Please try to understand….

“Kristine, you were in my dream last night! And it was the craziest thing, you’ll never guess…..”

I silently finish their sentence, “You were walking!” But maybe just this once, it’ll be anything else..?

“…You were walking!”

As predictable as the sunrise. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had this conversation.

I know people can’t really control what they dream about. But why does everyone seem to have these Kristine walking dreams? And does it surprise people that I never have that dream? That everyone has it but me? I have frequent anxiety dreams about my chair breaking down. But unless the chair plays a key role in the dream, I’m not actually aware of whether or not it’s there. I assume it is, because why wouldn’t it be? (I also assume my elbows and all ten toes are there, although I never stop to check.) Just like in real life, if the focus of my dream is interacting with the people and things around me, I’m not paying much attention to how I’m getting around. Who puts that much conscious thought into how their body is moving through space?

A well-meaning man came up to me at church this weekend, put his hand on my shoulder, and asked, “When are you getting out of that wheelchair?”

I was taken aback. “Not any time soon….” I sputtered.

“Well we sure would like to see you get out of it.”

Speechless. I was completely speechless. (Also–who was this “we”??) My instinct from childhood was to smile and pretend that was a kind, thoughtful thing to say. But I’m done with rewarding people’s ignorance, so I didn’t do that. My worn-out-teacher-in-May instinct was to snark and snap and tell him exactly what I thought. But I don’t want to be rude to a well-meaning old man at church, so I didn’t do that either. Instead I just looked confused and didn’t say anything. Eventually he walked away.

(If I’d let the snappy voice talk, it would have said, “Are you wishing me dead?? Because I’m not leaving this chair until I die. And I have a lot more living I’d like to do first. Leave me alone.”)

And one more story…

A couple months ago, I might have had a minor emotional meltdown at church… It was the same weekend that I wrote this post, so there’s a kinda-sorta idea of what was going on in my head at the time. Then the third hour lesson just hit all my buttons, and once I started crying, the floodgates were open and I couldn’t stop. I pretty much bawled my eyes out for 45 solid minutes in a room full of women. And I’m not a cute crier, so by the time the class ended, I was a red, puffy, snotty mess, thanking the heavens for waterproof mascara.

That day again confirmed my suspicions that I have a prickly, defensive, off-putting aura, because as I sat there after church, sniffling and trying to get it together, the room of ladies all filed out without saying a word to me. Nobody asked me if I was ok. Nobody offered to listen if I wanted to talk. No hugs or pats on the back. Nada. (Not the first time this has happened to me. There are some people who can cry, and the whole world falls over themselves to offer comfort and love. But for some reason, when I cry, people tend to back away and just give me space. Whether or not I want it.)

Except for one person. When the room was nearly empty, one very nice, older lady came and sat next to me. For a while she just sat there with that “I want to say something, but I don’t know what to say” look on her face. (We’ve all been there.) That was fine–very much appreciated, actually. Then she started talking, and stumbled through some comment like, “I just wish you didn’t have to be in that chair…” I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something like that. To her credit, she immediately recognized how awkward her comment was, apologized for not knowing what to say, patted me on the back, and went on her way. I didn’t even resent her weird comment, because hey, at least she tried. I appreciated one person caring enough to try.

It was revealing, though. Is that why people back away when they see me being emotional? Do they just assume I’m crying about being in a wheelchair? And they don’t know how to deal with that, so they’d rather not? That’s such a weird thing to assume! I was upset about a lot of different things that weekend, but none of them were related to my disability. As if I were a one-dimensional person, and that was the only thing I thought about?

Can we all please accept that Kristine uses a wheelchair, and just be ok with it? Stop trying to wish it away. If I want to wish it away myself, I can–I’ve earned that right. I usually don’t, though. There are so many bigger and better things to spend my wishes on. But nobody else gets to make that wish. It’s everyone else’s job to just love and accept me for who I am. I’m sorry that’s apparently so hard to do, but keep trying. If I can learn to be ok with me, then you can too.

Here, I’ll even help you get started. Think of something you like about me. Anything at all. You’re here, reading my blog, so I’m going to assume there’s at least one thing you find mildly likable about me…. Whatever that thing is, if I weren’t disabled, that thing wouldn’t be the same. I’d be an entirely different person. My disability has influenced every single experience, every relationship, every opportunity, every challenge, every everything, since the day I was born. Directly or indirectly, it’s woven into the fabric of everything that I am. And I don’t want to be someone else. I have my flaws and my “opportunities for growth,” but that’s ok. I’m good with me.

I’m really tired, though, of having to work so hard to help other people be good with me. Yes, I know you grew up in an ableist world, not even aware that ableist was a word, and my disability makes you more uncomfortable than you’re willing to admit. I get it, but that’s not my fault. It’s not my job to take your hand and be your disability acceptance coach. I’m busy living my own life, which both does and doesn’t revolve around my disability. If you want to be part of my life, you need to be ok with that. All of it. You need to be ok with talking about disability, and with talking about things other than my disability. One without the other is weird.

Ask questions. I have answers, stories, and opinions, and I’ll probably tell them to you. But don’t project your feelings and assumptions onto me. Nobody benefits from that.

