Sunday, July 31, 2016

Our Place in Time

I’m in a quandary.  At almost 62 years old, that is not the most comfortable place to be.  I’ve recently finished a biography of Paul Newman.  I was really interested in, however, the story of his son, Scott, who died of a drug overdose after years of trying to live up unsuccessfully to his role as the only son of Paul Newman.  Who could, really?  Everyone expected him to have the same looks, the same acting ability, the same charm.  But Scott was a different person, of course.  Even Paul’s daughters felt the burden of their dad’s fame.  They said it was hard finding a boyfriend who was not intimidated by their father, and even their female friends found themselves flirting with the handsome Mr. Newman, even as he got older and older.  It’s hard to be born into fame and fortune.

My sister Joy and I were not born into fame or fortune.  We were born into a middle-class family in Tennessee.  Our parents were not politicians or actors or people whose names you would read in the gossip column of the newspaper.  However, our father made his mark on the world by writing letters during the Civil Rights movement to encourage those on the front lines championing justice who were the recipients of so much hate and animosity, and sometimes penning letters to businesses to every so kindly encourage them to change policies (as in, it’s time to let go of the separate white/Negro drinking fountains).   Letter by letter, he wrote his words of love and tolerance, and letter by letter those recipients were warmed, inspired, and sometimes challenged by his witness as a white Christian Southern man who had ideals and wanted to make the world a better place.  Dad saved most of these letters, and Joy recently wrote a play called “Letter Man” which brought everything together; the play was staged in Memphis this summer.  

As she was working on compiling these letters into a play, Joy and I held many conversations over the phone on the impact these letters were having on us.  Both of us are way past the age where our dad started his ministry of public service as a lone agent speaking in the wilderness for love and tolerance and social change.  Re-reading the letters inevitably made us question ourselves as to what we have done with our own lives.  When you grow up with a parent whose life embodied Jesus in so many ways, how do you deal with that?  How can you live up to that legacy?  Everything we have done seems so inadequate in the shadow of his accomplishments and sacrifices.  

I recently read an excerpt from a book by David Brooks titled “The Road to Character.”  Here is what he says:  “In this method, you don’t ask, What do I want from life? You ask a different set of questions: What does life want from me? What are my circumstances calling me to do? In this scheme of things we don’t create our lives; we are summoned by life. The important answers are not found inside, they are found outside. This perspective begins not within the autonomous self, but with the concrete circumstances in which you happen to be embedded. This perspective begins with an awareness that the world existed long before you and will last long after you, and that in the brief span of your life you have been thrown by fate, by history, by chance, by evolution, or by God into a specific place with specific problems and needs. Your job is to figure certain things out: What does this environment need in order to be made whole? What is it that needs repair? What tasks are lying around waiting to be performed? As the novelist Frederick Buechner put it, ‘At what points do my talents and deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?’” 

This is the quandary.  Dad served his life’s purpose during a great upheaval in this country.  He felt in his soul he knew exactly what he was called to do.  Indeed, he considered it his calling.  No question about that.  

But each generation has to respond to its own times.  I was reminded of the Gettysburg Address, where Lincoln started out with the famous “Fourscore and seven years ago,” recalling the birth of the nation, then goes on to say “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”  In just a couple of sentences, he takes the listeners all the way up the road from the founding of the nation, from which by this time they were so removed, to their current situation.  He was saying, yes, we can remember the past, we MUST remember the past, but we are called to act in the present.

So, using a phrase which used to be popular, “What would Jesus do?” - Joy and I ask, “What would our dad Ensley do?”  Indeed - he lived in a different era.  He typed his letters out on a typewriter, key by key, folded them up, inserted them into envelopes, addressed them, stamped them, and sent them on their way.  He wrote on a one-to-one, from sender to recipient.  The world has changed now.  How would he have handled Facebook, where his passionate pleas may have been met with volatile response from friends and even strangers?  What would have been his responses to the endless social media posts which would have saddened his heart?  Would he have been overwhelmed with the job at hand?  We know he would have responded with love, as that is the only way he could, but exactly how?  As he was called to answer to his time in history, so are we called to answer to our time.  We feel the urgency to bring attention and energy to injustice in the many ways our dad did.  Racial tensions have escalated and his vision of a world of racial equality still has not materialized.  And for our generation, there are additional battles to fight on other lines of social change as well.  But how?  When news goes around the world faster than lightning, and opinions are more numerous than stars in the heavens, when just watching the news makes your heart break, when the senseless killings just don’t seem to stop and violence and hate and fear seems to crown the days - what are we called to do?  What are we called to say?  How are we called to act?  What is our “calling”?  

