It can be so sneaky.
I know because recently it snuck up on me. I never saw it coming.
There I was, sitting in Jan Davis Tire Store (time to get the tires rotated), minding my own business, when in walks (I kid you not) Osama Bin Laden’s nephew. Olive skinned and bearded, with a pill-box shaped hat perched on his Middle Eastern hair, he wore billowing britches, a flowing blouse that reached his knees, and a long linen vest draped over the whole ensemble. He approached the counter; I didn’t hear what the clerk called him, but I think it was Mr. Bin Laden.
Now, it would have been bad enough having a terrorist’s blood kin walk into the place of business I was patronizing had I not been studying (you guessed it) biblical Hebrew, of all things. And I was sitting right by the door, practically in the doorway.
So I think to myself, Well now, Osama Bin Laden’s nephew has just walked into Jan Davis Tire Store and I’m sitting in his pathway reading Hebrew. How very nice is that. Well. Hmm. How should I handle this situation since I know I’m not an over-reactive person and I’m certainly not a racist for heaven’s sake!
About that time, the fella turns around and before I realize what I’m doing, I smile and say hello (because I smile and say hello to everyone—it’s a habit). He smiles back, says hello, does not pull out a machine gun, and proceeds out the door. Then he stops, noticing my book, and comes back inside the store.
“You’re reading Hebrew?” His eyes are kind.
Stupid racism! I mentally slap myself for slipping into the stereotypes that are based on the tiniest minority and are so unfair. I know better. But knowing and doing have never been the same. This person is a potential friend, regardless of his religious or political background. Shame on me for missing that, if even for a moment. Ugh! I can't stand racism! Especially when I find it in my own self.
“You don’t see many people reading Hebrew in Asheville.” He smiles, chuckles a little.
I smile back and explain. “No, I guess not. I’m in divinity school. I’m taking Hebrew and I have a test next week.”
He asks where I go to school and then where Gardner-Webb is and we talk about that for a minute or two. The conversation turns back to Hebrew.
“I read Hebrew,” he says, “but only about as well as a third grader.” His countenance is warm, open.
“That’s great. I’ll have to learn a lot more to get to the third grade level.” We both laugh a little.
“Well, good luck on your test. Have a great day.”
“You too,” I say and I really hope that he does. I hope, I pray, that throughout this day, Godly people will treat him the way they would want to be treated.
“It was nice meeting you,” I say, and I really mean it.
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2 (NIV)
Originally posted 9-27-09
“I got the invitation to my friend's birthday party, Mommy.”
My 11-year-old daughter, Margaret hesitated, seeming to withhold information.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, dragging the word into two syllables, “it’s a sleepover.”
“And . . . ”
“And what, Margaret?”
“Well, it’s on a Saturday night, but I really want to go and she only invited two other girls and if I don’t go then that would mean she only had two girls at her party and that’s if those two girls can actually come and what’s the chance of that, I mean probably one of them can’t come and that would be horrible to have a birthday party and only have one friend there don’t you think mommy, so can I go please?”
Saturday night sleepovers. I don’t much care for them. You see, I want my kids in church with us on Sunday morning and Saturday night sleepovers make that tricky at best. Sure it’s fine to visit church with friends, but I feel like there will be plenty of time for that when they are older. For now, this family goes to church together on Sunday mornings. It's a parenting priority.
After we talked about it, Margaret shared our plan with her friend. According to Margaret, it went something like this.
“Guess what? I can go to your party!”
“Only I have to leave at 8:00 Sunday morning.”
“Whoa. That’s really early.”
“Yeah. I know. But I get to go to the party and I’ll be there early so we can have plenty of time together. It’s just I have to leave at 8:00 so we can get to church on time.”
“Okay, but Margaret? Can’t you miss church just once?”
As she told me the story, Margaret demonstrated how she shook her head in disbelief before she laughed, answering her friend, “Ummm, have you ever met my mom?”
