To My Teaching Colleagues – Once Again, Your Time is Now

 

Photo Credit Tampa Bay Times 2016

I’m sitting here in a small, locally owned coffee shop, sharing electricity, Wi-Fi, and coffee with a packed room of fellow St. Augustinians. People are obviously stressed and most look as though they haven’t bathed in a while, but there is smiling and the trading off of electricity sockets, giving all the chance to recharge their beloved devices. The AC is cranking out coolish air as much as it can but the number of humans, as well as the bright Florida sun pouring through plate glass panes, diminishes its effect. I’m grateful to be here. (Thank you and shout out to the wonderful people at https://www.dosbar.com/. You are a refuge.)

My original week’s schedule included visiting schools to provide professional support but those plans have changed due to so many schools statewide being closed. Some districts were able to open today, some will open tomorrow or Friday, and some next week or later. Getting back to normal is based on floodwaters receding and power companies working overtime to get school buildings up and running. But open they will, eventually, and teachers will be there with open arms, listening ears, and active love.

My daughter-in-law, a 2nd grade teacher in Seminole County, will most likely greet her students Monday, September 18th, after not seeing them for over a week. We spoke yesterday and discussed the reality that returning to school after this type of event is truly like starting all over again. Her students will return to her overly excited, apprehensive, perhaps a bit scared. More than anything they will return to her with hope that school will be normal, the same, a place of safety. She will be all of that to them, and more.

This is one of those pivotal moments when I am reminded of the all-encompassing role played by K-12 teachers. In 2015-16 2, 791,525 students were enrolled in Florida’s public schools. For many of those 2 million plus students, school is the only safe and sure thing in their lives; it’s where many receive consistent meals and for some, it is the only place they are heard.

Sometime this week or next, school doors will open and the kids will come back. Teachers will be there to greet them. Many of those teachers will still be without power in their own homes, many will be displaced, many worried about what will or will not be covered by insurance. But they will come and do what they do best—care for children.

Credit The Greenville News, 2017

You see, many teachers went into the profession for just that. They are caring empathetic individuals and for them teaching is a calling. In spite of low pay, increasing criticism, and outrageous demands, they remain because they believe in what they do. It’s why they work countless hours off the clock, spend thousands of dollars of their own money to buy basic classroom resources, and remain steadfast even as elected officials use them as political pawns.

In the midst of all that insanity, teachers are now returning to classroom expectations that will remain in place; high stakes assessments will eventually be given, test preparation will be encouraged, data will be gathered. But for a moment my hope is that teachers will allow themselves time to just be, that they will gather their students around and reassure them that in spite of a world that seems upside down, things will gradually turn right side up again. Rather than hushing them and telling them to “pay attention” and “stay on task” my hope is that teachers will follow their gut and know their time would be better spent just listening to their students’ stories, giving them moments to process through drawing and writing and speaking and listening and being.

So to my teacher friends and colleagues statewide, your time is now, as it always has been. I have no doubt you will rise to the occasion and be that sense of normalcy desperately needed in moments such as these.

 

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Learning to Rejoice

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” Romans 12:15

One of the things with which I am most comfortable—something I recognize as one of my better qualities—is my ease at mourning with others, holding people when they are hurting or listening when their hearts are breaking. My ability to be present with people in their darkness most likely comes from learning through the many times others have been present with me and my grief; their care of me has in turn allowed me to see how important it is to do the same to others. Tears do not scare me; there is no awkwardness for me when reaching out to friends or strangers in their distress. Being with others through their sorrow is a gift I embrace, and when reading the second portion of Paul’s counsel—weep with those who weep— I believe I can say, “Yes.” But the first half of the verse? Not so much.

I confess here and now that I have much to learn concerning rejoicing with others over their good news. “Really Sheila? I’ve seen and heard you graciously offer congratulations or seem interested in my joys.” And you’re right; I do try to be aware of others and celebrate their victories and I can honestly say that my happiness is usually sincere when others share their achievements, their victories, and their joys. I keep my ungrateful cards close to my chest for I have learned that I will end up with few friends in this world if I do not cultivate a sincere cheerfulness when others win the jackpot. But there are times when I simply wallow in the comparison game.

Last week I found myself wrestling my ungrateful demon when all the back-to-school photos hit the Facebook universe, especially all the high school senior images. Kindergarten through 12th grade, there they were on full display . . . new backpacks and shoes, smiling faces, each one eager to meet their teachers, face new challenges, make good grades, and enjoy the ride. As an educator, seeing families and students who value and enjoy the school-experience is a gift in itself as the family connection is vital to school success. But as a mom I felt as those the smiling faces were mocking my pain and all I wanted to do was take my cup of coffee and crawl to my dark place and lick my proverbial wounds. Let the pity-games begin.

