letting-go

And Nathan Walked By …

Posted on August 22, 2014

Today I arrived early to pick the kids up from school.  I’m anxious, these early days of school, to get my hands on them.

I’m hungry to hold them and listen to them talk, to touch them and make sure they’re okay.  After six hours away from them each day, imagining what they’re doing in their new classes, all those new little faces bobbing around them, all the new experiences, the new challenges of being a grade older, I want the concrete, tangible presence of their voices telling me everything I’ve missed.

I plopped myself down on the bench outside the front doors and checked my phone. Ten minutes early.

Just then, a string of little bodies wound its way down the sidewalk from the playground. They have recess right before dismissal, and I watched as the teachers lead the long line of children back to their classrooms.

I watched, attentive, wondering if Nathan’s class was in the mix.

“Are you Nathan’s mommy?” a little voice reached me. I looked to my right and spotted Allegra.  She had pulled away from the line, toward me. I smiled and nodded. Allegra and Nathan were in daycare together, and now they are both attending preschool together.

“How are you Allegra?” I asked.

“Great,” she said matter-of-factly, her big brown eyes studying me.

“Allegra, come on,” the teacher called, and Allegra stepped back into the thin stream of bodies moving past.

Suddenly he was there, right in front of me — my Nathan.

He didn’t see me.  He was transfixed instead by a leaf on the ground. He stopped, just two steps away from me, knelt down, touched the leaf, his little face a study in concentration.

The bright blue line of his sneakers creased the white cement, his plump little calves curved above his socks.  My boy. I know that hook of his nose, the purse of his lips, the smell of the skin just below his ears, the feel of his apricot hands in mine.

Breath slipped between my lips. I stopped myself from saying his name, calling out to him and sweeping him up in my arms. If I did that, the spell would be broken, the moment gone.  Besides, he needed to go into his classroom, get his bag and get ready to leave like everyone else.

Still, I wanted him to turn ever so slightly to the left, to see me sitting there, waiting for him, always waiting for him.

“Nathan, keep going,” a teacher coaxed. He stood quietly, stepped back in line and kept going. He never turned. He never saw me. He just walked by.

hymn

A Modern Vintage Faith

Posted on August 18, 2014

What we separate from, we find anew. ~ Dr. Robert Kegan

I have this old battered piano book of hymns.  My parents bought it for me when I was eleven years old.  We were living in England at the time as missionaries working with the Afro-Carribean church that had immigrated to the United Kingdom early in the Century.

I loved that hymnal with its white cover splashed in blue and purple font. I couldn’t play the songs very well since I was still learning piano, but I treasured the book. I sat it on the spine of our keyboard and worked my way through the pages.

I recognized the hymns between the pages from our days in church before we moved to England, hymns like: “I Surrender All,” “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” and “The Lord Liveth.” Reading over those words, humming their tunes as I plonked out the melody on our Panasonic keyboard took me back to our little church in Lexington, Kentucky and the Sunday evenings my sister and I sat curled over the pews scrawling pictures quietly.

During those Sunday evening services, I learned how to entertain my little sister.  I drew mazes and word games, created little activity books for her to solve.

In our new home in England, our church sang different songs.  Songs they carried over from Trinidad and Tobago.  I learned how to play the tambourine during worship. I watched mesmerized as the bodies of the older women clapped and bumped to a syncopated rhythm I could hardly fathom.

I liked these new songs, but I was sentimental, even at a young age, and homesick for a country where we ate Big Macs and Mac ’n Cheese.  The white hymnal with its wire coil binding held all those memories and more.

My experience with church music morphed as I grew older.

Right after college, Dwayne and I moved to Los Angeles and started attending a hip, artistic church in a dance club in downtown LA called, Mosaic.

The first time I set foot in Mosaic, the soles of my shoes stuck to the floor — residue from the indiscretions of the night before. Each week, volunteers from Mosaic swept through the dance club to clean it up before we gathered for church.

We sat in folding chairs on the dance floor, a massive disco ball hanging silent above our heads.

Because we were in the heart of the talent capital of the world, our worship bands were comprised of professional musicians, traveled from all over the world to LA to launch careers.

Our bassist looked like Steve Tyler with slashed jeans, long hair, and craggy features.  Our worship bands transformed worship songs into chart-topping hits.  And because our pastor wanted Mosaic to be a hotbed for creativity, he openly encouraged our worship leaders to write their own songs.

