Thursday, December 10, 2015

Merry Christmas...or not

I wish I was a mind reader.  Then I might really know what to do here.  I’m in over my head.

I’ve spent my professional career as an educator at Title I schools.  Title I means that a big chunk of the population we serve has high needs in critical areas—our students may lack basic necessities like adequate food, shelter, support.  

For twenty-five years, I’ve served children on antiquated campuses as well as kids romping around brand new school yards.  I’ve taught school in Georgia, Germany, Indiana, Florida, Texas, and California.  I’ve worked with little ones and big ones, of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and exceptionalities, not unlike most educators I know.

Children have surrounded me in classrooms equipped with every tool and with no tools. I think I can reach and teach anywhere.  My own children will tell you that I teach even when my pupils don’t want to be taught.  But this year…oh this year.

I’m posted on a campus that is distinguished by labels that we don’t like—100% free and reduced lunch; 100% poverty; “academically unacceptable”; in “academic recovery” …labels that say very little about what’s going on behind each classroom door. 

I’m surrounded by committed teachers as well as newbies.  This is the first year for most of us to serve on this campus.  And we’re all in over our heads. We were all placed here for a reason. I was posted here to see if maybe a robust library program could impact learning, along with many other initiatives. Everyone’s working hard, staying late, striving to set up “rigorous learning” opportunities that will help us make the mark.

The jury’s still out on how we’re doing.

The decision about “what works” is still hanging in the balance and will swing like a pendulum until state testing is complete later this spring.  Then maybe some of the labels will come off.

But despite my years of teaching experience, I’m still learning.  As it turns out, I’m still na├»ve about what poverty means. 

Many of our students are part of a silent neighborhood.

They live in “have not” homes or neighborhoods, silently going without.  I don’t want to disregard those families that are making ends meet. Some kids are just fine; their parents and extended families are providing all they can.  But it’s the “have nots” that keep us awake at night. 

Backpacks of food are sent home several times a month with five year olds or ten year olds, whoever needs the help–just to insure there’s food at the house when they’re not at school. Clothing is provided as needed.  Eye exams are conducted and new glasses show up on faces ready to learn. Paper, pencils, notebooks, shoes...all free as needed. 

And yet.

And yet. 

These kids need something that money can’t actually buy.

Stability.  Security.  Hope. 

Day after day, I’ll prepare to teach and start a lesson focused on my objectives.  In my mind, I'm running down the checklist of the many things I want to teach.  Language arts.  Digital literacy. Databases and information power kind of stuff.  21st Century learner sorts of things. 

But over and over I get stopped in my tracks.  By children who can’t read because no one’s home or literate enough to help them practice.  By kids who have grown lethargic about their own success. By children who are so new to this country that they've yet to assimilate one language, much less two. 

With the countdown for Christmas beating like a drum, I hear from children with wish lists that bear no resemblance to those of my grandchildren…kids who want one thing, or two, knowing that neither item will probably show up on Christmas morning or any other day. 

I get by kids who say things like, “I get to see my dad in prison on Christmas Eve…” and behind those eyes that sparkle there’s a pain, a pain that I can hardly comprehend. 

Today a nine-year old wrapped up two paper bookmarks we gave him and tucked them in his pocket—Christmas presents for his “granny” when she gets out of jail. 

A fourth grader asks me, “Did you read my essay?  It’s about my sister.  She’s an angel now.” 

A fifth grader has given up trying to get to school most days.  It's hard to comprehend if he's lazy or hopeless. 

A kindergartener hangs on my every word, like I'm magic because I've told her I like her dress.

This one needs a tissue; that one needs breakfast;  another just wants to be seen and will act out every which way to get attention, uncaring of whether it's positive or negative. 

I don’t know what to do here.  I’m in over my head.  

I hug them.  I welcome them. I hold them and high five them.  I tell them to work hard.  I say that words will make them strong and powerful.  Is it lip service?  Is what we’re doing making any difference? Do I need to say, “Be tough.  Get over it. Do the work?”

