What God Allows

“God allows what He hates to accomplish what He loves.”*

I am still trying to understand exactly what this “saying” means.
Maybe I don’t understand it because I struggle to understand the concept of God, in general.

However, I still can not understand the logic of believing that God purposefully allows things He hates, simply to later “achieve something He loves”.

If this is referring to murder, hatred and suffering, injustice and inequality, I can’t make sense of how these acts works towards something he “loves”. Are we trying to say that he permits these things to happen to lead to ultimate justice later? That since these people who commit these crimes will pay for their crimes and be punished, God is ultimately leading to something he “loves” or trying to teach us the importance of peace and equality through these acts, since we will learn from them?

Is all God wants to punish offenders and sinners, and to teach us only through our own sorrow and suffering?

I can’t believe or accept this.

What has been happening in our world can not be excused or normalize. We can not try to say that this is for a greater good later. How many times must we try to excuse these events before we try to make real, meaningful changes?

I am not such an idealist as to believe that we can create absolute, basal peace across our globe, or even our country. While we may not be able to end all travails, all bigotry and toxic hatred, but we must constantly strive towards it, unremittingly and with diligence, with inexhaustible determination. Step by step, day by day, we can persist in our efforts to spread kindness and compassion, to work towards both equality and greater ahimsa. Is there anything else that makes our lives worthwhile?

Perhaps I am a little disillusioned to believe this so resolutely, and I hardly can expect everyone to share this attitude. I also do not mean to suggest that those who do not share this belief are weak or entirely without compassion or value. I simply

Perhaps I am a little bit naïve and idealistic, in having faith that there is goodness in all humans, though it can often be buried or hidden for any number of reasons. Will this benevolence emanate at all times, or always be the primary impetus behind their actions? Again, I am not that deluded or detached from reality. Does this mean that we should simply accept that evil will always be a driving force in this world? That there will be corrupt and malicious people who will affect the fates of innocents around them?

Whether fate exists is perhaps impossible to truly determine. And in some ways, it seems as though perhaps we are better of simply believing that things do come to the conclusion they are meant to, even if we don’t completely understand it.

I have accepted that I can not control the beliefs and actions of others; that is part of being an adult. What I can’t accept is that we can do nothing to improve the world around us- improve, not perfect. Every day, it is our responsibility to propagate kindness and do what we can to make the world a more comforting, accepting place for everyone.
Attempting to justify violence, pain, and suffering is pointless. I can not believe there is every an excuse to commit these acts willingly. Certainly, accidental transgressions may happen even to the most well- intentioned individuals.

This past year has been bewildering, overwhelming, and disheartening in so many ways. We have ben forced to question our values, our understanding of our country, and witnessed events which seem almost out of a dystopian future rather than real life. Besides the countless acts of violence and hatred, from white supremacists to even members of our government, these moments have left me speechless and desperate for some kind of explanation, some kind of reason, and searching for some kind of signal of hope, however distant or dim it might appear now. Finding a way to remain determined and sanguine is something that required energy daily, and is utterly exhausting over time. America has constantly faced immense challenge, just like so many other countries across the globe. Can I compare out struggles to those who survived the Great Depression and the World Wars? That would be highly unfair to their suffering and sacrifices, while I enjoy an abundance of comforts with little struggle. Yes, I have worked very hard for all I have, and yes, there are many obstacles that my generation faces. Yet they are of a different nature, in some ways. Our struggles relate to combating violence and threats to freedom within our own country, but also to the future of our planet and creating a world that is sustainable for generations to come. Our challenges relate to progressing towards a world that has not only equality but also a strong understanding of the basic needs of each and every human, and making sure those needs are met.

What frightens me most is the threats to individual growth, personal freedoms for each and every individual regardless or race, gender, or sexuality, and protecting the voices of average citizens. I am terrified that the power currently concentrated in the hands of the few will lead only to greater and greater inequality, and more danger with threats of war and individuals with deadly weapons carried freely because some politicians refuse to acknowledge the issue based on campaign contributions.

Our country has grown and progressed, in some ways, but there is still so much work still to be done. We are at a point where we must decide how we want to progress- do we retreat from true advancement due to illogical fears, or do we plunge forward into a future that may provide all citizens with freedom, comfort, and security?

This is going to take perseverance and courage. Years ago, a youthful President Kennedy declared to our nation that we needed to strive for progress “not because they are easy, but because they are hard”. No task worthwhile is ever simple, accomplished without overcoming many obstacles.

An argument is often made that our country was founded on Christian morals and beliefs. The validity of this statement is not necessarily what I want to question. The challenges we currently face are not ones that directly attack religious beliefs, not truly. One can argue that abortion is a religious issue, that sexuality is a religious issue, but our basic rights include freedom of religion which means, to me, that no single religion may have precedence over another. To me, freedom of religion means that no laws may restrict individual freedoms based on beliefs grounded in religious doctrine.

Yes, I am concerned about the direction of our country; some law makers are working as hard as they can to restrict medical care to the citizens who need it most, working to allow corporations to have greater authority and to profit more, working to prevent women from having access to the care they need, from individuals with non- heterosexual identities from being targeted, and working to create or maintain injurious and heedless laws that allow individuals to take the lives of others with minimal, if any, prohibitions.

The murders and mass murders that have been occurring are not because “God” allowed them- we have allowed them. Women are losing their rights, and citizens all over the country will be at risk because they will not have access to the care and medicines they need, not because “God” has allowed it, but because we have.

We have to take responsibility and begin to make changes. Only we have the ability to prevent more lives from being lost needlessly, only we have the ability to preserve our freedoms and create greater equality for all genders, races, and sexualities. We can and will do better.

If what has been happening recently is what “God” has allowed so he can later “accomplish what He loves”, then I challenge Him to find another way.

*This was written on the sign at a local church near my house, which I pass many days of the week.

 

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What Hatred Can Teach Us

In a town I lived in for over two years, a place I considered home in every respect, there was a rally this weekend in response to a swastika that had been painted on a driveway this past week. I am writing this in 2017. I never imagined I would ever have to write a statement like that, and it has shaken me more than I can admit.