As a result, many of our songs were original, never sung anywhere before.

My experience with worship had swung from ancient hymns carried by the voices and hearts of generations of believers, to the other end of spectrum: brand new songs birthed by our voices and raised hands.

For my part, I didn’t miss the hymns all that much.  They felt stuffy and old-fashioned, out of touch with my life.

My mother told me once that my great Aunt Helma spent her life studying hymns each morning during her devotions.

I used to open a hymnal every now and then, when I wasn’t sure what to read in my Bible, and run my fingers over the black and white staves, the notes jumping like dots from the page.

I read lyrics like “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness; I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.”

With these words conjured images of my Aunt Helma, sweet as she was, yet weather worn and wrinkled, her hair tied up in a bun, no make-up, long skirts, high collars.

I struggled to connect with this part of my heritage, to understand it’s significance to me.

In LA, I was miles away from this history, and free for the first time to explore my faith outside of my family’s influence.

I remember one Sunday at Mosaic, we did church on the roof of the dance club.  We sat underneath the LA sky, the city-scape peeling away from the rim of the roof.  Above, stars twinkled through smog, below the basin twinkled with man-made lights, as vast as the stars above, all the while cars streamed around the freeways wrapping us up like veins of neon red and white.

I stood on the roof, the sky above, the city below, the music all around. I felt my heart open in ways I’d never done before during worship. I raised my hands with abandon, danced like the Caribbean women I admired in my youth.

My days of dancing worship on the roof of a dance club are long gone. But I still love to worship. Now we go to church in a vibrant, bustling community.  We sing a smattering of choruses with a hymn woven in here and there.

In the same way, I too have learned to integrate my past with my present. My faith grows back into my childhood, even as it grows forward.

After dinner sometimes, when the kids run off to play and there are those sacred moments when nobody needs me, I pull out that white hymnal with it’s rainbow letters (I have it still), place it on the ledge of our piano and play with the practice of grown-up fingers:

“All to Jesus, I surrender.  All to him I freely give. I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live…”

IMG_3793

Legs

Posted on June 16, 2014

This past Saturday, Dwayne, the kids and I took a bike ride around the Battlefields.

I wore shorts for the ride because it was hot and I thought perhaps soaking up a bit of sun might help conceal the writhing sea monster veins coursing up my thighs.

I was, of course, vaguely aware of my legs the entire time.  I don’t have a great relationship with them.  They are disappear thin.  And not the kind of sexy thin that models sport, but an oddly shaped thin.  Isosceles triangles, inverted. Big block knees and fault lines of varicose veins.

I like to think that I’ve evolved beyond the social constrictions of attractiveness, that I am liberated enough to wear shorts and bathing suits from time to time.  So I do.  But who am I kidding?  I’m always self-conscious.

Every turn, every pump of the pedals, I tried to beat away the body checking buzz at the back of my mind.  I pushed myself to focus instead on the gorgeous sun, the fields waving green arms, the delicious breeze.

Soon we found ourselves at Culp’s Hill, and I followed Dwayne as he turned left and peddled into a steady incline.  This was a new path we’d never biked before.  I don’t think he realized just how steep and long this particular hill would be.

I flipped the gears into my favorite numbers, and pushed my way into the ride.  When the hill bent up, I stood on my bike, focused my breath, and then pumped, pumped, pumped.

Surprisingly, I didn’t tire.  This thrilled me. I doubled down, bent my chin to my chest and worked.  One push. Two push, Three push.  I shoved the pedals down toward the pavement, then felt them lift my feet again.  I felt the muscles in my narrow calves contract, the pull of exertion above my knees.

Soon, I caught up to Dwayne.  He and Noelle had gotten off their bike and were pushing up the hill.  But still.  I wasn’t tired. My legs felt good.  My lungs clear.  So I kept going. Up, up, up, hauling 30 pounds of Nathan behind me around three or four bends.

Finally, I reached the top of the hill.  I sat back down and let my legs rest, sucked oxygen deep and coasted. Beside me a large SUV rolled by. I turned to see the husband and wife smiling and clapping.  They had trailed me the entire way and watched me work my way to the top.

I beamed, then sailed down the rest of the hill contemplating just how strong my legs were in that moment, just how well they served me. And yet, despite this fact, I still struggle to find them beautiful. Society will never call them pretty.

