14 March 2021

Cancel culture and the problematic stories we carry into adulthood

Like many people these days, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about the problematic stories I was raised with, and I keep coming back to the role of context and framing. As I was raised in a very religious environment, top of my mind has been the biblical story of Esther. 

(Trigger warning: some mention of sexual abuse)

“Be like Esther,” I was taught as an 8-year-old. “This story has important lessons for you!” 

In case you are unfamiliar, let’s do a quick recap. Xerxes (or Ahasuerus), king of Persia, throws a feast and gets very drunk. He then demands that his wife, Queen Vashti, come and dance for him. Vashti, enjoying her own party, declines, and Xerxes banishes her after consulting with his advisors (who fear that all the women in Persia will follow her example and rise up). However, the wine and rage wear off and Xerxes starts to have regrets.

Xerxes’ advisors once again have his back - this time with the suggestion that all of the most beautiful virgins in the land are rounded up. Xerxes will try each of them, one by one, night after night. And thus, we get introduced to the beautiful, virginal, orphaned Esther, who is taken from the house of her relative Mordecai to the palace, where she must undergo a year of beauty treatments in preparation for one night with the king. 

Esther is beautiful, charming, compliant to all that is asked of her. Her night with Xerxes leaves him wanting more, so much more in fact that instead of having her join all the other used-up virgins in his house of concubines, he decides to make her queen instead of Vashti. 

But things go wrong. Mordecai offends one of the king's advisors, Haman, and Haman decides to take revenge by getting Xerxes to sign a decree allowing him to kill Mordecai and all his people (the Jews). Mordecai learns of this plot and convinces Esther to break the court rules in order to ask the king for a favor to save the Jews. 

To build up to this request, Esther throws several dinner parties for Xerxes and Haman, and they culminate in a big scene where Esther tearfully accuses Haman of trying to kill her. Xerxes is shocked that anyone would want to kill his beautiful queen, and demands that Haman be killed and have his head put on a spike. Furthermore, he writes another decree which allows the Jews to kill those against them (which they do - in vast numbers). The happy ending comes in the form of Mordecai rising to power and esteem - second only to the king. 

It’s an ancient story, likely written in the 4th century BCE, and in that context, Esther’s story is arguably about her finding a way to survive and helping her people survive at great personal cost in a brutal and terrible society. 

“Be like Esther,” I was taught in Sunday School as an 8-year-old who was desperate to understand the world after a sexual assault a few years earlier. "The story has important lessons for you!"

Be brave at the right times, but follow the rules at all other times. Others will tell you when it’s the right time.

Your ability to charm, your winsomeness, your sexual desirability is your power. 

Fight against those who threaten the lives of your people, but bend to those who demand your body. 

The greater good demands that you live a life of deep personal sacrifice. 

These lessons have not served me well. 

The problem of “being like Esther” is that I’ve tied my power and worth to my sexual desirability. The problem of “being like Esther” is that I’ve obsessed about rules and look for some Mordecai to tell me when it’s right not to follow them. The problem of “being like Esther” is that I see myself, my body, my sexual wholeness as secondary to some greater good. 

The problem of “being like Esther” is that it’s set me up for surviving, not thriving. The problem of “being like Esther” is that the story has a happy ending only for Xerxes and Mordecai. 

And for me, the problem of “being like Esther” is that I was given a terrible model for working through childhood sexual trauma. 

I know the story of Esther has deep cultural and religious meaning for many people, but when we tell it to our children (to ALL children, but especially to those who have experienced sexual trauma), we need to give it better context, clearer framing, and please, please without some shitty expectation that they follow in her footsteps. 

Precious, beloved little girls and boys, you don’t need to be like Esther. Esther’s story is unbelievably sad. It is an ancient tale from a very, very long time ago, which is interesting, but does not have deep insights into how you need to live now. You have the right to more than survival. Anyone who expects you to sacrifice your wholeness, your sexual being, is the villain of your story, and they deserve to have their heads on spikes.

