Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gone But Not Forgotten

A friend of mine recently posted a photo to Facebook that really caught my attention and inspired this post.

Photo credit:  Jeff Beaurline (here)

And I was floored (in a very good way) by the love expressed for those who sacrifice themselves.  And I have been thinking of that a lot lately.  Thank you to those who sacrifice in our military.  Thank you to your families.

But the timing also had me thinking of something else, the death of another friend in another kind of war.

A dozen years ago this month, my former coworker, Mr. Joe (Joseph Healy), was shot in the head while drinking coffee in a McDonald's in one of the very neighborhoods he tried to help.

Mr. Joe was a former priest turned storyteller.  He was imperfect as we all are, but he was beautiful with his soft white hair, long thin frame, eagle eyes, and perfect voice.  But what was loveliest of all was that he listened.

You see, Mr. Joe was fighting a war for our children.  Sure, much was made of his work in underprivileged areas, but to say that working with the underprivileged killed him is to miss the whole point of his life.  Mr. Joe was about changing the way we see the world, about listening to new things, about speaking in new ways, about using the constraints we are given to free ourselves instead of using them to bind others.

Yes, he was killed because he was a white man who happened to be eating in a McDonald's next to the apartment building of one particular mentally-unstable African-American man who happened to think that all white men were out to harm him that day.  In fact, I do not doubt that this man had apt reason for believing that some white men were out to harm him.  He was being threatened with losing his home, and he thought he was losing it to whites (I'm not sure if he was or not).  That might make me a little leery of white men.  No, it's not a reason for firing at Mr. Joe in particular or even at whites in general.  But it is reason to be resentful.  And we shouldn't need a physical wake up call to make us care about resentment and solving it.  And it goes both ways.  Ten days later, a white man went on a shooting spree in Pittsburgh and shot people of other races.

At some point, we can't ignore the resentment.  At some point these incidents become foreseeable.  And, being foreseeable, they become, in part, possibly preventable.

And that's exactly the type of thing Mr. Joe was working at changing.  He was working at thinking of more, perceiving more.  Helping each child--privileged and underprivileged--to consider the thoughts and feelings of the other and to fathom the possibility of a different world.  

I have recently given this "war" a lot of thought.

You see, I try to watch what's going on with my kids.  There are days when I am not nearly as involved as I ought to be.  But recently, Daddy bought some much-cherished, sharable Skylanders--video game figures.  So I have been paying much more attention to how they are playing.  First, I noticed what I always notice--one child dominates.  But pretty soon, I noticed that even though the kids were changing who played (if not exactly taking turns), two children never got a turn.  And it turned out that both of these boys are African-American. 

Is there a disparity?  Absolutely.

Were they discriminated against?  I'm not certain.

You see, only one child was white.  My children are part Asian, and the other has a hispanic mother and, I believe, an African-American father (I haven't actually met him).  The other children got turns, but mainly because they complained loudly and resorted to taking the controllers away if they weren't handed over quickly enough.

The other two children simply hadn't asked to play.  They hadn't even asked.  My heart broke because the oldest one is eight, and the little one just turned six.  That means that somehow, in less than a decade in a fairly affluent suburb, they had learned that their needs were cared about so little that they were not even worth mentioning or fighting for. 

We have a very strict sharing policy now.  I set the timer the instant the kids come in.  Everybody gets a turn.  If I catch not sharing, we have video-game-free days.  I don't know how to counteract what I see.  I can teach my children to stand up for what I believe is fair.  But is it enough?  Do I really know what fair looks like?

I just don't know.  We have had a series of incidents on the bus over a long period of time.  They have been caused by all kinds of different issues--special needs, learning disabilities, and the normal changes and misperceptions of growing up.  But I've noticed a distinct difference in how they are handled depending on the race of the victims and the race of the aggressors. 

Is it a disparity?  Yes. 

Is it intentional?  I'm not sure.  And there are lots of reasons why, but I'm not going to go into them now.