I remember reading Anne Frank’s diary and “Night”, learning about the Holocaust at an age when it was difficult and perhaps a bit traumatizing to be made aware of such horrors of the past. We were taught to consider the intolerance and bigotry of the Nazis, and taught to protect and defend each other in the face of an evil oppressor. We learned about the brave individuals who worked against such evil and who fought for freedom from such malicious parties. We learned about the Civil Rights movement and the bitter fight for equality, something our own parents witnessed first had in many cases. We learned about those who risked their lives rather than remain silent and oppressed any longer.

I am only twenty nine years old. My education can not be that different from most Americans, and from other people in their twenties and thirties. And I am so inspired by the movements towards equality my generation has seen, and the ways that Americans of all ages, races, and genders are standing up to this administration, fighting for what it right. On Saturday in Boston, another city I also consider home in some ways, there were thousands upon thousands of counter protestors to a “freedom of speech” protest meant to defend Neo- Nazis and their “right” to express their views. It is important to show our solidarity against such incomprehensible hatred. This is not about freedom of speech, or individual rights- it is simply about aggressive attacks against specific groups of citizens.

But I am deeply troubled by the fact that we need to be making such protests. We must continue to fight against unjust policies, any sort of  discrimination or oppression, any sort of inequality based on gender, race, or ethnicity. This is nothing new, yet it seems like much of the progress we have made during the twentieth and twenty- first centuries has been rendered meaningless this past year.

We are threatening individuals who have come to this country to build a better life for themselves, we are labeling anyone “Middle Eastern” or Arabic as a terrorist, and we are pushing women’s rights backwards in very harmful ways. Discrimination based on gender identity and sexuality may become legal.

This is not the world I imagined, nor is it the future our country deserves.

I can not express how frightened I have been at times this past year. Some of the events have seemed unreal, and it becomes more difficult to believe that it is not hopeless, that we can continue to overcome the destruction this presidency has brought to our country.

Both our environment and individual rights and safety and being continually threatened. Our educational system is being given away to those simply seeking profit, scientists are being silenced and targeted for speaking truths about the state of our planet. This doesn’t even begin to touch the scandal surrounding the election itself and Trump’s finances.

But these recent attacks have shook me the most. The fact that white supremacists feel they have every right to try to take control again, by violence if necessary, is utterly terrifying. I do not believe that we will truly degenerate into another civil war, but I do fear that we may face fatal assaults before these voices of bigotry and maliciousness are silenced. I will do whatever I can to ensure that our nation is a place of tolerance, peace, and hope, and I do believe there are millions of others in this country who feel the same way. We will keep fighting, but I feel both saddened and distressed by the fact that we do have to put up such a resistance.

Perhaps we have just continually turned a blind eye to this lingering hatred that has been passed from generation to generation, that has quietly grown throughout the nation. Honestly, I can not say I understand their ultimate goals, what they believe they will accomplish. How is such illogical spite and brutality developed in individuals? How can one believe that they are being threatened by a particular group of people, how one could not see their own hypocrisy in claiming superiority over others.

Whites are not be “discriminated” against. Jewish people are not to blame for causing anyone to be poor, and they are not dirty or evil in any way. These are basic logic statements that I believe nearly every American accepts. I realize as a white female I have had advantages over African Americans, both men and women, and over other non-whites who are either natural citizens or immigrants. I also realize that as a woman, a white man has advantages over me in certain respects. I realize I have never had to face any persecution because of my sexuality or religion, and that I may never truly be able to understand what their experience has been like. I could not image adding to their difficulties in any way. I can not pretend I understand that experience of a refugee attempt to escape their own battle- torn country only to find they are treated as an undesirable here simply because they may be a “terrorist” or they may take some other “real” American’s job.

We can not continue to devolve into a country that is run as a dictatorship, filled with corruption and hatred. We can not descend into a country where certain individuals are denied basic rights for any reason, or become a country that is fueled by aggression and suppression and fear.

I believe there is always hope, and I continue to believe our country can be a peaceful, caring place to live. It will be hard work, and we can’t let ourselves be divided, and we have to remain active. We can not passively wait for someone else to come and “save the day” anymore- WE must be the ones to do it.

Yes, there are still white supremacists in our country, there are people in our country who believe woman shouldn’t be allowed to make decisions about their bodies, there are people in our country who believe gay and transgender individuals should not have the same rights as every other citizen in the country. It’s time to face this, and time to have real conversations about how this can change.

We can not believe we are powerless. We can not simply sit back and accept that our country will be controlled by individuals who are intolerant, greedy, and irrational.

While we have seen hatred and brutality these past few weeks, we have also seen that we are not alone. And that makes all the difference.

Changing the Conversation

A little over two years ago, I entered the ACUTE Center in Denver, Colorado, weighing around 55, to receive treatment for anorexia.

I say this not out of pride, nor do I say it to receive pity or praise. Simply, at that time in my life, I was not healthy physically or mentally. I was terrified and angry as I went into recovery, and I am thankful for the support I had to help me return to a more “normal” life.

I don’t wish to tell my story of recovery here- though I do wish to share it in full at another time. What I do wish to discuss is body positivity as it relates to body image and self acceptance.  

During recovery, I had to come to terms with my own understanding of what a healthy body looks like. I had an intense fear, as many anorexic individuals do, of becoming grossly overweight if I did not restrict calories, eat “healthy”, and exercise obsessively. I believed I could maintain a “perfect” body, and was determined to not be just another lazy, overweight American.

Obviously, my notions of thin and healthy were distorted and I had put my body at risk through a lack of proper nutrition, but my motives were not purely related to the idea of beauty in and of itself. I had accepted that I would never be “beautiful” according to the movies and pop culture, but I did still want to have a trim body. I associated fat with laziness and unrestrained eating of the worst possible foods. I wanted to only eat things that were “good” for my body, and I wanted to prove I was the exact opposite of the stereotypical American “couch potato”.

One can easily argue that my beliefs and obsession was the result of the influence of the media, constantly pushing diets and weight loss, different philosophies for “healthy” eating, and constantly showing women of below average weight as models of the ideal, regardless of how realistic it might be for the average woman. Certainly, culture and media  have a tremendous impact on personal values and psyches. Though it was not the only factor in my eating disorder, the presentation of women in media and culture did have an impact on my own beliefs that I had to fight against to see myself in a different perspective and come to better conceptions of what is healthy.

