Long Days and Short Years

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


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Walking While White

Note: This story, in its entirety, is published at http://www.youareherestories.com/?p=663

Here is how it all began…

Trembling, I stood up in church on a sweaty summer morning. It was prayer time, and the requests and testimonies had been weighty thus far. There were loved ones awaiting parole hearings, babies in the NICU, and the ever-present lure of the streets growing in intensity as the weather warmed. I looked at the worn faces of grandmothers who had been praying for decades, and my own request seemed trivial. They waited, nodding encouragement and softly chorusing “Help her, Lord.”

The Lord helped, and I spoke. “I would like to ask for courage so that I could walk in my neighborhood this summer. I’m not afraid for my safety, not physically, but I just get so tired of being ignored when I say hello to someone. The angry glares are hard for me. And it’s hard, well, to stand out all the time. Please pray that God would help me. Thank you.”

I sat down quickly and wished that I could sink into the pew. Really, did I just ask a congregation of African-Americans to pray for a poor little white girl because she couldn’t handle a little unfriendliness? Did I just complain about standing out to a group of people who had experienced prejudice since their births? Did I really just say all that?

Staring hard at the songbook in front of me, I heard the murmuring begin again. “Oh yes, Lord.” “Thank you, Jesus.” “Help her.” Someone squeezed my shoulder, and my husband covered my hand with his. The murmuring grew, and a middle-aged black man in a crisp white shirt stood on the other side of the church.

“Thank you for sharing,” he said. “And I would like to say something. I also take walks, and I understand what you mean. But here is what the Lord helps me to do: I always say hello and smile. If the person says hello in return, I thank God for that person.

“But,” he looked at me, “if they are rude, I know God has given me a special job. He has given me the job to forgive them and to pray for them. And so that’s what I do. That’s why I haven’t stopped walking. They need my prayers.”

He nodded for emphasis and sat down.

There was a communal breath of silence before everyone began clapping. It was if a door had opened and we all felt the breeze.

“Yes, Lord! Thank you, Lord!” We weren’t murmuring anymore.

 ****

Read more at http://www.youareherestories.com/?p=663


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What if They Were Really Ours?: Praying for the Kidnapped Nigerian Girls at 6 Months

Imagine it for just a moment: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A college prep school for girls.

It’s the end of the spring semester, and teenage girls from all over Western Pennsylvania gather for final exams. The exams are taken over the course of several days, so the girls stay in dormitories, giggling and cramming late into the night. Tomorrow is the physics exam, and so there is more cramming than giggling. Eventually the girls sleep, sort of, restless and anxious.

But then, early, before the sun rises, they are awoken by the shouts of men. Pittsburgh police officers? Firefighters? What is happening? Some assume that they are having a nightmare and try to wake up. But they are already awake. Get into the trucks! Now! The girls begin to realize that these men are not there to protect them. They are there because the protectors have failed.

The drivers, whoever they are, know the back roads, and the trucks bounce over potholes. They cross a river. The girls cling to one another and confer desperately: Are we in the Mon Valley? No, we’re somewhere near route 28. My grandma lives near here. Where are they taking us? Should we jump? No, don’t do it, they’ll shoot! Fifty-seven risk everything and jump, some breaking legs in the process, but the kidnappers do not pursue. The rest disappear. Taken. Gone. Two hundred and nineteen girls.

The media erupts. Where did the trucks go? Did they head toward Ohio? Are they hiding in the Allegheny Forest? No, they went south, toward West Virginia. Are you sure? There are conflicting reports. Someone near Butler saw a line of trucks. No. Someone Morgantown calls channel 11. The girls are just over the state line. Maybe.

Parents gather outside the city-county building, demanding information. Demanding action.

But then, inexplicably, local officials begin to question the story. Was there even a kidnapping? The Post-Gazette interviews a congressman who says it’s all a hoax. Those aren’t even the parents of the girls. They’re actors, hired by a super-PAC to make the governor look bad. Don’t you know that an election is coming up?

But those who know the girls know there is no time to waste. Groups of parents with hunting rifles begin to follow leads. Someone in Tionesta says that he saw them, but he has a warning: the kidnappers are well-armed. If the rush into the camp, the girls may be massacred. The parents turn back. They return to the government offices.

Bring back our girls. Two hundred and nineteen families plead for action.

