On Dreams and Pogo Sticks

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Harlem

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore–

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over–

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

― Langston Hughes

At Pogopalooza in Costa Mesa, CA, James Roumeliotis from the United States achieved an entry into the Guinness Book of World Records on July 29, 2011 after 20 hours and 13 minutes. He bounced 206,864 times on his pogo stick. When I was ten, I had dreams of this magnitude. I had a dream of myself being entered into the Guinness Book of World Records, hopping around on my pogo stick.

I was up to a couple thousand, able to hop without interruption or accident for twenty minutes at a time. I’d hop and hop across the blacktop of the driveway, the screeching springs inhaling and exhaling in rhythm. Our house, the parsonage, fortunate for all, was situated at a distance from the other neighbors. The broad-faced church loomed as my audience and shelter.

My pogo stick went on a camping trip that summer with my family and me, a brood of four children and two wayward dogs. Into the woods I jumped across the uneven and gravel-ridden campground roads. Our time came to pick up and leave, to tear down camp and continue on our vacation journey. Upon arrival to the new site, my pogo stick was discovered missing, left behind, abandoned behind a wide-girthed tree.

I know I grieved the loss of my pogo stick but I cannot recall if I grieved the loss of the dream. She was not replaced. And I suspect my parents experienced a smidgeon of elation at the absence of the repetitive squeaking shrill.

We all carry dreams. Sometimes our dreams are silly, struck down easily by a wayward obstacle or expectation. Sometimes dreams are serious calls upon our bodies, minds, and souls. They echo into the depths of night, raising our voice by the octave, building soapboxes and aiding in the rantings of firm conviction. Sometimes dreams feel giant and unwieldy, like all center and no edges – loose, flimsy and indefinable. Sometimes dreams are clear as day, outlined precise, to be filled in with color and detail and personality. Some dreams develop and some dreams are fixed. Sometimes dreams must be abandoned and others are resurrected. Sometimes they’re fought for and sometimes died for. Always are they lived for, urging for hefty doses of hope and a touch of insanity.

My dreams have progressed, we might call them adult. I dream large for the world – for peace, kindness, love and compassion to reign. I dream for the uplifting of the marginalized and justice for the corrupt. I dream of relief for the poor, sick and frightened. I dream of freedom for the wrongly incarcerated. I dream of healing for the ill and resources for the hungry, for black lives to truly matter. I dream of homes for the homeless and grace for the burdened.  I have so many dreams,  encompassed in my faith and my love for Jesus and my trust in God.

But I also hold dreams for myself. It would be safe to assume these particular dreams represent my personal calling. I am called to start a church that loves and provides relief for all. I am called to become a pastor, utilizing my talent and heart and giftedness to draw others toward grace and mercy. I am called to raising my children to the best of my ability. I am called to my marriage, growing together as equal partners in this aging life. I am called to write, to love well, to grow in my spiritual disciplines, to become ever closer to Jesus in model and spirit. I am called to be an expression of Love, as a woman in a man’s world.

One of my kids lamented at the cusp of middle school, wishing they were as smart as their friend, Tom. I replied with severity and admonition: You are kind and compassionate, your giftedness is not academic. Tom may get good grades, he is gifted at school, but Tom is an asshole. My goal for you is to not be an asshole.

As our dreams grow into callings, may we move forward with grace, asking questions, seeking answers and avoiding assholery. May we find the ultimate calling, in the words of Frederick Buechner:

The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Sometimes our calling finds us and sometimes we have to wrestle it down. Sometimes our calling is our deepest desire and usually our calling terrifies the sh*t out of us. Sometimes our calling extends beyond our lifetimes, the seed planted by us but watered by another. A calling is not easy, a calling is terrifying, incapable of being ignored.

While I suspect my dream to enter the pogo stick record books is dead, my calling to become is secure and formed. I do not quite know how I will get from point A to B, but I trust in the benevolence of God. Where there’s a vision, there will be a way. And I will strive really hard not to be an asshole in the process.

