What kids need during the holidays

I woke up one winter morning in middle childhood to the sound of gunshots on the other side of a thin wooden wall. The light coming through the window was eerie, pale and wavering like a cold candle. 

I jumped out of bed and searched for my parents, who slept in the bed next to mine. Their covers were rumpled and they were gone. I raced to the loft where my brothers slept. My little brother was sitting up in his blankets while my older brother struggled quickly into his shirt.

"What's that noise?" I cried. 

"Pa's shooting his gun," my older brother said.

The front door to our cabin slammed and I could hear Mama coming in below. We scrambled to the railing and demanded to know what was going on. Mama explained with a tone somewhere between resignation and reassurance that all the deep heavy snow we had thought was melting the night before had frozen solid as a rock over night and Pa was shooting clumps of ice out of the giant fir tree next to our house... so that it wouldn't fall and crush our house. 

This memory, one of the clearest I have from childhood, is oddly tinged with brilliant sparkle. There is almost no fear in my memory, as if I thought all this was terribly exciting. Beyond the first shock of waking up alone with the frightening noise outside, I seem to have been in a state of giddy delight. Pa was like Pa in Little House on the Prairie. There was no natural or human threat to big for him in my view. We were clearly safe in his hands.

While we were getting dressed in the loft there was a tremendous crash that shook the whole cabin and the sound of wood grating against metal. Something had clearly fallen onto our tin roof. It was prevented from crushing us only by a few beams, some insulation and a couple of layers of plywood. 

Excited to see a fallen tree and glad that the house had apparently survived, my brothers and I pulled on our snow gear and scrambled up the steps cut into the ice outside the front door to get outside. Pa was still out by the large fir tree to the north of the house and it had clearly not fallen. We told him about the crash on the roof and suggested that it must have been the tree on the south side of the house.

He told us to go check, so we ran around the front of the house... or attempted to. I got to the front yard where the ground sloped gently downhill and my feet flew out from under me. My head struck the sheer sheet of ice under me with a loud "crack!"

My brothers went down a bit more gracefully and scrambled back across the ice to help check on me as I groggily shook the stars out of my eyes. 

We'd had several feet of heavy snow the day before. But in the evening the temperature had climbed and the whole mass had started to melt, water running across the surface and down onto the county road below. But in the night a cold snap had come, so hard and fast that the melting slush had turned to ice, a thick, rock-hard layer covering everything for miles around us. It did not have the crusty appearance of old snow with a frozen top layer. It was slick, shiny and impenetrable. 

It's likely that anyone forty or over from the Pacific Northwest will know what I'm talking about. It is still generally referred to as the Great Ice Storm. Electrical lines were down for days, phones and water pumps didn't work, every branch and twig was coated in a thick layer of clear ice, a snow plow was broken trying to clear our county road and we were completely cut off from the outside world for three days. 

My brothers and I didn't know the extent of the "disaster" yet but we already loved it. We were on an important mission from Pa to check the south side of the house, so despite the ringing in my head and the large knot swelling behind my ear, my big brother helped me up and we staggered the rest of the way around the cabin, joking about how my head was so hard that it cracked the ice. 

As it turned out, it was a disappointingly small branch that had crashed onto our roof and made such an enormous noise. But by midday Pa had finished shooting ice out of the trees and he had time to pull us on our giant toboggan. We slid our way over to our nearest neighbors, to make sure everyone was all right. Then we slid home again. 

It is ironic that while our parents' generation remembers it as a natural disaster, my brothers and I remember those days of candlelight and ice as some of the best moments of our childhood.

Creative Commons image by David Lytle 

Creative Commons image by David Lytle 

We spent our days sliding on the snow or helping our parents with the tasks of daily survival, such as cutting blocks of ice out of the frozen slush to heat on the wood stove. (That was our only source of water with our well 60 feet deep and the pump out of operation.( And we spent the long winter evenings, playing games and telling stories by candlelight. 

Anyone who remembers a night without electricity as a child can probably relate to some degree. Without the TV, computers, oven, food processor or phone working and with the roads closed, the one thing we children had was... our parents' attention.

We often feel that the past must have been simpler and by extension better, because in those times they did not have electricity and all of those things on a regular basis. So, we envision it like an endless snow day. But in reality, the children of the past did not have their parents' attention because their parents' daily routine did not require electricity. 

The truth is that we cannot really give our children an endless snow day. We cannot always give them our full attention. We have to work and cook and keep our lives together and that takes up the majority of our time and energy. Most of the time, what is left for real attention to children is the crumbs. 

