Thursday, January 26, 2017

Putting Faces to Names

When I was about 13, I visited Canada for the first time. We drove a Ford F-250 from Montana into Alberta during a formative trip across the Midwestern US states with my sister and grandparents. I was excited. I was visiting A DIFFERENT COUNTRY. I would CROSS THE BORDER. I was aware of Canada, but it was most important in my mind as an OTHER. I was excited to experience this otherness. How would it feel? What would it be like? Would the border checkpoint be like the ones I had seen in movies?

It was the 1980s, so I don't think we even stopped. And there wasn't a great line of demarcation beyond the "Welcome to Alberta, Home of the Calgary Olympics" sign. In fact, it felt a little disappointing because it felt, well, the same.

I knew on some level that it wouldn't really be different. Still, countries were Capital-letter Big Deals, and I was leaving my own for the first time. Seeing Glacier National Park in Alberta and visiting the few places we visited only reinforced this idea of familiarity and sameness. It made the distinction I had formed in my mind feel arbitrary. We ate hamburgers. We spoke English. We even rafted back across the border into the US--on the same river, even! Canada wasn't disappointing; that's not what I'm saying. I was just ignorant enough to have made the Canada in my mind something different from what it really was.

I've felt similarly when navigating the other others of my life. Until high school, I never really thought about being white. My neighbors were all white. My classmates were mostly white. Family: all white. Friends: almost all white. My interactions with people of color were limited by the demographics and geography of my schools and community. I had much more exposure to people of color through mass media than I had in my own neighborhood.

Then I went to high school. Louisville is one of the most segregated cities in the country. My first day at Louisville Central High School was the first day in my life that I remember being aware of my whiteness. I never stood out anywhere before. Maybe I stood out as a nice kid, or a good student, but I never really stood out in a way that made me feel conspicuous. And I felt conspicuous. As embarrassing as it sounds, I remember having the thought "I've never been in a place with so many black people." Somehow, in my own city, I was having a more profound experience with otherness than I had when I had left the country. And over time, through lifelong friends I made, music we listened to, games we played, terrible (even offensive--sorry Mom) jokes we made, and other experiences we shared, I didn't feel so conspicuous at school. I found myself among friends. I would never presume to speak for someone else's experience, but for me, it was one of the most valuable lessons of my life. I had what I have realized is a sadly rare experience: As the majority-majority white Christian American man that I am, I was given the slightest, fleeting glimpse of not being the dominant demographic. In the inverse, I became aware as I navigated high school how incredibly simple my life and worldview had previously been.

I have tried never to channel that experience into "I know what it's like" kinds of comments or self-congratulation. Rather, like any true knowledge I've gained, learning just a little has served to show me how much I don't know. Fumbling toward my own Socratic epiphany, I finally knew that I knew nothing. I've tried to remind myself of that as I've continued to encounter other "others" in the 20 years since I left high school. I have tried to humbly look for and recognize the "sameness" I share with others. I have been blessed to share meals at the kitchen tables of friends who live in government housing. I am grateful to celebrate graduations, talk about literature, and laugh at memories with Muslim friends. I am thankful to know and love gay and lesbian friends. I have taught the children of farmers, construction workers, and college professors. I know immigrants and the children of immigrants who are here exactly for promises and opportunities I have taken for granted most of my life.

And strangely, I come back to Canada. I was disappointed in the sameness of Canada when I was 13. Now I find that sameness a reassurance of nature and Creation beyond human labels and borders. Alberta looks the same as Montana at the border. The difference I was looking for was just one agreed upon by people. In my experience, this kind of agreement is too often applied to people themselves. I am thankful to have navigated many borders that others had cordoned off for me. And the reward of my experience is this: When you say Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Baptist, Buddhist, Sikh, Mormon, Baha'i, Catholic, atheist, Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Socialist, undocumented immigrant, professor, janitor, gang member, police officer, farmer, veteran--and many more--I see faces of people I have loved, worked with, laughed with, cried with, argued with, and shared with. I'm thankful to live in a community where these labels aren't abstractions, they're people like me. I sincerely hope I have transcended labels for others as they have for me.

I consistently fall short of being the person I want to be, and I'm confused about more things than I am sure of, but I hope to live in a way that honors the spirit both of Matthew 7: 1-5 & 12
Do not judge, and you will not be judged. For as you judge others, so you will yourselves be judged, and whatever measure you deal out to others will be dealt to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye, with never a thought for the plank in your own? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own? You hypocrite! First take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's. Always treat others as you would like them to treat you: that is the law and the prophets.
 and Marcus Aurelius:
If you can, teach others to become better; if you cannot, then remember the power to be kind has been given to you for this purpose. Even the gods care for such people and help them gain health, wealth, and reputation, so helpful are they. Such kindness is also in your power, or tell me, who is there to prevent you?

