How To Bridge the Divide and Improve Understanding

You’re tired and weary. Political discussions tend to disgust you more than anything. You’ve moved from “why can’t we all just get along?” to “why bother?”. You’re not alone.

Most of us are feeling the weight of disgust and disappointment with politics these days.

The political climate has gone from seasonally heated to perpetually disappointing. What we could once rely on as a temporary dose of election season ugliness, has become a daily drip of negativity and discord.

I started the Food For Thought community based on a belief that beneath all the political posturing and misunderstanding that makes talking politics with people of other persuasions so difficult, there was a deep desire to connect with others and feel understood. I still believe that.

But it’s been difficult. The climate of communication has been abusive, divisive, and outright dysfunctional. I’ve spent a lot of time in the “why bother?” camp, and only recently been reminded why.

Today was one of those days.

I am on the heels of our first Food For Thought dinner party since moving back to the States. Typically, we pick a topic, prep for a week or two, and then get together to eat and talk. But this time we decided to base the dinner topic off of the book Strangers In Their Own Land by Arlie Russell Hochschild.

With my busy schedule I wasn’t sure I would be able to complete it, but thanks to Audible, I did. And I’m glad I did. The hope that seemed so distant and foreign to me has returned. Reading this book reminded me that if people do the work to gain understanding, they can find common ground and build a better foundation for humanity.

And that’s what we all want, right?

Take, for example, the new beer ad from Heineken that’s gone viral. It’s gone viral precisely because it strikes at the heart of this desire.

Those of us who love it, love it because it captures the essence of humanity and our desire to set aside boxes and connect with one another.

But I wonder, for all of the love we feel when we watch it, do we realize that these are real people responding to one another. Given the opportunity, would we be willing to do the same?

If you’re like me, and the division in this nation grieves you, are you willing to take an active role in changing the climate? Are you prepared to collaborate with others and build the proverbial furniture?

Will you choose to stay and have that beer in the end?

We need one another, and I firmly believe that if we can filter the noise, partisanship, and talking points, we will gain insight and empathy and conquer even greater tasks than Ikea furniture instructions together.

From The Archives: The Illusion of Intimacy

I’ve noticed a theme in many stories shared on social media lately. I was deeply touched by The Innovation of Loneliness; a short video which explores the changes in the formation of our social circles and communities as we become more “connected.” I’ve also watched a few that explore how women’s self-perception is being impacted by constant comparison with photoshopped “beauty.” Most notable are the number of stories about disconnecting from technology to connect more fully with life and those around us.

I’ve been contemplating my own loneliness, especially since becoming a mom. I’ve wondered if it’s a natural part of staying home with my kids. Am I really cut out for motherhood? Or am I just too selfish? I’ve also wondered if the disconnection I’ve felt upon my move back to the U.S. is due mostly to moving back into the same old when I am nowhere near the same old. Perhaps I’ve just entered into a dramatically changed place? My absence and re-entry into the US have, after all, coincided with the immense growth in popularity of Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets. Questions give birth to more questions.

I am sure of a few things though. While social media is designed to connect, its natural consequence is further alienation from one another. While keeping up with friends and family through Facebook can be an excellent way to stay “connected” from a distance; it is not a replacement for the relationship.

If I haven’t called you, spoken to you, or sent you an email of a more personal nature- I can’t expect you to know or feel tended to on a relational level. It’s just reality. Conversely, when I speak with someone I haven’t heard from in a while and realize they keep up with me through Facebook; and may even have a decent grasp on the recent goings on in my life- it gives me great pause. Suddenly, someone I didn’t consider to be part of my inner circle seems like they should be. After all, they know what I ate for dinner yesterday, the cute thing one of my kids said to me that morning, or my thoughts on the day in general. It feels strange, out-of-body, and adulterous.

Adulterous may seem like a strange descriptive, but it best describes my sentiment in these moments. It’s as if there is this potential relationship being cheated on. A relationship that could exist, but won’t because I’ve settled for cheap and quick hook ups in the form of Facebook posts, tweets and so on.

I’ve settled for surface when I could have commitment. I’ve chosen relationships of convenience and ease that take place on my terms; as opposed to the messy and challenging relationships that happen in real time. I prefer airbrushed and dressed up in place of real and wrinkled. Intelligence and quick wit win out over thoughtfulness and pause.

