If Your Friends…?

 

“If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?”  My mom stopped kneading the buttermilk biscuit dough only for a moment to look through her thick glasses and stare me down.

Exasperated, I put my hands on my hips and tried not to be the first to blink.  But as a teenager hearing that answer from my mother, I knew the conversation was over.  Though she could sometimes be badgered into giving in, she had the force of my father’s sternness hovering in the air even when he wasn’t present.  And the one point of argument that never once worked for me was that my friends were all allowed to [fill in the blank here].

Now that my mother is in a nursing home, largely silenced by a debilitating stroke, I’ve replayed this scene in my mind often.  All my adult life, when I’ve been tempted to do something because everyone else is doing it, I hear her voice in my mind and know that I should have a better reason for the choices I make and the causes I champion than that everyone is doing it—that it seems to be in vogue.

My mom quit school in ninth grade to care for her ailing mother, though she did earn her GED when she was 52—after all her five children had graduated from high school.  She readily admitted that there was a lot she didn’t know about English and math, science and social studies, but she wanted all of us to go to college.  And she knew absolutely nothing about the college application process.  She entrusted that guidance to our teachers and supported them in pushing us to make good educational choices.

So when I hear the term “fiscal cliff,” I can’t help thinking of my mother and wishing that our leaders had someone to ask them to have better reasons for their choices than that everyone else in their party is heading over the cliff—or at least playing a game of chicken that sends them so close to the edge of the precipice that the force of momentum may make it impossible to stop their forward progress, sending them over the cliff in spite of their certainty that they can stop just short of recklessness.

Like my mother, I’ll admit that there are some things I don’t know.  I don’t fully understand economics or finance.  But I do know that we cannot continue to pile up a steep mountain of debt and leave our children to look over the cliff into the abyss below.  Nor can we continue to leave the least among us tottering over the precipice with no one to pull them back to safety. 

So like my mother, I want to be able to entrust decisions about our budget to those who committed themselves to finding the best solutions when they asked for our votes.  As my mom trusted my teachers, I want to be able to trust our leaders—all of them, not just those in my party—to find objective experts who can help them make solid decisions.  I know that few of the people we elect are economists.  But they do have the resources to engage experts who can help them move in a positive direction instead of just telling them what they want to hear.

But for that to happen, our politicians need to listen more to people like my mother.

‘Til Death Do Us Part?

Wedding

At the age of 90, my aunt left the corporeal world this week to reunite with seven of her nine siblings, including my father, who died in 1998. My sister, the oldest of our parents’ five children, posted on social media that we once had 24 aunts and uncles—27 if you count the three who died before adulthood—and now only three remain with us. And only one of those 24 aunts and uncles ever divorced.

The evangelical church they grew up in taught that divorce ensured their place in a fiery hell. And while some of them endured hell on earth at the hands of abusive husbands, they all adhered to that tenet of their faith. Many of them did move beyond the more stringent teachings of the church, which mostly applied to women—no make-up, no jewelry, no pants, no haircuts. But the wives obeyed their husbands.

My only aunt who divorced moved to Maryland, eight hours and a world away from the hills of southern West Virginia, far enough away to live her own life. What I remember about her from family reunions was that she joined the men in having a good stiff drink, wore red lipstick, and cursed just as her brothers did. The women in the family whispered about her, but she never seemed to care. When she got into the car to drive back to Maryland, I remember her blowing smoke rings out the window and driving away with a grin on her face.

When I moved to Maryland, I lived an hour and a half from my aunt, but my mom told me later that she and my dad refused to give her my phone number or my address. I never really knew her, and as a young working mother, I had little time to give her any thought.

But I think about her and my other aunts and uncles this week as same-sex couples begin to apply for marriage licenses that will allow them to marry in January. These couples have had a long wait for what my parents and my aunts and uncles took for granted—aunts and uncles who didn’t even have to wait past their teenage years for the right to marry—though I’m certain some of them longed for the right to divorce that many of their children would demand.