Be like Esther, if you need to, for a while. Sometimes we are in situations where we need to follow along to survive. I understand. You certainly don’t need to feel bad about that. But be like Jael when you are ready, tent spike in hand, to reclaim the power that was always rightfully yours, which is not dependent on your ability to follow rules or to charm or to seduce. Set your own structures, say “no” to unfair demands, and above all, thrive.

Of course, I say this most of all to myself, as I look through the stories that I learned in childhood that are still whispering through my adult subconscious. It’s time to re-examine, reframe, recontextualize them. Stories do have power; even more so the stories we learn as children.

“Be like Esther” is proving to be difficult to dislodge, so for now, I’m penciling in an alternative ending for Esther. One where, having overthrown the fucker who made unfair demands of her just-emerging sexuality, Esther joins forces with the banished Vashti. Together, they use the strength built through their healed trauma to heal their kingdom, and they rule with courage, kindness, and respect.

This is the Esther I want to be like.

26 November 2017

Dealing with the Advice of Others

My decision-making skills has been called into question a lot since I moved to the Czech Republic.

The list of topics for which I've received unsolicited advice since moving here is extensive and includes:
  • Wearing of hats (children),
  • Wearing of hats (self)
  • Saying 'Na shledanou' ['Good bye'] with sufficient emphasis on the 'h'
  • Proper preparation of American Thanksgiving food
  • Ways in which I can make myself more attractive (losing weight, primarily, although apparently my posture is also causing offense)
  • Advisability of having pets (advice is fairly evenly split)
  • The right pet for me (a dog, personal preference be damned!)
  • The correct number of children to have
  • The correct gender of children to have (girls, it seems, although I have no complaints)
  • Proper care of husbands
  • Proper care of houses
  • How long my holiday abroad should be
  • The correct way to smile in a photograph (not to, apparently)
  • Care and feeding of children (many subcategories).
One category has grown exponentially in the last few months in particular: Mothers' working full-time, acceptability of.

This is a very round-about way of getting to the reason I haven't posted recently: I have a new job! It's incredibly interesting, rather challenging, and for a multinational corporation that you may have heard of. I have benefits! A career path! Lovely colleagues and a decent pay check! A budget that allows us to fix our roof and visit the American family more.

The hours are sometimes quite long - Multinational You Might Have Heard Of has something of a reputation for this. The commute is annoying. L and I spend a lot of time organizing logistics. But, overall, we're happy with the current state of affairs and the boys both seem settled and content. Smallest adores his nursery teachers. Smalls is full of envy of my security badge.

That's my perspective on the situation, but you'd get a very different view from some of the Czechs around me - without even having to ask!

'But surely you're not on the way to work?' one of our neighbors asked me last week, as Smallest and I waited for the bus. 'And full time? No, he's much too young.' [Looking at Smallest and sucking at her teeth.]

My neighbor is by no means the only person to respond this way. While I am a studious keeper of lists and accounts of wrongs against me [not one of my best traits, for sure], I must admit that even I have lost track of the number of people who have called into question my decision to work. Friends (though fortunately not too many), family, acquaintances, strangers - all categories have members who are loudly shocked and disapproving.

As an amateur researcher of culture behaviors and norms, I find this fascinating. In the UK, it was very normal for women to return to work a year or so after giving birth. In the US, a year of maternity leave would be considered exceptionally luxurious.

On the other hand, the Czech Republic provides an incredibly generous maternity and parental leave offer. Or offers, rather. Parents have the choice of 1,2,3 or even 4 years at home with each child.

While the Czech government gives many options, it seems Czech society is (in generally) less flexible. From my (many!) conversations on this subject, the general consensus seems to be that mothers who would return to work before a child is 2.5 or 3 years old has quite possibly forgotten they have said child and should be reminded of this fact with the appropriate levels of shock and severity.

Neglected and most-likely forgotten, Smallest (sans hat) forages for zucchini in the garden.  

I am at a loss as to how to respond. My natural response is to pleasantly nod to most advice and then do my own thing. However, this response tends to bring with it a host of negative feelings ('I did have a hat for him, silly woman - he just refused to wear it!' 'Does he really think I'm not trying my best with the blasted Czech 'h'?' 'Does he really think I'm an awful mother?') which eat away at me for the next few days.

