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Live in a Stressful State?

Hawaii

Standing on a promontory in Hawaii above an ocean of cobalt blue, I knew that I had seen the best of two worlds.  Born in the heart of the West Virginia hills, I’d grown up surrounded by trees of nearly every shade of green on the color wheel, but I didn’t see the ocean until I was 24.  And I’d never seen an ocean like the one I saw 30 years later from a precipitous cliff in Kauai.

The island weather had been colder than we’d expected, but my husband and I donned our swimsuits that morning and covered them with layers and jackets.  This was nothing I hadn’t done countless times during my childhood in West Virginia, where the chilly mornings slowly gave way to the warmth of the sun.  Undaunted by the absence of tropical breezes, we eagerly followed our friends across the rocky terrain to what they assured us would be a breathtaking view.

When we arrived at the peak, my eyes didn’t know where to look first.  The ocean stretched to the horizon, broken by clusters of lava rock that punctuated the landscape, allowing me to take a breath before my eyes read on.  Though we stood high above the surface, the waves crashed against the rocks, spraying us with water as I backed away, holding my breath.

Again I thought of West Virginia.  I’d taken the beauty of my surroundings for granted for most of my childhood, until I visited Spruce Knob, the highest point in the state.  I remembered holding my breath and backing up from the overlook in the same way—the first time I really became aware that great beauty and great danger are sometimes separated by the tiniest of invisible lines.  The towering pines were bare on one side, stripped by the force of the constant wind.  In that moment, I’d felt just as I felt on that cliff in Hawaii—that I might be small and insignificant but that the God I believed in was small enough to fit inside me and big enough to create a world of awe-inspiring places.

I thought of those moments again when I read the morning news today and learned that this year’s Gallup survey results show that the least stressed people in the country live in Hawaii.  No surprise there.  But I was surprised to learn that the most stressed people in the country are the residents of West Virginia.  I was so surprised that, as I sometimes do, I checked the original source.  I wasn’t disbelieving, as I usually am when I turn to a primary source, but I wanted to read the original report without the spin of journalists.

Because I’m skeptical of surveys, which are often designed to get the results the sponsor wants, I read about the design of the survey.  I was impressed to learn that Gallup, unlike many other companies, had used both landlines and cell phones, though the balance was a bit in favor of landlines—400 cell calls for every 600 landline contacts.  And they also made an effort to find respondents who were diverse in age, gender, ethnicity, and education.

Satisfied that the survey seemed credible, I read the summary and discovered that Hawaii has ranked as the least stressed state every year for the past five years and that West Virginia has consistently been ranked in the five most stressful states.  As one might expect, there was a strong correlation to the rate of employment—more stress in states with higher unemployment.

But when I checked the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site, I found that the unemployment rate in West Virginia for 2012 ranked only 23rd of the 50 states.  So what explains that the people in a state filled with beautiful, peaceful places to calm the soul would feel so much more stress than people elsewhere?

Perhaps it’s easier for the people of Hawaii to disregard the troubles that plague the mainland.  After all, it takes six hours by plane to get to the turmoil on the continental U.S., and one can always turn off the television when the sadness creeps across the airwaves to paradise. And while those of us on the mainland could choose to do the same, we tend to be bombarded by images that accost us even when we turn off our televisions.  As children during the ‘60s and ‘70s, my classmates and I saw the news only for an hour each evening, and the turmoil of those years didn’t seem as close as every conflict seems now.

I wonder, too, how faith figures into the equation.  We know from other surveys that having a strong faith helps people live longer, more abundant lives.  But I also have many friends in my home state who are traumatized by a faith that makes no room for questioning a God they’ve been taught offers more vengeance than comfort.  And when I read the results of the Pew Forum’s research last year which shows that young adults are leaving churches in droves, I have to wonder how many people are struggling because they were taught that if their prayers aren’t being answered it’s because they don’t have enough faith or aren’t “right with God.”

Each time I scan the Charleston and Beckley papers online from my home state, I read articles that reflect how little control most of the people in the state have over their economic well-being.  The coal and gas companies, in an attempt to preserve the riches they’ve reaped from the state, convince the masses that sustainable energy is a threat to their way of life.  The last time I drove into the county where I lived as a young adult, I was greeted by a hate-filled billboard denigrating the president and urging everyone to be a “friend of coal.”