Because you see, last week my baby, my last-one-at-home, my man-child who turns 18 in 129 days, also experienced his first-day-of-his-last-year-of-school. Having had two older sons who joyfully (?) posed at each and every request (and who were active participants in a traditional high school experience), the experience of letting my youngest be himself has been hard, and when I ponder the perceived golden standard of school success, in so many ways my youngest doesn’t measure up to that ideal. During high school he has attended 7 different schools or programs, including three months in Montana and almost a year in South Florida. A talented athlete, organized sports lost its attraction in 9th grade. There were months of silence and open hostility, our home at times resembling a war zone. We fought to cram him into our ideal of success and then fell back when we realized that plan was our plan, not his. At some point we were handed Grace in the form of a 12-step program and my husband and I realized that perhaps we needed as much, or more, help than our son. We made the decision to do our own work. Committing to a weekly family program, meeting with others weekly as they traveled our path with us provided a path. We sought counseling. We prayed . . . a lot. We set healthy boundaries so our son could experience our love in a safe environment. We released him from the burden of being responsible for our happiness, realizing that is an unwieldy load for anyone to bear. And things got better and things are getting better. Just as I advise many teachers to always find the thing their students do well, I had to take my own advice and look for all the goodness my youngest offers.

” . . . and he sends me texts and gifs that elicit raucous laughter (and sometimes happy tears) . . .”

Over the past year, as we’ve allowed our son to live with each and every consequence of his personal choices, he’s more times than not risen to the occasion, facing consequences with acceptance and responsibility, no longer playing the blame-everyone-else game of just a few years ago. He got a job, a hard, hot job, doing prep and dishwashing at a local seafood restaurant, working over 30 hours a week, getting himself there and back (he can walk – it’s 3 blocks from our house), and garnishing praise from his employer. (I had to recently drop something off and the kitchen manager came out to tell me, “I wish they all worked as hard and were as pleasant as your son.”) While assisting at our church’s service of feeding the homeless in our community, the organizer remarked on how gracious he was to the clients, treating them with respect and dignity.

My son makes me smile. He has a wicked sense of humor (at times too wicked) and he sends me texts and gifs that elicit raucous laughter, sometimes during meetings or other inopportune moments. He has good taste, using his hard earned pay to purchase clothes and shoes that he knows I’d never open my wallet for. And in spite of all the turmoil of the past three years, my son entered his senior year with enough credits to graduate. He never quit. (I was amazed when he had to take the state-mandated-graduation-requirement reading test after not being in an English class for over a year and solidly passed the first time; he said he didn’t see what the big deal was all about.) While he isn’t completing his senior year at the school of his first choice, he accepted that the school he did decide upon would provide the support and guidance he needs in order to graduate on time. We let him make that decision. He is still here with us in our home, never running away when circumstances and discord were at their darkest, and I can honestly say life with our son is better than it has been in years.

So back to last week. My son’s school journey that began in a Kenyan preschool has fast-forwarded to 12th. As I clicked through the

“His smile can light up a room and I capture those candid moments whenever I am secretly able to do so.”

perfect photos of others’ offspring, Jealousy tried its best to blind me to the gift of my son. No, I didn’t get a first-day-of-school photo and there’s a good chance I won’t get a fancy senior photo either. As he reminded me a few days ago, “Do you know how many really good photos you have of me just hanging around?” He’s right; I do. His smile can light up a room and I capture those candid moments whenever I am secretly able to do so. Maybe those captures portray him far better than any staged photo could. As I pulled out and tried to play my disappointment card last week, God reminded me of all the good staring me down.

Are things perfect? Is our family perfect? Of course not. Except on Facebook, what family is? But is our family restored and healing one day at a time? Absolutely.

I long to be better at the rejoicing part so I will practice. As I practice, I recognize that I actually do enjoy seeing how my friends’ children have grown and changed and matured. I will keep work on sincerely congratulating parents when their children excel in sports and make the dean’s list and get accepted to an Ivy League, reminding myself that my youngest is his own person and follows his own path, a path that is his, not mine. I will stop trying to live vicariously through his choices or compare him to anyone, recognizing that destruction is the only thing that results from such pressure. Praying that as I learn to rejoice with those who rejoice I’ll recognize the goodness surrounding my family and know every day that another’s joy does not negate my own.

 

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Please read.

 

Dear Teachers,

It’s the first day of school here in lovely St. Johns, Florida. You’ve already been back for a week, participating in professional learning, attending staff meetings, setting up your classrooms, getting ready. Today is the reason you’ve worked so hard to ensure all is right when the bell rings this morning.

You and your teaching peers are serving so many students across the Sunshine State. Of the 3,138,030 statewide total PK-12 student enrollment in the 2015-16 school year, 345,796 (11.0%) were private school students, and 2,792,234 (89.0%) were public school students1. (Homeschoolers add another 90,000 students based on the most recent estimates.) What do all those numbers mean on a Thursday morning, the first day of school? Simply put, dear public school teachers, YOU are facilitating the learning growth of almost 90% of Florida’s future leaders. You. What an honor. What a responsibility.

As you take up this monumental task, there will be so many things vying for your time . . . new progress monitoring programs to learn . . . last year’s test data to analyze . . . new legislation resulting in new scheduling concerns, forcing you to examine class time down to each precious minute. There will be the unknowns that eat up time but never make it into the lesson plans . . . children arriving late through no fault of their own . . . technology that might fail at the precise moment needed . . . students who come to school fidgety or sad or hungry or sick . . . parents and guardians who also have needs and questions and concerns. Your job is not for the faint of heart.

