Breath of Heaven?

Mom and Dad

Yesterday Hospice advised my siblings and me that we might want to gather around our mother.  Yesterday was also two years to the day after my mother, in the hospital for surgery and refusing to eat, asked me, “What day is it?”

“It’s Tuesday, Mom,” I responded.

“No, I mean what date is it?” she’d asked, looking over her smudged glasses that she insisted on wearing even as she slept.  She had one good eye, and even as she had decided to die, she still wanted to know she could see the world if she opened that eye.

“It’s October 25th, Mama.”

Glaring at me, she seemed annoyed, and for a moment I was taken back to my childhood, when that mother’s stare was enough to stop me from committing whatever transgression I had been contemplating.

But then I realized she was staring down the Grim Reaper, who had been waving his scythe over her bed in the days since the surgery.

“I have no intention of dying on the day Mommy died!” she declared.  And she sat up in bed, asking for her lunch tray and eating every bite of the liquid diet the aide staff had brought to her room.

Two days later she had a debilitating stroke that left her unable to talk intelligibly.  It seemed a cruel blow for a woman whose chief enjoyment in life was chattering about everything and nothing to the people she loves.  Where once I’d been irritated that I couldn’t watch a television show with her that she didn’t interrupt with constant stories she’d just remembered, now I long to be able to understand her garbled string of chatter.

When my sister called with the news yesterday, both of us were certain our mother had changed her mind about that long ago October date.  She lost her mother when I was just sixteen months old, and each year on October 25th, she has reminded my sister, the only one of her children who remembers Mommie Bell, of the significance of that date.

Fully expecting Mom’s demise yesterday, I refused to leave her bedside last night, until my husband gently persuaded me that I might need rest for the days ahead.  I relented and this morning found my mother awake when I returned to her room.

Taking no chances that she might be confused about who I was, I hugged her and said, “I’m Estelene, Mama.”

She gently tugged me to her and repeatedly kissed my cheek—the one sign that ensures my sister and me that she hasn’t confused us with the nursing home staff.  I laughed in delight and pulled back to say, “Yes, you know me, don’t you!”

In a rare burst of clarity, she mouthed as best she could, “I love you.”

“I know you love me, Mama.  And I love you, too,” I said.

Sure that I had understood her, she drifted peacefully to sleep.  I sit at bedside, watching to see if she’s breathing, just as she did countless times during my childhood, when I awoke to see her hovering, a cold cloth in her hand for my fevered forehead.

I’m reminded that none of us fully understand the Breath of Heaven—the way it brings us into the world and then takes us back to God.  For now I’ll be grateful for the privilege of sitting at her side as she has so often sat at mine.  And, most of all, I’ll be thankful for the blessing of another “I love you” whispered from her lips.

Tell me your stories of the Breath of Life.

Want Our Leaders to Collaborate?

Political leaders, led by the National Governors’ Association, expect our nation’s ninth and tenth grade students to master standards that they themselves cannot:

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1a Come to discussions prepared, having read and researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence from texts and other research on the topic or issue to stimulate a thoughtful, well-reasoned exchange of ideas.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1b Work with peers to set rules for collegial discussions and decision-making (e.g., informal consensus, taking votes on key issues, presentation of alternate views), clear goals and deadlines, and individual roles as needed.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1c Propel conversations by posing and responding to questions that relate the current discussion to broader themes or larger ideas; actively incorporate others into the discussion; and clarify, verify, or challenge ideas and conclusions.

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1d Respond thoughtfully to diverse perspectives, summarize points of agreement and disagreement, and, when warranted, qualify or justify their own views and understanding and make new connections in light of the evidence and reasoning presented.

The Common Core State Standards have been adopted by 45 states to ensure that students are “college and career ready” by the time they leave high school.  Most of us would agree that these are worthwhile standards.  But most of our country’s leaders could not pass tenth grade if they were held to these standards.  In light of the above standards, consider this exchange during the October 16 presidential debate when the question asked by the moderator focused on immigration:

ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension? Have you looked at your pension?

OBAMA: I’ve got to say…

ROMNEY: Mr. President, have you looked at your pension?

OBAMA: You know, I — I don’t look at my pension. It’s not as big as yours so it doesn’t take as long.

ROMNEY: Well, let me give you some advice.

OBAMA: I don’t check it that often.

