Duck Sunset

Excited to spend New Year’s Eve on the Outer Banks, I leapt from bed the minute the alarm went off this morning.  I took the dog outside, brought him in, filled his bowl with food, and turned on the television as I do almost every morning.  My cheer promptly evaporated when I heard the lead news story about how pharmaceutical companies minimized the risks associated with opiate pain medications.  Now, according to the news report, overdoses of prescription drugs have replaced illegal substances as the leading cause of overdose deaths.

Since I often feel that the 24-hour news cycle has done our collective psyche more harm than good, I’ve learned that I have to walk away sometimes from tragedies that are replayed repeatedly even when there’s no new information.  So I left the room, sad beyond measure and more than a little angry at the drug companies that have profited by creating a generation of addicts.

But this wasn’t a story in a far-away place that I could dismiss by turning off the television or putting down the morning paper, which also carried the report.  Like many others, I could have told this story long before it appeared in the media.  I grew up in Oceana, West Virginia, a town that has come to be nicknamed Oxyana because of the devastating effects of addiction painkillers on its residents.  And like many families, my own family has suffered pain that, rather than being eased, has been exacerbated exponentially by the addiction these legal drugs have caused. In 2007, my younger brother traveled from one medical facility to another, gathering over 300 painkillers.  He died in my mother’s guest bedroom, after months of draining her savings account, with six different prescription painkillers in his system.

I adored my brother—the one I knew before he hurt his back and got his first prescription for pain medication from a Veterans’ Administration doctor—a brother almost unrecognizable in the addict he became.  Though he had partied so much he never made it through college, he had many years of being a productive adult—a man with a good job, a wife, and two children he loved fiercely.  None of that was strong enough to save him, and he would have been homeless had my mother not taken him in, though she was powerless to help him.

My youngest sibling is headed down the same path, unable to stay clean for any length of time.  He shared our brother’s drugs and feels guilty that he lives while his closest sibling died.  The health problems resulting from his abuse of his body have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in treatments and hospital stays that have given my remaining siblings and me a very personal glimpse into why health care costs keep sky-rocketing.

So after hearing the news report, I got into the car with a heavy heart.  My husband and I had planned a stop to visit my mother on the way to the beach, and I had found a plastic snow globe picture frame to give her.  In it, I’d placed two pictures—one a family picture of my siblings and me with our parents at a happy Christmas years ago, the other a picture of my mother’s six grandchildren.  Both were taken the last Christmas we were all together.

When we arrived at the nursing home, my mother’s eyes lit up, and she reached out to touch my face and kiss me on the cheek.  Her gaze falling on the snow globe, she took it from my hands and turned it over, doing her best to shake it.  She held the globe out for the nursing assistant to see, saying, “This is my baby girl.  She’s a teacher.”  I marveled, as I do each time I see her, that she can get out that one clear sentence, though when the assistant asked her my name, my mom was at a loss, repeating only “my girl” in a garbled string of chatter.

Sitting with Mom for a few hours, I was reminded, when she pointed to one foot that had slipped off the footrest, of how much pain she has endured from the lymphedema in her legs.  And now that she is nearing the end of her long journey of illnesses, I’m grateful for the Hospice staff that ensures she gets the palliative care she needs to help her be as free of pain as possible.

So the medication that took away my brother’s life has also made my mother’s leaving of this life more bearable.  And I’m reminded again of how few things in this world come in black and white, good and evil—of how the problems we face as a nation are complicated.

And so this once, I think I’ll be grateful if a 24-hour news-hungry media machine keeps this issue churning until we begin to seek help for those who can still be saved.

There is hope.  My pain was assuaged a little when we arrived at the beach just in time for another spectacular sunset.  And when we came back inside from watching the sun set, where my husband had set his iPhone on shuffle, Van Morrison sang out a reminder:  “Whenever God shines His light on me / Opens up my eyes so I can see / When I look up in the darkest night / I know everything’s going to be alright.”

Coincidence?  Maybe.  But I choose to think not.

Tell me your stories of unexplainable hope that is a Presence in moments of pain.

Back to Reality?

Crocheted Snowflake

A View through Mom’s Crocheted Snowflake

On the morning of December 26th of nearly every Christmas I spent at home, I’d get out of bed at my parents’ house to find Mom in the living room, surrounded by old boxes, the tree already bare again on one side.  I’d stand in the doorway, hands on my hips, exasperated that she had declared an end to the season.  But our house was tiny, and after I lived on my own in apartments that were bigger than the house where I grew up, I assumed that she just wanted her house back—that she didn’t want to share precious space with a tree that no longer had anything useful to offer.

