Wish You Hadn’t Said That?

Duracho

Yesterday, exactly one month after launching this blog, I wrote a post that I deleted in the pre-dawn hours today. I crawled out of bed, pulled on a sweatshirt and fleece pants for my morning walk and crept into the kitchen, trying not to wake my sleeping husband. As I do almost every morning, I stood for a moment at the bedroom door, waiting for my dog Beckley to creep past me. As on every other morning, I wondered how such a boisterous dog knows that at this one time he’s supposed to creep quietly instead of prancing happily around me, barking, as he usually does. “Good boy!” I whispered.

I pulled the bedroom door quietly shut and stood for a moment in the kitchen, as the dog tilted his head to the side and looked at me quizzically. Resolute, I strode across the room and pulled open the laptop, going first to my Facebook page to delete the post announcing the topic of the blog that already showed one Like. I hit the X and deleted the post. Then I logged into my blog account and checked the stats. Someone had read it at 1:00 a.m. and someone else at 3:00 a.m. I frowned and unpublished the blog, deleting it from my page. But, of course, I couldn’t do anything about those few people who have subscribed to receive my posts in an email. So I closed the laptop, put on my coat, and opened the door into the darkness. Oh, well. It had to happen some time, I thought.

Now this isn’t what you’re thinking. I didn’t say anything in the blog that I wish I hadn’t said. But I had tried to write about two topics, and I felt I really hadn’t said what I wanted to say about either. If you subscribe to my posts and haven’t read the deleted one yet, don’t bother to run to your email to see what juicy details I divulged and then wished I hadn’t. You’d probably be bored before you got to the end of it, and if you did read the whole thing, I’m fairly sure you’d think, Well, that wasn’t one of her better efforts.

Playwright Tom Stoppard says through one of his characters in The Real Thing, “I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you can get the right words, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.” And in the past month, I’ve discovered that I can also nudge myself a little. I sometimes write my way to knowing myself a little bit better. I think about things in a different way. I change my mind about what I thought I knew.

So this morning I realized how hard that is to do in a digital world where nothing ever really goes away. The printed word goes into the cloud, and video clips are played and replayed, never allowing anyone to forget embarrassing gaffs or to revise their thinking in any way. Politicians are accused of flip-flopping, which, granted, they sometimes do, but we seem to leave no room for our leaders to say what they really think or to change their minds based on new information, fresh arguments, and careful thinking.

How many times have you wished you could take back that picture you posted or that email you sent? How many times has someone said something in writing or in a video clip that hurt your feelings? When we depended on snail mail, we had time to think about that scathing letter before we dropped it into the mail slot. Now, we can hit Send or Post and launch our words forever into the ether, never knowing when the digital cloud will turn into a rain cloud that drenches us in a torrent of our own verbiage.

Of course, this has happened to some degree since humanity first began to speak. And there are some words that haunt us forever—sometimes long after the speaker or the listener has forgotten them. Humans being feeling creatures, we sometimes carry the hurt of the spoken word long after we should have thrown old baggage into the trash. Arguably the most naïve teenager in my high school, I still feel indignant when I think of the classmate who said of me, “That girl may be book smart, but she ain’t got a lick of common sense.” I’m guessing the person who said it forgot it ten minutes after the incident that evoked the pronouncement, but I’ve remembered it for forty years, though it was never written down. And I have had former students tell me I said things to them that have no record in my memory. That will always be true when something speaks to or hurts the heart.

What’s new is that technology has made retracting our words more formidable. Imprecise or hasty language has always demanded forgiveness. But forgiveness is harder when the wounded can shake your words in your face, post them for the world to see, or play them endlessly on the evening news.

But though the weapons are more sophisticated, I remembered that this is a conflict as old as time when I returned from my walk this morning and opened the computer to read the Common Lectionary for the day. It reminded me of yesterday’s epistle reading from James, which I’d read yesterday morning and completely forgotten in the ensuing 24 hours:

For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle…For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue…With it we bless the Lord, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.

Coincidence? Maybe. But the irony made me smile and tilt my head at God the way the dog had tilted his head at me an hour earlier.

So how do your words come forth today?

Buy a Twinkie Lately?