Staying Home For Mother’s Day

One night in college, a group of friends and I were taking a personality test together. The test told us to visualize a cube in a desert, and then kept giving us new elements to add to our mental image, while we wrote descriptions of what we were seeing. Afterward, we looked up the different symbols in this book to find what our interpretations revealed about us.

One of the steps was “Add flowers to your desert. Describe them.” My mental picture filled up with hundreds of little red flowers, scattered all over the desert. We found out afterward that the flowers were supposed to represent our children. The book said that my plethora of scattered, red flowers meant I would have “many children from many different fathers.” We all laughed at this–it’s particularly funny when you keep in mind that we were a churchy group of BYU kids–and I made jokes about my secret wild side and lineup of future baby-daddies.

Then one person said brightly, “Maybe it’s talking about your students!” I was almost done with my teaching program at this point, just a few months away from graduation.

I think I mumbled something unintelligible in response, and I definitely exchanged a bitter look with Emily. She was the friend I could count on in the moment to “get” me.

As a Mormon girl, I’d heard all my life about how children and motherhood were the ultimate fulfillment, accomplishment, happiness, and reason for existing. And as a Mormon girl in a wheelchair, nobody ever expected me to have children or be a mother. (You try living an emotionally stable life with those two messages constantly coming at you.) I resented everybody’s assumptions about me, but at the same time, I was pretty sure they weren’t wrong. Regardless, I appreciated when people at least pretended that family life was still within my realm of possibilities. It bothered me that at basically 20-nothing years old, it had already been decided that I’d live my life alone, but hey, I could “mother” other people’s kids. As long as I kept quotation marks around the word “mother.”

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Now, here I am, ten years into my teaching career. My desert is filled with hundreds of little red flowers… And the thing is, I love those little red flowers. Love them like they’re my own.

I feel like that’s a dangerous thing to say. I can see the judgmental thought bubbles that many people have in response. Some want to condescendingly tell me that I don’t really know what it’s like to love kids as my own, that you can’t possibly know unless you’re an actual mother. Others feel sorry for me, as they always do for someone who “pours herself into work because she doesn’t have much else or anyone at home.” Still others want to kindly warn me against getting too personally involved, that it’s best to maintain some emotional distance and boundaries and whatever.

Those people might all be right. Or maybe they’re all wrong. Probably somewhere in between. I don’t know, and I don’t care too much what they think anyway. Thirty-something Kristine doesn’t need other people’s approval as desperately as twenty-nothing Kristine did. And if she wants their advice, she’ll ask for it.

But here’s the understatement of the century: It’s hard loving other people’s kids. So, so hard.

I want my kids to have all the best that life has to offer. All the opportunities. I want every door open to them, and I want them to always know that they’re supported, loved, and safe. I give everything that I have to give, but it never feels like enough. How could it be? I might love them like my own, but they’re not mine. I’m just their English teacher. I play a tiny role in their lives, 47 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for 3 years at the most. No matter how much I wish I could do more, my influence is actually really small.

I think I mostly succeed at letting them know they’re loved, but everything else? Not feeling so successful. And even that, is sometimes questionable…. I recently asked a kid straight up if he knows that he’s loved. He gave it some thought, then answered my question with a question, “What is love?” That, of course, was quite a conversation…

I teach complicated kids, with complicated lives. Most have had the cards stacked against them since day one. None of my students’ families came to the US because they had a fancy job in the tech industry waiting for them. They all came to escape from something. (Also, for the record, I’ve never met a family that showed up expecting a free ride, or for things to be easy. They all came ready to work, ready to contribute, and hopeful that life would be better for their children.)

I don’t have a magic wand that can undo trauma. I can’t give the kid whose single parent is working two jobs, an at-home parental presence to make sure they do their homework, eat regular meals, and go to bed at a decent hour. I can’t give them an educational system that’s funded, staffed, resourced, and designed to meet their needs. I can’t end racism. I can’t silence all the messages of “you don’t belong here,” “you’re not good enough,” and “your future is already decided.” I can’t promise that they, their family, loved ones, or home are safe. I can’t protect them from the very adult problems that their kid-brains aren’t prepared to deal with. And I definitely can’t make their choices for them.

But I wish I could.

Of course, it’s getting worse, not better. The kids know the country has turned its back on them.

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I teach complicated kids, with complicated lives. But I also teach incredible kids. Incredible, funny, smart, creative, kind, strong, beautiful kids. They deserve so much better than what we’re giving them. They deserve so much better than what I’m able to give them.

It’s such a cliche for the childless Mormon woman to stay home from church on Mother’s Day. I usually don’t. Every other year, I grit my teeth and get through it. But this year, I can’t. I’m not strong enough right now. There are way too many pictures floating around my brain of my kids’ faces, kids who aren’t really mine, who I’m unable to do enough for. Not enough to make a difference. It’s not that I’m feeling guilty, exactly, for being unable to singlehandedly change lives. Just sad. Really, really sad…. And I have to save my game face for Monday.

I do love my little red flowers in the desert. Love them deeply. But if they give out Mother’s Day flowers at church? Please, nobody bring me one. Don’t need it, don’t want it. Not this year.