Friday, November 05, 2010

Why Do We Kill People Who Kill People?

I'm thinking about the death penalty and have been for weeks.

I don't know why this is so, I only know that it is. And then my most recent issue of Utne Reader magazine was delivered. After letting it sit on the kitchen table with approximately 237 other items that don't belong there for about a week, I opened it one afternoon while eating lunch. And there before me lay not one but two articles on capital punishment. OK, Universe. I'm listening.

I am not superstitious, but I do take this as a sign that I am supposed to be thinking about this topic. So I finally let it take hold of my mind. While preparing dinner, I'm thinking about state-sanctioned murder. While folding laundry, my thoughts turn to parents of victims and criminals alike. While soaking in a hot bubble bath, I close my eyes and wonder why.

Why, if capital punishment is justice served, do I struggle with it so?

On the days I entertain the idea that maybe society has legitimate use for the death penalty, I am focused on the idea of punishment. If someone takes the life of someone else, he should pay a price. I was raised in a home that was big on retribution. If we kids did something we shouldn't, we would be punished. That usually meant some form of physical pain. And as I would hide in my closet listening to my sister scream as our dad hit her, my little mind would wonder how this was helping my sis in any way. Oh, that's right. It wasn't supposed to help her. It was supposed to "teach her a lesson." Huh. Some lesson: If you do something you shouldn't, the people who claim to love you will hurt you.

We are a society that loves its retribution, though. Nathaniel Hawthorne's Hester Prynne fell in love with a minister and when their love became physical, she was outcast and forced to wear a scarlet "A" on her breast, just in case the neighbors didn't already realize she was an adulterer. And what punishment was served up to her lover? Nothing. That's because punishment is never fair, and that includes the death penalty. It is applied somewhat arbitrarily, to people who are not always guilty. And so innocent people are put to death. Which means instead of one innocent victim of a crime, there are two.

How is that justice?

The logical part of me then considers the cost of life imprisonment. We like to think that it's cheaper to just kill someone rather than pay to let them live out their lives in prison. But that's not reality. The reality of capital punishment in this country is that it costs 2 to 5 times more to execute someone than it does to keep him alive. This is due to the numerous appeals and legal processes involved. It's a criminal waste of money and resources in and of itself.

I might actually be able to justify a judiciously imposed death penalty if it did, in fact, serve as a deterrent to would-be murderers. But there is no evidence that it does and plenty of research to suggest that it doesn't come close to serving that purpose. In fact, since 1990, the murder rate in states that inflict the death penalty has been consistently higher than in those that don't (according to the FBI and census figures). That means the death penalty has the opposite effect as intended. 'Nuff said.

There is, of course, the "eye for an eye" argument as bolstered by that bestseller, the Holy Bible. I don't buy into that logic for a minute. Even as a child, that seemed suspicious to me. I've read many accounts of families of murder victims who did not experience the relief or sense of closure they expected to upon the death of the person allegedly responsible for killing their loved ones. And here's where I try to truly imagine how I would feel if someone took the life of one of my kids. Would I want that person to die? Would that make me feel better, or somehow repay my child? The answer I always come back to is No. And it may very well tarnish every memory I have of that beloved child because I would never be able to separate in my mind my child from his or her murderer.

I can't help but wonder, too, why we don't televise state-sanctioned murder if it's really a good thing. If we truly believe in its innate usefulness and righteousness, let's put it out there for all the world to see. But no, we limit the viewing audience and do it behind locked doors. That alone gives me pause.

I understand that we are human and therefore subject to feelings of hatred and desire for revenge. But that same humanness also makes us inherently compassionate, even if we sometimes quell that trait in favor of something we deem more valuable or worthy. I don't have an answer. I only have intuition and gut responses. I have intelligence and the ability to reason and follow logic. I guess, at the end of the day, that's what we all have to do.

Sometimes, I let my heart lead me. Other times, I obey my brain. But here, in the case of capital punishment, I have to call on both and listen very closely to their responses. And then I have to decide for myself what I believe is just. I think we all must do that.

Perhaps Dante said it best when he wrote, "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Think You're in Control? Think Again.

I was talking with a friend over coffee the other morning. We share a common situation in that both of our eldest children have gone off to college this fall. It's a new experience for us, and one we acknowledge as bittersweet. It's great to have someone to make this parallel journey with me.

