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?

Have I Told You?

Wedding

Crammed into the middle of the back seat, I sat at the drive-in theater with my older sister and her friends on the newspaper staff.  She and her best friend Donna, who were seniors, sat in the front seat, and I sat over the hump in the middle of the back floorboard between Mark and Danny, who were freshmen, a year older than I was.  They chattered and passed me the popcorn but didn’t invite me to join the conversation.  It was enough for me, though, that my sister had grudgingly taken me along to see the 1968 version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, which had premiered the year before but had just made it to the rural areas of southern West Virginia.  I fell in love with Shakespeare and became infatuated with Mark that evening.  One of them would never take an interest in me.  The other wooed me with a love that transcended space and time.  You can probably guess how that turned out.

The following year the film Love Story became a box office blockbuster, nominated for seven Oscars in 1971, though it received only one for the music sound track.  It still holds the #9 position on AFI’s 100 Years..100 Passions, while Romeo and Juliet didn’t even make the list.  Today most people under 40 probably haven’t heard of it, though most will have heard its most famous line, placed at #13 on the American Film Institute’s top 100 movie quotes:  “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

These two films, along with a plethora of trashy romance novels and even a few literary classics like Jane Eyre, shaped the way I thought marriage was supposed to work.  Marriage wasn’t the messy, complicated relationship my parents modeled for me—it was a romanticized view of the world—even inLove Story, despite the fact that the plot is complex enough that the rich boy’s father disowns him for marrying the poor girl. 

My sister said I was the girl who wanted a neat little house with a white picket fence.  She was right, but I suspect I wasn’t the only girl of my generation who saw love through the characters in the books and films that dominated the bestsellers in those days.  And though I got the little house, it had no white picket fence to keep the love inside, and my first marriage fell apart after a few years.

I fared better the second time around, with more than a little help from a good therapist and a wise minister and his wife, whose marriage I admired from a distance and who let me in a little bit by sharing their experiences with me when my heart was broken.  When I told them that I’d never fall in love again, they said to me, “Estelene, when you love, you risk getting hurt.  But what’s the alternative?  Never to love at all?” 

So when I could love again, I chose someone who brings out the best in me and, I hope, I in him.  But I can’t pretend it was all about choice, either.  My minister once commented that love was 95% love and 5% luck.  I chose my husband, but I’m not sure I could have done otherwise, given the raw voltage that arced between us in those early days of our relationship.  But the therapist helped me learn that the patterns we set in the beginning of a relationship are either the patterns that plague us or the patterns that sustain us when life gets in the way of the overwhelming passion and emotion of early love.

So what have I learned from two very different relationships?  That love definitely means having to say you’re sorry.  And not that kind of qualified sorry—“I’m sorry, but you made me crazy when you [fill in the blank here].”  Yes, the person you love may have exacerbated whatever conflict you’re having.  But an unqualified apology opens the door for that person to say, “I’m sorry, too,” instead of just leading to the same fight over again.

I’m thankful that there haven’t been too many times that call for unqualified apologies.  My husband is far more generous and giving and easy-going than I am, and I lucked into finding someone who reminds me to laugh every single day.  But I also remember what my therapist said about patterns, so from the very beginning I’ve tried to remind myself and tell my husband every day what it is that I love about him.  We take care of each other’s hearts most of the time, and that has sustained our marriage for nearly 22 years now.

I wonder sometimes how our children’s views of love are being shaped by today’s movies and bestsellers.  And while it’s taken me a while to learn that romance is only a part of a good relationship, I feel a little sorry for young people whose views are being shaped by the narrative emphasis on solely physical fantasies.  But though I’m an English teacher, I also have to admit that while great contemporary literature is more apt to show the complexities of love, few great literary works end happily.  And in real life, while there are no fairy tale endings, many couples do find love and joy together.

In the end, all of us have to learn by experience.  So I’ll keep trying to remember how important it is to tell my husband often—and all the people I love—why I love them.  So as I write this, I listen to Van Morrison, an old favorite I rediscovered last week when I heard another song I like, as he asks, “Have I told you lately that I love you?”

I do.

Your Way? My Way? A Third Way?

Reunion

We attended school together for seven years, members of the same graduating class.  We both moved out of West Virginia as adults and settled in metropolitan areas.  We both chose service professions—law enforcement for him, teaching for me.  We reconnected at a class reunion two years ago and keep in touch through social media.  We share a love of Washington football and RGIII, consider our dogs members of our families, and treasure our vacations on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
 
But politically, we come from different universes instead of the same hometown.  And even though we respect each other and value our friendship, we sometimes try to change each other’s opinions.  When one of us posts political messages on social media, the other one often comments—though our children tell us this is an exercise in futility.  We have never changed the other’s mind, but we respect each other and value our friendship, and we both believe it’s important to talk about politics.
 