But though I left the evangelicals behind and chose a more open faith, being married in a church didn’t ensure my own marriage would last. Despite pre-marital counseling where one of the wisest ministers I know encouraged us to explore our common values, despite a marriage at an altar in front of a majestic pipe organ and 150 witnesses, I became the first of four of my parents’ five children to divorce.

And the only one to marry again.

In the eyes of my parents’ faith, I am an adulteress, just like my aunt, living in this godless state that doesn’t believe a marriage is a covenant for one man and one woman, one time, one lifetime.

But this time, my husband and I listened closely to the minister who helped us understand how our personalities shape the ways we love each other. We listened to the little voices, and we learned how important it is to laugh every day, to remind ourselves every day of why we fell in love. And despite coming from backgrounds that disapprove of divorce and remarriage, we’ve found the love of a lifetime. And 21 years ago, we had the right and the privilege of a second chance at happiness in a church with the support of 25 family members and close friends.

Now same-sex couples in Maryland can enjoy the same rights all of us enjoy, even when we make a mess of it. Just like all of us, some of them will make it and some of them will make mistakes. But they won’t have to long for divorce—or death—to part them, as some of my aunts and uncles have done.

So why on earth anyone would feel that same-sex marriage is a threat to the family?

Get Rid of Clutter?

Christmas Clutter

I had planned to wrap gifts this evening. Over the weekend, I pulled roll after roll of red and green and white paper from the bins at a craft store and stacked them in my husband’s arms. Then we stopped at the area’s newest grocery store to buy a few fresh vegetables for these weeks between the gluttony of Thanksgiving and the sugary delicacies of Christmas. As we entered the store and the doors swished closed behind us, I was mesmerized by a carefully crafted and strategically placed display of satiny red paper with white reindeer, by shiny gold and blue foil, priced at two rolls for $3.00. How could I resist? I stacked four more rolls into the cart and skillfully maneuvered past all the young couples who stood in front of the seafood counter, the fresh vegetables, and the myriad cheeses and used their smart phones to compare prices.

So instead of wrapping gifts this evening, I sit here in front of the lighted Christmas tree, breathing in the smell of Fraser fir and the peace of Christ. Not a bad way to spend an evening. But why, you ask, am I not wrapping those presents?

A girl can change her mind, right? Perhaps it’s because I’m older and wiser now, learning to slow down, you’re thinking? But you would be wrong.

Instead, I’m sitting here thinking of my pastor’s Advent sermon series about getting rid of the clutter in our minds. Two Sundays ago, he made the entire congregation laugh out loud over and over again as he described the difference between himself and his wife, our co-pastor. Like me, she dislikes clutter. Like my husband, he has a much greater tolerance for untidiness, and he offered a very funny “scientific” explanation of the law of physics that ensures that clutter accumulates.

This was particularly amusing to my husband and me because we had just finished cleaning out the basement a few days before. I have six boxes of files from 30 years of teaching that I haven’t gone through in the five years since I left the classroom. At one point it was nine boxes, and I weeded through three before I tired of spending a day off sorting through handouts I was never likely to use again now that my job is to design lessons for interactive whiteboards. But I can’t quite bring myself to toss those other six boxes, even though I have used perhaps two handouts I saved before putting three boxes into the recycling bin. What if I throw out something great that I could have used—something I don’t have on a floppy disk or a CD or a flash drive?

And what does that have to do with wrapping gifts, you ask? At the same time that I refused to wheel those six boxes of files to the recycling bin, I insisted that my husband break down the stack of empty gift boxes he’s saved for the past two Christmases that filled up three storage shelves. And so he did. But he wasn’t happy as he stomped the boxes to break them down flat. One woman’s clutter is another man’s practicality.

