Author: Bekah McNeel

Birding in Winter

This is the first in a multi-part series in which I talk about mental health through metaphors in the natural world. Because mental health should be part of our natural worlds. As much as we tend our skin, muscles, and bones we should do for our brains and nervous system. Our spirit, God’s Spirit, is not apart from the stuff of the earth—it moves through it, is a part of it. 

A few weeks ago I went birding for the first time in a long while. It’s so rewarding to look at birds when the trees have no leaves. Even though the idea of bird watching in full blossom of spring is nice, it’s hard to see through the leaves. 

In 2013 I started birding when I joined our area’s Master Naturalist program. I was 29, and, as my friends joked, living someone’s grandfather’s best life. I wasn’t retired, technically. I was working in travel marketing and writing more and more frequently for a startup nonprofit newsroom that would become the San Antonio Report. 

I was retired in that I was exploring things I’d never done when I was pursuing a brief, ill-advised career in ministry. I had neglected hobbies not because I had been consumed in more important things, but because I had been conditioned not to be curious. Instead of being curious, I had been keeping busy.

I had come to believe that the most valuable use of my spare time was reading the recommended books and attending church social functions at large houses in nice neighborhoods, all involving some subcategory of the church population (women, singles, etc) making small talk over buffet food, or sitting down to listen to someone in authority talk about sin in a way specific to the assembled demographic. 

This was what I wanted. A cohesive, singular social group where everyone affirmed my life decisions. We would all grow old together, honing our beliefs and behaviors. I was living a leafy life, full of external symbols that everything was fine, with no time to notice the birds in the trees.

When I left total immersion in church culture by way of the spectacular collapse of my ministry career, I was in the same social place as the empty nester retiring to a warmer climate—but the angry type of retiree who shouts at youths.

My calendar was empty. My job was just a job, not the kind of “calling” I’d thought I had (that would change once I got over myself). Nights and weekends felt like a void, so I filled them with writing and, eventually, birding. Others might have gone for heavy drinking or carousing, but I don’t do things that interfere with my habit of reading before bed. Yes, I was born this old.

My first two birding experiences were designed to get me, a beginner, hooked. 

At Mitchell Lake, a manmade wetland system south of San Antonio, birds stop over while returning from their winter homes in Central and South America. More than 98% of migratory birds travel through the funnel of Mexico and South Texas before fanning out across the US to their summer habitats. 

Mitchell Lake is a rare body of water in the dry plains of South Texas. In the spring it is a birder’s paradise, with exotic and common water fowl, predators, and song birds. They land in the various ponds and tanks, easy to spot and identify. 

On that first trip, I didn’t need to look into the trees, because there were so many birds to see out in the open. My head was spinning from the variety of plovers, cormorants, and flycatchers, which I was only just learning to differentiate from a “duck” or a “bird.” 

A few weeks later, as part of my Master Naturalist volunteer hour requirements, I manned the children’s blind at the Kreutzberg Canyon May Day celebration. Sitting in the large plywood box with a plexiglass window overlooking some bird feeders, I helped about 40 squirming children spot their first painted bunting, the most gratifying of all song birds. 

Male painted buntings have brilliant indigo heads, scarlet backs and bellies, and tiers of green and chartreuse along their wings. My friend Tina has one tattooed on her arm, an homage to their daring beauty. (Tina is also a daring beauty and bird lover.) The female painted buntings, like the rest of the bird kingdom, are more practically dressed, but even their shades of green seem impossibly exotic for South Texas, alongside the subtle grays and browns of our mockingbirds and wrens. 

Seeing a painted bunting would make even the most screen-addicted indoorsman consider taking up some casual birdwatching. 

Some of the May Day kids would get frustrated if they didn’t see a bunting right away. Their exhausted parents, happy to sit in the shaded blind for a while, tried to ease the children into a peaceful sit-and-watch, but the kids were clearly anxious that they were missing the good stuff. 

I knew how they felt. My own jaw was perpetually clenched as well. I too was anxious about everything I was missing. Not in the bird blind, but in life.

Professionally, I was starting from scratch while my grad school peers were finally starting to land adequately paying jobs in exciting cities. They were getting promoted, and I had barely started “putting in my time.” 

I was angry. I felt like my entire life had been a set up. 

Growing up, nothing had been more important than Jesus. Our lives revolved around the church. I went to Christian schools. By the time I was 23 I had attended over 2,000 worship services. When I dreamed big, I dreamed about doing big things for Jesus. 

By contrast, the “world” outside the church was dangerous and full of compromise. Succeeding there could mean trading your soul. Of course I had wanted a ministry career! (Here I deleted a loooong digression about how “succeeding” in ministry might be more dangerous to your soul than Wall Street, Washington, or Hollywood.)

But “want” is a scary word for women in conservative religious traditions. In “wanting” to write, teach, and build an actual career, I was a grenade with the pin barely in for most of my time employed by the church. Of course it didn’t work out! 

(Here I deleted another looooong digression about how preacher bros will tell you they don’t have a “career,” they have a “calling” or a “ministry,” and it operates by different rules, different metrics. In theory, sure. In practice, that’s complete bullshit. Demand receipts.)

Not only was I starting from scratch, but I was doing so with a lot of pent up anger. Therapy became a regular part of my life.

Gaining language is a critical part of every journey. I had to open myself up to words like “kingfisher” and “chickadee” and “scissor-tail” in order to be a successful birder. Meanwhile, I had to open myself up to words like “bitterness,” “disappointment,” and “anger” if I was going to have a balanced life moving forward.

As leaves — the rules and rhythms of church life, the social values of the polite people who went there—fell from the tree, it was becoming easier to see some of the birds in my trees.

“Birds” like my need to hear, “this is the right answer,” in order to proceed. 

Like my mistrust for any voice other than condemnation.   

Like anger and hurt.

The leaves eventually came back to the tree as I began to enjoy my new career path, downtown marriage, and travel. Lots and lots of travel. It was a springtime of life again, and I was busy frolicking, tending here and there to the birds I knew about, but only when I felt like doing so.

I knew about the angry birds (ha!) in the tree, the cynical birds, the bitter birds. But I had no idea what else was in there. Other birds are harder to see.

This is true in nature as well. The dense, old-growth ash juniper trees that terrorize allergy sufferers throughout central Texas are home to the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. They are hard to see.

Ash juniper is abundant, but each warbler needs its own mature tree. Real estate and ranching are competing with them for space. Texas Parks and Wildlife conducts surveys to track the population and ensure their habitat is protected.

When I showed up at Honey Creek State Natural Area for the surveys with my basic binoculars, wide-brim sunhat and short-sleeve hiking shirt, I quickly realized that in wilderness birding, this was not the right look. These were not the sunny walkways of Mitchell Lake or the tended blinds of Kreutzberg Canyon.

After three early morning hours of crawling through uncleared brush, trying to get closer to the dense corona of ash juniper, my arms were red and swollen with irritated scrapes, my hat had nearly garroted me several times, and my binoculars were banged up from where rocks and my own knees had knocked them around as they swung wildly from my neck. 

Surveying warblers relies almost entirely on sound—their song sounds like “La Cucaracha.” It’s easy to spot, thankfully, but while we walked, the more experienced members of the team would quietly pick out the numerous other song birds in the early morning symphony, going only by sound. 

Sounds in general are difficult for me. I cannot “just ignore” things I don’t want to hear or focus on only the things I do want to hear.  Birding by sound requires the ability to do just that, and more.

The birder stands in silence, letting sounds of rustling leaves, babbling brooks, and distant highways pass in and out of their consciousness. If surveying for the diversity of species on a piece of land, birders log the species of each unique song. 

When surveying for the population of a single species, rather than diversity, the listening game is upped, considerably. Birders must know the territorial range of a bird. Once they hear one bird, they must know how far away will they have to go before hearing another. At the edge of one territory they stop and listen. They listen closer to determine the direction of the call, and whether the bird is on the move. 

It is almost impossible to bird by ear while preoccupied or distracted. Unless you live in the most dense urban jungle, birdsongs are part of earth’s constant cacophony. They are the ambient noise of morning, springtime, and idyll. To find the one she is looking for, a birder must be, above all else, present. 

I am not good at being present. In addition to being a generally loud place, my mind is either worried about what it should be doing or longing for what it could be doing. 

And thus, I misplace things constantly, miss critical details, and probably should drive less.

