Wednesday, September 5, 2018

A Letter to my Daddy

that somehow also became almost something of a manifesto, as a 35 year old female bike riding college student.

Today as I was riding my bike to campus, you were undergoing surgery.  You were asleep in Michigan with doctors meddling and fussing with your insides, and I was pedaling my way across Lincoln, Nebraska. Today was my coolest day of bike riding so far at a balmy 70 degrees, but the humidity was so thick there was a consistent spray of mist as I rode.  Not so that you could ever feel any individual drop of rain, but just enough so that every surface had a layer, (or two, or three) of wetness on top of it. Devin warned me that parts of the trail were flooded, but his last words to me this morning were, "you can drive if you want, but if you want to be a serious bike rider you could ride your bike." You know he didn't mean it as a challenge, but of course that's how I heard it, so you already know I rode my bike.  Footnote: While I rode through copious amounts of mud, the watery puddles were actually disappointing, given what I had anticipated facing.

This is what the ride is like. There are parts of the trail where the air hangs heavy, sickly sweet with the smell of fruit that has fallen to the ground, now sodden and rotting.  There are some fruits that still dangle from branches, cheerful in shades of yellow and red, but some are also a bright orange that leads me to wonder if these are possibly wild peaches?  These ones seems to say, "It's ok, look at us, we have not given up."  So on I pedal, the sweat at this point rolling free and unashamed down my forehead, across my eye creases, to rest on my cheek, to gather saltily on my upper lip.

The air is saturated with sounds, so many that I have to listen carefully to distinguish each one, and attempt to categorize them all.  The wind rushes fiercely past my ears, and I marvel that any other sound can linger at all to make an impression of its own.  But such is the determination of the insect world to be noticed, I suppose.  The trilling, sibilant sounds are individually so discordant, yet they combine to create not cacophony but a certain harmony, each little creature providing a rhythm and tone, each saying, "I exist, I am here, this is my place."

In perfect juxtaposition I can hear the soft, metallic vibrations of cars going by somewhere beyond the cornfields that surround me on this trail.  They add their melody, playing along with the undercurrent of the susurration of the wind in the trees - which, it may surprise you to know, I can hear as a distinct sound apart from the wind that teases my hair and flaps my shirt as I race on my way.

Above all this is the song of the birds, their notes perfectly perched; a heavenly descant that soars above it all.  I listen and think this is the chorus of the world, the symphony of life.  I have not heard a human voice in any of it, yet I am not lonely.

I know that soon enough on my route there will be people at the next corner, or around the next bend. They will be sitting in their cars, waiting for the right of way to turn in their favor - waiting, as am I - and for a moment our lives will interconnect and I will hope they see me.  Or this person will be a fellow biker coming along the path, on their own journey to, or from, a mysterious somewhere.  And to each of these travelers I will smile, and I will nod, and I will lift one hand to wave and nearly every time, I will get a like greeting in return.  It is reassuring to be seen.

When I come across a pedestrian, I do the same, perhaps with an added vocalized, "hello", and an added sustained eye contact.  Some that I pass on my path have five day old beards on sunken cheeks below tired eyes.  They sit, hands apathetically at their side, a cigarette hanging loosely from their mouth.  Next to them a rugged backpack with a sleeping bag tied up neatly, or a little cart with shopping bags full of items spilling out.

Some of the people I cross paths with on the sidewalk seem to have just stepped outside for a moment, I notice them wearing a tie and shiny shoes.  They seem to need a breath of fresh air, and a peek at the sun in between phone calls and emails and coffee breaks.  With each of these men, however they appear to me, I smile, I nod, I say, "hello", hoping for an acknowledgment, "I see you, do you see me? Can we share this space for this one moment in time?"

A friend asked me recently, "do you feel safe when riding your bike to class?" and as sad a question as that is, it also feels relevant and important.  A few times I have come across men in the parts of the trail where there would be no one to hear me scream, if it came to that.  I make extra sure to acknowledge all whose paths I cross, to encourage them to see me, just a person like them, wanting to exist in the same space for the briefest of breaths.  A puff of air, and I'm gone, safe and on my way.

There are parts of the trail where the branches on the trees hang low over the path, and I have to duck my head, even as the branches tug, grabbing and pulling at my helmet, teasing me as if to say, "stay here for a while, it's nice in the shade."  It is nice in the shade, but I go on, though it's hot and I am tired already and there are many uphills still ahead in my ride.

