September | Relate | A Lesson by Melanie Dale
I love people. Well, actually, that’s a lie. I can’t stand people, in general. The throng of bustling others bumping up against me and invading my space. People, as a collective group, are horrible. But relationships with people, ooh, yes, these are my favorite things of all the things. Relationships pop individual souls out of the sweaty masses. People become known, understood, loved, respected. Relationships are everything. If I had to pick a passion, the one thing that drives me, it’s relationships.
Think about everything that pisses you off in the world. It’s all so terrible. But then when you get quiet and start to listen to the voices around you, really lean in to the stories and perspectives and learn to relate, this general feeling of argh gives way to something deeper. Understanding. Relationships soften us. How many things that divide us would fizzle away if we learned to relate?
Yesterday my seven-year-old cheerleader won the spirit stick at the end of the football game. I’ve seen Bring It On, so I know how important this is. Of course, I’m most like Eliza Dushku’s character and all I want to do is tempt fate and throw that thing on the ground. Growing up, I was the snarky nerd making fun of the cheerleaders and their raging enthusiasm, and now I am a Cheer Mom because the good Lord thinks He’s hilarious.
When Evie decided she wanted to try cheerleading last year, I nodded and smiled on the outside and inside I had a total panic attack. She has enough school spirit for the both of us, but I wondered how I was supposed to raise a little feminist if she wanted to spend every weekend cheering for boys, and also how do you even put in those bows that are as big as her head?
It was all so overwhelming. The chanting, the lycra, the bows, and mostly ... other Cheer Moms. Good grief, I wrote a whole book about developing friendships with other moms but with cheerleading I thought, This is it. This is the albatross that will bring me down. (If you’re a cheerleader, Cheer Mom, or in any way cheer-adjacent, by all means judge me. I’m the worst. I didn’t know how awesome you are. Don’t give up on me.)
We showed up to practice the first day, Evie skipped over to her teammates, and I looked around at all the moms who clearly belonged. I wondered how I’d ever relate. Could they tell by looking at me that I didn’t even understand the rules of football?
During that first intimidating practice (for me - Evie nailed it like a boss), I found a couple other moms I already knew and started chatting. And I met their friends. And then their friends’ friends. Some of them were former cheerleaders and some were terrified posers like me. Some lived and breathed football and some ... well actually, I think I was in a category all on my own with my lack of sports-ing.
I figured at least Evie could work on her spelling. Maybe someday she’d get V-I-C-T-O-R-Y or R-O-W-D-Y or A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E in a spelling bee. I decided to just be super open about my lack of knowledge and nobody cared. I helped decorate the homecoming float, making tissue paper garlands with my bare hands like some kind of lifestyle-blogging craft queen.
I was working my way into this Cheer Mom thing. I learned how to wind the big bows around Evie’s ponytail puff. I grew to respect the coaches and girls and was perhaps the last one to realize that cheerleading actually develops quite a bit of leadership. I mean, it’s in the name. How did I never notice this?
We’ve begun our second season as Cheer People, and while the practices with all the yelling will continue to send me into a sensory processing meltdown, yes, yes, yes, I do, I have spirit, how ‘bout you?
Just yesterday at the game, I had this conversation with a friend:
Me: I think it’s only fair that the boys should have to take the pompoms and line up in a tunnel for the girls to run through, too. They’ve both worked hard at this game. They should celebrate each other’s effort.
Her: You still don’t quite understand this thing, do you.
I still don’t understand football games, but in our house, we call them cheer games, so it doesn’t really matter.
I may never fully embrace cheerleading, but I respect my daughter’s love of it and as I’ve learned to relate to the moms around me, I’ve come to really love the other women standing shoulder to shoulder with me, doling out Gatorade and megaphones. I love cheering on our cheerleaders together.
Over the last few years, I also began developing some other relationships with people who were different than me. This time it wasn’t an activity like cheerleading that made us different, but the very culture or race we were born into. From developing relationships with Black women in my community to getting to know my neighbors who are immigrants, I started making an intentional effort to ask better questions and listen.
As I witnessed some unloving, fear-based statements around me concerning immigrants, I decided that while I can’t solve all the world’s problems, what would it look like for me to show up and love my neighbors? I live in a neighborhood filled with immigrants from many different places and I decided to spend less time on Twitter reading about them and more time in each other’s homes. A friend of a friend gave me the number of an Ethiopian family living down the street from me. My little spirit stick-winning cheer girl is Ethiopian and meeting a family from her home country who lives right in our neighborhood has been a ginormous answer to a million prayers in the depths of my heart.
