Monday, November 30, 2015

Earning my stripe

Recently I had the opportunity to join Danta's lower-elementary class during Pioneer Day.  The kids learned how to make butter, sew a pocket, and play games Pilgrim children might have enjoyed centuries ago.  As knitting was a survival skill in the early 1600's (and to be honest, it's often a survival skill for me when I'm  stressed out), I was asked to teach a beginner's circle.   It's been quite a while since I worked with large groups of children and I'd forgotten that during the course of a lesson, the circle usually shrinks considerably as the kids inch nearer to me...until they're practically sitting in my lap.
Not that I mind.
Having a host of little ones huddle close is something I treasure, having spent the better part of my time as a classroom teacher giving hundreds of hugs, comforting kids when they were tired or in need of affection, and wiping tears and boo boos of all kinds. 
Still, what happened in Danta's class was a first. 
One of the boys enjoyed trying on the hats and handwamers I had brought to show them.  "Did you make your sweater?" Jimmy* asked brightly.
"Yes," I nodded.  "It took a long, long time to make it."
"It's really bright...I like the stripes!"
", too," I smiled, making a slip knot and sliding it over a wooden needle.
Then Jimmy scooted closer and touched my hair.  "You have a white stripe right here," he said, fingering the strands near my left temple. 
"Yep," I said, casting on a few stitches for him.  
Ever so gently, Jimmy tugged on one of the strands, pulling it out.
"Hey...what are you doing?" I asked as I rubbed the spot that still stung.
"I'm going to get rid of this for you," Jimmy replied as if he were doing me a great kindness.
"Please don't," I told him.  "That's my skunk stripe, and I love it."
He frowned.  "You do?"
"Yes," I grinned.  "And it took a long, long time to make that, too."
The look on Jimmy's face let me know that my silly sense of humor hasn't lost its charm. 
"Well it's not in the center of your hair, Kate."
"Well, I've always been a little off," I said, bouncing my eyebrows.  "At least I don't look like Cruella De Ville."
"Not yet," he deadpanned.

Over the weekend while decorating my Christmas tree, I thought about a pipe-cleaner skunk ornament I loved as a child.  In fact, when I went away to college, my mother often saved it for me to put on the tree when I came home during winter break.  I have no idea where it came from or whether it has sentimental value to anyone but me; still, I cannot remember a holiday season without that charming little stinker and how it was always put in a prominent place where everyone could see it.
Then and now I've never been afraid of skunks, but it wasn't until I lived in California that I began to understand more fully what they symbolize, particularly where my personal life is concerned.  Most folks wrinkle their noses when I reveal my adoration for one of the most recognized animals on the planet.  In fact, I ran into a friend on Thanksgiving and he commented about the white streak in my hair as he walked on by.
"Oh, that's my skunk stripe," I told him, laughing.
Later in the day Henry* sent an email in which he wrote: I did not see a skunk stripe...I saw sexy and sultry.  Please be aware of your self-talk unless it is your intention to attract Pepe LePew.
I wrote back, telling him that it's all in ones perception as skunks are one of the most peaceful animals on the planet and walk through life on their own terms.  A long time ago I learned to embrace my inner-skunk...not that it's always been well-received.  But I don't mind.
And I imagine a real skunk wouldn't either.

When I taught yoga to children, I used Beanie Babies as focal points for certain poses.  The kids always held their noses and squealed, "Pee yoo!" whenever I pulled the skunk from my bag.  Satish, who had been a student of mine since he was in kindergarten, was quick to correct them as he had heard my skunk spiel many a time. 
"Skunks get a bad rap," he told the class one afternoon.  "They only spray when they feel really threatened 'cause it takes a whole week to make more of their stinky stuff."     
I nodded.  "Do you remember the ways they warn you before they'll spray?"
"Uh huh," Satish nodded, scrambling onto his hands and knees, gently pounding them into the carpet.  "First they do this."
He turned to the side.  "Then they do this!"
Satish lifted one leg to mimic the skunk's tail.  "If you see this...look out!"
I laughed.  " then it would be too late."
"Yeah, 'cause one time Kate was living in California and her boss accidentally caught a skunk in a trap for gophers!" Satish said, his voice bubbling over with enthusiasm.  "Kate went to help get it loose and the skunk sprayed, but only on her boss."
"Really?" one of the kids asked me.  "Is that true?"
"Yep," I nodded.  "I guess it recognized a kindred spirit."
"What's that?"
"Kind of like a friend who behaves just like you do."
Sophia* laughed.  "You're not a're a person!"
"True, but we can all learn to have respect for ourselves," I explained.  "Which is what a skunk represents.  I'd bet that if one wandered into the classroom, we'd all let it do its thing and not bother it."
"Yes!" Sophia exclaimed.  "I'd want to get away from it!"
"I wouldn't."
"Why not?"
I nodded toward Satish.  "Do you want to tell the story about how some skunks used to live under my hut?"
"Sure," he nodded.  He'd heard the story many times, astonished that I would enjoy the transient company of a skunk and her two kits.
"When Kate was in California, all the people who lived on the farm sprayed stuff under their huts to keep the skunks away," Satish said, his eyes shining.  "But not Kate.  She had a mama and two babies living there and they only came out at night time.  Kate left food for them and whenever she saw them on the farm, they never tried to run away from her."
Then he looked at me.  "Didn't that mama spray your hut only once?"
"That's right," I replied.  "But not because of me."
"She was just protecting her babies from the raccoon that was trying to get them," Satish remembered. 
I looked around the yoga circle.  "If I were that skunk and you were my babies, I'd protect you, too."
"Oh, so that's how you're like a skunk," Sophia brightened.
"That's one way," I winked.  "But there are many others."

