Sunday, September 11, 2016

Ground Zero: Why I’m not Afraid


One of the reasons I’m not afraid of “terror” is because I lived and worked a half a mile away from the site of the biggest attack in the history of the world, according to many estimations, the site formerly known as the twin towers and now known as where the World Trade Center (the two towers) used to be, ground zero, a patch of land with a footprint of two huge square city blocks in southern Manhattan.
Like millions of others, I could see the towers from where I lived in Brooklyn and I passed through them towers twice daily on the R train of the Metro Transit Authority, commuting from Sunset Park and Bay Ridge Brooklyn to my job in Midtown Manhattan, on the eighth floor of an office tower next to the New York Life building, recognizable by the gleaming gold-plated peak in the skyline. I commuted in this way for six years and it wears me out still to think about it. It is a grinding 45 minute subway ride, to travel about three miles or so, I’m not even sure. Add to that the walk to the train station on either end of the trip. My commuting years were pre-smart phone years and I read a lot of books during those hours to pass away the monotony. (That part I miss.)
I am not afraid of anywhere in the world for the same reason I’m not afraid of New York City: because of the beautiful people who live there. I visit NYC as much as possible, and would go more if I could. My inlaws, friends, former coworkers, neighbors and are still there. And my husband Bob speaks the pattern heard on the news radio each year the 911 remembrances come up: the animated wool sweater vocal tone of a Brooklynite.
At 9 a.m. on September 11, 2001, I was meeting with my boss via telephone from an office in St. Paul, Minnesota. My boss was in an office in Baltimore, where my employer had relocated after almost 50 years in Manhattan. When Bob decided to go to seminary in St. Paul, we moved across the country in my dad’s semi trailer, car and all, and I started what would be eight years of telecommuting the same job. (Following two years in Baltimore and six years in New York City. Don’t worry about all those numbers.)  
As part of the telecommuting plan, my boss and I chatted by telephone each Monday morning to review the week. My Minnesota window showed the same clear blue September sky as we see over and over in the televised replays of that morning. During the call we mentioned the plane that ran into the tower, both of us imagining a small engine and dismissing it as a minor accident. A few minutes later, a colleague in Baltimore rushed into my boss’s office to say a plane headed to the Pentagon had gone down in Pennsylvania. That’s when we decided to end the conversation and pay attention.
I left my office to find Bob from class, and we watched the towers collapse on live TV in the student TV room in Bockman Hall, along with a roomful of other people. 911 was a lot of things to a lot of people, but to us it was like our backyard had been bombed and no one knew it. I wanted to shout, “We’re from there!” “We know those people!” “This is not just a global incident, this is my husband’s hometown!”
When I moved to Brooklyn, I realized that people had no idea where Minnesota was. Likewise, when I moved back to Minnesota, I realized that people did not know the geography of Brooklyn, New York. Parts of Brooklyn are closer to ground zero that most of Manhattan. My inlaws were in 911. They watched it. They walked home. They dealt with the aftermath. All those brave first responders who walked into the burning towers to save people, only to perish themselves, were the people my inlaws grew up with. Brooklyn, New York, is like a series of small towns and everyone is incredibly loyal to one another. It’s not so different from other places where friends and family love one another.
Ironically, a group of travelers from Trinity Lutheran Church on 45th Street in Brooklyn, Bob’s home congregation, happened to be in Minnesota when 911 hit. They had come in part to see Bob and wish him well in his first semester of seminary, and also to see their retired pastor who then lived in Minneapolis, Bob’s mentor, another Bob by the name of Nervig. Bob Nervig had set up a lovely itinerary to show the church group the sites of the Twin Cities and show them a good time.
