Category Archives: Words and Language

Believe in Unicorns?

Unicorn

I’ve read it, heard it, sung it hundreds of times.  I even wrote about the passage, line by line, in thoughts for the day for my daughter, thinking about every single phrase that speaks to us of love.

I know the history of it—that it is part of a letter Paul wrote to an important city church that considered itself spiritually mature and full of wisdom.  I know that Paul’s words in the rest of the letter have been used for hundreds of years to silence women and justify slavery in churches equally sure of their spirituality and wisdom.

But in spite of knowledge and understanding, in spite of my push and pull relationship with Paul, the writer of most of the New Testament letters, I continue to read it, to admire it, to strive for the kind of love it defines.

First Corinthians 13—the hymn to love—is sung at weddings, read from the pulpit, inscribed on countless scrolls and wall hangings to remind us that love covers a multitude of sins:  “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Paul directly states his meaning, without the figurative language or parables of the holy texts that sometimes confuse us.  But today I understood the obvious—something I’ve never realized in all those hundreds of times I’ve read it—that having love is even greater than having faith.

That it should be part of today’s lectionary was an interesting coincidence (or maybe not a coincidence) for me.  This week one of my friends posted a collage of past presidents in military uniform alongside a picture of former President Clinton in a band uniform and President Obama in a turban.  I challenged him for posting it, and after a back-and-forth that convinced no one of anything, one of his friends resorted to insults, telling me to stop being holier-than-thou and to go on away in search of that unicorn I’m always chasing.

Though I rarely pay attention to the content of her posts, her reaction to mine made me think, especially when I read that verse this morning.  How do I love someone who makes me angry?  How do I live my faith without coming across as the church in Corinth did—and as so many churches do today—as certain that I have all the answers about what it means to seek God?

I try to remind myself every day that finding understanding and wisdom is a journey—that, truly, the best I can do is “see through a glass darkly,” as Paul says in this chapter.  I know that I must keep looking, every day, for how to be the face and hands and feet of God in a world where it’s easy to get sucked into anger and become self-righteous.

But when my faith wavers and I start to believe that maybe I am hoping for a unicorn, love truly is the greatest of these three.  Love—in the faces of the people who love me in spite of my flaws—picks me up and plants my feet on the ground again.  Love makes me believe in the world in spite of all evidence to the contrary.

And so it is this morning that I think about the purest kind of human love I know—my love for the child I carried inside me and brought into the world with unadulterated hope and faith and joy.  Nothing could separate me from the love I feel for her.  Though we may sometimes disappoint each other, we have faith in each other and in the power of our love.

I’ll never feel that kind of love for the person who thinks I’m searching for unicorns.  But I can at least let go of my anger and hope that she can do the same—that we can forgive each other when words offend.

It’s a lofty aim, and it doesn’t mean I have to stop engaging people when I believe they’re being unjust.  But she’s challenged me to live my faith in humility, to hope for a wiser world—and greatest of all, to keep reminding myself that perfect human love is a unicorn worth chasing.

So tell me the stories that give you faith in human love.

Politician or Leader?

Congressman Hechler

That’s me in the middle in the white dress I made for the occasion.

Al Gore was the keynote speaker at a conference I attended in 2006, and he spoke eloquently to a group of teachers and filmmakers about the importance of educating our young people to take better care of the planet.  Having launched Current TV a few months before the conference, Gore touted the importance of connecting our students to technology and film.

Hearing a preview for Gore’s interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Showyesterday morning, I rolled my eyes, picked up my bag of books and my car key, and left my husband to watch Gore hawk his new book.  This evening I learned that Lauer spent more time skewering Gore for his decision to sell Current to Al Jazeera than talking about the book that I won’t be buying.

I grinned, pleased that the interview didn’t go as well as Gore had planned.  He called himself a “recovering politician,” but I’m not entirely convinced he isn’t setting the stage for a presidential run in 2016.  If he does, I won’t be voting for him.

