Monday, December 14, 2009

Santa Claus & the Neighbor Kid

When I was a kid, I had one of those neighbors—the obnoxious, bragging, rich kid who tries to outdo you at everything but who is still somehow your bosom friend. In childhood, friendship hangs so much on proximity and lack of mobility, and this was the one girl in the neighborhood besides my sister and me, so she was my friend.

It was love-hate. Loneliness would drive us together, and then an afternoon of watching her measure orange halves to make sure she had the bigger one and telling me she could make up rules for all the games because it was her house would leave me much more content to entertain myself.

This was a weekend when we were together, sitting on her parents gigantic sectional sofa, watching their gargantuan tv in the early 80s when this was a surreal experience. Snuggled up in the corner of that sofa overlooking the pool table in the other living room while her parents slept, she whispered to me, Your dad’s Santa Claus.

She was all the time trying to tell me things I didn’t know. Like her Aunt Mary’s birthday or the location of her private school. She was attempting to show off, my mother explained, when I asked why I would care about these things. So I rolled my eyes and figured I would certainly know better than she if my dad were the one, true Santa Claus.

But I have a vivid imagination, quite intricate and entertaining for the long days when my neighbor and I were not measuring oranges or arguing over whether to crush the crunchy autumn leaves. On my way home, I began imagining my dad, whose “uniform” was swimming trunks and flip flops except on formal occasions, when he wore his best blue jeans and cowboy boots, as Santa Claus.

Santa probably did have a secret place where he spent the year, when he wasn’t busy with the elves. There was a bassinet in my parents’ closet, from when my brother was a baby. It was filled with clothes now, but it was probably sitting on a trap door, a portal to the North Pole.

And I realized: my dad could be Santa Claus! The more I thought about it, the likelier the possibility. So after looking both ways several times and crossing that lazy island street that separated our tiny rat-infested house from the little mansion where the neighbor-girl lived, I resolved to ask my dad who he really was.

When I asked, his eyes made it clear that there was a secret here. He did that thing he does—calls you into the bedroom, gets comfortable, clears his throat. In short, he took forever to get started, his way of making a conversation “official.”

He told me the Truth about Santa that day, a Truth I was shocked to hear. Not only was he not Santa, there was no Santa. It was all just a ruse, a game he and mom and millions of other parents played—why? So they could give their children gifts without receiving anything in return. No praise, no thanks, no chores or favors.

I was in awe that such love existed. I spent the next several days slack-jawed that my parents, strict and stern as they were, had such an incredibly soft and generous side. I made a thank-you card at school, and I felt full of magic, touched by an incredible love.

And that’s about the time it hit me: whatever his exact words had been, Dad had not actually denied being Santa.  I snuck into their bedroom to inspect the bassinet, but I was too scared to actually move it and look under it, so I gave it a quick rock and ran.

I watched Dad’s beard grow in, during the winter and come off in the summer. I watched him put on weight. I wondered, but I never knew for sure.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A Cup of Cold Coke

Matthew 10:42

              When I think of the Great Depression, I think of scrimping, saving, and never having enough. Hope does not line the edges of the photographs of the homeless and hungry, and giving is a luxury the dead eyes have long forgotten. At least, that’s the way it looks to those of us on this side of the photographs. For my great-grandfather, however, generosity was a means of survival.
              My great-grandfather was a teenager when the Great Depression hit, and like many teens, he wasn’t paying attention to the economy and politics. He’d learned hard work on a farm when his father became ill and Grand Dad had to “grab a team of horses and go to work in the field,” with neighbors to help him “lay by—clean out and plow the fields for the last time that season.” He was left to cut the cotton himself, bearing the man’s load of the farm work in the heat of a Texas August. He was ten years old that year, and he was 94 the last time he mowed the lawn. The lessons of hard work never left him.
              When his dad got well, Grand Dad’s family sold the farm and moved to town, where he had a paper route, a shoe-shine stand, worked as a soda-jerk, and sold cheap haircuts to brave boys who would let him scalp them with a pair of scissors for a nickel under the price of a professional haircut. He went down to the bank and asked the manager if he could take out a loan, “to buy old Mickey’s shoe shine stand off of him.” The bank manager kept a straight face and wrote out the papers to loan Grand Dad fifteen dollars. Grand Dad paid his “loan” off early and eventually earned himself a chair inside the barber shop where his father worked as well as the honor of being the youngest person in the state of Texas ever licensed to cut hair. Now he was giving full-priced haircuts and sold his shoe-shine business for a profit.
              Sometimes, he said, he’d line the other kids in town up at the counter of the drugstore where he skeeted sodas and buy drinks for them. His parents thought it was terrible to waste a whole quarter like that, he grins, but he knew none of those kids could afford a Coke. He had more money than any of them, but he was always quick to point out that he was working harder than any of them, too. I’ve wondered if that wasn’t because he had every job in town.
              He was sitting at another drugstore, nearly ten years later, buying a Coke for someone once again, watching women and children across the street at the New London School, when the building exploded in front of them. He and the school janitor had just come from the building after talking in the busy halls about the life insurance Grand Dad was selling. They spent the long night working shoulder-to-shoulder with many other people, trying to find lives to save. Over the next few weeks, Grand Dad helped people file claims on their children and wives, a few of whom he’d loaned the quarter to start the policies. He was only 25.
              Grand Dad spent his youth in the Depression years like a thief, one step ahead of disaster, always on the run from a poverty that haunts our memories in gray and yellow photographs of starvation. He got by with hard work, luck, and reckless generosity.  In the midst of national panic, Grand Dad was foolhardy, leaving his hometown to cut hair across from the State Fair for twice the money, never stopping to consider the sure thing he was risking. Later, he quit what he knew, what his father had done, the certainty of 50 cents a head, for commission-only life insurance sales. And after working through the night and nightmares of the New London school explosion, Grand Dad walked away again and started over.
              He worked in California, delivering cheap used cars from Texas, and earning extra money by working with a travel agency, offering rides in the empty seats of the cars he delivered. He moved from job to job in California, seeing better opportunities and jumping on them. When he found that carpenters made more money than drivers, he got O’Dell’s Carpenter Book and studied it with Grandmother at night. Getting into the carpenter’s union required a test that he passed “because it was all I knew. Men who had hands that showed they’d been carpenters all their lives showed up for the test and failed because that was all they didn’t know.”  He bought himself a new set of tools and went out and traded them, one by one, for used ones. The men he traded with were glad for the new tools, and Grand Dad instantly gained the years of experience his hand-me-down tools carried.
              When he was drafted for WWII a few years later, Grand Dad was trained as a tanker but then sent to the Philippines where they were not using tanks but where the fighting at the end of the war was particularly fierce. As his commanding officers searched for a place to put him, the sights and sounds of the long New London night were once again becoming his daytime reality, and he knew that he could not watch more people die. He scrambled to find ways to make himself useful: he built walls around the showers and latrines, built a clubhouse, cut the officers’ hair, and did anything else he could think of to avoid the death that seemed to follow him.
              There is a phrase that repeats itself throughout Grand Dad’s story. He leaves one place as he leaves another, “with less than a dollar in [his] pocket.” Grand Dad lived his life with audacity, walking away from the comfort and security of what he knew, time and again, to try and find something better, and not in the 90s finding-myself-while-I-sip-coffee kind of way, but in the crazy-insane spirit of our pioneer forebears kind of way. The way that believes in hard work and courage and a hint of blind-faith-stupidity.
              The year after he wooed my grandmother with his Model-T Ford and clever charm, for example, Grandmother & Grand Dad sold the car for new spring clothes. I never got an explanation for that one, and the best I can figure, youth is the same then and now. It’s reckless and foolhardy and somehow survives. At the end of so many days wracked with fear and the stench of death and hunger, though, it was his hard work and foolish generosity that saved his life and the lives of those around him.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

