Exploratorium

I love that Adrian tried to guess what I might write about tonight; that means he is reading my blog with fidelity. He thought yoga class, which would have been appropriate given that it’s a new initiative as school, but I told him I had something else in mind.

I was going to tell the story of an extraordinary fourth grader who accepted responsibility for disturbing the silence during the lockdown drill yesterday. She was so earnest and regretful, I got a little weepy. I barely know any adults who can do what she did as quickly and unconditionally. I know some exceptional people and A is one of the best.

But, that story was eclipsed by Adrian and his team as we worked together on another new program at school. I’ve been dreading the transition – I think I dread all change to some degree – but after a half hour working with third grade teachers, one of the Fernway dream teams, I was excited. Pumped actually. And to see the power of four minds working in concert? The group’s synergy and creativity far exceeded anything I could have thought of myself. Somedays I feel drained after work; tonight I am floaty and dreamy, feeling lucky that I get to work with so many people who are always striving to make good practice great, so many people who work in concert for the greater good.

There you go, Adrian. YOU are my common grace for the day. You and Lena and Megan. Thank you, friend.

Good deed

You know how deep shopping carts can be. Sometimes it feels like the Mariana Trench down there.

And how the heck do you get to the stuff on the bottom if you are shouldered by another shopper and another cart in the line next to you? Swing around, lean over in a pike position, flail at the items trying to pick up the corners of bags? It’s always been tricky for me, so I pile a million things into the baby shelf, the place – I guess- where women were to put their pocketbooks.

The last two times I have been at the store, I purposefully chose to stand in line next to someone who had a full cart. Today it was an older man who was buying six heads of lettuce, six bags of hot dog buns, bottle and bottle of soda, milk, eggs, chips. His cart was crammed full. So I simply asked, the same way I did the time before with an older woman, “May I help you unload your cart?” It was far easier from my side in the parallel line.

It took me a minute, maybe two. And, boy, I could feel his thanks.

I know the good book tells us to do our good deeds in private. When you give to the needy, do not let your right hand know what your left hand is doing, that kind of thing. But, sometimes, my right hand needs to remind my left hand to reach out. And vice versa. It good to remember how fast and simple it is to lighten a load.

I know there are other things to be concerned with now — global warming, funding Planned Parenthood – but I can’t do much about those from my vantage. But a shopping cart revolution? That’s easy. Please join me if you feel so called.

Work mama

I know the phrase “work wife” or “work husband” has become part of our regular parlance. I don’t have either of those, but I do have a work mama. Lorene is so revered and loved at school that I am only one of dozens of her work children. We all want her smile to shine in our direction, and her ear to be open to our stories. She seems to offer the perfect amount of empathy and hope. It goes down smooth; it’s easy to take in. I know, technically, Lorene is the Administrative Assistant, but she is so much more than that: baby coo-er, Oreo-dispenser, problem-solver, bellhop, center of cordiality, emotional hub, message deliverer, venting specialist, photo-viewer, history expert, music lover, jewelry fashionista, big laugher, movie buff, exquisite home decorator, champion cheerleader, greeter, world class reader, chef, politico. I could go on, but Lorene would shoo off all of my accolades.

Above all, she is humble, never fully acknowledging the significant impact she has on our school and it’s emotional well-being. Never fully accepting the praise she has earned. When people ask me who the smartest people I know are, Lorene is at the top of that list. When they ask who the funniest people are, Lorene peaks that list too. When they ask who has taught me the most – you guessed it – Lorene again. If you are reading this and know Lorene, I’m sure you are nodding your head. If you don’t know Lorene, I bet you are wishing you did.

Today is Lorene’s birthday and I have nothing to give her but this. Not exotic flowers, a good Vodka, or a handcrafted doodad from Juma (which I am sure she’d prefer). All I have are the words I write; I hope they suffice.

Happy birthday, dear Lorene. Thank you for the grace you’ve shown and given me. You’re the best, friend. The best.

Bench warming

This kid. Man, he’s great. I could tell you a million reasons why, but tonight I’ll focus on the way he warms the bench. First, he’s very much still in the game. Attentive. Aligned with the action. Watching what is happening, rarely distracted. Second, he’s the first to applaud good events (or unabashedly do a Michael Jackson dance.) He always swarms the player who did well, whacks him on the head or the shoulder pads. He’s not shy about finding the kid, again, standing next to him to give him a second ram’s head butt. Third, he does what he is supposed to do – takes a knee during injuries, runs to get water during the timeout, flips the referee an errant ball. Fourth, after he does something well and returns to the sidelines, he’s not shy about holding up an “I’m number one” finger. Or giving the crowd, and his people in it, a big smile. He enjoys himself. Halfway through the second quarter, I started thinking about how much of what I do – we do – is bench warming, which does not mean we are relegated to sidelines. To inactivity. I want to be like Zak – alert to the action, celebratory of others’ success, ready to contribute my small part. I want to remember it’s a game — it’s all a game, in the biggest sense of the word. That it’s okay to be that guy on the team, the one who make everyone else happy. The one who is having fun. The one silly with joy when good things happen. Thanks, Zak, for being my teacher today. You’re the best, kid. I mean it.

Pending

I am beginning to hate the colors green and yellow. Hate Howard. Hate Hanna. I know it’s right and good for my neighbors to sell their current abode, to find a bigger house. And I know that, theoretically, we will stay close. But, I don’t think they could ever really know the way I will miss them and how enmeshed our lives have become. I hear their sneezes. I hear when homework is hard. I smell the garlic in their dinner. I know what time they go to sleep. I don’t use my alarm to wake up anymore, I use the sound of their screen door slamming. I have seen their babies on the day they were born, pledged to godparent Fiona through her life. We’ve muscled through spasms and contagion with them. I know when Wisconsin wins the game and when the Steelers are struggling. My porch is strewn with their leavings – today a wooden sword, the wrapper from a protein bar. They know where the gum is inside my house. And that they can use my iPad, but only if they take turns. I have painted walls in their basement. I’ve slept on their couch. Celebrated ten of my birthdays and dozens of theirs. I even learned how to like Thanksgiving without turkey.