I met Gore at that 2006 conference.  I had practically danced when I got an invitation to a reception after the keynote.  He said in his address that he was eager to talk with educators and filmmakers about how they were teaching young people about issues facing our country.  I watched as he spoke for about a minute with each person—longer with those who had clout at the conference.  I listened politely as he talked with people aspiring to get his attention for their projects.

When it was finally my turn, I shook his hand and introduced myself, and I didn’t get a complete sentence out of my mouth about my students.  As I talked, he looked over my shoulder at a well-known media personality on the other side of the room.  Before I finished the sentence, he said, “Well, good for you,” his feet already in motion to move past me, his hand in the air in a wave to the person over my shoulder.

I had stuck with Al Gore when most of the country thought he was an alarmist about climate change. I stuck with him after the ridicule that followed a campaign comment he made about taking the initiative in “creating the Internet.”  I stuck with him after the debacle of the 2000 election.  By 2006 he had reinvented himself, and I stuck with him as he made fun of himself on late-night shows and found other ways to advocate for the issues that mattered to him.

My mom used to say, when I tried to encourage her to vote, “What’s the use in voting one dirty bunch out and another dirty bunch in?”  I lectured her for her cynicism and badgered her until she started voting again.

But in that moment when Al Gore debunked the myth he’d created about his belief in the importance of great teachers, I understood how my mother felt.  And while I was no fan of President George W. Bush, I was glad that if someone had to lose to him, that someone was the man who had brushed aside a teacher he had claimed to value as the key to the future.  In that moment, for me, Gore ceased to be a leader and became a politician.

I still disagree with my mother about the uselessness of voting, and I think there are leaders in both parties who try every day to live up to their ideals.  But I wish that all of us could have one minute with the candidates—one unfiltered minute.  For me, it took less than a minute for Gore to destroy everything I’d ever heard about him from the media, a few seconds that didn’t even register in his brain.

And I’m glad that as a teenager, I had the opportunity to meet leaders in West Virginia who taught me that some are leaders first and politicians second.  Congressman Ken Hechler sponsored a group of students from my high school for a weekend in Washington.  Though none of us could vote, he took the time to walk around the Capitol with us and to ask each of us questions about our lives and our dreams.  He ushered us into the office of Senator Robert Byrd, who, though he was legendary, invited us to sit down in his office and talked to us about the history that surrounded us.  And after the trip, Congressman Hechler sent us all a personally signed photograph of the group from his district.

I want to believe that we still have leaders like Congressman Hechler and Senator Byrd who believe it’s important to give attention to the least among us.  Do you have stories of such leaders?  I’d love to have you share your stories in a comment.

What Can We Promise?

Ash & Mrs. Hacker

For 2 ½ months now, I’ve been writing in this blog about my belief that the answers to most of our questions and issues aren’t at either extreme but, rather, somewhere in the middle.  I know there are other voices out there who feel the same, but because harmony and compromise don’t sell air time or newspapers or magazines, these are not the voices that are replayed in the media.

Today, on the one-month anniversary of their loss, a group called Sandy Hook Promise—some of them parents who sent their children to school on December 14, not knowing that their lives would never be the same—called today for a sensible conversation on gun control.  They took no position. Instead, they called for meaningful dialogue—called for us to promise to do everything we can “to encourage and support common sense solutions that make my community and our country safer from similar acts of violence.”

I’m humbled.  Four parents spoke at this event, and parents of eleven of the children were present.  One spoke of how she sent two children to school that morning but only one came home.  Another spoke of waiting for her son to come crawl in her bed and cuddle.  As I watched them, I wondered at their strength and thought that, if I were in their position, I’d probably still be in my bed with the covers pulled over my head, hoping that I’d wake up and find it was all a bad dream.

Though this story ran on the evening news, when I looked for more details, I found it nowhere on the front page of the Washington Post online.  Stories about the debt ceiling, check.  Stories of Lance Armstrong (and is anyone really surprised?), check.  Stories of the Golden Globe Awards, check.  And even a story about Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas saying something during oral arguments for the first time in seven years—something that no one heard, followed by endless speculation about what he might have said.

