Captain Annie

I was thirty-two when my last baby was born, not old by any current standards but without a doubt past the invisible line where your body can do anything it wants and make it look easy.

I did not make that pregnancy look easy. I didn’t make anything easy that year, actually.

Two days after the doctor called to tell me I was pregnant, Nate and I boarded a plane with Ellie and Scott, flew to Argentina with everything we owned, stayed in a friend’s house, and begin looking for places to live for ourselves and our new teammates. I have all-too-vivid memories of driving the bumpy streets of La Plata searching for the addresses we had marked on maps, drinking homemade lemonade from a giant bottle in an attempt to keep the nausea under control.

When we found a house and got all moved in, we got the puppy we had been promising Ellie for months. Lack of a yard meant we couldn’t get a big Rottweiler as planned, so we adopted a beagle instead. Did you know beagle puppies are known for being the most incorrigible breed of puppy? It was summer in South America, and I spent it trying to keep cool in a kiddie pool on our patio and simultaneously potty-training a two-year-old and an incorrigible puppy.

In the fall, I finished up the last of my massive project of finding our teammates houses and making them somewhat livable. Our friends arrived. Ellie started preschool. I tried to focus my energies on Scott for the hours she was gone each day, knowing this was a very short window of one-on-one time with him.

But I was so, so tired.

My brain didn’t work right. My body wanted much more sleep than it got. I was huge and uncomfortable and blurry and dull.

Instead of the science experiments and long walks I had imagined, I would lie next to Scott while he watched multiple episodes of Little Einsteins. When my conscience couldn’t take any more, we’d turn off the TV and go sit on my bed, which we pretended was Rocket. He would be Leo and I would be Annie. We clapped our hands to make Rocket take off, and when it landed on far off planets, I sent him out to explore while I stayed behind to guard the ship. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.

We played Rocket aka Mommy-sits-on-her-bed so often that Scott began to refer to the two of us exclusively as Captain Leo and Captain Annie. Like, even when we weren’t playing. I’d be in the kitchen making dinner and he’d come bounding in.

“What’s for dinner, Captain Annie?”

It was adorable, but I sometimes wondered if it was secretly a badge of shame, a clue to how much television was influencing his life.

But the thing is, just now when I typed that, I smiled so big. It’s been almost eleven years since the two months I spent being Captain Annie, and it’s still one of my favorite memories.

As horrible as I felt that sitting on that bed was all I was able to do with Scott, we had the best time doing it. I never could get him interested in the big construction trucks working across the street, and now that I know him better, I don’t know that the science experiments would have been much better. But when we sat down and imagined ourselves on whole different worlds, he was completely absorbed. So absorbed it never even bothered him that I sent him to do the active parts on his own. As far as he was concerned, we were having real adventures.

A wise man once told me, “All you can do is all you can do, and all you can do is enough.”

I didn’t believe him at the time, but I should have.

Captain Leo didn’t care if his co-captain was fuzzy-brained and half-asleep; he hardly even noticed. In his imagination, Captain Leo and Captain Annie explored the universe together, even when we were going nowhere.

I Think We’re Alone Now

My son, the second of my three children, was born in a lovely hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The decision to have him there was a relatively easy one. We lived nearby and had lived there for four years. We’d gone home to Indiana for the birth of our first child, but because of that experience, this birth would be a scheduled c-section. We would know the exact day weeks in advance and could plan for my mother to visit and help take care of things at home. I had a wonderful doctor, sort of a slightly older George Clooney type whose deep voice was incredibly reassuring, even if he did mention my weight gain a few too many times.

We were ready for a cross-cultural birth. We were excited for our son to be fully Argentine (not to mention how his citizenship would help us end our years-long paperwork process and achieve the coveted status of permanent resident).

Unsurprisingly, the experience was wildly different from our first one.

In many ways it was way better. I would never have chosen this route, but the truth is that scheduled c-sections are a dream. I got up and took a shower. I kissed my daughter and my mother good-bye. We drove calmly to the hospital and checked in. Instead of a long sleepless night of induction, followed by horrible hours of pitocin-induced contractions, followed by an emergency c-section featuring way too much anesthesia, followed by horrible tremors and nausea as a result of said anesthesia, we had a few bad moments while they put in the epidural followed by a quick and painless delivery with no anesthesia side-effects at all. Instead of my daughter’s smashed nose that had to be taped in place, my son had the perfectly smooth, round face of a much older baby. (He was also a whopping nine pounds. Thank you, c-section.)

Physically speaking, it couldn’t have been better.

Emotionally, though, I was off-kilter and unprepared. Here’s a little life tip: If you decide to have a major life experience in a foreign country, it’s probably a good idea to do some research before diving in.

