Natalia’s Story

20170125-dsc_0020Our personal stories are very important because they help us define ourselves and remind us of who we are when we get lost. I have been thinking a lot about various segment of my story-line in an attempt to clarify what values I stand for, what I am willing to fight for.

My story involves some difficult times where I felt I was loosing myself, when I sought help from a therapist. It was difficult trusting another with my story of brokenness, but I received acceptance and love instead of rejection. Later as a therapist I was pulled into the lives of others as they struggled to authentically remember the difficult paths they had followed. When we share our true selves, without the puffed up facades of how perfect we are, we feel vulnerable, like we are standing naked.

The miracle I so often see is that when we listen to a personal story, it touches us and calls us to respond. When we read authentic stories, we can frequently identify because we share so many aspects of the human experience. Here is Natalia’s story of being an outsider in her country of birth because she came from the wrong region, of becoming insignificant, of loosing everything, and of finding refuge in the United States.

26 years ago I came to this country as a refugee. I still remember that day pretty clear. We were extremely tired and disoriented, but excited.

It was a long journey, it took us about 24 hours to get to Lansing, MI from Moscow, Russia. I had $200 to my name, I knew 4 words in English and I had no idea where we are going to sleep that night. It was alright, it was not too bad. It was not about what we had, it was about what we left behind – fear for our lives, fear of tomorrow and feeling of not belonging. We did not belong in USSR, we were not valued. We had no rights and no protection of police and government. If my family would’ve been killed (just like many others had), no one would have cared, there would not have been an investigation and a trial, there would not have been any justice.

I am grateful to my parents for their extraordinary bravery. In their mid-50s they had their lives pretty established – they had good jobs, good house, savings, vacations, two adult children … and overnight they lost everything. Everything they worked for and earned, but most importantly they lost their citizen’s rights, their sense of security and safety.

Real heroes in my life are my parents Vladimir Agababian and Larisa Melik-Bagdasariants, my aunt Aida Melik-Bagdasaryants and my uncle Eduard Badaliants, perhaps most of all – my uncle Mikhail Melik-Bagdasaryants. My uncle Mikhail risked his life by going to American embassy in Moscow. If it was not for him, we might’ve all been part of forgotten people. Forgotten people of Armenian descent that still are, after 26 years, live in ruins, live in fear of tomorrow, live without hope for better life and without basic human rights.

I would like to say that since day one my life in US was easy and I got it all and right away, but it was not. The first decade was a struggle, life was confusing. But it was alright, because the most important things like safety and outlook for brighter future was simply given to us and given right away, we were no longer forgotten people.

Natalia’s first husband, Gary, died of a fast growing brain tumor a little over 10 years ago, leaving her to raise two children by herself. A year and a half ago she married our son so now she and her two beautiful young-adult children have joined our family. They are a blessing, and we have had the privilege of joining her extended family for meals around her happy dining table laden with wonderful Russian foods. Most important, she has supported our son through tough times because she knows how to live through loosing everything and come out the other side standing firmly on the life values that are most important.

We can’t let hate and fear close our borders. We need to welcome those who are fleeing desperate situations so that they can be a blessing to our nation and hopefully touch our personal lives. Thank you for your courage, Natalia, and for joining our family.

Reflections on the March

 

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Why participate in a public march – what do you hope to accomplish? Isn’t it a waste of time – who in power cares? As I browsed the internet over the past couple of days these questions were occasionally asked. Historically, the answer is that well organized marches made a difference in the lives of people who had been denied the rights guaranteed them under our Constitution.

It is a way of making our voices heard that is guaranteed under our Constitution. I have traveled in Russia and Cuba and was struck by how afraid people are to speak about their governments, how afraid people are of the police in Russia. My daughter-in-law immigrated from Russia as an adult and speaks forcefully about how difficult it is living in fear of serious consequences when people are a disfavored cultural group or speak out in dissent, speak truth, posses banned books that may expand a person’s perspective. Actually she doesn’t speak about that as much as she speaks about how much better it is to live in the free world. I marched for these reasons because I have observed that our new president’s fragile ego and need for constant demonstrations of support make me fear that, even though he says no one respects the Constitution more than he does, his insecurities cause him to act in ways that aren’t consistent with who he believes he is. I have seen way too many good people do really bad things because of their unresolved insecurities. So I decided to march.