Considering the sheer volume of incoming judgement and advice lately, this strategy is leaving me a little too well-nibbled by the negative feelings.

So, a new approach is necessary and I find myself asking a questions I thought I'd never have to ask:

Do you have any advice?

23 July 2017

About my dad

My dad died forty days ago.

I've been lost for words since then, besides a wine-and-jetlag fueled post that was all about his nose and which I was very relieved to find in the morning that I had saved only to drafts.

Impressive though my dad's nose was, there are even more notable things that I think should be said about him.

First of all, he was incredibly kind. He cheerfully signed himself up for night duty when Smalls was a newborn who would only sleep when being held. He spent his vacation helping me repaint our house in the UK. He was there to pick me up at any hour of the night when I was a teenager.

One of my cousins wrote me a very nice note about how my dad's smile always made him feel like he was really a part of the family, and it was true that my dad would try to make everyone feel at ease. L remembers how nice he was, especially when they met for the first time and L had the challenging task of asking/informing my dad that he planned to marrying me. My dad said that he would be proud to have L -foreigner, atheist, politically-opposite, dramatically different in personality - as a son-in-law.

When I visited him in November, he told me that his biggest worry was that he would get meaner and meaner as the cancer took over his brain. He would try so hard to make sure he said 'Thank you' to those who helped him, even if it took a few minutes to get the words out. He ended every phone call by saying 'I love you.' and made sure to tell all of us kids that these final two years were the best of his life (because he had such a nice time having so many very nice people around him) - which I strongly suspect was intended to make us feel better about a very shit situation.

Second of all, my dad was so funny. He loved a good joke - especially if it was his own. Family lore includes The Time Dad Snorted Strawberry Soda Out Of His Nose Laughing At His Own Joke. His sense of humor ranged from sophisticated wordplay to Monty Python to the dregs of 'Dad jokes'. My knowledge of the Marx Brothers is embarrassingly extensive thanks to him. He loved a good pun and a funny story - and loved the sorts of stories that were funny at his own expense.

As a kid, I took it for granted, but looking back, it's astonishing how he gamely put up with four kids' worth of crappy childhood films, MacDonald's dinners as a special 'treat', and - crucially - our homemade presents. Especially precious to me is his laugh when he realized that his Father's Day present of a tie made from a butchered pair of tights, which he had been sporting all through the Sunday church service, had been created from a pair of noticeably unwashed tights.

I feel the need to point out that I was six or seven and the tights were white with pink and blue balloons. My mom found the stinky-tights tie in his collection of precious things after he died.

Thirdly, my dad was exceptionally thrifty. He taught me how to budget and how to live within my means - something that I appreciate more and more the older I get. He instilled in me a wariness of buying on credit. He (along with my mom) worked hard to make a college fund for all of us kids and I'm certain I wouldn't have the financial security I have now if it hadn't been for my parents.

I perhaps didn't always appreciate his thriftiness. Take, for instance, my 21st birthday when he took me out for a celebratory dinner and then, noting the ridiculous mark up on the wine, inquired if it wasn't possible to get one glass of wine and split it between three?

Fourthly, he believed in God and was relentless in his desire to live in the best possible way. During my childhood, he was a staunch Calvinist and he later became an enthusiastic Serbian Orthodox convert.

He didn't believe in doing things in half-measure, especially when it came to religion, and he devotedly memorized catechisms, books of the Bible, songs and prayers. He served as a deacon and later, he was an 'altar boy' and did a beautiful reading/singing of Ezekiel 37 as part of the Orthodox service.

Fifthly, my dad would laugh about how he was 'Jack of all trades, master of none.' He taught himself cross stitch and basket-weaving, he rode a bike and a motorcycle. He did pencil drawing. He made amazing brownies. He fixed cars. He rocked the newspaper crossword. He dug holes in the garden where ever my mom requested. He dabbled in being an electrician and a plumber (the latter resulted in the classic story about how he replaced an upstairs toilet that hinged on the line 'the ceiling was bulging, so I thought I'd just push it up a bit...'). He was the family photographer and the family storyteller. He taught us kids algebra and how to drive. He was an excellent dishwashing buddy, singing Avril Lavigne hits as he dried dishes.