At one point Deb said, "I realized this last time that he's never really coming home again." Simple statement, but wow, did that pack a punch. She's right. She put words to this feeling I've had every time I've seen Max since he moved out in August: He will visit and find his comfort here, but he will never truly come home again.

There was a time not too long ago when this thought would have sent me reeling. Max is, after all, the child of mine I have spent the most time with. I had 3 1/2 years of him to myself, and he had those same years of not having to share me. He was the king and I was his queen, he told me when he was three years old. "What's Daddy?" I naively asked. "Sadly," my little boy replied, "he's just a knight." And truly, that about summed it up. Max has always been my kid. We belonged together.

But to go from literally wearing your child in a sling on your chest or hip and co-sleeping with him to nervously watching him navigate playground equipment to getting a quick kiss goodbye as he heads out the door with friends to hugging him one last time as he tells you it's time to leave so he can organize his dorm (and for the record, I'm not sure he's done that yet, two months into the school year) is a veritable lifetime. It is a constant push and pull, a see-saw, at times a merry-go-round that doesn't feel so merry. In fact, the older I get, the more that motion makes me want to vomit.

So when reality kicks me in the ass as Deb utters her observation, I look to the heavens (I do that whenever I'm in the midst of an epiphany, which seems to be quite often these days) and recognize the raw truth in that proclamation. And I instantly think how natural that idea feels to me now. Of course he won't come home. Of course he's a visitor. That's how it should be.

And, given all the other changes in my life as of late, I thought about how the idea of natural progression translates to each of those circumstances. For instance, I am now the only parent living in this house with my three remaining kids. I'm it. If it gets done, I do it. If it needs paying for, I pay it. If someone's yelling, it's probably me. If it warrants a laugh, I'm the one doubled over, gasping for air and worried that I'll wet myself because I can't control my snorting. I am Woman.

And it feels right. In my gut and in my mind, this living with my children alone is the way it should be. For now. I can't know what the future may bring, and I'm not concerned about it. I actually haven't ever been too adept at looking far ahead. I can plan about a month in advance and that's about as good as it gets. I have always been a live for the moment girl, and that life plan so many of my peers grew up with in their heads? It never existed for me. Made for a life of surprises, but it also afforded me surprising flexibility and the attitude of "OK, so this is where we are. Let's do this thing." As a result, I've got four kids who aren't rattled by much. If you know them, you know the boys are so laid back you have to check them for a pulse. And the girls have sunny dispositions (though at 12, Tavi is more often at turns dramatic and brooding these days).

Then there's my new book. For over a year, the research and writing of that book consumed my work schedule. Published in late September, the book has garnered a lot of interest in our region and beyond, into Montana and Utah. As a result, I am traveling to promote the book through book signings and slide presentations. It's an unexpected pleasure. But it's a nightmare logistically in terms of figuring out how to do that aspect of my job and see that my kids are taken care of. And that's a worry I never had before. I've always been home. I work where I live. Now I go on the road and hope I've instilled in my kids the security to know they can step up and take care of at least some of their needs on their own. I hope they use common sense when making choices that I'm not around to help support or discourage. I hope...that I've done my job as their mom well.

But even this, this traveling and separating from my kids now and then--this too, feels right. It's exactly what I should be doing. And I find solace in that knowledge. It's a new day. Wes and I are no longer together; Max has moved out; the family that was 6 is now 4 and we're finding our way. It's not always easy, but it's also not too challenging. And I chalk that up to the idea that this is so because it is right.

At the end of the day, we aren't in control. We can make choices and decisions. We can exercise free will and live with the consequences. But to believe we are in control is an illusion. Once I accepted that idea--and I had to grieve the death of my child before I could--so much of life became opportunity. For joy, growth, learning, celebrating.

Change is inevitable. What we do in the face of it makes all the difference in the world. It's kind of like giving birth: You go through intense pain at times, but the reward is so uncompromisingly fabulous that the pain is becomes a distant memory.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Choosing Happiness

I've got happiness on the brain these days. Maybe it's because I'm happy in a way I've never truly been for any consistent period of time. No, that's not right. I am happy in a way I've never been. Period. Which is not to say I've never been happy, because it is my nature to be happy. I am happy even when circumstances are not optimal. I am, at the core, a remarkably happy person, despite the fact that I spent a childhood--including those all-important formative years--in an atmosphere more consistently conducive to anxiety than to bliss.