Over the past decades, there has been many initiatives to support “body positivity” and to embrace all body types for woman, and to better represent these. Changing the standard for what can be considered beautiful is long overdue; all skin types and body types are equally beautiful and valuable, and I am always encouraged to see these movements make it into the spotlight to challenge the dominant message so frequently put out. Women do not need to be constantly told that they are imperfect, and that they need to drastically change their appearance through clothes, diet, make up, or even surgery in order to truly be beautiful. They need to be shown that beauty is hardy a fixed concept, that instead there exists beauty in each and every individual. (I  realize this is an idealistic notion, but it is one I do firmly believe in.) It will take time and great effort, but it is something that is possible.

As I was perusing the news recently, I saw an article that highlighted conflicting viewpoints and the primary points on campaigns (from both sides) for body positivity or acceptance. 

While we must be careful to not mislabel individuals as being over or under what is a healthy weight, it is also irresponsible to present an extremely overweight image as one that is ideal. (To be clear, I do mean extremely overweight, according to BMI standards.) We have to remember that the dominant images presented in the media become acceptable. Obesity IS a concern in our country, and is increasingly a problem for children. Long term health risks from obesity are well known, including risks of diabetes and of  heart diseases. There of course is no single cause of obesity, but what is most important is to recognize that it is an issue that should not be ignored, just  as eating disorders should not be ignored in any way. If we accept obesity as something that is an acceptable part of our culture, more and more individuals will struggle with poor health, as well as overall poor quality of life.

As someone who has grappled with their own body image and feelings of inadequacy, I believe having a conversation about body image is of great importance. Body shaming is not something that can ever be condoned or tolerated. That does not mean, however,  that we should promote a blind acceptable of obesity or being greatly overweight to a point where it begins to affect individual health. Is there a clear line? Certainly not. And there is a great difference between demeaning someone because of their weight and recognizing that their weight is a concern because of more than appearance. Promoting body positivity must also be done in a way that does not the need for correct nutrition and exercise. Life is all about balance; there is no need to be below a healthy BMI for the sake of looking attractive, but there is also no reason to not say that obesity is an inescapable fate that should be presented as a positive model. Individuals of all ages and genders must see that what matters most is their well- being. Ultimately the conversation isn’t about what is and isn’t attractive- it’s about caring for oneself and your body. Emphasizing either extreme- either dangerous thinness or dangerous obesity- is problematic if they are presented as acceptable and “normal”.

I don’t believe it is fair to say that body positive campaigns necessarily promote obesity or overweight body types in an irresponsible way; they are simply showing real woman, with bodies that many more women can identify with over the “traditional” model types. Will showing some women who are overweight having a long lasting impact on our society? It seems unlikely. The women in body positive campaigns are not overweight, according to the medical definition, in many cases. It is important to present alternatives to the unhealthy, unrealistic images that have dominated for so long. But what is more important, I believe, is bringing about greater changes to what we place value on in terms of attractiveness in general, and placing greater value on overall well-being.

One saying I have always found to be ironic is “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” We hear it from a young age, but it not something generally seen and promoted throughout our culture. Especially in today’s world where we are bombarded with images and videos, we are constantly being told what is and isn’t beautiful. I am not so naive that I believe this can be changed anytime soon. But I think it is important that we begin to acknowledge more and more that there is more that one single type of beauty that exists. The pressure for woman, and certainly increasingly on men as well, to fit the ideal image is something that must be addressed, through certainly more diversity in the ways we present beauty in art and advertisement. I don’t want the students I teach daily to feel inferior because they do not look like the famous individuals the see on TV and the internet; instead, I want them to feel that their value comes from their actions and the relationships they have with their friends and families. I want them to have healthy lives, where they can get the exercise they need to truly enjoy each and every day rather than lives imprisoned by feeling that they will never be good enough or by illness from obesity. I want them to be judged by their spirit and quality of life, and to be able to feel proud of the way their uniqueness adds to their own beauty. Why continue to waste time obsession over unrealistic ideas and appearances rather than our own joy and personal successes and growth? 

Here one body positive model’s journey. 

Instead of focusing on whether the woman in ads and in shows are “beautiful”, let’s focus on whether or not they are healthy.

“Acceptance is different than apathy. It is important to strive to be your best self, your healthiest, most productive, joyful self. But that is going to be a different answer to everyone.”  -Teri Hatcher

 

Approaching 30

In less than a year, I will officially leave my twenties. Entering a new decade of your life always feels significant, regardless of what society tells us. As we age, we trace back over our journey in life that has brought us to our present moment, and think of all the choices we did and didn’t make, and all of the progress we have or haven’t made  towards finding the life we truly desire.

By the time you are thirty, there are certainly a number of milestones you are expected to have reached. You are expected to have completed at least one college degree, established a career to some extent, purchased a car and home, perhaps some major appliances, gotten married, become a parent. This is normal progress- maturation, and steps on the path to self- actualization. I don’t believe that anyone truly feels any one of these achievements will bring about happiness, or that any one is an ultimate measure of individual success or self- worth, yet they do count of something. At the very least, they serve as evidence that we are capable of meeting societal norms and expectations. When we can not accomplish these things, it surely means we have failed in some way, however minor it may be. There must be something we haven’t done correctly, something we weren’t quite good enough at, that prevented us from being more successful.

Yet the timeline of adulthood has been constantly shifting as our society changes; we no longer marry right out of high school, and couples are having their first child later and later in life. Fewer individuals can afford to become homeowners, and are forced to pay inflated monthly rent instead. What was the “normal” or “standard” in the past clearly is no longer so; but how much have we changed our own perceptions of progress and accomplishment? Not very much, in many ways.

I don’t consider myself an exceptional “millennial”. By that, I mean that I believe I have fared no better or worse than any other members of my generation, and that I have encountered many of the same challenges and had many of  the same opportunities. I grew up under the same conditions, experienced the same triumphs and tragedies, and have struggled to be heard in the same way as my peers. I grew up in a world evolving more and more rapidly with the accelerated advancement of technology. I have survived the difficult years where many were without any steady source of income, but it has not been a straight path towards the career I have now chosen, perhaps belatedly.

