Saturday, December 29, 2012

Beauty Is Everywhere


Beauty is in the usual places:  in the sudden snowflakes, the stretching flowers, the leaf-laden trees, the unfurled sunset.
Beauty is where you least expect it:  in the rainbows in a puddle of leaking oil, the iridescent shimmer of a cockroach's wing, the green oxidation patterns on old copper pennies.
Beauty is where you choose to find it:  in the odd shape left by the dust bunnies, the lovely shades that bruise is turning, the intriguing shadows cast by peeling wallpaper.
And sometimes, my friend,
in the curve of a lip,
the curl of a finger,
the twinkle of an eye,
there is something
too beautiful
for words.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

A Matter of Degrees

If you have been living in the US over the last 10 or so days, it may have been a bit hard to keep your spirits up.  This statement is not to say that everyone's down.  Certainly, everyone isn't.  And some people have written beautiful, eloquent posts on how they are not really down, including my friend, Sarah Marple, in her blog, Water Water Everywhere....  And you should read it because it's lovely, beautifully written, and true for her.  It gives me hope. 

But I haven't bounced up so quickly, and that's neither right nor wrong as it isn't right or wrong for anyone to celebrate or not.  And I don't think I'm alone.  Our churches weren't more full, our children didn't bring home any more treats (in fact decidedly fewer), and there were fewer "Merry Christmas"es than usual from passersby.  And this is okay too.

But what changed for me was not the enormity of the sadness that Sandy Hook brought down on us but the pervasiveness of it, just as my sinking in September was not because of the death of one parent-friend, but the death of four and the knowledge of So.Many.Hurting.  And with it was the knowledge that so much could be done to prevent it.  There is so much peace and love to be had if we just reach for it. 

But we don't always reach.

This week, I've had trouble reaching.  It takes real effort, real conscious decision, sheer force of will.  I have not done nearly what I normally do for the holidays (although that trend started back the day after Thanksgiving).  And God has been exquisitely kind to me.

Now you see, you have to understand.  I do not always appreciate God's kindnesses.  I know that He's kind, and I thank Him many times a day for food, for life, for the bills, for my kids, for my husband, for socks, for the car, for my neighbors, etc.  I'm a big realizer that life is fleeting, and I would be an idiot if I didn't realize that God is my Provider.  And I am thankful for that.  I really am.

But I'm also a big fan of Nonviolent Communication, and I often find God to be a little low on the empathy side of things.  I mean, there's a lot of times that it's just not there--like when Moses is standing on the edge of the Red Sea and he sees the Egyptians riding out to meet him.  He maintains a cool front for the people--"stand still," you know, "the Lord will fight for you" (Exodus 14:13-14) and all--and he calls out to God.  I don't know about you, but I would call out to God too.  I would not be happy in that situation.  No, sir!  I would have some choice words to say.  But God does not empathize with Moses.  Not at all.  He does not say, "I know it looks tough now, but I've got a plan."  He doesn't say that.  What he says is, "Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on" (Exodus 14:15).  And, you know, God and I have had words about this situation because I feel He is being patently unfair to Moses.

And I have looked for His empathy.  It is there, but seldom.  He shows it to Elijah before giving him Elisha.  He shows it to Daniel when he stands confessing the sins of Israel.  There are moments when I feel it for Isaiah and Ezekiel (though He doesn't save Ezekiel's wife for reasons this human can't fathom and for which Ezekiel regularly has my prayers--is that strange to pray to God to comfort the person that you feel God has ordained the hurt for?  Or perhaps strange to pray for the comfort of a long dead prophet?  Aren't they supposed to be too holy for all of this emotion?  But I am irrational.  Let's leave it at that).

And so I don't really look for empathy from God.  I thought it wasn't His thing.  But this last six weeks, His caring, His kindness, His empathy has been amazing.  Little things--a card from my little one, a kind word from my big one (which is so rare--he just said, "You're pretty cool, dork," while he gave his brother a headlock this very afternoon, and that's about the height of his overt affection), a call from an aunt, a gift from another, a surprise kiss from the mother of a childhood friend--have come at just the right time.  They are just the right things.

Some days I wonder what difference I can make in such a humble situation and such a lowly state.  If I get discouraged so easily, what can I do?  But that discouragement need not stand in my way at all.  It is nothing compared to the unsurpassable greatness of the One I serve.  Even on this humble night 2000 years ago, I doubt that Mary was much in the mood for visitors.  I know I wasn't after delivering my children, and I didn't even have to think of cleaning up my room.  Where to begin for her?  What must the smell have been?  And then to have a mess of shepherds want to come in and hold the baby???  I don't know about you, but I had trouble handing my kids over to anyone else--husband, mother, father, doctor.  No way.  I'd been taking care of that kid for the last nine months, and I was going to hang onto him just a little longer, thank you very much.  But God had other plans, and Luke 2:19 tells us that "Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart."  God can change our attitudes too.  He does have empathy after all, and it is astounding.

But He showed me something else too.  He showed me He also works small to do great things.   Sure, there are some really awesome big things He does big.  Just read this for 6 terrific examples.  But He uses small things too--loaves and fishes, tears, some water in some jugs.  It is not the grandness of our gesture toward peace nor the observed magnitude of its ripple in our community.  It is the eyes fixed on the One Who gives life and the feet walking, however slowly and with however tiny steps, in His direction.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"I see you. You matter. I care."

"Jon?"  demanded the voice on the other line.

"Hello?" I reiterated.

"Barb?" came the voice.  This time it was a guess, not a demand.

"Hi, Nora," I answered, recognizing my neighbor's voice.  "It's Beth, but everybody says I sound just like Mom."

"Oh.  Okay," she answered.  "I saw lights on, and I thought your parents were out of town.  I just wanted to be sure everything was okay."

"Thanks, Nora," I answered.  "You're right.  They are out of town.  My husband and I just stopped by to bring the mail into the house."

"Oh.  Okay.  Well, I'll just go then.  Have a good night."

"Good night, Nora," I said.  "And thanks again for checking."

Nora passed away a few years ago while I was out of the country, and even though I love her daughters who still live in the house next door to my childhood home, I miss her and what she stood for--the completely nosy neighbor who told us what we should and shouldn't do, who watched us from behind the curtains in her window, and who plied us with pizzelles every chance she got.  There was never any doubt where Nora stood, just as there was never any doubt equally that she loved you no matter how often you'd failed.  In many ways, she and a couple of our other neighbors taught me what neighbors should be.

Other neighbors, not so grown up, have taught me what neighbors can be.

"You don't belong here," said one.

"She told you to go," insisted another.  "I'm watching you.  Go."

These were my neighbors my freshman year of college and they were talking to a stalker I had, and whom I had reported but for whom there would be no investigation for another two-and-a-half years.  I never followed the investigation.  It was too close to home, too disturbing, and there was nothing that I, someone who had been suffering from post-concussive syndrome at the time of my distress, could legally do to help strengthen their case in court.

But these neighbors did not wait for the authorities to do something.  They did not pick up weapons.  And they did not think it was just my problem.  They saw this situation as our problem, and they saw the power of their own gaze, their own ability to say, "I see you."

Two years later, before I was aware of the new investigation into the stalker, my friends and I dealt with a felon roommate.  We were told, "Pretend you don't know anything.  You don't want to compromise the investigation."

I have never made a bigger mistake than following that advice.  My refusal to say, "I see you," allowed her to continue to dig herself in a bigger pit.  But worse than that, it said to her of me, "Your welfare does not matter enough to me to intervene.  I don't care what happens to you."  But I did care, and I do care, and I have never regretted any decision before or since as much as I regret that one.