Genetically speaking, I am even predisposed to suffer from anxiety and mental disorder. My brother experiences anxiety attacks; my beloved sis seems to fall victim to depression. My mother lived with serious mental illness, which inflicted its wickedness on the whole family. It was literally like living with an invisible monster; we never knew where it was lurking or when it would attack. That kind of dysfunction breeds distrust and a serious level of angst for all those who endure its wrath.

And as a small child, I was anxious. I was prone to stomachaches and even obsessive-compulsive disorder-like symptoms. I would think awful thoughts about my mom--they were uncontrollable, really--and then capitulate to the mind-numbing guilt those thoughts imposed upon my young psyche. How could I think evil thoughts about the woman who is supposed to love me more than anyone else in the world? But then, how could that woman do and say such hurtful things if she loved me? I could not break free of that cycle of taking responsibility for her choices (at the time, I had no idea she was officially ill) and feeling like I was a bad child, that I in some way caused her to behave like she did. From my earliest memories, I remember that unceasing torment of feeling unworthy and yet not knowing how to fix the situation. I would never be good enough, and yet I couldn't figure out what "good" meant because Mom was so inconsistent in her responses and reactions.

And then somewhere along the way, I made a conscious decision not to let her break me. I was still young...not even in double digits. Where the strength and determination not to let my circumstances dictate who I would be came from, I can't say. I don't even remember the moment I made that choice. I just know that I made it. I knew that I was not going to give up my one shot at being happy simply because it seemed it was my destiny to grow up in turmoil.

Maybe I was able to do that because deep inside, I always knew Mom loved me. Her actions and words may have indicated otherwise, but children are wise; they see and understand what is not apparent. I see that all the time in my youngest daughter. Although her illness was not officially confirmed for me until I was in my 20s, perhaps I understood that Mom was not always in control of herself. Maybe I saw that finding her own happiness was a major struggle for her. I don't know. What I do know is that my determination to be happy allowed me to get to age 45 and feel--truly believe--I've had a wonderful life so far.

And it just gets better. I am happy--profoundly grateful--for small things: the smell of rain, the moments of raucous laughter I share with my children, the opportunity to sit on my patio swing in the morning while I drink my coffee and watch the birds at the feeder. I love waking under mounds of blankets, the cast of light in this western sky around 6:00 each evening, the taste of ice-cold water as it slides down my throat. I consider it a blessing to be able to fill my refrigerator with enough food to keep my family comfortable, and I never underestimate the power of a kind word to strangers and friends alike. The feel of my children's arms around me as they hug me goodbye or the urgency of my man's mouth on mine when we are reunited after weeks of separation...these moments are what bring me immense joy. They make me happy even as other circumstances might pose challenges and difficulties.

There is no doubt in my mind that happiness comes from within. You can't buy it, and if you spend your life searching for it in other people, you'll be left with only a lifetime of disappointment and emptiness. Being happy within the context of the life you have been given is a choice; wanting what you have and letting that be enough is so much more fulfilling than being on a dedicated mission to acquire what you think you want. Because once the acquisition is made, then what? Where do you go from there?

I am fortunate not to have inherited the DNA that leads to mental illness or even anxiety. Those anxious tendencies I experienced as a young girl gradually disappeared. If there is a lingering after-effect of growing up in a home with that type of upheaval, it's that I am a realist. I don't count on much and I'm not good at depending on others. I believe I am the creator of my own destiny in that I choose what to do with the circumstances in which I am placed. I can embrace what is before me or reject it, and the results will depend on my choice. I find comfort in that.

Happiness isn't a goal; you don't reach it. You live it through your thoughts and words and actions. No one has the power to take it from you unless you give that power away. The world will always be full of pain and suffering, of evil and wrongdoing, of injustice and despair. Accepting happiness in spite of that is not an easy choice; it requires constant vigilance and commitment not to fall prey to misery. It requires you to allow yourself to experience all the normal emotions that make up humanity--grief, sorrow, disappointment, anger--and then move past them into the light.

