Red leaves wrapped in ice
Life frozen, mute, suspended
Like insects in amber
In an online magazine article, a blog writer told of her experience shopping with her three young children in a crowded store. She expressed her opinion that children are not valued in our society. I was amazed at the number of negative comments she received, most polite, but some resorting to name-calling. The one that stuck in my head, though, was that of someone who ended his remarks by telling her not to waste people’s time by publishing her thoughts in a public forum. I wanted to reply, “Who forced you to read it? Why should she be blamed for your choice to read and comment on what she wrote, her freedom of expression curtailed because you felt you wasted your time?”
Seems like it makes no sense, right? But it reminded me of another incident that “stuck in my craw” even more. Some months ago my daughter and I were hanging out in an ambulatory care waiting room, there to support a friend who was having surgery and to drive her home afterward. Being a people watcher, I studied some of the other occupants. There was a man there alone, waiting for his wife. There were two sets of grandparents and a set of parents waiting for a child. There was a woman on her cellphone, calling for reinforcements as she needed to be somewhere else, Eventually an older woman joined her; they both spent some time there, and then the first woman left. The TV was on and one news item was the upcoming local visit of President Obama to some rally or event. One of the grandpas remarked that he’d heard on the news earlier that they weren’t expecting many people to show up. There was an implication, perhaps, of the declining popularity of the president. Mind you, these were just six people sitting in a waiting room, facing each other and making conversation to pass the time.
The older woman, sitting on the outside of this family circle and apparently preparing to leave, said angrily, “You need to watch what you’re saying in public.”
The old man, taken aback, answered, “I’m just repeating what I heard.”
“Well, you need to watch what you say because not everyone agrees with you, ” she retorted, and then she marched out of there.
The rest of us looked at each other in surprise, commented about the inappropriate nature of the woman’s statements, and let it go….except that I couldn’t. It kept coming to mind and irritating me. What right did this woman have to tell someone to be quiet because she didn’t want to hear what he was saying? He wasn’t being loud or rude or uttering profanity; he was just expressing an opinion. This incident came to mind again when I read that comment on the article; apparently that commentator also felt he had the right to tell the blogger not to write what he didn’t want to read.
What’s going on here?
This used to be a country where the free exchange of ideas was encouraged. No longer. Our freedoms to express our opinions verbally, in writing, or through media have been seriously curtailed. There will always be someone who takes offense, someone who will then express his dissatisfaction by attacking the perceived offender, and it seems that in these days the political system is on his side. The ability to have a rational discussion of different opinions with the goal of understanding one another’s point of view is something we are fast losing.
Are we going to allow ourselves to be muzzled? Or are we going to continue to speak, write, and portray what we think despite those whose loud opposition to free expression is the real “hate speech.”
When I was taking Writing 101, there were some assignments that were supposed to be part of a series. I finished the first two but never did get to write the third one. The theme for it has been in my head for a while. Though not exactly fulfilling the original assignment, this third part relates to each of the previous two and ties them together because of lessons I learned in both situations. They were lessons I learned because of my own selfishness and insensitivity; in each case, I lost a valuable friend.
In the first blog, I wrote about getting a haircut and losing my trust in my sister. It had happened in a place called Muldavinville, where I spent most of the summers of my childhood. Muldavinville was an idyllic place for children, a safe environment with plenty of room to explore, play, imagine, and just run around. Because many of the families came back year after year, during my 10 summers there I had good friends that I looked forward to being with for July and August. One of my best friends was named Wendy. She had two teen-aged sisters – much older than we – and a baby sister. I loved to eat at her house, because her sisters would cut up our meat for us in tiny bites and call us “Lamb Chop.” It was fun to be there. It was also fun to run wild together outside. My memory has so many gaps, but I do remember playing pioneer in a miniature realistic log cabin belonging to a neighbor. I remember going down to the lake to swim and play in the sand, while our mothers chatted or played Scrabble. When we children realized it was getting late in the afternoon, we would cover ourselves in mud so that we’d have to go back in the lake one more time to wash off.
Wendy was a year or two younger than I was, but we were on the same wavelength…..until I got to be around 10 or 11. That was when I started showing the first inclinations toward growing up. I shouldn’t have been surprised when my two youngest daughters leapt almost overnight from unconcernedly playing with stuffed animals to caring how they looked and dressed; I did the same thing. The difference was that my daughters made the leap together, while I chose to leave my friend Wendy behind.
