Choosing Compassion In a Culture of Fear

A couple years ago, as I was loading Sophie into the van after a morning of half-day kindergarten, two men approached me. Their car had run out of gas on 27 and they wondered if I would give them a ride to a gas station.

I believe most people are good and kind. I give the benefit of the doubt. I listen to the stories about no change for bus fare home, and I dig into my purse and hand over the quarters. Sometimes, sure, I find the same woman standing at the same corner telling the same story—and still collecting quarters—two hours later. But sometimes I watch the too-thin young man devour the burger I bought for him at the Newport Wendy’s and, without thinking too much about the particulars of his situation, I buy him two more.

The out-of-gas scenario, though, gave me pause. They seemed legit. They had approached me in full daylight in a parking lot adjacent to the school. They acknowledged my wariness. They echoed the beliefs of many: One can’t be too careful these days.

But can you?

I had a choice, and I chose to believe them, to believe in us. All of us. We say we can’t help out strangers for fear that something bad will happen. And sometimes, it does. But how often? The news stories exist because the instances are rare. People cry out, But your children! My children are much more in danger of being physically hurt in a car accident every time I put them in a vehicle than they are of some unknown thing happening to them because I chose to help a stranger. There was a lesson for my children to be learned at that moment, and I wanted them to learn the right one.

I drove the men to a gas station. The gas station had gas, but no containers. Another man overheard the situation and offered to drive to his house, just around the corner, and bring back his own container for the men to use. We waited. He came back, the men got their gas and I drove them back to their car, which was, indeed, sitting on the side of 27, empty.

Sometimes I think back on that afternoon with conviction: I did the right thing. Other times, my anxiety swells. What was I thinking? When retelling the story, there’s a similar consensus: What were you thinking?

Being human is so hard.

Thankfully this scenario hasn’t repeated itself and I don’t make it a habit to pick up hitchhikers. The last time we picked up someone Andy was with me. An older woman was walking up the side of (again) 27, in intense heat, arms heavy with groceries. Turns out she and her daughter had gotten in a fight and her daughter had kicked her out of the car. I had (and have) no anxiety about this. But why? Because she was a woman? Because my husband was with me?

Choosing to believe in the good of others doesn’t always work out in my favor. We once paid a contractor $800 for materials before he started the work. He was just getting back into the business, it was around the holidays and he had two small children. He didn’t have a cushy business account to cover the materials prior to the work. So we paid him. We never saw the materials. Or him. We took it to small claims court, won a judgement, but he never paid. His bank account was empty. The last we heard, he was in jail.

Another time I let a young woman into our house on an awfully hot August day. Her story: She was selling magazine subscriptions in order to earn money for college. When it was all said and done I had paid $40 for a subscription to Vogue. I later looked up the company she was working for and realized the whole thing was a scam. For this, I was lucky: I was able to cancel my subscription and get my money back. (And Andy gently approached me with the idea of establishing a house rule of not engaging with door-to-door solicitors, children excluded.)

So sure. Not everyone is good all the time. But if we choose to live in a culture of fear, we choose to miss out on the connections we can make with other humans outside of our circles.

The year I turned 30 I travelled to Spain and Morocco with my friends, Aimee and Shruti. While in Fez, a woman started following us—and eventually, talked to us. Nabila spoke Arabic and French, and was learning English. She was so happy to have the opportunity to try her English out. She invited us to her home for hot tea.

We had a choice. On one hand, we were three young, American women, traveling without a male companion (something that deeply troubled our riad’s owners). On the other hand, we had the opportunity to be fully immersed into this woman’s life. The next thing I remember is being linked arm in arm with Nabila, walking and listening while she chatted away, asking so many questions, while her mother (we think) followed behind. I remembered reading in my Lonely Planet Morocco book to consider yourself lucky if you’re invited into someone’s home. We felt lucky, yes, but also a bit nervous.

Turns out she lived with only her sisters. Right or wrong, upon knowing that, we felt safe.