ROMNEY: Let me give you some advice. Look at your pension. You also have investments in Chinese companies. You also have investments outside the United States. You also have investments through a Cayman’s trust.


CROWLEY: We’re way off topic here, Governor Romney.

Comedians began mocking the debate before it even went off the air, and major media outlets declared it the least civil debate in history.  Yet we expect tenth graders to do what our leaders cannot.

Please join me in demanding that our leaders practice and model the standards they expect our young people to master.  Go to and sign a petition asking our leaders to work together.

Ordinary Time? Yes, Please!

Whatever Clock

Today is the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, one of the few remaining commonplace days before the holiday hubbub begins.

Nothing much captured my attention at church this morning—no song I love, none of my favorite verses or stories.  There were a couple of moments of humor when one of the elders forgot his lines in a skit and when the guest minister dropped his sermon in a flurry of paper that floated to the floor.  Both were good-natured about their gaffs.

Just an ordinary day, enjoyed in the company of friends who share my faith.

My husband and I came home and started on the laundry.  He helped me clean out two kitchen cabinets that I’ve been meaning for months to rearrange in a way that makes more sense.

Then my husband left to play soccer with his teammates who are ten years younger—something he plans to continue as an ordinary part of his life for as long as he can.

I sat down to watch football and write this blog.  When my husband gets home, we’ll go for a long walk before we start dinner.

Just an ordinary day—sort of like the kind when one of my friends writes on social media, “I just ate a PB&J sandwich.”

But after weeks of anxiety about leaders who insisted on conflict instead of concord, where getting the most air time seemed more important than doing the mundane business of the people, I’m happy for a day of routine when the news seems more inclined to offer the facts and maybe even a story about what’s good about humanity.

We live in a world where the media, in an effort to boost ratings, fills our lives with stories of anger and tumult.  Politicians rise and fall in an epic clash of the titans, where the loudest and most unreasonable voices seem to garner the attention we should be giving to those who are ethical, honorable, and devoted to quietly grappling together for the common good.

Ordinary Time has never been more important.  We must remind ourselves daily that what we see and read isn’t real life.  Fiction bestsellers tell us that relationships are more about mind-blowing sex than about love and devotion and kindness.  And even “reality television” is scripted to maximize the drama and the ugliness in people who can make money by being ever more outrageous.

We have little to guide us in finding happiness in the ordinary.  Even the great stories of literature—those that stand the test of time—demand a dramatic arc: conflict, rising action, climax, resolution.  And rarely do they end in happiness or joy.

Even the stories of our holy texts tell only about the dramatic moments in the life of Christ, not those unremarkable days when he laughed or played or did nothing of note.  In fact, the Gospel of John ends with this admission:

But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

So as we begin this 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time, I want our leaders to remember that they are ordinary people entrusted to do the ordinary work of government.  For over 200 years, legislators whose names we’ve forgotten have aimed to serve the people rather than leave a legacy of epic proportions.  Like ordinary citizens, they got out of bed, ate breakfast, and commuted to work.  In the course of the day, they worked hard, compromised, and did their best to ensure the functionality of our democracy.

Perhaps our country might do better if the only thing John Boehner could say to the media between now and the next deadline is this: “I ate a sandwich with Nancy Pelosi today at lunch.”

Wouldn’t that be interesting?

So tell me a story of Ordinary Time.

Remember That Teacher?

Oceana High

“It used to be a great school,” a parent lamented.  “When I went there…”

You can probably fill in the ellipses.  Schools can rarely stand up to the foggy nostalgia of adulthood, when parents bemoan lower standards, less skilled teachers, and shifting demographics.

Each time I hear that comment, I tilt my head and listen.  I loved school.  It provided an escape from a challenging home situation and a path to independence and security.

But perhaps because I became a teacher myself, I’ve had daily reminders that not every child loves the classroom and that not every classroom provides the opportunity for learning and engagement.

Each time I hear criticism of teachers, I think first of the teachers who saved my life and opened up the world beyond the state borders I didn’t cross for the first fifteen years of my life.

But then I think of my biology teacher, a man in his thirties who married a student in the class after mine.  I remember only one lesson from that entire year—how genetics determined the eye color and wing shape of fruit flies, which we cultivated in abundance and spent days examining under a microscope.  On most days, we simply milled about his classroom as aimlessly as those fruit flies, landing next to whatever friend we found interesting that day while the teacher held court at the lab table at the front of the room.