There are many answers to the question of how to best assist students in growing towards their full potential. Teach like a champion, teach like a maniac, teach like your hair is on fire, or teach like a Zen master–each view has unique merits that provide insightful advice on how to be better at the teaching craft or delivery; each is useful in different ways to different people. My quest for simplicity, however, leads me to offer a modest suggestion as you embrace this new year.

Read.

Just read.

Please read.

In these times of overflowing schedules I sadly hear teachers too often lament, “I know independent reading is important. If only there were time.” Somehow, public school teachers at every level, you must figure out how to make time.

The American Association of School Librarians (and Thomas Jefferson) makes the case for independent, voluntary (choice) reading as the key to school achievement:

Voluntary reading involves personal choice, reading widely from a variety of sources, and choosing what one reads. Alliterates, people who have             the ability to read but choose not to, miss just as much as those who cannot read at all. Individuals read to live life to its fullest, to earn a living, to understand what is going on in the world, and to benefit from the accumulated knowledge of civilization. Even the benefits of democracy and the capacity to govern ourselves successfully depend on reading. Thomas Jefferson believed that informed citizens are the best safeguard against tyranny. He believed that every citizen must know how to read, that it is the public’s responsibility to support the teaching of reading, and that children should be taught to read during the earliest years of schooling. In a letter to Colonel Edward Carrington, Jefferson (1787) wrote: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

 So much of what is done in the name of education is compiled of what teachers do to students rather than what students are doing on their own. Students are given test prep, cold reads, non-fiction articles, novel studies (of which perhaps only half the students are interested in reading), all of which have their place at certain times, but those things must be balanced by the practice of reading at one’s independent level. How relevant and timely to teach a lesson on determining the theme of a piece of text, for example, then actually allowing time for the students to practice that skill in the context of their own reading level. When that happens on a consistent basis, literacy takes root.

 

An example I’ve used of late is that of learning to play the piano. A child goes to his first piano lesson, eager to learn. The instructor places Chopin’s Minute Waltz in front of the child, saying, “This is what good piano players play.” The child glances at his copy of The Itsy Bitsy Spider , a song he learned to sing with his mom. He really wanted to learn to play that piece. The well-meaning teacher, however, presses him to use the more difficult (impossible piece), even though his piano skills are light-years behind Chopin. After a few sincere attempts—he wants to please his teacher—he finally gives up. He decides he must be too stupid to ever play the piano. (And to all the amazing piano teachers out there, this is purely hypothetical. Thank you for starting with Itsy Bitsy Spider.)

Unfortunately that is what too often takes place in the classroom. In an attempt to prepare students for high-stakes assessment, teachers (myself included) have too often forgotten the importance of authentic practice at an independent and joyful level. Students are too often asked to read at a level that is out-of-reach based on the idea that, “Well, that’s the level they’ll get on the test so they better start now.” The reality is they can’t start there and will eventually come to believe they’re simply too stupid to read at all.

Students need to experience success in reading every single day in order to counter the lie that they are stupid or unteachable. They need to experience the pure joy of reading through an interesting text with ease and confidence. As daily reading practice is reinforced and encouraged and conferenced, reading time during which teachers observe and get to know the reading lives of each child and provide guidance and instruction as needed, students will move on to the next level, and the next, and the next.

Okay, I realize I make this sound easy. “Read. Just read.” Easy? It is not. In the midst of evaluations and VAM and computer testing and prank bomb threats and hurricane days and the lack of time and exhaustion, the reality is that every choice you make as an educator is weighted. I urge you, however, to give it a try. Work with your administration on creative scheduling. Do your own research on the impact of independent daily reading. (A current favorite of mine is Who’s Doing the Work? How to say less so readers can do more by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris. It’s user-friendly and based on best practice research.) Spend time getting to know the interests of your students. Ask friends to donate magazines—Field and Stream, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic—for those students who prefer non-fiction. Become best friends with your school’s media specialist. Do whatever it takes.

Kylene Beers, educator, author, and researcher, recently tweeted:

 If we raise test scores but fail to raise readers, we have failed the child.

You, dear teachers, are some of the hardest workers and generous souls in the world, working countless unpaid hours and spending precious dollars to provide classroom environments that are conducive to learning. You do all in your power to prevent students from failing or feeling like failures. As you do the hard work, make sure your carefully designed and inviting reading nooks are not just for show but are filled with students doing the work, the work of reading. Embrace independent reading as a key strategy that allows students to practice and grow. As you jump into a new school year, eyes wide open, know that authentic reading will be one of the most positive choices you’ll ever make.

P.S. – Many of you reading this post are masters at what I’ve just described. Please share and comment below on ways you guard your students’ independent reading time. The more you share, the more we all learn.

 

One of the masters of independent reading, Catie Grimes, 6th grade reading teacher extraordinaire, creates inviting places in her classroom to support independent reading.

 

 

1 Public Education in Florida (2016). Ballotpedia: The Encyclopedia of American Politics. https://ballotpedia.org/Public_education_in_Florida

 

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Risky Business

Patty’s Giving Garden

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Happy Birthday Aunt Virginia

Aunt Virginia with my mother Jackie, and Vernon (Dobie) DeSear, Samoset, circa 1949

One of my most vivid memories of childhood holiday dinners is my Aunt Virginia’s congealed-orange-carrot-celery salad. Served on individual glass plates—an extravagance in itself—atop a single leaf of lettuce with a dollop of mayonnaise, those perfectly cut little squares represented the thought and care that had gone into every step of the family feast. Even the way in which the carrots and celery were chopped in the tiniest of pieces made one aware that a labor of love had taken place.