Human relationships are messy and flawed. Frustration and challenge entwine with beauty and creativity in the bonds we form when we walk side by side. There is a dignity within the wrestling of relationship. We are known. We are accepted. We are stretched and grown. We are challenged and encouraged. Our lives are spoken into in meaningful ways, and we are given opportunities to speak into others lives similarly. We are held to a greater responsibility relationally. When someone is sitting across from us in our living room or at a table in a café- we can’t simply unfriend them or block them from our feed.

Is it any coincidence that as we become more “connected” through social media- we actually feel less connected, less accepted, and less cared for? We yearn for beauty, creativity, and understanding but report feeling less and less of these things with each passing day.

Perhaps it’s time to do something different.

Set down the tablet or phone (after reading this of course). Walk away from the screen in front of you and do something scary. Call someone you’ve intended to call for a long time. Make plans to get together with a friend. Invite people into your home for a meal. Throw aside your reservations, fears, insecurities, and excuses. Make the change. Shift the paradigm. Reach out and touch someone 😉

What We Could All Use in the Wake of Orlando

I can’t make sense of the words and politics swirling around me on social media these days. Every time I get online, I leave feeling exhausted, discouraged, and tied up in knots.

Forty-nine lives were just cut short in Orlando; taken by a mad man.

Mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, husbands, wives, partners, and friends are gone. Those who are left to pick up the pieces in the wake of this horrible tragedy mourn.

While they mourn and press into all of the questions that come when someone you love is ripped away in death; we offer policy solutions, answers, and arguments.

When my brother died, the last thing I wanted to hear were people’s platitudes, personal stories of pain, or emotional processing. I only wanted them to show up and be present. To sit with me. To allow me to grieve. To listen. And to remember.

Shiva is the Jewish tradition of mourning death. I am not Jewish, but this practice is appealing to me on some levels. When people sit Shiva, they gather around the bereaved to show their support and to honor the life of the individual who died.

The way people show up during Shiva is different from anything I have ever experienced. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes that “according to Jewish law, there is a particular etiquette for paying a Shiva visit. Visitors are to enter quietly, take a seat near the mourner, and say nothing until the mourner addresses them first.”

He talks about how we are generally unaware of what a grieving person needs; and that by allowing space for silence, we can help to meet that person in one of their greatest times of suffering.

In silence.

When my brother died, everything was thrown into flux. It was horrible and dark, and most days I could barely breathe. I knew grief would be hard, but I didn’t understand the impact others could have on it until I walked through it myself.

My family’s grieving process was often compounded by well-meaning people who showed up with their baggage and unknowingly used our pain as an extension of their own unprocessed grief. They walked right into our space with their poorly thought out words, inappropriately applied feelings, and spiritual reasoning.

I’m certain they meant well. And I’m sure most of us mean well right now too. But meaning well doesn’t always translate into doing well. And why is it people offer noise where silence is needed? Why are we uncomfortable with pain? Because pain hurts. And it’s hard.

Those who have experienced the loss of a family member or close companion understand how essential it is to push through the pain, and how dangerous it is to remain stuck in anger.

But wow are we angry in this country right now. We’re angry about guns. We’re angry about religion. We’re angry about bathrooms and political agendas. We’re angry about media bias. We’re angry at our current president, past presidents, and presidential candidates who may never be. We’re angry about using certain words, not using other words; and ironically angry words abound.

We are literally tearing into each other from every angle.

And we are missing our opportunity to honor the lives of the lost with each passing argument.

I want to know the names and faces of the men and women who were murdered. I want to hear their stories. I want to push into that pain to honor them and those left in this wake of sadness.

Looking back at my own family’s mourning process, I wish people had shown up, sat down, and held quiet space. I’ve come to believe that when community checks it’s baggage at the door and comes together to support the bereaved, it can be one of the greatest gifts offered.

I think it’s time for us to set our collective baggage aside and show up. Let’s sit a Shiva of sorts as people in unity and solidarity with all those who are grieving.

Let’s put away our angry words, our pointed blame, and our baggage; and join with the loved ones of the slain, with the LGBTQ community as a whole, and with one another.

I know it’s not comfortable to sit in the silent space between tragedy and solution. And I know many things need to change in this country. But if we fall prey to the notion that an angry word or a social media brow-beating will somehow effect change or represent an act of honoring the lives lost; then I am afraid we are one step closer to losing our humanity.