I am a storyteller.  And it’s stories rather than facts or unsupported opinions that make me think.  I challenged my friend to post stories instead of opinions, and he reminded me that, like me, he has an ethical responsibility not to tell the stories of the people he encounters every day on the job.  That leaves us both with only the choice of telling personal stories—more difficult for him than for me because, in addition to my work with students who are often poor, my views are shaped by having grown up poor and having received government help on more than one occasion.  His views have been shaped by dealing with criminals every day who abuse the government help they receive and who have learned to manipulate the legal system and avoid paying the price for their abuses—criminals whose stories he must keep to himself.
 
Yet we have still managed to make each other think.  He sometimes laughs at me and calls me Spunky Girl, but he has recently been posting links to the stories of others that he reads in the news.  He posted one story about a woman who shot an intruder who broke into her home and threatened her and her children.  And while I couldn’t understand how that might justify the right to assault weapons, I can understand the lengths a mother would go to in order to protect her children.  Then my friend posted a story about how people who receive assistance are using their government issued cards at ATM machines in bars, liquor stores, strip clubs, and porn shops.
 
While I don’t particularly care for the news source where he gets these stories, I do know that, just as there are good people who need government assistance, there are also people who do not use the help they receive wisely.  Two of my brothers took advantage of my mother’s all-consuming love for them and drained her life’s savings to support their addictions, and one died of an overdose in her guest bedroom.  Her love and support could not save him.  And my daughter, knowing from watching her uncles that it was never a good idea to give money to the homeless, went into a fast-food restaurant and bought a meal for a homeless man who asked her for money.  When she offered the meal to him, he took the meal but cursed her for giving him food when he’d asked for money.
 
These are stories my friend and I can tell.  And when my friend posted the two stories, he reminded me that love and compassion alone cannot save the broken.  My father turned his life around when he decided to give up drinking, and though we were still poor, we were not destitute as we were when he drank and gambled every payday weekend.
 
So what is the answer?  I don’t know.  I do know that the solutions my friend proposes haven’t worked.  Nor have mine.  Somehow we have to find a balance between extending compassion and demanding responsibility.  Somehow we have to stop operating from the two extremes when the politicians in office shift from one party to another.  Somehow our leaders must learn to find a third way that is better than the ways they champion.  And, perhaps most of all, we must somehow find a way to support our leaders when they give up a little of what they believe for a third way that just might work better.
 
And perhaps sharing our stories is a beginning.

What Is Intelligence?

College Graduation

Dad, Mom, and Me at my College Graduation

An unimaginable luxury before I left the classroom to work as a content specialist, the past few days have given me a respite while most of my colleagues returned to work.  For the first time in 35 years, I worked between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and took a vacation as teachers were returning to the classroom to prepare their students for semester exams.

But I’m not sure anyone who feels called to be a teacher can ever stop thinking about kids.  Even after five years out of the classroom, I still have school dreams—where I’m late and on my way to school in my pajamas, where I can’t find my way to the room where kids await, or where I have no control over the students I’m supposed to be teaching.

And, in the same way, I’m not sure I’ll ever stop thinking about what I’ve taught my students or what they’ve taught me.  I began teaching 35 years ago this month.  A poor kid who went to college on an aid package of scholarships, grants, and work study, I finished college in 3 ½ years, anxious to earn money and find that better life my coal miner father assured me I’d have if I got a degree.  And though I’ve worked hard, I’ve had an easier life than my parents—able to offer my daughter more opportunities than my parents were ever able to offer me, though they wanted what was best for me.

Because of this, when I think about education, I’m bothered by a climate where the contributions of people who don’t have an education are sometimes not valued.  I believe that we should offer all students a course of study that prepares them for higher education if that is the path they choose.  But I also believe that the person who repairs my car and the person who comes to my house to unclog my drain have knowledge and skills that I don’t have—skills that should be equally valued, even though they chose not to get a college degree.

Not every person who has a college degree is wise.  And not every person who has only a high school diploma, or even the person who dropped out, is unintelligent.  My husband and I laugh about the time when our plumber, a father of two daughters, gave us a very practical lesson in parenting.  He had been my husband’s former student, never interested in school but always a hard worker out of school and the person we always had confidence in when we needed a plumber.  He sat on the floor, working deftly to replace cheap, faulty pipes installed by our builder that began to spring numerous pinhole leaks as the house aged.  He talked easily as his hands worked, and we chatted about the challenges of parenting teenage girls.  I mentioned that I wished I could get my daughter to stop slamming doors, and he told us a very funny story about removing his daughter’s bedroom door from the hinges and telling her he’d replace it when she convinced him she could stop slamming it.  She stalked off to the bathroom, her younger sister on her heels, begging her not to slam the bathroom door, lest it, too, should be removed.  The next time my daughter slammed the door, we told her that if she did it again, we would use our plumber’s solution.  I don’t think she ever slammed a door again.

