Sheep are completely defenseless. They have no sharp teeth, or fierce claws, or fast legs to get away. When under attack by an enemy, a sheep has two choices; stay in a group or flee. Predators attack the ones separated from the flock – the old, the weak, the ill, and especially the young. In the group with the shepherd, the sheep are protected. The shepherd provides that protection. The rod and the staff are the shepherd’s tools to protect the sheep. — The Writing Sisters
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. – Ecclesiastes 3
My family said goodbye this week to our patriarch.
My grandfather was nearly 100 years old, and his presence in this life was powerful. He was loving and strict, easy to laugh and just as easy to eagle-eye you into a corner if he was concerned about your direction. He fought the Nazis. He gathered wildflowers. He ran businesses and raised a family. He loved life, and life loved him right back just as hard.
So saying goodbye has been a challenge. I spent the first week after his death in a weepy haze. I know it’s perfectly natural that a person this old should pass away, and yet I just didn’t really know how to let him go. He has presided over all of the most significant moments of my life to date, and thinking about how to anchor anything without his involvement has been difficult. I just kept thinking, “He’s gone.”
Then, it happened. At a 30-plus family member dinner on Saturday night, the cousins started dancing.
These were the little ones, ranging from 3 years old up to 10. Some of them knew my grandfather, but many were too little and lived too far away to have any memory of him. I had been agonizing over the fact that they would never really know him, that without his guidance and influence our family couldn’t go on as it had been, that this gathering would be the last of the great family gatherings because without Poppa we would not really know who we were going forward.
“Look,” my husband said nudging me, “It’s a cousin conga line!”
All of the little ones had lined up and were kicking, dancing, and laughing their way through the restaurant we had reserved for the night. I can still see Jennings’ face. My first cousin once removed, he is a live wire and known to be the child who took Poppa’s death the hardest to heart. This was his first real family loss to death, and yet here he was, leading the party.
In that moment, I found myself looking away from the past and toward the future of my family. As The Byrds’ song suggested, I turned. Instead of seeing what was lost through heartbreak, I saw all that is dancing before me into the future.
Such moments are a rare gift. When I was younger I can remember older generations losing loved ones and me wanting to scream, “They are gone! I am right here!” Now I see the pivot point.
And now I turn.
(This piece first appeared on January 22, 2013, on The Mommyhood, a blog of The Charleston Daily Mail.)
Anne Lamott writes in her book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith that the best prayers she knows are, “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
I don’t argue too much with Lamott. About anything.
It took a little child to show me, however, just how true the concept of simplicity in prayer can be. I was raised in the Presbyterian Church and had my child baptized there. While I grew up with many beautiful and meaningful family traditions around spiritual observance, I admit I have been less than focused on how I want those traditions to be passed on to my child. I knew I wanted to begin introducing her to the idea that she can talk with God, that building that relationship between her soul and something bigger than the meanness of this world is very important.
But like many in my generation, I can be a tad jaded. We’ve lived and worked in more than one community. We’ve seen in living color the downfalls and moral failings of “holy” institutions and church leaders. We’ve pondered the dark side of many things once taken for granted as the good. Simply put, we struggle with how to help our children embrace faith without blindly following the absolutely certain failures of humanity.
Can you see how hard I like to make things?
They really aren’t that hard. We need to do more to let our children lead us sometimes.
My child recently announced we would be praying together before each meal. “Hands in your lap,” she says. We dutifully put our hands in our laps. “Now raise them up, slowly, like this,” she says as she directs us in assuming the traditional prayer hand press. “Now say this with me: God made the sun. God made the sea. God made the fishes, and God made me. Thank you for the sun, thank you for the sea, thank you for the fishes, and thank you for me. Amen.” There are little hand motions that go with each image of sun, fish, sea, and self.
Sun, fish, sea, and self. The hands of God nurturing you through the basic elements of the world, if you will only let it happen.
You know, I should have probably said, “Help me” a little sooner. Today, I say, “Thank you.”
(This piece first appeared on January 16, 2013, on The Mommyhood, a blog of The Charleston Daily Mail.)
My daughter and I made a treasure box yesterday from an old cardboard shipping container and some glittery “jewels,” marker, glue, and paint. It was all going as expected until she leaned back, tapped her chin and said very matter-of-factly:
There needs to be a god.
This is a child who doesn’t talk much about The Divine in traditional terms, so when I heard her articulate this instinct she had my full attention.
I believe that children are closer to truth and mystery than are we adults. We’ve had it all beaten right out of us, but those little ones…poets say children are still wet with Heaven. Whenever children want to talk about life, death, and the spirit I focus on their words. It’s always fascinating.
That’s interesting, sweetie. Why do you think there needs to be a god?
Because this is a land. Every land needs a god.
I like the god you’re making. Tell me about it.
It has a caterpillar body made of jewels, but it needs a face. Momma, will you draw a smile and eyes. No head, just put the smile and eyes in front.
I see this god is over the land. I like that.