E at 5

Is that a Twinkie in my hand? Hard to tell in a 50-year-old picture, but it could have been. When I was five, my mom helped keep Hostess in business. She frequently brought those little cakes home as treats when she could afford to buy them on my father’s salary as a coal miner, and I would find one in my rectangular tin lunch box with the metal clasp—a product that went the way of Twinkies long ago.

When the maker of Twinkies announced it was closing last week, my Facebook newsfeed filled up with nostalgic messages from people of a certain age. Friends mourned the loss of those cream-filled vanilla cakes and speculated about how state fairs would replace the ultimate invitation to a heart attack—the deep-fried Twinkie. I smiled and scrolled on down the page, thinking that I couldn’t remember the last time I’d bought a Twinkie or a Sno-Ball or a Ding Dong.

And although the CDC reports that 37.5% of U.S. adults are obese, I suspect I’m not the only consumer who hasn’t bought a Twinkie in a while. If I want to splurge on calories, I can think of many more interesting ways to seduce my taste buds, especially as the holiday season approaches. Ever have Trader Joe’s or Williams Sonoma’s peppermint bark, for instance? Or I could make my famous Chocolate Ganache Torte, a dessert with a crust made of butter, sugar and pecans; filled with ganache made from a pound of chocolate and two cups of heavy cream; and drizzled with a homemade caramel sauce that calls for even more butter, sugar, and cream. So if I can’t stick to a sensible diet that limits carbs, red meat, and fats, I’d be a Ding Dong if I wasted my binges on Twinkies.

But some things never change. News outlets latched onto a story that temporarily filled the post-election void when Hostess blamed the employees’ union strike and their refusal to accept lower wages and benefits. Conservatives were quick to denounce the union and to say that it was proof the government’s policies were destroying businesses. Liberals were quick to point out that the union had twice helped the company recover from declarations of bankruptcy by accepting company demands. In that same period, the Wall Street Journal reported that the CEO’s pay was raised from $750,000 to $2.5 million so that when his pay was cut during bankruptcy, he would get larger compensation.

And, as always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, though my coal miner father would rail at me from his grave for saying such a thing. Strikes did indeed contribute to the decline of the coal industry. But my father worked in dangerous conditions that most coal companies only addressed when the miners went out on strike. One of those strikes helped my father keep health benefits that would cover the care he required when a mine roof collapse crushed his foot and later, when he died a slow death from black lung caused by coal dust.

When I began teaching in Maryland, school system employees were given the choice to join the union or to pay a representation fee that was almost as much as the union dues but provided none of the legal protections that union members received. When I hesitated, my father said, “You join that union, girl. If there’s a union, there must be a need for it.” So I did. And at the end of my fourth year, when the school’s enrollment declined, union rules demanded that the teacher with the least tenure be given another placement.  I was forced to interview at other schools, and though I was quickly offered positions at three schools, I left the school bitter that a teacher who was widely acknowledged as incompetent kept her position because she had 25 years in the system.

Unions need to find ways to advocate for workers’ rights without giving protection to workers who are lazy and incompetent. But in order to do that, they need to be able to trust that companies care as much about employees as they care about getting rich. And until that can happen, neither side will keep for long what it fights so hard to gain.

That is the lesson that Hostess serves us as it closes its doors. Because if we do as my sixth grade teacher said and use our heads for something besides hat racks, only a Ding Dong would fail to see where that path leads.

So what’s your modern-day Twinkie indulgence? It will be interesting to see if it’s still around in five years.

Dog Is Love?

Beckley's Hood

Dog is Love?  No, that isn’t a typo.  I can’t be the only one who’s thought about the fact that DOG is GOD spelled backwards, can I?  Dogs give us unconditional love.  We come home after a bad day and see that tongue hanging out, that tail wagging, and we let the day go.  We take that little doggie-human outside, go for a walk, throw a ball, and the stress of the day dissolves into the air as we throw the ball again and again for a little guy who’s just happy to have his family home for the evening.