I once drove 30 miles past my exit on the freeway because my mind was replaying a distressing conversation I’d had at the event I’d just left. People would sometimes use the term “spacing out” to describe this full-bodied distraction, but that sounds blissfully opposite of what I am usually doing in my head, which looks more like a cross between the trading floor at the NY Stock Exchange and the tilt-er-whirl at the county fair. 

Once I had kids, I became even less present. 

My career was starting to gain steam when I decided to go ahead and get pregnant. I was 30, and several friends had recently shared their difficulty getting pregnant in their late 30s. They advised me not to wait too long. I don’t regret taking their advice, because the egg on deck turned out to be Moira. I am certain that I only had one egg in my entire stash with the mix of confidence, pizazz, and intensity that is Moira Sage McNeel. I’m really glad we fertilized it.

My heart expanded to accommodate her, so intense was the love…but it was always present. My whole mind, whole heart, and whole attention were no longer available to anything but her. 

But even she did not get my undivided presence, because the unbearable scarcity of time leaked into most of our moments as I wondered “is she happy enough with that teething ring for me to try to get some work done?” “Will she nap long enough for me to finish this story?” 

Choosing to work as a mom—not needing to, but choosing to—was controversial in the world I came from. Women were encouraged to give into the ravenous, all-consuming desire of children who say Machiavellian things like “don’t go to work, mommy. Stay with me!” 

The leaves had once again begun to fall off the tree as I saw my birds of insecurity over how to discipline her, and my perfectionism birds needing to prove that a working mom could still be a super mom.

But my daughter was amenable to coming along on reporting assignments, errands, and a work trip to Argentina. Her need for me seemed to be mostly a mild preference. I could actually “do it all” with her. 

She left enough leaves on the tree for some birds to hide.

Two years later her brother arrived, just as her intensity hit full-on two-year-old. I didn’t have feel like I had time to go to counseling when I needed to. The tree was stripped bare. 

From our first night in the hospital, Asa has not been able to sleep unless he is touching someone, preferably me. I had to wear him in a sling at all times. If he had his way, we would hold hands forever. As a baby, he would stare deep into my eyes until he fell asleep. This morning, four years later, he told me, “I want to just be everywhere you are so we’ll never be apart.”

It’s as sweet as it sounds, and I feel so lucky to be loved like that. Also true: I’m very, very tired.

He forgets nothing, and has a will of iron. He weened and potty trained himself with almost no intervention from me or any other adult, so I’m certain one day he’ll use it all for the greater good.

My heart expanded again to accommodate him, but my energy did not. My career kept growing. My children were beautiful. My marriage was strong. But I was completely unable to enjoy it. I could not keep the leaves on the tree.

This was different than the first winter. It wasn’t a strong gust of disappointment and sudden change that cleared the leaves. This time it was just the tree, unable to hold on in the middle of everything going fabulously.

For most of 2016 and 2017, I was a bald pile of nerves and pathos, hastily swept into the shape of a human each morning, only to unravel into tears, keening, stuttering, and pacing by night. 

Things were grim. 

If you knew me in this time, and you are thinking “I had no idea!” don’t worry. If you suspected and pushed, like my husband did, I probably bit your head off. The worse off I am, the less likely I am to show it, the less I want to talk about it, except to tell curated stories about how I’m taking it all in stride. Pro tip: I’m NEVER taking it all in stride. Where do you think those intense, iron-willed children came from?

Inherent to my particular disposition is the compulsion to “power through.” It took four years for me to get the kind of help I needed, and the tree remained bare until then. Once I got myself back into therapy (a more intensive version this time), it was time to take a look at the birds deep in the branches.

First I saw the anxiety twittering on the bare branches like a kinglet, nervously hopping from branch to branch just in case a meal is buzzing by. Then I heard the cry of sensory processing issues, shrill and defiant like a jay. Then the obsessing and compulsions like the phoebe, which bobs her tail to let the predators know she’s onto them. 

I had a lot of leaves on my trees before I lost my first career and had kids. Lots of rules I could keep, lots of activities I could do, lots of people I could consult. Warmed by long days of sunny consensus, my leaves converted all that agreement into frenetic energy and hid my inner self from observation. 

If my leaves had not fallen off, if I had had the evergreen life I wanted, I never would have known the birds that lived in my tree. If everything thing had not fallen apart, and if I had not then fallen apart when everything else was going great, I never would have gotten a clear view of my deeply held beliefs, some of which, it turns out, are fully developed neuroses. 

As I’ve gotten to know their nuances, not just the bright buntings, but the shades of wren-brown and dove-grey, the birds in my tree have become less confusing, and easier to predict. There’s nothing wrong with an evergreen life, but I’m thankful that mine has included at least two bleak winters. I’m thankful for a season in which there’s no way to miss the birds. Now that the leaves are coming back, the birds are still in there, so it’s good to know what they are up to.

The Smell of Drowning

For most of my childhood we lived near water—either the ocean, a lake or a river— the perfect buffer between adrenaline and death.

We’re all very good swimmers, my mom made sure of that. I started swim lessons at nine months old. This was in part just general precaution, our house had a deck that hung over a canal along Corpus Christi Bay. I had already rolled down the stairs, I’m sure my mom thought a tumble into the silty, lukewarm bay water was inevitable. 

But looking back on life around water with my dad, Mom’s urgency about the whole thing takes on a new significance.

Jumping off of things is a favorite pastime of my dad. He was always looking for somewhere to hang a rope swing or see how many flips he could turn off of a cliff. And he absolutely encouraged us to join him. I’m glad I took him up on it. I think it made me a better, braver, more fun person who can honestly say, “I’ve survived some stuff.” 

Soon I was jumping off my own cliffs.

In high school, my boyfriend and his friends planned a “couples’ hike” that ended at a jumping-off spot on a cliff over the Frio River.

When we set out, the boys in the group had promised a romantic walk to see the sweeping Texas Hill Country vistas before we jumped. To me and the other girlfriends involved, this sounded like a swim suit and sandal situation. Three miles, two sweaty armpits and eleventy-hundred blisters later, we reached the part of the hike where we had to slide down the face of the bluff through scrub brush, laced with cactus and fire ants to get to the limestone ledge where we would jump 40 feet into the river below.

I was about midway down the bluff, vowing silently to break up with my boyfriend, and I could hear the others hemming and hawing on the ledge beneath me. Who would jump first? One girl was now too scared. Had anyone confirmed that the water below was in fact deep enough?

 The butt of my white board shorts were caked in mud. I could smell my body odor. My skin was itching everywhere that it wasn’t stinging. I was willing to jump 40 feet into the unknown just to get away from my boyfriend. 

“Move!” I yelled from above, and ran like a mountain goat down the final, brushy, six-foot slope and, as the observers across the river later told me, came flying out of the bushes with no warning, no countdown, flailing like I was on fire. 

Being the first to jump will get you a beer, get you laid, and eventually get you paralyzed from the neck down. For a tea-totaling fundamentalist teenager, only one of these was a viable possibility.

Fortunately, I had super responsible girlfriends in high school.

One summer, while hanging our feet in a trickling creek, I left my friends in their bucolic state and scrambled up a boulder on the other side. The boulder was about 15 feet tall. The stream below was just deep enough to cover the rocks in the creek bed. But it was crystal clear, I reasoned, so I could avoid the larger rocks and hit the water with about three feet of cushion.

“Get down,” my best friend said, “Now.”

“If I bend my knees when I hit the water, I’ll be okay,” I called back. (My dad taught me how to do this.)

“You will not. You’ll have to learn to paint with your teeth,” she said. Here, our evangelical upbringing might have saved my life: she was referencing Joni Erickson Tada, the Christian author and painter who suffered a diving accident as a young person that left her paralyzed from the neck down. She paints with her teeth. 

And now, thanks to Lee’s quick thinking and our shared catalogue of women’s devotionals, I do not. 

Seeing me prepare to jump, I had always assumed something deeply maternal fired in Lee’s animal brain. She recently corrected me, explaining that it was a “weary stating of the obvious.”

Jumping wasn’t the only way to die in the water. There was also drowning.

In New Braunfels, where we grew up, the odds are not in the weak swimmer’s favor. I doubt my mom foresaw this when she enrolled me in baby swim classes, but she’d also probably split the credit with God’s will. 

Schlitterbahn, the world’s largest waterpark, sits adjacent to the Comal River with its various dams, man-made rapids, and springfed pools with cavernous bottoms. The Guadalupe River runs through the town as well.

And if you live in a town like New Braunfels long enough, eventually you visit all of these inherently dangerous places at night, sometimes with alcohol and hormones involved. Someone almost always has a near death experience. Nearer than all the other near death experiences.

