Why I Save Stuff

Moving from a house to an apartment, albeit a large apartment, made me realize just how much stuff I have.The place for my stuff (thank you, George Carlin) is in boxes and Sterilite containers. Some of it had appeared in the last two or three years. Most of it has not seen the light of day in a long time. I’m talking decades.

However, in a quest to condense and pare down the number of boxes, I began sorting through everything. One box contained elementary and junior high school yearbooks, the recorder I played in fourth grade, relics from my confirmation at St. Mary Magdalene, congratulatory cards bearing the signatures and Xs and Os of my long-departed grandparents, a blue box with two crystal rosaries, and many more things. Most papers went out. Objects tended to stay. Like a necklace with a small gold heart that I’ve had since I was 11.

Another box seemed to be the receptacle of my life from high school to college and maybe my early 20s. More yearbooks, copies of scripts from plays I was in, birthday and graduation cards, my high school boyfriend’s bow tie from prom (mauve was all the rage in 1986), and of course, diploma, mortar board, and tassel. It’s an odd collection of things, but the same feelings bubble up again. Relief. Sadness. A mild sense of loss. Anticipation of what’s next.

Packed in boxes with no rhyme or reason are my journals. I wrote daily for hours at a time for several years. I finally stacked them in chronological order and put them all in one place. I hope that IF my kids ever read them (hopefully long after I’m gone) they will remember that I was human before I was their mom.

I took a few minutes to flip through the journals. The first one dated from 1995 into 1996. I started it after I lost my friend Eric to non-Hodgkins lymphoma…which was just a few days after I’d gotten married. He was an artist, a photographer, a smart and creative man who liked artichokes on his pizza.I was a pall bearer.

In the same journal, I read entries about becoming a mother. 24-hours of labor to deliver an 11 pound, 7 ounce daughter. Eight weeks to recover. I wrote about the first time she reached for me as if she wanted me to pick her up, but instead she cupped my face in her hands, like I would do to her. And then there was the time she toddled over to me and opened my arms so she could flop onto my torso and I could give her a hug. She is a senior in high school this year.

Flipping through at least 5 other journals, I noticed recurring themes. My weight. Money. Loneliness. Creative impasses. I was constantly trying to find ways to drop ten, twenty, or thirty pounds. I kept setting writing goals and never achieving them. I kept trying to find ways to make more money or to save better. There was a lot of “if/then” thinking. If I drop 15 pounds, then I will be happy. If I just follow my measurements instead of the scale, then it won’t mess with my head so much. If I can finish this draft of the novel I’m working on, I can start pitching it to publishers next year. I could be published by the time I’m 40. I need to get my daughter ballet lessons to be a good mother.

I also found the journal entry that I can say is probably the exact day I realized my marriage was past the point of repair. It was about three years before it actually ended.

Overlapping and intertwining with that was the realization that God was not far away. That with all of my screwed-up-ness, He still wanted me in His Army of the Unqualified. I knew He was calling me. And I was scared. I spent a lot of time in denial. Running in the opposite direction. I kept thinking about things and people I’d have to give up, changes I’d have to make to be a “good soldier”. Sacrifices.

In another box was a paper bag. Inside the bag were notes and letters sent to me while I was serving on the team for the Women’s Emmaus Walk #76. I served in the midst of the calling and the disintegration, trying to take myself out of the spiritual equation and remind myself that I was there to shepherd the pilgrims. It wasn’t for me, it was for them. I pulled out one of the notes from my table leader Misty. She acknowledged our table’s unique circumstances and challenges, but encouraged me to keep praying and keep listening.

Then she wrote, “God has put it on my heart to share one word with you: courage.”

I took the note out of the bag and put it on my dresser where I can see it, along with a Letter from God read to the team at the beginning of the walk. We are identified by the word or phrase that we felt best described our relationship with God.

“One is stubborn, but her uncompromising and headstrong nature is how she stands and lives for Me in this fallen world.”

Change is constant. There are more forms of brokenness in this world than we realize. I am broken. And repaired. I am tired. And uplifted. I am defeated. And hopeful. I am afraid. And courageous.

I’ve shredded the papers that were pointless. Eliminated the stuff that was superfluous. Before I repackaged the memories and put them back in the boxes, I surveyed everything laid out on the bed, the floor, and every available surface and I realized something.

I have changed and I will keep changing. I survived the things I thought would crush me. I remember and laugh again at the moments that made me laugh. I miss the ones who are gone.This is the Me I can’t begin to explain to my daughters in just a few sentences.

