As Americans, we hold our heads high on the pedestal of freedom. We wax poetically about liberty, wearing it as a mantle of international justice. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, are after all, key tenets of our way of life. Yet I venture to say that one integral value is missing from our American Way. Dignity.

We continue to shame those who need our help and put down those who are not like us. We target immigrants and refugees as criminals at best, terrorists at worst. We impose drug tests on the poor and accept the elderly living in squalor. We have no shame when it comes to feeding our own wealth, yet we fail miserably at feeding our own children. We maintain that those who are poor somehow deserve it, even the children. We value life in the womb but not in the world. We flippantly lay blame and judgement at the feet of those who need us and view the otherness of everyone as a liability, a statistic. These are parasites among us, never fellow human beings. As our sense of equal dignity vanishes, the ugly head of judgement and bigotry will vanquish us.

My own state’s Governor, Pat McCrory, recently remarked that transgender citizens are “not a protected class.” Even my 10-year-old son shrieked at that comment, asking in equal parts rage and childhood bewilderment, “ Aren’t all humans a protected class?” This is what our world has come to? We must prove our worth and value? We are judged by the lot we are dealt, by how the stars aligned upon our birth? We place so much value on personal responsibility that we fail to take responsibility for the common good. Community has been rendered meaningless. And dignity is lost.

I blame this in part to the proliferation of cul de sacs and backyard decks. Gone are neighborly front porches and sidewalks creating a physical sense of community. But I digress…

In America we allow our veterans to waste away, hanging their heads in shame when they need us the most. We stigmatize mental illness and denigrate those who plead for help. We say depression is simply a mood, not a condition that requires medical attention. We do the same for postpartum depression, judging mothers who are hurting at the most fragile time of life. We fail to fund education, the foundation from which dignity rises. We allow fellow citizens to live in unsafe, unclean conditions while we celebrate the obscene wealth of reality TV show stars. Our principles and priorities are misguided as we scramble to protect ourselves, all the while not understanding that the reward when we protect each other is that we care for ourselves too. This is community.

We are a nation that has lost its value of dignity in its fight for personal freedom. We consider spending money on our fellow human beings as an expense, not as an investment. This is shameful pure and simple. Everyone stacks up as a balance sheet debit, and no one is granted a positive sense of dignity. By all measures the one percent among us should be polished and educated and cultured. They are dignified yet cease to grant dignity to others outside their own socioeconomic realm. They are afforded every advantage in life yet feel no tug to give back, to contribute to lift up others. Not all, of course, but so many. Even legislators, our elected officials who are tasked, nay trusted, with caring for all their citizens, continue to demoralize entire populations and professions (like teachers). They pass bad policy that sanctions discrimination (like HB2). We reserve dignity for those who’ve earned it. This mindset is teeming with flaws and bigotry, especially when overlaid with the hypocritical teachings of the conservative religious right. Liberty and justice for all without an accompanying sense of dignity still binds us in shackles as nation. If we are truly to be free and if we are truly fighting for this freedom in all corners of the planet, we must start with valuing the inherent sense of dignity in every person.

 

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If I could just show you a photograph, it would tell you the 1000 words I’m having trouble finding myself. She would have been a slight thing with a mop of curly hair, dungarees, and no shoes. Her gingham pinafore was likely tattered by day’s end, which made her mother succumb to the rolled up dungarees. She always had dirt under her nails, much to the dismay of her tidy mother and proper sister. She frolicked in the fields and preferred an afternoon riding horses to playing piano. She was a rascally tomboy at a time society expected her to be a dainty flower. To this day she eschews dresses and describes herself as “sports-minded.” She favors natural hues like brown and green and dons sensible shoes, corduroy pants, and anything adorned with horses.

As we stroll to the neighborhood park through land that was once part of her family farm, she tells my sons about her life when she was their age. Her hands wave this way and that as she chatters about how rows of crops and barns gave way to ranch houses and sidewalks. Back in the day she pulled her dog in a wagon through the fields and weaseled her way into basketball games that only boys were playing. Her cheeky grin often earned her a front seat ride in the milk delivery truck that her sister’s beau drove around the village. When we pass the village cemetery she points out where her sister and her milk delivery beau (who had become her husband of over 50 years), were buried. There lie her mother, her father, and countless cousins, too. I am alarmed to see her maiden name on so many headstones. It’s then that I feel a palpable sense of mortality and lean in more closely to hear her stories.

When she met me for the first time 20 odd years ago, she remarked that it was the only time she was taller than an adult. I can hear her tickled giggle that made us both double over. This was before she began the wilting stoop that comes with age. She’s always been small but fierce. She has opinions that match her values and actions to back it all up. She’s tough yet tender, a product of a hard life on the farm in the chill of Midwest winters and in the throes of raising six children. She is a feminist of sorts, though I doubt that word is even in her vernacular. She’s been an avid reader and would put down her newspaper at day’s end to tune in to David Letterman. She cracks up at the irreverent jokes, nary a blush passing her cheeks. As a child, her mind and mouth were always running. It’s been much the same in the years I’ve know her. I imagine her as a female version of Dennis the Menace. Even now.

I never grew up around the elderly. I have only vague memories of my own grandparents and never spent any meaningful time with them. The first time I ever spent significant time with the aging was when I visited Manitowoc, Wisconsin back in the late 90s with my boyfriend (now my husband, Mac Daddy). It seemed that his small town was teeming with aging family members, and admittedly, at first I was a tish uncomfortable. Of course that has since all changed. Most of the people I met all those years ago have passed, the oldest living to 102.