I’ve spent a cumulative 40-50 minutes of my life trapped at the bottom of an undertow, watching squishy butts wedged into black rubber tire inner tubes pass between me and the sun. Or trapped under a pool float. Or held under by a cousin.

One of my most profound sensory memories of childhood is the smell of almost drowning in fresh water. Salt water is not the same, I found out when I tried surfing for the first time. Salt water feels like a stone mason is scraping out your sinuses with a crusty trowel. Cholrinated water smells like a chemical burn. When fresh water shoots up your nose— either from your own jump, an undertow, a overturning tube, or the wake of a boat— it smells like primordial life…about to end. Like suddenly the oxygen you breathed has something both natural and deadly in it (it’s hydrogen). It blasts through your sinuses, leaving your throat raw and irritated, I assume because of all the decomposed algae and fish poop. 

The smell is impossible to separate from the burning sensation of running out of air, the sight of warbled sun above the surface, and what would be total silence if your inner person were not screaming “this is IT! This is where you DIE!” 

As kids, we lived for that smell. 

It was not only the smell of nearly dying, but the smell of living at your edge. If you could enjoy a float down the river or a trip to the waterpark without having your sinuses pressure-blasted at least once, you were hanging back. Next time you should try it without your life jacket. Trade the skis for a slalom. Try to add another back flip when you jumped out of the tree. 

That’s what I’m still doing, probably. Pitching news outlets out of my league with stories too big for me to tell. Applying for jobs I want, but am in no way qualified to have. Taking my kids to the grocery store on a Saturday during a pandemic when they haven’t been to a store in eleven months. I’m looking for my edge, and I’ll know it blasts through my sinuses. 

“I’ll cut you up in little pieces and hide you in the walls.”

One night in college, a group of girls in my dorm were hanging out, getting philosophical about empty threats. Like the professor who was way too lazy to make everyone rewrite the papers he would have to then reread. Or the student life staff member who would not actually remove our dorm doors if we snuck boys in (it was a Christian college).

I thought of one: “Like when your mom threatens to cut you up in little pieces and hide you in the walls.”

Six pairs of perfectly circular eyes silently fixed on me. It was like I’d just said…exactly what I’d just said. 

“Hyperbole, right? We’re talking about hyperbolic threats?” I stammered, as though it was the literary concept I had misunderstood, and not the dynamics of parent-child relationships. “So like, when your mom threatens to ‘beat you like a piñata’, or ‘pinch your head off and tell God you died’…that’s how you know you’re not actually in that much trouble.”

Finally, someone else spoke. “Moms don’t do that.”

My mom sure did.

My mother was all about the grisly threat. And they were hyperbolic, and hyperbole was a tell that everything was going to be fine. If she couldn’t think of a legal way to punish you, you were in the clear.

It wasn’t just she who was going to kill us. It was everything else too. Whenever she needed to explain why we could not have what we wanted, the reason was some version of, “because you’ll die.” I don’t think she was overly worried about our dying, actually, she let us take a lot of healthy risks like playing sports, driving, and staying out reasonably late. But rather than argue about “fair” and “taking turns” and “whether or not she was ruining our life” she just told us it would kill us.

Me: Mom, can I set the space heater up in my room?

Her: No, you’ll catch the drapes on fire and we’ll all burn to death.

Me: Mom, can we get the internet at home?

Her: No! The internet is full of predators who will steal your information and then sneak into your house and kill you.

 As a mom myself now, I get what she was doing, because I want two primary things for my own children: 1) to stay alive, and 2) to stop arguing with me. My mom’s methods were colorful, and the colors were dark. It was kind of her brand.

When we built our house out on the fringes of a small town in the Texas Hill Country, we were disturbing, apparently for the first time, uninterrupted wildlife evolution. Either that or we built the house on the site of some midcentury nuclear testing zone, because the insects on that property were gargantuan. Not like “everything-is-bigger-in-Texas” big. These were mutants.

The grasshoppers had facial features. Like little eyebrows they would raise as they watched you shriek and wail in fear. The moths were like birds of prey. There were also birds of prey, but they were normal-sized.

Most harrowing of all the insects were the centipedes. They were like something from the Jurassic Period. Huge, with detailed red pincers and yellow legs. They grew up to five or six inches out there in the nuclear zone.

To keep them intact so that we could all admire, my mom would catch the centipedes alive in Tupperware and put them in the freezer. Something about their biology makes them die in strange defensive and striking postures, and my mom saw the chance to add to her extensive collection of taxidermy.

We already had deer and fancy deer cousins, a turkey and fancy turkey cousins. Also a very stern-looking sheep cousin (but no ordinary sheep). My mom started posing the centipedes in battle scenes around the house.

It scared the shit out of the maid one day. This gave my mom the idea to move the battle scenes around the house so that they would scare the shit out of everyone.

My mom loves scaring people. When I was in middle school I learned the story of Emma Voelker, who was axed to death at age 12 by a family friend who broke into her house looking for his estranged wife. This all happened in New Braunfels, the town where I grew up. The ghost of her murderer, William Faust, supposedly haunts a hotel in the next town over.

Shortly after reading this incredibly sad story, my mom and I were staying at my grandparents’ ranch, way out in the middle of nowhere. No one else was there. My mom went to the restroom and didn’t come back. Soon the windows and doors started rattling and creaking. Once I was good and scared she burst into the kitchen and yelled, “I am the ax murderer!”

It was the most terrified I have ever been. Except when she snuck up outside the kitchen window of our house while I was baking and lunged forward out of the darkness like some kind of poltergeist, plastering herself onto the window.

Actually, no, scarier than that was the time she pretended to be dead in the pool.

Dark humor is not for everyone, but it’s absolutely for my mom and me. So is hyperbole. It bothers me a little when I meet people who seem genuinely disconcerted by dark humor and hyperbole.

Like in an interminable meeting when I whisper, “Oh my god if he talks for one more minute I’m going to jump out this window.”

And the person next to me whispers back, “That’s a bit overdramatic.”

No, no, Stan, I would actually incur serious bodily harm over a slide show. That’s exactly the kind of stable person who can hold the kind of job where you watch two-hour long Powerpoint presentations on insurance plans. The kinds of people who go jumping out of windows to express their annoyance.

I know I’ve found my people when, instead, they whisper back, “I’m going to push him out the window.” 

People really seem to want me to be optimistic, bright, and cheery. Maybe it’s a woman thing, maybe it’s a mom thing, maybe it’s a Christian thing. This was a difficult essay to write, because I had to keep erasing things that my internal editor flagged as “too dark.” But I’m saving all the deleted bits, because my mom will think they’re hilarious.

Too often, “gratitude” is mistaken for “sunshine blazing out of every orifice.”

When I have to pretend everything is okay, I actually feel less okay. The more pressure I feel to overlook the grim bits, the grimmer they seem. Like the thing I’m quashing really is too big and too scary to look in the face. I think Tig Notaro’s famous “I have cancer,” set at Largo lives in legend because it proved how badly we all need to transgress the rules when the rules are telling us to be scared.

I can’t speak for my mom, but I have gallows humor because I see gallows everywhere. The anxiety and the resistance co-exist, always. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.”

The world needs cat videos and surprise engagement on live television, yes. But it might also need the cauterized nerves of people who lived with foreboding long before a global pandemic and, as of today, a colossal failure of deregulated utilities and laissez faire governance leading to the slow freezing of an entire state.

Foreboding is not just “worrying.” It’s more creative than worrying. It’s worrying with cinematography.

When Lewis and I first married, I was sure every siren was an ambulance on its way to scrape him and his mangled bike off the street. When he turned 31 I made him go to the dermatologist to get a “baseline assessment” of his skin so that I could watch it for moles.

Now that we have kids, he’s on his own. My foreboding has moved on.

In just about every scenario, I involuntarily picture my children dying. When we were sailing through the fjords of Patagonia — which is a real sentence I can’t even believe I just typed — I couldn’t help picturing my 6-month-old wiggling free of my iron-fisted grip, falling overboard, and disappearing into the icy waters below. 

I picture them getting hit by a freak runaway delivery truck plowing into our driveway.

They are 4 and 6 years old, but I imagine them accidentally smothering themselves with their stuffed animals. I took those “crib safety” checklists to heart, apparently.

Remember that scene in Gravity when Sandra Bullock’s character tells about how her daughter died of a bump on the head? I think about it ALL THE TIME. In fact, in that entire merciless anxiety attack of a movie, I think about it the most. But you know what? I also pictured my children drifting away from me in space like George Clooney. We’ve never even been to space!