Church. Around here, it’s a priority.
Published September 2009
Grandmama Mitchell didn’t play.
She gave birth to eight children. Seven of them grew to be adults; she buried her oldest daughter when little Annie was just eight years old. A couple of decades after that funeral, her husband, my grandfather, died in an automobile accident that very literally shook their town. She sent a son or two off to Vietnam; buried a daughter-in-law who left two of her young grandchildren motherless; and watched her children suffer divorce, abuse, and countless other frustrations.
So, Grandmama didn’t play. Her life was just too hard.
Grandmama had . . . well, let’s see . . . at least 21 grandchildren, and I have no idea how many great-grands. Most of her kids and their families lived within Georgia’s state lines. But not us. Daddy, Grandmama’s middle boy, wound up staying in North Carolina after completing his seminary degree. (He and Mother married after her college graduation and before Daddy started grad school.) So, to the Mitchells, my brother, sister, and I were the cousins-from-far-away.
Every summer, we piled into our station wagon du jour, and drove the long, hot hours to visit Grandmama. She lived in an old farm-like house that made no pretenses. Springs had long since been sprung—in the screen doors and in the mattresses. Flies buzzed in unafraid of Grandmama’s lethal swat; mice, unaware of the loaded traps waiting for them, just came right on in. Box fans propped in the windows dispelled any hope visitors might have of really cooling off. (During South Georgia summers, a fan just doesn’t do the job—no matter how hard it tries.)
The front porch, though, offered those same guests their choice of seats—plenty of rockers to go around. Grandmama’s doors were always unlocked, and she could always squeeze one more around the table. So it was to that hot, old, creaky house that my family rushed with annual urgency. Because it was Grandmama’s house, that’s why, and it was the most wonderful place in the world.
Grandmama welcomed us with hot baked peach cobbler, homemade biscuits, and a watermelon fresh from the garden. She would have been shelling peas before we arrived—her efforts bubbled on the stove in anticipation of a family supper. Everybody knew we were on the way; Grandmama was expecting all the kids in time for the blessing.
It always baffled me. How could my no-nonsense Grandmama make such a big deal out of us when she had so many other grandchildren to love? I mean, the three of us together made up only a little over ten percent of the total. Yet she always worked so hard to make things special just for us. Amazing.
Grandmama seemed to enjoy our visits so much:
I remember her laughing at the stories told round the table.
I remember her—a bright twinkle in her eyes—fussing at the men who would always be her boys.
I remember her, hands in the front pockets on her house dress, coming in before we went to sleep that first night and asking my mother if we had everything we needed: “There’s plenty of clean towels and bath cloths there for you.”
A week later, when our last day popped up out of nowhere, I remember Grandmama fretting over us as we prepared to go. It seemed she didn’t want the week to be over any more than we did.
Back in the station wagon, we’d wave good-bye to Grandmama who stood outside the back door, watching us go. She’d wave for a minute, then fold her arms at her chest, then wave again. The tears she had kept in submission throughout the day, always got the better of her before we were out of the driveway. I don’t know when she went back inside after she’d seen us off. As far as I know, she stood right there until we got back the next year.
No, Grandmama Mitchell didn’t play. But Grandmama Mitchell loved. She loved well.
It’s Grandparent’s Day (no matter what the calendar says). Call your grandparents. Tell them you love them.
Originally posted to a wellness support group September 12, 2009
It’s different in Divinity School. Our Greek prof hands our tests back to us and says, “Okay, now let’s grade these things.”
“We are grading our own tests?”
“You’re trustworthy aren’t you?”
“Well, yeah, but. . .”
“Then, let’s get these things graded.”
So it came as no surprise then that another prof gave us a rather nontraditional midterm. See, we’d missed class when the exam was scheduled on account of a rare snow day. Later that same day, we found an announcement on our class website and an email in our inboxes. “Due to the class cancellation, I’m asking you to take your midterm at home.”
Cool, I thought, a take-home exam: My favorite.
