Weeds.

IMG_0275Lemme tell y’all how I feel about the long, choking, vine-y weeds one finds here in Kentucky. They may be all over the place, but I’ve never seen anything like them until I first tried to maintain a yard here.

I despise them.

They pop up out of nowhere. Innocuous and tiny one day, like huge ropey snakes the next, threatening to squeeze the life out of whatever flower or shrub they’ve wrapped themselves around. There are many types of weeds…I know this. But this particular brand–whatever it’s called (and I do not care) makes me crazy.

It’s almost rage, and it bubbled right up when I saw that this one had begun wrapping itself around one of my azalea bushes, when I swear to you that two days ago the damn weed was not even there!

Gah. Despise. 

The only word for them is insidious–persistent in their quiet destruction, escalating to a major chore over a few steaming hot days and one hard rain.

I ripped this thing out of the ground so hard. So fast. Maybe said a few colorful words as I did, realizing it isn’t even June yet, so a whole bunch of these things will rear their ugly pervasive heads over the next few months. They have to be dealt with posthaste. Forthwith (just like Danny Reagan says a least once an episode on Blue Bloods). If you don’t…well…they thrive, and the next thing you know Grandma’s daisies are getting a boa constrictor type of treatment.

I know–I know what you’re thinking. It’s just a weed. A simple growing thing that you’ve already plucked right out. Chill, Jules. 

But y’all, there’s the thing–they remind me of so many things in this life–So. Many. Things.–that have the same effect on us, both as individuals and as communities.

Things like grief. Shame. Rage. If such things are not dealt with, resolved, talked through so that they no longer control the landscape of your life…in the end, they will strangle any possibility of hope or joy.

Things like hate. Greed. Narcissism. These guys–I mean good lord how they can rip apart lives and communities, wrapping their tentacles of manipulation and isolation around us until we can’t even breathe with any ease at all, so tense and afraid and angry we become.

Things like shattered dreams–the way they keep flashing in front of us in bouts of sorrow or occasional nightmares or moments of “what might have been,” so much that we are unable to move forward, out of what we feel has wrecked our lives and into what might be waiting for us on the other side of the wreckage.

We were made for so much more. Hardwired, as Brene Brown says, for connection; created to live in love. And weeds–my metaphorical ones, anyway–they cut us off from the very things we need to live, and corner us into lesser versions of ourselves.

I had a very conscious thought tonite as I tore at the very root of that weed, pulling with vigor, determined to get it, that I could just as easily be pulling at any number of situations or experiences that have been cause for sadness or anger or frustration or fear.

We all have them. 

But here’s what I know: it’s possible to pull the suckers out; or, at least, talk them out, work them out, figure them out, so that they are no longer so threatening, no longer able to dominate our hearts, no longer able to keep us from being all that we were meant to be.

And yes, they’ll pop back up from time to time. But you’ll learn to see them coming. Learn to grab ’em while they are just tiny little thoughts and not great huge monsters. You’ll clear them out, quicker this time.

And when you do, you will find that what is left is space for grace to do its mighty, merciful work of pulling back together the pieces of your heart, so that goodness has room to riot again. 

 

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Good Bones

A writing friend and clergy colleague gifted me with a poem this week. Perhaps you’ve heard it before. It’s by Maggie Smith and it reads:

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

I’ve read it maybe a dozen times in the last 24 hours, and placed it in every context of my life as truth.

I remembered standing, well over a year ago, in the front room of what would become Curly Girl’s and my home, the place filthy and neglected, my eyes taking it all in and my heart feeling this strange patter of “This is it,” and my realtor, who has known me for years, watching me, and saying, “You see something, don’t you, Julie?”

I remembered CG and I yelling at each other one recent, stressful evening, the way headstrong mothers and daughters sometimes do, both of us just out of sorts and irritated at the whole world. “I didn’t know I could talk to you like that,” she said, mollified, as I sat there, stunned at at the truth that she really is no longer a baby and we are so much more alike than anyone realizes. “It’s okay,” I said, “It will probably happen again. And it will be okay, and we will always get through it. Because I love you, no matter what.” And we both cried. And then laughed–loudly–at ourselves.

I remembered words I wish I hadn’t said. Situations I wish I’d handled differently. Relationships I have lost and ones I have found and how quickly life can change and how different it can feel after trauma or loss. I remembered how much I get wrong in this life.

I remembered my fears for this world we live in and what’s going to become of us, especially in these United States, if we keep up this insistence on political and idealogical hatred and division. And I remembered everything I love about being an American.

I remembered everything I fear for my daughter–because this whole world, this whole life, can be a real shithole, and I am very guilty of selling her a framework of beauty and hope, even as she has known the truth that sometimes the beauty and hope get dashed against the realities of heartache and betrayal.

Damn if I don’t believe Smith’s words with all I’ve got. That this life, this world, this journey we’re on–it’s got good bones. Just like our sweet little Cape Cod with it’s oddities and quirks and chipped hardwood floors. Just like the relationships that have held. Just like a mother and daughter who might rail against each other but who also have an unbreakable bond born of a love that cannot ever be destroyed. Just like our country–where so much good has happened right alongside so much evil.

For every moment of mercy there is one, it seems, of destruction. I know this–I see it every day. And yet, I believe the mercy will win.

Because we have good bones. 

I still believe that love is worth risking. That new beginnings are possible. That we can love each other better. That we can be who God intended us to be. That all is not lost.

Because we have good bones.

I know–there’s all sorts of evidence to the contrary. So much is wrong. But I want to sell us all the world, invest in it deeply, so that we are determined to protect our investment and make it beautiful.

Wherever you’ve got good bones–in your family, your relationships, your homes, your communities, your workplaces–honor them. Cling to them. Trust that there is a foundation around you that will not fall. That you are held in the grip of something bigger than you. And that in this is the strength you need to do the beautiful-making.

