Strangers

I’ve always had a strict rule of only friending people on Facebook that I know well. Over the years I allowed exactly two exceptions to that rule:  the new husband of a long-time friend, and a fellow author recommended by a trusted friend. My rule has served me well for years…until now.

Since the election, I’ve been feeling my way on how to respond. I have hope that this greatest country the world has ever known…Reagan’s shining city on a hill…will find areas of common ground and overcome its great divide to move forward on important issues. But I’m also left with very specific concerns. I’m concerned that health care will suddenly be made inaccessible to my teenage daughter, who so desperately needs it, but who is uninsurable given her health history. I’m concerned that long-term, otherwise law-abiding immigrants will be deported, breaking up millions of families against the will of 90% of Americans. I’m concerned that trade protectionism will hurt the U.S. economy and our standing in the world. And I’m concerned that the progress we’ve made toward acceptance of all races and religions and lifestyles will be reversed.

And so I’ve begun connecting with groups who are taking these issues on, banding together to ensure that our government doesn’t believe it has a mandate in these areas. And in so doing, I suddenly have Facebook friends who are strangers. I may never meet them, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t already know them, at least a little.  There’s the mother of 3 small children from Massachusetts who believes fervently in social justice. There’s the Stanford professor who’s fighting to ensure that the science to which she’s dedicated her life continues to have a voice in our government.  And there’s the wife of Obama’s head of the Center of Medicare and Medicaid Services, working to protect health care for the most vulnerable Americans. We’ve never met. We have no mutual friends. We have no shared experience. But we share a vision for our country and our families. Because of that, they are not strangers.

“Truth stands, even if there be no public support. It is self-sustained.”  –Mahatma Gandhi


Mother-In-Law Jokes


I’ve never told a mother-in-law joke or even laughed at one; I’ve never found them funny. My late mother-in-law was a saint.

Pauline Maryann Houser was born the oldest of two daughters in Mena, Arkansas, to Anderson and Kathlyn Houser. She dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. Instead, she was swept off of her feet at 19 by a handsome, WWII B24 gunner seven years her senior. Gordon MCleary was four years and one divorce beyond the war, though he never really left it behind. Their first son was born the year after they married; 13 other children followed over the next 24 years, a total of twelve boys and two girls. Sadly, they outlived two of them. After my own daughter’s critical illness last year, I have no idea how they survived their deaths.

Life was never easy for Mom, but she didn’t let it break her. Dad drank, to fight his demons from the war. With that many kids, the month always outlasted the paycheck. My husband remembers being hungry at the end of the month…leftovers were a new concept when we got married. You can’t really keep a house nice with twelve growing boys, since you never know when you’ll find freshly hunted squirrels or car parts in your kitchen sink. There was no way to referee all of their daily conflicts. I think that it’s nothing short of a miracle that she kept them all in one piece, let alone clothed and fed, until they reached adulthood.

But the most amazing thing about Mom was her disposition. Through it all–the poverty, the child loss, the shenanigans by her kids–she was the sunniest person I’ve ever known. In the 25 years that I knew her, I can count on one hand the number of times that I heard her speak ill of anyone. Those rare occasions were reserved for ex’s who had hurt her kids, her unforgivable sin. No matter what they did, she deeply loved and fiercely defended each of her children. She was the epitome of a loyal, loving mother.

I miss her greatly every day, but especially on Mother’s Day, her birthday, and Christmas. She loved me like a daughter, and I wish I could again tell her how much she meant to me. Mom – you are missed, you are loved, and you made a difference.

“The heart of a mother is a deep abyss, at the bottom of which you always find forgiveness.”  –Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Coke


I grew up in a part of the U.S. where “Coke” is a generic term. Like when you go to a restaurant and the waitress asks “What kind of Coke do you want?”. Sprite, Dr. Pepper, and root beer are all appropriate answers to that question, as is, of course, Coke.

