Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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A Funeral Introduction

Today I went to a funeral for I man I’ve never met.

Not only have I never met him, but I had never even heard his name before Monday night of this week.  A friend posted on FB that a professor at the seminary I attended had died of a heart attack while playing frisbee with students.  “Strange,” I thought, “I have no idea who that is.”  I highlighted the name, Jannie Swart, and pasted it into my browser bar.

Links filled the screen about Jannie Swart, also known as the Rev. Dr. Johannes Swart.  He was South African, a white South African pastor, who led one of the largest congregations in Johannesburg during the earliest years of the post-apartheid transition.  Under his leadership and example, the church labored to repent for the sins of apartheid, and to become multilingual, multiracial, and multicultural.  He left Johannesburg in 2005 to do his doctoral work, and ended up at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2012.

As I read the articles I was filled with regret.  What I might have learned in one conversation or one audited class with this man!  How could we have been so close, but yet never met?

His funeral was held at the seminary, a fifteen-minute walk from my house.

I went to the funeral because I felt that I ought to have met this man, and, in some sense, this was my last chance.  Hearing his friends and colleagues talk about him would certainly give me some sense of who he was, something beyond a list of degrees or church appointments.  I wanted to know why the people I loved and respected had loved and respected this man so much.

And, if I am honest, I wanted to know one more thing.  I wanted to know how the seminary community would process such a senseless death, the death a beloved professor taken on the very first day of classes.  How could they deal with the loss of such a wise man who still had so much to teach the students (and the whole community)?  How could he be gone?

Really, God?  He was playing frisbee with students.

I was not the only person in the sanctuary with this question, and I was relieved to hear it spoken from the pulpit.  “I’m angry,” the president of the seminary said, “and I want to ask God, ‘Why this one?  I’ve got a whole list of people you could have taken.'”  We all laughed nervously, but we knew exactly what he meant.  Someone else said that she felt like she had been robbed, and as I looked out over the crowd I could see his college-age daughter and teenage son sitting with their mother.

There is no sense in a moment like this, and so we did not attempt to understand.

Instead we sang, over and over again:

Wait for the Lord, whose day is near.

Wait for the Lord;  be strong, take heart.

Instead we listened to verses that had been spoken at their wedding:

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.  So now faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. 

And instead we were reminded what a well-lived human life can look like.

One person said that Jannie was “like Mandela, a man of uncommon grace.”  A professor told the story of his many trips to South Africa, and how after thirty years of making these trips, he met Jannie and made his first authentic friendship across racial lines.  Someone else recited one of Jannie’s favorite phrases, “We must strive to be hospitable to one another,” and many others gave examples of how Jannie had embodied this charge.  This was a man who loved life, and who lived it to the full.

And finally we were asked,

“How can we go back after Jannie has changed our lives?”

And although I met him at his funeral, I include myself in this challenge.


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Hovering is Relative

Our kindergartner’s paperwork was late, but the principal of her new school didn’t know that.  She only knew that the post office had held their mail during the summer, and that our paperwork was in the pile.

I introduced myself at an end-of-summer picnic.   “Oh, Mrs. P.!” she replied, “So sorry that we didn’t send your welcome letter sooner.  When I saw your papers in the summer pile I knew that I had to send you something right away.”

And when she emphasized the ‘you’, I knew that I had been pegged.  We had toured the school the previous spring, and I had requested a specific classroom for my daughter.  I had inquired about class size.  I had e-mailed about volunteer opportunities.  We turned in our paperwork on time, and even got her physical and dental check-ups.  Early.

“If there’s anything you need Mrs. P.” she continued, “you just let me know.  We’ll take very good care of your daughter this year.”  She looked at me intently as if I wouldn’t believe her, and suddenly I felt embarrassed.  Uh oh…

In the world of my kindergartner’s new school, I was a helicopter parent.

whop, whop, whop…

****

Now get in your car (I assume you don’t actually own a helicopter), and drive five miles east.  We have another daughter, a first-grader, who attends a private school.  It’s not a fancy or exclusive place–80% of the students are there on scholarship–but it is small, and comfortable for our daughter.  Easy.  The transition from kindergarten to first grade involved moving across the hallway, and she already knew her teacher, her teacher’s aide, and 16 of her 18 classmates.