The first time we went over to their house I became painfully aware at how lacking I was in hospitality. We received a full Ethiopian coffee ceremony with the beans roasted right in front of our eager noses. That very afternoon they taught Evie basic greetings and a prayer in Amharic, and her desire to reconnect with her culture of origin came alive. Over the last year we’ve been the humble recipients of countless meals of injera, wat, and tibs, we’ve celebrated Orthodox church holidays together, and our cheerleader has grown more and more comfortable with wearing her uniform one day and an Ethiopian dress the next day. The way we worship is different, our customs are different, and even our houses smell different (theirs smells better, like coffee and berbere seasoning), and we learn how to relate. We all want to teach Evie how to be Ethiopian and how to be American and how to navigate being a child of both places.
A few months later, I introduced myself to new Indian neighbors and we’ve developed a friendship playing poker, eating homemade chapatti, and talking about everything from immigration, prejudice, and American politics to movies, Netflix, and food. I text her to understand the references in A Long Way Home and she texts me for the name of the “grassy thing which is like mulch but not really mulch.” (It’s pine straw. I didn’t know what it was called either before I moved to Georgia.)
My quest to relate has led me into many sacred, precious moments. I’ve listened as a Muslim man on a plane talked with me about his religion and then performed his evening prayers. I’ve listened as neighbors who have recently emigrated shared concerns about hostility that they’ve experienced. I’ve sat as the only white woman in a room filled with women of color, listening to them voice fears for their kids and husbands because of white supremacy and the current racially-charged atmosphere.
When people who are different than you share their culture or hospitality, receive it.
When marginalized people tell you their stories, believe them.
Something about entering each other’s homes and sharing food and real conversation, away from hashtags and news cycles, is healing. When we learn to relate to one another, through language barriers or cultural differences or differing political or social perspectives, we grow as humans, and we grow together.
Who do you need to listen to? With whom do you need to relate? Maybe it’s a mom at your kid’s school or maybe it’s a neighbor or coworker. Are you scared of Cheer Moms, too? Because now I am one and I can assure you we’re absolutely fantastic.
When I get to know the people around me, they morph from “Lady at the park whose kid hogs the swing” and “Person with the election sign in her yard” to “Layla who works in customer service and has a difficult relationship with her mother-in-law” and “Jessie who makes a really yummy cheese ball and is nice to my kids.” When we draw closer to the people around us, lay down our prejudices, and dip our toes into relationship, we find our surroundings warm up and soften to the humor and pleasure of people.
A lot of the time. I mean, occasionally, when you draw closer you find that people are even worse up close. It’s risky. But this month, we’re taking the risk, throwing caution to the wind (within reason, I mean, we’re not publishing our social security numbers or riding in cars with strangers), and getting creative in the way we relate.
“When someone loves you, the way they talk about you is different. You feel safe and comfortable.”
― Jess C. Scott, The Intern
Make a list that no one will ever see. Start with all the assumptions people have ever made about you, stereotypes that people have placed on you, the times you felt judged. Write about how it made you feel, how it affected your life or choices. Maybe it’s something from middle school or something from last week.
Now write down the assumptions and stereotypes you place on other people. Confront your own judgments, whether it’s the way you secretly judged the mom with the screaming kids at Target, the person who voted differently than you, or the way you inadvertently clutched your purse tighter when a Black man passed you on the street. Be honest with yourself about your inherent biases. This is between you and your journal. Before we can relate to one another, we need to confront our own junk. What keeps us from truly relating?
If you’re into prayer, take a moment to talk to God about everything you just discovered. If you need to ask for healing for a memory that hurts, ask. If you need to repent of some kind of prejudice, do it. Sit for a moment and receive God’s grace. Give yourself grace.
This month, as you encounter people in your life, notice your gut reactions. How do other people make you feel? How do you make other people feel? Ask your close friends or spouse what makes you a good friend and what you need to work on.
This month we’re going to widen our circles and learn to listen to other perspectives! (This is terrifying. It’s okay to be scared. Be scared and do it anyway.) I have a three-level challenge for us. Overachievers, I know you, and you’re going to try to nail all three, so please just visualize me giving you a big gold star and an A++. The rest of you, if you’re totally mad at me and think this is dumb, maybe you aim for Level One, which earns you a delightful participation trophy.
Start following different people on social media. I love Twitter for this, but whether it’s Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or Pinchatscope, widen the strangers you’re learning from. Quietly follow people with different political views and church denominations, from different racial and cultural backgrounds, people with different parenting philosophies, whatever. Seek out the people you would normally avoid at a meet ‘n’ greet. Pay attention to how they respond to current events and headlines. Notice the way they post about their faith, families, or values. Don’t engage; just listen.