It’s possible to make this place beautiful. 

 

 

Because love does not have an agenda. Full stop.

“Loving people means caring without an agenda. As soon we have an agenda, it’s not love anymore.” — Bob Goff, Everybody Always

***

Friday night my house was full of some of my most favorite people. People who I can honestly say love me just for me. I am profoundly thankful for this gift, and probably do not tell them often enough how much it matters to me. I mean, I’m a lot y’all, and at any given moment can be equally as on-the-verge of tears and laughter as I am righteous indignation or complete frustration. Jacked up like we all are, and so not so easy to love, much of the time.

What I’m saying is, if you’ve got such people, hold on to them. Tight as hell. It is not to be taken for granted.

Because here’s the thing: if there are conditions attached, it is not love. And if there is an agenda at work (no matter how subtle and well-meaning) it is also not love (thanks, Bob Goff).

It might be care. It might be affection. It might be a very good-hearted effort at wanting to help someone. But it is not love.

Whether you’re talking about romantic love or friendship love or family love or the kind of love we claim to have if we’re people of faith–love is not about fixing. Love is not about changing. Love is not about asking a person to be someone they’re not.

I cannot tell you how hard the way I have learned this has been. I used to believe that if I loved hard enough, I could change a person. If I could just say the right words, act the right way, do the right thing, everything hard and complicated would go away and everything would come up roses and kittens and sunshine.

Long story short: not so much. You can’t really love a person if you’re out to do such fixing, such changing…because if that’s what you’re after, there’s an agenda at stake. And the end result will not be what you’ve imagined.

I promise. Trust me on this.

Look, people are messy. And this makes life even messier. And there is no way around that. And sometimes, you just have to sit in the mess, get right down in the muck with your friend or family member or significant other and allow that, “Yea, this moment we’re in? It sucks. It’s awful. And scary. And maybe we could have even avoided it with some different decisions or actions along the way. Then again, maybe not.”

And then you just sit. You stay. You promise, “I love you,” and you promise that without any goal in mind except the one that matters most: presence.

Presence is maybe the best expression of love. “Holding space,” you sometimes hear it called–this idea that the best we can offer someone is our nonjudgmental, constant, unconditional, prayerful presence in the midst of whatever life has handed her. And no matter what demons he is battling.

(NOTE: Just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about staying in harmful relationships, or toxic friendships, or enabling addicts or narcissists or abusers or other forms of painful relationship here. Sometimes, the very best decision you can make is the one to walk away.)

We’re super good at throwing the word “love,” around. We talk a big game about “peace and love,” and loving past politics and socioeconomic divides and different ways of living our lives. And mostly I think this is total BS. Because so, so often, I think we secretly (and arrogantly) hope that whoever we are professing to love “just as they are,” will actually become what we wish that person was–someone who believes like we do or acts like we want them to act or…whatever, you get my point.

Non-BS loving just says, “I love you,” and leaves it at that. Just, “I love you.” Just like you are. Even when you are getting on my last nerve. Even when I see you being your own worst enemy. Even when the ugliest parts of you are on display (because I know the most beautiful ones, too).

I have been very guilty of BS-love. Maybe you have too.

A very wise pastor once said to me, “Julie, you have many gifts. But what I hope more than anything for you is that you one day discover that YOU are the real gift. Just you. No matter what you can do for others, no matter what talents you have, no matter what things you accomplish–YOU are the gift.”

I’ve held on to his words as, at this point in my life, I’ve sought out relationships that are not dependent on what I can do or produce or make happen or excel at. Relationships that value just me…as broken and jumbled and messy as I am.

The thing is, when we learn to love without agenda, without seeking change, when we truly love someone where she’s at, or simply for who he is, the result is that we learn to love ourselves the same way.

And this is everything. Because we have been fearfully and wonderfully made.

There’s a man in my life who means a great deal to me, and a few weeks ago, he took me to a family gathering, where I’d be meeting one of his cousins–a lifelong best friend cousin who is very important to him.

I said, “I think I’m a little nervous. I mean, this is family that’s so important to you. I don’t want to mess up.”

And he said, “Just be you.”

Just be you.

Three little words, packing a mighty punch.

Y’all, if we could say this to each other, to ourselves, every day, and really mean it, really live it…good lord. I cannot even imagine what a difference it would make.

Just be you. And let those you profess to love just be them. With everything I am, I have come to believe that it is only through this kind of non-BS, non-agenda, real loving that we’ve got any hope of moving past division, brokenness, and pain, and into the truth of what it means to set aside our agendas, our arrogance, our determination that our ways are the best ways, and our insistence on our own false certainties, and discover something much more beautiful and whole–maybe, even, everything good about what it means to be human.

It is a hard thing, what I’m suggesting. As hard for me as anyone. But I think it matters more than we can even begin to know.

With love, y’all. — JER

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wakonda/LPAS Mashup

Last weekend I finally saw Black Panther. It’s intense, for sure, and like every Marvel movie I’ve seen so far (having only relatively recently been converted to fandom), has some really amazing things to say about what it means to be human, what it means to live in community, what it means to watch each other’s back and hold on (hard) to your tribe. I’m stunned and inspired by the way these stories, often dismissed as “just comics,” speak with such depth and clarity to so much of what is both awful and beautiful about this life.

The Monday morning after came early, as I took off on a long-anticipated(in our house), albeit quick, trip. Three busloads of 5th graders and a appropriately corresponding number of chaperones. 6am Monday to 9pm Tuesday. City Museum, the St. Louis Arch, pizza and arcade games, the St. Louis Zoo and the Cahokia Mounds (Google it—I had no idea!).

Exhausted just thinking about it, aren’t you?

