Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Kindness: The Lost Gospel

Did you know that the Bible that you are familiar with, its content was chosen? It intrigued me to understand the history of the concordance of the Bible when I was in a study in Florida.  Arguments arose about intent and particularly that of what the book said is what it said, and there could be no interpretive gesture toward it. In this I fundamentally disagree. Interpretation of the Bible has been as old as the collection of gospels itself. Interpretation has inspired wars from the Crusades on. But the collection of gospels, the Bible as we know it was decided on years and years ago by a group of male church elders at the first Council of Nicea in 325. Can you imagine the pressure and the debate surrounding this? The church elders from all denominations had to come together to agree on the gospels chosen to form the New Testament. It boggles the brain, really.

So when we hear in the news about a “new” gospel found—the Gospel of Mary or the Gospel of Judas for example, it is big news for theological scholarship. And there are all sorts of dating strategies to weed out authentic from inauthentic. I have paid attention to these as well, but if these fragments of papyrus have been located, is it so unbelievable to consider that other gospels may be hidden from light and air as well? Or given the animosity in early Church power struggles, destroyed? I leave these debates for scholars to consider, and I am sure they have. For me, it is not so much the veracity of the gospels that were included that matter, we have them and we see the story and the struggle of faith--it makes me wonder exactly what has been left out.

You see, it’s not so much as what has been pulled together but what is missing. A different perspective on Jesus’ ministry perhaps? What could the Gospel of Mary have yielded to our understanding of the role of women in the early Church? What could the Gospel of Judas have offered to our development of forgiveness?

I’ve been silent here for months, aside of a posting or two on the Facebook blog page, I have devoted time to other writing but like everyone else, I’ve watched and listened and worried and prayed about endless items in the news. As we come again in full thrust of Advent, the expectant pause of waiting for a miracle, it seems to me in the headlines, and certainly the blistering commentary that follows, what we are missing most of all is kindness, and that may be the gospel we need most.

Wherever you stand on the issues of the day, (and make no mistake, I am on the side of #metoo and reform and policy change), we have completely lost any and all nuance of kindness. Maybe the internet
shields us from the raised eyebrows or upset that a face to face confrontation would necessitate. Maybe we feel braver if the reactions aren’t immediate and therefore debatable. I have almost pulled entirely from Facebook personally due to this. I cannot bear any more animosity from people I consider friends no matter who it is turned toward. It does not strengthen my resolve to keep doing good work or advocating in kind, it makes me feel weaker and more helpless. Those feelings will not do anyone in my world any good, because it means I won’t be able to function.

We need the Gospel of Kindness to enter our hearts and minds this Christmas season. And to use Advent for preparation of that miracle. Because right now, it indeed seems like it would be one. Is there some way that you can practice kindness these days leading to Christmas? And I don’t mean just the food donation drives or those of clothes or toys. I mean to your neighbor, to the stranger that is your brother?
I have said it before here on this platform, but for me judgement is not mine. And what a relief. Because all I am required to do is to love then. That’s easy, because if we are honest, judgement is a tremendous risk. How many of us can judge cleanly without conscience of prior transgressions? I cannot. I have made so many mistakes, too numerous to count. And I have participated in judgement in order to escape its spotlight on myself. It is a losing proposition.

on bullying. on wonder.
Recently a novel I wrote about was made into a film, Wonder. In it a boy with a craniofacial deformity has to “fit in” at a typical school. The novel’s author wanted to start a culture of kindness. Schools everywhere have read it, and we agree that it is noble, and necessary, especially to instill in children where fear of the unknown (or sometimes the opposite) inspire terrible words and actions that hurt well into adulthood. I know I have my scars that I wear every day, they just aren’t as visible as Auggie’s surgeries. The call to “Choose Kind” is so important but do we demonstrate it to our children? Do we act it towards one another? How many times a day, month, or year do you “choose kind?”

I think we can first be kind every day, in every way very simply.

Do not judge.  I cannot in any conceivable way know someone else’s story without hearing it first hand and even then, the retelling will be colored in my head by own experience. Taking judgment out allows me to offer compassion without saying, “you’re right.” I can say, “I am sorry that you feel that way. I am glad you feel able to tell me about it.”

