Love You More?

Doggie Kisses

“Love you!”

“Love you more!”

From the time my daughter was in elementary school, we’ve occasionally engaged in this contest that turns into call and response—“No, I love you more”—until one of us is exhausted and gives up.

I thought of this yesterday when I got home from work and heard the dog barking excitedly on the other side of the door.  Our sheltie Beckley had had a tough day.  My husband took him to the vet for his last round of annual vaccinations, a follow-up check on an ulcer in his eye, and a first check on an issue with his teeth that has made me shy away from the dead animal smell emanating from his mouth for the past several days.

My husband phoned me from the car after they left the doctor’s office:  Vaccinations, check.  Eye, better.  Teeth, smiling and odorless.

I felt a mother’s guilt—something I rarely feel now that my daughter is an adult and living on her own—as my husband gave me the gory details of the examination of Beckley’s teeth.  We seldom brush them, though we had good intentions after we had him anesthetized to get them cleaned a couple of years ago.

I cringed as my husband described the vet’s matter-of-fact lesson in how to avoid surgery again.

“Got any needle-nosed pliers?” the vet asked him, reaching for his own pair.

“Yes,” my husband answered.

“Then you see this plaque?” he asked, prying open the dog’s mouth in that skillful way that vets do, thumb against the inside of the dog’s bottom teeth.  “You just do this.”  And he demonstrated how to clip off what looked like plastic collected around the dog’s gum line.  By the time he finished, the dog’s teeth looked almost as good as my daughter’s when she came home from the orthodontist during those years she had braces.

When my husband finished the report, I hung up the phone and lowered my head, whispering an inner, I’m so sorry, Beckley.

If my daughter had an ulcer in her eye, I would have been on the phone with the ophthalmologist before she finished complaining about it.  If she fell asleep in her car seat as we were driving home after dark, I’d wake her from a dead sleep to brush her teeth before I put her into bed.

(Note to horrified parents who use the drive-around-the-block method to get their toddlers to sleep and wouldn’t wake them for any reason:  I don’t say this to appear virtuous.  My daughter never protested falling asleep at night, or I would not have disturbed her either.)

Not so with the dog.  He doesn’t like having his teeth brushed, and my husband and I don’t like brushing them.  We’ve tried every gimmick advertised at the pet store to keep canine teeth clean, and none of them work.  So we ignore him until smelling his breath is more of a struggle than brushing his teeth.

I did brush them yesterday morning, though.  His mouth smelled like the dead seagull that had crashed into the woods near our beach condo after the hurricane.  No, I’m not exaggerating.  And besides, he had an appointment with the vet.  Brushing his teeth first is my own equivalent of my mother’s making sure my siblings and I had on clean underwear when we left for school in case we were in some sort of accident that might send us to the ER.

As I drove home, I gave myself a good talking-to.  I will brush his teeth, I will I will brush his teeth, I will brush his teeth!

When I got there, I stood on the other side of the door to the mudroom, listening to that familiar yap, and offered a silent plea:  Please don’t hate me, buddy.

I opened the door, and as Beckley always does, he ran turbo-dog style, back and forth from me to my husband, who was on the other side of the house, announcing that I was home.  He persists until either my husband puts down whatever he’s doing and meets me halfway with a kiss of greeting or until I drop my books to scratch the dog’s head and receive his doggie kisses on my outstretched hand.

I dropped my bags and reached forth both hands to scratch behind his ears.  He indulged me for a moment and then, teasing, ducked my hands and ran to bark at my husband.

Later last night, I brushed my dog’s teeth.  And then, as I walked toward our bedroom, exhausted, to brush my own teeth and go to bed, I expected Beckley to stay with my husband.  The dog usually protests that the herd is out of control when we don’t go to bed at the same time.

But instead of barking and herding me as he usually does, he followed me into the bedroom and got into his bed.  And when I came out of the bathroom and got into bed, he crept from his doggie bed and lay down on the floor beside me.

I leaned over the bed and felt his breath on my face a moment before he licked my nose.

I love my dog.  But he loves me more.  No contest.

So don’t judge me.  I know I’m not the best doggie mom.  Just tell me your stories of pet love.

