from the power of bullies someday.

As i said, this is not a universal message. Bullying comes in different forms. For some kids it is only a few times. For some the physical part is worse than the psychological part, and for others it is visa versa. This is just my message to myself. It would have helped. Now I know what I needed to hear, what could have saved me a lot of dark years, but no one knew it then.

Those who meant well, meant well. They couldn’t know but maybe someone who knows a bullied child will discover a bit of transferable truth in it. I hope so. Feel free to share.

Something worth saving

There seems to be stiff competition in any contemporary discussion of climate change to see who can be the most demoralizing.

It may not always be conscious but if you’ve joined many of these discussions, you will know what I mean. You have the harried, frantic campaigners, struggling to put the latest data into scientifically correct but humanly relatable disaster scenarios to motivate the apathetic masses. There are the still uninformed, who have somehow managed to get through elementary school and at least several years of modern life without paying attention.

Then of course, there are the denialists, who buck science and insist that because some scientist somewhere was wrong about something, climate change predictions are clearly wrong. Some of those are wishful, magical thinkers. Some are cynical manipulators who have a plan for getting theirs while the getting’s good.

Greta Thunberg - Image from Greta Thunberg on Twitter

Greta Thunberg - Image from Greta Thunberg on Twitter

And there are the prophets of the apocalypse with theories about gasses released from under melting glaciers and tipping points. They claim they are certain we have only a few more years to live no matter what we do. It’s hopeless and no carbon-cutting measures matter in the slightest. All the while these prophets of doom are still having children and paying for their children’s college educations. Most of them are also doing it without much attempt to reduce their carbon footprint.

Finally, there is always someone ready to say humanity doesn’t deserve to be saved, whether we can or not. And that’s usually the point in the conversation where everyone either drifts away or descends into verbal trench warfare.

That cynicism pervades a lot of society, even beyond any considerations of environmental or social collapse. Post-modernism insisted that we grow up and cast off idealistic dreams of equality and interconnection. Now we are post-post-modern. Anything less than jaded nihilism is regarded as childish. And this self-righteous cynicism is taken to the point of illogical absurdities to avoid anything that smacks of vulnerability.

In this stifling morass, what could possibly provide any air movement, much less a breath of fresh air?

Well, something both childish and utterly logical, of course.

What is both childish and logical? It sounds like the first line of a weird joke. But the world actually got a real-life answer some months ago.

Greta Thunberg.

If you believe in science, imagine what a young, very intelligent, scientific and utterly logical mind must make of our world. For most of us, it doesn’t really bear contemplating for long. If stark reality were to be seen clearly by a very young person without any of the padding of social distractions and peer conformity, the result would have to be insanity.

When Greta Thunberg, a little girl in Sweden, first learned about climate change as a bright eight-year-old she was confused. Something didn’t add up. Her science books clearly marked out a problem with devastating consequences and a theoretical solution. It showed that adults all over the world knew all of this, and yet Greta heard no one talking about it. And she saw adults going about business as usual as if no such crisis existed, only occasionally putting something into a recycling bin.

Greta Thunberg - climate, environment, children, empowererment - from Twitter account 2.jpg

She went to her parents and then to teachers and finally to scientists a seeking the missing piece—something that would tell her it wasn’t really true, something that would explain the silence and lack of action she observed among adults.

Many children may have felt this disconnect, but they also feel the frustration and difficulty of acting outside of social norms. And that explains to them well enough why their elders dither. Greta has Asperger Syndrome, a neuro-diverse condition, which often results in a very logical outlook, great attention to detail and difficulty understanding social rituals and conventions.

Greta is that theoretical example of a logical, yet freshly innocent mind made flesh. Her initial reaction was sickness. She developed OCD and selective mutism. She was withdrawn and apparently disillusioned by age eleven.

But eventually she won a writing competition and became involved with a youth environmental group planning climate actions. During a phone meeting, she supported the idea of a school strike for the climate. If the kids really believed that their entire future rested on this issue, she reasoned, solving it should logically take precedence over education and everything else.

If science is real, why aren’t we acting like it?

But she couldn’t get support for the idea from others. A school strike required a lot of commitment and very likely some unpleasant consequences. Even though the other kids were activists, they weren’t there yet. They focused on organizing more standard demonstrations and Greta dropped out of the group.

Most kids—almost every kid—faced with their idea rejected by a group of friendly peers would be willing to let it go. But Greta, whether because of Asperger or because of utter personal stubbornness, didn’t care.

Last August, when her school year started, she didn’t go to school. Instead she took a small sign and went to sit by a wall outside the Swedish Parliament building. She was on strike.

I remember seeing the early images of her sitting there, knees drawn up to her chin. She is in ninth grade this year. One kid. Alone.

I was an activist inclined kid. I know all too well what it is like to have idea after idea shot down. I might well have proposed such a thing as a teenager. I too am often accused of being too logical, too brutally real. I was also a loner, willing to stand out from the crowd. I instantly respected her and recognized her.

But when I saw her there alone, I thought, she was sweet and sad. And I thought she didn’t have a prayer. One kid. Alone. The news media will do a spot on that, because she’s cute and the world will move on, I thought. That’s one reason I have never done anything like that—completely alone—even though I’ve been sorely tempted.

The difference with Greta is that she just did it. And damn the social reaction.

It didn’t matter that no one supported her or joined her at first. It didn’t matter whether or not her solitary protest would make any difference.

You can imagine what it would be like for a kid—in today’s fast-paced, entertainment-focused world—to sit there all day. Not playing on a phone, just sitting and looking at people with her sign, occasionally handing out fliers.

All day? Try five weeks.

This is what makes me stop breathing for a moment. She not only did it, did what very few of us would even consider doing. She did it for five weeks.

Some people supported her. Some attacked her. She was told that she should stay in her place. She was told she should go to school and become a scientist if she cared. She was accused of being a slacker. She was accused of being a paid activist, trying to milk people concerned about environmental issues.

Science already tells us what we need to know. We have less than a decade to change. We don’t need Greta to be a scientist to fix this. She knows it. And we know it.

She writes, “Yes, the climate crisis is the most complex issue that we have ever faced and it’s going to take everything from our part to ‘stop it’. But the solution is black and white; we need to stop the emissions of greenhouse gases. Because either we limit the warming to 1,5 degrees C over pre industrial levels, or we don’t. Either we reach a tipping point where we start a chain reaction with events way beyond human control, or we don’t. Either we go on as a civilization, or we don’t. There are no gray areas when it comes to survival.”

She got plenty of hate mail and in her responses on social media, you can tell she is vulnerable. It hurts her. She is a kid who has been excluded and bullied in some social situations because she was different. There isn’t one Asperger kid who hasn’t been.

