Kindergarten Lessons – Body Fluids

Let’s talk about pee.

While no one in their right mind would ever choose this topic, no rendering of this escapade with the children could be complete without at least one chapter devoted to the topic. Pee is a part of the human experience and for little ones too often publicly so.  In my classroom of 10, six have peed on my classroom floor (and a couple of more on the playground). Perhaps the abundance of pee is reflective of age (6-8 year olds), perhaps the severe emotional disturbances facing these kids, most likely the steady flow is a combination. Whatever the reasons, I have been well acquainted with body fluids (of all types) this year.

And here’s what I know: it hasn’t killed me, at least not yet.

On the almost-last day of the semester, Tyler pooped in his pants and strutted naked (and poop-smeared) while I attempted to direct him to first wiping and then washing (neither very successful). On the last day of the semester, Tyler got in a verbal altercation with a peer and, as it escalated, he dropped his drawers, grabbed his junk and… (miracle of miracles) he didn’t pee.

Here’s the second thing I know: mercy lives and laughter is healing.

There are a million reasons that a child might pee (or worse) on a classroom floor but I suspect Occam was right. The most likely reason is the simplest: they can. There are few things a child can control and where they leave their bodily fluids is one. As a teacher I can control how I respond, but I don’t get to control the direction of the flow. Like it or not, in this one I am powerless.

Sure, I try bribes. One of my new little guys, Ralph, naps every afternoon and pees at the end of every nap. For a couple of days he was interested in the little cars I promised and actually chose to wake up dry and collect his toy.  Even now I cherish the sweet smile he shared with his hand-held out as he reported: “I didn’t use it on myself.” He was super proud of the first car he earned and (the very next day) the second; but by the third day, choice trumped persuasion. Perhaps in time the rewards will trump the power play, but until then it’s to my advantage to keep a cool head and a bottle of order eliminating disinfectant.

Powerlessness is an essential human experience that none of us can ultimately avoid. We come into, and then out of, this world in a state of dependence. Childhood is fraught with vulnerability and in our adulthood the myth of self-sufficiency sets us up to fail every time. But powerlessness becomes blinding cruelty when children are neglected and, worse, abused. The enormity of the emotional pain suffered by some children is mind numbing and (quite literally) crazy making. And in the face of this powerlessness, some children make the one choice they can: where to pee.

On the one hand, I wish that I could find it in my heart to cheer the modicum of response-ability demonstrated as a child engages in such willful behavior. But let’s be real, sewer systems weren’t designed to hold rose-water and I know that the very storyline of this post is, well, disgusting. What the kids and I both know: pee stinks.

Tragically, for the most vulnerable of children, life does too.

Kindergarten Lessons: The Greenless Child

As I sit in the Sunday morning birdsong and ponder the sensations of the week, I am struck by the significance of one unlikely hug. It was quite unrehearsed and as silent as the child who surreptitiously slid beside to me to share it. Even in the moment, I was surprised and even touched. For the briefest of moments I turned my attention to him and said a quiet but heartfelt “Thank you.” And then he was gone.

As I hold that moment in the quiet of this morning, I realize that I had been introduced to this child long before he was born. Back on the other side of my adult life I enjoyed a collection of church poems written Ann Weems. Mostly happy poems with a slight edge, there was one that settled into my heart as a challenging omen: Greenless Child.
I watched her go uncelebrated into the second grade,
A greenless child,
Gray among the orange and yellow,
Attached too much to corners and to other people’s sunshine.

As I hold Friday’s brief and silent hug, I realize that it came from the greenless child. He is the child who has spent a semester in my classroom hiding under the desk, mumbling under his breath, screaming only (but frequently) when the classroom noise overcomes him, with a single sentence mantra: “You’re not listening to me!” Occasionally he’ll mumble a curse and even more occasionally strike a peer or even staff to gain attention, but most often he’s under his desk with his headphones trying to block out the chaos of the world.

http://www.spadecaller.net/shortstoryartclass.htm

http://www.spadecaller.net/shortstoryartclass.htm

And with a classroom of children throwing desks, I confess that I was grateful to let this one child quietly hide.  The challenge is that in his hiding he was neither happy nor healing. His accusation that I wasn’t listening wasn’t altogether untrue.

