Why I have stopped congratulating women for losing weight
(and wish more people would do the same)
I’ve lost my knuckles. Where they were, are now just dimples. I’ve lost my wrist bones, too. Now there are just lines, just creases through the soft fat. It’s the same soft fat that covers the whole of me now. The fat that came on in a hurry.
Perhaps many were surprised and concerned by the weight gain. I was thin, thin meaning not-fat. I was never really thin. And now I’m not the thin-meaning-not-fat. Now I have rolls that when I sit. Now I shop in the plus-size section. It looks like I just let myself go.
I did. I let myself go. I let myself be. I let myself eat. After twenty years of starving myself and obsessing over exercise and calories, I let myself be myself. I returned to who I was before I started feeling bad about who I was.
Like many women, my weight fluctuated quite a bit over the years. Also like many women, my goal was always to be thinner. I would say I wanted to be healthy, and while that was partly true, my primary objective was to weigh less, to fit into the image of beauty I had in my head, to go along with the cultural narrative written all around me. The strange, strong pressure to lose weight, no matter how much you weigh, is overwhelming for so many of us. In fact, it is often expected that an “overweight” woman should want to or be actively trying to lose weight. Accepting herself as fat would be the same thing as giving up on her self-worth completely.
Because of this cultural imperative to be thinner, because I was not a thin person, and because I was dealing with undiagnosed OCD, I dealt with quiet eating disorders for years. When I say years, I mean a couple of decades—my entire adult life. My relationship with food has been unhealthy since I was in eighth grade and went on my first crash diet.
Time and time again, I succeeded at weight loss. Temporarily. Over and over again, I succeeded. I would get pregnant, lose the weight. I would gain weight. Lose it. Keep it off for a while. Gain a little. Lose it. Get pregnant. Do it all again.
I would restrict myself to 1,000 calories a day for months at a time. Sometimes, when I was consuming so little, I would also do an hour or so of cardio 3 or 4 times a week, while taking care of three kids and holding down a full-time teaching job.
I was exhausted. And unhealthy. And depressed.
Many mornings, maybe most mornings, I was able to get out of bed only because of the promise of being able to return to sleep later.
But I kept being congratulated. Every time I lost weight: “Wow! You look amazing!” “You are so beautiful!” “How did you do it? You are incredible!” The compliments were many and wonderful. The affirmations and praise gave me the confidence I couldn’t find in the mirror, no matter how thin, or not-fat, I got. I felt that the price of being acceptable was feeling hungry and miserable.
I constantly worried about food, exercise, and gaining weight, about becoming ugly again. If we were going out to eat, I would have to exercise for at least an hour beforehand, just so I could order grilled chicken and grilled veggies at whatever restaurant we went to, only eat maybe half of it, and still feel guilty about it. I never allowed myself to have treats. If I did, I would berate myself, punish myself for days by denying myself food and doing extra exercise. I equated food with morality.
Being thin, or at least not being fat, consumed me for years.
Until it didn’t.
I started gaining weight when I was diagnosed with OCD, about three years ago. I was prescribed a high dose antidepressant that causes weight gain as a side effect, but that was not the main reason for the weight gain.
I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia about a year ago, after suffering from severe symptoms for a full year before that. Running in a half-marathon had sent me into a flare (even though I had no idea that’s what it was) that lasted for months. But this was not the main reason for the weight gain.
We are also in a pandemic. The quarantine made it difficult for all of us to get exercise. Again, not the main reason for my weight gain.
I gained weight because I stopped starving myself. I stopped trying to be someone I’m not. I started enjoying life, rather than counting every single calorie. I gained weight as I healed from clinical depression. I gained weight as I gained joy. I gained weight because I was gaining back who I am.
I was never a small person. It’s not who I am meant to be. Just like I’m not super tall or left-handed. I’m not thin. I am me.
The main reason I started gaining weight is because I became more fully involved in the joy of my own life.
Of course, I want to be healthy. But healthy does not necessarily mean restricting food. Healthy means that I am providing my body the nutrition it needs and not overloading it with food it doesn’t need. Healthy has nothing to do with what size dress I wear and everything to do with how I take care of my body.
I have chosen to embrace being me. It is a choice I have to make every day. Some days I forget I have made that choice. The OCD is never far away. It whispers horrible possibilities into my brain. It warns me that I might just keep gaining weight—more and more and more—and end up like those people who can’t leave their house or clean themselves. It tells me that no one likes me anymore because I’m fat. That one is tough because I know there is probably some truth in it.
The fibromyalgia is ever present. So not only is my body fatter, but it also hurts more. I can’t do as much as I used to. I used to run. Now I am doing well to walk any distance. I want a sign to hold for others. Maybe it would say, “I am struggling because of fibro, not because I’m fat.” Or “I’m fat because that’s who I am, not because of fibro or poor choices.” Or “I am better off fat. When I was thinner, I was depressed, suicidal, and unwell.”