I remember the catalyst clearly. Wendy and I and some other kids were playing a twirling game; two of us would hold hands and twirl around together and then let go. The problem was that when we let go, Wendy fell and badly broke her arm. It was horrifying, not just because of what had happened – the arm at an odd angle, Wendy crying. all of us looking on in shock – but because I somehow felt responsible. My solution, when Wendy came back the next day with her arm in a cast, was to avoid her and to hang out with the older kids. I didn’t want to play kid games any more. She was hurt and didn’t understand. I remember her father and sisters talking to me about it, but I don’t think it made a difference in my behavior; I had moved on.
In the second blog of the series, I talked about finding my voice in a college class and of a friend who was instrumental in helping me to do so. This friend, Susan, was very independent. She lived in her own apartment, had a job and a boyfriend, and was always supportive of me. One day, however, she sat me down and talked to me about friendship. She told me that friendship had to go both ways, that friends needed to listen to each other and support each other, and that I had always been so wrapped up in myself and my own issues that I’d never asked her about hers. I had assumed that because she seemed so together on the outside that all was well on the inside. I had not gone beyond finding my own voice to learning to listen deeply and caringly to another’s. Susan broke off our friendship because she was tired of being the one who poured herself into it while I just received what she gave and didn’t reciprocate. She moved on.
I am blessed today with many good friends, from all times and places of my journeying through life. I think I have learned to be a good friend as well, and the hard lessons I learned from my failures with Wendy and Susan have helped me. Yet I still wish that somehow, some day, I could communicate with each of them again, ask about their lives and families, reminisce about the good times, and finally say to Wendy and to Susan what I have been wanting to say for these many years: “I am sorry I was not there when you needed me and that I didn’t offer comfort when you were hurting. I am sorry that I failed you as a friend and let you go out of my life, when you had already enriched it so much. I am sorry for the years of friendship that we have missed because of my selfishness. I am really and truly sorry for being such a jerk. Please forgive me.”
These thoughts are the result of a FaceBook discussion started by a friend of mine. She was disturbed by the public acclaim surrounding a young woman’s decision to commit suicide because of the diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Not much of a news reader, I hadn’t known about the story until she mentioned it. I can empathize with the anguish, the pain, and the fear that this young woman has experienced since she received her diagnosis, all of which no doubt led to her decision to end her own life. I do not believe she should be ostracized nor condemned, like the suicides of other times who were not accorded burial in holy ground. I am concerned, however, by the publicization of her story, in an attempt, it seems, to make suicide seem to be a laudable and therefore eventually a normal response to the overwhelming difficulties one may face in life.
When I studied Experimental Psychology as an undergraduate and again in graduate school, I became familiar with terms such as “average,” “mean,” “mode,” “median,” “norm.” These are all different ways of assessing frequencies in populations. These measurements impact our lives in many ways. For example, if you are a parent, you may have had your infant’s growth marked on a chart that shows curves of “normal” growth. The general developmental milestones of children are also laid out in terms of what is “normal.” I don’t deny that these tools can be useful in understanding development and in determining causes for concern. However, in reality, there is no such thing as “normal.” “Normal” is just another way of saying “average”; it is a concept, a statistical construct whose purpose is to make it easier to assess and to categorize groups of people or things. I wonder if the concept of a normal human body temperature, for example, is calculated from the average of a variety of inputs or from the most commonly occurring one. Instead of just being used as a relative measuring tool, however, “normal” has come to mean “ideal.” It has become a measuring stick against which many of us find we fall short.
The use of the concept of normal is particularly egregious in the public education system. The whole system – philosophy, methodology, and materials – is geared toward a fictional normal child instead of the actual flesh and blood individuals who populate our schools. It is more than frustrating for teachers, parents, and students to be hampered in the learning process by a bureaucratic system based upon holding up an average as an ideal; it is wrong. It is wrong not only because it is largely inefficient but also because it labels children, categorizes them, and declares some of them to be less than “normal.” The “normal” child does not have autism, Down’s Syndrome, or a learning disability. To be normal, a child may not be gifted intellectually but also be socially awkward; he is not ahead of his peers in one subject and behind in another. The “normal” child, who is on the designated grade level in all areas and fits exactly where he should on the pediatric growth charts, does not exist. In an attempt to gear our pedagogy toward an ideal of normal, we have achieved a norm of mediocrity.
