Sex, Sex, Sex! (There, I Said It.)

I’m no prude, and yet, I have not written a single word about sex on this health and wellness blog. Last week a friend shared a powerful TedTalk by Peggy Orenstein called “What Young Women Believe about Their Own Sexual Pleasure,” which alerted me to my oversight. After I watched it, I thought that if women like me don’t talk about sex, then my nieces and nephews are doomed. It warrants examination, this omission. Somehow sex has become the dirtiest three-letter word in the English lexicon, but we can clean it up. Here’s why we need to apply ourselves to this task. The prevalent avoidance of discussing the topic of sex can be linked to numerous societal dysfunctions:

  • Sexual assault and rape
  • Blatant ignorance about our anatomies and procreative capacities
  • Vagina shaming and mutilation
  • Sexism
  • Misogyny

Phew, that’s a lot—too much if you really stop to think about it. These concerns impact everyone on the gender spectrum. If biological women can’t own their bodies and feminine identities, then those transgressive figures, who are adopting femininity will inherit those problems even as they seek the health and healing that that kind of transformation represents. It also means that men can’t be comfortable with women’s bodies, because we aren’t teaching men about the healthy boundaries we need to co-exist in a pluralistic society. The taboos against sex limit our understanding of our beautiful bodies.

The vagina is sacred and holy by design, housed and protected by vulva, legs and arms. Women are meant to open and bloom like flowers for our chosen beloved. And yet, too many women carry fear, where life and pleasure should prevail, judgment-free. Sex is meant to be a beautiful invitation, a dynamic and transcendent connection between consenting adults seeking mutual happiness. Let’s claim that right this century.

I think we can live up to the expectations of biology. Both men and women have pleasure buttons that can be activated by loving touch. Let’s aim for joy, pleasure and the power of reciprocity in the context of sexual intimacy. Let’s discuss this with our sons and daughters, so we don’t have to spend all our time repairing the damages of rape and sexual violations that surround too many sexual encounters. We can reclaim the sacred space of human dignity intended for sexual intimacy. Oh, and, can we say the V word, please? It’s really okay that boys have penises and girls have vaginas. That’s how God made us. This is a beautiful thing.

We can heal our society and ourselves by taking inventory of our sexual beliefs, examining them openly and moving forward bravely into a sexuality where women own their vaginas and men own their penises and each takes on the full privileges and responsibilities for what happens with and in them. That’s a revolution in which this Third-World Feminist is willing to enlist.

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Children and Board Games Go Together

These days, video games are all the rage with young people. They’re everywhere and really fun. They’re exciting because they move fast and give big rewards for achievements. They have their place in our society, and I’m sure they’re not going anywhere. Board games, on the other hand, have to prove themselves. Most aren’t portable, take longer to play, require a time commitment and multiple players. They also have something not too many video games provide: built-in skill sets that provide several forms of intelligence and offer a tactile experience that supports the development of well-rounded individuals. That’s why I’m advocating for classic-board games, and some new ones, that the entire family can play.

Here’s what the traditional board game can do for you:

•    Literacy that translate directly to math and English skills. Many board games require reading at regular intervals. Instructions for learning a new game are dense and require analytical skills involving step-oriented processes. It’s also a great opportunity for adults to coach children with reading and following instructions.
•    Even simple games require some strategy, which is working on higher-level cognitive reasoning. Even choosing which piece to move or what play to make in a game of Sorry is a life skill. Board games require making long-term plans, or at least thinking ahead several moves.
•    These games help build emotional resilience and patience. It may not seem obvious, but learning how to lose can strengthen character. Chances are, a child who plays board games will lose once in a while. They can learn that losing is not the end of the world, and that there’s always another opportunity to win if they don’t quit. This helps with regulating emotions and keeping life in perspective.
•    Even small children can setup and clean up a game. Particularly with children around four-years, participating in the prepping and clearing stages teaches them responsibility. Sometimes asking for them to put away just four pieces can yield unexpected results like cooperation, initiative and problem-solving skills. Also, they may also like having all the pieces around the next time the game is played.
•    Maybe one of the most important reasons to play board games is to have family time. Making a ritual of sitting around the table talking, laughing and having fun can only lead to memories and deepening friendships. Conversation is built into most games. It’s an hour well spent.

