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Ruminations: Contemplative and Convivial

Mary Oliver’s Poems and Sacred Trees

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This morning, I awakened to a gift. A poem that my eldest child, my daughter, sent to me. It was by Mary Oliver. I read it. I was stunned. And then I was intrigued. So I decided to find some more of Oliver’s work. What followed was no less than a descent down a white-rabbit tunnel into a wonderland of beautiful words and exquisite thought. It seemed I had found a poet who spoke to my soul. It turns out Mary Oliver is also a deep-thinking, dream-driven introvert who loves nature, and she has drilled deeply into the questions of Divinity. God’s nature. God’s revelation in nature.

Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Fred Hammond described it beautifully, and he quoted author Kathleen McTigue as well:

“Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, ‘By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…’”

These are the questions that have become the very litany of my new existence. I now have an empty nest. It’s just me and my husband and our two dogs knocking around the house. I always believed my calling to be a mom was holy. I know it was. But it’s pretty much over. Now I wonder what I am called to in this new chapter. And with each arthritic pain and new wrinkle, I am forced to turn my face toward the inevitable. My parents are gone, my husband’s parents are slowing down. Beloved aunts and uncles seem so much older. These days, my heart is tender. Tears hover behind my eyelids, waiting just out of reach for a bit of tender piano music or the sight of a mother nursing her baby to call them forth, dripping down my lined face.

I have begun to embrace the idea that I am holy, in and of myself. Not my motherhood. Not my wifehood. Not my artistry. Not my vocation. Not my voice. Not even my silence. I am all of those things. All of those things are holy. But even without them, I am holy.

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And trees are, too.

This poem moved me to tears:

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

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I love trees. I love them. I just got back from a walk, and the photo above is where I walked: a quiet lane completely enfolded in green leaves and branches. The trees whispered in the spring breeze. Like Oliver says, trees save me. Daily. All my life.

I have always loved trees. The first tree with whom I fell in love was a locust that lived in my neighbor’s yard. My seven year old self, a neighborhood pariah, would climb into the tree and nestle in its branches, eating the little brown beans that grew in pods, watching the kids play without me from the safety of my perch.

My ten year old self adopted the tree in our new house, wedged into the V shape that just fit my scrawny behind, Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L’Engle books nourishing my lonely little soul.

Near my house there was an enormous weeping willow, and I would stand in its fronds, imagining that I was in a safe and magical world where no one could find me. I recently visited that street. Both of those precious trees were gone. I grieved.

In the yard in front of the house where my husband and I  spent most of the child-rearing years of our family, there was a giant oak tree whose leaves created a canopy outside my bedroom window. All of every spring and summer, I felt like I slept in a tree house. I kept a chair on the balcony just outside my bedroom, and when my spirit was angry or in despair, I sat in that chair and simply let the tree speak to my soul. I hugged that tree. Literally. I hugged her. And when we left that house, I had to spend time with her, saying goodbye and thanking her for taking such good care of me.

Psalm 52:8 says: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” I think that oak tree in Shenandoah, Texas was a gift from the Divine One, to show Her lovingkindness for my soul.

Have you ever seen a giant tree? Maybe a California Redwood? When I visited Sydney Australia with my younger daughter, we found what I think might have been a giant gum tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was stunning. I almost couldn’t walk away. I had to stroke her trunk and talk to her a bit, much to my daughter’s amusement. She’s a bit more pragmatic that her older sister, who balances her chakras and talks to trees like I do.

My daughters, my son, my husband, our parents and grandparents back and back and back have created, as have all families, forests of family trees. Roots go deeper than we can imagine, soaking up nourishment of love like water. Branches reach toward the azure sky and the vibrant sunshine as the seeds of dreams are created and carried. Sometimes there is disease. It might cause a branch to fall, or perhaps even need pruning. That is the great cycle of life that the Divine One has created and set in motion, isn’t it?

What I know today is that my walk amongst the trees fed my spirit, so will the rich poetry of Mary Oliver. Her inner monologues, as revealed in her poetry, just seem to affirm that there are other introverted and tender souls out there who are like me. God has given me my soul, Mary’s poetry, and gorgeous trees to hug. His lovingkindness is everlasting.

How Do I Love Thee?

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Two nights ago, after a particularly devastating episode of “This is Us” (who am I kidding…nearly every episode is devastating when you’re either: child of an addict, recovering addict, married to recovering addict, estranged from a child, watching your daughter divorce, adjusting to the empty nest, a singer whose voice is in her past, struggling with body dysmorphia…), my sweet husband, who was sitting on the floor with our beagle, looked up at me with the most woeful, teary eyes. I climbed onto the floor and into his lap and we just cuddled and comforted. And with my arms wrapped around him, I wondered: Why? Why do I love him so? Why does he love me? Why? And not for the first time, I settled on this answer. Who cares why? It’s enough to know its truth.

We have, at times, even asked each other, “Why do you love me?” It’s an unanswerable question. This morning, I was listening to SuperSoul, and Pastor A.R. Bernard said that when we love each other for no reason- that’s unconditional love.

I mean sure, I can make a list of things I love about my husband. I love his laugh, his blue eyes, his easy access to deep and profound thought, his capacity for peace-keeping, his legs. I love the kind of father he is. I love how he wants to protect me from harm, whether it’s an advancing category five hurricane or a work colleague who is showing me something less than respect.

But why do I love him? I just…do.

I guess it’s what bothers me about making lists of why we love someone. This last Valentine’s Day, I saw one of those social media posts that tells you how to be a good parent. And you would put all these cut out hearts on your kid’s door with the reasons why you love them (specifically it said that, not “things you love about them”). And one of the hearts said along the lines of “You play basketball well.” And I thought…If I am a kid whose well-meaning mom said she loved me because I played basketball well, what would happen if I couldn’t play any more? What would happen if I couldn’t play well anymore? Kids want to know that they’re loved. Just because. Same with spouses. Just because.