How 5 Words Caused an Identity Crisis

Back in 2007 my husband and I moved to Shanghai for his work. It was then that I decided to trade in my old leather-bound journals for an actual blog. I figured my life was finally interesting enough to start one, and at a minimum, we could keep our families updated on our adventures.

We moved back to the U.S. in 2011, and my desire to write came to a complete halt. I had moved from a dynamic and exciting metropolis back to suburbia. With two fourteen-month-olds requiring all of my time and energy; and the remnants of post-partum depression hanging on- I had a difficult time dealing with life. Sadly, I couldn’t see any value in myself or my experience then; so it only made sense that I had no desire to share what was going on with a larger audience.

Healing began when I started the Food For Thought project (read more about that here). Having something to focus on outside of my role as a mom gave me the space I needed to breathe and grow as a person; and in turn, allowed me to process how I felt about myself. As I started writing again; I found that my old blog no longer fit where I was going; so I scrapped it and started this new project. With the guidance of some other writers, I opted for my name as the title, and I haven’t looked back since.

I thought everything would be smooth sailing once I settled on the title, but I was mistaken. As I was working on the “fun stuff” like theme, layout, colors, and font- I hit a bit of a bump. There, right below the title of my blog, I needed to choose five or so words that would effectively communicate who I was and what this project might reflect. No pressure right?

Initially, I was wife, mother, traveler, city dweller, story teller. It flowed and fit, yet something in me didn’t feel comfortable with the order. I tried to convince myself it didn’t flow, but the truth was- I wasn’t ok with wife and mom as the first two words. Why though? What was so unsettling? Hadn’t I put this discomfort to rest? Hadn’t I made peace with myself as a mother?

I had no idea that 5 simple words would create such an internal struggle.

My internal dialogue looked something like this: “I am a wife and mother first, but do I want to be identified as such?” “What limitations might that place on me?” “How might people perceive me?” “Do I then become “just a mom blogger”?” “Haven’t we moved past this?” “Can I put wife and mother in the end? Or does that make me a bad wife and mother?” “Am I allowing society to dictate and narrate my value and worth?” and on and on the argument went.

I realized that while I had become more comfortable in my own perspective, I hadn’t yet wrestled with how others might perceive me.

We haven’t come to a point in society where human beings are judged based on the fullness of their lives, and not simply on labels. Nor have we risen above dismissing people without digging deeper into their life stories. I will be the first to admit my shortcomings in this area. That’s part of the reason I started the Food For Thought dinners. But now that I am blogging with my name, telling my stories, sharing my perspectives, and putting myself out there for people to see and scrutinize- the stakes feel higher.

As a person who chooses words to communicate, I understand the weight that they can carry. I was still surprised to find that these 5 words and their placement on a page could cause me to question my identity, my perceptions about the words themselves, and even my priorities.

After much wrestling, I decided on “Story Teller, City Dweller, Wife, Mother, Traveler.” It fits and flows the best, but most importantly- it is true to who I am as a person, a wife, a mother, and a writer.

On Riots, Race, and Hope

When the news came out about the unusual and seemingly violent death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, I thought to myself- I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t. I had stayed off social media in the wake of the police shooting of Walter Scott, and my heart and mind couldn’t process any more.

Then Baltimore began rioting. It was madness. People were angry and out of control and looting and violent… Or at least that’s what I heard. An ever apologetic and mainly white liberal media was out there on the front lines of “all hell breaking loose” doing what they thought was in the best interest of someone somewhere.

But the question begs who? Who is benefiting from the story being told by the mainstream media? As far as I know- it’s just them. The rest of us are here watching and reeling and losing hope that anything will ever change; that things will ever get better. The recent string of shootings of black men by police officers has many of us feeling completely overwhelmed.

I will admit that I’ve felt hopeless in the wake of these news stories; so much so, that I had to stop watching and reading for a while. So while CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the like go to the front lines of the Baltimore riots- the rest of us watch in fear for our nation and the future of everyone in it. They laugh all the way to the ratings bank while we wonder if our country is on the verge of race riots.

But here’s the thing. This narrative that the mainstream media is pushing on us is all wrong. They think they’re on the cutting edge, bringing the plight of the black community to the nation; and what they’re really doing is speaking into the preexisting prejudices many Americans have against black Americans. “Black people riot and loot,” “they lack leadership and fathers,” “they are always blaming someone else for their problems” and so on and so on it goes.