Nothing prepares people for reading the “fine print” in life like board games. The more complicated a game is, the more rules; the more rules there are, the more navigational capital gets stored for when it counts, like applying for jobs and college or buying a house. If you’re new to board games, I recommend you start with these: chess, Sorry and Carcassonne. Hal’s picks are backgammon, Stratego, and Go.

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Crafting a Connection

 

Spending time with my partner’s mother is important. We live far away from each other, and I only see her in person every few years. One way that we stay connected is via correspondence. She makes and sends us the most beautiful handmade cards. They are utterly perfect and charming and chuck full of love, so when we scheduled a visit to the Twin Cities to see Hal’s family, I made a special request that his mother teach me to how to make cards.

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Like any great artist, Glenda has a process. The perfection of her cards comes from her careful attention to detail. She’s not afraid to start over, either. No glue goes on a card until the design, pattern, and shapes are just as she wants them. The paper must be folded just so and a burnisher used to align the edges. After stamping, Glenda patiently cut along the edges of the ink until there was an entirely different object. Paper and ink color must be sampled and selected; cut and matched. I know she does it this way every time. Each card has suddenly become even more precious to me, now that I see how much time she puts into each one. They are an act of love.

 

My inclination was to rush in and make several cards, but we spent the afternoon talking, sharing and explaining, and it yielded only the one collaboration. From cutting the paper to reviewing a catalog, it was clear to me Glenda’s intention was to give me an introduction to an art form and her passion. I don’t know that I can keep up her standards, but I’m thrilled about the memory and the card we created. I know what’s important to her. It’s the little things that count.

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Easy Crafts for Gathering Friends

 

 

 

Remember Plaster of Paris? Gosh, I sure do. I remember a fifth-grade art-class project in which we mixed the plaster powder with water and filled our molds to make three-dimensional reliefs of our choice of animal. I made a butterfly, which had a great big air-bubble dimple on its wing caused by air trapped on the bottom of the mold. I didn’t care a bit. I painted that butterfly, wrote my name on the back of it, and took it home to perch on a windowsill. I was thrilled with my creation. Recently I shared this experience with some girls from my community. What started with a little paint and plaster ended with dancing and laughing.

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Even though it may seem like a simple thing, mixing plaster can be a challenge. Things can go wrong; the mix can harden quickly on a warm day, or it might never dry. The oldest of my guests, a sixteen-year-old, mixed the plaster with some hesitancy after reading the instructions while the younger girls worked on painting the casts I had poured earlier in the day. As she worked, the plaster alternated between being too thin and too thick before it clumped up, and then when we added more water, it liquefied, but only in places. We were only able to get one viable cast from the mix. As I observed Kea, she was just a little afraid to get her fingers dirty and quite tentative about pouring the thick goop into the mold. “Don’t worry,” I said, “Dive in. Use a rag if your hands get dirty.” She grew slightly more emboldened yet remained guarded. I mentioned that the plaster could also be used to repair a hole in a wall, to which she nodded casually. Of course, being competent is important for a person her age. I wanted to let Kea have dignity, while gently letting her know that making mistakes is only natural when you’re doing something for the first time. I’m not sure she believed me, but she walked away visibly relieved that our time was over. As the oldest girl, I knew I had to let her take the lead with the others in an activity. She had to be in charge.

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When Kea rejoined the younger girls, the plaster painting was winding down, and the youngest ones were getting extra silly mixing paint colors for fun. The signal that the activity was over registered, and I began to direct the girls to clean up their areas before heading down to the garage for planting seed starts.

In the garage, I gave each girl a small tray with six cups that I had set out earlier. I showed them how to fill the tray with soil from a large orange bucket that contained potting mix. After the demonstration, I put Lea in charge of managing the soil distribution while I gathered the seed packets from my special gardening drawer. She lined them up by age and had the job done by the time I got back with the seeds. The magic started when I read of the seed choices. Each girl got excited over different seeds. They were sweet and eager and tender with the tiny seeds. I made sure they each took a good look at all the seeds to see just how different a bean seed is from a collard and tomato. They were impressed and focused on the task of planting and observing. They covered the seeds with a light layer of soil and watered them. After labeling their trays, we headed out to the garden so they could see what their seeds would look like in a few weeks with sunlight, care and attention.