But despite the minimal media coverage of the Sandy Hook Promise, these parents steeled themselves to speak in spite of their pain.  They felt it was important to say that some were not gun owners but that others were—and that those who were gun owners were not afraid to talk about making changes in gun laws.

I keep thinking about what my daughter was like in kindergarten and first grade—about how I missed taking her for her first day of school because I was a teacher.  I have only pictures to remind me of that day.  So I took the day off when it was her turn for her Superstar day, the day her kindergarten teacher honored her, as she did each child in the class, with a bulletin board and a week in which she was the special child in the room. And I do have her—a vibrant 26-year-old who makes me proud every day to be called her mom.

I continue to ache for these parents, whose children are forever frozen for them at that moment in their lives a month ago today.  I pray that these eleven parents—and the others who were not at today’s event—get what they are asking because they deserve that and more for their courage today.

And I hope for all of us.  There are small movements—people who are speaking up in favor of conversation and compromise.  And if these parents can speak from hearts full of pain, we owe it to them to forward their cause.

What can I do?  What can you do?  What can we do together?  Let’s imagine.

Change the Team Name?

Like many of my fellow West Virginians, I’m a mongrel. Had I been asked by my teachers to do a project on my cultural heritage, as is required in some courses in my school system, I would have had a difficult time producing anything that clearly defined my lineage.  Unlike my husband, who knows with certainty that his father was Polish and his mother was Scotch-Irish, I only have vague notions of my parents’ ethnicity.

My dad often said that we had “some Indian blood,” and in the days of my childhood when the cowboys were far more popular on television and in stories, he seemed just as fond of the Indians. He particularly liked the Cherokees, who are native to Southern Appalachia and whose blood flows in many descendants of settlers in the Appalachian and the Great Smoky Mountains. In the few trips Dad took out of West Virginia before he followed my siblings to Richmond, he visited Cherokee, North Carolina to play in high stakes Bingo games and won $20,000 the last time he played. But he was almost as proud of the picture he had taken with an Indian in full headdress as he was of the money he had won there.

I’ve always felt conflicted, then, when the subject of the name of Washington’s football team resurfaces, as it does each year.  This week, the mayor of Washington expressed a wish to see the team move back to the city and change its name because the mascot has become a lightning rod as the worst of the offensive team names.  Subsequently, Washington Postcolumnist Mike Wise suggested that if quarterback RGIII had more character, he’d take up the cause of getting the team to change its name.  I commented on the article, thinking about what I was like as a 22-year-old and wondering if Wise had thought about himself as a 22-year-old when he wrote the article.  That’s a pretty heavy burden to place on someone so young.

At the same time, I’d just finished reading Sherman Alexie’s award winning novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, largely autobiographical, in which he talks about leaving a reservation in Washington state to attend a school that would more likely pave the way for him to go to college.  In numerous interviews, Alexie talks about the lack of education and the epidemic alcoholism among Native Americans on reservations and speaks proudly of the fact that his children have never seen an Indian consume alcohol.  I admire Alexie tremendously, and while his life is very different from my own, like me, he worked very hard to have a better life than his parents had.

This week, before the mayor’s comments and the Post column, I read a comment from Alexie in an interview on the subject of mascot names.  He pointed out that full Indian headdress was part of Native American religious rituals and wondered whether we would tolerate having a priest mascot who ran around the court or the football field in full ceremonial robes.  That may be the best argument I’ve heard yet for changing team names.

I love Washington football.  But as a teacher of language, I’m always bothered when language offends.  So I looked up the derivation of the word “redskin” on Dictionary.com and discovered that, while the first definition lists it as slang that is often offensive, one of the definitions calls it an old-fashioned term that derived from a tribe of Indians that painted their faces with red ochre—not because of the color of their skin.

And since I usually try to bring my blog posts back to where I began, I decided to check the derivation of the word “mongrel.”  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of the definitions, though not the first, listed it as a taboo term for a person of mixed race.

Isn’t that interesting?

So I’ll continue to cheer on the team I love.  But it will always bother me that someone is offended by the mascot of what I consider to be the real America’s Team—not that other one that we defeated handily in the last regular season game—the one that so proudly calls itself by the name of the white people in hats and chaps and spurs who played a part in nearly making Native Americans extinct.

