Measuring Sticks (Suffering is not a Competition)

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I don’t really like church. I wake up on Sunday mornings and try to talk myself out of going. While I  dilly-dally over breakfast, playing online Scrabble, I tell myself there are other, more productive things I could do,

No one else in my family goes. (I once believed I was destined to be a quiver-full wife, and now, ironically, I am, mostly, alone on the pew.) So it is tempting to stay home and pet cats and drink Dr. Pepper.

But lately, I go, and for the stupidest of reasons. A friend, a handsome, mildly-womanizing good old boy, attends his own church weekly. And once when I teased him about going on Sundays, probably hungover, he said simply, “You always learn something.”

Point taken.


This morning, my first thought upon waking was a PMS-fueled, yet pragmatic, “What is Screenshot_20170917-143848even the point?” But twenty minutes before church was to begin, I mustered the energy to dress, putting on my twenty-five-pounds-ago pants that were, in my favorite aunt’s polite terms, “unflattering” even when they fit. I didn’t brush my teeth.

My husband wandered in the bathroom and asked mildly, “You going? The last thing I heard was you asking the cat if you should go . . . She must have said yes.”

 


The door greeters were, thankfully, non-handshaky, and I made it through the narthex without a hug. The lady behind me had a cough, and I didn’t really like the songs, but I was singing. My mind was everywhere–no one I know is at their personal mental best right now after Hurricane Irma–and I was really wrestling to focus on the lyrics, to leave my hectic week behind me, to feel churchy instead of blah.

The chorus leader began “When You Walk Into the Room,” a song that I like enough that I wouldn’t skip it on Pandora. As we congregants sang, “When you walk into the room/The dead begin to rise/Cause there is resurrection life/In all You do,” from across the sanctuary, there came a joyous shout.

Tina Goble, a mother who, having lost her five-year-old daughter to DIPG brain cancer, fully gets the promise of the resurrection,  rejoiced, shouting praise to our God who sustains.

I looked over and thought, “She is so together. She lost her daughter, yet can worship so freely.”

And, immediately, in my spirit, I heard, “Give yourself some credit. You lost your granddaughter, and you are here.”

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Once again, I was getting out my measuring sticks in church. Thinking: she is better than me. She is more patient, more genuinely kind. Why, she is even able, somehow, to sincerely smile–even with her eyes.

When I see Tina, my reaction is always immediately positive. I give her gold stars for being in public, having makeup on, and being so peppy.  My instinct is adulation.

When I see myself in the mirror now, most days, I’m just surprised–who knew that skin could be that gray or hair could be that stringy? I’m full of judgment and disdain for myself. My instinct is condemnation.

That’s what placeholder Christianity does–it puts Tina here and me there. She’s nearer Jesus because she can smile and curl her hair and raise her hands, and I am much farther from Christ because I am here with unbrushed teeth, I looked at Facebook on my phone during the sermon, and then took my shoe off and gave myself a mini foot massage–in church!!!

And my mind gets full, so full, of all the things that I am not. There are so many things that I am not. Then, the pain at all my lack comes in, followed by the envy of others who are doing life better–who are successfully navigating over and around and through their waves, while I am going under again.

And it is so stupid.

Tina and I both faced certain horror. We both held children who were given death sentences, children who were bombarded with cannots and willnots, and who needed accompanying past them. Precious little girls who needed love on the journey to death, and we gave them that.

Christ allowed us to give them that. 

Now, we both have days where we are empty and aching. Days where the smile of another child isn’t enough. Days where we remember the heartbreaks we witnessed. Days where we touch our lost children’s clothes and blankets–and we want so desperately to kiss our girls’ sweet foreheads again.

That I would take out a measuring stick and want to compare my horror with hers, my coping with hers, my current smile and hairdo with hers–and that I would even SEE or THINK about these stupid, superficial things–having seen all that I have, having endured so much, shows desperately the need we have a revelation of Grace, true Grace.

Our God is not a God of checklists and balanced scales. He does not keep track of which of us was kinder to the greeters. He does not care whose breath is fresher. He does not ever notice our hairstyles.

For God’s Word tells us that He does not look upon our outward appearance, but that He looks upon our hearts, and he sees them Whole. And so, when He saw the two of us talking at lunch, He probably chuckled and said to Jesus, “Look, there’s Rachel–she’s telling Tina that she forgot, for a second, the most important thing . . .

When I look at them, I only see You.”

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Cancer Survivors, Please Take Note:

You are allowed to want:

A clean table.

Fresh sheets.

A few things

(modest household items)

from Pier One

On sale. With coupon.

 

(You are also allowed,

in a lifetime,

One stainless steel trashcan

and two Lowes clearance appliances.)

 

You can want, desperately,

your aunt’s second-hand sofa

with its tufted pillows.

And Lindt Christmas peppermint truffles

at the after-New-Years Walgreens price.