At that moment I thought of those trees on Spruce Knob and wished I had enough money and know-how to fund clean energy businesses—perhaps windmills—to replace the strip mines that surround the cemetery where my father is buried.

Stress and depression, as a good therapist once told me, come from feeling that we have no control.  “All of us have choices,” he told me, “so look at your life and take control over what you can.”  And he’s right.  So my prayer for my home state is that they will somehow find a way to break free of those who chain them to a style of life where others get rich from the burdens they carry.

So how is your state of stress?

Are Our Views Changing?

Oceana Park

The small town where I grew up was—and still is—an anomaly, even in the surrounding county.  Though not everyone looked the same, everyone looked the same.  Some of us had blonde hair and blue eyes, some brown hair and green eyes, some black hair and brown eyes.  But all of us shared the same small range of skin tones, and at the time I graduated from the local high school, not a single African-American had ever attended the school.

The nearest Catholic church is still twelve miles away, in a town that also has some African-American residents.  The nearest synagogue is over 30 miles away.  White and Protestant throughout my childhood, my hometown remains so to the present day.  And yet that town has the same issues that face the rest of the country—unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction that is so pervasive it has become the subject of a documentary chosen to premiere at next month’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

In the absence of an intimate relationship with someone who is different, human beings tend to form their opinions by falling back on stereotypes.  As an avid reader in high school, I glimpsed characters whose lives were very different from my own.  I watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold on our television screen, but it seemed far removed from my own life in an all-white town.  And only as an adult did I learn that some of my childhood classmates were gay and lesbian.  That, too, seemed far away.  Though I grew up in evangelical churches, no minister ever felt the need to preach a sermon aimed at homosexuals because no one ever openly acknowledged a sexuality that didn’t conform to the social norms of the community.

This week the United States Supreme Court will take on the issue of same-sex marriage.  Journalists and commentators have speculated for months on the outcome of the justices’ deliberations, and while they disagree about how the justices may rule, they seem almost unanimous on one thing: Americans’ views on this issue are changing.

Just last week Rob Portman, a Republican congressman from Ohio, announced that he had changed his mind and now supports same-sex marriage.  Why?  Like a host of politicians before him, his views are changing because someone he knows and loves—his son—is gay.  It is impossible to hold fast to stereotypes when we know someone intimately who defies that stereotype.

Whatever the Supreme Court’s decision, it will not change the hearts and minds of people who make judgments from a distance—those who know not a single friend or family member who is homosexual.  We know this from history.  Giving women the right to vote and hold office did not lead to a flood of women elected to public office.  Granting African-Americans civil rights did not lead blacks and whites to live in the same neighborhoods or to come together in our houses of worship.  Granting citizenship to immigrants has not led us to understand that a person who is Muslim or Hindi has the common bond of humanity with us.

So even if the Supreme Court rules fully in favor of same-sex marriage, we still have a long way to go as humans living in concord and understanding with other human beings.

Since I left that small town to encounter people who have a wider range of differences than my hair and eye color, I’ve found that my life has been enriched almost every time I’ve been open to the colorfully diverse human beings around me.  Yes, sometimes they disappoint me by being very like the stereotypes.  But far more often, when I get past the surface of our differences, I’ve found something of myself in almost every person I’ve met.

Human that I am, I sometimes latch on to my first impression—not so much on appearances, but on the tone and color of the words that come out of a new acquaintance’s mouth.  I’m far more apt to judge that I don’t want to get to know someone whose views, rather than skin color, land far afield from my own.

And even then, when I don’t shut the door and pull down the shade of my mind before looking more deeply, I sometimes find that hearing others’ life stories can make a difference.  I don’t always connect in a way that makes me want to call that person a friend, and at times I still feel I have to oppose that person’s views in order to be true to my own conscience and sense of justice.

But I believe that if anything can make us live together in peace and come together to tackle the issues that face all of us, it is the power of personal narrative.  So invite us now to sit at your feet and hear your story.

Deceived?

GPC

It had to happen.  I knew it would.  But knowing on an intellectual level didn’t prepare me for it emotionally.

Yesterday, a childhood friend who grew up with me in fanatically evangelical churches told me that I was being “deceived by the devil”—that because I don’t read the Bible literally, my soul is in danger.  This wouldn’t have been surprising—but for the fact that she majored in a science-related field in college and spent her whole career in a lab and her personal life in a home with someone of the same sex.