I could tell you some funny stories. And there are certainly some inside jokes that will go down in history. And a minor tween crisis averted here or there that would make for good storytelling. But what I really want to be sure to say is this: I just experienced close to 150 fifth graders and their parents and teachers being tribe.

Tribe. It’s your people. The ones you hold accountable and are accountable to. The ones you don’t always like but that you always love. The ones who know you and love you anyway, or maybe don’t know you well at all but choose to love you because you are THEIRS.

And I feel like what I’ve known these last 36 hours is a particular sort of tribe—it’s a chosen tribe, a tribe forged out of these kids and their teachers working hard for the last several years at taking care of each other while they learned their lessons and sang their songs and played their instruments and acted on their stage. It’s a tribe born of a vision of some very talented and compassionate and capable leaders who then set about making that vision a reality. Truthfully, we won’t all stay in touch, and with the school year almost over some of us may never see each other again, but that doesn’t change that we’ve walked these last two days together. In that way I guess it’s only a temporary tribe—but still, I’ll take it.

Because here’s the thing–those three busloads of kids were a complete cross-section of our city—maybe even our country.

Some of us travel frequently, and have all the gear, all the things, all the fancy luggage, all the monogrammed bags, all that you need (and some stuff you don’t) to take a trip. And some of us have never left the state of Kentucky.

Some of us are hotel pros and can give you a list of what’s best and worst about our favorite chain. And some of us have never even stayed at a hotel of any kind, and are surprised to discover you don’t need to bring your own towel and that probably the manager will even find you some toothpaste if you need it.

Some of us dine out frequently and can order quickly and politely no matter what age we are. Others haven’t eaten out much at all aside from fast food, and so simply telling a kind waitress what you’d like to drink becomes a major milestone.

We are all different colors. We span the full spectrum of any sort of socioeconomic continuum. We are single parents and long and happily married couples. We are Republicans and Democrats. We are people of faith and we are not so much. We are high achievers and we are those who struggle to read. We are well-fed and we are malnourished. We are well-loved and we are survivors of abuse and neglect. We are all scarred somewhere inside—and some of us show it. We are Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School, and the expectation we’ve been given is that at LPAS, we are family. And so we’d better act as such.

And so we do—and our kids are so much better for it.

I cried this morning with a friend and fellow parent as we shared a story about a kid our own children have known since kindergarten, and who we know struggles in ways we cannot imagine in this life. And when I saw one of the educators sweep that same kid into a sincere and welcoming hug as we walked into the zoo this morning, and the kid burst into a grin, my heart sang—because for one moment, he was safe. Held fast. Reminded he is loved and that he matters.

I smiled deep inside as I saw my daughter run off across a field at one of our stops, shrieking with laughter, friends calling after her, and I breathed immediate thanks that she is able to know such joy given all the sorrow she has also known.

I felt my heart flood with gratitude as I watched teachers love fiercely and lead compassionately and give so selflessly of their time and talent because they love these kids of ours as their own. They really, truly do.

And then I thought of T’ Challa, the Black Panther (Were you thinking I wouldn’t come back around to that?), and his words at the movie’s end, as he’s speaking to the United Nations about his new understanding of what it means to part of a global community:

We will work to be an example of how we as brothers and sisters on this earth should treat each other. Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.

One single tribe, y’all. What happens to one of us matters to all of us, because eventually, in ways we don’t even realize, what happens to one of us happens to all of us.

Look, I know I’m only writing a variation on a Julie-theme here, and maybe even preaching to the choir. But that’s okay. We need reminding. I do, anyway. It’s much easier to write about being one tribe than it is to actually live it, and I can assure you the struggle is real for me, too. There are plenty of folks I know I’d just as soon never interact with again…but that’s not how life rolls.

There are a million things constructed to tear us apart. Myriad labels designed to divide. News spins created to fortify those illusions of division. But in the end, what matters is that this life is best done, most fully lived, together. We need each other, whether we like it or not.

Impossible? Maybe. Only I just watched it happen. And maybe it was just a couple of days. And maybe it won’t make a difference for everyone.

But if even half–hell, if even a quarter!–of the kids on that trip remember that, once, for 48 hours, they held equal footing, equal sway, equal love, equal voice–then I can’t help but think it could move the needle of our existence a bit further from chaos and bit closer to wholeness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakfast Club Remix

“We’re all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that’s all.”

The Breakfast Club

My favorite movie, hands down, is The Breakfast Club, and if you know me much at all, you’ve probably heard me say that before. When I was doing youth ministry, I kept the classic movie poster associated with the flick up in my office. I’ve preached about it. Written about it. And can quote it endlessly. It’s super annoying to actually watch the movie with me. Because I say the words right along with the actors:

Does Barry Manilow know you raided his wardrobe?

Is that clear Mr. Bender? / Crystal.

Eat. My. Shorts. 

You get my point. I love, love, love TBC. And I used it in youth ministry all the time because it’s a great exploration of what it means to get past our surface opinions and stereotypes and really get to know the heart of another person. Look, I know it’s all midwestern white kids–so in terms of real diversity, it’s, well…not so much. Still, there are lessons to be learned as Claire, Brian, John, Andy and Allison discover the things about them that are not so different as they thought. Important lessons, about really digging in and being brave enough to see that the one person you thought you’d never have anything in common with suddenly gets you in a way you didn’t know was possible.

When I first learned to love TBC, what I saw is how different they all were: “…the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess and the criminal.” Each one of them so caught up in the way they’d allowed their families and social circles to define them that they could not see past the great divide of socioeconomic status. And learning to see past those differences becomes the lesson of their time together in Saturday detention.

Every March, a reminder goes around social media that it was on March 24th that the events of TBC took place. I smiled when I saw it this year, and took a sweet little trip down my TBC memory lane.