I’ve had Coke all over the world. It doesn’t all taste the same, but it’s still Coke enough, and it’s one of the safest things to order when abroad, especially for a picky eater like me. [I once packed 48 Pop Tarts for two weeks in rural Russia; my traveling companions made fun of me at first, until by the end of the second week, they were sheepishly asking if I had any left.] I’ve seen some funny foods in other countries. Horse meat in Belgium (a delicacy), mystery pork (we think) in Russia, duck feet and “fake shrimp” in China. The fake shrimp is hard to describe:  it looked an awful lot like those pastel, speckled jelly beans we find only at Easter…the pink ones, except larger and slimy. I didn’t try them. I also skipped the fish brains at a dinner party in Japan, though I knew it was impolite. A colleague’s response when I later told him I hadn’t tried them was “Good call.”  He said they were just what you’d expect fish brains to be like. I have no regrets.

Another of my colleagues was a very flexible eater, willing to try anything. He’d declare his ordering strategy just before we headed to dinner. On any given night it might be ordering the third item down on the far right column of the menu, or ordering whatever the person at the table directly behind him was having. I was in awe of his bravery. But my bravest coworker was hungry enough to eat a hot dog at 2 a.m. at a 7-11 in Thailand. He survived.

I eventually stole a technique from a big, burly Southern boy from Louisiana who was living in Singapore. To avoid being rude when offered unidentifiable food, he would simply say he was allergic. So today when I’m faced with unfamiliar food in an unfamiliar part of the world, I just smile and shake my head and say “Oh thank you, but I’m allergic.” And then I order a Coke.

“You know more of a road by having traveled it than by all the conjectures and descriptions in the world.”  –William Hazlitt


Choice

choice

None of us chooses to be born, and none of us chooses that we will die. The only choice we can make is to go on.

Some days the choice to go on is so glorious and easy, that we forget it’s a choice at all. Other days the choice is so difficult that we don’t know how we’ll get out of bed and put one foot in front of another. I’m feeling blessed to be in one of the easier times at this moment, but at this “experience” level in life, I’ve learned how fleeting that is. I know that at any moment things could change, and I could find myself fighting to walk through knee deep mud, filled with creatures and sharp objects in complete darkness. In fact, I know it’s coming…it’s inevitable. I just don’t know when, or what new tipping point will once again change my life.

In the meantime, I will choose to ignore that eventuality. I will tell myself the lie that since today is good, then tomorrow will be, too. And it probably will be…until it isn’t. Then, I will still tell myself that tomorrow will be good, knowing that someday–once again–it will be.

“You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.'”  –Eleanor Roosevelt


Girl Scout Prison Camp

tent

I once sent my youngest to what she now calls Girl Scout prison camp. We’d just moved to Arkansas, and I wanted the girls to continue their great experiences from their camp in Minnesota. I had such fond memories of camp as a girl myself, of crafts and hiking and canoeing and even chores. It was an early taste of independence.

I found a Girl Scout camp in the River Valley, near Booneville (yes, that’s a real place) and signed her up. We drove the two and a half hours south in mid-July, to a place where the trees outnumber everything except the mosquitoes. After waiting in numerous lines in the sweltering heat to get her checked in, we lugged her gear the half mile to her cabin. Except calling it a cabin was generous. Unlike the air-conditioned cabins with bunk beds back in Minnesota, this was a wooden platform with six canvas cots and a canvas tent covering. Given the mid-day heat, all of the tent sides were rolled up…her new home for the next five days was basically the woods. As she chose a cot to put her stuff on, I saw it…and quietly steered her to another cot which didn’t have a six-inch stick bug on it. Luckily she didn’t see it…they were everywhere. I began nervously playing out in my head what I would do if she decided she wouldn’t stay when it was time for me to leave. That didn’t happen, although part of me wanted to give her the out. I didn’t. Fifteen minutes later, I walked away from my deeply introverted daughter, leaving her in the middle of the oppressively hot woods with strangers. I’ll never know who that was harder on.