 

Permission granted! Dance with true joy

when your brother gives you

a seventeen-year-old fishing truck

(your only vehicle with A/C).

 

(Even now, there are tears: you possess A/C.)

 

Don’t dare want

the smiling husband at the amphitheater concert.

Forget the gurgling grandchild, alive in your arms.

(We understood your wanting her last year,

but, really?, this year, too?)

 

Accept your fate. Shut up. Sit down.

 

Even after sixteen years–

character building via financial destruction,

$208,000 in medical bills,

a new Nissan’s worth of eyedrops.

 

You cannot desire relief.

 

It is not his fault. Not your fault.

You can’t blame anyone.

 

Stop all that tacky wanting.

 

Like what you have.

Take what you get.

 

And just shut up about the car.

 

There’s no driving away from this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When Your Lousy Mother’s Day Can’t Compete

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My friend Ashley Garrett likes to use Facebook to promote conversations. Last year, she asked, “What’s a good surprise for someone on Mother’s Day?” She got a lot of good answers, including the predictable (spa day, manicure, day of peace) and the interesting (bourbon, everything on my Amazon wish list). One that caught my eye was very simple: “A husband who doesn’t say, “You’re not my mother.””

I had to chuckle at that because I have that version. The stoic, who can look me in the face and say, with all the sincere logic in the world, “You’re not my mom.”

The thought process goes, I believe, something like this: You did not give birth to me. You did not adopt me. You, therefore, are not MY mother. This is Mother’s Day. You are our children’s mother. They made you a card at daycare/school/church. It’s really cute. You should be happy because, after all, you are THEIR mother. And, besides, the card is sweet and heartfelt.

Society, though, has turned Mother’s Day–like everything else–into a competitive sport. The mom who gets breakfast in bed, a card, and flowers feels pretty good until she sees on social media that her BFF got breakfast, a card, flowers, and a Michaels gift card. But then that Mother’s Day winner is upended by the wife who got the Pandora bracelet with a charm for each of her golden-haired offspring and ate her eggs Benedict–with real Hollandaise sauce–poolside.

The temptation is to see the not.

If a mom is just holding a construction paper card, her husband did not take the children shopping.

If a mother doesn’t eat breakfast in bed, her husband is not trying–or her older children do not care.

If there are no flowers, then her husband does not love her because they sell flowers at every grocery store in town for only $7.00.

And the woman who sees these nots feels like a Mother’s Day loser in a land of Pandora-Hollandaise winners.

I know because I used to be one, and on those Mother’s Days where I got nothing–not even a construction paper card, I ranted. I railed. I felt angry, devalued, unloved and unrecognized. My husband and my girls could listen to me rage because they didn’t get it.

But my husband and girls were totally unaware that Mother’s Day was a competition.

They weren’t shopping three times a week in a rose-filled Walmart or reading the circulars proclaiming, “All Perfume 25% Off For Mom!”

I was the one who bought the groceries. Who checked the mail. Who read the women’s magazines and got the targeted emails. I was the one who was fully aware that Mother’s Day was coming.

It wasn’t a vendetta. (The children were, as my younger daughter so aptly puts it, “Barely self-aware.”)

Less honored never meant–and never means–less loved.

When I was a young wife and mother, I didn’t know this. Mother’s Day was a day of weighing and measuring, of waiting for the scales to balance. I didn’t see it for what it was: one Sunday in May.

Think about it–Mother’s Days are a collective emotional motherlode, but they are less than 1% of a woman’s life.  The average woman will live 4,025 Sundays–Sundays on which her husband will maybe make a Hardee’s run or whip up some pancakes. On some of those Sundays, there will be family picnics and spontaneous roadtrips and lingering dinners.

There will be beautiful Sundays. Lousy Sundays. Lots and lots and lots of Sundays.

Don’t judge your family–or your worth–by this one.

 

 

 

 

I’d Like to Thank my Teacher

17858438_10211453422783959_961153226_oI live in small-town South Georgia, where we have to drive long distances to see quality movies. In the 1980s, my childhood friend Laura’s cultured mother drove her daughters to Jacksonville, Florida, monthly, where they would watch three movies in succession, then report back to us.

Though lacking Laura’s background, I have always watched the Oscars. I like the glamour, the genuine emotion, the chance to see another, far-away world.

When the joyous winners leap up the steps, I inevitably weep, thinking of their teachers.  The men and women who tried to corral their energetic charges while simultaneously leaving their spirits intact; who, remembering daily what it was like to be young, gave guidance with dignity and compassion; who bought snacks when these now-tuxedo-clad adults were hungry youngsters; who encouraged and cajoled during quick hallway conferences, saying things like, “Really, Casey, you have amazing talent. No, I’m not just saying that to be nice.”