Offer a smile to the clerk, cashier and bagger in a store or take away shop. A sincere smile and a moment of thanks can brighten the day of anyone in any service industry. It is kindness, and it just might allow them to smile at the next customer instead of negative thoughts that can quickly spiral. Any tragedy we hear about on the news, it started simply with those grey and unhappy thoughts. Dispel them by a kind word. Show everyone that we’re in this together.

Failing at the Golden Rule
Allow the house to be a fright and engage with your kids. I hear everywhere that Christmas is magical for children, but in the haste to make sure their experience is perfect, we lose sight of what they want most—unscripted and messy loving moments. I chased my kids around with a barrette to clip my eldest son’s hair. I sang, we laughed and struggled, and that’s all it took to turn a really hard day for him into a happy one. The boxes of merry making are still everywhere, but my kids didn’t care. In the expectation of Christmas, it is happiness that they want most and will remember long after the game is broken.

Offer a Blessing Bag. If it makes you uncomfortable to give money to the homeless, create a blessing bag of necessary toiletries, snack bars, etc.  and keep them in your car so you can hand them out when needed. Include phone numbers of shelters and agencies that can help.

Call the Salvation Army. Donate the books, clothes and cutlery and house items that you no longer use or need. The Salvation Army will take it and in many areas you can make arrangements online. Many do pick-ups of large scale items and unlike some organizations that have controversies with regard to donation, this one has been of service to those in need for years without inquiry. I always reach for the same items in my closet. It was certainly time for me to donate those that I no longer used.

Ask a new friend to coffee. It is absolutely paralyzing for me to talk to new people. My introvertedness which began after my mom’s passing, has reached new heights where I live now. And, to be honest, I don’t have a great deal of time with kids, work, my dad, and marriage. But I want to know people, and I want to give them a chance to know me. And I want to hear stories that can realign my thinking.  It’s a cup of kindness that has NO end.

Volunteer. At anything in any capacity. If going to a shelter is too much too soon for a variety of reasons, pick something else. Every community has shelters, open pantries, and organizations that can use your help. Maybe it is as simple as just stuffing envelopes, or collecting donations for a children’s hospital. Your kindness to that organization will multiply in ways you could never have imagined. You’ll feel lighter and walk taller. No matter how little we have, we all have something to give.

Finally, look in the mirror and tell yourself that you are a good person with good intentions and are loved. The world will tell you many times in a day that you are not. The personal care industry is all about telling you that you are completely inadequate. Kindness has to start with you—within you.

I was reminded at Mass last week that for Mary, her many months waiting was the first and most magical Advent. And that, after all, is the meaning of the word—the arrival, the presentation. I cannot
Differently: A Season of Hope
imagine that she looked at herself and thought unkindness. I can’t imagine her feeling anything but sheer delight as the days passed and she looked forward to the birth of her son. That glow of expectation belongs to all of us, a gift we get each year of anticipation and of hope.
2017 is ending and whether or not it was a year you will look back upon with fondness or intense relief at its closure, a New Year is unfolding and with it a chance to live differently, with intention, with humor, and with kindness. 

Merry Christmas to you and your family. Thank you for reading.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Glitch

Do you remember Pixar’s Wreck-It Ralph?  The innovative film that introduced us to the characters that live inside the video games we have all loved?  It’s pretty inventive, but what was held out for me, intentionally or no, was the character of Vanellope von Schweetz otherwise known as “The Glitch.”  Vanellope is a mistake.  She will wreck every game.

Her official biography reads, “Vanellope is a pixelating programming mistake in the candy-coated cart-racing game Sugar Rush. With a racer's spirit embedded in her coding, Vanellope is determined to earn her place in the starting lineup amongst the other racers. The only problem: the other racers don't want her or her glitching in the game. Years of rejection have left Vanellope with a wicked sense of humor and a razor-sharp tongue. However, somewhere beneath that hard shell is a sweet center just waiting to be revealed.”  While the real story is that Vanellope is actually the game’s Princess and lead driver, her power has been taken away by the Candy King.  The lies he has told make everyone fear that her glitch will lead to the game being unplugged.  Her mistake, her existence then, ends their world.    

