American Pie – A Reprise

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American Pie – A Reprise

Over the summer, we packed our mini van from stow-and-go to ceiling and embarked on a road trip from Wyandotte, Michigan to Acadia National Park in Maine.  That kind of trip doesn’t happen in a matter of hours.  It’s a lot of days on the road that less foolish people would endeavor to pursue in a much longer period of time than we did.  Translation? We were on the road a lot.  

On one somewhat ill-timed leg of the trip, we wove our way through the Catskills in the hours that languished beyond midnight.  In the interest of keeping the driver awake, we began an hours long sing-along, working our way through cartoon theme songs, show tunes, schoolyard rounds, and every Disney song we’d ever encountered.  We eventually shifted to the folk and country songs of my childhood, and pretty soon, we’d worked those into our travel rotation.  By the time we made our way home a week later on the 401 through Canada, our dj was piping decades-old youtube requests through the van’s sound system, and we all worked together to help ensure that one of our passengers could reach their summer goal of learning all the lyrics to Don McLean’s “American Pie”.

As stretches of highway flew by, I thought both of the road trips of my youth and the songs that looped through them, winding their way out of cassette tapes acquired at flea markets and booming through our van as we traversed the red hills of the south.  So many of those tunes orbited my dad’s record player at home, too, and when I think of Don McLean, I recall his melodies crackling and blaring out of speakers almost as tall as I was, American Pie being one of my dad’s favorites and a matter of great fascination for adolescent me.

So often, these songs and travels with my carload of children remind me so strongly of my dad.  Thirty years have now passed since what I used to often think of as “the day the music died” for my brothers, my mom, and I, a morning when we all woke up and he did not. And yet, all those years later, those singers and songwriters of his generations still sneak their way onto the airwaves like childhood friends you bump into by chance in a grocery aisle.  

In the darkness and higher altitudes of 2022, as I belted out all those lines about the jester and music icons gone too soon, I’d hear my dad’s grandchildren’s voices in the rows behind me, joining in on the chorus or fumbling along to lyrics they’d pulled up on their cell phones, and I’d think about how one of the greatest tragedies of my experience is that, at least in this lifetime, my dad will never meet the people in the van who comprise most of my world.  Sometimes it’s hard to wrap my head around the notion that,  despite the fact that that van full of late night crooners and my dad have all influenced me so much, there is no point in which their paths have ever or will ever intersect with his.  In the jumble of my life, my husband and children exist in separate, clearly marked compartments from my dad – the larger one containing every memory, moment, or innovation that has come to pass since the clearly drawn line that divides the life I had before and after our family lost him.

I often think of my mom soon after my dad died – attending a 100th birthday party for Granny, his grandmother, and signing all of our names on a giant card someone had taped to a wall, adding my dad’s name with a halo and wings sketched above it.  Back then, she was always working hard to remind people that he had existed, or perhaps assuring us that he was still with all of us in spirit.  I think, in many ways, she worried the real things about him would be forgotten.  Not just things that everyone knew like how he ran a minimum of two businesses while working full time as an engineer at Ford, but other things like how he loved his popcorn burnt or how he dabbled in a little of everything from pinball machines to gigantic aquariums.  There were hundreds of quirky, endearing, and maddening things about him, but what was to stop all of those facts and memories from dissipating with the parade of time?

If I could travel back in the early 90’s, I’d let my mom know that she needn’t worry, and that I haven’t even come close to forgetting my dad, even now that I’m older than he ever lived to be.  I can be driving somewhere and a song will come on the radio, or even more likely, someone from our family will select it from a playlist, and I’m in two or twenty places all at once.  I’m a kid in a van in the seat just behind his, and I’m soaking up the way he adds his voice to the harmonies.  I’m a mid-forties parent myself, and despite the ups and downs and insecurities of raising my children and feeling convinced they hate me 97 percent of the time, for the three to seven minutes of those narrative melodies, we’re all doing the soprano part or switching off in duets and okay with one another.  I’m in footie pajamas, swinging feet that barely scrape the floorboards, saying Good Morning America with Willie Nelson as we cross the state line into Alabama, I’m on my way to our childhood church in Southwest Detroit wondering where all the flowers have gone, I’m in our Allen Park driveway waiting for a song’s end.  I’m cramped into the passenger seat, lodged beneath extra snacks, granola bar wrappers, CD’s, books and itineraries, peeking in the rearview to see who’s still awake, shrieking with laughter over just how cheesie yet wonderful some of these songs now seem as I introduce them to my children. 

Sometimes I ache over the impossible desire to have him in the car, singing along with all of us, but mostly, I’m grateful.  Grateful for all the music I learned about through my dad’s eclectic collection and for what it still tells me about who he was even when the decades simultaneously crawl and race by.  Grateful that I have these fascinating, maddening, and wonderful people seatbelted amongst me to share the new and old songs each time we hit the road.    

It turns out that the music didn’t die on September 13, 1992 – at least not all of it.  We’re still singing those songs, and through them, we’re telling those stories about my dad and every other person we’ve missed along the way. It’s one of many ways we keep them alongside us.  I’m still singing, loud and offkey, but it’s far less noticeable when others are singing along, too.  If my voice cracks and it isn’t a high note, it’s probably because I’m thinking of my dad, but sometimes, it’s just because I’m so darn glad to be here.

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Outdoor Play is Important Work

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Outdoor Play is Important Work

When I was growing up, two of the brightest kids I’d ever met were my brother, David, and his friend, Victor.  When I was a teenager, Vic became one of my best friends, but when we were younger, I fell into the category of annoying little sisters, so I was only able to watch the big kid exploits from afar.  Fortunately, Vic’s sister, Xan, was also my good friend throughout my entire childhood, so between the times we spent playing at one another’s houses, I had ample time to spy on the fascinating world of our older brothers.

One of the more vivid memories I have of the two boys was a great undertaking that occurred one summer in Victor’s backyard, and other kids were recruited into the effort.  A giant hole was being dug, and while it may have started in a sandbox, it had become an expansive pre-

tunnel that was so deep that not only were the entrenched kids visible only from the neck up, it was probably getting to the point that someone should have contacted the utility company.  

When I mustered up just the right amount of cool kid swagger to ask Vic, “Whatcha digging?” he didn’t offer the standard, misguided, childhood explanation that he was digging to China.  He explained that they were digging a tunnel across the yard to reach his basement.  From there, I believe they intended to connect the tunnel with the basement, creating a secret passageway into the home.  

Kids I slightly recognized from their Cub Scout den flung shovels-full with gusto, and as I watched them, I became almost dizzy with the excitement for their project.  While admiring them for their quest, I all at once wished that I had been invited to dig.  That way, when the tunnel was complete, I knew I’d eventually be invited to crawl or walk through it, to access the mythical, subterranean passage..  

“Your parents said it was okay?” I gasped breathily.

Vic shrugged and jumped back into the hole.  “Yeah.”

While I was whisked home some time mid-construction project, I can only guess that at some point, it all came to a halt and they weren’t successful in their mission to connect hole to home since I spent many days of my young adult years hanging out at Vic and Xan’s house and I never once was invited to access their basement via the secret tunnel.

Years later, I asked my brother if he remembered the project.

“Vic’s mom was furious,” he recalled, refuting my memory that Vic had his parents’ approval.  “I mean, we cleared out their entire sandbox,” he laughed.

A few decades later, I have my own yard and my own children, and for several seasons now, there exists a muddy path that never grows grass, largely because I have a digger of my own.  My daughter specializes in squirreling away garden tools, creating small trenches, encountering insects, planting mysterious objects, and burying treasurers, usually where we wish we could step without squishing.  In the warm months, there is almost enough grime to support a small garden living under her fingernails, and I drape blankets over the furniture where she’ll sit, knowing that her feet and arms and knees are darkened from her exploits.

While my brother recalls Vic’s mother’s wrath, I know my memory isn’t inaccurate when I think of all the open play that went on in his backyard and our own. Our childhood games were constructed with the trappings of tree houses, pinecones, muddy sandboxes, stones and rubble, and blades of grass.  We owned too many toys, it’s true, but our parents intuitively or otherwise recognized the importance of unstructured, outdoor play, and we were often left to our own devices (without devices!) to create our own, imaginative worlds.  While those opportunities may not have been the lone factor that contributed to those boys honing their astute problem solving skills and mega-brains, they certainly played a role in the types of people they grew up to be.  

As the seasons shift into the muds and twigs of spring, I’m anticipating a bathtub ringed with sand and barefooted prints that weave in a frenzy in and out of my back door. While I lose my patience now and again, for the most part, I’ve come to embrace the pine needles that end up in the bedding and the hair that fills with burs.  I’ve resigned myself to the grime and mud pies and the invitations that rolly polly bugs come for a visit, because this fleeting play is more vital than any flash cards or assessments that I can launch my child’s way.  When it comes to all that sensory goodness of mixing potions and preparing picnics for slugs, the very creativity and open-endedness of that imaginative play is as good for a child’s growing brain as it is for her soul. While the very curiosity of it all has the potential to end in beestings and scraped knees, the gains outweigh the grass stains. It’s the hard work of childhood, and as much as it creates mucky moments and uneven garden surfaces, all that digging and creating and meandering is a critical piece to her developing her place in this giant garden we’re all stumbling about in.  

This spring, when you hear the creak of your own side door and there are children who hope to venture into the muck and mess of it all, I hope you’ll allow them to cast off their shoes, grab at a trowel or stick or that teacup that’s been missing a handle.  I hope that they’ll be free to dig in deep and that fresh air and bugs and mossy smells will greet them.  And as they tumble the neat things into a sandy disarray, I hope that they will continue that important work of childhood that I remember so fondly. .Maybe this season, you and I will have the opportunity to join them. 

In From the Cold

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In From the Cold

Recently, due to some renovations in the building, we served our soup kitchen meal outdoors, with a triage tent assembled over grills and griddle tops, with styrofoam boxes of piping hot meats  passed into a trailer where tables of side dishes, rolls, cookies, and cutlery were added to the bags that would re-enter the cold once we passed them along to those who waited in a line to receive them.  I stood outside the trailer within a horseshoe of tables at the point of distribution, visiting with our guests as their orders were prepared, stuffing water bottles, tinned stew, and other commodities into bags to send along with the warm stuff.  It was almost thirty degrees in the sunshine, and most folks were pretty eager to grab their meal and be on their way.  

For the first hour or so before our guests arrived, I moved cases of canned goods, sweating in my double layers, my coat flung into a crate of tuna kits.  But eventually, as I stood still enough to make myself a cog in the food service wheel, I began to experience the chill.  As my breath came out in frozen puffs about me, I whispered a prayer of gratitude.

The truth is, sometimes I want to be cold like that.  When I come in from the elements, I slip off my boots that have exactly zero holes and wiggle toes that begin to thaw in my heated kitchen.  My nose may be an ice cube of cartilage, but the rest of me is warm as toast as I make my way into my living room and shrug off some of my outerwear.  I’m wearing two pairs of pants that, if I need to wear them again tomorrow, can be washed and dried in less than an hour because I own a washing machine with lots of bells, whistles, and fancy settings.  I pull off one of several hats I own, this one made by a dear friend who would probably make me another were I to need it.  I left my house before the sun rose and wanted to be sure we weren’t running behind, so I skipped eating breakfast, but I know that when I feel motivated enough to find something to eat, I’ll open my refrigerator and have to stack containers and dishes from side to side and that something will likely fall out in my search because our resources are just that plentiful.  I know I’ll slam the refrigerator door in one swift motion, as my tendency to zealously purchase  produce means there’s at least one head of romaine crammed against the two varieties of milk, all of them threatening to escape if I’m not vigilante.  It’s not a matter of if I”ll eat, but which of many things I will choose to eat while my digits and begin to thaw.     

But I don’t eat right away.  When I’ve been cold, sometimes I want to relish that moment of getting warm again.  Of looking about me at the handprints along my door frame and being glad for the not spotless walls that hold up my roof.  When I’ve been cold, I know that, eventually, I’ll have somewhere warm to go and that I won’t perch at the stone edge of a stairwell, balancing a foam container upon my lap, warming my hands upon the steam while others wish me on my way.  When I’ve been cold and announce my arrival, some of the people in my home look up from a book, of which we have many, and shrug a hello because it’s just so standard and usual to have a parent smothering them with affection and greetings and curiosity that they take it mostly for granted.  In the home where I’ve lived for almost twenty years and all the others that came before it, there has never been an absence of warmth, both literal and figurative.     

Here in Michigan, one of our favorite topics of conversation is the cold and the constant fluctuations in weather.  When the birds begin to chirp, we pull out our shorts and assume it’s spring, only to have our hopes dashed when it snows three days later.  We preach and pontificate about the dip in degrees like we haven’t lived here for decades, as though the temperature is a personal affront when for so many of us, the change in weather rarely effects anything more than the view from our home offices or whether we kick up our thermostats a few notches and bundle up for the handful of moments it takes us to trudge to and from our vehicles.  On occasion, we scrape ice from windshields, we snowblow, we rub at our cheeks as they are nipped in the wind.  But in the end, we get to bring ourselves indoors again.  For most of us, being cold is a mild interlude.  For so many of us, the cold does not dictate our living and dying or threaten to finally break us.  Instead, it’s a season that is also wrapped in joys of holidays, excuses for warm drinks, and the promise of seasons of more of the same bright plenty we experience the rest of the time, only in the next season, we simply wear lighter jackets and tiptoe out with our feet bare. The seasons, for all their waxing and waning and weathering, touch some of us far differently than they do others.  I, for one, am trying to be mindful of that cold and how the warmth that follows is an occasion to count my many warm blessings.

The cold is always more bearable with great outerwear. So grateful for my friend, Neighbor, who frequently donates his beautiful creations to our meal program. I couldn’t resist this one!

Caterpillar Autumn

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Last September, in the first days of the school year, I discovered the beautiful, hunched over shape of a caterpillar zagging and zigging its way up a stem of the Queen Anne’s Lace that borders my garden, and much to everyone’s delight, we brought him indoors and set up a cozy little nook for him inside a half gallon Mason jar that boasted perches, an all access pass for round-the-clock feedings of plant life, and an unrivaled view of our dining room clutter.  Our girls named him Alfie, laughed over his prolific frass output, and awaited the time that he’d make his “J”, which is a thing caterpillars do just before they get all snuggled up in their cocoons.  

Alfie was a good sport to say the least.  My youngest daughter interrupted her remote, second-grade teacher to struggle the jar in front of her screen, introducing Alfie to the class who all pretended politely that they could make out the shape of the black swallowtail caterpillar being tumbled head over tail while they squinted at their screens.  Alfie hung out on the dining room table for a while, munching his dill in his non-judgmental way even as someone splashed salsa onto his habitat.  He stared down, nonplussed, at the cat who, fortunately, had long ago been convinced that tabletops are not for felines and that fresh insects are far preferable to the jarred variety.

Alfie was the quietest member of our household and yet, still among the most captivating, until one day, he was simply no longer a caterpillar. One moment, we noticed the fine threads of his “J” attaching him to a stick, and soon after, there was a rather dull looking crispy shape that could have been the curve of a leaf where Alfie had once hung.