I have lived.

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Faith and Philosophy Sundae

Forgiveness Mandala by Wayne Stratz

Forgiveness Mandala by Wayne Stratz (Photo credit: Nutmeg Designs)

When I sat down to ice cream for a little overdue one-on-one time with my teenager, I was not expecting to talk about faith, forgiveness, and Holocaust poetry.

My daughter with some kind of Chocoholic’s Blizzard, and myself with a Peanut Butter Bash sundae, we started out talking about  her mission trip to Chicago last year, and how on the way back they stopped for ice cream and she tried a Blizzard. She was hooked.

Then she said, “Hey, mom?” (This phrase usually comes right before something I may or may not be able to answer without a doctorate.)

“Hey, yeah?”

“What do you do when you believe in something…and then you’re not sure if you believe it?”

I contemplated adding one of my pastors to speed dial.

“Can you be a little more specific, kiddo?

“Well…,” she spooned a chunk of brownie from the chocolate ice cream, “how do you forgive someone who’s done something really awful? Like mass murderers. People who have done really terrible things…people who don’t deserve to be in this world.”

Whoa. People who don’t “deserve” to be in this world?

Part of me thought, This child thinks the world is an inherently good place and there are certain people who are damaging it. But “deserve” struck me as harsh coming from someone so young. It would take hours to debate who deserves what and why there are evil people in the world. And good and evil are perceptions. People do awful things because they’re convinced they are right. And people do evil things because they are ill. And others do evil things as an instantaneous reaction. Many shades of gray.

I chose to look past the “deserve” part and get at what she really seemed to be asking: how do you forgive? And what do you do when you believe in forgiveness, but can’t rationalize forgiving someone for something heinous?

Is there a correct answer?

“You can forgive someone because it’s what your heart or faith tells you to do. We’ve learned that we need to forgive someone 70 times 7 times, right?” She nods. “There’s more to it than just forgiving. It helps if the other person seeks forgiveness, and that other person should really want to change or try to do better. Some people are incapable of accepting forgiveness.”

I believe that to be true, but I wasn’t sure I was answering the question. So I went a different route.

“Forgiveness is for you. When you forgive someone for what they’ve done wrong – to you personally – you take back your life. As long as you hold on to the hurt, they will always have control over that part of your life.”

I added, “There’s human forgiveness and divine forgiveness. My take is we should forgive each other in order to heal. And prevenient grace says we’re forgiven by God no matter what…but that doesn’t mean we can just do whatever we want. We need to try to do better, and do the right things.”

She seemed to think about this. I know I was…turning over my own thoughts on faith and forgiveness. I remembered some of Jesus’ final words from the cross: “Father, forgive them. The do not know what they do.”  It reminded me that I’ve been forgiven many times – by God and by people I may have wronged. Knowing that I’m forgiven makes me want to try to “do better.” I might not succeed, but I keep trying.

Part of me is glad that my daughter is not one to follow blindly. She questions, and in my mind, that’s not only okay…that’s good.

Then she said, “There was one day in my world studies class, when we were studying the Holocaust and World War II, and our teacher gave us an unfinished poem that was written inside one of the boxcars of a train that took people to the death camps, and she asked us to finish it…”

The poem was actually written after the Holocaust and not literally inside a boxcar. It’s “written in pencil in the sealed railway car” by Dan Pagis – poet, teacher of medieval Hebrew literature, concentration camp survivor.

here in this carload
I am eve
with abel my son
if you see my older son
cain son of adam
tell him that I

Another translation shows the fifth line as “cain the human being”.

My daughter said, “I finished it to say ‘forgive him’.”

tell him that I forgive him

I’d never heard of this poem before, so my almost-16-year-old taught me something.

Forgiveness isn’t easy. I sat across from my daughter, marveling at how important this concept, this philosophy is to her. I know she’s forgiven plenty, including the boys who bullied her in junior high, and the girls who talk about her behind her back.

Part of me longed for an easy conversation about music or shoe shopping. Yet this person across from me, like many of her friends, are the answers we seek. The peacekeepers and peacemakers. Wisdom doesn’t always come with age. Sometimes it just comes from paying attention. The graduating classes of 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015…they have their work cut out for them. But I think they know more and understand better than many of us ever will. I feel obligated to help them succeed.

What Hope Looks Like

Children Walking on Trail

Image by vastateparksstaff via Flickr

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was on my way to work.  I dropped my daughter off at daycare before the first plane struck. I did not have the radio on in the car, so it was a day like any other as far as I was concerned…sunny and clear and perfect.