The key difference between me and the mothers we typically think of as “worriers”: I don’t do anything about it. My kids still play in the driveway, sleep with a gazillion stuffies, and hang over the edge of the boat to look into the icy waters below. I take reasonable precautions, and then proceed. If they want to be astronauts, I’ll not stand in their way. After six years of parenthood, I’ve learned that my level of foreboding is not one of those “red flags” you’re supposed to listen to. It’s the “Caution: Contents are Hot” on a steaming cup of to-go coffee. It’s always there, and never necessary.

Foreboding, to me, is just awareness of the obvious. Things could go really wrong, and they still will even if you pretend they won’t. In fact, pretending that they won’t, or pretending that they haven’t, or pretending that you have nothing to do with the reason they did is the recipe for making them worse. Like, for instance, the way the Electric Reliability Council of Texas handled this week. Or take COVID-19, for instance. Everybody from the federal government to the party people next door could have used a little more foreboding.

I could probably get by on less.

Maybe I’ve just seen too many movies, or read too much in the checkout line at the grocery store. I also suspect there’s a genetic component. My mom was always reminding us not to play on the stairs, because she’d had her tubes tied and “couldn’t get another one.”

Death is the ultimate hyperbole, because it’s literally the worst outcome of every situation that is also going to happen to everybody. It’s shorthand for all the ways life is painful, terrifying, and the lonelier gallows that I’m not ready to talk about yet. For those who will eventually die, death is the absurd punchline to life. The resolution of tension set up by continuing to live, continuing to strive, continuing to fill my heart with delicate joys. It’s the left hook out of nowhere, the ironic turn.

I want the gallows to know I’ve got a bead on them. I’m the one telling the joke. I’m not making light, but making the darkness livable.

My darkness is my bullshitting tell. I really am rooting for you, humanity.

Pro-Boob Propaganda

 Though he died when I was only 18, Billy Wilder seemed to have a knack for imprinting things on my brain.

It was he who said that Audrey Hepburn “might single-handedly make bosoms a thing of the past.” 

He was also the one who directed Marilyn Monroe, in Some Like It Hot, to lament that, because of her boobs, “nothing ever hangs right.”

I know exactly why Billy Wilder’s boobisms stick in my brain: I’m wildly insecure about my breasts. By age 14, I wore the same bra size I would wear until I was nursing children, and basically felt like a walking D-cup with no other features. 

The Audrey assessment confirmed everything I had suspected. The hype around boobs was a sham. They were a thing of the past. 

When I heard the Marilyn line, I thought it was nice to have camaraderie, especially with someone who was, I think we can all agree, more attractive than me. “See! Even Marilyn Monroe gets it.” Boobs were nothing but trouble, and the reason all my shirts hung like circus tents.

A girl with less on her chest might have glossed over Billy Wilder’s anti-boob statement. When watching Some Like It Hot, my more streamlined friends might focus on the reaction of the male characters who heard Marilyn’s complaint. The movie makes it obvious that the men see no problem with the way her shirt hangs. 

Whatever you’ve got, it’s going to be the wrong thing. You can be Audrey or you can be Marilyn, but you can’t be happy.

A therapist told me recently that psychologists are starting to believe that it’s not possible for the majority of Americans to have a positive body image. That neutral is the best most of us can hope for. Hating our bodies is as American as the apple pie we ate after everyone went to bed and then purged into the toilet.

As a teen it felt like the only pro-boob propaganda out there existed in the trashy cartoon, plastic surgery, and porn worlds—neither where I was, nor where I wanted to be. Boobs could be objects, but they could not be assets; not for a woman like me.  I was more of an arts, culture, and academy kind of girl. Later, when I discovered feminism and leftist politics, I felt like my genetics had sold me out to the patriarchy.

Are there any other body parts that take over so much of your identity?

It wasn’t all in my head. People noticed. 

At a slumber party for my cheerleading squad, my far less developed friends begged me to let them see what kind of fruit would fill out my bra. Cantaloupe is the correct answer. 

Contrary to stereotype, cheerleading was boon to my body image. I am sturdy and strong, and so was able to throw the little pixie-like squad members into the air. I could finally see the purpose of my body being built the way that it was. Most of the time, I was hounded by the arbitrariness of my entire body, especially my breasts. I wanted to point to some evolutionary advantage of my big boobs, but there isn’t one. There isn’t really a purpose to them being this big at all, they just are. Like an appendix or vestigial tail.

In cheerleading, at least they were attached to a powerful, purposeful body. All the jumping and tumbling, however, was an endless source of angst for my mother. 

My mom didn’t know about the specialty market that exists for big-breasted athletes. Later in life I would spend $90 on a bra so tight that came with instructions on how to slowly acclimate your lungs over several days before actually wearing it to work out.

However, the neon pink $30 sports bras of high school were not up to the task of my ample bosom. Even when I layered two of them, there was significant bouncing as we cascaded onto the basketball court to get the crowd going at halftime. My mom’s solution was to buy me a full corset with three-inch-wide straps and about 30 eye-hook fasteners, and cups made of inflexible material that gave my breasts a distinctly Happy Days shape. 

One day before practice I went into our cheerleading squad’s dressing room to find my corset hanging on the wall, with two fully inflated balloons filling it out. My mischievous squad mates again claimed to be jealous, which I didn’t believe. They all bought their prom dresses in the trendy junior section, while I was trying to find a bridesmaid gown that didn’t make me look like someone’s spinster aunt.  

When dealing with insecure teenage girls— who all exist discontentedly along the Audrey-to-Marilyn spectrum— it’s impossible to tell when they knew how mean they were being. 

One friend, from church, also had big boobs, but she was six inches shorter than me, and wore size two jeans. Her boobs were more problematic, she insisted, because they were out of scale with her “tiny body.” I should be glad, she said, that mine were at least proportional. 

A giant body to go with my giant boobs. 

Trying on clothes once during my ultra marathon-running years, another friend said, sounding genuinely surprised, “Wow. You actually have a small waist.” Then she trailed off, as if to herself, but fully audible: “It’s just those boobs…”

Most of the time my breasts made me feel either matronly or raunchy. When I tried to put on a tighter shirt that made me feel less like the evil headmistress of a nineteenth century school for unwed mothers, I would get called out by youth group leaders and Christian school teachers for immodesty. 

Ironically though, as much as my parents, pastor, and Christian school teacher were griping about the loose morals and gay agendas of Hollywood, they found themselves in agreement on women’s responsibility to be thin. 

When I was in middle school, my pastor’s daughter—a stunning, lanky college student—led a girls’ summer Bible study about being the kind of woman that pleases God. I remember nothing except that there was an entire lesson devoted to keeping a trim figure and dressing in a flattering, feminine way. 

My jiggly D-cups, in contrast to all the training bras and countable ribs around me, were anything but trim. When I dressed in a feminine way, my mom told me to go upstairs and change.

Pleasing God, the workbook made clear, was synonymous with pleasing one’s future husband. So having a body that boys liked was really important, like Ten Commandments important. But we were also responsible for their purity—those youthful penises weren’t going to keep themselves flaccid.

Which made the Audrey Hepburn ideal very, very desirable for girls who were trying to be the right kind of desirable. Audrey was a fashion icon. Marilyn was a sex icon. Men go gaga over both women, but stills from Breakfast At Tiffany’s seem less likely to be taped to the underside of a 15-year-old boy’s bunk bed. 

That’s how boobs, and the women who have them, are framed in American culture—masturbation fodder. Or as the evangelicals call it: temptation.  We can openly admire eyes, shoulders, legs, and arms, even lips, in an aesthetic, non-sexual way. But breasts are private parts, like the sex organs. Except they’re not. They are visible all the time, at least in silhouette. Imagine if men had to wear thin, stretchy pants all the time… and were always fully erect. Not so private. 

My own disdain for my breasts, and the weird religious messaging surrounding them, somehow twisted around in my brain until I believed that they—as the primary feature of my general appearance—were the reason boys didn’t like me. 

For all the jokes about boobs, and boys who “tripped” in front of me in the hall, I figured, what they really wanted must have been a gamine fashion icon who could wear a Givenchy coat with nary a wrinkle. Boobs were just too brazen, too obvious, too much. A thing of the past.

I was bemoaning my breasts to one of the two culprits who gave them to me: my maternal grandmother, Jo Nell. 