Pretty dire for a glitch, right?  A glitch then can be threatening to others.  It can make you see something in yourself that you would rather not see.  But glitches are just errors not ends, and they can be overcome.  My son, Sam, has a glitch.  It has impeded his learning, and he is struggling with material that he simply doesn’t understand.  It is taking time away from everything.  The glitch is overrunning his belief in himself.  That can be debilitating.  It can be the start of a tumble of bad that has nothing grounded in the reality that Sam is an amazing, kind, funny, hardworking, interesting, compassionate child, and an excellent friend.  I have stood as a mediator between Sam and his school life, explaining, reassuring, and encouraging but the issues have only become broader and the disconnect more pronounced.  It was time to seek help for Sam before he began to believe the lie about the glitch.

“Does that make sense to you?” Eyebrow raised, I swallow my irritation at the condescension in the question from the school psychologist.  In that moment, I knew that it didn’t matter what I said or showed.  This committee of school professionals was not going to take my prepared statement into account.  In fact, they were typing up their final report denying Sam any educational psychological testing before I even started speaking.  Working from year-old data from a test Sam had taken while in Florida, I was told  no less than 4 different times that Sam was “average.”  His results were “average.” Perhaps, said the social worker, I needed “to praise him more rather than focus on results.” 

“He’s performing fine within the low scale of what we consider to be ‘average’ for the fourth grade.” 

“There needs to be a real need to pull him from the general education classroom.  And, you know, your heart goes out to him for his struggle, but there’s nothing really here that justifies testing for any real disability.” 

“You should have him go outside more. At least 20 minutes a day,” said his teacher to me. 

“Maybe get him involved in a sports team so he can locate what he’s good at,” the special education resources teacher said.

“You should take him to your pediatrician to be checked for anxiety so he’s happy and well,” the school psychologist reported.

“Our reading specialist spent two 20 minute sessions with him.  He’s able to perform in these parameters within the average to low average range” the testing scion told me.

I am seething.  I am rigid.  I had come to this meeting with hopes of an answer for Sam’s continued struggles in school.  And I felt I was being berated as a mother who wanted the school to “fix” my son.

Does that make sense to you?

No.  It doesn’t make sense.  Because this child is struggling daily to achieve the marker set as average, and he is anything but average.  He is fantastic.  And we are exhausted.

Does that make sense to you?

No.  It does not make sense that a child needs to repeatedly fail in order to garner your attention and help.  It doesn’t make sense to me that everyone in that room had decided that Sam was “good enough.”  Even though his struggles with auditory and visual memory and phonological processing were readily evident in his school work. 
“All I want,” I said willing myself to remain civil, “is the chance to give Sam the tools he needs to feel successful in the classroom without struggle—” 

“Well, it’d be nice if he had an easy carefree time at school,” the psychologist interrupted….and my vision blurred.  I saw red.  I had come into this dark room to face this 8-person panel, and dressed as well as I could, and I had thanked them all for coming to help Sam.  No one responded, not the Assistant Principal who I’ve met on no less than a dozen occasions and still has no clue of my name or those of my children, the psychologist who had never met Sam and was working off of a year-old report, or the school counselor who had insisted I initiate these proceedings rather than go to an outside educational psychologist to get the testing Sam needed done.  

No one said anything, but for me there were so many invisibly loud fear inducing words vibrating in that dim and heavy room:

“You’re wasting our time.”

“Why can’t you be satisfied with your average son?”

“Here’s another hysterical parent wanting perfection.”

“You haven’t done your homework.”
“All he needs is more attention.”

“You are not a good mother.”

I am willing to take just about anything as a parent.  I am more than willing to be insulted, condescended to, handled with rudeness and incivility; I am willing to maintain my dignity in the face of all of that because I tell my children all the time, it is how we act and the compassion we show that says who we are.  How we respond means something. 