And then…then something struck me. I remembered it differently this time. Life experience, perhaps, lending a new lens. Here’s what occurred to me: It isn’t so much how different they all are that cuts to the chase. It’s how broken.

It’s how completely broken they are, each in their own way, and how that brokenness feeds their disconnect from one another. 

Brian’s under so much pressure to excel academically he is actually contemplating (sort of) suicide. His reason for landing in detention amounts to a cry for help. John–well, it’s his MO. It’s what he’s known for, the constant trouble-making–and, generally speaking, we all often live up to what we’re “known for,” even when it isn’t in our best interest. Claire and Andy are caught in the demands of being popular–it’s hard to feel sorry for them at first, but something about them always got to me by the end, and I found myself seeing their popularity as more of a prison than anything else. And then there’s Allison–a question mark of a kid if there ever was one, but clearly battling her own demons.

Y’all, it isn’t that we’re all a little bizarre, and some of us hide it better than others, it’s that we’re all a little (or a lot) broken…smashed to bits by one thing or another in this life. And that brokenness, it can do one of two things. It can destroy us, or, it can lead us into more of what we were meant to be in the first place.

Some of us hide the brokenness better than others. Push it back from the forefront of our lives with practiced skill. This is never a winning strategy. Best case scenario, it leaves us unable to really live, just putting one foot in front of the other as we try to simply survive. Worst case scenario, it creates a denial that can often lead to bullying and anger. It never heals this way–just festers, infecting everything with its insistence on being known.

It is only when we face the brokenness, sit with it, gather up the wreckage and admit its having knocked us down, breathless, worn and afraid, that we’re able to find a way past it and into something whole (even if scarred at the edges). This is exactly what the TBC five do as they sit in that circle toward the movie’s end, the reality of their lives being made plain in heart-wrenching–and yet healing–ways.

The great question of course, is Brian’s game-changer of a query at the movie’s end, “What happens on Monday?” What happens when they return to the reality of of their life at school? In the moment together they’ve deconstructed the things that kept them apart.

Brian’s question is never really answered. Not in full. And we never find out if that deconstruction holds–we’re just given a glimpse, as they are, of what could be. Of what’s possible beyond what they’ve known.

I’d argue that such glimpses are the very things life is made of. The very thing that makes seeing past the brokenness possible. The very thing that helps us see that what could happen on Monday is something new, something brilliant, something that helps us rise, strong, from painfully shattered dreams and face the possibility of new dreams, new realities, new ways of being.

Lemme get churchy for a hot second here: In my faith tradition, Christianity, it’s Holy Week, the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, the week where we remember Jesus’ betrayal, death, and resurrection. Just so you know, I am not so much interested in the exact facts of how it all went down. What I believe, with every fiber of my being, is that something so powerful, so redemptive, so game-changing, happened in the lives of Jesus and his followers that nothing was ever the same again. Including our brokenness. I believe something about the life and death of Jesus meant that wholeness and healing are possible, no matter what.

There’s a song I love–it’s called Broken Things, by Lucy Kaplansky, and it sings this:

You can have my heart
If you don’t mind broken things
You can have my life
If you don’t mind these tears
I heard that you make old things new
So I give these pieces all to you
If you want it, you can have my heart

I also believe, with every fiber of my being, that life together, life lived in the love that God meant for us to live in, is the kind of life that takes old and broken things and makes them new. And I’ve no idea if John Hughes believed that too when he made The Breakfast Club…but I can’t help thinking he must have, somewhere, known the truth that in each of us dwells such heartache. And also, in each of us, dwells a desire, even if we cannot quite name it, to be whole.

And it is in working towards that desired wholeness that I believe we truly find our salvation from that which has threatened to destroy us.

We’re all a little (or a lot) broken…and the question is what we plan to do with that brokenness…on Monday, or any other day. 

No matter how “bizarre” we might be. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Middle School: 8 things I’m already thinking about…

(Inspired by two tweens I know–very different from each other in some ways, very alike in others. Both of whom have known heartache and loss; both of whom are talented and full of potential; both of whom are just months away from middle school.  One is my daughter. One is our sweet friend. I spent time around them both this last weekend, and I have not stopped thinking about what’s ahead for them since. This post is for them.)

We recently found out where CG will be going to middle school. It’s a complicated system where we live, in terms of public school, and so now that we have an answer we can relax a little and enjoy what’s left of 5th grade in the world’s best public elementary school (no seriously…it is).

But…

Middle. School.

My beautiful, tender-hearted, independent, opinionated girl–thrown to the chaos that will be her middle school years.

When I was doing youth ministry, I would often say to parents, “Look, it’s going to suck. I’m sorry. It just is. But you will get through it. You will survive. And so will they. But it’s going to be hard.” Those years–gah. They’re this vast battlefield of mean girls and raging hormones and bullies and fear and insecurity.

I moved from Texas to Georgia between Christmas and the new year when I was in 8th grade; from a large junior high in south Texas that was very diverse and very chaotic and often a bit more than I could handle, to a quiet, small town middle school where everyone had been going to school together since kindergarten and I was “that new girl that moved in next to Larry’s house.” (Shoutout to Larry–because he was my first friend in Winder, Georgia and we went on to brave high school and college together too, and I’m still grateful for him).

Talk about a whirlwind. It would take a couple of years (and the discovery of high school theater and chorus) to set right how utterly insecure I was at 13, caught in between a whole lot of change and some very chubby cheeks, unattractive glasses, and a mouth full metal.

