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For the past several years, each day of November I have posted on Facebook about what I am thankful for. Or, I have posted every few days a few things I am thankful for. I find it challenging to stick to doing any given task every single day beyond the basics required for hygiene and decent parenting, even if it is a task I want to do and set out for myself.

In recent weeks (maybe months?) I have found myself more anxious and stressed than usual (which is saying a lot). I have struggled to focus my attention on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. I am getting plenty of sleep. I am walking a lot. But my brain is just on overdrive all the time. It feels chaotic in my head.

I am contemplating the causes of this (not that hard to figure out, really) and working on solutions (harder). One thing I know I need to do is express gratitude. I am absolving myself from any requirements of eloquence or grace or even complete sentences. I just want to put some things out into the universe.

I am thankful that

  1. Zeke has finally made two friends in his first grade class and I’ve finally managed to contact one of the moms and have actually arranged a playdate for next weekend. I am both relieved and excited.
  2. My sister has been coaching me in how to say no. You might think this would be simple for me, but you would be wrong. I am rehearsing these lines in my head and planning to use them soon. In fact, earlier today I offered to do something for a group I am in and then I thought about my lines and I rescinded my offer! It felt good.
  3. Several people I care about are dealing with life-threatening illnesses or taking care of loved ones with life-threatening illnesses right now. This is not what I am thankful for. What I am thankful for is that these people all have access to excellent medical care, and more importantly that they are surrounded by family and friends who are providing unwavering love and support. AND that some of these people are willing and able to share what they’re going through online so that the wider community of people who care about them can know what’s going on and offer continuous love and comfort and encouragement. It’s so unnecessary to suffer alone.
  4. Tonight I watched Zoe help Zeke with some martial arts techniques with confidence and patience I have never before witnessed in that situation. It would seem that becoming a black belt and taking a recently added leadership class at EvolveAll have really made a positive difference. She was kind and enthusiastic in instructing him and he was receptive to her teaching and demonstrated immediate improvement. I was proud of both of them.

    (I was going to try to write 30 thankful things here because there are 30 days in November but as the words seem to be just spilling out of me I’ll go for 10 tonight and do the other 20 later).
  5. I have a new client that I am so thrilled to be working for and whose work is making an enormous impact on our country with the potential to seriously change things for the better in the next year. This client completely fell into my lap unexpectedly and I am thankful for the referral from someone I worked with years ago and for the new relationship.
  6. My husband is keeping up with the impeachment hearings so he can explain everything to me. He is more attuned and seemingly better able to understand political news and analysis than I am and he loves to discuss it and doesn’t mind answering my questions. And I am thankful that (hopefully) some people are finally going to be called to account for their unethical behavior. There’s so much more they should be called to account for, but I guess we have to start somewhere.
  7. There are so many extraordinary books in the world and I get to read some of them. I have read (or listened to) some absolutely stunning books in recent months, including The Dutch House; Olive, Again; The Miseducation of Cameron Post; Normal People; Every Note Played; The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl; Children of Blood and Bone; Unsheltered; Sing, Unburied, Sing; Evvie Drake Starts Over; Starworld; Little Fires Everywhere; How Not to Die Alone; City of Girls; and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. This is not an exhaustive list. But a good one.
  8. We have a washing machine and dryer and a dishwasher in our house. These are the kind of conveniences we often take for granted, but they are actually huge. We do so much laundry in our house. I am so grateful that I don’t have to take it all to a laundromat. We have nice clothes. We have warm clothes. We have plenty of choices of what to wear every day. We can be as clean and as cute as we want to be.
  9. I have choices. I am so fortunate to have plenty of options in my life. At times it may seem like too many, but what a luxury to have too many choices. What to eat, where to go, what kind of work to do, who to spend time with, how to raise our kids, what kind of vacation to take, what camp to send our kids to, how to entertain ourselves. We have immense amounts of freedom and privilege in how we conduct our lives.
  10. I play soccer with a phenomenal group of women. I love my team and I love playing with them on Monday nights and I am pretty happy with the fact that I have become a better player over the past eight seasons. And we have new jerseys for the spring season! Stay tuned for pictures come April.

    It’s time to put Zeke to bed. I am thankful that he still loves to read and snuggle with me.

At a picnic table
at a pumpkin patch
playground with goats
and apple cider donuts
my kids and I and a friend
sat eating hot dogs and nachos

I was surprised to smell smoke
and looked around to see who was smoking
in the pavilion where people were eating
and where we were surrounded
by hay

At the table next to us were
four Muslim women
all wearing hijabs and long robes

They were drinking tea out of
delicate china demitasses
decorated with flowers

The tea was in a tall red and black checked thermos
that looked like a man in a hat with earflaps would fill
with black coffee to take on an early morning outing

The women were laughing
and one of them was smoking
I have never seen
a woman in a hijab
smoking a cigarette
She looked so relieved 

This is the essay Zoe wrote as part of her requirements to earn her black belt at EvolveAll, a phenomenal accomplishment that she achieved today.

