What with so many normal points of connection suddenly severed, I clung to my friend’s book recommendation like a little lifeline. It reminded me that the top reason I love reading so much is that it connects me to others. If I wanted to just read a lot of books, I could sit in my living room and devour mysteries or romances, but it wouldn’t help me consider what my friends and neighbors were thinking about, or what they were wrestling with. Most of the books on this blog were recommended to me, and it means so much to me that as I scroll through my reading lists, the titles I see prompt me to remember the names of people I know.
So when I picked up Jesuit Priest Gregory Boyle’s book, I didn’t worry about what type it was. My friend told me it was “so good”, and that was good enough for me. Yet, in his preface, Boyle seems fixated on trying to skirt any definition of genre. He mentions some of the things that this book isn’t, saying it’s not a memoir or a how-to on dealing with gangs. He points out that there is no narrative chronology. He didn’t intend to write a sociological study or even a call to action. But as I turned the pages and fell more and more in love with Boyle’s stories, it became quickly apparent what this book is.
This book is permission to cry. When life, as it had been lately for me, demands that you put one foot in front of the other and keep tackling problems and continue to strive to do better, no matter the circumstances, this book gave me the space and reason to let it all out.
In a nutshell, Boyle’s book is about L.A. gangs, grief, and Jesus.
Gang culture is terrible, to bluntly understate the obvious, and like seeing Jesus standing over a deceased Lazarus, the reader, like Boyle, is at times drawn to indignant tears of why the heck haven’t we solved this problem yet? Why should a teen girl in his book need to specify that she should be buried in a sexy red dress (“Promise me, that I get buried in this dress”), expecting not to make it to middle, let alone old, age? (89) And how eye-opening is this view of teen pregnancy, when another teen comments:
“I just want to have a kid before I die.”
To which Boyle responds, “I’m thinking, How does a sixteen-year-old get off thinking that she won’t see eighteen? It is one of the explanations for teen pregnancies in the barrio. If you don’t believe you will reach eighteen, then you accelerate the whole process, and you become a mother well before you’re ready.” (90)
In the midst of frequent violent death, Boyle muses, “Enough death and tragedy come your way, and who would blame you for wanting a new way to measure [success].” (177)
Boyle finds that new way in Jesus, who reminds us that our purpose in life stems not from our success but from our faithfulness to love. As Boyle describes him:
“Jesus was not a man for others. He was one with others. There is a world of difference in that. Jesus didn’t seek the rights of lepers. He touched the leper even before he got around to curing him. He didn’t champion the cause of the outcast. He was the outcast. He didn’t fight for improved conditions for the prisoner. He simply said, “I was in prison.” (172)
Boyle points out that ““The Left screamed: “Don’t just stand there, do something.” And the Right maintained: “Don’t stand with those folks at all.”” And yet, “[t]he strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place -- with the outcast and those relegated to the margins.” (172, bold italics mine)
Boyle tries to do this in his gang-dense neighborhood in L.A. He founds a work program called Homeboy Industries to help funnel gang members off of the streets and into employment, and in doing so, opens his life to theirs. It seems natural, this interaction of priest and gang member, this intersection of love and recklessness. So when Boyle is overcome with grief at one boy’s funeral, the reader cries in solidarity. And when, in the same moment, a bystander scoffs at Boyle for crying, letting him know he thinks the deceased was not worth another thought, the reader too feels the punch in the gut as the world rears its ugly head and forces its own expectations, marching effortlessly over love and mercy, leaving them crushed in its wake.
As Boyle stands there wondering what to do, he remembers that “[b]y casting our lot with the gang member, we hasten the demise of demonizing. All Jesus asks is, “Where are you standing?” And after chilling defeat and soul-numbing failure, He asks again, “Are you still standing there?” / Can we stay faithful and persistent in our fidelity even when things seem not to succeed? I suppose Jesus could have chosen a strategy that worked better (evidenced-based outcomes) -- that didn’t end in the Cross -- but he couldn’t find a strategy more soaked with fidelity than the one he embraced.” (173)
Boyle reiterates this point over and over again, that “[s]uccess and failure, ultimately, have little to do with living the gospel. Jesus just stood with the outcasts until they were welcomed or until he was crucified -- whichever came first.” (172)
After burying nearly hundreds of gang members whom he came to love, Boyle acknowledges that the world might not give us the permission to grieve the way we need to in order to heal. Reading his book, I grieved for the lives lost in L.A., and I grieved for everything else wrong in the pandemic and in our lives as well. It was hard to stop crying actually. And yet now I think, what better way, in fact, to let each other know, you were loved? These lives, as Boyle’s example shows, are worth our tears.
The first time Dan and I got a puppy (over twelve years ago now), we had no kids. As I’ve written on this blog in a prior post, Sanibel was our first child, and we grieved for a long time after she passed away in November, 2018. This summer though, we realized that our youngest kids barely remember her, and while Sanibel can never be replaced, we also knew that we wanted our kids to grow up with a dog in the house.
We knew it would be a challenge to bring a puppy into the mix with four active children already. So we decided to make it absolutely as hard as possible by purchasing said puppy on the brink of winter during the pandemic right after travel restrictions tightened up again. That way, the kids’ grandparents would be unable to babysit them as we had been hoping so Dan and I could drive out and get the puppy ourselves. Instead, my daughter and I could make the 15-hour round trip harrowing drive through a Nor’easter into Pennsylvania and back. (After hydroplaning slightly on the highway, I heard a voice from the backseat: “Mom, what was that sound?” “Oh, just the tires going through some water. We’re going to drive in the middle of the road now.”)
Fortunately, Dan volunteered to run the remote schooling show in the upstairs of our house, so I could sit in the dining room and learn the music. Rehearsing with Opal snuggled in at my feet, I couldn’t help but compare the experience to practicing for the 2018 Christmas Concert. Sanibel hated music. Maybe she felt it was too unpredictable, maybe too loud, but when I think of the last weeks of her life, I remember the disdainful looks she gave me as I sang about God’s love for the world. My tiny newborn, Opal, by contrast, raised her head occasionally in surprise but went back to napping pretty easily. For me, the emotions involved in this process were overwhelming. To be recording a concert virtually during a pandemic while being reminded of a grievous loss in our family, I wanted to simultaneously cry for the memories and smile at the possibility to still carry on.
By the end of the week, I was feeling ready enough to sing for the camera. But first, I had to construct the set. After many iterations of furniture arrangements and lighting options, Dan helped me hang a white sheet over our bedroom closet door to create a neutral background, using the push pins that one of our sons brought home from school to strengthen his fine motor skills. After grabbing my children’s reading lamps for spotlights and slipping my phone into one son’s phone tripod from the Harry Potter invisibility cloak gift set he got for Christmas the year before, I felt ready. I took a practice selfie to assess my progress...and realized no one wanted to see that mugshot. So a shower and wardrobe choices and makeup followed, but eventually, it was time to press record.