Midway through the semester, I realized that I needed help to connect with this child and asked a colleague who professed to enjoy this greenless child. I needed to learn to listen to him.  When my colleague referenced the child’s wit and sense of humor I was genuinely confused, thinking that we were talking about different children. But I began to watch and listen with new openness.

I’d like to tell you that I fell in love with the child, I was able to now discern his mumbled sentiments, and that he became a participating member of our class. Not so much. But there were times when I could hear his words, days when he did come out and participate, and moments when I was undeniably filled with a high regard for this him. In this child too I could finally see and celebrate the sacred.

As the day opened on Friday, I was walking with he and one other student to breakfast. The other child was on a roll of antagonistic and mean statements and when I successfully ignored him, he turned his verbal insults toward the greenless child. Now more in tune, I effortless dismantled the aggressors barbs, noting the genuine gifts of the child demeaned. “He is funny,” I noted, “with a great (if quiet) sense of humor and,” I chided, “if you don’t know that you haven’t bothered to get to know him.” I was, of course, talking to myself. But the mean rant abated and the otherwise greenless child gave me a look of wonderment. It was later that morning that he offered the stealth hug.

Now on the third day, listening to both the spoken and unspoken, I begin to realize that the child dismissed as greenless might be a rich and royal purple. A greenless child is only deficient if we insist on a world of blue and yellow. In a world that needs red, celebrates purple, and delights in orange, we need the one we would discount as greenless.

The only deficiency was my limited vision. I am grateful for this child’s healing teach because, quite frankly, we need every bit of the rainbow.

Church Shopping Begins: Not White, Gay Friendly, Theologically Past Liberal

Today I find myself at a bend in the river that I didn’t see coming.

Our lives were blessed last week with two very precious daughters ages 9 and 10.  For the past year we’ve been planning, taking classes and filling out paper work to become foster parents. And then we waited. When we got the call that Niah and Nae would be coming to live with us, it happened so suddenly that we are still catching our breath.

For one thing, we assumed that our children would be boys. The initial false-start calls had been about boys, white boys. It is mostly boys that are in the system. When we got the call about girls, we were both surprised and delighted.

For another thing, as is often the case in foster care, the children were forced to move without time to gather their belongings. The move for children means a total loss of everything material, and a scramble for the new family to build a wardrobe and the rudimentary trappings of life.

The most surprising piece for me, however, is how protective I suddenly feel for two young African American girls pulled from a world of extended family and tossed into a sea of well intentioned white folk. Social worker, therapist, school principal, and moms – all white women. Everyone is working together and truly impressive in their intention and commitment, but at the end of the day, we bring what we have and I fear that we’re missing a major piece.

As I stood in line with the girls at one of our family’s favorite haunts, Ted Drewes, I experienced in a new way the almost total whiteness of the crowd.  Reminiscent of my coming out experience, I was nonetheless surprised by the experience of otherness. For me, this is an experience that I sought and for which I prepared, for our girls it is not. I looked into their faces expecting to see delight as we partook of the treasured frozen custard, instead I saw distress and heard, “Can we eat this in the car?”

Safely in the car with my dear one in charge of music, the car rocked with girl power dancing and I knew. We need to find at least one community where faces of color are dominant and strong black women are smiling back into the faces of these precious children. But where? I am theological past liberal, having dispensed with the trinity and holding my own with the Friends (Quakers) probably because there are so few words. I suspect my theological qualms are more problematic even than our two-mom family configuration. Nonetheless, I need to swallow my theological attitude and find a church where we can dance as the children (and spirit) lead us.

I posted my query in Facebook: Need to find: racially diverse (not-white), gay friendly, theologically *very* liberal church in St. Louis. Recommendations?