I try to enjoy both the uphills and the downhills, daddy.  The uphill I remind myself to enjoy for inside the struggle that burns is the promise that once I have ascended to the very top, I get to begin the downhill portion.  There is no downhill after all, without first going uphill.  And what thrill, what relief there is in that burst of air filling my lungs as my wheels roll along, gaining momentum, my legs resting at cruise control.

Some days are hard, daddy.  Some days are hot, are humid.  Some days I have not had enough to eat or drink, or slept enough the night before.  Some days I come across someone on the path who stops and begins digging for something in their backpack as soon as they see me and I wonder what access to guns that person has recently had.  Some days I almost get hit by a car because they were too careless to see me and I was too used to being seen.  Sometimes my entire body is burning, the muscles in my legs, the organs of lung and heart, pumping and it's never enough, my eyes from the sweat that collects and pools.  Sometimes my gear chain jumps off and I don't know if I know anything about bikes at all, and might just collapse by the side of the path and never get up again.

But I take one more breath.  I pedal one more rotation.  I look both ways.  I pause.  I go.  I smile.  I wave. I nod. And the wind rushes past me, with smells and sounds, and the world is alive around me, and I am alive inside of it.  I think that when I drive my car somewhere, I am merely existing, but I am not experiencing.  What joy is there in the life that was never pushed or challenged, that merely rested and enjoyed?  What strength is there in the absence of struggle?

I think of people who have faced actual hardships, actual pain and sorrow far more serious than my 13 mile bike ride, and I wonder if they feel that joy and pride in having overcome the moments in life that tried to break them.  Did they pause, look around, wonder if anyone saw them, and then on a hope and a prayer that they would make it, carry on?

I realized on my bike ride today that it is September now, and September is suicide awareness month.  I think of the depths that people find themselves drowning in that bring them to the point of sinking, of ceasing to struggle. Giving up, or giving in, or letting go and do they find the relief they were hoping for?

Do I feel safe on my bike ride?  Do I feel safe on a sunny day, at noon, in Lincoln, Nebraska amid the rows of corn and birds in the sky?  Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  I don't know what it is that draws some people to hurt themselves or to hurt others.  But as I ride, and look at my small corner of the world, as I think of pain and the joy that comes in overcoming it, as I smile and nod at the people that cross my path I have come to one solid conclusion.

If someone does hurt me, I want, in that moment, for my thoughts to be of relief that they had noticed me, had picked me, had targeted me, perhaps because I had been too kind, than too casually cruel.  If cruelty were the cause or the motivation behind whatever twisted logic lies in their brain, I wouldn't be able to feel myself much better than them.  But if, by casting a light in their direction, I had drawn their attention and whatever was broken inside them made them want to break me, at least I will know it was because I was not like them.

Obviously, I hope that no one hurts me.  And obviously, I hope that the joy and relief I, or anyone, feel in overcoming hardships and struggles never comes as a conclusion of some person inflicting pain on another person.  There is enough to struggle against in this life without adding to it willfully ourselves.  I imagine legions of people, side by side, some with secret sorrows that no one knows, and some with scars that show on face or hands and some doubled over with pain that yet drags them down.  I imagine they stand. I imagine them with hands raised high, fists clenched. I imagine them thinking back on all the hills that they have climbed, and saying together as one, "still I rise."

I imagine them taking a moment to breathe in deeply, pride in who they are - not who they are in comparison to anyone else, but in who they are simply for who they are.  Pride in facing down their own very individual hills, what they have seen, what they have faced, what they have lived through, what they have breathed through, what they have gone on to see and to do.  Feeling that pride swell to a joy in knowing that life is challenging but we, as people, as humans, rise to challenges.  With these weak, frail bodies that feel so many things, that suffer from so much that bring us pain and anguish, we can cross land and sea, we can launch to the moon itself.  With tears wet on our own cheeks we can see another's pain and pause to help if we can.

I see you, do you see me? Can we exist together, either in this one isolated moment, or moment upon moment that stretches out becoming eternity?

I see you.  I see your struggle.  Carry on.  I can.  You can.

Monday, October 23, 2017


I was supposed to go to yoga this morning.  I was dressed, I was ready.  Hazel was dressed, Hazel was ready.  We filled up our water bottles, we grabbed her applesauce (and a spoon: bonus!) and then I was grabbing Hallie's violin (that she forgot: surprise!) to drop off at school on the way and suddenly Hazel was sobbing. Big fat tears were rolling down her cheeks, and I didn't know why.   Sobbing, shoulders heaving, sadness in every sound and movement she was making.  Finally, she took a deep breath and managed to tell me, "I just, I just want you, Mommy."