Believe it or not, I started this post Wednesday morning, before Connecticut, before the bullies on Surfside Drive, before the endless Facebook discussions on gun control, mental illness, violence.  I started it in response to my own failings in this realm, my own recognition that for whatever reason last week, I was not able to respond in the way I wanted to the people around me.

I still struggle, and I don't claim to have all the solutions.  But from the time I first saw both bully and bullied cry--a rainy afternoon on a miserable February day in a second grade classroom in Plum, Pennsylvania--I decided to pay more attention to how to make this pain stop.

Over the years, I have discovered that there is no top-down answer to this problem, but there is a bottom-up strategy that, while immensely difficult, drastically reduces these issues of violence, loneliness, and discontent.  Perhaps not surprisingly, it's reflected in many major religions, psychology, and political philosophy.  It's not new at all--only difficult and something that must be implemented on an individual level.

Are you ready for it?  It's only three simple sentences that sum up almost everything we know about solving social problems from almost any angle.

  • "I see you."
  • "You matter."
  • "I care."  
If you want to read a little bit of the referenced (and by referenced, I mean names of the big thinkers only, but at least enough to give you a hint of where I am coming from theoretically), please read this post here.

I see you.  When faced with injustice, there is no reason to pretend we don't see.  We are not blind.  By pretending not to see, we give more power to the attacker.  But many attack because they either want attention or because they are trying to meet unfilled needs.  If I say, "I see you," before the situation comes when I am witnessing problematic behavior, I am building the necessary bridges and nets to say, "This is a cooperative place here.  This is a community to which we both belong."  I am establishing a new in-group.  I am recognizing a fellow human being.  I am building a foundation for peace just by making the most casual of conversations.  There is a chance to give that attention, to know that need, and to meet that need before the situation ever comes to violence.  And if it does come to violence, then my gaze has all the more power because I have seen them, I do know them, and I can do something.

You matter.  "You matter" is obviously harder, but it is still relatively simple.  It is a matter of listening.  The listening could be verbal.  It may be observational.  So much can be communicated to a child when you attempt to tie his or her shoe.  If he is older, he might be offended.  If he is younger, he may be grateful. Either way, in this time in which I often suspect the average bystander would rather watch my child run down in the road than shout "CAR!" in warning, the child will remember you, and, even if they were insulted, they will likely remember you as someone that thinks something of them, someone who sees them.  And we all long to be seen.  We all long to matter.

I care.  Nothing says more than this simple expression.  How do we say, "I care?"  We say it every time we remember what someone said the day before and follow up with a question the next day.  We say it when we remember the names of the kids at the bus stop.  We say it when we offer coffee, when we pick up mail, when we smile and say, "I missed you."  And we really say it when we continue to listen when the news is not good and when we are willing to be slightly put out to do something that makes a big difference.  It's surprising how very much a small sacrifice can mean to someone else.  You don't have to be right in what you do.  You may really mess up.  But so few people take the time to say or do anything at all that what we say and do makes a huge impact.

 And we don't need to do this kind of talking and acting just at home.  We need to do it everywhere.  I have seen it work.  It works in our places of employment, in our schools, and in our churches.  It sounds simple and overly optimistic.  But it works.  It is, in a nutshell, loving your neighbor as yourself.  It is doing justly and loving mercy.  It is tolerance and forbearance while still being connected.

So what is my point?

When it comes to building a community through personal action, the time to start is right now, before it looks like there is any problem.  And the point of saying "I care" is not to mean "I care that you are punished," but "I care that you flourish."  And the person to begin saying "I care" to is the person standing next to us, the one who looks like us, the one who doesn't look like us, the one who annoys us, and the one who blesses us.  The time to love our neighbor is right now, whether or not it looks like our neighbor needs it because our neighbor needs it.

And here is the secret:  we need it just as much as our neighbor does.

Brief background to "I see you. You matter. I care."

Note:  This post is meant to accompany "I see you.  You matter.  I care."

What follows is just a very quick jaunt through my readings and research in these areas.  It is not exhaustive because I am writing this portion in response to questions that this is all in my head.  It is not well referenced because my goal is not publication, it is insight for practical living.

I see you.

What major religion doesn't start with the premise?  God knows you/You belong to God (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism). You are a part of the universe (Buddhism). 

What philosophy of government doesn't operate under this principle?  You see the point of watching in John Locke, Niccolo Macchiavelli, and incredibly in Foucault.  Seeing is part of governing.  Think of our court systems.  The word of witnesses is the means by which we decide guilt or innocence.

Think psychology and the role of voyeurism.  Or simply think modeling.

Why is it such a big deal to parents that a child is born blind?  Because so much of our thoughts and society function around the ability to see.  Seeing is equated with knowing.  "I see," we say when we understand.

It's also equated with liking and valuing, which every child knows the instant she begins badgering her mother, "Look at me!  Look at me!  See what I can do!"

But looking isn't always easy.  It requires facing that which we would often like to deny.  Seeing takes courage, the first tenet in BrenĂ© Brown's description of wholehearted living. It takes being willing to take our eyes off ourselves and turn them outward to the world (not the television, computer screen, or smart phone) around us.

You matter.

Once again, the importance of the individual in the grand scheme of all things underlies most major religions.  We are a piece of the atman (Hinduism).  We are a part of the universe (Buddhism).  We are a chosen people (Judaism).  We are sought after (Christianity).  It matters to us that we matter.


 In governing as well, the individual matters by virtue of the rules he breaks.  Once again, Niccolo Macchiavelli comes to mind, as does Foucault.  Locke and Rousseau both impose limits to liberty, and Marx, who generally rules out the individual and speaks of class as one, recognizes that the breaking of reciprocity/fairness (so called by Jonathan Haidt in his works on morals) underlies the rising of the masses.  Dan Ariely underscores this importance as he studies why we break rules and how we deal with rule breakers.  Both Ariely and Haidt's studies revealed that most people will follow the rules when rule breakers are punished.  The subjects enjoyed watching them punished and, in one of Haidt's studies, contributed to a fund for punishing them.  But the long and the short of it is the premise that individuals (and their actions) matter.

In psychology, mattering is also a big deal.  Erickson's stages of psycho-social development hinge almost exclusively on concepts of mattering in the universe:  trust (do I matter to someone?), autonomy (do I matter enough to make a difference in my own life?), initiative (do I matter enough to make a difference outside myself?), industry (do I matter enough to do something of importance?), identity (who I am matters), intimacy (I matter to someone else), generativity (I matter to this new generation), ego integrity (I have mattered, and I'm ready to move on).  The failures in all of these stages are all failures to matter.

In terms of Brown's fundamentals of wholehearted living, we could call mattering "connection."  We are connected to one another.  In the words of John Donne, "No man is an island,/Entire of itself.../Therefore, send not to know/For whom the bell tolls./It tolls for thee" ("No Man Is an Island," 1624).

I care.

This one is the hard one, but it is just as crucial.  How do we choose to care?  Do we care in the sense that we will bully, punish, and cast out?  Do we care in the sense that we forgive?  Do we forego all consequences?

Brown's hierarchy would call this "compassion," and I will deal later with how I see compassion working.  And I say right now that I am not the poster child for compassion.  It might be hard to find someone with less innate sense of social cues than I have.

Looking through the religions, caring shows perhaps the biggest variation.  Hinduism shows both extremes:  Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer.  Buddhism has varying forms of non-aggression, sometimes bordering on a refusal to participate in the world to which they claim we all belong.  Islam and Judaism (how odd to put them in the same sentence) both adhere to strict rules with severe penalties.  Christianity, as it is practiced, ranges from extreme reliance on the letter of the law and an unforgiving God to the point in which some churches take the forgiveness of sin to the extreme of permissiveness of sin.  How they care is shown in acceptance or rejection and punishment.

