Friday, March 31, 2017

The Benefit From Another's Dedication

I wake in the dark, shower, print up the substitute's schedule. Though not teaching today, I need to be at school at 7:30 to pick up three students. We are attending a different school today, a symposium: The Bystander Dilemma: The Holocaust, War Crimes, and Sexual Assaults.

As we pull into the parking lot of the law school, my daughter calls.

"Hi, it's so good to talk to you!"

 She's been on vacation for a week, and I haven't talked to her, even on her birthday.

After a simple pleasant exchange, I ask, "Can I call you back? I'm at a symposium."

"What for?" she asks.

"It's the Bystander Dilemma."

She laughs.

"That was my dissertation!"

Such an important milestone in her life, and I don't remember.

As she fills me in on a study and an experiment she carried out, it's starting to come back. "Oh yes, I remember."

I settle into my seat for the first panel discussion just as she texts me a photo of the title page of her published work:  The Effect of Bystander Behavior and Victim Response on Teenage Girls' Perception of Chat Room Cyberbullying.

It all comes back. The years of intense research, the setbacks, continual obstacles, overcoming those obstacles, and ultimately a designation that made her a doctor of psychology. She was dedicated; she worked hard.

 As I listen to the experts talk about history, law, philosophy, I am reminded this could be my own daughter addressing a room full of eager learners, like myself who benefit from the experiences of others. Like the US attorney who has served in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Bosnia, who diligently pieces together the puzzles that will help prosecute war criminals; like the reverend who preaches a return to religious vernacular stripped from our community discussions that could bind us with words like covenant; a woman who helped edit and bring to publication, the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer; a law professor who's put in 25 years to fight violence against women.

Because of their hard work, determination, tenacity, I benefit. My students benefit, and together we have just a little more understanding, a little more capacity and desire to change the world.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Let The Little Things

Let The Little Things Change the Trajectory of Your Life.

After watching a New York Times award winning video, 4.1 Miles, I declared to my class, "This video will change the way I spend my summer."

Sarah, a beautiful girl bursting on the precipice of her own adventurous life, asked, "What are you going to do differently?"

Caught in my own emotional moment, I answered truthfully, "I don't know."

The video documented the immigration tragedy that hard-hit the island of Lesvos, Greece. At one point in the Syrian, Middle East tragedy, refugee boats and rafts, overloaded, un-sea-worthy, were in need of rescue several times a day. The film footage is raw and disturbing-- men, women, and children, who risk all to find peace; the men and women who risk all to help them attain that peace--on the open, rough, sea.

My determination was to help refugees in some way. Not only on safe ground, but where it was rough, un-safe. I snapped in the moments of watching the video, but really, it was a cumulative gathering of experiences. There may be one decisive moment that propels us into action, but more often it is a series of experiences, of witnessing, of wanting to be part of the tide fighting against human suffering.

It started with simply being aware. Aware of the floods of people leaving their homes because they could no longer provide refuge.

Then came Athens. Spending an evening with Syrians headed to Poland. Then...then...then...

While listening to NPR, I heard of an American organization working in Macedonia. I searched and searched for that group. Nothing.

My passion waned. I searched again.

Finally, I found a European organization in need of our help. An email from Peggy on Wednesday morning. A refugee camp in Lesvos Greece. In June.

Cumulative experience that helped me punch the way to do what I needed to do.

Let The Little Things Change the Trajectory of Your Life.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Poetry As Protection

A student chooses a poem to explicate in class, a poem I had never read or heard. It is a complete surprise and brings enlightenment, peace, comfort--all the reactions one could expect from good poetry.

The student chose to read the poem on the same day as a UK terrorist attack, and within days of North Korea revealing a video of nuclear weapons blowing up a US warship.

News should be read with leather chaps, or a shield. Today's protection is poetry.

At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border
by William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky. 

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed—or were killed—on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

Three years ago, Germany was under fire for not celebrating the anniversary of WWI.**

Germans aren't sure how, or even if, they should commemorate a war that cost them 13 percent of their territory, all their colonies, huge reparations and 2.5 million lives. The government is under fire for its inactivity.
The opposition Left party has criticized the government for failing to schedule any major events and for spending just 4.7 million euros on the anniversary, while Britain and France are devoting about 60 million euros each to this summer's centenial.

After discovering William Stafford's poem, I wonder, once again if we have it all wrong.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Not Writing

Everyday, my mother wakes up and makes her bed.

Everyday, I wake up and write an essay. Or tell a story.

It's ambitious. For both of us.

My dedication pales to my mother's sixty-year habit, but nonetheless, writing an essay everyday for three years is nothing to poo-poo.

Mom explains that when she walks back into her bedroom and the bed is made, it doesn't matter what kind of day she's having, or what kind of day she's had, there is order in her life. It's a routine as reliable and as important as her beating heart.

When I organize my thoughts into writing, it brings order to my mind. It clarifies my thinking, my experiences, my entire life.

Mom's bed always looks magazine worthy. Corners dressed. Pillows stacked in pleasing position. The pleasure in her routine, the dependable task motivates her to quilt a new bedspread, to check TJ Maxx for new pillows.

My essays are messy, always needing another edit; they are the half-dressed children in shopping carts in need of a nose wipe. I even cringe when I look back and see my runny-nosed essays sent into the cold world without hats. My essays have dangling sheets, hastily scattered pillows, and the   bedspread has needed a trip to the dry cleaners for months.

Mom even makes her bed when we're staying at a hotel.