The answers were heartfelt and precious, but illuminating. Several folk recommended a number of really wonderful United Methodist communities.  I think in every case, the churches are pastored by white clergy and in no case are these clergy allowed to honor our family. UMC clergy who dare to preside at same-gender marriages are actually charged and even dismissed from the ranks. While it is heartening to hear of local communities who stand in welcome, I have no desire to participate in an institution that is struggling to see me as fully human.

One friend pointed out the prophetic nature of the query and I pause to consider. Maybe so.

Or maybe it is time to turn the prism. If what our family needs is a place of gathering not headed by white folk, this white woman needs to stop pushing against the current and flow with the river around this bend.

In fairness, the biblical narrative sounds different when preached from a place of oppression. The story was written by and for oppressed communities as a word of both of hope but also of resistance.  Though I had wearied of the story preached from within the affluence of the ‘burbs, I was moved by it’s power in response to the modern passion of Trayvon Martin. Quite frankly, who we are dramatically changes the words we share, regardless of our intent. And today we need to find a not-white preacher.

The girls told me what clothing they needed and I ran around yesterday to find it. This morning we’ll start the arduous but important journey that so many families have faced: church shopping. We’ll start with a United Church of Christ community led by an African American, there are (I think) three in our metro area.

And I’ll watch the girls feet to see if they dance as I learn to follow.

Kindergarten Lessons – Trauma

The very hardest part of my job is not the kids and not my colleagues. Currently I work with a great team of adults and when in the emotional security of my own home it’s very clear to me that the children are sacred beings truly struggling to process trauma that is beyond their ability to process. The very hardest part of my job is facing the me that comes out when pushed beyond my own ability to cope. It is not a me that I wish to own, not a me that I wish to acknowledge, but is a me that I must face (or choose to deny) daily in this setting. This me brings tears to my eyes… and it is this me that I must come to face, own, and love before she too can find healing and peace.

For seven hours each day, I am in a self-contained classroom with 10 little boys and one other adult. Occasionally we go out together for meals (twice each day), PE (daily) and recess; always we travel together. Occasionally another adult is in our classroom for a short time or takes a child out for special services.  On really good days, I can slip out to the bathroom and turn in daily attendance (usually while the kids are in PE); on bad days I forget to drink water and go home dehydrated, grateful that I didn’t have to pee.  Most of our day is spent in the classroom and most of my time is spent catching flying shoes (and pencils and blocks), restraining children to keep them from pummeling one another, and trying to ignore the constant stream of obscenities that flow from any number of sources.  And on very rare moments, I teach reading and math and science.

I would like to write about the bulk of the day when I actually do feel and practice remarkable patience and genuinely high regard for my students. This is the part of the story that I would like to remember.  While it isn’t my goal to be Michelle Pfeiffer (read: the heroine of “Dangerous Minds”), swooping into the chaotic space to sprinkle love-dust that charms the children into new realities of hopefulness, it is my intention to meet the children where they are and without judgement. My task is simply (monumentally) to offer an educational opportunity for children whose behaviors are so egregious that (already in kindergarten) they have been exiled from the public school system.

The problem is that no one is addressing the cause of the behaviors.

The challenges that my children face are far outside my realm of expertise and control; severe and generational poverty, prolonged patterns of abuse and neglect, trauma of every imaginable sort and many beyond imagining. While I am expected to “modify” behaviors, I have no access or tools to address the causes of the behaviors. Quite frankly, every one of my children has a legitimate cause to tantrum and the louder they scream the more certain I am that they have a will to survive. They will need it. To thwart the lament is to disarm the survival skills that they most certainly need.

Yet in the meantime, the children are gathered together into one room with two adults and they have uncovered and are now trampling on my last tender nerve.

I’ve never been a big believer in imposed consequences, which is probably good because my kids, lacking all manner of impulse control, have already been consequenced out of schools and homes and any sort of normal privilege afforded to children. But what to do when the patience wears thin and one more child pushes one more button?  Consequences may be ineffective but safety is paramount and my need for some degree of control is my Achilles heel.

