What Rubs Off?

“Becky’s had more interracial experience than any of the rest of us.” There were thirteen of us, all white, all straight except one gay man, sitting around the table in the bar and grill last night. I still go back to Lincoln, 50 miles from here, where we used to live and where my husband Mike still works, for a book club. The core group are friends of Mike’s since his college days in the early ‘70’s. Last night we discussed Jodi Picoult’s Great Small Things. The book was a great conversation starter about racism. For several of our friends one scene in the book had been a real, “ah-ha” experience. Mostly “liberals” we all think of ourselves as fairly enlightened. But in reading this book several saw their white privilege for the first time.

Driving home I replayed the conversations in my mind and I pondered that thing about me having “more interracial experience.” I grew up in an integrated neighborhood in Omaha. I know now that wasn’t the norm. But, growing up, it was normal for me. When I was ten there were seven 10 and 11 year old girls in our little enclave. Five of us were white, two of us were black. My elementary school was integrated, but not very. Jr. High and High School were more so. My ballet classes had two black students, my church was all white. College and Seminary was about the same. Always I had some black classmates and friends, but I was never in the minority. Fast forward to my ordination day.

My parents had a party after worship to celebrate with friends and out of town guests. I was in the back yard and Daddy brought his portable phone–all the rage in new technology–to me. I distinctly remember standing on the upper terrace of the back yard in my pretty red cotton dress with a wide cut-work embroidered collar. My great uncle, who had moved away several years earlier was calling to congratulate me on my ordination. After the congratulations he said, “but what I don’t understand is why you’re going to go off to Africa now to work with those darkies. It will be a complete waste of your time and your talent. They can’t learn anything, anyway.”

Too dumbfounded to say anything intelligent, the happy elation of my ordination day sunk like a popped balloon. I said, “Uncle Lyman, I’ve got to go now. Thank you for calling.” I hung up the phone, and numb, took it to Dad. “I didn’t know Uncle Lyman’s a racist.” “He’s been one all his life.” my dad said.

Eight months later I was in Kenya en route to work in Zaire through the Division of Overseas Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) after language school in France. Outside of Nairobi, a delegation of six of us missionaries and our mission executive from DOM were taking part in a celebration in a rural community. The community had come together across many tribal and religious differences to build a bakery to create jobs and income for the people, and with that income they had built a school for their children. With our denomination’s help, they put a roof on the school.

The celebration of the roofing was held in a hot meadow near the bakery and school out in the middle of nowhere. Four or five distinct groups from the community were there besides us. We were seated in a U shape. We, the honored international guests, all had chairs. Many people were sitting on the ground. Children from the school were seated across from us on benches from the school house. The celebration went on a very, very long time before there were speeches and an exchange of gifts. Each church represented arrived at the gathering in ceremonial processions. One group jumped as if they were on pogo-sticks. One group ran forward ululating and then retreated, forward ululating, coming a little closer, before retreating again. It took a couple of hours for everyone to be in place and the formalities to begin. Did I mention we were in Kenya? Did I mention it was really, really hot?  Did I mention the little children?

Across from us, the children, waiting to sing for the celebration, sat patiently. One little one was about two years old. She kept her eyes on us. I’m sure we were the first white people she had ever seen. The older kids kept whispering to her. She’d turn to listen to them and then turn and look at us. The woman sitting next to me put her hand out in a “come here” gesture to the little one. The older children nudged her, pushed her a little, and cajoled her to “go.” We heard under and around their giggles the words, “mondele, mondele” “white, white.”

Eventually the littlest chorister found her courage and made it all the way across the base of the “U” and stopped five feet back from my welcoming friend. Then with a deep breath and split second motion, the little one swept forward, reached our her beautiful ebony baby hand and swiped the white, white hand of my colleague. She immediately checked to see if any of the white had rubbed off before she high-tailed it back to the safety of her friends who greeted her with gales of laughter.

That’s the story that came back to me on my drive home from Lincoln last night. All day today I’ve been thinking about it. That curious little one. Those ornery older children putting her up to such shenanigans. The pure pleasure of seeing beautiful children being inquisitive children like all children everywhere. Their hi-jinx and playful delight understood in any culture.

Where did my uncle pick-up his racism? Daddy told me others in his family were racist, too. How did that not rub off on my father? What is it that rubs off of me? When I encounter others, do they experience joy and grace and welcome and acceptance? When I reach out my white hands, what am I offering? How do we learn our shared humanity? How do we move past black and white and become a community? How do we meet hand in hand to move forward together?

Reading books that help us climb inside other people’s stories is a start. Even better is making ways to be together, to listen, to rub elbows, to clasp hands, to exchange hugs, to dance with joy and sing each other’s songs, to learn and to celebrate what we can do so much better together than we can do apart.

What rubs off?

