Once upon a time in my life, I penned poetry. It wasn’t necessarily great poetry, but it was a way to work out my thoughts without journaling them or writing them to a friend in a letter (back when people wrote letters). I found this poem today while looking for something else, and it struck me how nearly 30 years later most of it still rings true. This was written on the day the officers were acquitted in the Rodney King trial, April 29, 1992. I was 24.
Spontaneous Notes on a “Free Country”
A black man is beaten senseless
abused beyond reasonable force by
white law officers
A female with an unwanted pregnancy must get
a man's permission to make choices about
her own body
A homosexual couple must hide their
love to avoid discrimination
The rich get richer
The poor get poorer
The cost of living goes up
No doesn't really mean no
Medical costs are outrageous
I could go on and on eternally and
I'd like to send a message
but it's apparent no one is listening
Land of the free and the
Home of the dominant white male
Ever since the tragic events in Paris last Friday, my mind has been tempest tossed. Coming immediately on the heels of the deadliest bombing in Beirut in 25 years, the senseless murder of innocent civilians in the City of Light was a tough blow, the second poignant lesson in the fragility of life in two days. It seems I can’t sift through the news anymore without reading about another heinous act. While I know that countless acts of murder, rape, and violence have been perpetrated for as long as humans have existed, the constant barrage of stories about the dark side of humanity elucidated by the news media over the Internet and forwarded around the globe via social media can take a toll on even the most hopeful souls.
As a mother, I have struggled with what to share with my sons about these events and what example to set for them with my words about them. When they were younger, I cautiously shielded them from gratuitous details about natural disasters, shootings, and suicide bombings, proffering just enough information to make them aware but not enough to cause them sleepless nights. Parenting is a non-stop balancing act, and I regularly walk the high wire between too much information and not enough. Our sons are 12 and 14 now, plenty old enough to be aware of world events and form opinions about them. At school they watch news clips from CNN, an education I am grateful for because it provides an opportunity for open discourse at home about the world. I welcome the invitation to engage with our sons and answer questions and concerns as they arise. I like to think that in doing so my husband and I are raising informed, thinking, and engaged citizens of the world.
Today, during my daily run through of my social media news feeds, I read that governors of 27 states have declared they will not welcome Syrian refugees due to security concerns after the Paris attacks. I scratched my head. Regardless of the fact that states do not have the right to refuse refugees our federal government chooses to accept, I marvel at the naiveté of leaders who presume that refusing refugees is the surest way to keep their citizens safe. But many people in this country harbor the illusion that security is an entity we can guarantee and enforce because, well, we’re the United States of America, dammit. But we can’t. We never have been able to and we never will be. We can’t stop bad things from happening. Bad things are as certain as the sunrise, and security is merely an illusion we cling to as a means to mitigate our fears.
I live in Colorado, one of only seven states that has said it will welcome refugees displaced by the atrocities in Syria, which have left over 250,000 civilians dead and nearly half of its population of 22 million seeking a safe haven elsewhere. While many are against this, I am pleased with our governor’s proclamation. I don’t believe that turning away victims of terrorism will keep us any safer than we are now. Could an ISIS sympathizer be among the refugees who end up in Colorado? Probably. There have already been arrests of suspected ISIS militants and supporters in the US, and there is no reason to imagine we will be able to stop more from seeking to harm us if that is what they intend. Even our best attempts at national security will leave unexpected holes for terrorists to slip through. We are not capable of squelching every plot. We didn’t foresee the attack on Pearl Harbor or the attacks of 9/11. Is that a reason to turn away hundreds of innocents who are displaced and suffering, seeking a better, safer place for their family? I don’t think so. I like to think that we are a better nation than that.
The truth is that life is tenuous and fraught with peril, and there is little to nothing we can do about it. This is what I tell my sons daily. You could lose your life to a terrorist suicide bomber in a crowded cafe or to a mentally disturbed individual in a movie theater, to a drunk driver on their way home or to an incurable cancer. You could be the healthiest person out there and keel over from a heart attack. You can do everything right, take all the proper precautions, but you will still fall someday. Not one of us is getting out of this life alive, and we can’t guarantee that security to our children either. But the legacy we leave with our actions can and will make a difference in the lives of others. I would like my children to witness from me love, generosity, and bravery in the face of life’s sometimes scary realities rather than fear, isolationism, and cowardice disguised as protectionism. I would rather my sons learn to take a calculated risk for the sake of goodness than to shun others for an imagined sense of security.