It’s a world of questions waiting for answers.  When you examine life in your 60s, the hourglass has lots more sand on the bottom than on the top.  The urgency is clear.  Time seems short.  I am just one person.  It all seems so overwhelming.  Sometimes I call my friends because, instead of being an encourager, I seem to need the encouragement myself.  Joy and I have said many times recently how we wished Dad were here to guide us, to show us the way that we can spread love and be active fighters for justice and tolerance in the here and now.  

No, we didn’t have a famous father who was listed in Forbes or People magazine.  But he was certainly a man hard to live up to.  May we all find our “calling” in this life - and be faithful to it.  So help us God.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


When my husband, Ed, was in seminary, he came home one day with something funny to relate.  In his counseling class, the professor stressed the importance of listening.  He instructed them in the art of listening to the clients, paying careful attention, then repeating back to the clients in their own words what had been discussed.  It’s an empathy lesson, a session in careful listening as the counselor tries to discern what the client is really feeling, then in turn the counselor makes the client aware that everything they said had been accurately heard.  The professor said one of his students came back to class one day and told him how it went.  Here was the student’s story:  My elderly patient was saying, “I can’t stand it anymore, I am in daily pain.”  I responded, “What I hear you saying is you can’t stand it anymore, you are in daily pain.”  The patient looked at me for a moment, then said, “I am in such a depression, can’t focus, don’t feel life has meaning.”  I responded, “What I hear you saying is you are in such a depression, can’t focus, don’t feel life has meaning.”  At this point the patient said, “Is there a damn echo in here?!”  

As humorous as that story is, the point about listening and being heard is valid and so applicable to what is going on in our society.  I just took a break from Facebook because the negativity and hate was wearing me down.  We can’t stand still enough to listen to our brothers and sisters when they tell us how they feel.  The Black Lives Matter folks are trying to tell us how scared they are around police officers, from their person experiences or seeing what it is happening to others.  They say so often they are treated in a demeaning manner from society at large. The police officers are trying to tell us what it’s like to have their lives on the line every day, and how scary it is to stop a total stranger, who one day might be an old man who accidentally ran a red light to a wanted murderer who has nothing to lose when confronted and the officer may only have a few seconds to react to a threat.  The white folks are telling us they are scared at the way society has changed, it’s too fast for them, and besides, they think since slavery has been fixed, and everything is integrated, and we have blacks in places of power, so what’s the big deal?  They hear “Black Lives Matter” and add the words “more than other lives” and are offended, and the blacks hear the exact same phrase and add the words “just as much as other lives.”  Everyone assumes if your pro-cop, you’re anti-black; if you’re pro-black, you’re anti-cop.  The conversation deteriorates from there.  Everyone talks, few really listen.

What are we supposed to hear?  That the “other side” hurts, they have feelings, they are frustrated, they are scared.  It is human nature to want to have a voice.  We want somebody to hear us.  Even kids.  I’ve just read a book about the old TV show where Andy Griffith and Ron Howard played a sheriff and his son.  One day on the set, little Ron, who played Opie, took the director aside and said, “I don’t believe a little kid would say those words just that way.”  The director responded by saying, “Well, how would a kid say that, then?”  Ron gave the sentence as he thought it should be played, and the director gave him the green light to change the script.  Ron got a huge smile on his face and right before the scene was taped, Andy Griffith asked Ron what he was smiling about.  He told him the director had LISTENED TO HIM and was taking his advice!  Andy asked him why that was so great and Ron said that he had many times asked the director to change something and he never had…up until now.  Andy replied that it was probably because this was the first idea he had that was any good!  

I’ve read enough psychology to understand that if someone comes to you, whether friend or family member or whoever, and says, “I feel….,” you should never EVER respond by saying:  “You shouldn’t feel that way.”  “It’s your own fault.”  “You don’t really feel like that.”  “What do you expect me to do about it?” - or anything similar.  Feelings are valid!  If I feel hurt in a situation, it doesn’t matter if the hurt was intended or not, the very fact I feel hurt should be acknowledged.  

Society is hurting.  Society is scared.  It’s not time to fan the flames of insults and demeaning, demoralizing arguments.  It’s time to listen.  Hear the pain from everyone.  Hear the anguish, the frustration, and after we listen, REALLY listen, with an open mind, human to human, we can go from there.  

One of the lasts posts I shared on Facebook before my “sabbatical” said that the phrases that matter most in the English language that we don’t say enough are “I love you.”  I’m sorry.” “Please forgive me.” Thank you.”  I will add one more to that….”I hear you.”

Friday, March 18, 2016

Thoughts in the wee hours of the morning...