“I hope this news doesn’t make you sad”


Recently a friend e-mailed me great news. His son, after two long years of gnashing of teeth, heart in his parent’s throats fear, patience and persistence, finally got his driver’s license and promptly drove himself to work. He’ll be driving himself off to his junior year of college a couple hundred miles from home later this month, too. The driver’s license is big news. Not like it’s ever not big news when one’s offspring first get a driver’s license and head off on their own for the first time, but for this kid and his parents it was huge. Asperger’s Syndrome can affect one’s ability to drive. Some “Aspies” can and some simply can’t. So I wept a happy tear when I read my friend’s note. Being able to drive is elemental to independent adulthood in many ways, especially here in the mid-west where public transit is so lacking. How can a young person get to and from work, enjoy a social life and date without being able to drive? (I know some make all of that happen, but it sure isn’t easy for them).

My friend’s e-mail included his kind concern, “I hope this news doesn’t make you sad that Ben still doesn’t drive.” My youngest son, Ben, is also an Aspie. In fact, our families were introduced to each other because a mutual friend knew I’d “been there, done a lot of that” with my Benjamin and might be of encouragement and help to these friends as they came to terms with their young son’s Asperger’s diagnosis.  Back when Benjamin was trying to learn to drive my knuckles became frozen in a position of paralyzed terror. My shoulders were so tense one could bounce objects off of them like a trampoline. Gray hairs sprouted on my head at warp speed. You get the idea. I paid a good chunk of money to have “the best driving instructor in Nebraska” give him private lessons. At the end of the last of those lessons, the instructor came to me where I was sitting in my car waiting for the lesson to be done. Bending down to talk to me he said, “Mrs. Brown (I’ve had a name-change since those days—another story or two for another day), If by some terrible chance your son were ever to somehow pass the test and gain a driver’s license, I can guarantee you, it will not be long before you, or some other mother receives a call to go to the morgue to identify your child because of your son’s driving.” That was pretty plain talk. My Ben’s in the percentage of adults with Asperger’s for whom driving isn’t advisable.

Benjamin amazes me. He went away to college, graduated with honors, has myriad good friends, and is building a great life for himself in New York City where the subway system affords him reliable transportation and opportunities to live fully his young adult life. He lives a long way away from home and I don’t get to see him as much as I’d like, but so do both of his brothers and my stepson, all three of whom drive.

So here’s what I’m pondering in all that story today. Why is it, sometimes, we let other people’s happiness rob us of the happiness that is ours? Someone else’s good news isn’t bad news for me most of the time, anyway, unless it’s like we’re both dying and only one of us gets the life-saving cure and I’m not the one who’s been selected.  It’s not like good news is an unrenewable resource. It’s not like there’s a limit on happiness. Our friend’s triumph (and it truly is a TRIUMPH!) in being able to drive off into the sunset or wherever else he chooses to drive is reason to celebrate. And, it changes absolutely nothing about my son’s situation or about my happiness that Ben is crafting a great life for himself.

When I lived in Michigan our perfectly adequate 1953 brick ranch home was a couple of blocks from a fancier neighborhood. I often went walking through that neighborhood and thought, “I wonder what they do to earn their living that they can afford to live here? I wonder what makes them so special? I wonder why I won’t ever get to live in a home like these?” And then I’d walk home full of ugly feelings. One day, in prayer it came to me that I could simply change my walking route and instead of letting envy rob me of my joy, I could walk through my own neighborhood of little brick ranch-style homes like mine and give God thanks for well-built homes, neatly kept lawns, kind neighbors and having more than enough of everything I need and a whole heaping helping of luxuries beyond.

“I hope our happiness hasn’t made you sad”–Oh, God. I pray that from now on that need not be anyone’s concern in regard to me. I hope, I pray, I will never again let envy rob me of the joy and happiness I can feel for others no matter what my own situation. Good news is good news.

It’s good news!

Word Power

The Cub Scouts surrounded me in the Mount View Elementary School gym, dancing around in a circle from which I couldn’t escape. I was seven, or maybe six. They sing-song repeated again and again and again, “BigBu-uttBawlBa-byBec-ky! Bigbu-utt…” Mom was a den leader and my older brother was in the group. Mom must have been in a storeroom getting supplies or out in the hall or somewhere, just not right there right then. I remember how hot the tears felt on my face when I inevitably began crying-proving their taunts to be true in that regard. About the other, well, up until that day I’d never really noticed my sizable caboose. I was just a happy little kid, completely innocent of the scrutiny under which I, because I am a girl, would have to live my life.

The boy’s words were powerful. I don’t remember who any of the boys were. I don’t remember their faces. But, 50 years later (Fifty years later!) their words still sting.