To be honest, it looked like an utter failure.  But we’d raised butterflies before and knew from experience that cocoons look neither pretty nor exciting.  With something like confidence, we placed his jar in our pantry, uncertain if he’d emerge soon or hang out for a while to “overwinter,” aka stay in his cocoon until the spring called to him to awaken.  

Well, winter passed, and Alfie’s jar hung out on the ledge of my pantry.  The first time I knocked it over, I spoke to him apologetically.  “Sorry, Alfie.  Hope you’re still okay in there.”  I juggled my canned goods around him, and when I’d be searching for something on a back shelf, I might rest a teetering stack of something atop his mesh covered abode.  It stressed me out a bit. Did his cocoon need oxygen? What if I forgot to move the raw cashews when I finally found the diced tomatoes I was looking for and inadvertently suffocated our smallest friend? At first, I worried over him and nestled him closer to the spice jars, imploring them to watch over him.

As the seasons cooled, we, too, began to enter the cocoon of our home all the more.  The outdoor visits we’d relied on during the spring and summer of the pandemic seemed to dry up much like Alfie’s hideaway, as sometimes did the optimism about being physically amongst people we cared for.  Now we stuffed our hands in our coat sleeves and lingered on driveways til our feet were numb, drove by for birthdays, or hung out around bonfires.  We went for walks where our breath formed frosty puffs, and we circled up our wagons – well, our station wagons anyway, our laps covered in blankets, visiting through car windows, and wrapping our fingers around the same kinds of hot teas we might have clanked in the closeness of a toast, once upon a time.  But as the weather worsened, mostly, we were in cocoons of our own.

Alfie’s own cocoon looked quite hopeless.  Time and again, I knocked his habitat from the shelf, upsetting some of the crisp contents, the wadded up paper towel, twigs and flora and fauna that I’d failed to clear away when the weather was still warm.  I thought I could make out the same curl of a leaf-cocoon on a twig, but after so long, who could really tell? After a while, I stopped apologizing to the jar, half wondering at what point I’d come to grips with the fact that I’d killed the poor guy, cut my losses, and clear the spot he occupied to make way for the overflow of canned garbanzo beans.

Then, just as winter always does, winter eventually became spring.  We pulled out bicycles and watched as backyard toys given up for lost resurfaced in the runoff of melting snow.  We got shots in arms, we stood a bit closer, and tiptoed out into the places we’d missed.  

One late spring day, my daughter stood with me in the kitchen, and just as she was mid-sentence, I glanced into the pantry where the door is always slightly ajar. The flicker of movement caused me to gasp out a string of indistinguishable exclamations, my heart flapping in time with the rapid movement enclosed a few feet away.  I leaped past my daughter, a jumble of cheering.  “It’s – the – it’s – Alfie! He’s -” 

Our horridly hopeless, cringey and crinkled up mass of uncertain substance had indeed become a butterfly.

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Introducing.. Alfie!

Moments later, I held Alfie’s jar triumphantly above my head, an urn of our hopes and best wishes emboIdied in a fragile, beautiful wisp of a being.  A parade of children and teens followed me out the door, into the garden where Alfie, beating his wings poetically, cast off the captivity of that not-so-breakable mason jar, gave our garden a cursory swoop, and left us for wind and fields and further adventures in the sky.  As I watched him dart through our plants and then disappear, I could barely believe that I had ever given up on him.

Later in June, our family hesitated at the threshold of our local library, one of the places we love best in our community.  For over a year, we’d picked up our books at the curbside, dropping our returns into the bin on our evening walks, glancing longingly into the darkened windows or waving fondly when we caught a librarian alone at her work on the other side of the glass.  In the first heat of summer, the rules relaxed, and we were suddenly able to enter the building.  The library was one of the last places we’d gone before much of the world quarrantined, and with their mid-March 2020 announcement that the library would close by the weekend, we’d stacked more books than we could easily carry up onto the counter, preparing for what we underestimated as a short time of hibernation.  One year and too many months later, there we were, pushing open the doors in a single file, solemn line.

And then we burst forth.

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Selecting books after over a year away from our favorite place.

As my youngest daughter raced through the aisles to the children’s section and flitted from stack to glorious stack of juvenile fiction, I thought of Alfie and his emergence from a closed off place that once seemed quite inescapable.  We, too, were emerging. 

“We’re here! We’re back!” I smiled gleefully to the library staff, attempting to keep my tone subdued.  The older girls disappeared into the stacks to retrieve their own armloads, and as my youngest rested, content, in a cozy spot against the wall, a book cracked wide across her lap as though she’d never left for long, I felt that, like Alfie, I, too, could float.  

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Now it is the September of another school year, and although I glimpse at monarchs pausing over the flowers that line my yard, already I recognize some of the brittle, drooping stalks of plants that have served their time here and are ready to succumb to autumn.  Many of our friends have covered pools and packed away swimsuits and turned over the earth for another season.  And in many ways, as we teeter closer to the autumn, we drag our feet even more than in the past.  In this autumn time, despite a moment of hopeful emergence, we’re again pausing at thresholds, contemplating seasons where we might again glance through windows, where we may not find ourselves in the familiar places, among the familiar people, where we’d choose to be.  The chill of an evening breeze reminds me to linger by a bonfire and prolong a walk a while, because in the uncertainty of a pandemic that seems to stay far beyond its welcome, we don’t know when we may again be called to pause from some of our most favorite moments.Ri

In these final weeks of butterflies, I am reminded that with the transition of seasons, we often find ourselves moored in trepidation and sadness, hesitant to pack away the sand shovels, the lawn chairs, the seashells and sunblock that tie us to warmer and more carefree moments.  At summer’s departure, we glance mournfully at the mud of our yards, the stiff and muted hues that have replaced our gardens’ splendor, and the windows shuttered tight.  

No matter what we pack away as we enter this new season, whether we grudgingly pause to wrap ourselves in the protective covering of a mask, whether we again quarantine and separate, or whether we are simply pessimistically preoccupied with thoughts of another cold winter of seemingly unrelenting chill, I hope that, now and then, we are mindful of the cruddy, hopeless shell that was our Alfie. When the roads are icy and all about us is sludge, I know that we’ll think of how somehow, despite the very ugliness and seemingly endless moment of his dingy exile and captivity, a time of sunshine eventually returned for Alfie.  Even as, time and time again, I was certain that my clumsy blundering had brought him to the brink of death, as it turns out, even I couldn’t thwart his magical transformation.   

 While I, too, cling to the retreating coattails of summer, I am certain that if this upcoming  season is one of stillness, it, too, surely shall pass in all its cooped up, slushy, sometimes ugly moments of adaptations and maybe even inspirations.  I hope that, much like Alfie, when you shed this time and shake off the dust of surviving all of the wonderful, awful, all of it, your courage and patience will find you renewed and restored, prepared to burst into the warmth of a new spring that still awaits you.      

That Same Girl…

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That Same Girl…

When  I was an undergraduate, I commuted to Ann Arbor several days a week despite the fact that for much of my initial time there, I did not own a car.

I had a few strategies for this predicament.  My grandparents were babysitting once a week in Ann Arbor, so that often, I could catch a ride each way and also tag along for dinner with our extended family,carrying out my full civic duty and ensuring that my grandparents got their money’s worth if we happened to go to a buffet, which was much of the time.  I also shared rides with my friend, Paul, who studied down the road at EMU, and when I say I “shared” rides, I should really qualify that by explaining that I was definitely operating under a very loose definition of the word “shared” since we were always using Paul’s car and gas.  Other times, I left my mom without a car for days at a stretch, and she was such a good sport about it that not only did she pack a bagged lunch for me, she’d often pack an extra for anyone I passed panhandling along my way.

FInally, at some point, I came across a boyfriend with so many cartoon love-birds circling over his head, that I need merely say the word and he would help me out of a jam, leaving work early once a week so he could chauffeur me to an evening seminar I was leading, or when he went out of town on a business trip, loaning me his full sized truck.

During that trucking time in my life, I hadn’t yet learned that there was a free lot for commuters just along State Street, and so I instead frequented a parking structure nestled right in the heart of campus.  It was within minutes of many of my classes, so  I paid 70 cents an hour to leave whatever vehicle I was borrowing all day, unless a certain fair haired boy was working, in which case, he’d often wink and wave me through.  

One morning, I pointed the truck’s rather imposing nose through the inclines of the parking structure, only to be greeted by row after row of the hind ends of cars bearing license plates from Michigan and states all across the country.  As the radio’s static signaled that I was heading deeper into the concrete abyss, I crept along expectantly, hopeful that someone might appear to retrieve their car and leave a spot available for me.  Yet, when I reached the rooftop, it was clear that the lot was indeed full and that not only was there nowhere for me to park, there was no way for me to turn around.  

To understand the significance of this moment, you’d need to understand that I had only recently become a semi-confident driver.  As a teenager, I had only driven locally, never venturing onto the expressway.  When I’d graduated high school, I had spent two years at Northwestern University where public transportation was widely available so the only time I got behind a wheel was on the few occasions when some students would borrow a van from the campus activities office for volunteer work (or a diversion disguised as volunteer work) and no one else was willing to commandeer the behemoth white vehicle with the school’s name stamped on its sides.  When I transferred to the University of Michigan, I lived on campus for only one semester  and then came back to my more affordable hometown with the resolution to commute.  I had pretty much learned to drive on the expressway the night before my first course of the semester.  Being a non-terrified driver was a relatively new phenomenon when I arrived at this literal and figurative barrier, and there I was, stuck in a truck and nowhere to go.

I did the only thing I could.  I checked my mirrors and backed down six floors of the parking structure in a truck that was sometimes nerve-wracking to steer forward.  I kept waiting for someone to tool on up behind me, but by then the lot attendants had probably stopped admitting cars.  I went slowly, I whispered aspirations under my breath, I imagined telling this story when I arrived at home, and in my imagined re-telling, I made it out without dinging up a BMW and could laugh at how nervous I’d been.  And then I really did it.  I made it to the bottom, found a spot to turn my nose forward, and informed the ticket taker that no, I would not be paying for the thirty minutes or so that had elapsed while I was scouring the structure and then retracing the treads of the truck’s tires.  

I don’t remember if I found another parking structure, or if I gave up and skipped class.  But I know that when my boyfriend called from his business trip and I recounted the story and laughed over my predicament, he hailed me as a hero.  “I can’t believe you backed that thing all the way down,” he remarked, amused.  I was staying overnight with his mother while he was away, and she nodded kindly over my breathless recounting, and although I’m sure she was secretly thinking, “Congratulations, kid.  You can drive a car,” she, too, celebrated my accomplishment.

Nowadays, I’d think nothing of reversing my way through a structure, even without rear sensors, cameras, and the other various parking aids that our cars come equipped with.  But in that moment, when I was just past twenty and not-so-tenacious in traffic, I felt I had proven my mastery over the universe.  Every semester of college and adulthood seemed to throw new hurdles, and this was one moment where I proved that I was prepared to roar right back.

Sometimes, when I’m in a tight spot in life, whether it’s a driving conundrum or something a bit more serious, I have a habit of thinking this mantra to myself.

“You are still that same girl who backed out of the parking structure.”

A lot of times, it would be easy to feel like I’m no longer at the threshold of realizing my potential, that I’m just not this bold, young thing who is made up of sass and grit and determination, prepared to take on all naysayers and snares.  When we’re young, we hear that we can’t do something, and we shake our heads back and laugh as though we’ve been treated to a high stakes, double-dare, taking off running head-long into whatever we’ve been challenged not to do.  We don’t pause to think about how stupid our choices are and how inevitable our failure, how much we should be guarding our physical selves and our vulnerable spirits.  We love, we dream, we move with faith and abandon and a fair helping of stupidity.  But, as we grow older, we’re often the ones telling ourselves that coping, dreaming, or even making our way through traffic is beyond our abilities.  The “cannots” begin to stack themselves beside the pile of our trophies, accolades, and accomplishments, and the stack teeters relentlessly until sometimes it mutes or even tumbles and buries our memory of that vibrant, self believer who exists at our core.  

But I’m here to tell you that I’m still that same girl who backed out of that parking structure.  And no matter how old you are or where you’re reading this, I’d like to bet you still contain a flicker of your favorite, most vibrant version of yourself, too.  Maybe this is a version of yourself from before you started listening to every letter of rejection that stacked on your desk, every parking ticket, every assurance that a hiring committee decided to go in a different direction.  Maybe this version of you has nothing to do with career choices or swooping up ladders, but instead has to do with the you that strolled more, strummed a guitar, wrote a line, pressed your hands into clay, or listened and listened deeply.  If there’s a part of you that you think of in a nostalgic way, chances are, you’re still in touch, and that version of you is still informing the choices you make even when you’re slugging through the quagmire with the rest of us.  You’re still that same girl who backed out of the parking structure.  Believe that she’s here with you, and perhaps she will steer you to your next, nail-biting and fabulous adventure.

Ways We’ll Be Remembered and Other Delicious Thoughts

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Ways We’ll Be Remembered and Other Delicious Thoughts

This past spring, I finally made a perfect hard boiled egg.  I used to have a good method, and then somewhere down the road, I just got inconsistent about it to the point that whenever I’d make them, I knew that they’d either be mildly acceptable or, well, they’d suck eggs.  In my volunteering endeavors, there have been brunches where I’ve set out hard boiled eggs only to see that tell-tale, sulfuric circle that announces the egg’s been overcooked, and on the other extreme, one year, horror, of horrors, I watched a friend open the egg I’d slipped in her lunch bag and then I wanted to hide under a rock when the contents were runny in a way that only looks great in the kinds of eggs that come from our friends at Cadbury.  

You’re probably asking yourself why the fact that I mastered the egg even matters.   It’s not like I developed a solution to world hunger or even settled the age-old debate about whether the chicken or its shell-tter was the first to make an appearance.  But I couldn’t help being excited about adding this feat to my culinary clutch. 

I know I’m not the only one who expanded her skill set in this time of staying safe at home.  When we weren’t dutifully supporting the restaurant industry through our carryouts, we were busy little chefs and bountiful bakers, and maybe a little more than usual, I tried to spread my wings in the kitchen, too.  2020 and 2021 were the years I made my first pumpkin roll and its cocoa cousin the yule log, a halfway decent gobi manchurian, and pots and pots of pickle soup, and as each new recipe joined my repertoire, I felt, if not proud, at least a little tickled by it all.  I really get a kick out of learning new things and trying new recipes, and I think in pandemic times, we all felt a bit of solidarity with that sense of culinary adventure.

I see many of us on facebook, sharing photos of these accomplishments, but often in a somewhat self-deprecating way.  In a “not that it’s that big of a deal, and since I’m doing nothing else” kind of way.  “I made a layer cake, but who cares because I’m home from work, after all.”  Or,”I crocheted this blanket, but who doesn’t have time on our hands these days”.  Many of us have learned new and tender ways to care for our families, to sweeten the meal and dazzle the decor, but we don’t tend to honor these endeavors.  At times, it even feels that embracing  the work of the home is a red flag and a betrayal to all the progress some of us have made in our efforts to escape the domestic sphere.And yet, there I was, feeling as though I’d attained rock star status over a little hard boiled egg.