It needs wings. Can you please add two wings.
Sure thing, baby.
So there you have it, friends. Every land needs a god. My child’s creation smiles over her land, sans a head that would house a mind as we know it. It shines and watches.
This is the day that her heart has made. I rejoice and am glad in it.
There are pictures, and then there are photographs. And then photographs evolve to portraits, and portraits speak to identity and soul in ways that are irrefutable and powerful.
With every President of the United States, there emerges a portrait that speaks to the American people. That portrait, that eternal visual of identity and soul, enters our collective consciousness and stays there. It tells us who our President is, but also who we want and need him to be.
Marvin Eugene Smith recently shared this photograph of President Barack Obama on Faceboook, and added these personal thoughts:
See? We need more interaction like this between youth and their “stars.” Simple little gestures like this last a lifetime. Back in the day it was quite common. I’ve seen pics of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sammy Davis, the Temptations, Count Basie and many others doing the same exact thing. No need for bodyguards to brush the young people aside who genuinely love you.
Mr. Smith is an African American man living in Chicago, and the series of social media connections that brought the President’s photo to his attention and then to a friend and then to me was made up of other African American men. Some of you reading this immediately will jump on the defensive and say it doesn’t matter that black men see a portrait here, but you would be wrong. Yes, anyone can identify with this image (I do), but the fact that it resonates and brings to mind other African American men and women who became children’s role models and heroes is critically important.
Look at those children. Look at that man. Let yourself feel what it means, what it can mean, that magic moment of connection that clearly flows both ways across the fence. He understands what they don’t yet, that who they dream they can become and how fiercely they believe in that vision is the lifeblood of this nation. They just touched a man who leads the free world and who, figuratively, could be their father, their uncle, their brother, themselves.
As a mother and a child advocate, I now call this my portrait of Barack Obama.
(We do not all share the same portrait as “The One” that explained things to us about who the person was or is, and how his individual identity becomes part of our national identity. But we all know “our” image when we see it. Following are some of my favorites, what are some of yours, and why?)
This is my top Kennedy portrait (I like this one because of the youthful energy and optimism, as well as the Jackie element in the bottom corner):
This is my top Lincoln portrait, or others showing him literally in the battlefields of the Civil War (though frankly, any great photograph of that awesome craggy face works, too):
The pain here in President Johnson speaks to me about the agony of Vietnam, and the grief of a man who wanted to lead domestic policy and found himself drawn into an entirely other world.
I was born in Charleston, West Virginia, over four decades ago. Before I was fourteen years old, I had been to Bermuda, Quebec, Denmark, Paris, Switzerland, and Germany. I attended college in North Carolina, and before I graduated I had back-packed Germany, Scotland, and England. I worked on Capitol Hill my first year out of college, and lived and worked in the international university community of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill for 10 years before making a conscious choice to move back to West Virginia.
Simply put, I’m a big fan of West Virginians getting out before they lock it in.
I’ve puzzled for several years since my return over the hungry – yea, desperate – plea from some contingencies here to create an environment that children don’t leave. “If we only did this…….if we only changed that……if we had a…………then our kids wouldn’t have to leave home.” This is one of the most misguided philosophies I’ve ever encountered on two fronts.
First, kids are supposed to leave home. When you reduce it down to its barest elements, the whole ideal purpose of parenting is to raise children to a level of maturity where they can take care of themselves in their developing social, physical, intellectual, and spiritual spheres. Even when children have special needs, there is a feeling that the maximum level of independence and autonomy possible should be the goal. To suggest that there is something unnatural or undesirable about leaving the nest is a bit smothering and insecure. One of the best things that can happen to a young person is to explore the world on his or her own terms. Whether you grow up in West Virginia or Tuscany, you need to deliberately depart the confines of your small, childlike world, and put yourself in the environment of newness, diversity, challenge, and change.
Second, from an economic development standpoint, we need less a climate of existing jobs than a climate of innovation to draw the people our state needs to blossom now; and yet we still have a strong dialogue here that centers on former West Virginians coming “home” to fill job vacancies that await them. The people I have in mind that will come to make their lives in our state are looking for opportunity to build, create, and innovate. I am interested in the minds that seek an environment that supports new business creation, not simply seats for warm bodies.
I propose we give the clutching after our offspring a rest. Let’s stop worrying about getting former West Virginians back, and start strategizing about creating a place where smart, motivated people who have grown through diverse life experiences want to work and play. With all due respect to those of us who grew up here, our birth certificates do not automatically make us part of West Virginia’s bright future. What will make us part of that future is our willingness to engage the world; to embrace new people and cultural elements from outside our borders; and to stop asking for jobs and start making them.
Oh yes. And our willingness to kiss our children on the cheek and wish them well on their own journey to whatever place – maybe ultimately here – that creates a sense of home and identity for them and their best lives.
This post is adapted from the original composed for “A Better West Virginia Challenge.”
Image credit: Jamie Gaucher