Mending Fences


 

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…                                                                              One on a side. It comes to little more:                                                                                      There, where it is, we do not need the wall                                                                                        I tell him…                                                                                                                                             He only says, “Good fences                                                                                                                make good neighbors.”                                                                                                                Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder                                                                                      If I could put a notion in his head:

“Why do they make good neighbors?…

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know                                                                                            What I was walling in or walling out,                                                                                            And to whom I was like to give offence.                                                                           Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,                                                                                That wants it down.                                                                                                                                …and I’d rather He saw it for himself…”

Excerpts from Robert Frost’s Mending Fence

In America right now, we have labored on our own invisible, impenetrable metaphorical wall. Berlin-like it separates us, right from left, liberal from conservative, Democrat from Republican, urban from rural, coast from heartland, rich from poor, ordinary from elite. Yet, unlike the Germans when divided by concrete, many of us express little desire to surmount it or bring it down, justifying our own side of the divide.

Embracing the concept like Frost’s neighbor, we seek to wall out our fears by building ever higher fences between “us” and “them” and when the barrier shows signs of erosion, we build it back again in the minds of our families and friends.

When others attempt to tear down walls between religions and races, between cultures and communities, between political parties and ideologies, this is portrayed as creating danger to the “American way of life” or as political correctness run amok.

But the way of life many seek to protect exists only in the idealized past, the booming era when hard labor could lead to home-ownership, and work in mines, in auto plants, in steel mills, in factories brought middle-class entrance and abundance.

It was an age of dignity for every “average Joe and Jane’ that’s largely gone today. Displaced, many on the right have come to believe it is the stranger, the “illegal,” or immigrant here, or those in countries overseas that are shoving them aside, taking their place…or that the “educated left elite” in America, missing the contributions they made, who have declared them unnecessary or unemployable.

Sadly, just as evolution didn’t stop with the dinosaurs, technology did not stop with the assembly line. It is relentless. STEM advances will make ever more jobs obsolete. To survive, we will all have to keep step with that evolution.

 

And the jobs that are going unfilled in America today, that would bring a good income, often cannot be filled by either the high school grad, or the debt-burdened Baccalaurean with a liberal arts degree. Rather workers with advanced training in technologies or Associate Degrees from Technical or Community Colleges are being sought. Both sides must face this future.

On the left side of the wall, fences are often favored as well.

Concern for not excluding others evolves into a litmus test of the uniqueness of the pain. Political correctness can even exclude Jewish lesbians from a gay pride march because Israel walls out Palestinians. Fences built on that side limit the “freedom” of free speech barring thoughts by conservatives as contrary to liberal beliefs, yet insist on their right to fully express their view. We all lose when this happens.

Still, neither side wants to come together to find answers.  Stones keep being thrown: slurs, epithets, stigmatizing labels. Can we not disagree about a policy or a position, an idea or an ideology, without debasing the person expressing it? Not everyone is a terrorist, a liberal elite, or a neanderthal conservative.

Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you has become: Do to others what you think they did or what they might do…get even, hit back. Or worse: Knock others down (with anger and words), launch pre-emptive strikes before they can…because of course, we know who THEY are, we know what THEY think, what THEY will say, what THEY will do.

But I keep hearing Frost…”something there is that does not love a wall.” Will that axiom hold true?

This week brought a few calls for bipartisanship in our Congress.  Can our leaders re-assert the idea that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts…that our Founders got it right in believing there is strength in accepting the contributions of every viewpoint, that compromise is more lasting than confrontation and division, that what made America great was standing united and finding common ground to meet upon.

It is time to make a commitment to that goal before more harm is done to our world. This post is my endorsement and my first step in that direction. Will you help me build bridges instead of fences? Together we can bring down the walls between us.

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The Roots of Violence


“The greatest predictor of future violence is a past history of violence. The roots of violence lie in unremitting anger and an inability to cope with it.”

Until the shooting of Representative Scalise and others at the GOP baseball practice, I was working on a different article, though related, one on civility and the inflammatory turn in our public dialogue. I still hope to get there, and I am cheered by those in Congress who are trying to reset their responses to each other because of this horrifying event.

As a Clinical Social Worker who worked for more than 25 years in the field of child abuse and family violence, countless times, when violence erupted, I have been asked the same somewhat unanswerable question, “Why? Why do things like this happen.”

Every shooter is unique, but I learned a lot from victims and perpetrators of violence, and focused my Master Degree studies on the roots of violence. In my experience, abusive people have often been exposed to violence or experienced abuse or neglect.

We all begin life programmed with a survival instinct expressed as fight, flight, or freeze. As infants and children, when we feel frightened, or threatened, or needy, anger erupts. If an adult responds and helps in positive ways, we begin to learn how to gain safety and control anger. If the adults in our lives are erratic, fail to protect us, or respond in angry ways, if they abuse us or ignore us, we can fail to learn these lessons.

Like mice in an experiment who are unrelentingly shocked, children with these backgrounds experience life as beyond their control. Some learn to fade into the woodwork, to run, to freeze.  Those who go on to become abusers are mired in an anger that solidifies into rage at an unresponsive world. As adults they can go on to try to control this by controlling those around them to create a (false) sense of safety. When their relationship crumbles as a result, rage builds.