We were served hot mint tea and cookies. She and her sisters took so many pictures of us and we of all of them. We taught her a few English phrases (although she knew so much) and she taught us Arabic (by the way, “sahabat” means “friends”). We exchanged addresses. And as we left Nabila’s apartment she and her sisters watched us walk down the darkened street, waving, waving. Lucky, indeed.

It’s when we let go of fear that the magic can happen.

A couple years ago I stopped by the gas station next to my house to pick up some beer. I was en route to visit my friend Angel. It was spring—maybe early summer—and a sudden pop-up storm hit. I saw a man run into the gas station, having ridden there on his bicycle. While we were checking out, I commented on the rain. “I’m in a van,” I said. “Happy to give you a ride.”

He accepted.

I rearranged some car seats and we loaded his bike. He lived close—just up on North Fort Thomas Ave. He said his name was Joe. He asked me about my family, and I asked him about his. He was a father of three, just like me, but older. He talked about parenting. I was struggling as a parent that day. Somehow, he knew. Or maybe, he didn’t. But he had a way of talking about enjoying the moment and discussing the clichéd “they grow up so fast” in such a way that I didn’t feel the need to punch him. His story was joyful and terribly sad (unimaginable tragedy), and his words were exactly what I needed to hear at that time.

“Stop here,” he said.

“Here?” I asked.

We weren’t by a house, or an apartment complex. Instead, we were in front of a church.

“Yes,” he said. “Here is fine.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

He insisted.

The rain was blinding. He got out, I popped open the trunk, and he pulled out his bike. I took a couple seconds to look ahead of me, and then I looked back. He was gone. It was so hard to see in the rain, yes, but everywhere I looked—no sign of him. He was just gone.

Two minutes later the rain stopped and a huge rainbow appeared.

For those of you who are religious, my God, I know. First of all, his name had deep significance to me. Then there was the blinding rain, the immensely personal parenting story, the words of wisdom I needed to hear, the church, the disappearance, the rainbow.

Honestly? I (mostly) think it was all a beautiful coincidence. Life—living—provided me with a gift in return for simply making a human connection. And yes, it can be scary—especially when two men approach you, asking for a ride. But in a world where polarization runs deep, I believe human connection is vital to noticing and acknowledging the beauty in life that is different from, outside of, our own.

It’s the age-old tale of giving in order to receive. The trouble is knowing when to do so. The trouble is being smart while also being kind. The trouble is knowing when to say yes, and when to say no. The trouble is choosing compassion in a culture of fear.

“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us the ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
—Albert Einstein

I Know That You Know (And When You Know That I Know, Still There Will Be Magic)

I love this season of innocence. Even when it’s not so jolly. This weekend we cut down our Christmas tree and I was reminded of the look on Owen’s face in a picture I took last December, a picture I now love.

I was reminded of how hard things were mid-December, last year. How un-jolly it all was, during that particular week. And nothing tragic or life-altering happened. Rather, life happened. Sickness. Deadlines. Tantrums. Rejections. And then I was reminded how Christmas, still, ended up being magical.

This week a friend and I briefly chatted over email about the difficulties that come with parenting when so much in the world seems wrong. Bigger wrongs than colds that will end. Deadlines that will result in paychecks. Tantrums that exist because we’re lucky enough to have a child. Rejections that happen because I was able to write some words on a page. But it’s hard to appreciate the beauty of the holidays when beauty is so very much lacking elsewhere. So many elsewheres.

But kids, they make it easy. Easier.

They make it harder, too, yes, but mostly easier.

This week we decorated our too-big Christmas tree (if you turn sideways you can walk from our entry into our living room). And when we were nearly done, I looked over to see Owen sitting on the bottom step of our staircase, staring at the tree with the most content smile on his face. His eyes reflected the tree lights like something out of a Hallmark special. All was right in his world. All was bright. Despite.

I know Sophie knows about Santa. She doesn’t know I know. She’s not ready. She’s guarding the knowledge tight in her fists, much like she does when she hunts for fairies. She’s unwilling to let go.