Someday, my husband’s brain will be less sharp. His laugh will be creaky. His legs will be veiny. I know I won’t care.

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Elizabeth Barret Browning put it so perfectly in her famous sonnet, in which she enumerates the ways, not the whys of her love:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Truest, deepest love doesn’t have a reason. It just is.

What’s Your Superpower?

 

 

I just spent an empowering weekend. I arrived at Sunday evening feeling a great big mix of things: fatigued, sore, exhilarated, hungry, and hopeful.

It all started on Friday, when I saw this meme, and it said, “No one is you, and that’s your superpower.” And I thought, “Cool!”

It’s true- no one else is me. No one else is you, either.

Now, before you roll your eyes and say something like, “I wouldn’t wish being me on my worst enemy,” just stop for a minute. Really and truly? I used to think that way. Not anymore. Nope. Now I think like the little girl I was when I watched Lynda Carter spin until she transformed into Wonder Woman, using wits and beauty to foil bad guys. I think like the little girl I was when I watched “Electra Woman and Dyna-Girl.” I loved Batman reruns, especially the ones with Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl, who challenged the men in the room with her brains and pluck.

 

That little girl didn’t question her intelligence. She didn’t question her thighs. She didn’t say much, but when she spoke it was because she believed in what she was saying. That little girl was not afraid to bring questions to the table. That little girl didn’t wait for permission to climb monkey bars or explore on her bike or jump in the pool or lose herself in a novel.

Little girls still love Wonder Woman. Big girls do, too. We know it because of the resounding success of this year’s film. Diana Prince still calls to the feminine spirit of power. My daughter Libby, who works for a company that sends characters to kids’ birthday parties, reveled in it this weekend, playing Wonder Woman for an eight year old. Not Aurora. Not Cinderella. Wonder Woman. Amazonian warrior. With a Lasso of Truth instead of a broom of submission. A woman who is her own hero, not the damsel waiting to be rescued.

I am learning to be my own hero, too.

I attended my first political protest this Saturday, standing along a busy thoroughfare, holding up a bright yellow poster. I donned my own super hero costume:

to protect my thighs of power: undershorts. Because even in March, south Texas is hot and sweaty and thigh chafe is no joke;

to add spring to my step: yellow Converse of joy. Because who can feel despondent in bright yellow Cons?

To embolden my heart: a Wonder Woman logo across my chest. Because I am my own Amazonian warrior.

I rode Thelma, my bike, for over one and a half hours to get to the protest site. I am not sure why I did it, I just know that my heart spoke it and I listened. Something in my advocate soul needed to prove that I had the courage and stamina to do it. Bearing in mind that I am fifty years old, have had one knee surgery and two discs replaced with a steel plate in my neck, have two more bulging discs, and two  knees that now sound like crinkling cellophane when I go up stairs, this was no small feat. I hadn’t been on a bike in two years, except for one thirty five minute ride a week ago. I honestly don’t know why I did it. But I arrived to the protest out of breath, sweat dripping down my backside, and exhilarated. I chugged water then found a spot in line.

An organizer led a chant, it went like this:

Tell me what democracy looks like!

And we answered:

This is what democracy looks like!

 

 

With eleven year old blonde girls on one side, and a mom with heavily accented English on the other, we chanted and I got choked up. Because it is what democracy looks- and sounds- like: heavily accented or native English, young or middle aged, rich or poor. This was a gathering of diverse people. Toward the end of the event, a young dad came to me with so much excitement it couldn’t be contained in his body. He wanted to know how we had all gotten organized, and he was thrilled to see like minded people in what has traditionally been an ultra conservative community. He ended up bringing his elementary aged boys over to meet me and to take in what was happening. This was what democracy looks like. And by the way, the folks on the other end of the political spectrum have the same freedom to gather. Isn’t this a great country?

I managed to get halfway back home, and was grateful to my sweet husband for meeting me at a cafe to taxi me back home after a lemon drop martini and a turkey burger. At that moment, Diana the Amazon princess needed a ride from her rescuer because her legs were wobbly and her softer parts felt bruised. Hey, even super heroes need a little help every now and then.

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After a lovely and restful night, I drove (no Thelma on this day) and then limped into the cinema to revisit another childhood hero: Meg Murry in the film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time.” I don’t know that I can adequately describe what this book meant to me as an awkward, introverted, brainy, dreamy pre-adolescent with an even brighter little brother. Meg was a hero. She saved her dad with her courage and her brain. She visited dream planets by believing and being open. She was magnificent. Oprah did what she does- drop wisdom and grace, while Reese and Mindy brought humor and joy. My own heroes were invoked and quoted over and over: Jesus, Ghandi, Maya Angelou, Lin Manuel Miranda. I didn’t love the movie because it was a perfect piece of cinema.  I loved the movie because it was visually stunning, it celebrated diversity, it exalted intelligence, it honored love. After all, as Meg’s father discovered when his science experiment came to life, “Love is the frequency.”

The film continued the work that I think is underway on our planet. The work of soul and mission and caring.

As Mrs. Which, Oprah challenges Meg, “Be a warrior. Can you?” I felt the challenge in my seat in the darkened theater, too.

What’s my superpower? It’s a belief, down deep in my bones, that life is magical.

What are my tools? First, a listening ear. Then, my written words.

What is my mission, my personal legend, my work? To help others see, create, and accept the magic of their own lives.

Can I be a warrior? Hell, yes. Bring me my shield and my invisible jet. Let my heart be open. Let my soul be brave. Let my life have its own heroic tale.