(Little sister didn’t make kindergarten cutoff this year, which is why she is attending the large public school of the previous section.)

Her school requires “substantive parental involvement,” and they are not joking.  The baseline commitment is 24 hours a year per family, but I suspect that many parents do more.  Volunteers produce an elaborate spring musical, serve monthly breakfasts to the teachers, maintain an outdoor classroom, and organize an annual all-school camping trip.  On Fridays parent volunteer supervise lunch in every classroom.  Before school begins in September we bring our buckets and mops and clean the entire school.

Unfortunately, I know of most of these commitments (other than the bucket and mop) second-hand.  We barely made our 24 hours last year.

And just last week a parent, a very-involved-parent, handed me a service opportunities survey.  I read down the list of everything I didn’t do last year.  Then I turned the paper over, and found another full page.  Oops.

And I ask you:  How can the helicopter parent of one school be a complete slacker at the other?

****

I am one of those people who tends to take everything personally.  For example, I felt guilty last year when I couldn’t do extra volunteer opportunities at our older daughter’s school.  It was hard to look the very-involved-parents in the eye!  This year, I find myself holding back at our younger daughter’s school, not wanting to be perceived as too eager.  I care about what people think (or what I think they think), and so I try to manage my reputation, carefully striving to find the balance between over and under-involved, and trying to appear neither lazy or over-zealous.

It’s all a bunch of foolishness.

I’ve decided that this year I don’t have time for self-scrutiny.  My two girls are at two schools, and they both need “substantive parental involvement.”  So within the time constraints of reality, I will try to be involved in both places.  This probably means that I will appear both lazy and over-zealous, depending on the location, but so be it.

Because in the end, it’s not really about me anyway.


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Summer Sabbatical

To my dear friends and readers,

You may have noticed that I have not been posting as often, as of late.  There are a lot of reasons for this; from a seemingly never-ending winter of strep throat and snow days, to increasing discomfort with telling my elementary-school daughter’s stories publicly, to my desire to try a new kind of writing for a while.  I have finally decided to declare my very own sabbatical.

Instead of writing here, I will be doing a little young adult fiction experiment with the help of my beloved pre-teen/teenage neighbor girls.  If you are one who prays, I would appreciate your prayers for inspiration and direction.

And feel free to read the archives!  I am so grateful to have logged two years of writing here.  Starting again in September 2014, perhaps with a stronger sense of direction, I may go for two more.

 


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Serenity and Other Unnatural Conditions

I’m not sure which is harder:  being me or being married to me.

(We won’t let my husband comment on this one.)

I’m not so bad, really.  In some ways I’m a fantastic person to spend day-in-and-day-out, til-death-do-we-part with.  I communicate, and usually not by screaming.  I have hobbies, talents, helpful habits, etc.  I’m interested in the world around me.  Sometimes I even act like a responsible grown-up, in fact, I do laundry every single time my children run out of clean clothes.

It’s just that.  Well, you know how none of us is perfect?  And have you had times when it seems that all your weaknesses are seeping out of your pores?  Times when you are just a wreck, and then you realize that you were just a wreck last month too?  And January wasn’t so great either?

Remember Christmas?  That was a long time ago.

There are two things that make me hit the wall.  One, not getting enough sleep.  Two, the anticipation of physical pain.  Lately, these two things have gone hand in hand, and this past week was no exception.  My reoccurring cyst–my reoccurring nightmare cyst that doctors insist on sticking needles and knives into–flared up again.  At night, the pain woke me up every time I changed positions, but the agony in my head was much worse.

“No, I can’t,” I sobbed to my husband one morning.  “I just can’t have it lanced again.  I don’t care.  I would rather die than go through all that again.”

My husband, who is very good at fixing many problems, was just listening to me.  This is because he knows (from experience) not to try and fix anything while I’m crying.  Eventually I finished, and a child called from downstairs.   “Honey,” I needed to say just one more thing, “I’m sorry.  I don’t know why everything has to be such a big deal for me.”

