Friday, November 27, 2015

On visiting Lou

Our Thanksgiving visit with Lou made me wish  I'd kept those jeans and made them into a purse, or framed them, instead of giving away to Goodwill years ago. So many regrets. In case you can't read the picture, Lou wrote: Please allow me Teri. I shall never forget how delighted I was to see my Pastor's wife wearing sparkly jeans as she set in front of me at Church that Sunday. You go girl!

On Thanksgiving I had the opportunity to join Bob in visiting a gorgeous lady, Lou, who I’ve written before in a blog post, The Church According to Dirt. It was fun to surprise her, and she mentioned the dirt article almost immediately. Lou looked per usual her glamorous self, her face and hair done up for the holiday. She reminds me of Zsa Zsa Gabor. 
And she also reminds me of the perks of being married to someone who is a professional visitor, and who is really good at it. When I asked Bob if we could go see Lou for Thanksgiving, he knew exactly where and when to go. He has established the relationship so it didn’t seem weird to just drop by. I don’t easily identify myself as "the pastor's wife" but I will admit there are some fine advantages. Lou is an example. For some reason, over the years, she has extended to me an unconditional acceptance that I did not earn and do not deserve.
Visiting Lou is a balm for me, because I’m a worrier. I chronically question, doubt, apologize, and over-think. I'm a habitual lamenter. I have a zillion regrets. (According to author Mary Karr, these are great qualities for a memoirist. According to Jesus, I am constantly forgiven so move on.) Still, my internal capacity to fuss is like the Titanic.
While basking in the presence of Lou, I thought about a blog post scheduled to come out next week (via Living Lutheran), exploring another aspect to being a “pastors wife,” wherein I ruminate about the possibility of being falsely pegged as something other than me. Blah, blah. Already it sounds boring and self-serving, and I apologize in advance to anyone who is kind enough to read it. I’m worried the content of the upcoming post will pale to the beauty that is friendship and love, which for me is by far the norm of my privileged position, if it is a position, which if it is I would denounce anyway, or would I be missing something? I tried to remember what I’d written in that post, wishing I’d taken yet another look at it before I submitted it to my editor. Too scared to actually look up the file to see what I wrote, knowing that it's too late to revise. 
You see what I mean? My interior stew is thick.
But a chat with Lou reminded me of the best antidote to fear and regret: basic human connection. All that other stuff doesn't matter, or at least matters less. I highly recommend the art of visiting. (Talking to myself, here.) 
Sending this out with all best wishes for you and yours.