The group had no idea they’d be stuck in the Midwest due to airport closures. But even as the facts took days and weeks to unfold, they pretty much knew immediately that the president of the church council had perished, as he worked at Marsh & McLennan, situated to take a direct hit from the first plane. I remember us all sitting stunned together in the chapel of Luther Seminary, the group from Trinity, Bob Nervig, my Bob, me, and a cavernous room full of others. We were shocked of course, as everyone was, and they were all wondering when they would be able to get home.
The chapel was full that day and I remember being bothered by the fact that no one else knew that this group from Brooklyn was suffering so directly. I felt like they needed some sort of special recognition or accommodation, even though everyone was confused and feeling the hit. Silly on my part, I know. You can’t parse anguish. It’s all relevant.
Of course this brings to bear the truth of all strangers – no one knows from where they come and what they’ve experienced, unless you take the time to listen and understand.
When 911 happened I worked at an international aid organization, and I was surprised by the condolences that came from so many people from seemingly scary places around the world. Kenya. Tanzania. Rwanda. India. Bangladesh. Niger. Peru. Indonesia. El Salvador. The Philippines. Plus, we had also just moved into family housing at the seminary and were living next to actual humans from many of these same places. I realized that all of these people knew what 911 was doing to us because physical insecurity was a daily reality for them. 911 shocked us, but not them. For many others in the world, it was another attack in a long line of attacks.
I was never afraid when I traveled to such places for my work and I was never afraid to live in New York City. It wasn’t because the danger didn’t exist, it was because the people around me were so decent and brave and determined to protect me. That remains my world view.  
This past summer the youth group from our church, St. John’s Lutheran in Des Moines, Iowa, traveled to Brooklyn, New York to join Salaam Lutheran Church in putting on a summer vacation Bible school for the children. The children were mostly immigrants and refugees from Arabic speaking countries who had fled for safety with their families. Fear is relative. While other groups from the Midwest had canceled their trip to New York because of fear, these kiddos had come to New York for safety. Our kids from Iowa (including our son and Bob, who helped with logistics) had an amazing week and learned for themselves why they shouldn’t be afraid: because of the people. Honestly, I felt sad I couldn’t be with them but I am on to another job with it’s own set of commitments. Couldn’t take the time off. But during that trip Bob got to see his 86 year old mother every night, a great lady who worried for our daughter who was spending time in Paris. “It’s so dangerous there now,” my mother-in-said.
In the days that followed 911 Bob and I indulged in the 24-7 television coverage. With our own kids away in day care and kindergarten we sat in our apartment and watched the footage over and over again. The planes hitting. The smoke. The crumbling. I had nightmares of the people jumping out of the skyscrapers holding hands to their death. We wished we were there and felt jealous of the “mission trip” that would go there from the seminary without us. Felt like we should be leading those trips, or at least joining them. I had to remind myself that 911 didn’t just happen to us.
After a few days I decided to stop watching TV to preserve my own sense of reality. I had to get those images of death and destruction out of my head. I quit TV. Yet, I think by far the saddest outcome of 911 is that some have watched the fear-mongering TV for 15 years straight. As a country, we have swallowed the fear. We have internalized the hate. We have bought the idea that there is an “us” and a “them.” I for one do not.

