Friday, June 7, 2019

My Kids


I find it hard to believe that I have been retired from teaching for 17 years. Of course, when I see my former students on Facebook showing pictures of their grandchildren, it brings me back to reality. That’s one of the things about Facebook I most enjoy—seeing those “kids” now grown up and doing well. For some of them, I wasn’t so sure it would turn out that way.

Most teachers I know are invested in their students, want the best for them, worry about them, try to encourage them. So when you have a class load of 120+ kids, that’s a lot of worrying. I was reminded of that worry yesterday when I was volunteering at an event for fourth-graders.

One girl made an impression on me. She was small, with short dark hair and big dark eyes. As she reached for another cookie, she explained that she was getting it for her grandmother. We chatted for a while, and I was impressed with her composure, her conversational skills, and I guessed that she was an older sister to one of the fourth-graders in the group. When she had left, I asked her teacher how old she was. Ten! I couldn’t believe how mature she was for such a young age.

Then her teacher began to tell me her story. She and her brother were living with their grandmother because her mother was “drugged out.” Now, however, her grandmother had been diagnosed with stage four cancer. “What will happen to them?” I asked. The teacher just shook her head. I could see the pain in her eyes.

Then she turned to speak to a boy who had been running around disrupting the group. “He’s so smart,” she said to me, “and he tests me all the time.”

Suddenly I was back in front of my students, worried about the sweet young woman who was being abused by her step father, frustrated by the so bright young man who was channeling all his energies into gang activities. So many students with real problems that I could do little about.

These are the kids that break your heart as a teacher, the ones you want to take home and nurture, the ones you pray for, the ones who you hope will show up on Facebook someday with happy stories.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Dream a Little Dream With Me


If daydreaming counted as exercise, I would have no need of diet plans or gym memberships, and I would be quite fit, thank you very much!

I enjoy these short excursions into fantasy or nostalgia. Are they any different from delusions that comfort?  My mother in her last years loved to tell about how she had walked the fifteen miles to visit my brother and her grandsons; all the while she remained in her room at the care facility. There was no arguing with her. She knew it was difficult, but believed she had indeed accomplished this. Maybe the advantage to the delusion is that you don’t have to come back to reality.

In my daydreams I go back to places I've been like the Bay of Naples or the deserts of New Mexico, and the advantage of doing all this traveling in a reverie is that you don't have to pack, or worry about the TSA, or finding your luggage on the carousel, and it’s free! It's off to faraway places in just the flash of a memory, and then in another flash you're off somewhere else.

Daydreams summon back mother, father, grandparents, and friends whom I can no longer see with waking eyes, and I can go back to happy memories over and over again like playing on the swings in the rain with my roommate Pat, tasting my grandmother's vanilla pudding with orange slices, or watching the stars fly off the grinding wheel as I stood next to my father at his tool bench.

Maybe I'm in denial of the sharp intrusions of reality, and even if it doesn’t take the place of physical exercise, daydreaming will remain part of my regimen,.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

My Churches - Yet Again

I first posted this in 2013, then again in 2016. This week after the painful reports back from the special session of the United Methodist Church General Conference, I feel the need to post it again, if only to remind myself that the first of these churches hasn't changed and is still the warm and welcoming place I know.

My Churches 
December 2013

On Christmas Eve after the presents are opened, the dishes loaded into the dishwasher, and the guests have left for home, I will sit for just a minute and look at the tree. Then I will bundle myself up and travel down the road to the candlelight service at church. This is always a highlight of my holiday. The beautiful music, the warm candlelight, and the familiar story of wanderers finding crude shelter where their baby will be born amid the animals all remind me once again of what this season is about.


When I speak here of church, I am speaking of the church I attend nearly every Sunday—Trinity United Methodist Church in Springfield, MA. The stone cathedral structure next to Forest Park is quite recognizable to anyone in the Springfield area. It is a beautiful building, but when I refer to the church, I am really talking about the people there. Everyone from the toddler playing peek-a-boo from two pews up to the man from AA who comes in silently, then leaves. Trinity is a warm and welcoming place.

This is why it pains me so when I hear about the other church—that larger church we are a part of—The United Methodist Church. That church has been in the news lately and not for being warm and welcoming—quite the opposite. That church has tried and convicted one of its clergy for violating church law—a law that forbids clergy from marrying couples of the same sex. In effect, that church has punished one of its members for showing love and compassion.

I struggle with being a member of these two churches, and I know I’m not alone. Can I go along worshiping and working in the church that ministers to everyone while, at the same time, being a part of that other church that excludes, judges, and condemns? I don’t know.

