When COVID-19 first invaded our lives last spring, I think most of us had the mentality that it was something temporary. As a teacher I thought we’d take an extra week off in addition to spring break, just a precaution, and then we’d be back at school–back to normal. When I reflect now on how everything unfolded, I realize I had a series of these adjustments: we’ll be back to normal in April. Okay, well, school won’t be normal for the rest of the year. But summer will be normal. Hm. June’s not normal. Maybe July? Maybe August? Will life ever be normal again?
I wrote on social media yesterday about my daughter Grace having elective surgery and how we had to go to Little Rock for a COVID-19 test. I said how weird it was, like a dystopian movie. One of my friends commented: This is our new normal. But my heart and mind rebel against that. I don’t want this to be the new normal. Like my mom said recently, I want my life back.
I want to hug people. I want to see more than their eyes. I want to go to the store and go inside, and go to rodeos and not feel strange like people are scared of me or judging me for wearing a mask or not wearing one. I want to go to church. I want Sunday dinners at my parents’ house. I want Grace to go back to U of A–well, I don’t really want that but she does–and have fun and spread her wings and have a normal college experience. I want Harper to have a good senior year. I want normal football where we all sit squished together in the stands and don’t wear masks and can freely yell and scream. I want to invite friends over. I want Adelaide to have fun her first year in junior high and get to play volleyball and basketball and sit by her buddies in class and not stay six feet apart. I want to teach and touch my own students in a classroom, not on a computer. I want to see all of my colleagues and hang out in the hall.
I want Stella to love third grade. I want her psyche not to be shaped by fear of a virus and isolation and procedures that have nothing to do with learning except we have to do them to try to keep people safe. I want her teacher not to be stressed. I want my whole family of teachers and administration and coaches not to be anxious and handed impossible directives and put in harm’s way. I want no one else to get sick. I want no one else to take germs home to other people who will get sick. I want no one else to suffer and no one else to die.
Unfortunately, as my moma (and The Rolling Stones) taught me, you can’t always get what you want. But Christians believe what the bible says in 2 Peter 1:3: in Jesus we have everything we need. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:9 that “His grace is sufficient.” Grace is not everything we want, if we are honest, but it is sufficient. All we need. Enough.
What does grace look like in the middle of a pandemic, which has, for now at least, become our new normal? My list is not exhaustive. Grace comes to us all in different ways. But here are some of the things I see when I look past what I’ve lost into what I haven’t. I still have my faith. I still have Hunter’s laughter and Stella’s warm little body to cuddle on the couch. I still have sunsets. I still have cats. I still have a dog who talks to me with his eyes and tail and voice, and we still have walks. I have friends and loved ones. I have music, and books, and a phone. I have TV. I have the internet. I have fresh squash, okra, cucumbers, peppers, peas, and tomatoes from the garden. I have a job.
I have my husband. We have a house. In this house there is a miraculous machine that makes a wonderful, life-giving, gorgeous brown liquid called coffee. There’s a faucet we can turn on and get clean water my family can drink. I have a place to keep food cold and even enough food to store in it. I have a stove for cooking and a washer and dryer and electricity and gas to turn them all on. I have clothes. I have air-conditioning. I have a car.
I have chickens and scraps to feed them. I have a son with a broken leg that has healed. I can’t see the floor for the teenage squalor of his room but I can see him in all of his spendor. I have eyes. I have ears to hear my daughters practice the piano. I have hands to type. I have a mailbox and mail that comes to it. I have hot baths. I have sourdough starter. I have crickets and cicadas and whippoorwills to listen to at night.
I still have my amazing community. We still have the river and mountains we call home. We have roads. We have a hospital. We have leaders who care and work hard for us. We have a school. We have businesses. We have the constant kindness we show one another in food banks, phone calls, benefits, prayers, visits on the porch. We have opportunities to be creative. We still have plenty of work to do, needs to fill, and problems to solve. We have our great minds and brave hearts. We have our memories. We have our future to look forward to. And we have our neighbors to love.
I read somewhere that when two people look at the world one may see hate and division and darkness while the other sees beauty, love, and light. The interesting thing is that regardless of who does the looking, it’s the same world. We get to choose how we look at it. No one else chooses for us. But our choices make all the difference in how we walk through this time. The truth is that we still have much more than we have lost. We can choose to bring our best selves to the hard, messy work of finding our way forward though this new landscape, together. We have each other and we have grace. And that is more than enough.
I’ve always believed this. Plus, I love geography. Perhaps that’s why, whenever I’m around rocks at one of my parents’ quarries or find myself stacking stones beside a river, my eyes are drawn to the ones shaped like Arkansas. Heathcliff looks for the ones shaped like hearts. So between ourselves and our kids we end up with a lot of these treasures. I like to stick them around in my flower beds. (Sidebar: this actually creates a great visual representation of my marriage. Stone manicures our yard like a golf course, creates orderly flower beds, sprays weeds, fertilizes, prunes, and mulches on a schedule. My role as his wife is to design rock sculptures, strew wildflower seeds, and bring shells home from the beach to spread like glitter on the brown dirt-and-mulch background.)