In short, it's been a very hard two years watching my amazing, interesting, hardworking dad try to hold on to himself against the all-consuming, all-destroying glioblastoma. He was only 58.

I really miss him. 

15 March 2017

Cycling in the Czech countryside

The Czech countryside is charmingly dotted with an incredible number of little churches, chapels, and religious monuments.

I'm starting to feel like something of an authority on them as I've passed an awful lot recently on my bike.

In case you skimmed the previous sentence, I'd just like to stress that this sightseeing has happened while I was cycling, on a bike, with my own two legs.

I have joined the multitude of cyclists infesting Czech country lanes, March to November.  We mostly come in singles or doubles, but we are multitude and a not-insignificant source of irritation to most drivers.

There are fewer cyclists on the road when it's cold, wet, and windy, so on those days, we tend to nod at each other in a 'I acknowledge you and your hardcore ways' or, perhaps, 'I also have lots of chaos at home that I am skillfully avoiding'. I once got a passing 'Ahoj!' from a fellow escapee and I take that to mean I am a certified member of the club.

It's no wonder, really, that the Czech Republic has so many cyclists. The countryside is relatively flat, the climate is fairly predictable, Czechs tend to value being active outside, and, as mentioned previously, there are lots of interesting things to look at as you speed/huff by.

There is an increasingly more comprehensive network of cycle trails throughout the Czech Republic (Cycloserver shows them online and this helpful blog post talks about signage). Most of the trails follow a combination of country roads and paths through forests and across fields. Some of the marked cycle paths look suspiciously like just very muddy meadows.

I've been avoiding the non-paved trails since a particularly muddy November ride, but was back to the exceptionally-satisfying puddle dodging this weekend.

I was on something of a mission. Like I said earlier, there are lots of little religious monuments. Some are statues, but most are these mini-chapels which were built along roads, especially near crossroads, presumably to mark the roads and encourage reverent thoughts (as most don't seem to offer much in the way of shielding one from the elements).

Late in November, before the snow came, I rode past one of these mini-chapels which was striking in its peculiarity. Most of the mini-chapels are painted white or in muted yellows, pinks, or reds. But this strange one was white with a bright blue alcove. Even stranger, it was in the middle of a field, nowhere near a recognizable road. If I remember correctly, it was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which is also a deviation from the norm as most of the mini-chapels I've seen don't seem to have a named saint as their sponsor.

So, there I was, on a windy, wet November late afternoon, in the middle of a field which smelled very strongly of manure. And there, before me, this otherworldly chapel, white and bright.

I've been meaning to go back to see it again, maybe even to take a picture to prove that it actually exists. A few weekends ago (after the snow receded), I tried unsuccessfully to relocate it, but last weekend, having studiously combed through Google maps, I was ready to attempt my luck again.

'Podstavec soch sv. Salvátora' initially got my hopes up as St. Salvatore sounds like someone who would be worthy of a Southern European blue. After battling up a stone-and-mud track, though, it became apparent that, though nice, this was not the monument I was looking for.

The next mini-chapel seemed to be in the right place and the view from Google maps at least made the roof look similar. So, back on my bike and over yet more puddles and stones.

This chapel was so disappointingly weathered-white that I didn't even take a picture.

Perhaps I should have gotten more emotionally attached to a full-sized chapel.

The search continues next weekend - wish me luck!

10 January 2017

The choice to live abroad and its assorted consequences

I was chatting with my Czech teacher after a lesson a few weeks ago and she mentioned that she'd been considering moving to China for a bit, but ultimately decided to stay.

'Oh, thank goodness!' said my mother-in-law who had been keeping Smallest amused during the lesson. 'Think of your poor mother! It's much better not to go abroad. Expatova will tell you how hard it is. You made the right choice.'

This past year has certainly brought to the forefront what I've given up by choosing the path I did. Would I have chosen differently if I'd known all this eleven years ago?

There were an awful lot of big choices this year.

Smallest seems to have some issues with one of his ears, and while we're in the process of figuring out what's going on, his pediatrician was adamant that he should not be flying. I was wrestling with what to do as my dad became increasingly bed-bound - go to the US without Smallest? Not go to the US at all? Take Smallest regardless, doctor be damned?