A couple of Christmases ago as I entered Trinity for the candlelight service, I saw one very bright star alone in the sky right over the church. I thought, of course, of the Magi who were guided by the star. This Christmas I will pray for that light to fall on both of my churches.

My Church

This is my church - doors open to the noise of the city
This is not my church - doors safely closed

This is my church - hands stretched across barriers
This is not my church - hands rigidly folded

This is my church - a harmony of diverse voices
This is not my church - a monotone of narrow doctrine

This is my church - hearts warmed by love
This is not my church - love limited by decree

My church -
not the closed inn doors
but the welcoming stable.






Monday, February 18, 2019

A Touching Experience


“If you touch me, you'll understand what happiness is.” Those words are sung by Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. Growing research suggests that Grizabella is onto something. We need touch to thrive. Dacher Keltner, UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center, says, “…touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health." I speak, of course, of healthy, non-aggressive touch--the pat on the back, the squeeze of the arm, the handshake.

And hugs! Hugs are amazing, aren’t they? Have you ever been hugged by someone who puts their whole body and soul into making you feel loved and accepted? It’s a powerful experience. I know many good huggers, but two stand out as exceptional. First was my cousin Alvin. Everything about the experience, from the warm smile that preceded it to the way in which he pulled me close and held me, let me know that I was, indeed, someone very special.

Alvin has passed away, but I get to enjoy an extraordinary hug every Sunday when I’m in church and my friend Ray and I meet. There is no doubt in my mind that Ray's hug is as loving as it is powerful. We both agree it’s the best part of the morning, and an excellent way to pass the peace.

I was reminded of the importance of touch today as I went with our confirmation class to Friends of the Homeless shelter in Springfield with a group from Holy Cross Church’s Sandwich Ministry. Every week this faithful group makes sandwiches to distribute to the homeless of the city. In the twelve years of the program they have made and distributed over 295,000 sandwiches. They also distribute blankets, underwear, clothes, and toiletries.

After the sandwiches were distributed outside, we went indoors where tables were arranged, and bags of underwear were sorted according to size and gender. Then the door was opened, and the grateful men and women came in to collect these essentials. At first I was watching our kids, seeing how they were doing with handing out these donations (quite well). Then I turned to look at the door where Cathy and Will from Holy Cross were greeting every single soul coming through the door with a broad smile, a hug, and a “God bless you.”

The residents were young and old, male and female. Some wore heavy jackets. Some were in tee shirts. Some smiled brightly. Some looked at the ground. Some looked ill. Some looked quite fit. No matter what they looked like or how they acted, each one was blessed and hugged by someone who looked into their eyes and smiled, someone who saw beyond their outward appearance, someone who didn’t look at them as “homeless” but as human beings worthy of being recognized.

Cathy has been doing this for several years. It was clear that she knew many of the residents as she asked for updates on their health or family. She said she began to hug everyone after she found out that the rules of the shelter forbade touching among the residents. Her hug and Will’s might be the only physical touch they received in the week. Some residents had been there for years. Imagine all that time with one touch a week.

Touching another person, even if it’s only a handshake or a pat on the back, seems such simple and ordinary thing, but to be deprived of it can be devastating. I feel blessed to have met Cathy and Will, to have witnessed their selfless sharing and to have gotten a hug from them. Grizabella was right.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Looking Back


Whether it was reading a Facebook comment from a former student, going to a first-person presentation of Harriet Tubman, or seeing Katori Hall’s play The Mountaintop, I have been thinking a lot recently about race and racism, specifically about what and how I came to feel about these subjects.

I realize that, as a middle-class white woman, my perspective is limited. I cannot ever know or experience the world as an African-American. Though I am limited, I think it’s important, especially for Caucasians, to think about how our attitudes about race and racism were formed, about what voices and images stayed with us, and how those voices and images became the lens through which we view the world.

My Sunday School Class 1949
Though I grew up in a diverse city, I lived in a white neighborhood, went to all-white elementary schools, and attended an all-white (except for dear Miss Baker) church. In school my contacts with persons of color were limited to twice a year when all public school students came together: once for field day at Forest Park and once again for a trip to the Springfield Symphony.

Still I had been taught by my parents and my Sunday School teachers that I was to love my neighbor, and that included those I only saw twice a year. I remembered their words and saw how they lived out those words in their actions. But there was something else impressing itself on my young mind. More and more every night on the news I began to see scenes of hatred for neighbors.