At first, this bothered me, She’s 7. I had it all figured out at 5. In one fell swoop I learned about Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. The sadness was slight, that of a soft sigh. And then I relished in knowing a secret my siblings did not. I felt grown-up.

The boys drill me about Santa constantly. “How does he get down our chimney if it’s closed up?” “How does he sneak around the hallways of apartment buildings and hotels?” “What about kids who don’t have a fireplace?” “If books say Santa goes all over the world then what about people who don’t celebrate Christmas? How is he going all around the world if many people in other parts of the world don’t celebrate Christmas?”

I half-answer. Change the subject. Wish they would just come out and ask, “Is Santa real?” And when they do I plan to answer as my parents did. “What do you think?” I’ve learned that coming to conclusions on one’s own always softens the blow.

But no one asks. Not the boys. Not Sophie. Sophie doesn’t even ask questions about the Big Man anymore. She answers the boys’ questions. She has an answer for everything. She’d scream his reality from the rooftops if she could. And so I let her. That is her realization to come to. Not mine to take. At least, I hope that’s the right thing to do.

And when they know, they all know, and they know that I know they know, I’ve learned this: I’ll still find magic. Because even with all of our life’s little wrongs and the world’s big wrongs, there’s so much magic, and innocence, during the holidays.

There’s the taste of bacon-wrapped chestnuts and buckeye candies and fancy cheeses we don’t normally buy and champagne. There are candles and white lights and colored lights and twinkly lights and just so much light. There are thoughtful gifts, homemade gifts, the gift of time spent with those we love. There are three kids singing the wrong words to Christmas songs while I play on our out-of-tune piano, rusty in my memory, missing notes. There are messes. So many big, beautiful messes. Christmas cookie-making messes. The mess of pine needles everywhere, always, no matter how often we water the tree. The mess of wrapping gifts in brown paper and decorating them with stickers and markers and glitter pens. The mess of making a quadruple recipe of Chex Mix and the mess of addressing too many Christmas cards and the mess of extra coffee cups in the morning when family comes in from out of town. And with those messes come the hugs. So many hugs. Great-grandmother hugs. Grandparent hugs. Sibling hugs. Aunt and uncle hugs. Parent hugs. Cousin hugs. Niece hugs. Husband hugs.

So during the holidays, I let in cheeriness and maybe even a little cheesiness. I let in some make-believe. I let in some sappy moments despite the realities both at home and out in the hard, beautiful, cold and light-filled world. I let myself soften while watching a little guy sit on the steps and stare with a small smile at a decorated tree. I let another little guy question me incessantly about the logistics of Santa’s big night. I let a 7-year-old think that I think she still believes.

“Christmas waves a magic wand over this world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.”
—Norman Vincent Pe

Things That Have Recently Upset My Children

• He discovered he had hair on his arms (Owen).

• The framed picture on his bedside table shows him wearing long sleeves and long pants, but he wants to be wearing short sleeves and shorts—in the picture (James).

• Snow got into his mitten (Owen).

• Only half the puppy tattoo stuck to her hand (Sophie).

• There is no more cantaloupe, despite the fact that they just finished eating an entire cantaloupe in one sitting (James and Owen).

• My birthday comes before his in the calendar year (Owen).

• I asked him not to use our living room windowsill as a trash can (James).

• She was rude to her brother so I quietly asked her to be kind. This resulted in Tuesday being “the worst day of her life—ever” (Sophie).

• He found out that just because the calendar says March 1 doesn’t mean warmer weather or that it’s a pass to wear shorts and no coat every time he goes outside (James).

• I told them we have to pick up Sophie from school (James and Owen).

• I told him he couldn’t eat toast in bed (Owen).

• I asked them to help pick up the carnival, which had a face-painting booth, magic booth, craft booth, game booth, nail-painting booth, racing hallway and dance area, and took over the entire upstairs, because it was their idea to make it (all three).

• He stepped on a Lego, which he left out (Owen).

• She stepped on a marble, which she left out (Sophie).

• I told them (again) that they have to flush the toilet (all three).