I write and post an essay-a-day when I travel, even if I must sit in a cold lobby with beer-clinking Scandinavians, or card-playing teenagers from America.

I once found an article about the importance of not making one's bed. It reported: Bed bugs thrive in warm, dark, well-made beds. It's best to let the unmade bed air out and if possible soak up the sun.  At last, I now had a legitimate excuse for not making my bed, but how would Mom react? I presented the evidence. In spite of the logical argument, the next morning she made her hotel bed before the sun came up.

Fully developed essays need crock-pot time. They shouldn't be microwaved or put under the broiler. Essays are like bread making. They need kneading, resting, and rising. The right temperature.

Yet, even as I contemplate sincerely writing: I'm going to resist writing an essay-a-day, I feel uneasy.

Habits are strange creatures.

I need to write the equivalent article to not-bed- making on the importance of not writing an essay-a-day--, but how hard would it be to follow my own advice?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Honored To Know You

Three friends and I trek along the mountainside sharing stories, experiences, and muscle endurance. It's finally spring, and we are enjoying the benefits of sunshine and the beauty of green nature trying to peek out from under the blanket.

Our hike starts at 8:00 and most of us have just rolled out of bed. Nikki's shirt is inside out, which I examine and it makes me chuckle. Lisa's hair has a sizable rat's nest in the back which I notice, play with and tease her. Karen seems to be put together. And myself? Who cares. These superfluous physical mentions all belong in the who cares category. Because we know what matters. We know what's under the surface.

Lisa mentions a biography she had to write as a lecture series presenter. She called Nikki and asked her to give a thumbs up or down. As Lisa read, Nikki was impressed with her friend's accomplishments. She even felt honored to have her as a friend. In our early morning roughness we tend not to think of each other as accomplished women but instead, we are just friends, hiking partners, another Mom who lives down the street.

When I read my own husband's curriculum vitae, I too am surprised, because he's just the guy who does the laundry, makes great waffles, and overeats ice cream. He would categorize me simply as the woman who lets her clothes pile up on the side of the bathtub, who makes too many impulsive decisions, and needs help organizing.

And it's okay. To live in awe of the people around us would be exhausting. We need them to be flawed, funny, and to spend too much time playing Mario Kart. When something reminds us of their greatness, we can pause and say, "I'm honored to know you, now please take out the trash."

Sunday, March 26, 2017

His Return

Yesterday morning, in her great sorrow, the mother of the deceased young man said to Tony and me, "I can't wait for the Savior to come again."

As a Christian woman, she believes the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ, will once again return to the earth.

From, we read: 
As Jesus Christ ascended into heaven at the completion of His mortal ministry, two angels declared to His Apostles, "This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11). Since that time, believers have looked forward to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

I left the viewing with a heavy heart--heavy with sadness, but heavy with hope; in the absence of David, his mom and siblings believe they will once again see David; his mother dared to hope it would be in a better world where the Savior will reign in peace and love.

 The second coming of the Savior is dependent on a world so immersed in evil that only an occurrence so miraculous, a power so beyond this world could save us. For the Savior to come, the world has to be in an uproar, a world in which Boko Haram could kidnap and enslave children and force them to murder; a world in which a civil war can displace millions; in a world where famine is possible in a fertile land only because of corruption...the senseless heartache is endless. No wonder David's mom hopes for the Savior to come.

If there is such a thing as the Second Coming, and it is imminent, then we have only a small window of time to do good. If the Savior's time is close, the need to act is urgent. 

Whether or not we believe in the second coming of the Savior, we can't deny people need help. I saw it in the beggars standing in the cold rain yesterday. Instead of rolling down the window and at a safe distance from poverty, handing over my usual couple of bucks, I gave them ten. Second guessing their need, I was blessed with the thought it is better to err on the side of mercy.

I see the need to help people in the refugee crisis. I see the need to help my students find capstone service projects, to help them see their sacrifices are needed. I see the need to clean out my house for Kay's garage sale as she tries to raise money for her refugee children's reading program. I see the need to babysit my own grandchildren so their parents can have a break. 

This perceived window of service has needs both great and small-- all service is charitable, all charity is the true love of Christ. If we are possessed of this charity, how different, how magnificent could his return be?

Saturday, March 25, 2017


Last December, when my daughters and I invited my mom, their grandmother, to go birthday shopping, she was thrilled. After years of Grandma taking her granddaughters shopping, the tables had turned.

After thinking about it, Mom called to tell me what she wanted to shop for.

She said (I am not making this up), "The only thing I need is a nice dress to be buried in."

After the initial shock, I answered, "You better not tell your granddaughters. They would have a fit; and furthermore, they would never help you shop for a dress you plan to wear to the grave."

She laughed.

I now know what I sound like to my own daughters when I talk of inevitable death. They abhor this subject even though I consider it quite natural~~it's natural for a parent to die before a child, natural  for a parent to prepare her child for life's eventualities: school, puberty, friendships, love, college, marriage, children, and yes, even her parents' deaths.

Tony's mother seems to be winding down too. Though she hasn't requested anyone to help her shop for a burial dress, she is cleaning out her garage, both metaphorically and literally. She's given an older car to a neighbor, offered her gardening four wheeler to a grandchild. She's rethinking the money she has in savings. How much does she really need to live out her life? Her eyesight dims, her hearing volume lessens. She's unpacking for a different journey.

I had two contrasting experiences this morning.

