Monday, November 28, 2011

Don't Forget Where You Came From

My parents celebrated fifty years of marriage last week. To celebrate, per their request, we gathered the immediate family together in a spacious house a block from the ocean on Tybee Island, outside of Savannah. They weren’t interested in a party or a cruise or a big gift; all they wanted to do was get us all together. The entire process sparked a lot of thought and some new realizations in me. I plan to write about it here for a few days. 

We realized that their big day would coincide with Thanksgiving and my oldest son’s 16th birthday, so we were prepared to pack a lot of commemoration into a few days’ time. Normally this sort of planning freaks me out; makes me nervous. Interesting, because my job involves planning, and a lot of it. I work in creative arts at my church, and there’s no escaping that every-seven-days deadline. I thrive on the adrenaline in that environment. But our family stuff tends to paralyze me; I defer to my mom, who is the champion in the kitchen when it comes to organizing and getting things done. Or I lean on my sister-in-law, who is more gifted in administration than anybody I know. For our annual summer gatherings, I’m usually just a worker bee, once I manage to get my entire crew there in one piece.

But this year I felt the burden of doing something extra. My brother sealed the deal in a phone conversation prior to the big day, when he remarked, “You do this kind of thing all the time. You’re good at this. Make it happen.”

As per my usual mode of operations, I thought and contemplated and considered until I had very little time left for action. The weekend before we were to leave, I made my way to Mom and Dad’s house and quite UN-surreptitiously collected handfuls of photographs. I snuck around the community and found friends from their church to pre-record good wishes via video.

And then I set aside an entire day to put it together. And what a day it was.

I was taken completely by surprise. The emotional wallop packed into looking at fifty years of my family’s life was overwhelming, to say the least. During the twelve hours I worked on this project, I found myself incapacitated on at least five occasions - caught up in emotions I could barely identify, much less express. I just cried. And cried. I sobbed like I haven’t in years.

It struck me that I was seeing, for perhaps the first time, some things that I had been too busy to ever notice before. Maybe in my entire life. And these were important things. Not just random memories of events and parties and bad outfits and haircuts.

In the gathering of photographic documentation of life; separating the images into seasons and eras and looking - really looking - at the people in the pictures, some things came sharply into focus for me.

Most people, if they're honest, look at their history in regards to  themselves. How many of us, when we look at a photograph, quickly scan it to find our own image first? We identify ourself, assure ourself of our presence, and in that context we remember the event, categorize it, assign it some importance. I do that.

But this time, I didn’t. In every photo I scanned, I was looking for a man and a woman - my parents, either separately or together - in an attempt to stitch together a story. I looked into their eyes, paid attention to what they were wearing. Tried to read the expression in their eyes. The others in the photos - even myself - were of no consequence. Even in the most horrid picture, the one that defines bad fashion taste and a horrid haircut - rather than focus on how awful I appeared, I looked at Mom and Dad. And they looked good. (Me, not so much.)

I saw the lives of these two people as they came together in a little Presbyterian church in November of 1961, and I saw hope and excitement and anticipation in their eyes. I have seen those pictures hundreds of time; but I never saw my father’s boyish joy before. I had never noticed the calm, radiant beauty in my mother’s eyes. In looking at them as they were before I ever existed, I learned something about them and about myself. I paid attention and thought about what I was seeing.

There is something incredibly freeing about identifying a man and a woman as independent people - a couple made up of two individuals - apart and aside from their role as your parents. The act of gathering information to tell the story of their lives as a way to honor them became a step towards maturity and growing up that I didn’t even realize I needed to take. My paradigm shifted, ever so slightly.

In the past two decades as I have raised my kids, my focus has most often been on them and their needs. I have seen my parents function primarily in their role as grandparents, in a way that has positively impacted and informed the character of my children. I have rarely lifted my eyes off of my own little world to see the larger world my parents’ inhabited.