The question I want to ask is that at the point that you see it happen again and again, even if you don't have malicious intent on your part, isn't it a sin of omission to let it continue, to not try to do anything different?  We might not have the answer, but maybe we need to start asking other questions or trying some answers even if they turn out to be wrong because at least then we might eliminate something?  Although, to be honest, I haven't had a direct direct conversation about this with my other-raced neighbors.  I have only had indirect conversations along the lines of "I noticed my son wasn't giving your son a turn.  I am all over my son about this, but please reassure your son that he can come to me if I miss something and I will take care of it."  What I didn't say was "Why is it that these two beautiful African-American children feel uncomfortable speaking up for themselves and what can I do to help change that?"

And maybe it's time that I did.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Every Mountain and Hill

I was seven.  It was spring, and I was in the second grade.  Even from my position, with my head on the desk and with the lights out, I could see the golden forsythias waving in the rainy breeze on the hill outside our classroom window.  We were being punished.  Every single one of us.  

We spent a lot of time being punished that year.  It seems endemic of second grade--that horrible year when you really, really, really want friends and when you feel every verbal jab and social slight excruciatingly but just have not developed the insight to recognize what you do contributes to the problem.  Second graders are perhaps the most vicious children in elementary school, at least, until they turn ten-ish.  They are like piranhas, waiting for someone to attack.  Piranhas with potty humor.

And even though we were being punished, I recall very clearly what it was like before we were all summarily sent to our seats and the lights were doused.  A group of boys was launching matchbox cars across the desks and into the coat cupboard.  Points were awarded for damaging the bulletin board.  Children were occasionally caught in the crossfire, but if the cars hadn't sustained any damage, hey, no harm, no foul.  A cluster of children was dancing to Michael Jackson's "Thriller," having commandeered the tape player in the reading corner, while one child plugged his ears and rocked back and forth because the song scared him.  And square in the front of the room, the two queen bees, surrounded by less-alpha females, squared off for a fight.  I believe they had one another by the hair and had actually pulled out some clumps when the roaming teacher returned to check up on our indoor recess and thus ordered us back to our seats.

And as bad as being punished was, it was a whole lot better than what it had been before.

People tend to forget that--that sometimes when we ask for intervention, it will mean hardship for us as well.  The answers to our prayers can be painful.  Sometimes it is the just consequences of our own actions.  Sometimes it is simply that we are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Sometimes it is growing, healing.  And let me tell you, growing and healing hurts.

A year ago this week, an earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan, the little island so close to the country half my family calls home.  And it came at a time when I was doubting God's goodness, doubting goodness at all. My friend's child was dying--the second child I had grown to love to die of cancer in two-and-a-half years.  My other friend was suspicious that her fiance had cancer (he does. It is not going well).  My husband was just beginning a new job in a business that was just starting, and the hours were crazy. Although he'd been working for a couple of months, he hadn't been paid yet (he did eventually get paid.  I want to make it clear that his employer was good to him.  It just was that tough beginning, and there wasn't anything there yet).  We were trying to come up with a way for me to take the kids back to Korea to visit for the summer, and I was afraid.  

I was not afraid of my in-laws or Korea, but afraid for my children.  You see, they don't do transitions well.  Any transitions.  We have biting, stimming, accidents, head banging, you name it.  And it just didn't seem fair.  

The little one had had seizures in Korea, and it looked like we were finally over that.  I was totally ready to move on.  But we had had school issues in Korea too, and when the doctor suggested that we take both children out of school over the flu season, I was more than happy to oblige.  You see, the oldest one wasn't fitting in, and it didn't have to do with multiculturalism and his teachers exclusively.  He was very picky about what he would eat.  He couldn't stand to wear the uniforms.  He'd started scratching his skin open.  He had trouble with language too--not one language, both languages.  No way I knew to teach him was working, and I know a lot of ways to teach language.  There was something much deeper going on.  And then, of course, there was the biting, screaming, head-banging, melt downs.  It was time to go back to America, a place I felt I could both deal with the school system and get help for what was going on.  Only dealing with the school system was more difficult than I thought, and getting my children the help that they needed did not happen easily.  It was a fight.  And finally in March, I started to make headway.  