Thursday, January 19, 2017


Winter sky (from a couple weeks ago)

This week has had a certain weight to it. On Sunday, I found myself tearing up during hymns and prayers at church, moved by the hope that persists, in a moment when I feel fearful for what lies ahead for my community, our country.

Indeed life has felt "heavy" for a long while. I turned 40 on Tuesday. Matt cleverly schemed to have friends send me cards to his work address--a lot of cards. So he surprised me with them Tuesday night, and I read each one, crying and laughing and crying some more. I can tell when a moment feels heavy: I remain constantly on the verge of tears.

Among the correspondence I received was a sweet email from one of my dearest friends. She wrote: "40 was big for me. Felt like a very heavy page turning. I was happy to close a difficult decade. I imagine you have a few similar feelings." That captured so perfectly what I've felt, what I'm feeling. Life has been heavy with heartache AND joy this past decade. I became a mother, I began and suspended my work as a lawyer, we lost Matt's dad, the kids all started school, we moved into a home we love, I started work again, and I've been outliving cancer for nearly four years now. Like another friend wrote to me: "I realized 40 meant all those times--the happy, the sad, the difficult, the amazing, the trying, the adventurous and the heart-filled."

Yes, life is all those things. As I start this new decade, I hope to remain grounded in gratitude. In this season, I hope to take in the dark, strange beauty of a winter sky. I will let my tears fall. I will land in the comfort of knowing how loved I am and how much more love I have to share.

Thursday, January 12, 2017


We're at a lot of different stages in reading at our house. Tobin devours novels at a pace I struggle to keep up with. Evan is coming into his own as a reader, but most enjoys reading about Pokemon and world records--longer narratives seem not to interest him. And Lauren, always eager to keep up with her brothers, has become really determined lately. She loves to read books that she knows the boys can read and have read. And she likes help, but only on her terms. Please don't help her before she's ready.

Tonight's book was one that we've read with all the kids for a long time: Go Dog, Go!.

More than just decoding, Lauren wonders aloud whether dogs should be allowed to do such things as operate Ferris wheels, go spear fishing, and play banjos ("I think a dog would just probably scratch a banjo anyway.") Most interesting to Lauren is the odd repeated exchange about a girl dog soliciting an opinion about her hat from a disinterested boy dog. While we agreed that the boy dog isn't very nice, Lauren is much more charitable. Then tonight, [spoiler alert] when he finally announced that he likes her hat, Lauren yelled "See! He was finally nice! That's my favorite part." I'll take that as a solid implied lesson.

But don't think she's all sugar and sweet. This kid sleeps next to a picture of a skeleton she drew and scotch-taped to her wall, after all.

Thursday, January 05, 2017


Chili in a new pot πŸŒΆπŸ’™

We got home on Monday and went back to school and work on Tuesday. We had a lovely holiday break but couldn't help feeling like we'd been caught up in a bit of whirlwind after hosting my family here for Christmas, then, on the day after they left, driving to Kentucky to spend the remainder of the break. Tuesday morning was rough. Tobin in particular complained of a tummy ache, something Matt and I knew was born more of anxiety than illness. We each gently encouraged him to eat breakfast and give school a try. I acknowledged how I felt stressed about vacation ending. Matt said he, too, was anxious about heading into his classroom that morning. Tobin went to school and reported at the end of the day, he'd felt better throughout. I totally get it. Re-entry is hard. I hope we helped him not push back his anxiety, but to be brave in spite of it. He was anxious and brave. This week has been hard and comforting.

I don't know that this will become a thing, but instead of writing daily, I thought writing weekly might be more doable. I still like the idea of gratitude being the focus of my posts, so I'll reflect on a few things I'm thankful for in the aftermath of a holiday break.

Our house is a mess. We filled our recycling bin with all the broken-down boxes in the the world, I was sure, but there are still clusters of empty cardboard vessels throughout the house. Our kitchen counter, a magnet for most things, is cluttered by left-over holiday cookies and candies plus the everyday mix of school papers and toys. Our tree is up and will likely stay so indefinitely, as we're bracing for a winter storm this weekend, and I don't see us figuring out a way to compost/re-use it (too ambitious?) in a snow-covered backyard. Our house is a mess, and it is home. It's where we each have our familiar sleeping quarters. The kids have their space to build their newest LEGO sets. I have my kitchen to make a very ordinary but comforting meal like veggie chili. I'm thankful for the chance to make chili in a new blue pot.

I've been mindful of the welcoming feel of returning to home and routine. Whether hugging a neighbor as I head out for a walk, or sitting through a PTA Board meeting with familiar, friendly faces, or receiving a hug from Tobin's teacher when I pick the kids up after school. We weren't gone long, but it was long enough to feel like we were coming home.