I have a little stack of different sized Arkansas rocks right by my door. When Stella presented me with a tiny gravel heart she found in the driveway, I decided to give her a little geography lesson. I took down my best Arkansas rock and placed the heart in Franklin County. “This is home, where we live.” Being the child of an English teacher, the symbolism was not lost on her. “It’s where our heart is, Mommy!”
Home. Where our heart is.
The other night there was a storm and it rained. Early the next morning I sat on my steps as I always do, trying to put on my running shoes with about five dogs jumping around vying with each other to lick my face. I glanced over at our little heart of Arkansas creation and noticed, to my dismay, that the heart had washed/blown off. Only Arkansas was left, stark grey against the sepia background. It took a minute for me to spot the heart. Upside down and cast aside, it didn’t really look like a heart. It just looked like a rock. I picked it up and set it back on top of Arkansas, this time more centered so that maybe it would have a better chance to hold.
I’ve been obsessed with unity lately, although I guess it’s always been an important theme in my life. My friend list has never been homogenous. I tend to favor more of a hodge-podge of people. In high school this looked like playing in the band as well as being a cheerleader; heading up the library club along with being president of my class. I was the nerd elected “Most Likely to Succeed” who also won the beauty pageant. While on the surface those things may seem like contradictions, to me they made sense. Why pigeon hole oneself into a single category? Walt Whitman said he contained multitudes. Don’t we all?
Running for office has afforded me many learning experiences already in a few short months. It may be that having no previous political aspirations shielded me somewhat from the reality of our partisan divide. Whatever it was, I never expected people to be so polarized at the local level. Washington–yes, I get it. We all see that madness and mayhem on TV. But not here; not in Arkansas; not in our little country communities where we go to work, and church, and ballgames together. Not where your kids are my kids, we give each other wedding showers, we visit one another when someone is sick. Heck, we even share our okra and tomatoes! But time after time I am asked by these people–my people, “How can you be a Democrat?”
Of course I tell the whole story of how Democrats plucked me out of my classroom where I was minding my own business and asked me to run. How I thought it would scare them away when I told them in no uncertain terms I am pro-life, pro-gun, pro-small government, and cannot support the party platform. How they said “that’s why we want you. You truly represent your district. We need you–the district and the state need you. Just be yourself.” These particular Democrats recognize the disaster the national party has become and begged me to help them change it–at least in Arkansas. At least here at home.
So I embarked on this journey. And one of the first things I did was contact every county political committee regardless of party and ask them to let me speak. I told them party was not a big deal to me, that I wanted to represent everyone. When I talked to John Brummett about this he said something like, “I don’t know whether to think that’s weird or wonderful.” And I told him what I’m telling everyone else now: it’s not an either/or situation.
Some news stations, some churches, and a great many politicians owned by special interest groups would have us believe it is. We must be Democrat or Republican. Left or right. It is Us versus Them; there is no possible in-between. No co-mingling of the tribes. It’s a fight to the death.
And yet–is this really the truth? Have we the people decided to hold these truths as self-evident? Is this the way to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Hear me from the rooftop shouting through my Ozark Hillbilly golf team fundraiser mask: No. It is not the truth. It is not the way to life, liberty, or happiness. It is not who we are as Arkansans and Americans. And church people, it is not even Christian. It is not Us versus Them. No, it is not.
If you know me at all you know I am not a shrinking violet. You know that I think and process and write and pray and then I decide what I believe and take a stand. And if I encounter new information, I do all of that some more and decide again. I don’t know all of the answers and so I try to do it in humility, but I believe in bold, clear action. And the action that is needed for such a time as this moment in our state and nation is reconciliation. Determined, intelligent, deliberate, difficult, messy reconciliation. It is not touchy feely. It’s not excusing, or saying everything is okay, or that we even agree. It is doing the hard work of restoring a relationship that is broken because whether we agree on everything or not we recognize we need each other; we are in this together. It’s putting people over politics and reuniting–not just in words but in deeds–really being the United States of America.
And that starts here in district 82. Let us be the people who decide to be different from the crowd. Let us be the movers and shakers–the leaders–who show the rest of Arkansas how it’s done. Let us reject the narrative that it has to be either/or. Let us be weird and different from the whole world if that’s what it takes to also be wonderful. We can find the courage in our hearts to lock arms and stand together on the middle ground. Some might say I’m naive, but I know we can do it. Let this be the place where reconciliation begins!
I’ve not been sleeping well. The further I go in this State Rep race, the more corruption I see. In my life I’ve been challenged but not often daunted by the tasks I’ve faced. Now, every day, I feel like a child with a slingshot standing in front of a fully-armed giant.
Back in October when I was recruited to run I remember saying “But I’m not a politician.” My friends said “that’s why we need you. We need a real person to represent us.” And while I’ve had some amazing experiences and met many good, honest people, I’ve also learned why it’s so hard for real people to make it in politics. The system where money equals power is not designed for us. It’s designed for those with money, who want power, so they can make more money. Which of course gives them more power. Rinse and repeat.
But this story is not about the rich and powerful. This story is about real people and what happens when real people decide to come together in spite of their differences, in spite of their fears, in spite of their flaws. Last week I had the privilege of sitting in on a meeting in which Christian leaders representing virtually every denomination in this community focused their attention on what they had in common, which, as it turns out, is a lot. They agreed we’re facing big problems in the world right now, and they agreed that faith is the best way to solve them. So they came up with a plan to unite believers in this community not to protest, not to riot, not even to argue in civil conversation. But to pray.