In Defense of the Comma

Maybe I've been selecting the wrong reading material lately, but the following is also a response to an article I read. The bigger issues it addressed—the nature of good writing—have left me too shocked & emotional to presently respond. However, the author's suggestion to see if a writer sounds "smoother by omitting some of the rule-book commas" needs addressing, & I need a blood-pressure pill.

As a society, we are fairly well versed in periods. While there may be one or two trick questions in the advanced grammar books, everyday writing rarely gives even the least-educated among us reason to pause over a period.

Commas, however, seem to be the grammatical equivalent of the ancient Greeks' hamartia, or inescapable fate. The more educated we are, the harder we try to get our commas just right, and in the end, the harder we fall as comma misconceptions creep in upon us in disguise.

Despite the gravity of the previous paragraph, there is hope. Comma rules can be broken down into two categories: the Really, Offensively, Unkowably Stupid and the Easy. For convenience and in honor of The Princess Bride, let's call the former ROUSs—I don't think they exist, anyway—and the latter Easy.

ROUSs are the comma rules that even the experts can't agree on. They use their degrees and experience to back their tenacious beliefs about commas and to beat dissidents over the head. These include obscure rules and obtuse exceptions such as

One must use a comma after a prepositional phrase, except when said phrase fails to reach the minimum length of four words. In such instance, the comma is acceptable but not required.

But WHY? Why four words and not three or five? Why so many exceptions when there are already so many rules? And why the fancy language? Most of us would have to spend the better part of a half hour trying to understand this rule in the first place—who remembers prepositions or prepositional phrases after Mrs. Nelson's grammar test?

And so we look up prepositions, read the examples of prepositional phrases, cross our eyes, and hold our tongues just right. In the end, we still don't know for sure where the comma goes, but we've finally figured out why English teachers are so cranky.

Easy commas, on the other hand, are quite simple, and the wonderful thing about Easy Commas is that these are the only ones anyone's sure about anyway, so if you get these right, you don't have to worry about the others.

First there are commas in a series. You get apples, oranges, and bananas from the store. For formal essays in college English, that last comma before the “and” is required. This can be confusing because there are exceptions, but until you are a graduate student in a very few particular disciplines, these exceptions do not matter to you. Unfortunately, many teachers teach the exceptions and the reasons for them, and the rule becomes murky or lost altogether. An entire essay could be written about that one comma, about the trials it has faced, and at last in its defense and honor. It is enough for now that you should embrace this friendly easily-placed punctuation mark.

Second there are the name & date commas. These are the ones that always follow a person's name when he's being directly addressed:

Landon, it's so sweet that you hide chocolate for your wife.


Landon, have you considered that if you hide the chocolate, your wife won't be able to find it?

Dates are easy, too. To punctuate, not to remember:

On June 45, 1800, I married a wonderful man.

The commas simply follow the numbers. These are the comma rules they teach in first grade because they're so beautifully unambiguous.

Finally, commas do something magical that I was not taught until college, where it was suddenly a surprisingly big deal. This last comma rule could be called the Science of the Comma Splice, because indeed it is far more of a science than an art. One of the functions of the comma is to mark complete sentences, as we have been told only periods can do. We know to put periods at the ends of complete sentences, and we know we can combine complete sentences to create compound sentences:

Landon hid the chocolate.

Aubrey could not find it.