After singing my heart out, I played back the recording, only to hear my children’s screams from the living room downstairs. Right. I had left Dan to juggle four children and a non-potty-trained puppy at the same time. It was a bit much to ask, but after a few more takes, we got there.
During those early weeks of December, everything seemed to be happening at once, but after that, life seemed to calm down a little, back to its regular chaotic state. We were heading into the last days of school before Christmas break when we got the call from the vet late in the evening on December 22nd.
“Your dog has giardia.”
And if you have no idea why our stomachs sank when we heard those words, all I can say is lucky you that you’ve never experienced parasite-induced diarrhea. The first time Sanibel had giardia, we were living in an 8th floor apartment in Chicago. Dan will never forget that night when he waited for the elevator eight times, hoping our dog could hold it long enough to make it outside.
Opal, fortunately, was asymptomatic, but the vet recommended treating her before it really took hold...and before she affected anyone else in the house.
“Giardia can be transmitted from dogs to humans,” she warned.
And then I remembered how one of my sons had vomited his breakfast the other day. I had assumed he got up too early (ahem, 4:30am) in his excitement about the first big snowfall. But then later that evening, another son couldn’t make it to the bathroom in time after running in from playing in the snow. The snow pants were spared, but I was glad for the sanitize cycle on my washing machine in order to take care of the rest of the clothing. Come to think of it, a third son had complained of stomach pain after not eating much dinner...
Suddenly, it hit me that my children might already have giardia, and I needed the answer to a very pressing question: Am I going to have to collect stool samples from my children? On top of all of the other stresses I was already feeling, I really didn’t think I could do that one. I really thought that might make me snap.
The nurse who returned my frantic message to the pediatrician’s office tried to reassure me that it was unlikely my children had giardia.
“People actually contract different strains than dogs,” she explained. “But,” she continued, “they could have COVID.”
Ah. Right. They could have that virus that is ravaging our planet.
But I have to tell you that as I was talking to her on December 23rd, anticipating Christmas preparations and how we were basically heading into a quarantine time anyway and had been quarantined pretty much due to remote schooling, all I could think was how relieved I was that they likely didn’t have giardia. I wouldn’t have to schlep all of my children to the doctor’s office or rush out to get medication from the pharmacy. AND I WOULDN’T HAVE TO COLLECT ANY STOOL SAMPLES!
I was at a school playground with my kids recently when I overheard a conversation between four young teenage girls that made me pause. I’m guessing they were in eighth or ninth grade.
“You went through a Jesus phase in seventh, didn’t you?” one asked another.
Mumbling ensued that I couldn’t discern, and then I heard something like,
“Yeah, that stuff was really important to our parents when we were young, but not now.”
A third girl seemed to start to wonder why that was, but stopped. The conversation paused and then shifted direction.
I can’t claim that these girls had spiritual questions, but I can claim two things from this, both of which made me sad:
First, they had questions about why they were taught about church when they were young and why that teaching stopped.
Second, they didn’t make more of an effort to talk about spiritual things with their friends, perhaps because they weren’t interested, perhaps because they were embarrassed, or perhaps because they just didn’t know how. But the fact that they considered discussing these things at all made me feel like they wanted to talk about these things on some level.
As I reflected on what I heard of their conversation (i.e. righteous indignation stirring) and the accusatory thoughts it stirred in me (akin to Why didn’t their parents keep teaching about faith and the church?!), I was instantly humbled as I recalled my admission to you in last month’s newsletter that I myself had run spiritually dry.
At dinner that night, with my husband and four children, I asked for everyone’s attention. I told the story of the four girls, and I then I said this:
“I want you to know it’s okay to ask questions about God and Jesus and the church. I want you to know that you might not always have the answers, that some answers may take years to figure out, and some answers you may never get.”
My daughter interrupted, saying that she had thought once that the story of Jesus all made sense to her, and that now she wasn’t so sure.
I nodded and affirmed her. “I think that you’ll find that as your brain grows, your questions will change. But I want you to keep asking questions. I want you to be able to keep talking about God and Jesus and the church. There may be times when Daddy and I don’t seem to talk about it as much, but it is still important, and you can always talk to us about those things.”
The authors recommended choosing five or fewer suggestions (out of a hundred) to start, with the emphasis on starting small and trying to be consistent. I knew I wanted to start with the ideas in Chapter 2: Modeling Faith.
Pre-COVID, I used to sit at Starbucks in the mornings, and while I waited for my tea to cool off enough to sip, I wrote in a gratitude journal and read the Bible. I had a pretty consistent “Quiet Time” as some call it. It felt pretty ideal.
But my kids never saw that.
I realized that under these COVID conditions, my kids’ could be listening to me sing worship songs during our church’s services, now streamed over YouTube. So that Sunday, I started to “go to” church again, deciding to dismiss any concerns about whether the kids would be too loud or distracting to really feel involved with it. Regardless of their behavior, if I turned on the TV, they would see how it was important to me.
Besides attending church, I identified a few other things I wanted to try with my family. Small things like adding a question or two to the dinner conversation like, What was your favorite part of the day? Or Did anyone make any mistakes today? I was surprised when all of the kids latched onto that second one, and it brought to light how each of us views mistakes and how we evaluate what makes those mistakes big or small.
In chapter 4, I learned about the power of prayer in building warm family relationships. There were beautiful examples of prayers parents prayed routinely over their children and / or with them. In our family, we say a dinner prayer and a bedtime prayer, but the examples in the book made me want to try out new ones.
Here’s a fourth idea I likely will have to save for post-COVID times: The researchers stressed the impact of intergenerational relationships. I would like to identify five adults who can pour into each of my children’s life and faith. This could be through visits, activities or cards or gifts in the mail.
Lastly, as I read about connections between monitoring teenage cell phone use and maintaining warm family relationships, I realized that while that was a long way off for our family, there were ground rules I could implement now...for myself. I knew that every time I checked a text message or an email on my phone, my children noticed. If I was staring at a screen, I was unavailable to them. I knew this and felt convicted all over again to place boundaries on technology for myself. I decided that for the after school hours, when all of my children are home, I would try to put the phone away until after they go to bed. I also would save my computer time for when they are watching TV. For sure, there are other times when they are so engaged in play or a dance party or reading that they usually don’t seek my attention. During those times I am tempted to focus on my writing or computer-based research (where should my son take karate, for example). But having this boundary for myself has helped me maintain eye contact and be available when they do flit into the room with a question.
Bottom line, I don’t want my children to be left out in the cold when it comes to their questions, spiritual, logistical or otherwise. Five years from now, when they are hanging out on the playground with their friends, I don’t want them to feel embarrassed or hesitant if someone asks about faith. I want them to be curious and supportive of others, and I want them to have people in their lives who can be faith role models, approachable people who will listen and encourage them on their spiritual journeys. And all of that starts at home.