Even with the OCD and fibromyalgia, it feels good to rest in who I am rather than try to become someone I’m not. It feels good to accept the me that generations of ancestors have poured into, that my husband loves, that my children respect. It feels good to see a picture of myself and rather than think, “Oh, I need to lose weight” or “Oh, my hips are too big and my arms are too flabby,” just think, “I am happy with who I am because I am me,” and to recognize there is beauty in my face and in my body, whatever size and shape and age. It feels good to recognize the joy in the picture.
While I will go on eating healthy and exercising, I will never try to lose weight again. That will not be a New Year’s Resolution. I will not congratulate anyone for losing weight, lest I perpetuate a misunderstanding of what being healthy and beautiful means, or worse, that I inadvertently feed an already-present eating disorder or help to create one in someone else. The message I want my children and my nieces to hear is that the number on the scale is not a mark of health or beauty or self-worth or achievement any more than a person’s height is. The message I want these young people to hear is that the success comes from being healthy and kind. Being beautiful matters, but beauty comes in all shapes, shades, sizes, and styles.
I like myself in this picture. It was the end of Christmas day, right before everyone went home. We had all four of our parents over at our house. We adore our parents and are so thankful for them. I’m wearing the Christmas tunic my mother-in-love and I picked out a few days ago when we were on a date together. She makes me feel beautiful all the time. Also, if you look close enough, my mom and I are making a similar pose, down to the position of our hands. We look a lot alike. I love looking like her. She is beautiful.
The other day was Drew’s last soccer game. After cheering on my firstborn from the sidelines for about thirteen years, we’re finished with this child, with sports at least. We sat in our usual spot, no matter what field we’re at, somewhere between midfield and the goal line, but closer to the goal line. Drew usually plays left back defender. We get the best view of him here.
Like usual, I snapped a few pictures near the beginning of the game, not really checking to see how they turned out, too focused on the game to worry with picture quality.
As usual, Drew’s grandparents were there, watching intently, the same way they had their own sons, cheering every time he touched the ball. Grampa kept stats with his paper and pencil. Gramary remarked on how beautiful the fog was moving across the field—always seeing the beauty in the usual.
“Nice!” I yelled. Then “Go! Go! Go! Go!” Then “Yes, Drew!” or “Yes, Adam!” or “Nice, Carlos!” or “Run, Will, yes, Will, go!” or “It’s yours, Tristan, it’s yours! That’s the way!” or “Oh, what a beautiful ball! That’s the way it’s done, Taylor! Do it again, Bearcats!”
I watched Drew run down the field, his long legs under him, his face fixed and firm, his posture confident. He stopped, midfield, one foot in front, arms slightly back, chest out. He looked up, just barely. Then stretching his body up, he headed the ball, placing it on a path to a teammate with force and intention. Beautiful. Powerful.
Later, maybe that night, I looked at the pictures I had taken. All the ones that turned out okay featured Drew’s back. His numbers prominent, his red hair shining, his hands resting coolly on his hips. In some pictures he was running, but it was still his back I captured. Any picture that I got of his face was lost in the fog.
I had noticed the week before, when I was working on Drew’s senior night poster, that most of the pictures I had of him playing soccer over the years were the same exact pose—his back, hands on his hips, ready to defend, ready to run. His face away from me.
I love these pictures and this pose. I love the idea of watching my son running away from me. He knows I’m right behind him. He hears me cheering him on. When he gets far enough away on the field to where he can’t hear me and the fog swallows my view, he knows I am here, still cheering. I know he is there, still playing.
Drew leaves for college in a few months. I have yet to cry or even get sad, and I am an emotional person who cries a lot. Actually, when I think about Drew leaving for college, which is often, I get really excited. Maybe I’m not a normal mom. Maybe I’ll cry later, but for now all I feel is this overwhelming joy.
Sure, I will miss having Drew around next year. I love his company. I will miss hearing him play his harmonica in the afternoons after school. I will miss his sarcastic sense of humor. I will miss just having him around.
But as much as I will miss him, I am that much more thrilled that he gets to go to college, and that is happily crowding out every other emotion. I have dreamed about being able to send my boys to college since they were babies, probably since before they were born. It was my most important financial goal. I was the first in my family to go away to college, so it’s a big deal for me. It’s not that going to college is a dream come true, or that everyone must go to college to live out a dream. No, it’s that I was able to offer my son this opportunity, to give him the chance to go and do and live—as far and as much as his abilities and desires lead him.
So here we are. Our firstborn is picking out his college, filling out applications, deciding on majors. His future belongs to him. He is looking ahead. And I am so content to watch his back and cheer him on as he peers into his life ahead and gets ready to run.
We will be sitting in our usual spots, no matter the field. Watching our son.