The first clue that this was not going to be what we expected presented itself right after we arrived. Someone had warned me that the hospital wouldn’t provide diapers or blankets or anything for the baby, so we had come prepared for that, but when the nurse asked if I had brought supplies for my own recovery, I had a moment of panic. It had never occurred to me that I would need that. This was a hospital, right? In the US, you arrive with an extra pair of sweatpants in an overnight bag and they take it all from there. Here in Argentina, the nurse sighed as I told her that I did not in fact have all the necessary pads and girdles already purchased. She gave me the look you give to a flighty, thoughtless young thing when you are trying to be patient with her. She told Nate there was a pharmacy across the street and gave him a list of what was needed. I waited around feeling foolish while he went to have an extremely awkward conversation with a pharmacist.

Though the birth itself was great, afterwards, we found ourselves alone with our baby and a whole long afternoon before the brief visiting hours in the evening. When our daughter was born, the hospital was packed with friends and family anxiously waiting for her. She didn’t come until late at night, and I have photos of a crowd of people peeking in the nursery window to get a first glimpse of her. After they all went home for the night, I held my daughter and then the nurses gently suggested that they take her for a while to let me sleep. I gratefully agreed. From then on, any moment that I wasn’t feeding my daughter or sleeping, we had visitors or nurses buzzing around offering help.

Here, most of our people were far away, and those that were close were only allowed in during the evening visiting hours. Other than my parents and daughter and one friend, we didn’t see anyone that first day.

We didn’t see much of the nurses, either. The baby was healthy, alert, and quiet, and they pretty much left us to enjoy him. It felt a bit anticlimactic, but I was still okay until night fell.

It got dark about the same time the anesthesia wore off, and the painkillers they gave me weren’t strong enough. I was in pain. Nate was trying to get comfortable on a reclining chair. The baby started to cry.

After this went on for a while, I asked Nate to call the nurse. I had already asked for more pain medicine and knew I wasn’t going to get it, but I figured if the baby could go to the nursery for a while, I could try to get some rest at least.

He pressed the call button. After a few moments the nurse arrived.

“The baby is a little fussy, and I’m feeling exhausted,” I said, remembering all those nurses anxious to help me rest up from my last birth.

She looked at me sympathetically and waited for more.

“He just doesn’t seem to want to sleep, and I need some rest,” I explained.

“Would you like me to bring you a bottle to give him?” she asked.

I was confused. “No, I already nursed him. He’s just awake and I need to sleep for a bit.”

Now she looked confused. Nate was holding the baby.

“Could you maybe just take him for a little bit?” I asked more directly.

She stared at me. “I’m not allowed to do that unless there’s something medically wrong,” she said.

Nate and I looked at each other. The truth began to dawn. This hospital had no nursery. This baby was not going to leave our room.

After an awkward pause, the nurse said if we didn’t need anything that she had to go. We nodded tiredly. She left.

In retrospect, it makes perfect sense. No Argentine would ever voluntarily send their baby to be watched by strangers in his first few nights on earth. You keep your kids with you. It’s just how it works.

At the time, though, tired and in pain and already feeling lonely, I experienced a moment of despair. My sweet baby who had been quiet and sleepy all day was clearly now going to be loud and awake all night.

And we were on our own.

Maybe you’ve had this moment. The moment when you look around for someone to rescue you and realize that no one is coming. You’re the adult. You’re the one who has to do the rescuing.

That day, September 25, 2006, was my first time. It wouldn’t be the last.

I’d pretty much spend the next decade having moments like that. The only thing that’s different now is that I know better than to waste time looking around for a miracle.

This is being a grown up. I know I said earlier that research would have helped, and it probably would have, but the truth is that in adult life, and parenting especially, I have never found a way to avoid having my expectations turned on their head. You don’t have to travel to another country to find that you don’t know what you’re doing. Things often don’t go the way you think they will, and they almost never look the way you imagined. Feeling overwhelmed and scrambling to figure out what to do next is part of the deal.

There’s no guide book for this. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

I honestly have no memory of how we survived that first night. When you look for rescue and it doesn’t come, you just do the best you can. When you’ve been cut open and sewn back together, and somehow it’s someone else who is crying, you grit your teeth through the pain and you take care of them.

I can tell you this. My husband was a rock star. He got very good at dozing with a baby balanced on his chest. I can tell you that we went home as absolutely early as the hospital would release us, and that my son, who would eventually be my best sleeper, had his days and nights confused for the first weeks of his life, and that my mother saved my sanity by holding him during the wee hours of the night so I could get a little sleep.

