Hard for the Money

July 21, 2018

photo Hard for the Money banner landscape for webAs those close to me know, I’ve spent the last few months creating a storytelling show around the theme of women and work.  Hard for the Money: Stories of Women, Work & Satisfaction will be at The Parkway Theater in Minneapolis the evening of Tuesday, October 9.  It is already one of the most exciting and gratifying things I’ve done.  “Women” in this context is anyone who identifies as or whose work life has included being perceived as a woman in a meaningful way.

Ticket sales will begin in mid-August and 25% of our net proceeds will go to benefit Dress for Success Twin Cities.  More detail about their amazing work and why we want to support this non-profit will be posted in the near future.

Auditions are happening and we are so grateful to everyone who has or soon will share their stories with us.  We are still accepting submissions through July 31.  Please consider sharing your story.  If you know anyone who might want to share theirs, please spread the word.  Because this event is intended to amplify the voices of a wide variety of people, and Minnesota is more diverse than our Sven and Ole jokes would indicate, we especially encourage anyone who feels their story is not seen in the mainstream.

Have an inkling to join us, but not sure where to start?  Have questions before making a submission?  Contact me at sally_vardaman_johnson@yahoo.com.

“There is no greater agony than bearing

an untold story inside you.”

– Maya Angelou


March 24, 2018

March 25, 2018

I had fully planned to drag my kids out to march yesterday in the cold Minnesota temps.  Between the school musical, History Day, basketball practice and a funeral, that didn’t happen.  But much of what I saw yesterday gave me hope for the future…

At 8:15am I walked up to Roosevelt High School, where the district wide Minneapolis Public Schools History Day competition was held.   A woman just ahead of me was carrying six display boards, not a small load.  As I held the door for her I commented that she must be a teacher if she was carting that many projects.  Yes, she confirmed.  Her kids were taking the bus and it was windy.  She wanted them to only focus on getting there on time, not keeping their hard work safe on the journey.  I can tell you from my own three kids’ history day experiences, it was that teacher who has kept those kids on track for the last 3 months.

History Day allows for many media forms: exhibit boards, documentaries, websites, performances, papers – the gamut.  This year’s theme is Conflict and Compromise.  I cannot think of a more perfect frame for historical events, because that is how change happens.

One middle school student in particular was eager to make sure I knew the experience of gays and lesbians during the holocaust.  She wasn’t trying to impress we.  She was determined to educate me.


So many stories we know of just a little bit.  So many stories I’ve never heard.  Did you know about The Love Canal.  I didn’t.  Look at all these projects…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My kids have spent the last many weeks preparing for their school musical, benefitting from hours of time from generous artists, teachers, parents and fellow classmates, learning to tell a powerful story of self-acceptance and decency through song and humor. 

This is what good education looks like.  Giving students the tools to know who we are, how we got here, and how we can be better.  In a world of social media and clickbait, teachers inspiring kids to dig deep into the stories of our ugliest times and greatest triumphs – that is education.

So when those students take to the streets to fight for a safe education environment, what does it say that the NRA mocks them as only being influenced by Hollywood and wealthy snowflake liberals? These kids didn’t get their critical thinking from Hollywood.  Hollywood may give them empathy through the power of story, but Hollywood also makes a lot of money through the glorification of violence.  How can the NRA mock such a source of wealth not unlike their own? Who of the NRA is afraid for their own life in the course of their day to day routine?  How can they be so desensitized to this climate, and their place in it?

No, these kids were taught critical thinking by the kind of teacher that gets up at 6am on a cold Saturday and lovingly hauls her students’ projects so their hard work can be rewarded – so they can have conversations about our history and the lessons we must learn, so they can enjoy the fruits of their passion for storytelling alongside their vast intellectual capability.

I reposted this from someone else on Instagram today, knowing my own middle school aged kids would see it.  When I became a parent, I never fathomed such an exchange with my children.  I both applaud its wit and ache for its reality.  How is gun control even a debate?


Look at the diverse groups fighting for change.  What does it say that the sole opposition is the NRA and the GOP, who have a financial interest in their resistance?  Kids are assessing our history, and driving a new narrative.  We need to listen and act.  It is not only the kids fighting for change, but it is they who have the most to lose or gain here.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

For My Birthday

January 6, 2018

My birthday is in a few days.

It is a social media thing to raise funds in celebration of your birthday.  I like it.  Facebook has hundreds of enrolled non-profits, and if I picked one of them it would be easier and more compelling for you to part with your cash.