My favorite quote from Drew’s favorite movie:
"When I watch you do some of the things you do, I feel like I'm watching someone paint or play music. When I go to the races, I go to watch you make art and it's beautiful and inspiring and everything that art should be, even though there are times when I have to close my eyes. But then there are other times, when you just take my breath away and it's at those moments, when I feel your father's chest swell and I know he's smiling, trying to pretend he doesn't have tears in his eyes, I just go to pieces…. Because I am so impossibly proud to be your mother."
-Mom Racer to Speed Racer
When I was younger, I thought I knew so much regarding my faith. I knew the Bible, had memorized and studied it, was married to a seminary student, taught Sunday School and worked at a Christian school.
Until it all crumbled. For so many reasons, it crumbled. So much of what I had been taught about God and Scripture in my church tradition could not withstand the questions I had and the life I was going through.
The one issue that broke everything was when our son told us he was gay. We had known it for years, but now we would have to deal with it. Our church welcomed gay people to sit in the congregation, but that was about it. Our church was not affirming or inclusive. We would have to do our own theological digging and eventually change churches and denominations.
We approached all of this with caution and skepticism. And so many questions. We had already accepted our son. We knew that he did not choose to be gay. He had prayed and begged God to make him straight. We knew that being gay was not sinful. But what about same-sex relationships? But what about how to proceed? Could we allow him to date while he was still in high school? Will he just have to be celibate? What does the Bible really say about acts of homosexuality?
That’s where we were when we first started--with so many questions and very little support. Over the next year of intense study and prayer, we would see God was much more, much bigger, much better than our imagination had room to entertain. His grace was better and His love stronger than we had known. God has taken the crumbles and rebuilt my faith. Really, He held the crumbles all along.
The church should be a first place of refuge, a place of love and sanctuary for all who are hurting. Instead, so often the church has been a dangerous or threatening place for people who are suffering. This must not be. We are all dealing with our own incomplete knowledge and understanding and our own sin. This is precisely why we have to be patient and forgiving with one another. And above all, we must love.
That is what I want this Haven Ministry to be about---loving parents especially, but loving all who come. Loving means to accept and include--as is. It means to follow the admonitions Paul gave in his letter to the Colossians: to be patient, forgiving, bearing with one another, humble, kind, and gentle. It means to be like Christ and to act in His name. It means to use our gifts and skills to honor Him and help others.
We want to help parents as they love their child. We want to learn alongside them. What does it look like to raise an LGBTQ child in a Christian home? Or in any home, for that matter? How do we dispel the myths and lies that culture has fed us for generations--that LGBTQ people choose this, that they are morally perverse, that they are rebelling, etc.? How do we support our child in a way they can succeed, be their best selves? How do we love? Do we have to compromise our faith to accept our son? (Spoiler: the answer is of course not.)
We want to provide what we didn’t have--a fellowship for parents and families of LGBTQ youth where the love of Christ is known and felt as it should be.
If you are interested in being a part of this fellowship, virtually and/or in-person, please consider joining our brand new Facebook page or emailing me. We would love to have you.
Haven: A safe place for parents and families of LGBTQ youth of Central Kentucky
-For parents & families of LGBTQ youth anywhere on the journey
-For parents whose child has just come out, and they don’t know where to go
-For Christians wanting to know more how to support LGBTQ people
-To get non-judgmental Christian support
-To ask real questions
-To find fellowship in a safe place
Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Facebook private group - Haven Ministry
I was on the treadmill yesterday listening to my favorite running playlist--Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Imagine Dragons, Pitbull, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Jay-Z, Macklemore--they were all cheering me on. It was the same running playlist I used just a few years ago, when I jogged at least three times a week. When I signed up for 5Ks in the fall and spring every year. When I trained for the last half-marathon I would run.
I’ve loved running since I was in college. I discovered my love when I was working at a summer camp after my sophomore year. I jumped on a treadmill during rec time, just to kill some time. The place was empty, except for the teenagers attending the camp. I’ve always been self-conscious about exercising in front of people. So with no one watching, I started a slow jog. I’m not sure how much I ran that first time, but I liked how I felt afterwards. I liked having a goal to work toward for the next time. I liked that I could do it.
From that point until very recently, I jogged. In parks, in neighborhoods, in gyms. Alone, with friends, with my husband, with my sisters, with my nieces. Pregnant, pushing a jogging stroller, then a double jogging stroller, alongside my children riding their bikes. Before my kids’ baseball games, during soccer practice, after school. With my exchange student, Mara. At home, in Florida on the beach, in Dresden alongside the river, in the Texas heat and the Illinois wind.
For my entire adult life, jogging has been a routine, a staple, a love. It has been a necessity. A part of who I am and how I keep going.