When I feel like I cannot make it anymore, that I am in danger, I do not even go to my house, I go to theirs. Knock on the door, poke my head in, and tell them I’m coming over for dinner. We find each other when we need each other. On the porch. On their front steps. When I hear them outside, and go find their solace, almost every single day.

How do we willingly and lovingly accept change? Especially change that will hurt us? How do we cast off selfish needs and wishes, and pray for another’s well-being? How to we love without conditions or time and place? This seems to be a lesson for me this year. A lesson I wish I didn’t have to learn, but will learn nonetheless. Fare well, dear ones. I will do my best to cheer you through this big transition.

45 minutes

That’s the amount of time the Pope and the President spent together. Of all the profound and wondrous things about the papal trip to the US this week, that’s what has grabbed my attention. It took me 45 minutes to read one class of poetry journals today. 45 minutes to drive home from Valleyview after the movie. 45 minutes to clean my house and do half a load of laundry. But these two great and powerful men only needed that amount of time together to discuss all of the world’s woes and opportunities. I think that’s what happens with this living saint. He cuts to the chase.

Climate change is real. The common good is the chief aim of politics. People have always migrated to flee abject poverty. Most of us were once foreigners. Money can be drenched in blood. We need just legislation. To honor the dignity of the human being. Respect the storehouse of wisdom from the elderly. Summon courage and intelligence. Live as nobly and justly as possible.

You can see how 45 minutes would be enough for this man. Telling the big T Truth is like that, I guess. No need to pad or construct contingencies when you have a beeline to goodness.

I love that Pope Francis doesn’t take any shit. He doesn’t waste any time. Does not sugarcoat nor suffer fools gladly. I’m not only swayed by that smile and charisma; he is charming and tough at the same time.

We’re watching an anomaly. It’s like being alive in the time of Roberto Clemente, for me. Or FDR, perhaps. Thomas Edison. Georgia O’Keeffe. Someone rare and supremely skilled. Driven to fully participate and serve their gifts.

45 minutes. That’s all it takes to set a nation straight. To remind a country of its charge. To reunite it with its global prevue and responsibility. Amazing. Thank you, Pope Francis. Thank you so much.

Darkness overcoming light, thin cold air, burnt edges of red on the leaves. These signs place us all on the steep slide to winter. It’s so easy to think dormancy, death. To think of the heavy coat of guilt, shame. But these are the months when fruit freely falls from the trees, when it aches to be gathered, eaten. See the harvest moon, how it shines down on you with a richer light and clarity.

In these days, you don’t have to work so hard to know what is asked of you. There, your honeycrisp hangs – all of the sweet and delicious ways you are you. There, your sassy McIntosh. Your winesap, fermenting your goodness all summer long. Your ginger gold. Your gala. Even your Granny Smith nodding her old and wise head.

Here, here is your basket. Here is your hand. This is the time to harvest within what feeds you.

Yom Kippur

Dear God, or G-d, as the day warrants,

Even though I worship at Forest Hill Church, Presbyterian, and even though, at noon, I will be eating Luigi’s pizza in Akron, this is a sacred day. I know that. It’s a day where I need to talk with you, ask you to inscribe my name in the book of life for one more year.

It’s not been my best year. There is not enough time to tell you the ways in which I have disrespected you, your world, your people, and that which you command me to do.

Those months when I grew more and more distant from my neighbors. Especially the Sweeneys. Those two fights I had with Tia. The way I laid around all year, festering in pain and jealousy. The mean comments I made. The green-eyed monster occupying my heart. The anger. The ways I maneuver through my days selfishly. I left center, plumb, at some point in the year. I pray that you have have seen me try to claw my way back.

Of all the years I should be asking to have my name inscribed in the book of life one more time, this is probably the hardest decision for you. I’m sure I have given you pause. Stalled the line. I’m sorry for that, for disappointing you.

But, my deepest faith is that you know I am your child. My deepest hope is that you know I have more to do, more to learn. My deepest prayer is that you would like to help me try to love the way you love.

Do what you will God. For you know better than I in all things.

Amen.

Days of repentance – day 9

Every year, I storm into the third grade classes, interrupt a lesson then get all of the boys (or girls) to leave with me. The teachers and I are in cahoots, of course, but the kids don’t know that. So when I bust through the door and, with my best bossy voice, demand that some students come with me, saying, “I don’t care what you have to do, Ms. P, my work is more important than yours,” the kids all look a little stunned.

Afterwards, of course, we debrief – talking about how one group felt versus the other, how the teacher must have felt, and, how we choose or do not choose to use power and authority in a principled way. It’s a great experience, and the kids remember it far better than any old-school discussion. These kinds of provocations are just one of the reasons I love IB.

But today, in these days of repentance and needing to turn in a new direction, I really, really (f***ing badly) need to reorient my understanding of power dynamics. I have always been very respectful of authority, but maybe that’s because those in power always respected me. That’s less true this year, and instead of proving to them what an asset I am, I try to bulldoze and pressure home my points.

I simple have to calm down, release the reins.

Years ago, in a visual journaling class, I wrote my name over and over again on a picture of me when I first started teaching. Miss Reinhold, Miss Reinhold, Miss Reinhold. Then, after about a dozen times, I realized that my actual name is rein-hold. The holder of reins. And, damn, it all made sense – my need to control, my need to drive initiatives, my need to steer conversations. And, just now, I realized how much I could potentially “miss” when I do so.

There’s no doubt that being a leader comes naturally to me, and, in most cases, people like the guidance and structure I can give an institution. But, after years and years of leading, my follow muscle has atrophied. I think I deserve to be listened to, and when I’m not, I put a mighty choke hold on those reins. It’s hurting me now, not helping.

So right now, in situations that warrant it, I am going to let go. Release my power, turn in my keys and parking pass. Someone else can hold the reins. It’s time I learn the rewards of listening, of following, of letting things be.