One year, having grown up enough to look beyond myself, I asked her why she always took down the tree so soon after Christmas.  She turned from the tree, Santa ornament in hand, and looked from the ornament to me before she bent to put him into the box.  “I just think the tree is so sad once there aren’t any presents under it.”

I think of her now, as I sit before the tree trimmed with her crocheted snowflakes in a house suddenly quiet again.  Our children have gone in all directions to see other people they love before two of them leave to go back to the other side of the country.  But technology has allowed us to stay connected to them in a way my mom was only able to take advantage of for a couple of years before she was debilitated by a stroke.  During those two years, she was the oldest person I knew who used Facebook.

And in a few days, I know we’ll all be back to reality, back to the everydayness of life.  The babe in the manger will be a toddler who commands his mother’s full attention as he learns to walk and talk and be in a world that sees him only as another child.  The Gospels, written by men whose concerns in those days did not include caring for toddlers, tell us almost nothing of what life was like for Mary, the fully human woman who gives birth to a baby that is fully human, fully divine.  I like to imagine scenes that never appear in the Gospels, scenes where Joseph wonders if he’s ever going to have quiet time with his wife again, where Mary feels the human exasperation of dealing with a child who walks before he understands the meaning of the word no, where Jesus feels the constraints of a mother who doesn’t understand yet what he’s meant to do in the world.

We won’t see Jesus in the stories again until he’s twelve, on the verge of his teens and being just a little sassy with his mother when she finds him in the temple and asks him just what he thinks he’s doing worrying the life out of his parents.  I love that scene because it helps me to imagine a child and his mother not so different from us—engaged in the everydayness that comes after the joy of birth, the ordinariness that encompasses all the challenges and all the love of being a family.

For me, this is what God with us means—not just the in-awe divinity of Christmas but the in-the-muck humanness of our ordinary days.  By imagining what those lost years of Jesus’ childhood and young adulthood must have been like, I can think more clearly about breaking away from my own mother, about having my children challenge me, about facing the demands each day of being human in a world of other humans.

And so, for now, I love writing here in the soft glow of the white lights as the snow falls gently outside.  The tree will stay up a little while longer than my mother ever allowed.  We’ll enjoy a few more moments of having our children with us in the flesh, and then we’ll go back to the everydayness of our lives—sometimes challenging, sometimes uncomplicated.  But always, always connected by a love that is wonderfully human, wonderfully divine.

So tell me your stories of the ordinary after the extraordinary

How Hard Can It Be?

Ash and Mom

Parenting is hard.

Parenting is challenging, demanding, formidable, Herculean.

There.  Consider yourself warned.  I often hear parents say that no one tells them how hard it is to be a parent—most recently yesterday from a parent dealing with a child super-charged by too much sugar and too little sleep.  I’m sure I said the same thing myself, especially when my most important work as a mom began after an exhausting day of teaching the children of others.

Both English teachers, my first husband and I didn’t want children when we married.  When asked why, repeatedly, by parents who we were certain just wanted us to be as miserable as they seemed, we answered, “We’re with kids all day.  Why would we want to go home to kids?”

Instead, we got a dog, a recalcitrant black cocker spaniel we named Chaucer, after that always irreverent and sometimes crude author of The Canterbury Tales.  Geoffrey Chaucer would have been amused.  His namesake cocked his leg and peed on every plant in the house and snarled at anyone who came near his food.  We never took him to obedience training, and we were forever yelling, “Stop that!”  But he was beautiful in spite of his atrocious behavior.  We would hug him and stroke that shiny black coat and melt into his puppy eyes.

I remember the reaction of our dentist, who was always telling us how important he thought it was for us to bring children into the world, for reasons we thought were less than sound.  He belly-laughed when he heard about the dog.  “That’s the first step,” he said.  “Next you’ll be having a baby.”

And though it wasn’t quite that simple, he was right.  We did change our minds, and a couple of years later we brought a beautiful daughter into the world.  Well…to be honest, she wasn’t exactly beautiful at first.  She was long and skinny and had a head so much larger than her tiny body that I tease her now that she looked like E.T. when she was born.  But like all parents, we thought she was the most precious baby ever conceived.

A few years later, on the verge of divorce and overwhelmed at the thought of parenting separately, her father and I couldn’t bear the thought of taking on one more responsibility when we talked about custody of the dog.  We found a good home for Chaucer—on a farm where he could run and fart and bark in gloriously open space that we could never offer him.

But there was never any question that we’d share the care of our daughter.  And the only thing that saved us from the ugly custody fights that envelop some couples was that, in spite of our anger, our love for her was greater than our animosity toward each other.

