Cutting It Close

Tell me if this sounds familiar….

One kid has a toy. The other kid wants that toy. Kid two whines and complains incessantly, trying to get what he wants. Kid one protests and tells kid two to leave him alone. Drama escalates. You get dragged into it. People scream. Nothing is resolved. Everyone is stressed, and the toy that started the brouhaha has been forgotten in the fracas that ensued.

My husband and I used to try to be diplomatic in such moments. We attempted to get them to share, to take turns, to negotiate and find a solution to the problem themselves. Sometimes, that worked, but there are days when no amount of talking it out, no amount of stone cold logic will solve the problem. On those days, I institute what I’ve come to call the “Occam’s Razor approach to parenting.”

Never heard of it? Let’s start with a little history.

The principle was created by William of Ockham, a Franciscan friar who lived in the 14th century. A philosopher and theologian, he wrote about logic, epistemology, natural philosophy, political philosophy, metaphysics, and ethics. Though he wrote a great deal and taught at the University of Oxford, he is best known for his principle called Occam’s razor. Basically, it states that “entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” Some Latin versions read like this:

Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate.
Frustra fit per plura quod potest fieri per pauciora.
Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem.

In other words, all things being equal, the simplest solution is best.

keep-calm-and-use-occam-s-razorNow this applies in different ways in the sciences, technology, and philosophy. But it’s application to parenting is simple. Take the case I mentioned above. Rather than waste time fighting or trying to reason with children, I choose the simplest solution. In this case, taking the toy away from both kids. Problem solved!

Kid doesn’t like food? Don’t serve it to him. (We often place a bowl of plain oatmeal in front of the offender on this one. Helped cut down on kvetching pretty quick.)

Can’t agree on what movie to watch? Don’t turn one on.

Fighting over Pokemon cards? Catch ’em all yourself!

One kid accuses the other of cheating at a board game? Pack it up.

Kid doesn’t listen to you because he’s looking at a tablet? Take it, and give it back only when you feel like it. Or, simper and better still, don’t buy a tablet at all.

As you can see, the applications are limitless.

I can hear your objections already. “That’s not fair,” you’re saying. “Why should kid one go without the toy? He didn’t start it!”

You’re correct. I am punishing kid one to an extent. However, if you parent more than one child, you know that they change roles constantly. There are days when kid one is the whiner, the beggar, the aggressor and kid two is the aggrieved party. (Only Mary and Joseph had a perfect kid that didn’t start anything.) If both kids know that something they want can be taken away because of dickering, both are less likely to start a fight. With us as the common enemy, the boys have a reason to put those negotiating skills to use, which is what we were trying to get them to do in the first place. This principle has cut the drama in our home down by at least half, and we’re all happier for it.

How about you all? Do you handle things a little differently when the kids start tearing each other’s throats out? Thinking about trying this method? I’d love to hear your feedback, so leave me a comment!

A Far Way On To Dawn

The winter solstice is upon us, and tonight will officially be the longest night of the year. And, brother, if there ever was a year that demanded a dark night, 2016 is it. I won’t belabor the point by listing many of the challenging and disheartening things that have taken place since this January 1st, and I won’t try to ameliorate them by pointing out the many bright spots the year offered either. To do that is to dwell in the temporal, and relying on the things of this world for our emotional equilibrium is foolish at best.

However, as I stand on the edge of 40, I must admit that the darkness is a little harder to shake off than it used to be. It’s not because I’m growing cynical (though that has happened to some degree) or because I feel lost. On the contrary, I understand myself and my purpose in this life better than ever before.

I think it has something to do with perspective. With a few decades behind me, it’s easier to see things as they are. In middle age, we recognize that time (for us at least) isn’t infinite, some endless skein of hours that spools itself out into perpetuity. The scissors come, the thread is severed, and there is an end to things as we know them. Losing my grandfather to Alzheimer’s Disease, praying for a friend who, though only 42 and the mother of two young girls, learned she has lymphoma, watching marriages end in divorce and death all impressed the same inescapable fact on me—nothing in this life is guaranteed.

In this hard year of bitterness and animosity, with thoughts of mortality in mind, I came across this page in Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and it stopped me cold.

somethingwicked

 

The character having these heavy thoughts, Charles Holloway, is a 54-year-old amateur philosopher and library janitor who bemoans the loss of his youth and potential. (Though — slight spoiler alert — there’s a great moment of redemption for him in the book.) As someone who has been awake at 3:00 AM several times this year, I concur that it is a hard hour, a sharp and lonely sliver of time. With the house sleeping around you and the world outside the window quiet and still, it’s easy to believe you’re the only soul left and that all else is darkness.