The radical nature of religion in theory, apart from religion in general practice, is that it espouses mercy for the weak and lifts up the humble, recognizing the sacredness of life in the least of these.  And that particular belief is found across religions.

In looking at political philosophy, perhaps Macchiavelli makes the most of shows of caring.  Macchiavelli is never one to suggest that the prince should actually care about his subjects, but he does repeatedly show that measures extended to the prince's subjects which demonstrate care and trust will gain the prince valuable allies.  (And to all the guns-rights advocates out there, who may think I pick and choose what I believe, I freely admit that Macchiavelli counseled the prince to arm his subjects because, Macchiavelli believed, it would make the subjects (1) feel the prince cared for them and wanted them to feel secure; (2) feel the prince trusted them and did not fear ill will from them; and (3) prone to fight on the side of the prince should the need arise.)  Locke and Foucault's versions of care were largely hands off unless punishing.  Foucault, I should mention, did not so much propose how a government ought to operate so much as describe how many governments do operate, thus his focus on penal issues and systems may not actually reflect his feelings about ideal forms of government.  Marx focused on providing for life across the board.  Rousseau believed a righteous government would share and cooperate (of course, Rousseau had another thing coming).

In the Western political arena, clearly, care = punishment.

In psychology (and later in educational psychology), care takes on a far different face.  Care is not about separation but attachment.  It is not about penalty but pleasure (Foucault spends three books examining how the seeking of pleasure and the regulations of society but heads).  It is not about pruning but about growth.  It is about nurturing, supporting, uplifting, and healing those within the society.  Theoretically, although not in our psychological practice, the aim is to nurture the individual or group before they come to crisis, so that in crisis they will survive.

Caring in psychology is founded on the ability to empathize.  Empathy with others only happens when one empathizes with one's self and vice versa.  You cannot have one without the other.  I'm not sure where the original thought came from, but several psychologists mention this truth over and over:  Real, Brown, Pipher, Rosenberg, Burns, etc.

In the end, I would argue that this psychological truth is the foundation of Matthew 6:12 "And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors" and Matthew 7:1-2 "Judge not, that ye be not judged.For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again."  It is not that we ought to forgive or ought not to judge.  It is that judgment and forgiveness are reciprocal.  As we do, it shall be done to us.

Caring and empathy in psychology looks a lot like loving your neighbor.  It looks a lot less like hell.  That time may be coming, yes, but if we believe Jude 1:9 "Yet Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee" that not even Michael the Archangel sought fit to judge in God's stead, what role ought those of us who claim to be Christians take in judging our neighbor?

Monday, December 3, 2012

Imperfect Gifts Sometimes Fit Perfectly

We are having a crisis of faith at our house.

Last Sunday, my big one saw a broken bird egg outside.  The vanilla shell, the size of a broken thimble, captured his imagination.

"Mommy, I think it might be a baby dragon.  Wouldn't it be awesome if it were a dragon?  Do you think I could keep it as a pet?"

"It's probably a sparrow or little bird egg, sweetie.  Remember the Wild Kratts?  Reptile eggs are soft and leathery.  This egg shell is hard."

"I'm going to pray, Mom.  I'm going to pray for dragons to be real."

And so he did.  Repeatedly.

We kept the blinds open Sunday night so that we could see the dragon if he came before dawn.

"How are you going to see him?" I asked.  "It's dark out."

"Dragons have fire, Mom," the big one answered.  "Besides, the street lights are on."

At a quarter after six Monday morning, the big one rushed down the steps, swung open the front door, and thrust his head out into the chilly morning air.  As snowflakes floated past his ears, he couldn't contain his disappointment.  Leaving the door wide open, he flew across the room and flung himself on the couch.

"There are no dragons!  God didn't hear me!"

We had real tears. 

It was a long week.  By Wednesday.

I told my friend about it.  After a laughing a little, she confided. "I remember my best friend and I praying forever that we would be magic."

I smiled.  I had prayed for blue eyes.  "God, if you love me, please, please, please, please let me wake up with blue eyes."  But God knew the plans He had for me, and my eyes stayed a hazely brown.  After all the time I've spent in Korea, I'm now thankful for my brown hair and hazel eyes.  I stick out enough.  I don't need any more help in that department.

Similarly, there are times God gives me things I didn't even ask for, didn't even want, like concussions, felon roommates, a second language, eczema, etc.

And from many of those experiences, I have emerged with great beauty and new understanding.  Did I really need to live in another culture and learn another language to recognize that manners and morals are completely different entities that are often confused in the minds of most people?  Why, yes.  Yes, I did.  I did not enjoy the lesson one bit.  Not when I was being judged.  Not when I was judging.  Has it made my life richer having learned it?  Why, YES!  A much bigger YES!  And I wouldn't take back that lesson.

And in that sense, God has given me an earthly example of Himself: My beloved husband.

My husband loves to buy me things.  Often he shops at Sam's Club, so I get a year's supply at once.  He hardly ever buys what I would have asked for.  In fact, sometimes asking for something is the surest way not to get it.  Many times, what he buys is not even what I like.

Take the year before my first child was born.  We went out of town for Valentine's Day.  Of course, it wasn't a Valentine's Day trip, per se; we traveled because I was speaking at a conference.  I booked a reservation at a hotel with a gym because my husband loves to exercise.  I, however, do not love to exercise.  I had packed intending that he could go to the gym while I presented.

My husband had different ideas.

That night, he bought me tennis shoes, dark blue with yellow trim and white laces.  I winced when I saw them.

"We can work out together."  He smiled so innocently and with such enthusiasm, I swallowed all the things I was going to say.

It was one of the best evenings we have ever had.

Sometimes, my husband, like God, knows what I need far better than I do.

Sometimes imperfect gifts fit perfectly.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Lonely Cooking & the National Day of Listening

When I was young, I loved the chaos of Thanksgiving.  Not too much of it, mind you, but enough to fill the house with activity and laughter for a few hours.

The kitchen excitement that resulted in the later dinner lit up the whole house—or at least filled it with tantalizing scents (and a few not so tantalizing) and the sounds of vibrant voices (frequently colored by good-natured bickering).  One grandma never cooked the turkey long enough.  The other didn't make the stuffing right.  Ask one aunt to do the gravy.  Keep another away from the mashed potatoes.  I found similar trends in Korea.  Hyungnim slices the thinnest.  Halmoni makes the best vegetables.  Regardless of what's done, though, someone is unhappy with it.  Life is the same the world over.

But through all the bustle was chuckling and stories of meals past, of the general hardships of life, of funny things that had happened the other day, of new trials we were grappling with.

It was more a meal for the soul than the body—even if some of us did need to break out the stretchy pants.

The last few years, I have cooked alone.  The first few times, I cried.  Now I realize that this lonely preparation period is only a temporary moment of life.  There will be more women in the family eventually.  The kids will be calm enough to sustain a full day away at the homes of other relatives.


The boys eating the legendary "Pink Stuff" (Great-Grandma's recipe)

And the combination of my warm memories of family stories and the longing for those missing moments is why I encourage you all to share with one another and listen to your loved ones.  For all of our globalization, we are sadly lacking in fundamental connections with one another.  Let's build some today and this holiday season.

And after you have listened, after you have shared, you may find that you want to keep on sharing.  I strongly recommend that you follow through on that thought.

Sharon Lippincott has written an excellent book, The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, to help you get your life on paper.  She has written her life stories (and is still writing them! But take a look: this one is free!). You can write them too.

"But," you say, "she's an author.  I'm not."

Paul wasn't an author when he started her class.  He's written two books and is nearly done with a third.

"But," you continue, "I can't write that much."

So don't!  Amazon allows you to put out shorts on Kindle, like my Dancing in the Rain (free through Sunday) and What My Mother Didn't Know.  It doesn't cost you anything at the outset.