The first was making the mistake of clicking on an advertisement for a miracle life extension supplement. After watching a repetitive, too-long, visual-flashing video, I learned of a newly discovered combination of natural ingredients promising not only a longer life, but more energy, a more youthful cellular environment, and a turning off-of the effects of aging. I must have been slightly taken in, because I told Tony about the ad and suggested he check it out. He nodded his head with a slightly turned-up lip. His eyes got big,  he managed to stay serious, but my explanation dropped off a cliff as if I'd never been speaking. If I were to order the vitamins, I'd so in secret, hide them in a raisin box, take them incognito, then feign exhaustion on a bike ride only to return home and head up a different hill twice as high and long as his!

The second experience was hugging a mother whose son had died.

 We can accept when our aged parents come to the end of the line. We miss them already, we are anguished, but we're thankful they're free from arthritis, free from the walker or the wheelchair, free from confusion. But losing a child, messes up the course of life. No one should take a cut in the line.

Postscript: Two months later, Mom's at it again. "I found the burial dress I want! It's Hawaiian! Like a muumuu, but white and formal." She even found a manufacturer in Hawaii that might carry the dress. While talking, I google white muumuus, but can't find a dress that fits her description.

"The woman who was wearing the dress got it in Hawaii."

"Then it looks like when we go to Hawaii for your birthday, we'll be looking for your burial dress too."

She confirms that indeed we will, and it gives me the sense there are other celebrations besides a birthday. Perhaps, when it is time, I too will pragmatically prepare for the end of the third act--unless of course, the miracle life extending vitamins actually work. IF I order them.

Friday, March 24, 2017

A Pleasure to be Alive

In 1915, 28 men are stuck on the Weddell Sea, ice floes in Antarctica. Twelve hundred miles lay between them and civilization.

A year earlier, they began their journey, buoyantly, excitedly, as members of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition whose goal was to reach Antarctica and traverse the ice on foot. As they approached, their ship was closed in by moving ice. Eventually the ice crushed the ship and the men were stranded. It would take two years of extreme hardship, constant cold, threat of starvation, before they would make it back to England.

Yet, from the diary of first officer Lionel Greenstreet, we read, "One of the finest days we have ever had...a pleasure to be alive."

A pleasure to be alive.

What could possibly have precipitated such happiness, such contentedness? Under such dire circumstances?

I ask my students these questions and give them three answers to choose from:

a.The men had been forced to develop a degree of self-reliance greater than they had ever imagined possible
b. They had hunted and killed an abundance of seals and penguins and were set for weeks.
c. They’d returned the Endurance and salvaged extra tins of biscuits, jams and dried peas.

The room quiets. The students contemplate. Then one by one each group gives its answer.

My head droops. They've all answered wrong.

I can't give them the right answer, they need-need to figure this out themselves. I ask, "Where does deep joy come from? Can it come from external things or must it come from within?

Ahhh. They get it. The collective realization reveals the answer is a: The men had been forced to develop a degree of self-reliance greater than they had ever imagined possible.

Preceding his journal entry, Greenstreet had spent several days scraping and curing a piece of sealskin to resole his boots. The satisfaction of learning, trying, digging in deep had brought him a kind of joy that caused him to exclaim, It's a pleasure to be alive.

As I contemplate a demanding endeavor, I hear Greenstreet's optimistic words written a hundred years ago in the worst of circumstances: It's a pleasure to be alive, and I'm ready to begin. Fulfillment doesn't come from sitting on the couch.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

In Defiance of Reality

Five years ago, when Mandi was pregnant with her first child, my sister said she saw the unborn child. He came to her quickly- in a flash of a vision; he was about three years old and he had blond curly hair. She spoke unabashedly of the incident as if it was normal to see her niece's unborn child. There was no doubt or hesitation in her story.

Inwardly I scoffed. Never to my sister's face, as I wouldn't want to hurt her feelings--especially since she was so sure. But, we didn't yet know whether the child was a boy or a girl.

I scoffed in part because...well, people just don't see unborn children---and Mandi and her husband both had dark hair. Mandi had been born with dark brown hair, which I mistakenly called black until my dear Mexican friend corrected me. I often teased Mandi's husband because when he had a beard, he looked like a Bedouin from the Middle East. No way, would her child have blond, curly hair. No way.

Foremost, the question loomed: why would he appear to my sister? Why not me, his grandmother?

Ezra was born.

A light brown fuzz crowned his head. As he grew, it appeared to be turning red. Between the ages of two and three, his hair grew into curly, blond locks. He became the child my sister had seen.

Ezra was a sensitive and sometimes a temperamental child, and worst of all, he didn't bond with me. For a short, painful period, each time he saw me, he exclaimed, "What the?"

But all the while, my sister seemed to have a bond with him. She saw him less than me, but there was a connection. She loved him, shopped for him, face-timed just to see her little Ezra. When he misbehaved during his terrible twos, my sister understood; when grumpiness reigned during his tempestuous threes, my sister defended.

And then one day, during his fourth year, Ezra's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day ended. He became a delightful, funny, engaging child.

My sister exclaimed, "I knew he'd outgrow his horrible threes!"

"Of course you did! You saw him, and you knew his heart."

In that moment, I knew my sister had been telling the truth all along.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


Sophie's cancer is gone.

Every once in a while, a miracle.

After an intensive round of chemo, and other invasive medical procedures, they've slayed the leukemia dragon. They, because it's taken a whole lot of people, a whole lot of technology, experimentation, years of study, and devotion to saving lives. Family devotion, friend devotion, doctor and nurse devotion.

Devotion: a feeling of strong love or loyalty; the use of time, money, energy, etc, for a particular purpose; prayer, worship, or other religious activities don in private rather than in a religious service.