Natural Born Bleeding Heart

Friday, September 11, 2015

A tale of two boys, Aylan and Aidan

A reflection on two boys, the sons of immigrants and refugees, from the perspective of a mother and a Lutheran. 
Our son, Aidan, is a strapping 16-year-old boy. His hair is thick, brown and curly, his eyes dark and skin olive. We think his swarthy looks come from my side of the family, though his heritage stems from Northern European immigrants (Norwegian, Swede, Scottish, German, and Czech, Bohemian to be exact, according to my mother). I am extremely biased in everyway but Aidan was a beautiful baby, perfect in all the classical ways strangers measure children – cherubic facial structure with big brown eyes like a koala bear. Even now as a skulky 6’1” teenager, he inadvertently maintains a baby face (said his mother).
Six thousand miles to the east, another boy similar in features and name, Aylan, washed up dead on a Turkish beach. At three years old, he drowned with his mother and brother in a desperate attempt to flee by water his war torn homeland Syria. The image of the lifeless child lying in the surf went viral on the Internet and I, like many others, was seared by it. I think it was the boy’s posture that got to me. Aylan’s pre-school body settled in the sand in the same position my son, Aidan, used to sleep, coiled up on his belly, knees bent, posterior up, arms straight to the side, face turned, mouth open.
To see my son’s peaceful child’s pose replicated in another boy’s death scene, a sleeping baby washed up on a beach like a dead fish, was horrifying. 
“No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” wrote Somali poet Warsan Shire in her piece entitled Home. Along with Aylan’s image, this poem also made the internet rounds last week. It is perhaps the most succinct explanation why people migrate. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee (UNHCR)[i] the number of people forced to flee their homes across the world has exceeded 50 million for the first time since WWII. Half the world's refugees are children, many travelling alone or in groups, and often falling prey to human traffickers.[ii]
More than 50 million can feel too abstract, if not for the picture of a single drowned child and Shire’s poem to explain: "no one would leave home/unless home chased you to the shore," that "no one puts their children in a boat/unless the water is safer than the land," that all of this happens when "home is the barrel of the gun."
What are the rest of us do?
Yesterday in church the New Testament lesson came from James 2: “If someone is naked and lacks daily food, you say, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (Paraphrased.) I do not believe in cherry-picking favorite Bible verses but fortunately, our pastor helped us to put the reading in context.
In her sermon she reminded us that Jesus tells us time and again do not be afraid, though we live in a society chronically fearful of scarcity.
Our pastor reminded us that when we help people in need we help Jesus, though other voices warn us there is not enough for all.
Our pastor reminded us that a Christian is obliged to assist the vulnerable (in gratitude only, not to earn favor with God), though some say if someone is needy, it’s their own fault.
Our pastor reminded us that even in this modern day we can “perform miracles” when we work together. As one who has seen the work of our faith-based nonprofit organizations up close, I believe her. Our Lutheran forebears have built robust and reliable infrastructures such as the ELCA World Hunger Appeal, Lutheran Social Services, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, and my former employer of 17 years, Lutheran World Relief. We have the means to assist people across the street and around the world; all we need is the will.
My son Aidan comes from a long line and many strands of migrants – people who packed up and moved for a better life, for more food, for sustainable work. He is the living outcome of his ancestor’s hopes and dreams. The future is his to choose.
Another son, Aylan, who looked and sounded like my Aidan, died a migrant at age three wearing sneakers and shorts. We can be fearful of others like him or we can extend the miracle of Christian hospitality. With upwards of 60 million people in search of home, the future ours to choose.

[i] (source: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,
[ii] (source: The Guardian

Monday, August 24, 2015

21 Day Project - Day 1 - Last Ditch

Is it true that you can break a bad habit if you stop that bad habit for 21 days? I have so many bad habits and still I'm not trying to break any (or at least none that I'd like to mention here), but I would like to start a habit. So I'm wondering if it works the other way: do something for 21 days and it's a habit.

The habit I would like to start is this: writing. Due to the fact that I identify myself as a writer, I feel it is important that I actually write. However I do very little, except for Facebook posts and marketing pieces. Plus, I have also vowed to not write about writing (which I used to do a lot, but no more), so by my own definition this blog post is unacceptable. But for this very one time I'm giving myself a pass because otherwise I could not explain the 21 Day Project. It's a last ditch attempt to awaken my shriveled up creative brain, which used to operate like a monster.

I've been thinking a lot lately about transition, so maybe this is a way to manage change. Not sure. I do believe that writing brings you to places you didn't expect. Not to have too high expectations, but that would be nice.

According to my calendar, the 21 Day Project will end on September 14. (I'm not working on a business calendar.) Anyone else want to join?

See you all here tomorrow, in theory.