The comma, when combined with a conjunction (I apologize for invoking the grammatical term), lets the reader know that there's a complete sentence on BOTH sides:

Landon hid the chocolate, and Aubrey could not find it.

Leaving off this comma, then, is rather like writing a run-on sentence, and worse, placing a comma beside a conjunction (and, but, or, yet, so—not the eye infection), except in a series, in essence creates a sentence fragment.

Since most people can't keep comma rules straight due to the fact that they were subjected to ambiguous comma instruction as children, I can hardly argue that readers depend upon these comma rules for smoother comprehension. I do believe, however, that well-punctuated literature is easier to read and comprehend than poorly punctuated material. Think about William Faulkner, after all, and you will realize the value of a well-placed comma.

Comma splices—or unsplices, since we are speaking of their correct placement—are easy because they are like math.

Wait—come back. Breathe into a bag while I explain. Think of an algebra problem.

Remember to breathe into the bag. I promise it gets better after this. Let's try an easy one:

x + 4 = 2x + 2

Comma unsplices are like the equal sign. We don't even have to do the math! (See, I told you it would be ok.) The equal sign is very important to the balancing of the equation, but it's the easiest part to insert. Like an actual balance, the middle doesn't move—only the stuff around it. So one complete sentence balances another. Otherwise? No comma.

For too long commas have been misrepresented as an art, a secret handshake, the mysteries of which are guarded by a hallowed few. Whether commas have been held back from the common folk out of generations of ignorance or from some sinister plot, I am not one to judge. I am simply holding open the door, teaching the secret handshake, and inviting all who would come to enter in.

A Plea for Logic

I was recently reading an article in one of my favorite magazines about the evils of *** and why *** parents should not ***. In general, I agree with this conclusion, and because of that, my husband had some difficulty understanding why the article made me so angry.

While I agreed with the basic conclusion of the article, the author's method of arriving at this conclusion was filled with logical fallacies, assumptions, and blanket statements, not to mention inadequate research. Presenting a reasonable conclusion via unreasonable logic is a little like going to the grocery store by driving backwards down the highway. Perhaps no one objects to your destination, but no one will ride with or follow you, either.

There seems to be an assumption that if one is writing about ***, the writing does not matter. Some think the truth of *** is self-evident. Others seem unable to distinguish between a conclusion and its supporting arguments.

First, insufficient or illogical reasoning insults readers. Failing to do adequate research implies that an author does not respect his audience enough to expect them to recognize the failure. Poor research and logic smack of charlatanism, as if the author thinks his audience is too stupid, too uneducated to recognize his failure or to be worth greater effort.

The greater problem with such writing lies in the case of an author who has rightly evaluated his audience. Perhaps they are indeed either too naive or too uneducated to recognize the author's audacity. Then they in their ignorance repeat his fallacies and assumptions, believing fully that they are spouting great wisdom and insight, relying on the fact of the author's publication for support. These unsuspecting people are then blindsided by ill-will when they find their own, less-receptive audiences much cooler toward them than they were to the weak author who began the whole mess.

The article I read actually ended with a plea to readers to go out and share this information in whatever public or private venues they could find. Through bad writing, then, an entire group can develop a bad reputation for itself, as its leaders fail to communicate ideas well and its members follow the bad example. It is like an entire caravan driving the wrong way down the highway. Some members will be so convinced of the leadership of the author that they will honk angry horns and shake outraged fists at other drivers who dare to drive in opposition. Chaos follows the group wherever it goes.

The gravest result of bad writing happens when the sweeping generalizations and faulty logic are met by those who do not embrace the conclusion—those who get hit head-on by one of these backwards drivers. The group's reputation suffers harm because they are doing real damage to those around them, not because of their beliefs, conclusions, or destination, but because of their method of delivery.

Writing, like any other sport, has rules. Sure, it's tempting to bend them, to sneak in a jab when the opponent isn't looking or to quote one's friends regarding the mission statement of an opposing group, but that would be cheating. Following the rules is what makes a sport interesting, and without them, all we would have is an embarrassing brawl.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Martha & Mary

Sometimes I carry the weight of everything with me at once. Instead of worrying about today's problems today & leaving tomorrow to worry about itself, I take the entire laundry list of possible problems from now until a generation after me, & I worry.

It's like student loans. I worry about the entire 5-figure sum that my husband and I owe, as if a loan shark were after our children, threatening to take them if we don't pay the entire sum by the end of the week.

Instead of just worrying about what to teach this year, this grade level, this week, today, I worry about my kids' whole education, k-12, as if I only have this week to finish educating them. (The big ones are only in the 1st & 3rd grades.)

I worry about housework, too, as if the secret police will show up at my back door with white gloves at any moment. But the computer got a Windows-eating virus last week, the toilet backed up, the keyboard got fried, the car broke down, & I got sick. It was a bad week all around, and the house shows it. When the dishes piled up so badly that I couldn't squeeze the coffee pot under the faucet, we stopped & washed dishes. When the laundry piled up so badly, kids were foraging for socks in the dirty clothes, well... When the laundry piled up so badly, the smell nearly knocked you down, we stopped & washed clothes. And washed clothes. And washed clothes. We still haven't found the smell, & the toilet's fixed & cleaned, so I guess we'll keep washing clothes.

And now I have a new problem: the sofa's piled high with clean laundry to fold & put away. The kids ate...everywhere...while I was sick. There are pizza crusts & cheerios on the carpet in the school room, yogurt on the art table & in the doll house, & bits of ham, cheese, & bread from a rejected sandwich trailed from the dining table to the living room, I guess in case the baby forgets his way to his high chair.