A few weeks after 911 our neighbors down the hall, students from Norway, invited a group of us to dinner and drinks in their apartment. They first asked if it would be respectful to have a party when we were all mourning. We all said yes and squished together for food and friendship, laughter and jokes. Our hosts played music on their piano, which we bought from them before they returned to Norway. Being together felt so good. 
That is my ground zero take-away: I am not afraid. Why? Because of the beautiful people.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

I'm not finished

Written two years ago, 2014. I write this stuff but don't know where to put it. Just found it again. For the record I'm in a different and better place now, fortunately. Thanks y'all!

I'm not finished

by Terri Mork Speirs

Recently we moved our son’s bedroom to the basement, two floors down.
For all of his previous 15 years, he had been sleeping in a room immediately next to us, my husband Bob and me. Five homes and four cities, but always in a room next to us. Now the boy is two flights of stairs away, in a room with a futon, a TV, an egress window, and a single bed that barely fits his brawny six-foot frame. (Really? Did I just use the word “brawny” to describe my child?) The room has new dry wall and a shag area rug on a freshly painted cement floor, thanks to Bob who has been painstakingly rehabbing the basement after the flood seven years ago, when our son was in second grade. The completion of that room coincided with our son’s launch into a more independent stage of life, a full-fledged teenager. Fifteen.
The move signaled his transition from a baby-faced cherub to a six-foot creature. His boyhood slip sliding to manhood. Thus, my motherhood slip sliding to . . . where?
The first Saturday morning my son emerged from his basement cave, unapologetic bedhead and basketball shorts, I marveled at this lumbering man-child and that I was his mother. My kid could easily be mistaken for an adult, I realized. Ambling into the kitchen, his bare legs seemed an act of rebellion because it was November and the house was cold. We live in an old four-square farm house in an Iowa suburb. Winters are cold here, inside and out. For some reason the heat vents in the lower level work best, maybe because they are newer, and my son’s room is the most temperate in the house. His basketball shorts were not rebellion, but another indicator that my son has moved somewhere else. He’s in the warm part of the house, I’m in the cold part.
I thought of the boys I knew in my childhood – uncles, brothers, friends’ brothers – boys who lived in basements with painted cement for flooring, and how exotically male they seemed to me as a young girl. They were ready for something that I was not, I thought. They were ready to be grown up, or at least look the part. To accept a bedroom in the basement with a painted floor equated maturity to live in a nether world, the adult world. But now we have our very own painted-cement-floored bedroom, accommodating our very own man-child.
Finally, I see through the mysteries of male hood and teen boys. 
My son favors fruit loops for breakfast. And he likes chocolate milk. To him, his new room is a pseudo apartment that needs a mini-fridge. To me, it’s a bribe to leverage. He asserts liberation. I assert power.
“You join drama club, I’ll buy you a mini-fridge,” I offer. So far, no deal. Mostly, he prefers to skateboard with his friends and hibernate in his new subterranean space. He keeps it simple, no drama, though he does participate in the church bell choir. Not sure if that’s for the sake of joy or to please his parents.
My son’s move downstairs was part of a greater shift in our family. In a matter of weeks, we transitioned from a family of four to a family of one (two equals one when schedules are off). Our singular nuclear family, perfectly symmetrical in gender and number, has divided into distant parts.
My son (subject of this story, teenager ground zero).
My daughter (off to frosh year of college).
My husband (doing his thing).
Me (undecided).
Before this atomic split occurred, the upper bathroom/bedroom cluster of our old farmhouse teamed with toothbrushes and schedules competing for the sole shower. Now, one child is four states away, the other is two staircases away.
It’s quiet.
Suddenly, Bob and I are stuck in a small wedge between parenthood and freedom, finding it difficult to enjoy either. When we lean into parenthood, our only son spends the night at a friend’s house or disappears downstairs. When we consider renewing our dating life, we think of our son home alone and can’t enjoy a night out. 
As for me, I am stuck in the middle of motherhood and a sort of quasi post-motherhood, post-modern motherhood, post-haste motherhood, post-mortem motherhood. Where am I? I can’t think of a name to call it. What do you call it when you’ve felt like a harried working-mother for 18 years and all of a sudden, you are no longer harried? It went from harried to this (whatever I end up calling “this”), with no in between time. Harried motherhood shown brightly but burned out fast, like a sparkler on the Fourth of July. Burned erratically, then darkened.
Where do clever children’s toys go after purchase? They’re crammed everywhere possible -- under beds, in dresser drawers, on top of book shelves, behind closet doors. Pok√©mon cards, baseball hats, stuffed animals, erector sets, legos, matchbox cars, mountains of clothes that no longer fit. The move downstairs involved sorting all my son’s things into two categories: what he wanted and what he didn’t. Big-boy things made the cut to new teen room, and little-boy things stacked in random piles of junk. Besides bonking myself on the side of my head for buying all that stuff throughout the years, I got a bit sentimental.
“You had a good boyhood, right?” I asked, realizing it was presumptuous of me. What a stupid question to ask a polite son.
“Yes, it was good.” That’s all he said.
My son’s childhood is over. This stage of motherhood is done.

But I’m not finished.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The best and last time I taught 1919

There are voices out there saying that Hillary supporters only like her because she's a woman. Not because of her policies, accomplishments, smarts or service.

I've never met one single Hillary supporter who will vote for her only because she's a woman, and I caucused for Hillary. Where are these people?

I for one have a list of women I'd never vote for -- not because they are women, but because they're dangerous or incoherent. However I think they should be heard, no matter my disagreement with their political standpoints.

My student teaching experience was such a disaster (according to my supervising teacher) that I never went into classroom education, even though to this day I long to teach. (Didn't occur to me to redo student teaching, and my professors forgot to suggest it.) But I had one glorious lesson that I believe was a mic drop moment in my short-lived teaching career. It was a high school American history class in Harrisburg, South Dakota.

My class was exploring the early 1900s and one day I decided to riff on the famous blue eyes / brown eyes class lesson that had been developed by an Iowa teacher Jane Elliott in the 60s to teach about discrimination (see it for yourself: https://youtu.be/-pv8mCHbOrs).