When I was driving home after gathering my papers, the report printed for me that I had to sign, and thanking them for their time in the face of their judgmental silence, I thought of the children who had no advocate, whose home life was so unstable that their deficits were extraordinarily large.  

I thought of that panel, that they weren’t bad people, but exhausted from meetings where they might be fighting a guardian or parent to get help for a child that the teacher saw was desperately needed.  I thought of the mountains of paperwork that followed each of these, that they saw my request as minimal in the broad range of suffering they experienced each day.     

All this is true, but there was no need for such disregard.  According to these professionals, Sam needs: 20 minutes or more of time outside, to play on a sports team, and to be praised to have his learning issues right themselves.

It made me think immediately of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Yellow Wallpaper—which if you haven’t read it, details the effects of the ‘rest cure’ for postpartum depression.  The young woman is locked in a room and is forced to take complete rest to get over her illness.  She finds in her psychosis that the wallpaper begins to move and speak to her.  Her husband and doctor find her at the story’s end, crawling around trying to enter the wallpaper. 

How many times are deep seated hurts or needs or absences are felt and pushed away because they are “inconvenient,” and do not measure highly enough in the scale of suffering?  You have them don’t you?  Haven’t they played a part in your life?  

Something you couldn’t understand but were too embarrassed to ask about?  

Being told that you wouldn’t understand anyway?  

Settling for something more “suitable” to who you appeared to be?  

There are so many fundamental challenges to our maturity and they occur at so many pivotal moments as we age and bend and try to reach towards the sun.  It’s just that for some of us, the bough breaks instead of bending.  And the resulting wound is assuaged by self-harming strategies of addiction or self-neglect.  

In this age of social media, the bully on the playground is unidentifiable and the resulting hurts are even more searing.  It’s not stick and stones anymore—the words are far more hurtful and burn on your brain long after they’ve been set there.

My friend and I were talking one morning about a high school initiative to allow students to take two classes online so that the children could get much needed sleep.  She thought it wonderful, as did I.  The other parents though?  For some reason, the desire to get children rest is seen as a porthole to laziness. 

They should suffer.  Suffering is good.  It makes them stronger.  Let them take every advanced class offered even if it grinds them into pulp before the age of 18.  “Well it’d be nice if he had an easy carefree time at school….”

What is happening here?  What are we doing?  And it isn’t the teachers, my goodness, no.  They are the unsung heroes in this tale.  They are the first ones shaking their head as they receive curriculum instruction and cringe at what the State Board of Education has decided is appropriate for a 9-year-old to grasp.   

My eldest son came to the 6th grade with a deficit in math—because now as a 6th grader he is doing 7th grade math.  Next year he will do 8th grade math as a 12-year-old, and by his 8th grade year he will do Algebra the resultant grade will follow him to high school.  So he had to teach himself (with his language arts mother in tow) 2 years of math in one.  He did it, and he can do it.  But did he have to?

When did an “easy carefree time at school” become a bad thing?

When did learning effectively also mean pain and hardship?

When did effort become synonymous with anguish?

When did being happy become so very underrated

I’ll throw this out there: I think it’s more important to be happy than anything else. 

Because happiness will ensure success.

The aches and pains that we had—and I know we all had them, these posts have illustrated so many of my own over the past few years, we do not need to revisit them on our children to guarantee that they are successful.  Look at our world now.  Look at the pain here, the misunderstandings, the violence, the rage.  We cannot allow another generation to inherit the same parameters that produce it.  The cycle needs to stop. 

Let’s address the hurts as they come, let’s show each other compassion and begin to listen, let’s rethink “average.”  And let’s begin the enterprise of exceptional.

After I talked to both my husband and another good friend who shares my dismay at what all of this has come to, I sat and wondered.  I went outside to work and feel the sun.  I considered.  Sam is working hard at average—too hard.  So we will go with our original plan and get Sam the help he needs to fix the “glitch” that is holding him back to love learning, yes, with ease.  Because he deserves it.  He deserves the chance to open a book and be carried away by a tale so gorgeous he sees possibilities hanging like stars above his head.  

He deserves to be able to look at an assignment and understand what is being asked of him and rejoice in the knowledge that he can fulfill that task without worry.  He deserves to be happy.  And that, is anything but average. 