And though I believe with all my heart that God is full of grace, “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” as the psalmist sings, it took me hours to remind myself after my conversation with her that when I commune with the Spirit, I feel no trace of that ugly and vengeful God that some of my childhood friends believe in so fervently.

This friend told me that she believes that we’re “living in the end times.”  She said that St. Malachy—though she seemed confused about the connection or lack of one between the Irish saint and the Old Testament Malachi—had accurately predicted the popes up to now and that, if the pope who is named at the end of the month takes the name Peter, he will fulfill the prophecy and be the last pope, who will rule over the end of the world.  She says the list he predicted is locked up somewhere in the Vatican, and when I asked how, then, anyone knows whether the names on the list match the names since the time of Malachy, she couldn’t give me an answer.

I had never heard this theory, though when I did a web search, I discovered that she is by no means the only one who believes she knows with some degree of accuracy when the world will end.  As I listened, I felt I had entered the Twilight Zone.  The last time I saw this friend, more than 20 years ago, she seemed balanced and reasonable.  But yesterday, this woman who has lived with a partner who she now swears is only a companion told me that she believes unequivocally that homosexuality is an abomination. And when I asked whether she believed the Old Testament command to stone a woman for adultery was acceptable, her answer was, “In some parts of the world, they still stone women.”  By this point in the conversation, I was so exhausted that I didn’t have the strength to ask, “Yeah, but are you saying that’s okay?”

Most of my friends have laughed dismissively today when I’ve told this story.  “Crazy!” most of them say—not worth a single moment of thought.

But I still find my friend’s lack of logic scary.  And what I find even more scary is that almost all the educated, reasonable people I know label people like her as crazy and refuse to take them seriously enough to challenge them.  They have their right to religious freedom, we think, and so we allow them to perpetuate these beliefs and to strong-arm their children and their loved ones into adhering to their rigid biblical interpretation of the world.

And friends who are more conservative than I, but still logical and thinking people, tell me that people like my friend are stock-piling weapons and artillery for the battle they believe is coming.  Yet still we liberals try to respect their freedom of religion and their right to bear arms.  And I worry that this must be the same way reasonable people in Salem regarded the witch-hunters, the way reasonable people in the North regarded Southern slave-owners who swore that the Bible justified slavery, the way reasonable people in Germany regarded Hitler, the way reasonable people in the Middle East regarded the Taliban.

So how do we uphold the values on which our nation was founded but resist the rigidity that leads to intolerance and oppression?  How do we follow the example of Christ—who wasn’t afraid to question the religious people of his time who thought they knew the mind of God?

How do we respectfully challenge religious people who purport to have all the answers?  My friend may be too far gone to hear anyone who doesn’t confirm her narrow view of God.  But how do we speak to those who are where she was 20 years ago, when she was willing to hear reason from those who disagreed?  How do we fight for a future where freedom of religion means freedom from being labeled as an agent of evil?

The Christianity of Christ

Douglass Bible

Courtesy of the National Park Service, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Douglass Bible

On Friday we earthlings had a crashing reminder of how little of the universe we can actually control when a meteorite, estimated to be about 50 feet in diameter, slammed into a sparsely populated area of Russia.  For the first time in history, the event was captured in a multitude of videos and posted on the Internet almost immediately.

All weekend the news outlets have swirled with explanations and comparisons to past meteor hits.  The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History reported a significant uptick in the number of people visiting to view the meteorite collection.  Geologists interviewed on weekend news shows championed the importance of government funding for the study of minerals embedded in meteorites—most too small to catch the attention of anyone other than scientists.

Of course, attention also turned to the biggest rock of all—the six-mile wide asteroid that left a 150-mile crater off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula 65 million years ago.  According to a PBS report—and most scientific studies—that unexpected chunk of space junk produced so much dust that it darkened and chilled the earth.  And when the dust settled, the greenhouse gases produced by the impact caused temperatures to sky-rocket, and the two extremes killed 70% of Earth’s plant and animal life.

At the same time that the tiny piece of rock created chaos in Russia, scientists also had their eye on another much bigger asteroid passing within 17,000 miles of Earth.  And every news outlet acknowledged that, as powerful as we human beings are, should such an event happen today, we could do nothing to stop it, just as the dinosaurs could do nothing to prevent their extinction.