At first I tried to reason.  I tried to encourage.  I tried to bribe. And then, with her little hand in mine, we took Hallie's violin and came back home and I asked Hazel what she wanted to do today, with me.  "Ride my bike around the block" was her excited reply, which made my heart hurt because it was something I had promised to do with her on Friday after finishing the laundry.  Of course we ran out of time, and then I told myself we would do it on Saturday.  And then of course I told myself we would do it on Sunday.  Here we were, four days later and all that little girl wanted in the whole world was to go on a bike ride with her mom.

I've been crying again lately about not having any more babies in my home or in my arms.  I am pretty reasonable about it most of the time. Cleaning through my closet a few days ago I found a bag full of baby items that I purchased years ago, convincing myself that they would be gifts for friends who have babies.  But friend after friend had babies and I could not bring myself to let them go.  Maybe I'll get there someday, but on this Monday even though I really wanted to be at yoga, I realized (again, this recurring lesson I keep needing) that yoga will be there next week, and the week after that.

But Hazel?  The way she was today, on that bike, with this weather?  This will never happen for me again.  Like her older sisters before her, she will be off and away and I will be left, home alone, with a pile of brand new baby toys that I never gave away.

The wind was blustery and it rained on us for about half our ride, but we stopped and picked up a friend and had some good talks on the way.

"Sonja! Sonja! I have to tell you something! One time, my dad went to the grocery store. And he forgot his watch. So he didn't even know what time it was!"

"Mom! Mom! Is this a stick... or a dead worm?" Which led to a long and thoughtful, in the way of 3 year olds, conversation about how worms die.

"Mom! Stop!! I need that stick! Could you grab it for me, and carry it for me please?!" (This stick actually was a stick.  She has named it "Sticky" and says it belongs in her bedroom.)

Last night as we snuggled before bed she told me in a very solemn voice, "Mom, it's really hard being three."

Last Monday we were driving home from our quick trip out to Utah for Uncle Ken to get married to Aunt Kathryn.  The weather was lovely, and so were the bride and groom.  I don't have an abundance of love in my heart for Utah, but Temple Square did soften it a little.  Thanks for a great weekend, Rose Family!

Two Mondays ago my mom and dad were in town, and Devin was out of town.  That Monday morning was brisk and chilly, the wind hard at work pulling leaves and swirling them around before dropping them lightly on the still green grass.  My mom and I had plans, and our plans had plans, and we were planning to make more plans.  She took my car and drove my girls to school and then stopped by Hy-Vee to pick up some things necessary for carrying out our plans.  This is what we do when she comes to visit.

I was in the kitchen, trying to get three things started so we could get a jump on our plans.  That was our plan so everything could be rolling along smoothly when she got home with the items needed for our other plans.  It's exhausting to be my mom and me when she comes to visit.

I was still in my pajamas, bouncing around the house trying to think five steps ahead but never sure where I actually was at any given moment when I heard my phone ring.  I had no idea where my phone was, so on and on it rang and I was elbow deep in apples.  Or tomatoes. Or strawberries.  Or... probably a bit of all three, actually.  I was feeling guilty for not going along to help my mom get the carpet cleaning supplies, but she was a grown woman and surely could handle it.  But, a gasp of breath and stalled movement: What if she were the one that had been calling?

My dad, in the other room, already working on his computer, answered his phone when it began ringing.  I could tell it was my mom.  I could tell there was trouble.  "Locked out? Ok, I'll get the keys to our car and come get you... oh, you have the keys to that car too?  Ok, well, um... we'll come get you somehow..."

My ears were keen and I already had my shoes on.  "Tell mom I'll come on Devin's bike with the other set of keys!" I told my dad.  He hurried outside to see me off.

"I wish I had..." I began to say, then trailed off.  He finished for me, "some gloves?"

"No," I said, "I don't remember what I was thinking, but I'll be fine."  And off I rode, speeding along, my legs pumping faster than probably ever in my life.  'I'm coming, mother!' the mantra in my mind.

The wind was truly brisk, pushing at my back and it wasn't long before I realized gloves would have been nice.  And my phone, too.  Ah well, the world lay before me and I knew I could conquer it if I had but a stout heart and a stern determination to be a hero.