 

Loneliness in Mothering

 

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This morning, I woke up about an hour before the alarm went off. I was lonely. Specifically, I was lonely for my son, who has not spoken to us for nearly six months. And you may be thinking six months is nothing-moms who send their kids for military service go far longer. And you would be right. But these have been six months of angry, insistent silence in a family that has always been close. Not only did he unfriend his father and me on Facebook, he unfriended his sisters. If there is one thing I have always felt joy in, it is that my kids loved each other as children, and they still loved each other and spent time together as adults. Until…

In anger, I took a stand and made an ultimatum about a relationship with a woman we (the whole family, hence the shunning of sisters) think is unhealthy for him. I made him choose, because I couldn’t stand to keep watching him struggle. I made the mistake of confronting them both in public, after an exhausting week of moving out of my house and getting our festival opened and physical therapy for two bulging lumbar discs. I had spent two straight weeks being bombarded by the needs of my colleagues at work while packing a house, arranging for utilities to be shut off, and gathering paperwork to prep for closing. And after months of renewed, impending panic attacks. I was, quite literally, at wit’s end. And my son and his girlfriend caught the brunt of it.

I have asked for forgiveness, it’s not coming. I have told my son that I will wait with arms open for as long as it takes, and I will.

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Each child you raise brings with himself or herself a unique set of gifts…and challenges. I remember with utter clarity the first moment I looked into my son’s eyes- they are a rich blend of blue, green, and brown, and they are deep. His hours-old eyes were like deep pools. I don’t even know how long we stared at each other that first day, we had been given the unexpected gift of quiet time with no one else in the room. It might have been two minutes or five minutes or forever. He was the one with the sour tummy-I had to nurse him in the restroom (in those days you did not nurse in public and I am glad that has changed) and I would set him on my knee to burp him. He could spit up so hard it shot straight to the stall wall and dripped down. At night, he could only sleep if I laid him against my stomach and patted his back. If I fell asleep and stopped patting, he awoke. If his dad tried to comfort him, it didn’t work. It was just me, and I would prop myself up on the headboard, patting his back and catching little snatches of sleep. I also fell asleep at my desk when my first graders were doing desk work. Those kids were so sweet- they would just sit and color or play with their math manipulatives while I caught a few zzzzzs.

He is also a master of hide-and-seek. Just like me. Once, in Tulsa, he buried himself in the middle of a round rack full of jeans. We couldn’t find him, the store did a full lock down, and he just quietly giggled in his hiding place until we finally heard him. When he was about ten, he wanted to take dance classes- he was really graceful and had a marvelous ear for rhythm, but one day when it was time to go to the studio, he ran. We found him in the bushes a couple of houses down the block. We found out later the boys in the dance class were bullying him. Sometimes we would find him out on the roof of our house. There were nights in his early teen years that we would have to walk the neighborhood to find him. But sometimes, he hid in plain sight. I get that. I do it, too.

There is a lot of loneliness in parenting.

It starts at that first moment when the nurse walks out of the hospital room, leaving you alone with your new baby for the first time. That’s when a hint of it drops- This little round headed, wrinkly, red tiny human is mine. To take care of. Loneliness sinks in a little deeper when you’re rocking the crying baby at two in the morning, wiping spit up off your robe-whether you’re the mom or the dad. It’s lonely when you’re hiding in a dressing room, nursing the baby. It’s lonely when you drop your five year old off for their first day of Kindergarten-especially if they go in happy. You want them to go in happy, right? It means they are well adjusted, confident, curious. Except…you kind of wish they would run back and clutch your legs just one time.

That doesn’t change when they head to California or Australia, either. You watch them drive away, or you watch them pass through airport security, and their eyes are sparkling with hope and excitement, and you wish they would run back for one last hug.

Laundry was lonely. My husband and I did share laundry duty, but as he took over more and more of the cooking, I made it up by handling more laundry. There was so much. We did cloth diapers, so there were buckets of soaking dirty diapers for a long time. Lots of bleach and fabric softener and scrubbing and folding there. Later, there were baseball uniforms, and even later, Renaissance costumes. If we came home from a wet, rainy weekend at the festival, there were piles of damp muddy velvet to wash.

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When the kids were really young, I somehow managed to get all the laundry folded and in its proper drawers. But as the years went by and we got busier, laundry ended up sitting in a clean pile on the window seat in the living room. Every morning, kids visited the seat looking for socks or undies or a particular shirt or dance leotard. Folding laundry was a lonely job. I didn’t do so great at it.

Parenting was really, really lonely in the months of early 2001, when I was separated from my husband and had to manage everything pretty much by myself- cooking, driving, homework. I fell to pieces in a parent teacher conference when I tried to explain what was happening. I got my kids to bed, the six year old sleeping with me because she couldn’t sleep anywhere else. I cuddled with her until she nodded off, then sat up and played Freecell on the computer while listening to Norah Jones and bawling. My oldest daughter just found the courage to tell me last summer that she had blamed me for every minute of that marital separation when it happened. That was lonely.

When your kids are young, it seems like the loneliness is found in the physical- the moments of exhaustion that accompany midnight potty trips and bouts of fever. But when they are teens, the loneliness is found in the moments you reach out to them- never really sure if they’re going to return the affection or use the moment to assert their burgeoning independence. You’re caught standing in the high school parking lot, watching your kids walk away to join their friends at Sonic, when you were hoping for time to take them for a milkshake.

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But in my experience, the loneliest time of parenting has been this one- kids in their twenties, going off and living their own independent lives. My eldest is divorcing after just two years of marriage. That’s lonely. My son is dating a young woman who is, ultimately, a good person. She’s got some damage. We want, for her sake and his, for her damage to heal. We hope it does. My youngest daughter just moved out (again), she’s figuring it all out and having a lot of fun while she does. At 23 years old, that’s how it should be.

Of course, it’s what parents want- we don’t really want them to live with us and use up our toilet paper and laundry soap indefinitely. Each time my adult daughters visit, then drive away, I hurt for them. I wish for a day when they climbed in my lap for snuggles.

And I keep wishing, on every dandelion I can find, that my son will find his way back to the lonely mom who longs for him.

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Loss- The Middle Age Wrinkle They Don’t Prepare You For

Today, I will be going to another funeral, this time it’s a college friend who took his own life. I will be seeing folks I have not seen in nearly thirty years, most of us a little thicker, a little grayer, with aching backs and aching hearts. Some of us are still raising kids, some of us have started the grandparenting gig. The man being laid to rest today had one infant grandchild, and another getting here soon. Some of us never married, some of us just won the right to be married in this country. We attended each others’ weddings and threw each others’ baby showers. There have been divorces. Remarriages. Career victories. Career humiliations. Addictions. Illnesses.