I think the strongest reason I marched was because of guilt that I didn’t march in my younger days. I have carried that guilt with me for way too many years, silently. I was silently angry about racial discrimination, and I was silently angry about gender discrimination. Maybe I didn’t have the courage to be angry out loud, in public. Age and politics have given me the courage to be more public in stating my thoughts when I believe that something is wrong, when people aren’t playing fair, when people are being hurt in ways that aren’t right or just.

I didn’t think the sister march in Naples, Florida was going to be very big because this is a Republican strong-hold and Trump won Collier County. This is where a government official said that Occupy Wall Street demonstrators wouldn’t be tolerated here because this is where the 10% come to relax. None of us in the 90% disagreed. I was surprised when I found out that there was a march organized, and speculated that maybe a couple hundred would show up. It took courage for me to register, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to die with a clean political conscience if I didn’t do it. I had to pull up something greater than my “big girl panties.” I had to wear my “courageous girl panties.”

Here are my random observations and thoughts:

It wasn’t particularly well organized, or their organization hadn’t been publicized. They had kept the starting point of the march a secret. I soon realized that this march was much more spontaneous and grass-roots than nationally organized. How powerful it felt. All these people who didn’t know what was suppose to happen, making decisions and helping each other form a cohesive whole. The starting point ended up being 4 blocks away from where we were told to meet. We waited for a shuttle bus that never came. People around us were making decisions to walk east to the starting point, but JB and I decided to walk south to join up with the people who had already started (after all I didn’t expect there to be that many so they would all be gone by the time I reached the start). As we passed people walking to the meeting place, we told them the parade route and they joined with us – and we joined others at the next corner, and more at the next corner to join in the real march. Our little march to join the real march was attracting attention. Someone asked what we were marching for and received several different answers – one a little snarky.

By this time I was getting excited about the diversity of people. Don’t let me miss-lead you – this is a primarily white community with a sizable population of brown and black-skinned people working the service jobs but living further inland. They are living on the edge, literally and figuratively, and they probably had to work at keeping their lives together instead of marching. I guess I was marching for them. I want them to have the same chance at a slice of paradise that I so enjoy, even though I’m not a part of the 10%. Maybe I don’t belong here any more than they do – or they have as much of a right to belong here as I do. There were young families with children, many men walking with wives, people of all ages including old people with walkers, with limps; walking in physical pain but who couldn’t stay home.

I didn’t feel any anger in the march, instead I observed people feeling powerful – speaking out for what they believe is important for the good of society, our common good. People were holding signs on climate change, human rights, reproductive rights, Planned Parenthood, Affordable Care Act, anti-Trump, and my favorite “We shall over-comb.”

There were a few police. I saw a couple of police cars and a couple of police on bikes. Another police was directing the marchers to turn onto 5th Ave., probably more to keep us from expanding the march than to keep us from losing our way. The police weren’t on high alert – they were curious and maybe a little concerned about the large number.

There was no we-against-them. We all cheered and supported all causes. We laughed and talked. In the end, my favorite chant was “What does democracy look like?” “This is what democracy looks like.” (I need to wipe my eyes because I can’t see the screen through my tears.)

There were a lot of people marching. The Naples Daily News estimated that there were 2,500 – a few more than the 200-300 I anticipated. I didn’t think of the people on vacation who wanted to join in because they were away from the march where they live. As I walked along, I thought of the people I knew who were marching all over the country. I felt a connection with those in D.C., but also Lansing and Ann Arbor, Seattle and Los Angeles, Portland Maine and Portland Oregon. When I arrived home I was blown away by the news coverage of all the marches that exceeded expectations.

I was touched when I learned that people marched in Toronto, London, Paris, Germany, Australia and lots of cities in between. Thank you if you marched in support for us, but more so for marching for those issues that are important for you. Are they any different?We are a global community and whatever happens to one of us, impacts all of us. There is no way that we can be selfish in order to keeping ourselves safe and comfortable and prosperous. The only chance we have of protecting ourselves is to work with others to protect all peoples and the environment we live in.

As we left the march at the end of the route, JB and I held hands, and he said he was glad that he marched.

Me, too!

 

I’m also joining in The Travel Theme: March. See you there.

 

 

 

I Have My Marching Sandals On

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I am on my way to the Naples, Florida sister Woman’s March today and JB is going with me. I lived through the Civil Rights Movement and the Feminist Movement. They moved me greatly but I didn’t march – for reasons that I don’t remember. Today I am (belatedly) joining other women and men to make my voice heard that I believe in what those early marchers were fighting for and now even more.