Natural Born Bleeding Heart

Friday, August 7, 2015

Running with inevitable

Our Y, like many, has an open floor plan, so the sights and sounds of all the various fitness styles share space. Recently, as I awaited outside the room that would become my Pilates studio in five minutes, a raucous gaggle of children used it as a gymnasium. With fits of laughter, the kiddos were running, skipping, hopping on the same wood floor that would host my "mind/body" class at the top of the hour. Through the glass wall I could see a line of parents on a side bench watching their children and mostly reading their phones. I was once that bored parent, longing to do my own thing. And yet there I was, about to do my own thing and longing to be one of those bored parents.
This isn't my car radio, but if it was the presets
would be one public radio station, 

two classic rock stations, 
and three heavy metal stations.
I've heard Running with the Devil
more in the past six months than in
the previous 30 years.
Meanwhile, from the weightlifting room on the second level blasted Van Halen's "Running with the Devil," instantly taking me back to high school. 
I heard a theory that for parents, life is split into thirds: 1.) pre-children, 2.) children, and 3.) post-children. That moment, awaiting my class, it was a sensory mashup of all three stages. My ears registered Van Halen’s electric running riffs, my eyes focused on the children’s running, and my chest ached  for the transition running me over.
For approximately two minutes, I was suspended in a concurrent trifecta of mothering phases. My current position of freely choosing how to spend an hour because my kids are older. My previous stage of mind-numbing tedium to field their dreams (for which I feel nostalgia, rational or not). And my pre-kid high school stage attending rural keggers with watery beer, late 70s heavy metal, and its own rigid system of social stratification (for which I feel no nostalgia, totally rational).
Nostalgia is not my nature, usually. I’m pretty sure I have "reverse nostalgia" as I’ve heard it called. I miss what I am not going to do, and who I'm not going to meet. However, I admit to being plenty nostalgic in heading back to independent agent after almost two decades of direct motherhood.
Actually, I still kind of like Van Halen and I’ve been hearing a lot more of the likes lately. With 18-year-old daughter mostly gone, 16-year-old son dominates the presets on my car radio, which now consists of one public radio station, two classic rock stations, and three heavy metal stations. Every time we ride together I run three ways: I am transported back to those dreadful farm field keggers, I offer free driving advice, and I think about two years into the future when this kid will be gone too.
I am, however, learning how to quit running it forwards and backwards. I’m learning to turn up the volume and enjoy the music.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The in-between place

Honestly, I thought the transition to sans children would be much more clean cut. I imagined it would go like this:
  1. The kids would leave. 
  2. I'd feel empty (full time job and independent dreams not withstanding). 
  3. I'd sign up for a salsa class. 
  4. It would be over.
A before picture. 

Outlaw Ranch, Custer, South Dakota (Black Hills)
circa 2009

The truth is, the process of transitioning is much more stretched out. Take today, for example.

Today, our 18-year-old is road tripping to Ohio, a ten-hour drive that she's taken many times at this point, twice on her own in her bright blue Toyota that we've named Happy Spaceship (H.S.).

And our 16-year-old is . . . well, he turned sixteen. It's his birthday today so I can officially say my youngest child is 16. He's an older teen, rather than a younger teen or a simple teen or even any kid, and his next stage in life is the 20s, aka, no teen at all. However, we are not officially celebrating his birthday on this exact date because he is working his hourly wage job 'til late into the evening. (Aka family work ethic.)

The truth is Bob and I are parents of children in their deep teen years, but we feel like parents of toddlers. Not that our kids act like babies (they're actually beautifully adult-like), but our parenting mindset is lodged in early childhood, or longs to be. We remember the mayhem like yesterday.

Parenting is whiplash.
How I imagine 
empty nester status.

After a year of daughter-starvation, last year (academic), with Amanda going off to school and keeping so much confidence that we barely heard from her at all, having her home this summer has been positively dreamy. She even talked us into buying family-wide Dave Matthews Band concert tickets. And next up is the Mary Poppins sing-a-long at the local cinema brew pub. How she went from little girl in perpetual temper tantrum to mature family leader, I don't know.

It was only recently that I realized that we (I) probably experienced actual, clinical grief in her departure last fall. True blue, diagnosable grief. Still at this point, Bob and I know she longs to be back at her small private liberal arts school in Central Ohio, and not here with her lil ol fam, thus the weekend road trip. And, the truth of the matter is in several weeks she will be gone again for the year, and probably forever. #whatisgrief? #whatisgrowth?

