Duck, Duck…Osprey?

Ducks in Duck

I’m a worrier.  And according to a recent study in Finland, I’m lucky I ever found a partner at all.  In finding the love of my life, I apparently won something akin to the odds of a mega-million dollar lottery, since the study says that worrying makes you far less attractive to the opposite sex.

So if you’re a single worrier, now you can add to your list of anxieties that you’ll spend your life fretting alone.  And for those of us who have a partner, we can start agonizing that our partner will look for a face with fewer worry lines and more laughter lines.

Me?  I married a man who makes me laugh every day.  Yes, his sense of humor was one of the things that made me fall in love with him.  But it wasn’t the only thing.  And, thankfully for me, he saw past the furrows in my forehead and fell in love with the whole person behind the worry lines.

This study is just another reason I believe that the exactness of science and the intangibility of faith can’t be separated from each other.  Cling to one, and we end up trying to make every aspect of life fit the rules we understand.  Cling to the other, and we are blown about by the winds of changing emotions.

On vacation this week, my husband and I have walked on the beach and along the sound, enjoying watching the animal families that live in the moment as we humans are never quite able to do.  On our first day on the beach, we marveled at the largest school of dolphins we’ve seen in all the years we’ve come to the Outer Banks.  We watched, mesmerized each time another dolphin rose in a graceful arc out of the water before disappearing again.  At the end of the school was a family of three, a smaller baby in the middle and two larger dolphins on either side, trading places, making a graceful braided ribbon as they swam back and forth around the baby.

Then yesterday at sunset, we strolled to the sound to get pictures of the sunset.  We arrived at feeding time and spent an hour watching a mama and papa osprey care for their chicks in the nest.  The mother stood guard, her head turning this way and that, alert for anything that might signal danger.  The father spread his wings majestically and glided back and forth over the water, then suddenly dove in with a small splash and came up with his prey.  When he flew back to the nest, two small heads rose up as he laid his offering at the mother’s feet and flew off again while she fed bits of the capture to their babies.

As my husband was snapping pictures with his Nikon, I turned to see a mama duck with nine baby chicks swimming around her.  I watched as she kept them close, circling them when they dared swim too far from her.  And when three of them went in different directions, I laughed as she expertly nudged each one back into place, wondering how she could possibly keep track of all of them.

My mind drifted back to the birds this morning when I watched a segment on the Today Show about the Finnish study on worry.  It occurred to me that not once in those hours that I had watched those animal families had I dwelled on my worries about my own loved ones.  And though danger was all around the animals, they lived in the moment, providing for the needs of the weakest among them.

And it occurred to me that science confirms for us over and over again what my faith has been telling us for thousands of years.  I thought again of that story of Jesus, telling the multitude that has gathered to hear his wisdom about what the animals have to teach us:

Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?  Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Are you not of more value than they?  And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  (Matthew 6: 25-27)

If I read that story literally, I’d never plan for the future.  But if I read it remembering to balance the past and the future by living fully in the present, then perhaps I’ll be less anxious about what I can’t really control.

So today I’m thankful that my husband defied the laws of science and had faith in me in spite of my worry wrinkles.  And I’m grateful for reminders to laugh and love and live in the present.

What about you?  What reminds you to revel in the here and now?

Can We Coexist?

Dali Last Supper

Salvador Dali, The Last Supper, National Gallery of Art

Early in our relationship, my husband and I attended a Catholic service together for the first time.  I don’t remember now whether it was a baptism, a First Communion, a wedding, or a funeral.  What I do remember was that when it was time to go forward for communion, my husband remained seated beside me, and following his lead, I remained seated as well.  I understood that I wasn’t supposed to share the bread and wine, but I had never really considered whether or not he would take communion.

We married in a Presbyterian church, and we became members of that church, following my choice of faith traditions and never turning away from communion together.  I gave little thought to the faith of his childhood until after that service, when I asked him why he did not take the sacrament.  Despite the fact that he had not been to confession in all the time I’d known him, that was not the focus of his answer.  He told me that he had no interest in taking communion in a church that denied communion to me.