Dig deeper. Read new writers, discover new blogs and books, and approach their words with the goal of learning a different perspective, whether or not you agree with it. Notice when your insides clench or you feel threatened or frustrated. Notice what makes you pause. Press into the tension inside yourself.
Invite a friend who’s different from you over for coffee, a playdate, or a hot bowl of soup. If that’s pushing it, grab a bench at the park and start slowly on neutral territory. Develop a burgeoning friendship with someone you wouldn’t normally gravitate to, and ask questions and listen. Look for common ground. Where can you relate? What struggles and joys do you share?
Artist Interview with Liza Dora
1. You are a wife, mom, writer and illustrator—you wear so many hats in your day-to-day life! What does a typical day look like for you and your family?
The days really vary. I know routines work for some people, but so much of having a young child is being able to roll with the punches. My kid is a great napper most days. She usually gives me 2-2.5 hours in the afternoon to focus on work, but there are days she doesn’t. There are days I don’t get a workout in or days I don’t hit a writing goal. You just have to forgive yourself and do better the next day. I find focusing big picture helps me regulate when I feel like my daily goals are shot.
2. Your children’s books are so fun but also really powerful with regard to the topics you’ve chosen. Did you set out to write about topics that matter with regard to race and gender? How did you choose your medium? Where did your inspiration come from?
I didn’t set out to write socially conscious books, but as a mother with a biracial daughter I have to live that way. They say write what you know and so I do. I chose children’s books as a medium because my daughter is three and these books are for her. I’ve been delighted and surprised by the overwhelming response, but really I wrote them for her.
3. In your most full or challenging seasons, how have you still managed to create? What have those seasons looked like? Do you feel like you’re in one of those seasons now?
I am definitely in one of those seasons. I have a rare ocular cancer. When I was diagnosed two years ago, I sort of went into hyper-drive. It changed my perspective entirely. There are still days when I’m sad or anxious. There are still days when I think that life isn’t fair, but I believe God has a plan for me. I believe I wasn’t chasing my dreams, I wasn’t accomplishing my goals, and cancer made me prioritize. It showed me what was important and lit a fire for me. In your 30’s you feel like there’s not a time limit, but there is. Everyone has a finite amount of time here, so what are you going to do with it?
4. How are you seeing the fruit of your creative work blooming now from seeds that you planted long ago?
I am still blown away from some of the emails and messages I receive. Sometimes they are about my blog and sometimes they are about my books, but I am so grateful for the people who go out of their way to let me know how my work has effected them. It’s humbling to know my little books have made their way onto different continents, or that women in South Africa have read an article I wrote for a magazine.
5. What inspires you: as a wife, mom, and artist?
It sounds so simple, but my husband inspires me as a wife. I love him so I want to make him happy and proud. Playing with my daughter, spending time with her, pretending with her, inspires me as a mother. As an artist, I draw the inspiration from what I see and so much of that, right now, is what I’m finding in my own home. Maybe the view will change in a few years, but I’m so grateful for what I see right now.
6. What or who do you read to help inspire your work? What other resources do you recommend to fellow creatives?
I actually go out of my way not to read when I’m working on a project. It forces me to entertain myself with that story. I’m currently working on my first novel and I’ve quarantined myself so that I’ll continue to refine my own story, but normally I read a book every week. I love memoirs and I’ve read Amy Poehler’s, Tina Fey’s, and both of Mindy Kaling’s books. I also love to reread books. The last book I read was A Wrinkle in Time. I think I’ve now read it at least 8 times. My advice would be to read what you love. Read what you aspire to. Don’t be afraid to go back and really study it.
7. Do you have a scripture, word, or mantra that guides your work?
“There are two ways to live: as though everything is a miracle or nothing is.” To me that’s about choice. You can choose how to deal with things. I like to give myself some responsibility, so I believe I am the one in charge of if I have a good day or not. It’s a my choice to make.
8. How do motherhood and creative work complement one another?
My daughter is a daily source of inspiration. She unlocks feelings and ideas in me. She’s very much my muse.
9. What is something you have learned in the past year that you are taking in to the new year with a new perspective?
Time spent. It took me a long time recognize my husband and my daughter both enjoy my undivided attention. I love to multitask. I think a lot of moms do. I am not great at being still and this year I took so much more time, not for myself, but for them. I did a better job of paying attention. It made for less time to write, but also for better writing.
10. If you could tell moms who long to create as they raise little ones a word of advice, what would it be?
If you are truly a creative soul, you will reach a point where you no longer just want to do it (write/paint/create), you have to. When you hit that point, you will be able to find the time. You’ll have to.