I think, too, of the English teacher who set me up by telling my class that he intended to make every test harder until he made one that I would fail.  My classmates begged me to fail the test, but my parents demanded that I take my education more seriously than the teacher did.  I simply studied harder, memorizing every grammar rule and every minute detail of every story, until the teacher finally tired of torturing me.

And I think of one of my early colleagues after I became a teacher.  She filled her thermos with alcohol and drank it throughout the day, smelling of booze and laughing giddily as the day went along.  She chain-smoked in the teachers’ lounge as she graded essays with an unsteady hand and advised me to find another profession before it was too late.

Over the years I’ve heard many versions of these same stories from people I meet at social events.  My husband and I roll our eyes at each other, knowing that each time we reveal our shared occupation, some guests will launch into stories about the worst teachers they ever had.  And, occasionally, we hear a story about that one teacher who changed a life with her kindness, her intellect, her enthusiasm for her subject.

I’m reminded now and then that even the teachers I think are lousy are good for some kids.  When, at a reunion I heard a classmate wax eloquent about that biology teacher I scorned, I told him that I couldn’t believe we were reminiscing about the same teacher.

In the course of my career I’ve heard a series of school system leaders declare that their administration will be the one that ensures an excellent teacher in every classroom.

As long as teachers are human beings, some will be stellar and some will be atrocious.  Some will be teachers because they didn’t make it in some other profession, and some will be teachers because they believe they can save someone as a teacher once saved them.  But the poor we will always have with us.

It’s no more possible to ensure an excellent teacher in every classroom than it is to believe that every wealthy business person has earned that success honestly and ethically.

But it’s a noble aim.

In the meantime, tell me a story of the teacher in-between—not the stellar teacher, not the clown—the one who came to class and taught you something every day.

Find It Hard to Forgive?


“You’ve changed since you had cancer.”

It was two years later.  My hair had grown back, though it was shorter than I’d ever worn it.  I’d gained back some of the weight I’d lost.  On the surface I looked much as I had before months of chemotherapy and radiation.

My colleague wanted to believe I was normal, and she seemed to take it as a personal affront that I didn’t approach life and work exactly as I once had.  This comment was the culmination of a string of unkind remarks she’d made to others that had been repeated to me by people she thought she could trust to keep her confidences.  She was right.  I had changed.  Just not in the way she meant.

I seethed, but I was smart enough to keep my face in neutral, to put on my fragile professional veneer as best I could, to breathe.  But inwardly, my immediate reaction was to think, I hope you have cancer some day so you can find out what it’s like.

I tried to stifle my instinct.  I don’t mean that, God.  Forgive me.

“You’re right, I have changed,” I said, with only a slight edge to my voice.  “But not in the way you mean.  I’m still good at my job.  I just have less patience for pettiness than I once had.”

I supervised 22 staff members and taught 100 teenagers each day.  When my oncologist had suggested that I try to reduce stress, perhaps take up yoga, I had laughed ruefully, “The only way I can lower stress is to get a different job.”

I loved teaching.  Full of energy and life, my students actually made me forget for a few hours that I’d survived Stage 3 cancer.  Dealing with adults?  I had little energy for it.

When, a few weeks later, I dissolved into tears in a stressful meeting, I knew it was time for a change.  It took me another year to figure out what position in a school system could possibly be less stressful and still offer some fulfillment.  I still miss students.  But I haven’t for one minute missed supervising adults.

Now, as I’ve reached the ten-year mark as a survivor, I’m able to admit that there was some truth to what my colleague said.  And I know now that once cancer survivors look normal, most people want to forget the illness and the struggle of the crisis they helped us weather.  Otherwise, it’s just too hard to face the capriciousness of fate that can change or end life in an instant.

I struggled for a long time to forgive her.  And if I’m honest, I have to admit that the moment after her comment wasn’t the only time I wished cancer on her.  But at some point I realized that my resentment for her could grow into a cancer no less deadly than the physical cancer that I’d fought so hard.

Having no desire to sacrifice my own well-being on the altar of anger, I began to work at letting go of my animosity.  I prayed for forgiveness.  I couldn’t bring myself to pray for her, though I remembered Christ’s command to do just that, so I settled for pouring out my hurt feelings and sitting in silence, listening for that still, small voice and the peace that passes understanding.