Carol Heldman says in her Tedtalk, The Sexy Lie, that boys are taught to view their bodies as tools to master their environment, while girls are taught to view their bodies as projects to be improved. In other words, women are not taught to value their bodies based on how healthy their bodies are, or how strong they are, or how well their limbs serve them.

I know I’m not the only one who has internalized this emphasis on appearance.  It’s a daily battle to switch the view finder on my body, to dismantle a value system that says my body is only as valuable as it is attractive.

As Nathan and I sped down the back of the hill, I scuttled the veiny images of my pale legs and chose to to speak a word of gratitude. “Thank you for a healthy body, strong legs.” I let the words carry behind me on the wind like party streamers.

 

picture credit: examiner.com
picture credit: examiner.com

3 Brilliant Parenting Tricks I learned from Other Moms

Posted on June 4, 2014

Women, you make my life better.

I was thinking this morning about all the amazing ways we help each other and improve each others’ lives and I wanted to share three particular brilliant parenting tips I’ve learned from other moms. Here they are:

1) “Do you two need help?” (from Abby)

This morning, the kids were hollering at each other.  Dwayne and I were trying to finish our breakfast, and I glanced over to see the kids tussling over a toy watch.

Without even thinking, I pulled out a trusty trick I learned from Noelle’s preschool teacher.  “Do you two need help?” I asked.  The kids immediately simmered down.  Noelle turned to me.  “I want to show him what the watch can do.”

Nathan piped up, hot under the collar. “I call Alicia! I Diego!”

We problem solved and Nathan asked his sister not to touch his watch. Noelle decided to leave her brother alone and go play with something else.

I remember the first time I saw Abby, the director of Noelle’s preschool in Bellingham, use this technique.  She was demonstrating to the parents at orientation how her teachers engage students who are having a disagreement.  Someone had asked about discipline measures and Abby had two-stepped her way through the routine.

I’m telling you, I watched the teachers pull out this question, “Do you two need help,” over and over again while we lived in Bellingham and every single time the agitation dissipated nearly immediately.  The kids felt heard.  They articulated their point of view, and the teacher and kids were always able to find a solution.

Seems too easy, right?  Well most genius things are deceptively simple.  The power of this question is that the adult gets down on level with the kids and that the children are given an opportunity to vent.

Give it a try and see how it works for you.

2) “Can I play with it when you’re done?” (from Elizabeth H.)

Yesterday, we had friends over for a play date.

Little Friend saw something my Nathan was playing with.  Little friend yanked the toy out of Nathan’s hands.  I stepped in.

“Whoa, whoa! Hold on a minute.  Let’s ask Nathan, ‘When you’re done with it, can I see it?'”  To his credit, Little Friend, complied easily and asked Nathan politely if he could see the toy when Nathan was done.  Nathan grinned,  said “Yes” played with the toy for about 20 seconds more and then handed it over.

Simple.  Crisis averted.  Thank you to my cousin Elizabeth for this brilliant parenting trick!

Early on in my parenting days, Elizabeth shared with me that the way she helped avert toy wars between her three kids was to teach them to ask, “Can I play with it when you’re done?” Then she taught the other child to answer, “yes.”

This little routine took the urgency out of the interaction between her kids and allowed them to rest and go play with something else until the coveted toy was available.

The key is that you have to monitor the exchange the first few times.  As the parent, we have to be there showing the kids how to do it and then make sure the toy gets handed over in a timely fashion.  But let’s be honest, attention spans are short, and like I experienced yesterday, 20 seconds was about all the time my preschooler needed with the toy.

Like the first tip, this one works pretty much every time I use it. It takes a little bit of training and fine tuning from time to time, but the kids do great with it.

3) Love and Logic

When we first moved to Bellingham, Noelle was turning 3.  She was a special kind of terror when she was three, kicking, screaming, biting, even drawing blood.  I think it was a combination of being three and moving from the bottom of the country to the top that threw Noelle off kilter.  Evenso, there were a few months there that I worried I was raising a monster.  I remember standing in church one day, tears streaming down my face because I was so desparate over Noelle’s behavior.

After a particularly nasty tantrum, my new friend at the time, Kellie, mother of three and Marriage and Family Theraptist, lent me her book, Love and Logic. To say that this book changed our parenting style is an understatement.  Love and Logic gave Dwayne and I a new framework, and a series of tools that transformed our interactions with Noelle.