In my classroom I had the girls sit on one side and the boys on the other. This didn't seem strange to the students because movement in the classroom was my teaching style. (Which drove crazy my supervising teacher and thus, presumably, one of the reasons he made sure I would never teach.)

Standing in front of the classroom as the teacher, I turned my body to the boys side of the room and engaged them only, completely ignoring the girls. My lessons tended to be interactive but when the girls raised their hands I did not call on them. I didn't look at them. As the hour moved on, some girls got frustrated, raising their arms higher and higher. Others gave up and looked down at their desks.

The boys and I continued to discuss the lesson and I gave them a lot of feedback on their points.

"Miss Mork why aren't you calling on the girls," one boy said, finally. Ironically, the only boy who saw through the bullshit was the very kid who gave me the most disciplinary problems throughout my student teaching experience. (He was the kid who noticed my beat up old car in the parking lot: "Miss Mork, you drive a reservation racer." A nod to the very real state of racism in the state of South Dakota.)

"That's beside the point," I responded, ignoring his response too, and kept moving forward with my questions and activities. He fumed.

The other boys didn't notice that I wasn't calling on the girls.

I was determined to not engage any of the girls until the final minute of the class, and I remember tension building. The trouble-maker-boy kept challenging me, getting more and more agitated at my behavior. (My opinion of him raised considerably after that lesson. I realized he had a superb crap detector.) The girls were shuffling in their desks, not knowing what to make of it, but sadly, mostly remained quiet. The other boys were pretty much oblivious, and were model students in terms of engaging positively with my activities of the day. They didn't know they were being played. No one did.

I held out this way until the last few minutes of the class, when I wrote big on the blackboard:

1919

I turned my body to address the whole class and said, in 1919 women gained the right to vote through the ratification of the 19th amendment.

That's all I said. Class dismissed. Everyone left in silence, as I remember. It worked. They got it. If nothing else, I got it. (If I could teach it again, I'd leave more time to process the experience, giving the girls plenty of time to comment. If I could teach it again, I'd ask one of the girls to state the significance of 1919.) That date is emblazoned on my brain. It was the first, best and last time I ever taught that lesson. My supervising teacher had been planning his class reunion in the library and he did not witness my victory.

In fact, my supervising teacher ended up changing the course of my life by writing up a negative evaluation of my 5-month long student teaching performance. As such I ended up working in other sectors, including with an international development agency for 17 years. In those years another lesson branded me: women and girls represent 70 percent of the world's poverty and crime victims, yet have the least access to resources. And when women and girls advance, everyone does. It's not either/or. It's not men v. women. It's a matter of everyone having equal opportunity. A partner we worked with in India was known to have said: "The glory of God is men and women working together."

Having a women presidential candidate is not in and of itself advancing equal opportunity, even though it's historic. It is merely an indicator of equal opportunity. What matters is having the right presidential candidate who is dedicated to equal opportunity policies. Iowa made history last year by sending the first woman (Joni Ernst) to Washington as part of our congressional delegation. Historic, yes. The right choice, no, in my opinion. I didn't vote for her, and I will not vote for her in the future. And I'm not, no-voting for Joni Ernst because she's a woman, in the same way I'm not yes-voting for Hillary because she's a woman. My opinions are based on policies.

If I could present a part two of my famous 1919 history lesson (famous to me), I'd present this video which apparently did not make the democratic convention agenda, but is making the rounds on social media. I wouldn't show it as an overt partisan pandering -- but for the depiction of how important it is to support girls and women around the world.

Wish it went even deeper because equality is the key to our national security. You could say this: when women and girls advance, there is less poverty and less extremism, less terrorism. When women and girls advance, everyone advances.

Women have sons and girls have fathers. Our very survival depends on equal treatment of everyone.

Please watch this video, no matter your politics. Don't boo, vote. (Quoting President Obama.)

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Terri Mork Speirs


 

The best and last time I taught 1919

Some say Hillary supporters like her only because she's a woman. Not because of her policies, accomplishments, smarts or service.

I've never met one single Hillary supporter who will vote for her only because she's a woman, and I caucused for Hillary. Where are these people?

I for one have a list of women I'd never vote for -- not because they are women, but because their policies are dangerous or incoherent. However I think they should be heard, no matter my disagreement with their political standpoints.

My student teaching experience was such a disaster (according to my supervising teacher) that I never went into classroom education, even though to this day I long to teach. (Didn't occur to me to redo student teaching, and my professors forgot to suggest it.) But I had one glorious lesson that I believe was a mic drop moment in my short-lived teaching career. It was a high school American history class in Harrisburg, South Dakota.