But wait. This isn't supposed to be a confession. Let me start over.

Sometimes I worry about a lot of stuff all at once. These problems remind me of Jesus' words: "The poor you will have with you always." There are some problems, like student loans & laundry, that won't be solved by a silver bullet or a magic plan. They're long-term problems, & when we realize & accept that, they become a little more manageable.

Jesus might just as easily have said, "The laundry you will have with you always."

I realized this today when the odor from the laundry room forced me to pause & start a load. Walking back to the school room where the bigs were sweating over math while the baby tried to grab their pencils instead of his lunch, I saw the 2 loads piled on the sofa to be folded & put away, & I began to feel hopeless, the way I do when I look at debt or curriculum decisions. Sometimes these important tasks, like laundry & dishes, tempt me away from essential ones, the Martha in me complaining to the Mary.

Sometimes I listen to Martha. I gripe at my kids, sweep my floors, & miss all the reasons I chose this life. On those days, I look behind me, & all my work was for naught, a trail of debris following the paths I just cleared.

Sometimes I listen to Mary. My house is still a mess, but I can hear the smallness of their voices, feel their innocence, see their tooth-mottled grins—everybody in our house has teeth either coming or going. Most of all, I can hear the still, small voice, who says that this is the better part.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I knocked one of my great-grandfather's paintings off the wall tonight. With a ball. Yes, a ball. I threw it. In the house. It was fun. You should try it some time.

But if you plan to keep the no-balls-flying-through-my-house-over-my-dead-body rule? Wait till the kids are asleep.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Expert on Toddlerdom

I responded to a call for writers recently. Among the topics needing to be addressed for this publication was "homeschooling with toddlers."

I emailed the administrators, telling them that with two toddlers in the house, this was one of the subjects about which I could write. From experience, you know. Everybody loves a funny toddler story, especially with somebody other than oneself at the brunt of it.

A couple of weeks passed before my first article was due, and during that time, the idea sunk in: by sheer virtue of having a toddler (& being willing/able? to write about it), I'm an "expert" of sorts.

The thought hadn't fully dawned on me until the morning last week that I was sopping the last cup of coffee available in my house up from my keyboard, papers, etc. Holding the keyboard up, watching the coffee pour out of it, wondering wildly how I was going to make it through the day without the legal substance, not to mention the dying keyboard on a day when three articles were due, it hit me.

Other women in the coming weeks would be sopping coffee up from their keyboards & reading my as-yet-unwritten-article as if I know what I'm doing. As if I'm an expert.

It was a terrifying thought.

But I walked OUT of the room a little friendlier than I might have otherwise. I walked out thinking, hm—what would an EXPERT do?

I vacillate between the despairing feeling of ohmygoshwhatifI'mIT? and a friendlier, more patient persona. Why? Because ohmygoshwhatifI'mit?

Try it. Pretend you're an expert at your most challenging task. Whatever your knowledge or experience, however inadequate it seems, despite repeated failures & inadequacy, pretend for some reason, somebody's looking to you for your "expertise" in that field. See how it changes you.

And toddlerdom? I figure we're all equally expert at nailing jello to a tree, but for what it's worth, I missed an email.

I'm writing about homeschooling in tight spaces with no money.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Develop an Addiction

I was feeling crazy this week, overwhelmed, & thought--wow, this is how it happens. If I thought alcohol would help at all, I could totally become an alcoholic right now.

But it doesn't help.

And so, in my crazy, over-organized, but sometimes illogical brain, in my moment of over-toddler-ized desperation, I thought, I need to DEVELOP an addiction!

Chocolate? Check. It's hit or miss. On the fat days, it just makes you feel worse.

Coffee? Check. It's a nice pick-me-up, but...a body can only take so much. The jitters get hard to control.

And a small voice breathed a Yes. Develop an addiction to prayer.

I've been rolling that epiphany over in my calmer brain. Most mornings I lay in bed, my lips lifting desperate prayers for the day. Another day. Another blessed 24 hours of breathing, feeding, changing, oh Lord help me, comforting, redirecting, teaching, dressing.

But I'm not addicted, you know. When my veins are popping w/ the stress, I don't lock myself in my bathroom & get down on my knees. I lock myself in my bedroom w/ the computer & chocolate or coffee or both.

What if I were addicted to prayer? What if I lived like I was counting the moments between "fixes"?

There's a verse in James, & I forget how the whole thing goes, but part of it says, "Count it all joy."

I painted that on a strip of canvas & hung it in my living room, & the phrase haunts me (in a good way).

And so a blessing:

Peace to you in the midst of the screaming.
Peace to you when the bickering sets in.
Peace to you when the tears are rolling.

May you be His hands and feet in your home.
May you be His voice in your loved ones' ears.

May you find your bread in His Word.
May you find your freedom in following Him.

2yo is done coloring: my time's up.

Friday, September 25, 2009

I cleaned my bathroom today

I cleaned my bathroom today. It started with washing my face, randomly, in the early evening, which led to a meticulous teeth-brushing job, complete with flossing & mouthwash. Which led, naturally, to finally picking up all my stray bobby pins, dusting my makeup holders, & even cleaning the toothbrush holder.

The occasion? My husband offered to take care of the kids, feed them, put them to bed, so I could have time to write.

How do YOU spell avoidance?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The First Day of Autumn

Today was cold—the first crisp day of autumn.  Our air conditioning quit sometime yesterday, and so after a night spent at temps up to 92 in the warmest parts of the house, we opened up all the windows this morning and felt the cold front as it descended with its spicy scents and promises of the best kind of cold.  In Texas, these few chilly days bring the kind of excitement that is usually only seen in children, shaking with inexpressible joy on one of their first Christmas mornings.  Who knew life could be so good?