So, yes, I am another millennial who may be judged as an “adult” a bit later than traditionally expected. I am proud  to say I now own my own car, and have recently purchased a house, and have begun to (hopefully) build a true career instead of just having a job. If you had told me I would be where I am now three years ago, I probably would have simply laughed and said that it simply wasn’t possible. Of course I am proud of all that I have achieved in the past few years, and I realize all of the hard work I have done. In spite of all I have been able to accomplish, there are moments when I still feel as though I have fallen far behind my peers, and my own expectations of myself.

It’s amazing how easy it is to fall into the simply traps of comparing yourself to others and of focusing on what we are lacking rather than what we do have.

I am guilty of both of these transgressions against happiness. Through my daily social media feeds, I perpetually see friends getting married and having children, celebrating wedding anniversaries even. Recently even my youngest cousin, who is about eight years younger than me, got engaged. While I hold no illusions about other’s lives being perfect and feel that mine is inherently inferior and extremely dull in comparison (though this is true in a few instances), I can’t help but wonder why my life has turned out so different from theirs, why I wasn’t able to find the same stability and… normalcy, for lack of a better word. Was I asking too much? What had I done so very differently from them that would have prevented me from maintaining a relationship, sticking with a job I felt passionate about and establishing a solid position there? What had I “missed out” on?

In all fairness, there were things I did do that deviated from some of my peers. I went to a liberal arts college, getting a degree in Literature and Writing, nothing practical like pharmacy or marketing. I went on to work on my Master’s Degree and worked random jobs to support myself as I could. My only solid career option was teaching, and I only half-heartedly tried to find a teaching position, not feeling I would excel as a teacher and also recognizing the difficulty in obtaining a position as an adjunct professor, at least  where I was. (Though, retrospectively, I have no real clue how likely or unlikely it might have been for me to get a position, as I realize my efforts were minimal in applying and inquiring about it at the time.) As far as relationships go, I had a number of promising relationships that failed for a variety of reasons, as many relationships do, and  I couldn’t say it was the result of anything other than not being able to reconcile differences and find solid common ground to stand on. We learn from each relationship and move forward. I do not regret any of the relationships that I had, nor do I wish they had worked out any differently. However, I still wish I had been able to find a more suitable match much sooner than I did. I have had to look on with a constant tinge of jealousy as many of my friends and loved ones have negotiated relatively peaceful and healthy relationships which have stood tests of time and hardship while my own relationships ended in disappointment.

Perhaps I should have had different expectations, both of myself and of life in a broader sense. Why is it so easy to believe that we are entitled to the “perfect” life that we imagine for ourselves? Is it pure egotism and selfishness? I suppose on one level it is. But we are all entitled to happiness, at least as much as we are willing to discover in life. Our culture informs us that we must have certain things in order to be “happy”, and how much these relate to what will actually bring us contentment is difficult to say. In some ways, we seek acceptance, love, and comfort more than anything tangible. We need someone who cares for us and is there when we need them most, and that we have some sort of place in our social circle, however large or small it might be. While we value our independence and expect to be allowed to be our own person, we also do not desire to be isolated for our entire lives. To be accepted into society, we must make concessions and subscribe to certain expectations and values. We must “fit in”, for lack of a better phrase. This is not meant to be pessimistic, and it is not advocating blind adherence to “social norms”. Certainly, we can only continue to improve as a society if we question our values and reconsider what is accepted as an ideal and moral life. With each generation, we experience slow by steady progress towards new conceptions of what is valuable and meaningful, and new models of success and decent. We strive to do what is right for our fellow women and men, and for our environment. At least I believe this is true of most people. (I must believe this, and refuse to give in to hopelessness for our future.)

However much progress we make, we still cling to long-standing models of what the “perfect” family looks like, and what a “perfect” life should look like- a home in a quiet, quaint neighborhood, a career, two cars, two or three children, a loving and supportive life-long companion. Responsible citizens pay all their bills and taxes on time, they do not litter, they recycle, they take family vacations, they offer help to their neighbors in need, they spend quality time with their children and help them learn and grow, they do not drink excessively or get involved in any type of drug use, they stay informed about important news events, they donate to charity, they support local businesses, they abide by all laws- including the posted speed limits. They contribute to their community and have healthy social relationships, they don’t display either depression or aggression, they are polite and compassionate, they work hard while at work and have hobbies to unwind during their free hours of the day. They make sure to change their oil regularly and send birthday cards to those who are important to them. They mow their lawn before the grass becomes a tangled jungle, they attend their children’s recitals and performances and help with homework, they slowly work their way up through promotions at work. Eventually, their children will graduate, move out and begin their own journeys. They will retire, purchase another home somewhere where it is warm year round, somewhere that offers many activities and social gatherings for seniors. All of the milestones and daily activities have become engrained in our society as the correct path, full of happiness and fulfillment.

I by no means mean to say that we shouldn’t wish to have a family, have a comfortable place to live, and a career that provides us with a sense of achievement. These things are certainly valuable; they provide us with a sense of purpose as well as security and relationships that help us continually improve. Everyone wishes to be able to look back on their days and know that they achieved their goals, that we will be remembered as someone who was successful and meaningful.

Yet it is is so easy to get caught up in the day to day chores and tasks, and lose sight of the experiences that matter most. For, as many have said before me, it is our experiences that truly determine the quality of our lives. Exploring beautiful landscapes and cities, attending  a powerful concert or play, discovering history and art in museums, having meandering conversations with friends and family that have no specific subject or purpose in mind, simply holding hands and enjoying the close presence of a loved one. All of these small, simple moments are ultimately more valuable than the specific job title we hold or our physical address (and its implications, positive or negative).

While we recognize that material items and social status are hardly where we truly find value in our lives, we continue to pursue them because it is a part of being a member of society. This does not mean that we ignore our own values and beliefs, or that we discount our experiences in favor of social conventions. Instead we try to find a way to balance them, though this is not something that is easily achieved.

Part of me recognizes how irrational it is to constantly compare myself to others, and to evaluate my own worth and success based on unrealistic “ideals” or cultural prescriptions. Why is it so difficult for me to be satisfied with all of the progress I have made, and be thankful for the many opportunities life has provided me? Am I just selfish, shallow, and ungrateful? Am I that different than thousands of other adults my age around the world? I realize am not alone in feeling inadequate, rejected, and a failure in some respects.