Aunt Virginia seemed always to keep multiple plates spinning at the same time. Not a birthday would pass without a sweet card and a carefully written check from her account at the First National Bank of Bradenton, her place of employment for years and years. She had a brass nameplate on her desk that read Virginia R. Barco, Vice-President. For a long time I thought she was THE vice-president until one day she humbly told me, “Oh Sheila, there are countless vice-presidents; I’m just one of many.” Aunt Virginia worked away from her home before it was the norm for women to do so. Choosing to leave an abusive marriage in the early 1960s, in spite of the social stigma that was divorce in that time, Aunt Virginia provided for her two children through hard work and commitment, and always had time for others regardless of fatigue or discouragement. Prior to our first son’s birth, she mailed us a blanket she’d stitched by hand, simple, soft, and perfect for cuddling. It arrived in Papua New Guinea a few days before sweet Isaac’s death and we chose to wrap him in it when we laid him to rest. Knowing her blanket surrounded my precious son brought me comfort and hope in one of my darkest times.

Another meal at Aunt Virginia’s table, circa 1979.

The Roberts’ women have always carried a load of worry on their backs like a badge of honor, and my Aunt Virginia took worrying to the next level. She worried about everything but mostly about others. High cholesterol plagued her for years and she was incredibly consistent in watching her fat grams. One day while eating yet another meal at her table (one always ate when visiting Aunt Virginia), she gently chided me for the large slab of butter I smeared on one of her homemade biscuits. “Sheila, that’s going to catch up with you, you need to take more care.” (Of course, she was right; it has caught up with me big time.) I still remember the day I told her we were moving to Kenya with her precious great-nephew Sam, who was 18 months old at the time. Her eyes filled with tears as she lamented, “Oh Sheila, it’s so far away and he’s so little” but even with her misgivings she sent us off with prayers and hope. A year later, she and her daughter took the long flight to Kenya even though her idea of a grand adventure was a Sunday school trip to the Lake Wales Passion Play. I have no doubt that her longing to reassure herself that her Sam was safe and sound gave her the courage to board the plane. (The story describing her lack of sleep due to drums in the distant night will have to wait until another time; it’s a tale worthy of its own entry.)

Aunt Virginia and Jordan, Myakka State Park, circa 1983

Aunt Virginia may have been a worrier but she was also a prayer. She loved Charles Stanley from First Baptist Church of Atlanta and faithfully listened to his sermons on cassette tape, drawing strength and hope from his words. Bob Franklin, one of her pastors at Samoset Baptist Church, a church in which her parents – my grandparents – were charter members, challenged her to have a time of daily quiet, a practice she embraced and practiced for years. Her faith kept her free from bitterness and discontent, allowing her to live life graciously.

My precious Daddy loves Sister, the only name I have ever heard him use when referring to his older sibling. Sister, not Virginia. “How was Sister doing today?” he asked me recently after I had been to visit her. Their love for one another was, and is, true and authentic, a love forged through growing up in the Great Depression in Samoset, from being there for each other, whether through “Sister’s” divorce or my daddy’s loss of his first wife and his son. Together they cared for their father, my Grandaddy Jim, in a way that allowed him to die at home, surrounded by loved ones. Daddy would head to her house after a long day of work and together they would gently bathe their father, feed him dinner, and love him in practical ways. Theirs was a partnership known by the fortunate few.

A few of her beloved great-nephews, circa 2000

There is so much more to say about Virginia Ruth Roberts Barco. Her pound cake was hands down the best pound cake ever, even when she adapted the recipe with egg white and non-fat margarine. When she “blessed” someone’s heart it wasn’t always meant in the kindest of ways; “She never was a smart girl, bless her heart.” She loved pretty dresses, especially when they were on sale at Belk Lindseys or Maas Brothers. She loved those around her well—her children found her devoted, her nieces and nephews found her available, and her friends found her faithful.

Today is Aunt Virginia’s 93rd birthday, 93 years of a life well lived. In most ways, the woman described above is no longer with us. Her health has declined greatly over the past few months and when I visited her just a few days ago, I am not sure she recognized me. My hope is she did. I long to know what she’s thinking but, even more, I long for her to know that she is, and always will be, a fundamental part of the woman I have become. If there is any good in me, part of the credit goes to her.

Happy Birthday, Aunt Virginia. You, dearest one, are beloved.

Sister and Billy

 

 

 

 

 

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The Next 40 Days

Today marks the first day of my favored season of the church calendar – the 40 days leading up to Easter – Lent. Growing up Baptist, Lent was not something my family observed and it wasn’t until attending an Anglican church during our years in Kenya that I came to embrace and appreciate the practice of preparing for Easter and the passion of Christ through 4o days of simple living and a renewed sense of self-examination. Each year Lent provides me the opportunity to take a long, loving look at my life in order to recognize how I have wandered away from God’s love, grace, compassion, and forgiveness. It is a chance once again to return home.