But unlike Mr. Bradbury, who considered himself a “delicatessen religionist,” I believe in “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes. Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days.” I take comfort in the words of Paul who tells us, “We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

This year, our family used an Advent wreath at home for the first time, and I have found that the intentional lighting of candles, of discussing what they mean, and allowing them to focus my attention on Jesus has been restorative. Yes, there is darkness, but there is also hope. There is love. There is joy. There is peace. Why? Because there is Christ, the center of our celebration. He is where our hearts must dwell, and he is the only source of true comfort in a world that seems to have skidded sideways.

On this, the longest night of the year, and every night of my life, I will not stare at the darkness. Instead, I look to the white candle in the center of that wreath, the one that represents Jesus—the God-man who came to redeem and will return to rescue. I sing the last three verses of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” in expectation, knowing that my waiting will not be in vain, for the Dayspring is coming.

Oh, come, O Key of David, come,
And open wide our heav’nly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, our Dayspring from on high,
And cheer us by your drawing nigh,
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

Oh, come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Oh, bid our sad divisions cease,
And be yourself our King of Peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to you, O Israel!

And You Will Have Done Enough

It’s been two weeks since Donald J. Trump was declared president-elect of the United States, and while things have calmed down slightly, we’re still a far piece from that “perfect union” our Founding Fathers envisioned.

The night after the election, the hubs and I went on a date. (Yes, on a Wednesday. And we paid for it the next day. Oh brother, did we pay for it.) Why put ourselves in such a spot? Because when Madeleine Peyroux is playing City Winery, you go regardless of what day it is. (If you’ve never heard of her, are you in for a treat. I’ve included one of my favorites below to get you started. You can thank me later.)

During the fifth or sixth song in her opening set, the woman sitting in front of me—a striking older beauty in a cream colored sweater and smart cloche hat—nearly knocked her glass of merlot over. Without thinking, I reached over and caught it. (Old waitress reflexes never die apparently.) Smiling, she whispered her thanks, and I leaned in to tell her it was my pleasure. I suppose that little act of kindness unlocked something in her because, without warning, she turned to me and said in a much louder voice, “I don’t know what to do about this election. I don’t understand it! I’m worried about our safety and the economy and immigrants….”

I tried for the better part of sixteen bars to get her to speak more softly, all to no avail. People began looking at us, shooting very polite darts in our direction. The more she talked, the more overwrought she became, so I went for the obvious. “Darlin,” I told her, “there are worries out there to be sure. But for now, you have lovely music, the company of friends, and a glass of wine in your hand. Leave the rest outside for an hour or so.”

She smiled at me—soothed by those words—patted my hand, and turned back to the music. We didn’t speak again until the end of the show, but before I left, I put a hand on her shoulder and gave her the only truth I knew: “The person in the White House, whoever it is, doesn’t impact you all that much really. You can still love your neighbor. You can still show kindness to others. Nothing can stop you from trying to impact your world for the better.” I could tell it helped her to hear someone say it, and truth be told, it lightened my spirits to give the thought voice. It’s been hard for me to deal with this election, even knowing what I know as a Christian—that this world doesn’t get the final say and that, praise God, there’s a better one coming. As believers, we play the long game. But that doesn’t stop us from losing sight of the truth…or from losing our good sense once in awhile.

I’m sure this is somehow a steal from Wendell Berry (who has already said most of the good things worth saying), but I’m of the belief that we aren’t meant to solve all the world’s problems. It’s our job to faithfully tend the little corner of earth assigned to us and nothing more. We are to love and aid those around us, to care for the parts of the world we call home, and if we all pitch in and do our bit, all the little corners will get tended. That’s what I was trying to tell her—the woman who was my neighbor for the briefest of moments—that it’s all going to be okay.

In Life TogetherDietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for [God] the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point are great times for the church are times when it’s pulled down. It is a great comfort which Jesus gives to his church. You confess, preach, bear witness to me, and I alone will build where it pleases me. Do not meddle in what is not your providence. Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough…. Live together in the forgiveness of your sins. Forgive each other every day from the bottom of your hearts.”

Read that last bit again, “Do what is given to you, and do it well, and you will have done enough.” Mercy, I can do that. I can try. That gives me a little room to breathe and puts things back in the right perspective. From that point of view, the world doesn’t seem quite so dire. A thought like that pushes the bleakness back.