The future has never been more uncertain, as we continue to face a great many challenges locally and globally. My generation has been provided with many advantages compared to previous ones, yet we also face challenges as great or greater than those before us. I do not wish to present us as some great tragedy, something to be pitied or granted some sort of clemency for their missteps or transgressions. I do not believe that we  are entirely self- centered and uncaring, and I do not believe that we are lethargic and unmotivated, contributing nothing valuable to society. We have done what we can under the circumstances, though this does not absolve us of the need to continue to strive for more. It also does not mean we need to look at ourselves as less capable or less accomplished because we do not reach certain expected milestones earlier in life.

I know that eventually I will get to experience the inexpressible joy of marrying someone who makes me a better person every day, and that perhaps I will become a mother. I know rationally that the fact that I have not married or become a parent yet is not a fair way of evaluating my accomplishments or worth, but that does not mean I can not long for these things and wonder dolefully at why I have been denied them.

As we continue to press forward with many advances in society both positive and negative, my generation will continue to struggle to find their own place and establish  their own conceptions of “success” and “true adulthood and independence”. Our achievements will come at different times than our parents and grandparents, and may look a bit differently. We do not need to feel ashamed of this, but we also do not need to complacently accept that we can not become exactly the adult we wish to be, that we have to resign ourselves to lesser positions and fewer fulfilled aspirations. Certainly we need to find joy in our every day experiences of beauty and companionship, and we can certainly revise our expectations of what the “ideal” life looks like. Such larger cultural changes take time, and we must always remind ourselves that it is only when we resign completely that we have truly failed. We are allowed to feel disappointed in ourselves, but we must not believe that we are not making progress or that we will not be able to have the future we desire.

I’m not going to say that we should ignore our social feeds, or that we should stop seeing certain milestones in life as being significant and markers of achievement. We should not simply ignore our hopes or aspirations, but instead be motivated by our desire to continue to better ourselves- not simply because society tells us to, but because we seek something a greater sense of fulfillment. There is no single path we can- or should- all follow, and we may all encounter detours and barriers that force us to backtrack. But we must keep going, and we must never feel that we are any less significant because others have made further progress than us.

So I will let myself feel jealousy and longing for something more, for the things I have yet experienced in my own life. I will allow myself to not be “perfect” but I will not stop pushing myself to find greater fulfillment and greater purpose through perpetual forward momentum toward the life I envision for myself. And I hope I can inspire and assist others to do just the same.

 

 

On Bad Writing

Everyone who knows me knows that I am an avid reader; my nose is almost always in a book whenever I have a spare moment, and even when I really don’t. I enjoy many different authors and genres, though I may not be overly enthusiastic about some fantasy and sci-fi series, depending on the style. I am one of those people that can’t abandon a book even when I am not enjoying it very much; I feel I owe it to the author to stick it through to the end to see if my opinion changes throughout the novel or story. In reality, there have been few books that I have disliked to the point where I truly wanted to quit them, as I usually find something intriguing or enjoyable about most stories and easily get wrapped up in a fast paced plot or interesting character.

Yet the novel I just recently finished was one of the few I would say I felt like was a waste of time, and a prime example of very poor writing. It was one of those novels that makes you wonder how some people get published and who decides that a manuscript is worth investing in. I wish to leave the name of the novel out, so that I can address my concerns without necessarily tying everything to specific references to the novel or seem like I am going on a tirade against a particular author.* My concerns with the novel were in part reactions to some of the details of the novel, but I want to speak primarily to principles of quality storytelling- of presenting a story that readers feel a true connection with, and finish feeling as though they understand something a bit better about their fellow humans. At the conclusion of a story, shouldn’t we feel as though we’ve had some insight into the lives of others, and feel like we are better able to understand and connect with them? Isn’t writing, at it’s heart, about our shared human experience, the truths we experience every day regardless of our race, gender, or age? Perhaps I am too idealistic in believing this.

The problem I had with this particular novel is that is seemed to be what the author imaged a “epic, grand” novel was suppose to be, rather than a naturally evolving novel, with compelling characters and a plot that was captivating and intricate. Instead, the novel jumps from one unbelievable situation or “coincidence” to the next in a way that is seemingly endless and frustrating. as there appears to be little logical progression or any attempt to resemble a real life experience (note that the novel doesn’t present itself as being fantasy or magical realism). Certainly, the unbelievable happens in many novels, and is usually welcome to some extent, since aren’t we seeking an escape through reading as well, however temporary it might be? Yet there must be some balance- the mundane, day to day events presented in contrast to the extraordinary ones. The novel is set primarily in Africa, though there are scenes in India and America as well, and these settings are described quite vividly. At some moments, the description feels a bit overwhelming, in fact, as if all your senses are being assaulted.

By many technical or “formal” standards, this novel could certainly be held in high regard. There is a complex plot, shifting points of view, and many narrative layers. While the characters are somewhat developed, they do no seem to experience any major changes, remaining generally static except for a few instances.

What was most concerning to me was the progression of events and their implications. The novel is essentially a biography of the narrator- he begins with the brutal story of his mothers journey from India to Africa, and then the traumatic event of his own birth (and his twin brother), and recounts events throughout his childhood and adolescence into adulthood. This type of sweeping narrative is no easy task, but it is an astounding thing when done well. I was relatively absorbed until the events began to deviate from the focus on the complex relationships between the primary family members and adults in the narrator’s life, and turned towards the sexual. I hardly consider myself sensitive to intimate scenes in writing or film- I’ve been exposed to enough that I generally do not feel awkward or offended. But when I read about the narrator’s first sexual desires and first intimate moments at the age of eleven, I must admit I was a bit startled and concerned. Certainly, all adolescents begin to have such moments in their early teens, but I believe eleven is a bit early for any real desire. I tried to remember what my own feelings were at that age and couldn’t recall any strong feelings of sexual curiosity. Perhaps I am the odd one, but this just seemed exaggerated and unnecessary.

From that point on, the novel turned into one about unrequited love and betrayal, and sexual repression to a mild extent. Yet the plot also expanded into murder and political revolution with guerrilla warfare, and much more. Each chapter brings one unimaginable event after the next in what feels like an endless spiral of tragic circumstances and coincidences. Throughout it all, our narrator seems undeterred from his ultimate goal, though this is not to say he has no powerful emotional reactions to these events. Yet, in the end, he ultimately shows little compassion for “the love of his life” or his own twin brother.