Now, obviously, the above paragraphs are reductionist and simplistic in the extreme. There are untold books and research on this topic. Not every abused child goes on to be an adult victim or abuser, nor is every perpetrator an abuse victim.  But consider the above as a possible context.

Now, add in poverty, a poor education or learning disability, a neighborhood where crime is common, performance anxiety or threat to a job or job failures or loss, simmering resentment at your lot in life, or some other perceived threat including divorce or romantic breakup, life stressors or loss. Clearly, poor coping skills, mental fragility, or mental health issues (depression or addiction) can be a dynamic as well. Altogether, these can be a potentially dangerous combination.

I don’t know if (James) Tom Hodgkinson’s background fits all of the above, or the warning signs at the bottom of this post. I do know he had many run-ins with law enforcement, that in 1996 a 17-year-old foster daughter committed suicide by dousing herself with gasoline, killing herself in his car, that a 2006 arrest was for forcing his way into a neighbor’s house and breaking down a door and punching a grand-niece in the face there. Later, Hodgkinson threatened a friend of hers with a shotgun in his face before hitting him with the butt of the gun. Recently, he had gotten really involved in the toxicity of the last election and let his home inspection license lapse. And it is also reported he was an alcoholic whose wife was talking about waning a divorce. Mainly, a fit. (See NY Times)

So, what do you do if you know someone like this? How do you help? Listen….but not until you are drowning. Suggest help. If there are insurance problems, try free hotline and crisis response numbers including NAMI, and though not every clergyman is as well-trained as my husband, often a minister or priest can be a resource. Check your local area for non-profits and charities who may be able to provide support.  If you fear a situation call the non-crisis police line, or if violence is about to erupt, call 911, and get yourself and others to safety.

Lastly, to change this world of anger, harsh words, and harsher judgments, let’s all breathe a little and practice tolerance, civility, and the Golden Rule.

Warning Signs That May Precede or be Indicative of Future Violent Behavior

  • Threatening statements about killing/harming self or others
  • Preoccupation with other incidents of violence.
  • Intimidating, belligerent, insubordinate, defiant or challenging behavior
  • Confrontational, angry, easily provoked, unpredictable, restless or agitated behavior
  • History of violent, reckless, or antisocial behavior, arrests
  • Alleged fascination with firearms, access to weapons
  • Feelings of persecution.
  • Blaming others for anything that goes wrong, disavowing personal responsibility
  • Intolerance of differences
  • Marked decline in school or job performance
  • Changes in personality, mood or behavior
  • Excessive crying, depression, or mood swings
  • Decline in personal grooming
  • Crosses interpersonal boundaries
  • Alcohol/Substance abuse
  • Cultural issues
  • Mental health history, suicide attempts
  • Significant personal stress or recent experience of loss, humiliation, or rejection

Composite from University of Oregon and NY Office of Mental Health

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More Than Photographs – On Manchester


Tired? Yes, I am. I thought I’d found a home

But life in the city is dark and it’s dirty
So I guess I have to go away?

Lonely? Yes, I am. No one knows my name
I’m lost in a place where no one has a face
So I guess, I guess I have to go away?

….If I’m looking for a river that goes on forever
I guess I have to go away.

Saying goodbye is not easy. How will I ever explain?
Everything looks just like cardboard pictures falling apart in the rain.

From “I’ll Have to Say Goodbye”    Kerry Chater and Renee Armand    Skylark  Album arranged by David Foster

This week has been filled with pain. Literally, I have been struggling with an abscessed tooth. I’d had a root canal that didn’t work, and this week when the abscess returned, I had to have it pulled. The entirety of this process has been exceptionally painful at times.

But the literal pain has not held a candle to the pain I felt when I learned about the bombing at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.

You see they showed pictures. Face after face, photograph after photograph, teens, mothers, adults and kids….Saffie Rose, age eight. My heart stopped upon seeing her, captured by the picture of this raven-haired, brown-eyed, red-lipped innocent.

I have four grandchildren. Three are granddaughters. Two of them are teens now, leaving childhood behind all too fast, concerts attended, many still to go…they could have been there. The other is raven-haired and brown-eyed, yet to attend a concert, but into music on YouTube.

And every time I looked at the photographs, one-dimensional representations of formerly living, loving, breathing, giggling, happy young people, whose lives were cut-off all too early at a moment of excitement, I knew that pictures and memories were all their families would have left of these vibrant souls. And, though my pain was as limited as the pictures, mere reflections and reverberations to the excruciating, unimaginable pain felt by their families, all week the echoes of those losses have rippled through my consciousness.

How do you say goodbye to a child who will never get to say goodbye to childhood?

When Caroline and Catherine, our eldest granddaughters, began to grow up, I used to tease them that I was going to get a brick and put a ribbon on it and tie it under their chins so that they would never get bigger. I was joking, of course, teasing them a bit about how quickly they were growing, but knowing I would miss the moments when little girls snuggled against me listening to stories.

But growing up is infinitely more than getting taller…and every child should be able to experience it, all of it, with its successes and losses, with its achievements and failures, with its loves and heartbreaks.