But her response, unscripted and in her own slightly Euro-English diction, is the one thing I think might still save us: “Recently I’ve seen many rumors circulating about me and enormous amounts of hate. This is no surprise to me. I know that since most people are not aware of the full meaning of the climate crisis (which is understandable since it has never been treated as a crisis) a school strike for the climate would seem very strange to people in general.”

Instead of giving back hate for hate. She gives back comprehension for why others are uninformed.

Greta posts on Twitter and Facebook, stating her truth in her own words: “Many people love to spread rumors saying that I have people ‘behind me’ or that I’m being ‘paid’ or ‘used’ to do what I’m doing. But there is no one ‘behind’ me except for myself. My parents were as far from climate activists as possible before I made them aware of the situation.

I am not part of any organization. I sometimes support and cooperate with several NGOs that work with the climate and environment. But I am absolutely independent and I only represent myself.”

Greta says her actions were partly inspired by the students of Parkland and their activism for gun control in the United States. Because of social media, she in turn was seen and heard far beyond what my jaded assumptions where early on. Now, half a year later, there are demonstrations of tens of thousands in mid-sized cities all over Western Europe, primarily led by teenage girls, inspired by Greta.

The demonstrations in major cities, like Paris, have been twice and three times larger than the more widely reported “yellow vest” protests that struck down some climate friendly measures. The mainstream media has largely ignored this response but it continues to grow. In the US, the response has taken the form of groups of kids visiting Congressional offices and demanding support for the Green New Deal.

Will this change every thing? Did Greta single-handedly push us into a new era.

I hope so. But I doubt it.

If the media continues to ignore the amazing response to her strike by young people across Europe and the United States, then it may well fizzle within another year.

I too am overly logical and I am older. I’ve seen how activist things work and what it takes to last. I’m realistic.

But there is one thing that Greta did that will never be wiped away. She gave me the certain knowledge that there is something in the younger generation worth saving. Now when I see the spiraling mess of climate change discussions with the usual race for the bottom of cynicism and disillusionment, I think of Greta and the rest of it becomes obsolete.

She went to the Davos climate meeting and she told world leaders, “When I say that I want you to panic I mean that we need to treat the crisis as a crisis.”

It took 1,500 airline flights to get delegates to Davos, a sizable climate impact. It took Greta a 32-hour train ride. She never lets up with that logical approach.

ADHD, brain regulation and guided meditation: An actual parenting tip from Arie

I think my readers might tend to cringe, when I mention parenting. No one has told me they do. I’m just guessing because my posts about parenting tend to fall into three categories: 1. how blind people parent, 2. how not to parent and how miserable it can be, or 3. sarcasm and snark.

I really have read dozens of parenting books, actually implemented their methods, found them to work great with 90 percent of kids and occasionally to fail entirely. That has led to a lot of my cynicism.

Creative Commons image by Seattle Municipal Archive

Creative Commons image by Seattle Municipal Archive

It isn’t that the methods don’t work. If you are a frazzled parent and you don’t know about counting in an ominous tone, time outs, making everything out to be your kid’s choice when it actually means you are in charge, avoiding power struggles and teaching through your own example, by all means, go read the experts. I specifically recommend:

Parenting by Temperament,

Pick Up Your Socks,

Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline,

and depending on your circumstances Attachment in Adoption

However, my posts tend to assume you are like me—a parent who is obsessive enough to research and read books before the kid can even walk (or let’s be honest, before the kid is even born). That’s why I don’t generally go on about the methods in these books, which you should most definitely read and practice.

It’s the five percent of the time when they just plain don’t work that will kill you, cause premature hair loss and end your marriage or partnership. And I usually don’t have much beyond commiseration to offer those of you who have run into that wall with me.

But today I do actually have something worth sharing, a technique I have NOT found in any expert parenting book, which actually worked wonders on my out-of-control, neuro-diverse kid.

Bedtime is often a nightmare for parents of neuro-diverse kids. Some kids don’t run on the same schedule as the school bells or even the sun. Some kids can’t just tell their brains it’s time to calm down and go to sleep. Some kids don’t know what to do with exhaustion and instead of winding down, they amp up.

I have kept a very strict routine with my kids, ever since the day we brought them home. Routine helps. Like a train on rails, my daughter will often stumble from one part to another—with hissing steam and screeching noises but in the end shunted from the teeth-brushing track, to the pajamas track to the story track to the bed track. On a good night, the routine takes only an hour and a half, now that she’s ten.

But not every night is a good night. At age ten, my daughter still has frequent meltdowns and needs the kind of supervision usually reserved for the under-three crowd. By the end of the day, whoever has been dealing with her—and her load of homework assigned by the school in hopes of keeping her somewhere in the ballpark of grade level—is staggering on their feet.

There are nights when after all of it, after the hours of one-on-one attention and the lengthy, carefully designed bedtime routine, she won’t go to sleep. She is up and around the house after bedtime. She wants snacks and she shrieks in protest. Getting her into bed is a literal physical battle that we still win by main force but only just. And then nothing can hold her there and no one can sleep with the racket.

This strife goes on anywhere from one to two hours on those nights and they averaged about once a week, up until recently.

I want to be very clear here about what directly preceded this bit of creative parenting. That is I had two full days and two nights at home alone. My husband took the kids on a skiing trip, returning so drunk with exhaustion out of a snowy night that I shuddered to think of how he managed the two-and-a-half-hour drive.

I sent him straight to bed and prepared to do battle alone, well rested as I was.

I got both kids out of their tight, damp skiing clothes and fed them. My eight-year-old son was blinking and crying, he was so tired. I knew I couldn’t physically handle both, so I got his teeth brushed and let him fall into bed first. He was literally asleep within seconds.

Then I tackled the more difficult kid. My daughter was exhausted too, lashing out randomly and swinging wildly from glee to rage. Her entire body hummed with tension. I could feel it as I helped her undress and brush her teeth. I told her a brief story and settled her down with her audio book in hopes that physical exhaustion would do its magic.

But no such luck. Not that night.

Thirty minutes turned into 40 minutes beyond bedtime and even my two-day reserve of regenerated energy was starting to flag. She wouldn’t even stay in bed to listen to her story and when she was up, she was into everything, requiring constant supervision and making nerve-rattling shrieks every one to two seconds. A hand on her shoulder told me that her body still thrummed with pent-up energy.

On most nights, this would have been the point where I started laying down the law and rolling out consequences, “You can choose. Either you stay up and keep me up and you won’t be able to have audio book tomorrow night or you lay down and relax and go to sleep and you’ll still have audio book tomorrow.” And so forth. It only occasionally works anyway.