My class was exploring the early 1900s and one day I decided to riff on the famous blue eyes / brown eyes class lesson that had been developed by an Iowa teacher Jane Elliott in the 60s to teach about discrimination (see it for yourself: https://youtu.be/-pv8mCHbOrs).

In my classroom I had the girls sit on one side and the boys on the other. This didn't seem strange to the students because movement in the classroom was my teaching style. (Which drove crazy my supervising teacher and thus, presumably, one of the reasons he made sure I would never teach.)

Standing in front of the classroom as the teacher, I turned my body to the boys side of the room and engaged them only, completely ignoring the girls. My lessons tended to be interactive but when the girls raised their hands I did not call on them. I didn't look at them. As the hour moved on, some girls got frustrated, raising their arms higher and higher. Others gave up and looked down at their desks.

The boys and I continued to discuss the lesson and I gave them a lot of feedback on their points.

"Miss Mork why aren't you calling on the girls," one boy said, finally. Ironically, the only boy who saw through the bullshit was the very kid who gave me the most disciplinary problems throughout my student teaching experience. (He was the kid who noticed my beat up old car in the parking lot and called it a "reservation racer," a nod to the very real state of racism in the state of South Dakota.)

I ignored his challenge too. "That's beside the point," I said, and kept moving forward with my questions and activities. He fumed.

The other boys didn't notice that I wasn't calling on the girls.

I was determined to not engage any of the girls until the final minute of the class, and I remember tension building. The trouble-maker-boy kept challenging me, getting more and more agitated at my behavior. (My opinion of him raised considerably after that lesson. I realized he had a superb crap detector.) The girls were shuffling in their desks, not knowing what to make of it, but sadly, mostly remained quiet. The other boys were pretty much oblivious, and were model students in terms of engaging positively with my activities of the day. They didn't know they were being played. No one did.

I held out this way until the last few minutes of the class, when I wrote big on the blackboard:

1919

I turned my body to address the whole class and said: in 1919 women gained the right to vote through the ratification of the 19th amendment.

That's all. Class dismissed. Everyone left in silence, as I remember. It worked. They got it. If nothing else, I got it. That date is emblazoned on my brain. It was the best and last time I ever taught that lesson. My supervising teacher had been planning his class reunion in the library and he did not witness my victory.

In fact, my supervising teacher ended up changing the course of my life by writing up a negative evaluation of my 5-month long student teaching performance. As such I ended up working in other sectors, including with an international development agency for 17 years. In those years another lesson branded me: women and girls represent 70 percent of the world's poor and crime victims, yet have the least access to resources. And when women and girls advance, everyone does. It's not either/or. It's not men v. women. It's a matter of everyone having equal opportunity. A partner we worked with in India was known to have said: "The glory of God is men and women working together."

Having a women presidential candidate is not in and of itself advancing equal opportunity, even though it's historic. It is merely an indicator of equal opportunity. What matters is having the right presidential candidate who is dedicated to equal opportunity policies. Iowa made history last year by sending the first woman (Joni Ernst) to Washington as part of our congressional delegation. Historic, yes. The right choice, no, in my opinion. I didn't vote for her, and I will not vote for her in the future. And I'm not, no-voting for Joni Ernst because she's a woman, in the same way I'm not yes-voting for Hillary because she's a woman. My opinions are based on policies.

If I could present a part two of my famous 1919 history lesson (famous to me), I'd present this video which apparently did not make the democratic convention agenda, but is making the rounds on social media. I wouldn't show it as an overt partisan pandering -- but for the depiction of how important it is to support girls and women around the world.

Wish it went even deeper because equality is the key to our national security. You could say this: when women and girls advance, there is less poverty and less extremism, less terrorism. When women and girls advance, everyone advances.

Women have sons and girls have fathers. Our very survival depends on equal treatment of everyone.

Please watch this video, no matter your politics. Don't boo, vote. (Quoting President Obama.)