We will look at each other and I know that what we will see will be our young selves- dressed in the silly banana costumes or milkman costumes of our college’s annual Follies, hanging out in the SUB between classes, dressed as nerds at our brother/sister club Valentine social. The years will fall away- most of us have not gathered together in a long time. We will say goodbye. We will come home and resume our daily lives. Because that’s what you do.

Three weeks ago, another friend died. Heart attack at a convenience store. He was not a perfect man-he had his struggles and mistakes. He left behind a lot of questions. And maybe for that reason, there was ambiguity in the grief. But there was, and is, grief. Make no mistake. I didn’t get to go that funeral, it was out of state. But I held my own private ritual at home, drinking toasts to a scallywag pirate with whom I had been friends for eighteen years, while catharsis came in the form of a “This is Us” marathon.

Three weeks before that, I lost a relatively new friend, the police chief of our little town, and head of security where I work. He was a truly good man, the very kind of cop you wish every cop would be- leading and serving with a compassion for the citizens he had sworn to protect. He had a charming smile and a sense of humor, until it was time to wield his authority. He was trustworthy. He had a heart attack while on duty and received the full police burial. Watching the line of law enforcement officers stand at attention while his body was borne to his grave was moving, hearing his mother sob was wrenching.

I lost my brother in 2009 to a drug overdose, my father in 2008 to pneumonia and complications from Type II Diabetes. Ten years later, that grief is still too profound to burden the public with. At least, not in a short blog post.

All my grandparents are long gone, my husband’s grandfather is the last remaining person of that generation in our family.

My mom died much longer ago, when I was in my twenties.

On either side of me, my office mates have each had major deaths in their families during this same period-one lost a nine year old nephew who had spent six years battling leukemia, the other lost the birth mother she had just found.

Loss.

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When we get to middle age, we kind of know that there will be loss- hair starts falling out, vision gets blurred, memory starts to be something we joke about. We buy Rogaine, get Botox injections, add knee braces for our workouts, and keep drugstore reading glasses at multiple locations- I have an upstairs pair, a downstairs, pair, and a work pair. We watched this stuff happen to our parents, we see jokes about it on shows like “The Middle” (that show is brilliant, by the way- it’s about the only thing that has made me feel humorous about this whole ridiculous phase). We ladies keep fans in our purses to calm the misery of hot flashes and get really aggressive with the pharmacists when there’s a problem with our hormone prescriptions.

I expected all of that.

What I didn’t really expect was the loss of people. I mean, in an intellectual way you know it’s going to happen. You do. But it’s like a kick int the gut. When you see the text message from your husband that says “Call me as soon as you can,” you get a sinking feeling- because now you know what that very well mean. You ask yourself “Who is it this time?”

Every week, I watch friends post their losses- parents and friends, usually- Facebook has become a place where we see the struggle, we mark the anniversaries of death as well as birthdays and anniversaries. Last night, as I crawled into bed, I wondered if loss and funerals are the new norm.

I am not making any big revelations here- it’s all the circle of life, we know it. It has ever been. It will always be.

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But I am beginning to realize that it’s time to dig deep, to know what is important to me. To identify what I want to leave behind. Not in a material sense, but in a spiritual one. It is imperative that I get a will written. But it’s more imperative that I figure out what my purpose is for the next phase. As Princeton says in Avenue Q- what lights a flame under my ass? What gets me up and moving? Who do I want to impact? How? Why?

The tears sit really close to the edge on days like these. Today will be a day for grief, for goodbye, for sending sustaining love across the aisle of the church to the family members left behind.

But tomorrow will be a day for renewal. For being present and grateful. For life and love. Namaste.

Why “Christian Soldiers?”

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I have struggled and struggled, trying to understand how so much of Evangelical Christianity has gotten entangled with the National Rifle Association. As our country tries to process our latest mass shooting incident, and I watch devout Christians on social media circle the wagons around their guns, all the while offering “thoughts and prayers” to the families who lost loved ones, I am baffled.*

Upon his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, when an apostle cut off the ear of a Roman soldier, Jesus admonished him, saying in the book of Matthew, ” “Put up your sword. All who take the sword die by the sword.” And though Jesus did speak of violence to come, it was the violence of persecution and martyrdom. Not war.

But as I meditated this morning, for some reason I found myself singing an old Sunday School song:

“I may never march in the infantry,

ride in the Calvary,

shoot the artillery. I may never

fly o’er the enemy, but I’m in the Lord’s army. Yes, sir.”

There were hand motions, complete with a military salute. And I realized that somehow, over the millenia, we have equated faith with war and violence. There were the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the witch trials. After World War II, and during the Communist scare of the 1960s-1980s, many Christians wove patriotism, militarism, and Christianity into a camouflage fabric. The Constitution, and particularly its Second Amendment, have been granted the same reverence as the Bible, as though both writings, penned by a group of men in the late eighteenth century, are as inerrant and Divinely inspired as the Bible itself. After the Newtown shooting in 2012, English journalist Jonathan Freedland made this observation:

“If you really want to know why the US can’t kick its gun habit, take a trip to the National Archives in Washington, DC. You don’t even have to look at the exhibits. Just study the queue. What you’ll see are ordinary Americans lining up, in hushed reverence, to gaze at an original copy of the United States constitution, guarded and under heavily armoured glass. It is no exaggeration to say that for many Americans this is a religious experience.”

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/21/sacred-text-us-gun-habit

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I myself have tried to gently discuss the idea that the Constitution is not above needing change, that in the 200 years since it was written, the world has changed and that elements of the document that was written so long ago could use revision. For a Constitutional Believer, that is a non-starter.