When I made that perfect egg, I couldn’t help thinking of my husband’s Aunt Connie who died suddenly just before the Easter holidays.  Although she was my husband’s aunt, I started thinking of her as my aunt, too, pretty much as soon as I met her, back when Doug and I started dating in the late nineties.  She was one of those people who brought Southern hospitality all the way across the Mason-Dixon and made it a concept that was right at home in Dearborn Heights where she’d settled down with her husband of 61 years.  

Aunt Connie was the kind of person who rounded out almost every visit I had with her with something delicious.  It didn’t matter if I was just bringing my little ones to toddle in her yard for a few minutes while we chatted, she’d pull out “egg dip”, a simple and magical mash up that rested on a glass topped table in an orange Tupperware, and she’d be spreading globs of it onto buttery crackers almost as fast as the little ones could reach up for it. When we’d dodge the summer heat by gathering in her basement, we’d pour over stacks of photographs and wash  them down with plates of a dessert she’d retrieve from the fridge.  It made us feel like local celebrities to know that someone had baked something just because she knew we’d be on our way over – like our presence was a red letter occasion to be marked with the types of desserts that could make normal comfort food seem as comfortable as a pull out sofa.  

But in all honesty, the way Aunt Connie fussed all over us wasn’t reserved just for us – she made a similar big deal over all of her guests.  In my very last visit to her home, family from out of state and many of us locals gathered in her kitchen and yard, and of course there was a cake and there was no point refusing a piece.  Aunt Connie brought us together with food, and I always got the impression that her specialties were an eclectic mix of both favorites that had delighted for generations and new endeavors that were gleaned from church events, recipes passed between friends, or even experiments inspired by new trends.  One of her many love languages was food, and Aunt Connie loved on us in a way that can only be described as delightful.

When I think of Aunt Connie and some of the other elders who have had such a powerful impact on my life, I know that many of the memories we forged were centered around everything from epic events to ordinary encounters, but they were always made all the more endearing due to the presence of those tantalizing treats.  When I consider the way she opened up the lines of communication, soothed worries and increased her joy each time a cake was sliced and a plate was passed, I know that Aunt Connie brought so much more to the table than fluffy, calorie-laden confections.  She brought the kind of care that all of us crave, and she made sure that it was abundantly available.

At the end of my own life, I don’t think anyone will have much to say about my ability to make sound investments, earn an impressive salary, or even find the mates to all the socks that have lived among us for decades at a stretch.  Certainly, I have goals and ambitions for myself that extend beyond the poached, pureed, and plated, and perhaps they’ll be reached and realized, and perhaps I’ll make some enduring mark of my own.  But, when I consider Aunt Connie, I am reminded that, if I work at it, maybe somehow at the end of my days, someone  might have something to say about the cakes, the second courses,  the cooking pots that bubbled over, and  how our stories unfolded over second helpings.  It’s a pretty honorable way to be remembered.  If I’m lucky, perhaps they’ll even mention that once in a while, I made a pretty decent hard boiled egg.

This Earth Day, Aim for a “C”

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This Earth Day, Aim for a “C”

Well, it’s Earth Day again, and here we are, still spinning around the sun, still teetering toward a time when our planet could become ¾ plastic refuse instead of ¾ water, still fretting over habitat loss, smoldering rainforests, and puddles that were once arctic ices. For many of us, the arrival of Earth Day is an opportunity to renew our commitment to being good stewards to this giant rock that we call home, and often this time of year is when we take decisive actions to improve or repair the lay of the land in the interest of leaving it more whole for those who will follow behind us.  We plant trees (or resolve to when the snow clears), we cut and paste images with Native American preservation wisdom and proudly add them to our Facebook timeline,  we recycle our office paper, and maybe we even make a donation to the Sierra Club or Green Peace.  And yet, for all our best intentions, even if we signed the Earth Day pledge or did an April 22 neighborhood clean up, many of us find “saving the earth” to be a task that is much larger than we are and well beyond our reach.

When it comes to shifting our focus to care for the environment, some of the best advice I ever received was from my friend, Pat, when we were discussing my plan to use cloth diapers with my fourth daughter.  With my first daughter, I invested a lot (I mean, a ridiculous amount) of money in cloth diapers months before she was born.  I had great intentions to leave less of a carbon footprint for my new baby to contend with, because let’s face it, there’d be more important things for him or her to consider when he or she grew up to be the head of the United Nations and achieved a Nobel Peace Prize.  I had my sights set high for both my future child and my future self, so despite some good natured teasing and eye rolling from more experienced moms, I ordered those pricey diapers and just knew that nary a disposable would be parked in a landfill on my behalf.   

Well, I’m here to tell you that by the time our first daughter did arrive, I likely would have grabbed for a pack of diapers made from baby sea turtles given the opportunity, so great was my discouragement with my cloth diapers.  I was really tired, I couldn’t figure out how to fold them and snap them, and did I mention I was really tired!? I packed the diapers away and admitted my defeat.  

When my fourth child was on her way, I had a different parenting approach, and this one was a combination of the slackerific and the wise.  It was more entrenched in the mantra that told me to just do the best I could because, really, that was the best that I could do.  And that meant that sometimes my best could mean anything from pureeing my own baby food, cutting whole grain sandwiches into fun shapes, and re-reading my preschooler socially conscious story books, to getting recognized at the local pizza place for being a top fan, keeping my “Halloween decorations” (read: cobwebs) up all year round,  and hitting “rewind” so my trusty, VHS babysitter could repeat a Veggie Tales episode for roughly the three thousandth time while I’d catch a weekly shower.

When I told my friend Pat about my newest cloth diaper investment, I mentioned that I would be putting less pressure on myself this time around.  I would try to rock the cloth as much as possible, but I wouldn’t hold myself to the standard to use them all the time.  Away for the weekend? Disposables.  Laundry stacked to the ceiling? Disposables.  I would try my absolute best, but I would know going in that I was not going to shame myself anytime I had to swaddle someone in those convenient, absorbent diapers in their squishy, cheery packs.  

Pat smiled her approval.

“Try for 75% percent.  It’s a C,” she assured me.

It was like an epiphany for me.  

“You’re right,” I agreed.  “It’s like average, right? Like, I could get behind 75%.  I could probably even be proud of it,”

And seriously, even though this was a quick conversation that happened over an open drawer of sandwich bags in a church kitchen, that conversation clicked somewhere, and it was like the snaps on the giant diaper of my brain all lined up to make a perfect fit.  

Like most of us, I am often paralyzed by the desire to be “all in”, and even though I know that the rest of the world couldn’t give a heap of non-gmo beans whether I use cloth diapers, or paper or plastic grocery bags, for some reason, the person who is the most judgy about my choices is – well, me.  But if I just give myself permission to not be an absolute earth crusader by tomorrow, I just might be able to ease my way into it.  As a matter of fact, in the case of the diaper dilemma, I ended up being committed to the cloth 95% of the time because I stopped being so preoccupied with being either team cloth diaper or team disposable.

Sure, it’s pretty important that we as a collective community change some of our ways and treat the earth more gently, but for many of us, an all and out overhaul is not always reasonable, and we have a slew of habits to unlearn and products to break up with.  

I honestly believe that we’re more successful when we are purposeful about small changes that we can phase in a little bit at a time (or even only 75% of the time!) and these micro gestures are more relevant than our failed, grandiose attempts.  Those smaller acts become habits, and soon we’re ready for our next tree hugging shift.  

So, how can you lighten your footprint to begin with? Identify one tiny change you’ll make this time around, but stop green shaming yourself when your reality doesn’t match the ideal.  Maybe cloth napkins are a palatable disruption to your routine, but  you prefer to use them every day except when you have company.   That sounds like a solid 80% to me. Perhaps this month, you’ll switch to compostable paper plates wherever you have a party, and maybe by next month, you’ll be ready for an organic body wash.    

Now and then, those geared-for-the-green transformations will be easier than you anticipated.  Maybe you’re like me and you once felt your eyeballs get cartoonishly gigantic when you compared the stickers on the natural laundry detergents to the perfume-rich, chemical laden compounds of stain fighting genius. But maybe like me, once you jumped in with both non synthetically washed socks, you were 100% hooked and didn’t even flinch at the checkout.  It doesn’t have to be horribly complicated.  Maybe you don’t entirely ditch the evil chocolate but you buy the fair trade chocolate as well, and even if those numbers don’t shake out into some kind of eco extra credit, at least you have more chocolate in your life. 

There may never be a way that you can walk or carpool to work, but maybe there is one errand you can always designate as your go to “errand on foot”.  And if it’s pouring rain and you’re really tired beyond all belief because someone under three feet tall crawled in your bed in the middle of the night and alternated between stealing your covers and throat kicking you, it’s okay if, just this once, you run that errand in your fuel unfriendly mini van.  Not only are you ahead of the curve at 80%, hopefully you’re growing all the time.  

The idea here is not an absence of ambition, but instead, the notion that we all can start somewhere, especially if we think in terms of the daily decisions we’re in control of.  And while we may not be able reach perfection, our Earth Day minded contributions can add up – or in the case of our negative impact, our contributions can subtract down and help clear the slate.  So recycle and recirculate your conviction that you can make a difference, and trash those crippling concepts that perfection is the only launch point.  On this Earth Day, I hope you’ll join me in making a difference by aiming for a “C”. 

It’s your Earth Day, too, so I’d love to hear your thoughts. What are some small swaps that you have made, or what are some strategies you use to have a smaller carbon footprint?

What All the Mess is About (or Happy Reading Month)

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What All the Mess is About (or Happy Reading Month)

It’s now the very tail end of March which means there’s one more whole day left in one of my twelve favorite months.  It’s Reading Month! I’m one of those folks who is of the camp who believes that reading is both fundamental and sacred, so I get a little not-so-secretly geeked out about Reading Month.  When my friend, Kelly (who just happens to be my youngest daughter’s teacher) invited me to be a guest reader via zoom, I was probably more excited than a full-fledged grown up should be.  But, I mean… guest reader! 

For those of you who have never had the opportunity to be a guest reader, let me encourage you to participate in this wonderment at least once in your lifetime.  The thing about being a guest reader is that it instantly transforms you into a local celebrity.  When you cross that classroom threshold, suddenly, the same children who carpool with you and are used to witnessing you losing your mind a bit on the ride home when your youngest attempts to squeeze the contents of a juice box into the stratosphere and forgets that there is, indeed, an actual car ceiling between her and the stratosphere – those same kids who also just saw you in your pajama pants a couple hours ago at drop off  – they are suddenly giving you bashful, reverent glances.  In pre-Covid times, if you happen to have a child of your own in the classroom where you’re reading, their chest will puff out with a certain kind of pride, and when the teacher introduces you, he could announce that you’re a banker, a nuclear physicist, or a homemaker, and it turns out that your profession is of no consequence.  The result will be the same.  Children will gawk, their hearts will flutter, and in that moment, you’ll be not just a hero, but a hero who loves to read!  

Unless, of course, it’s 2021 and the guest reading happens over zoom.  In that case, you just might find yourself speaking into the camera and stretching a grin over your gritted teeth while your second-grader repeatedly attempts to swat your hand away from the mouse pad and rearrange icons on the screen, hits “play” on  “Lion Guard” youtube videos at the exact moment you begin your dramatization of “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”, and encourages the dog to start howling.  And of course, being the child-loving, Zen-natured, centered person you are, you might find yourself using your toe, a fork, whatever you can reach to prod said child, shoo them away from the dog, plead with them, threaten them in low tones, while you bug-eye them and mute between pages so you can fondly and spiritedly encourage them about just what might happen if they don’t get the dog as far away from the range of the microphone as possible and by the way maybe it’s time to go interrupt Daddy’s business for a change because can’t you just have this one moment in the name of Reading Month and all things holy!??!  

In these times of zoom-from-home everything, it’s pretty hard to take yourself too seriously, even during Reading Month.

As a guest reader, I’m certain I was showing my age, juggling my phone in one hand so that it might act as a document camera as I shared the pages of our picture books, jumbling it all up and trying to remember to zoom out far enough that the students might actually be able to see most of the illustrations without seeing all the clutter that lurks just outside the zoom safe zone.  

The zoom safe zone, you ask? Those of you who live in similar chaotic realities might know what I mean.  While others of you started your zoom journeys with kitchens that looked like they’d been staged for an episode of a food network pasta marathon and living rooms that looked like Wendy Williams or Rosie or Kelly were about to pop over and film on site, the rest of us were filled with dread in March 2020 when we realized that, horror of horrors…we were now going to be inviting the entire office, classroom, or boardroom to get a glimpse into our untidy spaces and all the crap we have accumulated here.  Initially, I’d chide my family, “Please sit the other way so everyone doesn’t get a glimpse of the clutter,” and I’d check the angles, hoping to frame things in a flattering light.  I’d tidy the living room a bit as though actual guests would be arriving, straightening the table before a meeting began.  But now a year into the pandemic, I have new priorities.  If the zoom safe zone is clear, that’s as much as I can ask, even during Reading Month.

 Despite all diversions and distractions of the theatrical and technical kind, participating as a guest reader still turned out to be one of my favorite parts of Reading Month.  In an unplanned twist of events, I happened to ask the students if anyone could recommend their favorite books.  Children raised their hands and produced books from their desks and from off of their bedside tables.  When books weren’t within their reach, they asked to leave the camera and hunt for them upstairs.  Books about dinosaurs, historical figures, Wimpy Kid, unicorns, Bible heroes, Grover, and children who believed in themselves.  Books about Minecraft, books without pictures that had lines so funny that a mother’s voice brought forth giggles each time the story was read, magazines about creatures, books about pioneers, and baby animals, and so many amazing titles! 

We did our best not to speak over one another, so excited were we about the books we loved.  Almost everyone took a turn speaking, leafing through pages, sharing cover art and moving pictures.  In that brief time, we were a society of book lovers in a conversation so genuine that I could almost forget that we were stretched across cities in basements and living rooms and cluttered zoom safe zones.  During a break, my friend Kelly snuck into storage to retrieve a beloved story from her own childhood, and when she took a turn to share her own endearing reading, I had a glimpse into the little girl she’d  been when she was as young as the children in her classroom.  Long after she’d finished her story, I kept glancing at the screen where I could view Kelly, who’d worked in ways to keep Reading Month special for her virtual classroom, even in these unconventional times. I had such gratitude for the way she fosters a love of reading and the way she prepared an open format for us to simply celebrate our passion for books.

“I’m so proud of you,” I heard myself confiding to my daughter’s classmates again and again as they presented their book titles, and I meant it every time.  These children who pick reading over devices and even those who prefer devices but give reading a fair shake now and then.  Who make sense of their worlds through stories, who find hope in role models whose skin is illustrated to match their own.  Who seek their truths in animals and nonsense creatures who teach them morals, and in stick figure illustrations with irreverent humor that hits the mark of what things children everywhere grapple with to survive.  “Thank goodness for these children and their books.  Thank goodness for them,” I thought to myself.