"But," you say again, "I'm not sure I want to publish a book."

Then don't.  Blog.  Join a group.  Share in pieces.  Consider Plum Borough's Share a Pair of Stories.  Sharing a single story isn't so tough, and it really does touch others.

"But...," you begin.

Even if you only write it for yourself, the writing is healing.  You won't be sorry you did.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Shameless and Thankful: Dancing in the Rain

I wrestle with depression.  I have since I was seven years old.  I was thirteen the first time a doctor looked at me and told me I was hyperventilating and under thirty when another doctor told me what I thought were heart palpitations were panic attacks.  I don't have Asperger's, but I had to be taught to empathize, painstakingly, implicitly, repeatedly taught.  Even now, I draft something once and go back later to add the feelings.  I have never been diagnosed with ADHD, but my thoughts come in a rush, often so fast I can't form sentences.  I don't run around like some children, but I was never able to sit still either.  I can't count the number of chairs I've broken by wiggling too much.  I'm great at multi-tasking.  I can't single task.  I can count on one hand the nights I've fallen asleep easily.

People might say I'm just weak or it's all in my head.  I know I'm not and it's not.  I know these issues run in my family.  I know I've passed them on to my children.

I fight these tendencies with conscious control of my thoughts, deep breathing, meditation at times, exercise, prayer and praise, lists, alarms, and reminders—more coping skills than I have time to write about.

I didn't talk about these things before my children struggled with them because I didn't want them to define me.  Yes, I will most likely struggle with these issues all the days of my life, but they are not who I am, who I choose to be.  I could let them carry me away, but I will not go gentle into that good night.

Some people are confused and think that a depressed person can feel no joy.  It's not true.  The joy is muted at times, yes, but for me, joy is a weaponPut on the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.  For me, this isn't a putting on instead of but a putting on in response to, a kind of medication for, a conscious choice to fight. 

So many times in life, it rains.



You can't stop the rain, but you can choose how you react to it.



You must choose to laugh or cry.  I choose to laugh.  Again and again, I choose to laugh.



And for my children's sake, I've decided it's time to be shameless and joyful.  And that's why I published Dancing in the Rain, which is free on Amazon from Thanksgiving Day until Sunday, November 25, 2012.



Dancing in the rain tells five (hilarious) true stories of our struggles with our issues.  My hope is that it shows that there is joy in parenting these children and that, first and foremost, these children are people and not diagnoses.  They are full of love, joy, and creativity and fill my life with blessings every day—even the ones when we're asked to leave the store, playground, or church.

I am not ashamed of who we are.  I know who we are becoming.  And I am thankful I can share it.


 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Mercy!

I know I have written about riding in the car with my children before, but in case you have missed it, riding in the car with my children is an adventure, particularly when we are going to church.  It doesn't matter which church we are going to or why we are going there; I am convinced that my children consider this ride a challenge to prove that I am the biggest hypocrite under the sun.  A typical ride to Royal Rangers a couple of weeks ago began with the fuzzy end of the two-sided ice-scraper/snow remover brushing my ear lightly as it slowly extended its way toward the rearview mirror. 

"Get the scraper back there!" I hollered over the kids' Christmas Pageant music, struggling to compete with the words of "The Night That Jesus Came Down."

The scraper retreated toward the back, knocking my glasses from my right ear in the process.  I righted my glasses and peered in the rearview mirror to catch the little one beating the big one over the head with the hard end of the scraper. 

As I drew a breath to holler at the little one to cut it out, he had the gall to yell, "Mom!  He(the big one)'s taking my scraper from me!"

"I'd take it too if you were using it to hit me over the head," I call back when I notice that the big one has actually opened his window and is feeding the scraper slowly outside, theoretically to dump on the highway.  "But HEY!  We can't throw the scraper out the window!"

The big one halts just long enough for me to swat my right arm blindly into the back of the car, seize the fuzzy end of the scraper, wrestle it out of the hands of both children while managing to somehow stay in my own lane, and drag it to the front passenger seat.  By the time we finally arrived at church, I was threatening my children with imminent destruction only to turn around and see one of the lovely moms of the angelic preschoolers.  Of course.  I was certainly at my most Christian.  *closing my eyes and wishing the ground would swallow me whole*

And this is how car trips with my children generally go.

So the other night we were headed to church again, Christmas pageant blaring, when the little one asks, "Hey, Mom?  What's mercy?"

"Marcy?" I ask over the voice of Halo Hattie.  "Who's Marcy?"

"No!" he cries.  "Mercy!"

I attempt to turn down the volume of the CD when the big one protests, "I like the music, Mom, and I can't hear it when it's down!"

"Well," I do my best to yell to the little one. "Mercy is when you decide to be a little kinder and less punishing than you could be.  The other person may deserve the hard punishment, but you choose not to give it to him.  Kind of like when you do something wrong and I could take away all of your TV, but perhaps I choose to only take away TV before dinner and let you have more TV later if you can show you're good."

"Not that mercy, Mom!" he hollered.  "The game!"

And that's when it hit me: How many of us use mercy or the lack of it as a punishment instead of the grace that it was always intended to be?  Does my mercy look like Christ's or the game?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Lost for Words

As we think, so we become.  ~ the Buddha

"And when you're done with that, you'll have to fight with the boys to do their homework."

I am about to leave for a rare evening out, and I am running through the evening routine for my husband.  He's busy staring at me like I'm from Mars--the township or the planet, both are equally bewildering to him.

"How can you expect the boys to love learning if the attitude you go in with is that you'll have to fight with them?"

Now it's my turn to stare because, of course, he's right.  I may be the lover of sociolinguistics, but my husband almost always hits the attitude nail right on the head.  I try to rephrase.

"Well, I mean they don't like to do it.  You may need to sit on them a little."

"Really?  You think that's a better attitude?"

"Look.  I don't know how to say it, but you need to make sure the homework gets done, okay?"  

I'm really ticked now--not so much with my husband, but with myself.  I have spent years working with affective barriers to learning.  I pride myself on making kids feel at home.  In our small area in Korea, I was known as the one for lost causes and the one whose students really understood the language when they were done.  Even now, there are hardly any students I don't get along with.  But here I was.  No matter how I thought about it, I realized that the words I know to describe teaching and learning are adversarial at worst and hierarchical at best.  "Fight with," "sit on," "force them," "make them," "lead them"--these are the words I know, and they don't inspire collaboration.  Even the words that do imply connection also come with a negative connotation: "This is going to require some hand-holding."

I felt roundly and rightly rebuked.

So, first, I'm trying to rethink my attitude, using words like "invite," "introduce," "come along side," "encourage," and "facilitate."

Secondly, I'm trying to think through what causes me to get so off track.  I'm not always this bad.  When does this other person take over?  The more I think about it, the more I realize it happens when I am so goal-oriented that I forget to listen.  I am so interested in pulling my students and children along toward a destination that I forget that reaching it won't be worthwhile if they die or become maimed along the way.  I vow to listen a little better, to pause a little more.

But I also wonder something else.  Why, if my attitude is so wrong, do I get along so well with so many students and children?  They have always come to me.  They literally flock at my door.  Why?

And I was brought back to two theoretical constructs:  Maslow's hierarchy of needs and Gardner's multiple intelligences.  Gardner's theory allows us to imagine the ability of communicating not only through language but also through the other intelligences.  Each intelligence must provide a medium through which to communicate and solve problems.  So even if my words may be off as a result of the cultural settings and constructs in which I have learned them, my words do not make up the whole of my communicative arsenal (now there's a metaphor worthy of my aggressive culture. Gag!).  I am sending other messages as well.  And what are those messages that I am sending?  Well, I think that they are the levels of Maslow's hierarchy.  I am always concerned first with making certain that children and students feel safe, are fed, feel comfortable.  I go to great lengths to make sure that they know that they are part of a group and that all of their opinions are welcome, valued, and necessary--I even routinely let them choose a goal that we evaluate or pick the game to play.  And I make sure to pass their accomplishments along to their parents as well.  