I think of these teachers, who have sown much and are too often forgotten. I imagine them, in the weeks before the Oscars, sitting at the beauty parlor saying things like, “Oh, you know, Emma Stone was in my English class. Sweet, sweet girl.” I picture them putting their charges’ names on Sunday School prayer lists; carefully cutting out Oscar newspaper articles; telling their current students, “Viggo hated history, too, but he studied and did well, and Sunday night, 40 million people are going to watch him on TV.”

I picture these teachers in their frayed recliners and modest homes, DVRs carefully set, their forewarned children and spouses giving them a wide berth because Mom is watching one of her favorite all-time kids. 

I can hear the screams when their favorite’s name is called. I see them dancing, arms in the air, yelling, “He did it! He did it!” and cackling with delight.

For a moment, these exultant educators forget the sorrows that come with teaching, all of the lack and sacrifice. For this moment, they are rich. They have done it. They have changed a life, pushed one child past the most awesome of finish lines.

Tonight, when Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor, as the camera rose high behind him and the clapping throng rose to their feet, Mr. Ali stood tall and confident at centerstage. I felt tears forming. His teachers, seeing this.

And then, Mr. Ali spoke. In the first speech of Hollywood’s most important night, the first people he thanked were teachers. “I want to thank my teachers, my professors . . .I had so many wonderful teachers. Zelda Fichandler, Ron Van Lieu, Ken Washington.”

He spoke their names. He felt their weight. In his acknowledgement of those who unknowingly readied him for a long-distant February night, Mr. Ali reminded us all to remember that we do not reach our goals alone.

As he stood onstage, one man speaking directly to millions, Mr. Ali recalled the men and women who helped him find his voice.

He thanked them first; he thanked them clearly.

It was, perhaps, surprising: teachers are not friends. Not family. But sometimes, they are the first to see the spark–to train pupils how to heft it, to convince them that they are worthy to carry it.

And so, while the world sees only the now-tuxedoed glory, fully ablaze, it is fitting to shout the names of those who remember those long-past days–

The days before the fire.

 

 

 

 

I’m a Teacher, and I Don’t Want to Die With Your Child in a Tornado

Dave Sanders was the first teacher to haunt me. I would wager that, although you have forgotten him, many teachers could instantly tell you, “He died in Columbine. His students held up his pictures of his family members as he bled out on the floor.”

liviuLiviu Librescu’s name cannot be spoken with enough reverence: a Holocaust survivor, this professor chose to hold his Virginia Tech classroom’s door shut so his students could escape the raging gunman on the other side. Librescu died.

27 year-old Sandy Hook teacher Victoria Soto hid her small students in a cabinet and then faced down gunman Adam Lanza, telling him her kids were in the gym. Her students lived; their teacher died.

Third-grade teacher Jennifer Doan was pregnant when she heroically shielded her students with her body in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Seven of her twenty kids died. 35%. Gone.

I can tell you about these teachers–and others like them–because I, too, am a teacher. Like bankers, who keep up with new federal regulations, and chefs, who learn about the latest food trends, teachers are constantly educated, too. We don’t wile away our days making cutsey bulletin boards and singing songs about friendship: we do real work.

And a large part of that work is making sure your children are safe. And so we continually think about what we would be willing to sacrifice for your child.

Before Liviu Librescu’s death in 2007, very few American classrooms could be locked from the inside. Teachers, during lockdowns, had to go out into the hall and lock their classroom doors. Most of us who taught before 2007 did this–grabbed our keys at the principal’s urgent voice, dashed into the hall as quickly as possible, hurriedly locked our doors, and ducked back in, saying grateful prayers that we were okay, having done our required duties–and kept your children safe.

My husband, also a teacher, was pulled from his classroom several years ago and told, “There’s been a bomb threat . . . look around for bombs.” Your children? Safe.

At the same school, he was also told that, if there was a fire, he was to “go deep into the building to see if any children were left inside.” As a teacher–not a firefighter–he was expected to display this level of de facto heroism. To keep your children safe.

llI have hidden my autistic elementary school students in a bathroom while an angry man with a weapon roamed the campus. I have had a rib broken and rotator cuff torn by a student. I have been threatened by an angry, belt-wielding parent as I stepped between her and her child. I have dashed out of a prom carrying burning decorations. I have been brave for your kids.

Right now, though, I’m not being brave. I’m at home eating pimento cheese on Ritz crackers in my blue polka-dotted pajamas. School was called off early today because there was a chance of tornadic activity. So far, a drop of rain has not fallen, and our school system was ridiculed by a meteorologist on TV in the next major town.

That meteorologist has never been in a classroom. Taught 115 kids for 180 days. Pinned their Homecoming boutonnieres on; visited them in hospital rooms after football injuries and car wrecks; held their hands in funeral homes after their relatives died; videotaped their Promposals, having first been complicit in the hiding of the teddy bears and the Snickers bars. That weatherman has never been knee-deep in children.

I have been. I am.