Jo Nell, cigarette in hand, gave a reassuring chuckle and said, with all of the certainty of a gorgeous woman born in 1930, “One day those boobs are going to make somebody real happy.” 

I left her house thinking, wistfully, if not glumly, “Maybe one day I’ll find a guy who likes big boobs.”

(Cue hilarious faces from Jack Lemon and Tony Curtis.)

Boys not liking me occupied a lot of my coming of age mental space. I have a high IQ and a lot of energy, and probably could have applied that to making the world significantly better.  Curing cancer, that sort of thing. Instead, I spent it on relentless self-improvement, or what I thought was improvement. What I was really doing was trying to figure out the science of attraction, solving, of course, for the liability of my oversized breasts.

To help boys overlook my glaring bra size, I reasoned, I would have to cultivate a winning personality.  I was constantly taking notes about how to not be the kind of girl that irritated men. This led to the least feminist season of my life, sandwiched between my evangelical Christian upbringing and my first grad school course in Gender Studies.

Trying to be “not like the other girls,” ironically, was supposed to make me more appealing, romantically. The heroines in most books and movies I liked were plucky tomboy types who stand out from the demure crowds in an appealing way. Laura Ingalls. Jo March. Calamity Jane. And until Elsa of Arendelle changed the paradigm for a new generation, the disinterested heroine always got her man. 

In one useless way, it worked. By the end of college, I had heard the following: 

“Why can’t every girl be like you?” 

“You’ve got me really spoiled thinking all girls are like this.”

“You should, like, teach a class on how girls should act around guys.”

“I wish you could convince my fiancé to read more ‘serious’ literature. Like you.”

None of the boys who said those things wanted to date me. All compliments were given solidly inside the friend-zone by boys who had no idea that I had a massive crush on them. I had kept that fact hidden because girls who like boys, according to the movies, are not the girls boys like. This is a strange mixture of the unattainable babe archetype and the evangelical culture of male pursuit. Again, Hollywood and Evangelicalism have more in common than they like to think when it comes to flattening women (pun intended) into two-dimensional objects.

Be austere Audrey hidden behind your iconic overcoat until he decides it’s time for you to be breathless Marilyn in a negligee. 

You’re too much until you’re not enough. 

It’s all bologna.  

In a world where men had all the power I was trying to impress them into liking me, which, it turns out, is not a recipe for true love, even in patriarchal evangeliland. If serious-literature-lover had left his fiancé and run away with me because I was reading Camus in college, I would be stuck in a lifetime of pretentious drivel. Camus’s and the boy’s. 

Being a woman is a war zone, so grab your friends and hop in the foxhole. Audrey and Marilyn are icons, but they were also real people, and they probably could have used some more girlfriends. Sisterhood isn’t perfect, but it’s necessary. Girls have hurt me, I have hurt other girls, but we’ve done so less when we aren’t letting the boys decide.

Healthy people like people who like them back. People like people who do irritating things. They don’t love the irritating things, but they love the person doing them. People like clean lines and curves, esoteric and funny, brainy and brassy. There are no unlovable people. You are not unlovable, so you might as well be you. 

It’s so tempting to make this all about loving yourself, accepting your body. But I don’t have that shit worked out. I don’t always love me, but I have figured out how to be me. 

When I met Lewis, I did not chill out, I did not try to be the “cool girl.” I texted with too many exclamation marks, I invited him to things after he’d made it painfully obvious he wasn’t as into this as I was. I introduced him to my parents the first time I had the opportunity.  I saw what I wanted, and I went for it. Which is pretty damn plucky.

Turns out he’s also that boob-loving unicorn I never thought I’d meet. What are the odds?

To no one’s surprise, least of all my therapist, marriage would not be the end of my body issues. Making someone else happy, which my husband is,  is not the same as making yourself happy.  The boobs survived two children without, as so many mothers complain, flattening to pancakes. Oh they ballooned while I was nursing, sure, but then they went right back to their melon-sized fullness, albeit hanging a little lower on the tree. 

The rest of me is softer and more jiggly as well. And now I have two kids to offer their opinions about all of this.

On the way to a Christmas party one year, my five-year-old daughter said, “Mom has a round belly like Santa.” 

“No she doesn’t,” said my three-year-old son, ever in defense of his beloved mother, “Those are just her breasts.” 

Favorite Things Written and Read in 2020

Okay, since no one else is going to say it, I guess it falls to me: 2020 has been a rough year. Unprecedentedly rough. Crisis rough. Surreally rough. Rough like no other. Roughest. year. ever. Roughness is so 2020. Because 2020, amiright?

Phew. Don’t we all feel better now that someone has FINALLY just said it?

It’s heady to be in journalism right now, because we are writing the first draft of history, which is intimidating and motivating and cool. Not just the pandemic but allllll the history going down right now. Trump. Black Lives Matter. Kamala Harris. Some of my colleagues, I believe, were built for this kind of gravity.

I go on a lot of walks.

In May I started working more or less full time for The 74 Million, reporting on the pandemic in San Antonio schools. I’m on a team! Just like I wanted! It’s amazing! It is a position created by a pandemic that cost a lot of people their job and I don’t know how to feel about that so I’m just going to try to do really good work and not think about how the pandemic ending would mean my gig ending!

Your lives are more important to me! I swear!

The gig has some very specific vocabulary, that I’m sure we’re all equally tired of: remote learning, in-person learning, COVID-19 protocols, learning loss, enrollment decline. I’ll never forget the moment when contact tracing went from getting flagged as jargon to being common vernacular, along with asymptomatic and asynchronous. I’m torn between never wanting to type those words again and being gleeful at getting away with it. Like when your family visits Hoover Dam so you say the word “dam” as much as you can before it’s outlawed again.

However you feel, fools can’t keep their masks on, so you’ve doomed yourself to another year of it, kids. Time for some asynchronous protocols for asymptomatic learning loss among in-person learners amid the pandemic.

Even though most of us had to write those words more than we wanted, some folks made some very delicious work out of it. Or just did delicious work about other stuff still going on in the world that still needs lots of attention. Cue the lists!

Favorite journalism by others:

This Texas Monthly oral history blew my mind and made me proud. It also explained why, as eerie as things were in those first pandemic weeks, in San Antonio they were not as dystopian and weird as in other places, grocery-wise.

Alec MacGillis’s Dollar Store investigation had me on the edge of my park bench for 20 minutes, then had me bothered for months. Definitely ruined my trip to the Family Dollar in rural West Texas when I realized that I had no other option and then realized that no one in that town had another option. MacGillis also wrote one of the most painful looks inside remote learning debacle.

Maria Godoy on the lingering effects of housing discrimination in Dallas. It emphasized something we saw graphically illustrated in the Somos Neighbors project in San Antonio earlier this year, which I was lucky enough to work on.

Alia Wong wrote about tools to help emerging multilingual learners during COVID-19 in Tulsa, a city which became dear to my heart this year while I was reporting on their refugee welcome efforts.

Favorite Stories I Worked On:

The renaming of Pacific Bay Christian School was something I wanted to write about for over a year before I got to do it. This story was so, so cathartic, for many reasons. I loved working with Sarah Garland at the Hechinger Report as point editor and with The Undefeated. Both were incredibly generous.

The reporting for The Gardeners of Eden (its print title) for Christianity Today was dreamy. I was in orchards and community organizing meetings, driving up and down the California coastline meeting humble, committed people who deeply care about the communities they serve. I want this story to make people think about their food differently, and the complex, at time exploitative and strained system that delivers it. It did that for me. We joined a farm delivery co-op.

Reporting on the pandemic in San Antonio schools (while living it) has been a trip. I’m particularly proudest of this piece, which involved public information requests, data analysis, and interviews with bold people who got real with me. All the best things.

Favorite Books I Read this Year, regardless of the year they were written:

Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age was amazing, and sent me into the tailspin identity crisis of ohmygodI’mthevillain. Given that it was sent to me as part of the Ally Box subscription from Fulton Street Books…I think that means it hit the mark.

Mothers of Massive Resistance, by Elizabeth Gillespie McRae provides more explanatory ammo for debates with doubters of systemic racism than any one person could ever remember without notes. So take notes. Because if you can’t gain ground in those conversations, you just embolden the doubters.

I began to have some concerns about my brain this year, so I read NeuroTribes by Steve Silberman. It was very reassuring, after it stopped being terrifying, and it was entirely engrossing.

My husband gave me Allie Brosh’s Solutions and Other Problems for our 10th Anniversary. We were planning to travel to Zambia for the occasion, but a comic book about life with mental illness written by a winsome lady who looks nothing like the monster she depicts herself to be (I won’t hold that against her) was a more than adequate consolation prize.