Later, I’d watch the kids I worked with in ministry dive into middle school, and mostly just hold their breath and paddle furiously and try to find some sense of calm and safety and sometimes even fun amidst the overwhelming nature of it all. Some did this better than others. As is often true, the kids with more money, better looks, athletic prowess or impressive smarts generally rose to the top socially–but even for them, the pain of simply growing up, learning heartache, experiencing betrayal, knowing failure was often enough to bring them to their knees. They broke my heart on a weekly basis, and would often put it back together again, too, with their unexpected moments of grace and compassion, their damaged little souls working hard to make sense of the world and their place in it.

Soon it will be CG’s turn, and even as I feel anxiety rising and fear forming over what the next few years will be like for her, especially in this age of social media and fierce competition and opioid abuse and school gun violence, I try, too, to focus on what I know will help get her through.

And so, because I’m thinking about it, for what it’s worth, in my NON-expert opinion, parents and caregivers of tweens, here’s what I believe helps our kids survive the utter beast of middle school:

  1. Do not believe your child when he or she says, “I hate you and I want you to go away.” What they mostly likely mean is, “I’m scared, and I’m counting on you to love me regardless of what I say, but please don’t go away and please hold me, because I need your strength and love more than I ever have.”
  2. Do believe your child when he or she is behaving or speaking differently than normal. It could just be hormones. It could also be she doesn’t know how to tell you she’s being harassed, or he doesn’t know how to tell you he’s being bullied.
  3. Ask questions. Not, “How was your day?” because all that’s going to get you is a, “Fine.” But do ask, “Tell me something funny that happened today,” or, “What about today was hard?” or “What are you grateful for today?” She might roll her eyes and ask why you’re so weird. But that’s okay. You’ll live.
  4. Pay attention, but don’t assume the worst. Yes, all the awful things you hear about middle school are possible, but all the good stuff is possible too–kids are often at their most compassionate and driven when they’ve been hurt or are feeling insecure themselves.
  5. Love hard. Love. Hard. They will push you away. They will argue with you incessantly. They will hurt your heart. They will rage and cry and scream. But they need you. So much. And in the face of their emotion, they need you to stand firm with your love and grace and promise them over and over that you are not going anywhere, no matter what. That you are there to stay. No matter what. 
  6. Don’t be afraid to talk. About sex. About drugs. About grades. About anger. About tears. About bodies. About relationships. About bullying. About ANY of it. Don’t be afraid. Being silent does not make any of it go away.
  7. Ask for help. From friends, from family, from teachers, from professional counselors, from whoever. Parenting is not a solo sport, despite what our super mom/dad Pinterest-Perfect culture would have us believe.
  8. Build your kids a tribe. For every one caring adult that a child has outside his immediate family that he can trust, his chances of succeeding grow exponentially. You cannot do this alone. You cannot be all that your child needs. Give your child the gift of knowing that she is loved beyond measure by more than just a few grown ups in this world, and her capacity for growing into who she is mean to be will, I promise you, increase.

There’s a reason I often say that, deep inside, no matter what age we are, we’re all just our middle school selves–insecure and volatile and convinced everyone is looking at us and worried about who we will sit with at lunch. And maybe the best thing we could do for that inner middle school child of our own is to find a real middle school child, and make it our mission to help him or her know that, in the end, it’s going to be okay. They’ll figure it out.

And they do not have to do so alone. 

 

 

 

 

 

Some things about surviving these days.

Some 5 or so years ago, I wound up in the ER on a Sunday afternoon with what appeared to be the first signs of TMJ. My jaw ached and my ears hurt, and every once in a while a sharp stabbing pain would run up the side of my neck. It was, in retrospect, a really stressful time–I had just left a job I loved because I couldn’t figure out how to balance both the needs of that job and the needs of my preschool-aged Curly Girl. I was profoundly sad over this, even though I knew it was the right decision. And, as all that was unfolding, I was also beginning to realize my marriage was doomed.

I know now that I don’t have true TMJ. I do grind my teeth and clench my jaw when I am stressed or on guard or feeling particularly burdened. And every time, the pain runs up the side my neck and sometimes down into my shoulder–a reminder that it’s time to engage in some radical self-care.

My mom’s in town, doing her amazing-Neana-tricks of making things run smoothly and spending some special time with her oldest grandchild, and also remaking a room of our house into CG’s bedroom (because the girl has decided she is grown enough to move upstairs, away from right next to Mommy’s room and into some bigger space of her own–gah!!). And last night, she caught me grimace as I felt that shoulder/neck pain make its presence known.

It’s been a long couple of weeks. Most of it amazing and well-worth the long hours at school for the girl and at work for me. But some of it painful–people I love in the midst of difficult things and my own ache over the discord and anger and sadness that continues to plague our nation.

There is, eventually, no hiding from the things that bear down on us. Sooner or later they rear their heads. I was reminded of this Sunday as I watched one of my church members grieve, quietly shedding tears during a moment of song, and another one wiping away emotion as she joined one of our elders for prayer after the service. I sensed, somehow, that the room was full of pain and sorrow–I have no proof of this just a feeling that for some reason, that particular morning, people were really feeling their brokenness.

Maybe their shoulders hurt, too. Maybe their jaws ache, too. 

Y’all, we are carrying so much in these days. It is so, so hard to figure out how to maintain a sense of stability and peace when everything seems to be in chaos. When social media hot takes and political firestorms dominate the news. When our families are hurting. When relationships fall apart. When anger fills our souls. When we’re grieving shattered dreams. When we fear for our children’s lives in a world that seems hellbent on destruction and heartache. If there were ever a time to remember that we are each carrying the pain of things hidden, of hopes dashed, of things lost, and so, treat each other with caring kid gloves, well…this is it.