I told my sister-in-law that I didn’t understand why, when Christ didn’t even deny communion to Judas, the Catholic Church would deny it to me.  A devout Catholic and one of the people I most respect and love in the world, she explained her faith’s belief in transubstantiation—that the bread and wine really become the blood and body of Christ.  While Protestants believe in the bread and wine as symbols, to Catholics, to take communion without confession is to desecrate the body of Christ.  She encouraged me to go forward for a blessing from the priest, wanting me to be included in something that meant so much to her.

Like most families, we accept and respect each other’s beliefs because we know each other’s hearts and care deeply for one another.  What I’ve learned over the years of our marriage is that my husband differs with the faith of his childhood on much more than their denial of communion to those of other faiths.  But unlike many people I know who’ve converted to other faiths, he harbors no anger at the Church.  He has simply made a decision to seek God in a way that makes more sense to him.

And so both of us were surprised to learn that, on Wednesday, Pope Francis had quite an unusual take on the story in the Gospel of Mark where the disciples complain to Jesus that someone who is not one of his disciples is casting out demons in his name.  Pope Francis says this of that story:

[The disciples] complain, “If he is not one of us, he cannot do good. If he is not of our party, he cannot do good.” And Jesus corrects them: “Do not hinder him,” he says, “let him do good.” The disciples were a little intolerant, closed off by the idea of possessing the truth, convinced that “those who do not have the truth cannot do good.”  This was wrong . . . Jesus broadens the horizon.  The root of this possibility of doing good—that we all have—is in creation.  The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart: do good and do not do evil. All of us. “But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.” Yes, he can.  The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! “Father, the atheists?” Even the atheists. Everyone! We must meet one another doing good. “But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!” But do good: we will meet one another there.

The pope’s message filled me with hope.  I don’t expect that humans will ever all agree on the nature and existence of God.  But I do believe that there are many, many of us who believe in coexisting—in finding what’s best in each other and accepting each other’s right to believe as we believe.  But those of us who truly believe in religious freedom tend to be a quiet lot.

Because we believe in peace rather than in conflict, we aren’t the people who are given air time by the media.  Goodness and light don’t sell newsprint or garner high television ratings.  Conflict does.  And so we hear from the loudest, angriest, and most vocal—whether they’re Christian or Muslim, agnostic or atheist.  Those voices will continue to rage as long as those of us who believe that we can come together to do good stay quiet.

I know you’re out there.  I can tell from the stats on my blog every time one of you reads a post like this for the first time and then within an hour reads every other blog like it that I’ve posted.

So let’s stop being quiet.  No matter what your beliefs, tell your stories of good meeting good.  We have the power.  And the world has never needed us more.

Kids Say the Darnedest Things?

Squirmy

I watched the young mom with her little boy on the screen and smiled.  Joyful to have survived the tornado with her son by running from her home at the last minute—something all the newscasters and locals said she shouldn’t have done—she had, miraculously, made a good decision.  When she returned 45 minutes later, she found her home flattened and her husband searching the debris for her and their son.  Now, the crisis over with a happy ending, she smiled, looking like every mother as she tried to hold her squirmy child.

As Wolf Blitzer tried to engage the little boy, his mom gave him openings to cooperate.  “How old are you?…Can you say ‘bye?’”

I giggled as I watched and thought of my own child when she was just a little older than the boy on the screen.  We had been playing in the back yard when our neighbor came out and tried to engage my daughter.  Like the woman on the screen, I had prompted her in numerous ways, but she sucked her thumb in stony silence.

My neighbor had just had her hair permed, and the results were a disaster—the kind you politely ignore even though you’re wondering, What was she thinking?  My daughter stared at her and refused to respond.  I smiled and said, “You know, I think it may take her a little while to get used to your new look.”

At that moment, my daughter finally opened her mouth to speak as I held my breath.  Eyes fixed on my neighbor’s hair, she blurted, “What did you doto your hair?” before sticking her thumb back into her mouth.

I gulped as my neighbor reached up to smooth down the curls that stuck out in unruly tufts.

“I got a perm today, sweetie,” she answered.

My daughter pulled her thumb from her mouth and pointed a finger toward the top of my neighbor’s head.  “Well…did you want it like that?”

My daughter had said exactly what I was thinking but would never say.  Stunned into silence, I tried to think of how to respond. I tried to be gracious and made a hasty exit with an excuse that it was almost time for dinner and for Daddy to get home.