Yet, Sophie's protocol includes two and a half more years of enduring chemotherapy to keep the leukemia confused about settling back in her bones.

Since we are reading Sir Ernest Shakleton's story of Endurance, I've been thinking a tad bit more about enduring, and noticing endurance in others~~in the simplest ways. Today, endurance was epitomized by a Japanese foreign exchange student.

In Storytelling class, we are studying the short story genre. I introduced Ray Bradbury's The Veldt, and the students were captivated. I often walk around the room while reading; I've become proficient at keeping my place on the page and keeping my eye on students. I walked up next to the exchange student-- he was frantically trying to translate. The story was eight pages long, and at six pages he put his head on the desk.

I felt terrible. For a split second I just knew how he felt.

But today was a new day! After our class discussion, as I was gathering student copies, he asked if he could finish the story. Later, I walked past and his translator was set up and his copy of The Veldt was beautifully annotated in Japanese.

"I only have two pages left," he said.

I could have cried.

He was enduring to the end of the story.

Sophie's story. Shoya's story.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Ode to the Village People

When my now twenty-six year-old Jillian was in elementary school, we read, The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson.
It's one of my fondest mother-daughter memories because Jillian enjoyed the book too. Drawn to the book by what I thought was the same name--Jilly is sometimes spelled Gilly and pronounced with a soft J, Gilly was actually short for Galadriel, an elf made famous by Kate Blanchett in Lord of the Rings. It turned out the protagonist Gilly, had a lot in common with my Jilly. Both were stubborn, stubborn, characters. My obstinate daughter even looked like the character--that same jutting chin, pursed lips, that smug of defiance. They differed too: Gilly was passed from foster home to foster home; my Jillian was loved and cherished.

Feeling under the weather this afternoon, I turned to the Netflix nurse. She had the remedy for my stubborn cold: the movie version of The Great Gilly Hopkins. The beloved foster mom was played by Kathy Bates; the newly-discovered grandmother by Glenn Close; Gilly was played by the actress from another favorite The Book Thief--Sophie Nelisse. Octavia Spencer played the teacher we all wish our children had.

Each character (except Gilly's mother who'd abandoned her) played a part in Gilly's village. Throughout the movie, I cried because of the village people who saved the great Gilly Hopkins.

The book characters, the movie characters: fiction, but those people are also real. I even know a few of them.

When my friend became the step mother to a few little girls, she noticed right away that one of her new children, had trouble with math. Each night, she worked lovingly and patiently with this child until the weakness became a strength.

Another friend drove her new stepson a half hour each way to his school, so he could stay his week with his father.

And yet another friend, took a job at the local elementary school, just so she could nurture children.

I know a grandmother who took in her grandson when his mother was crippled by drug abuse. The great drug-scourge of the twentieth century has created villages of grandparents willing to take over such an important job.

 The Great Gilly Hopkins was manna from heaven--and a reminder, that not every child has a village, and I need to look out for those children.

I'm so excited to tell Jillian our favorite book was made into a movie, I text her with the news...alas...she doesn't remember reading it with me...sigh...

Monday, March 20, 2017


The plane descent was so rough, my daughter reached for her husband's hand. Even I paid attention to the scary imaginations in my mind, until I heard a child burst into laughter.

Like most laughter, it was contagious, even during this turbulent landing--and once I laughed, I was no longer frightened by the imagined disastrous possibilities.

The plane took another roller coaster dive and the child laughed even harder.

I followed her lead and laughed again; my nervousness was gone, just like that.

Thank goodness for a different perspective.

The perspective of innocence.

Yet, not once in my lifetime of being an airplane passenger, did I have reason to believe that after the bumps, the plane would not smooth out, that we would not land safely. I had no reason to tense up; my life experience pointed otherwise.

Yet, my history included a recent watching of Scully, watching 1970s' Airport and 1980s' Airplane I and II, as a teenager and young adult. Not to mention years and years of news reporting on missing, hijacked, and crashed airplanes.

We are always a product of the possible, regardless of its improbability.

In order to keep on living, loving, and enjoying we have to remember these disasters become movies or make the news not because they are the norm, but because they are far from the norm. Hence, they become newsworthy, script worthy. The mundane, the usual, never makes the news, yet it is what constitutes our lives: the quotidian.

While we were in Paris last summer, Tony's friend sent a questioning email. He'd read of mayhem in Paris and questioned our safety. Tony and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders, what violence in Paris?

We googled violence in Paris and discovered a late night incident when a crowd of drinking, partying concert attendees had gotten into a scuffle. At 1:00 a.m., we were safely tucked and sound asleep.

While in Hawaii in December, national news reported on freezing conditions and snow in the islands. I was wearing summer clothes and swimming in the ocean. Yes, there was snow on Mauna Kea which one islander packed in his truck and brought to the beach for a snowball fight, but cold and snow was not the norm for the rest of Hawaii--only for the news.

I had a quotidian day. Thank goodness for the Hawaiin-weather quotidian.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


Jimmy the Greek's mother was olive-tree ancient; her gnarled fingers and grooved skin retold stories of hardship and happiness. She didn't speak English, but she smiled in world.

Her baklava, thin and crispy sheets layered with sweet nuts, dripped with honey-syrup and gooeyness so thick, it couldn't be licked away. It only dissolved after Saturday night's soak in the tub.