The glitch should not spell doom.  There should be an escape from the game for every player.  It can be overcome to find the incredible that is hiding just beneath it.  And yes, because of having to deal with it for so long, you understand amazingly how others suffer and you swell with compassion for it.  You have an innate capacity for loving everyone despite their own glitch.  But it doesn’t have to define you.

“I’m sorry Sam.”  I turn to face him and put down my gloves. 

“Why Mommy?”
“Well,” I swallow and take his hand sitting on the steps to the kitchen, “I failed today.  I didn’t get you the testing.”

“Oh Mommy, that’s okay.”

“It is?”

Sam shakes his head, “Yeah, it’s okay.  Because they don’t know me, so they can’t see me.  But it’s okay, because you do.  Okay?”

He hugs me, and you know he’s 9 so I don’t know how many more of these I’m going to get, so I hold on just a bit more.  I’m always the last one to pull away.  “I’m happy Mommy.  It’s going to be fine.”

And so it is.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Good Steward: A Lenten Journey

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" - Mary Oliver

The weight of Mary Oliver’s words fall heavy.  And they are supposed to be, heavy I mean. Like something overripe, and waiting on a limb.  The gentlest breeze seems to give it that force to find grounding where it hits, with a muffling sound and a fragrance that’s just too dangerous because of how rich it is. Today is Ash Wednesday and begins our Lenten season of waiting and considering the determined path Jesus took towards his crucifixion.

What I understand of Biblical history or the ancillaries surrounding it, the average life expectancy for a man in those days was similar to that of classical Rome, before the advent of modern medicine and was from 30-35 years.  Jesus, from all we can understand, died after starting his ministry at the age of 30; he had three Passovers.  He was 33 years old.  To me that doesn’t seem to be either rich, full, ripe or dangerous.  But it was all of those.

When I lately read a novel, I noted these words, “Life. Rich, vibrant, contrary life.  How very much she loved it, and what a fickle steward she had been.”  The heroine in this case, had a gun to her temple and had spent most of the novel worrying about appearances, considering independence, and forgoing the courage to claim the love of her life.  It wasn’t any of these that moved me though, it was her choice of phrase that struck me: steward.  At the end of the world, then, her regret was the lack of stewardship she had shown in guarding and guiding the one life she had been given to live.

And then I saw it, that Lent could be about a new kind of stewardship—one that carefully considered my one wild and precious life.  And I thought, here I have 40 days to turn it around, to make it rich, vibrant, and whole.  To do that, to make that happen, would require every minute of those 57600 in them.  Because I finally feel like I’m understanding it, if I don’t do this, if I am not a better steward I will not be fulfilling what I can do or be here.  And I will be the poorer for it, and so will you, and God will wonder why hadn’t I seen it before it was too late.

You have seen proposed changes like this right?  The eating plans and the living plans, the promises and testimonials about how everything can turn around if ____ was just given a chance.  And it is difficult because of all you have to do.  Obligations for work, for school, for children, for spouse, for parents and for friends.  We have to be good and patient stewards for all of this, the cost not to do it well and consciously is so very high.  And we become good at it if not unenthusiastic.  

We get up and work and we kiss children, we listen to dreams, we encourage, we motivate, we try to make better choices, we fight our own nature to tend to ourselves because that, we are told, is selfish. So, we become good stewards.  We fulfill our obligations and if there is breath and ability left, there is still more to do: the environment—political, social and natural, the causes, the pain you see.  And before too long, you feel you are failing and falling fast.  Unable to fulfill your role well in any of them.  And you wonder sadly, if this is what life was supposed to be?


This Lent I want to unpack all of that.  Because a small line in a novel reminded me of something very important, that the first stewardship entrusted to us is for our very own lives.  And unless that life is lived with purpose and joy, there is no ability to minister to anyone else.  Your own despair wins out instead.  “Choose life, so that you and your children will live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19)

The objective of Lent is to see what has been given so that you can feel whole.  Something gets lost in the thoughts of penance and abstinence.  We are already really, really good at punishing ourselves in my reckoning.  We are absolutely ready to take blame, understanding that it is our lack of will that has put on pounds where we don’t want them, our ignorance that has allowed for a thousand situations to happen.  Guilt is something we are well versed in.  And the whole world obliges, by playing upon it.  Letting us know that we are never, ever enough. 