So what does that mean?

It means that, in the end, while what we think certainly shades how we act, it is not the final say.  It does not mean everything.  We certainly need to pay attention to our inner thoughts, our implicit judgments, and those metaphors in our language which can lead us profoundly off track (as if there is a track--once again a metaphor that shades my perception of reality).  But we also reveal our inner thoughts and beliefs through all the other ways we communicate:  our logic, our actions, the rhythms of our songs.  Our words are not the final determinate in who we are.  Who we are is the conglomeration of all of the deep secret thoughts of our hearts, the sum of our actions and beliefs.  What we say can become minor if everything else we do points another direction--good or bad.

In the end,
Who you are speaks so loudly I can't hear what you're saying. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, October 22, 2012

Not My Morning

I was a terrible mother that Thursday morning.  I got up late (for me), forced my children to listen to me hit the five-minute snooze button for over half an hour (so counting the initial alarm, that's seven separate still-dark-outside rings), pulled my children out of bed (early for them), forced them both to complete the homework that they hadn't finished the night before, and shoved rice (that their blessed father--Thank you, HEAVENLY Father, for getting earthly father up that morning since earthly mother seemed so un-earthly) into their waiting mouths at breakfast.  I was not patient.  I was not kind.  I forgot to pack carrots in their lunch boxes but remembered the junk food.  They didn't get their daily jokes either. 

But, perhaps because I was late, I did it all with them. 

That was different.  I rubbed the big one's back, bounced the little one on my knee.  I sat at the table with them and looked into their eyes as they talked to me.

"Mom," the little one said.  "You smell so good."

"Awww.  How sweet.  Thank you."

"Yep.  Just like the swimming pool."  Sigh.  That's from the last minute attempt to clean the gross sink before they got ready in the morning.

That's unusual because I'm usually running back and forth.  That's how I remember my mother as well.  On her feet, running back and forth, too busy to sit down.  I talked to her back for years and years and years, until she told me her ears were tired.

Now that certainly isn't always the case.  I don't spend all my time cut off from the children.  My children have some interesting issues, which you can read and laugh about here, that mean that I do, in fact, spend a great deal of time engaged with them.  But, sadly, that time seems to be enforcer time when Mommy must wear her "That is not funny" face and dole out discipline.  And while I know why I need to do it, this Mommy does not like that role very much.

And so, even though it was not my morning, even though my head was pounding, my eyes were running, and my nose was clogged, and even though I was a pretty terrible mother, I think I enjoyed being a mother much more that Thursday, so much more that I decided to make a wish list--no, not a wish list--an action plan.

Action Plan for Being Less Perfect and More Real:
  1. When the little one decides to squirm naked on his bed instead of putting his underwear on, I will resist the urge to count down seconds until the bus comes and give in to the impulse to laugh.
  2. When the big one waxes eloquent over his morning meal instead of actually eating it, I will consider listening to what he's saying instead of shoving the spoon into his mouth when he takes a breath.
  3. When they dirty their clothes on the way to the bus stop by tackling one another over and over again or when they become a little overactive trying to deal with the small cruelties of other kids (and occasionally dishing some of those wicked little habits out as well), I will remember that growing up is hard and Shout can take all those stains out.  I will give extra squeezes to them all
  4. When I return home to find my African violet dotted with toothpaste specks, I will not sigh because of the toothbrushes and toothpaste strewn around the sink I just cleaned while they were still sleeping.  Instead, I will be thankful that they water the violet with their gargle cup and so it hasn't died yet.
When I got that plant, the oldest said, "Seriously, Mom?  Someone's trusting you with a plant?" 

I'm thankful he's decided to pick up my slack.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Sacrifice of Praise

Today, my friend buried her daughter--the fourth parent of elementary-school aged children that I have known to be taken by cancer in the last three months.  Smiling is not something that comes easily at the moment.

I never knew Ruth.  I know her mother and her son, and my weeping is for them.  In the same way, I never knew Chuck well, never spoke more than a few words to Cameron, and knew Kristen only through her multitude of relatives, some of whom I grew up with.  But their children... Their children dance through my life.  I see them all the time it seems.  They dance and play around my own children; their story is the nightmare that I hope will never happen for my family.  But, of course, they still have lives--beautiful lives--left to live.

And you see, sometimes I forget, especially when I'm teaching and all the preschoolers are acting up--sticking markers up their noses and swirling glue on the table--and I just automatically ask, "What would your mommy say if you did this at home?"

And the one slams his marker to the table.  "I don't have a mommy anymore!"

Now I remember.

On days like these, giggles are impossible, smiling is torture, and standing upright takes force of will.

Sometimes, happiness is a sacrifice.  It's a sacrifice of what we'd like to be doing, what we're really feeling, for the sake of those others who are also pressing on, who want us--need us--to support them as they keep walking forward.

Some days, moving forward seems unthinkable.  I would rather wallow, thank you very much.  And on these days, God gives me little snippets of His great love for us.  At the beginning of Ruth's chemotherapy on this go around, God and the universe provided gum for Ruth Anne in the strange karma that love layers on our lives.  That story is here if you want to read it.  But yesterday, standing with my beautiful friend as she stood gazing on the lifeless body of her beloved baby, I discovered that Ruth had one pack of that gum left.  It had lasted perfectly from beginning to end.  She was not forgotten.  Not at all.  Never alone.  Always remembered, cared for, held.

And so, as hard to see as it sometimes is, are we.

For this season, then, we bring a sacrifice of praise in the hope and the faith that there will come a day when it won't hurt anymore.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Listening to the Moment

I am tired of getting bad news, of then being the bearer of bad news, of trying to temper that bad news in front of my children, and of trying not to let that bad news affect my kindness toward others--particularly my family.  And I can't always do that.  I try--really I do--but I just don't make it everyday, maybe not even most days.

And so after a long day of it all, I am sitting here mulling the huge things and the big things and the semi-big things and the routine things that make this life into this life.  I should go to sleep, but I just can't right now.  Just. Can't. 

And I probably shouldn't write except that I think that I'm not alone here.

I think that many of us sit up after hard days and ponder.  We may try to calm ourselves, get our frustrations out at the gym, even self-medicate.  And at the end of it all, we are still up--watching TV, sitting on the couch, or staring into the darkness of the bedroom--not sleeping.

And in that moment, I wonder if we listen...to our own breathing coming again and again.  It is the gift of life that makes our heart beat and our chest rise and fall, and even if life may be complex and tortured at the moment, it is still a gift, and we still have it in this moment. 

I wonder if we hear the breath of those around us.  They don't have to live with us.  We can live alone, but still some of the sounds of the outside world creep in.  We may feel alone, so very alone.  But we are not.  There is always someone, something.  The first time I ever lived by myself I had a single dorm room in Boston.  In moving in, I inadvertently trapped a fly in the room.  During that first day, George, as I fondly dubbed him, seemed a real annoyance, but when my family left and I was actually alone for the very first time in my life, I was oddly grateful for the comfortable, if noisy, companionship of my small friend.

But back in this moment, I am listening to the gurgle of the water in the pipes, the obscenely loud hum of the refrigerator (oh, please, don't quit on me!), the whirring of the computer fan, and the chirping of the crickets. 

And over it all, I hear that small voice, that voice that my daytime activity--the hunt for socks, the chasing of children, the rush to meet deadlines--drowns out. 