Every parent’s job is nurturing the blossoming of the amazing potential in their child, encouraging their fledgling flights toward freedom and independence. I imagine there were many first time concert goers in Manchester and those going for the first time without a parent. There was also a young couple in love, a teenage girl and her step-father, some mothers and a Polish mom and dad killed while waiting to pick up their daughters, vigilant about being there to meet them, to take them home safely, who had no idea they were about to become pictures in the paper.

Earlier this week an English friend, Clive Pilcher did a blog post themed around Manchester and Taylor Swift’s song Never Grow Up, that really moved me. [Clive Swift link ] It reminded me of that feeling – the one I had captured in my brick comments. It kept snatches of songs stealing through my mind. Most parents hate seeing their children grow up at least as often as they wonder and rejoice at it. So, too, grandparents. But Manchester made me realize that the only thing that is sadder than children growing up, getting independent and moving on into their own lives, is if they can’t.

“The times are out of joint” says Hamlet at the death of his father. They are now in Manchester and in any place touched by terror. How can a 22 year-old call his mother to say goodbye and ask her to “forgive me” as he sets out to keep other parents and children from ever having a final goodbye? Asking for forgiveness “for anything I did wrong”…he must have at least questioned himself if he what he was about to do was wrong, and somewhere inside known that no parent should ever have to say goodbye to their child.

The world is out of joint.

And where does that leave the rest of us? Where does it leave me? You? Do we turn the page – let the pictures recede until the cardboard of these memories melts into the stream of time?

I say that to pay honor to the lost, we have to embrace peace. That does not mean I don’t think all who participated in this atrocity should not be brought to justice. I do, but we have to try to communicate better than our politicians do that the world will never be a better place for any one when bombs are falling or being detonated. We need to sink our teeth into that idea like Churchill’s bulldog and not let go as long as a religion is treated as if every Muslim is a terrorist…no more true than every Christian is a plundering Crusader or member of the Klan. In respectful, not hateful ways, we need to stand up and speak out.

We, the people, the mothers, the fathers, the grandfathers, the Nanas, have to embrace each other and love each other and hold on tight to our children, and never say Goodbye again.

A Link to Skylark’s I’ll Have to Go Away

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On Spring Days and Strong Knights


Spring always finds a way to steal its way into my heart.  I await it like a lover pacing the floor before their beloved arrives.

Though there is nice landscaping out front of our new house including some crape myrtles and a lot of holly, and a few bushes and a couple of small firs in the back, a lot of our yard is an empty slate and moving in December put off any gardening. Digging in the dirt is therapeutic for me…I crave it. So, metaphorically I was tapping my toe to get started.

In the unusually warm beginning to February, the abundant weeds in our 1/2 acre, but neglected, back yard began to spout. I said prayers for it to stay warm enough to weed, and managed to clear the sunniest of the back “beds” around some of the bushes…and spring began its siren song.

A visit to Home Depot took me past pots of pansies and boxes of bulbs…and peonies, one of my mother’s favorite flowers. I tried to resist…but surely pansies were ok… they are tough. I know they are supposed to be planted before December, but just a few good roots and they grow and spread, even blooming through the winter…and it was almost March….

Oh, if only I were as strong as my pansies, but those bags of peony roots kept calling me…and I went back to Home Depot and the next love affair began….they had sprouting emerald emerging daffodils shouting spring at me, and unfolding grape hyacinth and the bluest of anemones singing of summer. Ah…the song of the siren.

Yes, daffodils are supposed to be planted in fall. But they were there like a promise of spring, pushing to grow and bring life to both my front and back yards. And peonies…lovely peonies.  Surely they would stay in their dirt beds until the “risk of frost being past before planting” wouldn’t matter. Into the cart and into their sunny new beds.  I know, I know…but when you hear music, sometimes you have to dance, don’t you? Within days, it seemed, my daffodils bloomed and nodded to the music.

Finally, lastly, when I went to get birdseed, some herbs seduced me. I knew it was crazy, even in NC there is no planting herbs in winter! But the groundhog certainly could be wrong, couldn’t he? My peonies thought so and began to sprout! I kept the herbs in their pots though my mental impatience progressed to fast paced tap dancing!

Making things worse, the last week of February I went to Edenton for a concert. It was a dose of spring to see the Japanese magnolia I had planted in our backyard fully in bloom, graceful limbs with delicately spaced blooms of waxy pink tinged cream peaking from the center of magenta outer petals like a promise against a Carolina sky.  My daffodils and forsythia enticed me further in cheerful yellow from the landscape that took me nine years to create, the swords of iris Kelly green, pointing to the blooms to come. They have been my harbingers of spring for years.

So………at least Oregano and Basil (oh, fresh Basil) had to be planted. But exercising restraint, I put them in a large moveable planter.

My better instincts prevailed to keep the thyme and lavender, parsley, and mint with the Anemone on a moveable tray on my garden bench…my toes moving into a vigorous Irish jig!

So, of course, the urge to dance into spring was irresistible, but if I just had stuck with my pansies….ahh…this maligned but study flower: Despite the false use of their name employed by my childhood friends in taunting the weak or wimpy, they are Don Quixote, the knights-errant of the winter, stronger than they appear.