Can Literature Save a Life?

Harper's Ferry Statues

Literature saved my life.  Not in the way science saved my life when I had Stage 3 cancer.  But, nonetheless, literature saved my life.

I wish I could point to a single dramatic moment when it happened—like that moment when I lay on the gurney, my body marked up by the two surgeons who would take me apart and put me back together in their eternal faith that they could give me life.

Watching as they scribbled on my skin and explained to my family and me what they would do in the next six hours as I lay in an anesthetized slumber, I had a fleeting thought about all the times I’d marked up essays and explained what needed to be done to bring the writing to life.

That was nearly ten years ago, and in that time I’ve come to understand that the doctors gave my body life.  But it was up to me to live.

I marvel at the advancements in science that have changed the face—and the force—of cancer.  But even more, I look at the stars and the moon now with more of a sense of awe.  I revel in the feeling of ocean waves lapping across my feet.  I treasure the time I spend with the people I love.  Like most people who survive a life-threatening experience, I’ve learned the difference between existing and living.

Literature has always helped me live—has always made my life about more than mere existence.

During a childhood marked by poverty, I traveled to other places long before I left the state of my birth for the first time the summer after ninth grade.  In a culture where religious practice was limited to evangelical Christianity, I understood the stories of people of other faiths.  In a town completely lacking in racial diversity, I talked with writers of other races who spoke to me from the printed page.

Nikki Giovanni dances forth as the most powerful memory.  I read her poem “Nikki-Rosa” in a literature class, which begins, “childhood remembrances are always a drag / if you’re Black.”  Though I was not black, Giovanni’s images, which could have come from my own early childhood, gripped me.  Like me, she had spent part of her childhood in a house with no indoor plumbing, and she took baths in “one of those / big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in.”

I remember closing my eyes after I read the first few lines, picturing the toilet in the back yard of a house we lived in for a few months when my father lost his job, thinking of my own baths in an aluminum tub in front of the open stove in the home my parents rented when Dad got his job back.  I opened my eyes and read on to discover that Giovanni and I also had in common that we had a father who drank, a sister we loved, and happy memories of birthdays and Christmases.

But I also learned from Giovanni that we were different and that those differences can loom large and make us angry at people we don’t even know—and maybe especially at people we don’t know.  She ends the poem by saying, “I really hope no white person ever has cause / to write about me / because they never understand…”

My blood rushed to my head and I held my breath when I first read those lines.  I was furious.  I felt as if she had lured me in with the secret story of the childhood we shared and then punched me in the gut.  She had hijacked my childhood and relegated me to a world of white people who couldn’t possibly understand her “hard childhood.”

When I could breathe again, I considered what might make her regard white people in such a way.  And in the days and weeks that followed, that poem sang in my head, and I began to understand that just as I didn’t know anyone who shared Giovanni’s skin color, she probably didn’t know anyone of my skin color who grew up in a house like her own.  And as I read more about her, I came to understand her a little better.

I also began to read more literature written by people of other cultures, and when I moved out of the state and became a teacher in the very diverse D.C. suburbs, I knew my students of color in a way that I would not have without Giovanni and Hurston, Allende and Anaya, and others.  And I understood that even the students who shared my skin color were often strangers to me.

Books are never a substitute for experience.  But great books can make a person who owns only a library card into a world traveler.  Great literature can lure us out of our comfortable co-existence into a jubilant celebration of the life we share on this planet.

Yes, literature really can save a life.  And in a time when we’re too often angry at those we don’t understand, perhaps literature can even save the world.

So tell me a story.  When has a great writer lured you into life?

What’s in a School Dream?

Ash & Mrs. Hacker

After six years out of the classroom, I still have school dreams.  Laden with books and stacks of essays that should somehow have been graded during the summer, I get into my car, thinking that I’m already half an hour late for the first day of class.  Hopelessly lost in a maze of hallways in an unfamiliar building, I frantically try to make my way to a classroom.  Or, finally having found my way to the classroom, I’m faced with unruly students who misbehave in outrageous ways that no student ever behaved in my thirty years in the classroom.