Dream away friends.

A Good Man’s Story

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“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

-Dietrich Bonhoeffer

I pushed some hard weights in the gym yesterday. It must’ve been obvious since I got a comment from a woman. Normally I get all kinds of annoying comments from men: Smile. Don’t look so mad. You’re too pretty not to smile – lame things men say when women make them uncomfortable by not making them comfortable. So, for a female to notice and speak, it was something.

I went to the gym on a few hours of sleep, the anxiety of motherhood bearing heavy on my heart and worn spirit. After overcoming the temptation of a return to my pillow and cozy covers, I pushed and strained, pulling my muscles and mind to sufficient exhaustion.

I checked in with John. John frequents the gym more than most. At 87 years of age, his determination to defy the aging process is fierce and clear. He shuffles about from machine to machine, weight to weight with dedication and purpose. The man does not waste time. He’s quick with his workouts and wit, his six-time-replaced hip and advanced age slowing him down to a suitable pace, so the rest of us don’t feel like absolute losers.

John asked how I was doing, how my workout went. I mentioned something about difficulty with teenagers and needing to sweat and clear my head. In a prodding manner I joked with him, asking if he ever had teenagers, not expecting the answer he was about to give. Gazing at the ground, my wise friend verbalized his deep, rutted suffering: No, Jen, we buried both of ours at birth.

Gut punch.

I started to apologize and backpedal. He wouldn’t let me. He would not allow me to heap shame upon myself, to experience a moment of guilt. He could’ve easily avoided the difficult admission, but he trusted me enough to answer with honesty, which led me to trust him. His honesty delivered hope and restored my perspective. This kind-hearted gentleman had important things to teach me.

Our pain and concerns often place us in a wasteland of isolation and fear, loneliness and myopia. Nothing good can come from this place. We believe the lies – no-one understands, no-one will empathize, no-one is safe.

And the most harmful lie –

I am alone. 

Perspective is everything, isn’t it? John’s story did not negate my difficulty, nor did it negate my responsibility. His story helped me step away and take a break from my own suffering and pain for a brief moment, to experience grace. My calling as a parent, partner, friend, citizen is unthreatened by a story more tragic than mine. The important work remains, unchanged, but the burden is lifted, lighter. Suffering’s redemption is in the sharing.

Our problems and concerns can be hard and painful and scary, but there are always beautiful stories of resolve and goodness. My difficulties are never the end, nor are yours. If we pay attention, if we find a new perspective we might be able to see the threads of wonder weaving through the tumult and the grief. We might be able to discern the hints of achievement. We might be able to observe subtle building blocks of empathy – shoots of love and compassion poking through the cracked dirt. Shame has no place here. Restored perspective and new understanding allow us to honor our efforts and achieve sturdier footing in this new, more confident space within ourselves.

John’s goal was to take care of me. He did not yield to self-pity, nor would he allow me to resort to shame or embarrassment. He wanted me to feel better, to be able to unload. And in his self-deprecating, redemptive way, mentioned: Well, maybe it’s for the better. I don’t know how I would have done with kids, particularly teenagers.

He considered my comfort, my well-being, my day. He wanted me to experience a sense of goodness and relief. And because of his response, I could return the favor to him.

Iron sharpens iron. There is nothing like good community to remind us of the importance of sharing our stories, of confiding our difficulties. We can never know what someone’s experience might be. Nor can we know, the fresh perspective, that lightens the load and fuels a fire toward true compassionate kindness.

Community is our antidote. Stories are our ammunition. In these fraught times where loneliness abounds, social media echoes, family members have opinions – stories are the solution. We have to listen to one another. We have to have high regard for another’s experience. And we must abound with empathy and desire to love our fellow humanity.

Love is our fiercest weapon.

Love is never soft nor is it weak or spineless. Love is the hardest job we get to do, the work of driving toward common ground. Sometimes the best way to love is to walk away and sometimes the best way to love is to dig in.