So, as usual, this issue is more complex than the two opposite sides.  I wonder what my dad would have thought?

How Far Have You Traveled?

Oceana from Porch

The World from the Porch of My Childhood Home in Oceana

I love books.  Books remind me of all the places I’ve been—the places my heart has traveled that I might forget until I read a character who travels to a similar place.  Books take me to places I’ve never been—and even now, when technology can show images and carry voices to me from the other side of the world, I still love it when the words on a printed page can conjure worlds and places that dance across my mind.

For a girl like me, who grew up in a coal mining town in the Appalachian Mountains and never saw the ocean until I had my first teaching job, books were and still are a source of awe to me.  And something in my life has always taken priority over traveling to the places I’d love to go—buying my first house, having children, and even now that I can afford to travel, finding a place close enough to allow me to relax and think.  Though we would love to travel, my husband and I have not yet traveled to a single place that requires a passport.  We only acquired passports after one of our children, who’ve traveled far more than we have, said, “What if I decide I want to get married in Italy?  You won’t be able to come to the wedding.”

Though we constantly put off traveling for something that is more important to us, I’ve probably traveled the world through books more than many people who’ve been around the world and back hundreds of times.  And just as they stop in awe as they see the wonders of the world, I often find that a simple word or phrase can take my breath away and make me pause in awe.

Most recently, my mind lingered over a verse that pulled me in—a verse hidden among far more well known ones from Chapter 14 of the Gospel of John, a verse in the same chapter as the words that a lot of Christians have taken to mean that only they can come to God.  Christ is talking to the disciples in that circular way that sometimes makes them crazy—in a wealth of figurative language that makes it difficult for them to understand the nature of his relationship to God.  And then he tells them this very surprising thing:  “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”

I was so skeptical that I went to the Web and read the verse in ten different translations before I could believe what I must have read and heard hundreds of times over the course of my life.

As I’ve been looking beyond teaching and working with teachers to consider my next calling in the world, I hope to be able to do sometimes for others what great authors have done for me—to put words together in a way that will make my readers’ minds linger in places they’ve never been.  But do I believe for even one second that I can do works that are greater than the works of the Christ whose birth I’ll celebrate tomorrow?  Words fail me in trying to describe where my brain goes as I think about that.  I want to laugh out loud, to put an exclamation point here, to somehow let you know how much the thought of that boggles my mind.

And then I do laugh out loud, knowing that I’m joyful when even one or two friends or strangers tell me that this blog has helped them or made them think.  But what if I could somehow bring myself to believe the extraordinary promise of that verse?  What if all of us came to believe in the extraordinary power of a single human in a world in so much need?

So while I still hope to use that passport to see places I’ve never seen, I also value going back to the places I’ve been, seeing treasures hidden in the sand of that ocean I didn’t see until I was 22.  And that’s why I’ll continue to travel the holy texts of my faith and the writing of the great authors I treasure.  Perhaps somehow, with all the mind-boggling force of the great thinkers who have come before me, I can somehow build on what they’ve done and make a difference in my world, the way that Christ made a difference in his.

Over and over again, writers speak to me long after I’ve put their books back on the shelf of my library or in the archive of my e-reader.  I hear their words, dancing in my head, and they give me hope.

So tell me a favorite quote of a great prophet or writer or thinker that dances in your head.  Tell me the words that take you to far-away places in search of the awe of a better world.

Which Characters Speak to You?

Patapsco River

When you read, which characters do you identify with?  The books I most love aren’t necessarily the ones with an interesting plot but the ones with interesting people who speak to my spirit on a human level.  In high school I loved Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Dickens’ Pip, poor people who found their way into a world where they didn’t have to worry about material need, only to find that such a world didn’t ensure happiness.  In college I loved the quirky characters of Eudora Welty, whose stories would have been sad without the funny southerners who made me laugh.  And when my first marriage fell apart, I turned to the strong women in Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison.