I decided in the end to go -twice- and to go sans baby.

Fortunately, Smallest was fine, Smalls got over his envy, L probably managed stay-at-home parenthood better than me, our savings account will recover eventually, and I got to pat my dad's lovely dad-hands and sing some of his favourite tunes with him.

There were, of course, many days that I felt like I should jump on a plane to be with my parents and had to choose not to.

To go, to stay - both choices, both opening and closing ways.

There have been a lot of consequences of my choosing to live abroad - some minor (extortionately priced Cheerios, for instance), some much, much larger. I certainly didn't anticipate most of them when I packed my two suitcases and left the US for good.

I was bemoaning this fact to a very wise friend who noted that I wasn't really a special case. Everyone makes path-not-taken choices, expat or not. (Though she did say it in a much nicer way.)

There also would have been consequences for choosing not to live abroad.

And, if we're going to be assessing route-altering choices, there have been many non-expat related  choices I've had to make. University, university degree, getting married...and of course, the arguably biggest (even bigger than moving abroad), was my choice to have children (bless their cute little life-shaping socks).

Just as this year has highlighted the naivety of my twenty-year-old self and the consequences of leaving everything but the contents of those two suitcases behind, it has also helped me understand the importance of acceptance.

When I chose to get on the plane to the US without Smallest, it was a choice made out of love and made with acceptance for whatever the consequences might be. And it's given me a great deal of peace to remind myself of that.

So here's to a new year of new choices. Here's to giving up on trying to find some mythical 'right choice' - especially for decisions in the past. Here's to a future of love-based path-selection.

14 October 2016

Saying goodbye from a distance

I talked to my dad a few days ago. I stared at him in the slightly-pixelated video on my phone. He was propped up in his hospital-grade bed, and from the other side of the ocean, it seemed so unnecessary. He looked so young. So like my dad who should live forever. Or at least past retirement age.

My family who is with him now would, of course, tell you a different story - one better grounded in the day-to-day realities of someone who is at the very end stages of a savage manifestation of cancer.

But here is how it looks from my side: I've had my suitcase sitting next to my bed, half packed, for nearly two months. I (or rather, a very helpful L) have changed my plane ticket, pushing it out to a later date. The 'in my experience, probably only two weeks left' from the lovely hospice nurse has long been eclipsed. I find myself at events that I only agreed to because I thought for sure I would be gone when they happened.

And so, even as I jump at every sound my phone makes, deceptive thoughts have started to filter in.

Smalls and I recently had a discussion that I would be going to the US soon for his granddad's funeral.

'Please can I come with you? I really want to come. I need to see how they take the cancer out of him,' Smalls told me.

I explained that this time, sadly, they couldn't take the cancer out.

But as the weeks stretch on, my belief in the inevitable is getting shaken.

Maybe it doesn't have to end this way, the deceptive hopes whisper. Doesn't he look so young in the fuzzy Skype video?

While it is breaking my heart to be so far away, I can see how I am also sheltered at this distance, only able to theoretically imagine the midnight panic attacks, the adult diaper changes, the increasing occurrences of seizures. And so I'm stewing in cocktail of equal parts guilt for not being there to help and hope that perhaps things that I can't see aren't really happening.

So, here I am, spending mornings hanging laundry with a giggling Smallest and relaxed afternoon walks home from preschool with Smalls, with the cat lounging on my lap and drinking a cup of tea with L in the last light of the day, in a bubble of nice normality.

But how to reconcile this with the unseen things happening at my other home with my thoughtful, witty, hardworking, motorcyle-riding, snorting-at-his-own-jokes dad?

Damned if I know.

'And why will you die?' Smalls blurted out during a call with my dad.

'We'll talk about this later,' I said with brisk authority.

However,  I'm really better suited to being the asker rather than the answerer of that question these days.

So, to stick to topics that I am certain about: What I do know is that my dad is very much loved and the world has been a better place with him in it.

And I can't describe how much I wish it didn't have to be this way.