Because in the end, we were not actually alone. We were loved and supported by many people, as we have been in every crisis. There is no one to ride to the rescue any more, but there are often people to have our backs.

And for those dark nights with no help and no rest, there is the reminder that we’ve had other nights like these. That we lived through them. That we’ll live through this one, too.

Fifteen Years Later, I Still Have A Cat

On this day after Christmas, I give you the gift of laughter. Laughter at my long-ago pain. You’re welcome.

It’s 2005, a year of very little rest, but at 4 am in the Dunlevy house tonight, everyone is soundly and thankfully asleep. 

Suddenly there is a loud screaming.  Nate and Deb jerk awake.  The baby?  No, there it is again…it’s a cat yowling.  In our hallway. 

Nate jumps up.  It’s not unheard of for us to leave the window in the office open so our cats can go outside at night.  It’s not unheard of for a stray cat to come in the window and try to steal cat food or dig in the trash.  Nate will just shoo the cat out the window again. 

He tries this.  The cat runs to the office.  It leaps for the window.  It totally misses the opening and crashes into the window.  It tries again.  Crash, into the window.  Desperate, it tries one more time.  Still can’t seem to find the opening.  (Is this a cat or a bird?)  In utter terror, it runs…into our bedroom and under our bed.  How stupid is this cat? 

Deb gets up and goes to the bathroom while Nate attempts to fish the cat out from under the bed with a broom.  He finally concludes it must have run out because he can’t see it anymore.  Deb returns to the bedroom, just in time to encounter and step on the cat as it emerges from under the bed. 

They both yell. The cat runs.  In a vain attempt to escape the two cats who live here and are spitting at him, he runs straight at Ellie’s door (which is fortunately shut) climbs nearly to the ceiling before falling.  Deb quickly closes the bedroom door so the cat can’t return to his hiding place under the bed. 

Thump, thump, thump, slam, thump. 

After two more unsuccessful attempts on the part of the cat to escape out the window, Nate grabs him and throws him out the wide opening. 

Shutting the window, Nate returns to bed, and all attempt to salvage a night’s sleep. 

I have a baby to steal my sleep now. Remind me why we wanted to have cats?

Oh. Yeah.

You Know You’re a Mom When

It had been a long day.

A day with toys all over the floor. A day with a dozen repetitions of the words “Because everyone has to wear pants, that’s why.”

A day when I questioned whether I was even capable of this mom thing.

But even on long days nap time eventually arrives. With torturous slowness, maybe, but it arrives. The older kids would only “rest” in their rooms for “rest time,” but the baby would sleep. I could wash the dishes. Or read a book. Or sit and stare at the wall thinking about the dishes and the book, which is sort of the same.

I gave her some milk and read her a book, thinking how particularly snuggly she was today. I tucked her pink blanket into her arms and laid her in her pack-n-play bed. I turned toward the door.

And then I heard a suspicious cough.

I recognized that cough.

With lightning speed, I turned back and scooped her out of bed. Just in time for her to throw up all over me.

And I didn’t think, “Ew, gross.”

And I didn’t think, “Oh, my poor baby.”

I thought, “Thank God she threw up on me instead of the bed. I can change my clothes in five minutes. It would have taken hours to clean puke out of a pack-n-play.”

So that pretty much put my earlier questions to rest.

Obviously, I was a mom through and through.

From the Outside

When you do overseas mission work, there a million jobs you have to learn how to do. Handyman, teacher, taxi driver, party planner, tour guide, nutritionist, counselor, translator, accountant. I’ll let you guess which of those I enjoyed and which I bungled constantly. By far, though, my favorite job was public speaker. It wasn’t a regular thing, but from time to time, Nate and I would be asked to teach at a youth camp or preach at a nearby church, and even when it was in Spanish, I loved it. Maybe it’s the teacher in my soul or maybe I just loved attention, but I never felt more energized than when I could stand in front of people and communicate something that was important to me.

Then I had a baby. I continued on with most aspects of my job, but from time to time I would have to bow out of things that just weren’t feasible when you were nursing an infant. Like the week when a friend asked Nate to be the visiting speaker at his church one Sunday evening. None of our local churches had nurseries where you could leave a baby (it would have been culturally weird). We didn’t have grandparents nearby, and all our usual babysitters were…well, they were at church. So even though we normally worked together on speaking engagements, and even though we had written the content of his message together, we agreed that Nate would have to take this one solo.

Theoretically, this should have been fine. Nate is an amazing speaker. He does not need my help. And I had an infant who still didn’t sleep through the night. I was exhausted and didn’t need one more thing on my plate.

But that theory doesn’t take into account my personal hang ups.

