Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bees and BandAids

One of my favorite dresses in second grade was a light cotton with blue flowers. It had a full skirt that would twirl around nicely without going up too high if I were in a twirly mood, and full sleeves loosely gathered at the elbow with elastic. Like most of my dresses, this one buttoned down the back. My mother had made it, and although she was an accomplished seamstress, she hadn’t gotten the neck quite right, so it gaped open slightly. And somehow, on a bright, windy April day, on the playground during lunch recess, a bee managed to fly down my dress and get caught in my sleeve.

I was generally a calm child who prided herself on being controlled. If that sounds as if I were exceptionally mature, I wasn’t---just self conscious and somewhat aloof. During recess I had been eyeing the bees. They tended to cluster near the swings where dandelion, clover, and other flowering weeds covered the ground. I was very careful not to step on or otherwise antagonize them, but I also didn’t totally avoid them, preferring to tell myself that they didn’t really scare me. I thought if I was afraid of them they would smell my fear and come after me in swarms.

So I dallied at the swings, waiting my turn, demurely twirling once in a while to feel the dance of cotton around my legs, when suddenly I felt a buzzing against my undershirt. I froze mid-twirl and stood very still, trying to will the bee not to exist. But the buzzing continued as the poor creature, who must by now have discovered it had not found its way into a giant exotic flower, began to buzz even louder as it made its way from my bodice to my sleeve.

After ten long seconds, I threw all caution and self-control to the wind and began to scream and cry and flail at myself, trying simultaneously to both kill the bee and set it free. Help came running in the form of minions of other second graders who began to scream with me when they discovered I had been attacked by a bee. “Bees!” they screamed. “Bees!” I could hardly point out that it was only the one bee since it felt like a dozen. Our shrill chorus seemed to go on forever, but it could only have been a minute before I caught sight of my teacher, Mrs. Barnes, lumbering toward me.

Mrs. Barnes, with her graying red curls that bounced off her glasses frames when she moved quickly, as she was doing now, whose feet filled her solid shoes and overflowed, just a little at the ankle, whose hands had wrinkles and big, brown spots on them like freckles, only different, was as divine to me now as the brightest angel I could imagine. I was engulfed as she pressed me to her ample bosom. Then, shielding me with her large body, she nimbly unbuttoned my dress, whipped it over my head, shook it out, and had it back on me and rebuttoned before I had time to stop crying.

My screams stopped immediately; I was so shocked at this public undressing. But no one else seemed to have noticed, so I clung to Mrs. Barnes, weeping quietly in what I hoped was a ladylike fashion while she escorted me to the nurse, Mrs. West. They examined me and found that I had indeed been stung on the upper arm. Amazingly, I hadn’t felt anything, but the terror of the bee itself had been so great that a mere bee sting was probably anti-climactic. I quieted in Mrs. West’s office, and Mrs. Barnes hurried off to class as the bell rang. Sipping water, I pressed a cold wash cloth to my face while Mrs. West put alcohol on the bee sting.

And then Mrs. West said, “Would you like a Band-Aid?” They were the words I didn’t even know I had been waiting for, but when she said them I had to fight the urge to grab the Band-Aid box and spill its contents as I searched for the perfect shape and size. “Yes, please.” I said, using my most polite and grown-up voice. And even though I had not felt the sting and the minute bleeding had stopped and the little itch that was left after the stinger had been removed was a fading memory, I breathed a sigh of relief as the adhesive bandage was placed on my arm. Even though I knew that when I removed it later it would painfully tear the tiny hairs of my arm, I felt healed.

I lost my fear of bees after several years, although I never was one to seek them out. I thought I had also lost my love for Band-Aids until a few months ago when I found myself sitting in a small room with a different nurse, waiting for a vaccination. A needle was involved, and that needle engendered some of the same feelings the bee had 50 years before. I didn’t cry or cause a scene, even though I wanted to, but I fretted a little as the nurse rubbed alcohol on my arm just before piercing my flesh.

Surprisingly, I barely felt the shot; in fact I complimented the nurse afterward on her gentle technique. She smiled, pleased at this, and dabbed my arm with a cotton ball. ÒI think you’re bleeding a bit,” she said. “Would you like a Band-Aid?”

“A Band-Aid?” I hesitated. Maybe I was too old for Band-Aids. But as I peered over my glasses I could see a tiny spot of blood that seemed to reappear as fast as the nurse could wipe it away. “Yes, please,” I said. “I’d like a Band-Aid.”

As I felt the adhesive stick to my skin, the trauma subsided. Something was holding me together; I had been patched up. Suddenly I understood that the healing power of a Band-Aid is not limited to children. It can be a  concrete manifestation of the knowledge that we will not break apart, that whatever happened is now over, that help has arrived. It is a badge that tells the world you are a survivor.