Many nights the chaos continues for another hour and finally ends in her being locked in her room until she wears herself out—not a stellar parenting performance.

One of the more helpful things I had recently gleaned from rereading a few of the expert books was to focus on the concept of addressing the child’s deeper need. Clearly, my daughter needed sleep. She was exhausted, but she had no idea how to calm her dis-regulated brain and win some peace.

As a high-strung creative person, I do know what it is like to be exhausted after a long day’s work and to lie in bed with nerves jangling, a thousand thoughts whirling around my brain. Prominent among those thoughts is often the desperate need to sleep, in order to be ready for the challenges and trials of the next day.

So, I asked myself, how I get to sleep when I’m in such a state?

“Badly,” came quickly to mind. But also “quietly.” On such nights, I often lie awake in silence after it is clear that no audio book is going to help. I do relaxation exercises, deep breathing and progressive muscle contraction and release, which make me feel virtuous but don’t make me sleep. And then, more than anything I descend into a childhood fantasy and rehash versions of the adventurous and purposeful life I once dreamed of.

And that usually does help.

With that thought and the understanding that much of my daughter’s difficulty comes from an inability to regulate her own brain and do such things for herself, I came and sat on the edge of her bed and began to make up the fantasy for her.

At first, she was too jittery even to listen or lie down. I had to grab her attention mercilessly. I know what she obsesses over after all—preteen YouTube celebrity girls with shopping infomercials and flaunting conspicuous wealth. There isn’t much beyond kinky sex and hard drugs I would less like my child to be delving into at this age but desperate times call for desperate measures.

“Imagine you’re at the most beautiful park you’ve ever seen with all your friends from school and Everly, Ava and Jojo Siwa are there too, just to see you…”

She stopped jerking around and actually settled back on her pillow, her eyes wide and staring. I could still feel her muscles pulsing with nervous energy through the blanket but at least she was in the actual bed.

“It’s your birthday party,” I continued, “and everyone is there to wish you a happy birthday and play with you in the warm sunshine. There are fun things to climb on and the most beautiful cake you can imagine.”

The way my words came out made me think of those relaxation exercises I had so little luck with. I was originally taught those by an eccentric French teacher in my tiny rural high school in Oregon. She had the five kids in her class, me and four ranch kids, lie on the floor of loose wooden boards and do relaxation exercises.

She had also done guided meditation, which the boys had interspersed with rude comments. I had been cooperative but more because I felt a bit sorry for the teacher than anything else. I never did like guided meditation. I encountered it again at a handful of workshops and events over the years.

It didn’t work for me because my brain is entirely capable of paying full attention to the audio meditation, doing the visualizations and thinking of one or two other complex things at the same time. It isn’t relaxing because it doesn’t overwhelm me enough. It is not that other thoughts intrude on the meditation. They simply occur in a different place and the meditation continues without a hitch.

I did eventually find a form of meditation that consumes enough of my consciousness to work as intended but it requires memorized recitation along with practiced movements. Once the words and movements became automatic to me, the meditation worked because it was difficult enough that it took all the excess brain activity with it.

My daughter’s brain is probably the opposite of mine. That has been a large part of our miscommunication. For me, directing my mental attention to something or doing several mental things at the same time is no problem. The only significant problem is prolonged lack of mental activity.

So, it occurred to me that while guided meditation might be boring and insufficient for me, it might be immensely relaxing and freeing to her. Released from the need to try to control her brain, she could coast to sleep on a ready-made fantasy.

I could tell right away that the fantasy I had constructed for her, while successfully capturing her attention was too exciting to induce sleep. Slowly I shifted the focus of the words, describing more the surrounding natural environment and less of the celebrities and then even gently removing the other people from the picture.

“Your friends step into little boats on the lake and start to drift away over the waves. They float slowly up and down, up and down. And they wave back to you calling, ‘Good bye! We love you! Have a good rest!' As they drift away you sit down under the big oak tree. You can feel the warm, smooth bark on your back. You slide down to feel the soft, dry moss under the tree and lay your head on a soft, moss-covered root.”

I could feel her miraculously relaxing. Even her breath was calming. I included some deep breaths in the story and almost magically she took deep breaths as suggested, something that is usually impossible for her

Finally, I concluded the story with my daughter drifting into sleep in the beautiful park by the lake. The entire guided meditation took only about eight minutes. When I stood up, she made one drowsy noise but subsided again. I left the room and didn’t hear from her for the rest of the night.

Since then I’ve used guided fantasy to calm her several times in situations where she used to be unable to calm. Certainly children are as diverse as different species of animals. Just as this type of meditation didn’t work for me, it may not help many children. But what is universal in the technique is the parenting tool of looking at what the child needs on a deeper level and designing something that fits the child’s specific temperament to reach that goal.

How you get the exhausted child to sleep or the frustrated child to calm enough to complete their homework is not that important. We get stuck on having a specific way that such things should be done. There is a standard way that works pretty well with most kids, but not with all neuro-diverse kids.

“Do what works,” a fellow disability rights activist used to tell me. “Just do what works, regardless of how it looks.”

I hope someday my daughter will be able to learn to use guided meditation tapes to steer her own brain and gain a sense of self mastery. I’ve gained a new respect for a technique I previously rejected as too simplistic and manipulative. We all need different things.

On parenting, as usual, don’t judge other parents and do what works.

Putting hope back into the holidays

It has been a particularly rough week here and a particularly rough year everywhere. Looking through my records I notice that last year at the winter solstice (a month and a half after the election of Donald Trump), the image I led my post with was that of a dying, red sun in a gray and gloomy forest.

We knew we were headed for hard times then, and now hard times have come. Wild fires raged across dry areas all autumn and areas that are not usually dry were parched with unusual thirst. More innocent people were shot down. Racism became more brazen and public. Several countries started violently fending off waves of refugees from worse-hit regions. 

The state of the outer world mirrors my intimate life this week. As many of my readers know, one of my children struggles with neuro-diversity that takes a toll on the health of the whole household. This week was particularly difficult--a lot of screaming, meltdowns multiple times per day, extreme stress and a lot of glass shards.

Yule necessary hope holiday wish meme.jpg

I feel like I'm fighting for my life and the only thing I can fight is a person even more vulnerable than myself, who is not to blame. If that is not a mirror of the outside world, I don't know what it is. 

I hear the stealthy "scritch!" of a match struck across the table while I'm getting dinner and my hand automatically lashes out, ready to grab, knock something out of her hand if necessary, defend the home...

