“If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump, too?” My mom stopped kneading the buttermilk biscuit dough only for a moment to look through her thick glasses and stare me down.
Exasperated, I put my hands on my hips and tried not to be the first to blink. But as a teenager hearing that answer from my mother, I knew the conversation was over. Though she could sometimes be badgered into giving in, she had the force of my father’s sternness hovering in the air even when he wasn’t present. And the one point of argument that never once worked for me was that my friends were all allowed to [fill in the blank here].
Now that my mother is in a nursing home, largely silenced by a debilitating stroke, I’ve replayed this scene in my mind often. All my adult life, when I’ve been tempted to do something because everyone else is doing it, I hear her voice in my mind and know that I should have a better reason for the choices I make and the causes I champion than that everyone is doing it—that it seems to be in vogue.
My mom quit school in ninth grade to care for her ailing mother, though she did earn her GED when she was 52—after all her five children had graduated from high school. She readily admitted that there was a lot she didn’t know about English and math, science and social studies, but she wanted all of us to go to college. And she knew absolutely nothing about the college application process. She entrusted that guidance to our teachers and supported them in pushing us to make good educational choices.
So when I hear the term “fiscal cliff,” I can’t help thinking of my mother and wishing that our leaders had someone to ask them to have better reasons for their choices than that everyone else in their party is heading over the cliff—or at least playing a game of chicken that sends them so close to the edge of the precipice that the force of momentum may make it impossible to stop their forward progress, sending them over the cliff in spite of their certainty that they can stop just short of recklessness.
Like my mother, I’ll admit that there are some things I don’t know. I don’t fully understand economics or finance. But I do know that we cannot continue to pile up a steep mountain of debt and leave our children to look over the cliff into the abyss below. Nor can we continue to leave the least among us tottering over the precipice with no one to pull them back to safety.
So like my mother, I want to be able to entrust decisions about our budget to those who committed themselves to finding the best solutions when they asked for our votes. As my mom trusted my teachers, I want to be able to trust our leaders—all of them, not just those in my party—to find objective experts who can help them make solid decisions. I know that few of the people we elect are economists. But they do have the resources to engage experts who can help them move in a positive direction instead of just telling them what they want to hear.
But for that to happen, our politicians need to listen more to people like my mother.
At the age of 90, my aunt left the corporeal world this week to reunite with seven of her nine siblings, including my father, who died in 1998. My sister, the oldest of our parents’ five children, posted on social media that we once had 24 aunts and uncles—27 if you count the three who died before adulthood—and now only three remain with us. And only one of those 24 aunts and uncles ever divorced.
The evangelical church they grew up in taught that divorce ensured their place in a fiery hell. And while some of them endured hell on earth at the hands of abusive husbands, they all adhered to that tenet of their faith. Many of them did move beyond the more stringent teachings of the church, which mostly applied to women—no make-up, no jewelry, no pants, no haircuts. But the wives obeyed their husbands.
My only aunt who divorced moved to Maryland, eight hours and a world away from the hills of southern West Virginia, far enough away to live her own life. What I remember about her from family reunions was that she joined the men in having a good stiff drink, wore red lipstick, and cursed just as her brothers did. The women in the family whispered about her, but she never seemed to care. When she got into the car to drive back to Maryland, I remember her blowing smoke rings out the window and driving away with a grin on her face.
When I moved to Maryland, I lived an hour and a half from my aunt, but my mom told me later that she and my dad refused to give her my phone number or my address. I never really knew her, and as a young working mother, I had little time to give her any thought.
But I think about her and my other aunts and uncles this week as same-sex couples begin to apply for marriage licenses that will allow them to marry in January. These couples have had a long wait for what my parents and my aunts and uncles took for granted—aunts and uncles who didn’t even have to wait past their teenage years for the right to marry—though I’m certain some of them longed for the right to divorce that many of their children would demand.
But though I left the evangelicals behind and chose a more open faith, being married in a church didn’t ensure my own marriage would last. Despite pre-marital counseling where one of the wisest ministers I know encouraged us to explore our common values, despite a marriage at an altar in front of a majestic pipe organ and 150 witnesses, I became the first of four of my parents’ five children to divorce.
And the only one to marry again.
In the eyes of my parents’ faith, I am an adulteress, just like my aunt, living in this godless state that doesn’t believe a marriage is a covenant for one man and one woman, one time, one lifetime.
But this time, my husband and I listened closely to the minister who helped us understand how our personalities shape the ways we love each other. We listened to the little voices, and we learned how important it is to laugh every day, to remind ourselves every day of why we fell in love. And despite coming from backgrounds that disapprove of divorce and remarriage, we’ve found the love of a lifetime. And 21 years ago, we had the right and the privilege of a second chance at happiness in a church with the support of 25 family members and close friends.