• I asked him not to draw all over the pages I was editing for a freelance assignment (James).

• We stopped the play, which was extending past bedtime, after 13 acts (Sophie).

• I made a rule that he couldn’t wear shorts to preschool when it’s below 20° (James).

• Tucker ate almost all the candy out of the candy basket, which I asked her to put away so Tucker wouldn’t get into it (Sophie).

• I told him we couldn’t drive to the beach. At 3:42pm. On a weekday (Owen).

“Anger is short-lived madness.” —Horace

Today Was a Good Day

As a writer mom I’m much more likely to tell you about the time I had to carry both screaming boys out of Joseph-Beth, one under each arm, while fellow book shoppers shook their heads than I am about the time everyone sat quietly at a restaurant. I believe stories of my parenting mistakes and mishaps are better reads whereas stories reminiscent of those “my kid is on the honor roll” bumper stickers are simply tedious.

But I’m a writer mom who also is a worrier mom and as such, I worry posting this and this and this and this and this paints, well, a bit of a one-sided picture.

So quickly, today has been a good day. We met friends for a picnic lunch at Ault Park (which is where I took the above picture) and it was a fun and gorgeous afternoon. Later in the day I had to take all three to my eye doctor’s appointment. And they were so.well.behaved. While I was staring at little red lights and reading teeny tiny letters the nurse commented on how well behaved they were and I looked and all three were sitting, silent, just sitting, not moving, not hitting, not whining, not fighting, just sitting. And they stayed that way. The doctor gave them each two Tootsie Roll Pops (one for now one for later he said) and then said to me, “You’re doing this parenting thing right.”

I’m sure he’s forgotten those words by now. But given that I think at least 63 times a day how badly I’m doing this parenting thing, I don’t think I ever will.

I pushed things and took all three to Target and except for one incident over a need (which I tried to explain was a want) for Thomas the Train toothpaste, it was great. They did their daily chore (cleaning the stairs, which is where I put everything that’s downstairs that belongs upstairs) without hassle.

Bedtime was a bit of a disaster (a board game that ended in tears, sneaking—and eating—the newly bought gummy bears, an upturned sprayer resulting in a partially flooded bathroom, one child’s computer privileges gone for tomorrow) but, hey—no one’s perfect.

It’s getting easier. It really is. And the things I’ve been saying over and over and over (and over) are slowly starting to stick. And the real concerns I’ve had about behavioral issues with Owen and James are ever-so-slightly lessening. And so with slight worry that this may sound like bragging (again, I promise to never write on and on about report cards and milestones and homeruns) I will say this: Today was a good day.

“There are good days and there are bad days, and this is one of them.” —Lawrence Welk

One of Parenting’s Saddest Truths

My husband loves Reddit. This morning, he told me about a thread and he said it was one of the saddest things he’s ever read.

The question was,”What is your favourite ‘technically correct’ fact?”

Someone responded: “At some point in your childhood, your parents put you down and never picked you up again.”

We had lots to do today—our weekend to-do list, thanks to a leaky basement, is fuller than usual.

And yet today, in particular, I noted how much we held our children.

We played airplane.

Snuggled, all four of us in bed (Sophie was down the street at a friend’s house).

The boys fell asleep on my lap (a rarity) while Andy grilled chicken for dinner.

Boredom. “Sit on my lap,” I said.

A stubbed toe. “Do you want to cuddle?” I asked.

“I’m tired,” said a small voice. “Here,” I said. “I’ll carry you.”

After dinner, before Sophie left with (another) friend down the street, I saw Andy swoop her up. She laughed. I smiled. And I know we both wondered, Is this the last? No, we both thought, silently.

But when?

“Our sweetest songs are those of saddest thought.” —Percy Bysshe Shelley

Sorry, My Future Teenage Sons

This gem was from May. Blame Sophie.

But gosh that was a fun afternoon. A really, really, really fun afternoon.

And it’s sometimes nice to remember those fun afternoons after evenings like tonight. Evenings in which my dear, hardworking husband didn’t come home until 6:40pm and instead of finding dinner on the table found me, in bed, hiding under the duvet.