Days of repentance – day 8

Lena Newman, a former student, sent me these flowers. Yep. Imagine that – someone I taught in 3rd and 4th grade found my blog, read it, and felt compelled to send me flowers? It’s amazing for so many reasons. And yesterday, when my neighbors, the Allens, came back from breakfast at Tommy’s, Bear had a sheepish look on his face. I could see he was hiding something behind his back. It was my favorite gum as a present for all of the times his daughter and son have ask me for a piece. Two unexpected gifts in a week. Pretty damn cool.

It seems like good karma, because the week before I mailed out two gifts. Clover got a gift card for burgers in Denver, because she and I used to get burgers together when she lived here. And Kim got a print for her instrumental planning and execution for a big time hugely successful symposium on the health care safety network.

When I think about it, though, I could try to be more generous. Not with gifts, exactly – though they are awesome – but with more acknowledgment. I can get lazy with my praise and appreciation. So, for repentance today I want to try to remember to speak more effusively about small and large ways people help and impress.

Like Amy, today, who kicked some IB butt with integrative science inquiries, ELA common core standards and links, and an analysis of a supplemental text for a summative assessment. Or Chris, who was really funny in a staff meeting. Or the PTO, who works tirelessly to provide us teachers with so many extras. How hard would it be for me to drop them little note? Kim, the clerk at the pool, always greets me by name – couldn’t I stop for a few minutes and interact instead of heading, head-down and purposeful, straight to locker room?

Thank you, two such easy words. Hello, such an easy start to an extended conversation. How are you? Commonplace, but easily made sincere if I would simply stop, listen, and ask a follow up question.

These politenesses – expected of me as long as I can remember – are really the best gifts of all, sometimes. Except for flowers and gum, of course. They are the better best. Thank you Lena and Bear! Really, I mean it.

Days of repentance – day 7

My brother is climbing Mt. Whitney this week. For real. He’s been training since last October. Started with 5 miles a day, including the steep climb out of the Rocky River Reservation, and more recently, from what he tells me, he was doing stair climbing with a forty pound pack and walking ten to fifteen miles a day. It’s astonishing to me — this level of commitment over that long stretch of time. I’m proud, so proud, of his ability to set his mind and not waver. In the process, he’s lost a lot of weight too and seems so happy, like all those endorphins really do matter.

It’s an amazing feat and he has not even set foot on the Whitney trails yet.

For this day of repentance, I could easily turn to wanting to change my level of activity (not that I will ever climb a mountain) but I would much rather get real.

I wish that I knew my brother a bit better and that we talked more frequently about these kinds of things. I really want to know about this level of dedication, what it feels like to be devotional to your body in that way. I want to ask him about this dream – where it came from, what he is anticipating. How the training went in the super cold days of last winter and the drenching rains of this spring. I want to ask him if he is afraid at all. Or just excited. There’s so much to talk about.

And I wish I would have been and could be more forthcoming with the ways he impresses me. His masterful work, his photography, the way he and his wife have raised four amazing kids.

I wish the same for my father, a quiet man, who keeps his cards close to his chest. That he told me more, spoke of dreams and wishes.  

I wish the same for mother, instead of all those years we were testy with each other. But now that chance is gone.

And, I wish the same for the people at school to some degree. I know that I am a confidante with work pressures and squabbles, but, somehow, I have missed their lives, their families. What it’s like to lose a revered father-in-law, what it is like to have your sons in middle school, what it’s like to fall in love at forty? I know some, but still I stand at a distance.

With my friends too even. Today, someone I love at church introduced me as a superstar lay preacher, which is a powerful compliment, but I would have felt so much better if she would have said, “This is my good friend, Jean.”

I stand on the edge. I stand in the pulpit. I love and live at arm’s length. So, today, I wish I could just inch towards communion. Try to find a way to be better connected. Try, when I can, to walk the trail with others more comfortably. It’s not a mountainous goal, but it might make a huge difference.

Go get it, Mark. Take a thousand pictures. I want to see every single one. I love you. And, dang, you impress the heck out of me.

Days of repentance – day 6

Columbus and back today. Country Living Fair. The movie “Grandma.” El Favorita burrito with al pastor at Los Gauchos. Book shopping for Pastrix. The long way home on that stretch by the Olentangy River, houses so big and old made from native quarry rock, I wanted to knock on a door and ask if I could stay for the rest of my life.

I didn’t know I love the golden color of soy fields in September until today. I didn’t know about that Presbyterian Church built in Powell in 1810 until today. Nadia Bolz Weber had never made me laugh until today. Nor had I heard that “This American Life” everyone was posting about two months ago – Missouri integration efforts – until today. I didn’t really know that I can’t live without my phone until today. Nor have I ever fully appreciated the deliciousness of vanilla ice cream until today at that all organic booth. Good God. I never would have suspected that I need to buy teardrop trailer until today, but once I stepped inside I was sold. I didn’t know I would be able to hear the Height Music Hop in my house until today. Or that I would want to drink a beer and sit on my porch to enjoy until right now, which I will do as soon as I press post.

All that and Ed Sheeran singing “Give Me Some Love.” A painting of a woman with her heart on fire. The kindness of strangers, one who showed me exactly how to get to the nearest AT&T store. And the woman, there, who showed me how to reboot. A toddler singing outside the movie theater. A free sample of Jelly Bellies. A new kinds of chips, even better, Kathy Cummins Radler, than Jones.

I had no reason to have this little excursion other than knowing I needed an excursion – something to wake me up. Make me see new things in new settings.

Stale, stale. If I could bite my life lately, I would spit it out. But today? There was a little spring to me, the fresh sponginess of fresh baked. And it felt good.

It was a reminder that a day will find me as soon as I start the car and back it out of the driveway. A reminder to vacate. A reminder to turn down a county road, head east, or north, and that eventually, I will find a place that amazes.

Days of repentance – day five

As I read the poetry my students wrote today, I was blown away by their original phrasing and word choice. Just one example: When I opened my eyes, I saw a peanut of of puppy. Lordy. A peanut of a puppy.