And so, as I watched the mom on the television screen, I recognized her reaction right away.  But it wasn’t her child who made this mother squirm.  It was Wolf Blitzer, persisting in a line of questioning that was more inappropriate and unthinking than anything I’ve ever heard a child say to make a parent uncomfortable.

“Well, you’re blessed.  Brian, your husband, is blessed.”  At this point, the little boy, Anders, perks up and says, “Brian!”  But Blitzer forges on.  “Anders is blessed…I guess you’ve got to thank the Lord, right?”

She pulled her son forward to hide her face from the camera and mumbled, “Yeah.”

Blitzer, oblivious to her discomfort, went in with all the force of a bulldozer ready to clear the storm debris.  “Do you thank the Lord for that split-second decision?”

The mom tilted her head back and laughed slightly, stuttering, “I, I’m, I’m actually an atheist.”

Blitzer laughed, but he didn’t seem the least bit embarrassed to have made a false assumption.

As that mom laughed loudly, I belly-laughed and cheered her on.  Showing incredible grace, she bounced her son lightly and concluded, “We are here.  And I don’t blame anybody for thanking the Lord.”

I wish she hadn’t felt the need to qualify her beliefs.  Had their roles been reversed, I wonder how many Christians would have said to an atheist reporter, “You know, a lot of people died in this storm.  And I don’t blame anybody for questioning the existence of God.”

Not many, I suspect.   I wonder how many atheists who are otherwise just like their Christian neighbors would not have had this woman’s mettle because they’ve been taught by long experience to keep silent about beliefs that few accept.  I wonder, too, how many people will now make it their mission in life to try to get her to change her mind and convert.  And I find myself hoping that people will be as accepting of her views as she was of Wolf Blitzer’s.

Maybe it’s not a great idea to try to be friendly with a Wolf in newscaster’s clothing, but I respect her a lot for her grace in the face of a Wolf’s sharp teeth.

So how graceful are you when people make assumptions about your beliefs?  Tell me a story.

Believe in Separation of Church and State?

Pentecost

Peeping through the cracks between the boards of the shed in our back yard, my brothers and I watched curiously as the small crowd gathered at our neighbors’ house.  It was Sunday evening, and it wouldn’t be long before our mother called us in for baths.

We had recently moved into the neighborhood, and we quickly discovered that one of the families next door had church services at their house where they spoke in tongues and handled poisonous snakes to demonstrate their faith.  Even in the deepest heart of the Bible Belt, this family was an oddity.

We couldn’t see inside the house once they closed the door, and our mom had forbidden us to go near the fence on that side of the yard when the services began.  Terrified of snakes, we obeyed this rule without Mom’s usual threat of telling our dad when we disobeyed.  And so we retreated to the shed on the other side of the yard, laughing and mimicking their moans, their hallelujahs, and the jerking movements of their limbs we had once glimpsed when they left the door open.

I think of this family every year on Pentecost Sunday, and while the church of my childhood didn’t speak in tongues or handle snakes, there was plenty of shouting.  The focus of that service was always on bringing sinners to repentance, so the pastor emphasized the violent wind and the tongues of fire, culminating in the threat of the sun turning to darkness and the moon to blood.

I have since learned the history of Pentecost—that it wasn’t first a Christian observance but a Jewish one.  The church I attend now calls that Pentecost of the New Testament “the birthday of the Church.”   The church is decorated with long fire-colored streamers that hang from the wooden rafters, a red scarf is draped around the cross, and the walls beneath the cross are decorated with red geraniums.  The congregants dress in red and sing songs, and there is no sermon on Pentecost Sunday.

The people in the pews are celebrating a birthday, and I go through the motions of joining them.  But my own feelings about Pentecost were shaped long ago in a backyard that exists now only in my memory.  And they were reinforced by a pastor who jumped up and down and waved his arm in the motion of an executioner’s scythe.

While my own story may be at the utmost fringes of odd, I know from the stories others have told me that many of us struggle to deal with the scars left by those who taught us the religion of our parents.  And when we see leaders in our country insisting that religion be brought into the arena of government, these are the people we see in our mind’s eye.