My last serious run, a half marathon I did with my husband, was the only one I did not run every step of. The pain was excruciating. The training had not gone well. My running was getting worse, not better. During the race, my entire body hurt in a way that was not normal for running. It felt like I was on fire.
I had issues with running before, but so does everyone. My feet always hurt. They would give out before anything else. My knees hurt sometimes. But at this race, my elbows were hurting. My wrists. My upper chest, near my collarbone. My ankles. My hips. My hands. And all my muscles felt strange and weak, when they shouldn’t have.
Usually after a couple days of rest, I am ready to jog again. Even after a couple of weeks, I still had a hard time moving. The pain never stopped. I never recovered from that race.
It took nearly a year of doctor appointments and tests, but I was finally diagnosed with fibromyalgia and small fiber neuropathy. I rejected the diagnosis at first. I didn’t want to have a chronic disorder. I didn’t want to have something wrong with me that came with a stigma. I didn’t want something wrong I couldn’t fix.
Part of the disease is a resistance to exercise. While I need to move, too much exercise will put me into a painful flare that could last a day or a week or a month. I have to be careful. It also means that I do not have the strength or endurance to jog the way I used to anyway. This has been quite difficult for me to accept.
Yesterday on the treadmill, I jogged at an extremely slow pace at one-minute intervals. I only did a mile and a quarter. Twenty minutes. That was all my body could handle.
But at some point in the jog/walk, Alicia Keys started singing about a girl on fire. I chuckled to myself, because I often describe the pain as fire or burning. I muttered to Alicia, “You got that right. I am definitely walking on fire.”
Then I nudged up the speed to 4.0 and did my one-minute slow jog. And I laughed as I listened to the song. My body burns with pain; I am on fire. But even though I “am filled with catastrophe, I know I can fly anyway.” Heck, yes, I’m on fire. I’m now in my forties and have a chronic pain disorder--and I “have both feet on the ground, and I’m burning it down.” I felt triumphant in that brief moment, on my treadmill in what used to be our dining room. I’m doing it, even if I never get faster or go farther, I’m doing this right now! I am jogging, at the best pace I can. I am on fire right now!
I’m “not backing down.” I’m just finding a new way to run in the flames and embers.
Because we are Free, We Love: Why this Mother and Son are Smiling and Why She Has to Speak Up for OthersRead Now
“Your heart is free. Have the courage to follow it.” -Braveheart
The other day, the picture of my family at our town’s BLM march popped up in my FB memories. I shared it with a note about how much my boys have grown. Indeed, they have. They are taller and wiser. They are not the only ones who have grown this year, though. On that day, the boys each made their own poster. Jack’s and Joe’s were great; Drew’s was interesting. It read: “Your heart is free. Have the courage to follow it. -Braveheart.” Nothing about Black Lives Matter or social justice or love. But at the same time, everything about all of that, and more.
That poster has been my anthem this year. Our hearts are free. I am free in Christ to love my neighbor. I am free in Christ to be me, to laugh and dance and write and run (as slowly as I need to) and express all that I am. That freedom takes away the burdens of sin and weight of worry. That freedom gives me permission to know Christ directly, love Him, and love others. I had not felt free for a very long time. I have never felt as free as I do now.
I needed courage to enjoy the freedom Christ had granted me. I needed courage to love the way Christ loves. I needed courage to share with you what I am going to share now.
More than two years ago, our son Jack told us he was gay. We already knew, because we know our son, but this was not an easy thing to hear for two Christians raised during the purity movement and taught that homosexuality was one of the vilest of sins. When Jack was younger, when I knew he was gay, I told myself that surely God would not allow this because Sam and I were in leadership positions at church and were really nice Christian people. I had no problem loving my students and friends who were LGBTQ. But I knew their lives were harder because of it. I knew this was going to be very hard for our family, Jack more than anyone.
Jack coming out to us started a journey of theological digging and reflection, prayer, and discussion. Accepting and loving our son was never an issue. We have always adored and loved Jack, just the way he is. The idea of rejecting him for something that was beyond his control, even though none of us really understood much of anything then, never even crossed our mind. Reconciling the scientific reality that he is gay with the reality of God and His Word took time. We had never had to deeply consider this before, but when abstractions become people you love, they take on a different significance. We did scientific research. We did theological research. We did our homework, then some.
After years of reading and praying and discussing, I do not see homosexuality as a sin anymore than I see heterosexuality as a sin. Also, it is Biblical and God-honoring for people who love each other to get married and remain in a lifelong, committed relationship, whether they are of the opposite sex or the same sex. This is my religious belief; I am not assigning it to anyone. I am sharing it with you as evidence that there are Christians out there who take the Bible very seriously and hold this view. Many of them do so covertly out of fear of rejection or ridicule or worse. That was me for a long time. Until now.