You see, this year, more so than in recent years, I hunger for quiet. The noise of 2016 has yet to fade and I long to rid myself of the divisiveness I have allowed in my own life. I have grown weary of being ‘against’ so many things, leading only to confusion and misunderstanding. More than ever I long to be ‘for’ . . . for peace, for grace, for justice, for love. I long to speak out ‘for’ the things that promote equity and impartiality for all of God’s creatures.

Tonight as I sat in the midst of fellow worshipers and prayed from the Book of Common Prayer, the words spoke anew as if written moments ago rather than hundreds of years prior. The words challenged me to look at these next 40 days as a chance to rid myself of those things that hold me down and  instead seek calm and silence. Rather than give up wine or chocolate or Facebook (although I could stand to get rid of them all), this year I hope to take on being aware of all I can stand for.

Litany of Penitence from the Book of Common Prayer

Reflections from Sheila

We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives . . .

          I am so impatient, with my husband and son and coworkers and bad drivers and people who don’t vote the way I do. I confess to you, Lord.

Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people . . .

          How often do I take advantage of others, waiting for my turn to speak rather than listening with my whole heart? I confess to you, Lord

Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves . . .

          How jealous and envious I am of parents whose kids are “perfect” and people with bigger bank accounts and women who seem to always have it together. I confess to you, Lord.

Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work . . .

           How easily my eyes rest on things that don’t last and how often I look for short cuts. I confess to you, Lord.

Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us . . .

           Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. My daily rush causes me to forget You, the one who made me. I confess to you, Lord.

Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty . . .

          Wrong; I’m so often wrong. I look the other way far too often, ignoring needs that are right under my nose, worrying about what others think instead of laying it all on the line in order to stand up for the vulnerable and underserved. Accept my repentance, Lord.

For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us . . .

          Contempt; what an ugly word. Disdain for those who aren’t like me, forgetting that You made us all in Your image. Accept my repentance, Lord.

For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us . . .

       How can I be more aware of Your creation, this amazing planet You have allowed us to inhabit for a small moment in time? How can I support those working towards guarding our natural resources rather than taking them for granted through overuse and neglect? Accept my repentance, Lord.

Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us . . .

       Thank You for this next 40 days. Restore me. Make me aware. Fill me with life. Hear me, for Your mercy is great.

Accomplish in us the work of your salvation, that we may show forth your glory in the world.

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A Phone Call with My Daddy

 

phone

There are all kinds of reasons I’ve called my father through the years. In high school I called to check-in, letting him know I’d safely arrived somewhere. During college (and at times beyond) I called to ask for money or car-advice. One of my favorite phone calls while living in Kenya was when my daddy called me to tell me O.J Simpson was driving down a highway with what seemed to be the entire world following him in slo-mo chase cars. (I kid you not; he called me in Kenya to tell me that.)

These days I call more to listen than to talk. At 90 my daddy is alert and aware but I’ve noticed of late that past experiences often seem more real to him than the present. So I’ll often ask about his childhood or young adulthood. I ask about his thoughts on different events. I listen and record and take it all in.

Tonight’s call was prompted by the day that will live in infamy. December 7th. Pearl Harbor. It was also prompted by my desire to hear my dad’s voice. I thought he might be in the mood to reminisce and I thought correctly. He shared some simple memories of that infamous day from his perspective. As our conversation came to a close, talk turned to the here-and-now, transitioning from 75 years ago to this moment. I was reminded why Daddy has always been one of the first people I call in this thing we call life. With a few simple words he reminded me that I was loved, that those who hold my heart are dearly loved, and that hope, well, hope is what keeps us going.

***********************************************************************

“Hey Daddy. Whatcha doin’?”

“Just got done eatin’ some squash and greens. Jordan grew the squash, I think.”

“I had peanut butter toast. I got home late and everyone had already eaten leftover chili so I just had peanut butter toast. What did you do today?”

“Went to the eye doctor. They, hmmm, Margie? What is that they did to my eyes?” he asked.

“Dilated. They dilated your eyes,” she said.

“Dilated. They put these drops in your eyes and it stings a bit. Have you ever had your eyes dilated?”

“I have. Just a few months ago. It makes them feel weird,” I said. “Daddy, do you know what today is?”

“Wednesday.”

“Do you know what the date is?”

“December 7th. Pearl Harbor.”

“Daddy, do you remember Pearl Harbor?”

“Of course I remember Pearl Harbor. We were living down by the airport. It seems like along   about that time there was a lot of activity around Sarasota. You know that was a training base back then so the government could use it. I remember one night a plane took off and it didn’t get high enough and hit a pine tree and crashed to the ground and burned up. Right in front of Ringling. They died – all nine of them in that bomber,” he said.

“Oh Daddy. They all died?”

“They sure did. Burned up.”

“You were 15-years-old then.”

“Was I? I’ll be.”

“You were. Do you remember if people were scared when they heard about Pearl Harbor?”

“Well, I suppose we were all scared a bit but nobody was running around crazy or anything. You know there was a lot of activity over in Arcadia, too. They did training for smaller planes over there; fighter planes and such. They’d send boys over there to learn.”

“Do you know why they sent them to Arcadia? Why Arcadia?”