When I picked her up nearly a week later, she was none the worse for wear, though she was grateful for air conditioning. She had stories of finding a scorpion and a baby tarantula and eating camp food and singing songs. It was the tiny step toward independence that I’d hoped for. The stories and the sarcastic name she’s given the experience are symbols of that independence, keeping it alive for her and giving her the sense of confidence that her independence has earned. So I encourage her stories and let her harass me for leaving her there. I’ll do it again and again, though it will always be just as hard as it was then. It’s what a mother does.

“Some of us think holding on makes us strong, but sometimes it is letting go.”  –Hermann Hesse


Redemption

I remember when a friend took a teenage boy into her home to foster. He was 14 and had had a difficult life. I never knew many details, but I understood his mother lost custody of him due to drugs. I admired my friend:  teenagers are challenging in the best of circumstances, and my friend’s son, maybe 10 at the time, was still at home. But she and her husband were strong Christians, living their faith to love and serve. Things went ok for awhile, but by the time the boy was 17, the issues of his past overtook him, and he left their home. My friend was sad, but I saw peace in her that she had done what she could and was called to do.

Fast forward several years, and the boy had grown up. After spending time in his own personal wilderness, he came home to my friend. He’d learned what he needed to learn, and because he’d been given the gift of love, he had a family to come home to. Today that boy is a married father and productive member of society.

We love stories of redemption…they give us hope for ourselves. It’s a familiar theme in literature and movies, from A Christmas Carol to Les Miserables, to Shawshank Redemption and Good Will Hunting. One real life story which made the internet rounds a few years ago was the story of homeless Army veteran Jim Wolf who was given a makeover (worth the 3 minute watch), along with housing and other assistance. It was a great feel good story until we learn that he was arrested less than a year later. Clearly chronic homelessness takes more to fix than a haircut and a new suit. Apparently redemption isn’t so easy after all.

We all need redemption and forgiveness. Who do you need to forgive? I’m finding that list for me needs to start with myself. By squarely acknowledging what I’ve contributed to where I’m at in my life, I’m finding it vastly easier to overlook others’ minor human missteps. No one gets through life without challenges and scars. I’m grateful for the chance every single day to start again and redeem my past mistakes. And to make more of them, and to strive the next day to redeem those.

“Seeking to forget makes exile all the longer; the secret of redemption lies in remembrance.”  –Richard Von Weizsaecker


Weary


The older I get, the more weary I get.  I don’t know how to fully explain it, and I don’t mean that I’m more tired (though that’s true, too).  I mean weary, like not just in my bones but in my soul, too.  It’s not a good feeling, yet somehow it’s not totally bad, either.  It’s almost familiar, even though it’s new, like somehow it was inevitable.  I’m at the stage now where I’m working to decide what it means, and more importantly, what to do with it.

While I think that a small part of it has to do with the realization that I’m now unquestionably in the back half of my life, this isn’t a mid-life crisis.  I have a precious family that means the world to me and a meaningful job I love.  I’m healthy and active, and I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life spiritually.  No, it’s more than that.  It feels the most like more of a vague realization that life is just flat out a struggle, and there’s too much suffering in the world.  This loony election season hasn’t helped any, but this is way bigger than any political outcome.  I just get weary.

I get weary of the polarization and seemingly unreconcilable divide in our country.  I get weary of the need to hand money and a blessing out of my car window to the homeless.  I get weary of seeing the photos and hearing the stories of especially children fighting horrific diseases for their very lives.  I get weary of politicians acting in what is clearly their own best interest over those who elected them to serve them.  I get weary of layoffs and domestic abuse and addiction and racism.  It becomes overwhelming.

Yet when it seems like just one more all-too-human story may knock me down, another story…an offsetting story of hope… shines through.  The amazing part is it usually only takes one of the good ones to counter many of the bad ones.  That’s the power of good, of love.  From those small, shining nuggets of hope, I get the strength to carry on.  Even though I am weary.

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”  –Galatians 6:9