When it was time to leave the meeting, I still felt abuzz with the energy of the visit.  But this time was far different from my guest reader engagements of the past.  Certainly, Kelly had made me to feel every bit the celebrity, but this time around, I was able to share the spotlight with some enthusiastic partners.  The children who welcomed me into their homes for our Reading Month virtual collaboration encouraged me into thinking that we have many bright days ahead of us.

I glanced around the disarray that bordered the zoom safe zone, and I could see that much of the clutter was composed of the stacks of books that teetered on chairs, on the coffee table, on couch cushions, and on any flat surface available, and for a moment, I regretted that I’d framed those things out of the picture.  Somehow, I felt this particular group of children might have understood just what all the mess was about.     

In the months beyond Reading Month, my hope for you is that you will not only have the opportunity to read those sorts of books that you enjoy the most, but that you will have the chance to share those stories with others.  In the spirit of imagination, and joy, and belief in safe and peaceful tomorrows for all the characters in our own stories, I wish you a happy Reading Month!

We Have a Winner!!!

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Remember the contest I held in the month of January and February!?!? If you follow my blog, you were entered for a chance to win a $25 Better World Books Gift Card. Well, the results are in, and the winner is none other than Debi M! My children were snickering a bit and they said, “But you know her!” I had to explain to them that, in this point in my life as a “famous” writer, I know most of the people who follow my blog because, well, they are all nice people who support me in all my silly exploits. aHowever, I did want to disclose the process used for picking our winner. When I mentioned the contest, my daughter, who has been working through a Python Programming class, excitedly announced that she had recently developed a random number generating program. Hurray for modern education! All blog followers were assigned a number, and their numbers were then entered into the generator.

If you weren’t the lucky winner, have no fear! It’s National Reading Month, for goodness sakes, so I’m going to do everything in my power to encourage you to read, read, read. Another contest is in the works!

Enough Room at the Table

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Enough Room at the Table

When I went away to college, I experienced a bit of the little-fish-in-a-big-pond phenomenon.  I think in my earlier years in my previous small pond, I had just kind of self-identified as a writer and decided that my entire person was synonymous with the idea of writing.  I entered every school contest, I scribbled “books” in spiral notebooks with phantasmic unicorn landscapes on their covers, and I had classmates pay me to write them poetry for their girlfriends.  I asked for all the “classics” on my Christmas wish list, and then placed them with reverence on a bookshelf, often not really even cracking the binding, but feeling so writerly for owning those hard backed tomes that gathered dust beside my sticker albums and paperbacks.

For my first stop in college, I lived in a Fine and Performing Arts dorm.  I was instantly out of my element.  Everyone who lived there was either a musical prodigy, a budding playwright, an actual opera singer, or so well steeped in pop culture that I was afraid to have a conversation because I had never seen a single episode of “Friends”. The dorm hosted a “Performance Hour” one Sunday each month where residents could showcase talents – anything from elaborately choreographed dance numbers from those who were studying that art, to folksy, guitar-strumming vocals, to poetry recitations that almost certainly contained the “f” word and lots of vulgar language, to even a guy who had a particularly long and beautifully sculpted face who sucked in his cheeks and tapped out an entire selection of the 1812 Overature on the hollows of his cheeks.    

Guess who never once performed or read anything she’d written? I clapped along with the rest of the audience that assembled in the multi-level “Great Room”, always seated on the floor because I didn’t arrive early enough to gain a coveted seat on one of the couches, deciding early on that I would never, ever participate as anything other than an observer.  Each of them was so much more worldly and talented than I was that the thought of putting my faltering lines on display before them was absolutely out of the question.  If they were amazing, there was no way that I could be as well.

But I didn’t give up altogether.  I made an appointment with an advisor in the writing department, pinning on a bohemian pin that my cousin had bought for me at the bookstore where she worked in the cafe.  The word “writer” was stamped into the pin’s facade, and I thought of it as a statement and saved it for special occasions.  I think I half expected the advisor to comment on it or to give me brownie points for tacking it just below my shoulder, as though by nature of wearing this accessory, I’d signalled to her my very devotion to the art.  

I don’t remember her face but I remember where I sat in her office.  How she shared the sage advice I find myself repeating – that good writers are good readers and that I should read as much as I could get my hands upon, both in my courses and my personal life.  I remember how kind she was but how unremarkable I felt in that chair.  Another student with literary aspirations” receiving the same advice that had likely been delivered hundreds of times before.  Take these core classes and see what happens and best of luck to you.”  She had no reason to know that I was anything exceptional, but for some reason, it jarred me that she couldn’t, in that brief conversation, detect any signs of my literary prowess.

All the same, I accepted the folder of pastel sheets that she offered, and registered my way into a creative writing course with confident upper-classmen who all looked as though they’d stepped out of the J Crew catalogues that my suite-mates often left in the common area.  They recognized one another from other courses and events, chattering playfully while we waited for our instructor to arrive, and I, all the while, smiled dumbly and pretend to know what any of them were speaking about.  Although I’d made many friends through a volunteer network that I’d gotten involved in prior to New Student Week, they all traveled in different circles, and so in this tiny, vulnerable classroom in a building with ivy-covered walls, I knew no one. 

Our  professor was the embodiment of a stereotypical writing instructor in tweed jackets with the patches of corduroy at his elbows, perching on the edge of his desk with a sheath of stapled essays at his knee or running the tip of his finger across his tongue to wet it just enough to leaf rapidly through the onion-skin-thin pages of our anthology of required reading until he located just the right passage to recite for us.  It soon became clear that at the onset of each class, he’d select up to three of his favorite pieces from the writings we’d all handed in during our previous class, reading them aloud for us and then identifying the author at the piece’s conclusion.  None of us had to admit that we all held onto the secret hope that, just once, our piece might be selected.  As those stories danced in the air above our bowed heads, some of us squeezed our eyes shut and were swept away with the rhythmic quality his voice added to each line while others of us fidgeted in our seats, wondering who might be recognized further.  It had much the quality of being seated in church, and I sensed that, like myself, my fellow classmates were simultaneously hoping to believe and be believed in.  We chewed our lips, we held our breath, we tapped nervously on desk tops, some even wept.  

It was with buoyant trepidation that I handed in each of my assignments, only to receive marks that caused me to slip the sheets into my folder with the hope that no one had seen.  Still, at the start of each new class, I held my breath along with my classmates and counted down with each story he selected to read aloud, hopeful that mine might finally be one of note.  But my work remained far from exceptional, barely meriting more than a few inky comments from my professor that I poured over dejectedly as I trudged back to my dorm.  The only time one of my stories reaped any compliments was when I composed a piece where an undergrad maintained a brief affair with an English teacher  who bore a resemblance to ours, and I later realized that not only had I likely flattered him, he may have (wrongfully) deduced that I had a bit of a crush on him. 

Needless to say, it was more than slightly discouraging to find myself a mouse in the midst of these giants, to churn out work that felt like it had been etched directly from my soul and then to find it crumpled in my folder and met with little esteem.  I felt it had all been a terrible hoax – the proud eyes of my family that had set me off on a train, across state lines, to do these great deeds, the savings bonds, the college interviews, the banquets in VFW halls, the top ten of everything, all of it a sham.  I hadn’t been knocked down a peg, I had been altogether splintered from the board.  

And yet, one afternoon in class, I found myself in a seat across from a girl who was, that time, chosen.  I could tell it was her story being read by the way she made her eyes go penitent, how she directed her glance into her notebook, and the way I could tell, even from the flutter of her fingers resting in her lap, that she knew every single word our instructor uttered because she’d written each gut wrenching one of them.  She was blonde and neat and beautiful, and even today I wish that I remembered the name our instructor recited at the end of the piece when he congratulated her, because I wonder if she is out there somewhere, penning pieces that find their way into bookshops or literary magazines.  Her story, which I suspect was somewhat autobiographical, was so different from my own, and in its reading, something opened for me.  It seems so rudimentary to even record such an observation, but it not only took me weeks into the semester to arrive at this ideal – it has taken me years and decades to revisit this truth time and time again as I work to cement it into my principles.  At that moment, when my classmate’s words were entering our collective conscience and changing us with her tale, I was proud to sit beside her, and rather than feel alienated by her clear triumphs, I was, at last, cheered and bolstered by them.

There is enough room at the table for every single one of us.  I remind myself of this time and time again.  When people half my age are published with great fanfare, when other writers work hard and are publicly successful  at the things I only half intend to do and I find myself unflatteringly envious.  

Although, by selecting a few front runners to read during every class, my instructor fed into the illusion that only a few of us can become writers or artisans, the truth is that there isn’t just space for one writer ( or even three) on the literary scene, nor is there one artist, and the acts we perform and the pieces we create are not part of a hierarchy, as much as we might sometimes like to classify creative pieces into “the cannon”, “high culture”, or even “low art”.  And if we gently wrap our heads around the idea that there is no such thing as “the” writer or “the ultimate” artist, it becomes far easier to accept that your talents and successes as a writer don’t detract from my own.  Instead of being in direct competition with you or rather than considering you my arch nemesis, I can embrace you as a part of my community and we walk this path together and learn from one another.  

I must say that, in my high school years, I had grown used to being able to churn out great volumes of work in short periods of time and to dedicating very little energy to proofreading, perfecting, and really putting in the time.  When I wound up in that college creative writing class, it wasn’t likely that I was being robbed – I just wasn’t working any harder than a slightly precocious high school kid.  However, if for argument’s sake, I had been producing works that were groundbreaking and was being routinely passed by, I would be in good company.  Our human history overflows with accounts of “the greats” who earned little acclaim in their own lifetimes, trading accolades for letters of rejection or traversing through life undiscovered.  Truly, those who held the power at the times that these legends were honing their crafts acted on an authority that skimmed over, rejected, or missed entirely the contributions of the likes of Wilde, Bach, Dickinson, and Van Gogh.  How blushworthy to go down in history as the publisher to tell Thoreau that he didn’t quite cut the mustard!

So what is the lesson here? Those who control “The Canon” of our arts are often wrong, sometimes because they reject those who champion ideas that the world is not yet quite ready for.  If you’ve worked hard at your art, if you’ve truly invested, if you’re passionate and are  kept awake at night by it, and they still never choose you for open mic night or the gallery opening, then find yourself another gate-keeper.  Seek out diverse thinkers or, better yet, become one.  And while you’re writing each draft and the balled paper near your waste basket continues to grow, align yourself with those who sojourn along similar pathways.  Celebrate and honor their work and find in them your creative allies.  Cheer them in their victories, for they do not diminish you.  There is more than one seat at the table, and I’m pulling up the comfiest, paint-splattered  chair and waiting here for you to join me. The feast is made more grand when there are more and more of us gathered to share our respective flavors.    

Speaking From My Privilege

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Speaking From My Privilege

I recently began a blog post in my head – some of you will “get” this. I have a bunch of stories, blog posts, and lines of poetry clogging my head on the daily. They start floating around when I’m driving, when I’m showering, when I’m packing bagged lunches, before I fall asleep, or when I’m boiling water for boxed mac-n-cheese and adding frozen vegetables at the end so I can pretend I made something healthy (don’t judge!). Some of these lines make it to the page or the backs of envelopes or even on the back of my hand, but too many of them float off – I’m hoping they land somewhere in the universe, perhaps into the brain of someone else who can polish them and make them brilliant and actually write them down.

As I dreamed up this particular post, which I hope I will write shortly, I thought of a disclaimer that I’d need to sticky onto the introduction, because the scenario I hoped to expound on was truly going to “out” my privilege in the world, and I worried over making it clear to readers that I really understood that the situations I was about to describe would quite certainly be chalked up to what is now somewhat mainstream to dub “First World Problems”.

The thing is, this phrase, “First World Problems” kept rattling about my brain, because although I find myself using this term now and then, it always unsettles me a bit. Years and years ago, I had learned that the expression “third world” is really an antiquated and, you know, kind of yucky one. I mean, come on. To simplify it into the most basic argument of all, it’s not exactly nice to rank people, let alone entire nations, as though the United States and Western European and a few of our swanky friends rank supreme, and to then determine that the whole rest of the globe falls somewhere in the grey area of “second world” or the stigma-ridden “third world”. I’ve heard arguments for alternatives to the “third world” label, with the most frequent being “developing world”, which, while perhaps a bit preferable, is problematic in its own right. Regardless, despite its enduring use today, “third world is definitely not appropriate, so it stands to reason that if the terminology of “third world” has already left my vocabulary, shouldn’t its partner, “first world” make a similar exodus?

I was curious about this, because, quite frankly, I used to kind of like saying the expression, “First World Problems” because sometimes when I complain about things, I liked to share a little disclaimer that indicated that, “Hey, I get it. I really have nothing to whine about.” While I was turning it over in my brain, I searched around a bit, and I found this article that I felt really gave me some food for thought. Here’s a link:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/02/why-phrase-first-world-problem-is-condescending-to-everyone

This article, along with all of my “boiling macaroni” thoughts made me curious to hear what you think about this expression and what alternatives you might use, or if you even find it necessary to use them. As someone who writes and reads, it’s no shock that I think language matters, and as someone who has studied linguistics and cares deeply about social justice issues, I also feel passionately that not only should the things we say evolve because we want to make better choices, they also evolve without our choice because that’s just how language works (otherwise we’d all be speaking Middle English right now). It’s not a horrible thing to realize that something we once said all the time is inherently flawed, and it’s a bit inspiring if we can muddle our way through wordsmithing more enlightened alternatives.

Sometimes, we all fall into sayings that feel comfortable or on trend, slipping these phrases into our cozy list of fan favorites, and we really mean no ill will when we utter them. It doesn’t make us horrible people when we unknowingly drop these devices of diction into our conversations without recognizing our offense, but it would seem it is our responsibility to find alternatives when we discover that they do, indeed, cause a cringe. But let’s be realistic. These habitual mutterings are called “catch phrases” for a reason, and once they catch on, they’re pretty much contagious and difficult to shake. One of mine is “crazy”. Years ago, I recognized that often, my flip use of common phrases containing this term were really a slap in the face in relation to mental health issues. And guess what? I still say them all the time. Usually around people I’m trying not to use them around. Bad habits are just like that zombie in the end of the film who pops out the minute you think the coast was clear. They die hard, and if we turn our back too quickly, if we aren’t diligent enough about checking every nook in the darkened rooms of our assumptions, the next thing you know, we’re the one getting chased down a corridor and shouting out “this is crazy!”

So back to “first world problems”. Do you use this expression? Have you ever had that nagging little pull in your brain when you’ve used it to describe your situation? Am I making too big a deal of it? And finally, what alternatives could you suggest? I often preface some of my statements by explaining, “I’m speaking through my privilege when I say this,” but of course, that sounds a bit on the stuffy side. In any event, I’m committed to keep on trying. I think it’s paramount for us to be ever aware of our privilege, and there is something just as vital about having dialogue about the abundance in which we find ourselves steeped in. But in the very act of “marking”, displaying, and revealing our privilege, it’s critical that we don’t lean on careless catch phrases that will widen the chasm that seems to elevate a choice few while alienating and disparaging all the rest.