Here in North Carolina they bloom even covered with snow. By March, Raleigh is filled with beds of them everywhere which last till the summer sun dispatches them…a mirror to their finitude.

So, having none in my new yard, I had to plant the pansies surely….and the peonies and daffodils    …didn’t I?

But of course, I had tempted fate, dreamed an impossible dream because… winter storm Stella happened. Can’t you hear Marlon Brando screaming in protest outside a window, “Stella!” Winter was having a laugh at me. My desire was about to crash into a storm, a weather bomb of dropping pressure. Bombogenesis, the weatherman called it.

Loved this word but urgent warnings on my weather app of snow, sent me scurrying. Tray of herbs and planter moved inside, I warmed towels in my dryer to cover the peonies’ sprouts and the daffodils’ fragile blooms. I didn’t cover my hardy, brave pansies….that would have taken all the towels I had! Then, we had to wait to see how cruel an Inquisitor Stella would be to my fledgling flowers…and my pansy knights.

We made it through the snow, which is insulating – but then fiercely dropping temperature hit. This morning it was only 27 when I got up and still below freezing until almost 11 o’clock. Looking out my window at 7 am, I could see my pansies yellow and orange bright as the sun which had not yet warmed them, boldly purple in the morning light and pure white as the snow they had survived.

By eleven, it was time to face the music. Had my more tender lovers, planted in the rashness of crazed love, survived the freeze in their towel wraps? And….when I pulled the towels from them, the daffodils bobbed their heads at me, and the tender buds of peony sprang up to greet the spring. Ah…the rewards of true love!

 

 

So typical of me, though I have several more days of warming and wrapping towels around my peonies and daffodils…I just had to write something to praise the shining knights of my spring garden…didn’t I?  So in their honor a bit of doggerel:

You nod, my bold pansy, greeting morning with cheer,                                                                   Ever the optimist, you never show fear,

Blooming even in winter, when the sun peeks through.                                                    Sharing every shade of purple, even Carolina blue,

So pensive, my “pensee,” hiding amorous intent,                                                                       You invite me to consider what is really meant

When in the heart of sable blossoms, hopeful yellow peeks,                                                       And within innocent white flowers, purple passionately speaks.

Delicate, yet stronger than intemperate fickle Spring,                                                              You brave the storm to promise together we will sing

A paean to enduring love, a poem to devotion,                                                                           And keep me long remembering true azure emotion.

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Spoons


table-copy“When you are more fortunate than others, it is better to build a longer table than a taller fence.”  Author unknown

Those of you who follow me know that my grandparents came from Poland. For anyone who has just happened on my blog, the context to this post is that they arrived with little only to find they were not always welcomed. Signs in windows said, “No DP (displaced person – or as some used it “dumb Polack”) need apply.” Some family members changed their names in order to escape the ski that gave away their heritage and kept jobs from them.  welcome-statureMany in my family worked more than one low-paying job in order to secure a better life for their children. My father’s father helped build the railroad in the late 1800s.

His wife, her mother, and their six kids ran a bakery in their home, living in the small second story so the oldest, including my father, could go to college.

My other grandfather made hand-made suits. We all learned a strong work ethic and America was a land of opportunity for us. (Want to know more: this is my post on my family’s experience, Mother of Exiles.)

I did not have to work as a child, I could play.  A favorite card game was aptly named “Spoons.” Somewhat like musical chairs there was always one less spoon than players. A card was turned over, then we each added a card in turns until the first card was matched, and everyone made a dive to grasp a spoon. You played in rounds until there were only two players left and one spoon. The one who failed was eliminated…and there was a winner.

The game was won by the attentive and quick. Hard work didn’t matter. Age helped…as well as a certain willingness to do anything it took to win.

spoon-pile-copy

In this children’s game, the younger and slower could be quickly excluded, but the cards for the next round were dealt amid the tears. I would “throw” games of “Go Fish” and Rummy….but not Spoons. Something about getting that last spoon lit a fire in me to win.

soupspoon-copy

Usually, I was one of the winners. Later, I learned to compete against myself instead, and spent my career helping others win a spoon. My life experiences enabled an understanding of ambition, yet a desire to create more parity for others including refugees, and shapes my view of immigration policy.

At this moment, I look around and see those who think this country has one too few spoons to share with those dreaming an American dream. Many want taller fences or big walls. defianceThey shake their fists, lean over the “treasure,” daring those who arrived late to the game to even think they should have a seat at the table let alone capture a spoon. “Mine, Mine, Mine, Get Away,” they seem to say.

Perhaps, their family acquired their spoons the hard way like mine, working in mines, shoveling coal into blast furnaces, bent over assembly lines, or like my paternal grandfather pounding railroad ties. Often this was a family business. Sons followed fathers and grandfathers into this backbreaking work to have security, food on the table, and a pension at the end. Some of the anger misplaced onto immigrants comes because generations “sweated blood,” as my mom would say, for jobs that have evaporated like ice on a sunny day.

baby-spoon-pile-copy“Someone” took away some or all of their spoons. Robotics and other technologies, outsourcing and corporate closures of plants, downsizing, lay-offs, lost or reduced pensions, and fear for themselves, their children, their future, and for their country. It was a disappearing way of life, a vanishing culture.

field

To those who have enough to feel secure, it seems as if building fences misses the renewable bounty on the table of America.  The jobs illegal immigrants are willing to do, do not match the blue-collar, but middle-class income jobs that have gone away, and we know the coal miner’s son in West Virginia is not going to trim tobacco blossoms in the Carolinas, pick fruit in California, apples in New York, or produce in Florida for pennies.