Calypso, by David Sedaris, gutted me. I like to think I’m willing to bleed on the page, or smile with my makeup off, but when I think about writing the stories of my life that are a distant parallel to the stories he’s telling (we ALL have them)…I feel palpable fear. The fact that we are warmed by these in any way, and drawn to him even, is a testament to how good of a storyteller he really is. Which cued a different kind of panic for me than the panic Kiley Reid called up.

Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Because I needed something to read on a rainy day, grabbed In the Woods from a shelf of my husband’s paperbacks, and then read the rest of the series, because once I’m really in, I am all in, without the ability to moderate. I then watched the miniseries, and am now, apparently against my will, doing the same thing with The Pillars of the Earth.

Looking back on the list of my favorite books of the year, I see a theme. The theme is “my own crap amid all the crappiness.” I think I was reading books to make myself feel less alone, and more equipped. I hope that some of my writing did that for you.

Small Girl Mows Small Lawn

A local six-year-old stunned many last week by doing what, she said, “no six-year-old has ever done before, probably.”

She mowed half the lawn.

San Antonio resident Moira McNeel said she’d taken on the task, “Just to see if I could do it. Not for fun.”

Her father confirmed that the endeavor was, in fact, not a lark, but a serious undertaking.

“She took it upon herself to volunteer. She saw a need and she stepped right in and did what needed to be done,” the father said, “I’m very proud of her.”

By “need” her father means that he appreciated the help, though he maintains the work he was doing up to that point was perfectly adequate in quality. “I didn’t take her desire to come help as a sign of criticism,” he said, he was happy she wanted to give mowing a try, and even happier she asked so nicely.

Fortunately, the only mower the family has ever owned, a Scott’s manual push-reel, posed little threat to her safety.

McNeel mowed for approximately five minutes, pausing only to direct her father to take photos for this article, and to alert the media, who was on the porch but, to her frustration, not watching the lawn-mowing.

All told, McNeel said, “I did a full swoop.”

The McNeels’ only patch of actual grass measures exactly 15 feet in diameter, so a little went a long way. McNeel was able to cut in straight rows with minimal missed blades between the passes. When she had mowed “enough,” she said, “I was tired.”

McNeel’s father offered no further details on the current status of the job, and would only comment on the enthusiasm with which the child took up the task.

“I have never in my history of mowing lawns seen a little girl mow a lawn so well,” McNeel’s father said, “Or with such zest.”

Disclosure: Moira McNeel is a primary source of joy for the author of this article. Her father is also a financial contributor to the Hall Monitor blog and, according to Texas state law, owns half of it.

The Integration Diaries: The most radical thing a parent can say.

Sometimes the kids are alright. Sometimes they aren’t.

My husband and my son co-working during COVID-19.

When they announced that schools would be closed beyond spring break this year, I have to confess the grim thoughts that ran through my head. I pictured a return to those grueling infant years, with my hair in a non-sexy-messy bun, stress eating cookies and crying every afternoon as my kids whined and tantrumed on the floor next to me. 

It took a full two weeks for me to come back to myself and remember: we’re fine. We, the McNeel family, are fine. Our kids are fine. 

The middle of a pandemic is a difficult time to admit that we are actually doing fine, because the general anxiety of the moment is palpable. We are absorbing it with our senses, and you’d almost have to be a sociopath not to feel some degree of angst about our current moment. Because people really are dying. The economy really is struggling. Isolation is a mental health hazard. 

But for us, the healthy McNeels in our 2,400 square foot house, internet access, safe sidewalks, and stable income…that anxiety should be sympathetic. It should be directed at needs outside ourselves. It’s the same anxiety that should be driving all of our decisions. 

You should totally experience anxiety.

Anxiety is the body’s way of telling you that something is misaligned or disconnected. Something is not right. And when we look at the world around us—at things COVID-19 did not create, but has both exaggerated and laid bare—it should be obvious that something is wrong. We feel the reality that some kids are not okay. Their schools are not able and their government is not willing to support them in the ways they need to be supported. Their parents are swimming upstream against a system designed to exclude them. They do not have access to generations of accrued capital, and they do not see themselves proportionately represented among those who shape the world they live in. 

We, white parents, see that world, and we feel anxiety. We should! Something is not right. We are cut off from a right way of being together. 

But when we feel that anxiety, we have to quickly take the next step. We have to place ourselves. Is it MY kids who are over-disciplined by teachers? Is it MY kids who will have to hustle every day to gain entry to the middle class and even then may be sidelined? Do the systems—economic, education, and justice—of this country pose a threat to MY kids? Or do they work to their advantage? Will my kids get chance after chance to get it right, to “fail forward”? 

If we (white, middle class parents) feel like our kids are threatened by the systems in our country, then we aren’t paying attention. We are mapping our anxiety onto someone else’s reality. 

The Great Lie

We’ve been conditioned to believe that our kids are not going to be okay. From the moment we become pregnant, someone is trying to sell us something to keep them alive…to make them sleep/eat better (so they develop correctly)…to get smarter. We become consumers of improvement for our kids, and the best way to sell us stuff is to convince us that our kids are not going to be alright. 

We take that foolish mentality with us when we start consuming opportunity. The best schools, the best lessons, the best coaches; all because we believe that they are starting from scratch with ruin nipping at their heels. If we were to look over our shoulder we would see that it’s not a precipice, but wholeness in our rearview mirror. We left equity and solidarity behind us and now we are running a lonely race that will never end, chased by a boogey man of our own making.

Hear me right: I’m not saying that white people don’t fall off economic ledges, or into addiction, or that being white and middle class means no one has to work hard. Only that we have to start disentangling hard work and hoarding. Those are different things. One runs on the belief that our kids are alright and up to the challenge. The other runs on the fear that they won’t be and they aren’t.

And that hoarding option is so ubiquitous, so persistent that we cannot imagine not doing it. It defines parenting in 2020. I don’t know anyone who would say that it’s healthy to give kids everything they want, but what about everything we want for them?  Are we willing to admit that there are advantages and opportunities that they don’t need?

In this climate, the most radical thing that white middle class parents can say is: my kids are alright. 

The Great Irony

The great irony, of course, is that believing that they are not okay has in some ways made them not okay, but not in the way that you think. The mental wellness of middle class kids is, according to experts, not good. Suicides, bullying, self-harm, depression…all can be linked to parental pressure to compete academically, socially, and economically. They are never enough to make us less afraid. Their performance is never enough to ease our anxiety over their future. In reality, our kids need us to be there for them, not to hoard for them. 

Our family’s pivotal moment came this fall, within the first few weeks of school at our integrated elementary school. 

After a happy first week, my daughter’s teacher stopped me at pick up to report that my daughter was acting up. She wouldn’t listen, wouldn’t sit still. 

I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. So I took it out on my daughter. I immediately saw her future drizzling away, bleeding into the school to prison pipeline, never to be recommended for advanced courses, never to get into a competitive marine biology program, dooming her to bounce between unstable jobs while other kids, those who listened better in class, explored the Mariana Trench. 

Never mind that I knew this was irrational. At the first sign of trouble, I mapped my anxiety onto real inequities. Inequities that do not actually disadvantage us. 

Her little face, which had bounced up to me with a grin, fell, as I gave her a blistering reprimand in front of everyone. 

Within two weeks, my sunny, exuberant daughter was “on red” day after day. Her clip on the behavior chart was perpetually falling, and her face when I came to pick her up was disconsolate, knowing she was in for an afternoon of icy discipline from mom.

Meanwhile, armed with my expert opinions and research, I went into full “that mom” mode. I tried to get the behavior chart—which clearly wasn’t changing my daughter’s behavior—replaced with something more “restorative.” I wrote letters to the teacher trying to explain my daughter. I began to consider more drastic measures to ensure that my daughter was as successful on paper as she was in my dreams for her.

At home, we were miserable. Every day we grew more alienated as she “jeopardized her future.” 

Finally I woke up. 

The Great Opportunity

It was true, the behavior chart did not motivate her nearly as much as the pleasure she takes in entertaining her classmates. But when it comes to the actual determining factors of a child’s future success…she’s alright. The biggest threat to her well-being was the shrill panic monster I was becoming. 

I decided to let school be school. She and her teacher would work it out. I knew the teacher was kind and engaged, and wanting to see each kid thrive. As long as home was supportive and structured, my kid would adjust to kindergarten. 

