Experiencing Childhood

Sometimes you actually feel it! Something shifts inside, like our own personal tectonic plate that has previously anchored our world. Or, its like the floor suddenly dropping and we find ourselves in a very different place.

That happened last evening. An African-American woman spoke about parenting her children. She recounted efforts nineteen years ago to gather other parents who also wanted nothing but the best for their kids. Aware of debilitating stereotypes and cultural messages that doomed their children, these mothers wanted what every mother wants — that their children achieve their God-given potential and find their heart’s desire.

Nothing earth-shattering, plate-shifting or floor-dropping in this parental aspiration so far. It’s what this woman said next that shook my complacency and piqued my attention… “There is no achievement gap; there is only an experience gap!” These woman banded together to do everything in their power to enhance the quality and quantity of their children’s experiences. So simple. So true. So foundational!

For years, my husband has taken his grand-nieces and nephews on “Adventure Days.” (Imagine a mini-Make a Wish Foundation.) They’ve shared everything from scuba diving to pedicures, rock concerts to rock climbing. We share season tickets to our world-class Children’s Theater with my grandniece and grandnephew.

Our motives are selfish. We enjoy the events ourselves. Most of all, we recognize that if we do not have relationships with them now we certainly will not have relationships with them as adults. Comments by the mother last evening refocused for me of how enriching these experiences are for the children. Of course, we all want the world for the kids we love!

And herein lies the sudden shift, my floor dropping away — “Achievement Gap” puts the focus on the child. It implies that his or her actions are our standard for evaluation. Is that a pressure we would want to place on a child we love? Is it even fair? It just doesn’t seem right.

This mother’s insight nineteen years ago cast a bright light on what I hadn’t seen or adequately appreciated. What seems so obvious this morning is that our children have a serious “Experience Gap.” This mother, and the others she gathered for their shared mission, got it right.

Yes, this shift holds profound implications for school boards, academic standards and how teachers teach. But this too easily shifts responsibility onto others. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, neighbors, neighborhoods, civic organizations, workplaces all need to reorient our practices and priorities. We need a collective cultural shift in how we define “my” children.

We all want kids to do better. What if we start by doing better ourselves? We all may need the proverbial floor to drop from under us so fewer kids fall through the cracks.

It’s Really Very Simple

Happening upon this paragraph in Autumn seemed, somehow, especially apt. Mere coincidence? The profoundly simple message triggered an anticipation of Thanksgiving…

Maimonides goes on to point out the genius of nature and the foolishness of humankind. Nature he observes, provides in the greatest abundance that which human beings need the most. For example, the two things humans need most for survival, air and water, are among the most common and accessible things in nature. On the other hand, the things that are more or most rare in nature — precious gems, for example — are the things we need the least. A lot of us spend our time working to make enough money to buy the things that are the most costly because they are the most rare, and yet ironically, these rare and costly things are the things we need the least.

________________

Maimonides was a medieval Jewish philosopher who became one of the most prolific and influential Torah scholars of the Middle Ages. In his time, he was also a preeminent astronomer and physician.

The quote is from More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us by Steve Leder. Hay House, Inc.: New York, 2017. pp 150-51.

Everyday for 7 Years

Again and again, rain or shine, through ice or humidity! JebTheDog has faithfully taken me for a walk virtually every afternoon since 2011 along Minnehaha Creek. Nothing I post on Facebook is as popular as photos from these outings. Friends consistently remark about how they look forward to seeing the latest in the “creek series”.

At first, the walks were a duty I accepted as part of dog “ownership.” Self-interest motivated me during bleak February freezes — why else would I get out for a 30 minute walk in the depths of Minnesota winter? …it was good for me! Hassles were not limited to obligation or inclement weather. In 2017 I tumbled over a granite boulder on an idyllic summer afternoon. Surgery, screws, plates and physical therapy over a couple months were required to return my left wrist back to normal.

What happens when we do the same ritual time and time again over a considerable period of time? I now annually await the bluebells on the north slope. These are followed by an explosion of violets. Unintentional comparison of water levels are noted from year to year. JebTheDog remembers where to look for the snapping turtle each June in case I forget. Worried curiosity wonders what’s happened to the coy white squirrel. The rotting stump of a ginormous willows plucks a cord of grief, followed by grateful memories for what remains and for all that has been.