And then, there’s this: somehow, many Christians have come to believe that bearing an AR-15 is a sacred right, endowed by God and sanctified by the same Jesus who told Peter to put away his sword.

How did we get to a place where we are teaching seven year olds that being a Christian is equivalent to being a private in the United States Army?

Songs like “His Banner Over Me Is Love” and “Onward, Christian Soldiers” reinforce this perception- Christians are here to do battle: battle against the people whose life choices are disagreed with, battle that requires a bump stock. We are an army, and armies need weapons.

The Armor of God that Paul wrote about in his letter to the Ephesians is this:

“Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.’ Ephesians 6: 13-18.

Righteousness, faith, truth, readiness, salvation, the word of God. Paul says nothing about swords, bows and arrows, axes, slings, spears; or the modern day equivalent of handguns, rifles (bolt action or semi automatic), and shotguns.

I became truly aware of this conflation of militaristic patriotism and faith when I took a job teaching in a private Evangelical school in south Texas. I was required to lead my students in the pledge to the “Christian flag” along with the pledge to the Stars and Stripes. And though I had been raised singing about shooting the Lord’s artillery, I was flummoxed. I had never heard of a Christian flag. I felt sick. I began to really encounter this enmeshed belief system in which loyalty to America was synonymous with loyalty to Jesus. I  decided not to lead or say that particular pledge, having students do it instead while I quietly stood by. And since my eyes were opened, I have come to believe that loyalty to the Republican party is included there (I learned this when a Christian friend accused me of hating the country because I voted Democrat-the friend was not kidding). In the last two weeks, I have added loyalty to the NRA to the mix. Not for all Christians, no. But for enough.

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I have found myself wondering, amongst the money that is spent on guns, how it compares to money spent on feeding the poor. For each donation to the NRA, does the Christian gun advocate donate equally to a relief organization? Maybe.

In her blog “Just a Jesus Follower,” Anna Dimmel cites the New York Times:

“The NY Times recently published an article outlining the top 10 career recipients of N.R.A. The numbers speak volumes regarding the amount of control they have ‘bought’ inside our government.

It’s just gross.” It is, Anna. It really is.

America is not God’s Chosen Nation. That was ancient Israel. We are one of many great nations. God is not wrapped in a robe of red white and blue. Jesus doesn’t wear a camo hunting jacket and red trucker cap emblazoned “Make America Great Again.”

The Divine is greater than jingoism. Jesus would not have carried an AR-15. It’s time for some American Evangelicals to remember whom they profess to serve. Even more, it’s time for the compassionate, loving Christians to speak up. They can change the conversation if they will just gird themselves in that powerful and true armor of God.

Here’s Anna Dimmel’s blog:

 

https://justajesusfollower.com/2018/02/22/christianity-vs-the-nra-finding-a-different-perspective-on-gun-control-and-violence/

*In the interest of full disclosure- I am what some would probably called “lapsed.” Maybe “Lost” or “Fallen.” My frustration with some of the issues I have described here, along with the church’s treatment of women, and other more personal issues, have left me unable to face organized church. But I do love God. Jesus is a friend.

The Magic of Menopause

Image result for Oil of Olay I don't intend to grow old

When I was about twelve I saw an Oil Of Olay commercial in which a devastatingly beautiful woman, probably in her thirties said,” I don’t intend to grow old gracefully, I intend to fight it every step of the way.” That, my friends, is my mantra. My mother in law has been trying to tell me I am getting older and need to accept my adult limitations since I became a mother in my twenties. I used to say phooey to that, though it’s gotten harder since I hit my fiftieth birthday.

I wore a two piece swimsuit into my forties (not a string bikini, I was never that much of an exhibitionist, even at sixteen), I love rock music and I love the sun. There lies the rub. I love to bake. I love to swim, bike, and float. I love to read outside. My forehead looks like some crazy speckled brown chicken egg with creases across it. That’s why I wear bangs. Sometimes I consider growing out my bangs, then I pull my hair back and take a good look at what the sun has done to my forehead and I know I am doomed to banged hairstyles until I just do not care anymore.

Last fall I had my hair braided at the renaissance festival. The large frizzy haired earth mother asked me if I wanted my bangs braided in or left down. “Down,” I tell her,” I am not ready to show the world my awful speckled wrinkled forehead!” She laughed and told me I would eventually get over it and not care.

I am pretty sure she is wrong.

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I have been blessed with a nearly wrinkle free face. I turned fifty last year, and I still have no crow’s feet except when I smile, no lines around my mouth. Just the strategically hidden forehead. When I meet new people and they learn my age, they are usually surprised. I have very few gray hairs, they didn’t start showing up until I was forty eight.

I think it’s partly because I drink water and don’t smoke. But also because of Clarins and that very Oil of Olay that I saw advertised as a kid. When I was in my late twenties and between teaching jobs, I worked for the cosmetic company Clarins, and spent a week in training. Oh, I was excited! I had a red Clarins coat with brass buttons and slept in a hotel in Tulsa at the company’s expense, and I spent the days in classes learning all about skin care ingredients and regimens and self tanner. While I worked for the company I had access to all the products, and I got hooked on skin treatment twice a day: serums and multi-regenerante creams and even a bust lifting gel- all mine to use. I skipped the self tanner because I loved to lay out, and as my old youth minister said, I could get a tan just standing in the shower. When I went back to teaching and had to reduce spending, I switched to Oil of Olay. I remembered that commercial from the 1970s, and my Grandma June had used it, that seemed like a good recommendation to me; and I have applied it faithfully ever since, though I did move from the regular stuff to the anti-aging stuff ten years ago. Fortieth birthdays require such moves.

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My face and hair haven’t caught up yet. But my knees and back have. Oh, yes. I may look younger, but with four ruptured discs and two grinding knees, I walk like a 98 year old granny if I sit in one position for too long. Two nights ago I almost fell out of bed because I couldn’t make my joints bend fast enough to catch me when I stood up to go to the bathroom for what seemed like the fifty second time overnight. My hands hurt if I try to sew, my eyes require reading glasses, and to my horror I have started snoring if I try to sleep on my back. God, that is humiliating.

