Raising Super Men In the Age of Wonder Woman

Like millions of other fans, I happily plunked down $13 to launch Wonder Woman into blockbuster status on its opening weekend. In fact, I was so excited that I purchased dress-up kits for my gal pal, Amy, and me. Yes, as 40-somethings, we attended a film resplendent in plastic tiaras and gauntlets. Come at us, bro.

But what do to with the things after the movie? They’re not display worthy, and while I felt fun and totally awesome in them at the theater, I don’t think I could wear them to jaunt about town. But I do have two kids, a daring duo of boys who love any and everything to do with superheroes. One has a DC themed bedroom and can’t get enough of The Flash or Superman. The other is surrounded by all things Marvel and loves Captain America and Spiderman. We have figures. Costumes. Web shooters. Shields that shoot projectiles. Marvel Tsum Tsums. Superhero pillows and Legos. The list goes on and on, and as a mother who loves all things comics, I am thrilled to be able to share all my nerdy knowledge with the kiddos.

When we got home from the theater, I asked the kids if they wanted the gauntlets, tiara, and Wonder Woman badge, fully expecting them to say, “No thanks. That’s girl stuff.” But get this…they fought over it!

“The crown shoots a laser!” my youngest shrieked.

“I bet these things can stop Thor’s hammer,” the oldest said, clumsily buckling them on his skinny wrists. They have plans to share the WW logo, wearing it on their capes.

It warmed me down to the cockles of my cold, stone libertarian heart to see this. They don’t see Wonder Woman as a “female super hero” on a team, but as “a superhero” like the male ones they so admire. Like their daddy (who was as excited to see the movie as I), they see women as strong, beautiful, fierce, independent—different than males certainly, but equal to them in every way. And this has come with very little coaching on our part.

Over the two years we’ve had them in our home, there’s been a discussion every time someone used the phrase, “You hit/run/swing/pitch/play/act like a girl!” in a derogatory way, and the incidences are now down to near zilch. They’ve learned to hold the doors open for ladies and to end their addresses to women with the words “ma’am” or “miss.” My husband has certainly led the charge. As the head of our household and alpha male extraordinaire, he bears most of the responsibility for “training them up in the way they should go.” It’s been wonderful to see him explaining how powerful the Scarlet Witch is or pointing out how Princess Allura is just as integral to the success of Voltron: Legendary Defender as Pidge, Hunk, Lance, Keith, or Takashi. (Spoiler Alert: Pidge is a girl in this version, too, which is a nice bonus!)

He also makes sure to point out the women in the Bible. Sure, we talk about David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale, the skeletons in the Valley of Dry Bones—all the kinds of things boys love—but they also know the stories of Rahab, Shiphrah and Puah, Deborah, Esther, and Mary. They’re aware of the valuable contributions these ladies have made to the kingdom, how God uses women as well as men to accomplish his purposes on this earth. And I can’t help but think that this equal “screen time” is helping frame their worldview the right way. We hope it will help them become wise men of valor who esteem and honor their future wives and all the other women they come into contact with. 

The ship of progress turns by slight degrees, and hopefully by the time our two little nuggets are out there in the world, they won’t be happily shocked to see a movie directed by a woman with a female in the lead role. It’ll be a matter of course.
We can’t let them see the movie just yet as they’re still a bit too wee for it, but in another year or two, we’ll show them all the stories we love. And I firmly believe they’ll be as stoked to watch Wonder Woman in action as I was.

 

 

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At the Root

It’s easy to get spoiled when you live in a city with a great museum, which is precisely what I have with the High Museum here in Atlanta, Georgia. The latest special exhibition, which closed May 7th, was Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950. Comprised of 200 works, the exhibit was broad in scope and filled with artists both well-known (Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Grandma Moses, N.C. and Andrew Wyeth) and obscure.

Organized by region, the artworks depict the South, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, Midwest, and West from 1915 to 1950—a period spanning Prohibition, the Great Depression, and industrialization. The pieces share a common theme, though, according to Stephanie Heydt, the High’s American art curator: “All of this work is about memory and the history of a place as experienced across time.”

That’s the thing that struck me as I toured this exhibit–the feeling that I was seeing “memory and history of a place across time.” Each of the five sections of the exhibit were painted a different color and arranged to tell the story of the region, so it was clear when you moved from one to the next.

I toured the entire display once, beginning with the South and ending with the West, taking my time and using the audio tour to learn more about certain artists and their works, and then went back to the pieces that spoke the loudest. As I walked, I noticed myself growing more and more removed from the work—not because the pieces weren’t lovely or challenging, but because there was no personal connection for me. The art from the American West was like looking at the surface of Mars.

In “The Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost says that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” But I think the opposite is true as well. Home is the place you have to take into you. It’s unavoidable. In the place you call home, the cadence and vocabulary of the people who live there find their way into your mouth. The food they make fills your belly and satiates your spirit. The music they create is the soundtrack of your life, and their traditions mark the rhythms of your days as surely as solstices and cold snaps.