But this is still what I think of during the holidays and when facing the week of winter break. Our children can remember the holidays as a magical time of sparkle, even if the reality is that we are stressed out and the extended family is fighting and money is tight and crises loom. The key to it is amazingly simple. Times of comfort and attention. 

We can create it for our children, by declaring our own great ice storm. It doesn't actually take a disaster to make a time that children will remember forever. 

Here is a recipe. It need not be every moment of the holiday season, but as much as possible, as often as possible, allow and if necessary schedule family times with these elements:

  1. Nothing urgent that adults must get done.
  2. Nothing urgent that the kids must get done.
  3. No set schedule or a very simple schedule
  4. Few or no visitors outside immediate family, who are very familiar to children
  5. A pleasant and familiar environment
  6. The attention of adults being at least partly on things of interest to the child
  7. A low level of excitement for something in the future or an understanding of this as a special time
  8. A balance of sugar versus protein in food.
  9. Low use of electronics by children and adults alike
  10. Opportunities for activities like playing games, reading, building things, coloring, crafting, cooking, playing in nature, moving around
  11. Any conflicts that arise expressed and handled with mutual compassion

Number ten--the apparent activity involved--is actually the least important thing on the list. It doesn't really matter what you're doing as much as the environment is good, necessities are taken care of and there is no urgent agenda. It is almost like magic. This really will create the most memorable moments for children without anything special or flashy added.

Certainly we also want to do special, fun and meaningful things with our children but doing them one at a time and allowing for spaces without a schedule in between will matter most. 

Surviving the new reality

Rain drums on the roof as I write. I am on enforced rest. Doctor's orders. I could cry for joy over the rest, except that the eye surgeon has forbidden me to express intense emotions. 

But you get the idea. I don't feel sick but I'm supposed to stay inside, keep warm, not work much and be at peace. I know, I wish I could spread it around a little too.

The only downside of this is a feeling of vulnerability that comes with the isolation.  I hesitate to venture out much, even on-line. I am a bit breakable and the world has suddenly become doubly harsh.

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

Creative Commons image by Sepp Schimmer

I saw a post from an old work colleague about attacks against people of color in the US. I wrote in a quick reply of support and bittersweet humor. And instead of solidarity, my old office-mate lashed out at me, labeling me an "sheltered white expat." 

I instantly had the urge to fight back. I'm not one who takes things lying down or turns the other cheek. Sure, I'm white and I know better than many white people what privileges and protections that entails. I am highly aware when I meet police officers that I am wearing the backpack of white privilege--then and many other times. I also know that when any country is in the grip of fear that there is an understandable anger toward emigres--those who left, no matter how good their reasons. 

On the other hand, I'm also a person with a significant physical disability. I'm up against the wall in this too. My children are not white and they are newly naturalized citizens. Will we ever be able to go back to visit my home and family again? That is not an idle question in these post-election days. We are also in a country (the Czech Republic) that Donald Trump has pledged to put a military base in. We are isolated for the moment, but far from off the hook. 

Still, I bit my lip and said none of that. I know well the furious emotions raging in my colleague's post. I replied only to express more simple and direct support for her. I told her I am an ally and I understand her words. She and another friend continued to express anger and rejection toward me. There was no reconciliation. 

I am worried.

I'm saddened to lose a connection to someone I enjoy simply due to these terrible times. But I am even more worried by what this negative interaction among allies means for our people--the people of our country, citizens and non-citizens, all cultures and all backgrounds. We're stuck in this together, after all. 

My home county in Oregon reportedly voted 67 percent for Trump. There are people I call friends who did and likely even a few only moderately distant relatives. And if I cannot meet a friend who agrees with me in support and solidarity, if we are so divided that I am the enemy even when I am not across the political divide, how... oh gods, how will we live with those who really do hate and choose a hateful leader? 

Let's take a moment to forget that Trump even exists. 

Sigh. Now doesn't that feel better? 

But wait a minute. There's a problem. We've made Trump disappear but we haven't made the many people who vehemently support him disappear. Sure, we can say they are a minority, as few as 20 percent of the nation and not even most of the voters. But they are enough and we have to live with them, Trump or no Trump.

I have always felt this because of where I grew up, far from the cosmopolitan and high-thinking coasts. I love visiting Portland, Seattle, New York or Francisco for precisely this reason. Our bubble of acceptance and freedom feels so good. 

But we forget that this is not all of the nation at our peril. We ignore rage at our peril. We belittle politically incorrect antagonism at our peril. We've seen that now.