Now for a worrier like me, all this hoopla could have shifted my anxiety into high gear—enough to send me over an emotional cliff.  This time, though, the event coincided with Lent, when I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about what the crucifixion means for me in this life and the next. Born into an extended family of evangelicals who filled my mind with the horror of a fiery hell, I was taught that my only measure of control was complete surrender to a God of angry vengeance.

As an adult, I’ve chosen a faith that focuses more on God’s grace.  But it’s taken me a lifetime to put away the fear and anxiety of having so little control.  And now I understand that, for me, focusing so much on the afterlife robs me of the now-life—a sometimes harrowing but mostly joyful journey through an astonishing world.

Writers have been telling us this since the advent of the printed word. Harper Lee’s Miss Maudie described in To Kill a Mockingbird a group of Christians who are so preoccupied with the next world that they’ve forgotten how to live in the present world.  Emily Dickinson wrote that immortality was “So huge, so hopeless to conceive [that] / Parting is all we know of heaven, / and all we need of hell.”

And so I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll try harder to leave the afterlife to God—that I’ll think about it less and make the most of the gift of this present life.  I can no more control how much time I get to have between this known life and that other unknown life than I can change the trajectory of an asteroid that may come crashing into our planet.

But as I focus on the meaning of Lent, the example Christ set for how to live in this world, I understand that I’ve been given a pretty good model.  He broke bread and drank wine with his friends.  He allowed himself the luxury of having his tired feet anointed with expensive oil, even though self-righteous people criticized him for it.  He never forgot the least among us—doing what he could in the time he was given to make a difference for someone in need.  And he found time away from the needy crowd to center himself and commune with the Spirit.

Not a bad example, is it?  Even if you don’t share my faith.  Even if you don’t believe in the afterlife.  Even if you worry about that meteor that might come crashing into the Earth.

So come walk beside me now.  Tell me your stories of the joy of this present journey.

Creation or Evolution?

Frog on Deck

Walking in the evening dusk last summer, my husband and I disturbed the play of three young boys when our dog, smelling something in the air, began to bark furiously.  Our sheltie tugged insistently on his leash, lunging toward a bucket on the ground that had captivated the boys’ attention until we interlopers showed up.

My husband put the dog into a sit-stay, and when the dog was calm again, we apologized to the boys.

The youngest, not quite old enough to be in school yet, reached into the bucket and pulled out something between his cupped hands.  “Look what we’ve got!” he exclaimed.

He opened his hands just a sliver, and my husband smiled.  “A smelly toad,” he teased.  “Better be careful.”

“Nuh-uh,” said one of the older boys.  “It’s a frog!”  He turned to his brother.  “Show him,” he commanded.

The Keeper of the Frog opened his hands a little more.  “See,” he said, “its back feet are webbed.  It’s a frog!”

“Impressive,” I said, smiling.  We would have stayed to hear more—we live in an adjoining neighborhood, an “active adult community” that has no children except for the occasional visiting grandchild who has no reason to come out in search of other children.

But the dog was beginning to twitch, so we apologized again for his bad behavior and bid the boys farewell, grinning as we turned back to our own community.

A few days later, I wandered onto our second-story deck with my morning coffee to join my husband, who generally gets up earlier than I do on weekends.  As I came out the door, he smiled at me and pointed to the corner of the deck, where a tiny creature sat near my pot of basil.

I leaned over and peered at him.  “How the heck did he get up here?” I asked my husband.

“I guess he climbed up the bricks,” he answered.

Remembering the boys, I asked, “He’s a frog, right?”

“A tree frog, I think,” my husband answered as I went back into the house to get the camera.  And since I’m a long way from elementary school science, I also did some research later that day to find that telling the difference between a frog and a toad is a little more complex than just checking for webbed feet, since some frogs don’t have webbed feet.  I also discovered that tree frogs actually have little suction cups on their feet that allow them to climb.

The little guy—or gal, since my investigation didn’t get that far—visited us several times last summer, and our guess is that it came in search of the water we poured over the basil—not a good sign for our ecosystem, we didn’t think, considering we live next to green space that borders a protected stream.