Except not really.
“I’ll post the exam on the website and you are to take it exactly as if you were here in class.”
“That is, you may use only your Bible, and that only on the essay questions. No outside materials are allowed on the objective portion.”
You really must be kidding.
“You may complete this exam at your convenience any time between now and Friday at 5:00 pm.”
You're not kidding.
So here’s the deal. The exam was posted on Monday. All the exam questions were right there—every last one of them—for my own private consumption. But I wasn’t exactly ready to take the exam yet. So there they were--waiting, beckoning, cajoling:
“No one would know if you just glanced over the items.”
“What if you just look at the essays?”
“You could just look at the questions—that’s like looking at the study guide, for heaven’s sake.”
Except not really.
Where this kind of temptation is concerned, I have endless willpower. There is absolutely no way I could have looked at the test before I took it: even though it would have relieved stress to know what was on it; even though it would have saved me a lot of time; even though others might give into that kind of temptation. Not me. No way. No how.
So it occurred to me: if I can handle temptation in one area of my life, I bet I can handle it in another. The truth is I could apply my skills regarding academic temptations to the enticing calls of a fresh bag of Cheetos® or an unopened box of Capt’n Crunch®. I could say, “I won’t do that because I don’t make those kind of choices.” I could realize, “I prefer the inconvenience of not giving in to temptation to the consequences of being swayed.” I could claim, “I will be obedient because my behavior is not dependent on the behavior of others.
Temptation. We can handle it.
As a parent volunteer, I have often tutored kids for whom English is a second language. Such was the case a few years ago when I was working with a young Russian boy who was a student at my children’s elementary school. One day, we were working on adjective/noun constructions. He had written a story about building "a house from snow." I gave him some examples of the preferred English structure.
"If you build a house from brick, you call it a brick house. A house from stone is a stone house. A house from clay is a clay house. Is that clear?”
He nodded, eyes bright with new awareness.
Ahh, the joy of teaching: of shining the light of information into the darkness of ignorance. How much better off would this child be because I, the educated one, had taken time from my all-important schedule to stoop to his level of academic neediness, bringing him this nugget of knowledge? Surely his life was now changed forever because I had shared my gift of teaching with him.
Energized, I pressed on. "Great. So if a house from brick is a brick house and a house from stone is a stone house, what would we call a house from snow?"
He smiled and with great confidence he answered, "Igloo!"
Published August 29, 2009 when Baker was 13 years old.
Over and over again that week at divinity school, I was asked how my summer had been. I was seeing folk I'd not seen since last semester and the question was more of a greeting than an inquiry. I knew that, but I stumbled every time to say something that could sum up the last three months. It was a hard summer in many ways, and it felt almost deceptive to dismiss the greeting with “Fine, thanks. You?”
Eventually, I settled on a response sort of like this: “Actually, it was hard: I experienced a lot of losses this summer. Most of them were minor, some were a little more unsettling, and one was nearly overwhelming. And yet, this summer I witnessed the goodness of God in remarkable ways.”
It’s true. The summer was hard, but there were some amazing, almost miraculous moments. I was able to see those moments, in part, because of a conversation I had with my son towards the end of July. It went something like this.
“Hey Mom I think I thought of something pretty profound.”
“Oh yeah, Baker, what was that?”
“Well I was looking at fireflies, ya know?”
“See, it’s like they are all around us in the dark, and we don't realize it. Then they light up and suddenly we know they've been there all along.”
“And I think that’s kind of like Jesus is. Sometimes, we can't really see Jesus because of what’s going on in our life.”
“Right. And then something happens to remind us that Jesus has been there the whole time.”
“Yeah.” Baker, hands on hips, grinned. “That’s pretty profound don’t you think?”
"I do indeed, Baker-boy, I do indeed."
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
What has come into being in him was life,
and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
John 1:1-5 NRSV
Published originally back in 2009 when Margaret was about to start middle school, this post reflects on her preschool days.