Having a emotionally distant or cold narrator can be an effective tool for a writer, but this novel doesn’t seem to be truly trying to present the narrator as such. What concerned me more than narrator’s reactions, in some ways, was contrived events as well as the presentation of female characters. Each traumatic event feels deliberately forced upon the narrator for the purpose of the novel, and the events that follow only perpetuate the downward momentum. Certainly, some women are portrayed as strong and virtuous in the novel, yet many are also portrayed as temptresses and irrational- such as the narrator’s main love interest. Her actions are the main catalyst for many horrifying events, leading to the tragic climax. She is rarely shone in a positive light- instead, we are mainly shown her often unforgivable flaws. In the later scenes, she is pitiable, but still does is not provided with any redemptive qualities. She is driven first by lust, then by anger and pride. Our narrator renounces her, yet also ends up accepting her back into his life in one rather awkward sex scene only to have her leave him again.

I will say, the author is a male. My trouble with the novel is both with is absurdity of the plot and the ways it perpetuates the woman as the source of evils. While he presents some in positive ways, his “positive” woman are generally submissive or extremely devout. The one strong woman who was independent, intelligent, and in some ways kind  is also shown as someone who “toyed” with the man who loved her, thus a mean-spirited “tease” and then one who finally accepts the role of a wife and turns only to religion at the conclusion of the novel. At the same time, the novel on the surface may appear to be “progressive” in that it exposes horrors of FGM and also describes doctors devoted to improving the medical care of women in rural Africa. For me, one does not negate or diminish the other. Woman are still the offenders, and men are better left alone to fulfill their potential.

After I finished the novel, I checked out reviews on Goodreads to see if anyone else felt the way I did. I only saw positive reviews, readers “dazzled” by the description and the powerful, moving story. Nothing that mentioned the troubling scenes of child sexuality or the general mistreatment and dismissal of woman to being the sex in need of redemption, riddled with injurious sins.

Perhaps I am being overly critical and my perceptions is “skewed” by my “liberal education”, as my father likes to tell me. I do not mean, through my analysis, to directly imply that the author is misogynistic, simply another member of the male patriarchy bent on suppressing women. I am not that spiteful. Regardless of the intent, the sentiment is still present, and yet it seems to be overlooked entirely. Yes, this is simply one novel that only received mild attention in the literary world. But the fact that these issues were not recognized at all in any critique or commentary of the novel is concerning to me since this is hardly an anomaly. Despite progress we have made- and yes, I believe we have made progress- there still remains a great deal of media in all forms that continue to present women in ways that are damaging and simply encourage attitudes that reduce women to unrealistic stereotypes. Men and women can be equally virtuous and equally malignant; is it that difficult to depict this through our art?

I suppose I have gone a bit off the topic of “bad writing”. Initially, I was aggravated by the  non-sencicalness of the novel, but as I reflected on it more the more I was both angered and disheartened to recognize the inability of a “modern” novel to allow for a female character to be intelligent, independent, and compassionate, an overall good person. While these types of characters do exist, and I do realize that every individual does not consist of purely positive traits, the simple fact is that it seems males will continue to be allowed to be tragic heroes while women will always remain either passive victims or malignant schemers who deserve punishment. Neither gender deserves to be pidgen-holed, regardless of it whether or not it is “just a show” or “just a book”. Art isn’t and doesn’t necessarily have to be a reflection of reality, yet art has a impact on culture and, therefore, values. If we continue to turn a blind eye to art that reenforces detrimental stereotypes and conceptions of the genders, everyone suffers.

Bad writing doesn’t just mean writing that is uninteresting, dull and uncreative, or unintelligent. Bad writing is writing both writing that is writing that is disingenuous, attempting to be something it simply is not, where meaningful action is replace with extreme drama and/or tragedy in an attempt to be interesting. Bad writing is writing that presents unrealistic and noxious images of either women or men, in ways that are may be obvious or subtle. The novel I just read encapsulates that, and I fear that there are many more pieces like it out there, receiving praise and quietly impacting our overall culture in a negative way. Creating communities that can recognize such images is of crucial importance, and having conversations about the implications of the images we see presented to us through popular culture is equal as important. Until this happens, we will continue to have bad writing, and make minimal advances towards real equality and a truly compassionate society.

*If you wish to know the title of the novel and the author, please feel free to ask.

Discovery in Early Morning Miles

Growing up, sports weren’t exactly “my thing”. I was the bookish, academic type; my nose was always in a book, I always maintained A or B grades in my classes, and I participated in activities that were not sports related like band, Power of the Pen, Model UN and Academic Challenge. This was necessarily due to a lack of effort. When I was young, I had tried a number of sports, from baseball to gymnastics and jazz dance. None of them held my interest, and I did’t have any natural talent for any of them. My coordination, though not abysmal, was simply just not outstanding. Perhaps part of my aversion also came from my brother, who, in his youth and teen years, was an avid football and basketball player. As we grew up, often I was the only person available to play catch with or to play against in a game of one-on-one basketball. He had clearly inherited some athletic ability from our mom’s side of the family that I had not, and despite my protests, forced me face off against me, and then would constantly chastise me and make fun of me for my lack of skill. Needless to say, I was frustrated, disheartened, and embarrassed. I’m not sure it ever occurred to him that I would have maybe improved with coaching and encouragement, but that is neither here not there at this point. I dreaded the times he would force me into a football or basketball game, and longed for the days when I was finally old enough to escape these sessions. Once he entered middle school and he became involved in organized school sports, I was finally relieved of my duties, and was thankful I wouldn’t have to try to pretend I was athletic anymore.

This isn’t to say that I did no physical activity; I was in marching band, which was surprisingly physically demanding, and I loved riding my bike throughout college. I would go through phases where I did basic exercises to keep in shape, and would take walks to destress. But if you had told me that I would ever become a runner, I would have told you that you obviously did not know me very well, since I was not an athlete or  did any sort of formal exercising.