But when I was the parent of a student in school, I also had school dreams—the kind where my daughter got a teacher so bad that no school board would ever have hired the teacher in the first place.  And when I was a student, I had school dreams—the kind where I was unprepared in a way I would never have been in real life.

As I’ve talked with those who are preparing to return to school this week, I’ve thought about the time in my life when I was all three—a student in continuing education classes, a teacher of ebullient seventh graders, and a parent of an elementary school student.  My daughter had a wonderful kindergarten teacher, but in elementary school she also had her first encounter with a teacher who made me wonder what on earth led her to choose education as a profession.  I spent that year agonizing over when to think like a student, a teacher, a parent.

I’m not sure I did a very good job of thinking clearly about any one of my roles that year when all three became entangled in my fierce desire to protect my daughter.  She and I talked about that teacher recently—almost twenty years later—and I was surprised that, though she didn’t like the teacher, she held none of the animosity that I still feel for a fellow teacher who seemed to have forgotten what it was like to be a parent or a student.

At the time, I remember telling a close friend that this teacher was the only person I had ever known whose shoes I wanted to spit on.  Definitely not one of my finer moments as a human being.

We made it through—my daughter and I—and we both learned lessons from that teacher.

Now, as I work with teachers who feel all the excitement and anxiety of beginning another school year, I remember that magic happens when student, parent, and teacher connect and appreciate each other.  But I couldn’t have taught for 30 years without reminding myself that magic can happen even when one of those relationships doesn’t work.  And perhaps that’s the best dream of all—the one where hopes become real.

Since my sleeping imagination tends to reveal my anxieties, I have rarely dreamed of the scores of students who made me know every day why I became a teacher.  But in my waking hours I do think of many, many students—those I tried to reach and couldn’t, those I reached in spite of themselves or their parents.

This year our only grandchild (so far) begins kindergarten.  And I hope that his teachers for the next thirteen years remember that he is someone’s child, someone’s grandchild.  I hope for him to have the perfect teacher.  But I know he’ll have one of the human variety, and I’ll be happy if he has one like Mrs. Hacker, my daughter’s kindergarten teacher, or Mrs. Fenny, my first grade teacher.

My daughter didn’t really want to learn to read.  She loved being read to—loved sitting in the curve of my arm and hearing her favorite stories.  Mrs. Hacker lured her into the world of story and made her believe she was a superstar who could read any story she ever wanted to read.

Mrs. Fenny was kind and motherly, and my parents revered her.  They had quit school in fifth and ninth grade, and they had no idea how to help their children be successful in school.  But they trusted Mrs. Fenny, and Mrs. Fenny lived up to their trust.  She was the first teacher who made me feel that I was someone special—that I could be anything that I wanted to be.  That I could be a teacher.

If you are a part of this new school year, I wish you the blessed trinity of teacher, parent, and student.  And in the absence of such a blessing, I wish you the magic you can create when you connect with that one mere human being who can make you believe in your dreams.

So tell me your school dreams.

Strength of a Spider’s Web?

Spider

For our departure from Denver yesterday, our grandson wore his favorite shirt—a Marvel comics tee featuring Spider-Man at the center of the superheroes.  Like most five-year-old boys, he loves all things Spider-Man.  He has Spidy shoes, pajamas, a backpack, and countless toys, including a device that shoots forth a string of silk in an imitation of Spider-Man’s web.

The shirt elicited commentary from more than one adult, including one who said, “That’s a great shirt!  I love superheroes!”  And when we passed a kiosk that sold sand crabs to passing tourists, our grandson stopped to point out the ones that had been painted red and imprinted with Spider-Man’s trademark white eyes, lined in black.

So it was fitting that when we finally arrived home in Maryland at 2:30 a.m., a watchful spider had spun a diaphanous web from the branch of the tree beside our front walk.  Though my husband and I were exhausted, we stopped to admire the intricate circles of the spider that sat at the very center of the web.

This morning, the web was gone.  But I could still see it in my mind’s eye, and I’ve thought about that web all day.  Fragile, yes.  I could have swept it away last night with a single brush of my hand.