I could have just stayed home that night. It was getting close to winter and the sun set early. The service would be late enough that I had every excuse to keep the baby inside and put her to bed at her normal time. It’s probably what a sane person would have done, or, say, a person without the world’s most advanced FOMO. All I could think was that I was already missing out on speaking up front. I shouldn’t have to also miss out on seeing all the people.

So I went. And it was a little late for the baby. And hanging out with a bunch of people I didn’t really know very well proved to be more awkward than fun. And the minute the music ended and Nate stood up to preach, the baby started to cry.

She didn’t want to nurse and she was never going to sleep in a room full of interesting new things. She also didn’t want me to sit still or be inconspicuous in any way. I know I said that I like attention, but it turns out I am somewhat picky about what kinds of attention I appreciate.

Desperate not to make any more of a scene that I already was, I quietly slipped out the back door into the courtyard outside. It was a bit chilly, brisk enough that I was glad of my coat, but not cold enough to keep me from sweating inside that coat as I walked back and forth and bounced my baby up and down. I paced and I sweated and I grumbled in my mind about the unfairness of my being out here soothing this baby while my husband was inside doing something I loved.

I didn’t blame Nate for where I was–he wasn’t in any way responsible–but I have found that it’s just as easy to be mad at life as it is to be mad at a person. So I indulged my self-pitying anger for all it was worth. I went ahead and let the moment grow in my mind, so that my situation represented the plight of women everywhere, overlooked and oppressed, all because we are biologically equipped to carry and nurse children.

After a while, I discovered that as long as I kept up a sort of swaying bounce, my daughter would settle down and stay quiet, so I had a new opportunity to exacerbate my resentment and build on the narrative of martyrdom I was spinning. Of course, I seized the chance. I crept up close to the door to try to listen to Nate as he spoke. The window was open a crack, allowing me to hear, and slowly I eased closer and closer until my nose was nearly up against the glass.

I know. The symbolism of the moment was a little heavy-handed. I was literally outside, looking in at where I wanted to be, prevented from being there by the baby in my arms. If you saw this moment in a movie, you’d be like, “Geesh, no need to hit me over the head with it.”

At that moment, though, I wasn’t seeing the humor in the situation. Discontent had squeezed all perspective from my soul, and I wanted the metaphor to be so obvious that even the strangers in the room would have to see it.

They did not, of course. That’s the thing about discontent. No one else ever takes it as seriously as I do.

I’d like to tell you that I had a revelation that night. That I looked down at my sweet daughter’s face and realized that she was infinitely more wonderful than anything I loved doing, that I would have more impact on the world by raising her than by any amount of public teaching. I mean, those things are true, and on some level I knew them. They are the reason I chose to have kids in the first place. But I did not reach a new state of enlightenment that particular night. That night, I stood there and tortured myself with what I couldn’t have and then went home in a dark, unfriendly mood.

Hilarious, right?

Sometimes, I’m really not funny. Sometimes I’m too self-absorbed to laugh.

That’s why I revisit those moments from time to time. To look back at that frumpy new mother glaring through the window at people who didn’t see her situation as a problem and give her the laughter she couldn’t give herself.

It’s not a mocking laugh. That new mom was in the middle of a huge identity shift, and the middle is a place for compassion not derision. This laugh is an empathetic laugh. An oh-crap-I-still-do-that-to-myself-sometimes laugh and a man-I’m-thankful-I-didn’t-live-in-that-resentment-forever laugh. It’s the laugh of someone who sees how easily she could have chosen to linger in self-made misery and is relieved that the story took a different turn.

It’s the laugh of someone who knows that the those moments really are a big deal. And also that they really aren’t.

It’s the laugh of someone who appreciates that kind of paradox. In retrospect, at least.

Even Here

It was Saturday morning, and my toddler woke me up early, obviously. She was restless, my girl who always wanted to go out, out, out, into the world. I didn’t have much energy for going, but staying would have taken even more. We put on our coats and headed toward the playground in the plaza. Outside the air was chilly. We were the only ones on the street. In our impoverished Argentine neighborhood, the weekends were for late night parties. More people went to bed at seven a.m. than woke up for the day.
At the playground, I let go of her hand and let her run free, watching carefully anytime she bent down to pick something up. Broken glass and cigarette butts were as plentiful as the sad tufts of grass, so some vigilance was required. She climbed the wooden slide and swung on the squeaky swing. I tried to focus on my radiant child and not on the dreary surroundings. But it was Saturday morning, and I was tired and sad. It hadn’t been an easy few months.
Then my girl came running toward me with something small held in her pudgy hand. She held it up, this tiny living thing she had found. It was a scraggly flower, a weed really, but the small white blossom lifted my heart. “Even here,” I thought to myself, “Even here there is beauty.”
Then I lifted up my eyes, looked over my daughter’s head, and saw a man peeing into the bushes.
It took him a long time to finish. It wasn’t easy to make sure my baby kept looking at me and only me. When he was finally done and staggered away, home to sleep off the night’s revels, I took my little girl by the hand, and we left in the other direction.
“Mommy,” she wanted to know. “Why are you laughing?”
And I couldn’t explain, but I also couldn’t stop. There’s nothing funny about your child being exposed to public urination. But that doesn’t mean you won’t giggle the whole way home.
Because sometimes you can find beauty in the middle of ashes. And sometimes you just find absurdity and you have to make do.