That's when I break down.  That's when I wonder, why? Why does it need to be so hard?  Hadn't we passed the tough part?  Now that the little one was past the physical danger of sudden and unexpected death, why were we plagued with this bizarre mental health diagnosis?  And even though I had known it in my heart, had talked about it with therapists, had been working through the treatments and accommodations, actually seeing it written in black and white and having time to really think about what it meant just broke my heart.

That's just the way I am.  Other people stay strong.  Not me.  When we're finally past do or die and I have a moment to breathe, I collapse.  That's where I was last March.  And then I watched the earthquake.  I saw the footage of the tsunami.  Returning to Korea that summer, we watched floods and mudslides.  And I was reminded of a passage:

3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
   the way for the LORD[a];
make straight in the desert
   a highway for our God.[b]
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
   every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
   the rugged places a plain.
(Isaiah 40:3-4)

Now, the thing is that this passage is supposed to be one filled with hope.  It begins with the words, "Comfort, comfort my people," (40:1) and is immediately followed by "and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed" (40:5).

 You see, it struck me as I watched the footage of the mountain sliding through the apartment building in Seoul...

... that I had just seen a mountain made low, and it was not comforting at all.

I remembered the pictures of Japan from March and the devastation that we still saw as we flew over and stopped briefly there on our way to Korea in June.  The rough places had been made plain, alright, but it wasn't exactly "glory."  I am not saying that this devastation was all good or bad.  Certainly, we saw people banding together.  We saw neighbors reaching out in love.  We saw people from all over the world lifting up prayers and offering support both physically and monetarily.  But I am saying that there was devastation nevertheless.

It also struck me that I have heard plenty of people celebrate this passage.  It's in Handel's "Messiah."  It opens the Gospel of Mark.  We see it as a promise and we forget what comes part and parcel with it:

40: 6 A voice says, “Cry out.”    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
   “All people are like grass,
   and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
   because the breath of the LORD blows on them.

 Clearly we haven't looked at it very carefully.  What are God's words of hope to us?  That we fall when He breathes on us?  That we are like grass?  That we all die essentially?  How exactly is that comforting?

I often ponder this. 

If we believe the Bible, then essentially, the price for the new covenant was the destruction of the temple and the later diaspora because only then would the system of Jewish offerings be offset enough to allow some Jews to consider Jesus.  Would they have prayed for a Messiah had they known? 

Was the price of the modern state of Israel the Holocaust?  Would so many have longed for it to come had they imagined it?

I don't know the answers, but passages like this seem to beg the questions.

Do we need to be reminded that the day of the Lord is both great and terrible?  Who am I to think I would escape judgment?  I fear I am back in my second grade class.  Even though we are all being punished, I would rather be punished by a good judge than allowed to muddle in the mess of my peers.  And I have no doubt that I have sinned and deserve punishment.  There will be recompense.

But, as my sister-in-law was trying to drive us back to my in-laws' and I literally saw flooding come at every other road than the one I was on, I came to a conclusion I could live with.

Sometimes, as Psalm 91:7 says, "A thousand may fall at your side/And ten thousand at your right hand,/But it shall not approach you."  Yes, I have seen this happen.  Repeatedly.  There are times I have been miraculously untouched.

But it is no less true that sometimes the terrible does touch us.  Horrible things happen.  But we also have Psalm 23:4, "Even though I walk through the [d]valley of the shadow of death,/I fear no [e]evil, for You are with me."  There is no guarantee that we won't die in valley of the shadow of death, only that if we die, we will do so in the Lord's presence.