Feeling sorry for these kids will get them nowhere.  What’s the proverb-give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day;  teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime?  But is it fair to expect kids to fathom such wisdom?  We’ve colluded to give our kids the fish and teach them how at the same time.  While we try to prevent an “entitlement” mentality, isn’t every child entitled to warm clothes, food, a fish?  

At the end of the day, I feel like an alien in this environment.

I work with children whose life stories are foreign to me.  They deal with issues that are completely out of my control.  

When I say goodbye at the end of the day, I can think of very little to say.

“See you tomorrow!”

“Read a book!”

"Be safe!"

But the truth is, most of the time, I am at a loss for words. 

When a teacher told me her students cried at dismissal before Thanksgiving break and I asked her why, she said they told her, “We don’t want to go home. We want to be with you.”   

I find myself picking up my jaw and closing my mouth nearly every day.  I read them fairy tales, yet the stories I hear are far from it. 

For Christmas, I’d like these children to live the fairy tale.  I’d like them to peer out their frosty windows, gazing at bright stars in the night sky.  I want them to hear jingle bells and sleigh bells.  I'd like them to be awed by the straw in the manger.  Shepherds keeping watch. Wise men on the way. I want them to wait on Rudolph and all his four-legged friends to land on their rooftops.  I long for them to have a pitcher of milk and cookies all ready for the big jolly guy to skinny down their chimneys.  I'd like them to rise from cozy beds on Christmas morning, to find an overstuffed stocking and an obnoxious pile of toys, regardless of where they land on the naughty or nice lists.

A fairy tale merry Christmas.  I’d love that. 

I'd ask the big guy if he could also throw in a return of innocence.  No lack.  Just love. 

But I know, I'm in over my head.

I want so much more for them than what Santa can provide. 

Friday, October 23, 2015

For Chris...


Oh that I could comfort you
With words that would contain
The length and width and breadth of peace
To take away your pain…

But there is

No way around

only through.

Be brave…

Move those muscles long dormant from blessings falling rich and often.

Take nothing for granted.

Not this day, nor hour.

Not this way, nor path.

Be exposed…

Inhale this moment.  

It is what it is.

As surely as the waves crash against a beaten shore

Peace will come.

Wait for it.

It will come.

It will come for you. 

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Not Alone: Finding the Love of Your Life

For the past twelve months, I have met with a man named Russ Murphy to collaborate on a book he was born to write.  His wife of forty years, Saralyn,  had passed away suddenly, just four months earlier, and he was bereft. But more than that, he was brave.  He wanted to inhabit his grief. 

I understood from firsthand experience that there’s a geography to grief; it’s a layered terrain that treks through ridges, peaks, and valleys.  I also understood that our Savior and Creator could equip us for the journey, if we would only yield to His heart and surrender to His will. 

Russ did that.  He was willing to surrender, to go wherever that grief journey would take him.  He kept a travelogue of sorts on Facebook, posts that his readers and he called “Not Alone.”  We all looked forward to reading what Russ had to say.  Not because it was entertaining and not because we were voyeurs on his journey, but because he was so transparent, and willing to share what the Holy Spirit revealed to him along the way.   

A singer and songwriter as well as a pastor, minister, and servant, Russ created his own little rituals of mourning, trying to find his way around a prayer circle on his living room floor. His near daily routine of sharing his remembrances and discoveries via social media became a liturgy of sorts, and many who waited for his posts experienced healing and recovery on their own grief journeys.

As we started our manuscript trek, I wanted to understand how different cultures deal with loss. Each society or community has its own sacraments, traditions, and beliefs about what happens to the departed, or what happens to the living.  I thought if I wanted to truly help Russ write his story, I needed to understand grief in a new way.

Confucius directed his followers who were grieving to live in austerity for twelve months; unshaven for forty days.Thank God, thank my God, Russ was not asked to do the same;  no amount of facial hair could have assuaged his pain and he told me from the very start, personal grooming was a huge challenge in the beginning stages of his grief, when he did not want to put one foot in front of the other.