By Zoe Rosso

When I was four, a friend from preschool invited me to her birthday party at her Taekwondo studio. Afterwards I said to my mom, “I want to do that!” We found Creative Martial Arts down the street from our house, next to CVS. I did a two-week trial there, a tiny five-year-old with curly hair, and immediately loved it. It was a tiny space, but the community there was amazing. I remember sitting next to my friends Ellie, Matthew, Samantha, learning how to do a side kick. It looked so hard! I didn’t know how the instructors could do it so well. Now, side kick is one of my favorite kicks.       

 A couple years later CMA moved locations and became EvolveAll. I got my blue stripe belt there. I also had two birthday parties there, my seventh and my eighth. I clearly remember at my eighth birthday when my mom along with my friends’ parents ran around trying to play green big ball, and somehow they beat us? The new studio was so much bigger than CMA. There was a turf room that always had kids playing in it, and a huge mat.

My favorite and most clear memory from EvolveAll one is when I got my green solid belt. I heard my name called by Mr. Herill. I ran up to him. I heard everyone yell “3,2,1!” and kicked, but the board didn’t break, and after many tries I was still unsuccessful at breaking my board. Master Emerson took me aside into the turf room to try some more. And I was still unsuccessful. I remember being so frustrated with myself, but I would not cry. I needed to stay strong if I wanted that green solid! I went back into the crowded main room and tried once again with Mr. Christian to break my board, this time by myself in front of everybody there. I could hear people cheering my name, they wanted me to break it. I just couldn’t! I tried so much more in the turf room. I remember Master Emerson saying, “If you don’t break this today I can’t give you your green solid.” That thought was what motivated me to try as hard as I could to break this board. We went back in to watch the remainder of the growth ceremony. I still hadn’t cried even though I wanted to. I was close to giving up, I was tired. I just wanted to go home, but not nearly as much as I wanted my next belt. After the growth ceremony was over, and everyone but the staff and a few families had gone home, I tried again. My parents, the Zoellers, the Gookins, Samantha and her mom, Master Emerson, and a few other people were standing and watching me with their fingers crossed. Mr. Christian was holding my board. Just the strength and support from a few very important people in my life, were enough for me to finally let out that one last “HIYAH” and kick right through the board. I remember everyone yelling and cheering for me. Mr. Christian was jumping up and down, and my mom lifted me up into the air and she was probably crying. I was so happy, overwhelmed and excited all at the same time. Afterwards, we went to lunch at Zoe’s Kitchen. My mom asked me how I felt. Instead of saying embarrassed, upset, sore, or anything like that, I said to her, “I feel awesome!” and smiled. This moment has stayed with me through the past three years. If something gets hard, or I just don’t feel like I am capable of doing something, I remember that moment. If I have perseverance and resilience, then I can do anything and the feeling of completing it is amazing. Whether its breaking a board, learning a form, or getting a kick down. This also helps me work through other things in my life, like math, and especially science. 

 Another challenge for me was sparring. I started when I was around eight. I got a full bag of gear for my birthday and I was eager to start my first class. At EvolveAll one, I was sparring against teenagers like Sydney and Arnab. Since then, at EvolveAll two and three, sparring has changed a lot. Now, we warm up, condition, maybe do grappling or partner work or go over drills, and then do free sparring. It used to be where we would warm up and then go straight into sparring. We had to wear helmets, gloves, and several other pieces of gear, and then we would start to spar. From there we would rotate after every round to our right, so we had to spar against everybody. I always enjoy it now and I have learned a lot. For example, I feel much better about my kicks. I used to be too scared to kick someone, but I kick harder and higher now. I also am more confident, instead of just letting myself get hit, I counter or move away.            

One thing I am grateful for in my journey at Evolve All is the friends I have made over the past seven years. Some of them have been there since the beginning, like Quinn, Kira, Ellie, Matthew.  I love watching them grow and move up. I know that they have my back and will always support me. It is amazing that this sport brings so many people of different ages together. For example, I am friends with Kira, who’s 10, and she is just like my friends who are my age. And Sophie, who’s 16, but it isn’t any different. She is now my great mentor and friend. She is a great teacher but she is still fun. I also like that we can teach each other easily. I’m not afraid to ask my friends for help, and they always are willing to help me. I love the community with the staff as well. All the instructors are so nice and welcoming, and great teachers. What makes the teachers so good is they are fun, but work you hard. They make you feel comfortable. They aren’t afraid to laugh and make jokes and have fun with you in class, but they know how to control the class and teach it well and effectively. 