When I stopped making a big deal, my daughter revealed that she actually had a very productive mindset when it came to the behavior chart. One day she hopped in the car and told me, sounding victorious, “Mom, I got on red today, but guess what! By the end of the day, I had pulled it up to orange.” 

We high-fived. 

Another day she told me, “Guess what Mom. Today I stayed on green all day, even though (classmate) told a poop joke. I did not laugh, even though I really wanted to, so I stayed on green.” 

I congratulated her. 

By the end of the year, she was getting onto blue and purple (the reward colors). She had grown, because I’d backed off and started supporting her growth instead of panicking about her future. 

Hear me right again: I’m not saying we turn our kids over to the system never to check back in. I’m not saying that we don’t advocate or protect them when someone is harming them. But we need to know the difference between harm and challenge. 

We have to stop treating every challenge, every “B”, every missed opportunity like it’s a death sentence. Sure, that “B” might mean they don’t get into the college of their dreams, and thus will not be set on an easy path to the career of their dreams. But dreams and success are not the same thing. Having everything we want, winning all the things…that’s not even really good for us. But if we constantly think that the opposite of best is death, we’re going to destroy our kids and everyone else’s in the process. 

There’s real inequity in the world. Anxiety is merited, because injustice destroys the Shalom we desperately need. There are kids who are not alright, and we cannot be alright with that. But in order to see that clearly, we also have to be able to see when our kids are doing just fine. 

How I talk to my white kid about racism.

I can’t tell you the perfect way to do it. Just that it needs to be done.

I don’t remember the first time we talked to our kids about difference, but it was probably pretty early. Because our life is full of people from different countries, who speak different languages, have different skin colors, different abilities, and different sexual orientations, these things come up naturally. 

Talking to them about race and racism however, is different. It takes some doing. Especially for white parents.

Because our kids are at little to no risk of racist profiling or violence, and because we are woefully underprepared for these conversations ourselves, most of us would rather just…not. We hope our kids will just grow up believing everyone is the same and treating everyone well. Check and check.

Unfortunately, our education, justice, and economic systems were designed so that by not actively working against the racism within them, we are reinforcing it. If we and our kids just do the “natural thing” we will perpetuate the effects we associate with the vitriolic racism we thought we were done with—if the events of the past four years have somehow not convinced you that even that blatant form of animosity is still alive and well.

In short: Just because you don’t feel racist, doesn’t mean you aren’t investing in a system created with racist intent and effects.

Here’s the danger for white kids growing up unaware of racism. 

  • Our kids will buy into the narrative that race doesn’t matter, and believe that everyone is treated according to their personal behavior and abilities. Thus, when they see their black and brown classmates being disciplined more severely or placed in fewer advanced classes, they will draw the “natural” conclusion. 
  • They will be less inclined to walk in solidarity with their black and brown peers who call out injustice. 
  • They will be careless about ways their actions perpetuate injustice, and should they have black and brown friends, may place them in immediate danger. 
  • At some point they will figure out race, and it’s possible that the wrong person will explain it to them. Get to your kids before the Nazis do. 

My husband and I believe the appropriate age to share this is determined neurologically—we need them to understand the difference between what people say and what is real (the concept of lying or being wrong). We also need them to understand that their perspective is not the only one. This started happening for our daughter around age four.

Another reason white parents hesitate to explain this stuff to their young kids is that kids will talk about it. And it can be so very awkward.

After our trip to Montgomery, my four-year-old saw two young men, one black and one white, walking together toward a local coffee shop. She said, in an audible voice, “Look mom, if this were the olden days that guy would be the other guy’s slave.” 

She’s currently memorizing MLK’s dream speech, but because she’s listening to a recording, she wants to recite it in his voice. You can imagine how this sounds. At some point, I have no doubt we’re going to have to explain why she can’t use blackface for a “Rosa Spark” costume for a book report or something like that. 

This is a rocky, bumbling path, friends. But it’s not optional, and there’s a lot of grace for the journey.

So, no, I don’t believe talking to white kids about race is optional. You have to do it. However, I’m not an expert who can tell you how (these folks are!), or the best way to do it. But I can share how we are doing it, and how it’s all going. 

1) We prioritize peace over pleasantness. 

We just went to Disney World. On the 100th exit-through-the-giftshop, the kids were exhausted and overstimulated, and tired of hearing “no” and they finally just lost it. 

There were tears, there was negotiating, there was growling. 

At one point I told my daughter that if she still wanted the Nemo squirt toys in three days I would order them online. 

She, in a fit of rage-induced honesty yelled, “I won’t even WANT them in three days!” 

Children know anger. It’s up to their adults to show them that there is a better use for that anger than hoarding trinkets and protecting their rights and privileges. 

Children know sadness. They see pets and grandparents die, if not closer kin. They scrape their knees and get sick. They soon discover “bad guys.” 

The realities of our racialized world are not pleasant. They are gut wrenching and uncomfortable. For the white family there are two ways forward: insulate or make peace. We can— and mostly do—bury ourselves in worlds where we don’t see the pain brought by racism. We shrink into smaller and smaller realms of pretty parks and private schools, and concern ourselves with the flourishing of that precious real estate. 

When we hear “pursue peace” we apply it to our HOA squabbles.

To take the other path, the path of racial peacemaking, we first have to acknowledge what is broken…and why. We have to listen when we are accused. We have to sit in our discomfort. We have to mourn. We have to ask, “what does peace require of me?”

We can offer peace to our children by explaining how brokenness works, and how goodness can triumph. 

Yes there are kidnappers, so mommy is here to help you know which strangers are helpers and which are not. 

Yes, cars are dangerous, so we stay on the sidewalk. 

Yes, people hate, so we love extra hard. Love marches in the long march. Love shares power. Love doesn’t hoard advantages. Love calls her lawmakers on issues that don’t benefit her directly. Love speaks up for the oppressed. Love steps aside so they can speak for themselves. Love makes powerful people uncomfortable. Love is in the fight.

You may know a popular Bible reading that sounds something like that.

2) We prioritize history over white history

The thing about history is that, if we are honest, the facts will do the heavy lifting. Here are some great books to get started. Also these.

My husband constantly remarks on how easy it is to talk to kids about racism if you aren’t trying to hide anything. If you just tell them what happened, they pick up on the “why” pretty quick.

The problem, of course, is that we are not often honest about history. We curate it to tell a story of triumph, cutting out the parts where the heroes were the villains. We reframe the battles justice has yet to win. 

We started with what our daughter could observe: Obama was president when she was born. She had teachers and friends have brown skin. She met her state and local representatives, both Latino. She sees movies with people of color, she has dolls that have brown and non-white skin. 

In her world, people of color had always been leaders and friends. We wanted to start with a concept of strength and dignity before we taught her how it has been violated.

We let Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative introduce the concepts of slavery, oppression and segregation. She was four, so I guided her exposure to words and images carefully on a visit to Montgomery. The Memorial to Peace and Justice was perfect for that, but she didn’t get to take in most of the Legacy Museum, because I didn’t want the more graphic images to overtake the concepts. She did, however, see the holograms of kids in pens calling out for their parents after being separated at auction. She remembers it to this day.

It was all appropriately bothersome, and she had questions. 

I only offered answers from history. 

We took her to Freedom Riders Museum as well so that she could see resistance, and how she, as a white person could be part of it. She was very comforted at the idea that people were fighting back.

Eventually she started using history to interpret current events. When she saw me reading a story about the family separations later in the summer of 2018, she asked about it. I told her kids were being taken from their parents as they tried to come to the US. 

“They have brown skin, don’t they?” she guessed, her voice weary.

“They do. Why did you guess that?” 

“That’s who it was last time.” 

3) We prioritize righteousness over innocence.

When our kids, with their budding sense of justice, ask why the Trail of Tears, why the Middle Passage, why Jim Crow, most white parents don’t want to connect those “atrocities” to current mindsets of conquest and dehumanization. 

We continue that mindset of conquest when we hoard educational opportunities and tell our children they are available to everyone who works hard enough. 

We perpetuate dehumanization when we talk about laziness, broken homes, and addiction as the justification for the inequities they see with their own eyes. As though our own families were not infected with the same human ailments.

The desire to pass down a narrative of our noble ancestors and the less-than-ness of those they conquered might be the most secure lock on the gates of white supremacy. But history has to come home.

If we want to own the innovation, bravery, and altruism of our national and personal forefathers, we have to own their brutality, elitism, and malicious intent. We inherited all of it in our education system, our justice system, and our economic system, so we need to understand it. We inherited it corporately (and some of us inherited it directly), but we perpetuate it individually. 