I’m aware that my presentation needs work. My ankle-length, winter white sleeping bag coat is smeared with more than two seasons of grime, and even if it were brand new, L.L. Bean sure wasn’t going for sleek and sophisticated when they designed it baggy enough to fully zipper my last pregnancy to full term. And that was when I was carrying twins.
The day I arrived at the unmarked warehouse that is La Collaborativa Food Pantry in Chelsea, I tried to put some cheer and confidence in my voice to make up for what I lacked in appearance, but when I approached the two women on the front step and asked,
“Is this the food pantry?” one of them gave me a double take and, hesitating momentarily out of politeness, asked,
“Are you looking for food?”
“No,” I replied, remaining pleasant so as not to undermine their purpose, to affirm that it’s not shameful to accept handouts. “I’m from Highrock Church. I signed up to volunteer to pack boxes today. That is, if you could use the help?”
I had first heard of the need two months back, through my pastor’s wife who had rallied the moms ministry to act on behalf of this operation that had lost its USDA sponsorship in late 2020. This organization usually feeds 8,000 people per week, which meant that 8,000 people were now searching for another way to find food...or going hungry. My pastor’s wife, brimming over with compassion, quickly organized collection locations in 13 communities in the Greater Boston area. We moms were asked to add a selective list of items to our grocery lists and then deliver the foodstuffs to the designated drop box nearest to our homes.
Several weeks went by before I jumped on the bandwagon. I had seen the weekly emails, the updates of multiple vans of food collecting and delivering hundreds of pounds of food each week, the generosity and collectively mammoth-sized offering of dozens of moms working together to support one of the communities hardest hit by COVID. I saw the updates and somehow couldn’t get past my cynicism that this would make any difference. Why should we be the ones to fix this? If we keep delivering food, will they ever figure out how to get it themselves?
And then, a few weeks ago, something happened that I can only explain by calling it God’s intervention. I had been wallowing in my need to escape -- to escape my tiny home in the middle of a gray winter, to escape the uncertainty of COVID, to escape the soul-crushing isolation that resulted from the combination of all of those factors. I had been searching for a new home for my family, but when an opportunity fell through, instead of disappointment, I was surprised to feel enormous relief. I heard a reprimanding voice in my head, the kind that not only puts you in your place but speaks the wisdom you’ve been craving. It said,
“You still live here.”
Weary of Zoom meetings being my only way to see the faces of friends from my pre-COVID past, I had stopped attending my church moms’ small group sometime this past fall. I didn’t want to commiserate over pandemic woes and strive to make the best of it by substituting staples like full time school attendance with alternative activities like socially-distanced snowshoeing. I was ready to seek that full time school in a new community and imagine a new life for my family. I was so deep into the fantasy that I couldn’t function in my daily life.
The wise voice told me I needed to step back into my life.
Shortly after that, I signed into the weekly small group meeting and enjoyed the discussion of drawing closer to God through implementing spiritual disciplines, like fasting, rest, prayer, Bible study, confession, solitude, simplicity, fellowship and service. I shared my recent unexpected relief at losing out on an opportunity to leave my situation, and as people shared their own stories, I reflected privately that I was glad to feel called to spend time with God through service work.
It had been a long time since I had participated in a service project. Perhaps since last summer. Sure, we still tithe and give monthly and occasionally to charitable organizations, but the last time I could remember intentionally participating in a service project was following my kids’ Vacation Bible School curriculum last June. I wrote about this already on this blog, how I wasn’t sure we had what it takes to give when we were running on empty ourselves. I also felt tentative about participating in projects because the overall message during COVID was “Stay home”. Earlier on this blog I wrote about seeking alternative fight strategies when our usual service work was disrupted, but thanks to that voice, I felt like I had waited long enough. I now felt moved to act.
I added to my grocery list non-perishable items to donate to the food pantry in Chelsea, and I visited the SignUp Genius and, enlisting a friend to help out alongside me, I marked my name down for three shifts of packing boxes of food, boxes that other volunteers would later hand out to those in need.
My first shift was cancelled due to a snowstorm, so a week after that I finally showed up on the doorstep, prepared to appear foolish and remain malleable in order to be used in whatever way was most helpful.
The ladies standing there smiled at me from behind their masks and took me inside, explaining a bit about the facility. I quickly realized this was one of those situations where I could have benefited from studying Spanish in school instead of French, but at least no one seemed to mind. We mimed to each other and did the best we could.
Except, when I wanted to double check that we really were supposed to throw away hundreds of pounds of meat that appeared stably frozen but was past the sell by date. Or when we were asked to sort a random assortment of non-perishable foodstuffs. If I understood how the food was distributed, perhaps I would be able to better discern whether to group Asian noodles with rice or whether baking powder should go with cake mix. And bottom line, I thought there would be so much work that I wouldn’t have time for ridiculous questions like these about the minutiae of it all.
Somewhere in the middle of transferring wholesale linguine by the one-pound handfuls into individual Ziploc baggies while discussing the pros and cons of city versus suburban living with another English-speaking volunteer, I started to wonder if I was helping at all. I couldn’t see the bigger picture, and I couldn’t communicate to learn more.
When I left at the end of my shift, I felt a little let down, a little discouraged. Was this what service was? Drudgery that feels like it’s getting you nowhere? It’s funny how I started the morning thinking I was going to do something useful with my hands but that I ended it wondering how any reasonable person could have thanked me for showing up that day.
A few days ago, I was grateful to hear this reminder from my pastor during a Sunday sermon: The service work we do is a form of worship. If we remember that we serve others in order to serve God, then we don’t have to feel let down when the people who receive our gifts, like our offerings of food and time, might not use them as wisely or efficiently as possible. We don’t need to put qualifiers on our efforts. A few years ago, a mom in our family small group put it this way: if you feel moved to give, God will honor that gift. It was something I would remember when my book club read The Moment of Lift by Melinda Gates and criticized her efforts and even the efforts she could have highlighted with the writing of her book.
From here I understand my task is to fight the human tendency toward cynicism that tugs at my heart and tempts me to push my cart past those items in the grocery store that are in high demand at the food pantry. Whether by contributing a few more bags of rice, or whether by showing up with willing hands on site, I can see God working through it all, through reinstating the connection to the USDA Farmers to Families program, through the faithfulness of the suburban mom minivan drivers, and through the perseverance of the on site volunteers.
There is a season for everything, and while I’m here in this season, I turn to this work, remembering that at least one of my feet remains firmly planted, right here.
This December, for the third year in a row, our book club enjoyed a book exchange. The format was a bit different due to COVID. Readers deposited their paper treasures in a cooler on my back deck and signed up to receive the title of their choice. A few days later, I delivered books in my car, temporarily cheered by lightly falling snow and crooning Christmas carolers on the radio.