Now same-sex couples in Maryland can enjoy the same rights all of us enjoy, even when we make a mess of it. Just like all of us, some of them will make it and some of them will make mistakes. But they won’t have to long for divorce—or death—to part them, as some of my aunts and uncles have done.
So why on earth anyone would feel that same-sex marriage is a threat to the family?
I’m not always my best self. I always know this, but I was reminded again this week when I went to the mall for the first time in months to begin holiday shopping. As my husband and I walked toward the mall entrance, two women crossed our path, and we waited politely for a moment to allow them the sidewalk right-of-way. As they passed us, we looked at their backs and then looked at each other, eyes wide and mouths rounded into an 0 of surprise.
Our eyes locked, and my husband said, “Did you…”
“…see that?” I finished his sentence. “Oh, my gosh! How could she not feel the 39o air?” I said and burst into nervous laughter—the same giggle as when I watch a sitcom, embarrassed for the characters who have no idea how embarrassed they should be for themselves.
The women were dressed in business clothes, black pea coats, skirts with slits in the back, and heels. But one woman pushed the envelope. She wore stiletto heels and walked with swaying hips…completely unaware that the seam of her skirt had split from the slit to a few inches below her waistline. And worse, she wore a thong, so her ample hips were exposed to the wind, and we had an uninhibited view of the round of her buttocks.
My head swiveled from my husband to her and back again as I pondered whether to tap her on the arm and tell her that she might want to take off that pea coat and tie it around her waist. But in the seconds it took our paths to intersect, I decided that since she was leaving the mall and heading to the parking lot, she would figure out soon enough when she got home that she had exposed herself to the world.
But as I turned my head back and forth from my husband to her backside, I wondered whether I really would have told the woman that she needed to cover herself. And I had a hard time taking my eyes off a sight that I’d never before seen in public.
When I went home that evening, the news was filled with chatter about 19-year-old actor Angus T. Jones’ comments about how audiences shouldn’t watch the show which he dubbed “filth,” the show for which he’s paid $350,000 an episode.
And I was reminded, too, of the recent presidential campaign, of how the airwaves were flooded with negative attack ads from both political parties. And why? Because the ads work. In the first debate the man who has sometimes been referred to as “No-Drama Obama” was attacked for refusing to engage in responding to his opponent’s claims. And because the public demanded he respond, he circled his opponent in the second debate as if they were lions in the wild fighting for dominance.
We have a long history of such audience behavior, but we seem to have gotten worse in recent years. We watch talk shows where guests curse and throw chairs at one another. We glue ourselves to the endless stream of news about actors and actresses whose lives are train wrecks.
Most of us are guilty of such audience behavior. We have a hard time averting our eyes, and so we either cheer them on or we laugh in embarrassment at their contrived responses to each other. But as long as we continue to watch, we perpetuate the networks’ attempts to appeal to what is worst in us.
So what might happen if we began to avert our eyes, if we began to turn off the television, if we began to write in votes for more reasonable and rational candidates?
So what if I resolved to be my best self more often? And what if all of us did the same?
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.
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 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.
Serena loved to drive, and her father bought her a green Toyota Celica the year it made its entrance into the American market, an incredible luxury in a coal mining town where most families owned only one car and where my family owned none. I was 21, and I wouldn’t get my license until the following summer when I was forced to learn to drive because I got a teaching job in a town an hour away. My younger brothers would take me to the dirt track on the outskirts of town, a small circle in a field where almost every 16-year-old in town learned the basics of driving, and I would get my license and have two accidents in the West Virginia mountains before I’d had a license for six months.
But Serena got behind the wheel of that sporty green Celica at every opportunity, so she quickly agreed to drive me six hours to Alexandria, Virginia to see my boyfriend, whom I hadn’t seen all summer. She had a friend in the DC suburbs, so she cheerfully agreed to drop me at Adam’s house and then pick me up at the end of the weekend. Just after we crossed the border into Virginia, we heard the sound of a siren and saw flashing red lights behind us. Serena pulled over and opened the window to see a burly policeman, red-faced and incensed.
“Young woman, you must be in a real hurry to get somewhere!”
Serena did her best to appear contrite as the policeman told her she had been going 80 mph in a 50 mph zone. He told her that the fine was $150, an enormous amount of money for a college student in the 1970s, and he ordered us to drive into town and pay the fine immediately unless she wanted to spend the night in jail. She complied, as I frantically opened our purses to see how much money we had between us. After we paid the fine, we had $13 left over. But we continued the trip to see the people we loved.