In the Asian tradition, he might have buried Saralyn in her warmest clothing—her sweats, her thick, wooly socks, her red scarf.  Interred in a watertight casket, there would have been no risk her body would be exposed to the elements. The Japanese speak of mourners as “sinking in grief” and Russ has known the desperation of sadness like quicksand.

Had Russ been a Buddhist or Taoist, his grieving might have been stoic, internal; an impossible task for this Caucasian man who wept openly and often, grieving his loss. He might have penned calligraphic poems and left them for Saralyn, alongside incense or sacrifices, creating a shrine to his bride.  Instead he wrote her love songs, and sang them to her or the Lord, whispering when grief tightened his vocal cords and made singing painful and impossible.

Hindus allot thirteen days for grief, to sacrifice flowers and fruits and water to gods and gods and gods.  No flower, no peach, no plum, no earthen vessel could have been left on an altar to lessen the grief this man endured.  Thirteen days of grief would not cut it; he learned only too well there is no timetable, no calendar for sadness or sorrow or healing.  He will be the first to tell you his grief was no greater or less than another; but it was intensely personal and intimate and would fit in no predictable box.

Had Russ and Saralyn shared their faith in the Native American tradition, Russ might have buried some token of his love with Saralyn to symbolize the circle of their lives.  He could have asked a spiritual leader or Medicine Man to moderate her death service, beseeching his ancestors to join Saralyn in making her transition into the afterlife.  As a Native American, he would have embraced the belief her spirit would inhabit the land to which his loved one returned. Instead, Saralyn inhabited the heartland deep inside his soul, and he kept her memory safe and sacred as he mourned.

If Russ and Saralyn shared the Catholic faith, he would have kneeled next to her sacred heart, buried now deep inside his own. He would have sat through mass, participating in the sacraments of anointing and last rites, rosary beads spilling through his long fingers.

Had they both been born into the Jewish tradition, when Saralyn left this earth, Russ might have sat shiva or recited the Kaddish for as many days as it would have taken to learn to let go and leave his grief behind.  No music, no flowers, he might have stood silently above her burial box, dropping dry soil atop the plot where she waited for a Jesus she’d never met.  But Russ knew Jesus well, and Saralyn had shown him only too fully what a friend we have in Him.

Russ has shown me, through his journey, that our Lord, Jesus Christ, meets us at our point of need, each and every step of the way.  While every faith, every religion, has its own rituals of mourning, as Christians we are allowed, for a brief moment, to enter into the suffering of our Lord when we experience our own grief.  When we weep, He not only tastes the bitter or sweet of our tears, but He stores each teardrop in a jar.  For some of us, that container is a huge earthen vessel.  For others, it’s a small vial.  

Would that we could go through life with no sorrow, no grief, no tears.  Yet what would love be like if such a feat were possible? To lose, to experience great loss,  is to understand how deeply we may choose to love. Russ discovered that his powerful love for Saralyn resulted in a profoundly difficult grief passage.  As he traversed that path, our Lord allowed him to discover new love, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that He is merciful, good, and worthy to be praised, even as Saralyn left her footprints in the stars.  As it turns out, grief is hard-wired into creation.  Even a bird will weep, searching over and over for its lost love.  

Russ and I met month after month to revise, edit, review, and refine the lessons he received. I interviewed his friends, his family, witnesses to what kind of life he'd lived and was learning to live without Saralyn.  There were twists and turns that no one expected. Yet these events showed Russ all he really needed to know.  His Lord, Jesus Christ, through the holy Father, would show him the way, when there was no other way.  

As we finished the final pages of this manuscript,  I understood that something very profound had transpired.  Russ wanted to share his journey quickly.  He didn’t want to wait to find a conventional publisher.  He wanted to put his words in print within days or weeks, not months or years.  He wanted you to have what he has:  a keen understanding of our faith after it’s been battered and torn. 