To see adults tremble with this child-like joy is magic.  Our eyes sparkle.  We don’t mind going up to the attic to pull out the sweaters.  We stop somewhere on the way home to pick up a log for the fire & maybe even—ludicrously—leave the windows open so we can have a fire now.  Tonight.  While the magic promise of cinnamon is still on the air.  Because soon enough, that cinnamon will freeze into delicate little snow flakes.  Yes, here in Texas.  Remember, this is the feel of the weather change.  It’s imaginary.

So while we don’t mind going up to the attic this one time of the year, I’m not personally going up there.  That’s my husband’s realm.  And when there was enough of a snap to the cold in the house, I began looking for a sweater here in my own kingdom.

You know the quiet of an army laying siege?  The feel inside the castle walls of something too quiet, something made of shadows slithering silently nearby?  My crisp autumn day was like that.  The coffee that should have tasted better on this day than any other—save Christmas, maybe—was bitter.  Cold too soon when it should have offered warmth.

It was when I went for a sweater and realized that there was only one not in the attic that the darkness could be seen.  I hesitated.  And then I gave myself over to it.  I dug through the depths of my closet, past the bags of clothes that are still too little, a year after baby was born, past forgotten gifts and mismatched shoes to the sweater I’d known was there.

It’s not really a sweater.  It’s a hoodie, black once, missing the tongue to its zipper, but it still zips.  One pocket torn halfway off, but both still good for warming hands.  All it has really lost is its smell.  The day I brought it home, it stank of sweat and sawdust and tobacco, and I buried my face in it and wept.

I haven’t worn it since that day, although I’ve held it and smelled it, but I’d worn it before, in another chilly climate that paid no heed to changing seasons, where every day was the first of autumn, crisp and cool.  That should have made it possible to plan an appropriate wardrobe, but you forget.  When a place has a climate all its own, it’s easy to forget when you’re away too long, and so you pack for warmer weather and are so grateful then to find a vacant hoodie, even if it has a broken zipper.

The faded cotton jacket was vacant today.  I pulled it about me, zipped it halfway up despite its missing tongue, and made hot chocolate for my kids.  I want them to know the wonder of the first day of autumn, too, the smell of cinnamon, the magic and invisible sparkle of the day rich with color and promise, even if there’s something missing they can never fully know.

Monday, September 21, 2009

On Prisons

I have been thinking about prisons lately. I'm re-reading The 79 Squares by Malcolm J. Bosse, & I'm learning about the French Revolution with my kids. We've read adaptations of The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron Mask, & I have been going through the library's movies set in that time.

The 79 Squares is a book about an old man and a young boy: the old man has spent the last 40 years of his life in prison, and the boy is living a life that will take him in that direction. Through a chance encounter, they develop an inexplicable relationship based around a garden and the old man's insistence that the boy learn to see the things around him. The old man explains that 40 years in a prison cell would drive a person mad if he didn't learn ways to cope.

The old man coped by learning to look, to see the details of his world, the cracks in the brick, the pattern of the floor. He spends his last summer teaching the boy to look closely, too, & unimaginably, the boy is transformed as he spends hour after hour learning to see the world of an ant, a tree, a bird, and a blade of grass. He learns the names of every insect, every plant, every animal, until he can read the changes in pressure by the flight of the birds and the shape of the clouds and the pull of the flowers.

There's the Bastille. I've got images of prisoners watching glimpses of the sun and the moon from movies made about this famous prison. I think about these wretched men learning astronomy, marking maps on their prison walls, focusing on details so they don't go crazy, so they have a reason to live, and I can't help it. The smallest piece of me is...jealous. For the opportunity to sit and see. To be still, to learn.

But my life is frenetic. Some days it's one long bellow of diapers & bumped knees & hurt feelings & pouting & ringing & knocking & chores, errands, paperwork. No time for being still. No time for gaping at a piece of the moon or learning astronomy—or Greek, as my husband would like.

How peaceful prison life sometimes sounds to my weary ears.

What kept madness at bay for the prisoners I've read about, though, was shifting their focus from the bars that held them to the very small bit of life that passed through their cells.

The wails of crying babies, the stink of overflowing trash, the never-ending hunger pangs of four growing children—these are the bars of my prison, if I can for a moment call it that. But I sometimes focus wrongly upon the bars, inviting madness in, gripping tight the iron shackles & seeing only the endlessness of my sentence: 10 years before the stove, stirring, flipping, steaming; 10 years before the washing machine, sorting, switching, folding, drying, hanging, ironing; 10 years on aching knees, bathing, changing, dressing; another 10 bending over, picking up, chasing, catching, sweeping, being chased by crumbs.

It seems an endless term sometimes. But when I remember to move my gaze, my thoughts, from the prison bars to the life that passes through my tiny cell, I see not iron bars & eternity, but a miracle & a beautiful moment that is fleeting.

Friday, September 11, 2009


The date comes on my calendar every year, like any other date. People go to work, schedule meetings, roll out new movies and products. As if it were any other date.

From the end of August to the middle of September, I try to pretend it's any other date. I try to mentally skip past it, hoping to forget it like the anniversary of something insignificant. But in waves, I remember.

As the waves of other people's pain and memory rise, mine are stirred. And there are so many memories, all dark, all mingled.

9/11 was my dad's birthday. When the twin towers were attacked in NY, he had just lost his dad to an early heart attack. The last time they'd spoken was an argument, & he never got over that.