I’m a product of the South (with a dash of Midwest thrown in for good measure). To me, home is fields of cotton and tobacco. Homemade biscuits. Revivals in white clapboard churches. Country stores. Friday night football games. Poke cake. Johnny Cash. Sun tea in Mason jars and backyard gardens filled with tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes.

 

“Tobacco Sorters” by Thomas Hart Benton (1942/44)
I think that’s why “Tobacco Sorters” by Thomas Hart Benton struck me. I only helped harvest tobacco a few times, but brother was it enough. That is disgusting, hard, hot labor. You can tell just how hard it is from the man’s face. Look how the wrinkles and creases in his skin mirror the leaf in his hand. Even his hat and shirt look crumpled and tired. The little girl on the right is still fresh, but she’s new to the trade.

Other workers are working in the background at the drying shed, and I can imagine they are somewhere between these two on the spectrum. These are people I know and have spent time with. Decent, hardworking folks who are trying to scratch a living out of the earth, some years with better results than others.

“Farmers” by Ben Shahn (1943)

The same is true of the men in “Farmers” by Ben Shahn. In this piece, they’re at an auction, buying equipment from a farmer who’d gone bust. They’re looking for a good deal, knowing all the while that, with just one bad harvest, they could be next.

“Hoeing Tobacco” by Robert Gwathmey (1946)

But working land is hardly a “privilege” reserved only for poor, hardscrabble whites. Pieces like “Hoeing Tobacco” by Robert Gwathmey make it clear that black hands planted, tended, and harvested tobacco too.

“The Building of Savery Library” by Hale Woodruff (1942)

And then there are moments when you see blacks and whites working side by side to create something grand like a university library like they are in Hale Woodruff’s beautiful mural, its colors so bright they draw you across the gallery to get a better look. There’s hope here. Beauty. Progress.

But like any exhibit worth its salt, Cross Country contained pieces that shock people out of their complacency, ones that made patrons face something unpleasant or come to terms with something they’d rather not. In moments like these, Lucille Clifton says it best: “it is friday. we have come / to the paying of the bills.”

“Man With Brush” by Frederick C. Flemister (1940)

Frederick C. Flemister
 provided that moment for me. He was born in Georgia and went to school in Atlanta. He called the South home too, but this is what his South looked like.
“The Mourners” by Frederick C. Flemister (n.d.)

All those lovely Southern things I mentioned earlier? I bet he experienced and loved them too, but Flemister also had to deal with violence, racism, and lynchings like the one depicted in his work.

Though it’s done in a style reminiscent of Renaissance paintings of the Pietà, there’s no mistaking what’s happened. A man has been murdered and, like Christ, lies draped across his mother’s lap. The perpetrator is riding away in the background. The noose, though cut, looks sharp as a blade. The deed is done, and all that’s left is for the mourners to cry to heaven while a blood red scarf billows in the wind. The scene is beautifully rendered, but that doesn’t soften the blow. On the contrary, it highlights how hideous the moment truly is.

As much as it pains me to admit it, this is also part of the place I call home. Like the child in the painting, I want to run away, to turn my head, to pretend it didn’t happen. But there’s no denying it. I’ve been to the place where Mary Turner died. I currently live thirty minutes away from Forsyth County, which remained “White Only” through brute force for most of the 20th century. (Read Blood at the Root by Patrick Phillips if you’d like to know the entire story. It’s gut wrenching.)

Yes, home is a place you take in, but you have to take all of it.

I may never have lifted my hand in violence or knowingly ostracized someone, but oh, so many have…and done so willingly. “The Mourners” depicts something at the root of my South, planted long before my little branch ever came to full flower. But that doesn’t change the fact that it must be recognized, rectified, and resisted from now on if we’re ever to scour such atrocities from this good earth. Removing a monument of Jefferson Davis won’t do that. Facing the truth, however hard it may be, and calling it by its right name? That just might.

Blue On Red: The Women of “The Handmaid’s Tale”

“Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” — Matthew 20:22 (KJV)

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We’re now four episodes into Hulu’s marvelous adaptation The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, and the show is hitting me hard in ways both expected and surprising. For instance, I had no doubt that systematic, institutionally-endorsed rape would be disturbing on a whole host of levels, but I’m actually seeing the sinister aspects of Scrabble, macaroons, and Latin primers.

There is much to explore in this show, but one thing I’ve found particularly compelling is the interplay between two groups of “legitimate” women in Gilead’s hierarchy: the Wives and the Handmaids. The Wives are taking quite a bit of heat from viewers (and rightly so). One author calls them the true “gender traitors”; another says they are “cruelly complacent.” And it is impossible to deny either of those descriptions when several of the scenes involve Serena Joy clutching cruelly onto Offred’s wrists during “the ceremony.”