I left my Band-Aid on all that night, even after I had discovered that what I had thought was a bleeding needle hole was merely a freckle. My arm hurt, a side effect of this particular vaccine, and I couldn’t bear to expose my wound. Every time I moved, my arm would throb and I would wake for a few minutes. But the Band-Aid was still there and I would drop back off to sleep knowing I was still holding together.

Comfort comes in many forms: a homemade cookie, warm from the oven, the purr of a cat as he settles into your lap for some serious petting, the beauty of a bouquet of white roses in your favorite vase. And sometimes it’s as simple as a small adhesive strip with a soft spot in the middle.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Dancing With My Father

Like many people, I was terribly afraid of God when I was young, while at the same time assuming I would end up in heaven with him.  Of course this had its downsides.  For one thing, an eternity trying to please the Almighty seemed awfully tiring. Then as I grew older I began to be afraid heaven would be like high school.  You know, popular saints in cliques, ignoring me and my friends while we tried to look righteous or at least like we hadn’t been let in by mistake. The nicest mansions going to folks like St. Francis, C.S. Lewis, and Billy Graham, with nerds like me being content to live (forever!) in a double-wide far from the streets of gold. And if by some wild chance I were invited to any parties, I would as usual end up alone, trying to look as if I were having a good time standing on the sidelines, never being asked to dance.
             Spiritual roadblocks like fear of God and heaven paled beside the fear I had of my father.   God boomed thunder and struck people dead or turned them into pillars of salt, and I wasn’t quite sure where he ended and my father began.  My father seemed like God because he was powerful and I never knew when he would give in to rage.  He cultivated the idea of a direct line between himself and God, and he knew immediately if we did anything wrong.  With both of them I tried to stay invisible, do what I was told to do, and not do what I was told not to do.  Of course, this didn’t always work. 
           When I was ten years old my parents often left me in charge of my younger brother and sisters. I had been caring for my three siblings with less and less supervision since I was eight and the baby was born.  On this night, we had spent the evening in the family room.  We ate popcorn and watched TV, and slowly everyone went to bed.  Everyone but me.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember something so long ago, but this was a memorable evening without the tensions surrounding Mom and Dad and their constant conflicts.  With the dim light from the lamp and the sound of rain falling gently outside, I relaxed, enjoying the rare opportunity of having the TV to myself.   I lost track of time until I heard a noise.  It was my parents’ car; they were home. 
I panicked.  Not only was it past my bedtime, but I had been watching television without express permission.  Enjoying myself made me feel even more guilty.   So I did the obvious thing:  I turned out the light and the TV, ran to my bedroom and flung myself under the blankets. 
The wait was short.  My father burst into the room flipping on the lights, whipping off his belt, pulling me out of bed by my arm, and yelling, all seemingly simultaneously.  Without questioning me or explaining why, he began to hit me, his shouting as painful as the belt. The hitting continued as my father roared. I had not fooled him by pretending I was in bed.  He knew better. I was a bad child who deserved worse punishment than he could give me.  When his arm tired, or his anger dissipated, or he grew ashamed, I’ll never know which, he dropped me back on the bed and gritted the warning.  “Don’t you ever lie to me again.  Ever.”  Even when my mother told me the next day they had seen the lights go out when they drove up, I was convinced God had told on me.
As I lay in bed, skin burning where the belt had hit me, I struggled not to cry.  My father might come back and whip me again.  I did what many children do when they live in a house full of rage.  I internalized my fears and guilt and tiptoed carefully until I messed up again.
This is how I learned about God and love.  Love and fear were intertwined.  Love and violence went hand in hand.  Love meant anger and pain.  Love was measured out, or taken away, depending on how 'good' I was.  God was to be feared because, theoretically at least, he was even more powerful than my father.
When I left home at age nineteen, I married a man who soon began to hit me.  I stayed with him for three years until I began to fear he might kill me.  When I told my parents we were splitting up, I was ashamed to tell them why.  My father’s response to our divorce was, “Remember?  I told you it wouldn’t last five years!”  He had tried to convince me I shouldn’t marry this man, and now he was gleeful because he had been right.  He expressed no sorrow, offered no hope.   God had let him in on my future, and I should have listened to his warning.   
I was twenty-two years old, still scared of my father, but beginning to feel anger.  I never confronted him, but avoided him as much as possible.  Living 300 miles away from my parents who were still busy with my younger brother and sisters, school and work became easy excuses for my unavailability, and during infrequent phone calls I became practiced at superficial, quick conversation. 
As for God, I never shook my fist at the sky or spat angry words at him.  I knew better.  But I did stop going to church.  I never talked to God or about God.  I went about my life quietly rebelling against all I had ever been taught about right and wrong.  I smoked, drank, experimented with drugs, bought into the idea of ‘sexual freedom.’ Once in a while, I even lied.  I rarely thought about God except as a childhood idea.   I was much too busy trying to figure out who I was and what life was about to spend time on something as archaic as God.  Especially one as violent and capricious as the one who was friends with my father.
Fast forward twenty-five years.  My second marriage of twenty years and three children is stumbling toward collapse.  By this time I have been living in my hometown only a few miles from my parents during my entire second marriage.  The uneasy truce we have achieved is easily destroyed by the sudden upheaval of another divorce.
            My father was not at his best during this time.  While he didn’t rage violently any more, and hadn’t for years, he had settled into a narcissistic rut where everything revolved around him.  If it didn’t, it just wasn’t all that important. At this point in my life, I hit what felt like bottom.  I was bereft with no foundation, no hope, nothing.   This was when I began writing angry letters to my father.  “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to forgive you for this,” said one.  “This is just another example of your ego feeding on everything around it,” said another.