“Baker!” Three-year-old Margaret clutched her chest, staring at her five-year-old brother who himself was in the grips of laughter. They’d been playing hide-and-seek: Baker stone-still in a hidey hole just big enough to hold him, his little sister frantically seeking him out. Margaret, unbeknownst to me, had become increasingly convinced that Baker was lost forever.
“Baker!” She cried out when at last his giggles revealed him. “You scared my heart.”
Baker stopped laughing with admirable speed and reached for her, apologizing. She sunk into his arms, offering forgiveness. Then, eyes still shiny from tears unshed, she looked up at her big brother and said, “Now I’ll hide and you count, okay?”
As she ran off, Baker, charmed, came quickly over to me whispering, not for the first time, “Isn’t she just the cutest thing, Mommy?”
Cute. That’s our Margaret. Well, cute and not a little bit sassy.
Margaret’s sassy side made rules frustrating for her when she was in preschool. In her four-year-old class the teacher kept student names clipped to a color-coded continuum. Good behavior moved names up; misbehavior inched them down. Far too frequently, Margaret’s name found its way to the lower spectrum. I tried a variety of rehabilitation methods, with minimal success. Realizing how much Margaret loved her teacher, I tried a new tactic.
“Margaret, do you know what it means when your name is moved down?”
Margaret’s blue eyes gazed at me, waiting.
“It means you’ve made Mrs. Lynn very sad.”
Margaret’s face fell. She looked away for a minute, seeming to think the whole thing through a bit. Then, a smile taking over her countenance, she shook her blond curls from side to side. “No Mommy. That’s not what it means. It just means I was screaming!” She nodded, satisfied, and went on to tell me about her day.
The next year, Margaret went to Kindergarten. And she must have taken care of the whole rebellion thing back in pre-k, because she seldom broke a rule the whole time she was in elementary school (at least so far as you or I know). Her teachers said she was delightful, imaginative, an independent learner (nobody ever mentioned excessive screaming).
So I guess that means she’s ready for her next frontier: middle school. Still, as she grows out of childhood into the young woman she will become, I hope she keeps her spunky side: that part that says, “Wait a minute, let me think about this before I accept your opinion as truth.” And I hope she guards her heart. But when the day comes that she allows some boy other than her brother to scare her heart, may that luckiest of fellows be as gentle with this treasure of a girl as her big brother has been right from the start.
Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray. Proverbs 22:6 (NRSV)
Sometimes I pull older posts back up and promote them to new readers. I was about to do that with this four-year-old post, so I thought I would add a picture. I googled "Trailways bus, Georgia, Country roads." In seconds (amazing!) I had pages of photos that matched or almost matched my search criteria. Though I hadn't put the date in the search string, the pictures were mostly illustrating events from the forties, fifties, or sixties. Perfect! Except not really. The top ten or fifteen returns did include buses on country roads; the problem was, each depicted some form of violence: buses burning, riots, people being beaten. Hideous.
And from the midst of all that comes this story about my daddy, on a back road in Georgia, riding a Trailways™ bus.
It wasn’t something a boy got to do every day you know: taking the Trailways™ bus from his home to his grandparents' place 20 miles away--especially by himself, seeing as he had half a dozen siblings who would have loved to have joined him. But that’s just what my daddy did one Georgia day some decades ago.
“Was it 1947 or 1948?” Daddy asked himself, folding his napkin in half, then into fourths, then eighths before unfolding it only to repeat the process, this time on the diagonal. “Well let’s see. I know I’d been baptized.”
Daddy seemed to wander back through his memories arriving at the little Baptist church over the railroad track and down the road from his family home. “I was nine when I made my profession of faith.” (We all knew that. Daddy loved telling that story.) “But it took more than a year for the preacher to get around to my baptism.” Baptisms only happened in the summer when the creek was warm enough, but why Daddy didn’t receive the sacrament the summer after he walked the aisle is a mystery. “I reckon it was 47 or maybe it was 48,” Daddy declared this time with conviction. “Whichever it was, it was after I’d been baptized,” Daddy said, certain. “‘Cause I know I’d been baptized.”