For those of you who have not been, imagine this: you are single, but have a large brick home, and you are hosting a spend the night party for your son, Johnny. He has invited thirty friends, and they all said yes. Everyone is coming. You have assembled a bouncy-house, pre-ordered the pizza, and iced the homemade Power Rangers cake. You’ve rented a party bus to transport them to Chucky Cheese for a night of fun. Imagine, then, just fifteen hours before, you hear that a squall line with 60 MPH winds, large hail, thunderstorms, and perhaps tornadoes too, is likely headed your way.

Your next move, of course, is to cancel the party.

It’s a no brainer. If parents insisted on sending their kids before the storm hit, you would lock the doors and hide. You would not let those kids in your house because they might get hurt. You would cancel the bus and forfeit the deposit because who wants to be on a bus with children in a tornado??? Who would chance that? Who would make that gamble?

As a party host, you would assess the risk–you would think about your liability; you would consider how many things could go wrong. You would choose the wiser path.

Sure, a wind shift could result in you eating hypothetical cake alone under a sunny sky while people Facebooked about how foolish you were. However, the alternative hypothetical, with your son surrounded by seven of his best friends’ bodies and people still Facebooking about your idiocy–well, that’s too much to bear.

So, know this: of all the heroic teachers listed above–Sanders, Librescu, Soto, and Doan–only Doan could have possibly been spared her trauma. Her school system likely had two hours’ notice before the EF5 tornado flattened Plaza Towers Elementary.  They stayed.

I’m grateful I didn’t have to stay at work today in potentially dangerous conditions. Because I already knew about the pregnant teacher who tried to keep her students safe during a tornado.

Who broke her back and sternum.

Who lost seven students.

Who holds a baby in her arms who is named for the student who died–whom she felt die–beneath her palm as they lay together, crushed in the rubble.

Most teachers, like me, already knew about her. Now, you do.

Please, tell me again about how this weather day hurt you.

213 Days: Waiting on a Faithful God

I am a rambly high school English teacher. Like my own high school teachers, I talk frankly about life’s joys and losses. I talk about hindsight and heartbreak. I preach constantly about choices. My students know the things I have survived. I tell them that it may someday be helpful to think, “Well, if Mrs. G survived that, I can, too.”
A few days ago, a successful, happily-married former student messaged me out of the blue. She  said, “If you ever need an anonymous guest post on your blog . . .It’s been a while since I’ve written anything, but I felt the need today . . . it goes along with the feel of your blog and what all your readers have seen . . . I’ve thought of you often while going through this.”
I was heartbroken by the honest words below. Read on for a reminder of a young mother’s heart–and then, in Paul Harvey fashion, read the rest of the story, and marvel at our ever-faithful God, who uses sorrow to transform. Who gives hope. Who reminds. 
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March 9:  The day, my baby should have been born, I thought I was over it.
After all, I have had 213 days to get over it,” but Im not.
30 weeks and 3 days ago I had to have what should have been my baby removed from my body.
Just a week prior, I had been told, “We cant find a fetus. Maybe youre not as far along as you thought.” I knew how far along I was; I knew exactly when I got pregnant eight weeks before because we had been trying for a few months already.
I will always remember that day.
I had started bleeding just a few days before my first appointment, so I was already worried that something was not right. After the nurse confirmed that my test was positive, we talked about what was to come over the next several months. I was handed packets of information on the hospital, medicines to take and not to take, what to expect at each appointment, etc.
We then went into the ultrasound room where the bubbly ultrasound technician let her trainee perform the sonogram. I was quickly reassured that my bleed was nothing to worry about–it was just a subchorionic hemorrhage that would need to be monitored. I was put on pelvic rest for two weeks. She then kept looking and looking, with an expressionless face.
Then the more experienced ultrasound tech took over. She also looked and looked, nothing. While my husband firmly held my hand through their silence, I never once looked at the monitor.
Theres a sac, but no fetus or heartbeat. Well give it a week to see if anything changes,they  finally told me.
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Im not a crier, but that day I cried and cried the entire long ride home. For more than an hour, I sobbed.
We hadn’t told our families that I was pregnant, so I put on a brave face and went to work, visited with family, went to family celebrations and to church, pretending everything was okay. It wasnt.
I spent hours on my phone, googling stories of other women who had positive outcomes to my same situation. There were some, but it still didnt help. I stayed on forums, talking with other women who had been in my shoes. I cried whenever I was alone.
It was the longest week of my life.