Beyond the uniqueness of each day and incidental occurrences, something cumulative and and rhythmic takes hold. Shifts in motivation creep in over time. Obligation morphs into anticipation. Laughing water reliably softens a knot of worry. Trees become faithful sentinels. Field mice consistently entertain and confound Jeb. The migration of mallards and the cyclic flow of seasons nudge us to notice patterns in our lives.

After seven years, the creek no longer presents itself as a destination. Rather it has become an extension of home, a harbinger of relationship, a sanctuary of wisdom, a grounding in matter — and in what matters. The Shakers had it right:

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
It will be in the valley of love and delight

Seven years of mentoring by my faithful companion, JebTheDog, casts a gentle glow on my 68 years of “occupancy” on this planet. I recognize how so many years and relationships have been characterized by action/reaction, effecting change, leading the charge, not simply being driven but being the driver. Perhaps a certain intensity needs to characterize seasons or transitory roles in our lives — they too can reveal the bulwark of a life well-lived. Yet, these can too easily come to dominate. In dire cases we accept them as our destiny — such is the death rattle of stifling monotony!

The demise of leonine willows, the laughter of rollicking water, the tenderizing cycle of seasons unmask my patterns of foolishness. A smile begins to replenish worry lines framing my eyes. With a spiritual master extraordinaire leading my way, doing the same thing everyday for seven years nudges me to awaken, let be, listen, allow and behold — recognizing we are in the place just right and precisely where we ought to be.

I’ll be glad for another seven years of dog-duty!

___________________

The familiar Shaker quote is from “Simple Gifts”, composed in 1848 by Elder Joseph Brackett.

I am indebted to Martin Laird, O.S.A.; An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation; Oxford University Press, 2019 for the distinction between reactive and receptive mind as well as the perfectly prescriptive words: let be, listen, allow and behold (p. 94).

These Times

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

This winsome melody of the popular Shaker tune filled our space and perfectly expressed the sentiment of the moment. We had gathered to celebrate friendship and send Susan and Claudia forth to their new home in Rhode Island. Love and letting go are polarities of life.

In most other times and settings — times like ours — such lilting tunes seem better left to a more sentimental time. Too often today we feel disconnected from community, kin and country. These are not simple times. The weight of scandal and complicity within core institutions of church and politics ensnare us, rendering us desolate. Seems ours are not “times of love and delight” this Shaker melody celebrates.

Today at Tuesday morning prayer group, someone expressed a petition with the clarity and precision befitting of a Shaker meeting. He asked for the grace “to live well in these in-between times, times when we witness the dying of that which is already dead; but a time that yields no clarity, offers no assurance of that which is laboring to be born, the new life in us that desires to be lived.”

The prayer was perfect, poignant, one might even say pregnant! Isn’t that where we find ourselves — amid the discomfort of these in-between times, witnessing the death of that which is all but dead, powerless to deliver that life which comes in its own time, as it wills!

This is not only the place we find ourselves — this is the only time we have! As with all times, this is a moment of gift, our time of grace. This morning’s petition finds fulfillment in our living precisely within these contradictions, amid the tension, our labor pangs, holding the poles of paradox, in our ever-present now, the only time we are given…

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gain’d,
  To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
  Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

I Was Wrong!

I’ve sat at this keyboard for 30 minutes trying to compose a compelling opening sentence to get you to read what I have to say. I don’t know how to begin! What I have to say is a simple and heartfelt corrective to misconceptions and an injustice I have perpetuated (however unintentionally). Please hear me out!

Virtually everyone in our family knows that our cousin (my first cousin’s son, Pete) has been incarcerated in Nebraska for the past 41 years, 23 of which were on death-row. I reached out to Pete a couple of months ago and we began a mutually satisfying email correspondence. All this came to an abrupt halt after I shared with Pete two blog posts I had written a few years ago in opposition to the death penalty. I had referenced him with the presumption of his guilt.