My daughter Ashley had begged for a dog for years.  Her stepdad and I were skeptical.  We had married when she was five, and shortly after the three of us moved in together, she cried great big tears and declared, “Everybody in this house has somebody to sleep with but me!  I want a kitty!”  Though we weren’t cat lovers, we let one of my students, who lived on a farm, talk us into a calico kitten, a beautiful ball of fur who came into our home and demanded that we love her on her own terms.  She hadn’t lived in our house more than a week when my daughter tired of her and started asking for a dog instead.  We resisted her pleas until the Friday night pizza delivery girl fell in love with the cat and offered to give her a good home.  Delighted that she loved the cat more than we did, we breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that the cat would be happier with her than she had ever been with us.

Unwilling to have another pet disaster, we resisted my daughter’s pleas for several years.  But since she was an only child, we ultimately decided it would be good for her to have the companionship and responsibility of a dog.  We researched various breeds, but we had a friend who had Shelties, so we went to a breeder and fell in love with Murphy, a blue merle who was frightened of his own shadow but who loved us and gave his loyalty to us from the moment we brought him through our front door.

Murphy was the perfect dog.  He barked only when someone knocked on the front door and, oddly, when we cracked a boiled egg for breakfast in the morning.  He lived to please us.  He pranced beside us when we went for a walk, ignoring all the dogs that barked when he trotted by, his head in the air as if he were a prince and barking were beneath him.  He happily went with Ashley when she visited her father, and he pranced around our feet, wagging his tail when he came home.  Shortly after Ashley left for college, he died of cancer, and we all cried for weeks.  Even Ashley’s father cried.  Even our friends cried.  And for months after he died, people said his name,Murphy, in a tone of reverence.

My husband Matt and I didn’t think we would get another dog.  But the house was too quiet, with both Ashley and Murphy gone.  So when Ashley came home for winter break, we went back to the breeder who introduced us to Murphy, and we picked out Beckley, another Sheltie, but who looked more like Lassie than Murphy.  And though we’d been warned that it was a bad idea to get a dog of the same breed, we brought Beckley home with great excitement.  While Murphy had been sweet and docile, Beckley was an alpha dog who barked at other dogs, at geese, at birds perching on the feeder in the back yard, at the telephone, at other dogs on television, and even at our sneezes.  Matt and Ashley fell in love with Becks before I did.  Matt trained him, and Ashley taught him to sing.  But I couldn’t forgive him at first for not being Murphy.

But like Murphy, Beckley was always happy to see us.  He barked fiercely when we left for work in the morning, as though demanding that we stay with him.  And as soon as he heard the garage door in the evening, he began barking again, happily prancing around our feet as we came in the door and put down the baggage of the day.

And when, after I had cancer, the oncologist suggested that I try to walk every day, Beckley fell in love with me and I with him.  Every morning when the alarm goes off, he looks at me expectantly and waits patiently by the front door while I don coat and gloves and grab a flashlight to walk in the pre-dawn hours in the quiet of our neighborhood.  I tell Beckley to look at the stars and the moon, and his ears perk up at the sound of my voice.  “This is the day that God has made, Beckley.  What do you think?”  He wags his tail and looks at me with love, and I think, What a great way to start the day—with the dog that God hath made. Thank you, God, for dogs and for their unconditional love.

What Is Love?

Feet

What is love?  I love sitting beside a clear mountain stream with my feet in the gentle current, watching the water trickle over my toes.  I love seeing the first red tulips come up in my flower bed each spring.  I love reading a great book and getting lost in the lives of the characters.  I love chocolate with almonds, chocolate with peanut butter, chocolate with orange peel.  I love pumpkin spice latte and gingerbread latte and country harvest breakfast coffee.

I love my country.  I love my fellow humans.  I love life and laughter and love.  I love a God who hovers so close sometimes that I can almost touch the air and feel the Spirit.  I love my daughter and my husband, my stepchildren and my parents and my siblings and my friends.  But every once in a while, my husband laughs when I tell him I love him and asks, “But do you love me more than chocolate?”  I smile.  “What kind of chocolate?” I tease him.

How is it that this one word can describe all those things?  Other languages have many words for love—words that distinguish between affection and passion, between brotherly love and parental love, between friendship and unconditional love.  Though I’m a writer in love with words, I’m forced to admit that this one word is inadequate to show the depth of abiding love that I feel for my husband and our children.