I want you to buy his book.  I know it will change you.  It changed me.  And I want you to share it with as many others as you can.  Not because we want it on the New York Times Bestseller's list.  But because we want the insights Russ received to reside in you, the way they have begun to reside in us. 

There is a way to heal from grief.  There is a way to live that is not only right and good, but amazing.  Find out for yourselves. 

We are not alone…

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Family Time

We’ve just returned from four wonderful days of family time.  It was wonderful to be together, but it was also in turn wonderfully messy, wonderfully confusing, wonderfully funny, wonderfully tense, and wonderfully diverse.  When you put sixteen people with different thoughts, opinions, desires, and expectations together under one roof for 96 hours, it’s bound to be messy.  The beautiful part of being in a family is that we get to be messy with each other and live to tell about it.  Maybe even learn to laugh about it.

In our family, we know what messy is.  We know what it is to go through an earthquake.  We felt the ground shake beneath us when Bo died.  For all of us, the past eighteen years have been in some part about getting over that earthquake, about dealing with the devastation of loss, about recovery, rebuilding, and renewal.  No mother wants to raise a family on her own.  No child wants to grow up without a dad. Earthquakes can rock your foundation, but that foundation can be rebuilt. 

We’re not that different from you and yours.  Each family goes through some form of tragedy or triumph that changes the complexion and complexity of their relationships.  The thing I love about God’s grace is that it’s sufficient for all of us;  it’s sufficient for the siblings who don’t always get along,  who don’t always agree, who don’t always see eye to eye.  It’s sufficient for the extended family members who have stepped into our web of friendships and relationships, all organisms with a life of their own.  I know His grace is sufficient because at the end of the day, we survived the wrecking ball.  We survived the shift of those tectonic plates that set our world off kilter.  We learned how to stand and live upright when sorrow made us crumble.  Not only that, we learned that God's grace is so sufficient He will give and give and give no matter what. 

We gathered this past weekend to celebrate…Christi finished her college degree, begun as a young teenager and put on hold for years of marriage and family building.  We celebrated Carlisle and Michelle’s tenth wedding anniversary, with its own seasons of marriage and family building.  We celebrated my sixtieth birthday, decades of marriage and family building and a whopping red letter day on my personal timeline.  But we also celebrated the fact that love built us and love sustains us.  Messy, imperfect love.   Grace-giving and grace-receiving love. 

No family is perfect.  We all struggle and strive to figure out how to get along, how to grow in love and forgiveness, how to accept and defend our personal and private and public decisions.  That’s the good stuff.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned in sixty years, it’s that bit of mathematics.  Start with a and b.  Multiply.  Divide and subtract.  Then add.  And keep adding and taking away until you get closer and closer to our Lord’s vision and version of who we are supposed to be, of who He’s created us to be.  This family is our temporary home.  He’s got a perfect mansion prepared for us.  But in the meantime, our job is to learn how to live and how to love each other like He loves us. It’s a messy process.

Messy and imperfect.  But we are loved.  Oh so loved.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Oh, Dad

Dear Dad,

It’s always hard to figure out what to do on Father’s Day now that you are gone.  When you were on this earth, I would call you from wherever we were stationed, and I’d have a nice long chat with you about your day, your life, your health.  You always turned the conversation back to my day, my life, your grandkids.  I used to try to find a book you’d like to read—it was a challenge beating my brothers to the next nonfiction bestseller, but we’d sometimes collude with mom about which one to get you.  The Hallmark card was part of the gift—sometimes it took a long time to find the one that said just what I wanted to say that year.  The message didn’t change much though…some variation of how happy I was to call you “dad.”  

On Father’s Day I usually wake up thinking of you.  It has always been so easy to love you. 

I wish I’d recorded your voice.  I miss the sound of you.  I hear your laugh when I talk to Steve.  I see your hands in his.  Stacy has your neck and chin;  Todd has your pensive gaze. 

I miss you, Dad. 