I began to see a counselor.  Kathryn was not your warm and fuzzy therapist; in fact she seemed somewhat stern at times.  This was good in a way because my old fear of lying came back and I was able to tell the truth about my life in little spurts.  I worked slowly toward untangling the web of fear surrounding me and understanding myself in relationship with other people, including my parents. 
During one session when I had been particularly vitriolic regarding my father, Kathryn gave me some advice.  “It might be helpful,” she said, “to view your father as perhaps a pet turtle.  He’s there in your life, you’re not going to get rid of him.  You may even pat him on the head once in a while.  But you don’t get too excited over whether he goes in his shell or comes out, whether he hibernates or wakes up.  He’s just a turtle.”     This was not a magic solution to the complicated relationship with my father, but it helped. I was able to look at my father more objectively and to see him more as a wounded man than a fearsome demi-god.
At the same time, I began to consider my spiritual life.  For years I had countered any serious questioning about where I stood with God by casually stating I was finding my path.  That was my entire spiritual life: finding my path.  With the upheaval I was experiencing, I realized there was no path; I was essentially going in circles, going nowhere, believing in not much of anything.  Unexpectedly, I found myself yearning to find the path and walk it, or crawl it if necessary.  The only thing was, I had this little problem with God.  The part where I was full of anger and fear. Churches of my youth had reinforced the fears my father encouraged, and I had no way to deal with the anger.  I felt paralyzed, unable to reach out for what I needed. 
My journey was slow at first, as if I were walking along a beach, looking at the water, staying just far enough away from the tide to avoid getting my shoes wet. Eventually I took my shoes off and let the water cover my feet.  It was only a matter of time until I was wading slowly away from the shore, getting ready to dive, to explore the mysteries.  I couldn’t swim and had no idea where I was going, but I was beginning to believe God would give me what I needed to find my way.
I had been raised to believe any church outside a narrow range of evangelical  groups was suspect at best.  So, of course, I was drawn to a small Episcopal church called St. Alban’s in a nearby town.  I attended one Sunday and was relieved at the predictability of the service.  I found The Book of Common Prayer in the back of the pew in front of me, and it took little effort to find my place and follow along.  I loved how different this was from the churches of my youth, yet I didn’t go back to visit.  Not until a few months later when one day I was feeling particularly raw and un-tethered and saw a short notice on the religion page of the newspaper announcing a healing service at St. Alban’s each Saturday afternoon during Lent.  
I arrived early at the service, slipping into a back pew and onto the kneeler. As I knelt I meditated on the stained glass window at the very top of the front of the church.  After several minutes, the rector walked to the front of the church and began arranging his vestments.  Realizing I was the only other person in the church, I began to panic.  Would I be called out, made a spectacle of, have hands laid on me?  I tried to look pious but I was secretly trying to find a way to leave unobtrusively.  I didn’t find it. 
Father Eric turned to face me, and acknowledged no one else was there except the organist up in the loft who came down and sat in a pew on the other side of the church.  And so the service began.  I don’t remember the words said or prayed that day, but I do remember it took only a few minutes before I began to weep
By the time Father Eric called us to the front of the church for communion, I had lost my self-consciousness and stood quietly as Father Eric dipped his thumb in oil and made the sign of the cross on my forehead, praying for my healing as I continued to weep.
I have seen and heard many conversion stories, seldom one as un-dramatic as mine. But at that moment, the depth of my pain led to a place of surrender to a God who is nothing like my father, an imperfect man who loved me imperfectly and hurt me terribly.  In that surrender, it really was like a veil being lifted or utter blindness giving way to sight as I experienced a love I had never imagined.  One that required nothing of me but acceptance.
            I’ve wondered since then why God gave me such a terrible earthly father.  It seems not only unfair, but wasteful for me to struggle with the emotional and psychological burdens Dad passed on to me.  I could have been so much more spiritually advanced by now, could have accomplished so many more things, could have had a real father instead of a turtle.
A few years ago, Dad died after a brief illness.  Right up until the last time I saw him he remained cranky and self-centered.  I patted his bald head that was beginning to make him look remarkably like that of a turtle, and tried not to take offense at his remarks.   He was my father; he was who he was.  About a week after his death, I began to miss him.  Something would happen that would cause me to think, “I’ll have to tell Dad about that.”  And then I would realize I couldn’t tell Dad.  He was gone. 
A while later at the prison where I volunteered, one of the men, Tom, was talking about a part of the Bible we were studying.  I don’t remember what he said.  What I remember is what a joy it was to listen to him talk about his faith and God’s meaning in his life. I imagined how Dad would enjoy talking to these men, and then just as suddenly I remembered Dad was gone.  But in the next instant I had another thought:  someday Dad would be able to sit with Tom and the others, and we could talk in freedom as long as we wanted about whatever we wanted.  In that perfect day, Dad will have lost his self-centeredness and be able to listen.  Joy gave way to shock as I realized I look forward to that day with anticipation, no longer burdened by the fears of my childhood.   Yes, I could have had a better father, one who taught me from the beginning what it meant to be loved, to be in relationship, to be valued.  But rather than sit by bitter waters and weep, I can drink deeply of sweet, living waters and thank God who says, “I am the Lord who heals you.”
I see heaven differently now than I did when I was young.  There’s a song called “Dancing with my Father God in Fields of Grace.”  After all the years of fear, anger, dysfunction and enmity, I think of Dad whenever I hear this song.  I envision a vast field of barley, like the ones on Perrydale Road near the prison, with a few big leafy trees providing shade.  Out in the field  God and Dad are dancing joyously, unselfconsciously, with abandon.   And there, at the edge of the field, I stand waiting.  Waiting for the moment when I run to join them and begin to dance.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