It’s Not Funny

I’m the youngest in my family, and though I took myself extremely seriously as a child, the rest of my family didn’t always see the necessity to do the same. To be fair, I was a red-headed waif with oversized ears and constantly-skinned knees. And I didn’t make things easier for myself. I loved the big words and dramatic statements I read in my favorite stories. Those things sounded wonderful in books, but when I said them out loud, my family couldn’t help but laugh. They weren’t mocking me, but it didn’t matter. I hated that laughter with all my heart. I would grit my teeth and tense my body and say as adamantly as I knew how, ‘Its. Not. Funny.”
But it was funny. I just didn’t know it yet. I thought that because what I said was true and heartfelt, that meant it didn’t deserve laughter. I hadn’t yet learned that you can be in complete earnest and still have a sense of humor about yourself. Or maybe I just hadn’t lived long enough to look back on anything from a distance.
So many things in life aren’t funny until you have the perspective of hindsight.
That’s what this blog series is all about. I’m looking back at moments in my life, moments that often seemed deadly serious, and I’m laughing. Not in dismissal. Not in mockery. Just with the recognition that from a little distance even things that aren’t funny can make you laugh. And right now it seems to me that laughter is exactly what we all need.

Roll Like a River

This post was published on another site in the fall of 2017, but it feels more relevant to me now than when I first wrote it. It’s no longer available in its original home, so I brought it here where I can have the reminder when I need it.


“Let justice roll like a river, like a river let it roll.Let justice roll like a river, like a river let it roll. Let it roll. Let it roll.”

A few weeks ago I stood side by side with my church family letting that powerful song flow through me. I closed my eyes and belted out the words and felt them down to my toes. 

The world has been so ugly lately. 

No. Correction. The world has always been ugly, but lately it’s been punching us all in the face hard enough to draw blood. Right? It’s everywhere. Oppression. Destruction. Hate. Pain. Suffering. Nature is cruel and indifferent. Mankind is cruel and indifferent.  

Our only hope…my only hope…is that God is neither of those things. That he is good and that he cares to the point of painful death. That’s the truth I’m trying to cling to.

So on that particular day, so overwhelmed by the evil on all sides that I didn’t even know how to pray orwhat to ask for, I lifted up my hands to him and cried out, “Just wipe it all away! Unmake the evil systems we’ve designed. Wash away our selfishness and greed. Let justice roll like a river!”

Then a cold chill settled over me. I had to sit down for a moment. I stopped singing as the truth sank in.

Straight talk: I am an educated white woman in my forties. I have three white children with bright and promising futures. Under the existing systems and structures, they will be able to have any life they want. So here’s the truth that faces me. It’s a hard truth and a deeply personal one.  

Brothers and sisters, if justice rolls like a river, it will roll over me. 

I have everything to lose. I live in the valley of white privilege, protected by the dam of systemic injustice. It doesn’t matter that I didn’t build the dam. I was born in its shade, and it is sweet down here. The grass is green. My children are happy. Their future is secure. There’s a reason no one wants to blow up the dam, you know? A whole new world might not be as idyllic for me and mine. 

Please believe me: I hate that only a few get to live in this valley.  I hate that people are literally dying of thirst downstream, that others drown in the overflow or get shot trying to find a way in. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love my easy life.

Am I truly ready to put myself in the hands of a righteous God? Am I ready to call down his justice and let the waters wash away the structures that keep my family comfortable? Am I ready for my children to be set adrift with only His mercy to steer them?

But the bigger question is oh so much bigger.

If I am not ready for that, ready to trust in nothing but his mercy, what am I doing pretending to worship him?

Here is the God I claim to follow:

“This is what the Lord Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. Do not plot evil against each other.’ “But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and covered their ears. They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry. “ ‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the Lord Almighty.” 

I said I wanted him to care, right? He cares. He cares so much that his anger is burning. 