Yet after getting out of college, and getting what ended up being primarily a desk job, I put on more weight than I was comfortable with, and wanted to do something about it. I had not idea what I was doing starting out, but I decided that running might be something I could handle. It was simple enough, and didn’t require any sort of special equipment beyond a decent pair of shoes. When I started out, I could almost make it a mile at a slow but not hideously slow pace. Those first few months, I wouldn’t say I loved or despised running. It was just something I was doing, and I was proud of the small improvements I was making, slowly increasing my distance and achieving faster paces. After awhile, I did begin to actually enjoy it. The feeling of my feet pounding on the pavement, only focusing on breathing in and out and placing one foot in front of the other. Perhaps what I liked best was that I wasn’t competing with anyone but myself, and I wasn’t trying to prove anything either. I didn’t have a specific goal I was trying to achieve, though I set small goals for my distances.

It’s hard to pin-point when I made to complete transition from someone who ran occasionally to becoming a runner. But as I ran more and more, I found it was something  I enjoyed immensely. When I completed my run, I felt accomplished and proud of how much I had progressed. Maybe being able to run 3 miles wasn’t a huge deal to some people, but for me, it was an achievement I certainly wouldn’t have been able to claim a few years before I first began running casually. When I was running, it was my time; it was quiet and peaceful, and I would get lost in the music and simply appreciating the fresh air and solitude.

Now I have a pretty set routine. I’m laced up and hitting the pavement sometime before 4:30 A.M (yes, even on weekends), and I go out in almost any weather. Even during the brutal Ohio winters, in temperatures that hovered around 0 degrees or below, I would still go out. Now that I live in Florida, I only really have to worry about the occasional scattered shower. Usually I log between 20 and 25 miles a week, but I have never run in a formal race. I also have never run as part of a group; I have only run “solo”. So I my running habits might be different than others, but I did become a runner despite my early aversion to athletics.

Perhaps its the sense of freedom running give me; being able to let everything else slip away while my body functions automatically, tracing the routes I know by heart. Sometimes my music playlist is spot on, and every song feels just right. Other days, not so much, and that’s alright too. Some days I will surprise myself with a much quicker pace that usual, and other days it will be a struggle to meet my average pace. That’s alright too. During my runs, I came to love different parts of each of the neighborhoods I lived in- the quiet, quaint streets of Lakewood with older homes that were well maintained, where I had to dodge sprinklers during the summer months, and the park next to the zoo in West Palm Beach where I had to learn where to dodge the roots of the towering trees that lined the path. What mattered most of the solid feeling of my feet connecting and then springing back up with each movement, seeing a bright moon and maybe a few stars overhead, being entirely alone while not feeling alone at all, the feeling of making progress from landmark to landmark as I breathed in and out, deep inhales and exhales to keep my brain rich in oxygen while my muscles do their own work. Though I am hardly a “model” runner, I enjoy the sense of tranquility it gives me, which perhaps seems odd considering it is an activity that makes your blood pump at such an accelerated rate.

During times when I have been extremely hurt, stressed, anxious, doubtful, confused and in search of clarity, running has always been there for me with its soothing rhythm and dependability. It has been there to remind me of my own strength, and remind me of the beauty that is all around us that we so often miss in the day to day. Breathing the fresh air smelling of lilac and freshly mowed grass, seeing a crystal clear full moon overhead before the sun begins to rise, noticing an impressive old tree with a giant canopy overhead you somehow overlooked, taking a new route that brings you across unexpected sight…. it’s difficult to describe sufficiently. Seeing your end goal in sight, knowing you somehow pushed through and made it no matter how much you may have wished to give up or do nothing at all- that feeling can provide you with a source of energy and hope even at the lowest of times. When I lost my first teaching position, when I had to deal with heart breaks or the loneliness of being in a new city without knowing anyone, I was still able to take a run and feel as though some sort of change for the better was just around the corner.

I  realize that running is not for everyone, for a variety of reasons, and I certainly don’t see it as a magic “cure all” for the daily stresses we all experience. For me, however, running is not just the way I exercise, and it’s not a certain “lifestyle” I have subscribe to. Running has helped me remain healthy both physically and mentally. My experience won’t be the experience of every runner, or of anyone who decides to start running. For me, it has never been about setting a certain pace, finding the perfect form, or placing first in a race regardless of how long it is. It is something I do for myself, and something I will continue to do for as long as I am capable of doing it safely.

Tomorrow, around 4 AM, I will be lacing up my shoes and starting up my Runkeeper App. I have the settings set to the voice of a “Boston  Guy” which always makes me smile, recalling my days of undergraduate when I was in that city of our founders. One of the announcements he makes is about going for a “Dunks run” to get your heart rate back up, and there’s another about going to the “bah” for a “beeh” after the run. When I finish my 5 mile loop, I will truly start my day, getting a shower and breakfast, and I will do so with a light heart and sense of purpose, sure that I will be able to face whatever predicament might lie ahead and that I will continue to find contentment throughout my day. I hope that everyone can find their “runner’s high” as well, however you might seek it.

“Be willing to move forward and find out what happens next.” – Frank Shorter

A Journey Into Education

In just under a month, I will be greeting my new students for the year into my classroom, that I have hopefully managed to organize and prepare well. They will be middle school aged, insecure and angry, feeling that the world is perpetually against them. We all remember what that age was like, for better or worse.

I hold two Master’s Degrees in addition to my teaching certification for my subject area. Going into college, I had no grand vision of myself as a teacher. If you asked me, it would have been on of the last professions I would have listed, probably. Especially teaching middle school. But I find myself getting anxious already, thinking about what challenges I will face and the intense work load I will face once again. Everyone recognizes the importance of teachers and how hard they work; this is nothing new. I am not looking for sympathy- this is my own decision. However much we complain, however frustrated we get, we teachers desire to help our students make a better life for themselves, to prepare them for the next stage of their life. I want to inspire my students, and help them believe in themselves. I dream big dreams for them, even if they do not.