One of the most haunting stories I’ve ever read was “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor.  O’Connor was such a master storyteller that this one story has generated numerous theories, countless essays and other writings.  O’Connor didn’t pull any punches; the story of the family who happens upon ‘The Misfit’, a type of psychotic serial killer straight out of the darkest episode of  “Criminal Minds”, is  horrific. 

There is much to consider in this story, but the thing I was thinking about today was what ‘The Misfit’ says, just before he shoots the grandmother (such a terrible thing, shooting the grandmother, irritating though she was).  I don’t have a copy of the story, but he says something like ‘Jesus threw everything off balance.’  How true that is.  It makes me think of the Beatitudes, and how upside down they seem.  And then I think of my family and all the negative things I could say about us, and then I think about how God loves us anyway, misfits that we are, and then I write my own version of Matthew 5 where Jesus turns everything upside down.   

                         Blessed are the black sheep,            
                                For their shepherd knows them.
                         Blessed are the unlovable,            
                                For they shall be adored. 
                         Blessed are the illiterate,           
                                For the word of God is written on their hearts. 
                         Blessed are the afflicted,            
                                For they will know grace.
                         Blessed are those who doubt,            
                                For he will be revealed.
                         Blessed are the addicted,    
                                For they shall be released. 
                         Blessed are the disenfranchised            
                                For they shall be restored.                       
                         Blessed are the generous,           
                                 For they reveal the heart of God. 
                         Blessed are those who seek God,            
                                 For they will find him. 
                         Blessed are you when surrounded by doubt, and you believe; by ugliness and you see beauty; by violence, and you reveal peace. 

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Crossing Over


Maybe it’s like
standing in the wings
waiting to go on.
Unable to remember the words.
Unable to remember where you are. 
  And it’s almost your turn
to step out
take your place
on your mark and
you’re afraid.

It’s so easy to make a fool of yourself.
Maybe it’s like that.

And then, just as you’re
past all hope
it comes back:
the words
the music
your voice.

The spotlight is waiting for you.
You walk into warmth
raise your arms
and begin to sing.


Maybe it’s more like
on a tightrope
and the panic
that has been lurking
somewhere above you
   on your shoulder
refusing to let go.

So there you are
too far gone to go back
and the other side
seems so far away.
Every muscle strains
You’re shaking
calling for help
but really, no one can help you.
  You’re going to fall.