So back in 1947 (or 1948) Daddy, soaped up and shiny for his special trip, boarded the bus. The bus was nearly full. Back then, segregation was law, and down in the Deep South Jim Crow ruled the buses with at least as much authority as he had in the classrooms. Daddy, belongings in hand, worked his way from the front toward the back of the bus looking for a seat, finally finding an empty one just inside the Whites Only section. He plopped his things down and took his seat. The bus started up again, chugging on toward Daddy’s adventure.
In those days, at least in rural Georgia, bus drivers would pull over occasionally to pick up riders. You see, folks needing a ride would wait along the side of the road, and then they’d pay a pro-rated fare for their truncated trip. Daddy looked out the windows, watching the Georgia terrain ease past. In the distance, Daddy could see a woman waiting. A child was with her: a very young child. The woman’s arms full of bundles, she still managed to keep hold of the child’s hand. The bus inched closer. Daddy’s view sharpened. The woman was black.
Daddy glanced over his shoulder. The section behind him, the seats designated for this mother and child, were all taken. The bus bumped to a stop. The woman, shifting her load to access her fare while still holding tight to her little one, climbed aboard.
“I remember deliberating on that thing, ‘Should I or shouldn’t I.’” Meanwhile, the woman got closer. “I’d been taught to respect our elders; she was an adult and I was just a kid. But mostly,” Daddy’s voice caught. He cleared his throat and gazed above our heads, “Well, I had the Holy Spirit. Because of that, I was guided, prompted. I knew what was right.”
As the woman got to his row, Daddy met her eyes. Picking up his things, he slid over to the window seat, leaving the aisle seat free. Her expression hardly changed as she placed her things on the floor, lifted her child into her lap, and took her seat: a seat in the White’s Only section of the bus, a seat given her by my daddy who was just an 11 year old boy (or maybe 12).
And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us . . . Acts 15:8 NRSV
“It'll get better,” the stranger said, punctuating his insightful comment with that know-it-all belly laugh that indicated he knew exactly zilch, “in about 18 years!” His laugh crescendoed, then faded into the distance as he walked away shaking his head, still snickering at his own joke.
I looked into the two-week old face of my daughter Trellace sheltered as she was by a tiny pink bonnet and a dainty lace shawl. Her chocolate brown eyes looked back at me, fluttering curly lashes three sizes too big. Better than this? Impossible.
He was confused, that stranger. Maybe he thought I resented rather than relished the neediness of my newborn. He might have thought I had postpartum depression, not the postpartum elation that really kept me up at night gazing into the bassinet, awed by the gift of this child.
Yet in a way—a sort of accidental way—my cackling advisor was right. Parenthood has gotten better. Because every day, the blessing has gotten more amazing; and every day I am more humbled by the beauty of it.
It got better the first time Trellace smiled at me and the first time she laughed. Actually, all the firsts grew the gift: the first hug, the first time she said “Ma-Ma,” the first steps, the first conversation. The newness of those moments have made parenting fresh again and better—surprisingly, impossibly, better.
Different, sure. But better, too. Better because I know Trellace better now than I did in those first moments of her life. Better because I know me better and hopefully have gotten a little more skilled at this parenting gig over the years. Better because as Trellace has grown past toddlerhood and preschool, past the elementary days and the middle school years, our relationship has grown as well.
Now, we like the same movies. Now, we have inside jokes; we laugh together. Now, Trellace knows things I don't, so I learn from her. Now, we can be quiet together and that’s okay.
All of this has caught me totally by surprise, because I loved the baby days—cooing, crawling, cuddling. And the preschool years—oh how sweet the preschool years were, punctuated daily by gargantuan delights in infinitesimal joys. Then of course the elementary school days—loved those: field trips, classroom parties, special new friends. With Trellace, even middle school was fun, because she really came into herself then. In fact, at every stage, I've thought, Better than this? Impossible!
