That I Would Be Good by Alanis Morissette has long been a favorite of mine. Most of the time, it’s so hard to believe that we are worthy, without doing anything. Just existing is enough to be valuable. Our humanity is eroded when we strive so hard all the time to hold up a facade of perfection, but I do it all the time, and I bet you do too.

Now that I’m in my thirties, I’m paying more attention to how my life feels. Does it feel good to be in my body? Does it feel good to spend my time the way I do? How do the people I’m spending time with make me feel? How can I accept who I am right now, without self-flagellation? How can I let go of obsessively polishing these images?

It ain’t easy. These lines from Wendell Berry always ring true:

Live a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   

My philosophy when it comes to toys, media and stimulation in general, is less is more. Growing up is challenging enough without adding flashing lights, incessant beeping and a random torrent of television images. Regular household routines, lots of time exploring outside, make believe and as many picture books as possible make more sense to me. We treat screen time the way we dole out ice cream: occasionally and with great ceremony. (In our house that’s usually about half an hour once a week.)

Gifts are enormously tricky then. Because unless other people understand and value your philosophy, the noisy, plastic, beeping battery powered crap starts pouring in. It’s fun. It’s cheap. And of course, children love it. They love it like elderly people like slot machines and telephone scams. But that doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

My Toddler’s Precious Mind and Heart Are Not For Sale. 

I don’t want to give one inch to the merciless marketing aimed at children. It’s sophisticated and employs a knowledge of child psychology much deeper and more nuanced than my own. Allowing my son to become familiar with omnipresent Disney characters is a slippery slope. I don’t need him instantly recognizing Elsa on every single package of yogurt, pretzels, juice and toothpaste available.

Why would I give strangers, who clearly want to sell us things we don’t need, such a powerful hook? They’ll have to work harder than that. (And I know they will. Nothing short of moving to Amish country could  totally stop the consumer machinery we live in.) Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood is a great resource for this topic.

My Toddler Isn’t Making Choices, I am.

He’s still too young to make decisions about what we are buying, or even what he wants. It seems like a violation of his capacity for choice to put him into clothes emblazoned with brand names, phrases or characters. He’ll be ready to choose them himself someday, but for now, I prefer to keep it very neutral so he can relate to other kids as a kid first rather than as a “fan” of the Ninja Turtles.

We All Have to Live with These Objects. We Should All Enjoy Them. 

Everyone in our household has to live with the toys, clothing and household necessities that belong to our son. I prefer for these things to be calming, quiet, and as neutral as possible, because that’s how I want our house to feel. Beautiful. Restful. Calm. Happy. Welcoming to everyone.

Toddler Gift Guidelines

Here are the rough parameters we’ve worked out so far. If an object passes these tests, it usually works out well in our home.

  • No batteries – batteries do the work a child can and should be doing.
  • No obnoxious sounds – this is a simple kindness for the rest of the household. My toddler is noisy enough without any help, thanks.
  • Avoid plastic, Favor Natural Materials – plastic toys are easily broken, and often have lots of tiny, hard to corral pieces that contribute to clutter in the house. They feel insubstantial and disposable. I believe children also notice the difference between something made with quality and something cheaply made. Whenever possible, I like to give my child something that feels sturdy, solid, well made and pleasurable to look at, hold and interact with.
  • No Branding, Characters or Phrases – toys that are thinly disguised promotional materials are everywhere. Why have a bike with princesses on it when the bike itself should be the cause of excitement and stimulation? It’s to reinforce a message about Princesses and to get us to buy more, and I want no part of that. One thing at a time.

Simple. Beautiful. Built to Last.

These guidelines can be hard to stick to- it’s tempting, even pleasurable, to give in when you see how children delight in the cheap and easy. But it comes with a hangover for everyone in the house.

How do you choose what toys enter your house? How do you decide what to get rid of?

 


Don’t believe them when they tell us we’re more divided than ever.