But today I remembered a Smithsonian Magazine story from earlier this spring about University of Leicester researchers who set out to discover whether a spider’s web could actually stop a train, as Spider-Man’s web had done in one of the films.  Yes, they concluded, there is one spider—Darwin’s bark spider, native to Madagascar—that could weave a web strong enough to stop a moving train.

I was reminded again that that delicacy and doggedness are sometimes separated by a fine line of gossamer—that strength isn’t that far removed from weakness.

In the story of Job, one of Job’s friends tells him that he must have done something to deserve all the calamities that have taken away almost everything he holds dear.  Speaking of those who have forgotten God and implying that Job must be among them, he tells Job, “Their confidence is gossamer, a spider’s house their trust.”

Interestingly, later in the story, God reprimands Job’s friends, telling them, “…you have not spoken of me what is right.”

Perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to have faith in a spider’s silken web.  One could do worse than trusting the work of spiders.  They rid us of insects that plague us.  They weave webs that protect their own from dangerous enemies.

Yes, faith is gossamer.  But gossamer can be surprisingly strong.

Tell me your stories of silken strength.

History, Myth, or Story?

Kennedy Center

Engraving on the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC

I love stories.  And this week I was reminded again of just how important stories are to us.

I live in an “active adult” community.  I used to laugh to my younger friends that I could only live here because my husband’s age qualified us.  But now I, too, am over 55, and refer to all of us with affection as “the old folks’ community.”  I love it here because it’s the friendliest place I’ve lived since I moved from the small town of my childhood.

We moved here because the community lay just outside the congestion of the DC suburbs—close enough to drive in for the wealth of activities a city provides but far enough out to see the stars at night and to go for a walk in the early morning without seeing another human being.

This week our social committee arranged for us to take a small bus into the city to the Kennedy Center to see The Book of Mormon, a highly irreverent musical by the creators of South Park, about our penchant for attempting to create God in our own image.

I squirmed a little at the language—especially when the profanity was directed toward a God who allows pestilence and disease.  But I haven’t laughed so hard in a very long time.  I never watched South Park, but I knew enough about it to know that I’d be seeing an outrageous satire about the way we humans approach our faith.

My favorite line appears near the end of the musical when the first convert has become disillusioned by the flaws in her bumbling hero’s faith.  One of her neighbors says to her—and I may not have the line verbatim here—You didn’t really believe that sh#*that a man f—d a frogdid you? It’s a METAPHOR!

After reading Reza Aslan’s Zealot the week before seeing this play, I belly-laughed at that line.  For anyone who’s avoided reading about the controversy surrounding Dr. Aslan, he outlines what scholars know about the history of Jesus the man and draws the conclusion that Jesus the Christ is a myth.

And while I found Dr. Aslan’s line of reasoning thought-provoking—and not in any way an insult to what I believe—I have to say that I was more drawn to the story of Parker, Lopez, and Stone, the creators of The Book of Mormon.  It doesn’t claim to be history, and it pokes fun at the myths we create.

In short, it is a story—a story that makes much the same point as Dr. Aslan—that we human beings tend to see God in the image we want to see.

On the bus ride back home, I reveled in listening to the reactions of my fellow active adults.  Some were quiet, and I wondered whether they had known just what they’d see on that stage of joyful characters.

The chatter I enjoyed most came from the couple sitting behind my husband and me.  On the ride to the theater, we had talked with them about their tennis game and their children, and I’d listened to their constant stream of conversation with each other.  Though they are in their 80s, both are still vibrant, and they truly enjoy talking with each other.  I had whispered into my husband’s ear earlier that I hoped we’d still have as much to talk with each other about when we were their age, and my husband had responded that he hoped he could still play tennis.

On the return trip they talked about the language in the play, and though I’ve never heard either of them curse, they didn’t seem at all offended by the license of the playwrights in regard to profanity.  And then my neighbor talked about the play in terms of his own life.  “I used to cuss a lot, even after the kids were born,” he said.  And then he launched into a story about when he finally learned to reign in his tendency to blurt out a stream of expletives.

I smiled.  That’s what I love about literature and story.  We can’t read or hear stories in a vacuum.  We bring our own lives and experiences to the world that story opens up to us.