This, I believe, is why the recent Pew Forum shows that the number of people who do not identify themselves with any religious group is steadily rising.  And it’s why what’s happening in politics scares the hell out of me and a lot of other people.  There is something different about conservative church leaders than the leaders in the churches of my youth.

My science classes taught evolution; my church taught the Creation story.  Nobody questioned that it should be otherwise.  And while my views on faith have changed a lot since those days, I grew up believing that creation and evolution were compatible—that God was smart enough and big enough to create creatures who could change and evolve.  Both my English teachers and my church leaders saw the seven days as symbolic of human understanding about time—something we humans could grasp when we couldn’t wrap our minds around the concept time immemorial.

And while we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day, I don’t remember ever being told by a teacher to bow my head in prayer.  My youth leader taught at my high school, and while she allowed those of us who wanted to do so to have Bible study in her room at lunch, she did not use her social studies classroom to proselytize.  In fact, none of our social studies teachers ever mentioned God except in the factual study of the religions of the societies we studied.

The only exception that stands out in my memory was the opening prayer and the benediction at graduations.  This ritual rotated among the pastors in the town, and all the religions in the town were Protestant, so no one questioned the tradition.  But the prayer was always for the graduates to be safe and to find their purpose in life, not for them repent and find salvation.

Even the most extreme evangelicals I knew in my childhood honored the separation of church and state.  I wonder now how the boundaries have become so blurred.  Like those disciples on Pentecost, we all seem to be speaking different languages.  But unlike those disciples, we don’t seem to be hearing and understanding each other.

I believe it is possible—and far more productive—for individuals to allow their beliefs to inform their service to country without having to shout about them in the public arena.  Even the most fervent evangelicals of my childhood seemed to believe that, and I’m thankful to them for giving me that gift.

So can we make it work?  Let us tell our stories, in all our different tongues, until the world begins to hear and understand.

That Poor? Really?

Mom and Fam

Today is my mother’s 79th birthday.  Born in 1934, about a year after Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, she was forever shaped by the forces of the Great Depression.  If my siblings and I left food on our plates, she chided us to remember the starving children in faraway places and then picked at the food we left, as if by eating the crumbs she could satisfy those hungry children she saw in her mind’s eye.

Mom never knew her biological father, who died when she was three.  Before her tenth birthday, she had lost the two siblings closest in age to her, a brother who was five and a sister who was seventeen.  Her mother died when I was an infant, and her three remaining siblings died during my teen years and young adulthood.  She suffered the loss of three miscarriages and the loss of my father—and six years ago the greatest loss of all when my brother died at the age of 47.

My mother has always been a worrier.  When my four siblings and I were young adults, before the loss of my brother, we teased her that if she didn’t have anything to worry about, she would worry about what she was going to worry about next.  Back then we had no understanding of why she couldn’t sleep until she knew we were safe in our beds.  But when I think of the magnitude of the losses she suffered from childhood on, I know that my mother is a woman of uncommon strength.

And I wonder now, as I sit in my comfortable suburban home, how many children who have lived through the current economic crisis that has spanned their childhoods will grow up with memories similar to my mother’s.

When my husband and I volunteer at a cold weather shelter each winter, we are most moved by the children, who deal with the dire circumstances of their parents in many different ways.  One six-year-old’s mother told me that her little boy had started wetting the bed again, not an easy thing to deal with in a temporary shelter in a church.  One mother of teenagers told me how she took her children to the library so that they could stay warm and that she encouraged them to read the classics that she had read in school.  And one young man, angry and embarrassed, withdrew to a corner with his arms crossed, refusing to speak to anyone.  Another told me how he left the shelter for the campus of the nearby community college, where he took classes free and relied on the help of professors to secure books.

When I was teaching, most of my colleagues showed compassion for students in such circumstances, quietly trying to help them feel comfortable in a world where some of their classmates drove more expensive cars than we teachers did.  But once, when the school where I taught required students to buy a writing handbook, a student who was receiving lunch through the free-and-reduced meals program came to me when I was head of the department and told me that his parents had no money for the book.  I arranged with the business manager to cover the cost of the book from the school’s general fund, as our principal always directed us to do for students in need.