America is still the same Field of Dreams that made the Irish, the Germans, the Polish and the Italians come more than a hundred years ago. It entices immigrants today, and with farm workers come students and tech geniuses, engineers, doctors, and entrepreneurs to build bigger tables. Research shows the economy grows in times of high immigration, but we can’t just blithely say, “Build a bigger table.” We must see the losses and fears behind those with anti-immigrant anger and we need to refresh their dream.

long-spoon-copySo let me share again a favorite cartoon, this time with a slight twist. It is a two cell cartoon.  The first square shows a room labeled Hell, angry people around a huge table stretching elongated spoons to reach a bubbling stewpot in the middle. The spoons reach it, but, only able to hold them by the end, the people cannot bring the food to their mouths and fights erupt.

The second cell shows the same room, large table, and stew in the middle. Each person there has an identical spoon still long enough to reach the stew, too long to bring to the holder’s mouth…yet everyone is happy as they reach around the table and feed their neighbor. This is labeled Heaven.

I was really encouraged by the empathy I saw most recently about the plight of those who were turned away from our shores. Our country has an expandable table and we do have big spoons. Some might label that second room as America at its best. And yes, we do need to invite EVERYONE to share in our bounty, and that must include those who have been steadily sliding out of the middle class, those who fear to let in the outsider in will further endanger them.

If LOVE is to triumph and really defeat HATE, we need to work hard to be inclusive, and understanding, not just with the refugee, the immigrant, and minorities, but with anyone who is struggling or hurting or being left behind. Not everyone is a bigot – some are just afraid.  We need to mean it when we say everyone can come to the table.

Don’t worry the real bigots won’t join us – they are too busy playing spoons.

 

 

 

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A Daughter’s Tribute


part-of-farewell-article-chowan-herald20161130On November 13th, we had a celebration for my husband’s retirement after 45 years in the ministry.

liz-as-jo-lol-20161113It was filled with lots of laughter (A This is Your Life, Doug Eddy! program scripted with a lot of humor – to the left Liz Woodbury as me [my wedding veil] and the doll for our son Chris!), as well as wonderful family and friends, great food, and a few tears…most of those falling when our daughter, who hates public speaking, offered a tribute.

jo-doug-enjoying-skitThe day after all our company left we began to seriously pack for our move, a sort of altered reality. Only now, as we finally are getting genuinely settled, is the reality of his retirement, our retirement, really reaching us and we can look back with a bit of perspective at our lives through the lens of that celebration.

We had asked Gretchen for a text of her remarks and I reread them the other day. As parents, I think we all wonder if the messages we hoped to teach our children really get through. Even when you see them exemplified in their lives and amplified by their own personalities, you can remember every mistake you ever made as a parent, and wonder how your children saw you and what context who you were created for them.

Gretchen’s touching remarks walked us through our lives from her point of view, and it meant so much to me, I asked her if I could share it with you.

Gretchen’s words:

church-sign-copy“Thank you to the Edenton church for taking such good care of my parents…

“When I was preparing for today, my first thought was to talk about all of my parents’ accomplishments, the extensive community work that they did, the awards that they have won and their time at Ground Zero, but my parents are extremely humble, so I decided to talk about being their daughter. It is very important to my dad that this be a celebration of my mom, as well, because he is tremendously proud of her. We are, too.

grey-ella-1“When my father first decided that he wanted to go into the ministry, his parents were not really in favor of it. They worried about the challenges and financial security and like all parents, they wanted that security for their son. But my parents’ calling was strong and they had a dream about what their life would look like and they decided to accept the challenges.

[Ella and Grey, Gretchen’s children]

My grandparents were correct, with two small children, it was certainly a challenge at times to make ends meet. There were times that they worried about having enough food on the table, but somehow they made it happen.

chris-and-grey-20161113“We have talked about the hours it takes to be a minister. There were calls in the middle of the night and we didn’t know what was happening, but we knew that someone needed help. My father managed to do this while pursuing his doctorate. My mother worked full-time and went to school to get her MSW. There were times when my mom worked 3 jobs. We didn’t have the brand name clothes or the best cars, money was tight, but when I think about my childhood, that doesn’t even enter my mind.

“My earliest memories are at the church camp that my father ran in Buffalo. There were lots of kids and activities. The counselors were members of the youth group, in their teens, but even at 4 years old I was    [Grey and our son Chris at right] convinced they were my best friends. My favorite memories there are of our bonfires on the beach when my dad would play his guitar and lead us in a variety of folk songs. Yes, we definitely sang Kumbaya.

salvation-army-bell-copy“When we moved to Syracuse, every year I would ring bells for the Salvation Army with my mom at the giant kettle in our local mall. I believe we started when I was about 8 years old. After our shift, we would take a tag from the Tree of Lights and go shopping for someone who may not have a Christmas without that tag.