We don’t question whether we love our children.  For most of us, that love is indelibly imprinted in our DNA, a love so forceful that it’s overwhelming at times.  We endure physical pain and cry for joy as they slip-slide into the world.  And how many parents do you know who love their children unconditionally no matter how many times their children disappoint them or fail them?

But romantic love?  How do we know when we love someone enough to commit for life?  When we meet the one who will love us in return—who won’t eventually toss us aside like the pumpkin spice latte when the more alluring gingerbread latte makes its appearance?  Many of us aren’t even sure that kind of lasting love exists.  And even more of us believe in it but give up waiting and settle for something less.

The first time I believed in love enough to think about marriage, I had doubts—little tickling thoughts that were easy to push aside at first.  But they grew.  And a week before the wedding, as I stood in the dining room looking over the mountain of shower gifts on the table, I thought about calling off the wedding.  I picked up a place setting of flatware and closed it in my hand, as though I could grasp the answer if I just gripped the utensils more tightly.  Walking slowly around the table, I picked up one gift after another, turning each of them over in my hands as if they would reveal the hidden answer to me of whether I was doing the right thing.  Get a grip, I told myself.  This is just pre-wedding jitters.  I couldn’t rid my mind of doubts, but the thought of returning all the gifts overwhelmed me, and I walked away from the table and into a marriage that fell apart a few years later.

In the wake of the divorce, a wise reverend said to me that for love to last, you had to be just a little in awe of that person and that person had to be a little in awe of you.  I thought about that often as I put my life back together and began to believe in the possibility of loving again.  And I’ve thought of it this week again as the news has been full of more leaders who have been caught in affairs with younger women who are completely in awe of them.  Too little awe, and there isn’t much left once the fire of passion dwindles.  Too much awe, and it’s destroyed by the reality of discovering that no one can live up to that sort of adoration.

But if you’re a little in awe of one another, you take joy in each other’s accomplishments and keep each other going when one person’s confidence falters.  When you think about that person, even when you’re a little mad at him, your heart smiles, and you know you’ll move past your momentary exasperation.  When you imagine future sorrows and losses, you know without a doubt that you’ll make it through them with him by your side.  When you think about the dreams you hope to accomplish, you can’t imagine sharing them with anyone else.

What is love?  When you find that kind of love, you won’t have to ask.  Listen to the little voices.  They’re never wrong.

How Did Your Pastors Vote?

How did my pastors vote? I think I know, but I’m not sure. Neither of them ever stood in the pulpit and named a candidate. Nor did they talk about the hot-button issues to make it abundantly clear which candidate would get their votes. But they did encourage us to vote—to vote our conscience. They did not expect us to follow their lead blindly, and they did not make us feel that we were less Christian if we voted a certain way. Instead, they urged us to look through the lens of our faith and think carefully about how to cast our vote.

So this morning, the co-pastor who delivered the sermon began by describing her experience at the polls, painting a vivid picture of the pleasure she took in reviewing the sample ballot one last time at breakfast, waiting in line for a voting machine, choosing each candidate and issue, and carrying the little plastic card to the official. Though she talked about the exhaustion of being bombarded with mailings from both sides, she was full of joy as she talked about the privilege of living in a country where our votes really do count, even when the candidate we want doesn’t win.

Her story was a beautiful introduction to the biblical text for today—not one she chose but one that was chosen by several denominations as a Common Lectionary years in advance. But Psalm 146 was the perfect song for a less than perfect election season, especially verses 3-4: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day, their plans perish.” She reminded us that the God we serve is bigger than “the princes of Congress,” bigger than party, bigger than anything we can imagine for ourselves.

Choosing pastors like her and her husband, the co-pastor, is not the path this church has always chosen. Before the congregation called these pastors (and before I moved to the area), the church fought hard and bitterly about the very issues our country debated in this election, as did many churches in the denomination. But this church split down the middle, and the former pastor left, taking many life-long members with him. The results were disastrous for both sides. I had a friend who left with the pastor, and that church dissolved after only a year, leaving the members to find other churches or to reject organized religion altogether. The congregation that remained fared better, but the wounds took years to heal and, for a while, God’s mission was slowed down by the limping, bleeding congregants who held on for the lengthy process of finding new pastors willing to take on the challenge of bringing people back together for God’s common good.