Sometimes, I think words are my soulmates and I have not been a very attentive partner. So my way of repenting, of turning in a new direction, at least tonight, is to loosen my hands and mind, skim off the sludge of convention, and write a more interesting truth. Use my words more powerfully.

Right now, I could tell you that the cicadas sound like the thrum of a heart beat. But thrum is overused, and, God knows, heartbeat is as well. I could tell you they sound like they’re scratching the air. Better, yes, but not as good as what my kids could write.

I could tell you nothing about the cicadas, drop them all together. Try to pluck another sound from the collage around me. The church bells. The conversation in a nearby driveway. The way some laughter has a fold in it. A bend and a one way street. But the cicadas are demanding my attention.

I think back to a fall more than forty years ago, when the tree in our front yard was covered with cicada shells. They reminded me of shrimp. Of bed bugs. Of something dangerous. I had just gotten my period and everything around me seemed dangerous. That summer, I’d read GO ASK ALICE, and I was certain I would end up like the main character. Hooked on dope, on heroin. Homeless. I prayed that no one would ask me to stick a needle in my arm.

I had read THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK that summer too, and I was afraid that someday I would end up hiding in a closet. (Little did I know). Living in a secret hideaway. When people asked which college I was going to go to, I already knew about BYU. How it would be a safe place for someone like me. No drinking. No kissing. No Nazis. Or St. Winifred’s, the big catholic school down the street. I thought I could go to college there too. The mid-seventies were too much for a kid like me. Someone who was afraid of shed cicada shells, of pillbugs, of everything brewing and changing under her skin.

There. Tonight’s writing. I did not think. I did not try to make it pretty. If I was heading toward two cliches in a row, I paused and went back to my emotional memory, the way it felt then.

It isn’t the best piece of writing I have ever done – it ain’t no peanut of a puppy, that’s for sure – but it’s a start. And, I vow to try harder in all of my writing by simply trying less hard.

Days of repentance – day 4

I don’t want to be the kind of person who comes from work and asks, “How was your day?” Instead, I want to ask over and over again, “Who are you?” A lack of curiosity can be the death nell for a relationship, or a friendship. I’d been stuck in a rut for months.

But, just two days after we started this little game, where I say an “A” word and we each tell a story, I know so much more about K. She had a first date at a bowling alley, she likes the homemade doughnuts made on Washington Street in Lansing, she knows someone who taught Chelsea Clinton, and, for years, her daughter devoured her apple crisp.

Then with “B,” she shared a helpful hint: you can stop the bleeding from a bad machete cut with duct tape and paper towels. And, we both loved Jarts, (that came from the prompt word “backyard.”) Next time I find a set, we’re playing and I’m going to kick her ass.

Next up “chocolate cake.”

Thank you, repentant spirit – you who always wants to turn toward better and more loving. And thank you K for batting it back.

Days of repentance – day 3

I have to do an induction for all of the teachers new to IB, so today I held a couple adult learning sessions. This is a picture of Maureen, Kevin and Lauren trying to solve a problem using limited resources. They had to build a bridge so that a marble could move from one table to another using a bulletin boarder border, rulers, protractors, tape, rubber bands, pens and mint lifesavers. Immediately, upon given the challenge, the team went to work and, within ten minutes, they had solved the problem successfully. As you can see, they created bumpers and covered bridges with angled protractors and rulers. When the marble crossed the bridge, Lauren jumped in the air. Just like the kids do when we pose similar problems to them.

One of my favorite movies is “Apollo Thirteen,” and, of course, I love the scene when when the engineers in Houston have to figure out how to re-rig the distant command module using finite tools and surplus materials. They don’t balk at the challenge. The scientists dig right in and figure it out.

Today’s mini professional learning session felt like that. Only no lives were at stake, of course. It was engaging and immediately collaborative.

I thought about how I have been feeling lately. Or how we, as a people, can feel. I’m listening to the Republican debate with one ear as I type, and I’m hearing the same old rhetoric. Fingerpointing and problem finding far outweigh talk of solutions. I suspect, months from now, the Democratic debates may have the same tone.

I don’t want life, and my station in it, to be fatalistic. I don’t want to lean into a recent predisposition to be feel burdened and trapped. No one needs me, or us, to label and list problems. We are better people than that. We are innovators. We travel to far reaches. We load our horses and pioneer to the west.

Teachers talk a lot about growth mindset in schools these days, and, just now writing this, I’ve come to see how fixed my demeanor has been lately. When faced with a challenge, I say, “Look, another problem.” I have not been prone to grab my wrench and my rubber bands to concoct a solution. I wallow, and, trust me, that attitude does not look good on me at all.

So today, I would like to turn my thinking back to thinking. Probing, engaged, invigorated creativity. I would like to readopt a can-do spirit. A golly, gee whiz, air of innocence. I have a keen mind, made so by two keen parents, the Mt. Lebanon School District, Miami University, and, truly, my wildly smart colleagues in the Shaker Hts. Schools.

When the next problem comes at me, I make a vow to reply this way. “Problem? No problem. I got this.” The same way Maureen, Lauren, and Kevin did today.

Thanks, friends, you’ve set me to plumb again. I am grateful for you and the fun we had today. (Plus, I’m super proud of the way you used lifesavers to fill the gaps in your design. I’ll never look at a guardrail the same way.)

Days of repentance – day 2

This is a “boat” built by a kid who was having a hard time after PE. I ran into him in the hall as he was smashing lockers and punching bulletin boards. We’ve worked out a deal. If he can calm down after taking a few big breaths, he can do some building in my room. This time I asked him to make something that would have a story.

One of our aides calls kids like this kid troubled and troubling. That seems so much softer than the usual adjective we’ve been known to toss around: bad.

About an hour later, I saw B and asked what he had built. He told me a boat (thank God, because I really couldn’t tell) and, when I asked about the story, he said, “This boat can make it through anything. Big waves, small waves, storms, engine breaking down. This boat can make it though it all.”