I am not exactly comforted, but I know that if I have to choose, I'd rather be with the one who moves the mountains than in the path of the mountains.  I have come head to head with what I can't wrap my head around, and that may be okay.  I have seen too many answers to pray, seen too many coincidences, known too many things to discount God by whatever name you want to call him.  Similarly, I can't reconcile what I see.  How can these things coexist?  I see them coexist, but I can't understand.  Like Jung in Synchronicity, the data may not make sense, but it still exists and one cannot deny it.  And like Peter in John 6:60 ff., I am forced to conclude that this is a hard teaching, but who else has the words of life?

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Time Heals All Wounds

Or "Why I Love Ballads/the Fallacy of Flash Fiction"

Have you ever listened to Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler?"

It's hard to miss.  It's always on somewhere.  And it highlights something that I just find so pervasive about life: that it goes on and on almost ad nauseum sometimesThe tune for the verse and the chorus of "The Gambler" is the same, so you listen to the repetition of the single theme without variation seven times over three (is it really only three?) minutes.

But hey, that's life.  We face the same problems again and again.  We do the same things over and over.

My little one struggles with this daily.  "Mommy!" he whines.  "I brushed my teeth."

"Yes, you did, dear," I reply.  "Yesterday.  But now you need to do it again."


 And that's life, that is.  No matter how much our instant flash fiction culture might try to convince us otherwise, we are caught like Don Juan in nearly 1600 identical stanzas that, funny though they may be, seemingly never end.  That lives are occasionally cut short is something that is real and tragic and something I'm not trying to make light of, but at the same time, for many of us the very banality of everyday life, its mind-numbing routine sometimes overtakes us in a way that makes us think it is unimportant and undesirable.

Yet, for all its monotony, repetition is a key aspect, perhaps the key aspect of life.  After all, we do like it when our heart beats and our lungs breathe, right? This repetition is also the missing element in so many interventions in lives.

My friend recently commented in one of her amazing posts, "I noticed that I’m only able to apply NVC (nonviolent communication) when the stakes aren’t high...." Now, that's something that I find all the time (not just for the reasons that my dear friend mentions).  As I explored my own reasoning, I stumbled on the truth above.

You see, here is a secret:  We don't always have to solve the problem the first time around.  In fact, there are limits to which things are actually problems and there are boundaries to what can actually be "solved."  So many of our interventions (and believe me, I am all about intervention) want us to solve everything in one shot.  That just isn't realistic.  It makes everything into a high stakes game.  And when the stakes are high, it becomes hard to collect one's self and hard to perform gracefully.  It also tricks us into thinking that this is the ONLY time that we will get to solve the problem.

That may be true if I'm just dealing with a disgruntled fellow customer in the grocery store who has become upset in response to an isolated incident and with whom I share no intimate connection and may never see again.  It doesn't work for my child's teacher, who holds power over my child for an entire year, for my neighbor, whom I see daily, for my children, for whom I would die, or for my husband, whom I love more than I ever knew I could.  You see, for those others, I'm not actually dealing with one single incident when I talk with them.  I am dealing with one in a series of incidents with many emotional entanglements and for which I am asking for a substantive behavioral or affective change. 

While some of these interventions do help (I am a huge fan of both NVC and restorative circles--did I mention that my first venture into restorative circles was with a kid called "Boogie?"  Do you know how hard it is to seriously negotiate and respond, "Well, Boogie wants you to know...?"), they tend to gloss over the fact that you are unlikely to undo years of hurt, damage, fear, etc., with a single conversation.  It will take both time and action.  And that's okay.  A heart can be slow to change.  Gardner and Schulz both wrote entire books on the matter. 

And time can be a really good thing.  I don't want to be younger.  I like who I have become as a result of my experience.  Time has allowed me to learn from life and to break and rebuild habits.  It lets me gather the experience to "know when to hold 'em.  Know when to fold 'em."  And I'll be singing that awhile as I keep working at peace because heaven knows I haven't mastered it yet.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Out of Control

Some days (or weeks), life just kicks you in the teeth.  There's no other way around it.  You get bad news from a family member, your husband. You try to treat yourself a little only to have a BAD reaction to the food and go home to find more bad news. You spend half the night up.  One kid wets the bed; the other kid wakes at 5:00.  The husband is out the door early; the power goes out.  It just goes on and on until the little one comes home from school, walks past the linoleum, and pees on the rug.  The pee incident was just the exclamation point on my WTF 24-hours.