First the head, then the shoulders
then the arc of your lovely body
lean into release
like a dancer
like a baby being born.
And you’re off the tightrope
but strangely, not falling
after all, but soaring
light as air
into the stars.


Or maybe it’s like a summer day
that’s gone on too long.
And the cozy old boat
That seemed like such a good idea
at the time
has dropped its oars.

The river widens
fog sneaks in
the sun is gone.

You can’t believe you didn’t notice
the rusty bottom, seeping water.
And the swelling nausea
that insistent smell
of old, long-gone fish guts.

You long for shore
a solid piece of ground
to plant your foot. 
A tree,or a bush,
anything but this endless drifting
on flat, lonely water
accompanied only
by the missing sky.

Maybe you see it from afar,
and you wave your arms
like a sailor calling “Land ho!”
Or maybe it catches you by surprise
as you feel a small bump
   and then another.

And suddenly,
you’re sitting in a sweet old boat
on a pebbled beach
under a blue sky.
The smell of a campfire,
     The song of voices,
                  voices of those you love.
You are certain of it.

And then you’re sliding
    out of the boat,
slipping on pebbles,
running toward the sounds
and the smells
above all else,
you know
you’re home. 

Maybe it’s like that -


February 12, 2011 
For Connie

Friday, November 12, 2010

I Dream of Shawna

It is Thursday evening, just before a long weekend, and instead of relaxing before an extra day of recreation, our family is making frantic preparations:  cleaning dark corners, decorating, buying delicacies.  Anticipation is high as we prepare for the arrival of the love of my 16-year-old son’s computer focused life, his cyber-girlfriend, Shawna.
It is hard for me to believe.  Our Jake, a gawky, scrawny, six-foot tall mass of bone and sinew with few social graces and fewer words has somehow not only electronically entranced a female of the species, but convinced her and her father to drive the 600 miles up the coast to meet us all in person.  Usually cool, Jake is a little nervous even though he claims to know Shawna well from five months of chatting on the Internet.  They have exchanged pictures, via snail-mail, and hers are on display by the computer terminal.  She is an attractive girl with dark hair and a snazzy personality that shows even in the Polaroid.  It is easy to imagine that he would want to impress her.
The evening wears on.  After pacing miles between the kitchen and living room, Jake cleans his room (unasked), burning a scented candle and inviting me in to see if everything smells okay.  Smell must be on his mind.  He showers, washes all his bed linens and clothes, brushes and flosses his teeth twice, and sends me to the store for new, better smelling mouthwash.  “Jacob,” I finally say, “what’s up?”
“Mom,” he replies, “I don’t want to smell like a boy!”
Late that night it feels like Christmas Eve.  I am exhausted from a day full of activity and anticipation.  The house gleams, the laundry folded and put away, floors clean and polished, the smell of freshly baked cookies lingering in the shiny kitchen.  I collapse on the couch as Jake rises.  “I’m going to bed,” he says.
“So early?  It’s only 9:00,” I say.  He gives me one of his sardonic looks and stalks off.  Minutes later I hear the shower.
As I relax into the couch I am aware of a feeling that’s been nagging at the edge of my mind all day.  I am worried.  Worried that this girl, about whom we really know nothing, will break my son’s heart.  That she’ll take one look at him and decide it was all a mistake.  Or worse, she’ll mesmerize him and become the only influence in his young, inexperienced life.  He’ll become her love slave, unwilling and unable to listen himself or anyone else.  For instance, me.  I stop myself in mid-fantasy, knowing that if I continue to spin out this tale it will become increasingly depressing.
As I think about it, I am shocked to realize that what I have labeled worry is walking a fine line between jealousy and lack of faith.  Jealousy of their youth, their passion, and lack of faith in my son’s ability to sustain a relationship.  I don’t know which disturbs me more.  It is a thankless task this being a parent.  It’s so much work, and just when you think you can see an end to it, it turns on you, and the mirror of yourself in your children  becomes too evident to ignore.  I see myself in the fledgling relationship of my son and this girl, this Shawna, as a controlling, meddling, overbearing mother.  “But I just want him to be happy,” I inwardly wail as my mind answers, “Yeah, right.  As long as you can control everything.”
I am too tired to indulge in this kind of revealing self-therapy, and soon I am in bed, realizing that all too soon the new day will arrive and, with it, Shawna and her father.  I sleep fitfully, awakening several times during the night, marveling at my state of anxiety.  If I’m this jittery, how must Jake be feeling?
Toward morning, I fall into a deep sleep and begin to dream.  In my dream Shawna has arrived and is standing by the door.  This Shawna is not like any of her pictures.  She is tall and ungraceful, uneasily clutching at her elbows.  Her dull, brown hair stands up in strange clumps, and she wears thick, horn-rimmed glasses.  Her eyes look suspiciously like they might cross at any moment.  I reach out to give her a hug, and she shrinks from me ungraciously.  I am impatient and sorry for her at the same time.  Then Jake comes into the room with a new girlfriend, a girl who looks suspiciously like a smaller version of himself:  red curly hair, freckles, lively, cute.  In my dream I know her; she is his childhood friend, his sidekick.   I am shocked that they have so suddenly become a couple when the day before they were just friends.  But suddenly, faced with Shawna, he has realized that his real, true love is the red-haired buddy.  And I can’t blame him; she is fun, poised, well-mannered, comfortable.  She laughs and is charming while the dream Shawna stands there like a lump.  The dream ends with the four us in that room:  Shawna, eyes glued to the floor; Jacob and his dream buddy standing close together, smiling, ignoring everyone else; and me in the middle, happy for Jacob, but wondering what we are going to do about Shawna.
I awake, wondering at the intensity of the dream, knowing it’s important.  Later, I am at the kitchen sink, my hands in warm, soapy water, when it hits me.  I think of how the dream Shawna resembles Jake:  his fumbling, adolescent, uncomfortable self.  Before I even finish the thought, I realize that the red-haired dream girlfriend also resembles him.  She is smart, good-natured, humorous, and ready to love and be loved.  For some reason I begin to weep, and I stand at the sink for some minutes, tears running down my face.
The rest of the morning is spent on last minute details:  polishing the already clean kitchen sink and counters, gathering up the few papers left on my desk and stashing them in a drawer, brushing down a stray cobweb from the living room ceiling.  Then suddenly, the wait is over.  There is a knock on the door.  The father, a pleasant bearded man, appears, and behind him is the real Shawna we’ve all been waiting for.  She is pert and friendly, her dark hair shiny, her eyes bright and direct.  I watch Jacob as he says his first hello.  He is in heaven.  And even though I know that he will suffer from this first love, that this is only one of many steps that will take him away from me and my protection, I also know it is the beginning of a journey that will make him a man.  I stand back during the initial flurry of hugs and incoherent greetings, and then it’s my turn.  I step forward, take her hand and smile.  “Shawna,” I say.  “I’m so glad you’re here.”  Strangely enough, I find I am.