I have no clear answers for a way forward, but I suspect it hinges on a few things that I have tried mightily to focus on in the last several months:

  1. Just because there is too much information (yes, too much) information accessible to us, we do not have to engage in it all. It is okay to step away from the news. Okay to disengage from the toxicity that is Twitter. Okay to binge Friends on Netflix for one afternoon because good-god-everything-was-so-simple-that-first-season. I believe in being informed. I believe in engaging in our democracy. I do not believe in clickbait, social media arguments, internet trolls or hiding behind the facades of our keyboards as we mercilessly pick apart those who do not agree with us.
  2. Loving your tribe hard is sometimes the best medicine. It’s a big ol’ world out there, and it’s freaking scary somedays. It’s also beautiful. And the most beautiful parts of my world are the people and places where I know belong. I mean really belong. Friday night bourbon and Chinese food and Big Bang Theory reruns. Saturday morning curled up watching a movie with my girl. Sunday morning singing. Long phone calls with dear friends. Hold on tight to these moments, my friends. Do not, for one second, take them for granted. Let them fuel you. Heal you. Remind you that you matter and that your story is an essential one.
  3. Believe in something bigger than yourself. The fate of the world does not rest on your next brilliant thought or attempt at problem-solving. It just doesn’t. It’s so much bigger than that. And, I believe, with everything I am, that the forces of good triumph the forces of evil–eventually. I stake my life on Harry Potter triumphing. On Diana Prince stomping Aries. On Leia and Rey and Han and Luke upending the dark side. On Love winning. I also, believe, as Luke Bryan sings these days, that “most people are good.” I know–you think I’m being Pollyanna here. And I guess that’s your prerogative…but my hope for this world and her people is much deeper than that. Much broader. Much more fierce. And is not based in some blind optimism, but a dogged belief that we were created in Love, and so, that love will always–eventually–win.

Also?

  1. Practice kindness. Listen first. And love harder.
  2. Practice kindness. Listen first. And love harder.
  3. Practice kindness. Listen first. And love harder.
  4. Repeat every damn day of your life.

Last Sunday afternoon, I watched as my daughter and 29 of her classmates celebrated–with pizza and cake!–a successful run of their production of Seussical the Musical, Jr. On the second floor of a local pizza joint, in perfect harmony, they sang, a capella, the ensemble pieces from their show. No one told them to do so. No one directed them. They simply sang. From the depths of their little hearts. And I thought, “There it is. Right there’s the beauty. Right there is reason enough to believe that all is not lost.”

Look, I know–it’s scary. And we’re all fraught with grief and anxiety and stress. So please…take care of yourselves. And each other. And trust that you are not alone. That you are loved.

The point of this life is not to show up all perfect and shiny and new. It’s more like stumbling in broken, feeling like we’ll never be okay again, wondering what our place in this world could possibly be…and then, if we’re lucky, finding some folks who will help us see that while there is no perfection, there is wholeness. There is feeling our hearts beat again. There is walking with each other through the madness, so that we can drink in the goodness together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Perspective

Last Friday I woke up, and, of course, first thing, stumbled to the kitchen to push the “on” switch on my coffeemaker. Only as I reached for the switch, I realized something wasn’t right. There was water pooling on the counter. Under the tray the coffeemaker sits on. Dripping from behind the kitchen cabinet. Moisture clearly evident inside that cabinet (the one holding my great-grandmother’s etched drinking goblets that I adore).

Fast forward to today, and I’m attempting to work from home while water mitigation team removes the cabinet and disconnects the dishwasher and breaks through drywall to the wet mess behind it all.

Y’all, I don’t do well with this sort of thing. Not. At. All. My kitchen table is covered with dishes and glasses. My kitchen itself is a damn mess. And there’ll be a lot of home insurance red tape and a deductible to deal with in the days ahead.

Gah. 

I should be freaking out. And honestly, I kinda am. But also? I’m oddly okay. Sort of. I mean, big picture. This is a giant and expensive pain, but it is NOT a crisis.

I say these words to my darling girl a lot (and to myself)–anytime there is a missed homework assignment or a forgotten library book or spilled chocolate milk.

This is not a crisis.

Most things aren’t. Because we will, somehow, figure it all out. Because we have to.

See, here’s the thing: perspective is everything. Every. Thing. And last Friday morning, as the water dripping in registered and I realized that I had a very big problem on my hands, I also, quickly and with great clarity, thought to myself, “No has died here. No one is sick or injured. I am upright. Breathing. And this home is safe, albeit damaged from winter ice and storm.”

And then I thought, “My child was not murdered at her school this week.”

THAT is my plumb line, y’all. That my daughter was not murdered at her school this week. THIS is the brutal truth of these days we are living (while some are dying).

Let me be real clear real quick. I’m not about to rage about guns or mental health or video games or a general culture of violence or any of that. The field of public discourse on these things is so impossible to enter into with any practical solution that I can’t even find words right now. And maybe that’s because I suspect that there isn’t any one issue–but all the issues. It’s complex. And many-layered. And we’re scared and angry and sad and it’s going to be a long haul back to sanity.

Let me also say this: My greatest concern, hands down, is not any of the things we are arguing about. My single greatest concern is that no one is publicly asking what I believe to be the most important question of all, and that is, “Why are our children so lost and angry and alone that their first response is to kill each other?” 

Why our kids? Why our schools? Why is this the chosen canary-in-the-mine screaming at us that something is very, very wrong with our world?

There are obvious answers–kids tell the truth, one way or the other. And kids express themselves–harmfully if not given another way. And we have taught them that violence is okay…or at least acceptable.

But it’s more than that. It’s deep. Rooted in a fear and grief I desperately wish I could name or understand because our children are dying and we can’t figure out how to stop their pain. This is my heartache. This is my deep sorrow. 

One dear to me says that sometimes he can’t bring up what’s eating at him, what’s breaking his heart–that sometimes the pain and sadness are just too deep and he can’t find words for it.

Y’all, we’ve got to bring up what’s eating at our children such that we’re losing them. And there is no one solution. There is only being willing to walk into the scary spaces of our life together and say, “Ok, can we agree that this is awful? And on that place of accord find a way forward?”