 Not even my best friend's mom, Mrs. Wright could make baklava that stood up to Jimmy the Greek's mom's, and even though her name was Mrs. Wright, she was just as Greek.  Mrs. Wright did make rice pilaf, almond rice, dolmas, moussaka,~~so memorable, I can still taste each bite.

As I grew up and got acquainted with the ancient world, I was surprised to find baklava not only in Greece, but in Egypt, in Israel, in Turkey and in different ethnic restaurants/bakeries in America.

"I thought baklava was Greek," I would pose to the purveyor of baklava.

"No, it's Lebanese!" Or Turkish, or Persian. Everyone in or with ties to the Levant claimed baklava as their own ethnic legacy.

Ah...those claims!

If only it was baklava and not the disputed lands of ancient Israel.

My study has moved past the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, moved past the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, and now I am in Saudi Arabia: the birth country of Osama bin Laden, the Saudi Jihad that began in camaraderie with the Afghan Mujahideen, that eventually turned brutal against the United States. I have so many questions, so many more books to read, so much more to understand...when I take my seat on the airplane ride from Chicago, the man next to me is a Muslim from Saudi Arabia. He's only been in the United States for two days.

I am astounded at the timing, the serendipitous pairing on a small plane. I'm almost speechless. I explain to him, I am teaching about the history of terrorism. He gives me carte blanche to ask any and all questions.

I asked how his sisters felt about not being able to drive in their country.

"They have drivers. Why would they want to drive?"

"Not everyone can afford a driver," I assume.

"This is true, but women always have someone to drive them."

I asked about the Quran, Muslim dress for women. We spoke of the history he had learned as a citizen, the history I'd learned from western opinion and translation; we discussed Saudi Arabia revoking Osama bin Laden's citizenship; about the jihadists they would't allow back into their country; about takfir. He didn't believe Sunni and Shiite sects were the cause of disputes, but instead excuses to fight over oil rich land. We talked of his conflict with Islam because he was gay; the secret he had to keep in his own country, the freedom he had in ours.

He was completely open.

Except, there was only one question he would not answer. His response was evasive and in his evasiveness, he revealed his truth.

"As a Saudi, do you hate Israel?"

"I would love to visit Israel," he answered. "It is a beautiful place with beautiful beaches."

I did not push for an answer, for hate is the one thing for which we should feel shame.

This young man is only twenty-seven-years-old. He's never fought against Israel, but his country supported the first war against the nascent nation in 1947. Saudi Arabia surrounds the tiny state of Israel that has never known a moment of peace and never will. Possession and rights to this ancient land will always be in dispute. Its neighbors will always claim it belongs to them--will always claim it does not belong to the Jews.

I think of baklava; only this claim is not so sweet.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Sacred

I've never been invited to a hair-shaving party before. When I was, my thoughts ran wild with expectations. Will party-goers be expected to shave their hair? Will I get carried away in the moment, shave my head and regret it? Will it be a sad party?

When Deb and I arrive, the party has already swung and moved on to its more serious purpose. The food table full of striped hot dogs, open bags of Doritos, and plates of cookies, has been abandoned. We walk past the patio and down the sloping grass into an arena of onlookers. Sophie's mom is holding the shaver like a pro; Sophie's sister-in-law is half bald. Has Sophie already gone?

She sees us. She runs to the opposite side of the yard, forgetting herself once more, and treating us like we're honored guests. We're not allowed to hug and Sophie keeps her distance, but her energy is more like Christmas morning, not like a teenager enduring chemotherapy.

"Thanks for coming!" She's the same Sophie except she's missing a keystone of her female identity: her thick sun-bleached locks of hair. Her female crown of glory. Yet, she seems to be taking it not-too-seriously--yet. Right now, she is the birthday girl, the celebrant--ee, the girl of the hour. We are here to honor and abide in her courage.

And to think just weeks ago, she didn't have a clue this burden was coming fast down the bowling lane ready to strike.

A brother-in-law steps forward. Zip, zip, and his hair lies on the sacrificial tarp beneath the barber's chair. Sophie's two year old nephew wanders onto the tarp. He insists on getting a buzz cut too. His mom concedes. Reluctantly. Sophie's friends tease each other, "Who's next?"

And then she steps forward. Sophie's sister. Resolute, unwavering, fully aware of the sacrifice she's about to make. She's a junior in high school with thick, long hair. She bows her head. Her mother gathers her hair and braids it. Her head stays bowed. Mom chops the braid with scissors. The razor swiftly removes a row of hair leaving only stubble. The crowd quiets. It's somber. I am a witness to the sacred.

Friday, March 17, 2017

History Within HIstory

My father and his brothers, without fail, would walk into each other's houses and open the fridge. First thing. Having grown up in the depression, having stolen each other's lunches, having had to eat fast or have it snatched by an older brother, gave them the rights to each other's refrigerators in times of plenty.

Though I am not above checking my children's fridges, I am more likely to peruse their bookshelves. The possibility of finding something exciting on a bookshelf is much more plausible than finding a fridge pot o' gold. The discovery of a new book would be more filling too.

The bookshelf discovery this time was published in 1964: Four Days, the Historical Record of the Death of President Kennedy, compiled by United Press International and American Heritage Magazine. I had never before seen this book. Since teaching the Cuban Missile Crisis and touching lightly on JFK's presidency, my interest in the 35th president of the United States had grown. This find was akin to a chocolate cake in the icebox (Dad and the uncles used to call it the icebox).

Where did the book come from? What was its story? As I opened the book, read its pages, studied the photographs and captions, I had a feeling it was my son-in-law's grandfather's book. After his death, I pictured him finding the book within his grandfather's boxes along with other books copyrighted in the early 20th century.