Usually in such circumstances, the student quietly told the teacher when there was such a need, and this was not a student I taught.  But I understood why he had not approached his teacher when she came into the seminar room at lunch.  As the teacher shoveled a generous lunch into her mouth, she told her colleagues, “If those kids can wear designer jeans and carry a cell phone, they can afford to buy the damned handbook.”

The teachers sat for a moment in stunned silence.

Sitting in my office, which adjoined the seminar room, I fumed.  I rose from my chair, thinking of my mother and those children at the cold weather shelter.

But just as I was about to inject myself into the conversation, one of the teachers said quietly, “You know, kids can get designer jeans from the thrift store for a couple of dollars.  And there are programs that give homeless kids a cell phone so that they can make a call in an emergency.  You won’t see those kids texting on those phones, but you might see them pretending to talk on them at lunch so they seem like everyone else.”

I cheered her silently and sat back down, watching the scene through my open door.  The offending teacher lowered her fork onto her plate, her face flushing in what I hoped was shame.

“Really?” she asked.

“Really,” said the other teacher, picking up her own plate and going to the sink, her back to the table.

And, as always at such times, my thoughts turned again to my mother, who sits in a nursing home, no longer able to speak of the circumstances of her childhood.  But I’ll be forever grateful that, even though I grew up in a family that sometimes needed government assistance, my mother always, always reminded me to have empathy for those who had even less.

Happy Birthday, Mom!  Thank you for teaching me almost everything I know about kindness.

And how about you?  Tell me a story of compassion.

What Defines You, Me, Jolie?

Denver Pink Socks

“What are you doing with yourself these days?” asks my doctor.  She’s very good at distracting me from what her hands are doing as she examines me.  She weaves in the important questions among questions that have nothing to do with the reasons she’s examining me.

“I’ve written a book,” I say.

“That’s great,” she says, “I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who could benefit from hearing about your experience.”

But my book isn’t about “my experience.”  At least, not the one she means.

“It isn’t about cancer.  I don’t really want to write about that.  There are tons of books out there about breast cancer.”

Her hands stop moving, and she looks at me as if she’s seeing someone she hasn’t quite seen before.  “What’s it about?” she asks.

I give her the blurb I use in my query letters, and she stops again, her eyebrows lifting.  I can tell she’s trying to reconcile this polished woman who has come into her office in business attire for fourteen years with the little girl whose childhood I’ve just let her peek into.

As I watch her face and answer her curious questions, I realize, yet again, how quick most of us are to define the people we meet by the one facet we see.

And I thought about that today when I heard the media reaction to the news that Angelina Jolie made the decision to have a preventive mastectomy at the age of 37 with no sign of cancer looming.  One news anchor even made the comment that, up to now, we’ve known Angelina as the strikingly beautiful actress and wife of Brad Pitt who has adopted children from third world countries.  But now?  For the moment at least, she has become the spokesperson for young women who face cancer—one whose beautiful breasts have been replaced by implants at the hands of the best reconstructive surgeon available.

And still we can only know some facets of this famous woman.  We will not see her as she agonized over the decision.  We will not see her as she woke from surgery to the magnitude of what she has lost.  We will see her only in the aftermath, in the moments when she has carefully thought about how she wants to present this decision to a world where other young women face a similar decision without her considerable resources.

Just this week, the Washington Post ran a story in the Health and Science section about a 26-year-old woman who did have cancer and who opted for the same course of treatment as Jolie—but who has also undergone chemotherapy and radiation.

I admire Jolie for her strength and her decision to put her chances of surviving for her children above her physical beauty.  But I am in awe of this 26-year-old, who shows even greater courage in the face of a much more frightening future.

And as I think of them both, I am reminded of my conversation with my doctor.  The greatest truth for all of us is that no single event, no single circumstance, no single experience defines who we are.

I am reminded of how often I look at another person through the narrow lens of what I know of her and make judgments about her life.  I think of how often, as a society, we lock other people into the narrow view we have of them.  In fact, the issues our country faces are made more complex and unsolvable because we see each other through the narrow focus of our opposition.