But the educational system is just a piece, albeit a large one, of the effect of the concept of normal on our society. We have allowed the present culture to define what constitutes the normal life to which we are all, by assumption, entitled and therefore encouraged to achieve. If you have read Lois Lowry’s The Giver or Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, you have read descriptions of the logical devolution of societies in which all pain is to be avoided, the lives of children are a commodity, and the desire for security builds a prison of regulations that ensure the normal life will have no surprises. However, what is considered to be normal is not always what is right. When we lose the compass that points us to God, when we have no way of determining what is right or wrong, then actions that are wrong become acceptable and then “normal.” Abortion and suicide are just two examples. The giving and the taking of life is in God’s hands, not ours. Our job as people made in His image is to come alongside those suffering enough to consider either of these actions, to offer help and love, but not to accept the actions themselves as a normal part of life in our time.
Life is full of pain; to avoid pain at all costs is to become like a rat in a Pavlovian experiment. To seek out pain is to be mentally unstable. But to accept pain as it comes and seek the lesson it brings, that is to be fully human.
Life is full of surprises, some good and some not. To regulate one’s life so carefully so as to avoid surprises is to become a robot, an automaton, not a human being.
Life is full of grief, but to try to avoid the sadness that is part of all human relationships would mean closing off the vulnerability that enables those relationships to exist and to have meaning beyond the surface of polite interaction.
Life is full of fear and anxiety. We may fear bad things that we know are going to happen and also those that are even more frightening because they are unknown and unpredictable. Courage is pushing through these fears so that they do not govern our actions.
Life is also full of joy, but that joy is only fully realized in the context of a relationship with God. That is the relationship that enables each of us to walk through the pains, the surprises, the griefs and the fears of life, accepting them with the knowledge that our God, the Giver of all good things, is bringing us through all of that to a life so much more than “normal.”
An exile can be defined as a separation, voluntary or forced, which may or may not be prolonged, from one’s home or country. It is a pretty broad definition, but it can fit most cases of exile, whether they be of individuals, families, or people groups. Some exiles settle down in a new location and make that their home, no longer wandering, but at rest. Others wander from place to place, intending to return home someday; some fulfill that hope, while others do not. Someone told me that I could view my upcoming move to Indiana as an exile, hopefully temporary. This thought prompted the following musings.
When I was a child, I sometimes felt that I must have come from another planet or, more often, that I had been born into the wrong century. I had a close-knit loving family and good friends, I generally did well in school, I spent summers in the mountains running wild, I read profusely, but I always felt somehow – apart. I never seemed to quite fit in anywhere.
Part of one line from the William Wordsworth poem, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, has always stuck in my head: “trailing clouds of glory do we come.” In the broadest sense, my whole life on earth is an exile; my true home is not here, but with God in Heaven, and the intuitive recognition of that is probably the reason why I have never felt completely at home anywhere that I’ve lived. Yet even without that completeness, each place I’ve lived has become a home, and leaving that place of security and familiarity to start over somewhere else becomes another, smaller exile.
Sometimes I envy people who have lived all their lives, if not in one town or city, in one geographical area. Certainly that is true for many of my friends here in Stedman. Their lives are rooted, not so much like trees, but more like bushes, which not only grow roots down but also grow branches outward, which entwine with each other so much that it is hard to tell where one begins and another ends. These entwined bushes become a hedge, a place of safety and security, and sometimes of insulation. The TV shows I watched growing up, which still draw me and fill me with longing for the kind of life they portrayed, were shows about families deeply rooted in their neighborhoods, towns, or lands: Lassie, Father Knows Best, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons. Though many of my aunts and uncles lived in their own homes, and my cousins grew up in neighborhoods in Long Island, that was not my life. We moved from apartment to apartment, each one in a little “better” neighborhood as my parents’ income increased. Each place we lived, for however many years, had its own defining markers: schools attended, friends made, milestones of growing up experienced, family memories made. But there was not that solidity and stability, that my cousins and friends had, of having my own home. We were more like the Israelites, striking our tents and moving on, each time with a combination of anticipation and trepidation.
We lived in four different apartments in four different neighborhoods in Brooklyn from my birth through my college years. I was extremely shy, up through college, when a concerted effort by a professor and some classmates encouraged me to break out of my fearful position as an observer of everyone else’s life to becoming an active participant in the world around me. The life rope that sustained me through ten of those years, from age four to age fourteen, was made of strands woven from our summers in the Catskill Mountains, in a small bungalow colony (that’s what we called them back then) named Muldavinville. I hid myself during the school years, but I ran wild and free with my friends during the summer, and perhaps that is why I’ve always considered myself a country girl. I believe that was the hardest exile of my young years – not going back to the place that held many of my happiest memories…
The next big leap, not long after college, when I’d been working for a while at a job in the city, was to move out of my parents’ home into my own tiny apartment in the Village. It was a statement of my independence, but it was a hard one, not only for my parents, who couldn’t imagine why I would want to leave home, but also for me, because I was terrified to live alone. There were other apartments, houses, temporary dwellings – the details of which I will fill in when I finally start writing the longer story of my life – in which I lived alone or with others, in New York, in Brooklyn, in Woodstock, and finally in Cincinnati, Ohio, where my first husband and I moved to go to graduate school.
