Channeling Mama

People say I don’t look my mother. Maybe not. But I see and sense a lot of her in me, and I often wonder what she’d think about our current social and political scenes.

About twenty-five years ago (a guessimate), I yielded to the entreaties of my mother to come home for a day or two because of a hurricane approaching the coast of South Carolina. Although I knew we were safe, a couple of the children and I went to Camden to ease her worries. She was sick with the C word, and chemotherapy had stolen her hair and heightened her emotions, especially those concerning her children and grandchildren. Once there, we sat in the den watching, watching, watching as a seemingly endless line of cars attempted the exodus out of Charleston, all bound for safe shelter.  

We grew bored. But what to do? Someone suggested watching a movie, and we agreed this was a swell idea. This was back in the day before Netflix or Prime Video or electronic devices, so someone went to a local video store and rented a couple of movies. As we began watching one of them, Simon Burch, Mama announced in a calm but sure manner that she couldn’t/wouldn’t watch it—why we didn’t know. Everyone else liked it, and after all it was based on a novel by John Updike. There was no pornography or violence, and that little Simon was just adorable.

What could be wrong with Simon Burch? Turns out the problem was little Simon and the challenges he had. He wasn’t really a misfit, but he was different from the other kids…kind of dwarfish. And he wore thick glasses. He had a friend named Joe (Jim Carrey) who didn’t have that many friends either, and the two of them were quite a pair.

Here’s the thing I learned about my mother that evening. She couldn’t bear to see anything in which people who were different, disabled, made fun of, bullied, or suffered, and no matter how much we tried to convince her that Simon was a tough, strong character regardless of his size, it was to no avail. Honestly, I can’t remember what happened that night, whether the majority ruled and she went to her room to read or whether we watched another movie. I just remember the lesson learned: it’s never okay to make fun of others. I already knew that, of course, but that night the reminder hit home more forcefully, maybe because of the weather and maybe the fact that despite her weakened state, she could still fight for what she perceived to be right.

Lately people have been asking what I have against the president. The moment I saw DJT mimic the jerky motions of The New York Times reporter to get a reaction from the crowd (laughter), I knew the kind of man he was. Still, no one’s perfect, and everyone deserves a second chance–maybe even a third or tenth or hundredth. But he never apologized or expressed remorse. Instead the American people and people from all over the world have seen more of the same, each time getting enthusiastic kudos from his fan base. I just don’t get it, y’all. I just don’t.

 I’m also remembering her reaction to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, one of profound sorrow. Last year we traveled to the site of the massacre to honor her memory. That’s a story for another day.

One Christmas Morning

I have thought of that Hefty trash bag every day throughout the Christmas season and feel guilt and shame about the excess most enjoy, myself included. Does that stop me from going headlong into the gift buying and giving during Christmas?

Since I can’t seem to put this memory and the feelings it conjures up to rest, I’m taking a few moments to write about it. Maybe I’ll get some resolution. Maybe not.

Here’s the story. Years ago, I wanted to mix things up a bit in my Human Growth and Development online class. While there was nothing wrong with the written assignments, they got to be, well, boring after a while. So I got the bright idea of having the students write a semester long document with the overall theme of Life’s a Journey. My plan was that they’d start with prenatal life and the variables that went into making them who they were, the ingredients that influenced their journey…like inheriting musical proclivities or athletic prowess; physical attributes went into the mix, too. This blog isn’t going to be long enough to go into the multiple combinations that affect our physical appearance, but you know what I’m talking about. Are you blue-eyed in a brown-eyed world? Tall when everyone else is average (whatever that is)? 

But let’s move forward. In childhood, what was the home like? Were both parents present? Did the family attend church? Was there enough money for the basics? Did the person live in an apartment, a luxurious home, a shelter? And where was this residence—country, city, mountains, seaside? 

I wanted them to see how where they’d already been on their journey could affect where they were at that moment and all the moments in the future. Many students wrote about picking up passengers along the way, including spouses and children, and I recall being impressed by the creativity of that. Sometimes their journeys were bumpy and filled with potholes, and other times it seemed that they whizzed down smooth roads with nary a curve or missed exit.

As we neared the end of the semester, I opened the last of the documents, and things were going along swimmingly until I read the final installation by a young woman who wrote of an unforgettable Christmas. Her parents had been fighting, and there wasn’t much money for gifts, but still, she was hopeful. They had a tree after all, and her mom had cookies set out for Santa.

But the next morning is one that would be forever etched in her memory. She and her mother and little sister woke up in a women’s shelter with all their worldly possessions shoved into a black Hefty trash bag. Her mother, puffy faced and red eyed, was barely holding it together. I can’t remember the details of the story; I might have deliberately suppressed them. I just know there had been a horrible scene, one so haunting that the young woman writing about it not only recalled the trauma decades later but also one that gave her resolve to never, never, never keep company with anyone who drank. 