Wednesday night we wore our masks and brought lawn chairs and gathered on the Franklin County Courthouse lawn. I saw babies, kids, teenagers, parents, and grandparents. People with compromised immune systems surrounded the area and stayed in their parked cars. Different churches contributed what they had–a sound system, music, tables, antibacterial gel. KDYN broadcasted. Television news crews were there. And all we did was pray.
If you are in law enforcement, we prayed for you. Military, we prayed for you. In health care? Essential worker? We prayed for you, too. We prayed for business owners, and public officials, and school people, and churches. We prayed for the sick, elderly, and children. If you are oppressed in any way, experiencing prejudice of any kind, hurt, disappointed, afraid–we prayed for you. And then we prayed for our country, the land we all love, on our knees. We asked for healing.
When we finished praying, the crowd stood to its feet and sang together: Amazing Grace. A cool breeze touched my face. I closed my eyes and listened to all of those voices rising together. It felt like a beginning. I heard freedom; I heard unity; I heard hope. How sweet the sound.
I’ve been doing these things called Riverside Chats on Facebook live. The idea is to connect with people in this time of crisis like FDR did through the Great Depression and World War Two. I usually sit on my deck and invite whoever is watching to be there with me beside the mighty Arkansas River, looking out at the rolling blue hills that belong to all of us.
Before I started doing this I floated the idea with my inner circle–family and friends who are helping me run the race for State Representative. Everyone liked the idea; not everyone agreed on the desired length, frequency, subject matter, etc. After listening to all of their advice and incorporating as much of it as I could, I launched the first one six weeks ago.
My campaign manager–a young man who came up to me at a football game and declared, “I want to live in a world where you are my representative,” to which I replied, “You’re hired but I can’t pay you”–worried about doing this unscripted. He has learned in political science classes that campaign strategies favor the scripted. Because that’s what is safe. And I love it that he tries to keep me safe; Lord knows someone needs to. His protectiveness has earned him the nickname “Blankie.” I take him around places with me as much as possible, like Linus carries his security blanket. Everyone who dares to enter the arena needs a Blankie.
But what Blankie knows, what he signed up for, and I think even a reason he wants me for his representative, is that I do not live my life scripted. I can’t. At least not on the front end. As a writer I tend to script things as they happen, and after, as a way of processing. But for me living an unscripted life is necessary for integrity–the integration of my inner self with my outer self. I didn’t get into this race to become someone I’m not.
It is tempting at every turn to do just that, however. Everyone has different definitions of who I should be in order to garner votes. Countless people have told me I should be a Republican; that it would be much easier to win. Left-wingers have suggested I’m backward for being against abortion and careless for being pro-gun. Rural conservative Democrats support me trying to bring the party back to common sense. Others think it cannot be done. Just yesterday a friend from high school said that before me she didn’t think Christians could be Democrats, but lo and behold here I am.
It turns out that politics, for me, is just another exercise in being who I am without apology: allowing the rest of the world to think whatever they want while I dig deep into my truest self and bring whatever that is outside for anyone to see. Real democracy means people see clearly what the choices are, and then we vote for what we want. If who I am is what voters want, I’ll be the choice. And if not, I will lose. The risk of losing is why people are afraid to show who they really are. I understand that because I’ve lost plenty and it is very painful. But I have learned it is better to lose than try to be someone you’re not. Sometimes there are things you have to lose in order to live in truth and freedom. And, like Atticus said, sometimes you do [win].
What does any of this have to do with unscripted Riverside Chats? I have found that Facebook live is a good way to avoid any tendency toward perfectionism, any effort at pleasing everyone. I plan and prepare, but I’m really not in control of what happens. So whatever it is has to be good enough. I’ve done videos with six thousand views and those with two hundred. Every time I’m taking a chance. Sometimes the sun is in my eyes, a rogue dog is barking, or a wasp kamikazes my head. Often a child interrupts. Last week I unwisely opened up the floor to an eight-year-old who was precious and adorable and also embarrassed me with some of her antics. We live and learn and I probably won’t do that again; there is such a thing as being too vulnerable. But the purpose of Riverside Chats in the first place is to connect. To comfort and challenge and lead. To let people see who I am, and let them know they are not alone.
Being fully human means you make mistakes and change your mind and learn and grow. You work hard and do your best and hope it’s enough. You fall and get back up and move forward. If you’re a believer you try to understand what Jesus was about when He walked the earth, and act accordingly in how you make decisions and treat people. This is my approach to life; it’s how I bring myself to marriage, parenting, family, friendship, teaching, writing, and everything else. Including politics. It demands authenticity. That’s why I don’t delete old things I’ve written; I chat on Facebook live, publish my phone number and email, try to speak to all kinds of groups, meet face to face with people, listen and engage and try to answer any questions people ask, and admit when I don’t know the answer.
Real public service requires trust which requires honesty. It’s not about upholding an image or fealty to a party. It’s not creating a club whose members agree on everything. It’s not an act that follows a script. It’s about showing up real and offering all that you are to help people. Let me know how I might help you.
Here’s to mothers I have known:
My own mother who loved me into being, who spoke truths into me that I became. The person I am always travelling from and also toward, no matter my journey.