So, in a stroke of luck for humanity, if you’re reading this and asking yourself whether you should bring a child into the world, you won’t heed the warning I’ve given you.

Yes, parenting is the most formidable job you’ll ever have.  If you’re thinking about taking up the challenge, I recommend getting a puppy.  And if you’re really unsure, do your homework about the best breed to prepare you for such work—the one that is the hardest to housebreak, the most rambunctious, and the poorest at listening.  Enroll the puppy in an obedience class, as I did with the dogs that came after Chaucer, where you’ll learn that it’s not really the puppy that gets the training—it’s you.

Then multiply a thousandfold the challenges you face and the love you feel for that little guy when you look into his puppy eyes.  And you may have some idea of what it’s like to be a parent.

And though some of us might say we’d forego parenting if we had it to do over again, I suspect that most of us would still make the same decision. And we’ll still say, in the moments that try us, “Nobody told me that being a parent was this hard.”

Most young parents are afraid to be honest with others about the demands of our children.  Most of us are too insecure about our failings to admit the challenges even to our own families.  But, trust me, there are no perfect children in this world—just parents who want others to think their children are perfect.

So how hard can it be?  You tell me.  And then tell me a story of joy that outweighs the challenges.

Find Peace Together?

Lord, as I celebrate the birth of Jesus, please make me an instrument of your peace. Please let this be the year that we begin to find peace together.

This is my prayer–for Christmas, for every day. So today, I wish you a peaceful Christmas, whether or not you share my faith.  And I offer these, some of my favorite words of Christ, and I hope that, in return, my friends of other faiths will share their own holy texts of peace, that we may begin to see and seek what is best in all of us.
“Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’” Luke 10:5
“As [Jesus] came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace!’” Luke 19:41-42a
“While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” Luke 24:36
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” John 14:27
“Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.’” John 20:21
“Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” John 20: 26
May it be so for us, children who long for a more peaceful world.  Peace be with you!

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.

What Lens Helps You See God?


On my last day of work before the holiday, a colleague sat at a meeting trying not to cough on those of us at the table with him.  He apologized in advance if any of us end up sick on Christmas, which everyone else celebrates.  He’s Jewish, married to a Christian, and his family celebrates both Christmas and Hanukkah.  His children were sick for part of Hanukkah, and it looks now as if he and his wife will be sick on Christmas.

I shifted my chair a little and laughed nervously.  “I’ve only had one cold in the nine years since I had cancer because the nursing staff taught me to wash my hands fanatically during chemo.”

He smiled and shifted his chair back from the table a little.

“Hey,” I said, “I even use that antibacterial lotion at church after the passing of the peace.”

Another colleague, also Christian but from another denomination, asked, “What’s the passing of the peace?”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise but then realized that the evangelical church of my childhood didn’t engage in this ritual either.  “It’s a point in the service when you shake hands with others in the congregation and say, ‘Peace be with you,’ and they answer, ‘And with you.’  Some people in our congregation don’t even shake hands during cold and flu season,” I explained.  “I do, but then I use hand sanitizer because the nurses taught me to do that during chemo.”

“Wow,” he said, “then you don’t even want to know how my church does communion.”

“How’s that?” I asked, fascinated as always by the traditions of others. “Do you use a common cup?”  He nodded.  “But doesn’t the priest wipe off the chalice between congregants?”

He shook his head.  “And it’s not a chalice.  It’s the same spoon.”

“Hmmm,” I said, tilting my head to think about that.

We went back to work, but I’ve been thinking a lot about that conversation in the past 24 hours.  Yesterday evening one of my Facebook friends vented about gun control.  Though my daughter tells me it’s useless to discuss politics on social media, I responded, since my friend and I respect each other and sometimes come to understand each other better when we tell the stories that led us to have the views we hold.  But one of his friends went on a tirade about how we wouldn’t have such a violent world if we went back to having school prayer.

Many of my friends who are far more reasonable than this person agree with him.  But after 30 years in the classroom, I understand, in a way that many of my friends do not, what that would ask of children who are not Christian.  I think particularly of two girls on the debate team I coached who were Muslim.  Debate meets went on for hours, and we always scheduled these two girls around their evening prayer time.  Very quietly, they would go to a room that we had set aside for them and pray as their faith demanded.  They made no one uncomfortable.  They simply observed the tenets of their own faith quietly, without fuss or show.

In my entire life, I have not known a single Christian who is so devoted to prayer as were these two young women.  One of them went on to become a teacher, a woman who patiently explained why she wore a head covering and who, after September 11, explained endlessly that not all Muslims are terrorists.

And if we were in the minority, I wonder how we would feel if we were suddenly asked to participate in the rituals of someone else’s faith.