Either way – it’s love.

The Eternal Push-Pull

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“Perhaps it takes courage to raise children..”

― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

No-one told me that once that tiny human emerges from the womb, a mother opens herself to grief of an eternal order. The reality I have had to reluctantly recognize and accept, from the earliest moments, is in parenting, mothering, grief is a steady co-participant.

As a disclaimer, I use the term grief in a general sense, one of  letting go, alongside a melancholic revisitation of life will never be the same. I have not trod the path of witnessing a child suffer gravely through illness or death or addiction. The parents who endure such suffering  are my heroes, for they exist within a span of reality unbeknownst to many.

With the good-bye’s, grief is a familiar companion – the cute lisp that disappears with teasing, or the permanent teeth that make mouths seem gapey, or the independent defiance of a two year old, or a growth spurt that results in the inevitable and unpleasant effects of puberty. While none of these is tragic, the cumulative result is a new, different, foreign child.

I have known the mothers who occupy themselves with an anxious busy-ness to avoid the threat of passing time. I have also known the mothers who live in the present, embracing the process, aware of their minefield of mistakes. I have known mothers who yell, who don’t sleep, who succumb to worry and fear, who lie awake waiting for the front door to unlock. I have known the mothers who second guess and the ones with full and unwavering confidence in their parenting skills.

I have known the mothers who resort to withdrawal for self protection and I have known the mothers who fight for what they believe to be true and  right. I have known the mothers who leave and the ones who stay, deep in the trenches. I have known the mothers who weep and I have known the mothers who scream. I have known the mothers who appear perfect and the ones always frazzled. I have known the involved mothers and the relaxed mothers. I have known the demanding mothers and the laissez-faire.

I have known these mothers for I am them all.

I’m not sure there is an objective or right way to parent. Many have touted their expertise, but never is there a replicable combination of child and parent. The myriad of personality traits and quirks and expectations and past experience render recommendations moot, the equations can never add up beyond guesswork. The path is murky, pockmarked with equal parts joy and landmine. Each footfall potentially yielding an explosion of relief or one of fear. Parenting is the greatest gamble, the grandest experiment. Raising the next generation is not a work for the feeble or uncreative or ungracious.

The task of working oneself out of a job is far harder than it seems – that I have to anticipate ten, twenty, thirty years down the road for where this grand experiment might result. My greatest fear, regret. I, an imperfect human with my particular flight of flaws is the one to usher my children into adulthood?  As my engineer husband often quips: This is bad design.

I think I know best. And in many ways, I do. I’ve lived a couple decades more than my oldest. I know things. But the world is different, too. My children do have their own way. They thrive on being different, on finding other methods. This is good and I am grateful, for each generation must be a step or two ahead of the previous. I know my children could change the world if I get out of their way. So, here’s the rub, right? My push, their pull is as it’s designed, the defining work of becoming is bumping against and dwelling in the tension on this journey.

Our family’s days are numbered. This is the truest grief of it all. Each day, week, month that passes, we are a new unit. The dynamics shift and we all readjust. The work is never easy, but we do it. We dig in, make mistakes, slam doors and apologize. We laugh and joke and call each other out. We relinquish control as parents and do our best to relinquish comparisons. No family has the same DNA as ours, no-one. To compare is to diminish, always.

I have a young man, a beautiful young man yearning to be released. We push, he pulls, we give, he takes, we withhold, he still takes. This is his work, cracking the bond between parent and child, mother and child.  The bond never disappears, but it alters, the material becoming pliable, lengthening, and less visible in certain light. This is the truth and beauty, the grief of launching our people into the world. The infant I held and memorized is no longer the boy in my home.

And this is the great sacrifice, the grand experiment – the request and demand, the push and pull, the tension and hopeful resolve. We let them go, send them off, once again reminded as we’ve been over and over and over –

Good parenting is not always about us.