I have been accused of being selfish, undoubtedly with just cause. But now I see. I have looked up, and back, and I have seen. And here I am again, in the middle of my life, growing up a little more. No one’s more surprised than I. And I have a richer, deeper love and appreciation for my parents than I ever had before. It goes beyond the fun we had this week as we celebrated. I carry something with me now that is markedly different. And it’s not only my perspective of their lives; it is how I see myself.

I am the daughter of Clyde and Peggy Case. I’ve got good genes and a strong example set before me. I had a fine upbringing; I am of good stock. I was raised right. 

We recalled this week how my grandfather - my dad’s father, Jim Case - once overheard me complaining about the small town in which I grew up; the town where he still lived and farmed. We were visiting our hometown, driving down Liberty Street, and I bemoaned the lack of stores and Things To Do, as compared to the wall-to-wall suburbia we knew as home in Dallas. Pop turned around to glare at me in the back seat. He pointed a finger at me and said, “Girl, don’t you ever forget where you came from.” 

I know a lot more about that now. I am grateful for my mother and father, the grandparents of my children, two people who lived well and stuck to their promise to stay together. My daughter Sarah wrote a song for them that she sang this week:
“The words of a Marine / the strength of a seamstress’ seam  
I was taught to love and taught to fight / I carry you with me in the bloodline”
I guess in the end, I am a bit selfish. It all comes back to me, and how I am living my life, what I am learning, who I am. But I suppose that is parenting at its best; they never stop teaching me things. And then I turn around and try to do the same for my own kids.

And so it goes. Down the bloodline.

Next: The Need To Grieve

Saturday, November 26, 2011

A Weekend Full Of Gratitude

What an incredible few days we have had.

Eric, David and Dad
We - my immediate family, along with my uncle Dave and Shannon's boyfriend Travis - met to celebrate three things that fell essentially at the same time this year: 1) Thanksgiving, 2) my son's 16th birthday and 3) my parents' 50th wedding anniversary.

Two of these things are important milestones. The third is by far my favorite holiday. So it's been a huge win and a lot of fun.

We spent the first evening reconnecting; my brother and his family meet up with my crew and Mom and Dad every year for our summer vacation. We just saw each other in August, but a lot has happened in those few short months. After a quick and easy - and delicious - meal of our traditional rice bowls, we watched a video that looked back at our parents' lives. It was profound and moving and led to a few tears. Mom kept commenting on every photo that came up. Dad kept crying. After it was over, we had over an hour of great conversation; memories, things that mattered, why we valued one another and what it meant to be a family.

Sarah, Syd and Shannon in costume for the Talent Show
Thursday, we ate. It was delicious and wonderful. That night we had our annual Talent Show; we prepare for this every year during the summer, so this one was a bonus. We laughed so hard we cried. And then, we spontaneously just started singing songs.

I can't help but think that we are uniquely blessed. And I am deeply grateful.

The remainder of the time has included long walks, games, reading (I finished two books) and great conversation. It's been a respite; we were so busy leading up to this week that I didn't realize how good it would feel to unplug and relax for a while.

After we get home, I'll likely write another post with more photos. But for today, as we wind down the weekend and head to our respective homes, I am thankful for the people in my family who go out of their way to let one another know that we matter. It has formed who I am. It is forming my kids and the ripple effects are positive.

Going to bed a grateful girl tonight.

Eric and Tony in a serious conversation. Over ice cream.

Eric and David, rocking the v-necks.

Travis, Shannon and Tony

Tony and I; for the Talent Show, we did a bizarre version of Minnie Ripperton's "Loving You"; a vocal duet with banjo. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

Three Wives And Twenty-four Kids

It is Friday night, and I am home alone. So I am watching 20/20 and waiting for the clothes to dry.

I know, I know. You are insanely jealous of my chic, adventurous lifestyle. I just can't help myself.