My hand freezes with inches to spare. The tiny flame catches on the wick of first candle in the Yule wreath. Anxiety wars with guilt within me and nearly drowns my little sigh of gladness. I am so tired of fighting disasters moment by moment and of being on guard every second in between.

I stifle the yell in my throat and say, my voice shaking a bit, "Thank you for lighting the candles, honey. Please be gentle." 

And for once she is. I watch closely, pausing in the midst of loading plates. There are moments like this. That's one reason I have to be on guard. I never know what to expect. I can no more relax in my home than we can let our guard down in the world beyond these four snow-proof walls.

It is trite to take such a small, glowing thing--a literal candle flame moment--and expound upon it to fabricate a message of hope. "Don't despair for even a struggling child lit a candle." 

But it does bring me a moment of gladness. It is more in the noticing that there are such moments, not the act itself. 

After a morning of getting the kids to school for one of the last days before break, I walk up the hill to let the chickens out. Snow crunches under my boots and I have to give the door an extra tug against the frost.

I turn back to the trail down the ridge and take a long breath of crisp, cold air. The solstice sun is still below the horizon but pink and gold light sparkles on the ice crystals that adorn the bare branches of the fruit trees. A moment of beauty.

I give thanks for the cold. It will help a bit to beat back the climate-change-exacerbated invasive pests that plague our region. And I hope against hope that this is a good and natural cold snap, not one created by melting ice and shifting currents. I pray for more snow, ballast against another summer of drought. 

In dark times, you never know when the next moment of beauty or respite will come again. It's about noticing--taking that breath and noticing. 

The winter solstice is about hope. It always has been in northern lands. Here on the 50th parallel where we get only seven short hours of real daylight at this time of year, the return of the light is a big deal. 

But we won't see much difference for weeks yet. The hope of this season is symbolic and a bit forced.

That's okay. We hope because we must. 

My friends, many of you write that you are certain that climate change has already passed the crucial tipping points. Many of you are aghast at how bigotry and hate have sprouted like mushrooms after rain, proving that the relative civility of years past was a result of suppression rather than deep social change. Many of you despair of finding common ground, even with those you love, let alone with people in other regions of the country or the world. 

And there is no denying this darkness. I will not try to tell you it is not real or that I can promise some sort of supernatural hope. I do not know for sure that the light will return in these areas, as it does in the sky. 

I know only that without hope, you fall and die or become so angry or jaded that you feed the roots of pain and suffering. 

The winter solstice and essentially every holiday modeled after it by various religions--Yule, Christmas, Hanukkah, Dong Zhi et al--they are all at the core about hope--not because it is real, but because it is necessary.

Hope because the alternatives are not feasible. 

Embrace those near you who are willing to embrace. May the holidays you hold dear bring you joy and peace and some much needed comfort. 

But above all may they strengthen your most necessary capacity for hope.

How to be a good-enough parent

”This kid was whining, saying his mom’s name over an over again. She couldn’t even get him to stop.”

All it takes is one of those comments, usually about the bad behavior of kids or families with children getting in the way and a flood is unleashed. Whether the person making the original comment was judging the parent or not, most people jump to the conclusion that the child’s parent is to blame.

Parent shaming is more popular than fat shaming. It’s the most socially acceptable form of public shaming in our society.

If you’re like me and not made of dried rawhide, you probably want to avoid it pretty bad. Fortunately, I’ve read just about every parenting book on the market, and according to some flatterers, I have quite a few parenting tricks up my sleeve.

So here is my fool-proof guide to avoiding parent shame and winning the coveted twenty-first-century “good enough” parent medal.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Before you start

  • One of the main reasons parents are shamed is because of overpopulation. Before you start, consider whether or not you should. Our world is suffering from population explosion and ecological collapse. It could be argued… and in practice will be argued that you are selfish for insisting on procreating your own special genes.

  • The easiest way to avoid parent shaming is not to become a parent. Sure, we need to have a next generation to keep the economy going while those virtuous adults who choose not to burden the earth with their off-spring get old, but you might want to leave that up to someone else.

  • Another way to avoid the overpopulation and ecology shamers and still be a parent is to adopt. But you’ll be shamed for adopting too. There are stories about adoptive parents exploiting poor people in other countries and buying children. Even though you personally might not have done that, you can be sure that every time the subject of how you adopted kids is brought up, this issue will be rehashed and you’ll be publicly shamed about it.

  • If you either already have kids or still think you can have kids and avoid shame too, read on.

The loving foundation

  • Most people at least claim that they believe the most important part of parenting is love. It all starts with love and the worst shame any parent can have is to be accused of not loving their kid enough, or heaven forbid, loving one kid more than another. There should be nothing your kid could do that would cause you to stop loving him or her. Well, a school shooting, yeah, then you should stop loving them but other than that. Be unconditionally, unendingly, inexhaustably loving.

  • But not too loving. Don’t smother. Don’t be biased in favor of your kid at public events. Lots of shame comes to those parents who cheer too much or protect their kid from criticism or favor their kid over others.

  • Be loving but know precisely when your child doesn’t want to be kissed or hugged anymore. Physical affection is essential. Just because your child pulls away or shouts obscenities at you doesn’t mean they’ve grown out of the hugging phase. They still need loving hugs, up until the point that they don’t. You have to know where that invisible line is. Stop hugging too early and you’re cold and creating needy sociopathic monsters. Too late and you’re a pathetic cliche.

  • Be loving from a distance when they decide they don’t want to have anything to do with you as young adults. Be loving but have no emotions. Love but don’t expect love back. Be immune to screaming, hateful diatribes. Accept them with equanimity.

Balancing parenting and career

  • Provide for all of your child’s physical and emotional needs. Make sure you have a job that pays well, so that your child never has to be exposed to black mold, a leaky roof, a dangerous neighborhood, cheap and unhealthy food, bully-target clothing or unsafe, cheap toys. Financially poor parents are among the first to be shamed everywhere. If you didn’t have good job prospects, you never should have had the off-spring, so buck up and make money.

  • Moms, be especially sure to have a prestigious job, Set a good example for your daughters. It is unforgivable to give girls the impression that their options are limited. And boys need to see women as powerful and prestigious providers too. Feminists are great at shaming moms who break ranks and don’t get a career. Half-time and place-holding jobs don’t cut it. You’re sending a message that women are limited by their biological childbearing function.

  • Not only must your job be prestigious and keep you out of poverty, it must guarantee a stimulating environment for your child, including expensive educational toys and legos, toddler foreign language and music classes, memberships to sports, arts and crafts clubs and courses, and vacations to exciting places. If your child lags in academics, you clearly missed some of these requirements and it’s all your fault.