So in this season when our world is so much in need of a shared peace that we cannot pass to one another with a few words and a handshake, I wonder how we can find a way to share respectfully the lenses through which we are able to see God—to live in peace with one another in spite of our differences.

I see God through the lens of that babe in the manger who grew into a man who urged conscience and compassion.  He has been and is my salvation, over and over again, as I try to live up to the example Christ set for me. And when I read the stories in the Gospels in search of truth for my own life, I read again and again of how he shared meals and conversations with people that others dismissed.

And I wonder what our world would be like if each of us could do the same—not to sit in judgment but to share the good news of our own lives with one another in search of a shared peace.

So peace be with you.  And now tell me your stories of passing on peace to others.

What Brings You Comfort and Joy?

Ash at Christmas

Images of children have been playing behind my closed eyelids this week—images of those dear children in Connecticut—as I’m sure they have for all of us, long after we’ve turned off the television sets.  But I see them sleeping peacefully or waking to dance in joy at the Spirit’s feet, for I can hardly bear to think of them in any other way.  And I pray that their parents can call up images of their children before this terrible tragedy, for I know that my sadness cannot even begin to approach what their loved ones feel.

The pictures I’ve seen in the media have become like the images we see when we’ve looked at the sun for too long and then closed our eyes to still see their silhouettes.  So I’ve been trying to honor their memory and assuage my own sorrow by imagining visions of children dancing from foot to foot in excitement, clapping their hands in delight, squealing happily in the way that only children can do.

I turn to happy memories of my own daughter, who is 26 now and full of life and the promise of young adulthood, and to my stepchildren, one of whom has given us our first grandchild.  As I imagine every parent must, I fight back the fear at how easy it is to have our children torn from us.  Even as I write this, I realize I’m holding my breath as I think about it.

And then I make myself breathe.  And a wave of guilt washes over me that I’ll be able to return to my life, to breathe normally, long before those children’s loved ones who’ve suffered such loss.  How can I be joyful when there is such suffering?  And then I remember a lesson that cancer taught me:  If the fear of dying takes away the joy of living, then tragedy wins.  And I know that it’s okay for me to anticipate laughter and happiness as our children gather in the coming days.

Perhaps this year, more than I’ve ever considered before, I’m thinking of the child in the manger whose life ends in both tragedy and hope.  I think often of a poem I read in college by Howard Nemerov, a former poet laureate, who writes:

Somewhere on his travels the strange Child

Picked up with this overstuffed confidence man,

Affection’s inverted thief, who climbs at night

Down chimneys, into dreams, with this world’s goods.

Bringing all the benevolence of money,

He teaches the innocent to want…

…Now, at the season when the Child is born

To suffer for the world, suffer the world,

His bloated Other, jovial satellite…

This annual savior of the economy

Speaks in parables of the dollar sign:

Suffer the little children to come to Him.

At Easter, he’s anonymous again,

Just one of the crowd lunching on Calvary.

This poem was the beginning of my understanding that not everyone views Christmas through my glasses–that the chubby Santa of my mother, who couldn’t always put the world’s goods under the Christmas tree, represented something very different to the world at large.  But most of all, that reference to the Baby Jesus as a “strange Child” really made me think—about how others view my faith but, more than that, how strange it really is that my faith begins with an innocent baby and could have ended with an instrument of torture.

But it hasn’t.  Whatever one believes about Christ and about what Christians have done to Christmas, for 2000 years our faith has been a search for life.  Abundant life.  It begins in hope.  It sometimes ends in tragedy we can’t even begin to understand.  And in the intervening days and years, most of us do the best we can to bear the pain and celebrate the joy.  And my prayer for the survivors in Connecticut, still in the in-between, is that they can bear the loss, remember the pleasure, and some day, beyond the crucifying tragedy, find hope and life.

We are stronger in bearing pain when we know that others weep and pray for us.  But let us remember, too, that we grow stronger in hope and love by celebrating and sharing our moments of wonder at the beauty of life.

So what brings you tidings of comfort and joy?

Are We Prejudiced?

Harper's Ferry Church

Like most liberals, I like to think I don’t have prejudices.  I have friends of different races—close enough to vacation together.  I have friends of other faiths—close enough to share our faith traditions.  I believe knowing people who come from backgrounds different from my own enriches my life and my understanding of the world.

But occasionally something happens that forces me to admit that I, too, have prejudices.  Like today.  I read in this morning’s paper that Westboro Baptist, the church that pickets at military funerals and believes that tragedies are God’s judgment, plans to protest at the Newtown funerals.