But the organization I most want to support didn’t have a Facebook profile.  My hope is that pointing people to a small, ground level non-profit might garner more bang for the buck.  You won’t see those motivating Facebook totals.  But if you believe in this effort, you will know that your money went straight to a small and mighty warrior for women, and the brave staff members who keep its mission alive.

Pink House

trappedThis is the only remaining abortion provider in my hometown of Jackson, Mississippi – for that matter, in the whole state.  Despite wide praise for Willie Parker and his relentless pursuit of rights for women, especially poor and desperate women, this clinic still struggles.  Because it is the only one in Mississippi, thousands of women are dependent on its survival.

You can read about Dr. Parker’s compassion here.  You can donate to the Jackson Women’s Health Organization here.  And if you don’t want to do that, but you support the cause, you can also do so by buying Dr. Parker’s book here.








November 11, 2017


Louis-ckLouis CK has been telling us who he is all along.

Onstage he has said he feels trapped in his own perversion – a slave to it.  Just because a comedian makes you laugh about something does not mean he isn’t serious.

He put his most disgusting self on display and we laughed.  It was funny because we could relate to his suffering, and because we weren’t talking about the victim.  We weren’t even considering that there was a victim.

Once we saw the victims, it wasn’t funny anymore.

It took him a damn long time to admit there were victims.  Years ago, I saw him brought to tears in an interview as he described his admiration for Tig Notaro.  She has publicly pressured him to speak to these accusations for months, and he still didn’t do it.   Probably because he knew it would be the end of his career, and likely ruin his relationship with his daughters.  Can you imagine being a kid and having your dad be this public figure?  He has long said he would not respond to these claims.  I am glad he changed his mind.

Men like this run rampant in show business, and certainly in comedy.  It would be hard to find a female comic to dispute one word of Laurie Kilmartin’s experience.  But it also runs rampant in mundane industries.

My first experience of sexual harassment was from a CFO of a non-profit.  He was 70 years old at the time, and I was 22.  He had a warm, folksy, soft-spoken demeanor, as did his adorable wife.  If you met him, you wouldn’t believe me.  I know, because someone else accused him and I didn’t believe her.  Until it happened to me.  My shock was so substantial, my view of him so shattered, I couldn’t bear to be in his presence.   I suddenly had no idea what to expect from him.  By the way, I was the HR person.

If you are reading this and still don’t get how common this is, you need to wake the fuck up.

I love that women are coming forward and speaking out about men who operate this way.  Speaking out helps, because secrecy is the lifeblood of shitty behavior.  For every person brave enough to disclose such experiences, you are my hero.

But what can we do before it happens?

We need to teach respect for women in society and admit when we fail to have it in our policies and behavior.  Women and men have been saying this for a long time.  It is correct, but it is not enough.

Calling these guys monsters doesn’t work.  How they arrived at being an asshole of this level is not a healthy individual deciding to be a shitty person.  There are more out there.  There are teen boys jacking off in a shower right now who will grow into this kind of person.  What can we do to get them off this path?

What do we do with unacceptable sexual urges?  If you find a willing sexual partner to happily play your game, you are lucky indeed.  But if you don’t, what do you do with the longing?  And what do we call it?  Is it sexual deviancy?  I’m not sure that label helps.  Is it sexual dysfunction?  It sure seems to interfere with healthy functioning, so I say yes.  What does it say that we have a pill to help a man get it up, but not one to control where he puts it?

Few things are more taboo than discussing your weird sexual desires.   The comedian’s stage is a true exception.  Sex is an endless fount of comedic material.  People joke about their sexuality, often in horrid ways, but they get laughs.

But where are we allowed to seriously discuss it?   When a teenage boy is discovering his sexuality and the myriad of urges that come with it, who is there to guide him in managing those urges in a healthy way?    If having control over someone turns him on, who is there to help him recognize and deal with those feelings?   If he has inappropriate thoughts about children, what does he do?  What if such things crop up in his teens, fraught with awkward social interactions and hormones and insecurity.  Where is the safe path to deal with what scares you inside your sexual self?   I am not saying Louis is a pedophile, but there is commonality across predatory sexual behavior.

That kid may even have people in his life who are willing to guide him, but the taboo attitude around errant sexual desire is a major barrier.  Such feelings are vilified everywhere you look, and they should be.  But that doesn’t change the reality that what turns us on can be a psychological and chemical mystery.   Scientists make careers out of studying it.  It is not surprising if a boy struggles and gets psychologically off course.  Some people are going to have these urges, and they need a way to deal with them early.