It’s amazing how stories – real or imagined – help locate us. I love that this kid, as angry as he is, still sees himself as a success. And he acknowledges, subconsciously, that, though the world is full of obstacles, his boat will not be sunk.

I have been angry lately — longer than lately, actually. Things that I have always attained have been given to others. Or others have started to receive the acclaim and responsibility I have grown used to getting. I have been overlooked. Not seen. My ideas, usually heralded, have been ignored.

Today, someone was offered a trip to a conference I have been begging to go to for years. Defeat, or what I have labeled defeat, keeps piling on. I sound whiney, don’t I?

I am whiney lately, and worse. Mean as a hungry dog in a small cage.

If you met me now, those of you who have grown to like me, you would not be impressed. You’d look for someone else to admire. And those of you who think I’m humble, well no, that’s just not true. Maybe my ego seemed in check all of these years because it was getting exactly what it wanted. And now, sad and jealous, it’s triggered like the Hulk. All of my shirts are ripped at the biceps. My face is an ugly green.

So how must I repent? Turn in hope?

I need to load my mean dog Hulk onto a boat. I must accept that there are waves and I must trust that those waves will not sink me. In fact, they may push me to the shore upon which I was meant to land.

Maybe I have been on this trip — the one sailing round and round this suburban island long enough. Maybe I am meant to recalibrate my destination, set the compass in a new direction.

And all of those other boats — the ones with shiny sails, the ones getting the nod from the America’s Cup captain — well, I should just watch them. See the way they glide across the water. Admire their progress, even if I am staring at the stern of their ships for the rest of my days.

I must rock with the waves, not fight against them. I must position myself to let the wind fill my sails. I must give some slack to the running rigging instead of yanking it all so tightly.

I have always loved the water, the way it seeks equilibrium, the way is roars then modulates. I have always been able to float. I must remember that and release. The only way to remain buoyant is to stay calm.

Days of repentence – day 1

Repent, to turn in a new direction. Let’s see what I can do in the next ten days.

This kid, lordy. I’m one of her godparents, but Fiona seems to be the wise one lately. Today, I was reading her Yertle the Turtle on my front porch and, eventually, she snuggled close on my left side. Then, apropos to nothing I said or did, she interrupted my reading with, “I love you, Jean.” I, of course, said, “I love you, Fiona.” Then, with an impish grin, she said, “I did not hear you.” so I said, “I love you, Fiona,” even louder.

Then again, “I did not hear you.”
“I love you, Fiona.”
We both started to giggle.
“I did not hear you.”
“I love you, Fiona,” by now I turning the heads of people passing by.
“I did not hear you.”
“I love you, Fiona.”
On and on for minutes, in dozens of funny and serious voices.

This is what I learned from my not-quite-three-year-old friend.

First, I need to speak of love without provocation.

Feel love, speak love, with nothing filtering that in between. This is something I never do — my love always seems to be measured or edited for place and purpose. What if I were to just speak of love without imagining the consequences? What if love did not come tied to fear of failure?

Second, do not contain love. Let it be loud. Silly. Let love bounce around the sunset. Sweep the chimneys. Let it turn green leaves red.

Third, ask for love. Again and again. This seemed like a game, but it was not a game. Fiona knew that I would never change my message; it was uniformly unrelentingly unconditional. And, she knew – knows – that I will be saying it to her the rest of her life.

And last, in these holy days, maybe this is what we do to God. When angry, when self-absorbed, when disappointed. When uncentered. I cannot tell you how many times in my life I have demanded: I cannot hear you, God. And, every time — maybe not in the package or with the timing I’d imagined — God answers back, I love, Jean. Shouts it back, in fact, no matter how many times I ask.

Thank you, Fiona, for today’s most holy moment, and, of course, for the love you show and give me.

L’shanah tovah

I’m not Jewish, but I love this time of year and have adopted it, at least as much as a Presbyterian can. The rise and flurry of hope and the seriousness ten days from now. I like them both equally.

If my next year has what this single day contained, then it will be an amazing year. Thank you, God, for all of this.

Heinen’s hustle and bustle.
Church. A magician, a pie contest.
A conversation about grief and wedding dresses.
A ten year old running outside to see the cargo plane.
The light of the day, the sweet air of fall.
A hard conversation with truth. Forgiveness.
A bowl full of homegrown tomatoes.
A list of things that I am a sucker for,
a list received with the same.
Thinking of people far away,
sending good wishes about a sermon,
and a photo booth in Lansing.
Two girls riding scooters as fast as they can.
A funeral, more celebration than a time of mourning,
a sweet eulogy by a young man I admire immensely.
“Willow” by Joan Armatrading.
Guacamole, tacos, churros and marshmallow sauce.
A drive by the lake. A song. Yawning.
Hot chocolate, a bite of blueberries.
A good observation, a few tears.
A spilled glass of water. A bright mum.
A movie of a baby dancing.
Laughter that came easily,
keys and a can of Raid.

Sound the ram’s horn. May we all be inscribed for a good year.

Giving, in three acts

Act 1
A family that we know from school has a member who’s been undergoing some treatment. Went in for routine blood exam and was found to have a pretty serious condition that required immediate hospitalization. Some of the folks at Fernway decided to collect some money and buy gifts cards. Today I delivered them. Thick envelope, about a dozen meals. Some places that the junior high son would love. Some for the mom. Some because the restaurants are close. When I handed our friend the envelope, she said thanks, gave me a big hug, and an update on how things were going. It all followed gift-giving conventions. Friends circling the wagons. Easy grace. My heart felt solid, like every cell was a white blood cell, and we – collectively – could solve any problem.