Faces of Homelessness – I’d Love to Hear from You!

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Faces of Homelessness –                                 I’d Love to Hear from You!

My newest middle reader book chronicles the experience of Vince, a young boy who becomes homeless when he and his mother escape a situation of domestic violence, but the  main character does not immediately reside in a shelter.  In fact, for a while, he finds himself sharing the homes of some enchanting, kind, and amusing community members who take him in and share their lives with him.  These whimsical households are some of my favorite scenes in the story, and I am eager to hear what readers will think of them.  Although my main character has a very tangible sense that he is not what he calls a “normal” kid, I don’t think he views himself as homeless for much of the novel, even when he does eventually take refuge in a shelter.  My experiences writing  about Vince have ensured that the idea of measuring homelessness is an ever present one for me, and this made me eager to hear your thoughts, too.  

  The way we “measure” homelessness is a tricky matter, because technically, one who “couch surfs” or “doubles up” in someone else’s home or stays long-term in motel rooms and other piece-meal housing arrangements is considered to be homeless.  Sometimes, this group falls under the category of “hidden homeless” – the plight of these individuals is practically imperceptible to us because we don’t encounter this group panhandling, brandishing cardboard signs, or resting on park benches, and more often than not, they are participating in society in some of the same ways that the rest of the population does – attending school, clocking in at jobs, visiting food banks, or gathering with friends.  When many folks consider their vision of homelessness, there are very set perceptions of what it means to be homeless or what homeless people “look like” (I’ve shared one such photo in my cover photo), and these don’t always gel with reality.  In many ways, this sticky measuring system often makes it difficult to grasp the full scope of the issues or to adequately address the needs of those who are so deeply entrenched in poverty that they cannot afford to be housed.   

Because homelessnes is often obscured, there are some who believe that homelessness doesn’t exist in their communities.  Certainly, in some neighborhoods, homelessness is much more prevalent than in others, but if we explore most available data on homelessness, we learn that a majority of Americans are one to three paychecks away from becoming homeless.  One catastrophic event, one lay off, one illness that keeps one from working – any of these scenarios could begin the vicious cycle that leads to homelessness.  For those without a social safety net (friends to move in with or family who might let you bum enough for a utility payment) the results are all the more precarious.  In reality, if most of us are one check away from homelessness, it would stand to reason that a lot of homeless people look like…well, us.  

Often, people consider the free community meal program where I volunteer, and they assume that most of our guests are homeless in the stereotypical sense.  Our guests actually have such a range of circumstances – from seniors in low-income housing to single individuals hard at work in our community, to families, to those who live doubled up or unsure of where their heads might next rest.  People come to us to meet a variety of needs, but the common thread in most stories centers around living with poverty but not necessarily being homeless.  Those of us serving the meal like to think that in some cases, the availability of our commodities, warm meals, and other services that we share might free up someone’s budget enough to pay a utility bill or keep up on rent.  We do see a handful of regulars who meet the “standard” perception of homelessness and we are forever puzzling over how we might address some of the unique struggles faced by these friends and how we might help make a long term difference for these folks.

In considering all of these “face of homelessness” scenarios, I don’t want to make the mistake of assuming that everyone lives in my same reality.  Some of my favorite readers hail from vastly different cities, and in at least one case, a different continent.  This keeps me mindful of the varied circumstances that we all encounter in our grappling with homelessness.

I remember taking visiting relatives on a trip to Greek Town and how their eyes became the size of Saganaki skillets when they encountered someone panhandling; such things were unheard of in their rural experience.  In some of my friends’ hometowns, those who are visibly homeless line the streets on every route they travel in their daily lives until often, passersby are desensitized to their plight or even their existence.  In some communities, resolutions are passed to “end” homelessness in  both nefarious ways (transporting any people who are homeless who enter and dumping them beyond city borders) and in hopeful and compassionate ones (creating affordable housing, designing supports for mental health and substance abuse, passing purposeful legislation that aims to alleviate homelessness – check out what Norway has done!).  Finally,  globally, there are far too many instances where entire populations are displaced and homelessness is the norm rather than the exception.  Clearly, all of our experiences of homelessnss are not the same one that I experience in my quiet little town of Wyandotte, Michigan.

So, that brings me to the “audience participation” portion of our program for today.  When you consider your own experiences with the face of homelessness, when you think deeply about how your life is impacted or not so much at all, do you have an awareness of these issues on a regular basis? Do you have memories of a single moment, perhaps one of great impact, when you first realized that homelessness existed? Has it always been an undercurrent in your community, and have individuals toting possessions, layered in tattered coats, draped in blankets forever been a regular part of your landscape? Have you had minimal or no contact (to your own knowledge) with anyone who was homeless? Did your co-worker have to leave their home so they walked on eggshells and tried not to wear out their welcome with friends and relatives? Did one of your teen students sob at his desk because his mother’s new apartment wouldn’t allow additional residents? Were you, perhaps, like my in-laws who had someone living in a camper in their driveway for months at a time, or my mom, who let a family move into your living room for several months, or my friend Tom who had a man in a tent staying in his yard? Were you on the receiving end of any of these untraditional arrangements?

The “why” behind my wonder is something greater than mere curiosity.  What I wish is that all of us could travel back in time to that moment when we were first encountered with the concept of homelessness – when we first discovered either a subculture of folks living directly on the street or even the fact that people close to us moved in and out of safe places to stay.  Did it sit right with you from the onset? Did you get a strange sort of stomachache? Did you feel uncomfortable, ashamed, angry, scared, or even judgy? Or, on the flip side of it,  did you first become aware of this phenomenon because suddenly, you were living this reality but maybe you didn’t call it “homelessness” at the time? Can you recall a time when, without politics, or fairness, or knowledge or adulthood to cloud your vision, you just felt an instinctive, jarring, discomfort in recognizing that someone out there was without a home?

I don’t want to become “used to” homelessness.  It’s important to me to not wear a mask of indifference when I encounter people who are homeless.  In reality, not much shocks me because I’ve encountered a lot, but I don’t want to become so adept at understanding homelessness that it doesn’t hurt me a little bit, too, each and every time I learn that someone is without a home.  Each time I see someone with less than ten fingertips because some have been lost to frostbite, I still want to hold onto a small kernel of bewilderment and anger and resolve for change.  No matter how many times I see a cracked, foam cup extended for coins, I want a shiver of discomfort to remind me that our work isn’t done.  Not discomfort with the person extending that cup, but discomfort with every obstacle that has continued to to fix that worthy individual there at the intersection.  I want to see the faces of homelessness as if it’s the first time, no matter how many meals I have served and how many years have gone by.  I want to revisit those early moments of incredulousness when it struck me as odd that not everyone had a stable place to stay like I do.  And if I’m honest, I hope that you, too, will spend a short time in that space of inquiry as well. 

 When did you first see the “face of homelessness”? Do you still see those faces today?

Inventing it All Anew – CoVid Christmas

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When the gifts started coming in, I was overcome.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. This soup kitchen operation stuff? Sometimes I have to make it up as I go along. What are my “qualifications” to run this organization for over 14 years? Funny question. Well, sure, I’ve definitely studied poverty, homelessness, non-profit management, and community organizing stuff through the years. I call other pantry leaders who are equally over-extended and ask them weird questions about conveyor belts and commodity sources and then hang up quickly when someone at my house starts sticking a finger in her sister’s eye. I keep up on my ServSafe certifications and try to vote in the spirit of putting myself out of business (aka voting for equality, voting to eliminate poverty). I ramble out my concerns to those close, inner-circle volunteers who serve as my moral compass. And, believe it or not, when I consider my foundational training, when I was in college, I wasn’t beer pong for me, or even speed dating – it was Friday night’s at a very large soup kitchen in the basement of a grand and glorious church in Chicago. That’s kind of it for my official resume. After all these years, I might have a bit of soup kitchen “street cred” for certain, but when it all boils down to it, it’s not like someone handed down an operation manual and said, “Follow this playbook and all will go well.”

In 2020, our group was tasked with re-imagining much of how we operated in the interest of keeping our volunteers and guests safe during the pandemic. It started as what we assumed was a temporary shift to carryout service, and now, ten months later, we’re still leaning out a door, passing through grocery bags and repurposed boxes, attempting to keep a balance between being conversational without holding up the line, masked but motivated.

At the end of summer when we started considering our upcoming holiday preparations, we reflected on our annual traditions, and one of them – our holiday party – felt like it might be sticky to replicate. Besides the generally festive features that we might need to scrap or replace – a photo booth, music, cookie decorating, cookies, a room to pick a gift for a friend, and more – the gift tables for our guests seemed like an area we just couldn’t bear to abandon.

We wanted to make the season merry for our guests – some of whom have no one to celebrate with during the holidays. We tossed around various ideas, and we kept coming back to it. We already held a separate “adopt a child” event. Would our community support a similar campaign for adults in the community? Could we create a “party in a box” to spread cheer, and would our community back us? Finally, we decided to roll with it. If no one chose to “adopt” the guests, we’d find a way to try to meet their wishes. We created a menu with suggestions for gift ideas similar to what we normally place on our gift table, we left an “other” space for guests to add their own requests, and then we had everyone fill out a form with their top three wishes.

As I wrote the first Facebook post about this campaign, I was a bit nervous. Was it presumptuous for us to expect community members to get so specific? Generally, our gift table is a stab in the dark – we ask our volunteers to purchase items we think will be helpful or bring joy to our guests – we bargain hunt, we plead with our community to shop bargains on our behalf, we accept “re-gifts”. Most of the items rest in the $5 to $20 range, and they’re anything from baskets we’ve created from donated items to bike kits to #10 cans of beef pasta, to coffee, to small appliances, to underwear and board games. When our doors open for the party each year, I’m nervous that someone who attends won’t find a gift that is helpful, or that something will catch someone’s eye and another guest will get to it first. When you’re addressing the desires of anyone from a senior in low income housing to someone who lives on the street, the range of needs, preferences, and personalities can be extreme. I hoped our “adopt a guest” might address some of these grey areas. If we just outright asked guests what that they loved or relied upon the most, wouldn’t we know that we were embracing the best opportunity to help someone?

But was it too big of an ask, coming from a free community meal program? That instead of saying “Please donate a robe that you got for Christmas last year that still has the tags on it because it came in a color you didn’t like” we were now saying, “Please bring a bath towel, color blue preferred”? As I mulled this over, I also considered all the gift exchanges many of us are invited into throughout the season. Secret Santa. Corporate Party. White Elephant. The way I looked at it, we are often looking for opportunities to share gifts, and in our own circles, we don’t have a mental wrestling match about whether the recipient really deserves a toaster or if maybe they shouldn’t be paying their utility bill instead. If our true aims are to lift someone from despair or share some kindness, don’t we just slide our card at the register and pay for the Chia Head without really overthinking it?

With my first post on Facebook, I was overwhelmed by the number of responses. The entire community, it seemed, was excited about getting involved. It took me weeks to properly respond and matchmake all the kind folks with guests in need, which of course, is one of the flops that accompanies an organization run entirely by volunteers. But what a blessing to come home from signing up people who needed help only to turn on my computer and always feel there was an entire list of people waiting to hear back from me. In a strange way, I spent the holiday season feeling I was always back logged in kindnesses I could barely keep up with, and that is a wonderful space to be.

When the gifts started coming in, I was overcome. Artfully wrapped, spilling over with extras, hand written cards, tins of cookies tucked inside. They were thoughtful and beautiful. An exchange between friends. Some volunteers explained that they had lost a loved one who they cherished shopping for, and that they were using this opportunity to fill a void. Many cited their relief after overcoming health issues and trauma of their own, and felt compelled to pay it forward. Some professed they loved to wrap, loved to shop, or loved to share and everyone in their own circle already had enough. Many of our volunteers explained that this type of gift exchange was exactly what they needed during this season in particular.

It really was one of hundreds of decisions that we’ve had to make during this pandemic without any prior experience or wisdom to guide us, and yet, it was definitely one of the most uplifting ones we’ve ever made. Just imagine. In a season of warmth, connecting the kindest people we know with those whose spirits needed lifting, and applying the basic principle that when we aim to share a gift, we have the best of intentions for the recipient. Just think. The ability to connect people with exactly those things their hearts desire and their conditions dictate, to pull them into our fold as though, truly, we count them among our friends. Just believe. It was nothing short of magical.

To all who helped during our ad-libbed holiday season – we continue to count you among our greatest blessings. You surprise us, you overwhelm us, you inspire us. Thank you for bringing dignity and compassion to the guests we hold so dear, and thank you for playing all of it by ear alongside us.

God’s Not Dead…And Neither Is His Church

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God’s Not Dead…And Neither Is His Church

 

Dear Church Family,

The other night, I had myself a nice, long private laugh in my laundry room.  On the other side of the wall, I could hear Doug initiating the first ever Zoom meeting held by our church council.  For those of you who have been abruptly launched into the world of virtual meetings, you’re probably quite familiar with the tell-tale monikers of these halting and sometimes hilarious set ups.  “I can’t hear Mike.  Is your audio on? You seem to be freezing up.  Can you leave the meeting and come back in?”  “Is Paul here? Did someone tell him about the meeting?” “We can’t see you? Can you adjust your screen?”  Doug was in his element, as he’d draped a bright green swath of fabric from the ceiling – not to shield everyone from the backdrop of junk in our basement as I’d suspected, but so he could superimpose himself upon a Bat Cave and other scenery available through the Zoom platform.  For a moment, I leaned into the warm towels and relished the sounds of all those voices I’ve missed while they – with good humor – struggled their way into a groove and, from what I’m told, held a productive and heartfelt discussion.

I mention this meeting not to poke fun at our church leadership in a time when many of us are navigating a new skill set that ranges from how to handle gloves and masks and relationships, to how to conduct our business and recreation online and to how to “be there” without being physically present.  Although those first couple moments of that meeting sounded like they were, quite possibly, the makings of a great Satuday Night Live sketch, they illustrated for me that our church leadership continues to seek ways to serve their community even when the path takes them out of their comfort zone.  That while these folks don’t pretend to know what the future holds, they are confident that there will be a future for our church, so they are still working to make plans for when we meet again as well as contingencies for while we can’t.

For many of us, a relationship with God feels different when we aren’t regularly worshipping beside our church family.  Our church building is closed indefinitely, and the routines that many of us have moved through for a half a century or more have halted with little warning.  We assure ourselves that certainly, we could read the Bible in solitude, catch any number of sermons online, stroll through a wood in meditation, or seek out Christian films that aren’t too syrupy.  These are good temporary options, but there’s no denying that they just aren’t the same.  We know that ingrained in the very marrow of our church culture is a commitment to connecting.  The way we “do” church is in hugs, and a proximity of less than six feet.  We get in one another’s business and hurt one another and then ask for grace.  We linger during the passing of the peace until David plays a gentle reminder and the acolyte nudges her way through the aisle and often, even then we can’t take a hint and finish our story later.  We break bread together almost as much as we pray together – the best way to launch a meeting or mark an occasion or do pretty much anything is through sharing food.  If we can’t sample Pam’s pumpkin roll together, who are we really?