This narrative tells us that people in the black community are mad, disenfranchised and left to fend for themselves; and that the riots need understanding. At first glance it seems well-meaning; an apologists effort to simply share a story and help people think about things in a different and more understanding light, right? But it’s all so wrong. What it really does is undercuts the uniqueness of every individual American experience, as well as experiences within the black community as a whole. It not only misses the truth, but it also propagates lies and prejudices.

Let’s think for a moment about the viral video in which mom finds kid rioting, mom beats kids. Some people were uncomfortable with such a display of violence, but most people thought it was great and they heralded this mother as some hero; as if this was an unusual phenomenon. While the initial compliments seemed genuine enough, the underlying assumption is that black moms and black parents don’t do this enough.

I live in Detroit. I also live in a predominately black neighborhood, and for those of you who don’t know me or haven’t seen my bio pic- I am about as white as they come. I feel privileged to call this my home and community. While I have the privilege of living in a more racially diverse neighborhood; outside of a large city, many people don’t. Every time I step out into the world around me, I realize how truly distorted this media narrative is, and I am grateful for that.

The actual story in Baltimore isn’t about riots or some bad-ass mom who did what she needed to do to protect her son. Baltimore is about so much more. It is about a man named Freddie Gray and what happened to him while in police custody. It is about thousands of people coming together to speak on behalf of his and others silenced voices. It’s about pastors and parents and individuals doing good, marching in unity, standing in solidarity against the rioters, protecting the police, protecting the public, speaking out in peaceable anger, and demanding justice. It’s about kids, families, business owners, and community leaders coming together to clean the mess and devastation left by rioters.

If we really want to see change take place, we will need to dig deeper so that our information doesn’t come packaged and delivered to our television or computer screens via mainstream media. Better yet, let’s turn it off and take a step outside into the world. The truth is out there- in communities, in churches, and in relationships with one another.

Dear Victoria’s Secret

Dear Victoria’s Secret,

Allow me to begin this letter with a heart-felt thank you. You see, I’ve suffered from a horrible case of writers block for months now. But today? Today I have been unblocked thanks to you. While the story is rather old news, it’s been given a new life since Upworthy posted this bit by Saturday Night Live the other day. Had it not been for them; I would have remained unaware of what happened at one of your Texas stores. I just read that one of your employees recently denied a paying customer the right to feed her child in discreet dignity in one of your dressing rooms; that she suggested the woman who had shopped with a baby in tow (kudos to her), then purchased $150 in merchandise- was told to go feed her child in an alleyway! I have to be honest here; as this story continues to sink in, I’m absolutely amazed by the irony of it all.

You make your millions selling to women. Mothers, wives, girlfriends, young women; even teens and pre-teens. In some fashion the majority of your income is likely to come from a household with mothers. They may not be lactating, but at some point they were. At some point a vast majority of them probably even fed their children from their breasts. You know- those things you spend loads of advertising dollars plastering all over America; that you blow up, air brush, and shove in the faces of countless innocent passers-by walking through America’s malls day after day? (Oh, I do love a good pun.)

Let’s be clear here, breasts in their own way are pretty awesome. But see, you sell a bag of lies and bombard us with images throughout malls and shopping plazas; images that are sold on the backs of women’s beauty. Yours are photoshopped lies that feed and prey on the insecurities of girls and women. You use our beauty in a way that suits you as a product pusher, and further the notion that women’s breasts are for pleasure and consumption alone. You litter storefronts and commercials with images that are often degrading and demoralizing. (I’m thinking back to one particular commercial gem of yours that graced my television years back. It started with women in lingerie rolling all over beds, and ended with a model taking a rather disgusting guzzle of milk at the end of her cat walk.)

Your advertising department may be wondering why so many people are upset right now; thinking you merely need to point out that this was the action of one rogue employee and reassure people that you have a pro-breastfeeding corporate policy. I’m hopeful that you’re going to find there are a lot more people like me out there; a lot more people who are waking up to the unfortunate truths of your company and others like you. Your company has been part of a campaign that uses women and their unique beauty to sell a lie at their ultimate expense. You gladly take our money. You take our money and you kick a nursing mother out of your store? It’s amazing, if it weren’t so bloody infuriating.