My sister-in-law who is my sister. Who mothers my kids. Who taught herself how to be a mother. Who is the mother she needed, the mother she chooses to be, the cycle breaker.
My aunt who came from Vietnam.
My friends. The one who mothers me whose children I mother.
The one who mothers alone.
The one who chose to stay for the sake of her children.
The one who chose to leave for the sake of her children.
The one who mothers another woman’s child as her own.
The one who became a mother when she was a child and grew up with her children.
The one who makes it all look so easy.
The one for whom it all seems so hard, but she doesn’t give up.
My students. The one who nods off in my class because she worked all day then cooked supper and helped with homework and played Candyland and gave baths and tucked in and then studied but didn’t sleep.
The one who took a bullet–literally–for her kids.
The one who reads Shakespeare standing with a baby on her hip and types a paper with another one on her lap.
The one who came back to school at 75 to show her grandkids it’s important.
The one who came to school after losing a factory job because the kids need food and shoes and clothes and she is brave.
The one who took on her sister’s kids when she already had three of her own.
The one who gave her baby up for adoption and just found her again after 20 years.
The one who speaks little English. The one who has been in jail. The one who grieves for the child who is gone. The one so joyful to share she is pregnant. The ones–all of them–so determined to give their children a better life.
The lady at my church with no children who is everyone’s mother.
The grandma in the mother’s role again.
The teacher who is a safe place for her students.
The doctor who misses time with her own kids because she takes care of ours.
The cancer fighter.
The one whose hands burn from the chemicals in her salon.
The mother in the nursing home.
The mother with MS.
The mother who worries about how she’s failed her children.
The mother who is happy.
The mother who is proud.
The mother who does her best and hopes it will be enough.
For all of the mothers, grace to you. And peace.
You are superheroes. This is not hyperbole. I already knew it, having been a student all of my life, raised by teachers, married to a teacher, friends with teachers, and a teacher myself. But I am a college teacher and although my job has its own challenges–mostly due to many of my students not having good internet access and/or being essential workers–during this pandemic I have been apprised of the differences of teaching mostly adults versus teaching children. And may I repeat: you are superheroes.
I’m guessing Stella is a relatively easy student as second graders go. That’s what I hear in Parent/Teacher conferences anyway. But even if she is the easiest second grade student on planet Earth to teach, which I doubt, by the way, I have learned I could never be a second grade teacher. Not in a million years. Not for any amount of money. Sadly, quarantine has taught me that I am not as patient as I previously might have believed.
Our day begins like this: I get up early when it’s not raining to walk 3 miles. When it’s raining, which it usually seems to be, I sleep in till around 7:00. I get coffee and start my morning routine of checking email from work. There are typically only a thousand or so. I have calls to make to students, papers to grade, Web-Ex meetings with various people at work (basically ATU’s version of Zoom). Normally it is during one of these meetings with my boss when Stella comes through the shut door of my bedroom/office with the hairbrush, scrunchy, and directions for a messy bun or high ponytail. Easy enough. I can mute myself and turn off my camera and still appear to be paying attention in my meeting while running a home salon. I never get the hair right the first time–I’m not a gentle brusher, not good at messy buns, and I frequently do not get the ponytail high enough. But for some reason I never lose my client. Morning after morning she is back with renewed confidence. It’s as if she has hope multiple opportunities will eventually result in my improved skills. So far, her hope is misplaced. But I digress.
Let me digress just a bit more. As I’ve been sitting here trying to write this, my little darling has come forth for her usual drop-in appointment. I tell her I refuse to subject my hands to the amount of grease that has accumulated in her hair due to poor hygiene. She grins wickedly. I raise my pointer finger with authority, as if to say, “I mean it this time. You cannot go another day without washing your hair.” Surprisingly, she accepts defeat without a struggle. I settle back in for a few more minutes of blessed silence to collect my thoughts and write words, when the air is pierced with a cry. Stella runs back into my space–no clothes on of course–and informs me there is a bug in the bathtub and it will have to be removed before she can carry out my instructions. So I put down my laptop, move the dog who is lying across my feet, and follow her to the bathroom. And it’s a Mayfly. A Mayfly that is now drowning in the swirling waters of the toilet but please don’t tell Adelaide–my 13 year old–that, because she is a radical Jainist who doesn’t eat meat unless it’s lived a happy life first, forces me to forego straws in my Dari-Delite Diet Dr. Peppers with extra ice in order to save sea turtles, and googles what to give a pet cow as a treat since apparently it’s not enough to keep an orphaned calf in a pen by your house with loads of hay, a roof over its head, and an all-you-can-eat buffet of grain and fresh water. His name is Bean. Like coffee bean. Because he’s the color of espresso. And also because, I think, she is trying to give us subliminal vegetarian messages.
In the time it took me to write that, Stella is back, allegedly with clean hair. It’s wet, so harder than usual to de-tangle, but we soldier through and the high ponytail is accomplished. She proposes the bargain she proposes every day, which is that if she gets her piano practiced and all of her AMI work done, May-she-please-go-down-to-the-Fords’-and-play-Ladybug-and-Cat-Noir-with-Hunter?
Yes. Yes she can.