“I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time at the Salvation Army daycare center. At one point, when I was around 11, I became an assistant teacher, almost by accident.”  (Proud mother’s note: Our lead teacher in the 6-year-old class went out for surgery, our assistant teacher was trying, but Gretchen, competent even as an 11-year-old, just took over. She told the assistant teacher what needed to be done, organized the lessons, and seeing distress in one little boy, put him on her lap to read him a story.) But back to Gretchen’s words:

thanksgiving-army-motto-copy“I remember one Thanksgiving my mom got a call that a family was looking for a Thanksgiving basket that had long since been distributed. When she hung up the phone, she told my boyfriend (now husband) that we needed to go to the store and we shopped for everything you would need to make a Thanksgiving meal. When we were done, we went to the family’s home. My mom told the woman that we were able to find one more basket. As we brought in the bags, their children were peeking out at us from the stairs. This was one of the most meaningful Thanksgivings I have had.

wounded-bird-copy“Often times, I would go to my parents with what they would call my wounded birds. I remember one Christmas, I was working at BJs with a single mom who worked 2 jobs. She told me that she wasn’t going to be able to buy her boys Christmas gifts that year because she was struggling to just keep up on her bills. So I did what I always did. I called my Dad. I told him the situation and asked him to help. Christmas was only a week away and my dad told me there was nothing left, but that he would see what he could do. I took a private collection at work and managed to gather a small amount, but before the end of the day, my dad showed up with a large donation. My friend, who worked so hard, was able to buy gifts for her children that year.

Grands at Christmas copy“I remember asking my father how he was able to find a donation so late. He told me that as he was leaving the church, a man showed up and said that God had been good to him that year and he wanted to make a donation. Did this man actually exist? I don’t know. What I do know is that my father is one of the most selfless people who I know and that never, not even one time, has he ever let me down.

“So what I would like to say is thank you, Mom and Dad. Thank you for taking the challenging path and for giving me this childhood. You have given me deep roots, shown me to have the passion to fight for what is right and how to give someone a voice when they may have lost theirs. I am profoundly grateful and proud to be your daughter.

jo-doug-leaves-on-the-sein-per-chris-bunch“I hope that you enjoy taking life a little slower, although I have a feeling there will be some sort of community work before I know it. You have done what you committed to each other. You have touched countless lives and have made this world a better place.

“Today has been tough, you are my minister, too, Dad. It is emotional to think I don’t get to see you preach again, but Grey told me that if I ask nicely, maybe you will preach in our living room.”

…well, that may take a while.

cross-copyDoug is enjoying not having to preach. He always described writing sermons as a bit like producing a term paper every week, not just a couple of times a semester, but week in and week out. The unrelentingness of the task is not all: it needs to meet the needs of every life in the congregation, no matter age, or situation, and speak to every hurting soul there present. And if that isn’t enough pressure, you are doing this for God, as well, so you are not allowed, or don’t allow yourself, a merely adequate sermon.  To use a sport’s analogy, Doug loves those, you can’t even just bat over 300 like the great Babe Ruth, because that would mean (only) getting a hit one out of three times at bat. No, you need to hit a home run out of the park every time while doing all your other pastoral duties as well.  So, after forty-five years, and batting close to 900, a little rest at this point seems fair.

…so give him another month or two, Gretchen. Then, plump up the pillows in the living room, and bring out that great rocking chair you bought him. Let him sit down… Then, have Grey ask him.

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Leaving a Trail – Forging Ahead


trail-copy“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have been known as a collector of “treasures.” A few awards, some mementoes collected over time, most given to me by others, lined a shelf in my office at The Salvation Army in Syracuse. There was my magic wand, all social workers need one of those, of course, and a duck one of my managers gave me because she thought of me as the Mama Duck, and the Family Services management team as my ducklings.

eagle-copyAnother of my favorites was a small framed picture another manager gave me of an eagle soaring with a Knute Rockne quote that read: “Leadership: Eagles do not flock, you find them one at a time.”

I believe that a big part of my work has been to help others learn to soar, to rise as high as their wings could go, and for my managers, to also help them discover the leadership I saw in them, to assist and guide as they cleared away any obstacles they might face, and to live with the integrity and values foundational to leaders. At least this was what I tried to do, modeling my leadership on Bobbie Schofield, our Executive Director. I think the entire executive team did the same because Bobbie inspired us so. She was an expert at finding the eagles among us, and seeing eaglets even amid a world filled with ugly ducklings.

emerson-quote-copyIn downsizing to move to my new house, I have pared away many of these items. However, a stone with a motto on it that I chose for Doug now resides on my new desk in my new home. It reads, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

I’m keeping that one.

In the woods behind my house when I was growing up, there were many paths. Some were well-worn, beaten into hard bare earth by many feet, and there was one major thoroughfare, a shortcut from our neighborhood to our school…we all followed that one.forest-path

But my favorite thing to do was to go exploring off the beaten path, searching for “discoveries.” J.R.R Tolkien described Bilbo as someone who looked at maps and questioned what lay beyond the borders of the known. That is me, too.

I love solving puzzles, meeting new expectations, living up to challenges, acing tests, designing new ways to serve an unmet need, learning new things, discovering new tidbits of interesting information, creating hypothesis and seeing if they are true, daring myself and others to go further and do more…often with less. I honed many of those skills over a lifetime, and have taken them into many unforeseen pathways.