And, ultimately, our lives write the story of the God we want to believe in.

So tell me your story.

See Your Reflection in Your Reading?

iPad

Reading Zealot, Dr. Reza Aslan’s controversial new book, enlightened me.  But it was not the enlightenment I expected.

Like Aslan, I became an evangelical Christian as a teenager.  Like him, my education made me question church leaders who insisted the Bible was “true, literal and inerrant.”  Like him, I ultimately rejected evangelical Christianity.

Given our similar experiences, I expected to nod my head in agreement as I read.  I was so sure I’d share his perspective that, before I even started reading, I posted comments on several web pages refuting conservative Christians’ attacks on his credibility.

But after a few chapters, I stopped nodding and tilted my head in thought.

Like many scholars, Dr. Aslan concludes that, having grown up in Nazareth, Jesus was likely a peasant and quite possibly illiterate.  When, in Chapter 3, Aslan quotes extensively from the Gospel of John, I kept thinking of Nathanael’s retort in John 1 when a recent convert invites him to come see Jesus:  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Dr. Aslan seems to imply that same question when he concludes that Jesus had to have been more zealot than teacher.  Aslan becomes ensnared in the trap of many teachers and scholars and intellectuals:  He makes the assumption that people who grow up in poverty and illiteracy are not likely to seek justice through reason.

Explaining that Jesus likely spent a lot of his young adulthood as an artisan in the nearby city of Sepphoris, Aslan describes the Jews there as different—“rich, cosmopolitan, deeply influenced by Greek culture, and surrounded by a panoply of races and religions….”  Many biblical scholars agree with Aslan on that point.  So isn’t it possible that Jesus might have learned there to read the holy texts that interested him so much—texts that he quoted skillfully in refuting the arguments of religious leaders?

Illiterate people can think.  And history shows us many examples of the poor and women and minorities who learn to read in societies that actively attempt to keep them ignorant.

I found much in Zealot to agree with.  The non-biblical sources are not new.  In fact, many of the sources Dr. Aslan cites have been employed for other works, such as the PBS Frontline series From Jesus to Christ, where Yale professor Wayne Meeks says:

The temptation is, out of all of the various figures of Jesus that emerge in our sources, to pick one and say, “That’s the real one.” And usually we will pick one, of course, that accords with our notion of what we would like Jesus to have been like. You know, someone at the margins of society, the hero of the proletariat revolution or the anti-establishment figure, and so on. That’s probably inevitable that we will all do this, but it’s not very good history writing. I myself am very skeptical finally that we can describe independently of any of these traditions what the real Jesus was like.

Dr. Aslan’s credentials on the subject of Jesus should not be questioned.  But all of us interpret history through the lens of our experiences.

His comments on the subject of Jesus’ literacy spoke to me because I grew up with a functionally illiterate father who quit school in fifth grade.  But he revered teachers and insisted to his children that education was the key to a better life.  I became an English teacher because I loved what I learned about life through literature, but I earned a graduate degree as a reading specialist so I could help students who, like my father, struggled to read.  And in 30 years as a teacher of literature, I often found that students defied my expectations when they had a compelling reason to read the books I placed in front of them.  Each of these lenses, in addition to my faith, shapes the way I read the stories of Jesus.

Curious after I had finished Zealot, I reread Dr. Aslan’s biography, notes, and introduction:

Scholars tend to see the Jesus they want to see.  Too often they see themselves—their own reflection—in the image of Jesus they have constructed…If we expose the claims of the gospels to the heat of historical analysis, we can purge the scriptures of their literary and theological flourishes and forge a far more accurate picture of the Jesus of history.

I smiled and nodded.  Dr. Aslan is a scholar, with degrees in fiction and the sociology of religion.  And he, too, is seeing the Jesus he wants to see, as do all of us.  And the reflection we see usually changes over time.

Our perspectives converge in many ways.  But Dr. Aslan believes that literature and theology obscure history, while I believe that historical context illuminates a story—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.  I’m glad I read the book because it challenged me to think.  But if I’d had the choice to download his memoir instead, Zealot might not have made it to my e-reader shelf.

What stories have led you to your reflections of the Eternal?