I promptly forgot our visitor until this week, when a friend of mine who is an atheist posted on social media a picture of Darwin with the caption, “We’ll let you teach creationism in our schools when you let us teach evolution in your churches.”

And it occurred to me yet again, in what each time seems an epiphany to me, that people on those either/or extremes forget that many, many, many of us occupy the space in the middle.  I’m a Christian.  I believe in evolution.  I don’t see the two as mutually exclusive.  And I don’t see any reason to teach the biblical story of creation in a science classroom.

I’m an English teacher.  I’ve read and taught the literature that we collectively refer to as “creation stories”—some of which we refer to as “creation myths.”  I understand that many religions of the world have gone the way of myth as science has explained that we don’t need a god to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky.  And as we come to a fuller understanding of our world, scientists and theologians continue to try to explain the mystery and the complexity of a world we will never fully understand.

For now, I choose to believe in a Father-Mother God big enough to create complex creatures that can evolve as the need arises—a God too big to be boxed in by people on either side who think they know with certainty how our world came into existence.  Why shouldn’t I believe in such a God?  Do any parents ever expect that the children they birth will stay as they are at that moment when their infants slip-slide their way into this beautiful, intricate world?

I know I’m not the only person in this world who believes that contradictions can coexist and that we can, in fact, celebrate those contradictions.

So, dance with me.  Let’s strike a chord against dissonance.  Sing to me in three-part harmony.  Tell me your stories of the in-between.

Who’s Your Bestest Friend?

Donut

Monday, ice that caused closings and delays. Tuesday, an accident.  Wednesday, another accident.  Thursday, flooding that closed two of the three routes I can take to work.  Today, I have no idea what the problem was, but it slowed traffic to a crawl and turned my 40-minute commute into a 70-minute pressure-cooker.

My blood pressure high, I greeted the secretaries with frustration: “That’s 70 minutes of my life I’m never getting back!”

But I still got a premium parking spot—on the end where I can park far enough from the next spot so that no one will ding my doors or scrape a bag the entire length of my car, which happens with frequency in a large office building where everyone is in a hurry.  That means that I was one of the earliest arrivals.  And yet when I arrived, all five secretaries in our office suite were already at their desks, cheerful and welcoming.

As the staff of teacher specialists and supervisors straggled in, the secretaries greeted us with unfailing optimism.  And once everyone had arrived, one secretary brought out heart-shaped donuts glazed in chocolate in celebration of another secretary’s birthday.  Another made a chocolate chip pie from scratch, which the birthday celebrant shared with everyone in the office.  At lunch, the secretaries all gathered around a desk in the center of the open space where they all work to have lunch together.  But they never left the office, as the rest of us do when one of us has a birthday, and they interrupted their lunch to take turns answering the phone whenever it rang.

When I worked in a school, I thought that those who worked in the district office took long lunches at fine restaurants.  I was wrong.  The last time my team went out to lunch, a distant memory at this point, we went to a chain sandwich place for a team member’s birthday and were back to work within an hour.  And even that is more time than the secretaries take—ever.

The school system just paid Gallup to conduct a survey about the engagement of our work force.  When we filled out the survey, we all laughed at one question, which asked us to strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the statement, “I have a best friend at work.” When we talked about it, most people rolled their eyes and said that they stopped using the term “best friend” after adolescence.

I use the term—to refer to my husband and one or two very dear friends. But most of my colleagues, especially the men, said they didn’t use the term at all.  And while I found myself wondering how much the school system paid Gallup to do the poll, I was curious about the results.  As you can imagine, that question had, by far, the lowest rate of agreement.

So, no, I don’t have a best friend at work.  But this morning, I was grateful for the secretaries, who always ask how my morning is going and who gave me a heart-shaped donut with chocolate frosting on a morning when I sorely needed a pick-me-up.

So tomorrow it’s back to a healthier diet….as soon as I leave the pasta cooking class that I’m going to in the afternoon with three of my bestest friends—my daughter, my sister-in-law, and my niece.

But it’s nice to get through the week with colleagues who, while we may not be best friends, care about each other.

So tell me your stories of friends, good friends, and best friends.

Blue Monday?

Duracho

Monday.  Even though I like my current job and loved teaching when I was in the classroom, I’ve never felt thrilled when the alarm sounds on a Monday morning, heralding the beginning of the work week.  Today was particularly difficult for me.  The air damp and gray, I began the day with sleet that delayed the work day for many in the D.C. area.  I reset the alarm and slept for an extra hour, so I tried to be grateful, thanking God in my morning quiet time for the extended sleep and the much-needed rain.