At EvolveAll one, I would always watch the black belts with amazement. In my eyes, they were bigger, older, more talented people who could do anything, and I was just a little kid who was a yellow solid. My mom would always ask me if I could see myself becoming a black belt. My answer? No way! That’s a big kid thing. I knew I would eventually get there, but it just seemed so far away that I never thought about it. If someone told me that in four years I would be writing this essay and becoming a black belt, I would not have believed it. So, when the time came that I needed to start thinking about the prospect of getting that black belt, I knew I had to step it up. I scheduled a couple private lessons, and we found out that Matthew Gookin was also doing private lessons to help him get ready to earn his black belt. We decided to schedule some lessons with him so we could practice together. These private lessons were helpful for me. I enjoyed having the extra time to practice and I think this was where the biggest part of the switch happened. I went from looking up at the higher belts and not being able to imagine myself being with them, to seeing my friends move up. At EA2, I saw people like Grant and Quinn, who I knew were my age, earn their black belts. Seeing them get achieve that, I realized that I could too. And I was just that much closer to doing it. I started to feel different. I felt better about being closer, and I could see myself improving. I was proud of myself for working hard and learning the form well.

Mr. Christian always talks about the “switch” that people have in their martial arts journey. For me, my switch was at EA2. I took a break from martial arts for about eight months because it was my last year of elementary school, so of course I had to fit in everything before I left. I was doing Girls on the Run, soccer, and gymnastics. I came back in September. A few months after we came back, I went to my second black belt test, and earned two stripes. From then on, I realized how close I was to getting my black belt.

Even though I was improving, I still didn’t feel ready. Something just felt off. Maybe I was scared, maybe I wanted more practice, maybe I thought I needed more practice teaching, or I just needed more time. When the black belt test came around, I talked to Master Emerson. I told him I didn’t feel ready. He understood. At the end of the test, I met with all the black belts. Master Emerson said that the reason I wasn’t moving up that time was that even though all the black belts thought I was ready, I didn’t feel ready, which is one of the most important things you need to move up. If you don’t feel confident, or ready, then you won’t have enough courage or the right mindset to become a black belt. This time though, I knew I was ready. I felt good, and strong. I feel ready. I got this.

Zoe’s English teacher announced this week the prospect of a new challenge–write at least 100 words each day for 100 days, beginning today, March 1. Apparently if you write every day for 100 days you become a Writing Centurion and you get to choose a t-shirt from Woot! Shirt. I can safely say this is the first time this school year that I have wished I were in sixth grade. Writing and t-shirts–two of my favorite things! So when Zoe said she was accepting her teacher’s invitation, I immediately said I would join her. This means you will be seeing a lot more words from me over the next 100 days. Maybe if you like what I write, you’ll buy me a punny t-shirt too!

March also happens to be National Reading Month, and reading is one of my other favorite things, up there with writing and t-shirts, so I am lined up to volunteer at both of my kids’ schools doing book-related activities. At Zeke’s school on Monday I am going to be a guest reader in his kindergarten class. I think I will read Mo Willems’ Nanette’s Baguette, which may not have the name recognition that Elephant and Piggie or the Pigeon do, but it is hilarious and reading it makes me so happy. I hope Zeke’s classmates share my feelings about Nanette and her baguette. (As an aside, I am ecstatic that Mo Willems was recently named the Kennedy Center’s first Education Artist in Residence, meaning we will have the opportunity to see some of his characters come to life at the Kennedy Center and perhaps meet him sometime over the next two years. He is, in my humble opinion, a creative genius.)

After I read to Zeke’s class, I will skip down the hall to the library to volunteer at the book fair. It should be obvious that book fairs are another thing that I love. I volunteered at the book fair at Zoe’s elementary school for all six of her years there and enjoyed every minute of it. Zoe’s librarian was marvelous and she and I exchanged book recommendations every time we saw each other. At the book fair I would often help kids look for good books and write down their wish lists, or help teachers or parents who were browsing. And between classes I would read books myself, and buy a few. And come back the next day. And buy a few. And then the kids would come in with me and they would choose books and we would buy a few. Book fairs are dangerous for me. But so satisfying. So I have high hopes for Zeke’s school book fair. Since this is his first year at the school I don’t know many teachers or kids besides the ones in his class, but hopefully I will get to know some in the library. For a few weeks I have been reading for an hour a week with some first graders at his school, so I’ll know them too. In any case, I will have the opportunity to walk around and look at and touch all those beautiful books.

On Tuesday I will be at Zoe’s school bright and early to help set up Booktopia, a day-long book giveaway where we will lay out 1,500 books on tables all over the gym (which we sorted by genre and boxed last week) and invite every reading and English class in the school to come in browse. Each student can choose a book and take it home for free. The PTA started this event when they discovered that many students at the school couldn’t afford to buy full-price books at the book fair, and that the book fair didn’t always have books that reflected the diversity of the student body. So the books we will give away at Booktopia will include a wide variety of new and used books selected to appeal to a wide variety of kids of all reading abilities and backgrounds. In middle school, parents definitely don’t have as much opportunity to hang out at school as in elementary school, so I’m looking forward to this chance to observe all the teachers and all the classes and hopefully connect some kids with some books they will love.