Right after I read that article about the governors unwilling to welcome refugees, I found this video of a Parisian father and his young son being interviewed at the site of the Bataclan attacks where citizens were gathering to leave flowers and light candles in memory of the lives lost there. The father tells his son that there are bad people everywhere and that the flowers and candles being placed are there to protect him. I won’t lie. I get weepy every time I replay that video, and I have watched it at least a dozen times already. In the most beautiful way possible, this father is teaching his son that bad things happen but we don’t need to fear them. We need to accept them, focus on the good we can do, and go on with our lives. If we operate from a place of peace and love and hope, we are freer from fear than if we barricade ourselves in to hide from it. Fear can become an inescapable prison or our impetus to live in the present.
I showed my sons the video of that father because it speaks more eloquently about security than anything I’ve seen on the Internet since the attacks on Beirut and Paris. I’ve felt my heart shrivel as I scanned comments from friends about why we should not open our nation and our hearts to those who seek peace because we might regret it. While I understand their concerns, I can’t believe that this is what we have come to. We citizens of the United States forget how fortunate we are to be here and the sacrifices made by previous citizens that afforded us the luxury of birthright and the illusion of security. We forget that most of our ancestors arrived on these shores disillusioned, frightened, and clinging to hope promised by a lady standing in a harbor, the same feelings the Syrian refugees now hold. My husband and I are supporting our governor as he opens the doors to our incredible state. We are talking to our sons and teaching them that the inscription on Lady Liberty does not have caveats. It’s not “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore but only if they aren’t coming from a war torn Middle Eastern country or from a south-of-the-border neighbor with drug problems because we don’t want any of THOSE.” We are telling them that life is scary. Bad things do happen. But the more good we put out into the world and the more we focus on that, the better things will become. My silent parental prayer today and every day is that our sons will grow to love this world despite the negatives and to live boldly in it without fear for as many days as they have.
So, after staring at it for about a week now, I finally did the deed. With no further doubt in my mind, I filled out my mail-in election ballot, signed my name, sealed that puppy up, and stuck some stamps on the envelope. I am finished. Tomorrow I take it to the post office and drop it in the big blue box. All the research, reading, and referencing, all the discussions, drama, and debating about this election are officially behind me. It’s out of my hands. From here on out, I am free, free at last. Well…except for the non-stop political phone calls, television and online advertisements, and candidate postcards invading my household.
As I was sealing up the ballot, my youngest finally got interested in the whole election process.
“Mom, does everyone have to vote?” he asked.
“No, sweetie. No one has to vote, but voting is a right. It’s a privilege. It’s important. Why do you ask?”
“Because it kind of seems like a pain,” he said.
“What part, Luke?”
“Well, all the ads are kind of annoying,” he said.
“This is true,” I replied.
“Yeah,” Joe chimed in. “And people are going cuckoo.”
“What do you mean cuckoo?” I inquired.
“Well, everybody’s talking about it and fighting about it. Friends are all annoyed at other friends about it. I’m ready for it to be over with so people will stop talking about it and be nice again,” he replied.
He’s got a point. When it’s not election time, it does seem a wee bit easier to find peace with our neighbors, friends, and family who see things differently. This whole political process reminds us that things are complicated. Life is not black and white. There are no easy answers. The other night during the debate I was texting with a friend from college. She and her husband own a small business, and they are deeply concerned that Obamacare will put them out of business. That small business, passed down from a previous generation, is their retirement plan. They could lose it. There are no words I could say to her to make that situation any less miserable. But, just as she has her reason for casting her ballot, every other person I know has a different reason for casting theirs. Politics is a tough game. Nothing is equal or fair for everyone. That can make for difficult conversations between people who otherwise get along without a scrape. We all vote for what will best serve us. When the election is over, we may or may not get the benefit we thought we would receive when we cast our vote. All that posturing may be for nothing, but we try. We vote because we hope our needs will be heard. We hope we can help create change.
I will be relieved when I drop my ballot into a US postal service mailbox tomorrow. I’ll be glad to have played a part in this election. I’ll be counting the days until it’s all over, and we can all get on with our normal lives in the best way we know how without all the political hoopla. My boys are right. The election process is kind of a pain, but we wouldn’t be Americans without it. Freedom never came without a cost, and that’s exactly what I told them today.