I know it is hard to think about surviving the next four years. But we will... most of us at least. And here is how I propose to do it:

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

Creative Commons image by Peter Roome

  • If there is a registry for Muslims, get on it. I'll be a Muslim on paper.  If we're all on the list, the list will have no teeth.
  • Talk to Trump supporters. Really talk and listen. Listen to what motivates them, what they are upset about. Share your thoughts with respect and without contempt.  They are people and most people are susceptible to change, even if slow change.
  • Promote facts, everywhere, over and over again. The media will not help, so we have to do it. Talk about facts, post them, remember them, make lists. Don't let up about climate change.
  • Explain white privilege, primarily if you're white. Explain it again and again and again until you're sick of it and then explain it to more people. There is no way we're as sick of explaining it as Black, Hispanic and Native American people are.
  • Talk to the person no one is talking to at a gathering. Invite the disabled colleague or classmate to whatever. Connect. 
  • Make your circle bigger. Whatever it is you can give easily, put it in. Got a neighbor with younger kids who could use some of your nicer used clothes? Got extra veggies from the garden? Got wood or materials or whatever? Buy less, trade more, reuse more. Gain your security from community.
  • Take care of your own basic needs with as little resources as possible. Reduce plastics and fossil fuels in whatever ways you can. And remember you'll do more and better if you're rested, healthy and fed. Don't wait to be taken care of. Stand strong, think ahead, link arms.

My hope is with you. 

Overwhelmed? There's one choice we always end up making

I walk my kids to preschool in the pouring rain. It’s about a mile and a half and it wouldn’t be so bad except the main road through town and the buildings on either side of it are a couple of hundred years old. This means that massive regional traffic is now being squeezed through a single-lane road that was originally meant for nothing more than the occasional farmer’s handcart. To get around this bottleneck my kids and I would have to walk an extra couple of miles.

A deluge of mud and water sprays across a narrow sidewalk from the wheels of a passing bus. Creative Commons image by Matt Biddulp.

A deluge of mud and water sprays across a narrow sidewalk from the wheels of a passing bus. Creative Commons image by Matt Biddulp.

The sidewalks are often no wider than a sheet of printer paper (and sometimes they’re entirely non-existent). Add in overloaded drainage systems and the fact that most of the inhabitants of the hilly country around our town drive large vehicles and live lifestyles in which walking is considered eccentric (and voluntary).

All told, it isn’t very pleasant to get to the preschool or to the medical center on the other side of town. 

An endless stream of cars roars by, pushing and then exceeding the speed limit even though there isn’t much space between them. Each one in turn sends a wave of dirty, oily water spraying across my legs and across the torsos of the children. Each driver would have to look in their rear view mirror to see the spray of water they have personally hit us with. But they can all see the car in front of them squirting the sludge on us.

If they looked... if they thought at all, they would know that their car is going to do it too. They don't think or they don't care. Hard to say which.

We come to a tiny cramped parking lot for three vehicles in front of a shop. I go in front, keeping my children behind me as I carefully make my way around their bumpers, just inches from the zipping, roaring traffic. Sure enough one of the parked cars jolts into motion without warning just as I step behind it. The driver was probably trying to get into a tiny break in the traffic on the main road. He slams on his brakes and I jump backward but his bumper still comes in contact with my leg. I make my way toward the front of his car, to get around in the gap he has now left there. (Yes, he turns out to be a man.) We exchange angry words.

“People shouldn’t walk out in this. It’s ridiculous!” He looks frazzled and he is obviously not thinking about the fact that I’m carrying a white cane. If I want to get to work, get to a doctor or get my kids to school, I have to walk. 

We continue down the tiny sidewalk--walking the gauntlet of deafening noise, noxious fumes and greasy spray—with the very real possibility of sudden death only inches away.
I’m juggling a white cane and an umbrella against the pouring rain, but my small daughter takes my hand anyway and when the sidewalk broadens enough that we can walk side by side, she asks, “Mama, why are people so mean?”

A woman holds an umbrella to try to block a gush of muddy water showering her from a passing car. Creative Commons image by Brett Jordan. 

A woman holds an umbrella to try to block a gush of muddy water showering her from a passing car. Creative Commons image by Brett Jordan. 

I’m already having enough trouble with my emotions and I clench my teeth, unable to answer without saying something hateful that a child shouldn’t hear. 

But right then the car coming toward us on the road slows remarkably. The driver doesn’t slam on the brakes, but simply slows to a more reasonable speed. There is nothing else around except us in the narrow road and the street is open and empty in front of the car. The frustrated drivers in the cars behind the slow one crowd up on the bumper, but that one vehicle goes past us without spraying dirty water. I can only tell it’s silver. I can’t see anyone behind the windshield or even the make of the car. 