I have forgiven her as much as I am humanly capable of doing—with the help of a hovering Spirit to remind me that she likely faces her own challenges that I can’t possibly understand.  Occasionally the resentment resurfaces, and I’m reminded that forgiveness is a process.

I’m also reminded that the Spirit sustains us in our efforts in ways that sometimes seem coincidental and a little magical.  When I sat down at the keyboard to write this blog, I logged onto a music site, which usually defaults to the classic rock playlist I most often choose.  Lost in my own words, I wasn’t even conscious of the tunes, until I heard the first snippet of a song that I’d heard at my church last Sunday—a song I’d looked for Sunday afternoon on the music site.

Creeping into my consciousness, Amy Grant sang, “Beautiful, the mess we are. / The honest cries of breaking hearts / Are better than a Hallelujah.”

Yes, sometimes I’m a mess.  But perhaps selfishly forgiving someone else because it helps me is an acceptable beginning.

Tell me your own stories of the beautiful mess we human beings are.

History Repeating Itself?

Graduation 74

Teresa, Me, & Beth, giving speeches on “What’s Right with America,” “We Must Strive for Improvement,” & “The Future is in Our Hands”

A teenager on the verge of being old enough for a driver’s license, I was convinced the world was a mess.  The country was involved in a war we didn’t believe in, led by a president we had no faith in.  My friends and I couldn’t wait to be old enough to vote—to change the world.

On the eve of a presidential election where the incumbent was re-elected, I was also convinced that our parents’ approach to politics was the real problem. My own father voted a straight ticket for his party.  My mother gave my father a second vote in every election, voting as he told her to vote.

I was disgusted and indignant, but I feared my father too much to challenge him.  And when, out of his hearing, my sister and I asked Mom why she didn’t just go into the voting booth and vote as she wanted, she said she could never “cancel out” our father’s vote.

That year, though, was the point at which Mom started to question.  Disillusioned with politicians and feeling helpless to evoke change, she walked out the door to the polls with a sigh of resignation.  “What’s the use of voting one dirty bunch out and another dirty bunch in?” she asked my father.

Scornful, I rolled my eyes in exasperation.  I had just finished an American History class that had awakened me politically.  Our teacher, in what I now know was unusual for a social studies class, required us to read four novels:  Shute’s On the Beach, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Orwell’s 1984, and Huxley’s Brave New World.

Over the years, I’ve taught all these books in my English classes.  A collection with a more dismal view of humanity would be hard to assemble.  But my classmates and I refused to accept that our world was so broken, that the human heart was so capable of evil.  That was simply fiction.

Little has changed in 40 years, though, and as I listen to the current political debate, I’m reminded that history does, indeed, repeat itself.  I suspect that we could take videos from that era and alter the heads on the bodies and hear much the same political dialogue.

And I’m hearing young people voice much the same repulsion for government that my peers and I expressed when we were in high school.

What I’m not hearing is that they believe they can change the world.  Instead, I hear many young people lament the brokenness in Washington much as my mother did.

How do we keep history from repeating itself?  How do we avoid sinking into a quagmire from which there is no escape?  How do we keep life from imitating the tragic fiction of a dark human heart?

The polls tell us that a staggering 90% of us are disgusted with Congress.  But the problem is that most of us narrowly approve of our own representatives in Congress, usually in the 50-55% range, so we keep electing representatives who guarantee that the gridlock will continue.

What is the answer?  Given a choice of two extremes, we naturally vote with the candidate whose views are closest to our own.  And we have almost no moderates in Congress.

A friend of mine tells me that I should vote for a candidate from one of the other parties, but I find that I can’t take their quirky views seriously.  And so, like most of us, I continue to vote for the candidate on the extreme that is least scary to me.

But what if all of us, in our party’s primary, decided to look for the candidate who most seems to advocate moderate views and a willingness to compromise for the common good?

I’m no longer disgusted with my parents’ approach to politics.  I’ve chosen the opposite party from my father.  And I refuse to give up in resignation as my mother did for a time after my father died.  But in my gut I understand them both now as I could not when I was a teenager.

I still want to believe we voters can change the world.  Because the alternative is to believe that Shute and Golding and Orwell and Huxley were right about the darkness of the human heart.

And, to me, that is a human story that is too terrible to contemplate.

So, come now, let’s find a way to weave a story where truth trumps fiction.