When Zoe’s school year started, I was surprised to learn that she had a reading class as well as an English class. Reading is mandatory for sixth graders, and I was skeptical because Zoe was already a great reader. But I soon realized that the class was not offering remedial help (although it does for those who need it) but pushing her and her classmates to read compelling and intriguing texts by amazing authors, and read critically and think about what she’s reading at a higher level. I have been incredibly impressed with the books she’s read in reading class, including Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, The 57 Bus, Amal Unbound, and Child Soldier. Pretty much every time Zoe finishes a book, she brings it to me and says, “You’ve GOT to read this.” And I do the same with her, at least with young adult novels I read.

So when Zoe’s school announced a read-a-thon that kicked off today, I was all over it. I am so excited to support her in her reading and help her raise money for literacy programs at her school. If I had not become a writer, I definitely could have been a children’s librarian. I did spend several glorious months right out of college working at Barnes & Noble, which was unbelievably fun. I got to be around books all day! I got to tell people what books I thought they should read! (also we had to clean the toilets at closing time, but the books!).

Right now I’m reading a YA book called Saints and Misfits, about a Muslim girl who feels pulled between her secular friends and her Muslim community. She wears a hijab like her Mom, but her Dad (divorced from her mom and remarried) disapproves. It’s fascinating and beautifully written.

Zoe is eager to read my Day 1/100 sample, and I am pretty sure I’ve exceeded my 100 word requirement. I better save some of my words for the next 99 days.

I used to be a cryer

I would weep during hymns
I would tear up at commercials
I cried whenever a children’s choir sang, years before I became a mother

I would cry reading certain poignant picture books to my kids
They would look up at me, puzzled. Sometimes my daughter would pat my back,
sweetly

I have been no stranger to heaving, angry sobs
To the kind of crying that devolves into snot and a pounding head and a sore throat
The kind that is like an exorcism

I have wept in my car
Sometimes while driving
Sometimes parked outside something I didn’t want to face

I have cried in the shower to camouflage my sadness

 

Lately
no tears will come

Not for lack of reasons to despair, lament, mourn
for there are plenty
more than enough

Yet instead of streaming down my cheeks
Only a stingy drop or two fills my eyes
Only enough to sting
not to cleanse

I envy your cathartic crying that comes so often now
and why shouldn’t it?

Tonight, listening to a familiar favorite folk singer
observing that all her songs sounded more melancholy than I’d heard them before
understanding why,
I squeezed my eyes closed
watching the silhouettes form behind my eyelids–
a turtle, an archer, a waitress serving pie

Sensing an enormous reservoir
of unshed tears
rising, rising

 

 

 

Today was the final Sunday of our November theme of abundance at UUCA. I led worship, along with my friends Bob and Kendra. You can watch a video of the service here: http://www.uucava.org/livestream/.

You can read my meditation and prayer here:

I encourage you to put your feet on the floor. Feel your seat beneath you and observe the presence beside you of caring people, whether they are friends or family or strangers. Notice your breath. Breathe in peace. Breathe out love. Breathe in comfort. Breathe out compassion. Breathe in strength. Breathe out generosity. Whatever you need right now, feel it filling your body every time you inhale. Whatever you wish to share with the world, feel it gliding into the atmosphere on your breath.

Spirit of life, we come together here today after having been scattered near and far during the past week. Some of us are refreshed and rejuvenated by time off from work and reunions with beloved family and friends. Some of us are weary from tense and difficult moments and feelings of obligation rather than joy. Some of us labored, some of us were served. Some of us were surrounded by love, some of us were lonely.

Whoever we are, may we find refuge here.

Spirit of life, as we begin again today, we ask for another chance. An opportunity to be kind to ourselves. To truly love ourselves so we can better love others. We seek relief and ease because some of us are Just. So. Tired. We seek clarity when facing an uncertain diagnosis, or no diagnosis at all, in the midst of debilitating symptoms. We seek reassurance as we endeavor to do right by our children when parenting can be so stressful. When we are young and when we are old, we seek acknowledgment. We want to know that we matter. At every age, we wish to be heard and understood. We seek grace along the path that is littered with our mistakes. We seek courage to be bold and step onto a new, unfamiliar path. We wish for the strength to unclench our fists and let the anxieties, the fears, the old hurts be carried away on the winds, leaving our hands and our hearts free. We long for the freedom to laugh and to cry with abandon. We seek release.

Whatever we seek, may we glimpse it today in this place, and claim it for our own.