And the thing was, the previous 24-hours had given me no clue, NONE, that the following 24 were going to be so bad.  In fact, I actually thought that things were looking up.  I got paid for something I hardly ever collect on.  I did our taxes and found out that we actually get back more money than expected.  I washed the car without being reminded (something my husband loves). I even swept all the floors and contacted the apartment about our broken-yet-again window.  It was a pretty good day.

And so I was just kind of numb after my change of luck.  Numb and paranoid.  I stared out at the kids wondering if lightning would strike.  I clutched the phone, anticipating more bad news.  I waited for fire.  Well, I did get smoke, but that was just because the cheese ran over the pizza pan, so there were no real flames.  It was one of those kind of days.

Of course, moments after I wrote the paragraphs above, tornadoes bore down on Henryville and demolished the little town.  One day it was there; the next, not so much.  I was reminded of Francesca Battistelli's words, "In the middle of my littleness, I forget how big I'm blessed."


Earlier today before I sat down to continue this, I heard screaming from the front yard.  I had just checked outside, and the kids had been fine.  But, as I sprinted out the door, I could see they were not fine now.  The big one led the little one.

"He hit his head!"  the big one sobbed.  "There's blood!  It's all my fault!"

It wasn't all the big one's fault.  The little one had decided to play by himself, tripped over his own two feet, and fell against the side of the brick house.

The big one's unearned guilt and distress highlighted my own problem.

I don't forget how I'm blessed.  I know I'm blessed.  Very blessed.  Overflowing, pouring into my lap blessed.

What I actually forget, and get really agitated over when I'm reminded of it, is how very little control I actually have over life in general and how little of it is actually mine.  Remembering my experience with hair dye and styling products to uniformly straighten or curl my hair (just one way all at the same time, please), I always laugh a little when I read Jesus's mandate, "Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black."  But it's true. I can't.

The truth is that I just can't protect against everything, perhaps anything.  I can't know what will happen.  I can't keep the tornadoes from coming, can't make others do what I want, can't keep my children safe every moment of every day.  

But I suffer from loss aversion.  Like the monkeys that get the two apples and then have one taken away, so that they with one apple are much angrier than the other monkeys that started with only one apple, I forget that the apples I see aren't actually mine.  The people I love do not actually belong to me, and I despair of losing them in any way shape or form.

But my children and my husband aren't things.  They are human beings with their own minds, hearts, dreams, and takes on things.  Who else would claim quitting smoking causes knee pain but my husband, who can now run long enough without gasping to do real damage to his joints?  Who but my big one would stuff the cap of the toothpaste upside down between the grate of our bathroom shelf to keep the bottle from falling off?  Who but my little one would find a way to turn every holiday into a celebration of weaponry (Thor's hammer this Halloween, the German "cannon ball" (tannenbaum) at Christmas, and Cupid's bow and arrows for Valentine's Day)?  I call them all mine, but they are not.  We are connected, but I can't hold onto them with any greater efficacy than I can fix my hair.

The only way to stop the racing of my heart, to soften its desperate pounding after the last week, is, in fact, to remember that while my family doesn't belong to me, they belong to the One who holds us all.  I may not like to trust in Him, may hate close calls, may despise my lack of control, but I can't do anything about that.  What I can remember is that He claims that His thoughts toward us outnumber the grains of the sand, that He knows the number of hairs on our heads, that He who numbers the stars also binds our wounds.  I remember how very dearly I loved the children I have taught, babysat, and cared for.  I would have risked danger for them, still pray for them even now--some 20 years after I watched them.  But I know that as much as I cared for them, what I felt is nothing compared to what I feel as a parent.  And I take comfort in the fact that even though I can't control what comes, He can.  And in the light of eternity, I'm just the babysitter.