Dad's second marriage broke up that year, and we spent his next birthday together, with sadness that was palpable. He tried to be enthusiastic, and he was glad not to be alone, I could tell, but nothing really brought much joy.

Soon after that, his sister died, unexpectedly and mysteriously. She had been his best friend, only a year younger than he. They shared the same birthday. Again, though, she had been estranged from Dad since her own divorce. It was hard on him, but when the chance of reconciliation was gone, I think that's when we lost him, really.

The grief ate away at him until he collapsed with his own heart attack. He was only 48 and had never been in the hospital before, but he spent three solid months in ICU, with one complication after another.

He recovered, and walked my sister down the aisle. We thought he would be fine. His dad suffered with heart problems for 20 years before he died.

9/11 was the last time I saw my dad alive. We went to celebrate his birthday with him again, but he was miserable. It was his first birthday since his sister had died.

Two weeks later, Dad died. The shock and the grief were so incredible, they shook my marriage, as his dad's death had dislodged his own. I felt myself slipping away, the way I'd watched my dad slip.

My dad and I had had one of those complicated divorced-parent relationships, in which it's hard to know what's true and if you're loved. He'd said it so many times, had clearly been afraid I might not know, but in the over-analysis of what's right, I had often missed what was good.

Things had gotten better between Dad and me in the years before he died. We'd become friends, thanks to our spouses' understanding of us. It turned out we were a lot alike, and once we saw that, I think we understood each other enough better to allow space for each other. And we each had a refuge to run to, who would turn us back to each other.

We had those few years together, and we spent a half hour alone together the last night I saw him. He often dealt with grief with anger, pushing people away, but before I left that night, he sat beside me and told me how he missed his sister. He had spent most of the evening furious at everything, trying to hold it in, and blowing bits of steam through clenched teeth. I told him how I loved him. And because of that 30 minutes, my last memories of my dad are good.

I try to remember my dad in my relationships now. I try to forgive quickly, think about how I'm feeling versus how I'm acting. I try to treat people the way I'd want to remember treating them when they die, since there's no guarantee we'll see each other again.

Except in September, when I try to forget. But the flags of other people's pain, of so much sadness surrounding the date, remind me. And I wish business could go on as usual, so I could forget, so the memories would not be stirred.

The signs of healing and moving on, of meetings and birthdays and business on the date...they remind me, too. Perhaps that means I cannot forget, because I want the whole world to stop on 9/11 so I can grieve, so my loss is acknowledged. I want others to be able to stop and grieve their losses, too.

My children make the difference. Before I was pregnant with #3, I dreamed that my dad told me we were going to have a little girl and that her name would be Abigail. The name means "your father is rejoicing," and it gives me peace that at last his sadness is gone.

Abigail was born nine months later, and she is sitting in my lap now, bringing me back to the present, out of my memories, reminding me with her own fat tears and incredible smile and labored words that I'm needed and loved, and the pain of the memories softens with the mysterious blessings of the mundane.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Plagues (Not Religious) Or: Christmas in September

I got hit in the eye with a fried egg this morning. Not the actual eyeball, just the lid.

Then I got accidentally served last night's coffee in a dirty coffee mug. Oops.

By 5:00 it had been a bad day. The kind where you think maybe you should have crawled UNDER the bed & waited to try again tomorrow.

So I declared Christmas. That's what I do on bad days. Maybe once a year besides the actual holiday, we have need of cinnamon-flavored festivities.

We got a pizza for $6 from Little Caesar's, & the kids were told that they had the time it took us to get the pizza plus 2 min to gather gifts for whomever they could gather gifts for. The rules were no money, no art supplies (because of irrelevant art supply infractions), & no more than 2 min beyond the time spent in the van driving to the pizza place.

We all got home & raced around the house. I wiped the table & swept the floor. Landon got out the sidewalk chalk & created a rock-tossing game akin to skeeball. John got stuff to wash, rub, & slipper Landon's feet. Books were set aside to be read to Abby. And for a finishing touch, I lit some Christmas-scented candles & set paper towels on the table.

They caught fire. I grabbed them & waved them around & grew goggle-eyed as the teeny fire grew flames. The big kids & I screamed. The babies began crying. Landon was stuck on the other side of the kitchen yelling instructions from his foot bath.

When my hand got hot, I threw the paper towels on the floor & started stomping on the fire, yelling, "MY FOOT'S ON FIRE! MY FOOT'S ON FIRE!"

One gray sock & melted shoe later, the fire was out, & the doors were opened to let the smell out as we all shook out the adrenaline.

In came the wasps.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

He Laid His Hands Upon Them & Healed Them

I was just reading through Leviticus this summer, after attending a Michael Card concert, in which he sang his way through the Bible but apologized for skipping Leviticus because he just hadn't found a way to sing about the Law. Of course the first thing I did was go home & write a song from Leviticus—two songs, in fact.

One of the interesting things about the Law is the idea of cleanness & uncleanness. We read this as a symbol of sin, which is fine, as long as you're not reading Leviticus too closely because a closer read leaves you indignant. How is it fair that someone born lame or blind cannot approach God? How is it fair that women are unclean after giving birth or during their menstruation every month? How is a natural state the equivalent of sin, & how can we be judged for that?

I imagine a crowd of people, trying to please the Lord, reaching up to Him, and He says, Sit down if you are wounded. Sit down if you are blind. Sit down if you're a woman, if you have buried the dead, if you have any defect at all. Sit down if you have touched anyone who's wounded, etc. Sit down if you've touched things touched by someone who's unclean.