In the garden, the second-oldest girl, nine-year-old Kia, was ecstatic. She ate raw broccoli and snow peas and poked her nose into every bush. She was fearless and clearly a naturalist. In the garden older brother and father to Kendall, Eli, who had been weeding and sowing with Hal, watched over the brood and his five-year-old daughter with tenderness. After showing them how to plant garlic cloves, we gave the girls garlic and let them plant them wherever they wanted. Soon Kendall grew jittery with the awareness of the terrifying bugs in the garden and had to retreat to the safety of the house. Lila, on the other hand, was instructing the older girls on how to identify onions and garlic. She’s finally comfortable in the garden. After some pictures, we headed inside for refreshments, followed by show and tell. Big smiles and good-natured teasing flavored the early evening.

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In reality, an art project is just an excuse to fill our house with the noises and laughter of children. The girls showed off their art projects while we ate snacks and cranked up the stereo. We laughed at our own foibles and teased each other over our eccentricities. We found the easy place between newness and trust and found we liked what we discovered.

 

Eight Ways to Cultivate Relationships with Youth

I’m a great believer that the job of parenting need not fall solely on parents. Parenting is full-time job; they need a vacation once in a while. That’s where aunts and uncles come into the picture, because in a community, we can all play a vital role in the outcome of our youth.

As a couple, we have lots of young people in our lives: biological and unrelated nieces and nephews, special students, godchildren and little friends who we adore. We are committed to them even if we’re not their parents. This has led me to consider my role and responsibility to them. We have to be invested, monetarily and otherwise. We have to make time for them and share their interests. I’ve also observed that when we hold young people accountable and responsible, we show them love and respect. We’re basically telling them we see them as capable and reliable people. High expectations are never bad things, especially when they are combined with love, guidance and support.

The pastor at my previous church always said that Faith is a verb, an action that we do on the spiritual path. After an amazing two weeks with my partner’s nephew, we’ve decided that “Uncle” and “Aunt” are also verbs. With the first wave of nieces, nephews and family friends graduating high school, going to college and finding out who they are, we’re uncling and aunting every chance we get. There’s another group of young people, some of whom I’ve had the great pleasure to know since birth, coming down the pipeline. I want to be there to see all the children in our community grow up and thrive. Therefore, I’ve decided, it’s time for this aunt to step up her game.

 

This past Christmas we had our nephew, a first-year college, visiting us from the Midwest. We got to play uncle and aunt full time to a teenager. We did some tourist activities, but mostly, we lived together as a family, cooking meals, working in the garden, making puzzles and talking. Over the years we’ve managed to expose our various young friends to our love of nature, much to the chagrin of their tender feet. This visit was no exception. For New Year’s Day the three of us walked 12 miles around beautiful Lake Chabot in Oakland, a special place for us because we had our first date there. To my surprise, our nephew had never hiked that far. And, just like that it was a major moment that we shared—a first. The long stretches in silence were opportunities to reflect on the strengths we bring into our community. Seeing him jumping from great redwood stumps and roll down the hillside gave me enormous pleasure and pride. I have little doubt that he felt some of his own gratification at having achieved these amazing feats and for beating me back to the car in a sprint born from a competitive burst of energetic youth. Well, someone had to get there last. At home, he tried exotic food, and made choices based on personal conviction. We observed Sabbath with him in order to be in community with him and respect his faith.

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Whether it’s asking about successes and triumphs, scolding over a failing, or instructing in our particular areas of strengths, most young people want to know that the adults in their lives care about them enough to make a fuss. I think I’m learning to be a better communicator because I’ve found that I’ve accepted that I don’t have to be a chum to my friend’s 18-year-old son; I can be a mentor and elder, and that’s enough. It’s never too late to get better at that. They need to learn things from us and teach us what they know. We can lovingly support our youth and their parents or primary caregivers by engaging them in various ways.

