By Maureen Eich VanWalleghan
Poems © 2021
I am a Karen
antivacc-er whose kid is vaccinated
a [cis] woman or man
student loan defaulter
choked by the bootstraps
can’t get a job
can’t hold a job
stay at home or work at home mom
Make America Great
mother and father but now only “parent”
hungry SNAP user
man who works but can’t afford rent
etc, etc, etc
OTHER—check this box for all that don’t fit
I am you
I am me
this is the only way to see
forward and through
really there’s just Neo
in the END
Inside the word
is a little word
Hate ate us up.
Nothing in my life has impacted me more than becoming a parent. Of course for all the fun reasons like seeing the world with new eyes, experiencing joy in untold ways, and having fun with another being who is so precious to me. But there is another side to parenting, which is painful, trauma-triggering, hard beyond belief, and at times nightmare inducing.
I came to the party late. I had my daughter at almost 42 years old. I had been teaching high school at the time in rural Arizona just before I got pregnant 15 years ago. My neighbors were becoming grandparents and one of my former students was also becoming a mom. In some ways my mothering journey has not been typical though there does seem to be an upswing in the direction of older moms.
I share this because right now in the world there seems to be a big need for framing. I have a need to validate my right to speak my truth as I have experienced it and now I want to share my observations about how the country might move out of our present disconnected situation.
I also feel like I must share that I find myself falling down the rabbit hole of being “a Karen.” A label used to describe a privileged woman who weaponizes her whiteness in harmful ways. On one hand the introspection of considering white privilege, the label is helpful when I have asked myself when have I been oblivious to others as I have walked through the world? And as a parent also considering the ways in which I want to educate my child to be sensitive to others—a task I’ve spent a great deal of energy working on. But there is a downside to this label of “Karen.” As with all labels their power lies in categorizing with a fairly nuanced meaning, but also labels can be used pejoratively to dismiss a group—and in this case, effectively silence white women through fear of being labeled “a Karen.” But parenting pushes me to be the person my daughter thinks I am, which means I must regularly push past my fears to be brave in ways that are hard even at the risk of being “canceled.”
In college, I remember when Mothers Against Drunk Drivers MADD was gaining momentum. I very distinctly felt that this issue had traction mainly because a white child had died and a white mother (Candace Lightner) was weaponizing her pain to show how drunk driving was killing people with no consequence to the often repeat-offending drunk driver. I wonder now if these voices of “white mothers” can still come forward or if they are silenced through self-censorship as society decides whose pain is valid and whose is not.
My need to own my own culpability is also important when opening a dialogue about what is happening in the United States right now. Through my lived experience I believe we are in a process of growth that looks like a helix. This country has passed this way before—multiple times. As a parent with a teen I feel frustrated because I’m disgusted that we continue to need to discuss sexual harassment, sexism, and consent in a toxic world that still seems to hat women and girls. My college self from 30 years ago thought we would be farther along in dismantling the patriarchy. Have things changed? Yes, but not enough as I prepare myself and my child to enter the world on her own.
And what about racism and all manner of “othering” that is so prevalent in this country? Did I think that the world would be better and racism addressed as I demonstrated to end aparthied? Of course I did. In the naiveté of my youth, I didn’t realize how deeply embedded systemic racism would persist. Life experience and a whole lot of reading has taught me otherwise. But it is through reviewing history that the tools for creating change can be seen over and over. In reviewing the breakdown of aparthied the notion of reconciliation is embedded in the work of Nelson Mandela and in his government. HIs process for uniting South Africa though flawed for some people did in fact bring the concept of reconciliation to a global audience—watching as he guided his country through baby steps to unite and in that process begin the of dismantling aparthied. And after he left office—Mandela, a Nobel Peace Laureate—founded in 2007, The Elders, a group of “independent global leaders working together for peace and human rights,” of which former President Jimmy Carter is an Elder Emeritus.
Even now the evolution of humanity continues in this woke time. Though I don’t care for the word woke because it implies that the process of understanding who we are as we move through the world and our impact on others can be completed. Really we are not woke. Instead we must continuously evaluate what is going on around us. That is how systemic issues are broken down bit by bit. We must ongoingly awaken to the structures that are systemically involved in creating identity whether it’s from privilege or from a lack of privilege.
Right now, I can hear the gnashing of teeth: woke, patriarchy, Karen, privilege. These are a few words that bring up the ire. Words have become so coded that dialogue seems almost impossible. And here’s where my English teacher / college writing professor self becomes activated. Language is fluid and fraught with many nuances that can lead to miscommunication and yet it is what we have to make connection. Listening beyond judging and stepping past presumed narratives that have embedded an “us versus them” mentality becomes a key part of making connections. Not getting lost in the languaging of political ideology is essential to creating reconciliation. And connection is what many of us are craving during this pandemic and in many ways during the ongoing national crisis that persists in keeping the country divided.