Bob and I are starkly aware that we have two solid years with our son, Aidan (who is 16 today), and the time drips through us like water.

Our immediate parenting years are almost over. We are now in-between the stages of with and without children. I know that. Our kids mostly don't need us, but they kind of do. I'm trying to figure out how to work with that knowledge, reminding myself that even a self-sufficient 16-year-old boy needs a full time mother. I'm not done yet.


Natural Born Bleeding Heart

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Jobs, from tweendom to fifty two

            If I could have advised my 18-year-old self, I’d have set myself on a path with more reading, writing, traveling, and languages. I’d have studied abroad, or at least studied more. I’d have applied for the Peace Corps. I’d have been a journalist for the BBC, a photographer for National Geographic, a sailor, a musician, a midwife, a chef. In a magical twist, I’d have personally raised my children, and started a business. I’d have spent more time with my three brothers and interviewed my grandparents. 
But what 18-year-old listens to a 52-year-old? Not me. (By the way, I’d have also sought more reliable mentors.) Apparently, I learn by following the very next step I see, however small, however regretful. The strategic plan of two inches ahead.
My education was born blue-collar, from a family who can fix, shift, drive, grow, fly, build, heat, cool, plumb, drain, install, replant, operate, renovate, generate, alleviate, overhaul, jerry rig, electrify and pretty much make something from anything. For example my three brothers all constructed their own houses from the ground up (two of them with their own labor) while also working full time and raising kids, working early mornings into late nights. You get used to working those hours.
If you ever needed to pick someone to be with stranded alone on an island, pick anyone in my family of origin but me. I’m the oddball out in the handy department with a 25 percent success rate in turning on the TV. But dayam, I can type. I bet I could keep up with any of those lower rung secretaries on Mad Men[i].
I’ve actually had a couple of similar jobs, one office located on Park Avenue South in Manhattan, which runs parallel to Madison Avenue, the setting for Mad Men. I had another clerical position, phones and filing to be exact, in a far-flung neighborhood in upper Queens (not the setting for Mad Men). Both were temp jobs. I was fortunate in that both wanted to hire me for good, but I could only pick one. See what I mean? I have the soul of a secretary. (The white collar version of blue collar.) I commuted for six solid years in the NYC subways, thoroughly exhausted in the end, but also knowing that millions of people do it their whole life.
My DNA is working class through and through, thus I measure myself by my labor – how much and how hard. Whenever I change jobs I get philosophical, and with an employment transition at hand, I felt compelled to list all the jobs I’ve ever had. A complete catalogue of all the paid positions, in order, from tweendom to fiftysomething, in as much as I can remember, follows:
short order waitress
gymnastics teacher
short order cook
agricultural rock picker
dinner waitress
short order cook
resident assistant
camp baker
publicity assistant
camp counselor
fast food cashier
legislative intern
fast food cashier
fast food grill worker
cocktail waitress
camp cook
bistro waitress[iv]
cafeteria dishwasher
dinner waitress[v]
church youth director
substitute teacher
senior citizen bingo caller
ice cream server
gymnastics coach
reading tutor
summer program director
environmental education director[vi]
warehouse receptionist
administrative assistant[vii]
communication associate
speakers bureau and study tour coordinator
global education manager
summer arts camp coordinator
adjunct English instructor
freelance writer
communications manager/office manager
grant specialist[viii]
director for communications and marketing[ix]