Yes, I am a mother, a wife, a teacher, a cancer survivor, a Presbyterian, a writer.  I’m a dog lover, a beach walker, a reader. A skeptic.  A believer.  I believe in creation…and evolution.  I believe that marriage is between a man and a woman…but not just a man and a woman.  I’m a liberal…who loves my conservative friends and family members…but who doesn’t always care for liberal politicians.

All of these things and others make me who I am—a unique person in this time and space—a person who changes just a little every time I have a new experience or meet a new person or see a new facet of an old friend.  But no single thing defines me—not motherhood, not my career, not cancer, not even my faith.  And that is true of all of us.

And that means, as a wise woman once told me, that I have something to teach and something to learn from every person I meet in this world.

So what do you have to teach me and to learn from me?

A Mother’s Day Bargain?

Ash's Grad

I once made a Mother’s Day bargain with God.  Well, we didn’t exactly shake on it, but my heart was in the right place, and I was thinking about that whole ask and you shall receive thing, so at the time I thought it was a deal.

My daughter was three years old, and my marriage to her father had ended.  I was still in that angry stage—where almost everything was his fault.  We promised to be amicable for our child’s sake, agreeing to share custody but to have her live with me.  The dissolution of our marriage was surprisingly civil because we both adored our child.  But in my head I believed that I was the only one who could help her navigate the tortuous path of childhood.

I pleaded, God, just please let me live until she’s an adult!

And I did.

Pretty pleased that God was keeping the bargain, I looked forward with joy to my daughter’s senior year in high school.  The year began with all the excitement of senior year and college visits and planning for her future.

But just before Homecoming, at the beginning of October, I realized that the lump that I had long felt in my breast—the one that had never shown as anything on my yearly mammograms—wasn’t just another of those lumps I felt all the time.  I had once said to my doctor that I did self-exams but that my breasts always felt lumpy to me.  She told me she understood but that I should keep doing them because one day I might feel a difference.

And I did.

But not until it had time to grow much larger than the others.  I went to the doctor, and she ordered a mammogram and a sonogram.  The sonogram showed that it was cancer, and by the end of October of my daughter’s senior year, we knew it was early Stage 3, and I began a course of therapy that would end two weeks before my daughter graduated.

I was terrified.  Yes, the cancer was scary.  But even more scary was the thought that God was calling in the chips on the mom’s bargain I had made when she was three.

I didn’t tell anyone my fears for a couple of weeks.  As my daughter and my husband kept assuring me that I was going to be fine, I had a sinking feeling that I was done for.  I thanked God for keeping the bargain and asked for the strength to get through what lay ahead.

Finally, on the night before the surgery, just before I fell asleep, I turned to my husband and told him why I was so terrified.  He listened quietly while I sobbed and told him about my deal with God.

Then he hugged me to him and made me laugh for the first time in weeks.  “Honey,” he said, “I think you’re confusing God with a character in ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster.’”

Now for those of you who don’t remember that story from your literature classes, Stephen Vincent Benet tells of a farmer who, after a string of bad luck, sells his soul to the devil.  When the devil calls in the deal, the farmer is defended by a fictional version of one of America’s most famous lawyers, Daniel Webster, who bases his defense on the fact that the farmer is an American while the devil is a foreign prince.  The devil points to numerous examples of his presence and citizenship on American soil, and so Webster argues for all the beautiful things, ending with “the new day that’s every day when you’re a child.”  The jury sides with him, and Webster twists the devil’s arm behind his back and makes him promise to leave the farmer alone.  He also asks the devil to tell him his own future, and the devil tells him all the disappointments he’ll face.  Webster just wants to know whether our country, in spite of all its flaws, will prevail, and the devil grudgingly admits that it will.  Webster laughs and kicks the devil out of the farmer’s house.

On that night as I prepared for the loss of so much, I prayed a very different prayer than I usually prayed after my husband reminded me that life isn’t fiction.  I thanked the Spirit for a presence with me in the muck and asked for courage for myself and my loved ones who would take this journey with me.

It’s been nearly ten years since the night I offered that prayer—a Mother’s Day I didn’t expect back then to see—and over twenty years since I thought I was making a bargain with God.

On this Mother’s Day, I offer a prayer of thanks—for the chance to see my daughter grow up to be not only a fine young woman but a wonderful friend.  And unlike that Mother’s Day so long ago when I thought I was certain about the nature of God, I’m thankful, too, for the opportunities to learn that I’ll never have a Mother’s Day when life is a crystal vision of clarity.