But it gives me the chance I need. “They aren’t all mean,” I tell my daughter, while I reach back to make sure my five-year-old son is still right behind us. “Did you see that car slow down?”

“That was a nice one,” my daughter says.

“That’s right. We get to choose if we’re kind or cruel,” I tell my kids.

Your Choice

When a kid grows up with any sort of significant disadvantage, she'll necessarily have some limits on her choices in life. But this is one thing my kids get to choose, even if they don't have all the privileges bestowed by wealth or white skin. One day they will be adults in this hectic, crazy-making world and they'll get to choose to be thoughtful about their actions and words... or not. They'll get to drive and slow down when they see someone trapped between a gutter of water and a wall... or not. They'll get to carefully avoid racially loaded language, ablelist metaphors and national slurs... or not. These are all part of the choice to be mindful of our impact in the world (or not). 

Here is a truth. I actually don’t think all the people rushing by and drenching us want to be cruel. I know how hectic and pressured their lives are—bait-and-switch professional jobs, kids who have to be all-stars in order to even be considered for the college track high schools, rising prices, bills to pay, health troubles of their own. There is virtually no one who doesn’t have to struggle. 

And to have the presence of mind to slow down in order to avoid drenching someone at a narrow spot in the road? It isn’t easy. 

Another thing. White people don't want to be cruel when we accidentally assume the one person at the meeting with brown skin must be the maid or when we let racist rhetoric slide in our professional, social or religious circles and pass it off as "a difference of opinion." Most white people today, if they stop to think, know better. But thinking... taking action in a group like the driver who made sure several other cars slowed down and didn't splash us... takes mindfulness and focus. And it is damned hard to focus with what's going on around us--in life and in the media. 

Presence of mind is key though. It isn’t enough to want to be a benevolent. We must also cut through the chaos and focus enough to see where we may unwittingly do genuine harm. Being mindful of our impact both on other people and on the environment (and thus on future generations) is no small thing. But it is what differentiates kindness from cruelty and often defines self-respect.

A Mindfulness List

Some of us like to make lists and lists can help us to remember, not just to buy bread, but also to remember the things we are aware of sometimes but need to be mindful of all the time. Mindfulness lists might include changing habits of speech that have become offensive in society, doing less harm in our consumption, moving and relating in ways that don't hurt others and so forth and anything else where you've thought "I didn't mean to hurt anyone by doing that but I did."

Here are a few examples of the things I want to remember to be mindful of myself—despite how overwhelmed or frazzled I might be with my many hats and roles in life. This is my personal list--not the most important things in the world. Many things that are important I am already am mindful of. That's why I don't have avoiding racially stereotyped language or recycling on this list. Those were on my list twenty years ago and now I'm constantly mindful of them. Here's my current list:

  • Say hello to and thank people in low-status jobs, such as cleaners and catering staff.
  • Whenever possible buy from companies that pay their employees a living wage no matter what country they work in. 
  • If I want to ask a person of color to speak on their ethnic group, make sure I've asked them to speak on an area of professional, academic or other expertise unrelated to their ethnic group in the past.
  • If I'm around when someone makes a dismissive or belittling comment about a disadvantaged group or uses derogatory language (even if they don’t mean anything by it), I  want to be someone who speaks up. Educate gently at first, then firmly if necessary. 
  • Speak to children, foreigners and people with developmental disabilities in a normal voice. Take a smidgen of extra time to make sure you’ve understood them. 
  • When attending a racially diverse meeting, make sure someone of a background different from my own has been heard from before speaking up for a second time. 
  • Notice when I accidentally judge and jump to conclusions about another. Stop and reconsider. Weigh the known facts and toss out assumptions and statistical probabilities, when it comes to another person.
  • Don’t swat honey bees or bumble bees, use a rag to swipe them back outdoors. (I know that one sounds trivial by comparison but in the scheme of things, who knows. It's my current environmental awareness goal and it's hard because of my vision impairment and moderate bee allergies.)

What's on your mindfulness list?

We won’t be perfect. Life can be crazy and we're often trying to do things more long-range than these as well. These are just acts of mindfulness, not anything that will change the world. We also want to do serious work for positive change. 

Maybe that is the most important thing I wish to remember. 

  • Expect that everyone you meet is probably pretty frazzled and usually for reasons beyond their control. Cut people some slack.

Keep trying to be the sort of person you respect.