Monday, July 16, 2018

Won't you be my neighbor?

I took my family out to see the new documentary about Mr Rogers, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?"  It's a lovely film.  I think I cried the whole way through it.  There was something good about watching it in a theater and sensing other people getting choked up as well.  My eyes hurt for hours afterward, and I found it very hard to sleep that night because there was so much going through my mind and pulling at my heart.

Mr Rogers was genuinely kind in a way that is far too rare in this world.  We may never see another like him.  There are many people I love and admire and that I have felt lucky to learn from, but Mr Rogers managed to distill the core of what humanity should be centered around more simply than anyone: That we are able to love and be loved.

He found that idea through Christianity, but he lived it in a way that that label was irrelevant.  I told my children on the drive home from the movie that his was the way I felt people should proselytize--by living an admirable life, to illustrate values by example not by judging and telling others what to do.  I remember being surprised as an adult to discover Mr Rogers was an ordained minister since he never touched on that in those words during his show.  When asked about it, he said he purposely avoided such language on his program because he didn't want to risk any child feeling excluded from the neighborhood.  That's one of the most beautiful things I've ever heard.

But here's the thing keeping me up at night:  This kind of love is hard.  Tremendously hard.  Possibly the hardest thing there is, and yet Mr Rogers made it look easy.  It wasn't, though, even for him.  One of the most moving moments of the film is when he has the puppet Daniel Tiger (who often represented himself) ask "Am I a mistake?"  He's worried that because he's different and doesn't fit in that something might be wrong with him.  Even after he's assured by his friend that she loves him just the way he is, he doesn't embrace that, they just turn his doubts and her reassurances into a duet.

Apparently Mr Rogers also asked his wife on his deathbed if he was a sheep (referring to a bible passage saying in the end we will be divided into the sheep and the goats), and she assured him he was good.  If the kindest public figure I can think of doubted his contributions in this life, that says something about the impossible depths of such a struggle and makes me feel able to forgive myself a bit more for not being able to come close to living up to the ideal.

I don't know which is harder: Loving others or loving yourself.  The two are so deeply linked that I'm concerned for people who easily spew hatred because I think it's often merely a manifestation of their own lack of self-worth.  I wonder when I am overly critical of myself to the point of being unkind why I can't let certain things slide the way I do for others, and accept my flaws as simply part of being human.  Maybe because the line between acceptance and stagnation isn't always clear and I want to be better.  If I'm satisfied with myself, why should I work to change?  And how do I know if I'm succeeding?  Is there a measure?  Should I care about a measure?

I don't trust people who measure value in money or fame.  Currency isn't worth.  When other people evaluate my small business they determine if it's successful based on how much money it's bringing in and how well known it may be.  I measure success by how many people I help each day.  I'm concerned about making money to the point that it helps me stay in business so I can help more people.  That helps me to love myself better, but it's still hard, and I end every day worried I've fallen short of the person I want to be.

This is why the idea of reminding people they are special is important.  When Mr Rogers looked at someone and said, "I like you just the way you are" and meant it with great sincerity, it was moving and affirming.  We need that in a world where we all feel vulnerable and worry we aren't enough.  His meaning of the word "special" was humbling, not self-aggrandizing.  It embraced imperfection.

Everyone knows the pendulum swings in politics, but it wasn't until I had children that I realized it swings in the parenting world as well.  In the past few years I've been reading a great deal about what I think of as the "anti-special bandwagon."  Many writers and parents whom I respect greatly seem to be touting a "not special" mantra about kids as a backlash to everyone getting a prize and no one being allowed to fail.  I respect and understand what they are saying, but I disagree.

Part of my problem is I think I'm working from a different definition.  How do you interpret the word "special?"  The way I hear it being used lately it means Entitled, Coddled, Self-Absorbed, Fragile, Dependent.  When I use it, I mean Unique, Interesting, Valuable, Worthy of both Love and Respect.