So anyway, 20/20 is doing this story - quite seriously - about a man in Utah (duh) who has three wives and 24 children. He courted and married two of them simultaneously Ten years later, another woman caught his eye. She was the twin sister of one of the first two wives. Made perfect sense for him to marry her, too.

So now he has three wives and all these kids and they're going public, fully aware that they could be investigated and/or arrested. Because - well, you know - having more than one wife is sort of weird. Not to mention illegal.

A huge part of the story (at least according to Soledad O'Brien's questions) is how the man manages his lifestyle; he rotates to a different bedroom every night. Questions about his stamina and jokes about one wife finding his underwear in another wife's sheets are asked in all seriousness, and with a wholesome, gentle, holy look, everybody talks about the necessity of dealing with jealousy and trusting that this is all good for their family.

And then they interview one of the oldest kids - a young woman who has recently married. She is beaming, obviously ecstatic - beautiful in her wedding dress. She talks about how much she loves her husband, and how the thought of sharing him in the future is almost unbearable.

"But", she says, "God changes our hearts sometimes. And when he does, we have to trust that he knows best. And that we'll change, too."

And my first thought was this: When a man begins to lust for another woman and justifies taking her by claiming polygamy as God's command, what sort of mental gymnastics does a woman have to do to be okay with that?

Maybe it's the ultimate in submission. Maybe it's a sacrifice you make for a unique sisterhood and a large family. Maybe it's a relief to share all those marital and household duties.

But I just can't help but think that it really, really sucks to be that girl. And that having sex with three (or more) different women and calling it God's will is not quite right.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Beyond Any Egg You May Have Scrambled

From the morning prayer in my Book of Common Prayer today:

A passage from Forgotten Among the Lilies by Ronald Rolheiser: " If the Catholicism that I was raised in had a fault, and it did, it was precisely that it did not allow for mistakes. It demanded that you get it right the first time. There was supposed to be no need for a second chance. If you made a mistake, you lived with it and, like the rich young man, were doomed to be sad, at least for the rest of your life. A serious mistake was a permanent stigmatization, a mark that you wore like Cain. I have seen that mark on all kinds of people: divorcees, ex-priests, ex-religious, people who have had abortions, married people who have had affairs, people who have had children outside of marriage, parents who have made serious mistakes with their children, and countless others who have made serious mistakes. There is too little around to help them.  
We need a theology of brokenness. We need a theology which teaches us that even though we cannot unscramble an egg, God's grace lets us live happily and with renewed innocence far beyond any egg we may have scrambled.  
We need a theology that teaches us that God does not just give us one chance, but that every time we close a door, he opens another one for us."

It's not about Catholicism; not at all. There are many cultural and social structures that don't allow for mistakes.

It's about this tremendous need for grace. Over and over, I am reminded of our desperate need for it. And yet it's so hard to give, sometimes. And it's sometimes even harder to accept.

This, today, reminds me of my calling. Reminds me of who I am.

Had a theology of brokenness not been overwhelmingly and undeniably offered to me, I could not stand. And not in the easy pie-in-the-sky, "Jesus has always loved me!" sort of way. Not in the stick-your-head-in-the-sand and coast on a simple humanistic peace-and-love-for-all philosophy. But in this: that I have screwed up, time and time again. I have made mistakes, big and small. I have pushed against commandments, Biblical and moral - and pushed hard enough to break them. In ancient history (my own) and more recent (like me, last week), I have said and done things that have hurt people. I have scrambled enough eggs, my own and others',  to feed the nations.

And in this: I am offered another chance. Not only by flesh and blood people who tenderly, tearfully offer grace and forgiveness - but by the one who is holy, righteous, massively unfathomable - beyond any understanding I might have. As far as the universe is, there is grace.

That is the violently insistent heartbeat of my faith: There is grace.

Renewed innocence.


In the tripping and falling that we all claim as part of our climbing through life, a theology of brokenness lived out for ourselves and for those around us - well, that could change the world.