“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” ~Fred (aka Mister) Rogers
Lisa, my dear friend who happens to be a high school English teacher, shared a link to an intriguing Psychology Today article the other day. The article discusses the steep and steady decline in the creativity of our nation’s children over the past twenty to thirty years. Studies have shown that as we’ve become a society more focused on test scores, our children have lost their ability to think creatively. The more we’ve restricted free time and free play (through both increased school work and increased extracurricular activity), the more heavily these creative losses are felt. While I wasn’t the slightest bit surprised by the article’s revelation, I was a little shocked by the statistics behind the assertion:
“According to Kim’s research, all aspects of creativity have declined, but the biggest decline is in the measure called Creative Elaboration, which assesses the ability to take a particular idea and expand on it in an interesting and novel way. Between 1984 and 2008, the average Elaboration score on the TTCT, for every age group from kindergarten through 12th grade, fell by more than 1 standard deviation. Stated differently, this means that more than 85% of children in 2008 scored lower on this measure than did the average child in 1984. Yikes.”
When I was a child, my mother would hand us a piece of paper on which she had drawn random squiggles, lines, or shapes. Our job was to create a picture incorporating the designs she had already placed onto the paper. While my mother’s impetus for giving us this little exercise was most likely to acquire some uninterrupted free time for herself, what she was actually doing was helping us develop our creativity. As it turns out, this simple exercise my mother used to engage my sisters and I when we were children is the exact test that researchers use to measure the Creative Elaboration mentioned in the above paragraph. The goal is to have the child take what exists on the paper and expound on it in an original, meaningful, and possibly humorous way.
As I reflect on the amount of homework my boys do, on the assignments they have in school, and on the advanced level to which they are asked to work in their educational environment, it’s really no wonder that my eldest will sometimes come home in tears, lamenting the knowledge that he won’t have much free time to play after school. It’s heartbreaking, really. I did homework when I was in grade school. I know I did. But, I didn’t have much of it, maybe 30 minutes in fifth grade. Maybe. I did most of my work in class, including studying for exams, and the work I did at home was largely reading and practicing some spelling words. Joe has thirty spelling words in fifth grade, including ten vocabulary words for which he must memorize definitions. This week, on Joe’s list, appear the words hypotheses, phenomena, and memorabilia. I know adults who can’t spell those words. Joe also does 28-30 analytical, multi-step math problems a night, none of which he has time to do in class. It’s no wonder he’s stressed out.
In grade school, a million years ago when I was a child, we did fun, creative things. I remember one lesson we did for Social Studies. Both sixth grade classes were assigned an imaginary culture. We were told what the people in our make-believe country prized and how they lived their lives. We practiced acting within the boundaries of our assigned culture. Then, the teachers opened the doors between the two classes and we were prompted to interact with the other culture. One culture was entirely money-based while the other was entirely love- and affection-based. It was a hand-on lesson in culture shock. In sixth grade at my elementary school, we also studied a unit on the ancient Egyptians. With the research we had done in the library, we constructed “artifacts.” From cardboard we fashioned headpieces, Anubis likenesses, and even a sarcophagus. And…get this. We did all this work in the classroom. None of it was homework. Then, believe it or not, we dressed like the Egyptians and took the children from the other grades on a tour of our ancient Egyptian tomb, which was conducted in the school’s basement crawl space. I’m not kidding. Can you imagine the potential lawsuits from that type of activity today? Kids ducking their heads and walking around in a darkened, dusty, uneven, underground space in the school guided only by sixth graders? But, I will never forget that experience because we had to be creative to carry out our project. Our teachers, given the necessary freedom, taught us to be enthusiastic scholars. Today, my son got in my car in tears over tonight’s homework load.
I’m not a policymaker in Washington. I don’t hold a PhD in education. I’m just a mom who is home with her children. But, it seems clear to me that what our schools need more of is freedom to make learning a creative exercise and fewer standardized tests for which our children spend the entire year preparing. If we want to be the country that others imagine us to be, full of that American ingenuity we are constantly praised for, then we need to rethink our educational system. Let’s use some of the creativity we developed through the free time and play that we were allowed back when we were children to reinvent a landscape where our children are rewarded for thinking outside the box and solving problems ingeniously. Not only would it make the future of this nation brighter, but it would make our present time with our children more enjoyable and less tearful as well.
We’ve had a great vacation up at our home-away-from-home with our dear friends. And, after numerous activities that cost us more money than I’d care to admit, I asked the boys what part of our trip was their favorite. Turns out they had the most fun tonight. We were at the base of the Steamboat ski resort. They weren’t doing the ropes course or riding the gondola or taming the mechanical bull. They weren’t even necessarily enjoying the free concert we’d come to attend. They were simply running around like boys. In their shorts, t-shirts, and Crocs, they ran up and down the newly re-routed Burgess Creek that now flows along the base of the ski mountain just under the gondola in a kid-paradise sort of way.