Christmas itself involved staying up to wee hours to wrap presents, then getting up twenty minutes later when my kids decided they couldn’t sleep another wink. And then, after a flurry of wrapping paper, Christmas ended, and I started wishing mightily for a pick me up. As my husband likes to say, there is no reward for getting through Christmas. You just get January in New England.
I have to tell you I laughed out loud. Repeatedly.
It was such a great choice for the dead of winter in the doldrums of a pandemic when you realize you haven’t had a date night in gosh knows how long. Date night now might mean sitting in the same room for an hour after the kids go to bed and fretting (fuming?) about how to get the squirrels out of your attic space.
Then you read this little 100 page book. It reminds you that you don’t love marriage despite the struggles. In fact, you enjoy the struggles too. Or rather, you enjoy minor problem-solving scenarios like divvying up leftovers and doing that dance in the kitchen as we jockey for space. And with regards to bigger issues like the squirrels, perhaps you’ll enjoy laughing about those times when you look back at them later (if the squirrels ever leave). You enjoy this extra-unpredictable-other-worldly dimension of your life and truly believe it’s other-worldly in nature because only a God with a hope bigger than our understanding would ever believe that we could pull it off.
Remember you are not alone is something we’ve heard so often during this pandemic and yet strained to believe, and this book reminds you of related truth that you’ve forgotten to remember -- to be grateful that you get to be a part of this strange club where you get to have inside jokes -- and inside arguments -- with the initially random person who later became the one who vowed to put up with you no matter what. This book is so great I’d say give it to your lover for Valentine’s Day. I mean, I would if the day hadn’t already passed. You probably got her something amazing though, right? What’s that? You forgot? Oh well, it’s really just a Hallmark holiday. No one really cares about it.
But you could still read the book. Enjoy. For twenty minutes may you too forget that you are in the middle of winter and slogging it through a pandemic. May you remember that you are surrounded by (sometimes suffocated by) someone who loves you.
Sometimes truth comes at you from the most unexpected places.
Let’s say, for example, that you’re reading the third memoir in a row about substance abuse -- and all of the really really awful choices people make when they feel unloved -- and you’re wondering to yourself why people can’t write about beautiful things for a change. You know you’re not the only one who needs a pick me up, whose spiritual life has bottomed out, whose hope for that light at the end of the tunnel has dwindled to a pinprick of pixels if that. Your misery loves company, and yet, there’s something innately disturbing about dwelling in someone else’s quagmire such that you feel more sucked down than comforted.
But this book is so long. You tend to be verbose in your own writing, so you understand the need for Karr to go on at length, but you just wish she could have capped it somewhere under 300 pages, or at least not included so many swear words and trashy metaphors that are dragging your mind into the gutter and stirring up feelings of frustration and anger and agony and --
And then you see it. In the middle of page 217. Sacred truths you know but have lost sight of in your inability to let go of despair:
Faith is not a feeling...It’s a set of actions. By taking the actions, you demonstrate more faith than somebody who actually has experienced the rewards of prayer and so feels hope. Fake it till you make it.
And on page 218:
You were saved for something...Don’t die before you find out what. What’s your dream for your life?
And on pages 368-9:
[What’s] God’s dream for you?
God has a dream for me?...I love that idea. It sounds like a Disney movie.
You know from the beginning that this is a self-reported conversion story -- a sinner’s fall to faith and subsequent redemption -- and yet the way Karr tells it absolutely blindsides you.
People in my writing group have asked me to dig deep when describing what it feels like to hear God’s voice. When they ask me next time, I will ask if they have read Mary Karr. Her writing makes it clear that God speaks to us through our own idiosyncrasies, reaching us in as many unique ways as we are uniquely different from each other. You read her descriptions of what it meant for her to find faith and you don’t doubt her discovery. It may not spur the reader on her own spiritual journey if the seeds for it aren’t already planted, but no doubt the reader will be glad that Karr has begun hers and will wish her well.
But for me, I sat there for a full minute befuddled by the page. A page that had been recommended to me by someone who had rejected me. A page in a book by a writer highly acclaimed in the writing circles who approached my own ideas with more scrutiny than a health inspector in a restaurant. Two realizations slowly dawned:
It’s possible to write about religion in a way non-religious readers will devour.
And it is possible to find God in a scathing book about an abused drunk on the road to recovery. Well, maybe I knew that. But I didn’t know it was possible to find God in a book recommended to me by a community that, on the whole, is disinclined to believe he exists.
In one of the final chapters, Karr asks her mentor to recall how she felt she could never repay him for his kindness. She reminds him of his teaching that kindness isn’t meant to be repaid, it’s meant to be passed along. Karr lets him know that she’s had the chance to do that, to help the next person in line. And by this point in the story, it’s clear to me that I’m probably not the only person whom Karr is unaware of helping.
Anne Lamott knew full well the invisible train of thanks, the untracked links in the chain, when she wrote in her writing guide Bird by Bird:
“Even if only the people in your writing group read your memoirs or stories or novel, even if you only wrote your story so that one day your children would know what life was like when you were a child and you knew the name of every dog in town -- still, to have written your version is an honorable thing to have done. Against all odds, you have put it down on paper, so that it won’t be lost. And who knows? Maybe what you’ve written will help others, will be a small part of the solution. You don’t even have to know how or in what way, but if you are writing the clearest, truest words you can find and doing the best you can to understand and communicate, this will shine on paper like its own little lighthouse. Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” (235-6)
I sit here now wondering about the mystery -- how we can never know from where the light will shine next. Tentatively, we step ahead.
I’m told that names with X or Z in them stand out and are easier to remember, but having an interesting name isn’t what put Ibram X. Kendi on Time magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential People of 2020. Rather, Kendi’s intentional name change (according to Wikipedia, his middle name Xolani is a Xhosa and Zulu word for "peace" and his last name, "Kendi" means "the loved one" in the language of the Meru people of Kenya) is a small testament to the focus with which he has lived his life, dedicated to the research of racist ideas and their influence on American society.
As I described this ambitious structure to my husband and confessed that I was having trouble holding all of the information in my head so that I could make sense of it, he suggested that, as far as reading history goes, it can be particularly hard to find a narrative through-line in an intellectual history like this one. Kendi tells a story for sure, but, as I write about elsewhere this month, it is easier for a reader like me to digest the information when the story centers around one person, like in The Lemon Tree. Kendi is onto something when he tries to encapsulate chunks of time in the lives of each of those influential figures, but if you pick up this one, know you’re in for some hard work.