Yes, JB is going with me and I thanked him this morning with tears streaming down my cheeks. I told him that it meant so much to me that he, too, wants to take a stand that it is not okay for men to treat women as second-class citizens, as objects to be used and abused. He is willing to take a stand that he doesn’t want any man to believe it is okay to grab our daughters, granddaughters, great-granddaughter, nieces, great-nieces, sisters, cousins or any other female in the world by their pussy or shove them against a wall to kiss them against their will – just because he is stronger or has more power. We want to send a message to those women (and men) who have dismissed Trump’s comments as typical things men say, that no it isn’t and it shouldn’t be. We don’t want any man who says such things to be around the women we love (including me) and we are concerned that someone who says these things is now the leader of the free world.

We are also marching because we are concerned for all of us who are vulnerable. We are feeling our vulnerability because of our age but there are other people who are more vulnerable. We want to stand up for those who are working their butts off but still need a safety net for when all of their carefully woven dreams unravel. We want to stand up for those who look and sound different and thus become “the other” making it okay to hate and abuse them. We want to stand up for those who are too weak to stand up for themselves because they suffer from chronic, pre-existing health problems that consume their daily lives and a loss of healthcare could literally take their lives. We want to stand up for all the people, like Grandpa Bill Bailey and my Pizion grandparents who came to this country looking for a better life. We want to make sure others have the same chance to be productive, beautiful members of our society. I want to stand up for young people who were brought here as small children and are working hard to get an education and make their way to being a successful adult – just like my children did. I want to stand up for all people who are marginalized and threatened by bullies and people who have closed their minds to new information and closed their hearts to compassion.

I’m not sure how long I will be able to march because of my limited energy, but I am going to show up and do what I can. Even if I have to go home early, it won’t be the end of the march for me. I will support Trump when he is doing the right thing for the people who elected him, but I will be diligent to speak up when his actions tell me that he lied when he said this is all about us. Everything he has done so far indicates that he is in it for his ego and his brand, but I am hopeful that I am reading him wrong. As citizens it is our job to keep our elected official’s feet to the fire to deliver on their promises. The 200+ year old march goes on to fulfill the brilliance of our Constitution.

Here’s to all of us in Washington, in cities large and small around our country, and in 50+ nations around the world. Let’s spread our wings and march.

The Grateful Tree

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I put the decorations on our Christmas tree today. I almost didn’t put the tree up – or more accurately almost took it down before I had all the lights on. Getting the lights on last year was a nightmare, but this year it was only a bad dream. I persevered for a week and think I should write down some notes about how I could make the process easier for next year. JB thinks I’m a perfectionists, but I think I just like things to be really pleasing.

The fun part every year is opening the box of ornaments and unwrapping each one from its tissue. I remember as I re-discover each ornament – for the first time all over again. I forget what ornaments I have but once my memory is jogged I remember the significance it has to the fabric of my life.

This year there was another layer to the process of re-membering, using Parker Palmer’s phrase. The stress of our current political uncertainty has created in me a need to figure out once again who I am and what my life has been about. When the seams of our life feel like they are being ripped apart, maybe we need to pull the parts of ourselves back together – we need to re-member ourselves. I need to remember what I value, to strengthen the seams of my life by remembering.

Putting the ornaments on the tree this year (and making sense of it through my writing) is helping me do this. Each ornament represents a piece of the story of who I am. I have three ball ornaments that belonged to grandparents – and this year they are front and center. My grandparents were the foundation of who I am. They nurtured me strong.

I have hand-made ornaments from a neighbor who was my children’s second mother and my own hand-made ornaments demonstrating my creative side. I have German stars that I learned to make in high school, and I feel gratitude for all the teachers I’ve had that taught and molded me. They were guiding stars, although not all German.

I have some ornaments made by my sister, Peg – one being a crocheted angel. How appropriate. I don’t have any ornament from my other sister, who passed away. Linda made beautiful greeting cards, however, and I kept all that she sent. One of them now has a place on the tree along with Peg’s ornaments. Both sisters were very important to my life story in very different ways – both are cherished.

