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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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.


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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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Be Small and Love Big {Part Two: Christmas Letter Aftermath}

How do you count your life?

Big, small, meaningful, wasted, successful, incomplete?  How do the days add up?  How do you add up?

Do you ever wonder?  I do, and though I finished Part One with a nod toward meaning found in daily acts of love, I am unsteady here.  I sway when I consider that my part-time job pays less in a whole month than my husband makes in a single real estate transaction (which isn’t even his main job).  I waver when my friends get promotions in jobs that they actually went to school to do.  I topple when the Christmas letters come and I learn that someone else’s preschooler is reading better than my kindergartner.    Or that they ran marathons.  Or teach Pilates.  Or just published their dissertation.

(You all know who you are.)

I sway, waver and topple; and though I tell myself that my own life has meaning that can’t be quantified, sometimes I feel like an over-indulgent parent complimenting a four-year old’s scribbling.  “Oh, honey, it’s beautiful… what a nice, uh, nice, uh…”  “Pegasus, Mama, it’s a yellow Pegasus with rainbow wings.”  “Oh, of course.  Let’s put it on the fridge.”

Sometimes I wonder if my life is really worthy of the fridge.

****

How do you count your life?  Here is the easiest way to count most things: numbers.  Let’s talk annual income, weight loss, or likes on facebook.  How about debt, doughnuts eaten, or hours wasted in whatever way you like to waste hours?  How do the numbers add up?  It’s like a word problem on a standardized test, “If Suzie spends two hours watching Downton Abby (which, if you’re wondering, is a positive value), works for six hours at twelve dollars an hour, and cycles three miles home; did she have a good day?”  “If Bill owes twenty thousand dollars in school loans, makes thirty thousand dollars a year, and just lost ten pounds; is he having a good life?”

Yes, I know that I’m being ridiculous.  Of course, you can’t count a life by numbers any more than you can compare one life to another.  But isn’t this our fallback position?  Isn’t it at least a temptation when you find yourself unemployed or overweight or in debt over your little graying head?  Or conversely, don’t we have a subconscious sense of security when the numbers add up in our favor?  Isn’t this why I’m obsessed with exactly how many miles I ran?

If life doesn’t add up in numbers, how am I supposed to know how I’m doing?

And now that I’ve said it, I can tell:  this is exactly the wrong question.  I ask it as if life is something to be earned, deserved or proven.  But when I sit here, when I fall into this place and wallow in it, I know:  I’ve gotten everything backwards.

****

Ann Voskamp spelled it out for me the other day on her blog, the blunt force of her words cutting through my hazy patterns.  “Doxology or drown.  Decide.”  We either live a life of thankfulness (doxology), or we will quickly find ourselves in over our heads (drown).

Doxology or drown.  Decide.

When I read this, I felt physically shaken.  It’s no wonder.  She was pulling up the roots of my assumptions.

Life is not an accomplishment(yank), but a gift.

Life is not something to be evaluated(pull), but something to be received.

Yes, yes, I knew all this.  In my head.  But do I really know it?  Do I live it?  How deep does it go?

I entitled this pair of posts “Be Small and Love Big” not knowing precisely what I meant.  I still don’t.  But it’s a place to begin.  Be small.  Doxology begins with the small, with noticing how the raindrops slide down the electrical wires (thank you).  With hearing a child downstairs whisper much too loudly, “Go away.  I’m hiding” (thank you).  With feeling the tap of computer keys as words come and another blog post goes out (thank you).  Another new morning.  Another list of responsibilities.  Another influx of blessings.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Doxology begins with receiving each small piece of your life.

Noticing.  Receiving.  Saying thank you.  Again and again.

It’s another way of counting life, and I have decided to give it a try.


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When Christmas Hurts

I began this poem in the margins of my church bulletin last Sunday.  Our prayer request time had been (not unusually) raw and real, with brave people daring to admit that they weren’t doing “fine, thank you.”  It’s amazing how this honesty spreads across the sanctuary.  After we cried together, prayed together, and stood together to sing; something changed.  I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but the closest I can come is to say that Joy seeped in through our cracked walls.

*

As words came, so did tears.

Tears like rivers, slowly cutting through bedrock.

Rivers carving out channels where there weren’t channels before.

And

we were swept downstream

together.

*

There in a jumbled heap

we looked at one another again, no,

we looked for the first time that morning

and saw the eyes of grown-ups

who were barely hanging on.

*

What do you do,

we whispered to someone listening,

when you are counting for Christmas to be over?

What if the missing is just too much

and each twinkling light stings?

What do you do if this was not the plan?

*

Tissue boxes arrived,

we passed them around,

but still we sat, breathing together.

Now we were waiting,

hands resting on the backs of our neighbors,

we were waiting for hope to come.

*

Hope does not come with happiness.

We knew it.  Happiness is too thin.

Hope needs friction, not fa la la la la.

Tensile strength, not tinsel.

We needed a Christmas strong enough

to bear this sorrow.

*

And it was given.

It was given the moment we stopped grasping, and

with hands on backs and true words spoken aloud,

we received it.

We were surprised.

The hope came through joy.

*

We stood to sing.

Joy to the world.

Joy to the messed up real world.

Joy, which is not candy,

but medicine.

*

*

I am indebted to the author and anti-sex-trafficking advocate Christine Caine for this metaphor: “Joy is not ‘imitation happiness’.  If happiness is like candy, then Joy is medicine.”  I have been thinking about this phrase since I read it in her painful and hopeful book, Undaunted, and I am grateful for her hard-won wisdom.


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A Poem for a Pause

Space.

A word with room inside

to pause

and sit-your-weary-brain-down

for just a moment

or two.

*

Space.

A word with the ability

to watch rain fill the sky,

feel your body settle into a chair,

or be carried along by some music,

so Full

you forget yourself.

*

Space.

A word that amplifies true things

spoken softly

like you are loved

blessed

and a blessing to many.

Things that are certainly true.

*

Space.

A moment to remember what it is

you’ve been given,

which would be

everything you need.