So how can connection be made? A lot of rhetoric about creating bipartisanship abounds in the news, which mostly sounds like political promises that won’t be kept. So where is the real work to be done about making connection? For me, it’s creating safe places for dialogue that moves beyond the language of prescribed media narratives and instead considers the nuance of words beyond their connotations, which have been limited in their breadth and depth of meaning.
Disenfranchised is just such a word. A word that came up in my news feed on Facebook in a post from Marianne Williamson just after the Biden inauguration. Below is the full post, which I share as it is the raison d’être for this essay.
For me [sic] yesterday a wonderful day. I feel as though a dark force has been lifted and America can breathe again.
A friend told me that it’s very sad because 73 million people feel disenfranchised. I told her they weren’t disenfranchised; they simply lost the election. I didn’t vote for Reagan or for either Bush, and I certainly didn’t vote for Trump, but when they won they won and when they were inaugurated I accepted that that was the will of the people (well, I didn’t accept that George W was the will of the people his first term and I still don’t, but that’s another story), but once the new president was inaugurated I certainly recognized that that was my president too.
I told her that yes, 73 million voted for him, but 80 million voted for Biden. 3 million more people voted for Hillary than voted for Trump last time, but Trump won the election because of the electoral college. It’s called democracy. No one is disenfranchised. It’s just that sometimes your guy wins and sometimes your guy loses. Elections can be grueling but there comes a time when the election is over.
I thought the inauguration was amazing. I totally believe him when he said “My whole soul is in it.” Every four years we have a national reset, both psychologically as well as politically. This was a day of reconciliation as well, a day to dissolve the toxicity of the last four years, forgive where we can forgive, and give our country a chance to start over.
As for the picture of Bernie… Can he ever stop being wonderful?
Now for full disclosure: Williamson was my first choice for a possible presidential nominee. Sadly, after two mass shootings in the US so close to each other—pretty much all the other possible Democrat presidential nominees beyond Biden were obliterated from the news cycle. Did anyone else notice this besides me?
As I have high regard for Williamson, I found myself deeply saddened by this post and it’s tone, which for me had no hint of reconciliation no matter what the words were saying—and no, Marianne a mea culpa is not required.
The friend’s comment in the post, “…73 million people feel disenfranchised” was something that I had been feeling myself, and their actions were seen in the egregious act of storming the Capital.
Here is the moment where I believe I must directly address my readers: no, I am not a Trump supporter, but I was married to one and we are still on good terms in our co-parenting arrangement for our child. I do realize that I have breached etiquette and at this moment, I’m showing empathy for Trump supporters—high treason going against the narrative of how awful those “deplorables” are. My wasband is an evolving human being. Has he said things that were offensive to me? Yes. Do we have an ongoing dialogue about how best to raise our child? Yes. Have I said things that were offensive to him. Of course. But what love does is help maintain conversations that permit individuals to grow, evolve, and expand their world view in an ongoing process that makes up a life’s journey. What is sad in the current climate of cancel culture is how the act of defending someone you care about—who may have or have had racist views—or defending someone who has in the past been hurtful and/or unconscious in their discussions or commentary somehow makes the defender a racist by proximity.
And now I’ve made my point.
I have been observing the intensity of all of society since I became a parent and everyone is angry, for quite sometime now—BLM supporters, Bernie supporters, Trump supporters, Occupy supporters, Tea Party supporters—really who isn’t angry?
As a parent the most important thing I have learned is that rarely is the superficial reason the real reason my child is acting out. Why are Trump supporters “acting out?” I ask this with true sincerity and without condescending because storming the Capital was acting out in the most intense and shocking way, which for me had little to do with the noted narrative that the election was stolen. Personally, I believe it is disingenuous to think that Trump has that much power to control the minds of 73 million “deplorables” with “neanderthal thinking.”
When my child is doing something or saying something that I don’t like I have to ask why. In my parenting learning curve I do a lot of reading about parenting and human relationships in articles across many publications. Recently, in a GOOP article about marriage How Do You Know When Your Marriage Is Over? A Q&A with Sara Nasserzadeh, PhD I came across language that I found very helpful in analyzing my responses to behavior in my child that I find troubling. The article discussed these words: uncomfortable, hurt, offended, and triggered noting that understanding which one of these feelings was in play was essential to understand and consider how an individual shows up differently for each one. I really like this progression of nuanced words because it has helped me to better understand myself in my parenting process. Triggered is the buzzword of the group and it’s used a great deal more than it should be.