Unless he is a narcissist or psychopath already, shame is the first to arrive.  When we feel weird sexually, our first instinct is to make sure no one finds out about it.   Then there is a super accessible, multi-billion-dollar industry with open arms, ready to surround that shame with a false narrative of sex.  Its expansive venue for exploring those urges in secret is an easy escape from dealing with the downsides of one’s predilection.  Whatever weird thing you’re into, porn is there for you.

Take this teen scenario and fast forward 10 years.  He’s probably had sex – if he’s lucky, a lot of it.  He may have fallen in love, maybe even more than once.  But where are those urges?   Has he discussed them with anyone other than locker room banter?  Has he faced the shame and the risk such urges could cause if gone unchecked?  Has he pressured a partner into having sex?   Has he pushed past a drunken lack of consent?  Is he on a path to healthy sexuality, or can he see it if not?

In that time of forming habits and getting to know yourself, there are ample opportunities to get off course in your psychological relationship with sex.  With each wrong turn, another layer of shame and false narrative and denial is added.  Add another 25 years, and you have a Louis CK finally admitting he’s a shit.  Decades of such denial is why perpetrators are unable to face the magnitude of their crimes.   No one wants to see that they’re a bad person.

If you are a man and genuinely want to be an ally, how can you influence this issue among the men in your life?  Yes, this behavior is rampant, but so are really good men with good intentions.  I see you and I’m asking you to consider how you can impact this issue.  Do you see glimpses of this in men you know?  Do you address it seriously?  If you don’t know how, research it.  Ask for help.  Learn to deal with this.  If you value bravery as a feature of your masculinity, then here is your chance to shine.

By middle age, more than a few men like this are in a position of power, and likely have people around him who share his faults.  Power is intoxicating. Only the most mature and self-confident have the self-awareness to even admit they are exploiting it, much less resist doing so.  Watch a child gifted with charm, good looks and social savvy begin to discover and capitalize on the social impunity that comes with those gifts.  It’s human nature.

I like a lot about Louis CK’s admission statement, but I don’t buy the notion that he didn’t understand the power he held when he did these things.  He was just too turned on by it to consider the other person’s feelings.

There are mental health practitioners who deal with destructive sexual predators.  You’d be amazed how many people are receiving such psychological services for the most severe presentations, in the county where I live alone.  By the time treatment is sought, though, things are really bad.  Very bad things have happened.  Major damage has been done.  How many more need such treatment?  How many men fly under the radar because they have these attributes to a lesser degree?

Are we going to vilify an entire gender, or are we going to see mental illness and faulty wiring in human beings and systematically deal with it?  We can call it sin and immorality and evil all day long, but look at addicts.  Shame and judgment don’t change them.  It takes a more complicated suite of mental health services for them to become a productive and functional member in society.

How are we going to teach our children, our teens, and all of humanity, to be brave enough to recognize and proactively address the disgusting things we find within ourselves?  This is the question we need to be asking.   When are we going to admit that this is common and that we perpetuate this in our society?

If we bring perversion and sexual dysfunction out from under the taboo umbrella, we can openly discuss that it is real and common and can be destructive.  Such an open recognition would support a safer space for victims to tell their story.   Each of us, of every gender or age or sexual orientation, needs a safe place to deal with our sexuality.

I love Louis CK’s comedy, even today.  Is he fucked up?  Of course he is.  He’s a comedian.  We cannot crack this joke and pretend that fucked up people don’t inflict damage on others.

I believe his contribution to comedy and social dialogue is important.  It has informed my thinking on this issue, and helped me question how we address it.

Now that his shit has finally hit the fan, he has a unique opportunity to influence a whole generation of men who need open and humble dialogue about this behavior.   He also has a unique opportunity to validate women’s experiences with men like him.  I hope his admission statement is only the beginning.  While his power has changed dramatically, powerful he still is.  It is not too late to use that power responsibly and influence this issue in a positive way.


Note:  As I express these thoughts, I speak in terms of men perpetrating crimes against women, because that pattern is rampant.  I recognize it happens in all kind of ways, in every direction along the gender spectrum, and everyone needs a healthy path to deal with any number is issues in our sexuality.  That is my whole point.