When I was only ten I heard about the murder of Emmett Till, only four years older than I was. At twelve I watched the angry white mobs screaming hate at the nine students who would integrate Little Rock Central High School. At fifteen I watched more angry whites attack the black college students who asked to be served at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. I had never been to North Carolina, but I knew Woolworth’s lunch counter. That’s where my mother and I had lunch whenever we went downtown.

On the day I graduated from high school Governor George Wallace stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama to block two black students from registering. The very next day Medgar Evers was assassinated in his own driveway. In September as I began college Addie Mae Collins (14), Denise McNair (12), Carole Robertson (14), and Cynthia Wesley (14) were killed when the Sixteenth Street Baptist Street Church was bombed. At the end of my freshman year in college Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner were abducted and murdered by the Klan.

As I was learning American history in school, I was watching it unfold in front of me, and with each new incident of hate and bigotry, I grieved for what was happening to my brothers and sisters—my neighbors whom I was commanded to love. The list of hate-filled incidents goes on, and it continues to be a challenge for me not to be discouraged and to live out these core beliefs, but then I remember Dr.King’s words, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope,” and I go on.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Not-so-cockeyed Optimist


As I grow older, I am appreciating my mother more and more. Among her many attributes, my mother was an inveterate optimist, to the point where I frequently found it very annoying. If a conversation became too depressing or contentious, she would immediately change the topic to something light. I remember my teenage self trying to persuade her that she wasn’t being realistic, that she was in denial about the world around her. To that, she replied that cute puppies were real too.

I came to understand that her optimism was a shield she had developed to survive in a world where she lost her mother at five years old, then was shuffled around from one relative to another. She never had a real home again until she married my father, but even then there was tragedy when her full-term first pregnancy ended with an empty crib. So, she avoided, as much as possible, what was unpleasant or distasteful, and lived to be a happy 96 years old.

I have been very blessed in my life, enduring none of the tragedies my mother did. Still, I am frequently disturbed by what I read and see going on in the world, and as I look at Facebook in the morning, I sometimes despair when I see the children caged at the border, read about the disappearing monarch butterflies, and hear more and more angry, hate-filled speech. I could go on and frequently do, but when I allow myself to wallow in the negative, I become enervated and unable to bring myself to any constructive action.
 
So, as an antidote, I watch crazy pet videos or James Cordon performing musicals with Lin Manuel Miranda and Emily Blunt. It’s not that I am unaware or uncaring, but I need to remind myself that there are things to smile about, that cute puppies are real too.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Pass it On or Pass Away

Kristin LeMay's book I Told My Soul to Sing:Finding God With Emily Dickinson is one of those books it may take me months to finish, as I read it a little at a time to allow myself to consider the big ideas she's discussing. And, as anyone who's read Dickinson's poetry knows, one of her big ideas is death.

In each chapter LeMay reflects on one of Dickinson's poems. In her discussion of "Behind me--Dips Eternity"  she says, "Yet rather than mourn that we are finite, Emily marvels here that for a few brief moments of this life, we participate in the infinite." Moments of infinity? Now there's something to ponder.

When I stop to think about my mortality, which is not often, I find it hard to imagine. After all, this consciousness in this physical form is all I have ever experienced. To imagine it ending, though logic tells me it absolutely will, is hard to wrap my mind around. 

It's as if having lived on an island all one's life, we are suddenly asked to consider that we must sail away to another place--far off, unknown, and unseen. We've seen others set off in their little boats, more and more every year, but we really never know where they're going or what the other destination is like.

When LeMay talks about moments of infinity, I think she's talking about brief glimpses we may see of it--moments when the veil seems to part and we catch sight, if only for a second, of a vaster, purer reality.

I think I caught a glimpse of that vastness when I was with my friend Jack when he died. I was sad, of course, but at the same time I was awed by the mystery I had just experienced. At one moment he was there; then the next he was not. His heart and lungs had stopped but he did not disappear  from my life. I still held onto his humor, his dedication to issues of human rights, his stories about his work as a campus cop, and his collection of Betty Grable paraphernalia. His body had stopped "being," but he will existed.

The finiteness of Jack or me or anyone is merely the flesh and bone that confines us. The rest--the love we've shared, the laughs we've engendered, the friendships we've kept--those do not die. Even as those who are left with the memories of the deceased die off, something goes on.

I have tried with my family and friends and students to pass on the love that my parents gave me. I know that some of that will be passed on to others. In that way, we do not pass away, but we pass it on.

As LeMay says, "...life does not end in ashes to ashes and dust to dust, 1830-1886. Instead it moves as a poem does, from miracle to miracle, mystery to mystery."