And please don’t get me wrong here. I’m no prude. I like lingerie. My husband really likes lingerie. I made the difficult decision to follow my conscience over a decade ago when I stopped shopping at your stores. It was difficult in part because I liked your products… a lot. They were easily accessible and relatively affordable. I also knew that when I walked out the door as a consumer you’d never even notice; that it wouldn’t affect your bottom line one bit. But that wasn’t the point. I had spent years being uncomfortable with your large and obtrusive ads, and as the ads got bigger and more inappropriate, it became clear to me that you merely wanted to push your agenda. To this day- I can’t think of a mom friend who was/is comfortable walking by your storefront with their children. That’s sad. So I decided that I had to stop being a part of something that I found inappropriately aggressive in its advertising, and that continued with what I considered reckless disregard in advertising. Your company has shown time and time again that it has no regard for women, children, or the public in general. And this recent move by your employee was just too poetic, the irony too great to go unmentioned.

As I began this letter with a thanks, I must also end with one. Thank you for helping me see with more clarity than ever before. I’ve never felt as vindicated, as satisfied or as certain with a decision as I do now.

Regards,

Jennifer Kinney

Shattered Silence

Profound impact is delivered in a number of ways. Mine, came in the form of a movie. How wonderful it is to have film today; to have the ability to join in and bear witness to such emotion, such beauty, and such horror. What a privilege it is to sit comfortably in a theatre or home and take these images and stories in. There is a power in seeing and hearing. I found myself thinking this as I sat and watched the story of Selma unfold on the screen before me.

I was born into a media age, and as such, have little appreciation for the relative newness, power and role that film has played in our history. I had almost zero understanding of the role that journalists and film played in the civil rights movement, particularly when it came to Dr. King. He and those close to him understood the power of the visual story. Where they went, the media followed. A once small and insignificant town, would be thrust beneath the glaring eye of media scrutiny when they showed up. The corrupt and abusive authorities who once tormented, terrorized and brutalized African-American’s in virtual anonymity, would then have to carry on in the light.

For those under 40, the civil rights movement is little more than an historical time marked in textbooks. It was a time so horrible and strange, that many of us find it difficult to grasp and identify with. We have learned about it through school and media. And while some have been privileged enough to hear stories from family or friends who marched and protested; for many, it is a space in history that has only been further muted by distance and indifference.

Watching this movie was a tremendous sensory experience and there were times when I felt like the weight of the film would crush me. But I sat and I watched and I took it all in- every sight, every sound, every word, every facial expression, and every interaction. The emotion was raw and palpable. The story was wretched and beautiful; and both the wretched and beautiful fought to overcome the other. In less than two hours I bore witness to the humanity of a man, the grace and elegance of a woman, and the bravery and determination of countless men, women and children in the face of unparalleled evil.

At times I found myself nodding my head like a parishioner in the church of justice. Other times I was overtaken by emotion. I sat and sobbed. My body literally shook in grief for all that was done and all that is still done; for all that was fought for and for all that is still to be fought for. I allowed it in. It was the very least I could do to honor Dr. King, his legacy, and those who have fought and suffered so greatly.

I watched the screen as a mother held her sons broken and bullet-riddled body after he was shot by an officer of the law for walking in the street. Instead of choking back the tears and reminding myself this was just a movie- I thought about my two sons. My two beautiful sons- children with whom I’ve had the privilege of walking beside during their journey into adolescence; gifts I get to unwrap and experience on a daily basis. If I’m really blessed, I will have the privilege of watching them grow into men. What a joy it will be for me as a mother to watch them blossom and grow, to encourage their interests and passions, and to marvel at the men they become. I sat with this weight and contemplated what it must have been like for this particular mother and countless others who couldn’t simply bask in pride; but had to fear for their babies lives. And I wept for those mothers who held their babies bodies- bloodied and broken and without breath- lives stopped short because of hate and power and silence.

And it’s that silence that I want to shatter. That silence that rolls it’s eyes at yet another topic involving racism. That silence that tells us that racism no longer impacts a large number of people, that these are stories without relevance in today’s United States, and that people should just move on. And let’s not be fooled by the idea that silence is passive. It is as active and hard working as non-violence has and continues to be. It bullies and shames. It feeds, strengthens and emboldens racism. It is the enemy of reconciliation, justice, and peace. And it must come to an end.

It is time to shatter the silence.