#ShowUpForShabbat

As the Christian sabbath draws near, I’m reflecting on the experience of worshiping with my Jewish neighbors today, in response to the invitation for people of all faiths to #ShowUpForShabbat.

In my neighborhood temple, the congregation touched me with the same spirit of resistance that I often find in African-American churches.  People who have been threatened and oppressed, and yet are still worshiping.  Defiant, determined joy wins, sharpened and not broken by the violence of centuries past.  No matter what lurks outside the door, inside there is resolute strength.  Also, lots of bagels.  Every event on the calendar promises bagels for all who attend.  Perhaps this is the secret of a successful congregation!

Listening to the service, I try to imagine the shattering experience of violence at the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh last weekend.  The police officer at the door of this temple, this morning, seemed to be a regular.  People entering for worship stopped and greeted him by name.  In the back of the parking lot, a sheriff’s deputy and a state police officer waited in their cars, comparing notes.  What would it be like to have that reminder of violence every time you go to a place where you hope to settle your spirit, and listen for God in the quiet?

This kind of worship requires a fortitude that fortunate Christian congregations can’t imagine.

Tomorrow at my church, we will read the names of the people who died in the past year, and the others whom we hold in our memories.  It’s our remembrance of the beloved dead who circle around us.  In the Shabbat service, the dead are present all the time.  They are never far away, in a way that I imagine adds to the congregation’s strength.  I feel touched by their presence, even without knowing the people behind the names.

As the Jewish sabbath ends, and the Christian sabbath comes, today makes me hope more than ever that peace may spread over all people.

You Want to Read This Book: Raising White Kids

On a recent Saturday night, one of my young friends and two of his classmates met up with the local police, who found a small amount of marijuana and some pills in the car. The two white students went home with a warning, and a seventeen year old boy I’m deeply fond of spent two nights in jail until he saw the judge on Monday morning.

The disparity in the “justice” they received continues to rankle. I hear, over and over in my mind, his smart, savvy mother saying how helpless she felt through all of this.

I also find myself wondering often what the two white students were thinking as their African-American classmate disappeared with the police. They drove his car home and parked it in front of his parents’ home. They didn’t ring the bell, or explain where their friend was. Back at school, they let him take the school’s discipline without volunteering the information that they were involved, too.

Did they think there was nothing they could do?

Were they already socialized to expect different kinds of justice, based on skin color?

Did they lack the words to explain, to comfort, or to stand with their friend?

Did they think it wasn’t their problem?

Dr. Jennifer Harvey’s thoughtful book Raising White Kids offers us hopeful and helpful tools for the white kids who will be involved in situations like this. If we’re longing for a better world, we need better tools, and Dr. Harvey has them.

As parents of white children, we have all kinds of power to help them navigate a racially unjust world, and to give them the tools to address injustice and racism when they see it. “Nonracism,” Harvey reminds us, “is not the same as antiracism.” Celebrating diversity ignores the layers of systematic privilege that come to people who are white.

We know that we have to talk to kids about sexuality, and we find ways to do it with wisdom, or awkwardness, or humor, or fear and trembling, but we do it. Harvey’s book gives us similar tools to wade into discussions about race and culture. As with talking to kids about sex, we have to keep having different conversations at different ages. We have to be prepared to address the stereotypes kids bring home from the culture around us. We want to share our values as we help kids develop their own principles. The same guidelines apply in conversations about race. Ignoring the topic isn’t going to help, and Harvey offers sample conversations for kids at different ages.

Harvey wisely points out that it’s not enough to be in favor of diversity, and it’s not even enough to convey a passion for equality and justice. Our culture is so saturated with racism (and other ills) that we, as parents, pastors, teachers and neighbors need to give kids the tools to see and then address the racism they will inevitably encounter. We can give kids, she says, a sense of purpose and capacity, “a vision of the kind of world they want to live in and a sense that their behavior and actions can help create that world.”