Now that our boys are 9 and 11, along with greater responsibility we’re providing them with greater freedom. We’re trying not to be helicopter parents because we want to raise free-range children. So, when we got to the concert spot, we established our home base and let the kids start running around. We knew their feet would get wet, hence the choice of Crocs footwear. Of course, being boys, the first thing they managed to do was slip and get themselves completely soaked. This made them ridiculously happy. They didn’t seem to notice when the clouds rolled in. They did run back to eat some pizza and replace their wet shirts with their jackets to warm up a bit. But, then, they were off again.
We spent about four hours at our spot, during which the boys ran, floated their shoes in the creek, splashed each other, got chased by girls, threw frisbees, and jumped rocks. This free activity was the highlight of their trip. It was like the big box that the toy came in that turned out to be more entertaining than the toy itself. Sometimes we are so busy trying to give our children the experiences we think they should have that we forget to give them the experiences they need to have. It’s important for kids to explore by themselves, to run, to be free, to discover new things all while knowing they have a soft, safe place to land when they’re ready to return. When we hover, when we imagine the worst, we hinder their personal growth. Sometimes, in our attempts to protect them, we’re actually causing more harm than good.
I’m not going to lie. When the sun had set and our crazy kids were still splashing in the creek, soaked through in their cotton shorts, hubby did (jokingly, I hope) ask me if I thought they would be hypothermic by the time we recovered them. I did also pause momentarily to picture how easily one of them could slip, hit themselves on a rock, and require stitches. But these are not good enough reasons to stop a kid from experiencing the joys of being a kid. And, the best part of all is that the joys found in being a kid are usually free once we loosen the reins a bit.
This afternoon we had to stop by the local Safeway to pick up a few last minute ingredients for tonight’s dinner. After we’d made our purchases, we went out to our car. It was 91 degrees here at 3 p.m. in Steamboat, so we rolled down the windows on the FJ, loaded ourselves and our purchases in our car, and cranked the air conditioning. Hubby put the car into reverse and just as we were about to back out of our parking spot, a gentleman in his mid-50s walked by the front of our car and yelled at us to turn it off. Presumably, he thought we were hanging out in our car with the engine idling, wasting gas and destroying the ozone layer. Clearly he had not seen us enter the vehicle not one minute before. Because he was at the front of our car, he was obviously not aware that our reverse lights were on. He did not know that we share his concern for the environment and that hubby parks his car at the light rail station so he can take public transportation into work in Denver five days a week. He simply judged us in our idling SUV without knowing what was going on.
I thought about this interaction for a couple hours after it happened. I was annoyed. I didn’t in the least like this man’s insinuation that we are planet wreckers. We recycle. We use cloth bags at the grocery store more often than not. We try to conserve water and energy. For heaven’s sake…we’ve been sleeping in the basement for weeks now because it allows us to keep our air conditioning set to 80 degrees all day. We may not be the most environmentally friendly family in America, but we do try. The more I reflected on it, though, the more I realized that what bothered me about this man’s comment was the fact that he thought he should comment in the first place. Who had died and made him the boss of how much time I’m allowed in my car before I drive off with my groceries?
I’m beginning to believe the basic problem with most Americans today is that we’ve lost the idea that individual freedoms apply to all individuals. Now, I am not currently a gun owner nor have I ever owned a gun. But, I do believe that all Americans are entitled to their rights, whether or not I agree with them. I would never go up to a gun owner (and, trust me, I know a lot of them) and tell them that their Second Amendment right to bear arms is wrong. It’s not my thing, but it doesn’t have to be. Just as they’re free to own a gun, I’m free not to. Even after the murders in the movie theater in my home state today, I still won’t speak out against gun ownership. It’s not my thing, but I don’t believe for one minute that removing gun ownership rights would have stopped this tragedy. Deranged individuals will find a way to harm others, legal gun rights or not.
I wish people would be a bit more tolerant and accepting of other people’s rights to live life their own way. If you don’t agree with how they’re living, fine. Keep it to yourself. If you’re not in favor of gay marriage, don’t marry a same sex partner. If you’re opposed to abortion, don’t have one. If you’re anti-gun, don’t carry one. If you’re not fond of fur, don’t throw paint on someone else’s coat. It doesn’t matter if you think someone is wrong or misguided for the things they think. You don’t have to agree with them. You just have to accept that they deserve the same common decency that you do, the freedom to live their life according to their own ideas.
We spend too much time playing judge and jury over the lives of others when what other people do is honestly none of our business. If we Americans would focus on our own lives, our own families, our own choices, and our own bodies, we’d probably get along a lot better. If we understood that our way might not be the only or best way, we might be able to solve some of the bigger problems in this country. Instead of yelling at someone because you believe they’re wrong, choose to be quiet. Accept that you don’t necessarily know what is best for someone else and mind your own business.