For 2017, the latest unexplored territory will be our retirement.

unknown-adventure-copyFor a while yet, since we moved in December, it will be figuring out our house and where to fit things…and deciding some things no longer fit. As spring comes, our new yard, a pretty blank slate, will also await. So, I know there will be lots of digging in my future. And of course, there are still this blog and my book…I need to get back on track with my agent and publishing quest now that our move is almost behind us.

magic-wand-copyWhat else awaits is…unknown! What a gift! A new lease on life to discover.  New directions, maybe new work, volunteering – All kinds of possibilities to explore.

As always, I will try to leave a trail….and just in case, if you want, you can borrow my wand.

Until then, I will close out the end of this momentous year with a poem that came to me as thoughts of Dylan Thomas and Thoreau rolled through my head as I wrote this:

The Path to a Deliberate Good Night

No need to rage if life is passionately lived,                                                                           Embraced, delved, explored, even in twilight times.                                                                          The barest bones contain the sweetest marrow.

No need to abandon gentleness, goodness, caring.                                                                  Even tears shed in farewell, especially tears,                                                                         Reflect the light of love found in shooting stars.

No need to fear approaching darkness,                                                                                           Shine a light for another, raise high your lamp,                                                                               And you can always see your path.

Sing, sing away the sunset of the dying day,                                                                             Love, love away the night till morning come,                                                                                   Live, live, and leave behind a path past the horizon.

Happy New Year my friends.

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Christmas in the Stars – a Lesson from Star Wars


star-wars“The happiness your toys bring…is your gift.” S. Claus in The Meaning of Christmas

The original Star Wars movie was released in 1977. Our son, Chris, was seven, and our daughter, Gretchen, was three. So, Chris saw the movie first, going with a counselor from the church camp my husband ran as part of his job at that time. Chris had a huge crush on Julie and asked her to take him…it was his first “sort of” date. millenium-falcon-copyOver the next few years, he began to collect Star Wars figures, a Millennium Falcon, a light saber, and we saw the movie several times. He LOVED Star Wars. Finally, when Gretchen was six in 1980, it was re-released just before the Empire Strikes Back was due to come out, so she saw it as well.

snowman town lightsAs was true for a lot of our life, but especially before I went back to work, money was tight. I scrimped and saved all year for Christmas and planned it down to my last penny, like a general marshaling the last of his troops. But the universe, (God to me), had a different message to give that year. It happened this way:

christmas-stollen-copyBy 1980, we had moved to Syracuse. Doug was a Pastor with three Christmas Services on the 24th. So that Christmas Eve, the children and I frosted the last of our cookies for Santa (The recipe is in my blog post Santa Cookies – Making Christmas Memories) and I started the Stollen dough that would be our Christmas morning’s breakfast bread. Then, Chris and Gretchen and I ran to the store for more sprinkles, whose purchase was going take my last $2.00.

christmas-in-the-stars-copyOf course, front and center as we walked into the store, there it was on display: Christmas in the Stars: A Star Wars Christmas Album record. The kids were beside themselves with excitement. I don’t remember what it cost, but I didn’t have the money. So, I tried to talk them out of it – “why, we didn’t even know what it sounded like” – but to them it was Star Wars…so it had to be great. Of course, I was heartbroken as I told them I just didn’t have any more money. Gretchen still had confidence, “Don’t worry, Mommy, you have checks.” But that only works if there is money in the bank, and my Christmas money was spent. More explaining….Chris was crushed.

santa-claus-copyChristmas junkie that I am, I had always been determined that Christmas would be the one time of year my kids would not do without even if they were preacher’s kids. So, I was equally crushed. But not Gretchen, and I heard her confidently say the words every parent dreads:  “It’s ok, Chris, we’ll just ask Santa for it. It’ll be ok, Mommy.” She believed in Santa and his ability to grant wishes with every fiber of her being, the trust shining in her eyes.  Chris, who had decided immediately after Christmas the year before that Santa no longer existed, looked at me, and wisely said nothing. Yet, more explaining. “Santa’s sleigh is probably already packed, honey. He may not be able to get it into his bag on time to get it here this year.”

santa-mailboxWe finished our baking, ate what had to be a quick dinner with Doug, and went to the 7:30 Christmas service. Then, we raced home. Time to write our notes to Santa and put out the cookies. Gretchen confidently wrote in her note: “Santa, please bring the Star Wars album for my brother.”

Once the kids were finally settled down, I explained to Doug what had happened as he opened cards people at church had given him. Just as I told him, he opened one that had $20 in it. We usually used any money we received at Christmas to pay bills, and to save to give us a little bit of money for emergencies in the months ahead. It never lasted the whole year, and we needed every penny, but Doug handed me the twenty dollar bill, and I raced to the store,  thinking all the while that I would spend this money that we really needed for what would probably be the worst album that had ever been made. Yet, there was no real choice, Santa couldn’t let Gretchen down (or even disbelieving Chris, either).

c3poChristmas morning, on the very top of the jumble of gifts under the tree, wrapped in Santa paper, there it was: Christmas in the Stars. Chris actually jumped for joy – perhaps even restoring his faith in Santa a little. Gretchen, just thrilled for him, said, “I told you Santa would bring it.” The ah ha moment came to me then: Santa had honored my daughter’s faith. It’s just that like God does, he works in mysterious ways.