I held my breath as the blood rose to my head.  I was livid.  I became a child again as I read the page, transported back to my early years among church leaders who preached so hard about God’s wrath that they had to gasp for breath in the middle of every sentence.

Reading the string of angry comments from both people who attacked the church members and people who responded by attacking the attackers, I became even more incensed, caught up in a vicious cycle of anger.  I wanted to respond in the same rabid tone to people who I feel have tried to hijack my faith.  And in that moment, I knew that I had a visceral loathing of people who are absolutely certain they know the mind of God.

I took a breath.  And I remembered that Christ, too, got angry—angry enough to knock over tables in a place of worship.  But we don’t really know how that worked out for him because the story shifts immediately to how he helped the blind and the lepers, who deserved his—and our—attention far more than people like this do.

What did work for him, though, was that he often outsmarted the religious leaders who asked him questions just to try to trip him up.  And he did it by quoting their own holy texts back to them and leaving them with a question.

I could do that.  I’ve read the Bible three times in three different translations, and though I have forgotten many of the stories, I’ve read the Gospels again and again—many more than three times.  And never once have I seen a glimpse in the stories of the small god of Westboro Church.

And while I suspect that they will no more listen to me than the know-it-alls in Jesus’ time listened to him, perhaps I’ll try his approach.  Whenever I have the chance to challenge such people, I will swallow my prejudice and challenge them in the same tone that Jesus used when he calmly drew in the sand with a stick before he gave them answers that have reverberated for over 2000 years.

And though I find this church group ludicrous for their web site URL and their clownish videos insisting that God hates, I will tell the stories of how God’s love has come to me many times in my life through the very people they say God hates—through my lesbian girlfriend who drove me to social events when my family didn’t have a car, through my gay pastor who prayed with my family when I had surgery for Stage 3 cancer, through a lesbian neighbor who takes care of my dog when I must leave town to be with my ailing mother, through a lesbian colleague who gave me her mother’s secret recipe for Chocolate Ganache Torte because she wanted me to have it when she was no longer around, almost as if she sensed that she would die an early death a few years later.

Through people who, if I took out the words identifying their sexuality, you would assume to be no different from me than in their eye color or the length of their limbs.

We all have stories.  And our stories are stronger than hate—stronger than small, hate-filled gods and idols.  So let us tell our stories, again and again, even when we feel they can’t hear them.  And maybe 2000 years from now, our descendants will tell stories about how the Spirit became flesh through the love reflected in our faces and in our voices and in our stories.

So come now, tell me your stories of grace and love.

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.

How Does a Five-Year-Old Live after a Gun?


I know what it’s like to be a five-year-old staring into the face of a deranged gunman.  I know the fear and confusion that paralyzes me still as I close my eyes and see again my eight-year-old sister pushing me under the bed and crawling in after me. I know what it’s like to watch a gunman’s feet as he paces back and forth, waving a hunting rifle recklessly, threatening to kill us and then kill himself.
This is my earliest childhood memory.  It has shaped my life—the person I’ve become, the way I look at the world, the way I think of children, the way I feel every time another human being with a gun comes unhinged.  The gunman was my father, and at the end of a drunken weekend, he would have no memory of terrorizing his family.
I am a survivor—one of the fortunate ones.  I don’t know what it’s like to die and look back at this earth at the people I’ve left behind.  I don’t know what it’s like to lose a loved one to the bullet of a gun.  But I do know what it’s like to lose a brother to drug addiction and see another brother become homeless, victims of another kind at the hands of a world that has no idea how to help any of us.
No law enforcement official ever even bore witness to the story I’ve only begun to tell fifty years later, despite the fact that our neighbors knew it was happening.  So my father was never challenged for his actions, left to deal with his own demons.
But neither does he fit the portraits we paint of deranged people in possession of guns.  He was a coal miner who labored every day so that the children he held at gunpoint would get the education he didn’t have.  He was a complex man, shaped by his own childhood and by parents who allowed him to quit school in fifth grade.  When he was sober, he loved his children and wanted us to have a better life, though he had no idea how to make that happen.
The hunting rifles my father owned were legal.  And they put meat on our table when my father lost his job and the food stamps he got from the federal government would only pay for pinto beans and canned vegetables and milk.
As I watch the controversy yet again that always unfolds in the aftermath of the slaughter of innocents, I know that angry people on both sides who are shaped by their own stories will shout at each other until their voices are gone.  But I also know that we will never solve the problems that lead to human tragedy until we begin to paint the debate in all the complex colors of human emotion.
So don’t just tell me your opinions.  Tell me the stories that colored them black or white.  Then I may understand you.  Then we may begin to hear each other.