My job description includes physical prompts and redirections and I’ve been encouraged to be quicker to intervene with negative behaviors even as I’m coached to notice and praise the positive ones. The more “successful” I am in confronting the misdeeds (and literally corralling the room), the more I loathe the person that I see. I would like to tell you that I didn’t yell at Michael on Friday, but what was lacking in volume was present in tone. I would like to tell you that I guided him back to his seat, but when he refused to comply and laughed in my face, dragged might be more fair description. I wasn’t my best self.

Perhaps it is worthy to note the places where my spirit breaks. The constant whine of Charles’ foul-mouthed tantrums that mark the start of each new day, the backward spin of Carlton who’d been making such progress and is now inexplicably falling apart, or the tantrums that accompany Donnell’s almost daily toileting escapades (read: not toilet trained). As I type I realize that there is no one cause, no one Achilles heal, no one place where my spirit needs shoring. The challenge is the enormity and constancy of the barrage.

Dealing with trauma is in itself traumatizing.  Perhaps it is also true to say that the children strip away the mask and lie bare the wounded healer that is at my core. Beneath layers of practiced calm and grounded presence lies a child who is herself very tender, a little girl who has a strong need for order and a fear of chaos. This little girl, though unfamiliar, is fierce.  Much like the little boys that fill my classroom, this little girl within has a strong will to survive. I wonder how much of my adult energy has been spent hiding from her and how different my life might be if I found ways to befriend her.  Already she’s helped me to find more direct patterns of communication and inspired me to experience wonder. But like the little boys in my classroom, she needs to know that the adults are present and providing safe boundaries; without that reassurance, she is in full-scale rebellion herself.

For today, I take a moment to acknowledge that my heart hurts. I rehearse the small strategies that our team identified before leaving for the weekend.  Mostly I consider the upside down truth that in our vulnerability we find strength, in our breaking we find wholeness, in our embrace of the questions we let loose of the answers that keep us trapped.  Knowing this to be true, I know that on the other side of this strange current is a gentle stream.

And I give thanks for the resilient little girl who lives deep within, tantrums and all.

Kindergarten Lessons – Better than Skittles

My classroom closets are filled with candy and trinkets as I shamelessly use every possible form of “positive behavior management”. No piece of plastic crap can compete, however, with the power of relationship. Many years ago James Fowler, building on Kohlberg and Piaget before him, pointed out that while our most primitive ethical choices may may be based on cost and/or reward, our more significant and lasting work must be based on deeper values. Inasmuch as my kids stay seated for a reign (or rain) of Skittles, their attention is at best weak and invariably focused on the coming of the next sugar high. Occasionally I see evidence of a child finding inner satisfaction and even tangible evidence of their connection with others.

One day last week we were coming back from PE and Sam was, as usual, jumping up and down and tapping on the wall. I looked back, made eye contact, and reminded Sam that in the hallway, “our feet are on the ground, our hands are at our sides, and our mouths are quiet”. Sam nodded most seriously and we continued a few hundred feet. As I turned around in the corner of my eye I could see Sam starting to leap towards the wall. Facing forward, he caught my glance and then, miraculously, caught himself. Sam made a different choice not because I was going to punish him, I wasn’t. He made a different choice not because I was going to reward him, I wasn’t. He made a different choice because I believe in him and he wants to please me. And he did. I stopped what I was doing to celebrate his great choice.

Psychology students study the effects of rewards on classroom management and I work closely with some great young professionals studying and working in the field of positive behavioral coaching. While the positive energy of these young adults have had an incredibly great influence on our community, I wonder about the strategies themselves. Of course children, like all animals, can be trained to ding the bell on cue. But are these successes the ones that are lasting? Are these the strategies that will help the child understand their power in the face of an adrenalin rush? Are these tools that will transcend our particular setting? Training a child to behave for a reward (or worse, to avoid a consequence) is definitionally limited. Necessary to survive the day, perhaps, but totally inadequate to face the world and make meaning of real life.