So these two pastors know more than most what happens when two sides become bitter and unable to hear each other. And as I sat in the presence of this very inspiring minister this morning, I looked around at the faces in the congregation and hoped that somehow our president and the princes of Congress can find it in them to do what our co-pastors have done—to bring us together for a noble cause that is bigger than princes, bigger than party, bigger than liberals or conservatives—a country that still strives to be one nation indivisible in spite of our differences.

And what about me? I’m not a prince, nor a senator, nor a congressman, nor would I want to be. But I am a citizen, and I owe it to my country not to gloat that the candidate I wanted has won this time, as I’ve heard so many liberal pundits do in the last few days. I don’t have to give up my principles. But I do have to understand that I don’t have all the answers and that my side hasn’t been able to solve our nation’s problems any more than my opponents’ side did in the eight years before President Obama was elected. And that isn’t just because of the opposition. The problems we face wouldn’t loom large if there were obvious and simple solutions.

But I can’t expect our leaders to do what I am unwilling to try to do myself. I am a citizen. And more than that, I am a child of God. And so are we all.

What doesn’t kill us makes us…?

“Lots of stuff that doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” said the character Manny in an early episode of ABC’s sitcom Modern Family.  That was the episode—“Truth Be Told”—that hooked me on what has become my favorite show on television.  Manny’s fictional character spoke the real-life truth about a worn-out platitude.

The “truth” of the episode is much more complicated:  Manny’s stepfather Jay, who is constantly trying to get him to “man-up,” has attempted to hang a poster in Manny’s room that says, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.”  Manny is quick to give an example that debunks Jay’s simple view of life—that his grandfather had a heart attack and now he has to use a machine to help him breathe.  When the poster frame falls and kills Manny’s pet turtle, Shel Turtlestein, we belly-laugh at the absurdity of Jay’s cover-up story, which is so ridiculous that Gloria, Jay’s wife, tells him, “I’m Columbian. I know a fake crime scene when I see one.”  And as it always does in comedic fiction, the truth comes out.

The show plays on almost every stereotype we hold of what it means to be family, and we can laugh in a way that we cannot when we think of our own painful experiences. So this week when news outlets reported that Ariel Winter, the real-life 14-year-old who plays the nerdy and intelligent Alex, had been removed from her mother’s custody, my heart ached for the girl who plays the character most like the childhood version of me.

Unlike Alex, Ariel and I both live with the real-world complexities of the parent-child relationship.  According to news reports, Ariel’s older sister had been permanently removed from her mother’s custody 20 years prior to this incident.  And while the courts are still sorting out what is the “truth be told” of this situation, it remains to be seen whether what hasn’t killed her will make her stronger.

For me, being abused as a child has done both.  I spent half a lifetime revering my mother and love-hating my father, who drank his way through weekends and beat my siblings and me with a belt that he pulled from his waistline with a snap at the slightest provocation.  But when my first marriage fell apart and I told a therapist that my mom was my hero and my father was “a total shit,” the therapist asked a simple question that changed my life:  “Estelene, has it ever occurred to you that by today’s standards, your mom would be an accessory to child abuse?”

That one question challenged me to reconsider the simple beliefs I had held true for my parents.  I had always thought that my mother, who quit school in ninth grade and married my dad when she was 17 and pregnant with my sister, had stayed with my father because she had no other options.  But while I still love my mother for her unconditional love of her children and her strength in the face of adversity, I no longer idolize her, and I know that we all make choices.  And while I still can’t excuse my father’s abuse, I can now understand that the hard life of a coal miner with a fifth grade education put him at a life-long disadvantage in supporting a family long before he was ready emotionally or financially.

I can also think rationally about the paradoxes that led me to be the person I am.  My father recognized what his own choices had done to his life, and he said to me nearly every day of my childhood that I would get the education he didn’t have so that I could have a better life.  So, in a striking irony, I became the Alex Dunfee of my real-life family and grew up to be a teacher, like my parents’ teacher for whom I am named.  So my father is largely responsible for my education and my vocation.