“I don’t really know. They had an airport over there. There was a grocery store down near our place. Tallevast Grocery. A man by the name of Perry owned it. He went over to Arcadia to teach those boys how to fly. I don’t know if that Perry man is still around. He knew how to fly planes so they got him to teach the boys.”

“I wonder where he learned to fly.”

“I have no idea. You know they’d ship those boys out of Tallevast. They’d come marching by our  house on their way to Tallevast—a thousand of ‘em— to catch a train to ship out to go over there.”

“Where would they ship them to?”

“I don’t know. Probably up north somewhere. You know, daddy and I helped build that airport when they were putting up new buildings and such.”

“I remember.”

“No you don’t.”

“I mean I remember you telling me that  you and Granddaddy helped to build it,” I said.

“Oh. I see. (Pause) Sam called me the other night. They’re living over there near Orlando.”

“Oh daddy, I’m glad he called you. How’d he sound?”

“He’s doing fine. I talked to the girl, too, I think. I bet you miss, Sam.”

“Sometimes I really do miss him daddy,” I said.

“And that Nathan off in Mississippi. I bet you miss him, too.”

“I miss him a lot, daddy.”

“And Jack?”

“Well, Jack’s still here, daddy. I don’t miss him yet.”

(laughing) “That’s right; he’s still there in high school. Jack. He’ll be okay, that one. He will. You wait.”

“I think so, too; I do.  I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, too,” he said. “Get yourself some rest.”

 

 

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Today. Love.

This afternoon Devan and I attended the funeral mass of a young man, 18 years old, killed in a road accident just a few days ago. This young man, a friend of our son’s, lived one street over and as a middle school student would spend time playing basketball in our driveway or skateboarding up and down our street. While out walking our dog Tuesday, this young man drove by; he stopped, waved, and said, “How are you, Mrs. Veatch?” In less than 9 hours, that young man would be dead.

Jack accompanied us to the funeral, a sense of dread showing on his face. Right before we left to drive to the church, he said, “I don’t think I do funerals well” and I sensed how uncomfortable he was to be attending a service for a friend whose life was cut short at 18. Jack has encountered few deaths in his almost 17 years, especially of anyone he knew personally, especially of an age-peer. Death is for the old, the sick, those who have lived their lives; as Henry Melville said, “Youth is immortal; tis the elderly only grow old.” But those of us who have lived longer know differently.

During the service I watched Jack out of the corner of my eye; stoic, unsmiling, holding back tears; and as I watched him I felt conflicted. Part of me longed to pick him up, that big man-child, and hold him close to provide comfort. I longed for him to be 6 or 7 or 9, young enough so I could physically manage his whereabouts and his choices, defending him from the world and its dangers. Another part of me wanted to just shake him and scream, “Please don’t be stupid. Don’t put yourself in harm’s way. Can’t you see what can happen?” But of course, I did neither. Instead I sat and listened and prayed for the mother and father seated in the front of the church, watching as they experienced a pain like no other.
I also found myself thinking of another funeral, one that took place over 40 years ago. My own brother Jimmy, then not much older than the one whose service I was attending today, was also killed in a car accident late one night. My own brother whose birthday was this very day, October 2nd. If his life had not ended on that dark road, today we would be celebrating his 64th year. But he is not 64 – I cannot even imagine – and he will instead be always frozen in youth. So many times I’ve heard my father say what he wouldn’t give to go fishing with Jimmy just one more time. One more meal together. One more talk. One more chance to Love.

I don’t want to read anything into the fact that on today, my brother’s birthday, I would find myself at a memorial service for another . . . but I would be amiss if I did not pause and consider the mystery of it all. Life. Death. Youth. Age. At 18 many think they are invincible. At 64 and beyond most realize they are not. How do I convince my own son that life is not a given, that at any moment an accident or an illness could change everything? That the harsh words he sometimes chooses could be the last words he speaks? I cannot. He, like each of us, must come to that realization himself and no shaking, screaming or controlling on my part can make that decision for him or for anyone. What I can do, however, is Love.

At the end of the day . . . at the end of our lives . . . Love is really all there is. God’s Love for us. Our Love for God and others. Love. Love that holds back piercing and wounding words, replacing them with thoughtful listening and care. Love that sees beyond differences and instead embraces them. Love that lets go of control and demands and, instead, creates healthy boundaries. And, as I was reminded today, Love that reaches out with each and every breath as if it was its last.

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Keeping It Simple

FullSizeRenderMy middle son has set out on his own and fled to a faraway land. Okay he didn’t quite go it alone and faraway land is probably a stretch. He had accomplices; the family packed his plastic tubs and stack-able bed side table and box of extra-long dorm sheets and a year’s supply of granola bars (the ones in the green box – oatmeal – crunchy – his favorite) into a rented mini-van (Younger brother, “No one cool arrives at college in a mini-van.”) and set out.  Faraway land?  I’ll admit that while Mississippi probably doesn’t sound that foreign to many, when you drop off your son and it takes you almost 13 hours to drive home (in an uncool mini van), well, that qualifies as faraway land in my book, and that faraway land is now home to my precious son  . . .  and now? Now I am grieving.