They receive lip service. ‘We are doing what we can’, ‘It is a complicated situation.’ ‘You don’t want the girls to be hurt, do you?’ ‘Trust us. We know what we are doing.’

The families take their plea to the world. Hashtags and celebrities take up the cause. They pressure leaders, governments, and militaries to do more. And for a moment, they do.

But then the voices die down. Other stories fill the headlines. Local shootings. International terrorists. There is so much tragedy, so much violence, and from the girls and their kidnappers, only silence. Meanwhile, the city of Pittsburgh hires a PR firm to increase public trust. This tragedy has ruined its reputation.

Six months go by. One girl is discovered. It seems that she was abandoned in the forest because she was pregnant.

There is more silence.

Now the hashtag is a voice in the wilderness: #Bringbackourgirls

Our girls. Imagine. What if they were two hundred and eighteen of our own?

****

Today marks the six-month anniversary of the Chibok School kidnapping in Northern Nigeria. My local imagined version of this story parallels real events on the other side of the world. For example, fifty-seven girls did escape in the first few days by jumping from the back of trucks or grabbing low-hanging branches. The government of Nigeria did initially challenge reports that so many girls had been kidnapped, does accuse protesters of being politically motivated, and did hire a PR firm to improve its reputation.

Why do I care? I ask myself this question quite a bit. I do not know these girls or their families. I will probably never meet them in this life, even if they are rescued. I do not have a particular interest or connection to Nigeria. Why these 219 in a world of 7 billion, with so many tragedies close and far away?

I do not have a complete answer to these questions. When I became aware of this tragedy in May, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It had something to do with my two daughters, but it wasn’t just about them.

My sense was that life couldn’t just go on as before, that the world needed to stop and re-orient itself until these girls were returned to their families. Do we really live in a world where hundreds of girls disappear and no one does anything about it? The answer of course is mostly yes, but my answer at that moment (and in the months since) is no.

No, life does not just go on. No. It mustn’t be this way. And so, in my small voice I said small prayers to a big God. I continue to, and many of you pray with me. And though our prayers do not seem to be answered, something is happening. How do I know?

Because the more I pray, the more I sense that these girls are our own. And they woke up today praying that the world hasn’t forgotten them.

We have not.


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Hovering is Relative–Some Questions for You

Setting: The cafeteria in a big public school

Event:  Kindergarten welcome breakfast

Characters: More squealing 5 year olds than you can imagine with the occasional frazzled grown-up thrown in for contrast

****

It was time for the parents to go.

Squeezed between a cafeteria table and attached bench, I was planning my exit.  Assuming that I could still physically extract myself from the table (there was some question here), the bigger question remained.  How should I leave my daughter, my youngest daughter, on her first day of kindergarten?

Should I act casual, like it was all no big deal?  “Have a great day, honey!  See you later!”  Should I acknowledge that this was a big moment, and make the break slowly?  “We love you so much, sweetie, and we’re so proud of you.  You’re going to have a great day, and I can’t wait to hear all about it.”

And while I was composing my speech, I overheard a conversation across the table.

A mother was saying her goodbye.  She stood up.  “Well, this is Kindergarten,” she said, “You’re on your own now.  Do you hear me?”  The little girl stared solemnly.  “You behave.  I don’t want to get called,” she continued, and then repeated, “You’re on your own now.  Do you hear me?”  And without another word, or even a hug, she walked away.

And the little girl?  She returned to her breakfast, and then to her puzzle, seemingly unfazed.  The teacher called her named and she smiled broadly, “I’m here, teacher!”

I looked down at my daughter, who was clinging to me.  She was trying so hard to be brave.  The teacher called and she slowly dis-attached herself.  “Bye Mama,” she whispered.  I blew her a kiss, and she joined her class.

She was on her own now.

****

While the words of the mother-across-the-table were harsh, there is truth in them.  We are constantly preparing our kids to be on their own–and it makes me wonder…

How can we prepare our children, and ourselves, for moments of letting go?  This may be the million dollar question of parenting–not just what kind of parents will we be when we are with them, but what kind of children (and soon, adults) will they be when we are not with them?

Because I know that kindergarten is just the beginning.

****

What are your thoughts about preparing your kids to be increasingly on their own?  What do you remember about this from your own childhood?  What have you learned by watching other people parent their kids?  And if you have ‘em, what have you learned from parenting your own?   

 

 

 

 

 


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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.

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