The first task she sets about is piano practice, also counted by me as AMI music class. There are three other people in our home who can teach beginner piano. They suddenly and mysteriously disappear. So even though I have just retrieved my laptop from under the paw of the fattest Boston Terrier who has ever lived–who is standing on it in order to see her own image in the window and bark because she thinks she sees a challenger to her throne–and I’ve erased the two pages of gbhjngbhjnnjbhfnkbngjkfdbjbjkbbffkhjoisdbnkbfbkjdbgfjkdbfgkjdbfkdfbgdbkfjkdbfjkbkjdfgjdgbj caused by said paw, I must set it back down again. Which I do. Somewhat martyr-like. But I still believe I’m a good parent with infinite patience who has got this homeschooling thing nailed. After all, I am a teacher. And I’ve been giving piano lessons since I was 16 years old. How hard can it be?
“Okay, Stella, I want you to practice the songs I assigned to you in our last lesson. Let’s make sure you’ve got those down.” This takes her about 30 seconds. “Okay, Mommy, what’s next?” “Well, turn the page and read it.” “Okay. I’ve done that.” “Okay, well, practice the songs on that page then.” “But, Mommy, this page is wrong. It says I’m supposed to play with the left hand but the stems are going up.” “That’s okay.” “No, it isn’t.” Teacher voice: “Find me where it says up stems can’t be played with the left hand.” “Okay. I know it’s in here somewhere.” Searches book for confirmation bias; comes up short. “Well, I still think you told me that or something.” “Well, if I did I was wrong. I’m sorry. Now, let’s practice these new songs with the left hand.” I explain the whole concept, make sure she understands, then go back to my computer. Dog goes back across my feet. “Mommy! I need you to come here!” At this point I pause for some mindful breathing. Like Lamaze, but hopefully in this case effective. (Spoiler alert: It’s not.)
“Sweetie. Dear. People have paid me to teach their children piano lessons since I was 16. Here’s how piano lessons normally work. I spend 30 minutes with a student, teaching new material and making sure he or she understands. Then I assign things to practice so the student gains the new skill. The student practices in his or her own home, separate from me, about thirty minutes each day for a week. Then the student comes for a new lesson and shows me what he or she has learned.”
“No, I don’t want those kinds of lessons.”
“Well, it’s different for you since you live with your piano teacher and you’re a quick learner and we can go a bit faster. Like how I just gave you a thirty minute lesson yesterday and I’ll probably give you another one tomorrow. But now you need to practice your new pages to make sure you’ve got the skill down.” On and on ad infinitum. She does learn a very cute rendition of Ode to Joy if I do say so myself. “Time for Math!”
Now, there’s something you need to understand about me. I am great at budgeting. It’s a non-negotiable job qualification for the mother in a family of six living on two teachers’ salaries. I can actually squeeze water out of a turnip if need be, and the need usually arises every month the week before payday. But I do not like Math. I figure, if I cover the words, music, and culinary arts in our family the least Stone can do is cover the numbers. But naturally Stone is nowhere to be found.
“Okay, babe, let’s do some Math. You sit here by me and we’ll snuggle and I’ll do my writing and you do your Math, and if you need help I will help you! Okay?”
“That’s not how Daddy does it.”
Grits teeth. “Really? How does Daddy do it?”
“He helps me work out the problems.”
“Well, that’s good. But I think you can probably work them out yourself and it will be good practice for you. I will be right here.”
She settles in beside me and opens up her chromebook. I’m trying to string words together like beads when a little monster character appears on her screen and says, “Twenty-three plus fifty-six! Now what can that be? How do we calculate twenty-three plus fifty-six?” My string snaps and the beads scatter all over the floor. His little monstery friend appears. “Uh, I don’t know. How do we add twenty-three and fifty-six? Like this?”
I contemplate violence, prohibited only by the cost of a broken chromebook. “Darling? Do you have your headphones? Could you put them on, sweetie?” Well guess what. All of the headphones in the house are currently in use by siblings. A riot ensues. It culminates with me hiding in the closet eating chocolate covered almonds and finishing this dang letter. In which I originally intended to praise every possible teacher in the Ozark School System since, like the old woman in the shoe, I have kids in nearly every building. But I fear my battery–both literal and figurative–will soon run out. Computers, like normal people after all, do not hold an infinite charge.
Suffice it to say, dearest teachers, we unintentionally homeschooling parents are in awe of you and what you do every day. We are in your debt. More than ever we recognize how much you deserve to be paid like the superstars you are in our society. You deserve Nobel Peace Prizes, your faces carved into mountains, songs and poems written in your honor. You are the glue–our kids’ connection to a world of information and opportunity and each other. Thank you for using your genius and your kindness in service of our families. For figuring it out in real-time, doing whatever it takes. Thank you for Zooming, and calling, and Facetiming. For sending pictures and assignments, and Facebooking and Instagramming, and writing handwritten notes. For worrying and caring and engaging and giving feedback and encouraging and nurturing. For the boundless patience you have with our kids and with us. Never doubt your worth; I pray the world never will again. We see you, we love you, and we are so grateful for you. You are our superheroes.