  • At the same time, you must be present and attentive to your kids pretty much all the time. If doing this while satisfying the points above requires breaking the space-time continuum, tough beans. Nannies are a lazy-parent trick. Parents who rely on nannies for more than emergencies deserve the shaming they routinely get.

  • Make sure you are home with your kids for at least the first three years of their lives and that you are there when they leave for school and when they get home. In fact, while exercise is good, not driving your kids to school is shame-worthy if you live within a 200-mile radius of any historical child-kidnapping incident, which defines every inhabited place on the planet, except maybe some remote cabins in Greenland.

  • What your kids need more than anything is your constant, reassuring and playful presence. It is the single most important factor in the development of their self-confidence and their educational success. Of course, their day at school needs to be as short as possible and not lengthened by after-school programs, so that you can selfishly work longer hours. They are just children after all and their growing brains cannot handle long days the way adults can. You know who those whispers at pick-up time are about.

Tackling the housework

  • If you were thinking that you can game the previous section by working from home or running a business out of your home, this point is specifically for you.

  • Embrace the mess. Kids are naturally messy and it is unnatural and harmful to deny them the right to be messy or to force them to live in too sterile an environment (defined as spaces in which more than 50 percent of the floor area is walkable). When social workers enter a home on a child-abuse tip, a too-clean home is one of the red flags they are looking for. Shame on those clean-freak parents!

  • Also cleaning does not count as being present and attentive. You need to be playing with your kids, engaging in child-led activities (such as being the evil queen, lady’s made, monster or bad guy running from miniature cops). Cleaning must be kept to a minimum and done only when the kids are asleep, which rules out most home businesses.

  • Ensure a hygienic and stimulating environment for your child. Those same social workers are also looking for cluttered and dirty homes. That goes right on the form. Parents who are slobs and have clearly not washed their floor since it was puked on and who have clutter covering a lot of grime will certainly get shamed.

  • Also clutter doesn’t count as a stimulating environment. If your kids can’t find their educational toys or the pieces to all those games or the wheels of their lego sets, they won’t get the advantages those toys provide.

The care and feeding of littles

  • Ensure that your kids get good nutrition. Processed and prepackaged foods are the worst. Restaurant foods are also highly salted and sugared and full of harmful GMOs, white flour and trans fats. The harm these foods do to a child’s body and brain is truly horrific, including the development of allergies, neurological disorders, obesity, immune disorders and lifelong risks for diabetes and heart disease. (In fact, if your child already has any of those conditions or autism or ADHD, you are pretty much sunk on avoiding parent shame. You will inevitably be told that all they need is a better diet.)

  • You really need to cook from scratch. Bake whole-grain breads, but make sure you test for gluten sensitivities and learn to bake the gluten-free kind, if necessary. Note that cooking, like cleaning, doesn’t count as being present and you’ll need to do it while the kids are asleep or at school.

  • You’ll also have to satisfy both the vegetarian shamers and the “kids need a lot of protein to grow” shamers, but I’ll leave that one up to you.

  • Always keep in mind that sugar and nutrient deficient simple carbohydrates like rice, white bread, noodles and fries must be kept to a minimum. Did I mention that ketchup is mostly sugar? A lot of bad parents around you will be feeding their kids pretty much only these foods—right in front of your kids unless you keep them locked away from society. Because these foods are specifically designed to be attractive and biologically our bodies crave simple carbohydrates, your kids will beg for them. The shame is so easy to slide into.

  • And the most important rule about food is that you must never ever force your kids to eat something. You must provide healthy food, while they watch other kids both in person and on TV consume junk food and fast food. But forcing your kids to eat is one of the easiest things to shame parents about.

  • Food can never become a point of controversy in your home, or you will be “creating eating disorders.”

Fostering education and self-confidence

  • Children are the future and even people who don’t have children will rely on your children’s economic activity when our generation is old, so education is a hugely important part of parenting—the most important part according to many. You must ensure not just adequate but excellent education for your child, if he or she is to have any hope of surviving in the competitive economy these days.

  • As a preschooler, your child needs bright, fun, educational classes in foreign languages, brain development, music and art, and you should be present or right outside the door at all times.

  • You should carefully choose your child’s school. The only consideration allowed when looking at cost or transportation times is the child’s comfort, not yours or your selfish work schedule. You must get your child into a high-quality school or all the rest is your fault.

  • Teachers will expect you to devote several hours to your child’s education every evening, to keep all records and projects in perfect order, to go through backpacks and school materials and replace anything lost in the classroom jumble and to ensure that homework is completed and that the child actually understands what he or she is doing, rather than just parroting answers you gave.

  • Remember while average academic success on an assignment gets a C, which implies that most kids will get that kind of grade, you must make sure your kid isn’t one of them. C students can’t expect professional or academic success and parents of C students are lazy slouchers.

  • Oh, and never pressure your child about academics. The most important thing you can do for your child’s academic success is to boost his or her self-confidence with lots of praise. Praise your child’s every effort and reward good grades but not to the extent that any other child who is not so successful will suffer low self-confidence. Excessive praise would be as unforgivable as pressuring your child to succeed.

  • If they don’t succeed academically, it is your shame, not theirs.

Screen time, consumerism and socialization

  • If a child has social problems at school, it is the parent’s fault. Usually the parent has not provided the right kind of or new enough clothing, school supplies, accessories or toys. That or the parent is extreme and doesn’t allow the child to watch the popular entertainment of the day or play the current video games. Such a child cannot keep up with what the other kids are interested in. Kids will often be unpopular or even experience bullying when they come from extreme households that don’t allow these modern influences.

  • But of course you shouldn’t allow your child to be indoctrinated by consumerism either. There is nothing worse than a whiny, consumerist brat, constantly demanding this and that and thinking only of themselves. You need to identify the exact amount of toys, clothes and consumer items your kids need to survive socially and yet not become spoiled brats. It’s up to you and shame on you if you miss the mark!

  • You’ve no doubt seen the studies about the harmful effects of too much screen time on kids. You must carefully limit your child’s exposure to television, movies, video games and social media. Fifteen to thirty minutes per day might not be harmful but you have got to shut it off after that.

  • Also make sure the experience of shutting off the screens isn’t traumatizing to your child. That’s another reason parents get shamed.

  • And make sure that the denial of this forbidden fruit doesn’t result in your child being obsessed with screen-based entertainment. One more reason.

Morality without forced religion

  • Instead of consumerism and entertainment, make sure your child has a spiritual grounding and a healthy desire to help others. Involve your child in groups and communities which are focused on spiritual values. And above all teach your child right from wrong. This is one of many areas that parents are shamed for neglecting when their children get into trouble.

