The meaning of the Fourth is losing its spark

The answer is Boston. The question is, “Your favorite Fourth of July?”

The kids were all at home that summer, but it would be one of the last. We’d planned a summer vacation sweeping the upper East Coast, stopping at every spot of historical interest, forcing them to tour sites and read countless plaques and markers about events and people long ago.

They claimed I thought even the roadside litter had historical significance. Carbon date it and we’ll see, kids.

A year later, our son was in college studying architecture and a professor asked for a show of hands as to who had been to this particular site or that particular monumentaround the country. Our son said he raised his hand so many times it was embarrassing. “Mom, did you realize how many of those places we’d been to?”

We’d been to Lexington and Concord the day before the Fourth. We lingered at the North Bridge a long time. It is quiet and serene there, with thick grass, quiet waters and mature trees that dapple the sunlight. It is the very ground where farmers and craftsmen, ordinary citizens, answered the peal of church bells to commence battle for every man’s God-given right to live free.

We walked the Freedom Trail through Boston on the Fourth, the red brick pathway that leads past King’s Chapel, Park Street Chapel, the Old South Meeting House, Paul Revere’s House, the Old North Church and Bunker Hill. There are nameplates in the church pews. Many were regular churchgoers, faith being woven into the fabric of life.

Ministers in the pulpit at the time of the Revolution were firebrands. They weren’t preaching about enhancing self-esteem and 15 ways to love yourself more. Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian and Congregationalist ministers, Jesuits and priests preached revolution. Some became military chaplains and others like John Witherspoon served in the Continental Congress and signed the Declaration of Independence.

After following the red brick road, we sandwiched ourselves into the Boston Harbor that evening amid a mass of humanity. Fireworks soared into the sky and exploded into magnificent balls of red, white and blue glitter, brilliantly mirrored in the water below.

The crowd oohed and aahed. For a time, we were all fixed on something larger than ourselves, not unlike when the colonists were fixed on a vision for a government where no man would be above the law.

Dwarfed by fireworks arcing and filling the sky, it truly felt like “E pluribus unum,” from many one. It would be one of the last Fourths that felt that way.

Today we don’t often embrace “from many one.” We are becoming fragments, shards and splinters screaming, fighting and clawing to get what is ours. The once broad vision for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness has grown myopic focused on self, greed, and what’s trending on Twitter.

That shining city sitting on a hill? The lights are growing dim.

The question today is, “Do we have the grit and vision to refuel the lamps and rekindle the vision?”

I pray we do.

PBJ a small taste of giving

I’m baking brownies today. One hundred and twenty-five. Each one will go into a small plastic bag and be put in the freezer.

Next week there will be an assembly line in my kitchen as friends slap peanut butter and jelly on bread, drop small containers of applesauce, along with juice boxes, the brownies, spoons and napkins, into the paper bags.

We’re making sack lunches for a Vacation Bible School that meets in a gritty neighborhood on the near-Eastside of Indianapolis. We don’t pack veggies—the kids won’t eat them. Ours is to supply, not reform.

The first time we did this, it was for 80, then 90, then 100 and now 125.

Sounds wonderful of me, doesn’t it? The fact is, this is an easy way to give. Funding 125 sack lunches comes with a cost, but it’s only money.

This sort of giving doesn’t cost me at a gut level. It’s not the kind of giving that sits beside someone, listens to them, loves them, cradles them, challenges them, calls them to a new way of living. Seriously, have you ever heard someone say, “A brownie changed my life?” The sack lunches meet a momentary need, but they don’t address the deep need.

Our friends who pastor the church hosting the VBS address people’s needs on a far larger scale. They’re engaged in costly giving—they give of themselves. They believe to minister to the poor, you have to become poor. So they did.

And so they are.

Those who give much, reap much. They see the dividends that come with sacrificial investments—new life, more families doing foster care, addicts no longer addicted and a few more kids who now have a future. But the needs never end. One need is met and two more arise.

And then there’s the drumbeat of poverty constantly in the background. Cars stolen, gunfire, awakening to find a SWAT team on the front porch at 3 a.m.

But by far, the biggest cost of sacrificial giving is having their hearts broken. Repeatedly. It’s watching the smallest ones slip through the cracks and knowing all too well what’s ahead for them.

Yet, along with the neighborhood VBS, the leadership circle is growing, too—there are more solid church members helping shepherd the flock, and a few more transplants have moved in from the outer ring of the city to be of service.

They graduated another class of high school kids this year and have established an amazing health clinic. It’s all volunteer. People do what programs never can.