Gwen Ford Faulkenberry
It is 7:30 AM. I got up early to walk my three miles. The dogs went with me, as always. Black and white constants in a world that feels increasingly gray. But it’s not gray today. Signs of spring are everywhere–hyacinths, irises, and tulips burst from their bulbs and up straight and strong through the ground. Redbuds splash purple in a sea of green. Pollen lies like yellow lace around the edges of puddles. The air smells new. And birds sing their songs for anyone with ears to hear.
Out in the country you can almost pretend it’s a normal day. But it’s not normal, because my kids are still in bed instead of on the way to school. I’m writing this before checking in with students over a myriad of digital platforms–whatever they can access. And Stone is about to don a mask and go to his classroom, in and out quick like a ninja, to retrieve a few supplies. Around 8:00 everyone will be up: my college student, high school junior, seventh grader, and second grader. Like a one-room schoolhouse in the days of Laura Ingalls they’ll gather around, working on their own lessons for the next three or four hours. Except instead of slates and chalk they each have their own computers. And like me, they’ll probably stay in their pajamas. Yesterday we did church the same way, besides the fact that we all watched the same screen together. It was kind of cozy.
I love being with my kids and Stone. And my brother and sister-in-law and their kids are next door. My parents are next door on the other side but I haven’t been in their house for three weeks now, or even touched them. The closest we get is across the porch or several feet apart in the yard. I know I’m lucky to have that, but I miss eating together and hugging and running in and out. My kids miss playing Doogies and Rook with Granny and PaPa, and spending the night at their house. It’s ingrained in them that this is what love looks like: togetherness. Now we are trying to teach them that love means being apart. Not because it’s what we like or want or enjoy for ourselves, but because it protects Granny and PaPa from getting sick.
This is a theme that’s been growing in my mind. Like those bulbs buried all winter in the dark, the other day it finally sprouted. I’d been watching people hoard, criticize, ignore, demand, and blame leaders, especially politicians. Fear and anxiety can spread across the world faster than a virus. I struggled daily trying to figure out my role, to come up with a spiritual vaccine I might offer. What could protect us from losing our better selves in the face of this crisis?
What finally cracked open the bulb was a message from my friend Melanie on Facebook. My daughter Zaynah is missing. She went outside and we thought she was just going on a walk but she didn’t come back and now it’s been hours. We can’t find her. Please pray.
Oh God, I thought. How would I feel, what would I do if this was my child? As my mind branched out toward all of the worst possible conclusions, I felt a gentle prodding. “That’s what you do now.”
While the rest of us prayed, the men of the Triple F deployed to Melanie’s house, armed with boots and flashlights, ready to search all night if they had to. What they found when they arrived was that hundreds of other people had the same idea. Community leaders, teachers and co-workers of Melanie, church family, and others who don’t even know Melanie showed up to search and rescue her little girl. Because in this crisis we remembered a simple truth that can vaccinate us against a sick world: there is no such thing as other people’s children. In that moment the little girl wasn’t just Melanie’s daughter. She was all of ours–our Zaynah. And we couldn’t rest until she was safe at home. (Which happened right at dark, thanks be to God.)
What I take from this experience, other than that the people of my hometown are awesome as usual, is the same kind of lesson I’m trying to teach my children about protecting Granny and PaPa. Love means you look out for others. It seems the human impulse is the opposite–look out for ourselves. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s smart. It’s being cautious. It’s following the rules. But I think the vaccine that will keep us from losing more to this virus is to shift our thinking from just protecting ourselves toward protecting others. Love always protects.
It’s a counter-culture response, and it’s our choice to make. We can’t choose for COVID-19 not to exist. But we can choose how we respond to it. We can choose to be strong together. What does protecting other people look like other than searching for a lost child? Not hoarding all of the toilet paper? Not going into Granny and Papa’s house? How might we implement this spiritual vaccine on a local and national level? From the supply chain to our most vulnerable population to all of our children it will take some creativity and some sacrifice. But if there’s anything a crisis is good for it reminds us of the truth our better selves have always known. There is no them. There is only us. Click To Tweet
Several years ago one of my best friends gave me a little book called Simplify Your Life. I think it was her not-so-subtle way of suggesting I get rid of clutter. The book had instructions for how to simplify your closet, kitchen, office, garage, laundry room–all of it. It was great advice, really. And it worked to bring more order to my life. Since then I’ve tried to keep things simple, which is not an easy task when you have a husband, four kids, three dogs, and an assortment of cats and chickens, with a big house and yard. But I love the sense of peace order brings to a space.
I am not naturally simple with my stuff. I have a hard time getting rid of things I attach meaning to, which is most things. Plus I have my Granny’s sense of frugality, or maybe scarcity; this idea that I better keep something because I might need it one day. Even if I haven’t used it in years. You never know, I can hear my granny saying. The Simplify Your Life lady does not approve of this mentality. She wants you to throw it away.
For some time now I’ve been trying out this principle in other areas. Because just like I’m not simple with my stuff I’ve noticed I’m not very simple about a lot of things. My calendar gets cluttered with activity. My head gets cluttered with overthinking. My spiritual life gets cluttered with too much baggage–other people’s ideas, unanswerable questions, my own issues. There’s just so much. And yet, it seems, so little that really matters.