Breathe. Hold. Push.
But the scene that throws this relationship into sharpest relief happens in episode two, “Birth Day.” I’ll give you a brief run down. In one room of a palatial estate, the Wives sit around Naomi, the Wife of Ofwarren’s Commander. She is in labor, but hers is of the faux variety.

Dressed in an elegant white nightgown, she reclines against a nest of pristine pillows on ivory carpet, sunshine streaming through the windows. A harp plays soothing music in the background. The Wives, in their standard blue attire, encourage her through her false pains—the only experience of childbirth she can ever have since she is sterile—all the while drinking tea from prim china cups, feasting on nibbles, and quietly repeating the word “breathe.”

The rhythmic chanting is also going on upstairs, but the words “hold” and “exhale” are added to the mix. Here, the handmaid Ofwarren (A.K.A. Janine), assisted by several of the dismal brown Aunts and a passel of red-clad Handmaids, is doing the real teeth-gritting work of birth—complete with the screaming, panting, and valor it requires.

Offred, via voiceover, sums it up perfectly: “There’s a smell coming from that room, something primal. It’s the smell of dens, of inhabited caves. It’s the smell of the plaid blanket on the bed where the cat gave birth before she was spayed. It’s the smell of genesis.”

Despite the vast number of people in the room, we recognize the moment for what it is. And that makes it one of the most “normal” scenes in the show…until, well, things get very weird and very Gileadean again.

When the time comes to push, the Wife is brought in to experience the moment of birth. She sits behind Ofwarren in a birthing chair—an echo of the ceremony that made this baby possible in the first place—and mimes the moment until the child is born. There’s an instant of respectful silence until Aunt Lydia pronounces the baby to be a healthy girl.

All the women celebrate, and for a fleeting second, there’s harmony. Then the cord is cut and the girl is wrapped up in a clean blanket, but rather than be handed back to the woman who carried her and brought her into the world, she is given to Naomi who has settled into her “rightful place”—the bed Ofwarren previously occupied. As far as the Wives and Aunts are concerned, Naomi has always been there. The birth mother doesn’t exist.

As they coo and carry on over the little miracle, the Handmaids are left to look on from a distance and care for Ofwarren who sobs into her hands. In a moment of solidarity (that also bears a striking resemblance to another, less lovely group scene in the first episode), they wrap arms around the poor woman to comfort her.

It’s very easy to hate the Wives here. After all, they’ve done none of the sweating, bleeding, or suffering. They’ve sacrificed nothing for this moment—only swooped in to capture the prize that makes it all worth it. Yes, they are part of the evil system that made this all possible. Yes, they are cruel and capricious and oppressive. Yes, they are preying on those weaker than they. But—and hear me out here—they are victims too in a way. Like the Handmaids, they endure the ceremony designed by men. They live within the tight confines of the caste system. They feel fear, loss, and shame.

In the hierarchy, they have greater power. Yet when it comes to childbirth—the great pinnacle of achievement for women in this dictatorship—they are powerless. They can do nothing to make themselves (or their husbands) fertile. For that reason and others, theirs is a hollow existence, and all they can do is watch and yearn and covet. Say what you will, but that’s a lousy place to be.

What’s Yours Is Mine
Unlike the women of Gilead, I never needed to give birth. I likely never will. I am, however, a mother of two young boys my husband and I adopted from the foster care system. I didn’t go through the months of pain and suffering it took to bring them into being. The State gave them to me.

It must be acknowledged that my sons’ birth mother made poor choices. She didn’t see to their welfare and, at times, even put them in danger. Despite multiple opportunities to change, she did not. She has yet to do so. And yet…

Once the adoption was finalized, we applied for updated birth certificates, ones that show their new names. When they arrived, our lawyer advised me to check over everything and make sure all the spellings were correct and the dates accurate. That’s when I saw something that left me dumbfounded. In the section labeled “mother,” my name was written. My birthdate. My address at the time of the delivery. My state of birth.

All evidence of their biological mother is gone.

Her name and information is buried in court records and electronic details, but as far as this piece of legally binding paperwork is concerned, she’s a ghost.

At each stage of the adoption process, I never lost sight of her. I always reminded myself that my good days—ones where the legal system did its job and brought the kids one step closer to being ours forever—were likely her worst.

I didn’t “steal” her children as Naomi and the Wives did, but some tiny part of me understands their joy. I have children to love and care for, to raise and celebrate. Their base hits in little league are mine. Their science fair wins and good report cards. I’m the one they run to now saying “Mama!” with their little arms outstretched. And while I relish every moment of it, a piece of me knows it came with a price.

So no, I can’t fully hate the Wives though they are petty, heartless creatures. In some ways, I even pity them. Their children and mine became ours as a result of a broken world, one filled with hate, heartache, and sin. But thankfully, a better day is coming—not in the form of a bloody coup, but in the One, the pioneer of our salvation who drank the cup of suffering and died to bring many adopted sons and daughters to glory.

 

 

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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.”

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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.