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Terri Mork Speirs


 

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Dedicated to my brother, Trey (first posted August 2014)

The Little Fish That Could

by Terri Mork Speirs

He was a father on limited time. His son was a boy explorer. The fish they caught together let loose infinite potential. 
First, let me set the scene.
It was a Saturday in July.  The extended family and I were at the lake. The air was humid, buggy, and slightly rainy so we spent most of the afternoon sitting inside a netted patio. Insects aside, it was a glorious time together as we don’t often enjoy opportunities to see each other. 
The lake was a quiet body of water, more so that day due to the overcast skies. No speed boats, jet skies, canoes, or kayaks. Our campsite, though completely modern with electricity and running water, was surrounded by an undeveloped state park. Thus, it was just us. Family, food, drink, alongside a pristine panorama of water, sky, and tremendously thick tree growth. Who cared about the relentless gnats outside our the netting? We had a good working flush-toilet and we were together.
As grand as it was, we were about to witness something even better. Something that could have fizzled into nothing, could have escalated into disappointment, could have never happened at all. That something was pretty simple: a boy wanted to fish and his father complied. The boy was my eight-year-old nephew, a outdoorsy ruffian who showed me his nature finds throughout the weekend, things like turtle eggs and a fossilized skull. The father was one of my three brothers, a man who shares custody of his children and makes every minute count.
Overall we were not so much a fishing family, but knowing the boy (my nephew) enjoyed this activity, the father (my brother) had packed two poles and simple gear for the weekend. There was bait next to the beer in the fridge. Father and son pitched their strings at the end of the dock and waited, flying pests and moody clouds notwithstanding, the rest of us still taking refuge inside the netting. The rain grew harder.
“We can fish on the paddle boat,” the boy suggested. The watercraft had a sun cover and to him, it could function as an umbrella. As a parent, I’d have called it quits at that point. (Actually, I don’t fish so I wouldn’t have even made it as far as the poles and the dock.) But the father followed his son and out they went in the rain on a paddleboat with two fishing poles.
If you could pick up a pencil and draw a classically formed fish, simple lines, fan-shaped tail-fin, curved topside arching into a pointed head with bulging black eyes — that’s what they caught together. The gilled creature was about the size of a large human jazz hand, a little fish with big possibilities. I don’t know who caught it, the boy or his father, but it didn’t matter. They caught it together. It was mission accomplished, rain or shine, gnats or no.
Next came the filleting. With a kitchen knife and a cutting board, the boy and his father stood in the rain on the dock and sliced the fish open, trimming away the morsel of meat. The truth was, the father didn’t know how to fillet a fish but he cut away the best he could. The boy watched intently. Meanwhile, those of us hiding in the netted shelter kept hollering for them to make sure the guts were disposed far away from the campsite. The boy took care of that part.
For me, the most magical moment of the story came next.
Holding up the small white fillet with his little rascal fingers, the boy asked his father: “Do we eat now or do we cook it?” It was the most earnestly asked question I’d ever heard. And there were so many potential answers. There could have been laughter, embarrassing the boy for his curiosity. There could have been mockery, poking fun at the boy’s innocence. There could have been deceit, telling the boy to go ahead and eat the raw fish flesh. 
There are so many choices when it comes to how we relate to children. As adults, we have the power. We may choose to engage or ignore. We may choose to talk straightly or sarcastically. We may choose to care or neglect. We may choose to empower or abuse. 
Children and fish figure into our public choices as well, as presently there are up to 80,000 unaccompanied minors from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico being held in detention (a nicer word for jail) in the U.S. These children are, in essence, asking the questions and we have many answers from which to choose. 
As Christians, we are informed by Jesus’ call to believe that when we give there will always be enough for all, as described in the parable of the feeding of 5,000 people (not counting women and children) with just two fish and five loaves of bread. 
As Lutherans, we behold a robust infrastructure of social service agencies with decades of proven experience to care for foster, immigrant, and refugee children.
As citizens of the U.S., the richest country in human history, we are more wealthy than we can imagine. (My definition of wealth is this: if you reliable and private sanitation, you’re rich.) We have resources.
Choices abound.
Holding up the humble piece of floppy fish flesh, the boy (my nephew) waited for his father (my brother) to answer to his question. Should he eat it raw or cook it first? As an innocent child, he’d do whatever his father told him.
“We will cook it first,” the father said. No frills language, just an answer. And they did. The boy stood in front of the grill with a spatula, meticulously turning the fillet over and over the hot irons. His sincerity was palpable. He cooked it real good, flipping and flipping again, loosing a flake here and there to the fire. I was pretty glad I didn’t have to eat it, but they placed what was left of the blackened fillet in between slices of bread and sat down at a picnic table. 