And try this on:

“So this is what the Sovereign Lord says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who relies on it will never be stricken with panic. I will make justice the measuring line and righteousness the plumb line; hail will sweep away your refuge, the lie, and water will overflow your hiding place. Your covenant with death will be annulled; your agreement with the realm of the dead will not stand. When the overwhelming scourge sweeps by, you will be beaten down by it. As often as it comes it will carry you away; morning after morning, by day and by night, it will sweep through.” The understanding of this message will bring sheer terror.”

Yes, it is terrifying. The idea of God sweeping us away along with the structure of lies we’ve built. But brothers and sisters, he already laid the foundation of our new home. The cornerstone is Himself and the foundation is as secure as it is righteous. And all those who were walled out of our little valley have a place inside. It’s everything we say we want. And it’s just on the other side of the flood

It’s time, don’t you think? 

It’s time to stop being afraid of the destruction of the valley. It’s time to let the flood carry us on to new heights.

“Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

 Amen. Let it roll.




Cultural Sensitivity

Lately the word “sensitive” is often used to describe someone who gets their feelings hurt easily. It’s become, in some circles, a code word for being touchy or lacking resilience. I know I probably should roll with the cultural punches and let language shift as it shifts, but I hate giving up on “sensitive.” Yes, I could use the word “responsive” instead. I could call this “cultural responsivity,” but what an awkward and clinical-sounding phrase. “Sensitive” means exactly what it sounds like: using your senses to be quick to detect even small signs of change. I love that. When it comes to cultural issues, we should have our feelers out and finely tuned. We should train ourselves to be quick to detect and respond to how someone from another culture feels.

If you’re thinking you’re a long way from being quick to detect and respond, welcome to the club. It’s okay to be at the beginning of the process. Like a butterfly, we all start out as hungry little caterpillars, focused just on ourselves and filling up our own needs every day. We take in our own culture, live off of our little leaves, and it’s all the satisfaction we need. When we realize that this isn’t enough, that’s the first step, the building of a chrysalis where we can take a long look inside. We turn inward and take stock. We open ourselves up to be changed. But we can’t stay there forever either. At some point we have to break free, our new antennae feeling out the world, our new wings carrying us lightly from place to place. In this new sensitive and active form, we not only experience so much more of the world, we also become useful pollinators.

So how do we get there? Metaphors are lovely, but they lack something in specifics. Again, I’m no expert. Too often I am slow to detect and slower to respond to cultural needs. But I’m learning.

Here’s what I’m working on:

1. I pay attention to my own biases. We all have biases. Assumptions about people who look a certain way. Attitudes or words that rub us the wrong way. Behaviors that make us cringe. Actions that we judge as selfish or wrong. And sometimes biases go the other way: personality traits we automatically approve of, demeanor that puts us at ease. We all have biases. Having a bias isn’t wrong. We have to make judgements about the world or we can’t navigate it. What we want to avoid are the twin terrors of being unaware that we have biases or allowing our biases to be based on ignorance.

I try to be honest with myself about my biases. I’ll try to be equally honest with you and name a few. Because of my life experiences, I often find myself biased against people from my own culture. If you are wearing a t-shirt with an inspirational saying on it, my automatic response is to think we’ll never be able to have a serious conversation. If someone tends to talk big about his life and accomplishments, I automatically don’t trust him. Other of my biases stem from my own culture. I hate it when people play their music too loud (sensitive ears combined with white upbringing). I have a hard time not finding it rudely invasive. I often find that I make the assumption that physically fit people have their lives together more than those who aren’t fit. (This despite the fact that I’m not particularly fit.)

Once I’ve recognized these biases, I need to stop and think why I hold them and evaluate their validity. The only reason I associate physical fitness with being in control is because that’s how it was always talked about when I was growing up. I now know it’s a false assumption (in both directions) but still I have to fight it. I’m never going to love loud music (unless it’s mine and I’m in the right mood), but I can acknowledge that it doesn’t represent a character flaw in those who do. And though I’ll not be wearing any myself, I’ve met quite a few white women in inspirational t-shirts who had a lot to speak into my life. Big caveat here: I do not suspend all my judgment. I can allow for big-talkers in the sense of larger-than-life personalities, but even after long evaluation, I have found that most boastful people of any culture are lying. It’s not necessary for me to place my trust in liars in the name of being culturally sensitive. We’re recognizing and evaluating our judgment here, not suspending it completely.

Once I can recognize my bias, I can put is aside long enough to do the next thing.