Faster and faster I rode, up hills and down, and don't laugh at what we call hills here in Nebraska.  I was feeling that burn in my legs but my momma needed me and when she calls, I come pedaling.

I pulled into the parking lot and there she was, and my vision must have gone funny because it looked like she had been sitting inside the car.

I rode around and hopped off my bike, reaching into my pocket to get out the keys and hand them to her.  She came around to hug me and said, "So, funny thing is... the door wasn't actually locked.  I just, I thought it was, so..."

With a laugh and a whoop I hopped back on my bike, and waving to my mom I rode home again, my fingers numb and my cheeks chilled.  Do you have to actually save someone to be a hero?


Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Two of my four daughters are wrestling.  It is fine at first, giggling and silly.  They are enjoying themselves.  Then it seems to get more violent and one sister doesn't want to wrestle anymore.  She wants to go ask mom if she can have a cookie.  "No," she says.  "Enough," and "Stop!"

She should be allowed to say those words no matter how consensual the activity seemed when they started.  AND they should still mean something because she hasn't already said them 5 times, giggling to show she really meant, "this is great!"

But even if she had done that, those words should still, should ALWAYS mean enough for her sister to stop, and say, "hey, should we see if mom will let us have cookies, or should we keep wrestling?"

Then the sister can answer, "Cookie!" or, "Keep wrestling, but not so rough.  You were hurting me."

I think it should be easy to extrapolate that to an adult situation, although I literally wrote it as an example of what happens in my home.  With my four young daughters.

Here's another one I used to see a lot around here, but doesn't happen as often anymore:

My oldest daughter standing motionless in the center of the room, seemingly helpless, sobbing - while her younger sister (for whatever reason?!) gleefully is hitting and punching her.  Obviously I pull the younger one away, and she faces consequences.  But it terrifies me what I saw the older one NOT doing, and I knew it was because I had taught her it was "not ok" to hit her sister.  I had to retrain her.

It is NOT ok to hit your sister, that's why the younger one was in trouble at that moment.  But if she comes along swinging at you, run away if you can!  Come find me!  Make. Her. Stop.  You do not have to be a victim right here in this scenario.  I try to get her to understand that sometimes you have to stand up for yourself because no one will be coming along to save you.

We have since come up with the following steps in our family for when someone won't respect your space/leave you alone physically:

1. Ask/Tell them to stop
2. Move yourself away from them
3. Find Mom, Dad, Teacher, or other safe adult and tell them what happened
4. Hit them as hard as you can
5. Bite, Kick, Scream

With each number increase is the responding action to an increase in the invasive behavior.  This is the response in our home to be followed by minor irritations like a sister sitting too close on the couch, or repeatedly tapping your arm.

I have told my girls when in the car and I can't help them, and they have tried asking the person to stop (#1) and they can't move away (#2) to jump to #5 when and if it becomes necessary - using smart discretion for when that moment happens.  In the car when possible I tell them just to look out the window and completely ignore the offending person.  But depending on what that person is doing to them, there comes a time when #5 is necessary.

I have also told them to jump straight ahead in the list if they are ever scared, or uncomfortable with the way someone is touching them or talking to them - again, using their discretion for what is necessary.  Moving away, coming to tell me, kicking and fighting back.

I also try to help them understand there are different levels of offense, that require different responses.  A sister breathing your air and looking at the same book as you is different than a sister who sits on top of you and won't stop tickling you.  There will come a day when the situations may be more severe with boyfriends or strangers or co-workers or whoever and they need to figure out appropriate actions.  I can only hope I have given them the tools and made them brave enough to fight back when possible or speak up about it.

Another lesson I teach my girls who were on the other end of the irritating behavior is that it is NOT OK to ignore someone's requests when it comes to their own personal space and bodies.  You do not get to touch other people if they do not want you to.  This is something girls have to be taught, not just boys.  In my research to know how to talk to and protect my girls from harassment/assault I have learned it is not always just that man on the corner of the street, or that boy at the party, or even the creepy older brother at the sleepover.  Often, it comes from another girl at the sleepover, or on the playground, or in the locker room.

I tell my girls it doesn't matter WHO is touching them in ways they don't like - STOP means NOW and to always, always tell me about it.  Even, and especially if, that person doesn't want you to tell anyone about it.

One last real scenario from my home: We have a loop of kitchen, hallway, front entrance, dining room, and back to kitchen.  A frequent activity in my home is running laps of this loop.  They count how many they can do, and sometimes in the cold of winter it's just running for the sake of running.