 

And here’s my reflection:

FINDING YOUR ABUNDANCE

I have a contentious relationship with time. I am always running late, always composing an apology in my head. I promise it’s not because I don’t respect you or value our relationship. It’s because I am overly optimistic. I always think I have time to do one more thing before I go. Write one more sentence, put away one more load of laundry, cross one more thing off my to-do list. I am wildly unrealistic about how much time something is going to take. You would think that by this point in my life I would’ve figured this out, but no.

My family is so often late that we’ve invented a game called the good excuse bad excuse game. Note that we do not play this in the exact moment when we’re tumbling out of the house and into the minivan, because I would be way too flustered. But in a moment of calm, we can play. Here’s how it works. One person says, “sorry I was late, I decided I didn’t feel like getting out of bed, but eventually I did.” Everyone responds, BAD EXCUSE! Another person says, “Sorry I was late, I was rescuing 100 puppies from a burning building.” GOOD EXCUSE! And we continue to come up with the most pathetic or most heroic excuses we can think of.

As silly as this might seem, the good excuse bad excuse game points to an unspoken truth. The most valuable use of your time is often when you are helping someone else, when you are sharing your abundance, just like in the story Kendra read earlier. But what are the abundances we have to share? How can we find them when we so often focus on what’s scarce in our lives?

If you’re a Harry Potter fan, you may have sorted yourself into one of the Hogwarts houses. Is your abundance bravery, loyalty, intelligence, or ambition? Do you possess an abundance of patience in a world that prioritizes speed and multitasking? Are you able to bring presence into a culture of preoccupation? I know that I am awed by people who are able to be fully present with me, to make me feel like I am the only person in the world who matters at that moment. Yet this quality is not one of my abundances. For better or for worse, my mind is always tuned in to several channels at once. I can’t NOT hear a conversation happening across the room, or the oven timer going off, or notice that someone in the vicinity needs something. One of my abundances is an astute power of observation, but not focused presence.

Maybe your abundance is more practical, like agility with numbers and the ability to manage or make money. I interview a lot of people on behalf of one of my clients who say they became budget counselors because they always loved numbers. I have always felt like I am allergic to numbers. At the annual meeting at church, my eyes glaze over when they talk about the budget. I am terrible with money. I sometimes wish our currency were only in words instead of numbers. Then I could understand. This trouble with numbers often comes into conflict with another of my abundances, which is generosity. Are you raising money for Multiple Sclerosis research, or orphans in Haiti, or school supplies for girls in Nigeria? I am guaranteed to donate, whether or not I can afford it.

In fact, one of my favorite holiday traditions, for the past 10 or 15 years, has been giving alternative gifts to nonprofits that I hand pick—and now my husband and children help choose—for all of our family members. We do this at an alternative gift fair, like those sponsored by Alternative Gifts of Greater Washington, or in Arlington, Gifts that Give Hope—which is hosting this year’s event on December 9 at Discovery Elementary. Or online through the Catalogue for Philanthropy. What these organizations do is bring together wonderful charitable groups and tell you what exactly your $10 or $20 or $50 donation would do for their beneficiaries. For example, a $5 donation to your local animal shelter would buy chew toys for a dog waiting to be adopted. A $25 donation to a nonprofit that serves single moms who are survivors of domestic violence would buy a week’s worth of diapers. A $50 donation would buy a bike for a young person in an African village to have the transportation needed to start a business. We take time to think about what kind of donations would be meaningful to each family member. Like the dog toys for Uncle Larry and Aunt Susan who have loved dozens of dogs and cats over the years. Cooking classes in honor of my aunt who taught me to make delicious food from scratch. You get the idea. On Christmas morning, we open these gifts along with all the others and read out loud where the charitable gift will be going. My family’s goal on Christmas morning is to make people laugh or cry, and often these gifts elicit tears. And they don’t take up room on anyone’s shelf, and they’re making the world a better place. These gifts also remind us of just how much abundance we have in our family and our community.

Going for the laugh is also fun, like when I got my mom an autographed 8×10 photo of Adam Levine because she’s a huge fan of the Voice. You have to balance things out.

The paradox about my contentious relationship with time is that time is what people want most from me. Time is what my kids want, time is what my parents want. My husband, my dog, my friends, my clients, the church. Even though it doesn’t feel like I have a lot of it, time is my most valuable abundance to give.

My parents have everything they could possibly want, and more. But my mom is thrilled if I give her a Christmas gift of a day where I help her clean out her closet and go to lunch. We take each other to concerts and plays and readings, where we share the gift of time spent together, sharing an experience. Seeing and hearing live music is one of the great joys that my husband and I share. When we devote so many hours to working and managing the house and taking care of our children and our dog, the simple act of making the time to be together and do something we both love can seem monumental, but it’s so important.

What Facebook has abundance of is memes, and many of them are silly, and some are annoying, and some are offensive. But some are really good reminders of what matters. One I remember said something like, “if you have a stack of dishes in your sink, it means you have enough food to eat. If you have a pile of laundry to fold, it means you have enough clothes to wear.” It’s easy in Arlington, or in Northern Virginia, or Greater Washington, to feel like we don’t have enough. We have plenty of first world problems. But we also have plenty of abundance. Abundant opportunities, abundant amusements, abundant things to see and people to meet. Abundant chances to serve. Abundant ways to receive.