As I compiled my reading from this month, I realized that my selections each raised issues of American myths, myths like these that Kendi addresses in his book:
-That hate and ignorance led to racism and discrimination
-That racism is in the past
-That Americans have a troubled history but have been generally engaged in racial progress
-That anti-racism is intuitive and easy
In his preface to the paperback edition, Kendi explains that in his research, he “did not see a singular historical force taking steps forward and backward on race. [He] saw two distinct historical forces. [He] saw a dual and dueling history of racial progress and the simultaneous progression of racism. [He] saw the antiracist force of equality and the racist force of inequality marching forward, progressing in rhetoric, in tactics, in politics.” (x)
He goes on to explain:
“If Barack Obama came to embody America’s history of racial progress, then Donald Trump should come to embody America’s history of racist progress. And racist progress has consistently followed racial progress.
“It is this dueling duality that I present in Stamped from the Beginning, taking away the shock of Trump’s election, and showing its striking consistency within America’s history. Trump was shocking for me, but then again not shocking at all. This history prepared me for Trump, and all the other Trumps that could rise one day on the timeworn back of bigotry.” (xi)
This idea of a “dual and dueling history” really resonated with me, especially after reading Her Gates Will Never Be Shut by Bradley Jersak last month. In detailing biblical and historical perspectives on Hell, Jersak challenges the reader to consider the teachings of the pre-Nicene church (Christianity before 325 A.D.) as a path to thinking beyond the possibilities that the world and heaven are either consecutive ages or two separate spaces in different dimensions but rather “are two coexistent realities constantly competing for our allegiance.” (163)
The Bible says that the more we seek God, the more the devil will try to turn us from him. Kendi’s idea of racist progress following racial progress parallels this.
Kendi posits that “hate and ignorance have not driven the history of racist ideas in America. Racist policies have driven the history of racist ideas in America… Time and again, powerful and brilliant men and women have produced racist ideas in order to justify racist policies of their era, in order to redirect the blame from their era’s racial disparities away from those policies and onto Black people.” (9)
Reading this did not make me proud to be an American. Beyond that though, it highlighted the incredibly disappointing fallibility of mankind. To begin with, I just don’t understand how generations of people could dedicate themselves to the study of whether groups of people can be categorized into a hierarchy. Just because Aristotle embraced it doesn’t mean we should follow suit. Please read the first few chapters of Kendi’s book and feel the fury. Or better yet, listen to the audiobook and pair the placid cadence of the reader’s voice with the audacious history depicted in his words. (And if you can listen to this book while on a cross country road trip where your children compete for your attention as they demand movies, music and snacks, you’ll experience the madness in a more palpable way.)
Do you ever picture yourself in history? Do you ever imagine how you would have acted during that time? In antebellum American, women were using their voices through narrative, as Jessie Morgan-Owens writes in her incredibly researched book Girl in Black and White. Could I have written something like Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Okay, perhaps not, but if I had been living in Little Rock, Arkansas, would I have tried to help the new Black students feel welcome at Central High School? Images from Melba Pattillo Beals’ memoir Warriors Don’t Cry remain seared in my mind from when I read it as a teenager, and yet, Kendi points out that I missed the bigger picture -- why Beals had to seek alternative education in the first place.
This is an example of where I struggled with Kendi’s message to tease apart what actions were segregationist, assimilationist or anti-racist. According to my reading of his words, to encourage Beals and her classmates to attend Central High School would have been an assimilationist act. How would that help the kids at Horace Mann High School (from where Beals transferred) get a better education? He suggests that perhaps the anti-racist action would have been to pour funds and resources into that school, instead of implementing bussing of kids to better schools in a different part of town. Would I have been so focused on welcoming Melba and others that I would have missed the opportunity to build up the communities that needed it? What about the Blacks that didn’t want to go to white schools?
Over the 511 pages of the paperback edition, Kendi weaves the complicated story of racist ideas from multiple perspectives. There is no one Black perspective, just as there is no one white perspective. As I read more this book, I began to understand the need for places like Kendi’s Center for Antiracist Research, work he first began at American University but now continues at Boston University as of July 2020.
I would like to read Kendi’s book How to be an Anti-Racist so that I can continue to learn about how to practice anti-racism, something I’m finding might not come as intuitively as I first thought. And yet, according to Kendi, it all comes down to this straightforward belief:
“That is what it truly means to think as an antiracist: to think there is nothing wrong with Black people, to think that racial groups are equal.” (11)
That is the whole foundation. That is the place to start.
This book falls on a very long list of books I didn’t get around to reading when they were first popular. But Tolan’s story of crossing barriers to understand differences among us is far from a passing fad. It’s a little-practiced but desperately needed exercise in growing empathy that is relevant for any time. There will always be differences dividing the human race -- whether by race or culture or religion or politics or class or personality. And while diversity and inclusion groups have certainly made great strides to cultivate awareness and celebrate diversity, we need stories like Tolan to bring us beyond just saying it’s okay to be different. We need stories to teach us how to bring honor to someone who is different. It’s the simple but often-insurmountable difference between saying hello to your neighbor and inviting them over for a meal in your home.
Tolan’s narrative demonstrates that while Dalia and Bashir grow in their love for each other over decades of friendship, they retain a heartbreaking hesitancy to climb out of their entrenched ideals in order to pursue compromise. For the Palestinian, even as late as 2013 (in my edition of the book), 65 years after the 1948 war, no resolution is satisfactory besides removing any immigrant who arrived after 1948 and restoring the 1948 boundaries of Palestine, a change which would allow him to return to the home he was forced to flee that year. For the Israeli, the Palestinians must accept that the Jews need this land and must build new homes in Old Palestine, allowing her to retain rights over the Palestinian’s property which she inhabited when he fled.
Even with this stalemate, however, Tolan’s book is still worth reading. Perhaps in sharing their personal struggles, Tolan seeks to embolden others to join the conversation. In his words:
“The key to...openness, [he continues] lies in the interweaving narratives: When someone sees his or her own history represented fairly, it opens up the mind and heart to the history of the Other…[in order to recognize] the humanity of the other side. ...I’m hopeful that the human story beneath this “intractable” problem will show that it may not be so intractable after all. As Dalia says, “Our enemy is the only partner we have.” (xix)
What I appreciated most about this book was a chance to learn about the history of the region in a detailed way through a narrative structure, like that of the story of Bashir and Dalia. As I describe elsewhere in my blog this month in my review of Kendi’s in my review of Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, I have always had a hard time remembering the dates and circumstances in a history lesson. One of my classmates this past summer shared an excerpt from her memoir about losing her connection to her Egyptian homeland since coming to the States. When she grounded Egyptian history in her personal memories, I was much more able to follow her experience, as I would have been otherwise floundering in a sea of names and dates, untethered to an hierarchy of importance in my mind.
In trying to process Tolan’s feat of narrative nonfiction, I mulled over some pretty tough issues. First, I feel like I have to confess that I grew up believing in what I now feel is a myth of Israeli sovereignty. Second, I wonder if we might apply Gregory Boyd’s interpretation of Old Testament violence in this situation and consider that, while God definitely wanted his people in the Promised Land, he never wanted the Israelites to take it by force.