2. I listen to others. I am working to ask questions instead of making assumptions. Experts (not me) tell us that active listening involves five steps. First we really hear, by setting aside distractions and prejudices and letting someone else speak. Second, we attend to what they’re saying, paying careful attention to nonverbal signals and emotions being expressed. Third, we seek to understand by repeating back what we’ve heard and asking follow-up questions. Fourth, we respond, still not talking about ourselves but rather using our empathy to give a response to what they’ve said. Finally, we remember, following up with them later to have more conversations.

A couple of notes about asking questions:

Leading questions are not really questions. A question that only asks for a yes or no, or a question to which you already have an answer in mind is a leading question. “Do you think being late is okay?” Or even, “What are your thoughts on being on time to things?” when you really just want them to say it’s important. True listening questions give people an opening to talk about their own thoughts and feelings. “How is the pace of life different here from where you grew up?” “How does it feel to you that everyone talk about being on time constantly?”

Try to avoid asking people to speak for their whole culture. It’s fine to ask for them to describe how things are in their neighborhood or country or even to describe the behavior of people around them. But no one should have to be a spokesperson for the attitudes and motivations of people they don’t know. And they don’t know everyone from their culture. Ask instead what their experiences have been, how they feel about things, what motivates them personally. Listen to them as a person, not a representative.

3. I initiate in cross-cultural relationships. I’m not always good at this because I, like many people, don’t enjoy taking interpersonal risk. But here’s the reality: if we all just did what came naturally and easily, we’d all just hang out with people from our own culture. Go look at the cafeteria at your local school during lunchtime. Kids sit with kids who look like them. They just do. And it’s not necessarily about hate. It’s about comfort and security (or the lack thereof).

We’re not kids anymore, but our insecurities do linger, don’t they. If I want to learn how to bridge cultural gaps, I’m going to have to start by, you know, stepping into the water. I have to speak up, to introduce myself, to offer coffee or set up a play date or invite someone to dinner. I have to be willing to be awkward, uncomfortable, and wrong. I will be, but I’ll also find things I love that I never knew existed. I’ll make mistakes and possibly cause offense. Then I’ll get the chance to be humble and apologize and I’ll learn on a level I couldn’t have any other way.

I can’t wait for it to happen naturally (it won’t) or for someone else to make it happen (I’ll be waiting a long time). I have to step up.

4. I intentionally learn about other cultures. There are a lot of obvious ways to do this. I eat food from other cultures. I read books about them or (seldom) watch documentaries. I travel if I can. But this isn’t a purely academic idea. I also reach outside my usual routine and consume art from other cultures. I sometimes listen to kinds of music I don’t normally love and try to understand it. I read books I wouldn’t normally, watch TV shows with characters that don’t look like me, go to movies not aimed at my demographic. If I am allowed to give one piece of personal advice, this is it: don’t just check out things that describe people, check out the things they’re into, explore the art and entertainment they enjoy and try to see why they enjoy them. The art people produce communicates so much about their culture. Give it a try. (And if you don’t know where to start, email me. I have thoughts.)

5. I consider more than my personal behavior and evaluate the systems I participate in. Here’s where I take it to the next level and really spread my shaky butterfly wings. My field of work, my kids’ schools, my local government, my housing association, my church, the organizations I belong to. I want to be thoughtful and honest about all of them. What are their cultural leanings? In what way are they making it difficult for people of other cultures to thrive in them? Is there anything I can do to make the system more culturally inclusive?

We can’t let ourselves believe the lie that we’re only responsible for our personal relationships. Yes, I need to be warm and kind and open and understanding with those I meet. But as much as I would like to think of myself as just an individual (more on this cultural leaning in a future post), I am also a member of a community. Several different communities actually. As such, I have a larger responsibility to see how the bigger system of my community is affecting people. My personal kindness isn’t helping families who can’t get decent housing because of neighborhood rules and standard real estate practices. It’s not helping the students failing high school because it was never designed to teach people like them. It’s not helping single moms get appropriate health care in a system with rules that raises hurdles to access on every side. To help those people, I need to do my part to enact systemic change.

If that feels overwhelming, well, sure. It is. Remember, we’re taking steps here. Don’t worry, you don’t have to dismantle health care this week. For now, maybe just be willing to consider the ways the system is not as culturally sensitive as you are. Set aside your bias about it. Then ask some people not like you what their experiences have been. Listen to what they tell you.

Break out of your self-contemplation. Spread your wings and fly around a bit. Look at your comfortable place from the outside. Put out your antennae and sense what others are feeling.

Be ready to respond.

Cultural Identity

In order to talk about cultures (the values, beliefs, and behaviors of a group) we’ve made a lot of generalizations. It’s helpful to understand these patterns of value and belief, especially as we consider adapting systems to be equitable for people of all cultures. As we think about our day-to-day interactions with individuals, though, it’s useful to ask ourselves how we know what culture someone belongs to.