As we close out our month of abundance, and our weekend of abundant food and company, and we look ahead to a month that may be filled with hope or anxiety, love or loneliness, generosity or uncertainty, or maybe all of these. Remember to take with you this month your inner abundance. Is it compassion? Vision? Wit? Steadiness? Creativity? Maybe you can’t name your inner abundance right now. If that’s the case, give yourself time to find it. And when you find it, give it away.

May it be so, may it be so, may it be so.

I had the privilege of leading the service this morning at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, in a fabulous collaboration with Ashley Greve and Bob Blinn. Our wonderful artist in residence Maya Rogers led the music.

You can watch the service here!

I included this poem by Naomi Shihab Nye as part of my prayer and meditation.

Different Ways to Pray

There was the method of kneeling,
a fine method, if you lived in a country
where stones were smooth.
The women dreamed wistfully of bleached courtyards,
hidden corners where knee fit rock.
Their prayers were weathered rib bones,
small calcium words uttered in sequence,
as if this shedding of syllables could somehow
fuse them to the sky.

There were the men who had been shepherds so long
they walked like sheep.
Under the olive trees, they raised their arms—
Hear us! We have pain on earth!
We have so much pain there is no place to store it!
But the olives bobbed peacefully
in fragrant buckets of vinegar and thyme.
At night the men ate heartily, flat bread and white cheese,
and were happy in spite of the pain,
because there was also happiness.

Some prized the pilgrimage,
wrapping themselves in new white linen
to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.
When they arrived at Mecca
they would circle the holy places,
on foot, many times,
they would bend to kiss the earth
and return, their lean faces housing mystery.

While for certain cousins and grandmothers
the pilgrimage occurred daily,
lugging water from the spring
or balancing the baskets of grapes.
These were the ones present at births,
humming quietly to perspiring mothers.
The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,
forgetting how easily children soil clothes.

There were those who didn’t care about praying.
The young ones. The ones who had been to America.
They told the old ones, you are wasting your time.
Time?—The old ones prayed for the young ones.
They prayed for Allah to mend their brains,
for the twig, the round moon,
to speak suddenly in a commanding tone.

And occasionally there would be one
who did none of this,
the old man Fowzi, for example, Fowzi the fool,
who beat everyone at dominoes,
insisted he spoke with God as he spoke with goats,
and was famous for his laugh.

Here’s my reflection: The New Kid

The New Kid

Picture me, age 7, wearing a sunshine yellow Izod shirt and matching cotton shorts, missing a couple teeth, cruising down the sidewalk in blue and white roller skates. I would happily skate up people’s driveways to see who was available to play. Some days we watched monster movies with Geoff and David, some days we twirled batons with Amy and Karen, some days we played king of the hill on the pile of mulch in the Perrys’ driveway. It was all very suburban and lovely. Until…

After I finished second grade, our neighborhood elementary school closed and became a police station. The kids in our neighborhood were sent to two different schools, one of which included the gifted program that I had been assigned to. I was nervous about going to a new school, but then third grade started, and I found my people, and absolutely loved my new school. One of my best friends from third grade remains one of my best friends today.

Meanwhile, back in my neighborhood, something strange was happening. When the kids I used to play with in the cul-de-sac realized I wasn’t going to school with them anymore, they stopped playing with me. Or speaking to me. Somehow, they got this idea, whether it was from their parents or each other or who knows where, that I thought I was better than them. I didn’t. I wasn’t. Just because I was going to a different school with a different program did not mean I didn’t still want to ride bikes and play tag with them. I did. But I wasn’t allowed to anymore. They unceremoniously unwelcomed me from their midst. It was awkward and painful. They assumed something about me that wasn’t true—that I was suddenly arrogant, or a snob, even though I wasn’t behaving any differently than I had when we were hanging out in their basements. But that was that.

Fast forward a few years to ninth grade and another fork in the academic road. My friends from junior high were scattering to different high schools. My neighborhood school did not have a stellar reputation. I had heard rumors of chain-wielding gangs of immigrants roaming the hallways. Somehow, I bought into some bizarre stereotypes. I assumed the worst. So, I found a math class I could take at another, allegedly better, high school, and transferred. And I had the absolute worst year of my entire public education career. At this school, which was much richer and much whiter than my neighborhood school, people were mean to me. I was turned away from activities I wanted to do. Hardly anyone in my classes spoke to me. I was miserable. I made a handful of friends who sustained me that year, mostly people from the literary magazine who considered themselves willing outcasts of the school’s elitist culture. By the end of the year I was willing to face the prospect of roving gangs at my neighborhood school because I figured they couldn’t possibly be more unkind than the privileged white kids I’d been surrounded by all year.