Today the voice tells me what it has to tell me today.

And my soul says, "But...." 

My soul always says, "But...."  You would think that after all these years my soul would learn, but it hasn't.  It still says, "But...."

And the voice says, "Shhh.  Just listen."

And so I sit.  And listen.  And hopefully, I hear.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Yeast

The week gets busy.  Dinner needs to be started before the boys get home from school or it all goes to pieces between their needs, checking their folders, overseeing their homework, supplementing to provide what hasn't been covered, and preparing to arrive at whatever activity we are due to attend, preferably at the time we are supposed to attend it.

Such was the case Friday when I breezed in my house at thirteen after three, exactly twenty-two minutes before I usually head to the bus stop.

Friday is always a busy day for me, and this Friday was even moreso.  There had been somewhere to be (for which I was late) all day long.  So when it came time to think of dinner, my brain was kind of stumped.  There wasn't any warm rice, and I wasn't really in the mood for it (I'm never in the mood for warm rice).  I scrounged through my refrigerator, found my left-over low fat/low acidity tomato sauce, and immediately had an idea:  pizza!

The problem was the yeast.  I usually buy a little bottle of the dry yeast because it seems to last longer, and I use much less of it per time.  But I was beginning to think my yeast was dead because the last few times I made pizza, the dough didn't rise.  At all.  Not a bubble.

But a glance at the clock assured me that there was no time to run to the store to pick up anything, and, since I had no other ideas, I rolled my eyes and said a quick prayer, "God, the boys really need dinner, and I'd really appreciate it if the yeast worked today.  I know it's probably my own fault for keeping it too long, but please either let this dough rise or help my children love the pizza with flat dough."

And I mixed up the dough not completely sold on that prayer because it's been a pretty hard summer, and sometimes I wonder if God is listening.

Thirty minutes and two sweaty, talkative, jumping, backpack-slinging boys later, I walked back into the kitchen, and lo and behold my dough had more than doubled.

Bear in mind that the last three--not one, not two, but three--pizzas I made with this same yeast did nothing.  I had kind of been of the opinion that, after the whole Passover thing, God might not be a big yeast fan, but if He can bring even a little budding fungus back from the dead to swell the dough for my boys and then make both of them like the pizza on the same day (unheard of in my house), well, then, maybe He's listening to the rather bigger requests we're making too.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Giftedness

I have been gifted this summer, so very gifted.  Oh, it's been a hard summer, but so very, very special.

You see, at the front of it all, my nephew came this summer.  My in-laws keep thanking me for taking him.  Thanking me! Can you believe it?  I was in heaven over and under to have him in the house this summer.  I wished his sister and all the family could come too.  I feel so awesomely privileged that they trusted me!  I should be thanking them!

Almost everything we planned this summer, we planned around his visit, and we were absolutely delighted to do it.  There was both joy and frustration in finding his dirty socks wadded in the corner, under the couch, and on the second shelf on the side of the entertainment center.  There was something endearing about knowing that no matter what time I woke him up and set him in front of the door with his shoes, he wouldn't put them on until a few minutes after we were supposed to be wherever.  His efforts to escape speaking English were humorous, extravagant, and downright entertaining--and when the little one finally tricked him into uttering this detested tongue, the only word he actually said was, "NO!"

But he had to go back.  The time came when he had to go home.

"Noooo!" wailed my little one when I told him Hyung had to leave. "He doesn't miss his family!  He likes living with us!  He wants to live here FOREVER!"

And part of me wished that too--the part of me that hangs his towel in the bathroom to remember him, prays over his forgotten glasses case, and refuses to throw away the Science Camp pin with his name on it.  There are days I still expect to see him in the twin bed in the boys' room.  Neither boy is ready to sleep there.  They are waiting for Hyung.

And it all reminds me of a verse, verses actually:
"Tell us then, what do You think? Is it lawful to give a poll-tax to Caesar, or not?”
But Jesus perceived their (the Pharisees' disciples') malice, and said, “Why are you testing Me, you hypocrites? Show Me the coin used for the poll-tax.”
And they brought Him a denarius.

And He said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?”

They said to Him, “Caesar’s.”

Then He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.”
(Matthew 22:17-21, courtesy of www.biblegateway.com)

These verses always sit a little heavy on my heart.  Not the first section--my husband dearly wishes I cared to hold on to money just a little more than I do.

No, I'm having trouble with the second part.  For I see God's likeness imprinted on those I love.  I see His look in their eyes, His hand in their faces. And God has done some calling this summer.

On the surface, it is Hyung and family members.  For a decade now, I have felt these small going-home "deaths" over and over. It's not the death of the person, but the separation.  Again and again I say goodbye.  And hello.  And goodbye.  It doesn't get easier.  It gets harder.  Each time I love them a little more.  Each time I wish apparation wasn't something J.K. Rowling dreamed up (and we can argue about its geographic limits another time).  

But as hard as goodbyes are, my family is still here.  Beyond arm's reach, maybe, but here.

But there are those who are not here.  God has done some of that calling this summer too.  And as I have stood this summer looking at broken families, as I stand just this week watching four daughters weep for their lost father, a childhood friend mourn the loss of her babies, and a friend and her grandson waiting for his mother to die, I fear the day God asks me to render what is His.

And as I gaze at my little ones sleeping in their father's arms this evening, I thank my lucky stars that I have been blessed with one more day.  And the joy of their being catches in my throat because it's too wonderful.  I'm afraid to bask in that love for fear that the next time it's my turn.  

But the other half of me reprimands myself, "What do you think your friends would do if they had one more day, one more moment?"

And so I'm daring to rejoice.  I have been so very gifted.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Preview



Sometimes life gives you a preview of what lies ahead, and I'm not sure those previews have been approved for all audiences.


When I was six- or seven-years-old, my grandmother developed encephalitis and forgot almost everything.  I don’t remember all that much of it either.  As a child wrestling with the scope of my own agency, I thought that I somehow controlled the world around me.  But that world was going horribly wrong, and in my elementary-school mind, I was a complete failure. 

The memories were fuzzy, but the pain of them is still there.  After losing a baby, my mother discovered that her own mother was very, very ill.  How long Grandma was actually in the hospital is not something I know, but I do remember lying awake late at night listening to agonized phone calls.  Sometime around those first calls, my mother had surgery and, after a very brief recovery, took a trip down to Florida with her sisters to help her dad take care of Grandma. 

Grandma was apparently not Grandma.  She accused Grandpa of making babies with the nurses under the bed.  She stripped her pants outside because a chameleon ran up her slacks (okay, I'll give you that she was on an enclosed patio, and I might have done the same thing even without being mentally compromised).  She didn't know her friends.  She didn't remember the nurses.

In spite of the worry over her mother, my own mother has repeatedly said that the memories of that trip are the best memories she has of her dad.  I'm sure that she had been thinking of him, a man with three daughters and two granddaughters who had always wanted a boy, when she and my father applied for and were accepted as adoptive parents--for a little boy.

And it's a good thing she had that visit because not much later, about six weeks after my brother arrived, my grandfather suffered a brain aneurysm and died suddenly. 

My grandmother remembers none of it and accorded herself a failure too.  She was passed between her daughters' houses as much as any of them could handle her.  It wasn't that my grandmother herself was difficult, although she did some really crazy things like constantly sneaking branches from the spruces and hiding them under the chairs as a remedy for the fleas, which ruled the house after our dog had given birth to puppies and couldn't be dipped.  The fleas never went away, but we did stop walking in bare feet.  After stepping on the needles a few times, nobody when into the living room without shoes.