So let’s live in real time…
I’m writing this article and my child has come home from a sleepover with the one friend she has been allowed to see through the pandemic (and the first sleepover she has had in more than a year). She is playing games on her iPad while her dad watches TV. It’s time for a symphony program that she has just started—before making leaps to white privilege we are the lucky recipients of a scholarship that make this possible as a component of homeschooling. Literally, my teenager gives a tirade of how much she doesn’t want to do the zoom meeting and hates everything about the program, which has now officially been deem “stupid.” What just happened? I am feeling everything: uncomfortable, offended, hurt, and triggered. I will admit to falling into triggered often almost immediately, but over time in dealing with my teenager I have come to see that at this moment I’m just uncomfortable because the situation is confusing, since a few days ago she was excited for the program. My desire is to not bite the bait and have an argument, but rather get her settled into the zoom meeting. But why the anger?
Globe and Mail in February 2016 ran an article that was an excerpt from Lisa Damour’s book Untangled, which discussed how it’s not just hormones impacting teenage girl behavior and their emotions. It’s a complex book and the quote from the article that sticks with me is below.
Externalization happens when your daughter wants to get rid of an uncomfortable
feeling. And not just anyone will take on her uncomfortable feeling; it has to be
someone who really loves her. Externalization is a profound form of empathy.
Hanging out with her friend highlights everything that my daughter doesn’t have: her own room, being in school, a fun young mom—generally a life that doesn’t look like those around her and hasn’t since fourth grade. We have been living a long time unconventionally by TV standards. She had a great time at her friend’s and most likely her uncomfortable feelings showed up when she walked into her dad’s place and thus began the externalization upon my arrival to check up that she was doing the symphony program.
Okay, now let’s make the armchair leap into psychology about why folks might be mad in this country? As I look out into the world many, many people don’t have the life they dreamed they would—no matter what socioeconomic or ethnic group they belong to. As the population considers the media / advertising / TV standards there is a sense of hopelessness that life will not be better for children of the future: economically or on a planet that is inhabitable. A sense of suffering collides with sacrifices that will not yield a better outcome for one’s children. This norm is becoming more and more pronounced and I believe felt all across the US.
The dynamic that I observe in the world today is illustrated in a Far Side cartoon: two sheep that are about to vote arguing with each other. Above one sheep’s ballot box is a picture of a lion candidate and above the second ballot box is a picture of a tiger candidate. For me, an apt representation of the bicameral system we have right now between Democrats and Republicans. The narrative of Republicans as villains and Democrats as the saviors rings false when following history. Picking apart the foibles and follies of either party won’t solve the divide of this country. Instead maybe it’s time to consider disenfranchisement beyond the most often used definition of “not having the right to vote” into not being represented.
When considering “Trump supporters” it seems relevant to consider how patriarchy structurally has embedded in it the notion of the zero sum game: a group or individual wins when another group or individual loses. From here it’s possible to see how racism takes hold because in this paradigm someone must be at the bottom. But if one considers a new paradigm of abundance without a loser beyond a zero sum game then it’s possible to begin to imagine different outcomes and a totally different societal structure. When one considers Trump supporters: uncomfortable, hurt, offended, and triggered—these are all words that come up. But Trump supporters are more than just racists. They need to be seen beyond the media narrative as villains. Their angry voice must be heard for all the resentment and angst it represents in this country. Punishing them will not bring healing. The shaming process of cancel culture and forcing people to apologize will not change thinking, but rather harden the heart with resentment that will continue to seep out helping to maintain the status quo. With hierarchy and ownership, the hallmarks of patriarchy, the only option is punishment because patriarchy is about control. But when considering human beings listening is key—then love becomes a way to understand and transform actions.
But how to get to this conversation/connection? First, if one returns to parenting principles that have come to be part of a national conversation about child rearing then maybe that is a place to start. The four things I personally work on are not shaming my child, not punishing my child for acting out behaviors (though there are consequences, which is different from punishment as noted in Janet Lansebury.com) and I don’t make my child apologize—as I believe an apology must come from the heart. And finally the most important tool I have in mothering is creating empathy with my child first, which is a concept that comes from Nonviolent Communication parenting books: Raising Children Compassionately by Marshall B. Rosenberg, Ph.D. and Parenting from Your Heart by Inbal Kashtan. I will say that this last piece of finding empathy when triggered or uncomfortable or offended or even hurt by my child is hard. And is in fact the most difficult task of the four. But the beauty and messiness of parenting is that one can come back again and again to try to improve the connection with one’s child.