The point isn't that you can try to be the one man left standing holy before the Lord, if you can just dodge all these bullets. The point is that you can't stand. The point is that none of us are clean. He spends a whole book of the Bible trying to convince us that our righteousness is like filthy rags. Because the point of the Law is to point us to a Savior.

Instead, though, people are pushed away. Lepers live outside the city, and they're forced to cry out, "UNCLEAN! UNCLEAN!" if anyone approaches. Women became second-class citizens. And men hoped that their bodies would stay whole, even as they knew their hearts were dark.

Then came a man who, by healing the sick, made them CLEAN. And as He healed them, He told them, "Your sins are forgiven." I'd forgotten that being sick in that society would make you untouchable, would keep you from the synagogue, would make you the subject of judgmental whispers and dirty looks.

But Jesus did something else. When He healed people, He touched them. I had never realized what a violation of custom that would have been. He took the sins of the world upon Himself on the cross, but He was taking our sins upon Himself each time He healed people, too.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

On the Blood Covenant & Divorce

The kids and I have been reading The Miracle of the Scarlet Thread & the Gospel of Luke the last couple of weeks. MST focuses on blood covenants throughout the Bible. It very simply outlines the customs & shows examples of these in the Scripture, while continually drawing parallels between these stories & Jesus' sacrifice.

Last night, they laid a couple of paper plate liners on the floor & walked around them the way Booker explains that people walked around the two halves of the animal sacrifice in MST, exchanging imaginary robes & belts.

They giggled, and we were about to move on when my daughter asked, "What about divorce?"


"Divorce," she said. "If a covenant can't be broken, how can people divorce?"

I really do love it when they ask these deep questions, because I've found that I learn more from these than I do from anything I read.

There's the pat answer, of course. God hates divorce. It's a bad thing. It's sad.

I could have said that and moved on, but a passage from MST stuck with me. The two people entering into covenant start out back-to-back between the two halves of a bloody animal. They make a figure eight around the two halves, keeping their eyes on the sacrifice, and come together again, face to face. Part of the point, Booker explains, is that they're symbolically saying, "May God do that to me and more if I ever break this covenant."

In the end, I told the kids that divorce isn't possible because a covenant can't be broken. You can try. Two people can live in different places, but it's like cutting yourself in half. The result may be two different locations, but not life. Your insides will be like the two halves of the dead chicken. (I know it's not a chicken; somehow in our example, it was.)

I guess it's like the Garden of Eden. God told Adam & Eve that they'd die if they ate the fruit of the forbidden tree. As a child, I wondered secretly that they didn't die and felt guilty for wondering. As an adult, I can see that they did, in fact, die, and that death touched them at every turn through the rest of their lives until their bodies died, too. They buried first their relationship with God, the animal He killed to clothe them, and their home in the Garden, then their son, full bellies, and peace. At last, they buried each other.

So, yeah, God hates divorce. But I think our paper plate liners that represented dead chickens that represented the sacrifice of a covenant relationship is a sobering image of the reason He's so passionate about it.

May the Lord do so to me & more, if I ever try to break my covenant.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How I Learned to Write

In elem school, I hated writing. I had no idea how to think up a story, & so every other year, when we had to fill in those big blank books with our own words & pictures, I sat frozen. I ended up rewriting stories I knew—Little Bear became Little Dog, because I couldn't imagine anything else. And so I hated writing, & I floundered.

Until 5th grade, when I had this amazing teacher who actually taught us to write. We spent the year writing stories, and the other kids would beg to hear mine. I was a really, painfully shy kid, so the attention was...good. It sort-of thawed some of the fear, you know. Anyway, when we got our big blank books that year, I was thrilled with the possibilities instead of stuck.

So what did she teach me? That good story-telling comes primarily from observation, & that good observation takes more than a paragraph to tell, & that that's ok. That a good story is as long as a piece of string. That when you register by yourself at a hotel & you're a woman, you should simply use your 1st initial, so that no one knows a woman is staying there alone.

From that time on, I earned straight As in English classes, won awards for my writing, & settled into the idea that writing was what I could do well. I breezed through GT & AP English in high school & graduated early.

Somehow, though, someone forgot to tell my Freshman Comp teacher in college. Imagine the shock when I received an F on my first paper. Through many tears, though, & talking through what she wanted, etc., I left my 2nd paper w/ her & actually hugged her. Now that I know her reputation, um, that was probably a first for her.

I failed the 2nd paper. At that point, it was obvious that it was her, not me, so I filled out the necessary paperwork to drop her class while she was administering the midterm exam & dropped it by her office afterward.

She ripped it up & excused herself to go start the next class's midterm. I sat in her office in shock once again. This woman was insane. She terrified me. And she was coming back, & I was no longer armed: my drop slip was in her trash bin.

Dr. Whosit & I sat in her office that afternoon with a paper between us & in less than 30 min, she made me understand what she wanted. It was a formal essay, & I'd never had to write one before. It wasn't hard; it was just different. Sentence fragments that can be added for great effect in casual or creative writing were automatically wrong in formal essays. It took longer for me to accept it than to learn it.

Since then, I have only received two Bs on papers. The rest have been As, & I've gone on to earn a BA in English & an MEd in Teaching. I've taught writing to high school & college students—even some grad students preparing for the MBA entrance exam. I received a perfect score on the writing portion of the GRE—all because Dr. Whosit tore up my drop slip.

Since then, she's been promoted to head of the English Dept. at that college, & she's complained to me that I got my master's in Education instead of English, so she can't hire me. It's a quiet compliment, but I take it...because she still scares me a little.