The next morning as I drove to work, bleary-eyed and droopy from a night spent gadding around like a college kid, I saw something out of the corner of my eye that gave me even greater cause for hope. It was dark, so I couldn’t be quite sure of what I saw. But it gave me something to think on and daydream about all day. That afternoon, I beat the same worth path home, excited to find out if what I’d seen had been real or some kind of mirage, one created by wishful thinking rather than thirst. And much to my surprise and delight, I saw it was real.

 

img_6237

 

Some lovely soul took the time to make a sign that simply said “Love People and Be Kind” in chunky black marker. Someone else had thought the matter over, come to the same conclusion as I, and had taken the first step by posting this advice on a busy Atlanta road. I look for it every day now, and it never fails to bring me joy.

There is a way to not just to survive the hot mess that is 2016 but to thrive in it. And the solution has nothing to do with a non-profit initiative, a protest march, or a government program. Each of us is called to do those two simple things. If we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God, there’s precious little else that needs doing because, well, we will have done enough.

Selah.

 

img_6242

Sticker Shock

img_6090

 

At first glance, this magnet on the back of my car is nothing special. It’s hardly as cool as my “Team Oxford Comma” sticker or the logo of my beloved St. Louis Cardinals. Heck, even my Valdosta State University alumnae badge of honor is more unique.


img_6146
Like hundreds of other folks in the place a call home, it indicates that I have a curtain climber or two involved in an afterschool activity known as, you guessed it, “Kid Chess.”

Each Tuesday, our dastardly duo finishes their school day and heads for the cafeteria to learn about “the immortal game,” beloved by commonspun philosophers, kings, and titans of industry. For ninety minutes, they learn strategy and play a game or two with classmates on the same skill level as they. Some weeks, the boys sprint out, their faces flushed with the thrill of conquest. Other times, they more closely resemble Eeyore, the beloved sad sack of the Hundred Acre Woods because they’ve been beaten like a tied up goat. But I’m happy either way because they’re learning how to think critically, to be good sports, and to take risks.

But that’s not what makes that goofy blue knight sporting the Def Leppard do so special.

When we were going through the adoption process—filling out mountains of paperwork, taking IMPACT training classes, and meeting with advocates and case managers, every so often, I would think to myself, Do we REALLY want to do this? Are we sure that we’re sure about this life-changing choice?

Most times, the answer was yes. But there were days (more than I care to admit) when I backpedaled from the entire thing. Days when I heard adoption horror stories in the news or from the mouths of well-meaning friends. Days when I came home exhausted and realized just how difficult life could be for a working mother. Days when my selfishness overruled my willingness to obey.

I prayed for peace about what sometimes seemed like an altogether foolhardy endeavor. I asked for confirmation from God, some grand symbol like the ones he gave Moses in the wilderness or during Belshazzar’s feast. Heck, I decided I’d settle for a little dew on some fleece. But the Lord, as we all know, is not in the earthquake, fire, or whirlwind. It’s the still, small voice we should be listening for, the gentle question that comes to us from just outside the safety of our caves.

Days before our paperwork was approved, I was still wrestling with adoption and with all the worries and expectations that are part and parcel with becoming a new parent. But driving home from work one afternoon, I saw a car with one of those silly magnets on the back, and I found myself saying, It might be fun to raise a kid who plays chess.

Wham.

Just like that, I went from worrying about all sorts of things (most of which have not come to pass) to thinking, It might be nice.

And now—one year after children were placed in our home—that magnet is proudly on display on the back hatch of my filthy yellow car. Evidence that God is indeed at work in the details.

 

Handwriting and Handwringing

Last weekend, the hubs and I were in New York City to visit the Morgan Library & Museum so I could clap eyes on the original manuscript for Jane Eyre, my all-time favorite book. The exhibit, Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will, is well worth seeing if you’re in or near the area, and it will be at the Morgan through January 2, 2017. Here are a few snapshots I took while we were there.

 

 

There were several other wonderful exhibits there, including Word and Image: Martin Luther’s Reformation in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It, too, was a fascinating collection, well curated and solid in scope. From it, I learned a great deal not only about Luther himself but also the men who helped get his message out and the printing press, that revolutionary machine that democratized the Christian faith in Europe.

 

img_6048
In between exhibits, we went super fancy and had high tea. Total “pinkies up” experience for both of us.

 

We finished our day by visiting Pierpont Morgan’s 1906 library, divided into the North Room and West Room—both of which I was too busy ogling to take pictures of—and the amazing East Room that took my breath away.