  • But never ever force a religion or spiritual beliefs on your child. Spiritual abuse is real and often turns kids away from spirituality entirely, which is also the parent’s fault. You can take them to a place of worship a couple of times, but don’t force them to go once they are old enough to wish to play video games instead. They will have to develop altruism and ethics without the structures that every previous generation of humanity relied upon for their spiritual development, and it’s your job to make sure they do (without the help of clergy).

The big one: Behavior and discipline

  • When it comes to separating right from wrong, it is important that you understand the difference between discipline and punishment. You must ensure that your child is disciplined but never punished. Punishment destroys self-confidence and thus higher brain functions.

  • You must teach your child how to behave well, or you will certainly be shamed. But you must never be harsh or punitive. You’ll not only be shamed. You could even be investigated by the authorities, the ultimate shame.

  • There are truck-loads of parenting books about how to ensure respectful and responsible behavior without harsh measures. They all rely on the idea that if you approach your child properly, they will inevitably respond reasonably and logically. Any childish lack of logic or other abnormality that causes your child to misbehave despite the expert strategies. reward charts and carefully phrased respectful reminders is probably your fault too, possibly something you did during pregnancy.

  • You may remind your children of the rules, ask them to sit in “time out” if they become too upset, ask them to ‘do over” whatever they did with poor behavior and provide positive reinforcement when they do behave well.

  • You will be held personally, legally and morally responsible for each and every one of your child’s misdeeds, but you are never allowed to punish them for it. You must be consistent with your rules and guarantee their sanctity, but you must never physically force or confine your child. You can gently remind them of the benefits of following your hard-and-fast, but punitively revoking privileges is no different from punishment.

  • You must at all times treat your child with the same respect you accord to well-behaved adults, even while your child is screaming insults, throwing food in your face and poking his or her siblings in the eye for fun. Respect, say the parenting rules of logic and reason, begets respect, and if it doesn’t, you must have done it wrong.

  • Don’t be a helicopter parent. Allow your child to take risks, so that they understand natural consequences. Natural consequences are the key part of non-punitive discipline. Instead of your punishments, your child should incur the natural consequences of their actions.

  • Of course, you should not allow your child to incur any of the consequences on the following list, or you are a criminally neglectful parent: physical harm, cold, dangerous heat, sunburn, tooth decay, malnutrition, allergic reactions, exposure to dangerous organisms, illness, exposure to dangerous substances, consumption of unhealthy food and its long-term health effects, sleep deprivation, educational failure, social ostracism, emotional trauma or public shame and disgrace. The public shame must be all yours when you fail at parenting. You must protect your child from all of the real consequences while not punishing and not helicoptering.

  • When your child does something even mildly annoying in public, you will be shamed. You need to ensure that your child does not annoy others. After all, you cannot impose your life choices to have a child on those who chose not to have children, even if they are counting on the next generation to keep the Social Security system ticking when they’re old. If your child whines, repeats annoying words, pesters you for attention, fidgets, taps things or otherwise is seen or heard in an annoying fashion, it is clearly because you failed at the point on discipline. You must be attentive and stop the annoying behavior one way or another immediately. However, you must remember to never be punitive or harsh. Otherwise you will not only be publicly shamed but reported to the authorities.

Keeping it all together

  • If doing all this, while working a sufficiently lucrative job, cooking from scratch and making sure your kids’ homework gets done, sounds tough, have no fear. Today people also shame parents for not doing self-care and taking time for their marriages.

  • You must take time for yourself. Go away for at least a couple of days per month with your spouse to ensure your family is rock solid. If your marriage falls apart, your kids will suffer and you’ll never live down the parent shame. (While planning this mandatory self-care, remember what happens to parents who hire nannies and sitters.)

  • If you’re stressed out, harried and gray-haired as a parent, your tone of voice will not be loving enough. Get enough sleep after the kids are in bed, the cleaning and cooking that you can’t do when they’re awake is done and the bills are paid. That’s the only way to avoid the shame of being willfully sleep deprived. You’ll need to use your skills with physics to stretch time in order to make time for reading novels, massage and other quality me-time activities. Remember there’s no excuse for not taking care of yourself, so you can be a good-enough parent.

My best tip is that the next time someone parent-shames you, make them read this.

Good luck! You’ll need it.

You don't have to forgive

I’ve been staring at photos of Jemel Roberson for almost two weeks now. Every violent death of innocent people—there have been so many lately—is a tragedy. Every time the police in the US kill a black person for no conceivable reason, other than prejudice and disregard for their lives, it’s an outrage.

But there is something about Roberson that has me by the throat. It grabbed me even before I saw the pictures of him with his nine-month-old baby. It’s the context. He saved people from a mass shooting, yet another one. He did what all those who oppose sensible gun regulations keep saying some good guy with a gun must do. And then they shot him dead.

And I watch black men and women speak about it—calmly, with dignity, with tightly controlled emotions. I don’t think I could talk about it in person without getting upset. Writing has always been easier for me that way.

But of course, I’m not black. I haven’t been forcibly taught to control my emotions or hide outrage to such an extreme. I respect that dignified control. I try to emulate it without much success. Today it makes me think of an incident that happened at my house, which was a lesson on self-control, manners and forgiveness.

My daughter bursts in the front door, breathless and wide-eyed. “They called her “black face!’” she gasps.

Creatuve Commons image via pixabay

Creatuve Commons image via pixabay

My husband just drove up with my daughter and her Nigerian friend from the city, age 8, in the car.

“Who?” I spin around. Our little town is very, very white, something my slightly brown children are all too aware of.

Still gasping out each word, my daughter points out to the road. She says both my son and a boy visiting us from across town ran up to my daughter’s friend when she got out of the car and started taunting her, calling her “black face” and a the local term for “African,” which isn’t supposed to be derogatory but lots of things depend on tone.

I run out the door and find the little girl on the front porch alone. I bring her inside and ask for her take on the story. She is mostly silent, answering with shrugs, nods and shakes of the head with her lips pressed together.

“Is it okay to call you that?” I asked.

Shrug.

“Do kids at school call you that?” I know she goes to school in a mostly white area as well.

Nod.

“Do you like it when they do?”

Shake.

The girl is only eight and we’re on the leading edge of Eastern Europe. We don’t exactly get consciousness raising here, so I can’t assume much. I explain that it isn’t okay for people to call her things she doesn’t like or to make fun of how she looks. As I explain, she slowly relaxes. This is only the second time she’s been away from home over night with white people and she barely got out of the car when this happened.