Tomorrow after church my daughter, her boyfriend, and my husband will make brunch for me, and we’ll spend some time savoring what it means to be a family.  And I’ll thank God for whatever bargain landed her in my arms almost 27 years ago.  It’s a bargain I can’t even begin to understand but one that fills me with awe and joy.

So tell me of your grand bargains.

What Can I Do to Help?

Each spring, the curriculum required a poetry unit to end the year.  Most of my tenth graders groaned every spring until the year I had them write their own poems and choose their favorite for a class anthology.  I think it may have been my best use of copy paper in 30 years of teaching.  On the last block day before exams, I handed out the stapled booklets, and some students eagerly read their poems to the class.  The students proudly autographed one another’s poems, and some asked me to sign their copies.

I wonder now, ten years since the last time I made those anthologies, how many students still have them stuffed in a box of mementos in their parents’ closets.  I gave them lines from famous poems or ideas to get them started, and I always wrote with them, generally throwing most of mine away, though I kept one now and then to use the next year, mostly to show them that while I wasn’t a poet, I wasn’t afraid to try my hand at doing what I asked them to do.  I was always gratified as a teacher when, after hearing mine, they wrote poems that I liked more than my own.

I’ve kept a few of those anthologies.  And one of my own poems.  I remember it now, ten years later—a shadow poem about my alter-ego, the one who danced with confidence, who never worried she would get cancer.

I remember the poem because, at the very moment I wrote it, cancer had already invaded my breast and threatened to spill into the rest of my body.  I just didn’t know it yet.  That following October, I was diagnosed with early Stage 3 cancer.

And I can’t begin to count the number of times in the ten years since then that I’ve been contacted by women who were equally stunned to find themselves or their friends in the same situation.

Today—not by any means for the first time—a friend contacted me to say that her friend, a woman with young children, will be having surgery for breast cancer in the coming days.  “What kind of help can we give her?” she asked.

My mind returned immediately to those tenth graders, who made up a basket of their favorite things—a pink Beanie Baby from a girl whose mother had breast cancer, a book of Far Side cartoons, a copy of one student’s favorite classic movie and another’s favorite book and more—all accompanied by notes explaining their choices.

“Send flowers?” my friend asked.  “She’s not really a flower person.”

Some people did send me flowers.  And I loved them.  But it’s not the flowers I remember.  One friend went with me to choose a wig, and she encouraged me to spend the money to buy the wig I really wanted.  My colleagues and friends created a sign-up list and brought meals to our family twice a week for the eight weeks I was on leave from work.  And ten years later, I still remember my friend’s laugh when I tried on the Marilyn Monroe blonde wig.  I remember the specific meals my colleagues brought.  I remember the friend who offered to vacuum my house and clean the bathrooms, even though I assured her my housecleaner wasn’t the one who was ill.

So what kind of help makes a difference?  Tell your friend that you can’t really know how she’s feeling or what she needs from you.  Maybe it’s space.  Maybe it’s just your presence.  Whatever it is, encourage her to be honest—to let you know if there’s something specific she needs or if she just wants to be left alone.

A true friend is one she can ask to sit beside her while she has chemo to give her husband a break.  A true friend is someone who’ll tell her she’s still beautiful when she has no hair.  A true friend is someone who will take her kids so that she and her husband can have a date night and try to figure out their new normal.  A true friend is one who will reassure her when she says she’s afraid there will never be a day again when her first waking thought isn’t cancer.

So ask her.  Encourage her to be honest.  And then come back to this blog and tell your own stories of what kind of help you gave that came as a blessing at just the right moment.

Is It Just-Spring Yet?

Starfish

Is it spring yet?  I think so.  But the May snow in Denver and the 37onight temperatures here in the DC suburbs belie what the calendar says is the arrival of my favorite month of the year.

Is it spring yet?  The tulips in the neighborhood say so…everywhere but in front of my house.  Last year I planted bulbs in my flowerbed and my neighbor’s, whose husband had taken a fall that prevented her from getting to her flowerbed.  But this year the deer ate mine and left the ones in front of my neighbor’s house to bloom a glorious red and tilt their blossoms at me mockingly every time I walk out my front door.