I dislike the phrase, "If everyone is special than no one is."  If you are using "special" as a balm to level everyone out and make people feel good without earning anything, then yes, it's grim and pointless.  But that's lazy.  The greatest paradox of having a baby is that there is no more universal experience and nothing as unique.  If you can't find something special about everyone than you are not trying very hard.

I also can't get on board with saying it's okay to limit the idea of "special" if you make sure your kids understand it to mean "You are Special... To Me."  Yes, my children can expect a form of limitless adoration from me that they should not expect to experience from the rest of the world, but that does not mean that they should accept mistreatment.  There are plenty who due to their own insecurities are eager to crush the spirit of someone else.  What Mr Rogers understood was that knowing you are special means feeling you are worth protecting and that when you can stand tall you are then able to help others.

There is an upsetting part of the film where pundits place blame on Mr Rogers (and others) for a generation of people they find to be whiny and weak.  It reminded me of when I once heard a man call in on an NPR program to complain that his life was horrible because his parents always told him he was special and then he got out into the world and realized he wasn't, and now every day was a disappointment.  I wanted to reach through the radio and shake him, because how many stories are there of children desperate for any bit of approval from disinterested parents?  Too many.  And as a mom I felt as if this was proof that there was no way to win, because if showing love and encouragement to your kid was now considered bad, then there was nowhere to turn to escape judgement.

I still think about that guy from time to time and hope he eventually learned to appreciate the world around him and figure out how to give his life more meaning.  I think his problem (assuming he wasn't suffering from an undiagnosed condition that prevented him from seeing things differently) was perspective.  If when playing music your only goal is to be a famous performer and you think anything short of that is failure, then you've missed the point of playing music.  When I tell my kids they can grow up to be anything they want, they know I mean it within parameters of what matters.  I want them to do what they love because they love it.  Life is too short not to.  If they want to make art they should make art.  If they can find a way to make a living at it, bonus.  Despite so much in the news that directs our attention toward horror and despair, life is filled with beauty and possibilities.  If you are bored or disappointed with the world, you are not really looking at it.  You are not trying.  You are not looking at yourself or others as truly special. 

This kind of thinking is not simplistic, but radical.  As much as any of us think it's obvious that we should probably accept the idea of embracing the value in everyone in order to create a better world, it is the hardest, bravest thing I can think of.  Given the opportunity to look Donald Trump in the eye would I be able to say to him, "I like you just the way you are?"  I don't think so.  But does that do anything for him or say something more about me?  I'm not sure and I'm struggling with it.  Because there should be consequences for horrid behavior.  The problem is that as much as an instinct for revenge is natural, it's not righteous.  It's petty.  I don't want to be petty.  But I also don't want to facilitate evil.  My gut reaction is that forgiveness isn't warranted in all cases, or that at least my energy is better spent siding with victims rather than trying to heal damaged bullies.  I know what it is to be angry and to want to lash out at those who cause harm.

But whose mind has ever been changed by being attacked?  I feel and understand the need to want to aggressively fight back, but beyond trying to humiliate and shut someone else down completely does it help?  In situations where self-defense is necessary, yes.  In trying to inspire positive change in someone?  No.  I worry when I hear people on my side of issues talking about people they disagree with in terms that dismiss their humanity.  I don't have sympathy for the ideas of racists and bigots, but I need to retain my sympathy for the basic humanity of the people who hold them.  As satisfying on some level as it may be to see a Nazi get punched in the face, does anyone really think that made the world better?  Or did it just bring us closer to his level?  Do we think now that person is more likely to hear reason?  Or is that person more likely than ever to feel justified in their beliefs and double down?  Attacking people is easy.  Putting in the time to figure out what went wrong with them and helping them change is hard, but that's where I believe in my heart the solutions lie.

I am beyond disheartened by the number of people I know to be decent who have somehow found ways to rationalize support for the family separation position on our southern border.  I don't understand labeling someone as a criminal and therefore unworthy of caring for their children when the only motivation for bringing them here was to offer them a better life.  But I also don't think many of those same people if tasked with personally having to tear a small child away from a parent could do it.  I think they would search their hearts for a different solution.  Calling them monsters doesn't fix anything, it only shuts down the discussion because then they don't feel you're listening to their fears and therefore have nothing useful to say.  How do you react when your own humanity is dismissed by someone?