So I’ve been looking for the essence of Easter. Cleaning out the closet, if you will, and ditching all of the stuff that may be nice, interesting, or appealing to someone else, but for me not really useful. I don’t want to argue about theology. I don’t even want to try to understand everything. I just want Easter in a nutshell, Easter distilled, Easter in its simplest form. I was thinking these things when I went on a walk with Grace the other day and we came across this on our path:
A small thing, really, but a perfect symbol of the essence of Easter. According to Matthew, Mark, and John, something like this was twisted into a ring and forced down on Jesus’s head. He took a beating, carried a cross, and died. In the name of love. As I held this branch of thorns in my hand it came to me. Easter in its simplest form = My life for yours. Click To Tweet
What does it look like to live this simple truth? For a family I know right now it means taking children who have no one else into their home. It means sickness, sleepless nights, seeing the weight of the world on a three year old’s shoulders. For my mother it means caring for a sister dying of cancer. For Dad it’s cultivating a garden. Sometimes it’s just Grace taking the time to read books to Stella, or Harper carrying in the groceries, or Adelaide gathering eggs. It’s Stone changing my oil. My brother finding ways to keep kids safe at school. Heathcliff bathing Hunter. It’s me on those rare occasions someone uses bad grammar but instead of correcting them I hold my tongue.
Just because something’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy. In fact, sometimes the simplest things are the hardest. That may be why we bring on clutter in the first place–to avoid the bald, naked, difficult truths. But a simplified Easter is all the world really needs, and plenty of a challenge for us to practice, isn’t it. My life for yours, in a million ways big and small. Because of love.
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not…. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.
Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem
It is my twenty-fourth wedding anniversary. The stomach bug, on its rampage through our house since the day after Christmas, finally made it through the ranks to Stone today, torching our plans for a romantic evening out. After a week of sick kids I’ve already watched all of the movies on Netflix. So, like one does, I decided to clean out my desk.
When we built this house fourteen years ago, I designed my desk to be a vision of loveliness. It has shelves, a bulletin board, a dry-erase board, and wooden bins to hold papers, bills, envelopes, whatever. There’s a pull-out tray that houses my laptop, which folds back down when not in use, and all of this tucks in behind pretty doors so that when shut, it looks like a stylish cabinet. A monument of neatness. A shrine to organization. An altar of orderliness. You get the picture.
Except that things don’t always turn out like we plan. I wish I had taken a “before” picture so you could get the full effect, but of course at the time I wasn’t thinking about writing this. All I was thinking was what a mess! There were wires poking out everywhere–some still useful, some from devices-gone-by. An obsolete printer, pre-Pinterest cookbooks, syllabi from 2013, documents for our German exchange students, books I intended to read, and the Bible on cd-rom. All covered in dust. And along with all of this, two leather boxes full of kid paraphernalia I can’t stand to part with. So I collect it in things like leather boxes in my desk. Things like this:
Going through stuff like this is a double-edged sword for me. I love it because it takes me back to those moments in time–those people my children were–and how I loved them and enjoyed them. And I hate it because those moments are gone. Those people are gone. Adelaide knows how to spell “coffee” now, and Stella no longer draws me as a tick. My little boy, so full of wonder, is now a practical young man, and Grace–there in the taxi frame from VBS–is a young woman. Like Yoda says in the new Star Wars movie, “We are what they grow beyond.” That’s the joy and the terror of being a parent.
But it’s also just the joy and terror of being, isn’t it. Twenty-four years ago I was this:
And before that I was a child, a teenager, a college student. Since then I’ve been a law student, a teacher, a writer, and a cook in my own restaurant. I’ve buried a beloved grandmother. Lived in different places. Had four babies. Been a stay-home mom. Traveled around the world. Now I’m a professor. I’m middle-aged.
A friend of mine posted on Facebook the other day in honor of her husband’s birthday. She highlighted major milestones in his life before her and then in their married life. They are several years down the road from me, with grandchildren my kids’s ages. It was interesting to read about who they were and what they had done before I met them. I’d never envisioned them that way. It got me thinking about all of the people all of us are. Like Whitman said, we contain multitudes.
Having your anniversary on New Year’s Eve provides the perfect context for reflection: where have I been? Where am I going? Or perhaps better: who have I been? Who am I becoming?
These are not questions to be answered fully in one blog post. But about marriage as well as life I think I can say this: things don’t always turn out just like we plan. Nevertheless, Love wins. Who I have been is someone imperfect at loving, who has held on, anyway, to the Love that holds on to me. And I hope I am becoming someone who loves my family and friends–as well as the whole world–better, stronger, kinder, and wiser in the new year.
Who would you like to become in 2018?
My nephew Hunter loves to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas, except he calls the Grinch the “Grunch.” Hunter does not like the new Jim Carrey Grunch. Only the old-school cartoon Grunch will do (and I totally agree). So the other night he was over at Ming’s house–that’s what he calls me, “Ming” like the Ming Dynasty– and we watched the Grunch about 150 times.
I would love to post the picture I took of him cuddled with Harper on the couch because it is the most adorable thing ever. He had just gotten out of the bath and as our visit was impromptu and he brought no pajamas, he was wearing Stella’s rainbow ice cream cone pajamas. He and Harper were eating deer jerky and it must have been a crucial moment in the Grunch because their faces are quite intensely focused in the picture. The problem is that Harper is shirtless and I am not allowed to post shirtless or otherwise embarrassing photos of Harper. I learned this after another blog entry I wrote once, or maybe it was a Facebook post. I forget which. But I have not forgotten the principle. (Life lessons are so fun!) Anyway here is a picture of Hunter on his birthday in November so you can still get the full effect of his cuteness:
Seriously. Every time I look at him I die of cuteness.