Because whiteness is the default in our society, we may think we don’t need to teach kids about being white. Race-conscious parenting, Harvey says, involves layers of teaching about what white skin can mean in our culture, along with not elevating or shaming anyone. It also involves teaching kids not to see anyone as the fulfillment of a stereotype, neither as a victim or just a recipient of discrimination. “Healthy white children,” Harvey says, “have been nurtured over time to be comfortable in their own skin…but also function well and appropriately in racially diverse environments. They are children who neither ignore…the racial identities of others but who also do not make assumptions about people based on their race. They are children who feel equipped and have strong moral commitments to interrupt and challenge racism when they witness it…” And if we can teach it to kids, perhaps we can learn it ourselves, too!

This kind of emotional and social health grows from conversations we keep having with kids, and Harvey notes that when we stay engaged in this process, “we teach our children to do the same. We’re not trying to hand them all the answers about racism…we’re modeling for them what persistence through difficult ideas and challenging encounters looks like.”

You can read the book’s Introduction here.

Harvey is both realistic and hopeful, and the insights she offers can be taken in bite-sized pieces, or in an all-you-can-eat buffet. I appreciate the concreteness of her examples, and her sense that this is a lifelong process in our parenting. Her book is a valuable resource for parents, educators, neighbors and churches. Get it! Give it to people!

The publisher gave me a free review copy, plus a copy to give away. If you’d like to have a copy, leave me a message below, and I’ll choose someone at random.

#WhitePrivilege

The January ritual of fortunate people: returning gifts.  This week, I blitzed through the mall, emptying my bag and throwing myself on the mercy of kind store clerks.  (Of course, I didn’t return what you gave me.)

Each and every time, they exchanged my lovingly given but not-quite-right gift for a store credit.  Nary a receipt in sight, but tags still on.  Only once did I even have to show my drivers license.

I used to think that, with the right attitude and a good reason, you could return anything, any time.

Now I think it’s just one more example of white privilege, plus economic privilege. Having things I don’t actually need, plus the ability to get to the mall, plus the ability to step into a store and not be regarded with suspicion are all layers of my unmerited good fortune.

We all have bigger and better battles to fight, but this was one more reminder of how cushioned my life is…and how much I like it that way.

My office co-workers reminded me recently that my car’s brake light bulb was out.  “Oh, yeah,” I remembered.  “I have to get that fixed.”  But I had the luxury of not rushing to do it.  I drove around for a couple of weeks before the repair place could fit me in, with no trouble.  The first time my daughter, who’s black, borrowed the car, she got stopped a mile from home.  Grateful to be with her, I was torn between letting her dig around in her purse for the registration (good lesson) and handing over my copy to get away as quickly as possible (mama terror.)

I am confident that I miss so many places of my own privilege, but I’ll be thinking about them as I use these gift cards, praying to be much more attentive.

 

 

Cracked

Visiting my daughter, The Teenager, recently, I notice she has a new travel mug, which seems to be…not so new. It has deep cracks in the plastic, fanning out from the lid. “Oh, I bought it at the thrift store,” she tells me. Looking at it, I feel divided between pain and pride.

The Teenager lives with her aunt and cousin these days, looking for a fresh start after depression stole two years of high school, and rearranged her life.

As her friends were applying to colleges, and celebrating their acceptance letters, she felt like there was nothing left for her in our little town. Every success reminded her how far she was behind the typical schedule. It’s hard to understand, at seventeen, that life has lots of paths.  Few happy people have hit every scheduled milestone.

Now, in a new city, she manages her own life, with wise advice from her aunt. She rides the bus to class and work, manages the small amount of money we put in her bank account and organizes her own days. She’s shed my daily, anxious reminders to take her medication.

The travel mug shows me how she’s figuring out how to make her life work.  It’s also an image of her story – cracked by depression, and still functional. Her years of high school are lost, but she has a new sensitivity to how fortunate her life has been.

The cracked reminds her that she’s resourceful, clever at managing her own life, a feeling I want her to always have. You can live on that feeling for a long time.

Keeping silent about the mug, I think about how cracked my own life is, too.

Like everyone, I have places of disappointment and loss. Failures pile up along with the wrinkles. Time goes by too fast. I sometimes think that if I were a better mother, my daughter wouldn’t be struggling. I feel sad about the things that I have lost, too – the chance to take prom pictures, be at the senior banquet and graduation. I miss the sweet feeling of success as a parent. I miss the parents I’ve known since kindergarten, but when I see them, I don’t know what to say to them.