I think many of us didn’t realize how close we were to others until we were directed to maintain a distance of at least six feet.  How we took it for granted the many times we circled at the end of our services to sing “God Be With You” and held hands – touched hands with those outside of our residence! Can you believe it? How we stretched to strangers, and cousins, and those on the other side of the aisle.  That’s how we did church before.  Do you remember?

I miss Pam’s pumpkin roll as much as the rest of you.  I do.  I miss laughing with you, eating with you, being changed alongside you, and worshipping and weathering so many storms together.  But when I think of our church council being horrible and then wonderful at a Zoom meeting, I know that the end of our time together has not yet arrived.  They are still here trying, listening, seeking, and hoping, and I know that you are, too.

Let us remember that throughout history there have been disruptions in our ability to worship together.  I think of early Christians who met in hiding, or those of many faiths who are continually persecuted for their beliefs both around the world and here in the United States.  Just as in seasons passed, I know we will cobble together solutions.  Our human spirits are connected to a history of folks who innovated when luxuries and necessities were denied them.  From ladies in the Great Depression who penned seams on their legs when pantyhose were scarce, to the kind butcher who slipped an extra pound of beef into the wax wrapper – we all know stories of our ancestors who “made do” or shared what they had and adapted and prayed until something happened.  Our Zoom meetings or Facebook transmissions may be cringeworthy and bear a striking similarity to an outtake reel, but they are the adaptations our descendants may muse over when they consider the steady wave of optimism that surfaced this time around.

We did do church very differently just the span of a month ago.  And we will do it that way again.  But we will continue to do church a new way until then.  I probably don’t need to remind you that the ministers of our church are not old guys in robes and they aren’t the ones who hog the pulpit.  The minister of our church greets you when you glance in the mirror.  We are always commissioning one another to carry out God’s work beyond the walls of the church, and now we have no choice.  The work of our church is just as relevant now as when we were able to meet in person.  We need to conceive of new and creative ways to show our kindnesses and compassion to others.  To pray fervently, to pay a friend’s gas bill, or stitch seams in a mask.  To reach out through a phone call to share our human presence.  To talk about sports and memories and how much toilet paper we can share because sometimes we don’t’ have to talk about God to leave His impression on others.  To reimagine how fellowship happens and learn how to make a pumpkin roll of our own.  It will never be as good as Pam’s, but it will nourish us until the time when we can linger together again.  In that one to two hours a week that we once devoted within a building, let us devote it to God and one another beyond his walls.

Until that time when I can grasp your hand in a circle of dear and devoted friends, God be with you til we meet again.

Love,

Sarah

 

 

Diadhachd, Ms. Helen

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Image may contain: Helen McNeilly

Just days ago, our church community was crushed when we heard the news we’d been dreading for quite some time.  One of our dearest church matriarchs, “Miss Helen”, the Scottish woman who’d spent generations greeting us, teaching us, and loving us, had joined the family of saints and gone on to grace the halls of heaven.

In the span of my church’s history, I’m actually a newcomer, and so I wasn’t a part of the lucky cast of characters who sat in Ms. Helen’s Sunday School classroom in the early years, but instead, I came to know her in the capacity of a young mother who was just starting a family, and through several years of Sundays, I surrendered my babies to her one by one.  I quickly learned that Ms. Helen was far more than the dressed to the nines fashion plate who arrived early each week and greeted everyone with enthusiasm.  Ms. Helen’s heart melted for every child who came through the door, charming them with the Scottish nursery rhyme “Round about, round about, wee little moos”, wrapping them in her arms to share a verse of “Jesus Loves Me,”or pulling rings, or beads or baubles from her person and allowing a fascinated young one to examine each piece, waving away a parent who might be concerned that a curious toddler might damage a delicate charm.  Often, a scarf or a sparkly pin was surrendered to the child inspector, and Ms. Helen would laugh and bestow it as a gift.   “I have plenty more at home,” she’d assure.

And Ms. Helen was indeed a collector of beautiful things.  Anyone who visited her tidy and beautiful Southgate home could see that.  In one room, shelves of dolls adorned an entire wall, and she encouraged girls from the church select one to take home with them.  From the magnets that covered her refrigerator to the sheer artistry that was the woodwork created by her son, Alec, Ms. Helen’s entire home was always a treasure trove of fascinating things for young visitors to wonder over.  Ms.  Helen would pause over something beautiful and she’d beam at her dear husband, Alex.  “He spoils me,” she’d smile.

Just as prized as any treasure were the photos of children Ms. Helen had collected, and these included both those she’d known and those she’d helped.  On one wall, a mirror was covered with school photos, birth announcements, graduation inserts, all of them reflecting a range of hairstyles and wardrobes from the modern to the antiquated.  Generations of children who had loved and been loved by Ms. Helen were accounted for in a collage of snapshots and studio poses.  A polished nail would linger over a photo as she’d point out to one of my girls – “there you are as a bay-beh”, and in turn, she’d point out a child who was now a mother with children of her own.  On the adjoining kitchen wall, there were taped rows and rows of black and white photos of children Ms. Helen had assisted through decades of donations to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.  As she tapped adoringly at their photos, I could tell that in a special way, she loved and had prayed over them as well.

When we first began attending our church, my Eliana was what Ms. Helen might call “a wee one” with no other sisters sharing the limelight.   A toddler in flouncy gowns and spunky tights, she soon forged a special relationship with Ms. Helen and even now, I can trace a singular moment that laid its foundation.    It was a Sunday dedicated to sharing our heritage.  It may have been Pentecost, or we may have been looking for another excuse to share some ethnic treats, but either way, some of the ladies graced us with those capstone recipes that had become markers of their family identities.  In the spirit of the celebration, my mother and I encouraged Eliana to share the chorus of Loch Lomond for Ms. Helen, and she obliged over and over.  Ms. Helen whisked her about to serenade all the other ladies, bursting into delighted applause and laughter each time Eliana would hold her final note.  Eliana fixed her eyes on Ms. Helen as she belted the refrain, and Ms.  Helen scrunched to my toddler’s height and joined in with her Scottish lilt before wrapping her into a joyful embrace.

In the passing weeks and years, Ms. Helen called upon little Eliana for repeat vocal renditions until elementary aged Eliana became a young flutist and would beckon Ms. Helen into the sanctuary for a private performance of their song.  Ms. Helen instilled a love all things Scottish in Eliana, and it wasn’t long before Ms. Helen was bringing Eliana a weekly allowance for a Scotland trip – a crisp bill that Eliana could tuck in the beautifully etched piggybank that Mr. Alex had personalized for her.  As Eliana saved over the weeks and years, we’d muse over that distant someday when she’d make her visit to Scotland.  I imagined that in her young child’s mind, she reasoned that any country that could be credited with bringing us the likes of Ms. Helen and Mr. Alex could be nothing short of wonderful, and I tended to agree.

As the years wore on and some of Eliana’s  visits and performances shifted to hospitals, nursing care facilities, and Ms. Helen’s home, Ms. Helen no longer needed to scrunch down to share a hug, but when I’d glance over at the two of them, I could still see glimpses of that fascinated little one who beamed bashfully as Ms. Helen pulled her in closer.  Even as the years changed both of them, Ms. Helen was still a source of wonder.

Eliana wasn’t the only one who reaped the benefits of Ms. Helen’s generous spirit.  Whether it was a holiday or a ho-hum day, it wasn’t unusual for her to set up a table in the fellowship hall with all manner of toys and surprises spread across tables for the children to select from. Other times, she’d arrive with shopping bags overflowing with tissue paper lined gift bags with thoughtful gifts tucked inside and name tags affixed, because that was the thing about Ms. Helen.  Once she’d met you, she cared for you indefinitely.  She took the time to know you and whether you loved elephants or tractors, and whether you were an adult or a child, she kept her eyes peeled for the things that might please you.  If her softest scarf would complement your complexion, she was sure to pass it on to you.  If she knew you were saving for something special or your team or school or troop or organization was having a fundraiser, she was the first to tuck a bill in your hand or sign her name at the top of your order form.  She supported each of us tirelessly, and it wasn’t just with gifts and funds.  For anyone who has had a grandmother figure who delights at every word you say, who listens over your school accomplishments and beams as though you’ve just separated atomic particles, you’ll understand the way in which Ms. Helen interacted with all of us.  She loved us obsessively and perhaps a little blindly, because she didn’t delve into our flaws and misgivings.  She was delighted to see us in church and she was so proud of who we were – sometimes without knowing anything more about who we were when we left that building each week.  We were her church family and we were deserving of her every kindness, and that went for visitors and those whose visits waxed and waned throughout the year.

On the fourth of July, we always looked forward to the beautiful red, white, and blue bouquets that Ms. Helen would bring to adorn the church altar, and at the service’s conclusion,  the giant vase filled with blooms of hydrangea, beads, and flags would come home with one of the children or one of Ms. Helen’s many friends.  Often, the church bulletin would contain a beautiful verse that explained that the flowers were in honor of the country that she loved so dearly.  Although we learned much about Ms. Helen’s Scottish homeland through snippets of stories and treats that she shared, her love for America was nothing short of a passion, and her reverence for our country often found us revisiting our blessings.

How I’ll miss her in our church services, and the way that she sometimes visited with someone in the fellowship hall and strolled in when the music was already starting, heading up the middle aisle and pausing to chat with one of the children in our pew despite the fact that she was obstructing the acolyte and the service was beginning.  As she fussed over their dresses or got introduced to a stuffed animal or showed them some other attention, she was so hard of hearing that her whisper was a countermelody that sometimes rose over the organ, and I knew that although my children were typically told to be quiet during this part of the service, Ms. Helen was a grand exception, so it was both funny and endearing that they intuitively knew that our revered Ms. Helen trumped their mother’s guidelines.  No matter how our Sunday had begun, they started the service smirking and grateful for the break in the ceremony.

I can’t even begin to tally the ways in which Ms. Helen blessed us through the years.  I used to tell her that I could barely get around to thanking her for one thoughtful act, and she was already treating to me some other kindness.  In the early years, I’d try to keep up.  We’d think we could invite her to see the children in a play and purchase the tickets, and there she’d arrive with gifts for the girls that far exceeded the ticket price.  She just didn’t let up on her pure generosity.  I managed a few thank you notes through the years, but with someone like Ms. Helen, you were lucky if you could formally thank her one tenth of the time, and that was  in a good year when you happened to remember to buy stamps regularly.  I’d puzzle over it and wonder how I could ever thank her. And I used to try to think of a way I could match her, kindness for kindness.

Until I realized I couldn’t.  It was impossible that I would ever give Ms. Helen back the scale of generosity she lived out daily and directed toward me regularly.  When I’d try to make peace with this, I’d think on a story she’d shared with my husband when they’d volunteered together.  She told him of her time as a little girl and how during the war, her family would go into a bunker during air raids.  When they’d exit, there was a woman who always gave out candy to all the children to cheer them.  She told Doug that perhaps that was why she was the way that she was and felt so drawn to make children happy.   That the candy woman’s kindness helped the children in her neighborhood to find joy and hope in that terrible time and now she, too, found joy in doing things for our children.

God bless that woman with the wartime candy.  Because I feel like I know her, and her legacy touched my children, and the children who sat in Ms. Helen’s Sunday school class, and all the visiting children who sang “Round About” with Ms. Hele­­­n or dove into her arms when she placed a china doll into theirs.  And I feel as though that candy woman, like Ms. Helen, had an intuition for those things that would become all the more precious when they made their way into the hands of children.  In the case of Ms. Helen, the children she cheered were both children in age and children at heart, and she carried that mission with her until the very last.

I don’t know if Ms. Helen ever got to thank the candy woman, but I know she found herself changed by that kindness.  Years ago, when I realized that it was impossible to adequately thank Ms. Helen, I decided the next best thing I can do is to be a Ms. Helen someday, for I, too, have been changed from knowing her.  What a weighty and wonderful thing to live to become a Ms. Helen.  To give more than is necessary, to notice the very best in people, to share my sparkly things, and to ­­leave people wondering what in the world they ever did to deserve to be treated so well.  To tuck dollars in hands and to tap my fingers along to a melody no matter how squeaky.  To applaud and notice every effort as though it were worthy of the highest praise.  To sip my tea and show up in an amazing scarf.  To give casually and abundantly and to squat down in my best dress so that I might catch a ball or a toddler’s early steps.  Someday, I will have gathered enough grace, and poise, and wisdom, and crisp dollars to be a Ms. Helen, and it will be an honor to live out my later years in an homage to her and the many others who have paid and paved my way in such abundance.  While I mourn and ache for her, when I reflect over those wonderful years that I knew her, I feel all the more called to be a Ms. Helen.  To approach the world with bouquets and gift bags, and to dedicate everything inside of me to making sure others know just how much they matter.

Potty Words

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Potty Words

Over the past few days, I haven’t been able to shake a sense of actual grief each time I consider some of the toxic spaces where I recently found myself on social media.  I don’t know why I was foolish enough to pick at the scab and open the comments for an upcoming event featuring Rashida Tlaib, but there I was, huddled over my phone and sick to my stomach, scrolling and scrolling and grappling with a mixture of distress and non-surprise.  If you’re from Michigan, or you follow politics, you probably know all about Rashida Tlaib’s recent use of some pretty choice verbiage in regards to our current president.  Some of you are responding in moral outrage, instinctively gripping at your Ivory soap and deepening your commitment to washing away similar transgressions should they ever be uttered by your children.  Others of you are quick to point out the double standards that run rampant in our society and cite to those around you that this was just “lady locker room talk” and that we can’t bemoan the loss of decorum in political office while still making it permissible for other leading role politicians to use language that is vulgar, hateful, and rife with the diction of rape culture.  Still others of you took Tlaib’s statement as a timely rallying cry, and, undeterred by her word choices, are deepening your commitment to continue striving toward the ideals she set forth in the work of her campaign.  Today, I don’t give a heap of excrement about any of those scenarios.  They aren’t the true topic of my blog.

The thing is, those varied reactions above are part of the political dialogue that makes our country amazing.  My life is full of these contradictions and I love the h-e-double-hockey-stick out of people who represent many of the above opinions.  On one side of me is a friend who blares old dude rock music, loves the Republican party, and sends me messages to tease me about our political differences.  He volunteers beside me, and while we make bologna sandwiches, we can playfully argue whether we should all carry guns or regulate them a bit more, and then we find a spot in the middle, or vow to continue our conversation til the next time we’re handling processed luncheon meats.  If he’s mad that someone dropped an “f” bomb, I absolutely love him for it, and I get it.  On the other side of me is a gal I’ll just call Laura who probably owns a knit hat with kitty ears, was likely the first to cheer when the mf’s were flying back, and whose “femmy senses” perk up at the slightest scent of misogyny in the room.  Good for both of them and their quest to shape our nation into a better place.  But today, I’m not even examining their opinions or whether or not someone should say the ‘f’ word or the ‘p’ word or “SOB” while out in public or when holding political office.