Like I said, I read this document decades ago, and yet it still disturbs me. I think of that heartbroken, scared little girl awakening in a shelter on Christmas morning and hope her life has done nothing but soar through the years. I remember her story and feel compassion and sadness for all the little children like her, those who have crummy parents and/or no gifts beneath the tree.

I have thought of that Hefty trash bag every day throughout the Christmas season and feel guilt and shame about the excess most enjoy, myself included. Does that stop me from going headlong into the gift buying and giving during Christmas? No. I’m just as likely as others to leap into the commercialism of the season. At the same time, this year on the first day of 2020, I’m resolving to become more aware of the needs of others, especially children, and to do something about them. 

Any ideas?

Shadow Sides

I’m woke. I finally get it. And my awakening came during church yesterday morning.

The speakers gave talks on topics such as love, forgiveness, and following Christ. While sitting there, a character in a short story I’d just read came to mind—Mr. Stovall, a deacon in the Baptist church. In the story, Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun,” a black woman asks him when he’s going to pay her: “When you going to pay me, white man? When you going to pay me, white man? It’s been three times now since you paid me a cent—” Mr. Stovall knocked her down and kicked out her teeth.

Nancy spent the night in jail, attempting suicide toward morning. When the jailer found her, “Nancy was hanging from the window, stark naked, her belly already swelling out a little like a little balloon.” After he revived her, the jailer “beat her, whipped her.”

Barely into the story, I knew

  • that Nancy is black, 
  • that people (including Mr. Stovall, the Baptist deacon) use and abuse her, 
  • that she’s expecting a baby, 
  • and that there’s something sketchy about this pregnancy. 

Who’s the father? We soon learn that it’s not her husband, a man who says white men are allowed to come freely into his house but that he can’t go into theirs. Jesus, the husband, is angry and wants to kill Nancy—or so she believes. Is it because of her behavior or because of his own powerlessness over the abominable situation that exists?

Does Jesus know the father is white? Yes, and so does the reader. The fact that Faulkner makes a point of the interaction between Nancy and Mr. Stovall implies that Stovall is the father—or that it’s someone like him, some respectable white Christian.

But wait. Aren’t Christians supposed to love one another regardless of race or creed? Yes. everyone knows that. And yet. And yet here’s the poor, scared, powerless, penniless black woman carrying a white man’s baby (against her will) who gets her teeth knocked out by a white man who’s quite possibly the baby’s father. And he’s parading around as a Christian. And her husband plans to kill her because of her situation.

Some people see Christians as hypocritical and scary. Honestly, I can understand the hypocritical aspect a little. A bit hypocritical myself, I struggle with always being fair, loving, kind, generous, and forgiving. At the same time, I have to hold back when I hear a Christian dissing someone of another race or religion when they themselves are often cruel, bigoted, and judgmental. I have friends who dislike Mexicans, Muslims, Indians, Hindus, Syrians, Jews, transgender, gay, and any and everybody else whom they either (1) don’t understand or (2) feel superior to. 

My husband has a friend who used to say, “That ain’t right, Bo. That ain’t right.” Although his comments weren’t related to Mr. Stovall types of behavior, they align with the current hate mongering. Being okay with white supremacy and condoning racism, sexism, and all other isms that demonstrate hate, not love, just “ain’t right.”

So here’s my epiphany from yesterday. Neither Mr. Stovall nor thousands like him have personal insight into their shadow sides. They can’t see themselves with a clear eye. And nor can I. Fortunately, I have people in my life who can and do try to help me see the light. I say “try” because I, like you, am a work in progress.

Love How You Can

Love is the word. Love makes the world go ‘round. And then there’s that commandment to love one another.

But what does love mean? And what exactly did Christ’s word really mean? How can we love everyone?

My brother Mike and I sat with our spouses and dozens of other people, all strangers, in the happy, busy, buzzy atmosphere of Abeulo’s in Myrtle Beach Friday night discussing the above questions. Our appetites sated and our moods elevated, we began talking about the homeless, the tired, the needy and what our responsibility was to them.

“We’re supposed to love everyone,” Mike said, not in a preaching way, just stating a reminder of something the four of us already knew, and he and I began to toss thoughts and feelings back and forth. I said my heart hurt as I thought of the Syrian refugees, especially the mothers and those little children. They’re as “precious in His sight” as my own grandchildren who had the good fortune to be born in America to parents who love them.

Did we come to a consensus or vow to devote ten percent of our time and money towards aid for the less fortunate? No. In fact, the only things we agreed on were (1) charity begins at home and we need to be more loving and kind to the people we live with and (2) we need to ponder Christ’s words and their implication for our lives.

Later that night I recalled Aaron Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love. There are several kinds of love, including one called plain old “liking,” but the ideal love is consummate love. Consummate love is comprised of intimacy, passion, and commitment and is an ideal towards which many aspire. Not everyone is fortunate enough to experience consummate love, however, and even if it were possible, it’s not the type of love one can feel towards everyone.