Besides the obvious story of a book, there is also the hidden story. Years after my friend's father died, she found a book of his. It was a book she loved too. Within the pages was also a letter to her. She could have never imagined the treasure within.

The postcard tucked within the pages of Four Days, began to tell a story. Silas' grandfather would have been alive on November 22, 1963, and it would have been a day that momentarily shattered his life, as it did most Americans.

 Silas' grandfather had also pulled out a story from a 1964 Look magazine and tucked each of the magazine pages into the book. For Silas, for me, the book was no longer just a history of John F Kennedy, it was the history of a man who lived during the 20th century, who had witnessed one of its tragedies.

Since becoming a fan of Norman Rockwell art as young girl, I too clipped a spread about the artist from my mother's magazine. It was the next best thing to actually seeing or owning a Norman Rockwell painting. One Christmas, I received a coffee-table sized book of his art and tucked the magazine article into its pages. The book became a history within a history, the story of a young girl who admired an artist, who loved his work.

The history of socks in 1964-a perfectly
preserved ad

The last photo of President Kennedy and his family

It is why I love annotated books--previously owned by a loved one or a stranger. Within the pages are the mind and will of a mother, a sister, a friend.  I am currently savoring James Talmadge's work, Jesus the Christ, not only for the documented wisdom about the Savior, but because the book belonged to my father, was read by my mother, and her copious notes are a testimony of her indulgent and thorough reading. I know where she paused; where she was touched; what she wanted to remember. The reading becomes sacred and not only because of the subject~~ but because my mother's thoughts live in that book.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Through Margo's Eyes

Margo and a dolphin

We were crazy excited to take our first born child to the zoo. Perhaps she was nine months old; perhaps she was only six month's old. We expected her to be enthralled with zoo animals. She wasn't. She fell asleep in her stroller in front of the most entertaining cages: the monkeys.

Decades later, we take almost ten-month-old Margo to the aquarium not expecting much notice or interaction, but, Margo is an intense observer. At her young age, her mind is in a constant state of processing information, stimuli, and people. It has been suggested that children her age take in and process so much information that they are operating at the level of a genius.

I happened to win the Margo-carrying lottery just as we entered the beluga whales' pool area. She was attentive to every movement as she followed their graceful tumbling in and out of the water. As a beluga slid past, upside down, she had to wonder about its strange body, distinct musculature, and best-friend face.  Because I had expected her interest to wane, I was as enchanted with her as I was with the belugas.

We moved on to the dolphins where she showed the same focus. Leaning up against the penguin aquarium, she patiently waited for penguins to paddle past. When we reached the otters, she sensed their playfulness, held on to the bar and flapped her own arms and legs. As we moved to the small fish aquariums, she still pointed, still grunted, and she was snatched away by one of her aunts. I was so lucky to have shared her first experience with ocean animals. Once separated from her, I ended up exploring on my own--because I was newly enthralled and took too much time observing. Margo's intense interest, had inspired mine. The propellers on the Mandarin Dragnet fish were mesmerizing; the design on the tassels file fish was James Christiansen art. I saw where Dr. Seuss got his inspiration, I found pleasure in turtle noses and a sea horse shaped like a stick.


Seeing the aquarium through Margo's eyes opened my own. The experience was so joyful, so rewarding~~I am resolved to see again with awe and wonder~~just like Margo.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Story of a Chair

Thirty years ago, we purchased a house with an unusually small living room. It had to fit the piano, a harp, and provide seating for small formal gatherings of no more than five people. I searched for furniture that would fit, but the search was futile. The room also had lush, rose colored carpet. I was stuck with specific decorating parameters.

I ended up ordering custom furniture: a love seat and two small-sized wing back chairs.

Ten years later, we sold the house and purchased a home with regular-sized rooms. The love seat moved into the master bedroom and one of the wing back chairs went into a daughter's bedroom. When she had to furnish her first apartment, she took the wing backs, and I gave up my bedroom love seat. Eventually those pieces moved to Northern Illinois and later found their way to Chicago. By now they were thirty-years-old. The couch had ripped, but my daughter kept it alive with a cover.

 Over the years, as she and her husband finished graduate school, she added to her apartment furnishings with cast offs from an affluent Chicago neighborhood where residents give away almost-brand new furniture. On a designated day of each week, the sidewalks are stacked with tables, couches, chairs, for the taking.

Graduate school ended, regular salaries were the new normal, raises were earned. Finally, the day came when the last wing back chair from her childhood had served its purpose. She almost put the chair up for sale on an online garage sale, because it was still a sturdy chair. She had picked up ten dollars here or twenty dollars there for selling clothing or household goods. There was always someone in need of a bargain.

But she had a new thought, Over the years, I've received so many pieces of free furniture, I've been blessed by others' generosity, it's my turn to give. 

In another neighborhood, people were looking out for an eighty-six year old widower who could no longer rise from his low, soft,  couch without knee pain. He needed a sturdy chair and they found it in the online garage sale. Best of all it was free. Three different neighbors worked together to bring the chair to its new home.

The caring neighbors were so fulfilled by their effort and care, they sent my daughter a photo of the happy elderly man.

My daughter received so much joy from acting on a new idea, that when it was time to replace two ten dollar plastic floor lamps from Target, still in good shape, she photographed the lamps and placed them on the online-garage-sale. For free. This time the couple who wanted them were immigrants without a car, who lived only a twenty minute walk away. The woman planned to pick them up with her child's stroller, but the winds were fifty miles per hour. She sent her husband the next night, but when my daughter learned he was walking and would be carrying both lamps, she sent her own husband to pick him up and help deliver the lamps.