This is something I struggle with every day, and wonder if it's easier for those who can fall back on a religion to provide a default set of rules to follow when thinking about it gets too hard.  I'm not saying it's easy for anyone, but having to construct the logic for myself all the time seems more exhausting then occasionally just trusting I should do the right thing because a god would like it regardless of how I feel.  This is why hearing such ideas distilled through someone like Mr Rogers is so powerful.  I can't get behind the dogma of any given religion, but the essence of how he interpreted his faith is beautiful and something I do think is worth believing in.

Mr Rogers' Neighborhood was the embodiment of "Love thy neighbor," which despite its simple decency has never sounded more controversial.  In this time of so many seeking out divisions across borders and within our own communities on all sides, the idea of asking, "Won't you be my neighbor?" is courageous and profound.  I would like to think Mr Rogers (and my father, and my grandmother, and my grandfather...) would be proud I'm doing what I can to live up to the ideal it represents.  Of course I already know that he (and they) liked me just the way I am.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

The Promise of America

Like many I know, I have mixed feelings anymore about the 4th of July.

That's been true for me since I first visited the Statue of Liberty as a child and watched a short film in the welcome center.  The film featured famous people talking about what the Statue of Liberty meant to them, and it included James Baldwin whose statement is the only one that stayed with me.  He quoted the beginning of the Declaration of Independence and said it was problematic since he hadn't been included in those ideals.  He highlighted that for black people whose families were brought here by force to work as slave labor for others who claimed to believe "all men are created equal" the Statue of Liberty represented only a cruel irony.

It was the first time I truly recognized that symbols of our country flouted as patriotism were painful for many Americans.  It broke my heart that people with as much right to the ideals of America did not feel a part of that dream.  I had a child's love for my country that was uncomplicated.  I had to rethink it.

Our country's history encompasses many dreadful and shameful things.  Too much of that was whitewashed in school when I was young.  There is less of that in my children's education, so they understand better than I did at their ages that there is much about American history that is disturbing and unpleasant.

I asked them this morning on our way to the annual parade how they feel about the 4th of July.  My oldest said she wasn't sure how to feel.  She sees so much happening in our country anymore that is hard to take pride in, that she'd rather think of the holiday as more a celebration of our neighborhood traditions.  My middle child was conflicted because she doesn't want her disgust for the current president to contaminate her ability to enjoy the day.  My youngest doesn't know.  It's hard for him to see the 4th as something other than a candy holiday (and asked why anyone would bother to go to a parade that didn't involve throwing treats into the crowd).

Here's what I told them:  America is a promise.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Varnish Workshop 2018

The varnish workshop that I’ve come to attend on an annual basis since it moved to Chicago (instead of Boston) has become one of the highlights of my year each spring.  I don’t need it in the way I used to—when I lacked the knowledge and tools to use oil varnish with confidence—but for something deeper now. 

I don’t mean to imply I know all I want to know to varnish a violin.  That remains a lifelong process, and I learn something new and useful at the workshop every time.  But if I never returned I could certainly proceed on my own and feel capable of varnishing instruments in a way I can be proud of.  The very first workshop I attended succeeded in doing that.

No, what I get now that I’ve done this four times is that rare and cherished sense of being among “my people.”  The participants at the varnish workshop run the gamut from absolute beginners to luthiers at the top of their field, but everyone there has something to learn, something to teach, something to share that is valuable.  The atmosphere is industrious but relaxed, and it changes a bit each year with the different personalities in attendance, but they are all people who get what it is that interests me about this field and I don’t have to explain it.  We share a language and an aesthetic and there is a pleasure in that that I don’t experience in group settings very often. 