What time is it?  If I turn my head I can just see the clock.  5 a.m.!  Oh my goodness, I have got to get back to sleep so I can work tomorrow.  Tomorrow?  I guess it’s today now.  Sheesh, I’m tired.  After all, I didn't get to bed until 1 a.m.  Ed is fast asleep, and so is Sam, our recently adopted dog.  Sam loves to sleep in bed with us.  That’s fine, except he loves to be curled up right next to me.  I mean RIGHT next to me.  I can barely move his 45 pounds of snoring canine body.  We would have to get a dog who snores.  I wonder if they make CPAP machine for dogs?  Well, they make clothes and boots for them, don’t they?  I saw where the pet store had dog coats and boots for sale this week.  Ed won’t let me get Sam clothes.  He says that is silly.  Oh well.

I really have to switch positions.  Oh man, I don’t want to wake Sam up but once I realize I need to move, that’s all I can think about.  I give a little nudge.  Sam won’t budge.  He doesn’t get hints, especially when he is fast asleep.  I can feel my nightgown scrunched up beneath me.  I really need to turn over.  I need to fix my nightgown.  I need to go to the bathroom.   I need to get this song out of my head.  “Here comes Peter Cottontail, hopping down the bunny trail, hippity hoppity Easter’s on its way…”  I stifle a laugh.  We just got an animated toy for my mom who sings that song.  I mean, the bunny sings the song, not my mom.  Although she probably tries to sing with him.  He actually hops around while he sings.  And he wears bunny slippers.  Sam would look cute in bunny slippers.  But nooo, I can’t buy doggie clothes - stubborn Ed.  Man, now I can’t get the song out of my mind.  How am I supposed to sleep now?  I’ve got to think of another song.  The only way to clear one’s mind of one song is to get another one going….

Ah, yes.  “Here I go again, I hear those trumpets blow again, all aglow again, taking a chance on love.”  That’s what we’re doing - taking a chance on love.  It’s the reason we didn’t want a dog for many months after our border collie Lily died of epilepsy.  We bonded tight with her, and had to watch her seize day after day after day.  She was only 3.  Never again, I said.  I can’t do it again.  I can’t emotionally go through with loving fiercely and losing everything.  What good is loving if it has to end?  Is the pain and sadness really worth it?  We’ll get along without a dog, I told Ed.  He agreed.  Our emotions were just too raw. 

Sam starts jerking.  For a split second, I think it is Lily having a seizure.  Only this time it’s not a seizure.  Sam is dreaming and running in his sleep.  Thank God his back is to me.  The other night he was on his side facing me and I got a back massage all night, and not the good kind, until I gave up and went to the couch to finish the night.  

“Here I slide again, about to take that ride again, starry-eyed again, taking a chance on love…”  Now I can’t get THAT song out of my mind.  Yeah, we managed to live without a dog for over a year.  Then I started perusing PetFinder and the local shelters’ web pages.  It was all innocent.  Just a way to pass the time.  Yeah, right.  Then I saw Sam and fell in love.  We tried to talk ourselves out of it.  Remember in the summer when it’s too hot to leave the dog in the car?  Remember having the vet bills, having to buy heartworm pills and dog food?  Remember the dog hair everywhere?  Yeah, I remembered.  But I also remembered the cuddling and soft fur on my hands.  I remembered the joy in Lily’s eyes after we had been separated for a few minutes and were reunited.  The tail wagging.  The funny things she would do that made us laugh.  I kept staring at Sam’s picture.  He was in Arkansas, asking us to adopt him.  I could feel it.  But where was the guarantee that we would have him for many years and he would be healthy and would never get sick or injured?  I want a guarantee before I make a commitment! I want a guaranteeeeeee!!!  “Now I prove again, that I can make life move again, in the groove again, taking a chance on love…”

Oh my goodness, if I don’t change positions I’m going to scream.  I barely have enough room before he pushes me out of bed.  I slowly maneuver my fingers over to the edge to measure the distance.  Three fingerbreadths and I fall off.  I literally will fall out of bed.  Fingerbreadths.  What a stupid word.  I type it all the time as a transcriptionist.  Oh dear!  If I don’t get some sleep, I’ll NEVER be able to focus at work tomorrow.  I mean today.  

I give Sam a little push.  No response.  He is so heavy.  I could strain a muscle trying to move that hunk of animal flesh.  Why does he have to sleep in bed with us?  I will admit he is wonderfully warm, though.  

Sigh.  I’ve got to get up and rearrange my nightgown.  What time now?  Oh, 6 a.m.  I’m exhausted but surprisingly content.  I maneuver myself out of bed without disturbing Sam or Ed and come in here to the computer to collect my thoughts.  And to try to get the song out of my head.  “Things are mending now, I see a rainbow blending now, we’ll have a happy ending now, taking a chance on love.”