But it was still Monday when I backed my car out of the garage—a garage for which I was grateful on such a cold and dreary morning.  It was still Monday when I got to the school where I was helping out a group of teachers.  I thanked God for getting me through the 40-minute commute safely.  But then I felt sorry for myself when I walked through the exuberant teenagers in the halls, who made me miss teaching as they do every time I visit a school.  But then I remembered that having a job where I don’t have to grade essays every weekend has given me time to write a book and create this web site and blog.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I spent the morning bouncing back and forth between feeling blue and giving myself a pep talk about how great my life is.  I suspect a lot of us do this.  We know that we live in the wealthiest country in the world, a country that has less than 5% of the world’s population but almost 40% of the world’s wealth.

But it’s still Monday even after we give ourselves a pep talk.  And yesterday at my church, the bulletin proclaimed it as the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Simply put, ordinary time is that time in the church calendar that has nothing to do with the Big Two—Christmas and Easter.

So here we are, on just another ordinary Monday.  The babe has been born, the tree has gone out in the recycling, and the stories of my faith have turned to Christ’s ministry in the world.  Today’s readings were anything but ordinary.  The psalms spoke of finding refuge in the shadow of God’s wings, a God who is “gracious and merciful…slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”  And the Gospel reading from Mark, Chapter 5 told stories of Jesus’ kindness to two very different people—a woman who is convinced she’ll be healed if she can just touch Jesus’ clothing and a little girl whose father, a synagogue leader, shows no such certainty but whose prayer for his daughter’s life is answered just the same.

And so I made it through an ordinary Monday, reminded that no day is ordinary for any of us—whether we’re Christian or Jew, Buddhist or Muslim, believer or atheist—when we can reach outside ourselves, touch what we believe in, and find resurrection in our faith.  For it is in staying in touch with what’s within and reaching out to connect with the world that we can know that nothing in this spectacular world is ever truly ordinary.

So tell me your stories of Ordinary Time.

For Whom Are You Grateful Today?

Omar Teachers

I am thinking of Percy Dillard today.  My second grade teacher, Mr. Dillard terrified me at the beginning of the school year that fall of 1963.  He wore a black glove on one hand, which I think he had injured in World War II.  As if that weren’t scary enough, he announced on the first day of school that we would have a spelling test every Friday—and that for every word we missed, we would get a lick with his long wooden paddle, which still looms large in my mind after 50 years.

For first grade, I’d had Mrs. Fenny, a chubby, friendly woman who mothered all of us.  Mr. Dillard had none of her qualities.  He was a black man, the only black teacher in my elementary school, and I only know now how unusual that was, even today—for a second grader to have a teacher who is male and black.

When I came home in tears on the first day of school, my dad thought I was afraid of him because of the color of his skin.  My father had quit school in fifth grade, and his response to my tears was this:  “That man is just the same as you and me.  But he got hisself an education.  You listen to him.”

When I protested to dad that he was scary, that he wore a black glove and planned to paddle us for every missed spelling word, my dad laughed. “Well, then, I guess you won’t be missing any spelling words this year, will you.”

And I didn’t.  Mr. Dillard became less scary each Friday, and I still remember that he told us that we were all equal in his room and that what would set us apart was how hard we worked.

That November, Mr. Dillard stood at the chalkboard, the classroom door open, when Mrs. Fenny came running to the door, tears streaming down her face, and said shrilly, “The president has been shot!”  Mr. Dillard turned slowly to face her and put the chalk down in the tray.  He stepped outside the door and closed it, and we children watched in silence as they talked.

Mr. Dillard returned, sitting heavily at his desk.  He looked at us sadly and said, “Children, our president is gone.  And we’re sending you home to be with your families.”  He watched stoically as we gathered our things and went home to watch the television coverage of the stunning loss of a leader with such promise for the future.

In the past four years, I’ve heard President Obama’s critics say that Jack Kennedy was the last great democratic leader.  But President Kennedy’s critics said much the same thing about him in the years he was in office before a tragic and early death catapulted him to the ranks of the greatest presidents.  And, thinking of that day, it’s hard for me to breathe when President Obama is surrounded by hordes of people, as he is today for the Inaugural Parade.