None of that matters to God, and maybe, just maybe this Lent is time for you to see it.  That you are indeed enough.  Just as you are.  And once you know that, once you stand in stewardship of your life as it is, once you allow yourself to embrace the joy that has been paid in full for you, you can allow yourself stewardship that is exhilarating rather than exhausting.  God wants you to care for yourself.  To love you so you can love everyone else.  To love you the way you are loved by God.
For me this is looking carefully at what is making me less than, what gives voice to the whispers of discontent that then become loud roars of rage and anger.  

The premise is simple, I promise: once you find what is making your heart hurt and fear the fall, you can begin to live and that’s worth the 40 days to figure out.

  • If it is the work that I do, that I may have fallen into by chance rather than choice, and it is unfulfilling, is there a way I can carve out time for something that gives me joy?  Is there a community choir I can join, a local theatre group I can audition for, a crafting group I can start, a dog that I can walk, a retirement home I can bake or garden for, a newborn I can snuggle? 
  • If the children that you love are making it hard for you to love, maybe there is a playgroup you can leave them with just for an hour.  A chance for you to breathe again and miss them. 
  • If the noise of the world is crashing in with the sorrows and the grandstanding and the sheer lack of understanding, it is time to find the quiet.  Get into your car and drive to one of the parks in your area.  Walk for 5 minutes.  See where you are, breathe deeply, and walk back.  Those moments spent in the quiet green of life and hum, will resonate with you and make you believe again in possibilities. 
  • If the diet that requires exclusion of the sugar you crave, and you stand with a fork in the leftover cake at 10:00, hating every bite maybe it’s time to ask why it is you need the sweetness to begin with?  What is missing?  What is hurting that requires it?
  • If the exercise class is too difficult or too far away and you cannot go back or the gym membership is being unused, and either or both are making you feel once again a failure at health and resolve then go outside to your backyard or that of a community garden.  Rake, shift, plant and consider.  Your arms will ache, your legs will too but you will breathe sweet, cool air and feel accomplishment.
  • If the friendship has been silent and you fear it cannot be mended, try to reach out and connect.  No matter what else, without answering the siren’s song of that relationship, its ghost will continue to haunt you.  You don’t need anything that does that. 
  • If the mess around you leaves you breathless with its enormity, the sheer volume of paper and packages and bits that you thought were at once necessary, that it saps your will to do writing or the dreaming or the crafting that you love, perhaps it’s time to set the timer, get a bag and get some bags to fill with care to recycle what has been forgotten already and is weighing you down with its mocking volume.  (The piles are definite: shred, recycle, donate.  No more than 3 seconds for each decision, the amount of time it took you to purchase or bring it in in the first place.)  
  • If the days wake you with memories of times when you lived selfishly, spoke sharply, hated and hurt intentionally, it’s time to put all of those down.  Because those thoughts hold you back and make you weary.  You will never be able to move forward if you are always looking behind you.  Forgive yourself.  You have to.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Being a good steward requires that you have accountability and enact it judiciously.  You will not repeat your past, leave it there. 

We were never meant to carry so much.  Encumbrances like those will hurt you unnecessarily.  And you’ve been hurt enough already. 

You are whole.  You are amazing.  You are enough.

Ripe, rich, full and a little dangerous.  Because any life well lived is all of those if we are lucky enough or foolish enough or a combination of the two.  To love greatly, to listen carefully, to consider and to move when necessary.  This Lent discover the way to become a steward of your own life.  At the end of 40 days, when we come to celebrate the resurrection of the risen Christ, the fulfillment of a such a loved promise, we can extend that energy, love, richness and grace we have located within ourselves to everyone we can hope to know.  And that is life changing.  That’s exactly what we are meant to do.

So tell me, my friend, what are you going to do with your one wild and precious life?  Grace and peace be with you this Easter season.