Of course, every gift counts. The parts come together to make the whole. But I am acutely and humbly aware with each brownie I pack that there is a rich and costly giving that changes lives, and then there are the crumbs.

Hopefully, the crumbs will bless, too. One hundred twenty-three, 124, 125.

A toast (with eggs) to breakfast with Dad

There’s not a day I can remember as a kid when my dad didn’t make breakfast. Dad was a morning guy. He was hard-wired to wake up with the chickens from growing up on a farm. Dad may have left the farm, but the farm never left him. I think he figured if he couldn’t be up early and feed livestock, at least he could be up early and feed his family.

He’d bring in the morning paper (along with a first-hand report on the weather) and start the coffee. Then as my brother and I appeared, he’d offer to pop some bread into the toaster or pour cereal, maybe peel an orange or halve a grapefruit.

I thought every kid grew up like this.

On cold winter days, he’d say we needed something to stick to our ribs and have a pot of oatmeal or cream of wheat simmering on the stove. I wasn’t a girl who relished the picture of oats and grains sticking to my ribs, so I was a hard sell most days. But on the mornings he sweetened the deal with raisins and brown sugar, I was game.

When we were out of milk, he’d constitute powdered milk, pour it in a pitcher and say it was just as good as the real thing. It wasn’t as good as the real thing; it was awful. And then he’d drink some of the powdered milk to demonstrate how wonderful it was. He drank alone.

When Mom came out, he’d pour two cups of coffee, and then they’d both sit down at the table and divide the newspaper. For 10 minutes or so we’d all be around the same table.

I thought every kid grew up like this.

My dad’s greatest gift to his kids was being there. Faithfully. Reliably. Every day. He wasn’t a big talker or flowery philosopher, but we knew what was expected. We also knew that whatever happened, we could count on him. He’d be there for us, just like he’d be in the kitchen every morning.

After Mom died and Dad got cancer I would often go stay with him for a week or so at a time. I was now the first one awake, dressed and in the kitchen.

“What’ll it be this morning, Dad?”

“Oh, I’m not too hungry. How about some toast? Put some of that strawberry jam on it, would you?”

After toast and coffee, he’d often say, “You know what sounds good? Maybe some scrambled eggs. See if we’ve got some sausage in there. Do we have any fruit?”

A little while later, “Would you mind making a little oatmeal?”

It was a pleasure and a privilege to be there in the mornings the same way Dad had been for us, day after day, year after year.

I don’t eat much in the mornings anymore, but breakfast will always be my favorite meal of the day.

Anything is possible in the Wonder Years

A four-year-old is counting her piggies as she calls them.

“I have nine piggies, Grandma.”

“If you have nine piggies, something is terribly wrong. Count them again.”


“I have 11 piggies, Grandma.”

To me, this is very funny. It is not funny to her. She knows that the expected number of toes is 10, but in her world, some days you might have nine, 10 or even 11. She is not yet bound by the precise and finite expectations of numbers.

There is a gaggle of kids and grandkids in the backyard. One of the grands peels off when she sees a robin in the grass. Stepping ever so gingerly with her arms stretched out to her sides, as though she may need to take flight herself, she silently encroaches upon the bird. Closer and closer and closer and then the bird lifts off, soaring into the trees.

She returns with an “oh well, another one got away” smile. She is not the least bit frustrated, even though this is the third bird today that has slipped away. Unaware of the laws of aerodynamics that govern winged creatures, she is confident the next time will be the time she holds a bird in her hands.

A grandson, not yet 2 , has appeared over the back of the sofa and is preparing to propel forward. He probably launched from a large round can with a lid that holds toys and sits behind the sofa. Sure enough, he did. But the tin is not upright; it is on its side ready to roll. He was not, and never is, restrained by the possibility of danger. In his world, if it is there, it is to be climbed.

Our 4-year-old grandson arrives with a plastic bag of animal bones he found in the country. The bones have been cleaned and dried and are safe to handle. He spills them out on the patio and crouches over them. “What’s this, Dad? Is this a leg? Look at this tooth!” He is oblivious to social etiquette that dictates the only bones at a cookout are ribs. He is mesmerized, imagining how the bones connect and once held an animal together.

And then he returned home to Chicago without them. He sent a desperate message via his father, “DON’T THROW AWAY THE BONES, GRANDMA!”

I would not throw away the bones anymore than I would discount the possibility of extra toes and birds yearning to be held. I would sooner outlaw circus tricks on the sofa than to discard those bones.

The bones and birds and toes and tricks are part of the wonder years, where life is unscathed by the skid marks of cynicism and the sneers of skepticism. The wonder years are rich with curiosity and imagination, a place where every gust of wind is a delight and every dark cloud looks promising.