I took Jack to a meeting at the library a couple weeks ago. There was a controversy over a modest Pride display. At their monthly meeting, the library board heard public comments concerning the display. The room was filled to capacity; people were standing in the hallway. Jack and I stood in the back.
Then it began. Christian after Christian after Christian proclaiming hate-filled lies in this public arena. Several times the board was warned that they would be held accountable before God for their decision on this display, the implication of hell not so subtle. Some Christians loudly denounced gay people as going down a slippery slope that led to bestiality and pedophilia, and their parents were teaching them this. Most of them claimed scientific inaccuracies like the kids were all confused and making choices, when the truth is much more complex than that. In angry tones and threatening tenor, their voices roared over the room. Others were more polite, and suggested the display just be removed so there could be peace, in the same way Civil Rights activists were told to calm down in the 1960’s, and so many other times throughout our history.
I held my son who stood beside me. I kept my arm around his waist, clinched the back of his shirt with my fist, drew him in close to me, doing all I could to shield him from the hate and hold myself up. I repeatedly tiptoed and whispered into my tall son’s ear, “They are not speaking from the Gospel, Jack. This is not what Christianity is, son. This is not true.” And we were both shaking. With rage. Hurt. I was hurt that these things were being said about my child. I was angry that these things were being said about my God.
Of course, there were others who spoke in favor and gratitude of the display. There were far more of them, and they were kinder. I was grateful for their voices. I was grateful for the minister who simply thanked the library for supporting the LGBTQ community. I was thankful for the other Christians who spoke in favor of the display, calling us to love and respect people. I was grateful for the voices of reason explaining that a library is a place of information, not indoctrination. It’s a place of ideas, not limitations.
Then it was my turn. I was near the end. By this time, I was much more emotional than I thought I would be. This would be my first time speaking publicly about my son’s sexuality. What would I say?
Love. That’s what I started with, what so many of the other professing Christians missed. Because I am a Christian, I love. I am called to love. Above anything else, love. This is what drives me in life—I am so affected and infected by God’s saving grace and His love, it is my identity, my mission, my joy, my all. To be a follower of Christ is to love, because He is love. To be Christ-like is to be loving. The more fully we love, the closer we are to God Himself. The more joy we know.
Let me be clear. I am not accusing anyone of not being a Christian. I am not suggesting that every Christian must believe the way I do. What I am suggesting, though, is that the apparent intent of these individuals at the library was not to love or understand a deeply hurt and misunderstood community of people.
I do not rest on man’s interpretation of the Bible for my faith. Our interpretation of Scripture is often faulty. We are all still looking through a dimly lit glass. God is mysterious and enormous in His being and His love. None of us are capable of understanding the fullness of Him or His love or his creation. I do know that I am not compromising my faith by standing with my son or with the LGBTQ community. No, rather, my faith has grown, my understanding of God has deepened, my resolve has strengthened.
I didn’t say all of that. I had only two minutes. But I did say I was a devout Christian, so it was my job to love. I said I was a mother to one gay son and two straight sons, so I am called to care. I am a teacher, so it is my job to educate. I thanked the library for the display and the books. I explained that their necessity had been demonstrated that night, by the hurtful, unfair, unscientific comments that had been made against the LGBTQ community.
I said so much more. By speaking up, I said to my son that I completely, fully, totally support him out loud, in public. I said to him, through my actions, that when his father and I say we love him and support him we mean it. With our whole heart.
After the meeting, a young woman stopped me. She was wearing a rainbow sticker and carrying a rainbow flag. “Thank you for what you said, and thank you for being that mom,” she said.
“Oh, no worries. My delight, sweetheart, but it’s nothing, really, it’s easy to love--” then I caught myself and realized what she was saying. I drew her to myself and willed myself not to cry. It happened anyway.
“A lot of us don’t have that mom. I don’t,” she said.
“I’m so very sorry. I’m sorry.” This is only a tiny glimpse of the reality of the hurt and loss felt in the LGBTQ community.
A clip of my comments made to the library board made it on the local news that night, to my surprise. And so begins my advocacy for the LGBTQ community. And so begins my ministry to families inside and outside of the church who have gay or trans children and need the love and support that is severely lacking in the church.
And so continues my faithfulness to God’s Word and my calling as His chosen one:
"14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ[g] dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.[h] 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." -Colossians 3:14-17
How I’m spending Mother’s Day
It is Mother’s Day. My mom always says that Mother’s Day is especially for the mothers who are still raising kids. They are the ones who need a break and a special treat. I am still one of those moms. I have three teenaged sons and one extra teenager, on loan from Italy, this year. I fully intended to do exactly what I wanted to do on Mother’s Day this year, and I have—so far.
I slept in late. I had coffee with my husband. Then I spent about three hours cleaning the house by myself. I put in my earbuds, turned the music up loud enough so I couldn’t hear my own singing, and started in the kitchen while Sam worked upstairs in our room and our teenagers left me alone.