Act II
I saw her before she saw me. The best fiend of a long-ago-love, someone I have not seen in a long while. Five years, maybe six. I said, “Jane?” cautiously, and, at the same time she lifted her head, she extended her arms to give me a hug. I took it. And, though we were talking about my Little Free Library and the number of years I’ve been teaching (and how many more I have to go), I was thinking about how she knew before I knew. How, when my heart broke, I went to her house because I knew C was staying there. How I had C’s blanket, the one her grandmother knit for her. How I knocked and knocked on the door, but the door never opened. I took Jane’s hug, but my heart felt sloshy, like all of the blood had retuned after its trip around my body, and it was pooling there in one chamber, no where to go.

Act III
The average household income in Pepper Pike, Ohio is $92,674, I just looked it up. But, on Chagrin Road, heading towards Eton, I saw someone sitting on a heating grate in the rain, a cart full of possessions nearby. It’s been raining here, 56 degrees. I was freezing cold in my car, though I was dry and wearing long sleeves. I couldn’t not do anything, so I went to Davis Deli and got a turkey sandwich, matzah ball soup, a soda and water then drove back to the spot. I walked up to the person, now visibly shaking under an umbrella. “Excuse me,” I said as not to surprise, “I brought you some hot soup. A sandwich.” I saw an older woman’s face emerge from under a baseball hat. “No, thank you,” she said. I saw another sandwich beside her. $7.99 oil penciled on the white paper, just like mine. I was not the first stranger to try to help this day. I leaned down, closer, “Can I do anything for you?” She replied no, her tanned hand shaking. “Can I take you anywhere? Do you have enough food?” She said, “I have plenty, you can take this sandwich with you.” She was sure in her conviction, I could see that, even though I didn’t believe it could be true. Then she tilted her head higher and smiled as if to reassure me, be gentle with me. Gray blue eyes, stunning. There was nothing left to say or do. So I left her there, carrying my bag of food with me and another stranger’s sandwich too. Now, as I eat the turkey on wheat that was meant for her, my stomach feels guilty, reluctant. And my heart feels like it’s whooshing and whooshing – but not connected to arteries — gallons of blood pouring into a void.

The view from now

If we knew now what we know now,
about shoe bombs and securing airspace,
about box cutters and engine fuel,
about how a building can implode,
and people would be willing to jump,
because death is a better choice than fear,
we would remove our tired sneakers,
kick off our suede clogs and shiny mules,
our cowboy boats and our unrelenting cockiness.
We’d walk on our bare feet to the park,
the dentist’s office, the big circus tent,
any where, really, so we could see each other
differently. Here, my bunions, my calluses,
the tender webbing of white between my toes.
Here, the miles walked in sorrow, the stain
of mud, the prickle of hot sand and asphalt.
Here, our feet would say to our enemies,
and their feet would say to us,
I am as soft as you are. The rain hits
my toes, my nails crack and yellow,
my tendons strain, just like yours,
to bear the wear and weight of daily living.

Picture by Klaus Priebe.

The eyes that watched us once smiled and let us in

This is not the best picture of us, but it is the best picture.  My college friend, Kathy Cummins Radler, and her daughter, Hannah, and me in front of MY HOUSE!  They were in town to handle some business – up from Georgia – and we had dinner together at Lopez. Hannah is our age when Kathy and I met.  And we are the age of our parents all those years ago.  Crazy.

Kathy and I found each other through Facebook, then last summer, we finally met up in Mansfield.  Thirty years after the last time we had seen each other.  This time, they were up this way, so they got to see my life.  Here!  My school.  My house.  Then we all strolled down my street. Amazing.

I admired and laughed with Kathy when we went to Miami.  I thought she was the bees knees.  And, now, I’m even more impressed with Kathy and, somehow, it’s still just as easy to laugh with her.   Kathy is sharp and filled with light.  She’s as calm and reflective as she is silly and self-effacing.  She knows who she is and how fortunate she has been.  And, well, shoot, she somehow fully accepts me, overlooks my faults and grumpiness. I can tell, in small and big ways, that when she says she loves me, she means it.   Kathy does not hold back affection. That is immeasurably brave and compelling.

If I did not know Kathy and saw her in a coffee shop, she would catch my attention.  That’s how brightly and naturally she shines.  Like a good sky, like sunlight resting on a sycamore.  Like the moon mirrored on a lake. You just have to stop, look, admire.  Kathy is that good. That beautiful.

And trust me, she’s passed down all of her kindness and good nature to Hannah, who is an exceptional young woman.  I would hang out with Hannah any day, every day.

Kathy and I both loved this song, by Steve Winwood, in college:
Back in the High Life 

And particularly, this verse:

You used to be the best
To make life be life to me
And I hope that you’re still out there
And you’re like you used to be

Well, Kathy. You are. Still out there. And still like you used to be. In fact, my friend, you’re even better.

Thanks to you and Hannah for a great night.

Kim Davis

Just home from “War Room,” an evangelical film that, for the most part I enjoyed. Because I could separate the message from the conservatism of the producers making it, the film was actually potent for me. Mostly, I learned to let God be God, something my minsters have been teaching and preaching for years. And, no, in the tear-jerking montage at the end of the film, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, but that’s okay. I know I’m in God’s montage.

And, while coming home, I thought about Kim Davis, wondered what exactly she said upon release. I just looked it up. Here is the transcript, except for the “I love you guys” part.

I just want to give God the glory.
His people have rallied and you are a strong people.
We serve a living God who knows exactly where each and every one of us is at.
Just keep on pressing, don’t let down.
He is here, He is worthy.

As I listened several times so that I could record each word, it became strangely clear to me that my friends probably have said those exact same words. We’d use standard English, of course, and make God gender neutral. But, all in all, people from inclusive denominations have said and will continue to say the same thing that Kim Davis said. With the same fervor, with the same kind of very vocal people in a very large crowd, with leaders on the podium beside us – we will fight on for a bigger tent, a wider net.

Read it the way we would say it:

We just want to give God the glory.
God’s people have rallied and we are a strong people.
We serve a living God who knows exactly where each and every one of us is.
Just keep on pressing, don’t let down.
God is here, God is worthy.

Perspective is a killer. God has one heck of a sense of humor.