Being Not Ok

September 17, 2017

My son and I have an ongoing dialogue about my sense of humor.  We both love it when he makes me laugh, which he does very well and very often.   He is also quick to tell me when my sense of humor is conspicuously absent.

“Mom, I think when you lose your sense of humor, it means you need to go away and take care of yourself.”  This he tells me the other night.  Out of the mouth of a babe,  or a very tall thirteen-year-old.

These last few months I have been struggling with pretty nasty anxiety.  It may have been longer, I can’t really say when it took hold.  Those of you who have spent any time with me in person may have noticed how tightly wound I tend to be.   But this was WAY worse.  Over several months my neck and shoulders gradually became so tense and tight, that when people who love me hugged me, it hurt.  My jaw was stuck in a clenched state.  At the worst of it, my heart raced and I had to focus to return my breath to normal.

It had been an extended period of professional anxiety and change, plus normal stresses of working full time and mothering three kids.   But no big crisis.  No health scare.  No sudden loss.  None of the biggies.

I tried to exercise more often.  I started meditating more often.  I looked long and hard at stressors in my life, made adjustments where I could.  But I still felt like a mess.  I felt like I didn’t have a handle on anything.   The heart racing and breathing issue was happening frequently enough to scare me, and it was becoming harder to settle it down.  All this escalated into a two day episode of intermittent, uncontrollable crying.  So I finally broke down and asked my doctor for medication. More, actually, as I was already on a low dose of anti-depressant, anti-anxiety medication.

This last week I had a profound realization:  I feel much better.  I thought back to when I didn’t, and how helpless I felt.  It bothered me that day to day life was hitting me so hard.  It felt like failure.   I felt like a failure.

I look back on those months and see how I gradually sank downward.  Feeling out of control, feeling anxious about that, and then feeling bad about my feeling out of control.  Shame kicked in aninspiration_or_desperation__by_aki355-d384x1rd festered.

When you see the statistic that 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness in a given year, this is but one example.  Sometimes our minds get off track, and sometimes outright betray us.  My own history leads me to believe in the combination of therapy and medication, if appropriate.  The tending of the mind is a critical endeavor, and there is no shame in seeking help.  There is no shame in pharmaceutical support.

None of this can be done alone.  I had a couple of friends I felt like I could share this with, and they helped me get out of my isolated thinking.  Knowing they cared and supported me helped.

None of this is a magic fix, either.  The anxiety is still here.  I still watch closely how I manage stress, and adjust my tactics as needed.  I still meditate, and find it enormously helpful.  And today, I share this with my world, because I know I am not alone, and public discourse is a great reminder of that fact.

Kids, This is Racism

July 4, 2017

Last year Michael and I took the light rail downtown to see the 4th of July fireworks. You were with your Dad at another celebration. I wish you had been with us, so we could talk about what happened, so you could see this up close.

The train home was slow to arrive, and hot and crowded when it did. We piled in and squished against each other until the train was packed enough to leave. A woman sat near us with a stroller surrounded by all the tired, sweaty bodies.

Suddenly she hollered at another woman near her. “Don’t bump my baby!” Her tone was abrupt, her request unrealistic in the packed train car. The infant slept in a car seat within the stroller, likely the most comfortable passenger on train. Dropping her volume a bit, she explained. “She’s small and I just … don’t want her bumped.”

I know this moment – managing kids on a long hot night, when you cannot handle one more crying episode, one more mishap.

The standing woman rolled her eyes and turned in the opposite direction. “She’s gonna get bumped by the train anyway.”

The woman sitting with the baby was black, the standing woman was white. Each also had kids with her about your age, upper grade school or early middle school. As the train ambled along, the white woman now looked annoyed and nervous. She clutched the railing and her daughter tight, trying to avoid bumping the stroller as she was bounced about. She chatted non-stop with her daughter, about the week and the day.

At one point she stroked her daughter’s hair and said, “Everyone is important. We are all equal.” She repeated similar phrases, at a volume loud enough to carry. What was spoken with the steady tone of a peaceful mantra, carried an undertone of aggression.

She didn’t say “all lives matter,” but I doubt I am the only one who heard it. It was the façade of a lecture to her daughter, spoken loudly enough for someone else. This was two days before Philando Castile was killed by a local police officer just a few miles away. Black Lives Matter was already well established in Minneapolis in response to a history of similar incidents.

Several stations later the train came to a stop. The black woman got up, then screamed at the white woman to let her through. Now her voice held full furor, well beyond the abruptness of her original tone.