My daughter's appreciation is renewed by her encounters with people in need. I am touched and want to be a part of her experiences. I'm only here for the weekend, but I still ask, "What else can we give away?"

 Who would have thought a decorating decision made years ago would have crossed paths with the kind neighbors of an eighty-six year old man.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

"They Can Smell Our Fear"

The girls and I have decided to go shopping. Because there are two little children who need to be put to bed and their father will be at a Bull's basketball game, their mother is trying to convince her father (Tony/Grandpa) to put the four-year-old to bed.

"It's easy," she says.

I am driving and turn to Tony who's sitting in the passenger seat, "Children needing to be put to bed are like dogs; they can smell fear."

Our daughter continues, "All you need to do is brush his teeth, make sure he goes to the bathroom, say prayers, read a book, cuddle with him for five minutes, then lay down outside his door for ten minutes. That's all."

I'm practically choking on the humor, "That's all."

Tony joins my amusement and retorts to his daughter, "After ten minutes, he (the four-year-old), will come out of his room and ask where his mom is. Ten minutes later, we'll be making popcorn and watching a movie."

Supposedly our other grandchildren are easy to put to bed too, but Tony and I are rarely successful. Nap time rolls around. We quiver. We procrastinate. They sniff out our fear. They know we've lost our edge. One hour after attempted nap time, the little guys are out of their cribs tearing tissues out of a box.

Grandpa never actually agrees to putting the little guy to bed, but when he brings up the flavor and size of ice cream he'd like that night, we all take it as his concession to be the babysitter. Shopping is on!

Later that night, the baby is in bed by 6:30 and Mom starts putting the little guy to bed a half hour early. As instructed, Grandpa goes upstairs and lays by the door. Sweet, sweet guy~~especially after a jumbo cup of Andy's vanilla custard.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Chicago Food

Once again, nature has tricked us into coming to Chicago too early in the spring. We try to go in March for our daughter's birthday, and just when it starts to warm up, after she face-times while sitting on a blanket outside with her children, we book our flights. Then the arctic wind blows and our weather apps warn the temperature will feel like 20 degrees with the wind chill factor.  As usual, we will bundle up and carry on!

When the other daughters hear we are going, they manage to squeeze into the fun wagon. The son-in-laws have never been to Chicago, so their wives are anxious to share the fun, the food, the sights. We consider getting hotel rooms, but the time together is already too short, and with the added expense, the consideration disappears. We settle with borrowed blow up beds in the unfinished basement and in a displaced child's bedroom. On travel day, there are six of us!

We long ago established certain Chicago traditions--especially eating traditions. First night, Edzos: famous hamburgers, milkshakes and home of the loaded fries. Always a line out the door.

Second eat out tradition: The Chicago Pizza Oven and Grinder, famous for its food and location across the street from the 1929 St. Valentine's massacre. Eating at this restaurant is tricky: downtown parking, a 45 minute wait and a host who doesn't take names, but remembers patrons by their faces and party number. This time with a large group, a nine month old baby, and the weather, no one wants to be stuck outside waiting. Plus, only two tables in the restaurant will seat a party of ten, so we leave an hour early allowing plenty of time for traffic and the search for two parking places. Traffic is normal and we find a space in a relatively short time. The glitch comes in the strain of trying to park an 11 foot van in an 11 & 1/2 inch parking space. After a 20 point turning effort, I nail the space, and I'm proud.
We are first in line with ten minutes until opening. The host welcomes us in. Easier than expected, but we are still relieved when seated with menus in hand, and even happier when we've ordered our individual 1/2 pound pizza pot pies and family salads. Five minutes pass and the wait jumps to 45 minutes.

The trip wouldn't be complete without an early morning, downtown donut run, which our son-in-law host makes with his son. He returns with a box of sophisticated named donuts: Valrona chocolate glazed, pistachio with meyer lemon glaze, carrot cake with sweet cream cheese frosting, vanilla bean glazed, candied bacon, cheese Danish, Michigan apple fritter.

Lest one think this is a food centric trip (busted), it is only so because we are hampered by the intense cold. Yesterday, when the four year old couldn't wait to go to the park, we doubled-layered clothing, donned hats and gloves and crossed the street. I was in for the long haul, but fifteen minutes later, the little guy asked to go home: "It's too cold."

The really fun stuff like The Bean, the St. Patrick's day green-dyed river, and Michigan Avenue, are not so fun in 23 degree weather with humidity that chills to the bone. So, what is left? Food foraging for the delicious, the innovative, the unexpected.

Our first foray into the heart of the city, my daughters are excited to share their memories with their  husbands. When we make the first turn on Lake Shore Drive that reveals the skyline, I peek in the rear view mirror to see my son-in-laws' first impressions~~~both of them are sound asleep.

Turns out they haven't slept so well this trip. Those borrowed blow-up mattresses have slow-leaking holes. The slow, all night descent onto hard ground, has taken its toll; sleep is more enticing than a first-view of the city.
As if to punctuate our ill-timed travel, she graces our day of departure with snow.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


Sophie's mom writes:

I don't think I'll write much.
She's starting to lose her hair.
It's real.

Three lines.
All it takes.

Reminds me of Hemingway's famous three lines: For Sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.