I arrived at work in downtown Toledo.  Our receptionist looked pale and upset.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

The upset changed to surprise. “You haven’t heard yet?  You’d better go to the Fishbowl (our glass enclosed conference room). Everyone’s in there.”

I dropped my belongings at my cubicle on my way down the hall, thoughts racing. I feared something had happened to one of my coworkers. It was a small company and we were all pretty close.

Everyone was packed into the conference room, staring at a small color television.  It took a moment for my brain to process what my eyes saw.  Smoke billowed from one of the towers of the World Trade Center.

Someone said a plane had struck the tower.

What a horrible accident, I thought.

Minutes later,  the second plane slipped along the backdrop of blue sky, and disappeared as smoke and flames shot out the windows of the second tower.

No one breathed for a moment. No one could comprehend.

Then…reports of the Pentagon attack…and another plane hijacked. Things became clearer.

We were under attack.

In our corner of the world, sun shone between the buildings with a clear September day taking hold. A few hundred miles away, the lives of thousands had just ended. The lives of thousands more were turning inside out.

I remember Dave, one of my coworkers, was standing next to me in the hall outside the Fishbowl as we watched in disbelief as the first tower fell, followed by the second.

My first thought was, “Oh, my God – the firefighters.” When reports started coming in about the devastation, the loss of life, and the chaos on the ground, my second thought was…

“What the hell kind of a world am I raising a child in?”

My oldest daughter was four when the Towers collapsed, and Flight 93 plowed into a field, and the Pentagon was attacked.  She remembers a bit about that day, and she’s learned more about in the years since.  What I remember most is how she responded to the events.

I sat in the living room of our apartment, watching entirely too much CNN, waiting for someone to rationalize the events of the day away or at least convince us it wasn’t as bad as it looked. Except it WAS as bad as it looked and no one was going to be able to rationalize anything.

My daughter asked, “Mama, what happened? Why are you sad?”

I tried to think of a way to explain this that wasn’t going to frighten her too much or plant seeds of distrust.

I said, “Well…some men stole some airplanes and used them to attack other people. A lot of people died.”

“Why did they do that?”

“I’m not really sure, sweetie. Maybe they just didn’t like us because we don’t think like they do, and rather than try to understand, they decided to fight with us. You know how on the playground two kids might not like each other and they’ll start a fight?  Sometimes it’s easier to fight than to listen. I’m not saying that’s right…it just is.”

She thought about this for a minute, then said, “But why can’t they just hold hands till the bad feelings go away?”

That’s what hope looks like.  That’s why we raise children in this “Post 9/11 World.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” – Matthew 5:9

My youngest, who is eight, has been hearing “9/11…9/11…9/11” all week. She was born nearly two years after and has no understanding of the events of that day. But earlier in the week, we did watch Engineering Ground Zero on Nova, about the construction of the new skyscraper and the memorial at One World Trade Center. I thought Michael Arad’s memorial design – two deep fountains in the footprints of the fallen towers – perfectly symbolized the gallons of tears and sweat poured out in the last ten years.

“Mama, what’s nine-eleven?”

Similar to what I’d said ten years ago, I replied, “Terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York before you were born, and the buildings collapsed. Another plane hit the Pentagon in Washington, and the passengers of a fourth plane were very brave and kept the plane they were in from crashing into another building.”

I waited for the “why?” but instead she asked, “Did a lot of people die?”

“Yes.”

“Like, 40?”

Forty does sound like a lot.

“No, baby. Almost three-thousand.”  My heart hurt to have to say that, to inflict that kind of information on someone so kind-hearted and young.  This is the child who can go anywhere and have a friend within minutes. This is the child who will walk  up to anyone walking a dog and chat them up about the dog’s name and breed. This is the child who says hello to every baby and toddler in the supermarket.

But that’s what hope looks like.

Or as President William Jefferson Clinton once said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured with what is right with America.”

What is right are our children. But they need us to teach them to look at the world with both open hearts and open eyes. We cannot allow ourselves to forget the events of 9/11 because it is a teaching tool for resiliency, sacrifice, and the speed at which life passes. It is a teaching tool for being proactive with life and for loving our neighbor.

On 9/11/2011, it’s hard not to remember smoke and flames and debris and fear. But we can also remember support, encouragement, determination, bravery, solidarity, and the fact that we are still here. So much as changed in ten years, and not all of it for the better. It seems, at times, that we were strongest in our weakest moments.

Where will we be in 2021? What does hope look like? How do we teach our children to learn from our mistakes?