Is it spring yet?  I think of e.e. cummings, that quirky poet who wrote about an ordinary spring:

in Just-

spring     when the world is mud-

luscious…

when the world is puddle-wonderful

…it’s spring

The world has seemed more mud than luscious, more puddle than wonderful to me this year.  I’ve had some difficult days this spring, as we all do from time to time, with tears of sadness and disappointment sometimes overwhelming me.  My emotions have followed the ephemeral pattern of the weather—sometimes slipping back to winter, sometimes reaching to grasp a spring that’s elusive, sometimes gloriously hopeful at the promise of new life.

When I think of cummings’ poem and his quirky capitalization that says it’s Just- spring, I realize that nothing is ever completely Just in this luscious, wonderful world.

Last weekend at the beach I wrote a blog that said, “I’m going to go take a walk on the beach now.  And though it’s just an ordinary spring day on the Outer Banks, I know that I’ll revel in the sensory experience of that resplendent ocean.”

And do you know what happened on that ordinary walk?  I saw something I’d never seen in all the years I’ve strolled on that beach in Duck—starfish scattered here and there, thrown onto the sands by the waves.

Some of the starfish had lost an arm or the tip of a point, and I was reminded that, unlike us humans, starfish can regenerate an entire limb if they survive the crisis that caused the loss.  I was reminded, too, of that syrupy starfish story—one that I love in spite of its cheesiness—about the man who futilely throws the creatures back into the ocean because it makes a difference for each one that he’s able to help.

I tossed one or two back into the waves, but most of all, I was reminded by their presence that every day has the potential to be Just a little bit out of the ordinary—and maybe even ExtraOrdinary.

is it Just-spring yet?  is your world mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful?

Is He Out of Line?

No picture today…before you start reading, visualize the people you love most in the world.

Whenever I read about another person’s loss of a loved one, I hold my breath and whisper a thank-you to God that my loved ones are safe.  Whenever I read about another parent’s loss, it takes my breath away, tears fill my eyes, and I whisper a plea to God to keep our children safe.

And so, today, when I read a summary of comments by radio talk show host Bob Davis in Minneapolis, I thought that the liberal site where I read the comments must have exaggerated his words and put their own spin on them.  And so, as I do every time I doubt what is being reported, I searched the original source.  When I found transcripts of the comments that were widely available on both conservative and liberal sites, I sat on my couch with mouth open, wondering how any sane person could say what Davis had said:

I have something I want to say to the victims of Newtown, or any other shooting. I don’t care if it’s here in Minneapolis or anyplace else. Just because a bad thing happened to you doesn’t mean that you get to put a king in charge of my life. I’m sorry that you suffered a tragedy, but you know what? Deal with it, and don’t force me to lose my liberty, which is a greater tragedy than your loss. I’m sick and tired of seeing these victims trotted out, given rides on Air Force One, hauled into the Senate well, and everyone is just afraid — they’re terrified of these victims. … I would stand in front of them and tell them, ‘Go to hell.’  (ABC video and transcript)

Although I’m a liberal at heart, I try very hard to look at both sides of every issue and give the people whose perspectives differ from my own the benefit of the doubt and the right to their opinions.  I have friends whose views are more conservative than my own.  I respect them.  They can tell me why they believe what they believe.  But at some point I have to realize that I can’t stand safely in the middle ground.

While Davis certainly has the right to free speech, these comments must be condemned—not only by liberals who, predictably, disagree with him but even by people like me, who like to consider ourselves people who think critically about both extremes.

I have no idea whether Bob Davis has children or not—couldn’t find that out online.  But I can say this:  I treasure the freedom this country offers me.  And there is not one single freedom I enjoy that I would not sacrifice to protect my husband and my children.  For Davis to compare loss of the right to own high capacity assault weapons to the loss of a child is heinous.  And even those who don’t want to see assault weapons outlawed should be condemning this man’s line of reasoning.

So how far are you willing to go in support of your views?  Those who share my liberal viewpoint will surely agree with me.  But what about those of you who cherish your right to bear arms?  Are you willing to tell this man that he is out of line?