I don’t have an ornament from my parents’ tree but I made that okay – I have created my own treasured memory ornaments. My father’s favorite ornaments were artificial birds that clip on the tree’s branch. I bought a red cardinal, his favorite, and also a dove. I did feel some sadness because I have no ornament from my mother, but then I unwrapped a bell dated 1986. I don’t remember how I came to possess it but my mother collected bells and this is now her bell. It hangs below the dove, maybe representative of the peace and love that we shared after I came to terms with past transgressions.

As I was going through Linda’s home-made cards, I found a very special one, signed Mom & Dad. A two-fer. As I am writing this, I looked over at it and smiled big with tears in my eyes. I am very thankful for all my parents gave me, both genetically and through their caring. I am especially grateful for God’s saving grace that made it possible for me to appreciate their gifts of love. I miss Mom, Dad and Linda very much.

I made ornaments, 37 years ago, with my children’s pictures in them and once again I gave them a prominent place on the tree. The last ornaments I placed on the tree were ones my children made in their early elementary school years. I have a precious collection so I have to decide which ones to use each year. Seeing them floods me with beautiful memories of all those Christmases as they grew and matured – as they grew and matured me. All the excitement. And that special moment when I opened the treasure that each had made for us, as they expectantly waited for our squeals of joy and praises. My heart swells with gratitude for all they gave us on Christmas past with the precious ornaments that still grace our tree, but also the 364 days in between when they helped me grow up.

In more recent years, we have made room on our tree for ornaments made by grandchildren. I am saddened that I don’t have one from my second grandson, so maybe I’ll have to tell him that my tree has a big empty spot that he needs to fill. Ahhh, but I remember that I’ve added a daughter and two more grandchildren through my son’s second marriage. How grateful I am that our hearts can enlarge to take in new family because they, too, are helping me write my life story. And soon we will hopefully make room on our tree for ornaments made by great-grandchildren Caden and Eevee.

Many ornament on my tree were bought on my many trips. This year they have special meaning besides the memories of the foreign lands they came from. This year I am grateful for the growth that took place as I learned about new cultures and met people who have different world views than I do. These experiences have enriched my life, but more importantly have made me a better person. I am more of who I am because of who I met and what I learned. This year our Christmas celebration will include a mother and daughter I met when visiting my daughter in Kyrgyzstan. I have several wool ornaments that remind me of the time I spent with them in their home.

Yes, this year I have a grateful tree. I have ornaments that remind me of people who healed me, who shaped me, who brought joy to my life. Each ornament has special significance for who I am, for who I have become. Each ornament represents a special person or event in my life, a special thread in the fabric of my person.

For each I am grateful. Thank you.

 

A Brand New BFF

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My newest great-granddaughter is visiting. The grand-daughter of my firstborn, and daughter of his firstborn, my grandson. Eevee is 6 weeks old and of course she brought her mom & dad along. But the show is all about Evelyn Mae.

We are BFF, decided over long talks while lying on the bed. She is just becoming social so I was fascinated and experienced great joy as I watched her work her tongue around struggling to make sounds, and then smiling at me as we gazed into each other’s eyes. At this stage I did most of the talking – in that high sing-songy voice that I reserve only for babies of a certain age. I know this one-sided conversation won’t last forever, and I’m hoping I live long enough to hear her chatter as she is developing her own narrative life story, or herstory.

Eevee’s mom & dad are going out a lot for quality time together while I am available to take care of Eevee. It is a win/win arrangement giving me the opportunity to really get to know her. She is having trouble adjusting to formula so there has been periods of intense, loud protests that bring back my experiences with colicky babies – and how helpless I felt as a young mother. This time I am calmer, probably because I know she will survive, and my worth as a person isn’t wrapped up in making sure she isn’t scarred for life because I can’t take away her discomfort. I like this type of care-giving much better but have to be honest. A part of my calmness comes from knowing that the parents will take over when they get home so I can get a good night’s sleep.

She has captured my heart. I work hard to calm her when she is in distress, and usually she falls asleep. When this happens she molds to my body and we share our warmth. When I experience the joy of that moment I can’t put her down. I look at her and wonder about her future. I marvel at her small, put perfectly formed anatomy. I think of the miracle of all those tiny cells dividing so quickly to make her grow. And I think about how her brain is developing so quickly making her a part of her environment and a social being. She stares so intently at me, at my mouth as I speak to her, and at the features of the room around her.

And I tell her that the world is really amazing. And I love you, Eevee.