Jessica Bennett’s Nov. 19, 2020 New York Times article “What if Instead of Calling People Out, We Called Them In?” considers the work of Professor Loretta J. Ross and what she is teaching in her classes mirrors some of what I am suggesting. In the article Prof. Ross discusses
Its characteristics include presumption of guilt (without facts or nuance getting in the way); essentialism (when criticism of bad behavior becomes criticism of a bad person); pseudo-intellectualism (proclaiming one’s moral high ground); unforgivability (no apology is good enough); and, of course, contamination, or guilt by association.
So consider that all the things noted above one would not want done to their child and yet as a society this is becoming the norm in just about every public debate going on today. Where to go from here? Even as the urge to find justice in the radical example of toppling Confederate statues to readdress who should be our heroes now—how can empathy be employed on both sides of redefining what the country stands for to its citizens and the world? It seems important to move beyond a notion of “offending no one” and instead consider what it means to dismantle someone’s heroes and how that can feel satisfying to one group and at the same time feel incredibly painful and disorienting to another group. I’m not suggesting that the toppling of Confederate statues shouldn’t have happened rather that for some that act of revolution will not necessarily be received without angst. If one considers the dismantling of the Berlin Wall there were people who did not necessarily think that uniting Berlin would be in their best interest.
Historically, small intimate settings have been used to break down diametrically opposed ideologies. For instance Seeds of Peace (a camp and network addressing conflicts worldwide) could be used as a model in this country to connect American students and even adults with different political views and look at the deeper issues that have created divisions in the US. Also the citizen diplomacy movement that contributed to the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is a model of creating connections in populations outside of political structures. And in Berlin it was the act of individuals crossing the border day after day to make personal connections that opened the floodgates for reunification.
I realize that my concepts and examples may be naive, but how and when do we step outside ourselves and reimagine a country where no one feels disenfranchised, as in not represented? Is that possible? I believe it is. Private US citizens have been the global leaders in promoting peace—even as the US government has promoted war—and it is time to turn that leadership toward healing the divide in this country. Politicians are not equipped to be radical or empathic as they are quite beholden to donors.
Now is the moment to gather as much new thinking as possible by looking at psychology theory and communication practices from many different disciplines: child rearing, marriage counseling, nonviolent communication, and citizen diplomacy. It is possible to address the systemic issues that plague the United States. It is possible to move off of the clickbait narrative that sells news and to communicate with empathy and conscientiously consider how citizens address each other as the first steps of a reconciliation process.
Of course, relying on news outlets to lead this shift of the narrative to one of reconciliation is problematic. Remember the 1997 James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. Jonathan Pryce as Elliot Carver, a maniacal media mogul—possibly based on Rupert Murdoch—attempts to trigger World War III because bad news sells. The media industry in all its forms has a desire for continuous growth, which sustains a narrative with a villain, be it Trump, Osama bin Laden, or any key Soviet leader of the Cold War. It is interesting to consider that Mikhail Gorbachev (last leader of the Soviet Union) along with Frederik Willem de Klerk (the last head of state from the era of white-minority rule in South Africa) each made personal and political decisions that transformed their countries and the world. As it has most recently been experienced an individual leader can divide or unite a country.
By finding common ground it is possible to see what unites this country then reimage what the infrastructure of society could look like by moving beyond the continued black and white narrative about whether the U.S. is now a dystopia and how which political system will yield a utopia. Michael Shermer in his March 7, 2018 article in Aeon, “Utopia is a dangerous ideal: we should aim for ‘protopia’” Shermer states:
…utopias are especially vulnerable when a social theory based on collective ownership, communal work, authoritarian rule and a command-and-control economy collides with our natural-born desire for autonomy, individual freedom and choice. Moreover, the natural differences in ability, interests and preferences within any group of people leads to inequalities of outcomes and imperfect living and working conditions that utopias committed to equality of outcome cannot tolerate.
Shermer then considers “[w]hat, then, should replace the idea of utopia? One answer can be found in another neologism – protopia – incremental progress in steps toward improvement, not perfection.” How does a society do this? How can incremental progress happen? It comes back around about how to communicate with empathy and open a path of love and for me, mothering as the framework has all the essential ingredients.