You were so important to my children.  When Bo died, you stepped up in such a big way.  You told me they’d never lack for anything, and they didn’t.  You told me you’d always be there for us, and you were.  When Bo died, there was a void in each of my kids’ hearts.  But you filled it as best you could, with love, devotion, and pride in their accomplishments.  It still fuels them as they pursue good, meaningful lives.

Thank you for doing that for us, Dad.

I see you in Lauren…she has your penchant for barbed wire, cattle, long and dusty roads.  I see you in Christi…the smile on her face when she was in your arms as a child still shows up.  I watch you in Carlisle…his work ethic is yours.  He still works to make you proud. Your sparkle is in Michelle’s eyes…you were her Shiny Top.  You were more father to Charlotte than any other man as Bo was gone when she was still so little.  Thank you for grandfathering our children so well.

I’m grateful for you, Dad.

I admit I get jealous sometimes when I see others with their dads.  I long for you.  I ache to walk beside you, holding your arm.  I wish for one more day, one more hour with you. 

I have no regrets.  Each time we were together, we shared our affection for each other.  I never left anything unspoken with you.  No unfinished business, no unforgiveness, no mess, no fuss.  Our slate is clean…pristine.  You simply loved me and I simply loved being your only daughter. 

Thank you for teaching me how to love like that, Dad. 

I know that at the end of my long, happy life, you’ll be there waiting for me.  Till then,  I love you sixty million ways.

Happy Father’s Day.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Moving Blues


I’ve moved all my life.

Augsburg, Germany at birth.

Fort Benning, Georgia as a baby.

Luverne, North Dakota as a toddler.

Back to Fort Benning, Georgia for pre-school.

A short stay in Oakland, California as we waited for my father to send for us.

Off to Okinawa, Japan for kindergarten, first, second, and third grades, but even on that little island we moved twice.

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

Fort Benning, Georgia for fifth and sixth grade;  I met my lifelong friend Pam here.

Columbus, Georgia while my father was deployed to Viet Nam.

Washington, D.C. for Pentagon duty.

Killeen, Texas for a year off-post, then a move on post to Fort Hood, then a move off post to Harker Heights.

Tallahassee, Florida for college, again, with my bff, Pam.

Fort Hood, Texas as a new bride, new teacher.

Off to Mannheim, Germany, and even overseas we moved three times.  We put our moving boxes into moving boxes, and brought little Lauren into the world in Heidelberg.   

Back to the continental US, to Fort Benning, Georgia.  Welcome Christi!

Off to Monterey, California, Fort Ord.

Back to Fort Hood, Texas within a few blocks of my folks.  Howdy Carlisle!

Fort Stewart, Georgia with a large battalion of other movers and shakers.

Fort Harrison, Indiana.  Hi Michelle! 

Carmel, Indiana.  Lebanon, Indiana.

Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  Hello little Charlotte!

Mannheim, Germany once more;  then off to Hohenfels in Bavaria.

Back to the continental U.S. again, to MacDill AFB in Tampa, Florida.

Retirement to Brandon, Florida, followed by an earthquake as Bo and I split up;  I  stayed in Brandon;  he took to the trails.

Back to Harker Heights, Texas, to look after momma. 

A move to College Station, and another move in College Station.

Put down roots you say?   Do I know how?

Roots have never been a home, a backyard, or a neighborhood.  Roots for me have always been my lifeblood—my children, their spouses, my grandchildren. 

But when I moved to this town, this neighborhood-- I found the closest thing I've known as home in a very long time.  But, it’s coming to a close.  The guys who own my house, not my home, are moving back in.  It’s their house.  I get it.

But I don’t want to leave my home.  I want to stay.

I know I'll find a cottage, a pup tent, a fortress someplace nearby.  But moving is hard.  This is the place I love.  This is the place I want to stay. 

God’s will is perfect.  His ways are not my ways.  Each time I’ve moved, it’s because He’s picked me up and plopped me exactly where He wants me to be.  He’ll do it again.  I know.

But moving is hard.