On Friday, Wilson arrived having had another difficult bus ride. This time the driver sent Wilson in with a written report which described both his physically aggressive and sexually inappropriate behaviors. I read the note and felt at a loss for words. I called Wilson to the back room and sat down. As Wilson stood in front of me, I handed him the note and said simply, “read this to me.” Wilson began reading in his typically defiant mode. As he read further, having to speak aloud his behaviors with my disappoint silently facing him, he wilted. He stopped when he reached the most egregious part; head hanging he shuffled silently back to his seat where he put his head down and cried. No additional words were added. I was astounded to realize the power of simple relational accountability. No consequence in my repertoire would have elicited the level of remorse that he exhibited in that moment. No plastic trinket could deliver the powerful teaching that we encountered together.

To be sure, I’ll continue to buy Skittles and plastic trinkets. I’ll keep the charts and the reward systems for all of these tools serve a purpose and often buy time until relationships can be established. The real successes, however, are the ones without tangible rewards, where children discover that they have the power to make choices and even more miraculously that there are relationships worthy of their choosing.

Kindergarten Lessons: Looking Deeper

Even in my mind’s eye, Seth is furiously chewing his lip with furrowed brow. He’s small child who’s just turned seven, but his tense muscles are strong and when his fists swing there are bruises. He is quick to tell you that he is bad, that his favorite character is Michael Myers (Halloween), and that no one wants him.  Perhaps there are grains of truth in his litany, certainly his behaviors are intolerable as he pummels young and old with his angry fists and vicious words. But this is such an incomplete and misleading description.

Seth is also a remarkably bright child who looks for logic and documents patterns. He is a tender soul who reaches for hugs and chooses the puzzle with puppies and kittens.  He is articulate and charming and absolutely adorable.  Except when he’s not.

In our team meeting we talked about how Seth navigated the week and I mentioned his agitated state. I’ve learned to watch, to be prepared to keep both he and the other children safe.  Not his natural state, he has a visible cycle with a gathering of steam. A watchful adult can often intervene to redirect and de-escalate with careful timing and respectful interaction. With a room full of children and a steep learning curve, I have too often missed the window of opportunity.

As I talked about Seth’s agitation, the therapist on our team, a warm and loving professional, looked thoughtful and then offered, “he’s so very anxious. Have you seen his brow furrow?” Her gentle words were disarming and I mused at the also-true read of the situation. A child who is anxious may become agitated and then perhaps violent.  For our child, the pattern is both constant and consistent. I’ve been trying to read the agitation to prevent the violence, and have had occasional success in that endeavor, but what if we tended the anxiety that lies yet deeper?

While this work, of course, belongs between the therapist and the child, a respectful understanding of the anxiety shapes my compassion and thereby my interactions with Seth. Rather than trying to control his agitation, I am more inclined to bring empathy to the enterprise, offering whatever balm I have for the anxiety as I redirect the agitation and hopefully prevent the violence.

All along Seth has communicated as directly and clearly as a seven-year old can. He reports with remarkable clarity the things that he sees and feels and the underlying causes. Tragically they are simply too big even for my adult sized heart.  As I consider the sources of his anxiety with my own heart less guarded, I cannot help but see that his emotions are tragically commensurate with his situation. While his behaviors are outrageous and completely unacceptable, the anxiety that produces them is totally appropriate. The culprit is not the child but rather the life events that are traumatizing him. This child has, quite simply, been given more than he can bear.

My own fight-flight instinct is to righteous anger at a world that would hurt children, but I’ve already wasted too much of my life in this endless spin. We have no control of the life events for this little boy. It is our job to help him find (or create) an inner strength by which he can survive. We cannot do this for him, but we can bear witness to the struggle and point to the incredible gifts that are his own. Our therapist says that we can help him to write a new inner message, one in which he is worthy, loved and lovable.  We do this one day at a time and trust that over the days that become weeks and then months he will begin to claim this message as his own.