Today, I get the chills when I think of the other potty words I saw in comments all over Facebook.  Maybe I’m just overly sensitive because I don’t regularly voyeur myself into these discussions where total strangers insult and gut one another in the nothing’s-sacred arena of Facebook.  But quite honestly, the evidence from this one experience bolsters my suspicion that our current political climate is definitely making it more socially acceptable to bring our aggressions out into the open.

It seems many from our citizenry took Tlaib’s statement to be an open invitation to attack her on one of her event pages, not on the basis of her word choices, but because of her existence as a Muslim American.  Doctored tweets from a fake account stoked the fire while users showed their true colors.  Memes of Tlaib garbed in the weaponry of a suicide bomber, racial slurs, images that might be offensive to Muslims, and heaps and heaps of cussing and threats abounded, some of these in the guise of “good fun”, but most of them pointedly and confrontationally addressed to Ms. Tlaib.  In an ironic attempt to counter Tlaib’s impolite discourse, the community sounded off with an onslaught of all things crude and cruel.  I didn’t just blush, or cringe, or roll my eyes.  It was enough to terrify me – first on behalf of Ms. Tlaib, and then on behalf of Muslim Americans everywhere.

There were a handful of folks who stood up for Tlaib, and I would guess there are just as many who, like me, feel that it may be pointless to post counterarguments to those who seem to make a profession of trolling and speaking harmful sentiments.  But I still found myself pretty gol-darn unsettled.  Even one of those comments should have set off a gasp in the room, and here were pages and pages of literary hate crimes.  And yet, no moral outrage.  No woundedness.  This is our acceptable discourse, and hosts of folks feel comfortable sharing these sentiments publicly as though they are social norms.

If I changed the names and a few of the references, it would be as if I had happened upon a page from the intimidating hate speak playbook from the time of the civil rights era.  I’m not rose-visioned enough to conclude that we’re all skipping happily to our integrated classrooms and have moved beyond our racist roots, but I always hope and pray we’re making strides and working to rectify the mistakes of our predecessors.  But really, when we’re trying to keep “their kind” off or our political lawn, have we learned all that much from our past? Or have we been relishing this opportunity? Have some of us been simply harboring these tendencies and awaiting our opportunity to release them? Are factions of you learning these ideals in your homes as devotedly as some of us tick off our times tables and bedtime prayers? Or, quite possibly, have these dwindling notions had new life breathed into them as of late?

In what we often refer to as the greatest nation on earth where we tout our religious freedom, members of my local community are calling out a young, Muslim American woman with political ambitions and are attempting to transform her public image into that of one who is a both a terrorist and an enemy of our nation due only to her religious affiliations.  For some, it’s a foregone conclusion.  It would be downright laughable if it weren’t happening in real time, one click at a time.  Certainly, I am not a statistician who can give an accurate sense of the quantitative amount of anti-Muslim sentiment, but I don’t think I’m crying wolf here. If it happens once, it happens too often, and I suspect that, in the anonymity of social media where we have all stopped holding one another accountable for our language, it happens more than I’d like to know.

I can’t help thinking of all those rhymes about sticks and stones and all the many things we get taught about words and language.  Some language is safe and wholesome and welcome, and some language can transform the world and how we feel about one another.  When confronted about Rashida’s “foul language”, one wise politician shared that she “probably [has] a generational response to” the language but isn’t in the censorship business.  I’m from a different generation from that particular politician, but if I’m honest, I, too, am a little off-put by the phrasing and might have aimed for a different route for publicly sharing my convictions.  In my household, when my children report that their mom said the “B” word, they usually mean “butt”, and the “S” and “F” words are still “stupid” and “fart”.  Except for when my older brother is around here expanding everyone’s vocabulary like the dedicated uncle that he is, we’re still pretty PG in these parts, and so I’m definitely keen on polite language when my little people are around.  So, yeah, MF is not my choice, but I can get over it as quickly as when I stink eye good old Unk and his four-letter repertoire.  I’m a stickler in my household, but that’s where it ends.  What saddens me is that for days, because of the public response that find some labeling Rashida “an evil infidel and threat to our nation,” I’ve been left reflecting about how, given the choice, I’d expose my children to a resounding “MF” over a carefully crafted racial slight any day.

It’s quite a paradox.  I love our free speech and yet I’m haunted by the Facebook diatribe that implores Rashida to “go back to [her] bloodthirsty roots” and leads commenters to speculate about what gives her the right to hold office in our government.  I grit my teeth, knowing that one of our greatest struggles as Americans is to understand that just because we have a right doesn’t mean we must always exercise it if it come at the detriment of others.  As a part of the human race, we have to recognize that our words have the power to unravel someone’s spirit, destroy someone’s political career, or spur others into acts of hatred and violence.  This is true in our televised speeches, our comments on social media, the small jokes that begin with “I’m not racist but –“, and a thousand other ways.

As we share in the great conversations – in our offices and hallways, in our virtual spaces, in our places of worship, and at our dinner tables – we would be wise to be careful with our language, because now more than ever, we seem susceptible to being steered and swayed by certain dialogue.  In our silences, in our raised voices, in our reasoning, and in our hearing, we do the real decision making about whether we allow language to divide us or propel us toward greatness.

Whether you were offended by the potty words or found them to be like a direct quote that launched from your own soul, how you react in the seasons ahead says more about you and us as a nation than all the expletives any of us has to utter.

Our Neighbors

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Image result for free image neighborhood

One of the nicest things that happened for me when we moved into our home over sixteen years ago was finding out that we were to have the type of neighbors I’d been surrounded with in my childhood.  Shortly after moving in to our first home, we dropped postcards in all the mailboxes on our block.  A chimpanzee on the front declared, “Knock, knock? Who’s there? Wyandotte? Wyandotte who? Wyandotte you come see our new home in Wyandotte.”  Much to our delight, many of the people on our new block joined the eclectic menagerie of friends and family and weirdos who helped us to celebrate our latest adventure of home ownership.  Over Chinet plates of chicken and potato salad, some shared neighborhood lore, some – more intimately aware of our home and its layout than we were – even launched into immediate advice on how to improve the structure further.  All of them shared their kindest wishes.  What a blessing to plant ourselves in a neighborhood that was safe, and vibrant, and filled with folks who welcomed us so warmly.

One of the first people I met was my next-door neighbor, Miss Joann, who stopped in with a gift bearing an Irish verse, as if she already knew that I’d been fake Irish for some time. She couldn’t stay long, but she fixed a plate for her husband, Homer, who couldn’t make it over, and in the sweetest tones she told me to let her know if I ever needed anything.  It was a brief chat, for certain, but I can still see her on my driveway (the driveway of my past that was free of plastic kid debris and was lined with gigantic hostas back when they were in their hey-day and were yet to be trampled by said kids).  As someone who had grown up pressing my nose into my neighbor’s screen door, I could recognize in her the makings of someone who had her own screen door that would always be accessible to me.

When we settled into our new home, we were such children.  For example, the first couple years that we lived here, when we were done with our real Christmas tree, my husband and his best friend would drag it outside in late January and stuff all 6 feet of it upright into our fire pit and set it ablaze, and as the flames flickered as high as my upstairs windows, it didn’t occur to us that sap is explosive and we were being – what’s the word? Oh, yes.  Stupid.  We definitely lived out a few antics.  We’d have people in our yard late at night, music would drift from our garage, I mean – it’s all a haze to me now – not because I was even partaking in any of those adult beverages but because I barely believe there was a time in our lives when we lived in this house and it was only populated by two people with their own selfish desires and lots of space in their own bed because no one else was hijacking it.  Every.  Single.  Night.  Perhaps in those early days, my thoughts about my neighbors contained a hint of “thank goodness they aren’t the kind of people to call the police to alert them that my husband is lighting off illegal fireworks to celebrate that the Pistons have won the world championship.”  At that point in my life, I was grateful to have neighbors who tolerated our quirky foray into adulthood.

As the years passed, instead of being children, we had children, and now we have been a part of our neighborhood through many seasons.  And during the time that our neighbors have watched both us and our children grow up, those “people in our neighborhood” have grown all the more dear to us.  I’ve shifted my worries about someone contacting law enforcement over my husband’s antics to worrying that someone might note the screams the emanate from my window when no one except for me seems to know how to locate a garbage can.  Fortunately, most of my neighbors have air conditioning and are spared my ranting.

In the case of Joann and Homer, they became that place where I’d send my children with desperate pleas for a cup of sugar or a tablespoon of salt.  Through the years, Joann and I would pause on our porches when I grabbed the mail, and we’d commiserate about the heat or our bills, and reveal our past in snippets and stories.  It’s funny how someone you see mostly on the porch or sidewalk feels like someone who has always been a part of your family, but somehow that happens in neighborhoods.  Homer might be on the porch and give a wave and a smile, and always, always, I just had the feeling of being watched over by those who had been on this block long before we were here trying to carve out our own little space in the world.

There are times when the cold weather or our own busy lives keep us closed up from one another or racing out with barely a hurried wave, but there are the seasons when everyone’s children and grandchildren find themselves peeking under pavers for roly poly bugs, or moments when we all marvel at an eclipse or a sunset, when we catch one another rolling in the trash cans and catch up on what’s happened between trash days.  When an ambulance parks before someone’s house and we’re jolted into clusters of concern, when a window is broken, when the new guy puts on a stunning firework show, when my children take everyone’s quarters in yet another lemonade stand, or when we all pass about our baked goods, our Christmas breads, or our garden surpluses, I find myself so thankful that this mix of people with varying traditions and lifestyles and landscaping have all formed this community of neighbors.  For some of us, we’ve never set foot in one another’s houses, and yet, over years and decades, we’ve paused over snow shovels, leaned across fences, and waved through windows, and there is something binding in all of that.

Last Saturday, I got the news that our dear neighbor Homer had passed away.  I think of his grandfatherly gentleness in the times that I came to his home, and how he was often the one who had to fumble for that cup of sugar when a gaggle of girls dropped by in hopes of a recipe rescue.  I think of dear Joann holding his arm or guiding him from the car, and I remember hoping my children were watching on so many of those occasions, because I wanted them to see how one of the strongest loves is caring for, championing for, and fighting for one another when we have grown weak and frail.

Of all the neighbors I could have ended up with, I don’t think I could have done much better.  As neighbors, we are party to the bits and pieces of people’s lives.  We know how many trash cans we each roll out, what kinds of things we put forth at our garage sales, and whether we’re bird feeders or squirrel trappers.  Some days, we race or slump into our homes, and other times, we are shell-shocked in our grief or overcome with our joy and it spills out into our sidewalks and porches.  We buy each other’s candy bars and forget to return each other’s garden tools.  We color each other’s sidewalks with chalk, hand out trick or treat candy, and maybe even gripe about the house with the jack o’ lanterns frozen to the steps in late November.  Somewhere in there, we look past our idiosyncracies and bad park jobs and find reason to laugh when the guy with the rusted out van has an electrical short-circuit that leaves his radio blaring for hours late into the night or when the bomb squad arrives because what might be a hand grenade is turned up in war relics in someone’s garage.  Stories? This block has a few.  We survived them, we’ve lived them, we’ve embellished them.  Somewhere in there, we find folks who grin from an easy chair or raise a hand from a car window, and somehow they wrap themselves tight around our hearts.

An Open Letter to My Daughter – The One in the Bunny Ears

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An Open Letter to My Daughter – The One in the Bunny Ears

My Dearest,

            In this crisp, kindergarten autumn, I am finally pausing to write what has been on my heart for months now.  It is most simply this.  Thank you, my little girl in bunny ears.  A thousand times thank you for all the months that you’ve bolted ahead of me or swung onto my arm while grinning beneath those ears of yours.

            I am pretty certain I can pinpoint when this began, although at the time, I didn’t recognize that the ears were about to become your trademark for almost a year now.  Back in December, because we had absolutely lost our minds, we visited the Humane Society and came home with a rabbit.  Within days, you were wearing a pair of bunny ears.  They were dug up from somewhere within the depths of your untidy room, probably a hold over from a gift that Grandma had brought during Easter, just one of many dress uppy things that inhabits many nooks and crannies in our bursting with imagination home.  The ears came on, and I thought it was yet another act of whimsy – tomorrow you’d be dressing as a dragon or fashioning a tunic out of your sister’s infinity scarves.  I remember mouthing to a cousin that “she’s been wearing these ears for almost a week” when we rang in the new year, but I thought that perhaps the appeal would wane.

But the ears remained.  They were a breakfast accessory, a Sunday school necessity, and then suddenly, a vital part of you.  Somewhere over the next few months, I’d notice you patting your pillow to ensure that those double arcs of fluff were still there in the morning.  After your baths, there’d be a moment of trepidation when you’d worry, “Mama, can I please have my ears back now?” Once, when you were noisy in the car, I’d muttered offhandedly, “If you don’t settle down, I will take your ears away”.   You wailed as if you’d been stricken, and suddenly I knew both how sacred those ears were and how vulnerable you felt without them.

Which was an odd perspective for me to have of you, to be honest.  You, my dear one, are a bold one, who thought nothing of breaknecking through your sisters’ school, leaping into classrooms, and commanding the attention of those who tower above you.  You climb, you full steam, you sneak away, you fascinate, and sometimes you frustrate.  But you were adorable both before those ears and now, so for all your unbridled, fearless mischief, I find you irresistible.

Thank you for wearing the ears, my dear one.  When you’re in your ears, we are stopped by strangers who might never have smiled my way.  In grocery stores, waiting rooms, and crabby places, there are folks who can’t help but glance from a phone or redirect their path to speak with you.  They smile knowingly over your head; they look wistfully toward a time and age when our fanciful identities need not be hidden.  They indulge you as though this is the first time you’ve played dress up and today is a special day so they cannot pass without comment.   They don’t recognize that the ears are not a one-time novelty, but an extension of who you are.  An older woman bends to you with good humor and chirps, “Is someone a bunny today?” and to her surprise, you stubbornly reply, “I’m a unicorn.”

Thank you, my sweet girl, for opening the public to me, for making people kinder as I cart or carry you and navigate my way through relentless errands and aisle ways.  Thank you for slowing my pace, because although I’ve mastered in my manic multitasking the art of moving rapidly through the checklists of my life, I’ve learned that it is a blessing to be stopped or slowed by bunny fandom.

My dear, imaginative girl in the bunny ears.  These days, I am the mom who is holding your coat and traipsing behind you, while you leap ahead in those ears, trailed by a sea of knowing and adoring glances.  My fellow parents cite nostalgia for when their own children were small and dressed in capes or pajamas or dragged about filthy blankets and toys.  Those who marvel after you in supermarkets and public spaces remind me that your childhood is a fleeting treasure, so much so that when your ears become lost in the night and you attempt to locate them beneath plush and bedding, I hunt almost as desperately as you do.  When your ears become bent and filthy and rarely resemble their former selves, you lovingly stroke them back from your forehead and secure them in place in the tangles of your hair.  It is rare for a well-meaning by-stander to ask me when we’ll finally get rid of those ears, but I always answer that I hope you never do.