I’m sorry.

“Fashion is instant language.” —Miuccia Prada

Sophie, The Labeler

Found this gem in the bathroom tonight.


“Parenthood: That state of being better chaperoned than you were before marriage.” —Marcelene Cox

Sometimes, My Ideas Are The Worst

I could have renewed my driver’s license this morning, while the kids were at school. But I had editing to do and I love my quiet/coffee/home-alone time. Plus, I thought, the kids would get a kick out of helping me on the errand. I could teach them about licenses and the responsibility that comes with driving a car and … lines.

I’m an idiot.

I picked the kids up from school and the first thing we did was eat out—this allowed everyone to use the bathroom and everyone to fill their stomachs, and as a bonus, they felt as if it was a treat. So, they were happy.

Next up, the DMV.

“Just drive down 27—it’s the new building on the left,” Andy said.

I did exactly what he said and somehow ended up at the police department. The woman in front of us was, shall we say, in distress. After I noted the bars over the windows and the fact that everyone was carrying a gun, I said to another woman behind me, “This isn’t where you renew your driver’s license, is it?”

She said no.

We left. I answered lots of questions. I loaded everyone back in the car. I called Andy.

“Why would you go to the police department? You need to go to the other new building,” he said.

“What’s the building called?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. He looked up the address. “1098 Monmouth Street.”

Turns out it was the County Clerk’s Office and wasn’t far. I drove, parked, unloaded the kids, found “DMV” on the directory and we waited in line, for about 20 minutes.

“Are you here for a renewal?” a woman asked, when it was our turn.

“Yes,” I said. “My driver’s license.”

“You’re in the wrong building.”

At this point I had already threatened the loss of and given back the promise of fruit snacks once home to the kids about 12 times.

“What?” I asked.

I needed to be at the Circuit Court Clerk’s Office, on York street. Not the County Clerk’s Office on Monmouth street.

Of course.

I loaded everyone back in the car. And drove to the courthouse.

This time, I had to parallel park the minivan. And once inside the courthouse, the kids had to walk through a metal detector, which James tried to go back and forth through three times. Thankfully, the officers were kind and awarded the kids for being somewhat reasonable with gold Junior Sheriff Deputy stickers.

We walked down a hallway and down a staircase to another hallway where there was a really.long.line.

And so we waited. The kids begged for candy from one of the four snack machines next to us. I didn’t have enough change. We waited. The boys couldn’t leave the flexible line divider thing alone. I scolded. We waited. We played Simon Says. We waited. The kids spotted a water fountain and I tried to bribe them with water, saying if they were good in line we’d visit the fountain when we were done. We waited. A bench freed up and the kids sat. Well, Sophie sat and the boys started a wrestling match with each other. I scolded and gave them my phone to look at pictures. We waited.

We waited and waited and waited until we were called and the woman behind the desk asked me if the address on my license was current and I said “yes” and then looked at my license and realized it was not (we moved years ago) and I told her so and then she asked for proof of address, such as a piece of mail.

I considered crying.

Thankfully, my checks have my current address and that sufficed.

Next I spent an entire minute explaining to Owen why he couldn’t be in the picture with me. I smiled against the blue backdrop, while all three of my kids were on the floor around my feet, done with the day.

I got my new license.

“Do you want to see it?” I asked Sophie.


I’m an idiot.

“Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car.” —E.B. White

No. 2

I’m at my wit’s end.

Owen is completely trained—day and night.

James James James! No. 1, great. No. 2, refuses. He hides and then comes to us, hands covering his eyes and whispers what he’s done.

We have tried e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. For months. Many, many months.

We’ve tried charts—three different charts—each with different goals and rewards.

We’ve set the timer for every 15 minutes for days at a time.

We’ve sat with him, reading book after book.

We’ve let him sit in the living room, watching TV.

We’ve tried a small treat for each attempt.

We’ve let him go naked at home, all day long.

We’ve tried padded underwear, smaller underwear, bigger underwear, an array of different character underwear.