Happiness isn't always easy; it's not your birthright. But it's always there, just waiting for you.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Like a Phoenix from the Ashes, Good Things Rise from Difficult Transitions

Every now and then, something happens that gives me pause to consider my life and where I'm at in the grand scheme of things. Yesterday, my newly published book arrived--100 copies of that book arrived, actually. And for a writer, I'm not sure there is a greater thrill than holding your book in your hands for the first time. It's heady stuff. In this case, that 500-plus-page book is the result of a year's worth of labor. So of course, I can't help but think back over the year.

And what a year it's been.

My life has been on ongoing series of transitions in the recent past. I left a 12-year relationship with the father of my daughters. It was a painful, gut-wrenching decision, one I had been struggling with for years. We had never married, but that fact didn't make the parting of ways any less difficult for us or our children. We had bought a house together, lost a son, built a life with four kids. Dismantling that life was not something I took lightly. Demanding something more, something better, for myself and those children required me to take a leap of faith. I knew I was making things more difficult on one level in the here and now in hopes of creating a brighter, more positive future for all involved.

I am fortunate--so incredibly blessed--to have four kids who know they occupy the first slots on my list of priorities. They are, in part, why I remained in the situation I was in for so long, and they are largely the reason I finally chose to leave it. Although tears were shed and anger brewed, they each knew, at the end of the day, that our life together was not ending, but rather shifting. Change was happening on several fronts this past spring, and we would face those changes as we always have: side-by-side.

In addition to my split from Wes, my son Max graduated high school. That last year of school was a tug of war for him, I think, internally and externally. I watched as he made choices--nothing major, but still--I wish I could have kept him from making on the one hand. But I felt I needed to trust that all the years I had dedicated to him would have some positive influence. And I believe they did. Max has repeatedly proven to me that he is a person of integrity and principle. We may not always agree--and frequently don't--but that is not necessary for me to love and admire him.

Still, watching him pull away and knowing he was doing exactly what he needed to do was not easy for me. Max and I have shared a strong bond, and I had to let that bond guide me as I saw him less and missed him more.

As if high school graduation wasn't enough, he had the audacity to go off to college. Now he lives in Boulder, and I see him more than I dared hope I might. We text regularly, and sometimes I chat with him on Facebook. He is in my heart constantly, along with his brother and sisters. But when I spend time with him now, it is clear he has an "other" life. That is, other from my own. And I'm okay with that.

All the while these struggles of the heart and soul were taking place, I was crafting a book. This wasn't just any book; it was one man's dream to see this story in print. He dedicated 15 years of his life to uncovering the story of American pioneer Perry A. Burgess, and he trusted me to make that adventurous tale come to life. Some days it took all I had to sit in front of the computer and immerse myself in Perry's experience. My emotional life was in turmoil as sadness and resentment crept into the corners of my solitude. I had no peace. Most of the time, it took all I had to remember to just breathe. Ugh.

And yet writing that story--researching the details and events of years gone by--breathed wonder into my life. There were days when time literally just disappeared as I felt myself being transported to a bygone era, one that was not influenced by technology or even motorized transportation. It was an era of great hardship and hope, persecution and loss. My spirit was buoyed by the determination and can-do attitude of the men I was writing about. In the end, as I typed the final word of the final paragraph of the final chapter, I knew that this writing assignment had been a major gift, its timing a perfect example of mystical synchronicity.

Having lived nearly 46 years, I am wise enough to understand that gifts come to us when we least expect them. And I've had enough experience with grief to know that sometimes, it clears the way for joy to grow. And joy is what I have found in someone I once knew who never completely let go of the idea of me.

After having made the decision to leave my relationship as 2009 became 2010, I got a phone call from an old friend, someone I had dated briefly in high school. Rick was charming, handsome, athletic back when I knew him. He came from a wonderful, loving family who welcomed me into their home and lives. But circumstances dictated the course my life would take, and I left the area soon after getting to know them all.

Twenty-eight years later, the phone rings and I find myself in a 2-hour conversation that leaves me smiling and feeling, well, happy. In the midst of the tempest that was my life at the time, there blossomed a seed of pure happiness at having reconnected with someone who had once meant something to me. As I thought about the details of that first butterflies-in-the-stomach-inducing phone call after hanging up, I realized Rick had become the kind of person--the kind of man--I wasn't sure really existed. He laid bare his soul in that conversation by willingly talking not only of his successes but also his failures. He made no excuses for his regrets but clearly had great expectations for a fulfilling future. He confided in me things he'd shared with no one else in his life...somehow trusting me not only to keep those secrets, but to understand. I did, and I do.