But the spruce branches were bearable.  Watching Grandma was unbearable.  My grandmother had become just a shadow of who she used to be--and a strange shadow at that, one that seemed oddly contorted by the dim slant of her waning intellect through the clouds of encephalitis.  It was simply too painful to stomach for weeks on end.  And so they shuffled Grandma back and forth.  Life was hard for Mom and Dad with Grandma there.

On the other hand, I was not having such a good fall without Grandma.  I hated school, cried when I was there, and never wanted to go. For a while, I missed at least one day a week. Then Grandma came to stay with us.

She became my heroine. Grandma rode all the roller coasters and never got dizzy or nauseous. She would buy sweet-and-sour suckers and sneak them next to our pillows during the night. She took us to play in the sand pit by the long jump. She never budged for anybody, even the junior high track coach trying to coax her out during a meet. She watched "One Life to Live" every afternoon. She fell asleep on the floor in a patch of the afternoon sun, and when I came home from school, my little sister would be sitting on the slumbering Grandma and eating microwave popcorn. Sometimes Grandma would groan. My sister would stand up. Grandma would roll over, and my sister would sit back down.

It didn't matter to us that she didn't remember anything, that she had forgotten that my grandfather had died, that my sister had to show her the way to the elementary school when they sometimes walked up to meet me.  It was magical, walking home while basking in the light of Grandma's glowing attention.  It didn't matter what old wives tales she told me: that I'd better not grow too big for my britches, that I needed a peck of dirt in my life time, that it was bad luck to open an umbrella in the house.

I don't remember craziness from Grandma.  I remember a woman who listened to my problems (okay, well, sometimes she fell asleep, but that was probably her medication).  I remember a woman who would read us one bedtime story after another without complaining.  I remember a woman who could tell stories of her own crazy childhood and her four brothers and how she had to learn to eat without chewing or her brothers would eat everything.  To me, Grandma wasn't a shadow of a brain but the embodiment of a heart.

Eventually, Grandma didn't want to remember that time.  Like a bitter aftertaste, the absence of her memory--particularly the memory of her husband's death--lingered.  But to me, it was the highlight of my childhood, the cream center of the iced chocolate cupcake.

And it was somehow fitting that it was Grandma who realized that I was forgetting things a decade later.  I'm not exactly sure when it happened.  I had had a concussion a few days after starting college.  I went straight back to school, but things weren't right.  I just couldn't recall things--not so much things like the derivative of x-cubed or the chemical formula for sucrose but basic things like who my roommate was and what classes I was taking.  I know that I forgot them because I started writing about them.  Then I realized that if anyone ever got hold of my diary, they could convince me of anything.  So I started hiding the journal pages.  I still find them every now and then.  Their tone surprises me.  The amount of paranoia, off-putting at first glance, makes sense when you realize that an amnesiac (and an Alzheimer's patient) believes everyone is lying to her.  She would never do something like that.  And certainly, if she did, she would remember.  And then again, in a culture in which what you do makes you what you are, if you don't remember what you do, are you who you think you are?

I tried to withhold judgment when Grandma forgot little things.  I was far away, and if she forgot I was married or that I had boys, not girls, well, that was understandable.  After all, she didn't get to see me much.

But then there was the day that she put something on the stove and then went out back with her dog Ginger.  As she chased Ginger through the yard, the pot boiled dry and started to smoke.  Of course, I understand burning dinner.  I understand setting off the fire alarm and inadvertently alerting the security system company and, subsequently, the fire department.  What I can't understand is how she came to be surprised to meet the fire marshal in her living room, how she had missed the fire engine in front of her door, how she had failed to recognize that the approaching sirens were coming toward--and stopped at--her own house.

It was time for us to look for a different living situation for Grandma.  If we didn't know it then, her trip to my parents' house that fall cemented it.  Grandma didn't know who I was.  Sure, she remembered her granddaughter; Bethy was four-years-old and very special.  When my mom needed to go into the hospital that weekend, I came to stay with Grandma--to make sure she felt comfortable, to keep her calm, and to force her to eat something since she kept forgetting she was hungry.  She couldn't remember my son's name, even though he sat on her lap and reminded her frequently--to the tune of every 45 seconds.  She kept calling out for my aunt to help her--my aunt, who had stayed in Ohio, 300 miles away.

So, after much heartache and tantruming on all sides, Grandma now has a small apartment in an assisted living community.  She is unhappy, but we are all relieved.  We don't worry that someone is sneaking in at night.  We don't fear that she will burn herself to death.  And we know that if she doesn't remember to eat, someone will come knocking on the door to check on her.

But I remember what it was like to forget.  And so it is now that I sympathize with my grandmother.  I don't correct her when she, the Queen of Microwave Popcorn, insists that she's never had the stuff.  I know what it's like.  As she loses more and more years of her life, retreating further and further into her childhood, I don't try to bridge the gap.  My aunt was both livid and morose the other day.  "She thinks I'm her sister!" she said.  "I thought, 'Look in the mirror, woman! I don't look that old.' Her sister, my foot."  I understand.  It is crushing to watch.  But I don't let the sadness linger.  If Grandma thinks I'm a peer, so be it.

Of course, some days she's so lucid I wonder if she really needs assisted living.  And then, during the same phone call, she is suddenly not on the phone.  I can't reach her calling back.  I wonder if she has just fallen asleep or if she has truly fallen and can't get up.  I make an emergency call to my aunt.  "Can you call the facility?  Please ask them to check on Grandma.  She was just on the phone, and now she's not."

It turns out, the call was just disconnected.  Grandma didn't know how to call me back.  I'm wondering if she also didn't know how to hang up because I certainly couldn't reach her when I tried calling back.  And I realize that, yes, despite my own hopes otherwise, Grandma needs the help.

Even the little ones know that.  Shortly after Grandma's visit, my youngest son and I were at the library where he was unsuccessfully lobbying for me to check out a comic book with teeny tiny writing to read to his brother and him.

"I can't possibly see that behind two squirming boys," I told him.  "I'm too old."

The little one immediately dropped the book and took my face in his hands.  Putting his nose tip to tip with mine, he searched my eyes and asked very slowly:

"You are really old, Mommy?"

He paused.  "Do you know who I am, Mommy?"

And finally, so close that I felt I could smell every chocolate chip the child had eaten on his breath, he whispered, "Who am I, Mommy?"

"You're my little boy!" I cried, tickling his ribs and giggling right along with him, to the thorough disdain of the librarians.  In spite of the giggles, though, I wondered.  Will it be me?  Someday, will I forget my little boy?

Some people say that Grandma's not the woman she was anymore.  That may be.  But who is?  She wasn't herself all those years ago, but the love was still there.  And, in our phone conversations, it still is.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Last Shall Be First

The first day of school in our house is not so much the celebration of the new school year's birth as it is the funeral of the lovely summer.

It's been too cold to swim for a while, but the cool off didn't mean dialing back the fun.  No.  It really meant it was no longer too hot to run screaming through the neighborhood like a stray dog squirted by the resident skunk or to grind forward up that hill on a bike to turn around and whoosh back down with a whoop of glory.

I, who had been keeping little noses to the grindstone all summer long, relented after the boys' cousin departed.  It was just too sad to keep pushing.  The two flourished those last two weeks--both growing out of shorts and shirts just in time for school.  At the end of each day as the sun's last rays glistened on the paint-stripped metal bars of the jungle gym, their father and I corralled the boys into the house like sheepdogs nipping at the heels of the sheep (or “its” closing in for the tag).  The bleating boys romped circuits over the playground finally tumbling sullenly through the screen door claiming sudden exhaustion and may never have made it upstairs to the bathtub without Daddy's arms hoisting them upward by the elbows and my shoulders propelling them onward by the butt.