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But the worst is coming. It’s happening right now. The Change. That mythical transition from Mother to Crone. That evolution from fertile to dried up husk. That proverbial factory shut down. If mothering is magic, what is it when you lose the ability to become a mother? Is it still magic? I don’t really know just yet.

I don’t have hot flashes. Thank all the goddesses that ever lived in moons or trees or clouds or water. No hot flashes.

For me, it’s been about anxiety and insomnia. Oh, and gushing. And clotting. And cramping. And headaches. And desert dryness. And pudge.

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Right now, it feels like really dark magic. It feels like pain and loss. Do I want to have any more kids? No, not even a little bit. I am not even very excited about the prospect of being a grandparent. I am not that cliche’ mom asking my kids when they are going to make me a grandma. I will love on the babies of extended family or former students. That’s enough for me.

I am embarrassed that it’s even happening. But it’s nice that I don’t have to shave my legs as much. Though if there is even a musical about it playing in Las Vegas, aptly named “Menopause the Musical,” I guess I shouldn’t feel so lonely about it. Maybe it’s something to laugh about?

Here’s the thing: with age, you’re supposed to get wiser, right? More at peace. Calmer. Sophistication personified. I feel like a drooling monkey, squishy in all the wrong places, troubled by memory loss and inflexible joints (seriously, who thought PiYo would be a less stressful workout?)

I know that true beauty comes from the spirit within, and that “pretty is as pretty does.” I try really hard to be kind and positive (really, I cannot imagine any more damaging ager that negativity, except cigarettes. Those are brutal). However, I also think I would like to be one of those ladies who can rock heels and an age appropriate pencil skirt, whose skin is smooth and moisturized, and whose aura oozes confidence and magnetism.

Getting older sucks. Seriously. But…

Two of my favorite people in my entire life were my grandmothers. And they got older. They did. And I adored them anyway. And so did their husbands. And their children. And their grandchildren.

My grandmothers were awesome. Both were elegant and loving, and gifted in their own ways.

Maybe you have seen “The Age of Adeline,” a film in which the main character, Adeline, experiences a scientific miracle that halts her aging. She is forced to watch her own daughter age into an old woman, she can’t spend a life being married, she protects herself from all long term commitments and ties, lest someone discover her secret. Played by the stunningly beautiful Blake Lively, she looks perfect in every era of fashion, from 1920’s flapper to 1960’s hippy to today’s beaded column evening gown. You think you would make a pact with the devil to have that time, and that figure, for all time to come! But at the end (spoiler alert!) she does begin aging again, and that first grey hair, after 80 years of being ageless, is a miracle to her.

Aging is, unbelievably, a gift.

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So, here’s what’s coming, though not gift wrapped with a pretty satin bow: a wattle neck (dear jesus, I will need strength and humor to get over that), floppy arms, long boobies, and spotted hands. A cool gray pixie, a la Judi Dench. Continued efforts to stay fit, like the 85 year old lady in China who works out 90 minutes a day at home. Sewing for my eventual grandbabies (they are inevitable and I know I will love them when it happens). Gardening and developing a green thumb for my fairy garden. Time on my patio watching birds. And hopefully, with concerted effort, the grace of my grandmothers.

Chapter: Rotten Apples and  the Death of a Vintage Stapler

When I started my teaching career, I bought five things.

First, an EZ Grader.  If you grew up prior to the computer age, your teachers all had one. They were mint green and used a sliding graph to tell you what the grade should be depending how many questions were incorrect. My fifth grade teacher used to let me hold hers and call out the grades to the class as we corrected our papers. When I was teaching, I saved that privilege for myself. I still have that EZ Grader. It’s in a box in storage, the edges are fuzzily frayed and one edge has split so that the card slides out if I am not careful. I love it with a deep passion.

Second, oil pastel crayons and a Carson Dellosa clip art book for making bulletin board pieces by hand. My university most definitely did not endorse buying pre-made bulletin board supplies. We were not allowed to use those brightly colored corrugated borders in our college work- it was the lazy way. We hand crunched butcher paper or pressed out hundreds of seasonal shapes and stapled them one by one around the edges of the board. This philosophy is what led to my toddler standing in front of me, arms outstretched, tears on her face, as I wouldn’t pick her up so that I could keep cutting out calendar pieces (like that bee- I had a calendar with that bee with the dates written on the wings) for my first classroom. My mother in law saw this moment and very wisely told me that I would not have those little arms to hug me forever and maybe I could find another way to do bulletin boards. I started using the pre-bought corrugated stuff, and my students learned in spite of it. Thanks, MIL- you were so right!

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Third, a vintage Swingline stapler that I found at a garage sale. This one was brown and metal and hardcore, nothing like the plastic ones that you get now. I used it to staple papers and hang student work for all twenty two years of my career. And when I left the classroom for an office job, it broke that very first week. No, I am not making it up. I kept it, just in case I ever figure out how to get it working again. But also as a reminder that the stapler, just like me, made it for as long as it could in the world of the classroom, and that its duty was done.

Fourth, an apple pencil holder. Apples are ubiquitous for teachers. It just so happens that I love them. I think it’s because my Grandma June had, hanging in her home, a beautiful piece of polished driftwood with a blue barrel full of apples painted on it by her own hands. It said “Thank you, God, for the simple goodness of a shiny red apple.” I first saw it hanging in her bathroom in the sweet little Tudor inspired 1920s cottage that my grandparents lived in in New Mexico, it traveled to their Texas lake house later, and when I married, my Pop gave it to me. It has been hung in every house we have lived in for thirty years.

I have been given apples of every kind: big red delicious apples, apples on mugs, apples on jewelry, apples on Christmas tree ornaments, apples on tee shirts. And mostly, they were sweet.

