Long Days and Short Years

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


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The True Story of the Mama Hen

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She came to us because she wanted, desperately, to be a mother. And we welcomed her, not knowing all that this would entail.

She was our neighbor’s chicken, a black Astralorp hen named Shadow. And she was broody. It was her instinct, and her obsession. She gathered a clutch of eggs, and sat on them. She warmed them and turned them. And sat on them. For weeks. She wouldn’t leave her eggs to eat or to drink water. She fought any pesky humans who tried to pull her off.

She didn’t know any better. She didn’t know that her infertile eggs would never hatch. She never looked up from her nesting box and thought, “Hmm, there doesn’t seem to be any rooster.”

And so Shadow sat. And sat. And drove her pesky humans crazy.

The only real way to break a hen of her broodiness is to give her what she wants. Chicks. And if you live in the city and can’t have a rooster, one way to get chicks is to order them through the mail. Her first owners weren’t up for chicks, not this year, and so she came to be with us.

022A few weeks after she moved in to our coop, a grinning postal worker delivered a peeping box. Fifteen fuzzy babies, only a day and a half old. The night, when Shadow was fast asleep, we reached under her warm body and replaced eggs with chicks. In the morning, a new set of instincts kicked in.

She was, as we expected, an excellent mother. She protected her chicks from the other hens, and taught them important chicken life skills like how to take dust baths. During the day they rode around on her back, and at night they disappeared under her wings. She had beautiful instincts.003

But then, one rainy night when the chicks were just two weeks old, everything changed.

It was my job to lock up the coop at night, and one night I forgot. At four a.m. we were awakened by chicken screams. We ran out into the rain and discovered the grisly remains of a raccoon attack. Feathers and blood were everywhere, and the remaining chickens were huddled in the back of the coop. There were peeps coming from under a black chicken, but it was impossible to tell how many were left.

We locked up and gave up until daylight.

When the sun came up, we returned to the coop. As the traumatized chickens staggered down the ramp, I counted and prayed that Shadow was among the survivors.

The chicks were following a black hen, trying to jump up on her back. Was it Shadow? No, she ignored them and shook them off. A red hen pecked at one of the chicks and I waited for Shadow to respond.

There was no response. Five chicks and two hens were missing. And Shadow was one of them.

We locked up the chicks to keep them safe from the other hens, and I went to our bedroom to cry. I kept picturing her with the chicks peeping out of her wings. Why hadn’t I locked up the coop? How could I have forgotten? Everything in me longed to turn back the clock, but I couldn’t. She was gone.

And then.

There was yelling in the yard. Banging on the back door. “Get out here!” our neighbor called, “There’s a beat up chicken heading for the coop!”

And so we ran outside. A wet, bleeding black chicken was staggering across the yard. She could barely walk. Half her feathers were gone. Her back was ripped open, one of her wings was hanging down.

She was heading straight for the coop. The chicks started peeping madly. We looked at her gaping wounds, looked at each other. “Should we let her in there?” “Well, it’s obviously what she wants.”

Gingerly, we set her in the coop. She clucked at her chicks, gathering them under her remaining good wing. We stared, stunned. You could see every remaining muscle fiber in her neck and back. I sat in the dirt and buried my head in my knees. “She’ll never make it. There’s no point.”

073My husband lifted her and pulled her into his body. “We have to try” he said. “We have to.”

And so we brought her into the house and wrapped her in a towel. My husband is not a surgeon, but he is a cook, and let’s just say that he’s worked with chicken before. We found a needle, thread, distilled water, and hydrogen peroxide. We got to work.

She didn’t seem to feel the stitches. She was barely conscious, but every time she passed out, we brought a chick in from the coop. As soon as we held it in front of her, peeping, she would wake up and start clucking at it. We kept going.

Three hours later, we returned her to the coop and the chicks surrounded her. One jumped up on her back, right on her stitches, and I cringed. But we couldn’t separate them. They were the reason she returned. Her instinct drove her back, and-as it turned out-her instinct would keep her alive.

Shadow was, and continues to be, the mother hen.

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This story was written and performed for Listen to Your Mother’s inaugural show in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. You can see a video of me reading it here:


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A Story of Scared People

Christmas, the first time.

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Mary,

See her lying there, trembling.  Her day of delivery approaches.  She is tired, but sleep will not come; and so she wills the sun to return.  Joseph will come for her then.

Joseph.  She smiles.  His name brings her peace.

In the morning, they will head south to Bethlehem.  In the morning, the donkey will carry her away from everything she has ever known.

The donkey.  As she remembers the dumb beast, her throat constricts and she pushes herself upright, now willing herself, “breathe, breathe, breathe.”  Breathe. It will be hard to breathe as she is carried along, the impact from every step a blow to her tight skin.  When will she finally burst?  When will the miracle-child, now kicking her in the ribs, come?  By the side of the road, under the rude stares of curious traders, as a spectacle to strangers?  Maybe there will be a woman–oh, let there be a skilled woman–to ease the delivery and stop the bleeding.

What if we are all alone?”

Breathe.  No, they will not be alone.  In the distance, as far away as memory lingers, she hears the rustle of wings.  Do not be afraid.  Always the first word and always the last.  Do not be afraid.  She lays back down, resting now at last.

****

the shepherds,

See them flee, trembling.  Brave men, rough and crude, they have met their match.  The sky pulses, the ground swells and rolls under their callused feet.  The world is ending.  The animals flee.  There is no rustle here, only words exploding in the air.

Do! Not! Be! Afraid!

They are scared enough to hear every word.

****

and Joseph.

See him now, trembling.  He crouches in the dirt, picks up a smooth stone, remembers.

Remembers his rage that night, that night long ago, the night when he was the first to know.

How he had considered his legal right to stone. His legal right to Mary’s death, to justice. How he had trembled then, picturing her face and hearing the screams. No. He had decided to just walk away.

But then.

Alone in his bed,  the rustle had came with a command. Joseph. Do not be afraid to take her as your wife. And in the blinding light, he had obeyed.

Now years have passed, and the royal travelers have come and gone.  With their gifts, they left behind a warning.  The king is suspicious.  Jealous. Furious.  He cannot be trusted.  And the angel comes again, this time with no comfort, only this–Get up.  It is time to walk again.  Get up.  Take the child and his mother far away.  Go now.  The soldiers are coming.

But remember, Joseph, Do not be afraid.  Remember the name of the baby.  Remember what it means.

Jesus, the Lord saves.  Just not in the way you were expecting.  Go now.

****

See you reading, see me writing. We know this trembling. At times. At times when anxiety threatens to overcome us, when just a word or two shoves us into a place where we would not choose to be. At times when the world turns upside-down, or the long days seem never-ending. At these times we need to know that they trembled too.

They were scared.  We are scared.  And the rustling, exploding command was given to them so that it could be given to us.  Do not be afraid.

It is there in the story. It is there in the songs. It was Emmanuel who kicked Mary in the ribs.

Emmanuel, God-with-us.

And it is because we are not alone that we need not be afraid.

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Originally published in December 2012. Photo by Bert Kaufmann


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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.

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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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