We put it on the turntable: “Christmas in the Stars, Christmas in the Stars, what a Merry Christmas it will be,” C3PO sang. “Christmas in the Stars, out among the stars, underneath the Christmas tree…” he continued, and “Our hearts are full of joy, full of joy,” sang back the droids working in a factory making Christmas toys.  r2d2-copyThe concept of the album was of a Santa’s Workshop where droids made toys and wondered about the boys and girls who received them.

It was hokey, “What Do You Get a Wookie for Christmas (When He Already Owns a Comb)” [Jon Bon Jovi sang in his debut on that one] and “R2D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas” but the music was catchy, melodic, had a beat, and was well produced.

The message was better.

The last song on the album, The Meaning of Christmas, actually brought me to tears. It still does. It begins with this discussion between C3PO and S. Claus, Santa’s son (singing in italics)

C3PO: Mr. Claus, pardon me for asking, but what does Christmas really mean? Could you explain it to us.

S. Claus: “Of course, I would be happy to.”

Christmas is a time for joy. Christmas is a world of snow. Christmas is our own face shining with a special glow, and as any child can see, Christmas needs a Christmas tree, linking tiny lights with family close at hand. Christmas wreaths on every door, Christmas carols by the score, Christmas is a time for peace and love.

star-wars-boy-and-girl-copyWhen we say, I can love you, my gift to you, is that I do, will you all say with me to each other, I can love you, my gift to you, is that I do, I do.

I don’t know if our kids ever knew how much love I felt that Christmas morning. Love for my son who adored Star Wars. Love for my daughter who loved her brother and believed in Christmas. Love for my husband who probably had a hundred uses for that $20 – but gave it to me without a second’s hesitation to make our son and daughter happy. But what I do know is the belief in my heart that day, the joy in the knowledge that our children were the greatest Christmas gift I ever received, and that while we ultimately replaced the record with a CD, Christmas in the Stars is the first album we have listened to every Christmas morning since that day.

So as C3PO says at the end of the album: “Merry Christmas everyone, and may the Force be with you always.”   Want to listen for yourself (seems appropriate that my first YouTube in a post is this):

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A Different Christmas – A Lesson from the Grinch


grinch-movie-copy“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

“Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams, I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my dreams.” Bing Crosby

christmas-mantle-copyThe days are racing. Usually, this time of year it would be my count down to Christmas. It would be putting the candles in the windows, and putting up the tree, picking gifts, baking cookies, wrapping presents, placing Santas I’ve collected on the table, stockings on the mantle and a big Santa in front of the fireplace, a manger set, lights everywhere, while carols play on the stereo, I am a Christmas junkie!  While I wrapped the presents I had carefully selected, I would watch A Christmas Carol, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

I wait all year for Christmas…and Doug runs around and says, “Bah Humbug” and worries that the real meaning of the season is easy to lose in the paper and the bows. We always seem to find perfect balance between us, each equally overboard in our own way.

christmas-tree-copyThis year there are lots of boxes, but no ribbons. This year it is sorting and taking lots of things that used to be important to the Habitat for Humanity  Restore…hoping they can be just the right thing for a different person, and packing the things we will keep to take to our new home.

Yesterday, at last, we got a “present,” our moving date, December 15th when the moving van will load up our boxes in Edenton, and then arrive at our new home to unpack on the 16th. The marathon of the following week will be to finish cleaning the Edenton house and set up what we can at Shady Stroll Lane.

You see, one week after we move, Doug will have surgery. He will spend Christmas Eve in ICU and Christmas in the hospital. The best present of all will be that we think  the surgery will let Doug truly enjoy his life in retirement.panorama-of-christmas-copy

So, Christmas will be different this year.

“It will arrive without ribbons. We won’t have any bows,
no wreaths, no lights, no presents to show.                                                                                   No star topped tree with a village below.                                                                          Christmas will come as quiet as snow.

Christmas will be different this year.

There’ll be no stockings to hang,                                                                                                      No big celebration, no great large whiz-bang.                                                                               No bells to jingle, no gong to clang,                                                                                               Just beds to set up, and curtains to hang,

Christmas will be different this year.

But if we had no bed, no place to stay,                                                                                               A stable our home, a manger with hay,                                                                                             A star overhead would still shine till the day,                                                                              And the song of the angels would still have its way.

As silent as snow, peace would drift through the door,                                                          Good will would still find us and show how at its core                                                   Christmas is not having wrapped gifts galore,                                                                                In fact, Christmas could never be bought in a store.

Hearts always grow larger this time of year,                                                                                   As we stand hand in hand with those we hold dear,                                                                   For the shepherds and angels draw ever so near,                                                                       And tenderly fill them full of good cheer.

Christmas never changes, not for you or for me.                                                             Christmas is family, not what’s under the tree,                                                               Christmas comes from sharing love, I know that you see,                                                      Love is the true Christmas gift and always will be.

It will be a different Christmas this year, but will still be same                                               The child always faithful who knows us by name.

 

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