After watching the Grunch 150 times I had it memorized. So when I lay down in bed that night I showed off my memorizational prowess to Stone. I used my best dramatic skills when I said “Oh the noise! Oh the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! That’s one thing he hated! The NOISE! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!” And Stone asked me would I please stop making so much noise because he would like to go to sleep. He is rude sometimes. A bit of a Grunch about bedtime, if you ask me.
Since then I’ve watched the Grunch at least 150 more times. And as the Christmas season has ramped up I’ve been thinking a lot about noise. How is it–why is it–that the unlikely story of a teenage mother having a baby in a barn 2000 years ago inspired the loudest holiday on earth?
I don’t know the answer to this, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that many of us are uncomfortable with being quiet, being still. I’m trying to learn, but these skills don’t come naturally to me. The easier thing in our culture, it seems, is to keep busy enough, to create enough noise that we don’t have to think too much. Thinking is hard work. So is feeling anything deeply. Feeling deeply makes us vulnerable and sometimes being vulnerable leads to pain, which of course we want to avoid at all costs. But the cost of not being still is higher.
A few weeks ago I went into the woods with my son because I wanted to live deliberately with him. I wanted time with no agenda but to enjoy him–to immerse myself in his world. This required me to be up making a thermos of coffee at 5:00 AM. It required layers of clothes, a picnic, and a hike straight down the face of a mountain (which meant it would also require a hike back up). Most of all it required me to be quiet and still under an oak tree. For hours.
At first it seemed too daunting. My rear end fell asleep. I had restless legs. My hands froze in their wimpy gloves; my head smoldered in my son’s extra toboggan. My scarf choked me–I hate things around my neck. Everything was quiet; nothing stirred in the woods, but as usual my mind branched off in a thousand directions. I forced myself to focus on the reason I was there while said reason looked at me with amusement. He pointed up and we saw this:
On cue the animals began to forget about our intrusion–I guess–and a cacophony of sounds emerged from the silence. I could not believe how busy it was in the woods. As time went on I did what I do, which was to deconstruct what I was hearing. I focused in on one sound at a time, trying to locate the animal who was making it. Soon Harper and I were pointing out this bird here on that branch and that one there. A bald eagle flew over us and landed in the top of a high tree, making a sound I never heard before, or never knew was an eagle. Squirrels barreled through the dry leaves, as loud as a hurricane. Harper grinned when he saw me flinch–I was sure they were a deer or even a mountain lion, a bear. One came up close to us with its cheeks packed full of acorns. It scampered up a tree, then dove down the hollow middle. I watched, but never saw it come back out. I imagined it as a character in Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Timmy Tiptoes, laying up a store for winter and spring. And it wasn’t long before Chippy Hackee–who must be the cutest of all forest animals–came close enough I could have touched him. Twice. But the most magnificent thing was a group of does rushing down through the woods from above us with a buck in pursuit. They did a little dance on our oak flat before dashing on down to the river and out of sight. Harper raised his gun but didn’t shoot. It was impossible not to be awestruck by their strange choreography.
By the end of the day we had hiked to the river to eat our picnic, and hiked up the mountain back out of the deep woods. This feat made me feel old and young at the same time. In all we saw seven deer and shot none. My mission to spend quality one on one time with Harper was accomplished, and in the bargain I practiced what the hunters in my life have been doing forever–being still and knowing, just like in Psalm 42. No wonder they love deer season so much. It’s a time to stop the noise. It’s a gateway into deep stillness; it opens the path to peace.
My dad, who leads the singing at our little country church, likes to sing all of the verses of hymns. Buried in the traditional Christmas hymn It Came Upon the Midnight Clear I found these words, written by Edmund Sears, Unitarian minister:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.
Historians say Sears wrote this during a time of personal melancholy. It was 1849 and his focus was the world he lived in–its issues of war and peace. I think it’s relevant today.
The easier thing is not to be still at Christmas. Almost everything in our culture mocks the quiet during this season, and yet it’s what we really need. To draw near to the manger and hush the noise. To be still and seek to know this God who came as a vulnerable baby into the messiness of life, to be with us. “Call His name Immanuel (which means God with us).” Matthew 1:23 ESV
Bart Ehrman writes: “The God of Christmas is not a God of wrath, judgment, sin, punishment, or vengeance. He is a God of love, who wants the best for people and gives of himself to bring peace, joy, and redemption…This is not a God who is waiting for you to die so he can send you into eternal torment. It is a God who is concerned for you and your world, who wants to solve your problems, heal your wounds, remove your pain, and bring you joy, peace, happiness, healing, and wholeness.
…Enough of war, starvation, epidemics, pain, misery, and abject loneliness! Enough of violence, hatred, narcissism, self-aggrandizement, and suffering of every kind! Give me the God of Christmas, the God of love, the God of an innocent child in a manger, who comes to bring salvation and wholeness to the world.”
To this I say Amen. And Merry Christmas!