I washed dishes, scrubbed countertops, cleaned a bathroom, vacuumed, wiped down furniture, cleared clutter—all while singing along with Adele and Maroon 5 and Ed Sheeran and Snow Patrol. It was exactly what I wanted to do, and exactly what I so often cannot do.
It is a rare day that I am not prevented from doing something because of pain or exhaustion. This morning the pain was minimal—the burning had not started in my hands yet, the numbness and throbbing was not in my feet or legs, my shoulders, elbows, back, and hips felt remarkably okay. The aches and weariness weren’t there. So I cleaned.
I know it’s more common for kids to do things for the mom on Mother’s Day rather than the mom do extra work. In my case, though, my kids do extra work every day because of my health. They help me cook, they help me grocery shop—or they do those things on their own. They usually clean the house while I act as supervisor. Every night they clean up after dinner. They do their own laundry. They take care of our giant bulldogs—I don’t have the strength to take them out to pee. They open jars that are too tight. They help me get up when the pain is really bad. They walk slower so I’m not left behind. They make me cups and cups and cups of coffee. They distract me when it hurts. They get things I can’t reach.
They never complain about my health. They never make me feel bad about feeling bad. They let me hug them for as long as I need to. They are patient when I am struggling. They are sensitive and kind when I am overcome with frustration with all that this dumb disease has taken from me, even though I have it so good.
But this morning was not really about giving them a break, even though I am sure they were happy about not having to do quite as many chores, and I was happy to give them a break. It was more about me getting to do something I would have done with ease before. The difference this morning was that it was not as easy, but it was much more filled with joy. I felt like me. I felt useful. Also, I love singing with Adele.
I think I will skip cooking dinner tonight, though. Pizza in front of the television with my husband, our boys, and the bulldogs sounds perfect. Plus the kitchen is so clean right now.
I took this picture a year ago, just days before the pandemic changed everything. I took this picture at the start of our Sweet Sixteen game in the Kentucky Girls Basketball State Tournament. When I took this picture, I knew the girl in the middle, number 20, only because she had a class with one of my sons and she was a starter on the basketball team. I vaguely knew her first name and could not tell you her last name.
That night a year ago, as she stood looking back over her shoulder at her teammates with her hands on her hips, Amiya was ready to play, to win, to move on to the next game and the next and the next. She played with fierceness, with boldness. As her posture in this picture might suggest, Amiya approached the game with comfort and confidence. I know little about basketball, but I watch sports enough to know that Amiya has skill on the court that is rare and magical.
I couldn’t wait to watch them play the next game.
But there would be no next game for anyone. The entire tournament was canceled because of the Covid pandemic. An eight-way tie. No final four. No championship game. No trophy. No celebration. No winner.
But there have been so many losers this year. We have all lost something. While not getting to finish a tournament--or go to prom, attend graduation, or hang out with friends on the weekends during the only time you will be a senior or a junior in high school--is so small compared to what others have lost, these are still real losses that cause real hurt for our kids. They have felt it in so many ways.
This year, Amiya and the rest of the girls basketball team became a symbol of perseverance, resilience, and positivity during trying times. They made it to the Sweet Sixteen again this year after an amazing season.
I told one of my classes just the other day, this is not really about basketball at all. This is about school unity, community, morale. During a school year when so much of our lessons were done virtually, when we don’t know what others look like without masks on, a year with no pep rallies, few clubs, no lingering in the hallways or lobby to socialize, no field trips, and I could go on, we need a reason/excuse/opportunity to come together and cheer and celebrate. The basketball team has given us just that.
This next picture is the start of the Elite Eight game, the game our team could not play last year because of the pandemic. The picture is taken from a different angle, but it is still Amiya. This time, I know her. This time, I sought her out. I was talking to my friend as the game began, and I interrupted my own sentence--”Wait, I’ve got to find Amiya and take a picture.” And I did. Because this year, I know this child. The Amiya I know is a beautiful soul who sits in my third period and makes me laugh. She is the one who raised her hand a few weeks ago while I was reading one of my blog posts. Thinking it was urgent, I let her speak, “Excuse me, Mrs. Potter, I was just wondering when you were going to write a blog post about me,” she joked. (Here it is, my silly darling.)
This year, when I watched her play, when I watched her charge down the court with such fierceness and speed, with such courage and resolve, I also saw the person she is off the court. This year, every time she was under the net and the other team rained down on her, I drew in breath, not because I was afraid she wouldn’t score, but because I was terrified she would get hurt. Several times she was knocked in the face, at least once she was poked in the eye. I feared for her safety. “Don’t get hurt, don’t get hurt, don’t get hurt,” I whispered, while everyone around me yelled.
