Random thoughts from an animal-loving French prof / mom of three on things she finds beautiful, funny, sad, or strange.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The other woman at the table

The first time they sat down together was not a happy one. Yes, they were seated at the sturdy old table that had made its way from her grandparents' kitchen to her own, the table that knew generations of joy and love. Of course it had seen its fair share of tears and hurts as well, and on that chilly afternoon, it had to absorb a whole lot more. This was not, I repeat, a happy occasion.

Maybe if she'd been less frightened, she would have been able to see the other woman clearly. But she was frightened, the kind of fear that feels like certain soul death. In that state, how was she supposed to see anything other than another one of them, the ones who seemed bent on destroying families? Talk about intolerable pain. Talk about an enemy.

Nearly a decade later, the two women sat down again, this time at the other woman's table. It was a frigid day, colder even than the first, but this time warmed, both by plates of hot lasagna and the spark of recognition that ignites when two people truly meet. Their words traveled from their childhoods to France, then on into the mountains, raising children and building houses along the way. Both could pass on Coke, but coffee? They'd rather die than live without it, just as long as it's black. They're both daddy's girls who find themselves alternately amused, chagrined, and flattered that they now sound exactly like their moms. Their grandmothers were the best bakers in the world, and both women have spent hours days trying to recreate those treats. Each has been forced to lead when she'd rather be hiding backstage, and life has dealt them both hands that sometimes, honestly, they'd rather not have to play. Yet here they are, playing those hands anyway, because, well, that's just what they do.

What changed, you ask? Simply this: one moved beyond her fear and learned to play with, not against, the other.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Work in progress

The semester is over, my annual respiratory infection is gone, and I'm now in New York getting some much needed R & R and holiday cheer. With any luck, the black cat will be back soon.

Meanwhile, I'm (finally) getting started on my other gig, blogging with the Attachment & Trauma Network. It's a cause I really believe in, so I encourage all my readers to click the link and enjoy.




Sunday, December 4, 2016

Searching for a starfish

You probably know some version of Loren Eiseley's story, the one where a child is throwing starfish into the ocean one by one, only to have an adult chide him for wasting his time. After all, he will never save them all, right? The child, however, has the last word, that his efforts do matter to each starfish he saves. 

It's a good story, albeit beaten to death by motivational speakers slightly overused, and it's not a bad response to November 2016, a month I generally think of as follows:

I am not just talking about THAT day. I might have been able to withstand that. Doubtful, sure, but it's what I'd like to believe. 

No, my fracture came a few days later when Vesbo, subject of Why are they always orange?, crossed the Rainbow Bridge. "I just really needed to save him," I sobbed on the phone to my parents. "And I failed."

Eventually, I cried (most) of the tears I had to cry. In their place, nothing. Yes, I had my friends, my family, my students, and they all held me together more than they will ever know. But deep down inside? That's where that big dark space was born.


Then I opened yesterday’s mail. One of the envelopes, larger than the others, bore the return address Open Arms India. I eagerly opened it, and there I saw her. Our sponsored child, holding a picture of… I looked closer…us. There we were, my family grasped in the hands of a child with a phenomenal smile. 

Something in me started to spark, a piece of my inner power grid coming back on line. I looked at that smile and thought maybe, just maybe, we were playing some small part in making that light shine. For the first time in weeks, I felt something like belief. 

I don't know what the future holds, and that thought scares me half to death. So does the fact that no matter what I want or what I try, I won't be able to save every cat or every child. 
But maybe, every once in a while, one of them will be my starfish. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

On (not) being a writer

I don't know when I first thought I wanted to be a writer.

Scratch that.

I don't know when I started writing.

Scratch that too.

I am not a writer. I don't even know if I want to be one. I just write. Always have, always will.

Ahhhh... Now we're on to something. Not that the nature of this "something" is especially clear, of course. After all, it's not as if I've never seen my name in print. As an academic, I have published a fair number of articles and book chapters over the years. That counts, right? Then there is this blog, whose posts do not appear magically out of cyber-thin air. Quite the contrary– much like academic writing, channeling these thoughts through pen onto paper actually requires fairly serious butt-in-chair time (yes, I am that odd creature who writes most of her blog posts longhand).