And if you haven’t guessed it by now, I need those boxes. I broke my vow to avoid Cyber Monday and shop at the mall. I ordered most of my gifts online in spite of my recent blog to the contrary. But none of those items came with gift boxes. And so now, as I continue to stack those gifts on the bed in one of the guest rooms, a bed that needs to be cleared before our friends visit this weekend, I could have used those boxes that hadn’t been recycled for the past three years.

It’s a good thing that I’ve done a better job this year of uncluttering my mind.

So tell me a story. What’s your most beloved clutter?

What’s In a Smile?

Mom in Pink Hat

I never saw my mom wear a hat.  An accordion-pleated rain bonnet that she unfurled and tied beneath her chin to protect her latest perm, yes.  Ear muffs and headbands that she carefully arranged to cover the hairline that divided her bangs from the hair she brushed back, yes.  And a winter hood that she pulled over her curls and tied loosely to avoid crushing her sprayed and teased salon hair, yes.  She was vain about her hair but too practical to wear a hat that merely ornamented her head.

When my sixth grade teacher told our math class to use our heads for something other than hat racks, I assumed she was talking about other people—those who perched their thoughts over themselves as ornaments for others to see.  And that was not my mother.  She was nothing if not practical.

Now she sits in a wheelchair in a nursing home, forced to trust others to get her dressed.  Her hair is longer and brushed straight back, sprayed into place to keep it from falling into her face.  I creep quietly into her room, looking to see her head tilted slightly toward her chest, trying to judge whether she is awake.  Silent, I put my purse gently on the floor next to a table, unwilling to wake her.

As I straighten back up, my eyes fall on a picture of my mother, sporting a jaunty fuchsia hat.  She looks directly into the camera, and her lips are so reddish blue that she seems to be wearing my trademark berry lipstick.  But despite the uncharacteristic hat, I know that my mom has never in her life worn make-up or lipstick, and I recognize that the color is a symptom of the condition that forces her to wear the oxygen tube stretching across her face, feeding air into her nostrils.  The fingers of a gnarled hand rest on her left shoulder, and I know that the picture was taken before Hospice brought the wheelchair that allows Mom to recline slightly so that she doesn’t fall forward.

I pick up the picture and note from the date imprint that it was taken on Halloween.  But it is my mother’s expression that captures my attention.  Her lips are pursed tightly together, and at first I think she looks angry.  But I’ve seen a similar expression when she labors to breathe in more oxygen from the tube in her nose.  I put the picture down and lift a chair to avoid waking my mother, but when I lower the chair down next to hers, she opens her eyes in surprise and says, “Well!” and the corners of her mouth turn up slightly in a smile.

I lean down to kiss her cheek before sitting and taking her hand in mine.  I rub the top of her hand, always surprised at the silkiness of her skin in spite of years of physical labor.

She chatters, but I understand little of what she says until she points to the television, and the sound that has been background noise enters my consciousness for the first time.  Ellen DeGeneres dances down the stairs, giving away Christmas gifts to an audience that claps and squeals in delight.  I wonder if the staff member who turned on the program knows that my mom has always liked Ellen.  My mom smiles at the television before her gaze returns to me, and I watch her eyes travel to my neckline.  She reaches out and touches the crystal with the tiny silver tree inside.  I had bought the charm the week before, thinking ahead to this visit and remembering how much Mom loves snow globes.

My sister, who is far more than our mother’s primary caregiver, laughs that I am “the shopping daughter” and “the jewelry daughter.”  I am the only one of my mother’s five children who is a practicing Christian, and I am the one who consistently buys our mother jewelry—an act of defiance against her childhood church that forbade make-up and pants and trinkets of any kind.  And as Mom has been able to communicate less, I’ve chosen the jewelry I wear more carefully, knowing that she will be able to get out the word, “Pretty,” which she does just as I am mentally congratulating myself that she has noticed the snow globe.

As her hand returns slowly to her lap, I take it between both my own and tell her I love her.

She smiles again and speaks a sentence that is surprisingly clear.  “I [unintelligible] kids to church.”

I have heard this many times before, and I know that she’s telling me again, “I should have taken you kids to church.”