Six Months of Sundays

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I have confidence in the laws of morals as of botany. I have planted maize in my field every June for seventeen years and I never knew it come up strychnine. My parsley, beet, turnip, carrot, buck-thorn, chestnut, acorn, are as sure. I believe that justice produces justice and injustice, injustice.        

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Six months ago I signed up for the Fighting Racism Cohort through the Denver Interfaith Alliance. I am unsure what compelled me to say “yes”, but it seemed like the next logical step in my quest to understand why black lives matter and to engage in a conversation with people who know far more than me. My corner of the world holds few people of color, so a monthly trek to Denver was a worthy price to pay to learn and engage and reconcile with some hard truths.

Our group began that first September Sunday afternoon with about thirty people. This past week, we had ten. The numbers have dwindled, but the conversation has bloomed. We have moved from learning about our personal white privilege and the plight of people of color in America to creating an action plan in our faith communities. As we’ve collectively spanned the election of 45 and the aftermath of his inauguration, we have grown together in our understanding. Our black members consistently place the onus on us white folks to talk to our cousins, our parents, siblings and friends. Our work, as the dominant power in this nation is to carry the mantle, to share the knowledge we’ve obtained, to be the allies that deserve to speak on behalf of the black community, because they are tired, worn and fighting for survival. We must own the conversation with one another, debating, discussing, fielding and answering questions.

I took offense at first. I wanted our black members to teach me, to tell me what to do, to shadow me so I didn’t make a mistake. But, the reality is, I need to make mistakes. I need to fail and feel shame and pick myself up and try again. My safety isn’t in danger because of my skin. My sons are not in danger because of their skin or hoodies. I can sleep at night, I do not fear for my children’s safety or my husband’s or mine. I can rest. I can put my feet up at night. I can drive home knowing if I am pulled over I am pretty much entitled to a smooth transaction on the roadside.

The amount of getting-through-the-day-energy expended by my black friends is beyond my comprehension. I am seeking to understand my implicit bias, my privilege, my entitlements and how all of these woven together places burden and condemnation, disempowering and threatening communities of color.  None of us will ever know these things, none of us can claim full understanding. Our indoctrination is so great, generation upon generation of sin, of slavery, lynching, segregation, incarceration. Our racism and supremacy buried, the life and dignity of another, shuttered, silenced, cast aside. Our racism, until faced full and fierce and intentional, will always compromise, will always seek to dominate and over-power, unbeknownst to us.

We must educate ourselves. Read the books, understand the materials, watch the news with an immense side of doubt, have hard conversations. We must place the onus on ourselves to divest ourselves of power in order to bring another up. How we do this? This is the material of conversations and debate, the material of hard and well-earned trust. This is the material that bruises the ego and requires vast humility and stamina. The work is far from easy, but ease should never be the bar. The bar is high and worth every moment of strain. We owe it. The work is essential. And we must forge forward and find our white cohorts, we find our white partners and form the groups and have the conversations, without additional burden upon the black population.

I’ve heard much about bootstraps over the years. I’ve said much about bootstraps over the years, about requiring people of color to take the responsibility. I was ignorant. The only thing accomplished was maintaining my comforts, my lifestyle, my ability to be in white circles without dissonance or displeasure. If they would just…. Until we seek to walk in another’s shoes, trying to understand, teasing out the white privilege and systems of supremacy, it is inevitable we can only be contributors to the racism. We will only contribute the debasement of people of color. Until we learn and seek and strive to understand the desperation, the fear, the lack of opportunity, we white people have no right to speak with authority. We have no right to tell another what to do. We have no right to criticize and condemn, for we know not what our black and brown cohorts must endure at the hands of our nation’s powerful white constituency.

In the state of our nation today, our foremost work as Christians is love – to live in love, to fight injustice, to seek dignity for our fellow humans.  The Church was never intended to be a white country club. The church is a place to come and work alongside another to bring light and relief to the hurting, the disenfranchised and marginalized in our communities, to bring light and relief into our own souls through the good work of justice.

We get what we put in. We reap what we sow.