Can I—in this article—consider a “systemic explanation of the racial/political dynamics in this country” that the editor asked of me. I can’t because once I do, I end up on a path where I can’t sustain the thread required for a documented-supported argument. There are so many other great thinkers who are doing this work. Instead—as a mother—I’m asking the reader to hold many ideas, which I have gathered together to create a moment I hope of possible personal epiphany about how to reach out to someone they deeply and profoundly disagree with to begin the reconciliation process. My thoughts here are not new, and not even original to me. Really my request is that the reader hold space that each individual is divine and hold space that the process of healing is personal, and political, and requires something beyond the measured arguments. Reconciliation ultimately requires love.
Right now there are many forces feeding patriarchy that are steeped in hate, but the greatest in my opinion is the news cycle. I have gone through phases of reading as many as seven to ten different news sites a day to gain an understanding of all that is happening in our world and in our country. From my observation the shrillness of clickbait has taken over all reporting no matter the source. The best thing Trump has done is be a perfect villain in a news cycle that maintains a narrative arc that his Presidency was either saving or killing our democracy. He has been easy fodder to castigate because he is not a policy wonk and he can not easily speak spontaneously. In considering where a reconciliation process might begin—having powerful voices in news media, entertainment, and government sit in a room together for a facilitated discussion using Nonviolent Communication would be a place to start.
To that end, I have imagined a format that could support safe and intimate dialogues for participants to be heard, which I’m calling the Council of Reconciliation. And who should be the first participants of this imagined Council? To narrow the field, I considered myself and my life experience as a template of who could or would be open to dialogue (and who might be feeding the narratives) but also who in our population is in fact invisible. Women—in our collective unconscious—after the age of 50 years are considered not relevant as their youthful beauty has waned and their childbearing is mostly finished. A lack of these two qualities: youth and beauty make older women in patriarchy commodities that are used up. And yet older women have much to offer in wisdom from lived experience (and possibly mothering) that could be transformative for our society. The imagined participants I would put in a room together for the first Council of Reconciliation are ground breakers in all their respective fields, high profile, of various ethic backgrounds, and are also between the ages of 57 and 68 years old, with some who are mothers and some who are not.
Council of Reconciliation
Imagined possible facilitators:
Mary Mackenzie (62) • Co-founder NVC Academy
Imagined possible participants:
Roseanne Barr – 68
Judy Chu – 68
Maureen Dowd – 68
Sharon Osbourne – 68
Marianne Williamson – 68
Oprah Winfrey – 67
Condoleezza Rice – 66
Sonia Sotomayor – 66
Whoppie Goldberg – 65
Michelle Steel – 65
Susana Martinez – 61
Deb Haaland – 60
Ann Coulter – 57
Yvette Herrell – 57
Laura Ingrams – 57
Michelle Obama – 57
For the wrap up: my call is to Marianne Williamson to bring forth what she brought up in her candidacy that I found most exhilarating: a call to love that creates action that transforms this country. Right now a new vision of how we see ourselves is needed to create reconciliation and take back the notion of how to make America great beyond the old paradigms of patriarchy.
We are the sum of black and white
the distance between the setting sun and the rising moon
the place between two extremes
is Jesus the only measurement of time
B.C. and A.D.
before him the body
after him the brain
our capacity to know
is founded in extremes
based on our languages and memories
semantics and symbols
what’s the root
is it the same in Latin
forget the rituals
is it possible to expand our brains and learn without linear steps
to open your mind and absorb the information
if you slow down to think
then it’s overwhelming
‘cause things are moving way too fast
how is it possible to have a shadow at twilight
illumination and spotlight
the body talks
we are the body and the spirit
is not extreme
there is no god
only the space
between black and white
like a photograph
built from a range of grays
between heaven and earth
our capacity to just be
blocked by the limits of an underused organ
the kingdom of heaven is here on earth
the words of Jesus
what did he really say
and who was he speaking to
in the divine marriage of the masculine and feminine
one is lost in having a winner
in a zero sum game
we are not playing
for keeps here
there is only gray
and the frustration
of this happy medium
here on earth
we are all gods or goddesses of our own choosing
except it’s all joke
because the universe abhors a vacuum
now we have science to explain
what should be
but our poor little brains are so small
that we can’t love and think
at the same time
like walking and chewing gum
or patting your head and rubbing your stomach
it’s possible if you really concentrate
and with practice
it could begin to feel natural
The Meaning of Life
The Last Temptation of Christ
gray is the ugly color
black is all color or
the absence of light
white is all light or
the absence of color
confusing isn’t it
gray is the fruit of
yin and yang
the messy murky color
how much of each ingredient
determines the hue
of an ambiguous color
smeared with a pallet knife
where is the point
between black and white
It’s all gray.
Maureen Eich VanWalleghan is a 2007 graduate of Brooklyn College’s MFA Creative Writing Program in Poetry.