Once stripped and deposited in the tub, the boys shivered, surrounded by their own cloud of filth--or topsoil as it may be.  Daddy and I pondered whether the expression "from dust to dust," was really appropriate.  It would appear, from the state of the tub, that "from dust to mud" was far more apt.  And so began the pre-bath rinse.  After what seemed like millennia, a primordial flood of the bathroom, and half a bottle of Old Spice scented “man soap,” they came out far shinier than they went in, and it was time for the nightly wrangle over going to bed, exacerbated by the absence of melatonin and the void of a place to be in the morning.  In all the wrestling that ensued, we managed to sneak in much snuggling, a bedtime snack, some bedtime books (long ones, by choice of the big one),  and perhaps a bed movie (or two).  As the big one wanted Daddy, the little one wanted Mommy, Mommy wanted her own bed, and Daddy wanted peace, we played musical beds all night long, finally concluding that the four of us could no longer populate a queen-size bed comfortably (although some no-longer-little-enough boys would have liked to keep trying)!

In the misty morning of the next day, we descended in turns from our various resting places to, by the time I got there, cuddles and puddles (of juice, pee, or what have you), spilled cereal, eggs (still whole, thank you, Lord!) left on the counter for Mom to cook, and missing Wii-motes.  Despite my aspirations to be a loving, peaceful mother, I fear that, in those pre-caffeinated moments, I met it all with general gasps of exasperation like, "Must you actually step on your brother's head on the way here?  Couldn't you choose a foot?" to the one and, "Well, he couldn't step on your head if you would sit up!" to the other.

Yes, I am sorry to see these last weeks end, sorry to pack lunches instead of beach buckets, backpacks instead of travel packs.  And as I crane my neck to glimpse the last vestiges of summer before it disappears from view forever to the tinkling accompaniment of the ice cream truck whose cola-flavored brown ice cream fakes the kids out for chocolate every time, a brisk breeze catches the hair on the back of my neck and beckons me to consider autumn.  After all, the best may be yet to come.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Way It Works (at Least for Me)

Long ago, a friend and I were a team in an event called "Write It/Do It."  The object was for the team to build a replica of an item.  But there was a catch.  Only one teammate got to see the item.  Then she had to write instructions on how to build it.  The item was then taken away, and the instructions and components given to the partner for them to build it.

We never won that I remember, but I learned a lot--primarily that a list of instructions, even good ones, doesn't always produce the intended results.

I find that living life follows the same pattern.

Don't get me wrong; I have benefited from explicit instruction many times.  In fact, some of the best advice I've ever gotten has been explicit.  Like my mom's "People like people who smile," and my dad's "If you have to ask yourself if it's loving, then it's usually not."  My mother-in-law says, "Leave it alone," implying that time fixes many problems if we are only patient.

But certain pieces of advice have never helped me.  "Be more normal."  What's normal?  "Don't talk."  Should I just do what I want then and ask you if you liked it later?  "Don't do it that way." Well then what way should I do it?  "Don't eat with your mouth full."  Well then how do you get the food in?

Like I said, I don't do very well with instructions, especially "don't" ones.

But that doesn't mean that I don't get to a place where I just know I've got it wrong, instructions or no.

Let me tell you a story.  I was five, sporting a newly-minted Lilt home permanent that my mother had just given me and which smelled strongly of chemicals in high humidity or after a good sweat.  I was playing with my sister, then three, our next-door neighbor, a boy aged two at that time, and my two-doors-down neighbor, then six.  Let me just say straight out that my two-doors-down neighbor, whom I'll call Trouble for the sake of this story was trouble for us.  She was that neighbor whom my parents swore was a bad influence.  And, while my sister and I could get into quite a bit of trouble all on our own, it seemed to take a bit of Trouble to really blow the roof off the house--or the egg out of the microwave (which really happened, but that's another story).

I've forgotten the name of the game we were playing--if there ever was one--but it was loud, full of running up one side of the hill in Trouble's yard (the rocky side which was a little easier to climb) and sliding in tandem down the other side, which was nearly vertical, grassy, and therefore much easier on the butt.  Now I don't know why, but apparently we all decided to slide train-style down the hill and leave my sister behind.  She had little legs, you know, and didn't always move as fast as we wanted her to.

Now it may sound small, but I knew not to leave my sister behind.  Whatever I did, she did too.  Once I learned to share, I took it very seriously--even making sure she got half my pizza when she was but six-months-old.

But I didn't think about my sister.  I listened to my friend.

And when we finally skidded giggling to a halt in the never-quite-dry muddy patch of Trouble's backyard, I tumbled over and glanced to the top of the hill where my sister stood crushed--shoulders slumped, knees wobbly, and tears already dripping off her nose.  She met my eyes, scrubbed her nose with the back of her fist, then pirouetted and raced toward our gate. 

"Who cares about her?" Trouble asked, shrugging her shoulders as she pulled up our next door neighbor. "Let's play with that."  She pointed at something on the other side of the yard and then bounded over with our two-year-old neighbor.

I just stood, gazing up at the place where my sister had stood.  I knew I did that to my sister.  I scaled the slippery side, pulling out clods of grass with my fingers as my feet searched for some traction.  At the top of the hill, with the late spring breeze ruffling my permanent, I hid myself in Trouble's forsythia bush and wept.

"God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

I'd read the Bible story with Daddy.  I would've beaten my breast like in the story, except I didn't have any yet.

Yes, I was modeling what I'd read about it.  But in that moment, I knew I was the sinner and that prayer was for me. 

Of course, I didn't quite understand the permanence of it--and maybe this is part of that implicit understanding, maybe that permanence isn't as permanent as we might think, maybe there is something to working out your salvation with fear and trembling--and often found myself back in that spot begging forgiveness again.  Usually after playing with Trouble.  Maybe my parents were right about something.

But you see, that is how it works with me.  All the rules in the Bible, from Sunday school, from my parents, teacher, society--they meant nothing in and of themselves until, courtesy of the Holy Spirit, I felt the knife of sin twisting in my own heart.

And since that time, God has been generally gentle with me.  Oh, it never feels gentle.  It feels like clay in the hands of a potter, complete with the wedging, pug mill, and firing.  But He shows me what I'm doing wrong.  Sometimes it comes through the words of others, true. But most often not, and it never comes without that deep kerthunk of something falling into place deep in my heart, a surge in the pit of my stomach, and the faintest whisper in my ear, asking, "Do you hear Me now?"

And that's why, after three decades in this vein, I'm very hesitant to tell someone else that they are sinning unless I hear it explicitly in His Voice.  I'm not sure I ever have.  That's not to say that I never say anything.  Quite the contrary!  I am never hesitant to say, "Something here smells fishy," or "I don't think everything is quite right."  We need to be discerning--and there are definite guidelines for that, but I wouldn't call those guidelines rules either.

And you see, God gives us some pretty good reasons to doubt that we have the rules right.  Jesus's lineage contains a woman who had her son by her husband's father, a prostitute, a foreigner, and an adulterer.  Jesus's birth was greeted by shepherds and by foreign (read that gentile) kings, but not by the teachers of the law.  And then, of course, there's the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus basically turns the law on its head, challenging, "So you think you understand the law?  Well, let me tell you what it really means."

But aside from the fact that the only people Jesus called "sinners" were the ones who were convinced that they weren't, when Jesus called, "Repent," we came because we knew we were wrong.  I am convinced that if anyone wants to know what they're doing wrong, God will let them know.  I am not needed for the finger pointing.

Besides I am wrong everyday, and it helps to know that going in.

I don't know the answers, and that helps keep me from telling you (both Christians and non-Christians) that you're wrong.  But I will say that if you take it to Jesus (especially us Christians!  If Jesus had to pray, what makes you think we have a chance of figuring this out without His constant insight?), He will let you know. 

And He's the only One you really need to listen to.
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