Don’t get me wrong; I am thrilled for Nathan. His choice of colleges came down to three. One choice was at our doorstep, another in an even more foreign land – Kansas – and the one he chose, Delta State University, in Cleveland, Mississippi. From the moment we first heard of Delta State (shout out to Kathy Batenhorst, Rotary President extraordinaire), it clicked. After touring the campus with his dad in the spring, Nathan returned home excited and committed. Nathan’s choice has been confirmed on so many levels; the university’s president (President LaForge personally responded to a letter I wrote – another story for another time), the Director of the Aviation Department, and the alumni have all reassured that Delta is a special place indeed. My grieving has nothing to do with Nathan’s next step or even that he is so faraway. My grieving is absolutely self-centered.

My middle son, the one who can fill a room with his ever-present smile, is taking that next step. Yes, he will return for visits and will probably live at home a few more summers and I will cook all of his favorite foods and it will “seem” as if everything is normal but in reality, everything has shifted and there is no going back. If he puts off doing laundry until he runs out of clean boxers, well, he owns that now. (The boys have done their own laundry for years but of course I always came through in a crisis.) If he over-sleeps and misses a class, well, he’ll set the alarm the next time. And slowly but surely his need for me, for mom, will evolve, and it is for that shift and change I grieve.

For years we nurture and parent and support. We vicariously participate in their victories (when Nathan ran fast, I felt as though I was keeping pace) and we internally partake in their losses. Nathan will always be my dear, sweet, funny son–the one who always asks, “How was your day mom?” and wrote me silly cards and brought lunch to my office to surprise me–and our close bond is not suddenly dissolved by his venture to college; however, to not admit that our relationship has been affected would be folly. His college years will most likely include incidents that he’ll never divulge or at least not divulge until he’s 30-something and has kids of his own. He’ll develop friendships with others whom I’ll know only by name. He’ll succeed on his own and I have absolutely no doubt that he is ready. Me? It’s taking me a bit longer to accept this new reality but I’ll get there, and a recent conversation with Nathan is one of the reasons why.

Last week Nathan and I took a last-minute day trip to see my daddy. During a phone conversation a few days prior, my dad simply said, “You tell my Nathan to be careful out there in Mississippi,” and there was something in that comment that made me know Nathan needed to see his Papa face-to-face. So I took a day off of work and Nathan cancelled his beach plans and we drove 4 hours one way to deliver Cracker Barrel chicken and dumplings to Papa and Grandma. We ate in the Florida room (what many call the den), plates on our laps, and chatted then defrosted their freezer. Nathan gave Papa a virtual tour of his dorm via a laptop and then we hugged and turned right around to drive home. It was a good visit.

On the drive back Nathan started talking about life goals and how to know for sure and what if he misses something; he verbalized the conversation we all have with ourselves at one time or another.  “What-if-I-choose-the-wrong-major/job/wife/husband” conversation. The big one – the “what-is-God’s-will-for-my-life?” talk. When I was Nathan’s age I had been taught that there was one will- one job, one place, one spouse, one whatever – and if, God forbid, I made the wrong choice on even the tiniest of issues, then my future was doomed or would at least be a duller version of what could have been. (I see this same thought process being applied to our political process and belief system, a list of dos-and-don’ts that can be checked off to ensure one is good to go. If not, well, you’re wrong.)  The simplicity of scripture seems to have been twisted in order to fit our own choices or belief systems, a check-list of good or bad behaviors or beliefs.

My own thoughts on scripture have become far simpler as I age. In one’s zeal to get it right one may miss the simplicity right in front of one’s face.

I shared with Nathan the words of Micah 6:8:

He has shown you oh man what is good

And what does the Lord require of you

But to do justice

And to love mercy and

To walk humbly with your God.

That’s what I want for Nathan, period. It’s what I want for all of my sons and my daughter-in-law and grandchildren that may someday bless my life. What better words than these as my son transitions into life away from home. Regardless of the career he will choose to pursue – whether that career leads to a huge salary or meager means – is Nathan a man who will do justice? Does he have a true concern for peace with a genuine respect for people? Does he embrace mercy as a strength, not a weakness, in the way in which he forgives those who wrong him? Finally, does he walk humbly? Our culture has embraced arrogance as a virtue and strength, the exact opposite of the example of Jesus embodies.

Do justice.

Love mercy.

Walk humbly.

 

Nathan listened and said, “Why have we made it all so complicated?” I ask my self the same question on a daily basis.

God’s will for Nathan . . . and for me? It’s really quite simple.

 

 

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A Girl Named Mary

Nineteen years ago today we were living in Nairobi and I was 4 months pregnant with twin girls. Due to it being my third pregnancy, and the fact that I was carrying twins, I looked and felt “very pregnant”. As I recently reread my journal from that time I was reminded that the twins were quite active and that I felt healthy and hesitantly happy, still surprised to find myself half-way through a pregnancy that had never been expected.

Little did I know on April 19, 1997, just across town in Eastleigh’s Jamaa Maternity Hospital, a young girl was in labor and before day’s end would give birth to a healthy baby, a boy she would name Nathan . . . little did I know that the next 8 months would be some of the most devastating, and joyous, of our lives.