Pete politely but curtly asked that I give him the courtesy of not contacting him again. I had no clue of the pain my naively well-intentioned posts had caused him. We have had no correspondence since.

I had never taken a close look at the evidence in Pete’s case or the specifics surrounding his conviction. His trial was conducted just as I was preparing to enter the Jesuit novitiate in 1978. That was the last time I have lived in Nebraska. But I do not mean these as an excuse. The truth is I remained blissfully ignorant of the facts, “bought” the findings of the jury trial and placed unfettered confidence in the veracity our judicial system. I was wrong to make these presumptions.

Over the last couple weeks I have taken a much closer look. I’ve concluded that Pete’s conviction was the result of a legal system desperate to wrap-up an unsolved two-year old murder case, an unscrupulous assistant county attorney, nefarious interference by the victim’s family, and the contrived testimony of a key witness manipulated by fear and a desire to save his own ass. I now believe Pete is not guilty and wish to correct the falsehoods I have presumed and spread over the years.

I come to this conclusion for various reasons. Here are a few that I found compelling:

Pete had inadequate legal representation from the start. Though he benefitted from the skillful defense of Dave Lathrop (counsel to the other man charged with the murder) after the cases were combined for purposes of trial. Pete’s court appointed attorney was inept and would later be arrested and convicted of drug offenses and child molestation.

The so-called “testimony” of the prosecution’s key witness had been thrown out as tainted, “poisoned” or otherwise unreliable by the judge in evidentiary hearings prior to the trial. It was reinstated by the Nebraska Supreme Court in what appears to me as an internally contradictory argument.

Subsequent appeals by court appointed attorneys were urgently and understandably focused on protecting Pete from imposition of his death sentence rather than digging into the case for further exonerating evidence.

Advocates for those unjustly imprisoned have for decades shown special interest in Pete’s case. My review of the facts was greatly assisted and inspired by New York writer and advocate, Doug Magee. He has poured over Pete’s case for more than thirty-years and comprehends the facts, and untruths, like no other. I owe him a special debt of gratitude for kindly but clearly correcting my ignorance.

In early 2014 the Innocence Project of Nebraska, the state affiliate of the highly successful national Innocence Project, agreed to take Pete’s case.  Even though there is no DNA evidence (a mandate for their advocacy), evidence of Pete’s innocence was simply too compelling for the Project to ignore.

So what do I believe? I believe Pete was framed! The victim had his enemies. He was known for shady deals and had even done time in federal prison for a kickback deal. There was talk in the media of a hit-man from Phoenix in town around the time of the murder. I’ve concluded that this — combined with an unscrupulous prosecuting attorney, the manufactured and coerced lies of the key “witness”, and the illegal and corrupt dealings of a private detective hired by the victim’s family (their third) — is a much more reasonable explanation to the murder than the travesty of justice seen in the Pete’s trial. I believe Pete was scapegoated by an unscrupulous legal system that wanted a conviction — any conviction — to close a high profile murder case from its books.

So what now? Well, first of all, we need to know the truth. Scripture says, “The truth shall set you free.” Well, what do you think?  Does it?  Our 64 year-old cousin has been incarcerated for more than 40 years for something I no longer believe he did. Will the truth set Pete free? If not, how truly “free” are the rest of us?

Please remember this story as you would all significant family stories! I ask all of our Nebraska relatives and friends to be especially vigilant. Learn the truth. Speak the truth. Correct falsehood. Decry every injustice that would be perpetuated in our name.

And, of course, share this message with any others you think would be interested in it or have a need to know.

Monumental

Purchasing a tombstone is inevitably a sobering experience, especially when its your own. That’s what I did during the last week of 2017. Seemed practical… with no children, who’s going to do it? Besides, it gives you the opportunity to select what you want. Or, better, what I don’t want — no “Praying Hands”, thank you very much!

I’ve often mused that I wanted my epithet to be “He made good soup.” It’s simple, descriptive, accurate. Conjures hospitality, creativity, frugality, a melding of many pieces into one grand symphony. Mom worked miracles with her clean-out-the-refrigerator soups as Dad awaited his next paycheck. What better could be said about someone’s life?