On my husband’s birthday, we returned to the doctor’s office. We went into the same ultrasound room. This time, the nurse and tech were not as chipper. More looking, nothing. Without much being said, I was escorted into another room where I waited on the doctor.
I knew.
She came in and advised me I had what is called a blighted ovum. For some reason, my body did not let this fetus form inside the present sac.
She told me I could “let my body take care of it itself” or have a dilation and curettage. Maybe Im weak because I was just ready for it to be over, but I was.
We had to call our parents and tell them simultaneously that I was pregnant and that I wouldnt be having a baby.
Early the next morning my mom, my husband and myself headed to the hospital for my outpatient D&C. Spontaneous abortion is the medical term for a miscarriage; I wasnt having an abortion. I didnt CHOOSE this. I wanted my baby. I had prayed for my baby. I had cried for my baby.
In just a couple of hours, I wasnt pregnant anymore. I was on my way home, cramping, nauseous, drowsy, emotionally numb. And not pregnant.
Over the next few weeks I experienced the same decrease in hormones I would have if I had delivered a beautiful baby. My hair started breaking; I cried for no reason; I had hot flashes; I bled.
But I didnt have a baby, and I wasnt pregnant anymore.

 

17349546_10211224690345791_877001159_oThree months: thats how long I was told to wait before tryingagain. I didnt listen; I wanted to get pregnant right away. I wanted a baby.

Every other day there was a new Facebook announcement from parents-to-be or a video of baby moving around in his mommys belly. I hated these people. I was bitter, believing that they didnt deserve to have the happiness of pregnancy if I couldnt.

I wanted to have morning sickness; I wanted to feel my baby move inside of me; I wanted to be decorating my babys nursery.

Month after month, test after test, still no positive.

And I messaged the author to call. She had to call. It had to be heard, not written–she had to hear the tears and the laughter–the mourning turned to joy–for herself
Because when I looked at the picture of my blighted ovum, the date I read was November 30, 1995. 
My only birthchild’s birthday?  November 30, 1999. 
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We Love Your Lost Dog

16990185_10211053146977314_425826418_o2/23/2017 This morning, when you woke up, maybe you rolled over and tearily told your partner: “Today is the day. It’s been a year. She’s been gone a year–can you believe it???

Maybe you looked at her pictures on your refrigerator; spoke words of half-hearted comfort to your eight-year-old, who stubbornly refuses to give up hope that she will come home; mindlessly patted your “replacement” dog who will not ever replace her.

Perhaps you imagined her long dead on a lonely highway. Lost in woods, hungry and afraid. Stolen: a bait dog or a laboratory tester. Horrors all.

I should tell you, then, that she’s safely ensconced on our sofa. On her  favorite pillow. Today, we’ve celebrated: she had her fill of Milkbones, went to the pet store for an anniversary toy, her head hanging  happily out of the van window all the way there.

17035999_10211053146817310_614326617_oOn the drive, she considered leaving us for the young guy in the blue Chevy at the red light; they eyed one another with shared understanding. We think that’s how you lost her: she jumped out of your car window on the highway, smack dab in the middle of No Man’s Land. Because this dog is definitely a runner, and as my daughter puts it, “She isn’t just running away. She is leaving you to start her new life.

She was found running down the four lane highway, dodging semis. Lynn M—, a dog-lover hustled your pup into her vehicle and a state trooper stopped to help her–because, as I am sure you know, your dog does things with panache.

Last February when we Lynn’s desperate “dogneedsahomeTODAY” Facebook post, we didn’t really want this pup. We were grieving our perfect pit bull, Ezra, the (second) best dog we’d ever owned. But we had space in our home, and Lynn was in the middle of a move, so we half-heartedly offered to foster.

We put ads on the Internet. We tried to find you. Your dog had no microchip; the vet said she was half Labrador retriever, half dachshund, immediately adding, “Don’t try to picture it.”

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When your dog was indifferent to our cats (whom Ezra always wanted to eat), we welcomed the change. That first day, your dog fell asleep on my lap, then cuddled next to my feet all night. She wasn’t pushy or demanding, nor was she cowering and timid. She was simply there, offering her companionship.

We could tell that she was someone’s beloved dog: she was housebroken; she sat on command; she refused to walk into a small room without hearty encouragement and instead stood expectantly, awaiting a release command that we did not know. When we got Ezra’s old crate from the garage, she entered it without complaint, and she still does so  a year later–you trained her so well.

17036146_10211053147617330_1364976929_oOur other dog and the four cats adapted to her, as did we. But we couldn’t name her. She had no defining characteristics. She wasn’t an Oreo, Shadow, or Midnight, either, and no girlie names fit. She was just a little dog. That was all.

And so we began simply calling her that, Little Dog. A homage to a favorite AFV video.

Her story is no Marley and Me. She hasn’t been funny or clever; other than escaping occasionally to romp through the neighborhood or visit the next-door Great Dane, there are no anecdotes, really, to share. All she has done is sit within arm’s length for a year–one of the worst years of our lives. 

My seventeen-year-old grumbled one night as she sat petting Little Dog, “We should’ve known we were in for it when we got this Party Favor From God.”

That’s what she’s been for us. A tiny gift. A silent solace. Your little dog.

I’m so sorry you miss her.