The white woman immediately leaned forward and screamed back, eager to engage. Shouts flowed. Both women leaned toward each other, arms gesturing wildly. A few passengers urged the black woman to step off before the doors closed again. The two women kept on. Each boasted how many passengers must be on her side.

Then the black woman looked around. There was no support for the argument to continue. Its end depended on her exit. Her expression fell, and she stepped off the train.

We jerked back into motion. The remaining woman made a few comments insisting none of it was her fault. Then no one spoke.

I’m sure some passengers thought the black woman was to blame. She spoke first. She started it. But the antagonism in the other woman’s voice seemed determined to say, “What you want isn’t important.”

You may think, as the white woman clearly did, that the harsh tone of the black woman should be nipped in the bud. Zero tolerance. She needed someone to set her straight. This mentality fuels in people an indignant obligation to apply behavior modification, but really punishment and disregard are the only tools in their kit.

Most of us have some version of the black woman’s behavior that night. Have you ever been short with someone, a friend, a teacher, or total stranger? Me? You might have been embarrassed later, disappointed at your own behavior. I have.

What would I have done had she asked me not to bump her baby’s stroller?

I think I would have promised to try, while pointing out the challenge of the bumpy ride and crowded train. I may have smiled, asked her baby’s age, asked how it went managing such a young one in the loud night – small talk we mothers often make with each other. I would have tried to show her that I saw her baby, and meant her no harm. I have mothered babies. I know how tightly wound caring for an infant can leave you.

It is easy to claim I would have handled that train incident differently. When I first tried to write about this, I fumbled around with words like grace and kindness and what the white woman should have done instead. But it wasn’t right. Something was missing.

As I struggled, Michael was reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, a book of essays to his son. He encouraged me to read it, because I was writing this to you, and because there was a similar incident in it.

Coates had taken his young son to a theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  They exited the theater via a crowded escalator.  When they stepped off, an impatient woman pushed his young son out of her way.

“Many things now happened at once. There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays the hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body…

…I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of this moment and all of my history.”

As the exchange continued, the man with the woman threatened Coates with, “I could have you arrested!”

Coates unflinchingly deconstructs his complex emotions around that event. He responded as any parent would, and yet struggled with feelings of self-recrimination. He felt his instinctive reaction, however justified, made his son more vulnerable in that moment. Every parent can relate to the fear of being unable to protect one’s child. But this was beyond that. This was that same fear, covered with layers of a constant anxiety I have not experienced.

I started this piece because I wished the people on that train could imagine the black mother’s perspective, could have given her room to just be having a tough night, some room to express protectiveness of her daughter. I want to equip you with a thought process that arms you with compassion in such situations, rather than fear of discomfort.

Was the black woman a rude person? Or was she reflecting a life of feeling unsafe? Or was she just an exhausted mother at the end of a long night? I can’t know now.  Imagine how either incident would have played out if her stress in parenthood had been met with understanding instead of indignation.

Was the white woman on the train racist?  She could have just been a mother having a bad night too. But that changed in my eyes when she began her all lives matter mantra. It was a taunt. And it worked. The black woman wasn’t picking on a white woman for being white. Almost the whole train car was white.

As I sat quiet on that train, and fumbled to write about it since, I was hung up on the belief that the black woman had, in fact, started it. I failed to see her full humanity even though I was trying to see it.

I looked on the white woman as the villain, the racist. I imagined myself some sort of savior if only it had happened to me instead. I’d have been kind and there would have been no conflict. That was the narrative spinning in my head until I read Coates’ essay.

Racism steals a person’s right to be recognized as fully human and imperfect. Statistically, our society responds to errors by people of color with more punitive measures. Then we justify it by saying he should have known better, she should have acted different. We leave no room for a human reaction. And like I did that night, the rest of us stand by in silence.

Looking back, I could have been that mother’s ally.  Instead of imagining myself in the other white mother’s shoes, making motherly conversation, I could have struck up that conversation anyway. I could have let her know someone near her cared about how she felt and what concerned her, but I didn’t. I failed my fellow mother that night.

This is racism. It is so subtle. It is woven through a million daily interactions that say “you are lesser than.” We can’t solve it because we refuse to see it in ourselves. Then we compound its violation every time we deny its presence.

Maybe that small intervention would not have mattered at all. Maybe I could have and should have done other things. But at a minimum, that black woman deserved to have someone on her side.