Although not my class, the emotion of this stock photo captures the collaborative spirit that I witnessed. Beautiful.

In the meantime as I watch him chew on his lip, I reach for the iPad to redirect his mind and for today it works.

He eagerly takes the toy and puts his head down as his fingers fly.  Just five minutes later I watch as he is now in a huddle of boys building virtual Legos together, sharing two iPads cooperatively, happily. Brow unfurled, lip no longer chewed, wow.

This is the child he came into the world to be.

I sit on the rug, mesmerized and holding the moment. There will be other moments not so hopeful, this I know. All the more I cherish this one in which his spirit shines bright.  It is so very very good.

Coming Out in the Class of 1980

I graduated from high school in 1980 and I knew no lesbians in my high school graduating class.  Not one. In fact I didn’t know a single lesbian in my entire high school. The only lesbian that we thought we knew was a teacher; we quietly wondered but inquisitive nature notwithstanding, silence was the order of the day. Not one of my friends or acquaintances ever, not once, named even a single same-gender romantic encounter or inclination.

And who could blame us?

Stonewall may have happened in the big city but liberation had not yet arrived in southern Michigan where I grew up. This was the land that reared Malcolm X, where all things were polite on the surface and the Michigan Militia gathered in secretive corners. You could be disowned for dating across racial lines and same-gender orientation was still a mental illness.

I remember one rather daring conversation that I had with my most out-of-the-box acquaintance in high school. I remember whispering secretively, “But what if I’m, you know…”. This goth-before-goth-was-cool friend cut me off mid thought: “You better hope you’re not.” Period. And I never broached the subject with another person (friend or foe) in southern Michigan for at least two more decades.

In recent years I’ve reconnected with several high school friends through Facebook and found myself stunned that more than a handful of my former classmates are, wonder of wonders, just like me. In high school I lived with the terror that I was an aberration, the only one of my kind. Unbeknownst to any of us, we were swans dropped into the chicken coop.

I find myself wondering how differently our lives may have unfolded had we been able to speak our truth out loud and with one another?

With my young adult children home for the holidays and now back at school, I wouldn’t trade the path that is mine and have no regrets. I was married to their father for nearly twenty years and they are the fruit of that relationship; I can’t wish that away. At the same time, though, I am glad that another generation of women won’t have to choose between being mothers and being lovers, between procreation and a lasting love story.  K&D handsI feel deep gratitude for the gift of love in this second half of life, for a partner who makes my heart and body sing in sweet harmony. As I watch young families with same-gender parents, I cannot help but smile for joy at the choices that await this new generation.

As I move through this new place of life I am learning that my choices, then and now, are limited not simply by the cultural context in which I find myself but even more by the courage that I do (or don’t) have as I face external expectations. Perhaps my desire to belong is actually more limiting than the nets thrown by others. Were I less concerned about my friend’s caution all those years ago, I might have sought out another friend.  If my own courage had been at least commensurate with the hushed tones about “that teacher”, I might have been able to honestly face the emotions that were my own.  The choice to hide my light in the context of a heterosexual marriage was my own.

Letting go of the temptation to lament I see a pattern that is mine, that of looking for external validation. It is delightful to discover that I am not the only woman-loving-woman to graduate from high school in 1980, but it is perhaps more important to realize that it would be ok if I was.

As I speak my truth today, I discover so many friends (new and old) sharing similar stories. Undoubtedly if I had found the courage to speak my truth all those years ago, I would have provided safe space to hear the stories of others. My fear kept any kindred hearts at bay, my fear created its own isolation.

When we find the courage to shine our light, we make a way for others to do the same. This sentiment is shared by religious greats like Jesus and Marianne Williamson, but holding our light high for the world to see isn’t just religious jargon.  Nor is our rainbow waving pride about flaunting an agenda. Shining our light is survival in the face of deafening power of silence, holding our light high is about making a safe path for another that we’ve not yet met. 