In the wonder years, children believe what they see and even what they don’t see. All things are possible.

Oh that these bones of mine might relive the wonder years, too.

Things teachers can’t say (but I just did)

It’s hard to teach kids right from wrong when the adults around them are terrified of the very words.

Several teacher friends say they are no longer permitted to say a student’s behavior is “wrong” or even that a student has made a “wrong choice.” Instead, when a child makes a wrong choice, engages in bad behavior, is unruly or noncompliant, teachers are to say such behavior is “unexpected.”

Teacher to child: “Please sit down.”

Child does not sit down.

Teacher to child: “My, that was unexpected.”

No doubt a cold chill races down the child’s spine. Hardly. For most children, “unexpected” would be an extended lunch period, a snow day or finding the spelling test has been cancelled.

For adults, “unexpected” usually refers to something along the lines of a surprise party, running into an old friend or a payment not clearing the bank.

Of course, there are committees, groups and studies funded by grants that stand behind the new nomenclature of “unexpected.” But that doesn’t negate the fact that it is painful for adults to wrap their heads around such convoluted thinking, let alone children.

“Unexpected” is a stray hair, or a poppy seed between your teeth, not a framework for social conscience. In the real world, people navigate mazes with turns and corners that wind up being right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate, prudent or foolish.

Along the same convoluted lines as “unexpected,” teachers are also being told they are not to say a child “lied.” Instead, they are to say a child has told an “untruth.”

It is hard to imagine “untruth” catching on, yet I can hear the words of George Washington retooled for the 21st century: “I cannot tell an untruth.”

Courtroom dramas will need revising as well. Prosecuting attorney to the witness on the stand: “May I remind you that you are under oath and untruthing on the stand is a punishable offense.”

And then the jury breaks into laughter.

Lying is out; “untruthing” is in. You might also say a child is veracity-challenged, or has limited abilities conveying the full scope of reality.

If a lie is now an “untruth,” then cheating must be viewed as utilizing unapproved outside resources. Fighting in the cafeteria becomes exercising the full forward thrust of arms and legs.

Silliness proliferates. When a school sexting scandal broke out in Vermont, an article quoted a communications expert as saying that parents should talk with their sons and daughters about sexting, but they should not use the words “right” and “wrong.” Instead, parents were advised to use terms like “cool” and “uncool.”

Why not call behavior what it really is? Why not simply speak the truth? Playing games with words, clouding a child’s mind, and obscuring the consequences of choices will produce results that will be anything but unexpected.

A brief history of selfies and narcissticks

There was once a time when we took pictures of other people, but now we mainly take pictures of ourselves. Sometimes we take pictures of ourselves with other people, but usually (hopefully!) with us in the center doing something more clever than the other people—things like crossing our eyes, flaring our nostrils or sticking out our tongues—so that the other people are not much noticed. They’re called selfies for a reason.

There was also once a time when we took pictures of interesting places and historic monuments. Today we take pictures of ourselves in front of a mountain carved with four presidents nobody can name, and a couple hundred snaps of ourselves in front of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Or is it the Lincoln Monument and the Washington Memorial? Who knows and who cares? All that really matters is that we were there and we have the selfies to prove it.

There was also once a time when we took pictures of architectural and natural wonders. Today many people consider their own bodies to be among the most amazing natural and architectural wonders of the world and, therefore, focus on taking pictures of themselves in various states of dress. But mostly undress. Then they share those selfies with others and then others share them with others and then, when the natural wonder-of-the-world selfies go viral, the people who took the selfies become indignant and garner massive amounts of attention and sympathy, even though they were the ones who took the selfies and shared them in the first place.

Don’t try to follow the logic. There isn’t any.

Today, everyone who is famous takes selfies, which inspires people who aren’t famous to take selfies, hoping that the accomplishment of taking a selfie will somehow make them famous, too.

And we question if a college education is still worth the money. Probably not. Especially not when you take good selfies.

And now, being that some people (those naturally clumsy or cursed with short arms) were previously at a disadvantage for taking selfies, we have the selfie stick, also known as the narcisstick. Simply mount your camera on the end of the selfie stick, with the remote control trigger, raise it overhead in a crowded tourist spot and watch it crash to the ground and shatter as another camera on a selfie stick whacks into yours.

Disney’s Space Mountain and Thunder Mountain rides have banned selfie sticks, as have the Kentucky Derby, the Smithsonian, Rome’s Colosseum, the Palace of Versailles, a host of museums worldwide and all of Brazil’s soccer stadiums.