But sometimes, sometimes one sister finds herself being chased by another.  Sometimes at first its a fun game, much like the wrestling, but eventually she gets tired and wants to stop.  She should be allowed to.  But what I see most often is the one being chased just continues to run, crying at the other to "Stop chasing me!"  Sometimes I can tell the one sister being chased doesn't even know how she found herself running, afraid of what's coming behind.  In both cases, the cries of "stop" are coming from a place of real distress.

In this case, I usually talk to the sister being chased first.  "Stop running!" I tell her.  "She can't chase you if you aren't running!"  What my girls sometimes forget is that it isn't always a lion chasing a gazelle.  She is, in this moment, safe in her home with her mother nearby.  If she stops running, that sister will have no one left to chase.

What I want my girls to know as they get older is that they are NOT things to be chased.  Not by anyone, not by boys, unless they want to and it is a mutually agreed upon enjoyable activity.  And whatever that "chasing" means, whether it is a literal frolicking in the park, or flirtations, flowers, gifts, phone calls, etc., she should be allowed to decide if she wants them to continue, or not.  And when she wants it to stop, she needs to be brave enough to turn, look the person in the eye and say, "please stop chasing me."

I realize that sometimes out in the cold, mean world in the ugly hearts of humanity there really are lions who think of girls as gazelles and will enjoy terrifying them in a cruel chase.  I don't know exactly how to protect my girls from people like that.  But I think most of the people they encounter will, I hope, be those that have been taught all of these same lessons by their mothers, fathers, teachers, and can recognize boundaries and communication.  And if it is a lion that ever comes after one of my girls, I want her to either fight hard, so that whoever is hurting her has no easy conscience - they will know that she was not compliant - OR I want her to be brave enough afterward to speak about her truth, to give the collective gazelles a chance to hunt down that lion once and for all.

Just this morning I had an upset daughter because she decided she wanted the same sunglasses that another sister was wearing.  She kept squealing, "But I wanted them! I really wanted them!"  It reminded me of when they had a new baby sister come home and it would be about not sunglasses, but giving baby sister hugs and kisses.   A sister would start to kiss baby, but she would want to give too many, and baby would be done with all that.  Or she would want to give hugs, but hug too roughly and baby would be done being squeezed.  They would tell me, "But I want to keep hugging/kissing her!"

This morning in the car with the sunglasses chaos I heard myself saying what I know I have said a hundred times, and will probably continue to say - but I hope and pray eventually it will sink into their minds.

"It's fine for you to want those sunglasses (to hug her and kiss her).  Wanting that is not the problem.  But just because you want that, doesn't mean you get to have them."

"(and in the past, I would have continued with: With baby, crying and squirming is her only way of telling us that she doesn't like what is happening to her.  We have to watch and listen to understand what she needs.  You don't get to keep kissing her just because you want to.")

And last but not least, is the way we talk about what we have done to other people.  "I hit her because she made me so mad!"  "She wouldn't give me what I wanted, so that's why I hit her!"  As adults, we say these things too, putting the blame on someone else, because their actions were such that we were forced to feel and do something that we now regret.  I tell my girls that when they do that, they are giving power away - they are giving away their power to choose how they feel and what they do.  I know this is something I am working on too, taking ownership of my actions, even my thoughts and feelings.

"I'm sorry for what I said, but the dress she was wearing..." or, "I know I shouldn't have, but she looked..." need to be replaced by, "I'm sorry I disrespected you..." or, "I know I shouldn't have said that, I'm sorry..." and I think we need to teach our children that language when they are young, by our examples, by teaching them accountability for their actions. We all, children and adults alike need to own up to our actions and not shirk from it by hiding behind what someone else has done or said.

My girls are not a thing to be chased.  They have ownership of their own bodies.  People get to change their minds and should not be shamed for doing so.  Let's watch and listen more carefully to understand what people want and need.  What someone else WANTS never trumps what you NEED when it comes to your own body.  We are responsible for our own actions and words.  Not anyone else, no matter how they are dressed, what they have said, what they have done.  What someone else says or does to my daughters only makes a statement about THAT person.  It says nothing about who my daughters are.

My last thoughts on this topic come from the words of this song:

"Walk tall, you're a daughter, a child of God
Be strong, please remember who you are.
Try to understand,
You're part of His great plan.
He's closer than you know
Reach up, He'll take your hand."