A skunk is the ultimate pacifist.  Its first and primary lesson is do no harm.  However if provoked, a skunk will effectively take care of any issue and there will be no doubt of its power to resolve it without further conflict.  Skunks are not to be fooled with, and many people over the past five years have learned the same lesson about me.
While I can be quick to internal anger, it takes a lot for me to confront another person.  Usually I walk away and try to work things out for myself, but if a situation or circumstance happens over and over again, and I'm in the line of fire -- like Satish said, look out.  I'll stamp my feet, and if that gleans nothing, will turn sideways and proactively state my case in way that allows for no wiggle room.  For I've learned to verbally cut to the chase and state the obvious in no uncertain terms.
Usually that means the other person leaves me alone...but not always.
Five years ago an employer requested I have an exiting interview when I decided to leave my position.  I didn't want to participate because I had come to a point in my life where I no longer needed to sugar coat anything and was concerned I'd over-step the boundaries by telling the truth about a lot of the unpleasant issues in the company. 
Still, she insisted.
After I shared everything I enjoyed about working in my position, Nancy* asked if there was anything I'd like to see improved.
I benignly shared my thoughts about a few important issues I'd had to deal with, keeping the conversation clear, professional, and positive.
"Well, we sure wish you'd reconsider and stay," Linda said.  "I hear great things about your performance."
"Thanks, but I can't," I replied. 
"Why not?" Nancy asked.
Inside I was seething because even after twenty years of experience, I was earning the same income I had in 1988 when I first graduated from college.  Yes, it was my choice to work there, but I knew I was worth more than I was receiving.  Still, Nancy asked, so I went on to explain that I didn't want to give up a summer to go through more training, which meant that I wouldn't be able to teach yoga. 
"I'd lose a fourth of my income," I said.  "Then I'd owe you three years to pay for the training and still have to run my private business because I'm not getting paid enough to cover my expenses."
The expression on Nancy's face remained unaffected.
So I took a deep breath and said, "So at the end of my commitment, I'll be nearly fifty years old with no health insurance and not making nearly enough money for what I'm bringing to the table here."
"Well, you'll just have to decide if you can afford to work here," Nancy sniffed.
Over the course of the time I had been with the company, I had heard that line one too many times -- and I could no longer remain silent.  "No, Nancy...what's true is that you can't afford to pay me what I'm worth."
That shut her up...for a moment.  The conversation circled around to the starting point and I realized it was time to cut my losses and move on.
It wasn't the last time I had to deal with Nancy, but it was the first time I earned the right to take pride in walking my talk and speaking up when I felt it was necessary.
After all, Nancy asked for it.
But I doubt she'll ask for it again.

 My friend, Matteo, has always encouraged me to embrace my inner skunk, for he's shown me that learning self respect is life-long process.   When we prepared sweat lodges in California, he reminded me that to be a skunk means that I may walk alone in this world for  a while until I discover those people who will mirror the value I have for myself.  As I've grown older, my circle of friends has grown smaller, yet more intimate because earning my stripe has been an evolutionary experience, one that I don't take lightly. 
What a joy to teach Jimmy that to truly own ones identity means that we embrace it all -- not just what we think others will approve of or accept.  Be it a white streak in my hair or an independent streak in my personality, I love it all.
 And by the way, it is my intention to attract another skunk.  In fact, I may already have. 
But that's a blog for another day.

*Names have been changed.

Click here to learn more about skunks.