While there are, for sure, religious reasons for Israelis and Muslims to lay claim to the land in question, I found it interesting that Tolan chooses to highlight families that are mainly secular. Still, there are, of course, strong religious implications. Israeli Operation “Wrath of God” in 1972, for example, reminds me of Boyd pointing out that the ancient cultures depicted in the Old Testament were proud of violent contests that demonstrated the power and victory of their gods. The Ancient Israelites were no different. They wanted to attribute the violent victories to Yahweh. And yet, Boyd suggests in his book that God wanted to give Canaan to the Israelites in a non-violent manner. As a Christian, it is important for me to study this. Christian backing for Israel is a strong part of American culture, and I want us to reconsider why. Christians have an opportunity here to replace the “an eye for an eye” thinking with Jesus’s admonishment to “turn the other cheek.”
Regarding one such Christian, I have a vague memory of reading Blood Brothers by Palestinian-Arab-Christian-Israeli Archbishop Elias Chacour as a teenager. Originally published in 1984, I found the story eye-opening and moving. But for me, the conflict still felt very far away. Tolan’s narrative drives the matter home, for Americans in particular.
For most of my life, the problem in the Middle East has been over there. And yet, here’s my third large takeaway: Many of the details found in this narrative eerily mirror those at home, making it painstakingly clear that the issues we see in the Middle East are not specific to the Middle East but perhaps examples of the broken condition of the human spirit. For example, are Americans not invaders in their land, pushing out the indigenous people, as the Palestinians accuse the Israelis? Are Americans not battling with the concept of reparations? Are Americans not locking up their own (watch 13th on Netflix for shocking statistics on mass incarceration) and disenfranchising large portions of the population, as Tolan included the estimate that 40% of the adult male Palestinian population had done some jail time in the 18 years follow the 1967 war? And are Americans not on display for the whole world to criticize? (I don’t offer a particular example for that last question, but I don’t expect you have to think too hard to come up with one.)
Bashir points out a humbling difference between us when he says:
“Palestinians are stones in a riverbed. We won’t be washed away. The Palestinians are not the Indians. It is the opposite: Our numbers are increasing.” (260)
Those statements made me incredibly uncomfortable, as did these:
“[Bashir] was skeptical that this longing for Zion had much to do with Israel’s creation. “Israel first came to the imagination of the Western occupying powers for two reasons,” he told Dalia.
“And what are they?” she asked in reply, now feeling her own skepticism grow.
“First, to get rid of you in Europe. Second, to rule the East through this government and to keep down the whole Arab world. And then the leaders started remembering the Torah and started to talk about the land of the milk and the honey, and the Promised Land.”
“But there is good reason for this,” Dalia objected. “And the reason is to protect us from being persecuted in other countries....”
“But you are saying that the whole world did this, Dalia. It is not true. The Nazis killed the Jews. And we hate them. But why should we pay for what they did? Our people welcomed the Jewish people during the Ottoman Empire…. “
Referring to the conflict Dalia and he both find themselves in now, drawn together by the yearning for the same home, Bashir continues:
“Why did this happen, Dalia? The Zionism did this to you, not just to the Palestinians.” (161)
Dalia’s husband admits at one point that Palestinians “have a legitimate grievance against [Israelis]...And deep down, even those who deny it know it. That makes us very uncomfortable and uneasy in dealing with you. Because our homes are your homes, you become a real threat.” (211)
It takes decades for Dalia to even consider the possibility that Bashir might have a claim to her family’s home. Prior to meeting Bashir, she believed the story she was told throughout childhood, that the Palestinians fled their homes in 1948, too cowardly to fight, and that because of this they did not deserve the land. I found it really hard to understand her reasoning. Even if they hadn’t been driven out (as she later learns was the case), perhaps they weren’t fighters? Perhaps they were hoping for nonviolence? Why is it cowardly to walk away from a bully when he picks a fight?
As Dalia searches for a way to make things right with her friend Bashir, she has an opportunity to foster dialogue between Israelis and Arabs and is “amazed at the outpouring of emotion from Arab citizens who began talking openly about their family stories from 1948. “Suddenly, Arabs opened up with statements of pain,” [Dalia’s husband] recalled. “Liberal, well-meaning Israelis who thought they were building cultural bridges and alliances were forced to confront the fact that there were endemic problems and injustices in Israeli society that required much more than cross-cultural encounter and coexistence activity. It required social and political transformation on a societal scale.” (240-1)
To me, this sharing of stories is what we’re encouraging in America right now. The writing center where I take classes seeks diversity of writers, and as frustrated as I am that I continue to be waitlisted for classes, I can’t blame the organizers for prioritizing stories of the unheard over someone like me from middle white America. My book club has added more color to its line-up of authors, and I wonder how you might search for and absorb stories from writers that have long gone unprinted.
Overall, in The Lemon Tree, while Tolan repeatedly drives home the love of the Jewish people for the Promised Land, I get a more sympathetic view of the Arabs. I wonder how Jewish Americans respond to this book. I wonder how it has been received in Israel.
I don’t want my observations and comments to be read as a criticism of the Jewish people but rather an inquiry into the justifications of Israeli policy. As I’ve written elsewhere, none of my blog posts are comprehensive analyses of the issues they discuss. On this issue, if you have read material with a similar or opposing perspective, will you list it below so we can all continue to learn from each other’s stories?
I want to leave you with a heart-warming perspective that has the potential to empower us all. Before Tolan gets into the quagmire of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he takes the time to show us the goodness we often overlook due to the incredibly distracting force of war. Prior to this book, for example, I had no knowledge of the Bulgarian response to the Holocaust and how civilians banded together to protest the deportation of their Jews, saving 47,000 lives. To describe the intricate network of small responses that added up to this dramatic result, Tolan attributes the phrase “the fragility of goodness,” coined by Bulgarian-French intellectual Tzvetan Todorv, meaning “the intricate, delicate, unforeseeable weave of human action and historical events.” (43) What he means is this: your good deed is never wasted, no matter how small. We cannot see the trickle down effects of our actions, good or bad. We can only choose the next right thing.
You may remember that a friend and I decided to read the Bible together, cover to cover, by the end of the year. I don’t think I’m going to reach that goal. I have been sidetracked for a variety of external reasons (ahem, pandemic) and yet, I have to admit that there have been days when reading the Bible has felt like a deterrent to reading the Bible. What I mean is, some of the content in the Old Testament is so upsetting and has so upset my childhood views that I’m not sure I want to keep reading it. For example, from my childhood, I remember Samson as the good man who was tricked by the wicked Delilah, but my current reading unveils a violent man with anger and impulse issues.