I know I’m lucky that my father stopped drinking when I was about the age that Ariel Winter is now.  I actually got to know the better side of a sober father who mellowed later in life.  And perhaps that fact and the certainty of our mother’s love are why all five of my parents’ children were able to break the cycle of abuse that sometimes perpetuates itself through generations of families.  Like Ariel, whose sister was removed from her mother’s custody 20 years ago, there was ample evidence in my family of a history of abuse.  My father’s sisters laughingly told the story of how my grandmother threw my father into the yard when he was a toddler “like he was a sack of potatoes.”  And one of my aunts, who saw the welts on my sister’s arms, told my dad she would report him to the police if she ever saw such wounds again.  We had teachers who averted their eyes from the welts and bruises our mom made us cover up when we went to school.  We had neighbors who called in their children and closed their doors when my father beat my brothers in our front yard.

So truth be told?  I’m still figuring that out, as I guess I will until my last breath.  For my siblings and me, the truth is that one of us indeed was killed rather than made stronger—my brother who died of a drug overdose in his 40s, leaving behind two children who adored him in spite of his flaws.  Our truth is that the remaining four of us have struggled mightily with both the strengths and the weaknesses of what hasn’t killed us.

So this week my heart and my prayers go out to Ariel and other victims of their parents’ inner demons.  May it be so that the truth really does make them stronger.  Amen.

What Is a Great Teacher?

Dr. Shrewsbury

Why is it that social gatherings where a teacher is present inevitably lead to horror stories about kid-killer teachers or absurd tales about incompetent ones? Though many of us have teachers who change our lives, those are rarely the narratives we hear in our social dialogue.

Perhaps it’s because the consummate teachers consistently do great things without fanfare every day. They engage us, they lure us in, they make us love their subject through their own passion. But if asked to name one thing that teacher did, most of us have to think hard before we can point to a single moment that would do justice to the skill of a master teacher.

Dr. James B. Shrewsbury became my adviser the second semester of my freshman year.  I knew I wanted to be a teacher, but I changed subjects twice before I landed in his English 102 class, the second semester of freshman composition.  He was a short, wiry man with white hair, piercing blue eyes, and a Santa-style white beard. When he was thinking hard or listening carefully, he chewed his upper lip, almost as if he were tasting his thoughts before he voiced them.

He began the class by having us read short stories and imitate the sentence styles of great writers, and for the first time I learned that I could sometimes capture beauty in the flow of a sentence.  And when we read Eudora Welty’s “A Visit of Charity,” a story about a young girl who visits a nursing home solely to get points as a Campfire Girl, I wrote a paper analyzing every literary device in the story to show how the young girl is visiting the home for all the wrong reasons.  But I entirely missed the wry humor in the story.

As the teaching assistant handed back the papers, Dr. Shrewsbury turned on the overhead and projected an essay onto the screen.  I recognized the paper, my name removed but the tight curl of the cursive distinctively my handwriting.  Dr. Shrewsbury walked us through the paper, pointing again and again to its strengths.  As he got to the end, he pointed to his closing comment—A very good first paper!  I breathed a sigh of relief…until he continued.

“But let’s look at this one word the writer used.  The writer has pointed out that the little girl isn’t really performing an act of charity, and that’s right.  But do you think this is the right word?”

Pointing to a phrase near the bottom of the first page, Dr. Shrewsbury touched his finger to the words the debauchery of Marian’s motives.  He smiled when it was clear that no one in the room, least of all the writer, knew what the word meant, and then explained that the word did indeed mean corrupt, the word the writer seemed to intend, but that it had the connotation of a dirty old man.

Chewing his upper lip, he stroked his beard and allowed himself the hint of a smile as the class laughed.  “There you have it,” he said.  “Never use a thesaurus to try to make yourself sound more intelligent.  Use it to remind yourself of words you already know.  Or take the time to learn the nuances of the word.”

Miserable, I couldn’t meet his eyes as I left the classroom.  Though he had been gentle, I had rarely received criticism on my work in high school.  It would be years before I could laughingly tell that story to my own students to prevent them, in advance, from suffering similar humiliation.

But at the end of the semester, Dr. Shrewsbury invited me to be his student assistant for his freshman composition classes.  He assured me that I was a “born teacher,” and he made me believe in myself.  After that, I signed up for every course he taught, garnering far more credits in English than were required for certification.