As the warm sun melts the snow that just last week shuttered much of the heartland, I am aware that each new day offers choices to engage with the life that is ours.  I am grateful to know that I am not alone in the class of 1980, even more I am grateful to have opened my heart to share life and love with my dear one. For it is only in the breaking open that we find the love for which we are created.

And it is so very, very good.

Snow Days Three

Snowmaggedon came at the close of our winter break, unexpectedly extending our vacation by three days. Three is the number of perfection and as I sit snuggled on the couch pondering tomorrow’s return, I find myself grateful for the reframe that these days have given.

Perhaps I should come clean and admit that I did nothing of import for three days. I didn’t. I enjoyed a Downton Abbey marathon (every episode of three seasons before indulging in this season’s opener). I crocheted two hats, two scarves, and a bunch of squares for a maybe-afghan. I stared at the snow and considered the contrasting colors visible from the warmth of my front window. Today I spent the better part of the day doing lesson plans, organizing a new online gradebook, and researching for a new unit; but before this brief burst of energy I spent three full days staring at the snow while my mind and heart cleared.

In my own defense I would point out that the winter break began on December 20th, so we jumped from school routines into holiday ones. Cleaning, shopping, cooking, wrapping, and baking quickly filled the space in my heart and mind that school had occupied. Our adult children filled the house with laughter and I paused to notice the gratitude I felt but as soon as the wrapping paper was cleaned up, I was back to the work of planning for the next semester.

By Friday afternoon, my lessons were complete, computer links checked, and copies made. After a Saturday commitment, I had planned to have a day of sabbath on Sunday before returning to school on Monday morning.

But on Sunday morning the snow began and one day turned into two and then three. For reasons that are unclear (and irrelevant I suppose) I spent each of these luscious days in sabbath and on the couch. At the end of the third day, I was out of red yarn and ready to return to the world. Which came first is uncertain.

As I think about returning to my classroom tomorrow, and spending the day with children who are not in the rhythm of being together, I realize that the peace that attends me is different than that I felt last Saturday. Although anxiety sits in my gut, my mind is no longer racing. My heart feels the tension but holds it gently, now is the moment.

Sabbath is a spiritual practice that is rooted in an understanding that in order to be at one with the source of life we need to let go of our busyness, relinquish our lists, and allow our minds to reset. I don’t do this very well. And the more I try, the more elusive such a state of openness becomes. Given the number of hours that most of us spend in front of computer screens, I’m guessing that the struggle is a common one. To have stumbled into this sabbath was incredible gift.

Three days is enough. After three days fish and company stink, and likewise even Downton Abbey looses its charm. It was after three days that Jesus and Lazarus and Moses all made their re-entry and so must I. Yet just as they were changed by their time away, I come back to the world with a peace that is new.

And it is very good.

January 2, 2014

TILT (Things I Love on Thursday):

White… milk in my coffee, snow on the evergreen, noise that allows my soul to settle.  The absence of color opens our eyes and hearts to what has been present if unseen all along.

Brown… paper packages, chocolate holiday candies, barren branches that line the sky. The jumble of warm colors mirrors our complicated emotions during this season.

Red… Christmas baubles, maraschino cherries, cardinal sitting in solitude in the cold. The attention grabbing color signals caution and closing, always present before the new way opens.

A new year begins with gratitude for love, for laughter, and for the practice of noticing both.

A New Year’s Celebration Story

My new year begins with a late morning, coffee, and pondering how I might approach teaching the topic of heroes with my little ones.  Zinn’s Education Project is geared for older kids and Scholastic’s resources are much too mainstream for my taste, so what shall I say in this upcoming season of winter cultural icons?  In the midst of my musings I flip back to my Facebook page and see the wonderful news that Jeff is now engaged to be married.  Wonder of wonders, such a happy beginning to this new year.  Here is a hero story worthy of the telling, complete with happily ever after.