One evening, just before MLK Day 2020, I found my daughter looking grim.

“Mom, I have bad news,” she said, “Martin Luther King, Jr. died.” 

“Oh honey,” I sympathized, “I heard. I’m so sorry, I know you loved him.” 

“But do you know how?”

“He was shot.” 

“No,” she said, sitting upright and looking fierce, “A white person shot him. On purpose.” 

She was calling out my use of the passive voice to explain away the loss of her hero. A way to minimize our connection to acts of violence. I accepted her correction, and we talked further about those people of color carrying on “the dream.” We talked about how her school was carrying on the dream. How she would respond to injustice when she saw it. 

When we marched in our local MLK Day March, my daughter heard someone chanting, “The dream lives on.” 

She looked at me with big excitement “Do you hear them mom?!? The dream lives on! I’m going to be part of that!” 

Because she’s okay being connected to the problem, she’s ready to be connected to the solution. 

White folks have to get to the point of realizing that in the racialized world, we’re the ones who did the racializing. “Why does everything have to be about race?” Because we made it so! We are not innocent, friends. We are the heirs of the robber barons and the guardians of their systems. Our ancestors made it impossible for us to choose innocence. We can only pursue righteousness by repairing and relinquishing, and that is not a passive calling for us or for our children.

A decade of being bravely underwhelming.

In late December 2009, ten years ago, I did something strange. I started a new journal expressly dedicated to chronicling a love story—my love story. In my 18 years of journaling before then, I had always been cautious about how much weight I ascribed my various romances. That’s easy when you have a written record of all the non-starters that came before. I knew how much shame I felt when reading “he’s the one!” in bubbly 2001 letters, when mere pages later he’d disappear.

What’s even more strange about my decision to start an entire journal dedicated to my love story is that it had not even really begun. I’d met a guy. We’d hung out twice. But when I started the journal we were one week into what would turn out to be a four week silence between first meeting and first date. No flirty messages. No emails or phone calls.  There was no evidence to suggest that this non-relationship was going anywhere.

Nevertheless, in a fit of romance, I did it. I started a brand new journal with the explicit and stated purpose of writing about my love story with one Lewis Maverick McNeel…who had yet to call. 

In that first journal entry, I wrote about the moment I now know, and then suspected, I had fallen in love.

We were at the grocery store, and I was buying break-n-bake cookies…for one of those fancy holiday cookie swaps where everyone goes all out. I was working in college ministry, making $16,000 per year (all of which I was fundraising), and jumping from crisis to crisis with the people around me, students, friends, and family. I just didn’t have the resources or energy to make elaborate cookies. 

But that was the life I was in. I was unsure of the value I brought to the world. Convinced that I had to earn my keep by being agreeable, unimpeachable, and useful. Knocking myself out to sell myself short, professionally. Auctioning off my time and energy to the people I thought would keep me safe, emotionally. Running on affirmation and little else, spiritually.

Break-n-bake cookies do not bring affirmation.

I lamented my predicament to Lewis at the checkout and he said, “I’ve been underwhelming people for years now.” 

I fell in love on the spot. And then he disappeared for a month.

Four months after he reappeared, he asked me to marry him. And for the first time in my life I really didn’t care if anyone thought that was a little irresponsible or too fast. I was certain. I bought a wedding magazine, looked at the recommended planning timeline, and realized that most people spent longer planning their weddings than we would spend going from “hello” to “I do.” 

That was the easiest brave thing I’ve ever done.

The next brave thing happened in 2012. That’s when I left the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). 

Despite my bold dreams of a life in ministry, there was no future for me in it. Looking back, I realize that I had traded usefulness and approval for calling. For 28 years that denomination had been my home, but it had also kept me childlike and dependent—because women in that world will always serve at the pleasure of the men, the “specially gifted” who are ordained by God. I had never been taught or allowed to think outside those rigid guardrails, so I just maintained them. A strong, smart woman joyfully submitting, proving that the system worked.  

I believe I would have wasted my life as a Martha sweeping the stoop of the boys club had it not been for those break-n-bake cookies and that fast engagement. I was not defined by my fancy cookies or my prudence. I was loved beyond my usefulness. 

When I left that church it was like coming up out of the ocean and being able to see without the salt burning my eyes. 

In this new world, I could be a terrifying anything. I could be what I was supposed to be. It turned out that was a journalist and a mother. 

My fingers trembled a little as I submitted an essay to The Rivard Report in June 2012—after all, I was nothing but a failed ministry paraprofessional at that point. I had no idea if they would laugh at my small life, my small thoughts. Would they dismiss me like my writing had been dismissed and diminished for the past four years? 

I was able to push “send” only because I said, “Maybe they will be underwhelmed. It won’t be the end of me.” 

I had just quit my job and left the church community I’d been in for almost a decade and the denomination I’d been baptized into. I’d married a man I’d known for less than a year. I had dedicated a journal to a guy who hadn’t called me. I’d taken break-n-bake cookies to a cookie swap. If some editor on the other end of an email laughed at my small mind, what was that to me? 

Of course, that’s not what happened. Robert Rivard and Monika Maeckle may have been underwhelmed at some parts of the essay—I don’t remember what that first draft looked like—but they also called me. They gave me a shot. 

In 2013 things were looking strong on the career front, and the thought of starting a family sounded like setting off a bomb in the middle of it. Having a baby would change how the world saw me. I was so close to being taken seriously, I felt, to no longer being underwhelming. If I had a baby, the climb would become steeper. My capacity to perform would be split between worlds, and I needed every bit of it, because I was already balancing two jobs.

I would also have to fight for my writing to be professional and motherhood to be relational. Parenthood is not a career. It is a relationship. Caring for children’s needs, however, can be a career, and one at which many parents excel even as they are unpaid and undervalued by society. It’s noble and incredibly necessary—and not the career I wanted. But we have a hard time separating parenthood (mostly motherhood) the relationship from childcare the career, and I knew that doing so would test the limits of my professional and relational confidence. 

But Lewis— that man who had given me the courage to underwhelm and befuddle and flout expectations—wanted to be a father. He wanted the parenthood relationship. And he promised that if he could be 100 percent architect and 100 percent father then I could be 100 percent journalist and 100 percent mother. He didn’t care that there were precious few examples of this in our world, very little evidence it could be done.

I had lived 28 years looking to others to tell me what to do. Only two years listening to Holy Spirit inside me. The Holy Spirit reminded me how this whole adventure had started. “I’ve been underwhelming people for years.” 

I was free to underwhelm. Free to do it differently, even if different was disappointing to many. 

Having Moira was the only brave thing I did in 2013-14. We have had to fight for balance every single day of her life, but we have found it. It is not the vision of motherhood or professional life I had imagined. And with it have come incredible doubts. Such doubts, in fact, that I was not sure that a second child would be a wise decision for me. As a mom, I felt underwhelming, and not in a free and easy way, but in a fearful, inadequate way. 

But one day, at our new church, a couple prayed for me. A couple with five lovely, successful adult children, prayed that I would have confidence that I was not the perfect mom, but the right mom, for my daughter, and whoever might come along next.

And so having Asa was the brave thing I did in 2015-16. 

With a second kid on the way in 2016, I quit my side hustle and leaned hard into journalism. In 2017 I walked away from a sure thing—The Rivard Report—to try something idealistic and new—Folo Media. One month into 2018 I had to walk away from Folo on principle. I did not have nearly the portfolio or reputation I needed to be a successful freelancer, but that was the option. The day I left Folo, I thought back to 2012, when I’d left my ministry career. Maybe this was it. The end of my journalism career. 

But I had given birth to two children while working two jobs. I’d submitted an untrained essay to a fledgling publication just one month after leaving an entire life behind. I had married a man I’d known less than a year. I had dedicated a journal to a guy who hadn’t called me. I had taken break-n-bake cookies to a cookie swap. 

I had been underwhelming people for years.

Freelance journalism, any journalism at all really, is like tying your ego to the tracks. It is rejection and tough feedback. It’s also thrilling and fulfilling. But it does feel like I have to do little brave things on the regular now. Pitches, fighting for stories, calling sources without a big institution behind me. I publish things on my blog. On other people’s blogs. I write things that less than 100 people read and things that tens of thousands of people read. Both feel incredibly vulnerable.

I regularly hover over the “send” button and tremble a little, and then tell myself, “Maybe they will be underwhelmed. It won’t be the end of me.”