I wish Percy Dillard had lived to see President Obama inaugurated, but Mr. Dillard died in 2001.  I would never have called him my favorite teacher—I loved the motherly ones who told me how gifted I was.  But I feel fortunate to have spent a year in Mr. Dillard’s class.  He was the only elementary teacher I had to work hard to please.  And he taught me that effort was the great equalizer.

A few years later my dad lost his job, and my family moved to an all-white town in the next county where another coal mine was hiring.  I would not have another African-American teacher or have classes with people of other races until I got to college.  But because of Percy Dillard, I grew up knowing that diversity is a positive thing and that overcoming discrimination in all its insidious forms is essential.

Mr. Dillard, while spell-check now makes it less important never to misspell a word, I know that you taught me far more important lessons.  And I hope you’re up there somewhere today, watching, and knowing that, like President Kennedy and President Obama, you have a legacy.

Just Another Resolution?

Walk on Beach

I made no resolutions this year.  Why?  Because I’ve never kept a single one past the first few weeks of the year.  Had I made a resolution, it would have been the same one that most Americans make—to exercise more, lose weight, and eat a more healthy diet.

The morning news today reported that people who are slightly overweight actually have a lower mortality rate than people whose weight is in the normal range.  Though the authors of the study have no data to suggest why this is the case, they speculate that it’s because people who are overweight but not obese probably see a doctor more often than people who are healthier.

Are you shaking your head yet that money has been spent on a study of the obvious?  Like a lot of us who struggle to keep our weight under control, I try very hard to keep myself out of the obesity range.  My mother, who weighed 98 pounds when she married my father, gave up trying to control her weight in favor of warning my siblings and me to work on losing weight while it was five pounds rather than 50.  She once looked at me and said, “If you ever do gain weight, your legs are going to look just like mine—like chicken drumsticks.”

With that warning in mind, I tried to balance work, parenthood, home-making, and time for myself, just as all of us do—whether we work inside or outside the home.  When I couldn’t manage all of them, guess which one got short shrift?  I love to cook, though I sometimes found myself turning to prepared foods after a challenging day at work.  But given the number of hours in a day, I often found during those years that getting exercise was the one thing I couldn’t get into my schedule.

Two things coincided to change that dynamic.  In the same year that I became an empty-nester, I received a diagnosis of cancer that forced me to see a doctor more frequently—every two weeks at first and now, nine years later, at least every six months, sometimes more often.  At one point during chemotherapy, I lost so much weight that I was wearing my daughter’s size 4 jeans.  Concerned about the weight loss, my doctor encouraged me to eat whatever I could eat until I finished chemotherapy.

And so I did.  And bread was the one thing I could eat consistently.  And as the nausea ended, I continued to eat bread…and chocolate…and…now…I’m back in that overweight range again.  Back in the fall, I decided to eliminate bread and chocolate and to limit wine to weekends.  I lost ten pounds.  But then the holidays approached, offering me lots of opportunities to make excuses to break my new routine.

But when the waistline of my skirt begins to fit more snugly, I start to hear my mother’s voice again, so in the nine years since cancer, my weight and dress size have remained more or less the same.  I have changed my diet—fewer red meats, less fat, more green vegetables.  I generally walk a couple of miles each morning at 5:30—even in the dark of winter—because even though I’m not a morning person, I’ve found that is the one time of day over which I have control.

I’ve also learned that I love the crisp air and the stars and the quiet, the silence broken only by the sound of my footsteps and the jingling of the dog’s tags against his leash.  And if there are a few days of rain or snow, I miss the walking that has now become habit.

So now that the holidays are over, I’ll try to get back to turning down that wine and bread and chocolate a little more often so that it becomes habit.  I’ll take it one day at a time, as I did in September and October.

I’ll laugh ruefully when my British friend posts an altered picture of Michelangelo’s David with a paunch and the caption, “David after being on tour in the United States.”  And I’ll try to keep myself from moving from being overweight to obese.

Is that a resolution?  Maybe.  But I refuse to call it a New Year’s resolution just because my resolve gets a little stronger again after the holidays. Let’s just call it a plan—one that involves a walk on the beach within the hour.  That I can do.

What about you?  What plans do you have for an optimistic new year?