The boy and his father feasted together. ~ 
The Little Fish That Could

dedicated to my brother, Trey

by Terri Mork Speirs

He was a father on limited time. His son was a boy explorer. The fish they caught together let loose infinite potential. 
First, let me set the scene.
It was a Saturday in July.  The extended family and I were at the lake. The air was humid, buggy, and slightly rainy so we spent most of the afternoon sitting inside a netted patio. Insects aside, it was a glorious time together as we don’t often enjoy opportunities to see each other. 
The lake was a quiet body of water, more so that day due to the overcast skies. No speed boats, jet skies, canoes, or kayaks. Our campsite, though completely modern with electricity and running water, was surrounded by an undeveloped state park. Thus, it was just us. Family, food, drink, alongside a pristine panorama of water, sky, and tremendously thick tree growth. Who cared about the relentless gnats outside our the netting? We had a good working flush-toilet and we were together.
As grand as it was, we were about to witness something even better. Something that could have fizzled into nothing, could have escalated into disappointment, could have never happened at all. That something was pretty simple: a boy wanted to fish and his father complied. The boy was my eight-year-old nephew, a outdoorsy ruffian who showed me his nature finds throughout the weekend, things like turtle eggs and a fossilized skull. The father was one of my three brothers, a man who shares custody of his children and makes every minute count.
Overall we were not so much a fishing family, but knowing the boy (my nephew) enjoyed this activity, the father (my brother) had packed two poles and simple gear for the weekend. There was bait next to the beer in the fridge. Father and son pitched their strings at the end of the dock and waited, flying pests and moody clouds notwithstanding, the rest of us still taking refuge inside the netting. The rain grew harder.
“We can fish on the paddle boat,” the boy suggested. The watercraft had a sun cover and to him, it could function as an umbrella. As a parent, I’d have called it quits at that point. (Actually, I don’t fish so I wouldn’t have even made it as far as the poles and the dock.) But the father followed his son and out they went in the rain on a paddleboat with two fishing poles.
If you could pick up a pencil and draw a classically formed fish, simple lines, fan-shaped tail-fin, curved topside arching into a pointed head with bulging black eyes — that’s what they caught together. The gilled creature was about the size of a large human jazz hand, a little fish with big possibilities. I don’t know who caught it, the boy or his father, but it didn’t matter. They caught it together. It was mission accomplished, rain or shine, gnats or no.
Next came the filleting. With a kitchen knife and a cutting board, the boy and his father stood in the rain on the dock and sliced the fish open, trimming away the morsel of meat. The truth was, the father didn’t know how to fillet a fish but he cut away the best he could. The boy watched intently. Meanwhile, those of us hiding in the netted shelter kept hollering for them to make sure the guts were disposed far away from the campsite. The boy took care of that part.
For me, the most magical moment of the story came next.
Holding up the small white fillet with his little rascal fingers, the boy asked his father: “Do we eat now or do we cook it?” It was the most earnestly asked question I’d ever heard. And there were so many potential answers. There could have been laughter, embarrassing the boy for his curiosity. There could have been mockery, poking fun at the boy’s innocence. There could have been deceit, telling the boy to go ahead and eat the raw fish flesh. 
There are so many choices when it comes to how we relate to children. As adults, we have the power. We may choose to engage or ignore. We may choose to talk straightly or sarcastically. We may choose to care or neglect. We may choose to empower or abuse. 
Children and fish figure into our public choices as well, as presently there are up to 80,000 unaccompanied minors from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico being held in detention (a nicer word for jail) in the U.S. These children are, in essence, asking the questions and we have many answers from which to choose. 
As Christians, we are informed by Jesus’ call to believe that when we give there will always be enough for all, as described in the parable of the feeding of 5,000 people (not counting women and children) with just two fish and five loaves of bread. 
As Lutherans, we behold a robust infrastructure of social service agencies with decades of proven experience to care for foster, immigrant, and refugee children.
As citizens of the U.S., the richest country in human history, we are more wealthy than we can imagine. (My definition of wealth is this: if you reliable and private sanitation, you’re rich.) We have resources.
Choices abound.
Holding up the humble piece of floppy fish flesh, the boy (my nephew) waited for his father (my brother) to answer to his question. Should he eat it raw or cook it first? As an innocent child, he’d do whatever his father told him.
“We will cook it first,” the father said. No frills language, just an answer. And they did. The boy stood in front of the grill with a spatula, meticulously turning the fillet over and over the hot irons. His sincerity was palpable. He cooked it real good, flipping and flipping again, loosing a flake here and there to the fire. I was pretty glad I didn’t have to eat it, but they placed what was left of the blackened fillet in between slices of bread and sat down at a picnic table. 