Sure, it is a disappointment and a setback in the ever-evolving advancement of selfies, but who needs to go inside the Colosseum when you can take cool selfies on the outside?

Clearly, the most pressing question of our day is whether we can ever have enough pictures of ourselves, taken by ourselves, and clearly the answer is no. Never, ever, ever, not in a million, billion, trillion selfies.

Kindness on Aisle 14

We’re all a little on edge these days with tense race relations in many quarters, strained police and community relations, and the outline of a mushroom cloud hovering over the culture wars. You wonder who and what will explode next.

All of which is why I felt terrible about an incident at a big box home improvement store recently.

We were with a handful of the grandkids who had signed up to make a free Mother’s Day craft. We spare no expense for loved ones in this family. If it is free, we will be there.

The girls had finished assembling their little wooden planters, or rather they had finished watching adults assemble the planters, and we were ambling out to the garden center so they could pick out little plants for the planters.

The 2-year-old wanted to be held. I hoisted her in my arms, but within the length of one aisle it felt like I was carrying a sumo wrestler. I spotted an empty cart and put her in it. She tried to resist, but I stuffed her little legs in and plopped her bottom down.

Relief. Free arms once again. Maybe I wouldn’t need back and shoulder surgery after all. And then the husband called my name. He gestured to a man and said, “You just took that man’s cart.”

The man looked stunned. I was mortified. Having been the victim of shopping cart theft myself, I would never intentionally take another shopper’s cart. And being that the man happened to be black and I happened to be white suddenly complicated things in a way they would not have felt complicated even a year ago. These days the world is ripe with tension, innuendo and unspoken implications.

Did he think I was some uppity white woman thinking I could do what I wanted and take what I wanted? I apologized profusely and attempted to extricate the 2-year-old from the cart. Naturally, the kid who didn’t want to go into the cart, now didn’t want to get out of the cart.

Plus the twins had now plastered themselves to either side of the cart. We were shopping cart squatters, attempting to take something that rightfully belonged to another. “Off the cart, girls! Now!”

The man said it was OK, and I said it wasn’t OK. Other shoppers were looking now; we had managed to create a small scene among giant bags of Bug B Gon and Weed and Feed.

While I was still attempting to peel three kids off the stolen cart, the man walked over and put his arm around me. He smiled and said, “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Kindness. Like a hot knife through butter.

For a second, I thought I might burst into tears. Not because of the cart, but because this world is so broken that something like a shopping cart could be ladened with hidden messages and hurt. But the man graciously, and firmly, put an awkward situation to rest with the simple power of kindness. We could use a lot more kindness these days.

Thank you, sir, for showing how its done.

Departed Dad’s voice a gift at son’s wedding

We tend to associate friends by the places we’ve lived, a shared season of life or the similar ages of our children. And then there are friends we associate with music.

One such friend was one of the musicians at church, a gregarious personality with a rich, powerful, deep voice. We knew him through the songs he composed for our worship services, many of which became part of the repertoire.

Not long after he died, we sang one of his songs in church. His wife’s straight posture and stoicism collapsed under the weight of grief, her shoulders shaking and her body wracked with sobs.

Time passed and when the couple’s four stair-step children were with her and when we sang one of his songs, there would be stirring and whispering and excitement among them. More time passed, the kids entered high school and college and still they recognized their dad’s music, but without the stirring and the chatter.

I heard our friend’s deep, rich voice again recently. At his son’s wedding. He had recorded some books of the Bible on tape, which is how he came to have a part in the wedding. There he was, or at least seemed to be, reading from 1 John about loving one another. He’s been gone a dozen years, but it was as if he weren’t gone at all, simply standing out of sight, speaking into a microphone, reading from the book he loved.

It was startling to hear his voice. Disconcerting even. But then, the phrasing, the tones, the richness of his voice rekindled a wonderful warmth and familiarity. It was fitting that he was part of the service. He was passionate about his role as father and husband, seeing himself not only as a provider, but as a teacher who could shape minds and open doors to discovery. That passion reverberated through his voice as instruction to his son.

No matter how much time lapses, we can hear a voice and instantly recognize the speaker. We hear personality in voices, confidence and enthusiasm or worry and fear. We can hear mood and outlook, sleepiness or alertness, kindness or harshness, patience or contempt. Tone of voice is nuanced and telling in a way that email, tweets and texts never can be.

It’s been years since my parents died, but I often pictured them once again at our kitchen table talking. Talking, talking, talking. It wouldn’t matter a bit what either of them said; it would be their voices, a certain confidence punctuated by a lilt that said life might get hard, but keep slugging because it isn’t over.

Strong and loving voices from the past are a comfort and a treasure, whether they’re piped in at a wedding or only in our memories.