The other thing that’s nice about the varnish workshop is simply being able to block out an entire week of time to do what I want to do all day every day.  Other people may want a vacation at a spa, but that’s not for me.  Much more satisfying to be productive and feel I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing rather than using all my energy on the chore treadmill that is often day-to-day life.  The varnish workshop has become a favorite playground.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Dear Dad (2018)

Has it really been almost three years since you died?  That's a long time to have gone without your hugs and kind words.  Do I still have your voice right in my head?  And your laugh?  I'm starting to wonder.  Until almost three years ago I got to refresh those details periodically.  Now whatever memories I cling to are all I will ever have.  I hate that, and it doesn't get easier.  I don't reach for the phone to call you on Mondays anymore, so at least I can say the reality has sunk in.  I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad one.

Oh, Dad.  What would I tell you about what life has been like since last Father's Day?  I guess that in recent months it's been better than the year before.  Last year was a nightmare and I'm still suffering occasional flashbacks of pain, but when I think back to where we were, and look at where we are, there is no comparison.  There are still issues to deal with and I'm scared every day that things could fall backwards into crisis again, but for now I will be grateful that on a day-to-day basis life in our home is normal again.  That's no small thing.  Normal is a gift.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Spring Catch Up Post

Life has been nuts.  I remember how hard running after toddlers was, and how babies suck up all of your day, but I also remember thinking something easier was just over the horizon if I could just get a little more sleep and make it there.

Yeah, no.  Bigger kids just have different issues that suck up just as much time, and complex problems that can tear at your soul.  Older kids can also be wonderful, and having real conversations with these people you made is amazing, especially when I think back to the days where we spent a lot of time just pointing to colors and that was as stimulating as things got.  I prefer playing Settlers of Catan to Candyland, there are just a lot more rules to remember.

Anyway, lately there has been little time to think, let alone write, so this is a giant catch-all post to sort through some of what we've been doing and to keep my memories anchored in time a bit better.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Bus

As this school year begins wrapping up I want to take a moment to acknowledge the greatest development for me in my children's school attending lives:  the bus.

Aden started taking a bus last year for high school which is almost six miles away, but this year the other two kids started taking a bus too, and to not have to get up and drive anyone anywhere first thing in the morning is amazing.  We still make breakfast (although on days when we can't it's just fine) and we still have to prod the kids awake and remind them to put on clean clothes, but that's it.  Not braving the cold or the snow or the rain or having to find a spot for drop off is wonderful.  Equally wonderful is not worrying about the pickup and having to interrupt my afternoon to get the kids at school or remember to write to note so they can walk to the violin store if I can't get them.  I love it, and I think the kids like having more autonomy.

Why didn't we do it sooner if it was an option?

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Spring Break 2018--Road Trip to San Antonio

I need to get down what we did for Spring Break (back in March!) before I forget it all.  There are times I wonder how much value there is to maintaining this blog, but when I go back and look at old posts I remember why I do it.  It's a good writing exercise, but beyond that it really is a good record of many things.  I'm often shocked by how much I've forgotten.  So in the interest of not forgetting all of this, here is our Spring Break 2018!

Our original plan to go to New York City was scuttled at the last minute this year, so I presented the kids with a list of alternatives and the one they all found most exciting was the idea of a big road trip to Texas.  Among the last of the Mold-A-Rama locations on our map was the San Antonio Zoo.  That was the one place that seemed impossible because it's just not near anything we had any excuse to visit, so we decided to make it a destination unto itself.

We hit the road early on Monday the 26th (the day after one of my orchestra concerts, which prevented us from getting a start on the weekend).  We drove straight to St Louis in a lot of rain.  We passed through many a small town (including one in Illinois with a sign claiming it was a "good" place to live and made us wonder if they were expressing honest doubt by throwing quote marks around good).  Before hitting the road we'd stopped by AAA for maps which kept Quinn entertained as he tracked our progress.

We arrived at a Drury Inn by the convention center in time to partake in the dinner buffet included in our stay.  It was a nice hotel, but peculiar in that most of the building was a parking structure and the actual hotel was just on the 5th and 6th floors.  There was a teeny tiny pool right behind the food service and the whole place was just packed with families.  I'm not sure why, really.  I felt like we were in St Louis at an odd time for tourists, but maybe not?