Though we’ve sometimes lost touch for years, our friendship is true and lasting. I broke up with that boyfriend a year after that trip. I married and divorced and married again before I found the love of my life. Serena, a devout Christian who reads the Bible every day, is still with Marianne, the friend she went to see that weekend, after nearly 40 years.
And then there’s Dave, my cousin. He married and had children before he was able to admit to himself that he was gay. He divorced and later found a partner with whom he shares his life. Dave, too, is a devout Christian. He posts inspirational quotations on his Facebook page that encourage all of us who are privileged to be his friends. He loves to garden and grows flowers and vegetables that he shares with everyone who lives in his neighborhood. But his choice to acknowledge who he really is has come at a cost. Of his three siblings, only one will speak to him or be a part of his life.
And in 2003 when I lay on an operating table for a surgery that would take nine hours to excise the cancer from my body, the youth pastor of my church would come to the hospital, pray with my family, and sit with my daughter and my husband until he was sure they were okay. A year later, when my daughter had tired of being stronger and more mature than any 17-year-old should have to be, this pastor was the one who talked to her when she crashed and finally allowed herself to question what kind of God would let her mom have cancer.
In one of the few denominations that allows a debate about ordination of gays and lesbians, this man of incredible compassion and passionate eloquence was unable for years to get a call to be a senior pastor because of his sexual orientation. Even in our church, a liberal congregation that shared sacred space with a Jewish congregation, this pastor never brought his partner to church events out of respect to those in the congregation who might be offended by his choice of partners. And yet I don’t know of a single heterosexual minister who has ever been expected to do the same for a spouse of whom the congregation might not approve.
These three people have enriched my life. And though I read the Bible every day, I cannot understand why people obsess over six verses that condemn their sexual orientation in chapters that also forbid behaviors that heterosexual couples engage in every day without similar condemnation. How is it possible that these six verses—on a topic that is never mentioned in any of the four Gospels—can outweigh story after story of Jesus’ compassion and love?
So, yes, last weekend I stood in line for an hour and fifteen minutes to vote in Maryland. And of the page after page of choices I had to make, on none of them was I more sure I was in the right than when I cast my vote to allow these three people to have the same rights I have to marry the love of my life.
NOTE: The names have been changed to protect the privacy of those whose stories I’ve told.
When my daughter was three years old, we commuted together on one of the busiest interstates in the country to my job as a teacher and to the daycare center where she spent more waking hours with care providers than she spent with me. Despite the stress of having my precious cargo in a hellish commute with me, I loved sharing that time with her. She chattered away and asked a million questions, even though we left home while the sky was still dark. I knew that I needed to prepare myself for a lifetime of tough questions when she asked me, “Momma, how did God get all those stars up in the sky?”
That night, I read to her from James Weldon Johnson’s poem “The Creation”:
Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,
And God rolled the light around in His hands
Until He made the sun;
And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said, “That’s good!”
I remember being happy that she had asked me that question and not the daycare providers. I remember feeling guilty that I couldn’t be a stay-at-home mom. But now, she can’t remember the names of the people who cared for her, and I’m sure that she thinks more about all the things I’ve taught her than she thinks about anything that any of them said to her.
That doesn’t mean that she always agrees with me. She views the world through the lens of her own experiences and ideas. And when she does, she isn’t shy about telling me that she doesn’t agree with me or share my view of the world.
And so today, she sometimes openly challenges my thinking in ways that I never challenged my own parents. My father was a Republican who only once voted anything other than a straight ticket. He was a child of evangelicals who never in my lifetime stepped foot into a church except for the funeral of a close friend. My mother registered as a Republican and gave Dad a second vote in every election until he died, when she changed parties and cast the last vote of her life for Barack Obama. She was a devout Christian who never worshipped in a church and who worried she might be going to hell because she didn’t accept the faith of her parents and in-laws.
I never considered registering as anything other than a Democrat. I became eligible to vote in March 1974, a few months after Nixon had declared that he was not a crook. But I never told my dad that I didn’t register for his party. I never once discussed religion with my father either. And after being a practicing evangelical for all of my teenage years and young adulthood, I chose a denomination that messily debates every social issue of the day. And I eventually chose a church that shared space with a Jewish congregation and ordained a gay minister.
Like many 20-somethings, my daughter doesn’t go to church as often as I do. And she is far more accepting than I am of friends who have political views that differ from her own. On many matters of politics and religion and life, she shares my views. But she is much more quick to challenge people at the two extremes than I am and much more quick to offer her friendship to people whose views diverge from her own.
And maybe that’s a good thing in a world where we could use more people who can listen and really hear people who disagree. The danger of teaching our children to think for themselves…is that they will. But perhaps it’s our hope for the future, too.