The sweet side and the other side of motherhood

Every Mother’s Day we honor moms with cards filled with warm sentiments extolling our many wonderful and loving qualities that make us sound positively divine. We rarely acknowledge the fact that mothering isn’t always pretty.

One of the unforgettable images from the Baltimore riots will forever be of the mom moment when Toya Graham chased her 16-year-old son out of the brick-throwing mob, whacked him alongside the head and gave him what for all the way across the street.

It may not be my style or your style, but she was in mom-mode doing what needed to be done.

My own mother was legendary when it came to getting the job done. She was in the hospital once and caught wind that my brother, then underage, was in possession of some alcohol. From her hospital bed, the woman was able to issue a threat of such substance that he relinquished the booze.

A friend around the corner once intercepted some teenage communication leading her to suspect that her daughter was at a movie she’d been told she could not see. My friend got in her car, marched into the darkened theater where the movie had already started, found her daughter and marched her out.

The Baltimore mom who hauled her son out by the scruff of the neck is being heralded as heroic, with some suggesting she be named Mother of the Year. She did a good thing, but what she did should be commonplace and ordinary, not jaw-dropping and extraordinary. You see your kid headed in the wrong direction; you call the kid up short. It’s called parenting.

When you’re raising kids (as opposed to letting them raise themselves), every moment counts. Teachable moments count double and triple. The teachable moments are often hard, frustrating for both the parent and the child. But you hang with it; you don’t quit. Anybody can love a kid from the heart, with the soft and sappy, indulgent love, but loving from the gut means you’re willing to enter the fray, you determine not to give up and not to let the kid slide. You may not win, but you give it your best shot.

The thing with parenting is that you get one chance. There are no do-overs. You get roughly 18 years to set the ship on course.

The young man whose mother stood him down in Baltimore said that when he saw his mother, his first instinct was to run. But he knew that running would only make it worse. Smart kid.

You could see anger and embarrassment on his face and then there was a moment when he winced and displayed what appeared to be a twinge of regret. He knew he was busted because he knew his mom has standards, and at that moment he was on the wrong side of them.

When a kid knows that you love him and want the best for him, you can get in the kid’s face. It is that moment, when a kid finally understands that you’re doing what you’re doing because you’ve got his back, that you’ve also got his heart.

O Canada, please take your geese back

Let me make three things clear: I like birds, I like Canada and I like Canadians. That said, would you Canadians please take your Canada geese back?

I don’t want to cause an international incident—goodness knows Canada might be the only country we’re not at odds with right now—but the geese have to go.

Yes, yes, I know Canada geese are at home roaming red, white and blue turf and they are federally protected here in the U.S., but Canada is part of their name. Obviously, they hold a deep and abiding allegiance to Canada. Being that you Canadians have a reputation for niceness, I’m sure you will welcome them back with open ponds.

Canada geese have taken over parks, ponds, golf courses, shorelines, subdivisions and airports. I hate to say this, Canada, but we might need a wall. Maybe even a fence—a really, really high fence.

Oh, let’s cut to the chase. They identify with you, so take them.

They’re nesting again. Nesting is completely natural for geese; what is completely unnatural is that Canada geese are shopaholics. They nest in every planting bed and small green space bordering every strip mall. This means that to get to a store you have outrun a gaggle of aggressive, territorial, giant Canada geese in attack mode. They’re large, they’re loud, they have extremely disgusting tongues and they’re intimidating. They own the west entrance to Macy’s as well as every grocery store parking lot on this side of the city.

I’ve given up on new shoes, but we need milk and eggs.

And then there are the sidewalks. I took some of the grandkids for a walk and we had to play a little game called “Don’t Step on the Droppings.”

“Step over or between them, girls. That’s it, you’ve got it! Oh, NOOOO!!!”

Walk on the grass, you say. Impossible. The grass is slick with droppings. Walk on a grassy incline and you will slide downhill. It’s like skiing in spring without the benefit of snow or slopes.

Here’s a fun fact from National Geographic: “Just 50 geese can produce two and a half tons of excrement in a year.” Why is that not a surprise? Walk a mile in my shoes. Make that rubber boots.

Canada geese used to be a novelty—pretty birds flying in a V-formation that you’d catch a glimpse of now and then. Now you see them all the time, marauding about on land in large, boisterous groups taunting vehicles and pedestrians.

Today’s Canada geese have attitude and it’s because they’ve been away from Canada too long. Everybody knows Canada doesn’t do attitude. It’s illegal. Take them back, Canada; make them maple syrup sweet.

Please. Do it for world peace.