First period in 10th grade I walked into Mr. Lunsford’s biology class at my neighborhood school and a whole bunch of people, most of whom I had never met, seemed surprisingly, genuinely happy to see me. As the days and weeks went on I was warmly greeted by familiar faces from elementary school and total strangers. I felt at home instantly. And guess what? No threatening thugs anywhere. Whatever I had assumed turned out not to be true. Surprise!

Recently I’ve been reading this book—Wonder by RJ Palacio—with my daughter at bedtime. I read it originally when it came out in 2012, and it’s one of my favorite books. Wonder is about a boy named August Pullman who is starting middle school and he’s nervous. Not just because he’s been homeschooled his whole life, or because it’s middle school, but also because he has a severe craniofacial anomaly. Genetics conspired to make Auggie’s face startlingly different from typical faces. By age 10 he has already undergone dozens of surgeries. When Auggie introduces himself at the beginning of the book, he says, “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.” Our only insight into Auggie’s appearance comes from his description of people’s reactions to him. Stares, gasps, kids running away on the playground. At his new school, all but a couple kids give him a wide berth. They cover their mouths when they whisper about him, but he knows exactly what they’re saying. Many of them play a cruel game they call the Plague, where they try not to touch Auggie, even in passing, and if they do they have to immediately wash their hands to prevent catching what they somehow imagine is the disease that caused Auggie’s facial differences.

The few kids who actually get to know Auggie discover that he’s awesome. He’s funny, he’s smart, he’s kind. He loves all things Star Wars, and playing video games, and when his dog Daisy licks his face. But because he looks so different, most kids, and many parents, don’t give him a chance. They make assumptions, such as that the school made an exception to admit a student with special needs who requires extra accommodations, none of which is true. One mom goes so far as to Photoshop Auggie’s face out of the class picture, saying he just doesn’t fit in.

Later in the book we do read a detailed description of Auggie’s looks from the point of view of his big sister, Olivia. She is realizing that there’s the Auggie she sees, of whom she has always been fiercely protective, and the Auggie that other people see. She is candid about the effects that having a little brother who looks so shockingly different has had on her life. She is loving, and patient, but also weary. And honest.

Olivia’s voice is one of several we hear in Wonder, in addition to August’s, which is one of the reasons I love this book so much. Mr. Tushman, the director of August’s school, says at one point, “there are almost always more than two sides to every story,” and RJ Palacio offers us windows into the many facets of this story. She wrote a companion book in 2014 called Auggie & Me, which tells the same story through the lens of three other characters, including Julian, who is Auggie’s greatest antagonist in Wonder. Just as so many kids make assumptions about Auggie based on his looks, the reader makes assumptions about Julian based on his behavior. Clearly, he’s just a jerk, right? But there are, as Mr. Tushman points out, almost always more than two sides to every story.

Our brains are hardwired to categorize for survival—is this creature friendly or likely to eat me? Is this food edible or poisonous? But what happens when that desire to classify everything you see gets out of control? I struggle with this constantly. Is that person thinner than me or fatter than me? Does that person have holes in her clothes because she can’t afford better clothes or because she’s trying to be fashionable? Why is it fashionable to have holes in your clothes? My brain goes into overdrive. So while I want to be welcoming, while I aspire to be friendly, while I deeply wish I were the person who goes over and sits down at the lunch table where the different looking new kid is sitting all alone on the first day of school, I don’t know if I really am. I am convinced that sometimes my assumptions—about someone else or myself—get in the way. What if that person who is crying just wants to be left alone? What if I am insensitive because of my white privilege? What if I ask an intrusive question because I am curious?

Sometimes this interrogation of myself keeps me from being welcoming, inclusive, or brave. Our theme here at UUCA for September is welcome. So today I’m making a commitment to be more welcoming, everywhere I go, whether I am greeting the new kid or I am the new kid. I’m making a commitment to not let those questions and assumptions ricocheting around my head get in the way of reaching out to someone. I’m making a commitment to remember that there are almost always more than two sides to every story, and to do what I can to listen to all the sides.

One of the great characters in Wonder is Auggie’s English teacher, Mr. Browne, who teaches his students about precepts—words to live by—and encourages them to come up with their own. I’ll leave you with Mr. Browne’s precept for September, a quote from Dr. Wayne Dyer: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.”

May it be so. May it be so. May it be so. Amen.

 

questionsI haven’t been blogging as much in recent weeks as I would like, not because I don’t have plenty I want to write about–I do–but because much of my creative energy has been devoted to my Five Questions podcast.

The podcast started as a fun project suggested by a friend after she watched videos of me interviewing Zeke. I’m having a great time coming up with the right questions for each guest and conducting the actual interviews, but I recently had an epiphany about the higher purpose of the podcast.

