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


Offensive


I’ve been in exactly one play in my life. I was in the eighth grade, and I no longer have any idea why I tried out. In retrospect, it’s pretty surprising:  I was an awkward, introverted teenager…being in a play wasn’t remotely who I was. I vaguely remember being encouraged to try out by a teacher. I did, and I got a part. It wasn’t a lead part, but at least I got to participate.

After weeks of practice, we gave three performances…one during the day for the school, one in the evening for our parents, and one at a regional competition. I learned a few things from the experience. The main thing I learned was that I could pretend to be someone else. That was hard for me, not just because I was shy, but because I’m pretty logical and fact-based. I’m not creative, and taking on a role really stretched me. I learned to put myself out there in public. I can’t exactly say it changed my life, but it was a step on the journey I underwent during high school to come out of my shell. And I enjoyed being part of the troupe, included at an age where exclusion is often the rule. I’ve always looked back fondly on the experience.

Except. I’ve long forgotten the name of the play, its plot, or any of the other roles. What I do remember is my character. You see, I played the comic relief, pretty ironic for me. My character had the best lines, generating laughs in all of our performances. I  also had the best costume and was the most memorable. It was an awkward role to learn, but once I did, I knew I’d done it justice by the audience’s reaction. It was a blast. Except that now, with the wisdom of adulthood, I realize that my character was offensive…highly offensive. You see, I was the black maid, Mammy.

I wore an old dress, an apron, a kerchief over my pinned up hair…and blackface. Just walking out onstage in my small Kansas farm town got laughs. I got even more laughs when I delivered my well-rehearsed lines in a high-pitched shriek. Let’s just say that my character was not the brightest bulb in the box. Looking back now, I’m mortified. I was a naive 13-year-old, in an all-white, rural community. We had one black student in my entire school career, and she stayed only a semester. Obviously, the play was an overt indicator of an uninclusive culture in the late ’70’s. I had no idea that I was being offensive.

I’ve been thinking about this experience over these last couple of months. No matter whether or not you’re happy with the outcome of this ugliest election, it’s held at least one undeniable lesson for our country:  that any belief that we’d evolved to some post-racial America was a delusion. The signs were there all along that prejudice is still very much alive. But fifty years after women’s liberation, the first black president, and the increasing heterogenization of our country’s demographics, some of us had been lulled into a false complacency that we’d moved past all of that. That illusion has been shattered; the ugliness is still very much among us. 

“Injustice anywhere threatens justice everywhere.”  –Martin Luther King Jr.


Resolutions


I don’t do New Year’s resolutions.  My only attempt several years ago with a friend was miserable for us both, partly because life intervened, making our goals suddenly not priorities, and partly because some of our goals turned out not to be the right ones after all.  I’ve learned the hard way that I’m too stubborn to change my habits until I’m ready…a change in the calendar isn’t going to do it.

However, a year ago I attended a personal values session held by my employer.  It was the most impactful session I’ve ever attended.  We were each given a deck of 36 cards with values on them like spirituality, financial security, and healthy relationships.  We then had to sort out all 36 of these good things into 3 groups:  most important, important, and least important.  Sounds easy enough, except we could only keep six in the most important group.  That was agonizingly difficult, so much so that I could see some colleagues only finalize their list because time was up.  We then developed stop/start/continue plans for our six.  The exercise changed my focus for my life.

So when a friend asked me at lunch recently if I’d developed any resolutions for the new year, I resolved to pull out the notebook from that session.  What I found was simultaneously encouraging and disheartening.  While I’d indeed followed my plans pretty well for half of the six values, I’d fallen way short on the other half…I’d actually forgotten two of them.  The list was still the right list; I had just failed miserably at some of them.

So while I don’t consider them resolutions, I’ll be refocusing on that list of values I identified as most important to me.  I want to live my values; they matter to me, even when I fall short.  I guess I’ll make just one resolution–to not give up on becoming the person I aspire to be.

If you’re interested in identifying your top six personal values, here’s a list to work with…good luck!

http://www.icarevalues.org/Value%20Cards%20v4.d.pdf


When we need love the most


When our son–our oldest–was a toddler, our local newspaper included a parenting column. I got one of my most valuable parenting lessons there:  when a child is acting the least lovable is when they actually need the most love. It’s so powerful not just because I found it to be utterly true with my kids, but because I’ve also realized that it doesn’t apply only to children.

Children misbehave when they’re tired or bored or frustrated or scared. So do adults. This tip has helped me check my own reactions to others’ behavior on countless occasions. I can’t say it’s always worked, but when I remember it and respond with gentleness and love instead of anger, the outcome is usually dramatically better. Love defuses negative emotions; I’ve come to believe that it can fix virtually anything. In Disney’s Merlin, the title character called love “the most powerful force in the universe.” I believe it.

As I’ve matured in my faith journey, I think I know why love is so powerful:  God is, fundamentally, love. Showing love is a little like having our own super power. And there’s simply no downside to responding in love–it always leaves me feeling better when I do. It has taken me much practice and self-control, especially sometimes as the mother of two teenage girls. But it’s worth it, they’re worth it. And I’m worth it, for my peace and for my relationships.

“There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.”  –George Sand


Hope


This Christmas was different. We did all the traditional family stuff:  put up our tree and the family momentos, made gingerbread houses and sugar cookies, and drove around to look at Christmas lights. It’s always been one of my favorite times of year, and it was again this year. But it was still different, with a whole new layer of meaning I hadn’t experienced before in my 50 years.

You see, I’ve never really understood Christmas. I can recite the familiar story about as well as anyone can. I understand its theological meaning:  that God Himself chose to walk among us, suffer for us, and in so doing, save us from ourselves. I understand all of that, but I still feel like I don’t really understand. It’s always been just a story to me, no different than other stories unrelatable by the great distance of time and an element of the miraculous. I’ve long understood the story only with my head, but never my heart.

But this year was different. For a lot of reasons, this year I came into Christmas needing hope. I needed to believe, that in spite of all of the dark and pain and ugliness, there will be a happy ending. I desperately needed hope…I was looking for it. But the funny thing is that the Bible says that that’s all we really have to do:  to look for it. There’s no magic key to life or to peace, only to have the desire to seek God. This year, simply by seeking Hope, I actually found it, and in so doing, I also began to understand the true meaning of Christmas.

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh shall receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.”  –Matthew 7:7-8