Thank you sun

…but enough. You have dried the lawn, you have rendered mowers useless.  If I wanted, I could play ping pong in my front yard.  Bounce a superball high off the hard turf.  You have turned brick buildings into kilns.  Small children are melting into puddles on their laminate desks.  No one knows how to spell “ball” in first grade, for we have not be brave enough to go outside to play.  Bikes sit listless. Air conditioners have formed unions.  Glass is liquifying in our windows. Only the popsicle companies are getting rich.  People are finally drinking eight 8 ounce of water every day.  Even then, our clothes are drooping off of our bodies.  Our urine is turning shades that would make Mark Rothko pleased.  Just now, I passed an apple tree.  The fruit closest to me whispered to get my attention.  “Psst. You.”  I turned, saw its desperate eyes. Rain, they begged.  Cool, they begged.  I held up my phone tuned to the weather channel.  “Hang on, Honeycrisp. I swear they say it’s breaking tomorrow.”

 

There’s a guy who works at Cinemark

…who looks a lot like Ashton Kutcher.  I see him every Saturday and, often, another random afternoon each week.  He’s the best worker at the concession stand, even though he completely messed up my order today.  He overfilled my Diet Coke and put way too much butter on my popcorn when I asked him for none.  That’s because he was flirting with another clerk when taking my order, so I let it slide.  It was cool to check out his game.  (He’s got some.)

This guy, whose name I do not know, is in my life.  Provides labor that matters to me.  I count on him. Just like the woman at the Lewis Aquatic Center, who greets me every Tuesday and Thursday.  Plus, that cashier at Zagara’s, who plucks the change out of the register so precisely, with an elegant snap.  So too the crosswalk at Fernway and Avalon.  The night custodian at church.  I always look forward to seeing that assistant at Laura Lee Salon – she gives the best head rubs.  And my garbage man, the world’s best refuse worker, who waves every time excitedly every time we cross paths.

I don’t know much about any of these folks. In some cases, I don’t even know their names. But they’re consistent reliable people in my life, laborers who do their jobs well.  So on this holiday, when we are thanking workers for their hard work, I want to toss my people into the circle of appreciation.  If any of them were to leave their jobs, I would notice.  I would miss them.  Especially the Ashton Kutcher guy.   I would miss him a lot.

Giving thanks

I just looked up the etymology for the word congregate, and it comes from “flock.”  It gave me such an immediate visual — a cluster of sheep together.  Some at the fringe, but most moving slowly and easily in a common direction.  There are so many ways I flocked with people today.  With family at the “B Spot.”  With church members after the service.   There was a certain sad flocking too, when I announced a death, and the gaggle of people lifted their heads in unison and emitted a potent sigh.  I even think it is possible to flock with just one other, and I did so with Kim.   Flocking feels good.  (Somehow, that seems like a good bumper sticker or t-shirt.)

Flock you! (Even better).

It’s always exhilarating to give a sermon and this one was doubly so, because of the emotional charge of the topic.  While I slugged through the text, sniffling and fighting tears, I made it to the end and felt the radiating support of the congregation.  And, despite being in it, I felt the fullness – the roundness — of the entire service.  I could feel the spirit moving.  (And, yes, I know that is making some of you cringe, but it’s true).

Of all the good moments in the day, one of my favorites was after Deanne had completed her prayers of the people and sat down.  I looked at her, from our pastor chairs on the altar, somewhat oblivious to the crowd, and said she was amazing.  Her prayer was amazing.

She looked at me, with tears and powerful sureness, then said, “You did it.”  Like she was proud of and happy for me. Like she liked me and loved me and was a little amazed by me too.   You’ve had that happen, I am sure  — when so much is conveyed with one quick exchange?  Something that seals your friendship forever?  Acknowledges the truth that both of you want equal and mutual success?  Well that happened.  And, it made me get weepy.  I whispered, “Okay, I can’t look at you anymore.”  So we laughed and turned our attention to the sanctuary and hymn.

So today, I want to thank my family, Bruce (for the five hour round trip from and to Pittsburgh and for the delicious lunch).  Mark, Jean, John for coming over and sitting dead center in the balcony so that I could see them there with me.  Kim for making me laugh and cry and talk long into the night and long through the afternoon.  B and J, who are loved and in our prayers tonight.   The people of Forest Hill who gave me their attention and encouragement — such a good and healthy flock they are.  And, Deanne, who grazed beside me so gracefully.   Who spoke a prayer that fed the flock.  Who shepherded me, like she always does, so lovingly.

 

Sunflowers and sermons

I am preaching tomorrow – come out to Forest Hill Church at 10 if you want.  It’ll be a good service.  The prayers and the hymns are just right.  The sermon is pretty good too.

But I must admit something.  I don’t belong up there, in the pulpit.  Above others.  I don’t deserve 17 minutes of time devoted to me and my thinking.  It’s not because I’m not worthy – I think everyone should have a chance to connect story to scripture.  It’s just that this week, and yesterday in particular, I’ve been a shit.  Angry with people who have always been nice to me.  Testy with strangers.  I have consciously not followed every single insight I will tender up tomorrow.   I can hear that song from Godspell in my head, “Alas for you.”

Alas, alas for you
Lawyers and pharisees
Hypocrits that you are
Sure that the kingdom of Heaven awaits you
You will not venture half so far
Other men who might enter the gates you
Keep from passing through!

Humph.  Hypocrite, that I am.  If I could, I would speak my sermon from the back of the church, laying in the middle of the aisle.  Face down. That might be difficult for those in the congregation that are hard of hearing, but it seems right.  To be low.  To acknowledge my distance from anything lofty and sacred.

Today, I drove to Garrettsville to take some pictures and there were none to take.  It’s a beaten down old town, all bars and gas stations.  There was a house on the edge of the main street, though, and the homeowner had a huge garden of sunflowers.  Most had gone to bloom and some even to seed.  But there was this one section, pictured here, where many of the sunflowers had yet to emerge from their husks. They looked jagged, twisted.  Hard and unyielding.