 

But it was in the rotunda, a dazzling space of marble and light that divides the libraries, that I came across something unexpected: a letter written by George Washington on December 25, 1777. As you can see by the paragraph below the document, this wasn’t a document of great import. It wasn’t penned to celebrate the victory at Trenton, the loss at Brandywine, or the British surrender at Yorktown. It was simply a letter written to Elbridge Gerry, a member of the Second Continental Congress, requesting that plans be drawn up for the campaign that would take place at winter’s end. It’s the 18th century equivalent of an inner-office memo, but it stopped me dead in my tracks.

gwletter

 

I viewed this document on Saturday, October 8th, less than a 24 hours after Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood video surfaced and only a few days after Wikileaks dumped emails from John Podesta detailing the inner workings of the Clinton Campaign. Up until that moment, I had been floating on a cloud, five hours removed from the outside world and happily ensconced in a beautiful building surrounded by erudition and polite, dignified people. For a moment, I’d forgotten about the ugliness of the world outside the Morgan’s doors, especially the nefariousness that has been the 2016 election season. But, looking at this letter, I couldn’t help but be confronted by it all over again in a way I never expected.

Consider this. Washington was the United States’ first president and served two terms. He did so not because he wanted to but because he felt he must, and when his time of service was over, he surrendered power for the second time and walked away.

Imagine a president doing that now. Imagine Trump or Clinton surrendering authority, doing something for the greater good of the United States. Yeah, I know. It’s disheartening.

Washington was born into a farming family in Virginia and though he was fairly well educated and prosperous, I always get the sense he felt himself an outsider in many ways. Hence, he was always mindful of his manners and comportment. So much so, in fact, that in 1814 Thomas Jefferson said, “may truly be said, that never did nature and fortune combine more perfectly to make a man great.”

There’s evidence of it in the letter at the Morgan. I wish my photo of it was high-res so you could see for yourself, but believe me when I say his handwriting was immaculate. Each line was perfectly straight, every letter was exact. All leaned in the same direction and at the exact same angle. Any letter below the line had identically-sized loops. And he did this on a portable writing desk or rickety table in poor light, likely after a long day. Where did he learn such perfect penmanship? Like so many things, at school and through tireless repetition.

When he was sixteen, Washington’s schoolmaster had him copy 110 Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, and it was a text that informed much of what he did as a soldier, a gentleman farmer, and a politician. As this website says: “Today many, if not all of these rules, sound a little fussy if not downright silly. It would be easy to dismiss them as outdated and appropriate to a time of powdered wigs and quills, but they reflect a focus that increasingly difficult to find. The rules have in common a focus on other people rather than the narrow focus of our own self-interests that we find so prevalent today. Fussy or not, they represent more than just manners. They are the small sacrifices that we should all be willing to make for the good of all and the sake of living together. These rules proclaim our respect for others and in turn give us the gift of self-respect and heightened self-esteem.”

Consider just a few of the bits of wisdom Washington lived by:

Number 40 — “Strive not with your Superiors in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.”

Number 48 — “Wherein you reprove Another be unblameable yourself; for example is more prevalent than Precepts.”

Number 49 — “Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.”

Number 56 — “Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ‘is better to be alone than in bad Company.”

Number 58 — “Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ‘is a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern.”

Number 65 — “Speak not injurious Words neither in Jest nor Earnest Scoff at none although they give Occasion.”

Number 110 — “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”

You get the idea.

Thankfully, this man set the standard other men (and perhaps one day women) should strive for as president.

As bio.com writes, “George Washington proved to be an able administrator. He surrounded himself with some of the most capable people in the country, appointing Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State. He delegated authority wisely and consulted regularly with his cabinet listening to their advice before making a decision. Washington established broad-ranging presidential authority, but always with the highest integrity, exercising power with restraint and honesty. In doing so, he set a standard rarely met by his successors, but one that established an ideal by which all are judged.”

And today, less than 300 years later, we have two candidates who refer to the American people as a “basket of deplorables” and insist that when you are a star, you can grab women by the p***y and get away with it.

But Trump and Clinton didn’t force themselves on us. Both are products of a country who relinquished its ideals, who allowed ignorance to be celebrated rather than rejected, and who stopped actively participating in the grand, messy experiment that is the United States of America. Both he and she fall so short of the standard we should expect of a president–and of ourselves–that I stood before that humble, prosaic letter in the Morgan and cried. For Washington, for myself, and for this beautiful country.

The road back to those standards is a long one, and the return journey will be hard and full of bickering. But walk it we must because it’s our responsibility as a free people. Because as Washington said so beautifully in his first inaugural speech, “the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.”

***

If you would like to read other letters by Washington, I highly recommend this page created by the University of Virginia. This site is also very interesting.