My words hung in the air.  What I said was accurate, and we both knew it.   Things are a bigger deal for me than for my husband.  If it was his cyst, he would grit his teeth and get it lanced.

But I’m not sure that my teeth know how to grit.  Whatever in the world that means.

****

The morning that I finally called the doctor’s office I had two dollars and two hours to myself.   It was just enough for a cafe au lait at a quiet coffee shop.  My mind was unsettled.  For a week and a half, I had tried every natural remedy I could google.  I had cornered herbalists in the aisles of health food stores.  I had prayed and asked my whole church to pray.  And here I was, considering the very situation I was desperate to avoid.  I needed distraction.  I looked at the coffee shop’s bookshelves.  There were forensic thrillers, thick romance novels, and Chicken Soup for the Women’s Soul.

Chicken soup it was.  I hide the cover behind my bag so that none of the other coffee shop patrons could see what I was reading, and the book fell open to the Serenity Prayer.  Really?  I almost closed the book, embarrassed by the level of cliche to which I had fallen.  But since I was more desperate than prideful at that moment, I read through the familiar words.

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. 

The prayer pressed down on me like the mass of my cyst.  The serenity to accept the things I cannot change.  Serenity.  What does that look like when I’m so scared?  Am I just supposed to pretend?  But I had already tried to ‘change the things I can.’  I was out of options.  More words came to mind: There are some things that you can’t go over, under or around.  There are some things that you just have to go through.  Oh Lord, I breathed silently, if there is no other way, walk me through it.

And through it we went.

The thing about going through something is that all you really have to do is just keep moving forward.  One step, repeat.  I walked into the doctor’s office.  I told them I was scared.  I told them the story of the traumas I had already endured related to this cyst.  They referred me to a new surgeon, one who would take the time to go slowly.  I called her office.   I took some anti-panic medication.  I walked into the exam room.  I told my story again.  They listened.  They gave me extra numbing medication.  I insisted that my husband stay with me during the procedure.  I squeezed his hand, and the surgeon talked me though it.  One step at a time.  And then it was over.

I have decided that this is as close to serenity that I’m going to get.  And that’s okay.  For some of us, serenity is a hard thing to come by.  My prayer was answered, bit by bit, as I found just enough courage and just enough help to take the next step.  Just enough courage and just enough help to go through, and then, to come out on the other side.

And thank you, God, for the other side.

047


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No Time to Waste

Tuesday is our day.  No preschool.  No work.  No ambitious goals.

Just one four year old and one distracted-but-trying-not-to-be mama.  Tuesday is our day.

We spent the morning teaching her dolls to swim and putting away the laundry.  The neighbor boy knocked, and she went out to enjoy the mud while I checked my e-mail.  Leftovers for lunch, dishwasher loaded, and then I asked, “So, what do you want to do this afternoon?  Roller skating?  Dinosaur museum?  Library?”

“I want…” she considered, “I want to go for a walk.”

“Okay.  Where do you want to walk to?”

Wrong question.  She practically rolled her eyes in exasperation.  “Mama!  We can’t waste time going somewhere.  I just want to walk!”

I couldn’t believe that she said that:  We can’t waste time going somewhere.  I never thought of it that way before.

And so we didn’t waste a moment.  We strapped her marker-streaked Belle doll into the old green umbrella stroller and ambled up the hill.  If we had been going somewhere, the pace would have been painfully slow; but since this was what we were doing, I let her lead.  The streets were quiet, nearly deserted in the lull between lunch and school dismissal.  We circled around and around, stepping over broken glass, and peering into the caverns of rotted trees.  She stopped to feel the warm air coming out of a dryer vent.

After nearly an hour we sat on a low wall to share a bag of raisins and peanuts.  Our coats were open now, and our hats and gloves cushioned the baby doll’s head.  The sun reflected off metallic candy wrappers sticking out of the storm drain.

“Mama” she sighed, “do you know what?”

I looked at her serious little face expectantly, “What honey?”

“Mama.  Sometimes… (here she gave a dramatic pause), sometimes I smell a lion nearby.”  She studied my face for signs of fear.  I tried not to laugh.   “But (another dramatic pause) then I know that it’s just someone pretending to be a lion.”  She raised her eyebrows and I took a deep breath to steady myself.  “Mama.  Are there any more raisins?”