30 July 2016

Living outside of Prague

When we first talked about moving to the Czech Republic, I was dead set on living in a flat in Prague. And not just any flat. In my dreams, this flat would be in Vinohrady or Dejvice or, even better, in the trendy-but-not-too-dodgey bits around Letná . The flat would be large, of course, with many delightful historical features and would manage to have both a lovely view and not too many stairs.

For a number of reasons (including, but not limited to the price of large, delightful flats in desirable neighbourhoods), we ended up instead in our village and it's taken some time for me to fully embrace our rural setting.

What started as acceptance when I saw our happy kitties racing up the apple trees and a very satisfied L building bonfires and tending to his unruly tomatoes eventually evolved into genuine appreciation when I started planting my own things and (perhaps more crucially) Smalls started running, jumping, and creating his own very loud soundtrack. Thank goodness that no downstairs neighbours' hearing was harmed during Smalls's toddlerhood.

But now, this appreciation has blossomed into love.

Smallest, the newest addition to our family, was born into a lovely April. The canola fields boarding the village were in full eye-searing yellow. But inside the village, the cherry and apple trees offered a more sophisticated picture. The days were sunny and the evenings only a little crisp.

And I discovered that I have an adorable baby who will sleep if pushed around and around and around the village in his pram.

So, we see the village in the morning light. And the afternoon sun. And during the last glimmers in the evening.

I've memorised not just our neighbourhood, but also the old part of the village, the very old part of the village, and both of the newly built sections. I've explored the paths over the fields and started preliminary investigations on the nearby villages.

L should be pleased to note that cost of the new-secondhand pram that I insisted on buying is down to less than 1.5 CZK per kilometre.

These walks are easily the highlight of my days and I've really enjoyed getting to know the village.

And while I've been out in my explorations, the village has also gotten to know me.

Older women stop to discuss how Smallest is growing. Does he sleep at night? Has he gotten over his cold? And the strangely popular; Are you breastfeeding?

I always exchange a friendly 'Dobrý den!'with the blue-haired boy down the road who seems to be out at least once a week applying new decals to his car. He always gives a cheery wave while contemplating where to best put 'Rides only for cash, grass, or ass', but mercifully does not inquire about my lactating abilities.

'It's going to rain. You'd better walk quickly!' paní učitelka from across the street tells me as she gathers in her laundry.

'It's going to rain,' says the white haired man from number 94, as he, as always, takes his bike for a walk up the hill.

'It's going to rain,' I tell Mr. R's dog.

Mr. R's dog is almost certainly the scruffiest mutt in the village and, while occasionally I see him with Mr. R., more often than not, the poor chap is gamely taking himself for a walk. Or, somewhat humoursly, he joins other owners with their well-groomed, well-bathed dogs on their walks. ('It's not mine!' one woman felt the need to declare a few weeks ago when she, her dog, and the tagalong went past).

Mr. R's dog nods at me and continues sniffing his way home.

While it's nice to get advanced warning of impending meteorological events, by far the best benefit of village life is the number of friends I now have in the village. Friends, who often sit in their gardens or on their balconies in the pleasant summer evenings. Friends, crucially, who invite me to stop for a glass of wine and a chat while Smallest (sometimes) sleeps in his pram.

And finally, getting to know the village better also means that one knows who to contact if, say, one should be thinking about which route to take, dinner plans, schedules in September, what to do over the weekend, and how to find meaning and purpose in life BUT NOT, importantly, about the exact location of the keys to the front door.

While I didn't particularly enjoy going from neighbour to neighbour with my very helpful father-in-law asking if they had a very tall ladder and a desire to help us break into my house via the top floor window, it was somewhat gratifying that two of the three neighbours I tried came ready and armed with their ladders. The third wasn't home.

Before help arrived, I had a rather anxious fifteen minutes of peering through the patio doors wanting so very desperately to be on the other side. There was something about seeing our living room from the (literal) outside that really brought to the forefront of my mind the thought that there behind that stupidly locked glass door was, unquestionably, my home.

So, you can keep your Art Nouveau metalwork and the tree-lined avenues with hip cafes. Smallest and I have another few laps around our village to go before it rains.