In the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the characters in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, which I read again last spring.  I love the spunk of the 14-year-old narrator Lily, who, like me, witnessed a scene of gun violence when she was a small child that shaped the course of her life.  I love the three sisters, named for months of the year—August, June, and May.  But it is May who haunts me.  She is the tender-hearted one.  When she hears of tragedy, she writes on pieces of paper the names of people who’ve been hurt and stuffs the papers into the crevices of a stone wall behind her home.  When she becomes too overwhelmed with the sadness of others, her sisters give her a bath in honey water and tell her, “Let all that misery slide right off of you.  Just let it go.”  They’ve learned that the human heart can only embrace so much suffering.  But she can’t let it go.  In one of the most powerfully symbolic scenes I’ve ever read, she trudges to the river, lies down with a rock on her chest, and drowns in the sorrows of the world.

Even before the tragedy in Connecticut, our nation was burdened with too much suffering, and in the 24-hour news cycle, it’s become even harder to tuck the agony of others into crevices where we can let them go for a while.  When the Columbine tragedy happened, my daughter was just about to enter high school, and I sat in front of the news for hours, often watching the same clips replay, until my daughter begged me to turn off the television and leave the misery behind.  By the time the senseless tragedy of 9/11 happened, I had learned that I needed to be strong for my daughter and my students, who no longer felt safe in a world so violent and unpredictable.  Now my daughter is 26 and living with her boyfriend, a young man who knows what it is to suffer the loss of his mother, a young man who served our country in Iraq.  He now reminds my daughter, as she reminds me and as August and June remind May, that she has to actively seek joy in a world where pain is so much more pervasive.

But I feel more than a little guilt in seeking joy this week before Christmas when there are parents and sisters and brothers and loved ones who are suffering so much in the wake of the latest tragedy.  How do I help them, as President Obama promised we would?  What can I do but offer them my prayers and weep with them?  Is it too much to ask that, this once, I sit in front of the television and grieve?  But how do I do that without becoming like May and drowning in their sorrows?

In a passionate condemnation of the news media, actor Morgan Freeman suggested that we turn off the news, forget the name of the gunman, and, instead, remember the name of one of the victims of the Sandy Hook shootings.  I’m not sure I agree that we should forget the shooter’s name.  I suspect that he, too, has a story fraught with pain and suffering that will come to us in due time.  But we do need to remember these victims somehow—in a way that will spur us to make a small difference in the life of one person who is in need—but in a way that will not make us so overwhelmed that we are paralyzed by fear and anger and sorrow.

I’ve heard many pundits say that tragedies and disasters are always followed by an outpouring of support that reveals the goodness of humanity.  And we know that is true.  But what if I vow to find a way not just to show the face of God and of love in the wake of human suffering but to look for ways to be the face of love in the world every day, to listen and look a little more closely to a world in need?  What if all of us vowed to find a small way each day to be an instrument of God’s peace?

If we all vow to do that, we won’t have a perfect world.  But the rock will certainly be easier to carry.

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?

What’s Your Favorite Color?

Tree at FPHC

What’s my favorite color?  When someone asks me this question, I can never give a definitive answer.  Is it the azure blue of the sky?  The bright pink of a spring azalea?  The emerald green of the hummingbird that hovers near the feeder on the deck?  Are you talking about clothing?  If so, I love to wear black and cherry red and royal purple and…
 
…never is my answer in any shade of orange.  And yet this tree, surrounded by the pumpkins our church’s youth sell every October to fund their mission trips never ceases to make me hold my breath in awe when I see it each fall.
 
And when I see this tree in all its splendor, it makes me wonder how often we miss out on something spectacular because we look first for the shades of life that we already know we like–the colors that are comfortably pleasing to us.
 
It occurs to me that human beings come in all sorts of intriguing colors–not skin colors–though those, too, can come in all sorts of interesting shades.  But what if I looked for the spectacular “colors” in the personalities of the people I meet–the people who don’t necessarily fit the rainbow spectrum I love at first sight?
 
It’s an interesting question.  And I suspect I’ll never like olive drab or lime or fifty shades of gray, but I think I’ll commit to looking more closely at the shades of orange.
 
What’s your favorite color?