Please note that this does not reflect how many times I’ve revised my resume, applied for a job, checked job boards, scheduled a networking meeting, and interviewed. I used to keep count, but I lost track. Sometimes I wonder how things would have worked out had I been brainier in my approach to work, as per first paragraph. But how does one do that? All I know is to look for the next step (often taking years to discern) and move forward, even if by minutia standards.
I used to think work was all about hours and sweat. And I’m embarrassed to admit that when I transitioned into the white-collar realm and saw how other people got there, I resented my peers who took a smarter approach, those who had a plan. The irony of my envy, of course, is that my lovely daughter now fits the profile of the person I used to begrudge: the pastor’s daughter, no God issues, no class issues, no man issues, no confidence issues, access to private school, entrée to perceived big thinking, blah, blah. (Hopefully I didn’t inadvertently push my daughter into my former dream.) While I love both her and her opportunities, I’m not proud to admit that I’ve been jealous of my contemporaries who did the same. It was a grass is greener kind of thing. 
As my favorite author Mary Karr said: “ . . . don't make the mistake of comparing your twisted up insides to other people's blow dried outsides. The most privileged person . . . suffers the torments of the damned just going about the business of being human.” (Mary Karr commencement speech, 2015, Syracuse University.)
I like to imagine that I muscled my way through, the hard way, but of course the reality is I got by with a lot of help from my friends and family. But for the 1970-something green Buick my parents bought me for a high school graduation gift (my mother even rigged up a giant red bow to put on top of the car), I’d have been hard pressed to actually transport myself to college and to all my adventures in South Dakota. I depended on that car for four years, up until student teaching when another car made an illegal left turn and totaled it.
Some people get reflective when they’ve changed boyfriends or husbands or cars or cities. I get contemplative when I change jobs. It’s my working class DNA. Or maybe it’s my white-collar insides trying to fit into my blue-collar outsides. (Wait, is my blue-collar on the inside or outside? Confused.) I want my job transitions to mean something. Hourly wage philosopher. Time clock theologian. I’m the one who can get the job done on time under budget, and then deconstruct it for the following decade.
It’s probably also ironic to note that in my failed student teaching semester, part of my job was to teach the novel “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair to a high school social studies class in suburban South Dakota (yeah, that exists), about the meat packing plants of the early 1900s and how their horrors led to the labor unions in the U.S. (Resulting in, say, bathroom breaks, weekends, paid days off, child labor restrictions, fingerless ground beef, etc.) I should re-read that book, in my 30-year-older skin. While, I’m not sure of the impact that book had on my students, I know it left a deep impression on me, the student teacher, the one who would never go on to a full-fledged teaching career because of her negative review from the supervising teacher (note to self: choose mentors carefully). Who cares about a bad eval? I still list teacher on my LinkedIn profile, in the spirit of calling yourself what you want to be.
Maybe my doomed teaching career was karma for all the people to whom I’ve been despicable, before and since. If so, well deserved. (P.S. I don’t believe in karma, which is the opposite of grace, except for myself. Working on it.)
Speaking of, my husband has suffered much for my angst of the so-called career. The first thing I did when I got the new job at hand, was call Bob to thank him because it hasn’t been easy for this man. I am forever thinking and plotting and planning and wondering about what my next two inches of movement will look like, since I can’t feasibly retire which is what I’d truly like to do. Volunteer. Travel. Write. Hike. Help people. I’m pretty sure my so-called vocation is to be on perpetual vacation. (I say so-called vocation because I’m not sure I believe in it, either. For another blog post.)
Bob is awesome.
So, I guess this is my very long-winded way of saying that I have a new job, and that I’m so very grateful to all the people who held me up along the way. There are so many. And even at my age, I plan to work my eyeballs out to meet and exceed the job goals. I will tie my personal worth to the values of my employer. Because I’m blue collar at heart. And a bleeding heart to the core.

[i] For a while, I couldn’t watch Mad Men because each female character on the show pushed one of my insecurity buttons. A mini onset of PTSD came with each drama episode. But I’m over that. Now I can watch Peggy, Joan, Betty, and the others as an objective observer, even an admirer, rather than a direct participant or possibly, as a victim. Yay me.