We’ve tried peer pressure. “Sophie does it! Owen does it! Everyone at preschool does it!”

We’ve purchased the toy he wants most and placed it, still in its package, on a shelf above the toilet. For weeks he broke my heart, holding it while trying to go.

We’ve tried having long talks with him after an incident.

We’ve become frustrated with him, showing him our frustration.

We’ve made cheerleaders out of Owen and Sophie—they sit with him or they dance in the bathroom while he sits or they sing silly potty songs to make him laugh.

We’ve tried the potty training DVDs (Elmo, Daniel Tiger, etc.).

We’ve tried the potty training books (all of them).

We’ve tried putting him in charge—letting him pick out the underwear, the treat, the reward. Letting him make his own chart and help set his own goals. Letting him ask us what he needs from us or, at the least, letting him tell us what’s working and what’s not (it’s forever, “I don’t know”).

And now I don’t know. I don’t know what else to do.

He’s 3. Very much 3. He’ll be 4 in May.

We’ve had some small triumphs. He earned the toy, in the package, just last week—and then promptly lost it.

And then there was tonight. I saw him get up and hide in a corner. So I jumped up, picked him up and carried him to the bathroom. He was furious with me. I took a deep breath, and remained calm. I talked in a soft, low voice. I asked him questions, like I always do.

Me: “What are you feeling right now?”

James: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Are you afraid?”

James: “No.”

Me: “Is it easier standing up?”

James: “No!”

The questions got more graphic from there—I will spare you.

After about 40 minutes of the two of us sitting in our small half bath, with Owen and Sophie bopping in every once in awhile with cheers of support, he went. He was so pleased with himself. Knowing he was close, I had told him we’d go straight from the half bath to Target, where he could pick out a new train. I knew he was close, and I didn’t want to waste the opportunity. I thought he was over the old toy he had earned and lost. And this was something I never do—the very thought of it was a treat.

It was 7:45pm. Bedtime is 8pm. Andy wasn’t home, which meant me piling all three kids into the van in 21° weather, navigating our icy driveway, getting everyone into Target and negotiating a reasonably priced toy.

I let Sophie and Owen pick out something small, too, which again, is something I never do. But they have been so supportive of James, and they have been so good playing with each other while I spend a ridiculous amount of time with James in our little half bath, as they did tonight. They deserved a treat, too.

The trip went so well, with little complaining—even over the cart seating arrangement. James, clutching his new train, promised, over and over, to not have any more accidents.

I felt like a huge weight had lifted off my shoulders.

We got home, well past bedtime. I wrangled everyone into pjs. We brushed teeth. Turned down beds. The whole bit.

And then James covered his eyes with his hands and whispered, “change me.”

I inwardly screamed. I stared at him, mouth set, making no noise. Inside, I was losing it. Inside, I was a tired, frustrated, defeated mama who would just like to go one day—one day!—without cleaning up someone else’s poop.

He lost his new toy, which I felt terribly bad about but he didn’t fight me at all—he knew he couldn’t keep it.

I told him he could earn it back.

But we’ve done this already, with the other toy that sat on the shelf above the toilet for weeks.

So now what? He’s working to earn two toys back? When does it end?

People say to give it time. But we’ve been doing this for more than a year now.

A year.

That’s not normal, is it? I mean, what’s normal in parenting, right? But seriously, that’s not normal.

Help. Please help. Not with stories of how you potty trained in a weekend (those stories aren’t real, right?) but with tricks, tips, ideas.

(And thank you.)

“The story of a mother’s life: Trapped between a scream and a hug.” —Cathy Guisewite

James, My Alarm

This morning James ran into our bedroom in a flurry, ripped open the blinds and screamed, “IT’S MORNING TIME!”. He then turned on the radio, switched on the lights, jumped on top of me and yelled, “GET UP, LAZY BONES!”.

And it wasn’t just this morning.

It’s every morning.

Boundless energy, that boy has—boundless.

“No human being believes that any other human being has a right to be in bed when he himself is up.” —Robert Lynd