My cracks reveal other truths.

Now, I finally glimpse the pain of parents who have kids with special needs, where there is never any typical path. I know what it’s like to lie awake worrying about a child, a sorrow I avoided for a long time. I see that the success grown out of bleak places is even more precious than anything expected.

The secondhand mug is a lesson in honoring the cracks. There is only our one “wild and precious life,” as Mary Oliver says, and the wild and precious joys we wring out of the broken places.

My Mother’s Daughter

Sitting on the sofa, watching Hillary Clinton speak, my daughter is an arm’s length away, but I’m too embarrassed to look at her. The minute Clinton started speaking, I started to cry.  A few tears, and then more, and then the neckline of my shirt is soaked.

After a while, I stop trying to hide it.

She is used to my tears – at other people’s stories, on happy days, even the Clydesdales and the puppy.

Listening to Hillary speak, I realize – surprised — that I never expected to see this day in my lifetime.  I never expected to see a woman with a real chance at becoming President. Voting in the Michigan primary was my first opportunity to vote for a woman on the line marked “President of the United States.”

Clinton said she came to this moment “as my mother’s daughter, and as my daughter’s mother.”  It strikes me that we all do.

Her words echo in my head, and I finally look at my own daughter, who is listening intently, but without surprise.  She did expect this.  She never doubted that it would happen.  I think back to the night that Barack Obama was elected.  That night, I woke her up, and made her get out of bed to come and watch him on television.

That night, I sat on the same couch, crying the same tears of wonder and amazement.  “You’re seeing history, honey,” I told her, and she watched politely for a while.  “Can I go back to bed,” she finally asked.  Raised in a different, still imperfect world, she never doubted that night’s promise, either.

After she went to bed that night, I called my mother-in-law, born and raised in Selma, Alabama.  She never misses an opportunity to vote, although arthritis usually keeps her from going to the polls in person.  That time, she set aside the absentee ballot and took the bus to vote.  That time, she put up with the pain of standing in line.  That time, she wanted the pleasure of voting in person.

I think of my own mother, and how much she would have loved watching this.  She took me to hear Shirley Chisholm speak when she ran for President, and told me I was seeing hisory then.  I think of her friend Polly, who automatically said “women,” correcting everyone who said “girls” or “ladies,” until we got it.  That generation of women became able teachers and the secretaries who ran the whole office without credit, because those were the doors open to them. But they lived with a sharp, edgy longing born from never using all of their talents.

That’s why Hillary Clinton feels familiar to us, even in this new moment.

We are accustomed to competent women – of all political persuasions – who have done much more than they get credit for, who have been called “shrill” and “pushy” and “bossy,” who have had to balance their talents with the egos around them.

There is both a startling new-ness and a deep familiarity to this.

For all of the mothers and grandmothers who paved the way for this, who accustomed us to competent women, abundant gratitude.

For all of the girls and young women who are completely unsurprised by this, here’s to you.  Thanks for understanding our tears.

 

Pool Party

 

Image via Lands  End.

Image via Lands End.

 

 

After reading news of the pool party in Texas, I sit on my bed and talk to my daughter. She lies across the foot of the bed, listening.

“I think you already know, honey, that if the police encounter you and your friends, they’ll treat you differently because of your skin color.”

“Yes,” she says, and my heart begins to break again.

Part of my job as a mother is to teach her not to take for granted the privileges I have as a white, educated, middle-aged woman who looks harmless. As a teenager, as a person of color, the world sees her differently. I have taught her to speak her mind, and now I am afraid I haven’t taught her enough about keeping quiet.

There are lessons we all learn as women.

When she started to go out with friends, I had to teach her how to respond to street harassment. When she began to study at a coffee shop, we talked about how to deal with unwanted attention, with people who stand too close or who won’t leave you alone.

There are lessons about being a person of color.

Now we talk again about how to navigate an encounter with the police. This is a conversation African-American parents have been having for years, but I am new to it. Privilege has shielded me in a way that will never happen for my daughter.