After two exciting games, our girls made it to the Final Four. Only the second time in our school’s long history this has happened. What an honor. What a victory! The game was hard to watch, though. Our girls fought so hard. During the game I thought about the pressure Amiya had on her shoulders. At one point during the game when she was knocked to the floor, she slapped the hard court with both her hands. “It’s okay, Amiya, it’s okay, baby girl. You’re still brilliant and beautiful. You’re still magical.” I said it out loud. I didn’t yell it. There were too many people already yelling.
I knew she wasn’t physically hurt. It was worse. She was hurt inside. As the game drew to a close and defeat became inevitable, her demeanor changed. She, like all the other girls, wept. Her heart was broken, her spirit bruised.
Over the weekend I thought about emailing her to tell her I was proud of her and to not be sad. Making it to the Final Four is huge in itself.
I’m glad I didn’t. It is good and right for her to be sad, just for a bit. She is passionate about basketball; she loves her team; she wants to win. It stings, at least for a little while, to lose. But what will last is the way she played during the tournament--with all she had. With magical beauty.
One of my students asked me just the other day if I was tired of reading The Crucible. I have been reading it for more than twenty years. I have it memorized. Every single time I read it, the characters make the same exact mistakes they made the last time I read it, and oh boy, do I get angry! And I am sure they will again this time. Every year, Reverend Parris makes me so mad, and I feel so badly for Elizabeth Proctor. Every year, I listen to Deputy Governor Danforth go on and on with his lofty speeches that really show how pompous and stupid he really is. And every single year I love reading the play again—because of my students.
There is no witchcraft in The Crucible, but there is magic when we read it together in class. My students breathe life and energy into the literature with their new experience, their reactions. I appreciate the play, but it is the people in the room with me that make it alive and wonderful. Jaylyn’s frustration with John Proctor’s affair. Gracie’s total investment in all the characters. Tristan’s reading of Giles Corey and Drew’s becoming too involved in his reading of Reverend Parris. Katie’s exasperation with the stupidity of so many of the characters. The collective chuckles and almost audibles grunts of disapproval when characters say awful things. On these days, when we are reading together, I forget that I am working.
What I want my students to understand, even more than irony and symbolism, is that literature is not designed to be studied in a classroom. When we reduce any art, including the written word, to a rote exercise of getting through it, answering questions, taking a quiz, passing a test, then we have robbed our students and ourselves of the essence of the art itself. Art is meant to communicate on its own terms. Sometimes that communication involves pleasure, enjoyment, sometimes it is cathartic. Literature often asks us to reflect, to ask our own questions, to go somewhere different and deeper and better than a quiz could ever take us. And sometimes literature is meant to just be read and enjoyed and discussed with friends.
Part of my responsibility is to teach my students how to read literature well. Of course that means making sure they understand elements of literary analysis. Of course that means I have to check for comprehension. Of course that means I have to do teacher-y stuff.
But that also, and much more importantly, means that I constantly and fervently and genuinely show my students the joy of literature. If that means we read a few lines and then chat about it, so be it. One of my students said sometimes it feels like we are in a book club, not a classroom. Good. Clubs are fun places to be.
Above all else, above even the love of literature and the value of reading, I want my students to see their own value in what we read, to see humanity and truth. I want them to ask questions and think. I want them to know they are what makes the literature worth reading again.
I am excited about reading The Crucible again tomorrow. Honestly, I am. Because my kids will be there reading with me. So much fun!
We are back in school now. Face to face. Eye to eye. That’s the only part of my students’ faces I see: their eyes. I can’t see them smile or grimace. I remarked to one of them this past week that we need some lessons in smiling with our eyes. Some are better at it than others.
The masks are good. I’m not complaining about them. The masks are good for hiding blemishes. They are also another way to express fashion and creativity. And they are a great shield against the bitter Kentucky winter.
But I don’t know what my students’ smiles look like. How strange—I’ve never seen them smile. But I have made them smile. And maybe that’s enough.
And sometimes they cause my glasses to fog, and I can’t see. And sometimes they cause my voice to be muffled and my students’ voices to be muffled, and I can’t hear them. I have to ask them to repeat again and again. But at least we are talking. Maybe that’s enough.
I decided when the pandemic started that I would merrily go along with leadership on this. I have never lived through a pandemic; I cannot imagine navigating a school district, state, or country through one. When our superintendent says stay home, I cheerfully teach little round dots on my laptop monitor, hoping that my teenagers are there. Some of them actually are there when I call their names. When the superintendent says come back to school, I excitedly show up and wipe down each desk between every class, so happy to have had that desk filled.