My cremains will be interred in a plot next to my parents in a Nebraska town of 1600 people where we haven’t lived for more than 62 years. We have four generations of family in that cemetery. Though I haven’t lived in Nebraska for more than forty years, the prairie remains my home and where my soul, even now, finds rest.

There is a fitting and delightful irony in that my final resting place will be more than 300 miles from where I now live but less than a quarter-mile from the house where my parents lived when I was conceived.

Proximity has never characterized our relationship! A lively sense of adventure and curiosity necessitated that I move on, travel the world, shed the provincialism I naively ascribed to my origins. Even being interred next to my parents was unimaginable for a time. As required in adolescence and young adulthood deep existential longings beckoned me beyond, always on to new horizons. Parents symbolize origins; I sought the world, and as much as of it I could get.

Parents frequently become a convenient and easy receptor for all we want to leave behind, their deficiencies an easy target for our ire. After all, we recognize at some deep level they are the only ones we get and that’s never going to change.  For better or worse we are irrevocably hitched. So we let ’em have it. They’re always our parents!

If we are especially fortunate we may find an abiding confidence that they may even love us unconditionally (even if not in the way we’d prefer). Though I have no personal experience, I’ve come to wonder whether the best parents can hope is for their heartache to be balanced with the consolation and joy children periodically deliver.

Perhaps herein lies the real gift — in our living we discover that anguish and joy are not an either/or proposition. Rather, they converge into a single, swirling vortex. In that swirling rough’n’tumble we discover as good a definition of love as any.

Here’s something I do know. In our youth a certain insatiable longing and expansiveness necessarily drives us outward and we need to dispose of the identity our parents and origins conferred upon us. Like the vast Nebraska prairie we envision limitless space and fix our eyes on the expansive horizon, ever captivated by whatever lies beyond. We eventually move from being pioneers to becoming homesteaders of our own.

Then, there comes a time we discover our deepest longings, most profound hungers, insatiable appetites cannot be satisfied. They need not be satisfied. Oh, we may try! But the horizon always recedes beyond us! The especially privileged among us will attempt to find satisfaction in what will ultimately be found insufficient to the need. Acquisitions of all sorts easily slide into consumerism or fetishes at best and obsessions or addictions in more desperate extremes.

Perhaps one key reason children and parents inevitably clash lies in the fact we engage one another at two different stages of life. One driven by an expansive, limitless trajectory; the other drawn deeper into an awareness of life’s complexities. We are destined to reside in different universes though never apart.

To the uninitiated, the Nebraska prairie appears barren, flat, featureless. Life on the plains carries a certain emptiness, longing, loneliness. That is precisely what beckons my soul. But cannot this be said of every place of human habitation? Ultimately, wherever we reside, we must find satisfaction beyond our dreams, beyond place, beyond selves.

The Nebraska prairie is the place where my soul finds rest. One way or another, we are all drawn deeper than we could have seen or imagined into discovering our most authentic selves. Horizons expand beyond the geographical. Life transcends the individual. Our trek paradoxically takes us, not just beyond, but ever deeper — deeper into emptiness, longing, yearning.

Fulfillment comes when we enter, or are plunged, more deeply if not willingly into that vast expansiveness. The hard and perplexing invitation to a full and happy life lies not in our futile efforts to fill an existential emptiness. Rather, our happiness and wholeness is discovered when we welcome, probe and embrace the wisdom this womb-like cavern holds for us. Therein lies life’s destiny and fulfillment.

My parents’ memorial sits inconspicuously atop a windswept hill in Nebraska. Mine will stand aside it — same size, same shape, same granite stone. Only difference being that Mom and Dad’s “Praying Hands” will be replaced by my simple cross. My husband asked, “Will your monument say, ‘He made good soup’?” My response, “No, it says something even better and more distinguished… ‘Son of Arthur and Gertrude’!”

My two Godson nephews have been instructed to simply place my cremains into the ground. The only graveside service I request is that they read aloud the conclusion to T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding. In part it says:

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
__________________

Eliot’s poem Little Gidding may be found at: http://www.columbia.edu/itc/history/winter/w3206/edit/tseliotlittlegidding.html