In my mind is the picture of a white man, a police officer, sitting on a teenage girl in a bathing suit. As a mother, as a woman, the image makes me want to throw up. The disrespect for her body and her teenage sense of self leaves me both enraged and in tears.

“If they tell you to stop, or to sit, follow instructions,” my husband tells her. “Do exactly what they tell you to do. And don’t be mouthy.”

“When people start yelling, no one can think clearly. Nothing good happens when the yelling begins,” I add, trying to help her survive any moment of chaos between police officers and teenagers.

“But,” I hear myself say, “in the beginning, if you think you can get away, run and don’t look back.” The advice surprises me. Recent events have taught me what African-American parents have known for a long time – skin color will trump everything else. I no longer have confidence that a police officer will see my daughter as an honor student, an employee of the library, a girl with a generous heart. My job is to nurture that in her, and other young people, even in a world that can’t always see it. My job is also to keep her alive, in a world that’s hard on young people of color, and I fear that I don’t know enough to teach her. I fear for the spirits of people who have to learn to be quiet, sit down, obey orders. I fear for us all, when this is acceptable to us.

Gold Star

gold star flag           Soon after my brother’s death, I start working as a hospice chaplain, and meet Don, an old-fashioned gentleman with a deep Catholic faith. He’s hard of hearing, grouchy, forgetful at times, and sharp when he wants to be. It’s hard to tell what he’s taking in, and not. He’s so modest that he asks our home health aide to give him a shower with his underwear on.

I visit him at his senior residence, arriving as he finishes lunch so I won’t interrupt the afternoon nap that follows lunch. Asking his permission, I pull up a chair and sit at the table, keeping him company as he finishes eating the meat, potatoes and gray vegetable. “What did you have for lunch?” I ask him one day.

“L.O.K,” he tells me.

“L.O.K – what’s that?”

“Lord Only Knows.” I laugh out loud, which makes him smile. He always offers me dessert, which I decline, and coffee, which I drink to be sociable.

Don’s daughter Rose has award winning patience, and the same warm smile I see in pictures of her mother. The approaching loss of her father brings up other losses. “I was sitting on my couch in front of the fireplace, sipping a glass of wine, last Christmas Eve,” she tells me, “and there was a knock on my door.”

The newspaper stories about the war and roadside bombs come to brutal life as I listen to her tell about her son’s death in the war. The Christmas Eve knock on the door comes from two men in uniform, the sight every military family dreads. Her son Mike had been killed on Christmas Eve in Iraq. The family stumbles through a funeral mass here, and then a memorial service held by his unit, out of state. “I feel like we buried that child so many times,” she says. “At the end I was so tired.”

Her story of his sudden, violent death recalls my brother’s death, and I feel a silent connection with her story. My dad asks me one night, “Isn’t it hard to visit other people when David’s death is on your mind?” No. Yes. It’s all I know how to do, I tell him.   Once your heart cracks open, you have an unwanted kinship with every other broken-hearted person. Once grief makes you gasp for breath, you recognize the other air-starved people around you. It’s strangely relaxing to be with other broken people.

As the chaplain, it’s my job to hear their stories, not their job to listen to me. I’m careful not to share my own loss, not to chime in, not to shout excitedly “I know exactly what you mean.”   But we belong to the same club.

Don stays with us for two years, declining slowly and bouncing back, and then slipping again. Finally, the last descent begins. One day at lunch, he tells me that he has to get to the shop to finish some things. “Let’s go,” he says, urgently. “Can you take me?” he asks, and I know that the end is coming. Talk about finishing something, or traveling somewhere, signals the soul’s final work.

I come every afternoon to see him. When I walk up the driveway and see the car with the “Gold Star Family” license plate, the distinction given to families who lose someone in combat, I know that Rose is here, too. The afternoons become a sabbath, as we sit by his bed and talk about her dad. In the dim peace of the room, she tells me about his political career, his stubborn personality, his passion for coffee, which he drank day and night. The first household task she ever learned was making coffee.