I love the subject I teach- reading and writing has always been a passion for me and come naturally to me. I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything that wasn’t related to English. This does not mean it has been an easy decision for me to settle into the life of a teacher; I had other visions for myself, of course. I imagined writing and editing for some company or publication, large or small. And maybe I still will one day. Part of me still isn’t quite sure how I came to the conclusion that I could or should be a teacher. I knew my degrees only offered a limited number of career choices; I realized I would most likely get shoved somewhere along the line into a teaching position, I held onto a belief that I would seek options and I would somehow begin to slowly build a writing career. Perhaps our negative view of teaching comes from the old saying “Those who can’t do, teach.” We think that only those who were unsuccessful in their field end up as teachers. Another false assumption we have is that teaching isn’t overly complex. I admit, these thoughts were in the back of my mind as I accepted my first teaching job. I know reading and writing well, so surely I would find effective ways to help my students acquire these skills. I went into my first teaching position without having heard the term “classroom management” and without ever written a complete lesson plan. Needless to say, I had a steep learning curve to overcome my first year, and very little assistance from the school administrators or other support staff. Considering what I know now, the school (which happens to be a charter school) had extremely poor practices, and it was hardly an ideal environment for a first year teacher, let alone an experienced teacher. I don’t want this to turn into a rant or blame game, by any means. Sadly, my experience is hardly unique and it is a reality of our current educational system that we must face. Regardless of my extremely rough start, I still felt like it was a profession I wished to pursue, and one that i could eventually excel in, though if you had asked my why I felt that way I could not have given a very articulate, reasonable answer. I wasn’t renewed for another year, and I spent the first part of the summer frantically applying to job after job, and rushing from interview to interview trying to secure a new position. Eventually I did, though it was about an hour north of where I was living at the time. While I liked West Palm Beach, I had little qualms about moving and felt excited for a new year. I would be better prepared, I would have time to review the curriculum map and organize my lessons, and I would have much more support (or so I believed).

I still struggled a great deal my second year; my classroom management plan fell to pieces, in the face of challenging students who were well below grade level in reading, I was isolated from my colleagues though they were not interested in collaborating anyway, and the administration provided little guidance or enforcement of consequences for the severe behavior problems. I took on students for extra tutoring, and was still completing classes for my second degree, as well as other Professional Development classes required by the district. I quickly became exhausted and overwhelmed, somehow holding things together by a thin thread. In spite of the challenges at work, I had found a relationship that made me happier than I had been in quite awhile, I managed to make a few friends with other teachers in the district, and I adopted a new dog who was both a joy and a pain, as any pet can be. Somewhat ironically, I wouldn’t have met my boyfriend if I had not made the move to the new school.  My classroom was an awkward shape that didn’t lend itself to any arrangement that make it easy to teach, and I had no real place to project my carefully designed presentations, nor did I even have speakers for sound when we needed to listen to a recording or watch a video (those I provided myself). Yet I had one class of advanced students who were a wonderful to work with; they were quick to grasp any new material or concept I presented, followed directions without need reminders to stay on task (generally speaking- they were still twelve year olds), and I built relationships with them, getting to know all about their lives and interests. Even though I was frustrated and at a loss of how to improve some of my classes, I saw what a real classroom could look like and knew I was getting close to where i wanted to be.

Towards the end of the school year, my boyfriend and I purchased a home that was in between our places of employment. As it came closer and closer to my end of the year review and evaluation, I had a feeling in the depths of my stomach that all was not well. My principal wouldn’t speak to me or acknowledge me, and I could tell there was little chance I would be offered a position for next year. I took time to write up a full document outlining all of the different types of support I did not receive as I should have throughout the year (having a mentor that actually met with me and provided assistance was just one item on the list). For better or worse, I sent it to my principal, and never received a response. On the day of my final evaluation meeting, I wore my favorite skirt that made me feel truly grown up and a bit like I was someone from the 50’s or early 60’s,  someone with a bit of class and style. Part of me hoped it would make me feel at least marginally better when I was finally given the news I knew was bound to come that day. The meeting happened between my first and second classes, during my planning period, so I had some time to collect myself and try to process the situation. During the meeting, I was suppose to receive the results of my evaluation and receive feedback; the meeting was less than five minutes, and there was no discussion. My principal gave me some excuse that they were changing the department for next year, meaning she had to reduce the number of teachers for sixth grade. Perhaps she was telling the truth, but it hardly seemed believable, and she wouldn’t really meet my eyes as she spoke to me. As unjust as I felt the decision was, a part of me still felt I needed to accept most of the blame and question my ability to be a successful teacher. The other teachers made it seem so easy. What was it about me that made me struggle with it so much? I followed all the advice given in my education classes, I structured my lessons according to “best practices”, I regularly contacted parents and filed discipline reports. What was I doing wrong? Was I just not meant to be a teacher? I had dedicated not only time but also money into getting my official teaching certificate and second degree, I had committed to the profession, and truly wanted to have a fun, engaging class for my students where they learned and thought critically and creatively. I just couldn’t seem to make it happen.

I spent about a month running around south Florida applying to jobs and attending different interviews, desperately hoping to be offered a position despite my own doubts. Rejection after rejection came, and I doubted even more my ability to remain in the world of education. Eventually, I was offered  two positions, and one happened to be at the top rated middle school in the district of my city that is only about six miles from my house. I hadn’t expected the offer, and it had been a short interview. I felt like there were many things I had not said during the interview that I should have, about my passion for the subject, about my extreme dedication and work ethic, about my unshakable faith that all students can be successful, about designing creative assessments to provide students the best opportunity for demonstrating their knowledge, about being consistent with a discipline policy and about laying out expectations early and establishing routines right from the beginning of the year. Perhaps the principal could tell these things without saying, or perhaps we were both tired of the usual interview rig-a-morle. Maybe she was just desperate for a certified teacher at the last minute. Regardless, I am thankful for the position and another opportunity to establish myself in the field of education.

Like every educator, I am extremely worried at the direction education is headed in our country, especially under the new administration. Yet I don’t believe I could  abandon my students; I do not hold any false notions of working miracles or creating radical change. Everyday, I will meet with my students and they may or may not retain any of the information I’m trying to teach them. I can’t force them to care about their future or the future of our globe. I still feel obligated to do what little I can. I can expose them to different perspectives, and do my best to show them that they are capable of great things. This is the dream and wish of every teacher, to some extent. At least that’s what I will let myself believe.

My students will not be perfect students, and I will not be a faultless teacher. I will have to deal with bureaucratic frustrations, parents would react irrationally at times or are not supportive, there will be days when I will want nothing more than to not have to face the classroom another day. But I want to be there for these young adults who will have to start growing up, and will eventually have to make a future for themselves. We often say that education is the most important thing in a person’s life, but I’m not sure we fully appreciate the difference it can make. There is no greater truth than that the future of the country, and the world, lies in the classroom.

In spite of everything, I am looking forward to beginning a new year, which is always filled with hope. I still have to go shopping for my “first day of school” outfit, though.