September 1996

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Suffer the Children

Recently I spent several days in California with my daughter and her family during their move to a new house.  Which is to say, I spent seven straight days watching my grandchildren from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m, or even later, while my daughter and her husband moved, cleaned, shopped and organized.  Since I don’t get to see my grandchildren very often, I was in heaven.  For the most part.

My grandchildren, Lucie aged 8 and Aleksei aged 5, are beautiful, loving, smart and creative.  When Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” I’m sure he was thinking of kids just like them.  In fact, they probably know this because they have a CD called “100 Bible Stories, 100 Bible Songs”, which they played for hours on end during my entire visit.  And when they weren’t playing the CD, they were singing the songs or asking me to read stories in the book that goes with the CD.  I’m sure Jesus loves this about them. 

“There is a name I love to sing, and Jesus is his name-o, J-E-S-U-S, J-E-S-U-S, J-E-S-U-S, J-E-S-U-S, and Jesus is his name-o.”  This was sung to the tune of B-I-N-G-O, which somehow seemed slightly sacrilegious, but knowing Jesus, he probably wouldn’t agree with me.  There were many tunes, 100 in fact, as you may have guessed from the name of the CD, but only certain favorites that the kids played over and over and over and over again.   “I’m in the Lord’s Army,” “Be Careful Little Eyes What You See,” “Praise Him, Praise Him.”  I think my least favorite was one I remember from my own childhood:  “Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam.”  The more I heard it, the more I wondered what in the world it teaches children.  What does it mean to be a sunbeam anyway? And odd thoughts like that.

At first, I loved the irony of my daughter and her husband, who are perhaps best categorized as agnostics or Buddhists (bad Buddhists, to be sure as they drink beer and wine and are not above killing ants) having children who love Jesus enough to sing about him for hours on end.  As the days went by, it became even more ironic that I would have gladly wrenched open the CD player and whacked the CD to death to avoid hearing it one more time.  

Perhaps the greatest irony in this week of ironies, though, was how much that verse, “Suffer the little children…” kept popping into my mind.  And not in a good way either.  Because, believe it or not, even the most beautiful, loving, smart, and creative grandchildren can, once in a while, get on your nerves.  Even when they sing about Jesus.   Once I sent Aleksei to his room, again, for a time-out, sitting him down on his bed and saying, “Aleksei, you know that song you sing that says, ‘be careful little hands what you do’?  Well, you need to sit here and think about being more careful with your hands.  And not hitting your sister.”    I sound, perhaps, calmer now than I did then.  And did Aleksei say, “Yes, Grammie, you’re right.  I repent of hitting Lucie, and will try hard not to do it again”?  No.  Actually, he ducked under the covers and said, “Please get out!”  I got out and set the timer at 8 minutes instead of 5.