And there's enough of it, for us and the whole human race.

Go show somebody some grace today. 

Show yourself.


Friday, November 11, 2011

Dreaming Of La Romana

Ampiteatro at Altos de Chavon
Last week I bemoaned (on Facebook) the fact that I never seemed to have a day with absolutely nothing on the schedule.

Finally got one.

Big smile.

I have a million things to do around here; laundry is piled higher than usual. The kitchen is cluttered. I went grocery shopping last night but we literally have no place to put the groceries, so I need to go get creative. The porch needs to be cleaned. There is much to do...

But no appointments. No lessons. Wide, open space.

So: I have John Gorka radio on Pandora, which is better than I ever expected. Tiny, four-minute gems, one after the other. Gorka, then James Taylor, Neil Young, Johnsmith....and some names I've never heard before. There is space today for their songs to fill up this house.

I have coffee, hot. Sarah made it. Everything's better when somebody else makes it.

I have the residue of a long, detailed dream that occupied the early morning hours. I was back in the Dominican Republic, driving from Santo Domingo to La Romana. I was me, now - mother of five, my age today. The road had changed - new things, like a big baseball stadium and new construction. But all the people I encountered were as they had been over 20 years ago. The people hadn't changed. My kids all had friends there, and they wanted to stay, scattered all over the path we were driving. In my dream, I was talking with Karla Sanchez, with whom I haven't been in contact for 20-plus years. It was so very real, and I was so there.

Since I woke up, I have been wondering: "Where did THAT come from?" After the coffee kicked in, I started tracing the lines back to the source. And here's what I discovered:
  • Glee this week featured West Side Story. When I lived in the DR, we staged a production of WSS in the Altos de Chavon Ampiteatro. Karla played Anita; she was amazing.
  • Our church is planning a mission trip this year to Puerto Rico. I have always wanted to return to the Caribbean. I initially jumped at the chance to go along as a chaperone. But I'm hesitating now; what I really want to do is go back to the DR. And PR is not DR. The decision is pressing upon me; I have to figure this out.
Not sure what else is churning in there. I'm fascinated by the creative ways my brain processes its contents.

And I think I'm going to start saving up for a trip to the island of Hispaniola.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Planning Nothing

I don't know if it's the age - pushing 50, people, and how did THAT happen? - or the season or a combination of both, but I've been intentional about building a lot of margin into my schedule for the past few weeks. Rather than plan meeting after meeting after meeting and pile things onto my plate, I've built a lot of vague and general hours into the work week.

Our staff sends out our schedules to one another at the beginning of the week. It helps us pray for each other, gives us a sense of what's going on around us and helps us know how to find one another and what to expect. For the past two weeks, I've had several blocks of time that simply say, "working from home".

When I plan this time, in the back of my mind I'm thinking, "Maybe I can multi-task while I'm writing charts. I can have a load of laundry in while I reply to emails. I can make phone calls to musicians while I make the bed." Because there is such a limited amount of time in my day; I have so many things to juggle, it seems.

So planning to get a lot done seems prudent.

But here's the truth: the laundry is undone, the dishes stay in the sink and life goes on as usual at our house (meaning we all chip in and nothing's perfect, but it gets done). And what happens with those vague, unplanned "working-from-home" hours is this: I have time to take a phone call from someone in crisis. And then I have time to go meet them for coffee. I connect with a musician who has gotten stuck in his spiritual life, who needs a little encouragement and truth-telling. I discover some awesome new music that will be a great fit for our Christmas services. I answer the phone instead of letting it go to voice mail.

And in my heart, I have compassion for people. I have time to care. 

Being that I am called to care, led into ministry as a vocation, this is a rather important thing.

So here it is: it really feels weird to build specific time into my work week in which I plan to do nothing. And yet it has proven to be the most effective and meaningful time of my work week. And probably the most productive.

Go figure.