To this day, I use Love and Logic with Nathan, and see it working on him too.  We’re going to stick with L&L until our kids leave the house.

***

I could give you so many other tricks I’ve picked up from other mom’s.  The truth is, the very fabric of my life has been altered in such beautiful ways by the women in my world.  Strange how society teaches us to compete with one another, and to view each other as a threat.  The truth is our families, our careers, our homes, and our faith comes together in each others’ hands.

 

 

photo credit: http://somertimepools.com/
photo credit: http://somertimepools.com/

How Noelle Almost Drowned

Posted on May 27, 2014

So Noelle nearly drowned on Saturday.  We were at a birthday party with a swimming pool.

No one had told us there would be a pool involved, so we hadn’t brought the kids’ bathing suits. In truth, I don’t think the parents of the birthday boy ever meant for the pool to become a part of the party, but one can not keep these things secret.  Especially, when it takes up half the yard and is full of crystal blue water that winks at you beneath the girth of sun.

Noelle begged and begged to get in, but since we didn’t have a suit for her, nor a change of clothes, her pleas went rejected.

Finally, about an hour into the afternoon, I decided to go home and get her bathing suit.  She came with me and on our way back, I heard her little voice chattering from the back of the van. “I can swim now.  I couldn’t swim last year when I was five, but my arms are longer and my legs are stronger, so I can swim now.”

I glanced at her in the rear view mirror, her little head tilted and gazing out the window.

“No, you can’t swim, Noelle,” I interrupted her stream of chatter. “You need to take swimming lessons first.”

No,” She turned toward me, her little mouth an ‘O’ of resistance. “I can swim.  I’m older now.”

“No, you can’t,” I said louder, firmer.

“But I CAN Mom!”

I can not tell you how many conversations roll out in this pattern between Noelle and me: her insisting that she can use the hot glue gun, or change the light bulb, or cook hot things on the stove, and me always countering with, “No, you can’t.  It’s not safe for you yet. You need to learn first. Wait, let me help you.”

As we pulled up to the house, I slid open the van door, helped her discreetly slip into her bathing suit, and then stepped aside for her to hop out.  She sped across the grass toward the party while I gathered up her towel and change of clothes.  I caught sight of her neon pink and green bathing suit rounding the corner of the back of the house as I locked the van.

Just 30 minutes earlier the party had been buzzing in the back yard. Now the yard was empty.  I assumed most people had moved over by the pool or into the house to eat.  The pool was on the far side of the house, blocked from my sight by a tall wooden fence.

I ducked into the basement to drop off my bags and thought about perhaps just continuing on into the house and up the stairs to the kitchen, then changed my mind and decided to make sure that Noelle was safe and sound at the pool where Dwayne had been waiting when I left.

I crossed the yard and pushed through the gate into the pool area. Two things became apparent immediately:

1) No one was by the pool, as I had thought.  Everyone had gone into the house.

2) Noelle was bobbing up and down in the pool splashing and gasping for air.

It’s hard to describe the simultaneous burst of adrenaline, panic, and sheer fury that swept over me in that moment.  In one sense, my feet felt fired to the cement, my muscles moved like oozing tar: tortuously slow.  In another sense, I was moving almost without thinking.  I bounded to the ladder, thrust my body out over the pool, grabbed my daughter, whose hand just barely reached mine, and yanked her to the edge of the pool.

“Noelle,” I seethed.  “You CAN NOT SWIM!!”

The truth is, though I was infuriated at her for being so obstinate and determined, I was more angry at myself for not talking to her more intentionally about proper pool behavior like needing to wait for an adult to get in; I was angry at myself for not putting floaties on her; angry at myself for almost walking through the house rather than walking back to check on her; angry for not keeping a closer eye on her.

We finished our evening at the party, but not until Dwayne and I had lectured her about how to play in the pool safely.  Noelle spent the rest of her time at the party contrite and cautious.

At bedtime that night, I lay beside her and asked our routine questions.

“What was your favorite part of the day?”

Without missing a beat, she spoke into the darkened room, “Well, I can tell you what wasn’t my favorite.” I could see the silhouette of her chin lifting up in conviction, her little finger wagging at the ceiling.

“What?”