Our country has been divided from the start, on the question of whether or not “inalienable rights” applied equally to every human being, or only to white men. We fought a civil war on this very question.

My understanding of history had been that although this fundamental paradox was written right into the Constitution, the forefathers were blinded by their time and culture, where white male power was sacrosanct. The history shared by my teachers, church and family said, yes, these inequalities existed at first, but we have all worked over time to overcome them and create a more inclusive and tolerant society. Tolerance is what makes our nation great. The melting pot(!) and the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice(!) and so on.

I believed that, even after I got out into the world and saw examples to the contrary. Examples of imperialism, commercial exploitation and our government’s blatant interference in the political processes of other countries. I told myself that the United States was mostly a force for good in the world, despite these ugly examples. That we Americans were always trying to be better.

The election of Donald Trump has deeply shaken my belief in the goodness of our country.

I have been unable to comprehend how anyone could choose Mr. Trump over Mrs. Clinton. All questions of policies aside (not that his policies were ever made clear), his violent temper, self-aggrandizement and aggressive bullying forced me to conclude he was unfit for office.

But what this election has shown me is that at least half of the country believes the America of the past was better and they are willing to pay any price to go back. I can’t believe that they looked at candidate Trump and thought “This is a man who looks incredibly even keeled and well prepared for the job of running the country.” I can believe they thought, “If he can’t pump the brakes, no one can.”  They believe their values are under assault, and they voted for someone who seems like he’s not afraid of a fight.

They believe our country was more moral when it didn’t tolerate gay marriage. They believe it was more just before the Black Lives Matter movement. They believe it was more prosperous before the crash of 2008. (Hard to argue there.) They are angry.

Donald Trump’s anger and sneering displays of power reflected their feelings of frustration and catered to their alienation. This does not mean that every single vote for Donald Trump was racist and evil. I imagine many people cast that vote with deep misgivings, but knew the alternative would continue down a path they don’t wish to accept. And like it or not, we have to accept those votes and voices as part of the democratic process. Freedom means each citizen may draw their own conclusions.

For my part, I want to see The United States of America live up to the very simple, very lofty ideal set forth by our founding fathers. The glittering ideal they expressed before they gave in the dull status quo of white men only.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident,

that all men are created equal,

that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,

that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

What beautiful, immortal simplicity. We are all equal, intrinsically, basically, incontrovertibly. And yet, how far we still fall short of this elegant principal.

I believe that our country is never closer to this ideal than when we guarantee equal rights to all people, regardless of their color, sexual orientations, religions of physical abilities. We can’t guarantee equality under the law by favoring conservative Christian viewpoints above all others. Ask the citizens of Iran how enforcing religious laws has worked for their country. Equality under the law preserves freedom of religion, but not just for people whose ideas we agree with.

Equality under the law for all people means that gay couples should have the same rights enjoyed by other legal unions. Equality under the law for all people means that black communities deserve the same careful, consistent policing that white communities enjoy. Equality under the law for all people means minority kids get the same educational opportunities and resources white suburban kids get. Equality under the law for all people means that Muslim Americans need not fear deportation.

The only comfort I can find is very thin indeed. It’s vigilance, plain and simple.

Vigilance is personal. Vigilance is making decisions every day about how to model the values I hold. How can I support the tolerant, open minded society I want to see? What charities do I support? What jokes do I call out? What do I let slide? What do I model for my own child? How can I have more diversity in my social circle? What do I share with my students in my classroom about this beautiful, frightening, inspiring world?

Vigilance demands my engagement in my community, self-discipline and spiritual practice. Only having left leaning friends won’t help me bridge the gap. If diversity and tolerance are important to me, I have to step up and talk to people I disagree with in a constructive way, with love.

Maybe that comfort isn’t so thin after all. It demands a great deal of growth for me and anyone else who wants to continue moving forward together.

 





Dear Hillary,

I got to your party late. I am sorry. Like many people, I find politics distasteful, divorced from the realities of my daily life and well beyond my sphere of personal influence. I was excited about the momentum around Bernie Sanders and I felt a bit like those bumper stickers after you won the nomination. From “Bernie or Bust!” to “OK, fine, Hillary.” 