Information on Nathan’s birth mother is limited. According to his birth certificate her name was Mary Nyarual. New Life Home, the extraordinary group that gained custody of Nathan when he was less than 24 hours old, have records describing Mary as a healthy 13-year-old living with her mother and five siblings in Kibera, an impoverished area in the center of the city comprised of overcrowded alleyways and mishmash structures that lean into and grow out of each other. Records note that she and a family member voluntarily signed Nathan over to New Life Home a few weeks before his birth. Nothing is known about Nathan’s birth father and I have chosen not to speculate.

The following is a fictional account of the day Nathan was born, one in which I’ve taken many literary liberties. It is my feeble attempt to honor her, this person whom I’ve never met and yet whose life is so intricately entwined with my own. I’m sure I have not even come close to describing Mary’s life or hardships as I have no idea what she faced but I had to try. Adopting a baby from Kenya—from anywhere—is not heroic or noble; it’s simply the way some of us become parents. No, the hero in this story is Mary Nyarual, a girl undoubtedly scared and fearful and sad. I can think of no better heroine than this girl, this woman, this mother of my son, and today I honor her.
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water-railroad (1)

The rain-filled trenches overflowed the path; the mud oozed up between her toes, her rubber sandals doing little to protect her rough feet. The slippery path coupled with her ungainly body made the simple task of walking to buy morning bread difficult at best, and she felt weary even though the day had barely started, night’s darkness just now being replaced with gray light.

Of late her sleep had been restless; all night she shifted and turned, attempting to find a position that allowed her body to rest in-spite of its bulky state. Sharing such a small space with her mama and siblings left little room for physical comfort and the hard-packed mud floor rarely rewarded one with deep sleep. She went to bed tired and rose weary, especially in the last few days.

Thinking back, she recalled that her monthly bleeding had barely started when it stopped; her youth and naïveté prevented her from asking why. It wasn’t until her school uniform, thin and worn after being handed down from her older sister, began to tighten around her midsection that she wondered at her body’s changes. Her mother’s keen eye noticed as well and was the first to say to Mary, “You are carrying a baby.”

A baby? Her mother’s probing queries and her own disturbing memories soon answered the many questions. A baby? She was a school girl, a bright girl according to her teacher, even though helping her mother care for younger brothers and sisters meant she was not always able to attend. When sKibera_Primary_School_28.10.11.WEBhe could slip away she enjoyed doing sums and reading words; it made her aware of the world beyond Kibera. Before long, however, her threadbare uniform revealed her condition, and the headmistress made it clear Mary must stay home.

 

Her first visit to Jamaa Maternity Home, a mission hospital operated by the Sisters of Our Lady Charity, was terrifying. Terrifying in that no one ever visited a hospital unless one was dying; was she dying? Terrifying to accept that there was a baby growing inside of her and she was yet so young. Terrifying to realize she had no way of caring for a baby; no job, no husband, nothing. It was, oddly enough, comforting as well. It was there she met Sister Purity, a gentle woman who smiled and reassured her with quiet words. Mary returned to the hospital whenever possible; Sister Purity provided vitamins and weighed her and held her hand and murmured, “You are doing well.”

On the last visit the talk had turned to the baby’s nearing delivery; it would only be a month or so. Had they considered the care of the baby? Did they have the means to feed another mouth? Mary’s mother opened her hands and lamented the lack of room, the lack of food, the lack of money, but what choice did they have? What could be done?

Sister Purity spoke of a place that cared for babies, a place that welcomed sick babies and poor babies and abandoned babies. A place that turned no baby away. Mary’s mother looked doubtful. Why would strangers do such a thing? Sister Purity said they believed it was God’s Will. The more the sister talked, the more Mary sensed felt relief. Perhaps this baby would be better off if raised in a place with food and medicine and hope. Perhaps she could return to school. Perhaps.

Mary shook her rambling thoughts away; she needed to find bread and return to her family. As she turned the corner, a stab of pain shot up her legs and into her belly, a pain so sharp as to cause her breathe to jump from her mouth. Balancing herself, she stood frozen as the pain passed and she was able to once again head towards the kiosk. A few minutes passed, perhaps more, when another pain seemed to wrap around her entire body. Was this what Sister Purity had spoken of? Was this her time?

Forgetting the bread, she headed back towards the family’s lean-to, quickening her pace as much as possible in-spite of the mud and intermittent pain. Several times she had to stop to catch her breath but she quickly recovered and soon found herself home.

“Mama? I think it is time.”

Later Mary would recall bits and pieces . . . the bumpy ride in a crowded matatu, the hours of pain and screaming, Sister Purity’s calming voice encouraging her to push and breathe and try. She distinctly remembers the feeling of release when the baby, a boy, finally forced himself into the world, announcing his arrival with small cries.

She looked at him once; a strong boy with strong features. Mary felt urges unknown until this moment . . . urges to protect . . . urges to guard . . . urges to mother. The urges, however, were overshadowed by the decision that had been made. Kissing the baby on his forehead, she called to Sister Purity and gently lifted him away from her and towards the sister’s outstretched arms.

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If you’d like to know more about the work of New Life Home visit http://www.newlifehometrust.org/

“In 1641 in France, the congregation of the Sisters of Our lady of Charity was founded with a specific call to care for marginalized, exploited or sexually and socially abused young girls and women.” To know more about this organization visit http://www.edelvaletrust.org/our-projects/jamaa-mission-hospital/our-story/

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