In the years that come, whether you don a pair of bunny ears, work gloves, a dinosaur costume,  torn up jeans, or chic gowns, I hope that you will bear the same confidence so that who you are on the outside can fit snuggly with who you are deep into your insides, and that neither convention nor frustration will dim that bright spark that I see in you each time I glance to whatever space you are climbing and laughing and sometimes defying me.  May you never, ever out grow those bunny ears.

Thank you, my dear in the bunny ears.  Thank you, again and again.

Love,

Mama

 

All the “Special” People That You Know

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Image result for free images man on a bike special needsNot too long ago, I was paused at a stoplight in a nearby suburb, and I caught a glance of a man my husband went to school with.  Let’s just call him Kevin, even though that isn’t his name.  I’d never been formally introduced to the guy, but when I approached him with my car, I immediately recognized the unbridled grin and the rhythmic bounce of his gait.  Years ago, when Doug and I had been crazy-in-love twenty-somethings driving down this same road, Doug had pointed out the grinning pedestrian and recalled how, due to his special needs, this particular classmate had been a bit of a personality and a community fixture.  It seems that Kevin’s place in the community has continued, and I’ve become so used to spotting Doug’s particular alum bobbing down heavily trafficked roadways that I’ve been on the verge of greeting him by name.  I forget that he and I aren’t old friends, but I’m pretty convinced that there are many folks who spy him, recognize him, and smile.

That afternoon, when Kevin passed by my car instead of smiling, I found myself in tears.

And while the traffic began to move and I cleared my eyes, Kevin became a bobbing into a speck in my rear view.

I bet you have someone like Kevin in your neighborhood.  Perhaps he or she rides a bike down your block, wanders around at festivals, or talks a little too long to the store clerks or customers at a local shop.  You might refer to this neighborhood regular as “special needs”, “slow”, “challenged”, “handicapped”, or whatever the accepted vernacular of your day was.  Hopefully, you don’t use the “R” word.  Chances are, you smile when you greet them, buy them a Slurpee whenever they cross your path or leave them a few dollars in a hiding spot you’ve both arranged for in your yard.  Hopefully, you don’t point, tease or imitate, or hit them with your car while you’re in the middle of texting.

I don’t just have one of those folks in my neighborhood; I have one of those folks right in my own family.  When I was in college, my mom adopted my younger brother, Billy, and from the time that we attained him, he has been quite a community personality.  When I got married and “grew up”, it didn’t matter that I was the one who moved away to Wyandotte – Billy’s reputation followed both of us here, and he seems to know someone on every block we turn on.  If we’re out getting ice cream or grabbing a bite to eat, it’s Billy people are waiving to.  He might not remember the names of all the folks, but he knows they’re his public, and he enjoys them.  Billy is just one more wacky face in the eclectic fold of people I’m a part of, and really he’s no different from my other brothers in the sense that I would like to strangle him on the daily, but will throat chop anyone who attempts to do him harm.

So, why all the water works when Kevin recently danced into my view?

Doug is mystified.  “Kevin seems happy.  Why did it make you cry to see him?”

But it’s not about Kevin in particular.  I’ve been struggling with this my whole life, and this is what I can say about it.  It’s the margins.  Those darn margins.  I am tired of people having to live on them when some of us don’t even have a clue where they are.  On that particular day, I had been overworking my puzzler to figure out a place for Billy.  Not just a place to live, but a figurative place in the grand scheme of all of this, and I had come to the conclusion that there just might not be one.

I know that some of you are out there devoting your lives to margin dwellers, and I also value any act of goodness or kindness that is performed, so please know that my frustrations are directed in an entirely different direction. But here’s the rub.  Special needs folks are operating out there on the margins, and while sometimes we opt to see them and grin and think how sweet and innocent they are and aren’t we wonderful for talking to them for ten minutes in the store, I can’t help but be a little bit bothered by the lot in life we think is okay to dole out to them.

As Billy considered his prospects for moving out on his own, his income led us to abysmal places.  They were dark, and dangerous, and dirty, and it infuriated me that his chances of living independently with dignity were pretty limited.  When we found anything slightly affordable that didn’t reek of human waste, landlords would consider the Billy I described over the phone or email and would cite waiting for “more desirable candidates”.  For years, we got on waiting lists, hoped for roommates to share expenses, strategized, and were disappointed.  We waited, we prayed, and we worried.  When, finally, a series of enchanted circumstances led us to a landlord who met us and seemed nonplussed by Billy’s special needs and agreed to rent him a clean, well maintained, safe space, I had to warn myself not to freak him out by sobbing and throwing myself at his feet in gratitude.

At the soup kitchen, I meet lots of individuals like Billy, but most of them are not as lucky as he is.  Many live in group homes where, without an advocate, they are exploited and under-stimulated and destined to lives of loneliness, and quite frankly, absolute boredom.  While the staff in these facilities are paid far below a living wage and are overwhelmed with clients, someone in upper management is turning both a profit and a blind eye to the best interest of those in their care.  I don’t know how all of them ended up in these homes – some of them have been cast offs all along and have forever been in the care of strangers.   Some of them had better starts, but outlived parents who championed them the most and were left to navigate a system that overwhelms the best of us.  These particular guests arrive in bedroom slippers in the midst of a snowstorm, their fingers stick into the butter dish when the act of buttering a roll is beyond their grasp, and they linger on the fringes of conversations and stay just as long as we will let them.

For so many of these folks on the margins, there is no one advocating for them, and the results are treacherous.

I advocate for Billy, and I can tell you what I am.  Am I tired? A little bit.  Am I angry? Extremely.  But most of all, what I am is confused.  It seems that most aspects of keeping him in glasses, housing, food, staffing, and activities is a tangled web of letters from the Social Security administration sent in triplicate, contradicting phone calls, meetings, and frustrations.  I have a post-graduate degree, and I can barely figure most of this out.  For example, due to his special needs, Billy receives two small checks from the state each month.  The two of them total just enough to pay his rent and barely enough for anything more.  Our dream for him is that he will work a part time job so that someday he can pay his own utilities and possibly have enough to see a movie or buy a T-shirt once in a while.  The rule of thumb is that with one of the checks, he can work 20 hours per week.  With the other check, as soon as he makes $85 a month, social security will be reduced by 50 cents on every dollar he makes.  Huh? Will he even come out ahead?  It’s a lot of math, so I’m not even sure.  If I’m able bodied, college educated, and somewhat wordly and I’m puzzled, what is happening for the folks with special needs who are attempting to do this on their own?

Billy’s “village” has decided that even if he doesn’t come out any further ahead, we want badly for him to work and have the dignity of a job, even if his standard of living won’t progress too far on a financial level.  But, if I thought that affordable housing was allusive, appropriate work comes in at a close second.  Despite his ability to complete niche tasks and his enthusiasm for work, Billy’s lack of transportation and limited skill set don’t make him a competitive candidate.  It doesn’t matter that all he wants to do is wash someone’s dishes or lug stuff at a work site.  Managers often take one look at him karate chopping his hands nervously or rocking in a lobby, and they know instantly that they’d rather not bother.  In fact, when I hear “chatter” about requiring Medicaid recipients to work, I often think of Billy and his quest for employment.  I get it that there could be exemptions for certain folks when these legislative changes take effect, but I wonder how far these exemptions will extend, both for Billy and for those who have limited abilities but haven’t been sorted and labeled.  If all these folks with no avenues for employment supports or job development training are to be jettisoned into employment, ­­­­­­­­­­I want to ask every business owner in the community who would like to hire these folks to please step forward.  What time can Billy and his friends start?

Compared to many of his peers who are living with special needs, Billy has a social scene that could sometimes make me jealous.  He has a cousin who takes him bowling each week, he serves as a greeter and usher at his church and is welcomed into their clubs and special activities, he volunteers weekly at the soup kitchen, and we recently found part-time staffing to help supervise him so he can begin to exercise some independence.  Each and every component has been the result of plenty of careful orchestrating, agonizing, and teeth pulling.  Each time he takes a stroll through the community, we know that we are putting our faith and trust in the kindness of strangers – that they will tolerate stories and catch phrases that are on autorepeat, that they won’t run him over when he doesn’t look both ways, that they won’t take advantage of his friendliness, and that they won’t make him too aware that he is different.   Making these things happen for Billy is hard for someone with all her facilities. Billy has a small team of folks who help him, and I, for one, am horrible about most of it.  Imagine how hard it would be to struggle this together if you were living on the margins.

I think that’s what brought me to tears the day that I saw Kevin and his familiar fancy footwork.  I’m going to be pretty direct here.  When I think of Billy’s position in society, and Kevin’s, and Tina’s, and John’s and Ron’s, and all those other folks we humor in the doughnut shop or the library or the liquor store, I think about a Sunday School lesson I recently taught.  I was talking to the children about Biblical times, and how if you were blind or had some type of disability, you were pretty much destined to the life of a beggar.  In not so eloquent words, we talked about life as an outcast, and being sentenced to the margins.  Not like nowadays, right? But let’s face it.  Today, if you have certain disabilities, our society is pretty comfortable with you teetering around on the poverty line.

We are almost nostalgic when we see a sweet fella on a bike and we think of how towns have always had that adoring “special” character.  And it’s fine to me that we glance with love and share a doughnut and model for our children that we are kind to these community fixtures because they need us.  Sometimes, those “special” folks are heading home to families who are supporting them and their parents haven’t yet become elderly and unable to watch out for them, and maybe the doughnut or the cash register chat is all they need.  But once in a while, I wish for us to dip our toes into the margins a bit and examine more deeply the true picture.    The way we vote, the way we share discourse about people living in poverty, the way we share of our time and our kindnesses, all of these factors contribute toward making a place for the Kevins, the Billys, and the special people you’ve grown used to seeing in the town where you live.

 

 

 

 

 

Dinner for Our Grandparents

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Image result for free image elderly hands

My grandparents come to the soup kitchen almost every Wednesday and they share their usual table surrounded by some of the seniors from the co-op, scooting over when a space clears and making room for a guy who lives at the park or a young mom who has visited for the first time.  They are usually at the front of the line at the soup kitchen, and if one of the serving girls asks my grandfather how they are doing, he smiles and notes, “Still above ground, so I guess we’re alright.”

With each dish we offer – “Mixed fruit for you? Some sliced bread?” my grandmother hunches a bit closer to the counter, eyes gleaming, to coo, “Oh, yes.”  She tells us that she is so tired lately.  That the heat has exhausted her, and that her doctor is worried over her heart.  She slides her red cafeteria tray along the formica, and in the span of our scooping a ladle of green beans or extending a tong that grips a watermelon wedge, we get clipped insights into her health until finally she is through the line and smiles a thank you.  My grandfather has already delivered his tray and visited the beverage table, so he walks beside her, two Styrofoam cups steaming coffee in the same, large hands that repaired my bikes and untangled knots in my fishing line when I was a small girl.  They barely speak, but I can see from across the room that no matter how weary or stooped she may become, she will forever be his bride.  She is short, and round enough to make for soft hugs that collect up your sorrows, and he is thin with height, although his shoulders curve under the sweaters he seems to always wear since his retirement.  He pulls out her chair and murmurs her name.  Her name is Anna but he always calls her “Annie,” and he’s the only one who does so.

When they get ready to leave, he helps to pull her coat over her shoulder where her purse strap has pulled it askew, and then he rests a hand on her upper back, guiding her behind the folding chairs that jut out from other tables.  Once free of the maze of diners, he loops her bundle over his thumbs – it’s a plastic Meijer bag with a single can of carrots she’d found on our “give away” table earlier in the afternoon.  “Perfect for our supper,” she’d confided to a young girl who’d passed over the cans to appraise a stack of blouses.  My grandfather strides three paces ahead with a persnickety impatience while she calls a few goodbyes that seem to match the gentle slowness of her footsteps.  Although it’s been years since he left the workforce, he still moves purposefully, all at once aggravated and adoring of the way my grandmother can become distracted by a conversation and forget that they need be going, even if the only thing they are late for is a nap behind a newspaper.

She gasps, a bit winded as she pokes her head under the serving window that never quite lifts all the way, and with a breathlessness that is near-rapture declares,

“Thank you all so much.  It was delicious.  Just delicious.”

Truth be told, this dear couple – they aren’t really my relations.  Though I’ve known them for about a decade, we have no blood ties, and our common history is one that has been knit together through years of meals served, with snippets shared in the space of a wide window, between the hiccupping slip of a tray down a counter or in the time that I’ve made my way through the tables to distribute the contents of cases of donated goods.  We’ve buried our dead and exchanged the details across a plate of noodles, cursed the weather or the Lions or the government over a tray of mixed greens.  Over time, we’ve become tangled in one another’s histories – I know that she can’t eat the dark greens per her doctor’s orders and that he loves bean soup and archaeology, and they know all of my children and have watched them grow from infants.

Although they are not my real grandparents, when I witness the two of them from my side of the counter, it’s sometimes as though I’m channeling the two sets of grandparents I was so fortunate to know and who I lost over a decade ago.  That enamored glance that bears no expiration date is a twinkle from the eyes of both my grandfathers.  The mock exasperation that can’t fool anyone for a minute is so telling of a grandfather who slept behind his own newspapers but delivered my grandmother faithfully to hair appointments or who startled and feigned crabby aggravation when our board game laughter whooped from the dining room.  The steadying hand of the soup kitchen grandfather is that of my own who gently guided my grandmother and encouraged one step before the other when dementia had robbed her of the wherewithal to move forward.  This couple whose souls are so tightly stitched – they are my grandparents through and through.

There are so many grandparents who rely on our soup kitchen.  Widowed grandmothers who wait on their friends and save them a seat and a surplus, day old loaf that a volunteer lugs in crates from her truck bed.  Grannies soaked in perfume and painted with rouge on scooters with batteries that die at the front of the food line, and those who lean over walkers and insist on carrying their own trays.  Some of them pat my hand and tell me about their diabetes and in the same breath ask if I’ve gotten any more Reese’s cups in, and others cling to my wrist and confide the despondent tales of empty bank accounts, medical conditions they can’t afford, and the short list of foods they can stomach.  They slip cans of pork into behemoth purses and save box tops for my daughter’s elementary class.  Each of them is struggling, or lonesome, or both, or worse.

My grandparents aren’t immune to these troubles – grandmother whispers that they have five more days until their check arrives and no food in the home.  She almost weeps over a dozen eggs and a half a package of ham that I secret into a haphazard box of canned goods, and my eyes burn with the angry threat of tears as Grandfather, in his pride, struggles to be aloof when I set the box into their trunk.  I wave off the their gratitude with a false smile and send them on their way, caught between the urge to kick at the door on my way in or collapse into tears.

What kind of country do we live in when our grandmothers and grandfathers work hard, raise families, and live lives of kindness only to stand in a line at my church? What does it say about our collective conscience that we accept a society where our elders forego medication and treatments and breakfast and dinner, and we continue to turn a blind eye as their teeth rot, as their strength begins to prematurely wane, as they waste silently in apartments where visitors never tread? All of them our grandparents.  All of them our elders.  In their slow steps, in their proud strides, these sacred folks bear the history and wear the scars of service and noble deeds.  They are our sacred national treasure.  And yet, this week, this very day, our grandparents knew hunger.