I’ll spare you the rest of my pondering about Sternberg’s theory and its application to Christ’s commandment. It’s quite interesting and something you can easily find and read more about online. What popped in my mind as I was thinking of Sternberg is something a former colleague of mine quipped one afternoon as some colleagues were chatting about an office romance. The chatter turned into a heated discussion as people began to actually take sides. This is going nowhere I thought and was about to leave when someone said, “There are a lot of ways to love, Folks. People love how they can.”

There are a lot of ways to love, Folks. People love how they can. What I love (there’s that word again) is that it cuts right to the chase and, without embellishment or hifalutin theories, speaks volumes. I can’t take everyone home to raise or join the Peace Corps or round up all the homeless people or love people who abuse children. I can’t. But I can love how I can.

Saturday afternoon I parked my car toward the back of the parking lot at HomeGoods in Myrtle Beach. After I turned off the ignition, I read a couple of texts and was in the middle of responding to the second one when someone thumped on the passenger side window. Momentarily startled, I looked around to see a face (no description because of the situation) that I perceived as non-threatening, so I lowered the window.

“Hello, Ma’am. Don’t be afraid. I’m harmless. My name is ____________, and I’m a Vet who hasn’t been able to find a job no matter how hard I’ve tried, and I just need some money for a meal. Can you help Old _________ out?” All of this was delivered in one long string while I stared at her, recalling the conversation of the night before. I found the change purse my husband had bought me as a souvenir in Denali on a land/sea cruise we lucky ducks had taken and rummaged through it until I found a ten dollar bill. I gave it to the kindly-looking, well-spoken, middle-aged woman standing at the window, and off she went.

Was I crazy to have done that? She wasn’t dirty, disheveled, or lean—just the opposite. She asked, I gave. No questions asked.

If Mike is reading this, my answer to our questions Friday night is that you (all of us) love how you can.

 

But I Was Right!

I have an internal moral compass. I really do. At the same time, regular church attendance helps me keep it pointed north. Without the lessons I pick up and the fellowship I enjoy with my ward family, I’d probably be more inclined to lie, steal, cheat, and so forth.

Yesterday, I was reminded of the power of forgiveness, the layers of meaning in the parables of Christ, and the importance of making one’s home a place of order, refuge, protection, and holiness. Nothing I heard was new, but all I heard was shared in such a way that it pierced my heart and renewed my resolve to be a better person.

In the first service of the day, a speaker told a powerful story that illustrated love, peace, and forgiveness. A person had committed a transgression of a serious nature, and his bishop counseled him on the wrongdoing. Lest there be some doubt, the sin was a serious one. After the “talk,” the person who had received the counsel was offended, and so was his family, so upset and hurt that they didn’t feel they could return to church.

Here’s what happened. The bishop’s leader talked with him about the matter and indicated that an apology to the man and his family was in order.

“But I was right,” the bishop insisted. “What he was doing was wrong and needed to stop.”

His leader again encouraged him to apologize. “Someone was hurt. See if you can handle the situation with more love.”

The bishop did as he was advised, and the hearts of the man and his entire family were softened, and yes, the behavior changed for the better. The man, a sinner like me and like you, responded to compassion and understanding in a positive manner. He, like all of us, had responded to condemnation and blame with hurt and anger.

Yesterday’s speaker went on to add that this situation had applications for all of us. It doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. If you’ve offended someone by your words or actions, apologize. Failure to do so could lead to family, both church and kin, rifts that can never be repaired. Bitterness will ensue.

In Sunday school, the teacher helped her listeners better understand the deeper meanings of several parables. In a graduate class entitled The Principles of College Teaching, I learned that there are several types of teachers. Actually, I already knew that, but what I didn’t know was that even in this nuts and bolts methodology course, Christ was perceived to be the master teacher. Asking, demonstrating, and telling stories, He’s the teacher to emulate.

In the final meeting of the day, the teacher shared ideas about making homes places of order, refuge, protection, and holiness. I was already familiar with everything she said, and yet there was something about the spirit in the room that caused me to sit up and take notice. All throughout her lesson, I kept looking at a collection of children’s building blocks that she had on the table. What was their purpose? 

Anne, the teacher, built a wall with the blocks, an object lesson that literally rocked my world. I told my husband about it last night, and something in the story prompted him to wash the dishes! I shared it with my daughter Elizabeth, and even she, a teacher, was impressed. I’m going to buy some wooden blocks and carry out he activity with my grandchildren soon. It was that good!

Everyone needs gentle reminders of how to live better, happier, more peaceful lives. And while you don’t have to be a church goer to hear those reminders, I most definitely do!

Want to share something you’ve recently learned that can improve the quality of your relationships?