So, you’ve always had my vote, but you’ve not had my enthusiasm until recently.

The debates were a turning point for me. I hesitate to even call them debates, because you were the only candidate trying to share policy ideas and coherent strategies with the American people. Donald simply used his seething-snake-oil-salesman-reality-show-ringmaster-ranting to sell America a distorted picture of it’s own dissatisfaction. His bullying and emotional manipulation was infuriating and unrelenting. I found it hard to take, but you were calm and collected. You were prepared. You took every opportunity to redirect his attacks and talk about issues I was actually interested in hearing about. 

I knew you had many, many years of devoted service to our country on your resume. I knew you had withstood tremendous public scrutiny and humiliation before. I knew you were well traveled, and surrounded by a team of political experts. I knew you would be a competent president. But I didn’t feel excited about the sort of president you would be until I saw you taking Donald on directly, fearlessly, and with total trust that the American people will be able to see through him. (I certainly do.)

I am excited now Hillary, but I know the ropes. The excitement of a presidential election quickly gives way to an odd combination of the pressing and mundane. I believe you may have the greatest challenge of any president yet ahead of you. Your job will be to help unite a country that seems to have opposite impressions of the world and our country. I made this drawing to share my view of things.

Clearly, judging from Donald’s popularity, there are many Americans who see things differently. As I wrote, I realized that many of the things I want for my country are already coming to pass, but there is much more to do. I’d like to see our country come together, do some difficult soul searching and make changes so our ideals match our realities. Your campaign slogan, “Forward Together” is exactly what is needed, but it does feel like a very difficult, distant journey.

I’m on board. Sorry I’m late.

Becky Kazana

I believe that America is already a great nation. It is imperfect, as all man made things are. I believe that the United States was founded with noble ideals we fell short of from the very beginning. After all, in those days, only land owning white men could vote. I believe that over time the United States has continued to become more inclusive and has often been a force for good in the world. Sometimes the change doesn’t feel fast enough. We still fall far short of our ideals. There is much more to do. There always will be. That doesn’t seem to deter you, and that inspires me. The work is hard, it’s mired in the process, which is slow and cumbersome. That doesn’t seem to deter you either. You’ve been in there with your sleeves rolled up for thirty years, through some serious rivers of shit. And yet here you are. 

I want a United States of America where the equality of all human kind is not just an aspirational ideal, but a physical reality. We must address the systemic oppression that is still a reality for many of our citizens. Female people, native peoples, black people, gay people, and minority people are all part of this nation and WILL be heard. It is no longer negotiable.

I want a USA that uses it’s power in the world responsibly, carefully, respectfully. We must lead by example and also be willing to look around for good ideas to borrow. When I go abroad, I want to be proud of our actions in the world. We should build peace, community and prosperity for everyone on earth, not just for ourselves at others’ expense.

We have to care for our precious planet- the thing that sustains all of us. It is a gift we humans have been made stewards of, and we aren’t doing enough to protect it.

We must help to foster discourse! The free exchange of ideas has been our greatest tool of progress! If we start with the premise that we need to go back, many gains are lost, and at a terrible cost.

Together, we can use technology and science to go to incredible new places- places the founding fathers could not fathom. Together we can transform our collective consciousness about what is possible by welcoming many voices, many thoughts, many projects and ways of thinking. Voices we’ve never heard before can help us solve problems we’ve never encountered before.

Americans have a reputation for being naive and brash, but also kind-hearted and full of good intentions. I’ve always liked this identity, but I can see that it is youthful, maybe even slightly childish. I feel ready for a more mature America that is ready to embody it’s ideals rather than pay them lip service.

If freedom is our most cherished ideal, we must find ways to make freedom REAL for anyone who wants it. We must be welcoming. We must be generous. We must have a hard look at ourselves, decide who we want to be, and then act.