[ii] This job entailed cleaning the floor bathrooms during the weekend in a boys’ dorm facility at the University of South Dakota, where I was a student. I wasn’t very imaginative with my employment choices at the time. A friend told me about the position and I thought, why not? I was advised to clean very early, like 4 a.m., to avoid running into college boys needing to pee or shower. This time frame mostly worked, but I found that this was also the hour where college boys needed the bathroom to puke after partying the night before. My mother recently reminded me about this position.

[iii] To be clear this was actually a second janitorial job, cleaning an off-campus county extension building. I think I got this position through the same person who referred me to the bathroom cleaning career path. As I look back, this must be the point where my networking skills really took off.

[iv] Yes, they called themselves a bistro, 1985, Vermillion, SD. They decorated with old movie pictures from the 40s as a nod to a more glamorous time. This job was where I learned the old adage: if they can’t pay you, quit immediately. Just because they say they’ll pay you next week, and could you please work a big drunken party for their friends, and truly, you will get paid after the party, seriously, don’t do it. Leave immediately. Keep hounding them for your paycheck. Get another job. At this point, I was in grad school, and my one and only other co-worker was a high school boy, the cook. We spent a lot of time together, and honestly, he was probably my best friend, seeing that all my college friends had left town, properly graduated and all. Together we tried to understand the news reports about HIV/AIDs, which had just started to be a big deal in the mid 80s. I remember that he invited me to his spring prom. At once, I was insulted and flattered. He had red hair and a football player physique. He was actually pretty cute and was definitely thoughtful for his age, probably a reader. I can still see the crushed look on his face due to the speed for which I said no to his prom invite. It was out of the question. I had to save what little pride I had left. At age 22 and a grad student, I couldn’t possibly attend a high school prom (which I didn’t do even when I myself had been in high school). But I’m pretty sure he was being sincere in his asking, as we were sincerely friends, an odd-ball couple spending a lot of time together in that stupid, tragic bistro with no customers. I’m pretty sure he didn’t get his last few paychecks either. When the place shut down, the day after the drunken party, we were never in contact again.

[v] I’ve blogged about this position. It’s here.

[vi]This position was at Outlaw Ranch in Custer, South Dakota, nestled in the ponderosa pine in the southern Black Hills. It’s the job for which I was least prepared, and most miss.  This was my job when I met Bob (who was there for a conference). He thought I was cool. But then he learned the truth about me.

[vii] I worked for Dr. Worm and I’m not making that up. It was the perfect case of name matching personality. The office was on the Avenue of Americas, a fairly nice building on a pretty depressed street in southern Manhattan but not quite in the financial district, like it was trying too hard to be fancy. Dr. Worm was an upper echelon dentist who provided executive health care consultation to the political higher ups for the entire state of New York, according to her. I lasted one and a half days in that office, walking out for lunch on day two and taking the first train back to Brooklyn in the non-rush hour of midday. With my die-hard working class ethic, I’d certainly never done that before. And I’ve not walked out on a job since. (Whoa nelly, I’ve wanted to.) Dr. Worm was so mad at me. She and her paid head-hunter kept leaving me angry voice mail messages saying I’d never work in New York City again. They thought since I was a naive Midwestern girl I’d easily accept an abusive boss style, which was partially true but in Dr. Worm’s case, not true at all. They didn’t know that I’d rather waitress or clean toilets.

They also didn’t know that on the very day I walked out of that office, I came home to a message from Ann Fries, the human resource director for Lutheran World Relief, where I would go on to work for 17 years in five cities (eight years in the office and eight telecommuting). Apparently, Ann Fries was the one person in NYC who had not received my blackball notification. (Ann and I are still friends to this day, and I love her much. My initial connection with Ann came with thanks to my lovely and ever so networked, sister-in-law, Lorraine.) To Dr. Worm and her paid head-hunter I say: Na, na, na, na, na.  If I could make it in New York, anyone can make it anywhere.

[viii] Departing with much gratitude for my fantastic colleagues.

[ix] Thrilled and humbled.