We cling to our posterchild of racism, the redneck parading the confederate flag, an easy symbol of hate. We point the finger elsewhere and smugly deem ourselves innocent.  We believe it is that simple.

I am a 40-something social progressive who grew up in Jackson, Mississippi. My upbringing was surrounded by blacks and whites on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement. I have always believed racial equality important, and was raised to value it. But I am still not awake enough to process an event like this and think on my feet quickly enough to act. That is my job to fix, and as you grow up, it is yours too.

Always try to look inside yourself as unflinchingly as Coates did.  Listen to voices like his, of those who are willing to tell their stories and lay their humanity out for you to see.  Listen to those who have experienced that which you never will.  Look inside our history and our statistics and who is suffering and how we got here.

On this day we set aside to celebrate freedom and independence, we have to be honest with ourselves about how we look away. When this country was founded, almost 20% of its population was enslaved. We declared independence and signed documents of freedom with one hand, and continued cracking the whip of imprisonment with the other.

Today, in the subtlety of daily life, we still do.

Getting Out

June 24, 2017

Two weeks ago I stumbled upon an ad for a writing retreat at a cabin a few hours outside the Twin Cities.  I have one primary writing project, and several small ones I need dedicated time to complete.

I’ve lived in Minnesota for 16 years, but had yet to experience this concept of cabin life.  The retreat was cheap, so cheap you bring your own food.  A schedule of intensive writing, relaxing breaks, all on a weekend I didn’t have my kids.  I was in.

It was hosted by a company I had never heard of.   What do I know about this company, Blue Harbor?   Let’s see, two people I know like the Facebook page.  It HAS a Facebook page.  Looks like a relatively new business.  Sure.  Why not?

So Friday morning I emailed by best friend the details so if I didn’t return she could lead y’all to the serial killer.  I wasn’t really worried. It just seemed a good practice for a solo traveler.

But then, at 9:20 at night the sun was quickly disappearing.  I was wandering through dirt roads and trespassing multiple wrong properties because I missed the house number clearly visible on the road.  This is what happens when you rely on Apple Maps in the middle of nowhere, and no reception, instead of following your host’s expert directions.

As I wandered across multiple dirt roads through a darkening forest, my comfort zone was nowhere in sight. What if I never find it? Or for that matter, what if I never get out of this winding matrix of Minnesota dirt roads in the middle of nowhere?!?  I mean Wisconsin. That’s right. I’m in Wisconsin.

I retraced what was at least a mile too far down these roads, past the NO TRESPASSING sign I didn’t see when I had trespassed previously.   I got back to pavement and a clearly marked intersection, read the directions again and started over.

And just as the sun was truly gone, I pulled up to a warmly lit cabin and three friendly faces happy to see me.

As we visited, I realized they all already knew each other, and wondered who this brave soul was who signed up to spend a weekend with total strangers.  I thought, that’s not so brave.  Then I remembered being so lost 15 minutes before and thinking tears were sure to come.

So yes, maybe it was brave of me.  Then I had great conversation with my fellow writers, and was so energized I had to make notes for almost an hour before I could fall asleep.

My bunk bed is shockingly comfortable and this dude makes fantastic coffee.  Sometimes when you get out of your comfort zone, you find a brand new one.

image1 (1)

Months ago I was selected to join the Twin Cities cast of Listen To Your Mother, an annual, nationwide series of motherhood-themed story telling events.  Thursday night I shared the stage with a very special group of women, and their stories left a permanent imprint on my soul. 

Here is my story. 

My daughter is especially self-conscious about her body, very picky and specific about the parts she doesn’t like. She’s 6. Given her tendency I knew this day would come and it would suck.


One of her favorite buddies called her “fat”. She is not fat, but believes she is. When she finally told me what had her so upset, she collapsed in my arms and sobbed. And sobbed. I wanted to sob, too.

I remember being called ugly when I was her same age. I remember being certain it was true. A part of me still is.
Since the day I became a mother, I have worried about putting my kids on the path to good self-image. How could I train them to be resilient in this world where looks matter and meanness is common?

Many of us have an idea of the worst version of ourselves, whether in outward appearance or our deepest inner being. At any age, another person drawing that same conclusion is painful. The notion that such a conclusion could hold truth is … defeating.

That day my daughter and I had a long and teary conversation. I was stunned at how well she articulated what bothered her and how she felt. Nothing got fixed. We only shared the pain of being judged by others, and acknowledged that it was a part of life with which we all must deal. In that moment I knew she had what it takes to figure out tough emotional challenges.