Since that phone call, Rick and I have managed to get together as regularly as two people who live across the country from one another can. Between us, we have 8 children between the ages of 6 and 18. We come from vastly different lifestyles: his has been one of luxury while mine has been one of yard sales and coupons. His kids attend private schools while mine face the wilds of public education. He votes Republican and I just have to forgive him for that.

It's easy to do, because Rick has awakened in my soul a peace I never imagined I would know in this lifetime. Somehow, he knows my heart so well that he often gives voice to thoughts and feelings before I get a word out. He talks to me--and truly listens--and sees me for the person I am. Being with him is at once exhilarating and comforting. He reflects to me a piece of myself I never knew existed. When I tell him I love him, it is with a depth and a knowing that I have never before experienced. And when one of my children says she loves him because she likes how he respects me, well, my heart soars to remarkable heights. Especially in light of the fact that he considers my own four kids "a bonus."

And so I am reminded that sometimes, the best things in life--the gifts--are born of those most difficult moments, those times when we forge ahead even as we really just want to curl up into the fetal position and block out the pain. Every now and then, perhaps we are rewarded when we force ourselves to push past settling for less simply because it is familiar and dare to demand something more because we deserve it. There is no growth without risk, and even if the risk does not pan out the way we thought it would, being able to say "I tried" makes it all worth it.

And sometimes, as this past year has shown me, letting go of what makes you sad makes room for unmitigated hope to find you.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

To College, and Beyond

One week ago today, I drove with Max to CU-Boulder. And I left him there. And he was happy about it.


Just a couple months earlier, Max spent nearly a full month in India, hiking and backpacking. It was his high school graduation gift. I thought it would help me prepare for his leaving in the fall.

I was wrong.

Nothing prepared me. Oh, I knew he was growing up and pushing himself away from shore. I knew that when he made some crazy choices over graduation weekend. I knew it when he transported home a hookah from India, cradling it in his lap as if it were a precious newborn. I knew it when he spent more time with friends than family throughout the summer.

I knew. I swear I did. And I told myself that this was nature's way of getting me used to not having him around. Let me tell ya, I can be one convincing broad. But now that he's actually gone, meaning, HE DOES NOT LIVE HERE ANYMORE, I realize that there is no getting used to it. There's just acceptance, because what else can I do?

Though he once spent nearly all his waking hours--and many of his slumbering ones, too--literally attached to me by sling or backpack or some other baby-carrying apparatus, the Barnacle Boy did develop into an independent young man. Despite the warnings of people who did not know me or Max but who likened our family bed to child abuse, my son did not grow up to be a serial killer (yet) or a mama's boy. He does not suffer from low self-esteem, nor does he have intimacy issues. He's a normal young adult. And he was so ready to leave this house, this town. And me.

I tried not to take it personally. I mean, really. He had the confidence to strike out on his own in part because I nurtured that independence and spirit in him. How many 17-year-olds hop on an international flight to a foreign land by themselves (though he did meet up with a friend) and take each day as it comes, just living in the moment and embracing whatever adventure awaits him? But that's Max. He's comfortable in his own skin, and the unknown doesn't unnerve him. He lacks street smarts (come on, we live in Windsor, population 20,000) but makes up for that in the level of faith he has in himself. Those attitudes? They don't just happen. They are crafted.

So I totally realize and understand that Max was able to tell me it was time for me to go last week as we stood outside his dorm because I did my job right. We don't share all the same values or beliefs. We don't agree on a lot of issues. One of our favorite pasttimes these last few years was late-night debating. Max and I are two sides of the same coin. We are of one another, but we have steadfastly different views on life.

And that is why I can respect my son even as I want to shake him and ask what the hell he is thinking. It is why I can truly feel how much I love him even when I don't necessarily like the person he is being (and he's not liking me). It is, ultimately, why I can let him go with tears, yes, but also with the knowledge that he is exactly where he should be.

That, and he's coming home to visit tomorrow. Heh.