I’m so grateful she’s here.16935735_10211053146697307_249733088_o

Lady Gaga, Dakota Johnson, and Me: Thoughts on Brokenness

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From Lady Gaga’s Facebook Page

Last Sunday afternoon, before the Super Bowl, I was tempted to put as my Facebook status, “Remember, everyone, God loves you whether you watch the Super Bowl or go to church tonight. He still loves you the same.

Thirty years ago, on that Sunday night in January, you had the opportunity to prove your South Georgia holiness via your proximity to a TV set. If you were at church worshipping God, you were Holy. If you were at home watching the game with your family, you were In Sin. A church youth group Super Bowl party was a sort of middle ground: you were indulging your sin nature, but, hey, at least you prayed at some point–you probably scored some points.

This is what I was thinking about last week: how glad I am that I no longer believe in the Celestial Scorecard. And then I watched as Facebook filled up with posts from those who do.

I’m NOT watching the half time show.”

“No Lady Gaga for ME.”

“Well, I will be turning the channel at half time.”

I teach high school English, and I know about the understood subject you. (In “Put the plates away,” the speaker intends for you to do this.) These Facebook statuses had an understood unlike you.

Unlike you, I’m NOT watching the half time show.”

Unlike you, no Lady Gaga for ME.”

Unlike you 117.5 million sinners, I will be turning the channel at half time.”

Reading those statuses, I just felt so weary. The past year has left me crushed in ways that adjectives and adverbs could never capture. But it has allowed me to see positional Christianity–“I am closer to God than you because I do x and you do y“–for the sham it is because I now fully know the nothing I am. God had the mercy to show me the wasteland, the nothing I hold. And once you know your own emptiness, you know how absurd it is to have ever claimed any knowledge of fullness at all.

You understand the meaning of the words a wretch like me. You know that it is wretched to say that you didn’t watch Lady Gaga because that implies the earning of worth and our worth is unearned, and our unworthiness is infinite.

The beauty of total collapse is the complete rest that is found in powerlessness. 

When you fully know that you can’t even lift your own head, when you have seen the black depths of your own soul, you can’t throw one stone at Lady Gaga. You know she is broken just like you. That she is flawed and phony and consumed by the wrong things, but so are you, and if Jesus loves you in your brokenness, this means he loves Lady Gaga, too. You are just different kinds of trash.

And you know that since you are no better than she, Jesus would invite Lady Gaga to eat with Him and tell her that he loved her and, at some point during the evening, he would probably tell her to go and sin no more, but he wouldn’t be rude, and he wouldn’t be hateful, and he wouldn’t tell her all the things she is not because He realizes she already knows what she is not.

Lady Gaga. Me. You. We all know what we are not. 


Tonight, Facebook is once again full of righteousness:

I’m not going to see 50 Shades Darker.”

“I’m glad my wife doesn’t like that trash.”

“I thank God that I married the sort of woman who would rather have both arms amputated than to watch this.” (I’m sure amputees were impressed by this particularly inclusive Christian post with its 6,890 likes.)

Once more, merit-badge-seeking Christians are advertising their own holiness, rather than Christ and his love. Christ and His salvation. They are saying look at me, look at what I am not doing. Look how good I am. But how good I am will help no one. I can do nothing. Apart from my place as a vehicle of Christ’s love, I am totally irrelevant in this fallen, hurting world. What I am doing or not doing does not matter at all if it is apart from Him.

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James Loesch, Flickr.

We are all nothing. To think for one second that we are better than the millions of people in dark movie theaters this weekend is lunacy. We know Jesus. He found us in our mire. He plucked us from our pits. That we would dare create pedestals of our manure and filthy rags is the most absurd lunacy.

We were in mire and filth; they are in mire and filth. The only difference is in the tense of the verbs.

We who were broken are now rescued. And I, who on my own had no hope of even boarding the life raft, cannot taunt those who are drowning.

I can still feel the water in my lungs.

 

The 1,995 Day Wait: Thoughts on Classroom Validation

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There is a quote on my classroom wall from one of my former students. Days before he graduated, fully pleased, he popped his head in my room and asked, “Hey, Mrs. G, remember in ninth grade when you told us who wasn’t going to make it, and they didn’t?” Chuckling, he sauntered off.

That reads harsh, doesn’t it? Teachers aren’t supposed to tell kids, “You are going to end up a dropout. You are going to end up in prison. You are going to end up at the alternative school.” Teachers are supposed to inspire, shove children up the mountain, past their drug-abusing mothers, absent fathers, and abject poverty. Teachers are expected to make silk purses out of sows’ ears–every day.

In my classroom, generally, I don’t do that. I point out the obvious: you, dear child, are currently a sow’s ear. And then I say: wouldn’t you rather be a silk purse? I see so much silk in you.

These children, these hulking man-boys and affection-starved girls, want someone to see the silk. They want it so badly.