But how did he do that?  I don’t really remember.  The story I do remember could have been one of silent chagrin in the hands of a lesser teacher.  But Dr. Shrewsbury taught me by both word and example to find something to praise before pointing out weaknesses.  And while no teacher is ever perfect for every child, this is Dr. Shrewsbury’s legacy.

So tell me about a teacher who deserves your gratitude.  Or better yet, tell the teacher.

What Is Friendship?

Jefferson

Illustration by Charis Tsevis
Weincek, Henry. “The Dark Side of Thomas Jefferson.” Smithsonian Magazine. October 2012.
 
“I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” Thomas Jefferson is said to have pronounced. This quotation has been widely circulated online this election season where some of us try never to reveal our opinions while others of us try futilely to change the minds of our friends who disagree with us.
 
Neither of these extremes seems to work very well. I really want a world where we can talk about our religion and politics and philosophy and learn from one another–a world where we find a third way–a middle place where we honor what’s best in the opposition and put it to work in a world much in need of compromise and collaboration. I like to think that I try to do that most of the time. But my daughter is quick to disabuse me of that notion and to remind me that while I listen to what people say, I still try to convince them that I’m right.
 
So how do we hold on to our best principles and yet hear that the opposition also has some best principles? What’s the difference between learning from one another and letting go of what we believe is right?
 
This isn’t a new question in a country that is founded on democracy–a philosophy that is often hard to live by as it’s played out in the real world. As Henry Weincek’s fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine points out, Thomas Jefferson–the man we hold up as the standard bearer for freedom and democracy–somewhere along the way gave up his principles. In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he denounced slavery as “a cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberties.” But South Carolina and Georgia refused to sign such a document, so it was revised. And as we know now, by 1790 Jefferson had given up his efforts entirely and not only owned slaves but tolerated brutality against them.
 
As Weincek points out in this article, “It is curious that we accept Jefferson as the moral standard of the founders’ era, not Washington. Perhaps it is because the Father of his Country left a somewhat troubling legacy: His emancipation of his slaves stands as not a tribute but a rebuke to his era, and to the prevaricators and profiteers of the future, and declares that if you claim to have principles, you must live by them.”
 
Had Jefferson lived by his principles instead of giving them up, how different might our nation have been? Would we be living a very different legacy of race in this country? Or would we even have continued to be the “United” States of America?
 
And so it is that we allow ourselves to expect more of our leaders than we are sometimes capable of ourselves. We want to keep our friends. We can’t figure out how to hear each other, so we keep silent, speak so loudly that our friends walk away and ignore us until the battle of the political season is over, or give up on what we truly believe.
 
We want our leaders to have principles and live by them. We want our leaders to compromise and collaborate. How can they possibly do both?
 
One thing is certain, no matter who wins the election today: our President has a monumental task before him. Find a way to hold on to your principles, find a way to hear what’s best in your opponents’ principles, find a third way that is better than either way alone.
 
And so, Mr. President, whoever you are at the end of this day, my friend, I pray that you’ll find a way to do better what we’ve been trying so valiantly to do for over 200 years.

What Is a Saint?

With his usual penchant for humor, my husband reminded me on the way home from church that he is named for a saint, Matthew, and that I—well—am not. I didn’t need his reminder that I’m not a saint, but since I tend to be terminally serious, I do need him to remind me to laugh and enjoy this beautiful life I’ve been given.

Today is All Saints Sunday. Our church explains the service in this way:

All Saints celebrates the baptized people of God, living and dead, who make up the body of Christ. Today, many congregations will remember the faithful who have died during the past year. Our worship abounds with references to the saints and our continual relationship with them. Today and this week, we reflect on the lives of people – both the living and the dead – who have moved and supported others by their lives of faith.

I went into the service thinking of my friend Jane Ann, who died in September, leaving behind a 15-year-old daughter, a 90-year-old father, and scores of friends who miss her every day. Jane Ann would not have thought of herself as a saint, nor would she want her daughter or her loved ones to remember her as perfect. But she was, more than almost anyone I know, perfectly and gloriously human, and as her fourth grade teacher wrote on her Facebook page, her legacy is that she always, always reached out to help others. But she never forgot the healing power of a great big belly laugh.