There were.  But you’ll be relieved to know that lions don’t eat raisins.  We finished our snack in silence, and began walking toward the bus stop.  It was almost time for big sister to come home, and she couldn’t wait to show off the rocks she had just collected.

Though after all of that, it was a little disappointing to have a destination.

from theclassywoman.blogspot.com


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Saying I Love You in Late February is Not Easy

First, some background:

Once upon a time, in the woods of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern North Carolina, I worked as a camp counselor at two Lutheran summer camps.  These four summers were the hardest and most magical times I have known.  I remember laughing until I cried during the nightly skits, and I remember crying until I fell asleep when it was week 4 (out of 9) and I just wanted to go home.

It was camp.  It was life to the full, and then fuller.

Every week had a routine, a rhythm of ice-breakers and opening worship and the first night (with accompanying tears from the camper who would also cry when it was time to go home at the end of the week).  There was activity time, creek-walking and canoeing, ropes course and the zip-line.  And then, as the week began to spill toward its inevitable end, we counselors began to prepare for our most sacred task of the week.  Affirmations.

Affirmations took place during the final worship service.  During an extended time of quiet singing, each counselor would take each camper, one by one, to a spot on the dirt floor of our outdoor chapel.  There each counselor would begin, “Here are some incredible things I noticed about you this week…”, “You are so good at…”, “I really appreciated this about you…”  We were only supposed to talk for about 3 minutes, but mostly it went longer.  It was an inspired time, quite literally, and while I hope that our campers were changed in receiving the affirmations, I know that the counselors were changed by giving them.

The change began sometime on Wednesday when we realized that affirmations were coming.  Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to see one kid as ‘trouble’ or another as ‘a leader’, a time was coming (and coming soon) when we needed to say more.  We dug for adjectives and examples, we watched them interact with one another, we looked for signs of wisdom, compassion or creativity.  We prayed and watched, prayed and watched, because the time was coming when we had to speak.  Sometimes we were so exhausted that it all just seemed annoying, one more thing to do, and what-in-the-world-am-I-going-to-say-about-her; but we also knew it was a holy task.

And if there was any doubt, the actual giving of affirmations put that to rest.  It was a weekly miracle.  Sure, we stumbled, and there were seeming ‘duds’ now and then (darnit, I should have watched that kid more closely), but words would also come rushing, kids’ faces would light up, and oh so often, the one who drove you crazy all week would leave you in tears.

Its been twenty years, and I still remember.

****

Now.  Back to life, back to re-a-li-ty:

I originally planned to finish and publish this post on Valentine’s Day.  My take-away was simple: a challenge to watch our loved ones closely, and then the discipline to tell them beautiful and true things about themselves.  Affirmation, in real life.  Ready, set, go.

But then one child got an ear infection– a bad ear infection that eventually burst her eardrum.  On the same day that the car tire burst.  A week after the rotor and brake pads had to be replaced.  At the same time that the ice on the back porch roof started melting into the kitchen.   Just a few days before I got strep throat… really really bad strep throat, like screaming every single time you swallow strep throat.  And it was all a prelude for the four-day school break followed by yet another snow cancellation.

Ugh.

Heart-warming, thoughtful affirmations for all my loved ones?  How about I hold back a tirade when you spill your milk for the third time today?  How about I don’t throw my checkbook at the mechanic just to see his reaction?  Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.

Here’s the reality friends:  February is hard.  This whole being-a-grown-up-thing can be brutal.  And I refuse to give you one more thing to do.  Instead, I want you to sit down with me for a moment on this patch of warm earth.  Can you hear the crickets and the guitars?  Good.  Now let me tell you something:

You are doing a great job.  Really.  You, the exhausted one.  You do so much in one day, so many small, mundane acts of love, you don’t even realize the self-sacrifice that it part of your regular routine.  You fall down and keep trying.  You make mistakes and apologize.  Your love runs deep, and that’s part of what makes all of this so hard, because you actually long to do right by the people you love.  And you’ve come so far already.  It hasn’t been easy.  Today won’t be easy.  But you’re doing it, friend.  You’re doing it.