Justice will wait a moment in favor of therapy. I spend a good long time reassuring her that this is not okay and I won’t let anyone say those things in my house, no matter what. I reassure her that she is beautiful—and she is objectively stunning for an eight-year-old as it so happens. She nods but looks unconvinced.

I do get confirmation that it was my son as well as his friend calling names and I try not to show that this not only deeply embarrasses me but fills me with rage. She doesn’t need my emotions. but my kids are adopted from a racially marginalized group here in Eastern Europe and they have been called “black face” themselves, although they are many shades lighter than the Nigerian girl.

That my son would participate in this… There are no words.

I give her my own apology and send both girls upstairs to play and go out to slay demons.

When I corner the boys outside, they are initially unrepentant—silly, stumbling and giggling. This almost, but not quite, breaks my cool. I want nothing more than to rip them to shreds.

I ask for their side of the story. They attempt to say they were just playing, just kidding, but admit to using the words. The visiting boy admits fairly easily. He isn’t entirely sure these are bad words. My son knows better and it takes longer to get the truth out of him.

I need to cool off to keep from doing something illegal, so I put my son behind one door and the other boy alone on the porch for a time-out. After awhile, my son is more open to talking and he tells all.

The other little boy is frightened and crying. I know that his father just left definitively a couple of weeks ago and that his mother cleans houses. I note with quiet irony that the Nigerian girl’s mother cleans for a living too.

When children do really bad or dangerous things, things parents want to stop in their tracks, there is a conundrum. It isn’t garden-variety naughtiness and with rambunctious kids like mine, they have already seen every acceptable disciplinary strategy in more than a dozen parenting books. Giving them regular discipline (time-out, apologize, revoke video game privileges) seems woefully inadequate and I want to make this eminently memorable.

I talk to my son alone, keeping my fury in check.

“Why did you call her that?”

“It was funny.”

“Has anyone ever called you that?”

Negative head shake.

“Well, actually I happen to know that they did when you were in kindergarten. Lots. It was a big problem. That one teacher…”

Shrug.

I had to bite my tongue. Unlike the kids and some parents, the teacher had not called him “black” or “gypsy” but she had said “those people have trouble in school” and “it’s about the genes, you know.” In the spring she had insisted that he had a contagious skin disease and would be banned from kindergarten for the several weeks it would take to be completely screened by dermatologists. Fortunately, the pediatrician stood up to her. It was ant bites. But all Marik knew was that he had to go to the doctor and the teacher was upset and the doctor said it was silly. As a mother you protect six-year-olds from some of the world’s worst truths, but kids and parents had said those things to him.

“Do you like it when people call you something like that?” I pressed.

Head shake.

Sigh. “Do you think you can give her a really really good apology?”

Nod.

I am far from satisfied, but I go out to talk to the other boy. He’s wiping his tears on his sleeve. This is even harder, though less personally humiliating, since he isn’t my son.

“Have you ever seen an African person before?” We essentially don’t have any local people of African origin here, so this is more or less how I phrase it.

“No.”

Much as I thought. “Why did you call her those words and laugh at her?”

Shrug. “I don’t know.”

“Have you heard other people use those words about African people or other people with brown skin?”

“Yeah.”

“I understand that you heard older kids and grownups use those words. That still doesn’t mean they are okay. It is not okay to call people names and I will never allow those kinds of words at my house. Even outside my house, if you use them, you won’t be welcome at my house. Do you understand me?”

Slight nod.

“Do you think you can say you’re sorry in a really nice way?”

“She’s black. It’s true.”

I’m momentarily at a loss for words. He’s only seven. I didn’t expect much resistance, though I didn’t have any great hopes of making a lasting impression on him either.

I again have to leave in order to avoid coming down like a ton of bricks on someone else’s kid.

I leave the boys in separate confinement for awhile yet. Then I bring them both out to the porch. I tell them that they need to apologize extremely well or my son’s friend will have to go home immediately. I know his single mother is looking forward to a day of rest with him here, but that’s just tough. He will go home if he is recalcitrant on this one.

Before I’m finished the two have started giggling again but I reiterate the consequences and they start to get serious, when they realize I mean it. I have my phone out, ready to make the call.

They start crying and we discuss more. My son’s friend unexpectedly states that kids at school do call my son those names. My son argues that it is mostly only one kid. Obviously he wasn’t telling the full truth before. I discuss with them the ridiculous nature of calling someone with slightly tan skin “black” and point out that the Nigerian girl is also not technically black in color, but more like dark brown. I reiterate that these differences don’t matter and it it is not okay to laugh at someone’s appearance anyway.

Slowly they both appear a bit more genuinely contrite. Finally, I leave them to plan their profuse apology and go upstairs to see the girls again.

I ask the Nigerian girl if she would come down, when she isn’t busy. Overly polite child that she is, she jumps up immediately to go downstairs. I ask her if she would be willing to listen to the boys’ apology. She agrees.

We join the boys outside, and I reiterate for everyone that it isn’t okay to call people names or laugh at anyone’s appearance or background. The boys actually do a pretty good job of apologizing and I almost ask, “Do you forgive them?” But I bite my tongue again.

She’s standing there with her head high, looking down on them from the top step of the porch, while they stand on the grass in the deepening dusk. I think on the fact that white people have probably never apologized to her for racism before. It will be a rarity in her future as well, if she ever gets another such apology, and the racism isn’t going to stop.

The handling of this moment is as crucial as any other step I’ve taken in resolving this deceptively childish conflict.

“You don’t have to forgive them,” I tell her. “They can handle it themselves. But you can forgive them if it makes you feel any better.”

She takes a moment more to look down on them and then says with the most impeccable manners I could wish my kids had, “I forgive you. Thank you for your apology.”

Then she turns and goes back to playing upstairs.

I let the boys come in the house and mostly things continue well, except that I discover that it is the Nigerian girl’s birthday. They don’t do birthday parties in her family, so no one mentioned it when we invited her. I decide this is a perfect opportunity to make the rest of the day all about her.

The boys have to work off a bit of their naughtiness by cleaning the floor. I whip together the world’s fastest chocolate cake and make the boys wrap a gift. The birthday girl is wide-eyed and stunned when she comes downstairs again to our impromptu decorations and party. She says she’s seen birthday parties on TV and she does everything just like in the movies, closing her eyes and putting on a dramatic show of making a wish and blowing out the candles.

In the middle of eating the cake, the seven-year-old who had never seen a black person up close before blurts, “At least you don’t have to worry about getting chocolate on your face, since…”:

I growl his name and fix him with a death-glare across the table. He gulps and wisely shuts up.

She doesn’t appear to notice.