The sweet moments in teaching came from hugs, from pictures, from watching kids get a concept. Sometimes parents would recognize my work and say thanks with a spa gift card. One of my favorite teacher gifts is a wind chime that has been hanging in my flower beds for twenty years. The kids whose moms went in together to buy it for me are now thirty years old and having kids.

After seven years of elementary classroom teaching, a therapist was helping me sort through tons of issues, and asked “If you could teach anything, what would it be?” My completely spontaneous answer: “Theatre.” And the very next year, I was offered a junior high theatre position in my district. Sometimes, the Divine One hears a heart wish and moves things to make it so.

I taught theatre for fifteen years. I directed plays and musicals and taught students about pantomime and improv. I once had a student who was so terrified to stand up in front of her peers that we started by just letting her come to the auditorium with me and one friend, and she practiced standing and saying her own name. It took four years, but she was performing pieces in front of the class and playing a character in a booth at the Renaissance festival by her graduation day. Those are the sweet moments. Those are the kids that make the job worth almost every heartache.

Because sometimes, just every once in a while, there’s a worm in the apple. Or it turns out to be rotten to its core.

For one thing, for a truly introverted human being, teaching is a complete drain. No matter the age of the student, they require utmost attention and have unceasing needs. Sometimes it’s the need for a shoe to be tied or a Friday folder to be found in a messy desk. Or maybe it’s the need to have a discreet lice check in their scalp. It could be an extra hour of reading tutoring after school. When the students are in high school, they often need advice, or  a hand to hold while they sob. No matter what their age, all students need advocacy. Unlagging, unflinching, untiring advocacy.

You may have figured out by now, with my wounded mom, my worn out dad, and my penchant for heroes like Mary Poppins that I wanted to be that advocate. Most of the time, I did pretty well. But there were times when my words got the best of me. There were times when I said something I shouldn’t. What I discovered about myself was that my gas tank could get seriously depleted, and when it did, I had a hard time being sympathetic. Or I left everything in the classroom and had nothing left to care for my husband, kids, or self.

Teaching nearly killed me. It was both blessing and curse, and if you ask nearly any educator in this country today, they will tell you the same thing (if they are honest). I am in a Facebook group that is secret and private and full of teachers whose stories of cruel school administrators, spiteful parents, and apathetic students reverberate with frustration and anger. Sometimes, these teachers post victories. But when they need encouragement, they come to their secret colleagues and they wail. And the group rallies around them, patching them up so they can get back on the battlefield. So many of my teacher friends have had to leave the profession.

As I grew up, teaching was never really on my radar as a potential career. I tended to bounce between singer, nurse (until I realized how gross their job is), interior decorator, and psychologist (I got more sophisticated, but maybe not more practical). I followed family tradition into a private Christian liberal arts college, where getting your MRS degree was still a primary goal. Upon bailing from a vocal music degree (I should have been singing show tunes instead of German lieder) I drifted into an Elementary Education degree plan. It’s what all my friends were doing, and it was a good career for a young woman who wanted to raise a family. It was also a “Godly” career choice- Jesus loves it when, if a woman has to work outside the home, she at least does it in a way that serves people and gets her off at the same holidays as her kids. Great reasons for choosing a career, right?

I got off to a rough start. The act of teaching is actually pretty natural for me- planning and executing lessons made sense. I spent hours turning my classroom into a colorful environment full of books and words. I graded papers. So many papers. Every kind of paper from first grade simple addition to third grade science journals to college level essays.

But what I struggled with was the kids who were difficult. I had not been equipped to deal with the attacks. I took them personally- I internalized them. Sometimes I lashed out.

But sometimes, I was lashed at.

One morning, just as I was about to walk out the door into the dark predawn to head to school, I saw a news story that both surprised and yet did not surprise me. In California, a teacher beat up a 15 year old student who became aggressive in an attempt to get her makeup back. In the cell phone video, the student can be seen bumping up against the teacher, talking trash and bullying the teacher until the teacher snaps and advances on the student, fists flying . The teacher and student end up on the floor, rolling and kicking and pulling hair, all while another student records the action with a cell phone. I imagine most people would be shocked, dismayed, and indignant. I was, for about three seconds: “How could a teacher do that? Doesn’t she know that our job is to protect these students?” Then I remembered.

Once,  I came upon a couple having an argument in the hallway. It was my conference period and I was on my way to the front office. These two were in the middle of what looked like a pretty ugly disagreement. It was in the middle of the class period, so the halls were empty and quite frankly, it looked like this young woman might be in physical danger if I didn’t get them separated. I told them to return to class, then watched until the young lady got back into her art class. At that point, her boyfriend pinned me into a corner, balled up his fists, and seethed threats and innuendos into my face. I was all alone, the halls were deserted, we were out of sight of the security camera, and this was a 17 year old kid who definitely had the physical strength and stature to do me harm. I managed to keep a poker face until he finally left me, then I got myself to the front office and fell apart.

On another occasion I had to break up a fight between two girls and ended up punched so hard I could not move my arm at all for about an hour and had bruises in the shape of knuckles on my bicep for weeks.

My husband worked in a post secondary trade school, where a student cut the brake lines on a teacher’s car in retaliation for what the student believed was an unsatisfactory grade.

Teachers have to practice drills with their students to protect themselves and their students in case someone goes rogue terrorist. Remember Sandy Hook.

Acts of aggression against teachers are not just physical. Every day, teachers contend with insults and defiance. Social media is used to rake teachers over hot coals of insolence. You may have seen the video clip  of 68 year old bus aide Karen Klein being taunted for over ten minutes on a bus. The insults and language she endured are appalling.

Teachers are told over and over to rise above all of these unacceptable behaviors. They must be ever professional and calm, always responding to verbal or physical disrespect with cool detachment. Most of the time, in fact, nearly all of the time, teachers somehow manage to calmly walk away and fill out a discipline referral or call a parent, knowing that very little may be accomplished.

The mother of the young lady who threatened the teacher did not seem at all remorseful that her daughter had acted so inappropriately. She was full of righteous indignation that a teacher had defended herself. I just do not get that. If one of my kids advanced on a teacher like that, I think I would have some serious parenting issues to address.