Extremists on all sides will deny us this space. Such is the way of extremism. But extremism–of any kind and from any ideology–does not get the last word here. It simply doesn’t. Not if we want our kids to make it out alive.

Right now, there’s some sort of giant blow-dryer set up in my kitchen. It’s loud. Constant. And I am not sure how I’m going to survive its presence the next 24 hours, even as I know it is doing the very good work of drying out my house. It also tells me that something is wrong–or at least, has been (read: a leaky roof!).

And somehow, right now, it reminds me something else is wrong, too: our kids are screaming for help. Asking us to be better at being human beings. Begging for us to pay attention and love them and keep them safe. Whatever it takes. And for the love of their precious, holy and unbelievably good hearts, we have got to find a way.

Past politics, past our ideological corners, past socioeconomics, past everything else that we choose to let divide us…we have got to find a way to help our children cry out their pain and then pull them close and tell them, “We’ve got you. We’re going to figure this out. It’s going to be okay.”

And isn’t that all any of us want, really? In the midst of disaster or heartache or financial challenge or broken relationship or difficult parenting moments or just hard-as-hell days…someone to say, “I’ve got you. We’re going to figure this out. It’s going to be okay.”

All I’m asking is that we set aside everything else and say this to our children. And mean it. And then live it out. It is the very, very least we can do.

Find a kid this week–even if you don’t have one at home or nearby–find a kid. Look her or him in the eyes, and say, “You matter. You are loved. I care about what happens to you.” Do it.

I’m not suggesting this will fix it all–we’re way past any sort of easy answer. But I swear to you, if it makes a difference in one life–just one–it will have mattered.

 

 

 

The best of us.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

–Abraham Lincoln

****

About an hour from Louisville is Hodgenville, KY. Population 3000ish. It may well be known for many things, but it is for sure known for being the birthplace of the 16th president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln.

My daughter’s school is named for Lincoln, and every year they make a big deal of this president’s birthday, usually hosting a local (and very convincing!) Lincoln impersonator and in general making a big deal of their namesake.

This year, they went all out–and decided to attempt to break the current Guinness Book of World Records record for the number of people dressed as Lincoln in one place.

Yes. You read that correctly. Charming and oh-so geeky, yes? I love it.

The previous official record was 250ish. The unofficial count yesterday–because such things do have to be verified–was 550ish. I’ll let you imagine 500 kids and their teachers outfitted in all black with paper beards and top hats, situated in the school gym while stewards counted and general fun was had.

I got the full play-by-play after the fact, and as CG rattled off the events of the day, I asked, “So, what did you learn about President Lincoln?” And without batting an eye she told me what she knew about the man, some of which I’d had no clue about. When she was done, I asked, “Know what my favorite thing about Lincoln is?”

And I told her about Lincoln’s deep desire and fervent conviction that in a country torn apart by battling ideologies and war, our better angels would prevail.

And then I asked, “Do you know what prevail means?”

And she said, “Yep. It means he wanted the good parts of us to win.”

I’ll let you imagine my jaw drop and the prick of tears against my eyelids. Because…holy hell, she had it right. Exactly right.

He wanted the good parts of us to win.

Y’all, how I am dying for the good parts of us to win. “I can’t, I  literally just can’t,” I said to one dear to me last night, both of us smiling over Valentine’s Day revelry while also staring stunned at the smart phone screens telling us more children had died at the hands of gun violence.

I want the good parts of us to win. The parts that recognize that in each of us is this God-shaped hole, just desperate to be filled with love and belonging and wholeness. The parts that recognize we bleed the same blood. The parts that recognize that–by and large–we’re after the same things: safe places for our children to grow into their full potential as human beings, places where fear is replaced by the confidence that they are loved.

We are, of course, screaming at each other via social media again. Because this is our poor excuse for public discourse in 2018. We formulate our hot takes and point our fingers and cast blame and rage at anyone who disagrees with our particular view…. And meanwhile we live in a world where teenagers are so angry and sad and lost that shooting up their classmates with too-accessible assault rifles almost weekly news.

And it breaks my heart. Because the din of our division and fear and anger is no place for real solutions, real action, real peace to emerge. The stage of our rage at each other is no place for our children to learn what it means to be community. 

I recently binge-watched (for real–BINGE!) the series Hell on Wheels on Netflix, the story of a Confederate soldier and former slaveowner Cullen Bohannon, who, post war, and having lost everything, heads west to avenge his wife’s death, and finds himself working on the railroad. Get yourself to Netflix right now if you’ve missed it. It is raw. Gut-wrenching. Heart-breaking. But it also often gets right to the issues of what it means for competing world views and different life experiences to somehow make a new start together. As evidenced by Cullen’s deep friendship with a former slave, Elam. It is a rocky relationship, but it’s real. And honest. And is a vivid portrayal of how we find the bits of humanity in one another, and are then able to put our feet in the same direction and walk towards some sense of hope for a future we can’t name quite yet, but are determined to live into.

Y’all. We need to heed our better angels. With all we’ve got. I’m not entirely sure how we get to a point where those angels are our first and best guide, but I suspect there are two key things that have to happen. We’re going to have to 1) Listen first. and 2) Refrain from demonizing those who do not agree with us.

Look, I’m mad and sad as hell that our children are dying. And I have to repeat my own words, that I do not have time for fear, every damn morning that I take my precious daughter to school. Do not mistake my insistence on finding the humanity in one another, in asking for us to set aside our rage for some kind of cooperative effort, as my having settled. Or having been desensitized.

I’m mad and sad as hell.