In the first story of the Bible, God speaks and things happen. “In the beginning was the Word” is how John starts telling his version of the Gospel story.  Words count. They create worlds. Once spoken, they can’t be unspoken ever again.

One day, when my boys were young I heard mayhem and madness breaking out in the den. Flying into the room from around the corner where I had been folding laundry (all those cloth diapers!) I found three-and-a-half year-old Adam in the clutches of two year-old Daniel while baby Ben watched in stunned amazement from the safety of his bouncy seat. Dan had Adam by two fists-full of hair. He was banging him up against the sofa, ka-plow, ka-plow, ka-plow! Both boys were hollering like warriors from Braveheart. Plucking Adam up under my right arm, and Daniel under my left I carried them, legs dangling into the adjoining dining room and while plopping each on his own chair for time-out calmly I said, “Boys, in our family we don’t hurt each other. In our family, we love and protect each other.” I heard myself saying those words and at the exact same time in another region of my brain skepticism reigned, “Don’t hurt each other? Yeah, right!”

But you know what? Those words I spoke had power. I heard myself say them and I thought, “Yes! Yes! This is who we are, who we will be as a family. Even if we don’t always get it right, we will be, we are a family who loves and protects each other.”

Twenty-five years and a whole lot of family triumphs and tragedies later my three sons (cue the sit-com music) and I loved and protected each other through a whole lot of living.

I’m thinking about the power of words today as the nation’s Commander-in-Chief tweeted a taunt about “fire and fury.” I shudder to think how long the world may be shaped by the consequences of just three words. Twenty-five years? Fifty years? A century or more??

Words count. Words create worlds. Words shape reality.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be offerings of love by which the world is made, not worse, but ever better.

Cicadas and Home

I wonder if Eve and Adam sat on a glider on summer evenings on their patio in the Garden of Eden and listened to cicadas droning their earnest August songs, thinking, feeling, “this is truly home.”

Yesterday was an unusually perfect day in Nebraska. August can be hot as blazes and humid as all get-out, but not yesterday, my day off. It was, in a word, “Ah!”

The sky was clear blue with fluffy little white clouds, there was a gentle breeze and the temperature topped out in the mid-70s. In the afternoon I found my way to our back patio with a glass of iced-tea, a bowl of round, ripe Bing cherries and a novel. We live in a townhouse with a walk out basement and a park-like common area just beyond our patio and our deck above it. From our glider, half secluded by a short fence and plantings from the sidewalk between our house and the neighbors to the west, I can hear the sounds of grandchildren playing with their grandparents in the community’s pool just up a short grassy rise beyond our back door.

Popping off the sidewalk and skip-hopping up the hill from behind me came a curly brown mop-haired, long-limbed, gangly boy, probably about seven years old, wielding a gnarly looking stick that was thick as his skinny arms and 2/3 as tall as he was. Behind him lumbered his dad, same hair (better kempt), same long limbs (less gangly). Dad carried one of those two-gallon plastic ice-cream buckets. “Off adventuring?” I asked. Dad turned, seeing me and laughed. “He’s hunting cicada skeletons.” He found one last week and now he’s searching on every tree and digging through all the lawn looking.” “Having any luck?” I asked. Dad chuckled and said, “We have two buckets full at home. What he’s going to do with them nobody knows!”

My oldest son is a music composer. When he was home in Nebraska one summer three or four years ago he recorded the cicadas and composed a piece incorporating their droning. Now he has a cicada inked on his forearm (or is it on his side and the snake is on his forearm?) no matter, cicadas make an impression on Midwesterners.

My husband Mike and I ate dinner up on our deck as the cicada symphony tuned up around us. The evening air vibrated and like sitting in one of those vibrating massage chairs, we breathed deeply and relaxed. Mike sighed and said, “Cicadas sound like home.”

I needed a day like yesterday. We all need those kind of slow days to breath in the goodness of God’s creation, to feast on the simple pleasures of iced-cold tea and round, ripe fruit, on little boys leading their daddy’s on cicada skeleton adventures and evenings serenaded with ancient symphonies by the cicada chorus. We all need to breathe and relax and allow God to recreate us, make us whole, and welcome us home.

“Tell me a story”

Years ago during a difficult season of my life a friend would say, “Tell me a story.” Looking for true stories to tell lifted my eyes from my own sorrows and lifted my heart in the process. More recently, another friend said she looks forward to hearing about my everyday encounters, “divine appointments.” She called them.  Today, my personal sorrows are few, but the world’s sorrows have been weighing heavy on me. It’s been a tough year for tender-hearted people everywhere. As a kind of spiritual discipline I’m dusting off my old laptop keys and brushing up my storytelling, for myself, and for anyone else in need of a good story. Some of the stories I’ll tell are from my past, some from what’s happening around me right now. My goal is to write a story every day for the next year. Maybe I will, maybe I won’t. That too, will make a good story.