At the crux of our society’s crises right now is extraordinarily deep disconnection. We are disconnected from each other in terms of politics, religion, race, economics, sexuality, ethnicity, etc etc etc. We are afraid of each other. We feel contempt for each other. Maybe this doesn’t describe you exactly. Maybe you are confident that you’re one of the good ones, and you try to do the right thing and treat others with kindness and respect. But chances are there are some people or groups or ideologies you are averse to and afraid of. Am I saying you should rush out and try to befriend a gang of white supremacists? No. But I am saying that if we were able to have conversations with each other as human beings, you might find some common ground with those people it is easier and more palatable to distance yourself from. You might understand them, or they might understand you. At least a little.

I am not claiming that my podcast is going to lead to world peace. That would be nice, sure. But I feel strongly that any efforts to connect with others are worthwhile and usually bear positive fruit. So far I’ve produced (with the help of my sound engineer Chris Salazar) 14 episodes of Five Questions. I’ve recorded nine interviews that will air this summer and fall. And I have more than half a dozen guests lined up to interview. (I’m always looking for more guests! Sign up here!) Making this podcast has given me a great reason to talk with friends I haven’t talked with in years or even decades. My most recent interview was with someone who I went to writers camp with in 1989 and I have not seen or spoken with him since, but I do follow his life and creative genius on social media. Other guests have been people I see nearly every day. But whether I know the guests well or only a little–or I knew them well once upon a time–I find out something new about them in every episode. Their answers surprise and delight me and give me glimpses into ideas I would never have come up with on my own.

I’ve learned about how Harry Potter is used as a tool for faith formation for Episcopal youth. I’ve learned about how the decision to travel from a remote mountain village in China to the nearest big city two hours away to take a test changed someone’s life. I’ve imagined one person’s vision for a museum honoring the unsung Black women who take care of business behind the scenes. I’ve been inspired by another person’s dedication to daily artistic endeavor, including sculpting self-portraits out of food that quickly melt away. It is a privilege to hear these stories and to share them with others.

Another realization I’ve had during this project is that some people don’t think they’re interesting enough to interview. This baffles me. I’m not asking people to describe feats of daring or record-setting achievements or their road to fame. I’m simply asking what they think, feel, remember, wish, or desire. Anyone with a heart and soul can answer these kinds of questions, and every single answer is worth listening to and savoring. As Glennon Doyle Melton frequently reminds us, “We belong to each other.” Asking my five questions and soaking up and sharing their answers is an essential illustration of that belonging. We have to start understanding that we all belong to each other, and make those connections that lead to belonging. Five Questions is my small way of doing just that.

This came out of an exercise from my UUCA covenant group. My co-facilitator D suggested, shortly after the election, that she felt motivated to affirm where she stood, in order to be better able to stand up in the face of the insanity we felt was crashing down all around us. At our December meeting we took the opportunity to write statements of belief. I found it surprisingly empowering to do this. 

road

I believe in always going the extra mile. I may get there late, but I’ll always stay until the end, after all the work is done.

I believe in asking good questions, because people are almost always grateful for the chance to tell their stories.

I believe in being generous because why not? Even if I don’t have much I will always share it with you, or with whoever needs it.

I believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. Assume good intentions. Despite recent evidence, I have to believe that most people are doing the best they can with what they know and what they have.

I believe in saying yes. I’m going to learn from doing something new. I’m going to push myself. I’m going to make life a little easier for someone else.

I believe in community. I am a better person when I surround myself with good people and I give myself to the whole.

I believe in the necessity of loving yourself and taking care of yourself. You’re the only one who truly knows what you need.

I believe in asking for and accepting help. Everyone can do something and I definitely can’t do it alone.

I believe people know more than they think they do.

I believe in the power of music and words to inspire, to heal, and to make meaning in a chaotic world.

I believe that words always matter and I choose them with care and attention.

I believe that sometimes the wisest and kindest thing to say is nothing.

I believe that it’s never too late to try again and you’re never too old to learn.

I believe kindness is most important of all.

Bluesfest Music Festival - Day 3This poem came out of an exercise from the covenant group that I am co-facilitating at UUCA with my friend D. The theme for December is presence, and we were discussing and writing about when we have felt the presence of the holy. 

 

 

What Holy Is

unfettered, your heart leaps and bursts
your self melts away

unexpected moments of peace, ephemeral

laughter that makes your eyes stream, face wrinkle, belly ache–surrendering to silliness

joining the seven thousand-heart choir on melody or harmony or something else entirely as Emily and Amy sing out

–any music that covers you so completely that you have to close your eyes and dance with your whole body or your two hands or your fluttering soul

reading a book whose wondrous, unforeseen rearrangement of words tears your heart to shreds and tenderly mends it back together

genuine, inspired hugs, even when they are awkward
–maybe especially then

intimate, startling vulnerability–locking eyes, witnessing tears, being understood

 

 

 

 

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