But since then I have still wondered, and worried, how she would find her way and how I could help.

Two days later I was to attend an event with my sweet friend Mary, one that required dusting off a pretty dress. I had one all picked out, conservative but flattering. There was this other dress in the closet, same color, but more…form fitting. But no, too fitted, not appropriate… nah. Never mind that it is the only off-the-rack dress in existence that was made for my peculiar figure, but…nah.

As my conversation with my daughter lingered, I was reminded of this truth. The only time my kids do what I want them to do is when I set an example. Ask any parent, one of the most humbling experiences of parenthood is seeing your child copy your behavior.

I can’t teach my children how to feel good about themselves. I can only practice it. As I approach 40, I have the gift of knowing myself well, bad and good, and finding the comfort in my own skin.

So I said, Screw It.

I cranked up Pink on the stereo, slapped on that tight dress, and got more in touch with big hair and makeup than I had ever before outside my home state of Mississippi. I danced the night away with a big band and a room full of strangers. I had a grand time.

Dear daughters and dear son, happiness doesn’t lie in a tight dress or heavy makeup. Happiness lies in doing what brings you joy regardless of the opinions of others. Happiness lies in being true to yourself.


I wrote that five years ago.  

My daughter has since fallen in love with basketball. While learning to navigate the world around her like any middle schooler would, her love for the sport has grounded her in confidence, routine, focus, self-discovery, and incremental growth that extends far beyond her time on the court.

I, however, am 10 pounds heavier, physically exhausted, and at a frightening professional crossroad that threatens my financial well-being. The weight of these things has me engulfed in the fear that the worst version of myself is the defining one. I am trying to beat back that sense of defeat.

As I watch my daughter practice devotion toward something outside herself, I am reminded the power of love to clarify our priorities and inspire our work ethic. This is the essence of how to crawl out of the dark corners of my psyche. And my role in helping my children navigate the world seems turned on its head, as it is they who do it for me.

I wrote these last paragraphs in the worst valley of a scary time. The professional crisis cleared, but the lesson stuck.   

For an endless supply of LTYM stories, visit their YouTube channel

The Great Leap Forward

January 21, 2017

Yesterday an international joke was inaugurated as the president of a super power, our country, the United States of America.   The country that boasts of freedom is barreling down a highway of restriction, rigidity and governmental control.  The political party that preaches soundbites of small government has an agenda filled with denial of personal freedom and implementation of social control.  Its only allowances for relief slated for the already wealthy and powerful.

Today, we marched.

Actually, I did not march.  But so many of you did and you brought tears to my eyes.  I saw friends join millions, here in Minnesota, in DC, LA, Jackson (Mississippi), St. Louis, Oakland (California), Austin (Texas), New York City and Atlanta.

With great conflict I went to my daughter’s basketball game instead.  It is not like I never miss my kids’ events.  Actually, I do so quite often.  Part of me wanted to march, and drag my other two children along so they could experience that historic event first hand.  Part of me wanted to just be on the sideline watching my daughter compete in the sport she loves.

I felt guilty not going to the march.  I felt sad to miss out on the experience.  Had I gone, I would have felt the same about my daughter’s game.

And that’s how, I think, we women miss out on a lot.  We second guess our choices.  We let guilt stand in the forefront of our thinking.  Both choices had value.  A “right” choice is not always clear, and does not always need to be defined.

But as is often the case, my daughter taught me today.

Her team trailed behind the opposing team for most of the game, finally tying it in the last two minutes, and pulling ahead in the last 30 seconds to win the game.  Effort, errors, effort.  Twisting.  Committing fouls.  Getting fouled on.  Tripping.  Colliding.  Missed shots, and surprising steals.

27-25.  That doesn’t even begin to quantify the complexity of effort, practice and heart, from all the girls on that court.

I saw my daughter get a free throw opportunity, then miss both shots.  The first miss gave way to a sign I know so well.  Shoulders collapsed, game face disintegrated… self-recrimination.  A flood of teammates surrounded her for a second, reminding her to stay in the game, just take the next shot. 

This is how we feel when we are dejected.  And this is what we need.  Stay in the game.  Get up and try again.   And I know after years of watching my kids play sports, this is an education on how to fight the good fight.  This is one way the skills of fortitude and determination are built.

But what do we do tomorrow?

We work.  Marching is only the beginning.