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as saints, but my pastor reminded me this morning that even those we do consider the saints of the church weren’t perfect. But they were people who, like Jane Ann, never lost the optimism that their lives could make a difference in the world. I loved the way my pastor closed the service.  I’m paraphrasing here because I can’t remember her exact words:

On this post-hurricane, pre-election, All Saints, communion Sunday, we need to remember that ours is a God of justice, freedom, and forgiveness….a God who is enough for us all—enough for you, enough for me.

I needed this reminder, too. I beat myself up sometimes for spending more time thinking about helping people than actually helping people. The magnitude of the need in our world sometimes overwhelms me. I’m reminded of a character in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, who wrote about the sorrows of others and put the papers into the cracks between the rocks in the wall that lined her property. After a time, she became so overwhelmed with the agony of others that she went to the river and lay down, a rock on her chest, and drowned herself in others’ sorrows.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, we all know how easy it is to be swept away in the raging currents. But this morning at church we were asked, if we could, to fill up a five-gallon bucket with cleaning supplies and tools to send to the victims of the hurricane.

We are little good to ourselves or others if we take on too much of the pain and anguish of a world where the needs are so great. We do need time to lay our burdens down and gaze in wonder at the blue sky and the gentle roll of the mountains in the distance.

But I wonder what would happen if every single person who was able would fill up just one bucket and carry a little bit of the burden. What a difference that might make in our world!

What Do Disasters Tell Me?

What do disasters tell us?  I woke up wondering about that this morning as I sat in my comfortable home where the electricity flickered but never stayed off for more than a couple of minutes.  Then I watched news video of the fire in Queens and the devastation all around me and gave thanks that most of us have made it through this latest disaster alive.

 
And then I read the news reports and the editorials where both liberal and conservative journalists began the blame game while the two presidential candidates tried to look like the leaders they both so desperately want to be.
 
And I realized I was asking the wrong question.  I started to wrestle with the gnawing realization that’s been trying to creep into my brain for weeks now as I’ve been thinking over the elections of my lifetime, where I’ve occasionally voted against party lines and have never felt the excitement that some Boomers older than I felt when they voted for the Kennedys.
 
When George W. Bush took office, I refused for months to address him asPresident Bush.  Like millions of Americans, I didn’t think he’d been elected.  And after the Supreme Court sided with him, I was indignant.  I wanted him to fail.
 
Then came 9/11.  And while there would later be plenty of blame to go around, for the most part, the nation came together, and our devastating loss brought out the best in us.  Though I still didn’t agree with his decisions, I finally began to pray for him and to speak the phrase President Bush, but I also prayed for a successor who would care for the poor and bring out the best in us.
 
Eight years later I watched as much of the nation felt the same about President Obama as I had felt about his predecessor.  From the day he took office, people questioned the legitimacy of his presidency, too, and shortly into his first term, Mitch McConnell, then minority leader of the Senate, said, “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president….I don’t want the president to fail; I want him to change.”
 
So I woke up this morning and finally acknowledged that I seldom pray for wisdom for the president I don’t support, except in times of crisis.  I suspect I’m not the only one who prays instead for God to deliver us and send us a leader who will bring out the best in us four years down the road.
 
As I listen to the pundits and the speeches and the spin Sandy has left in her wake, I’ve finally admitted to myself this morning my fear that we’re getting exactly what we’ve prayed for–a leader who can do little except try to survive the opposition well enough to get a second term.  Because as long as we’re just lining up on opposite sides and praying for the other person to lose, we’re going to get exactly that answer to our prayers.  And it won’t matter which man wins next week.
 
And so I realize, yet again, why Jesus commanded us to love and pray for our enemies–and, of course, he didn’t just mean that we should pray for their defeat.  As he said with a wisdom that has caused his words to ring true 2000 years after he spoke, it’s easy to pray for someone you love.  Anyone can do that.  But to pray for the one you want to lose…not so much.
 
This won’t be easy for me, but now that I’ve had this insight into myself, I’m going to try to pray for wisdom for our leaders–by name–even for those I detest.
 
So what does this latest disaster have to say to you?

For People Who Don't Know All the Answers