Laverne, fragile and weak, remains with us. She is a testament to Midwest sensibilities and grit. There was a time we bickered about whose family passed down the stubborn genes. I think we can confirm they came from Laverne’s lineage. But gone are the days of her romping in the park like a giggling girl, splaying out on the family room carpet to play Perfection with the boys, or shooting hoops granny style in the driveway. She’s been a marvel all these years, a picture of spunk. It’s haunting to see just a glimpse of the spirited woman she once was. Her curly mop has thinned so that there’s more scalp than hair. Her cheeks are no longer round and rosy, her stature hunched, her voice a whisper. You’ll still catch her with newspaper in hand, reading glasses atop her head as if she too is denying the trappings of aging. She spends much of her days in the bed that’s been moved to the living room, a caregiver or family member holding constant vigil, ready to nurture and offer care as scant repayment for what she’s done for others all this time.

She speaks very little these days so we treasure her stories even more. We  find ourselves leaning in to hear her and furrowing our brows to make sense of what she’s uttered. Her memories are perhaps fleeting, and she wavers in an ethereal place that never quite reaches lucidity. From one moment to the next we question if she even recognizes us. We’ve learned to temper our expectations. But then there’s an ever so slight spark in her eye and a faint squeeze of her hand on my arm, and I know she knows. When we saw her last she told us to have a safe trip. The heft of these simple words are immeasurable and poignant as they were proof that she recognized us and knew we traveled from afar to see her.

Through the outbursts, confusion, and sorrow, there are flashes of brightness. Though dementia is beginning its grip on her, it doesn’t define her. They say that dignity is the first thing to go. We paradoxically transform from parent to child and vice versa as  we age. Such is the nature of things, the underbelly of aging that we shirk from but eventually succumb to.

I don’t think her story has ever been told. This is merely a start, for 87 rides around the planet make for a rich tale. While it seems a simple woman from a tiny town in Wisconsin has lead an unremarkable life, one that has not reached far beyond her own geographic borders, the contrary is actually true. Laverne’s life has indeed been remarkable. She’s been a quiet force, a steadfast ally, a loving mother, an indulging grandmother, an opinionated voter, and more.

I offer thanks to this woman, Laverne, for giving me her greatest gift, her equally tough yet tender son, my husband. She set an example for a young child who grew up be a feminist, a father who parents instead of babysits, and a man who sees the simple things and the fine things as synonymous. I look to her relationship with my husband, her youngest son, to learn how to parent my own sons. I see how he’s gentle and holds her hand, rubbing it gingerly as he remembers the years before when her hands were strong, her skin taut. Most importantly, she debunked stereotypes and taught both me and my children that mothers-in-law must not be beastly and grandmas can be badass.

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Moms+SocialGood — What do you wish were true for every child, everywhere?

May 5, 2016

Moms +SocialGood is a one-day event dedicated to empowering mothers around the world to create a better future for themselves and their families. I’m thrilled beyond measure to be speaking at the event this year. I’ll be in New York today at the New York Times Center. What an opportunity to connect the Global Moms community to leading experts, notable […]

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Your Car Is a Weapon

May 3, 2016

  I was admittedly swept up in a moment of vanity as I was checking my hair in the rearview mirror at the red light. Tiny wisps had been dragging between the space between my glasses and my eyelids so I was doing a quick finger comb. I was sweeping my hair off my face […]

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Prince, My Soundtrack

April 23, 2016

  The collective gasp heard ‘round the world on Thursday must be what it sounds like when doves cry. I get weepy, even more so than usual. My sons think I’m nuts. I sniveled in carpool, wiping snot on my sleeve and thanking the sun for warranting dark glasses as I pulled up to the […]

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On Flattery

April 20, 2016

When is a compliment earnest and when is it unsavory? In the last few weeks I’ve been approached by strangers (all men) to tell me they like my dress or I carry myself well or that I must have a “lucky fella” at home. I was even told in the airport, “Don’t take this wrong. […]

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Food Bank is Vital to Our Community

April 19, 2016

There are two things that are important to me – my kids and other kids. Feeding families, whether my own or others, is always top of mind. Food is about so much more than sustenance. Our dinner table is the nucleus of our family, yet many families don’t have that luxury. I volunteer as a […]

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One North Carolina Dad’s Thoughts on HB 2

April 18, 2016

My friend Matt penned this post that I wanted to share here. You’ll read his words and see that he’s a man bursting with integrity and compassion. Matt is my people. Read on and you’ll see why.   I am a dad. And, like most dads, I want to protect my children. I want to […]

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Waxing about Waxing

April 4, 2016

I am not a fussy, high maintenance kind of girl. The one thing I do routinely to tend to myself and my grooming is get my brows waxed. I was born with the most unfortunate unibrow, and it took me well into adulthood to learn that I could actually do something about it. I suppose […]

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ISO Some Perfect Things

March 23, 2016

I’m straying from my political rants and activism for a moment. I have some pressing issues that are much more superficial in nature. Hey, I’m human. This humanity innately makes me a hypocrite too. I grapple with my own shortcomings and hypocrisy. How am I going to save the world while I also covet designer […]

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