But, as I’ve done every time we’ve had this conversation, I remind her again that she actually did us a favor by not taking us to hear the sermons of a flaming hell that has terrified her for most of her life.  I ask, “Mom, you do know that God has you wrapped in a hug, don’t you?”

She nods and smiles in a way that reminds me of the picture.  As her attention returns to Ellen, I text my sister:  Who took this pic of Mom in a pink hat?

Almost immediately, I hear two pings.  The first is lol and the second, They took it there at Halloween.

I text back.  Can I take it home and scan it? I like it. She looks like, Don’t be messin with me!

You can have it. 

I put the picture in my purse, and I know that this will be my Mona Lisa picture of my mother.  I will never know what she was thinking when the nursing home staff snapped her picture in a hat she would never have worn.  But it gives me joy to see that expression and know that nothing can ever take away the Spirit of this woman who has given me life.

Feeling Stressed This Season?

Mom and Santa

A few years ago, I had an epiphany early—during Advent.  My daughter was in middle school, and I wanted to see every basketball game she played and to be sure that we participated in all the activities at our church.  At work I faced a growing pile of essays to grade, and as the Christmas season loomed, I hadn’t done any shopping for the perfect gifts for the people I love.  Determined to remember peace on earth and in my life, I wanted desperately to participate in the book study at church of Robinson’s and Staeheli’s Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season.

But I didn’t have time to take the class.  Continue reading Feeling Stressed This Season?

What’s Your Story?

 

Tahoe Wedding
The Wedding Party Recesses
How do we find a balance between tolerance and freedom?  We seem to have a more and more difficult time doing that these days, and at no time is it more obvious than this time of year.  As our nation tries to live out the ideal of separation of church and state, at one extreme people insist on a complete absence of any references to God, and at the other extreme people insist we are in danger of becoming a godless nation.
Most of us are caught in the middle.  Even though the Pew Forum reports that 95% of adults in this country believe in God, we can’t seem to find a way to accept those who see God through different lenses than our own.  One of the wisest comments I ever heard on the subject of accepting others came from a high school student who commented on the school where I taught at the time.  She said, “We don’t have tolerance.  We have acceptance.  And that’s better.”
 
I think of her comment often when I hear the cacophony from the two extremes whose voices keep getting louder as they try to drown each other out.  And I wish our society could find a way to become like Eric Whitacre’s virtual choirs—thousands of different voices that come together in a harmony that is more beautiful than the single voices could ever be alone.
 
We are a nation founded on religious freedom.  But let’s face it, our founders were not seeking freedom for people of non-Christian faiths—they wanted freedom from Christians of other sects who tried to force their beliefs on the masses.  But we have always been a nation that has adapted as our world has changed.  And I really believe that we can do this if we begin to listen to each other.
 
My school system has a policy against classroom displays of religious holidays.  And that’s as it should be.  Students deserve to learn in a place that is free of the pressure to conform to any faith.  But no one ever said that a teacher couldn’t wear a cross or a Christmas sweater, a Star of David or a yarmulke, a hijab or a turban.  That’s tolerance.  But it isn’t necessarily acceptance.
 
Over the weekend one of my colleagues, who is Greek Orthodox, celebrated the wedding of his niece with 160 family members and friends.  Today at work, he described the wedding to me, telling me that in their faith, the couple does not say vows.  They are quiet, knowing that spoken vows aren’t always kept.  He described how the bride and groom wear wedding crowns that are steeped in tradition, and his voice caught as he described how the bride and groom wore the same crowns his parents had worn during their ceremony.
 
His experience also made me remember a Muslim colleague’s story about her arranged marriage—a very different narrative from the one people expect to hear.  She describes a father who wanted his daughter to be educated and independent, and she says that she trusted her parents to make a better decision for her than she could make for herself.  Her own daughters have her beautiful silken hair and brown eyes, but it’s unlikely that they will want their parents to choose their spouses.  But she is happier in her marriage than many couples who’ve chosen their own partners.
 