Teaching, in the first days of the year, is like a protracted meet-the-in-laws Sunday brunch. You don’t really know them, but you hope you’ll like each other because life is going to be hard if you don’t. You have no knowledge of their backgrounds because veteran teachers don’t warn each other–after all, perhaps you are the one teacher who can reach Little Johnny, and, if you’re not, well, you don’t want to know how bad things might become.

I am in that stage where, after fifteen days with them, I am starting to know my kids.

I am seeing the silk.

There is so much silk this year.

We are drawing lines with one another, having touchstone conversations, revisiting what we are doing well and what is unacceptable. Learning each other.

Today, I explained that they needed to remember that their behavior impacts one another. And more importantly, their behavior impacts others’ education.

I looked at my solid, quiet child, the child whose future is so bright. Nineteen years ago, he would not have caught my eye. I would not have known, really, that he was even there–the “designated hitters” in the classroom, the loud, knowledgeable kids, would have masked him. But now, I know he is one of the most important kids in the room, unknowingly carrying the spark of a different future.

I told my kids, “Look, H—– has an education to get. He is very smart, and he’s got important things to do. I can’t let you affect that.

Then, I looked at H—–. I said, “Has anybody ever told you that before?”

He said no.

He has sat in classrooms for eleven years. 1,995 days. And he has never been told he is smart.

(I suppose a “God help us” would be dramatic, but I really feel this merits one: God, help us.)


In 1990, when I first began teaching, I was the only tenth grade ELA teacher in a small school in an impoverished town. I taught every sophomore, whether we gelled or not. There was no teacher down the hall to swap with. And in one class, on my first day, a helpful child raised his hand and announced, “It’s like they put all the rejects and bad kids in one room.” It was misery.

(At least five of the boys from that classroom have been–or are now–in jail; one outlier became a preacher.)

One sunny afternoon, my dynamo of a college professor, Dr. Patsy Griffin, came to the high school. As the students milled around outdoors, she looked at one boy, who was certainly neither a scholar nor an acolyte, and said, “Come here.”

I was uneasy. She was touching his elbow. She said to him, “Let me see your eyes.”

She commanded me to look into his eyes. I did.

“Look,” she crowed, “He has such smart eyes.”

Oh, how he beamed.

She murmured to him about his eyes. Asked about his grades. Said she was surprised they were so low when he was obviously so smart, what with those intelligent eyes.

She left quickly, but that sixteen-year-old boy was never the same. Three minutes changed him. He’d heard he was smart. Perhaps he, too, had waited 1,900+ days for a “professional” to notice.


In my classroom, I do not spread adjectives and affirmations like feel-good fairy dust. My classroom is not a place where the students are called Mr. and Miss and referred to as scholars. It’s not a warm and fuzzy place at all.

But I tell my kids things like, “You are going to be a Coca-Cola Scholar, and I’m going to hand you that check on stage.” “You are going to go to Agnes Scott. I can see you at an all girls school. You would thrive there.””I think you would be a good hospital administrator. You are good at bossing people around.”

When I say things like that, hands shoot up around the room–“What do you see ME as?” “What do you think I’ll do?” They are desperate to hear of respectable futures, of  jobs, marriages and kids. Houses and pets.

There are other children, too. Kids whom I quietly call up to my desk, where I open my second drawer and shove aside some boxes before pulling out a letter. It’s a three page letter from an imprisoned former student who was like a son to me.

I tell them, “I think you might need to read this. I don’t show this to everyone. But this boy, well–like you–he was like a son to me. He even went on vacations with us. Shared a hotel room. Carried my baby’s diaper bag through Busch Gardens. He was like my son.”

They quietly read the long letter. In it, T— laments not moving with us to North Georgia. He wonders what his life would have been like if he had listened. Made better decisions. He talks about his son he won’t see.

He writes and writes and writes. After all, he has twenty years.

They read every word. I show them his photo. I tuck the letter away, telling them I can write to them in prison or in college. That I will write to them either way.


15943011_10210599751202703_648721813_oToday, in a show of authority–because we are still in that early jockeying–I made the kids be fairly silent. Some students were forced to do a dreaded study guide, while others did group projects, and a handful read independently.

I’d chosen a five part LA Times feature for my smart boy to read on his phone. He sat in my chair in the front of the room, reading every word aloud to himself in a low murmur. He read until the bell.

He turned to me as he left, said, “I will finish this tonight.” Strode out with purpose.

Day 1,995: The day he finally became what he’s been all along: smart.

God, help us.

 

Muddled, Merry, Little: It’s Still Christmas

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It is almost here: my 47th Christmas. 