Not that Lucie was little Miss Perfect.  My granddaughter has an advanced awareness of what’s fair and what’s not, especially when it comes to her own well-being.  She also has a developed sense of the dramatic and is not afraid to use her whole voice and body to express herself.    She sort of has tantrums.  Civilized ones, compared to when she was two, but this is an emotional girl.  I became so used to her shrieks of dismay and indignation, that if I didn’t see blood I wasn’t all that concerned.

On about day three of this intense bonding with my grandchildren I began to seriously wonder about Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:14. The NIV translation goes like this:  “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’”   The Message says it this way:  “But Jesus intervened.  “Let the children alone, don’t prevent them from coming to me.  God’s kingdom is made up of people like these.’” Now I understand Jesus letting the little children come to him; hopefully he can bless them and teach them some manners at the same time.  But the second part of his statement, the part about the kingdom of heaven belonging to such as these?  That one gave me pause. 

Having been raised in church, I’ve heard many sermons and discussions regarding this verse, most of which were some version of the idea that Jesus wants us to be innocent and loving like little children before sin rears its ugly head.  But watching Aleksei shove Lucie and hearing her blood-curdling scream in response made me wonder.  Jesus wants us to act like this?  Let me just pause here a moment and say that I love these two kids more than I ever thought it possible to love anyone who wasn’t my own child.  They really are delightful, and they love me more than I deserve.  Like most other children, however, they can be impulsive, self-centered, selfish, inconsiderate, bossy tattletales who don’t seem to me to be extremely spiritually advanced.   And so I wondered: this is God’s kingdom?  Is Jesus asking me to aspire to this?

During my drive back home to Oregon, I continued to wrestle with this verse.  I don’t claim to be a Bible scholar or particularly astute about such matters, but I did come up with some ideas that make sense to me.  In a way, this verse doesn’t so much seem to tell us what Jesus wants us to be as much as it tells us what is acceptable to him: rowdy, noisy, immature beings who want to be close to him.  Which is pretty good news to someone like me who appears, most of the time, like a fairly together, quiet, considerate, serious, moral…I could go on, but you get the idea.  I like to see myself as much more deserving, much more dignified, and probably much more of the kind of person Jesus would want to be around than a crusty little kid who maybe hasn’t had her nap yet today.  But when I’m really, really honest, I will admit that I’m not always as wonderful as I like others to think I am.  And sometimes I resemble the wayward child who really doesn’t have a clue how to be spiritual, but who does know full well what it is to be needy.

I think Jesus is telling us two things here that we need to be reminded of now and then:  we might be better off admitting who we really are and quit trying to pretend; and we have no business building fences around Jesus to keep out the riff-raff. 

On one of my last days there, I learned, again, what children can teach us about Jesus.  Aleksei is deathly afraid of bees, and the new house has a big backyard with an abundance of them hovering around the clover.  Since San Leandro was suffering from record temperatures during my visit, we spent at least an hour outside every day playing with the cat and dog and with the kids running through the sprinkler.  I don’t know how many times I reminded Aleksei to wear his shoes outside because of the bees, and even though he was fearful, he would end up without them once again.

We had had words earlier. About what I don’t remember; but we were both sulking a little.   And then he let out a scream that pierced my heart.  I knew almost immediately what had happened – he had been stung.  The beautiful thing was that he did not hesitate for a second, even though a minute later he had not been speaking to me.  He ran to me, flinging himself onto my lap screaming, “Grammie, Grammie, save me!”  And I, all irritation gone, never even considered anything but holding him, comforting him, and taking care of the sting. 

Jesus isn’t our Grandma (or Grandpa) but he loves us even more, if that’s possible, than I love Aleksei.  He doesn’t want us to hesitate to ‘draw near’ to him, whether it’s sauntering, stumbling or running.  And he doesn’t want us to discourage anyone else either.  Because this is the kingdom: composed of those who are wretched and blessed, anxious and calm, boring and dramatic.  We are his, and he will save us.