The critics know what I mean when they demand:
How can you believe in a God who commands the genocide of surrounding nations? How can a loving God cause so much suffering?
“Numerous studies have shown that violent depictions of God in literature that is regarded as sacred make believers more inclined toward violence. Given the rising fear surrounding religiously motivated violence since 9/11, this makes many people understandably concerned about the [Old Testament’s] violent representations of God.
“These divine portraits also give plenty of ammunition to critics of the Bible, and I have met far too many former Christians, and even former pastors, whose faith was destroyed because they found they could no longer defend these ugly portraits against these critics.” (5)
In his footnotes Boyd cites The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens, and God, the Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction by Dan Barker. Regarding the last author, Boyd comments that “it’s worth noting that Dan Barker...was a Christian evangelist for sixteen years before losing his faith and becoming an atheist. And one of the main reasons is that he concluded there was no way to defend the immoral character of God in many narratives of the OT.” (5)
And how have Christians defended God? I can’t purport to be able to compose a comprehensive thesis on this issue here in this blog, but I can record my own experience -- of embracing Old Testament stories as a child with black and white, good guy versus bad guy thinking and then growing up to focus mainly on the New Testament, the life of Jesus and the practical life suggestions of Paul.
Boyd explains that my experience isn’t unique and that the violent “portraits of God have been taken at face value for the last fifteen hundred years,” ever since “Constantine legalized Christianity in 313 and began to shower the church with wealth and political power.” (77, 76) Boyd provides evidence that early Christians “took very seriously Jesus’s call to refrain from violence and to love and serve their enemies” and that they strived to interpret violent depictions of God in Scripture as tainted by the cultural and spiritual conditions of the recorders. (76) And “as the church of Christendom arose, the reinterpretation approach to the OT’s violent portraits of God quickly faded away. And the reason is obvious. As Christians acclimated to the use of violence, the OT’s violent depictions of God became less problematic.” (77)
Some churches I have been a part of, as I described above, gloss over this issue and choose to focus on Jesus. Christians believe he’s our best evidence for God anyway, so why delve into the hazy and distant past? Or, perhaps, as some scholars do, we can justify the violent actions of the OT because really, those people deserved it, right? In his book The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel wrestles with understanding compassion and mercy “when we see God ordering genocide by teling the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7 to ‘totally destroy’ the Canaanites and six other nations and to ‘show them no mercy.” (118) Strobel presses scholar Norman L. Geisler on this point who responds by explaining that God is “absolutely holy, and that he has got to punish sin and rebellion. He’s a righteous judge; that’s undeniably part of who he is. But, second, his character is also merciful. Listen: if anyone wants to escape, he will let them.” And yet, Geisler continues his justification by saying, [the Amalekites] were far from innocent. Far from it. These were not nice people. In fact, they were utterly and totally depraved. Their mission was to destroy Israel. In other words, to commit genocide. As if that weren’t evil enough, think what was hanging in the balance. The Israelites were the chosen people through whom God would bring salvation to the entire world through Jesus Christ.” (118-119)
The journalist and the scholar continue to debate this issue (and I recommend Strobel’s book immensely and find it heartening that Boyd’s father is quoted later in that chapter, that this discussion and debate is happening in real time, with the people around us), and yet, I worry that Geisler, with all of his years of study, has missed something fundamental: God doesn’t need our help to bring salvation to the world. If the Israelites had been killed back then, God would have found another way. Or rather, perhaps we can rest in the covenant God made with Abraham and be assured that God wouldn’t have let them be wiped out. God is greater than any enemy.
No, I like Boyd’s new argument much better: that perhaps violence was never part of God’s plan. It was in the world, of course, as a result of free will, but God doesn’t command it.
Boyd’s central inquiry: “How do macabre portraits of God, such as the portrait of Yaweh commanding Israelites to mercilessly engage in genocide, reflect and point to the nonviolent, self-sacrificial, enemy-embracing love of God that is supremely revealed on the cross?” (emphasis in original, 46-47)
Boyd argues that when violence is attributed to God, that is God stooping low and assuming the blame, bearing the burden of sin in place of the humans who committed it. Boyd provides plenty of biblical and historical backstory to support his claim, including detailed discussion of how we can continue to believe the Bible is God-breathed and see the flawed perspectives of its recorders. I’ll leave you to pick up a copy and delve into that yourself, but here’s one small example of God bearing the burden:
While the Bible makes it clear that God wanted his people to occupy the land of Canaan, there is Biblical evidence that God had non-violent plans to make this happen...if the Israelites would only be patient. Plans that included sending “the hornet ahead of you to drive the Hivites, Canaanites, and Hittites out of your way...not...in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you…[but rather] drive them out...little by little.” (Exodus 23:28-30) Leviticus chapter 18 describes a different non-violent plan: to make the land unfruitful so that the inhabitants would migrate in search of better pasture.
Boyd argues that someone with the worldview of the ancient Near East would have heard the instruction to acquire land and equated it with the slaughtering of its inhabitants. (116-117) The ancient cultures depicted in the Old Testament were proud of violent contests that demonstrated the power and victory of their gods. The Israelites were no different. They wanted to attribute the violent victories to Yahweh. Elsewhere in his book, Boyd discusses the theory of God working up to revealing himself fully through Christ, gradually doling out his character in a way that people can understand and receive it. Christians have a chance to see things differently. If we truly believe that Jesus is God and depicts God’s character completely, then we have to consider that perhaps the Israelites’ conception of God, as Boyd suggests, was cloudy.
Boyd knows that we need some reassurance that God is the same in Jesus as he ever was, that he is unchanging, because “the way [we] imagine God largely determines the quality of [our] relationship with God.” (18)
And if the critics only see a violent God, they will remain angry. This is the hardest part for me: I can picture the faces of those critics. I see the faces of my friends, and out of love for them, I want them to remember that God is faithful, the same as he has always been, and that we can be reassured of that by remembering and celebrating how Jesus lived and died and rose again.
If these concepts are difficult to digest, consider the teachings of Origen, a third century scholar in the early church, which Boyd leverages in the opening of his book:
“Origen taught that when we come upon a biblical passage that seems unworthy of God, we must humble ourselves before God and ask the Spirit to help us find a deeper meaning in the passage that is worthy of God. He sometimes referred to this as a treasure buried in the depth of a passage. Origen believed that God intentionally buried treasures beneath the ugly and “unworthy” surface meaning of various passages to force us to mature spiritually as we humbly wrestle with Scripture and become more dependent on the Spirit.” (16)
Boyd’s perspective may be a little new, especially in modern times, but I will be curious to see how churches embrace this opportunity to answer critics’ questions and complaints, not on the defensive anymore, but with our best offensive: Jesus. As Boyd explains, “at its heart, this entire book could be summed up as a plea for Christians to once again place their complete trust in the cross. Dare to believe that God really is, to the core of his being, as beautiful as the cross reveals him to be.” (78)
Earlier this month I listened to a panel discussion hosted by Newton Covenant Church called “First Day Jitters: An Expert Panel on Navigating “Back to School” in a Pandemic.” I opened up the Zoom call with curiosity and an urgent need for hope. I didn’t have any particular questions, other than how the heck are we going to do school this fall? On the cusp of the new year with so much uncertainty still ahead (would my four remote learners stay at home or would they return to school at some point?), I was searching for guidelines, parameters, any kind of expert tidbit of advice to help me navigate our new and ever-shifting reality. And yet, I was also full of doubt and skepticism that some stranger over the screen could offer me anything I truly needed.