This is from an article by Tim Walker in the National Education Association’s online publication:

“According to a recent article published by the American Psychological Association (APA), 80 percent of teachers surveyed were victimized at school at least once in the current school year or prior year. Teacher victimization is a “national crisis,” says Dr. Dorothy Espelage of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who served as chair of the APA task force on Classroom Violence Directed at Teachers.  And yet, the issue is generally ignored or at least underreported by the media and given inadequate attention by scholars – a deficiency that has widespread implications for school safety, the teaching profession and student learning.”

The article goes on to explain the prevalence of harassment and violence against teachers, behaviors that are perpetrated primarily by both students and parents.

The American Psychological Association says:

“Each year, 253,100 (7 percent) teachers are threatened with injury…

  • 78,500 (31 percent) male teachers
  • 174,500 (69 percent) female teachers”

Teachers sometimes find themselves in highly charged environments. The students significantly  outnumber them and they are, in truth, only protected by trust in student adherence to the social contract and their reluctance to get in trouble.  Most of the students I encountered every day had absolutely no desire to harm me or anyone else. But all it takes is one simmering kid to boil over and hit, push, stab, or shoot.

Look, I am not saying that the teacher in California did right. What I am saying is that when big adolescents who outweigh educators lift a hand and  threaten harm, teachers might respond like any reasonable human. They might just hit back.

When students smear teachers on social media, they might just want to frame their own social media responses in defense.

When students steal from teachers and trash classrooms and belongings, teachers might just wonder what life in another profession looks like.

I know it was part of what drove me to a place of self abuse and hospitalization. After my hospital stay, I managed to teach for four more years. From those last four years,  I still have so many moments that I am proud of, so many students I deeply loved, shows that won awards and nominations, and even a master’s degree in my teaching field. But for my own health, I had to leave the profession.

Sometimes, it’s not JUST about the students.

An Open Letter to The Christian Left

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This morning, I felt I had to leave a Facebook group that I had, for the most part, been enjoying. I joined The Christian Left based on the recommendation of a college friend with whom I had recently reconnected. We both graduated from the same private evangelical Christian university, and it’s somewhat unusual to find alumni who share at least some of my crazy Leftist leanings.

I am a Liberal. There. I said it. I said it in Montgomery County, Texas. I said it as the rarest bird in my neck of the woods.

“I am a Liberal. That means I look ahead, not behind. I welcome new ideas without rigid reactions. I care about the welfare of the people: their jobs, housing, schools, and health; their civil rights and their civil liberties”

The above is a meme I have been seeing floating around in the cyberspace world, I have no idea whom to credit. It pretty well sums up how I see myself.

Most of my family is pretty Conservative- the Tea Party movement resonates for them. My neighbors as well. My husband wouldn’t let me put a Hillary for President sign in the yard for fear the house would be egged. My Obama campaign signs got ripped in half in 2012. I have cringed at the ugly  faces contorted with anger seen at Trump rallies, cried at the Nazi salutes being thrown. Shuddered at David Duke’s endorsement of Trump and his refusal to repudiate it. I have shaken my head at Betsy DeVos’ agenda and Paul Ryan’s sycophancy.

I have called and mailed and e mailed my senators and representatives, at both state and federal levels (Unfortunately, Ted Cruz thought I was writing in support and put me on a mailing list. I called his office pronto).

We donate money to Public Radio/TV, a local theatre, an animal shelter, a global humanitarian organization, an environmental advocacy group, and Planned Parenthood (because women need resources and if abortions are going to happen-and you’re blessedly naive if you think they aren’t- they need to be safe).

I really do try to walk, not just talk, my belief system. And I feel pretty isolated. So I was thrilled to learn there might be a Facebook community that shared my ideals and my open-hearted approach. For a month, I have been seeing a daily scripture, usually about caring for the less fortunate, and seeing mostly useful news stories about relevant issues.

Until this week.

The POTUS had his physical. And the one page where I thought it would be safe to read the comments became a mixture of sarcasm, body shaming, name calling, and hate.

Do I believe the official height and weight that they say Trump is? No. Does it matter? No. And I know some people would say, “It’s just one more lie on top of so many. It shows a pattern.” Yeah, I get that. But when there are two posts by The Christian Left in one twenty four hour period about his weight, and this photo leads:Image may contain: one or more people and text

When the comments are:

  • if that is true then I am the virgin Mary
  • Sorry, he ate the moon, it looked like a big mac
  • What, they are referring just to his ass?

Then we have a problem. I, along with others, tried to call TCL out on it. We tried to point out that there are bigger issues, even bigger lies, on which to focus. That didn’t go so well:

  • “Kimberly, take a chill pill…Venting is healthy. So many of us feel hopeless with the nuclear button threat. Too bad Kimberly only sees things her way. Bless your teeny tiny heart Kimberly, may it grow like the Grinch’s did.” That’s from a nice lady named DeeAnn, who, though she has never met me says I have a tiny and judgemental heart.

It’s no wonder we are not making headway, Liberals.

A third post on TCL’s page within the same time frame shows a photo of Trump with a signature and the caption “I know how to write my name!” Of course he does. This particular post was the intellectual equivalent of blowing a raspberry or calling “Nanny nanny boo boo.”

Where’s the smart and mature resistance, folks?

I have held such hopes that the left side would adhere to the former First Lady’s exhortation. That we could, by taking the high road, show all those haters at the white supremacist rallies and Tea Party functions that love wins (Thanks, Rob Bell).

Alas, that’s not the case. So I left the group, unliked the page, and headed over to my BFF (in my fantasy life) Brene’ Brown’s page. At the top? This quote from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr:

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal.”

Truth. Silence is a betrayal. But we must choose our words wisely. Me? I will speak to injustice and call out cruelty, whether it’s from the Left or Right. I will speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). I really hope my like-minded brothers and sisters will too.

 

 

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