So now when I see a new mom cradling an infant, I can look into her eyes and say, “You know what? It will get better. Really! As wonderful as this minute is? It gets even better.”
“I think I’m going to write a blog about smoking,” I told my son. Soggy and sandy from our day at the beach, the two of us were alone in our van.
“Hmmm,” my 13-year-old son replied, hardly vibrating his vocal cords and barely nodding his head in acknowledgement of my having spoken.
“You see,” I went on, “I actually think folk have the right to smoke if they want. I have my own share of unhealthy habits.”
At this my son perked up. (He does so love a chance to disagree with me.) “Yeah, but Mom, do your unhealthy habits make other people unhealthy?”
In truth, my unhealthy habits could cause my family members pain in the future. If I do not choose to eat right and to exercise, I could suffer the physical effects of such bad behaviors. Some forms of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other diseases are caused by unhealthy habits. If I were to contract one of these diseases, my family, my loved ones would suffer unnecessarily because of my negligence.
But that was not what my son meant and I knew it. He had asthma as a young child but had outpaced it as he grew up. Still, he remembered the times he had to duck through doorways and rush through parking lots to avoid errant fumes. Yet this time, he was not referring to his own struggles. This time, we were both frustrated by the limitations forced upon his sister by the unhealthy habit of others.
“What I mean, Baker, is that I am not prepared to say people don’t have the right to smoke. It’s a choice they should be allowed to make. The problem is that this choice puts my child at risk.”
“Right. Because they chose to smoke a cigarette on the beach Margaret could have an asthma attack. She could wind up in the hospital.”
Our frustration was at a high point because we’d been unable to find a place to park our umbrella that was not downwind from smokers. They were everywhere. Margaret had to stay in the water or at least in the surf to avoid the fumes.
And it was not just the beach. Later we went out to eat, to a non-smoking restaurant of course.
“Mommy, smokers,” Margaret whispered to me when we were 50 feet from the entrance. Yep. Cloaking the entrance with a cloud of wheeze-inducing funk, were several folks tugging the last puffs from their smokes. They had every right; it’s a free country. Yet there was no getting in the place without walking through their haze of freedom: a haze that placed significant bonds on my child.
Lest you think I’m an over reactive mom, know that once last summer we were in a restaurant whose (ahem) smoking section was on the opposite side of the room from their non-smoking (or what we would call their Not-Quite-As-Dense-But-Still-Really-Smoky) area. We opted to stay. The kids were hungry; it was late; and Margaret had been breathing effortlessly (something, I can’t not mention, that the rest of us do without note). Fifteen minutes later, we paid what we owed and left—with a wheezing daughter who wound up on breathing treatments for the three days following the dining debacle.
Life experience. I try to learn from it.
But back to our week at the beach. It seems to have set the tone for the summer. Everywhere we have gone, we’ve had to dodge smokers. Admittedly, Margaret has had a hard time with her asthma this summer, and I am hyper aware, but geez. Smokers greet you at the mall, the drug store, the convenience mart and the grocery. They stroll over the grounds at Biltmore Estate and cheer in the stands of ball games. And hear me here: I think smokers have a right to smoke, I do. But what is my kid supposed to do to be able to breathe?
I tell Margaret life’s not fair and that we all have to deal with stuff. I remind her that considering what others have to deal with, this isn’t that bad. I tell her we could get her a filter mask thingy to wear. (She says she’d rather wheeze.)
I tell her those things. I do. And I believe smokers have rights. I do. But first, I’m Margaret’s mommy and when she’s fighting to breathe because secondhand smoke has triggered an asthma attack, I forget all those things. Because when it comes to balancing her right to breathe and the right of others to smoke—I don’t care squat about fairness. ‘Cuz I’m a mother, that’s why. And it’s my right to play favorites.