I’ll spare you the suspense and say that by the end, I was so glad I had listened in. Initial scrolling illustrations depicting our outstanding circumstances conveyed comic relief, and the calm and reassuring demeanor from all of the panelists provided a sense of peace and gave me a place of rest for an hour or so. I can’t replicate either of those components of the evening here for you, so I’ll jump to the third and meatiest takeaway -- their expert advice and perspectives.
How traumatic is the loss of school for my child?
The clinical psychologist on the panel was asked whether the pandemic and loss of in-person schooling qualify as traumatic events for our kids. The professional replied that for most kids, the abrupt stopping of school was a stressful life event, not a trauma. In this case, the trauma kids might experience might come not from COVID but from the fallout of COVID, such as changes to family structure, death, loss of jobs or changes in socioeconomic status.
Bottom line, she wanted us to remember that kids are resilient by nature. They are always growing and adapting, so they are better suited to dealing with these changes than adults are! Besides that though, there are many things we can do to buffer this experience for kids. We can bolster their resiliency by being responsive, supportive and caring.
As they return to school, kids will have different perspectives based on their prior experience. Older kids, for example, may be more disappointed by the changes because they have had more time to experience school as it was before. What we all have in common though, of course, is the unknown. The psychologist said it’s helpful if we name the unknown for the kids, as in “We don’t know who your teacher will be, but we will know by the first day of school.” She recommended talking through the logistics, such as wearing masks, taking mask breaks and eating lunch in the classroom (if the kids are in person).
When asked how concerned we should be about long term effects on our kids, she honestly answered that we don’t know yet. Still, she encouraged us not to “borrow the trouble of tomorrow.” We as a society will figure out what happens down the road.
Each interview concluded with the panelist offering a piece of advice for parents. The psychologist offered these words:
As humans, we influence each others’ moods. If we can come into a conversation with hope, the kids will too. But, we don’t have to do it perfectly. We can always repair, and doing this teaches kids to talk through their own problems and mistakes.
Is my child at risk of falling behind?
Following the interview with the clinical psychologist, the superintendent on the panel was asked whether the kids have experienced education loss. Yes, he said frankly, but then he went on to remind everyone that this pandemic is global. He encouraged us to remember that everyone is at a disadvantage right now. Education is going to be disjointed for a while. He described education from March through June as crisis learning and expected remediation for at least part of this school year.
Then he shifted gears and encouraged us to appreciate the different learning opportunities of these past months that families engaged in -- opportunities to come together, learn new hobbies, and learn to cook, for example. As we look ahead to new learning structures, he offered perspective on how some of these changes could be a good thing. Pre-recorded videos, for example, could give a child who is struggling with a concept a chance to hear a lesson several times. He stressed that parents should play a supporting role and not assume the position of main educator.
As his concluding advice, the superintendent offered these words:
Remember that school isn’t just about academics. Demonstrate curiosity for your kids and ask yourself how you can learn alongside them and bond with them during this time.
How do I distinguish between regular worry and anxiety in my child?
The pastor’s third panel question about how to detect and understand anxiety in kids was directed to a pediatric neuropsychologist. Anxiety disorder, in her definition, involves a prolonged tendency toward anxiety over a timeframe of two to three weeks that interferes with functioning in daily life. She pointed out that a child is less likely to be able to verbalize cognitive changes. A parent is more likely to see irritability, restlessness, the child’s mind “going blank” under stressful circumstances, and sleep disturbances.
For parents like me who witness irritability on a daily basis, the expert encouraged us to remember that worry and apprehension are appropriate responses to changes due to COVID. She explained that we have a natural cognitive bias to believe we can control outcomes which gives us confidence and is beneficial for our mental health, except right now, unexpected change has broken our illusion of control. Right now, while we can’t control many of the outcomes that we usually think we can, she reminded us that we can influence attitudes, effort and opportunity. She suggested that if we are positive, hopeful and enthusiastic about the upcoming school year, we can empower our kids to feel safe and confident.
As her concluding advice, the neuropsychologist offered these words:
Acknowledge the loss of previous expectations but then have hope and make new opportunities.
How can my child learn to manage getting schoolwork done at home?
Yes, but what if my child doesn’t want to engage in schoolwork at home? I appreciated this last question directed toward the executive function specialist on the panel because I knew from homeschooling in the spring that no matter how much enthusiasm and prep I bring to the dining-room-table-turned-makeshift-schoolroom, it’s up to my kids to participate. The expert loosely defined executive function as a group of important mental skills that helps us get things done. If a student struggles with these skills we might notice him or her having trouble staying focused or initiating, planning and executing a task. The student might have trouble with self-control, flexible thinking, or time management (meaning understanding the passage of time or “what 10 minutes feels like”).
Thankfully, the expert said, these skills can be taught and they can be learned. She suggested creating a workspace (get a caddie for materials, for example); creating a routine and predictable environment; having the child take part in creating the schedule; and getting an old fashioned wall clock (I bought two, one for the upstairs and one for the kitchen, and my kids’ eyes lit up as they told me that one of the clocks looked like the ones at school!).
As her concluding advice, the executive function coach offered these words:
Limit screen time. Imaginative play is the catalyst for executive function.
How can the church community support families during this time?
At the end of the panel round, the pastor opened up the meeting to questions from listeners, and I was floored when someone asked this one: how can we help? So many of us, myself included, feel completely drained right now, let we have nothing to offer. I braced myself as I waited for how the panelists would respond. If someone suggested I do something, I wasn’t sure I would be able to. But the answer surprised me. One panelist gently suggested that some of us may be struggling to understand why some communities are able to open their doors while others aren’t. That panelist encouraged us to remember that every community has different needs based on their red, yellow or green COVID status and to keep that in mind when we are tempted to compare. The panelist also encouraged us to check in on the mental health and wellness of neighbors and seek outdoor socially distanced playdates for our kids to help with their mental health and adjustment. My takeaways: Stop comparing. Get out to the park. These were definitely things to do.
Then the pastor closed in prayer and offered a blessing over the school year. I left the gathering feeling recharged and a little more equipped to see this experience through the eyes of my kids.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.