 

What We Leave Behind

Yesterday, I was added as a contributor over at The Mighty, a website that publishes “real stories by real people facing real challenges.” It’s an amazingly honest and encouraging place for people who have disabilities, chronic/rare diseases, or mental illnesses. As someone who has one of the many conditions listed on their site (Multiple Sclerosis or MS), I was thrilled to be able to add my voice to their robust community. If you’d like to read them, please click here.

Seeing my story on their page and reading those of other people whose lives have been impacted by MS, I started thinking about the value of words. Ever since I was little, I’ve always loved working with them, stacking them end to end to make a beautiful sentence or poetic phrase. I love the way certain words sound (Go ahead and say “mellifluous” out loud and fail to enjoy it. I dare you.) And even after 30+ years of using them, I’m still amazed at the way they can morph from noun to adjective (novel), adjective to verb (stiff), verb to noun (grid).

But I didn’t come by this lifelong obsession naturally. Many of my family members are readers, some more voracious than others. But only a few are writers, and most of them are in my generation. I have a few letters and handwritten notes written from loved ones who have passed, each of which I treasure, but there are entire branches on my family tree that have died without leaving a single syllable behind.

I have sermon notes and a short letter from my great uncle James.

james_letter

 

james_sermonnotes_tight

 

james_sermonnotes_wide

A letter from my paternal grandmother, Betty Lou Hill, given to me just weeks before she died.

betty_letter

I even have a postcard and a book inscription from Myrl Rhine Mueller, a lady in my hometown who published a book about the history of Greene County. When I was in third grade, I lugged a boom box to her little house, which was down the street from my grandparents’ and conducted an interview with her for a history project.

muller_book

 

But there are no diaries, no journals, and no handwritten notes in the margins of beloved books.

It’s an absence I’m feeling more acutely these days as members on both sides of my family pass away. I can no longer ask Papaw, my maternal grandfather, his thoughts on a current event or hear about the things he had a passion for. He loved to sing. I know that for certain, but I don’t know how singing made him feel or why he enjoyed it so much.

He played a small role in the Civil Rights movement too, but no matter how many questions I ask or how deeply I dig, I’ll never know the entire story.

In the early 1960s, he was the assistant manager of an S.H. Kress & Co. in Memphis, Tennessee. For many weeks in the late summer and early fall, young black students would stage sit-ins at the Curly-Q Luncheonette inside the store. He was given strict orders that if one happened on his watch, he should immediately stop service and turn off the lights. Some time after this, the protesters would get up and leave. It was always peaceful, always respectful, but every time Papaw flipped those lights, he felt pitiful. He was a boy from rural Arkansas—a farmer’s son, dirt poor in every sense of the word—and some of his closest friends were black. He believed in their cause, but because he had a wife and two young daughters at home, he had to toe the company line and keep the job. But he did the one thing he could do: he apologized to each of them as they walked out.

It’s not a big story of great sacrifice or drama, but it’s his. That makes it mine too in some small way, and I love it, despite the fact it’s secondhand and shaggy around the edges.

Our two kids, who we are adopting from the foster care system, already have a lot of holes in their stories. Several members of their birth families were also adopted or given up for adoption, so there’s no way of knowing exactly where they came from, who they favor in looks and temperament, who their “people” are. There’s nothing I can do about that, but I do want to leave them a legacy, a heritage of sorts.

There will be notes in my favorite books, so they’ll know why I loved them. There will be journals, short stories, poems, essays, and articles. I want to leave behind an ocean of words for them to swim in—to find me and perhaps, in some small way, to find themselves.

Our Level Best

It’s always a treat when I get to write about my family for the magazine. I’ve been honored to tell stories about a great date, memories, and even my testimony in previous issues. And in July/August, it’s all about my husband and his penchant for perfectly straight pictures.
It goes a little something like this….
Image courtesy of blog.forever.com.
Image courtesy of blog.forever.com

When my husband and I married 16 years ago, we came from very different backgrounds. He’d spent most of his life in the same home, his surroundings largely unchanged. I, on the other hand, am the daughter of a retail manager and—like the children of military men—was used to putting my things in a box every two years. Moving on so my father could move up.

By the 12th new address, my family could strip a house, pack a truck, and do a final clean and patch job in under 10 hours. We were never sure if this was something we should be proud of or sorry for. And when we got to the rented house in the next town, we’d unload in much the same way—placing furniture and slapping pictures on walls at a pace that would make a NASCAR pit crew jealous.

But just because the work was done quickly didn’t mean it was done well….

Check out the rest here!