By the time I tuck all four kids into bed, I am aching and exhausted. I feel like I have been literally fighting a war. I don’t know if I’ve won anything this day and I am sure that tomorrow and every single day we’ll still be fighting it.

How does this relate to the case of Jemel Roberson exactly? Well, it isn’t just that case of course. But I would say to all the black people who hurt inside or out because of this lethal and crushing racism we are living with, “Thank you for your calm and your manners and your endless attempts to live in peace with us. You do not have to forgive white people, even when we apologize. We can live with not being forgiven. What we need is to learn and remember and do better in the future.”

The first reason for outrage: Living with climate change

Your grown children scrape at the rock-hard ground with salvaged hand tools, trying to turn the baked mud. They have realized their dreams and they have professional careers but today—in 2050—everyone has to keep a garden to supplement the limited food they can buy at exorbitant prices.

A torrential flood came through last winter and took away what was left of the homes built in better times. But the water didn’t stay.

When the three-day storm was spent, all that was left was stinking mud on everything—tainted with the bodies of people and animals and with chemical spills. Now the drought has returned with a vengeance. It hasn’t rained in weeks and early spring looks like late summer used to look, at least in the sky.

Creative Commons by Asia Development Bank

Creative Commons by Asia Development Bank

There are no trees left. Those were cut long ago for fires and to build makeshift shelters when houses were destroyed by winter floods and summer brush fires. What is left are mostly the hardier sort of weeds. Even if they can plant the seeds they have left, your children won’t see much of a harvest. Just like last year, the insects are the only life that is flourishing and they swarm in clouds that can make breathing difficult on some days.

Even with their career jobs, they need this garden. Your youngest grandchildren—which you may well not be alive to meet, if you were in your twenties in 2018—sit listlessly in the dust beside the garden. The low-nutrient diet and grinding stress of survival takes its toll on both mind and body, especially for the youngest ones. They can barely muster the energy to cry, let alone play. They are wracked by sicknesses that your generation believed banished from your wealthy country forever.

They are still better off than the wretches your children see along the road outside, refugees from the south. Long lines of refugees were something you saw on the news. They are now something your children and grandchildren see on their doorstep and all along the high fences your children built to protect their scrubby garden.

The lines of people trudging by never end and they look like walking skeletons. They don’t beg as much as they used to. By now they know that your children don’t have enough for their own and they go on, hoping against all the facts to find a place with some rain… but not too much rain.

This is what famine and drought look like and it’s what life will likely resemble in 2050 in the US Midwest and Southern Europe, if carbon emissions from coal, gas or oil burning and factory farming continue apace. According to the recent report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, this is the kind of impact we can expect from a 2°C rise in global average temperature, a level we’ll reach by around 2050 if we continue as we are and by 2100 even if we implement the more widely accepted agreements on emissions reduction.

Creative Commons image by Tim J. Keegan

Creative Commons image by Tim J. Keegan

A 2°C temperature rise doesn’t sound bad to many people in northern climates. The problem is that it is an average and it isn’t equally distributed. It also is a lot more drastic than it sounds for the earth’s climate. Even such a small-sounding temperature change would mean widespread drought.

Extreme weather events would hit temperate areas the way they are now hitting desert areas such as the Middle East. The areas hit today will become uninhabitable.

Still many people don’t register the realities of such impacts. Scientists often call out people who predict the collapse of civilization due to climate change. A 2°C temperature rise may be bad but it would probably not mean the complete destruction of modern industrial and consumer society. And most people in wealthy countries will still live, just poorer and shorter lives.

Scientists deal in probabilities and theories. They aren't supposed to look at impacts personally or allow emotion in. That prevents them from extrapolating out what their data would actually mean for their own family as I have done here. And even so, many climate scientists are suffering from clinical levels of anxiety and depression due to their understanding of what is coming and the lack of response from the wider population or the outright denial of many in positions with the power to change it.

If you are over thirty and your children are already half grown, this may be the fate in store for your grandchildren and great grandchildren instead. But he fact still remains, that this is the life we are creating. On paper the predictions don’t sound that bad for people in temperate climates. Most predictions focus on the fact that some more vulnerable areas which are already very hot will become uninhabitable either by flooding or extreme drought. Many people in the equatorial countries may die outright.

But those countries are far from the English-speaking world. And the predictions scientists put forward about us sound dry and theoretical. “Decreases in crop yields, increases in pest infestations and extreme weather events, increases in disease, spreading drought in certain areas and increases in coastal flooding.”

If you have never been bothered by any of these things and do not currently raise food from the land, it all sounds distant and like someone else’s problem. Many people assume it will simply mean that food is more expensive. But I have spent a fair amount of time in countries where this type of weather is common today, the countries likely to be hit hardest and earliest by climate change, such as Bangladesh. The weather that scientists predict for much of the American west and the Midwest and for large parts of Central Europe is the weather these vulnerable places already have and their dismal economic realities may be a crystal ball in which we can see our own future.

Creative Commons image by Tavis Ford

Creative Commons image by Tavis Ford

Food is likely to become so expensive that many more people will have to be engaged in growing or attempting to grow food, even if it is only to supplement what they can buy.

The lackadaisical view of climate change so common in society today isn’t really surprising. On the one hand, we have dry predictions which give little indication of the wrenching realities they factually describe.

On the other hand, there are the more fictionalized predictions of the collapse of civilization as we know it and the death of whole swaths of the population.

One sounds incremental and abstract. The other is easy to dismiss as unrealistic and if it were actually likely, many people would decide it’s better to live with all comforts now than struggle to be one of the few miserable survivors in such a world. Better to die quickly is the trendy, distanced logic, so why try to fight it if we’re doomed anyway?

But neither of these is a real depiction of what climate change means for us and our families. The reality isn’t total annihilation and neither is it merely a matter of higher prices. It means a lot of real hardship and heartbreak. Life will go on unless global average temperatures reach the 4°-5°C-above-pre-industrial-temperatures range. But it will be a much harder life than it needs to be.

Climate change is currently the umpteenth reason for outrage. Many of us are so exhausted by poverty, discrimination, racism, sexual assault, war, ableism, denial of health care, general bullying and immediate environmental pollution that climate change gets put on the back burner or at least low on the activist’s list of grievances.

It should be the first reason for outrage and the rallying cry. Climate change effects everyone and it is the thing that across all underprivileged groups we have contributed to least but which harms us most. It is caused only slightly by individual actions and more by corporations and heavy industry. It is the most essential injustice and those who will suffer most from it are those who have no voice at all—small children and those not yet born.

At the new moon, I will paint another word picture about climate change—this time about the sort of effort and lifestyle it would take to prevent this level of climate change. Outrage is necessary and so is hope.