Consider four people with the same ethnic heritage and the same country of birth. Just as an example, let’s say all four had parent born in China and all four were born in the United States, in the state of California.

Li’s parents were well educated in China and came to California for the economic opportunity. Both speak fluent English and have successful careers in the tech industry. Li was born after they had lived in the US for several years. She grew up in an upper-middle class urban area, had no siblings, and was educated in private schools. Her family claimed no religion, though her mother encouraged her to be spiritual. Her parents taught her some Chinese, but English was spoken at home. She now attends UC Berkeley.

Min’s parents came to the United States fleeing oppression. They spoke only a few words of English and had no money. Both took labor-intensive jobs in Chinatown in Los Angeles. Min was born three months after they arrived. Min was raised in a lower-class urban neighborhood, is the oldest of two children, and spoke only Chinese until she began attending public school at age 6. Her family is Christian, and were dedicated members of a Chinese-speaking church. Her parents eventually saved enough to open a small business, and Min was expected to work shifts in the business in addition to her studies. She eventually worked her way through college at California State.

Brian’s parents were both born in China but came to the U.S. as small children. Neither speaks Chinese, having grown up embarrassed by their parents’ lack of English skill. They met in college and bonded over their similar background. Brian is one of three children, was raised in a small town in northern California, and played soccer at his public school. His family is Christian and only sometimes attended a large, mostly-white church in town. Though his grandparents only live a few hours away, his family visited them only a couple times a year. His first real introduction to China happened on a trip he took to Beijing with his college soccer team.

Jin’s parents came to California to join his aunt and uncle and work for their business in the tourism industry. Jin is the youngest of four children and the only one born in the US. His parents were determined that their children would learn English, so no Chinese was spoken at home. Jin grew up in a small beach town, attended a small public school, and is an avid surfer. When he was fifteen, his grandmother came from China to live with his family. He became fascinated with the Chinese culture he never knew growing up, adopted his grandmother’s Buddhist religion, and studied Chinese in college.

Li, Min, Brian, and Jin are all Chinese-American. Not only do they share certain physical characteristics, they all are products of the same two national cultures. But it would be a huge mistake to think that these four have the same values, beliefs, and behaviors. In spite of their commonalities, their cultural identities are quite different.

When we talk about someone’s cultural identity, we’re not referring to their genetics. The culture that someone belongs to is the one that shaped them and that they identify with.

Each person’s cultural identity is made up of many factors, and the importance of each factor depends on its significance to the person. Some of the most important of those factors are race/ethnicity (recognizing again that this isn’t so much an issue of genetics as of the way society has defined race), socio-economic status, religion, place of residence, family structure, and degree of personal conformity to cultural norms.

Think about your own cultural identity, starting with what shaped you. What race or ethnicity do you claim? How significantly did you feel your race or ethnicity impacted your life? What was the economic status of your family of origin? How did that compare with the economic status of those you spent the most time with? What religion were you raised in? How important was that religion to your family? To you? Where did you live? In what country and in what region? Did you live in the city or in a small town or in the country? What was your family status? How many parents lived with you? How many siblings did you have? What was your position among those siblings? How much did you fit in with your family’s values? How much did your family fit in with your community’s values?

All of those answers go into forming your cultural identity. And as if that weren’t complicated enough, your cultural identity can shift over time. To be clear, it takes a lifetime to alter the beliefs and values of the culture that formed you, if it ever happens at all, but your behaviors (and then later, maybe, your values and beliefs) will be influenced by the culture you choose to identify with as an adult. Most adults remain pretty closely tied to their culture of origin, but in some cases radical changes can occur.

You may find your cultural identity changing due to your education level, your career choice, your choice of religion, where you choose to live, the status of the family you found as an adult and your adult socio-economic status.

Can you think of ways that you identify with a different culture than you did as a child? How different are your own values, beliefs, and behaviors from those of your parents?

What’s the point of these questions? As I’ve already said, it’s critical that we develop cultural understanding so that we can get past the behaviors of those around us and see the values, beliefs and attitudes underneath. But as we become more culturally aware, we can’t ever use our broad cultural brush to make assumptions about the people we meet. If we do, we fall into the trap of stereotyping, just with more educated language. Generalizations are helpful in understanding groups, but dangerous in understanding individuals.

Always, always, we are truly culturally aware only when we take the time to get to know individuals, when we discover what cultural factors formed them and what cultural identity they choose to claim. We have to allow for complexity and for change.

We have to do the hard work of listening.