It wasn’t until I married my husband Paul that we actually bought a house, in Dayton, Ohio, where we lived for about thirty-five years. We had four living children (two more lost in miscarriage) born there, all but one of them born at home. We had church families, good neighbors, great homeschooling friends. We had station wagons, dogs, and a fenced in yard. We definitely had a home, a home in which we had many wonderful times with our friends and even with people we didn’t know. Yet, somehow, to me, and to my four children, Dayton was not a place we wanted to stay forever. We could still be there, and our kids would have some place to come home to and visit, but, to me, that was inconceivable; I always had the feeling that Dayton was only temporary, a longer exile from the place I eventually would be able to call home.
Our next move was to North Carolina, to a tiny town in the Piedmont called Salemburg, where my husband and I took a position, for a year, as houseparents in a maternity home. We fully intended to return to Dayton after that year, but towards the end of that time, we realized that our work there was not yet finished, so we decided to move to North Carolina, selling our home in Dayton. We only stayed another year at the home, and the story of our time there will be the subject of another blog, but we moved from there to a single-wide trailer we rent in Stedman. Lacking the mountains, it is country living that reminds me of my childhoods in upstate New York. In eight years there, we have become pretty well grafted in to the community.
I’d forgotten I’d started this blog, and I’m finishing it after being in Indiana for six months with another six months to go. Leaving my life in North Carolina, even temporarily, was hard. What drew me here, caring for my grandchildren and helping my daughter and son-in-law, was a stronger pull than the regrets. I have a nice apartment here in a small town called Chandler, a few minutes’ walk from their home. I treasure the time spent with them and the enjoy the luxury of the time I have alone. I know that leaving them to return to North Carolina will be hard, as all these partings have been hard, but I look forward to returning home from this exile.
I do feel, however, that this will not be the last trip I will make. Whenever I think of actually settling somewhere, as in our buying a house and planting ourselves more permanently, something holds me back and I sense that my wandering days are not yet over. Perhaps there is a place on this earth that I can settle in and feel that I’ve really come home, and I have not yet found it. Perhaps I never will, and I will continue to be in exile until God finally calls me Home.
I love this poem! I find it so true of my experience as a mother of boys and girls. Check out her site; everything on it is well worth reading.
For my girls:
Bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh is this child
who now walks away from me
Always she is walking away…always, she is going
I wish she had come with a note,
like a present with a ribbon tied ’round her wrist
and a card attached
with the words:
“Just passing through.
I will come to you,
into your body, into your home,
into your wallet, your schedule, your dreams
and most of all
into your heart.
But I will not stay.
I’m just passing through.”
She passes through
and in her wake, creates a wind
sometimes a soft spring breeze
that rustles free the seeds of tomorrow
sometimes a tempest that picks up, moves and
rearranges the scenery
into something new, unrecognizable
There is no place through which she passes that goes
untouched, unchanged, unaltered
She goes, but leaves her…
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I feel like Lucy must have felt when she returned after her first trip to Narnia. She asked her brothers and sister if they’d missed her, but they hadn’t even noticed she had gone. That was, of course, because she had been gone quite a while in Narnian time, but only for a moment in the time of our world. To her siblings she had not gone anywhere; she was just still playing hide and seek.
With all my good intentions of sticking with Blogging 101 and Writing 101, so much has intervened, due both to unavoidable circumstances and lack of discipline, that I have been gone for quite some time. Sometimes I wonder if anyone has noticed.
Mostly, though, I keep the ideas for blogs simmering in the back of my mind or scrawled in notes piled on my desk, because I haven’t given up on blogging or writing; I just have to find my own timetable. Somewhere between a sense of duty to complete a task, a lethargy brought on by being too busy, and a propensity to let myself get distracted exists that space where I find fulfillment and joy in writing, where I am driven to express myself and desire to communicate and be responded to. The more I am centered in that space, the more it draws me back and becomes a necessity in my life, not just a hobby.