And, again, she tells me again about her son. Sitting in the peace of the room, the story comes with different details this time. Mike was married briefly, and it didn’t work out. Because of the timing of the divorce, when Mike dies, the Army calls the young ex-wife first. Her dad, drunk, makes a rambling, expletive-filled call to Rose and her husband. Her husband picks up the phone and can’t understand anything except that Mike is dead. Rose runs upstairs to the computer and frantically, crazily hits the buttons, searching for the emergency number the Army gave them. She finds it and is screaming her questions into the phone when she looks out the window. A white sedan turns the corner onto their street and moves slowly up the block, as if looking for a house number. She watches the car driving through the snow until it stops in front of her house, and two men get out and come toward the porch.

Pausing in the story, she looks at me in the dark room and asks “Are you crying?”

“I am,” I admit.

“You’re sweet to cry at my story,” she tells me.

Oddly, I feel jealous. Her son’s death in the war seems more meaningful than my brother’s random death. And yet, grief is grief. Her story is my story, although I don’t tell her that. The death of her dad will eventually be the death of mine. The terrible absence of her son is also the aching absence of my brother.

I realize that the only meaning in someone’s death is the meaning we give it. How we live after the death, making a path forward. We mark the way with dates and ceremonies so no one is forgotten, when remembering is the only gift left to give.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Murderer and Me

 

(c) Shutterstock

Most of my hospice patients were bricklayers and auto executives, teachers and truck drivers.  But the murderer taught me something they couldn’t.

When he comes onto our hospice program, I learn that he went to prison for murder, was released, and then killed another person right away.  He’s been in prison ever since.  Now, dying of cancer, he’s out on the compassionate release program.  The son in a faraway state never lived with him as a child, and now only wants to know when he dies.

A bleak nursing home is the most compassion he’ll get now.

Could I just skip visiting the murderer, I wonder?  The details of his crime are awful, and the staff says he’s still mean and abusive.  What redemption can there be for him in these last few weeks?  Certainly none that I can deliver.

Would he even if I didn’t visit?  Maybe not, but I’ll know I chickened out.

My brain spins into the grandiose.  Perhaps an insightful conversation with me will unlock the past and allow breathtakingly complete repentance, right then and there.

Then my mind lands on terror.  I know exactly what will happen.  I will be his next victim, killed right there in the nursing home, in between rounds.  The next shift will find me and notify my tearful husband.

In the end, the most mundane conviction pushes me in the front door of the nursing home.

You never know where the grace of God can be found.

It belongs to all of us, and perhaps I can be a small channel of it for him, or for the staff caring for him.  Even murderers deserve grace, I keep repeating to stay calm, as I ask where to find him.  “Down at the end of that hallway,” the nurse instructs me.  “Third bed in the room.”

At the end?  Third bed, farthest in?  So far from the door?

Peeking down the hall, it seems darker than usual.  Are some of the lights off?  And where are all the food service aides, nurses, housekeepers and other residents who usually fill the corridor?  Where is everyone?

You never know where the grace of God can be found, I repeat, hoping for courage.

I head down the familiar hallway that has never seemed longer, or darker.  I round the corner, step into the room, and there is the murderer.  All 87 pounds of him, in a t-shirt and a diaper, lying on his bed.

Letting out a shaky breath, I have to laugh.  My image of the murderer, my fears and fantasies, had so taken over that I could hardly see, let alone minister to, the real person.

The murderer reminds me how often we do that to each other, at church or work or in our neighborhoods.  The executive with the Birkin bag must be a shallow workaholic – until she turns out to be a compassionate and dedicated mother, one of the few in her wealthy neighborhood who will draw a difficult line with teenagers.  The retired attorney must be a Republican – until he turns out to be a tireless campaigner for gay rights, his views refashioned by his son’s life.  The father yelling at his daughter in the parking lot must be an abusive lout – until you learn that he’s working two jobs, and is on the edge of exhaustion.  The mother who’s always in the school office must be living through her child – until you know that her child has autism, and her efforts are teaching the whole community about inclusion.

You never know where the grace of God might be found.  It belongs to all of us, even those of us with cluttered heads and trembling hearts.

I don’t know what other redemption the murderer found, but he taught me the power of starting from scratch each time.  In his dying, the murderer reminded me to let each person be a blank, and to start fresh, my over-filled mind empty and ready to see anew.

 

(Image via Shutterstock.)