So what did she teach me? Primarily that there are different kinds of writing, but also that there are things in the world such as thesis statements & comma splices. Lovely, concrete rules for grammar & punctuation that not a single teacher in all my grade school & high school years taught. Some that they even taught wrong!

So you want to know about the Bs. Comp 2 is supposed to be How to Write an Argumentative Essay—for freshmen. But I had a brilliant grad student who didn't know how to water down the information for those of us who didn't already have 10 grad degrees. She also didn't know how to stop teaching. She eked out a meager grad student existence while pouring herself into her studies & her students. She spent long, LONG hours with me, a pair of scissors, & my essays. She became a dear friend, whose company I have missed since she went on to teach FT when she'd finished her PhD.

This last teacher taught me to form an argument, & she taught me enough logic that when I enrolled in the formal class, I earned a final grade of 103 for the semester. She taught me to think clearly & be more careful & purposeful, not just with what I write in a formal essay but with what I say in day-to-day life.

Friendships have been preserved because of the lessons she taught me, & she helped me choose a good school to move to after jr college, convinced me to apply for scholarships, & helped me later when I bit off more than I could chew when I decided to do a major class project on a little poet named TS Eliot, despite having not yet studied either of the world wars or Dante. She knew everything, & therefore was happy to be a crash course in everything. Her guided tour of the DMA was priceless.

And so, abruptly ended, is my tale. I hope someday I can be a character in someone else's history of how they learned to write. Dr. Whosit will be a fine title, thank you.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Problem of Pain

 I'm moving books today, trying to get them in a more efficient layout. How nice it would be if they'd all fit in piles around my feet & I never needed to leave them.

Anyway, my husband loves C. S. Lewis. He insisted a while back on buying everything written by the least, everything that was available at Half Price Books that day.

So I'm moving piles of Lewis' writings, reading titles, thinking. I try to soak a lot up from titles these days, busy as I am. Actually...I've always been that way, given my vivid imagination & impatience with pages upon pages before getting to the good part. Then upon getting to the good part, I'm mad that it's over. I have a sort-of love-hate relationship with books & reading.

Anyway, I came upon the title The Problem of Pain...or was it With? Anyway, I was thinking about Lewis' title, thinking about the question of a good God who allows people to suffer. (I assume that's the topic of the book; it's the topic of so much religious discourse.) I don't like this topic. Not only is it ugly & complicated, it produces so many weak answers. There are the weak defenses of suffering from those who haven't suffered, and there are the weak-minded defenses of God from those who are afraid to look hard at the question, afraid that perhaps suffering is indeed proof of God's depravity, or, perhaps worse, of his nonexistence & thus our own meaninglessness in a wide, senseless universe.

I don't like the question.

But thinking about pain, thinking about it as a problem in a philosophical sense, I began to imagine a world without pain. We would still point our fingers at God, for the absence of pain would be proof to our fragile minds that we had no need of salvation, no need of divine help of any kind. We would think sin was a lie or a fable for making children mind; we would think sacrifice was a foolish waste.

Ironically, we see the presence of pain the same way. It's proof for us that God is either cruel or nonexistent. With or without pain, I think, WE would be the same. Since pain is a natural consequence of a fallen world, though, I suppose it is more honest of Him to allow suffering. If we can somehow make the connection between the pain we see & feel & have no control over & the judgment we pass, the anger we entertain, the arrogance & self-righteousness & other kinds of lies we tell—then maybe we can begin to turn to him, begin to see the logic of sacrifice, of giving up our rights so that sin cannot breed, so that the curse cannot pass my doorstep because here the law is love, though it cost me everything.

We think that the answer is forgiveness, & that's a good answer, but I think that's an allowance for the human condition. I suspect that the goal is giveness. No 'for.' Like in Les Mis: if you give that which someone tries to take, there's no place for forgiveness, repentance, Hell's victory, for there was no sin in the first place. There's only the soul that you have saved from sullying itself. There's only the advancing of the kingdom of God on earth. There's only love.

So maybe I'll read beyond the title one of these days. For now, I've got a toddler who just ran SMACK into the foot of my bed, & so I've got my own problem of pain to handle.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Curiosity Pet

I don't know how it came up exactly. We were reading The Wizard of Oz, and then we were talking about George Washington Carver, and then I was leaned in, telling them about this magnificent creature, this faithful friend, the first pet you ever own.

You were born with it, I tell them, but you have to feed it & care for it, or it will fall asleep, and it sleeps a deep sleep of hibernation. These creatures are very hard to awaken.

It's your curiosity pet, I told them, & you can see it ALIVE & THRIVING in little ones. We glance over at the baby, almost walking, who looks up at us with banana on his face, grinning. Not banana-that-I've-given-him, but banana-that-he's-found-&-filched-from-the-fruit-bowl. Banana, peel, & all.  Banana-that-he's-chewed-through.

Ok, so maybe it's not as much Curiosity as it is Hungry, but it's at least a little bit curiosity. Because when he dumped the trash out yesterday, he didn't just eat it in that moment before I could dash between him & the coffee grounds—he patted it, threw it, put his head in it, & came up with a smile that looked like a 5 o'clock shadow. So there is some curiosity there.

Then I told them what this wonderful round little ball—the curiosity pet, not their brother—eats stories, books, nature. He likes to look & read & see & try.

Learning! they said.

Sure, I agreed, but...what if you didn't have good teachers? Or a good school? What if you didn't have the bright blocks & the great curriculum? What if you were a slave?


Us, they said, surprised at their own answer.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

An open letter to the bugs that like burials-at-coffee:

The coffee left at the bottom of my mug still in the sink from yesterday is just as sweet & less likely to singe.

That is all.