“Going swimming. That was not a good idea.”

I laughed and laughed and laughed until tears filled my eyes.

This is the way it is with kids, isn’t it?  They terrify you one minute.  Make you so mad.  And then crack you up the next minute. They break your heart right in two with terror and laughter.

Picture credit: Breitbart.com
Picture credit: Breitbart.com

An Apology is Unneccessary, Mr. Fortgang

Posted on May 7, 2014

Reading Tal Fortgang’s article, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Privilege”, was not unlike watching a woman in labor.  I was terrified of what I might see, but I couldn’t pull my eyes away.

The title is pretty self-explanatory — after attending Princeton and being introduced to the ugly reality of white privilege, Fortgang recoils into a state of denial.  He lists his ancestor’s extraordinary trek out of Poland under the terror of Nazi reign to the shores of New York, where his grandfather and father were able to build a thriving life for themselves.  Fortgang stands on the shoulders of their hard work and sacrifice as a freshman at Princeton. He refuses to admit that any part of their success was marked by the kinds of benefits light skin affords you in this country.

I wanted to bury the article.  I am devastated that Time would publish such a thing, not because it isn’t well written and an authentic picture of where Fortgang is in his intellectual and ethical development, but simply because his articulate, but misguided, words give permission to the students I teach each semester to walk away from a conversation that moves us all toward justice and advocacy.

I’m terrified of the damage Fortgang’s article is already doing for readers who may also feel guilty about their unearned privileges and therefore are jumping wholeheartedly into denial.  Oh, it just breaks my heart.

Every semester, I introduce my students to Peggy McIntosh’s seminal article, “The Invisible Knapsack” wherein she enumerates the day-to-day benefits she enjoys because of her light skin.  Things like being able to turn on the TV and see her race widely represented; being able to trust that the color of her skin is not working against any appearance of financial stability; or even something as mundane as being able to find a “flesh-colored” bandage that more or less matches the color of her — what else? — skin.

I watch as the light bulbs pop and shatter over my students’ heads when they read this article.  The point is not that white privilege gives anyone a free pass necessarily.  It just means that the color of my skin does not work against me in society in achieving my goals and dreams.  This is a luxury that my black and Latino friends can’t necessarily count on.

For example, my Puerto Rican friend deliberately withholds her very Latino sounding last name when looking for housing because she recognizes that landlords may assume that a Latino woman looking for a home here in Gettysburg is going to come with a litter of kids and no financial backing.  The truth is, she’s a highly educated administrator here on campus.

These are the sorts of stereotypes and assumptions I don’t have to worry about as a white person.

The point is, when my students first encounter McIntosh’s article and the truth of white privilege, you can almost visibly watch guilt rush in like a tidal wave.  “This is just making me feel bad,” said one of my good-looking, football players.  I could have kissed him for being so honest!

No one likes to see the myth of meritocracy crumble in their fingers!  And so often, my students gravitate toward one of two responses: guilt, or denial.  I would venture to say that Fortgang falls into the later response.

But this sort of bifurcated reaction is both arbitrary and damaging.  Arbitrary, because there are many more ways to respond to the ugliness of White Privilege.  Damaging because in the end, feeling guilty or living in denial only short circuits a conversation that calls us to be allies.

I hold the space for my students’ initial reactions, but I don’t let them stay there. Ultimately, I challenge them to think about how they can use their unearned privilege to help right the system.  They are the future bosses, lawyers, CEO’s, politicians.  They can do something about this!  They don’t have to live by a broken set of rules.

The truth is, no one really wants an apology from Fortgang.  Perhaps a few, but on a larger scale, on a societal scale, an apology is both unnecessary and impotent.  Fortgang has trapped himself in a losing response.  It serves no one, least of all him.

If I were his professor, I’d nudge him forward.  I’d like to say to him, “Yes, no one likes to think that the advantages they have are unearned, but the truth is, your particular privileges are like money in the bank.  Don’t feel guilty about how you got that money. And don’t pretend it’s not there.  Instead, go spend it!  Go pick a cause, any cause.  You are a white male here in the United States. You have so much leverage.  You go to Princeton, for heaven’s sake!  Stop focusing on yourself and go stand beside our brothers and sisters who are equally intelligent, equally hard-working, equally worthy of everything America has to offer, and help fix the systems that arbitrarily hold them back!”

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