Okay then. Perhaps I am in fact a writer. Cool. Well, cool except for one little problem. I haven't yet written the thing I want to write. I am possessed by a pretty huge, mostly true story that's just dying to get out. I'm talking wakes me up in the middle of the night just to remind me it's still here. In case, you know, my memory was wiped by space aliens or I somehow otherwise managed to forget. As if. Anyway, it's here, it's real, and I bet at least a few people would read it if I could just coax it out. Yep. Coax. As badly as it wants out in the dead of night, it is awfully shy when it sees my open notebook. Go figure.

This push-and-pull has been going on for a while now. As in years. And it's time for it to end. This story is going to get the attention it deserves, and not just "when I have the time" (as if that were a thing!). To make that happen, I've done two things. One, I found a writing group. Well, it found me. Point is, I now have a safe and structured writing home where my story and I will be accountable to each other. And two, I've decided to nurture other people's stories by writing for and managing the ATN blog. ATN stands for The Attachment & Trauma Network, an organization of not-so-ordinary angels who have thrown many a lifeline to families just like mine.

So... stay tuned. It's going to happen. I will wrestle my story into a book or die trying. Meanwhile, please, check us out at ATN. It's an amazing place.



Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Things we (shouldn't) take for granted

The other night, my middle daughter was invited to an awards ceremony at UC, aka my workplace since 2001. We didn't think twice about it until the announcer started listing the participating schools. We realized that many families drove an hour, even two, to a place we see so often that well, we've stopped actually seeing it. As we walked to our car, parked in a nearby lot that only an "insider" would know, I commented that I hadn't realized this would be such a big deal. My daughter replied something like, "that's because it's Cumberland. It's just always here."

Two days later, our conversation still won't let me go. When did my privileged place in the world become so...I don't know...ordinary? I know that's probably just the dual effect of habit and of time, but still, that doesn't make it okay.
I mean, look at it. This is an American college campus, which are among some of the prettiest spots I've ever seen (and I've seen an awful lot). That this one is full of red brick buildings –a personal favorite– and located in the beautiful Appalachian mountains is the icing on an already delectable cake.

Besides, being here means I get to work with a lot of incredible people. My administration supports me, my colleagues sustain me, my students motivate me to get out of bed each and every day. No, it's not perfect (we all have our dark places), and yes, this Francophile with a Yankee attitude has days where she probably creates more problems than she solves, but hey, that's all part of the adventure.

The best part, though, is that I am getting away with an epic scam. I love languages, especially French. I love to read. I love to write. And by some miracle (okay, a miracle plus a PhD...), I have stumbled into a profession where people will actually put me in a room full of books and pay me do all three. There's even a coffeemaker, for crying out loud! Do I do it perfectly? No. I don't always even do it very well, or at least not as well as I'd like. But I come at it with energy and passion and a constant desire to improve. The result? I feel like I've won the lottery, only better. Unlike plain, cold, hard cash, this the kind of thing that stays with you forever.

So here's to our blessings and our loves. May we never take them for granted again.




Friday, October 7, 2016

Yeah, this is real too

A child, maybe 12, moves across the parking lot. Progress is slow, weighed down as he is by a leg cast and bulging backpack. He places his crutches carefully, looking up every so often, only to drop his eyes again when he sees how much parking lot remains.



The other parents stare, first at him, then at his mother, waiting alone by her car. 

"How long has he been crossing this lot, anyway?"

"I'd never let my kid get away with that."

"Bless him. That'd stop if he just got a little extra attention and love."

"That kid needs a good whipping. Then he'd move!"

If you are horrified, you should be.

If you think this cannot possibly be real, you are probably right. At least I hope you are. After all, what kind of person would criticize a child so obviously in pain? What kind of jerk would blame his parents because a broken leg had slowed him down?