 September 2010

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Weasel in My Freezer

Several years ago, when our children were very small, my husband and I finally agreed on one aspect of child rearing.  This was worth noting because at the time, we seemed more interested in arguing than in just about anything else.  We were raised in very different families and were both convinced that our own philosophy about any particular thing was the correct one.  We did finally agree, however, on this one thing:  that our children would grow up to appreciate nature and the environment.  My husband was a city boy who took to life in the country like a pig to the watering hole.  In addition, he is truly fascinated by the macabre in nature.  I, on the other hand, had been raised in a rural, sometimes primitive atmosphere, but had grown up somewhat squeamish.  I don’t like this side of myself and wanted to squelch any such leanings in my children early on.

It began when we found a big book that had full page, graphic color pictures of all kinds of snakes.  The theory was that if we looked at the book with the kids when they were small, they would grow up without the paralyzing fear of snakes and other such creatures that so many of us seem to have.  “Look at the pretty snake,” I would say while gingerly turning the page by its edge, making sure my fingers didn’t touch the pictures.  Those snakes really gave me the creeps.  But I wanted my kids to approach nature without fear, so we sang songs about spiders, allowed crickets to run free in the house in the wintertime, and took hikes in the forest well off the beaten path.

All three kids happily went along with the program, loving all God’s creatures, not just the pretty ones.  One day while weeding along the edge of the house I cam across a few salamanders.  “Oh, look,” I called to the kids, “salamanders!”  They came running, eagerness in their little faces, not knowing repulsion was my immediate reaction.  I let them look at the slimy creatures and poke them with grass.  “But don’t pick them up,” I warned.  I hate it when they pick things up.  “Send them home to their mothers.”

All this oneness with nature backfired when they got a little older.  At age three they were happy to pick up snails (touching only the shells) and throw them in the road for my version of organic pest control.  At age five, this changed.  “No, Mommy, he’s my friend,” was the response of one of my little darlings.  “But snails aren’t our friends,” I gently explained.  “They eat the lettuce and the strawberries in our garden.”  This was a concept he understood.  “Mommy,” came the quick response, “they’re hungry!”

These memories came back some time ago after an expedition to the beach with the three kids and the boyfriend of the oldest girl.  We were on our way home, driving slowly along the narrow country road, looking at the cows.  Suddenly, this little animal darts out of the field straight under the wheels of my car.  I slammed on the brakes, but by the time we stopped I could see a little lump on the road in my rear view mirror. 

Always the good wife, I decided to check to see if the animal’s head was intact and if it were a creature my husband would want for his skull collection.  “Matt,” I said to the boyfriend, “go see if it’s dead.  I’ll wait here.”  Matt dutifully went and reported back that it was indeed, dead.  “Get a bag,” I said to Jacob, my middle child, the snail lover.  Fortunately, we carry a supply of plastic bags in the car for these occasions.

The five of us gathered in the road around what turned out to be a weasel.  I had never seen a live weasel before.  Of course, this one was dead.  But it had been alive only moments before, and the only hint of its demise was a slight trickle of blood coming from its mouth.  It was beautiful in a way, quite small, with a delicate long nose and lovely red and white fur.  “Don’t touch it!” I warned as three pairs of hands reached toward it.  I made them get the trowel, also kept in the car, to scoop the weasel into the bag.

“Daddy will be so pleased,” I commented as we piled back in the car.  The kids were strangely silent.  Finally Caitlin, the oldest, spoke.  “I wonder why it ran out in the road like that,” she said.

“Maybe it was a mommy weasel trying to get home to her babies.”  Carin’s voice trembled slightly.  “They’re probably waiting for her.”

“They’ll starve to death,” Jacob added.

“In the first place, this is the wrong time of year for weasels to be having babies, and in the second place that weasel is male,” I said firmly.  “I checked.”  I hate to lie to my own children, but sometimes they take this nature thing too far.

We made it home without being stopped by a cop.  I mention this because later I found out we could have been fined several hundred dollars because this particular weasel is endangered.  “Of course it’s endangered,” I told my husband.  “It’s prone to suicide.”  He was pleased at our find, but couldn’t decide what to do with it.  “It seems a shame to just keep the skull,” he said.  “It’s really a beautiful animal.”

We ended up wrapping the weasel in plastic, enclosing the whole thing in a brown paper bag, and putting it in the freezer while my husband inquired about taxidermy.  I guess he thought a weasel would look nice next to the stuffed armadillo we got a yard sale.  Since $300 was the minimum amount quoted to stuff the weasel, it remains in the freezer, in limbo until its fate is decided.

In the meantime, when the children are present, all visitors to our house are immediately escorted to the freezer to view our little friend.  The kids unwrap it carefully; its body, unmarred by time’s passing, looks natural, as if it were just sleeping.  “Isn’t it pretty?” the children say.  “And its fur is so soft.”

But I remain vigilant.  “Don’t touch it!  It probably still has germs!”

Sometimes I wonder if those snake books were such a good idea after all.

August 1990