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First, Ask them hard questions about important things that maybe parents aren’t able to ask. Teach them some skills: share expertise and talents and create opportunities for connection. Reward and encourage them for doing those things that reflect personal growth and tenacity in the face challenges. Even acknowledging a hardship can mean a lot. Model good communication for them, and talk to them about the things that matter by engaging them in difficult conversation (you’ll both grow). Engage them in storytelling: Face time is critical; tell them about your mistakes, too! Occasionally, give unsolicited advice; what they do with it is up to them. Watch their favorite program with them, listen to their music and find out what they care about.

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Last, show that you care by making time for them; hug them even if it’s awkward the first ten times—we all need physical connection; and don’t forget to tell them that you love them whenever you can. You might find they love you, too!

Making Room for Mom

Most of my panic has subsided into resignation. I’m nervous about my mother coming into to my home and finding fault with everything from my hair to my home furnishings. I’m not sure why I’m doing this. Is it for her or for me? Maybe it’s really a win-win situation. My mother gets to have a relationship with one of her daughters; I get to have a little peace about my mother’s emotional state and allow more acceptance into my life.

For a few years, three decades actually, I was the peacemaker in our family. I was constantly running from one faction to the other, trying to keep the lines of communications open; I worked hard to sidestep difficult situations and avoid unintentional betrayals of confidence. I never felt at ease. I had too many secrets to keep and not enough real connection. Then one day, I simply gave it up. I decided I couldn’t be the fixer any more. I no longer had it in me to put aside my needs and feelings so that I could hold the emotions of my family members. It was the most selfish thing I had ever done. It goes without saying that it stirred the anger of my entire family.

The rigid roles in my family meant that I was breaking tradition and being selfish. As the youngest daughter, I was expected to obey my elders—all of them—and defer to them in all things great and small. The instant feedback resulting from drawing boundaries with my family was that I was punished in cruel and cold ways. Both my sisters, each in her turn, put my possessions out on the street; one giving me a day’s notice to retrieve them; the other sister simply left them out during a move without notice. Did I mention that we didn’t live in the same states at the time? Choosing to live my own life has had huge consequences. It was like pulling a thread out of an old hand-knit sweater. The object has been altered forever. Yet, I don’t regret my choice to live my own self-defined reality.

It’s been about ten years since I first asserted my personhood and drawn that lines that I haven’t cared to cross again. My family is fragmented and dysfunctional; on occasion we circle in at the each other’s lives and draw back from the defenses erected. There is a dissatisfying taste in my mouth, almost bitter, when I remember harsh words and thoughtless deeds. I think I need to let go and practice forgiveness, which is a daily ritual, one that fortifies against pettiness and indifference.

Letting go and forgiveness have a complicated standing in my life. I find it easier to forgive my mother in some ways because she comes from an alien planet, an island in the Caribbean where a dictator and an abusive husband made her life a ruin. Still it does not dampen the anger in me when she alternates between haughty justifications and outright revisions as she denies the brutality she reigned down on us as children. I’m unwilling to let go of my truth. It keeps me sane. Opening my home to her, therefore, is a psycho-emotional journey into the historical trauma and violence of our family and a battle to maintain boundaries with an old woman who still feels that she owns me and is entitled to control my destiny.

This new element, that my mother is undoubtedly seventy-years old, adds a new dimension to dealing with this erstwhile queen of all. She brides, manipulates, scolds, cajoles, dominates and competes. She never asks for or says what she needs or wants. She is always a victim, one who must control everything but that which she actually can. I have learned to step away from the emotional landmines while not denying myself the opportunity to walk in the fields of compassion. During her visit, I had to withdraw from all else to be present for her. I concentrate on the small blessings in each moment. She is smiling despite herself. She is resting and engaging with me in garden work. She is feeding us delicious food from a deep place of wisdom, focus and attention. Paying attention, I know, is a small act, but one that has brought us some peace.

We managed to survive my mother’s visit. Our nerves our frayed; we are battle-worn; we relish in the silence and simplicity of our everyday lives. I am grateful to have had the courage and fortitude to invite her in to our home and to express my love in the ways I find nurturing and healing. I was never able to embrace my mother and connect with her in the manner that my heart knows is authentic; she would never allow it. However, I was able to make room in my life and enjoy the cooking that she is so proud of and that has given us all joy. After all, I’m not trying to change her. I simply want to love her the best way I can.

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