Unexpectedly, I'm handed a check for Sophie. I don't want to look at the amount, as I don't want to seem greedy. Though I am greedy for Sophie. I thank the donor and walk it to my purse, slip on my glasses and see the amount: $1000. I start to cry. I never expected such a generous amount from this person. I rush back to her, hug her and thank her for the huge check.

She responds, "Well I can't eat it, I don't have many bills to pay, and they need the money more than me." Which translates to me, It's sitting in the bank, let's put it to good use.

I chatted with an old friend who was collecting household items for an incarcerated woman who was about to be let out of jail. The middle aged woman had been accepted to college and my friend was helping to furnish her college apartment.

The old friend had made a life shift from a corporate position with a nice car, clothes, etc, to doing pro bono work for people in need. I noticed right away she was driving an old car and wondered if material wealth and goods no longer mattered because she saw the greater needs and the greater joy of helping people.

When will I love people more than I love the money set aside to remodel the master bath, my car, my  house? When will I have enough faith to let go? To consider the lilies of the field?

Tears. Desire. It's a start.

Gotta start somewhere.

In Luke 18, we read of the ruler who asks Jesus, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" The Savior lists the crucial commandments, and the ruler can vouch for his accordance to every last one he has kept since his youth. But the Savior has more in store for the ruler than just keeping the commandments: Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. The ruler shirks from his call.

We the readers assume the man is lost except to the pages of history as a bad example for loving money more than people.

I see a different twist. Yes, the ruler lost the immediate opportunity of a lifetime~~ to have joined with the Savior in real time~~but I imagine him overtime, slowly shedding his attachment to the security of his money. He will ponder his encounter, he will shed tears; he will regret and give and give until he has given all.  His blessings will come as one of the last laborers.

The dramatic conversion is rare. Few people have angelic calls to repent; more often it is the accumulation of time and experience that slowly propel us forward into the ability and inclination to think of others more than ourselves. The climb to sainthood is a Matterhorn not a rolling Scottish hill covered in heather.

Or maybe, like the ruler who couldn't let go of his riches to benefit the poor, I too am lying to myself about the greater worth, about the time it takes to adjust to the Lord's call, about letting go of shiny trinkets for heavenly treasure gained from sharing abundance now.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Mystery History Box

Since I am teaching the history of terrorism along with its current implications in the modern world, I thought a counter-terrorism simulation would be beneficial to the students. We'd played out the Cuban Missile Crisis in a simulation that turned out engaging and memorable.

I searched the internet--surely someone had been successful and had generously posted it for the rest of us who were eager to bring life into the classroom.

I found an intense simulation practiced by law students at the SJ Quinney College of Law. After speaking to the astute professor in charge, I learned the simulation takes four hours and the law students take one year to create the simulation.  Hmmm...our needs were much less sophisticated than the future lawyers-counter-terrorist-negotiate-ers of the world.

Somehow, amongst all the other dead ends, I found mention of a simulation created by an American who endured the Iranian hostage crisis, as a hostage (1979).  He and his girlfriend created the simulation they so generously shared with students around the nation. This man had a story to tell. 

My search for a copy or a script, almost came up empty until I serendipitously found the Myrin Institute and a kind lady named Karen.

When I inquired as to making a possible purchase of the simulation, Karen responded: We don't have the kit available for sale.  I am not even sure if we still even have one, if we do I could photocopy the material and email it  to you. I will take a look in the barn the next couple of  days and let you know next week.

The valuable simulation might be out in the barn! I pictured this piece of history, discarded on a back shelf covered in cobwebs and dust, tucked under the eave with a hole in the roof-rain splattered and ruined. I chucked this into the dead-end pile of almost fulfilled hopes and dreams. 


A month later, I hear from Karen: I have finally located the last known box.  It has many components and would take a lot of time to copy.
I would love to send it to you to review and see if it will serve your purpose.  If it does please feel free to use and copy if you wish for future use.  Than when you are done return back to us so that it is available for anyone else to use. 

The Last Known Box! 

When I taught my students about the Iranian hostage crisis, it was completely new history to them, yet it is another puzzle piece to Jimmy Carter's presidency, an historic rescue mission failure, the emergence of radical Islam, the oil crisis, and the evolution of America. Now my students may participate in a simulation created by a man who lived this American hostage tragedy! 

I eagerly wait for the mystery history box, once relegated to a dark corner in a Massachusetts barn, about to come to life. 

Postscript: I scratch my head wondering how I found the simulation, the institute, and Karen. This will be easy, I'll just start the search over and I'll be led to the website like I was before. But it doesn't happen. 

Friday, March 10, 2017

Litmus Test

When I prepare to leave the house, I most often fret about what I'm going to wear. Especially if I'm teaching: are my clothes clean, is this dress long enough, does the shirt button high enough? Is this too tight? Too loose? Do I match? Am I dressing too young? Too old? Does my hair look like it's brushed?

So when I won't be standing in front of critical-eyed students, I give myself latitude.

Need to run to the grocery for that one item on a winter morning? It takes two seconds to realize I can stay in my pajamas if I wear my long black coat. That same winter coat makes me bold enough to quick-shop without a bra.

This afternoon I stepped out of the shower and had that insta-panic when I had to think about what to wear, but, it vanished when I focused on why I was going out: to the matinee. With two friends. A mid-afternoon luxury when I wouldn't have to care about what I wore. T would be in her sweats and S, well I've known her for 25 years...if she was dressed nice, it wouldn't matter how I compared.

I slipped on jeans and pulled a big, soft shirt from the closet shelf. Almost ready for the laundry, it was fine for one more wear.

Comfort-shabby-wear. The litmus test for true friendship.