I’ve been thinking a lot about these stories.  Part of the reason they have stayed in my mind is that they’re so different from the traditions of my own faith.  And that’s the power of story.
 
So what if we aimed for acceptance?  What if we refused to let the extremists in all faiths and no faiths frighten us and shape the national conversation?  What if we celebrate our differences and find joy in the belief systems of others?
 
What stories of the power of human faith and love can you tell?

Is the World Your Book?

Christmas Tree

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I am joyful.  After church my daughter and her boyfriend will join us to cut a live tree, and her friends will join us to decorate the tree and laugh and talk and share a meal and a cup of cheer.  And while I’m mindful of my faith, many of the traditions we share have little to do with the story of that babe’s birth in a manger.  While we share memories of our church filled with the soft light of hundreds of candles on Christmas Eve, many of us would be stumped if asked why we kill a live tree and bring it into the house with such delight or why we leave cookies and milk for the man in the red suit who finds a way into even those houses that don’t have chimneys.

When my siblings and I were children, our mom bought a set of World Book Encyclopedias, adding the annual volume each year, no matter how little money our parents had, to be sure our information never went out of date.  In those white books, embossed with gold print, some of the most worn pages were those that described how people in other countries celebrate Christmas.  So while we grew up in a tiny town in the Appalachian mountains, we knew that we shared this holiday with people in England and Italy and Germany and Denmark—people who seemed far away but close because of our shared enthusiasm for the babe in the manger who promised hope.

Having grown up in a town that was all white and all Protestant, I didn’t encounter a Catholic until I left home for college.  But I am happily married to a Polish Catholic, and because of those pages in my mom’s beloved encyclopedias, I’ve always had at least a partial understanding of how Catholicism differs from my faith.  So the only real stretch of understanding for me was moving from my mom’s and my childhood church’s non-alcoholic table to the wine and the bread that embodied the risen Christ.

But I didn’t truly know anyone of a non-Christian faith until I moved to the D.C. suburbs, where my school system closed in September for two Jewish holidays that I knew nothing about. And later, our department hired a Muslim of Pakistani descent, a woman who also knew much more about my faith than I knew about hers.  I quickly learned that my colleagues and friends of other faiths often knew more than most Christians about the holidays we celebrate.  And I know that on more than one occasion, my questions and curiosity revealed a complete ignorance of their faith that must have astonished them.  But I was strengthened in my fight against cancer when a young Jewish woman made me a framed hanging with a tiny scroll and a verse our faith traditions shared.  And my life was enriched when the Muslim woman brought a Pakistani meal for our department and explained as she broke bread with us the significance of each dish.

As we begin this month-long, boisterous celebration of our faith tradition, what would happen if each of us took the time to find out something about the traditions of other faiths?  What if I turned to that Buddhist whose quiet strength is often greater than my own and asked about his meditation practices?  What if I asked an atheist—with genuine curiosity instead of a desire to convert her—how she seeks to understand a world that is often vocal in its rejection of her?

As Twain’s character Huck Finn discovered as he floated down the Mississippi River on a raft with the man Tom, who his culture had taught him was only 3/5 of a human being, we cannot possibly hold to stereotypes when we truly get to know another human being in all the complexities that defy the way we’ve been taught to see them.  Every culture and faith has its villains and its heroes.  But once we see someone up close—and even learn to call him a friend—we learn that the complexities of human beings are far more interesting than the extremes in which we paint them from a distance.

And even if we live in areas that never allow us to know those of other cultures, the Internet has made the world a much smaller place.  I can now see videos—and even chat with—those people in far-away places that I could only read about in my mother’s World Book.  The world is now my book.  And isn’t that much more interesting?

Advent—for Christians, the word means the coming of the Christ. But what if it were also advent—a coming into place or view—where we begin to come to a fuller understanding of what’s best in us all?

What have you gained or learned from someone of another faith?