While that’s just a humorous anecdote in our family, I could easily tell many more important things I’ve learned from people who haven’t had the opportunities for higher education that I’ve had.  Someone once told me that we have something to teach and something to learn from every person we meet.  I learned many lessons from my father, not the least of which was the value of a college degree, though he was far from perfect and had only a fifth grade education.  And while I parent differently from my mother, I learned from her, among many other things, what it means to love unconditionally and to be strong in the face of adversity.

So how do we find a way to honor each other’s intelligence?  I’ve thought about this a lot since the presidential primary, when our president was called an intellectual snob—a president who, like me, had to work hard for his degree.  I don’t believe that was a fair assessment of a leader who wants others to have the opportunities he’s had.  But while teaching in a highly charged academic environment in the Washington suburbs, I have encountered many intellectuals who have denigrated those who don’t place the same value on a PhD.

As with most things, the answer lies at neither extreme.  How do we find a balance?  I’m not sure.  But I believe we begin by telling the stories of people from all walks of life who defy the stereotypes of what it means to be intelligent in a world of different kinds of intelligence.

So tell me those stories.

Will You Be a Voice?

1.4.13 on Beach

Although we love the beach in every kind of weather, today was a perfect winter beach day.  The water, which has been gray but warmer than the air all week, today reflected back the crisp crystal blue of the sky, and dolphins played on the surface of the water just beyond where the waves began to crest.  As they leapt above the surface and dipped beneath the water again in an instant, I tried in vain to capture them with my camera in the seconds they appeared above the surface.

My husband, our dog, and I were the only other living creatures in sight, and we reveled in our last full day before returning home tomorrow.  North Carolina is the home we long for—the place we relax and keep in touch with the DC suburbs from a safe distance that allows us to feel a peace that’s harder to find in the hub of our nation’s capital.

But I love Maryland, too—for its beautiful parks and walking paths that encourage city dwellers to remember the earth, for its belief in human equality and social justice, for its closeness to museums that honor our nation’s history, for the way it connects the north and the south.  And I realized, not for the first time, how fortunate I am to call both worlds home.

Watching the perfect way that the sky and the water made each other more beautiful today, I thought, What if our people could work together in that same beautiful way?  And that reminded me of an article I read online in this morning’s Washington Post:  “Faith Leaders Want Americans to Pray for Collegiality.”  The article recounted how leaders of all faiths—from evangelicals to progressive Christians to Jews to Hindus to Muslims—have committed to come together and pray for our leaders between the first day Congress convened on January 3rd to President Obama’s inauguration on January 21st.

So when we finished our walk, I went back to the computer and searched for the group that has posted the pledge, a nonpartisan group called the Faith and Politics Institute, which began in the 1990s by bringing together elected officials from both parties who were interested in nurturing relationships and spirituality that crossed party lines.  I knew that I wasn’t the only one who longs for leaders who can work together.  But I was surprised to learn that there actually are groups that are making some inroads in quietly working directly with politicians to help them come together.

At the risk of stating the obvious, this is not what we read about in the headlines.  This story was buried in the On Faith section of the newspaper, a section that appears in print only once a week, a section that is not updated online nearly as often as the stories about the partisan posturing and bickering.

And so I decided to sign the Call to Prayer with my own:

God of grace and peace, please help our leaders hear one another and work together to find solutions to our problems that are better than any party, advocacy group, or individual can address alone.  Help us, the American people, to pray sincere prayers, not just for our leaders who agree with us, but for those whose views are different from our own.  Help us to pray not that they would be converted to our point of view but that they might have your wisdom—a wisdom beyond our understanding or our ability to imagine.  Grant that we and our leaders may have courage for the living of these challenging days.  May it be so.  Amen.

Though I was only the 80th person to sign the pledge, when I read through the people who had signed it so far, I was thrilled to see that it has signatures from people of a wide variety of faith backgrounds, from leaders and private citizens.  And I was encouraged that our voices can come together in search of the common good.

I’m guessing that if you have enough interest to follow this blog, you, too, long for us to find our better angels.  So you may not feel comfortable signing on to a public pledge.  But will you be a voice—perhaps just a voice to God’s ear if not in the public forum?

Perhaps in being such a voice, we can help our leaders find the courage, even when they disagree, to look for the better angels that will help us be a better people.

And if you know of other groups that are working to nurture civility and to move beyond party and conflict, please respond with your own stories and links.

Just Another Resolution?

Walk on Beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coincidence?

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!

For People Who Don't Know All the Answers