Today the focus was not just about women’s rights, but about inclusion, well-being, freedom and, above all, love.  LOVE, not hate.  To make sure these values rise to the top, we have to work.  We have to speak up.

Not long before the presidential election, I saw Billy Bragg and Joe Henry perform here in Minneapolis.  Billy said, and it has stayed with me since:

“The enemy of cynicism is empathy.  And the antidote to cynicism is activism.”

And in that spirit, I believe great leaps forward still lie ahead.  But we have to make them happen.


January 14, 2017

I’m worried. I am fearful. 

I am worried about women losing more control of their lives by losing control of their own reproductive and healthcare options.  I am worried we are following the choices of Texas, with systemic STD issues and high childbirth mortality rates. Planned Parenthood is a Public Health Service. Texas is what happens when you remove such quality, inexpensive women’s (and men’s) healthcare and sex education. 

I am worried we are going to spend money we can’t afford dismantling the ACA, temporarily or permanently removing coverage, or sufficiency of coverage, for many. I worry about such an effort’s impact on any number of public health initiatives able to launch and incubate under this law. Many such programs within the Medicaid population are making strides to reduce expensive healthcare services by increasing access to preventive care and educating patients and families on how to navigate the healthcare system.  These programs also collect valuable data as to ways to reduce cost and illness escalation.  And they are just getting started. 

I am worried we have hundreds of thousands of people laying waste in prisons that don’t belong there. These lives are wasted at great social cost to communities, and great financial cost to tax payers.   Many of those locked away and disregarded will one day rejoin society, with little to no support in their reentry, or in making sense of their incarceration experiences. 

We expect them to shake off that traumatic environment, be industrious, find jobs and pay taxes. But too many policies make employment unlikely. If they overcome all the obstacles, find a legitimate job and pay taxes, they are still not restored their right to vote. In many states, felons are permanently ineligible to have a voice in the government which they help fund. 

I am disturbed that the trend of climate denial is an excuse to make bad energy policy choices that would be better for us all, even if climate change wasn’t real.  (Though it is, of course, real.)  Hmmmm. Why is that?  

Oil and money. That’s why.

Renewable energy would reduce foreign oil dependence, domestic oil harvesting, and wasteful byproducts which do far more than contribute to greenhouse gases. Why on earth wouldn’t we want to move to those more renewable sources?!?  I was raised by parents who survived the Great Depression and WWII, and a mother who washes and reuses her tin foil.   Why are we, and so many of our leaders, so determined to be wasteful?

I am worried that two months later, I am at a loss as to how to respond to this comment from someone I know to be kind and well-meaning. But this reads as someone who cannot differentiate between an experienced political candidate and a mentally ill narcissit. 

I want to have and encourage dialogue with people of opposing viewpoints. But the normalizing language here is deeply disturbing.   Trump had no candidacy record before. He had a strong record of  lifetime wealth, unethical business dealings, predatory behavior in professional and personal life, shameless attention seeking and belittling of others.

“Liberal agenda.”  Which of the statistically validated issues I’ve listed above are so unpalatable?  

Trust in God?  There’s a great joke about this. It has a boat and a helicopter and pragmatism, a parable about using the resources you’ve been given.

 I don’t believe in deities. But no religion I’ve seen paints a greedy, defensive, reactionary, prideful man as a vessel for holy work.  I am horrified that so many people of faith believe he is the answer. 

But I am still hopeful. 

I saw Hidden Figures with my kids tonight. A new story to me, and one of many reminders that we overcame some of our stupidity back then.  We can open our eyes and see our different (and same) stupidities now.  There will always be some, even many, who refuse to seen it. We need work and humility and diligence to keep that moral arc bending in the right direction. 

Recently I read The Road to Character, and now am reading The Social Animal, both by David Brooks. His bias sometimes makes my skin itch, and reading his books pushes my argumentative buttons. 

A conservative-leaning thinker, he has an insatiable curiosity toward human nature, and love for humanity, community and individual well being.  He is not afraid to dig deep into personal stories and character studies, and lay them out for us to better understand each other.   He is not afraid to dissect the role we as a community play in the well being of each other. We cannot have enough voices like this. 

I have hope in the contributions of writers and story tellers and journalists and lawyers and volunteers and healthcare workers and public servants and citizens and the power to change hearts and minds. I have hope that however misguided we are, however ridiculous the lies we swallow, we slowly, stubbornly, begrudgingly learn to be more decent to each other than not.