But I also believe, with all that I am, that overcoming our inability to walk into some sort of No Man’s Land of this social-media driven battlefield we find ourselves in and find some common ground is going to take more guts, more grit, than we have ever known. It will take looking each other in the eye and saying, “I want my kids safe. You want yours safe. How can we do this together?” It will take naming again our values and listening for where our values are the same, even if by a slim margin, and building on that bit of sameness. It will take ceasing to attack and then seeking to heal. It will take laying off the snark and really talking to one another.

Y’all, I get it. We’re scared. All of us. And this is a mighty, complex and terrifying reality, this national crisis we’re in. But for the love of all that is holy, for the love of our beautiful children, we have got to find a better way.

Meanwhile, I’m praying fiercely this morning for Maddy.

And for Ruby and Gabriel. And for Livy and Ethan. And for Ellen and Sarah. And for Anna and Evan. And for Tedi and Chernet. And Madeline. And Dereon. And Graham and Ethan. And Grace and John. And Beckett and Jett. And every other kid I know and love, and their moms and dads, who I know, like me, will have to summon some extra courage to let them walk in the school building this morning.

Better angels. Better angels. Better angels.

The good parts of us. The good parts of us. The good parts of us.

May we find, somehow, a way for these things to prevail.

May it be so.

****

PS–Shoutout, as always, to Lincoln Elementary Performing Arts School, for being a place that teaches kids first, and always, to take care of each other. They are family. And we are grateful.

 

 

 

 

The shape of tears.

I came across a story this week about an United States Army chaplain in World War II, who somewhere along his travels through Europe during that war, began to collect pieces of stained glass from bombed out churches. Years later, he had those pieces of glass fashioned into new stained glass windows. He wanted something beautiful and peaceful to come from the destruction he had seen. And so…the windows. “Peace Windows,” he called them.

It reminded me of some brilliant words from the ever-wise Glennon Doyle I read this week, “You can be shattered, and then you can put yourself back together piece by piece.” She goes on to write about while we’re putting ourselves back together, we discover that we’re being formed into something new–a new shape, a new size, a new way of being. “You’ll be whole again. You’ll just be a new shape. And that, my friends – is the whole point of breaking.”

The whole point of breaking….

Breaking (and I’m speaking here of the emotional/mental/soulful sort) is painful. Sometimes excruciatingly so. And we generally go to great lengths to avoid it. Even if it means exacting our pain onto someone else or some other situation, just so we don’t have to fully experience it ourselves. But it’s like when you knock a wine glass off the kitchen counter and it lands, shattering, on the kitchen floor–once the fall has begun, the inevitable result is the shattering.

I’m a weeper–always have been, always will be. I cry over movies, over sweet commercials, over amazing things my daughter says, over precious memories or thoughtful gifts. I cry when I’m filled with joy, overwhelmed with beauty, or just inexplicably moved by a word or thought or deed. I am often a crier when I speak in public–because the things I’m saying mean so much to me that I can think of no other way to express it.

I have always suspected my tears are sometimes uncomfortable for those around me. Despite all evidence pointing to the necessity of tears, we still chalk them up as a sign of weakness in our culture. “Big girls don’t cry,” and all that.

This one does…though I’ve learned to curb it, control (#sortof #notreally #keepreading) the extent of it, over the years out of professional necessity, and a desire not to upset those around me.

What I can’t curb, can’t control, are tears of anger or sadness. And because I know I can’t control them, I generally attempt to push them back, tamp them down with everything I’ve got. If the flood gates open in these moments (and eventually, they always do), it’s an ugly cry all the way down and like most everyone else, I’d rather skip that part. Such vulnerability is hard. Exhausting. And it leaves you feeling like you’ve just set your heart loose to wander about without protection, even more subject than normal to bruising and breaking.

But here’s the thing–there’s all kinds of science about the healing power of tears. Of just freaking letting go. Letting it out. And I was reminded of that, too, this week. Someone I love reminded me that tears can sometimes help wash the pain away, or at least make way for something beautiful to come of it. Like an ancient river, maybe, that rushes across a landscape with such power and grace and force that it forms a canyon, a vast gaping space that then becomes a thing of beauty, something to behold with awe and wonder.

Mostly, I think, tears are a physical expression of letting go of that great illusion we have known as control. Control over those around us. Over our own emotions. Over our own lives. Control is, at best, a cruel joke, and those who don’t know that are either kidding themselves or are simply narcissists of the worst kind, believing they can manipulate everything around them to their own purposes.

If you’re really going to live at all, there is only leaning into this life–with all its joy and all its pain–and trusting that there is goodness in the journey, even when it’s hard to see.

There’s a time and a place for bucking up, buttercup. And I’m a big believer in the necessity of instilling that thing called “grit,” that is hard to define or qualify, but so essential, in our children and practicing it ourselves. Resilience matters, and sometimes you just have to do what needs doing. Even (and most especially) the hard things.

But I also believe that sometimes the greatest indication of our strength is our willingness to say, “I need help. I need you to be with me. I cannot do this alone.” And that can mean the all-important tears of letting go. Of simply letting the pain express itself, so it can do its work on our lives and lead us into the beauty that is possible on the other side of what we have experienced as destruction.

Look, avoiding the pain, whether by ignoring it or self-medicating, or masking it–it doesn’t work. I promise. And attempting to do so is only going to wreck your life or make you a miserable human being.

We were meant for so much more. And living fully into what it means to be human is to know both love and loss–each in their own way terrifying, life-altering, and beyond any shred of any supposed control.

Assume that pain will come, even as it takes our breath away when it does. But assume, too, that it was never meant to be shouldered alone. The unbearableness of it is not forever, even as it will never quite leave you. Follow it. Sit with it. Cry it out. Even better if you’re so wildly lucky as I am to have someone who can stand your ugly cry….

Something new is being formed by your tears. Maybe even something beautiful, that has never been before.