Yet thousands of families endure something similar every day. Every. Single. Day. Not because of something visible, something obvious like a broken leg, but because their child suffers from wounds unseen, some of which were inflicted literally from the very first. Some combination of hunger, abuse, trauma, and neglect caused the child's brain to develop in unexpected ways, with a broad range of maladaptive behaviors to match. 

For parents of these kids, the phrase "pick your battles" takes on a whole new meaning. We have to pick so often and so quickly –yet somehow also carefully–, that I can just about guarantee we're not picking the ones you want. Yet trust me, we believe in love and discipline and everything else that goes into making a family work. It's just that our normal looks way different from yours. I wish I could say we 're sorry, sorry that our families make you so uncomfortable, so concerned. But we can't. We can't waste time apologizing for something that isn't our fault. Like the mom whose son is wobbling around with cast and crutches, we have bigger fish to fry.

What we can do is ask you to give us the benefit of the doubt, accept that we are actually doing the best we can, however imperfect that may be. Maybe this video will help. Do we all experience everything in it equally? No. But it does give people a chance to speak a lot of hard truths, truths they want the rest of the world to hear.




Remember, the support you give the family is love you show the child.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Wait, WHAT?! I agree with Glenn Beck?!

It was early one fall semester, a few years ago. My elementary French class and I were still getting to know each other when the ballplayer in the front row piped up with something straight out of Glenn Beck. My reaction was swift, and to me, predictable.

"I prefer to think for myself." 

"He just asks questions," came the reply, faintly tinged with what I perceived as aggression.

"Great," I thought. "One of those. Let's just get through this semester. It's not like I'll ever see him again."

I was wrong, and thankfully so. The student went on to minor in French and remains one of the best and brightest I have ever had. Mind you, there were plenty of things about which we never could agree, but we kept talking and learning from each other all the same. Those conversations became one of the highlights of my week, and even now remind me why I became a professor. Idealistic and cliched as it may sound, I want to open minds, including especially my own.

Time passed. Seasons changed. My opinion of Glenn Beck, however, did not. That is, until the other day, when in the New York Times I read his Op-Ed, Empathy for Black Lives Matter. Here's the part that got me:

After the massacre, I invited several Black Lives Matter believers on my show. I got to know them as people — on and off air — and invited them back again. These individuals are decent, hardworking, patriotic Americans. We don’t agree on everything, certainly not on politics; but are we not more than politics? I refuse to define each of them based on the worst among them. No movement is monolithic. The individuals I met that day are not “Black Lives Matter”; they are black Americans who feel disenfranchised and aggrieved; they are believers; they are my neighbors and my fellow citizens.
We need to listen to one another, as human beings, and try to understand one another’s pain. Empathy is not acknowledging or conceding that the pain and anger others feel is justified. Empathy is acknowledging someone else’s pain and anger while feeling for them as human beings — even, and maybe especially, when we don’t necessarily agree or understand them.
I haven't followed the story much since, but I can easily imagine Beck was excoriated on all sides. In his camp because our heroes are supposed to be unchanging monoliths; in camps closer to my own, because, well, he's Glenn Beck. Never mind what he actually said, right? He's just another one of them. Others near my camp may have read, even liked it, only to dismiss it as too little, too late. 

Now that last part, I get. I really do. I almost went there myself. After all, how many times have I felt that way? How many times have I caused others to feel that way about me? 

But...

But...this. "Too little, too late" implies there is no chance for growth or change. There are no second chances, no mercy, no grace. And that, I cannot accept. It goes against everything I believe as a Christian, parent, teacher, friend. As humans are we not gifted with the ability to transcend our limitations, especially those that are self-imposed?

Am I the newest member of the Glenn Beck fan club? Nope. I don't even agree with everything he wrote here. But I have to admire his bravery in extending a hand, knowing full well that many would just as soon slap or even sever it, anything but risk a stranger's touch.


Surely each of us, in our own little corners of the world, can do the same.