The boy and his father feasted together. ~ 

Friday, May 6, 2016

The curious office guest

This post is from 2012, two jobs and four years ago. It was originally published in Living Lutheran, but I see it didn't make the archive cut. I've always liked it so I decided to keep it alive here. 

Plus I've been thinking of my mystery guest lately because of an upcoming event I'm working on (see video promo below), with guest speaker who founded a theater project for women incarcerated. More info here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1891966661030966/?active_tab=posts

The curious office guest

by Terri Mork Speirs

She telephoned me to say she needed to interview someone for her community college class on nonprofit organizations. And so we agreed to meet in my office, where I did communications and other duties as assigned for a small interfaith agency that runs a network of 12 food pantries.

She entered my office a few days later. My colleagues were all out to meetings and I’d been working in solitude until my guest appeared. Reluctantly, I set my deadlines aside and we sat together at a bistro-sized table in the corner just a few feet away from my desk. It was quiet and we were alone.

Her frame was skinny. Her voice was gravely. Her complexion was potholed. All as if she'd smoked cigarettes since she was a baby. Her hair was overly blond and kind of stringy. Yet she was well presented with a long skirt and a pretty top. We opened with chit chat. To understand her, I had to listen intently because she didn't enunciate in a way I'm used to hearing. It was almost like interpreting a heavy accent, maybe the accent one talks when they've lived hard. She seemed so earnest about fulfilling her school project. 

I thought stupid, patronizing thoughts like how great it is that people like her could go to community college. I remembered how much I loved teaching community college. She ended the small talk, pulled out her notebook, and asked me questions. 

"What's your mission?" she asked. I answered.

"Who do you serve?" she asked. I answered.

"Where do you get funding?" she asked. I answered. 

And on with all the typical nonprofit questions, until she got to this question: "Do you have interns?" Yes, I answered. Not a lot but sometimes, I said. What are your interests? I asked. 

That’s when the conversation shifted. She put her notebook down. She put her student persona down. She put her pretenses down. The energy between us changed. 

"I'll tell you what my interests are," she said, looking straight at me, talking with confidence and conviction that she didn't exude a few moments earlier. Suddenly I could understand her words perfectly.  I no longer needed to strain my ears to pick up her words and sentences. Her appearance became irrelevant because her personal power abruptly stood up tall. It was like she transformed before my very eyes.

"My interests are women who are doing prison time and who shouldn't be," she said. "I'm not saying all of them, but I'd say at least half the women in Mitchellville (nearby women’s facility) shouldn't be there. They were victims. They were defending themselves. They did drugs to escape. They shouldn't be there and there are no services for them when they get out. They get sent to a halfway house but they don't need a halfway house, they need a chance. They need to get back into the world.”

She talked like she knew her subject matter intimately. I forgot about her assignment and my deadlines. A hundred questions rolled through my head. Did you do time? Were you abused? Did you use? How did you protect yourself? How did you get to community college? What’s your story?

She talked with such passion that I felt moved to shut up and listen. She continued: "But I can't do anything until I get my education, that's what I'm focused on now." And that’s what I decided to focus on too, my education. I paid close attention to what she was saying instead of injecting snoopy questions.

She told me she’s working towards her associate’s degree, then her BA in Human Services. She said she wants to improve the system. Maybe start her own nonprofit.

She was finished with the interview. We shook hands and she walked out of my office. I gave her my business card but after she left it occurred to me that I didn't even ask her name. For all I knew, she didn't really exist and I'd simply imagined her. Was she an apparition?

It’s about eight months later, as I write (four years later as I post) and I still think a lot about this meeting. This woman had such a clear vision of personal transformation, I admire her even as I do not see her again. But I do Google search “incarcerated women.” All sorts of reports, stats, and stories come up that you wish were apparitions for the real horror of it all. They tell us to believe that God comes to us in forms we least expect. That Jesus came to set us free. That the Holy Ghost is mysterious and powerful. Are we to take that literally?

She, my curious office guest, seemed to appear to bring me a message. But what? 

*

Here's the video we made to promote our event. I like the way it turned out: 




With love,
Terri