By now, I have had all sorts: the happy Christmas when my grandmother, bearing dolls purchased at the local grocery store, reveled in her great-granddaughters’ delight; the Christmas when my father-in-law put bows around everyone’s necks and declared us his presents; the Christmas on which Abby opened her “major” gift, a used eBay iPod, only to find that it did not work. (Remembering her kind, parental-dignity-preserving manner touches me still.) There have been bicycles and Barbies, Wiis and Easy Bake Ovens. Thanks to fostering, for a decade, we awoke at dawn to the chaos of gaggles of children and heaps of gifts.

And then we had thirteen Christmases alone with our daughters. Cinnamon rolls at dawn. Presents. Hershey’s chocolate bars soon after. Board games and, sometimes,  a movie.

These Christmases were never fancy: we drove to various relatives’ houses, visited briefly, and returned home, where to the horror of my favorite aunt, there was never even a traditional meal–or a meal at all–as I pragmatically let the girls fill up on stocking candy while we adults ate cinnamon rolls all day. 

The upheaval and familial changes this year have required us to do some restructuring of Christmas–we mailed presents to April in New York, along with the brown felt Christmas countdown moose that she always used to keep us in the spirit. I consciously chose to decorate the tree while Abby had classmates over: that way I could not weep. 

15658620_10210454492051315_1401707932_oUntil this year, I never knew how many baby Jesuses were on our Christmas tree–it seemed like I unwrapped babies all evening. One, swaddled and beaming, nearly did me in–I hastily tossed Him in the Goodwill pile, though later, with my grandmother’s voice haunting me (“It’s just Jesus“), I retrieved Him.

I broke into dark laughter at the more sentimental ornaments, remembering a time when I thought those losses were hard to cope with. The loss of an eighteen year old cat, I learned this year, is altogether trivial compared to the loss of a granddaughter. This year I have climbed and plunged through the many gradients of sorrow. 

And now, it is Christmas. We are expected to Christmas. 

Greg and I attended three Christmas parties, where we mingled with strangers and laughed through Dirty Santa. We enjoyed steaks, good music, door prizes and the fire pit. Abby spent her birthday money on Christmas gifts for children living at the local women’s shelter; we bought gifts for a needy family’s grandchild. Abby rang the Salvation Army bell at Kroger for FBLA and at Walmart for Key Club. And, even though I dislike TV, I recorded Christmas movies; at night, when Greg is dozing and Abby is out and about,  I have watched them in our quiet house.

The first one I watched saved Christmas.

Meet Me in St. Louis.

Its description didn’t seem particularly Christmas-changing: “A St. Louis family stays in town for the 1904 World’s Fair.” The movie itself was lighthearted enough until the family faced something only the father wanted: a move to New York after Christmas.

meet_me_in_st-_louis_posterAfter a Christmas Eve ball, Esther, the older sister played by Judy Garland, comes home to find her younger sister Tootie crying at the bedroom window. To comfort her, she begins singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”:

“Have yourself a merry little Christmas/Let your heart be light/next year all our troubles will be out of sight.”

It was after midnight, but I was suddenly fully awake, thinking, “That’s not how that song goes.”

Have yourself a merry little Christmas/make the Yuletide gay/Next year all our troubles will be miles away.”

Next year?

Once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore/ faithful friends who were dear to us will be near to us once more.”

“Someday soon we all will be together if the fates allow/ until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow/so have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Muddle through? Had I heard the words “muddle” and “Christmas” in the same song? Was I allowed to muddle Christmas?

The next morning I told Greg, “You have to see this,” and played the clip. Silent for a moment, he turned to me and said, “That’s significantly different.”

Missing were the words, “From now on,” indicating a perpetual future lack of trouble.

Missing were, “Here we are . . . Who are . . . gather near to us . . .  through the years” indicating family and friends ever-present, close, and celebrating.

And, most significantly “hang a shining star upon the highest bough,” an image of hope–exchanged for the paltry, slightly negative”muddle.”

The 1944 original song presents the image of a difficult Christmas, a solitary time away from friends who, aware of the family’s inability to fully celebrate, allow them the gift of space.

It gives the promise of time and its healing power–next year.

In her acting, Garland acknowledges the inability of even sisters to help one another–looking at Tootie the first few seconds that she sings, but then looking away, out to the trees, the snow, and the sky, as heartbroken Tootie stares straight ahead.

Unlike later versions, the 1944 version gives the option of getting through, patching together, of muddling. Versions like Sinatra’s, having been “jollied up,” are celebratory rather than anticipatory.

This year, though, we aren’t extremely celebratory. It’s been a year of trauma, sorrow, and loss, and to pretend otherwise would simply be that: pretending. 

We are happy to have been given sweet Stephanie Grace, to have held her little heft, seen her minute fingernails, traced her tiny nose. She will ever be a part of our lives and hearts and Christmases.

We all know–this holiday will likely be the hardest. We will quietly celebrate, together, our survival and His coming.

This Christmas, for the three of us at home, promises to be merry and little.

It’s so beautiful to me, the prospect: we can just muddle this one.

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