But the masks, much like the laptops, are barriers. I talked to a teacher friend last night who had sent over a care package that included throat lozenges and chap stick, among other things, to combat the effects of teaching with a mask on all day. Like all of us, she is overwhelmed with the burdens of the year. It is not the stress of too much work or change in routine that’s got her down. It is the distance she feels between herself and her students. “I just feel like I am not connecting like I usually do,” she said, and I thought I heard her voice waver with the threat of crying. “I don’t feel like I know my kids as much as I usually do. I don’t feel like they know me. There’s a disconnect, and it’s affecting the way I teach.” They are too far away, even when they are in our classrooms. We can’t see them completely. We can’t hear them well. They are hiding behind masks.
Last week, a sleepy teenager nodded off in class and had her head down on her desk. I walked by and, forgetting for just a moment that we are in a pandemic, put my hand on her back. She jerked up and yelled, “Please don’t touch me!” I withdrew quickly, remembering we are in a time when I can’t fully offer all of who I am in the classroom. My students are still children. Sometimes they need a pat on the back or a hug. Now, in a time of real crisis and uncertainty, I can’t offer them that. And I am really good at giving mom-hugs.
This week one of my students returned to school after a two-day absence. Her grandfather had passed away. I could not hug her. And she could not see completely the concern and love on my face. I can only hope she saw enough.
These past several months have been hard on all of us in different ways. My students have watched me struggle physically with neuropathy and fibromyalgia. This past October, my students saw me grieve the loss of both of my grandparents. They did not have to take their masks off for me to know that they loved me and were concerned. I saw it. They were enough.
I joke with my students about how tough of a crowd they are sometimes. All I get are stares—just eyes. I can’t tell sometimes if they are confused, bored, amused, or enthralled. I’m still learning to teach to a room full of masked faces. But I am trying—and they know I am. They are trying, too. That’s what matters, after all. We are together. We are enough.
That’s my mom in the middle of both of my grandmothers eight years ago. These are the three most genetically influential women in my life.
Sometimes I feel my mother’s expressions on my face. Once I became an adult, people started telling me I looked like her. I have none of her features, except maybe my nose—it’s fairly nondescript. It’s the expressions, though, that I get from my mom. The way we read a book or watch a movie. The way we look at people.
I have Mamaw Betty’s coloring. She is the one in the white sweater. She is also the one, at that very church dinner, exclaimed loudly for all my church friends to hear, “Well, I can’t hear a damn thing!” Thankfully, my church friends have a great sense of humor. I have her dark chocolate eyes, brown hair, olive skin. I have her tiny ears, short fingers. Her cheekbones, her lips, the shape of her face—I took them all. One of the last conversations I had with her before she died, and I will treasure this always, she said, “Rebecca, you and me,” and here she pointed back and forth between the two of us, “we are the same.” She repeated this several times. She repeated everything several times. As she spoke, her eyebrows danced up and down. I have those, too.
I am sure she was referring to our eyes and hair and ears, but I am going to believe it was also something much deeper and much more profound, something that connected us beyond what either of us were able to understand at the time. I think of those words often, when I am feeling separate and out of place in my extended family. I have so little in common with them. I love them dearly, but I don’t fit in. Then I remember Mamaw’s words. “We are the same.”
I do not look like Mamaw Thelma at all. She is the one in the black sweater. She is my mom’s mother. For my whole life I saw no resemblance between us, nothing to connect us. I think she felt this, too. I search her face for parts of me—I see none. But if I look deeper, I am there. I am only just now seeing it. I know it is because she and Papaw died just a couple of months ago, and I am looking for ways to hold on to her, the way people do. I took coffee mugs out of their dishwasher, and I took a picture of a note Mamaw Thelma had written. I am still taking, grasping at anything, to keep their spirit or essence or something alive.
The parts of me that are like Mamaw Thelma you can’t see. I get my need to create art from her. I write, but she painted and was quite talented. My favorite painting of hers is a ship in a stormy sea. I remember watching her paint that one. She talked about what it meant, about God being able to calm the stormy seas, even as she painted the giant swells that threatened the ship. But you can still see the ship. It is not sinking. The whole painting is done in shades of blue. I could never tell if it was morning or evening, day or night, in the painting. I never asked.
Right after my grandparents passed away, I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and small fiber neuropathy. Mom then told me that Mamaw had neuropathy. And then all the weird symptoms and complaints Mamaw had over the years came back to me. I am sure she had fibromyalgia as well. When I mentioned this to my doctor, she said it didn’t surprise her. Fibromyalgia and neuropathy run in families. “Well, now you will always have a part of your grandmother with you.” That made the pain easier to bear.
How genetic patterns settle to determine who we are fascinates me. It is a testament to our connectedness that the very stuff that makes us unique is a mix of so many other people. We all know it is far more than genetic make-up, though, that binds us to one another.
It is not DNA that makes us the same.
It is not heredity that will keep those who are gone with us always.
It is Love.
Welcome to my Blog! I am a wife, mother of three, high school English teacher, and a graduate of the Bluegrass Writers Studio at Eastern Kentucky University. Before anything else, I am a woman of faith.