That’s how I have been lately.  But, yet, I pray, there’s a flower in me and, if I am lucky and graced by generous forgiveness, maybe tomorrow it will break from the shell.  Show its bold yellow.  Maybe despite my selfish and childish behavior, I will be able to do something beautiful.

That, in some ways, is the mystery of the gospel itself.  We are shits, and, we can still shine.  It makes no sense, really.  That, despite our flaws and with our dangerously flailing sensitivities, there is still a pureness to us.  A flower head.  A thousand seeds buried deep.

 

 

 

Harvest

The barn doors are battened up for the night.  In the distance, lightning is sparking the sky. The apples in the orchard need rain.  The grapes too.   I am sitting next to someone I know well, but feel alone.  It wouldn’t take much to unlatch, if only I would turn my shoulder, ask an easy question.   But I choose not.  When the music plays, I close my eyes.  Pretend I am listening to the AM radio in the dark like I did when I was twelve.  Down the road some, there’s a field of corn.  Each ear nestled in its silk  under layers of scratchy husk, still hinged to the stalk.  I am no ear of corn. Attached to little, well past plump and ripening.  Though it is hot, you can smell fall.  Farmers are readying for sleep.  Hard work is ahead.  What would it feel like to have someone waiting for you like that? To have someone pull you in just in time for the long winter?  The darkness is darkening.  I can hear the clip clop of horses on the street.  Another family heading home.  The fields lay down the day too.  At night, they whisper to each other.  Each ear of corn.  Each tart apple.  Each tiny red grape.

Look

Stop to watch a woman swim. See the sturdy bones of her shoulders, the tuck of her chin when she breathes. Do not turn away, or lower your eyes as convention would tell you. She will exit the pool, the same way you do, one step at a time. Look at her legs. The curve of the calf. The strength of the quadricep. Look at the lean long line of her arms. The way they dangle loose. And her gray braid, how it divides her back in half. A ruler, a lane marker, the center line on a long road. Do not compare. Or feed your jealousy. Turn to the last innocent bone in your body. The one that still knows birds. The smell of dirt. The rise of the moon. That bone does not know judgment, only wonder. Relax, look. It is never wrong to marvel. You once did this every minute of every day.

Healing

Thank God, two shots of cortisone in my two aching knees this afternoon. I wish I could go to Dr. V. whenever I have soreness. My back, my elbows, that tender piriformis muscle that runs through my butt. Sometimes, my body feels hard as a rock, and it’s good to know that, at least for the next three months, I’ll be more loose.

I also wish I could drop by Ahuja to get a quick dose of steroids when I am angered or frustrated. Or when my depression kicks up its heals and sucks me under. There are so many ways to be inflamed.

I’m thankful for Dr. V. but there are even more extraordinary things that happened today. M__ showing me his wiggly baby tooth. Megan’s laugh — it’s deep and ready. And, Adrian telling me that my shirt was tucked into my underwear. Yes, we are like a family where I work.

But, my favorite moment was when I was sharing an upcoming sermon with Lorene. I always try to read my sermons to her and Janet; they are good luck charms. I read and read, fourteen minutes straight, then I looked up. There was Lorene, shaking her bowed head, tears rolling down her cheeks. I am always shaken when my words shake up someone else. Her reaction reconciled me, centered me somehow, back in the spirit.

It’s not me when I write sermons. It’s the very best part of me — someone I barely know – who filters through and taps down the words. And some other distant part of my brain evokes the spoken rhythm needed for preaching. I swear, it’s not me.

I want to tell you another secret. I’m not even sure I believe what I say. But I do believe that I am meant to say it. And I believe in the sacred something that helps me form the words. That’s crazy – life changing, actually – to permit your brain, your heart, to be occupied by something larger.

So, today, I give thanks for that bigger something.

And I give thanks for Lorene, who listened, who always listens, and heals me by hearing the words some part of me needs to say.

The Supreme Court

That guy in picture? Sitting down at the table writing notes as Mary McGrath is making her argument for the State? That’s my neighbor and friend, Cullen. He argued in front of the State Supreme Court today, and, please don’t tell anyone, but I watched him while I should have been planning.

Honestly, I am not quite sure what he was arguing, but I think it had something to do with the Prosector’s right to be informed about the prosecuted in a post-trial release hearing. Maybe, I think. There were a lot of big words and legal nuances. I am ex parte dumb when it comes the whole thing.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, though. Here was someone I know, doing something quite remarkable. And this isn’t his first argument before the Supreme Court. I think he’s up to five.

And Cullen? Well, shoot, he’s simply one of the most ordinary and exceptional people I know. Right now, when I look out my den window, I can see him doing the dishes like he does every night. And earlier this evening, he was playing soccer with his kids and taking out the trash. He’s humble, down-to-earth. That’s, in part, what makes him so remarkable.

Years ago, I might have been intimidated by his brilliance. But, I’m not. Now, I feel fortunate to know someone like him. And the mom of three of my students, who was named the first female managing partner at a Cleveland law firm. She’s brilliant too. And, so incredibly kind, honorable. Or C, who just started her new job in a church all the way across the country. She’s one of the most emotionally savvy people I know. Brilliant in culling out people’s gifts. I am not jealous, I am awed.

I love getting older, less driven my ego.

(Admittedly, that’s not always true. I crash up against my pesky ego every single day. I want to still be a superstar, but the truth is that I’m fading, and my role, now, is to champion others. Gird the infrastructure. That kind of work is important too. I get it.)

But I do love getting older, less desperate in my jealousy. More motivated by appreciation.

Today, I got to write a congratulations email to a woman who has gained the highest ranking in her firm. Someone I know as J’s mom. And, I got to see someone I know argue in front of the highest court in our state. Damn, I am lucky. So lucky.

Tonight, I give thanks for Cullen. For his sense of justice and his love of the law. I give thanks for his acute thinking, his verbal acumen. And, I give thanks that he is over there — a driveway between us — doing the ordinary work too. Taking care of his family. Loading the dishwasher, wiping the counters clean.