You are amazing.  Even in February.  And if you can be like this at the end of a long winter, well…  just wait until spring.


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Give Us this Day our Daily Marshmallows

It was like quicksand.  The more I tried to pull her out, the more I was pulled under.

There was no tragedy, just the end of another very long day in late January.  Kindergarten.  She hated kindergarten, pancakes, and having a sister.  Housemates made the house too loud, and why couldn’t she have a pet (the cats and chickens don’t count because they’re boring).  School was too hard, and why couldn’t she be homeschooled like _________, and she didn’t have any friends at all.  She hated church and ballet lessons and all of our games and books.

Am I leaving anything out?  She didn’t.

As I sat there, trying to listen, trying to pull out some positive speck of something from her (What about recess?  Recess is boring.), I wished I could erase the words hate and boring from her brain.  When did my six-year old turn into a sullen preteen?  Is this the beginning of a very long decade?  And as I sat there, I sank, right along with her.  Everything was horrible.  I hated that moment and myself in it.  And I almost said (key word: almost), “Do you know how much we pay for you to go to that school you hate?” 

****

There is this song that I find myself in sometimes.  It’s a U2 song from the All that you Can’t Leave Behind album.  Track two.  The chorus:

You’ve got to get yourself together
You’ve got stuck in a moment and now you can’t get out of it
Don’t say that later will be better now you’re stuck in a moment
And you can’t get out of it

I understand what it means to be stuck in a moment.  It doesn’t take much–how about a slight headache set to the soundtrack of screaming children?  How about a deadline and a computer program that is Not Behaving as it Should?  How about a change of plans that I didn’t plan, or 4-7 p.m. on just about any given day?

Stuck in a moment.  Look.  See, there I am. Scowling, glaring, sulking, sinking.  And I can’t get out of it.

****

One of the worst moments as a parent is when you realize you’ve passed along some undesirable trait to your children.  You have this thing that you don’t like about yourself, and then one day they do it.  Right in from of you.  Nature and nurture, working together to corrupt the next generation.  This is what I realized as I sat there listening to my daughter’s hate and boring litany.  Oh no.  That’s just like me.

Well, that was just like me.  You see, I’m working on it.  And I’m being worked on.  Lists of little things that I’m thankful for sit beside my bed, are tucked into the bookshelf downstairs, and grow as virtual post-its on my computer desktop.  Little thankfulness lists chipping away at me:

Cat, curled up on the towels; Warm tea received in warm hands; Sun!  We are tilting back toward it now; Four squeaky voices full of life; Getting to check my e-mail; Christmas present slippers; Yellow rubber duck (why is it on my desk?); Insulated walls; Husband obsessed with insulation; Winter doesn’t last forever; Pain reliever for my headache; Clean water from the tap; Pink mittens and polka dot pajamas

Etc.

But my daughter doesn’t write, and it’s a little much to ask a six-year old to keep a list.  Isn’t it?  Besides, why would she do it?  I suspect, sometimes, that she enjoys getting a little pity, complaining a bit, wallowing in her discontent when things didn’t go the way she wanted them to…

(Or is that me?)

But wait.  Suddenly, inspiration.  Small, cubical, gelatinous inspiration, filled to the brim with corn syrup.  Disgusting.

Perfect.

“Honey,” I announced as on the way to the bus, “today we’re going to play a game.  It’s called the marshmallow challenge.”

The rules (I was making them up as I went along):  pay attention and try to remember good things that happen to you today.  They have to be specific (Mama, what’s specific?).  You have to remember them.  Then when you get home, we’ll sit down for snack, and for each good thing you can remember, you get one mini-marshmallow, up to ten.  No more than ten.  I’ll do it too.  We’ll see if we can each remember ten.  Got it?

At 3:30, she came home with this:

023

 (Clockwise from upper left, her words, my writing:  Made a paper airplane, A Spanish reader came, My teacher read a book about penguins, Played at kitchen, I tried to fly, Played at pipes, Colored my paper airplane, and Played freeze dance)

Eight marshmallows isn’t bad for the first day.  I got six.  Maybe tomorrow I should try to fly.

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