I met Jeff what seems a lifetime ago but the calendar would suggest it was just a decade. Jeff was a community organizer in those days and I an activist suburban pastor.  Missouri was one of the first states to be targeted to add a marriage discrimination plank to our state constitution and Jeff was heading an opposition effort. Jeff was a child of the church, a PK and himself an active church member; he knew that there were lots of religious folk that did not support such codified oppression.  His strategy was to gather religious leaders together and invite us to speak as a unified voice on behalf of civil rights.

For my part, I had recently come face to face with my own orientation only to toss it back in the closet.  I had a job, children, and a husband.  And my job was as a suburban church pastor.  My congregation was very liberal and supported my work on behalf of justice, whether or not they could or would support a pastor coming out of the mythic closet was dubious.  When Jeff introduced himself and his project, I jumped at the chance to be involved. With Jeff and a cadre of wonderful rabbis, I spent the summer of 2004 writing, speaking and organizing on behalf of marriage equality – or at least in opposition to codified oppression.

This was the summer that Karl Rove paved the way for Bush’s second presidential inauguration, where the rhetoric of “marriage” was tested and found to be the perfect issue to draw conservatives to the polls in droves.  Missouri was a bellwether state with a special election in August and, liberal city pastors not withstanding, the churches across the state of Missouri offered free air time to voices promulgating oppression disguised as “defending marriage”.  What appeared at the outset to be a winnable fight was an astounding defeat that sent reverberations across the nations.  Even today we are fighting against the cloak of these horrid amendments.  As Utah officials cling to the shreds of their anti-gay amendment in an appeal to the United States Supreme Court this week, we see a new dawn and I pause to give thanks.

In the decade that has ensued we have seen the pendulum swing both ways and the only certainty is change.  Change has been the constant in my own life.  After the campaign and it’s aftermath, my life initially settled back into a routine but closets take on a life of their own. Eventually my truth needed to be told and the structure of my own life changed.  No longer married to a man, still serving a suburban church; now married to a woman (my dear one) and no longer in church.  At significant turns in the road I’ve reached out to Jeff whose wisdom and perspective I encountered that summer and cherish even now.  We eat waffle fries, share stories, and find common ground.

Jeff’s life has held an enormity of change as well, leading him away from organizing and into his studio.  He designs really amazing liturgical vestments, works of art each of them.  I’m privileged to own one, it is one of the few treasures that I took with me when I left church.  His ability to do great work in one arena and then step out and onto a new road professionally was inspiring as I stepped away from the church just last year.  Our paths were very different but witnessing his courage helped me to find my own.  The last time we shared waffle fries, he shared his story of a long-awaited romance and the spark in his eyes was truly precious. One of the gifts of Facebook is the opportunity to see life unfold even when chance may not bring us in proximity and I’ve been delighted to watch Jeff’s new path unfold.  jeff handsEven so I was delightfully surprised to see the news this morning: Jeff is engaged. The news was complete with a photo of ring-clad hands.  A perfect beginning for a new year.

Ten years ago, Jeff invited a bunch of clergy to join him in the fight for marriage equality in Missouri.  Though the skirmish appeared to be a bitter defeat, I look around today and realize that I am oh-so happily married to a woman, Jeff is poised to marry a man, and the vitriolic amendments are falling down all around us.  Always I have admired Jeff’s work in organizing, his art, and even more his authentic choices in life. Today I wear a goofy grin in honor of romance that comes ’round right. Authentic efforts for compassion and justice are never truly lost.  What appears in the moment to be a defeat is perchance a seed for a later harvest or a stepping stone for those who will come along in season.

As I think about American heroes this month, I cast my vote for Jeff.  I want to teach my children to have the kind of self-respect, perseverance and courage that brings Jeff and countless other true heroes into a place of delight.  Shining his light, Jeff inspires countless others to do likewise.

Congratulations, Jeff!  Mazel tov!