Thursday, January 11, 2018

Going Grey

A couple months ago, without much forethought and quite on the spur of the moment, I made an executive decision. I am going to let myself go grey.

It all came from a photograph. Usually the decision is the other way. You see a photo of yourself that showcases your cellulite or your wrinkles or your aging locks and decide that you have to do something, anything, to ward of the sands of time.

But this time I saw a photo of myself with my husband, Matt. He, with his salt-and-pepper, still mostly pepper, hair and his saltier beard and he looked so distinguished. So natural. So much like home. And there I was next to him. My hair with that unnatural for me hint of, mixed with a mousy brown and it looked so unnatural. And I wanted to match. I wanted us to be a set.

I never dreamed I would be one to dye my hair in the first place. I had always looked younger than I was and, being the youngest of four children, longed to catch up with everybody else. Then I married Matt, who looked like a mere babe himself. We were a pathetic set. We appeared to be teenagers playing house. We couldn't be taken seriously in stores. Waited on, even. Several times door-to-door salesemen came to the door of the home we owned and ask to see one of our parents. It was irritating. I should have cherished it.

Around the time we turned 30 that changed. Matt grew a beard and I had our third child and then our fourth and the stress of being so over my head in parenthood took its toll and nobody ever mistook us again for teenagers playing grownup. Sigh. I missed the good ol' days.

But still, hair dye was not on my radar. I'm not a hair dye kind of person. Or a makeup kind of person, really, beyond anything I can apply in 7.2 seconds. I don't even wear jewelry beyond my wedding band and a pair of earrings. To me, the hair dye was left for the bleach blondes and the "fancy" ladies who wanted to pull the wool over everybody else's eyes and pretend to be somebody they weren't.

Then it happened. I was 39 and a friend of mine a handful of years younger was in labor. I got the call in the middle of the night and went to the hospital to provide some moral support. As I was walking into her hospital room the nurse stopped and asked me, "Are you her mother?"

Crestfallen: dejected, discouraged, disappointed, disconsolate, downcast, despondent, woebegone, forlorn, humiliated. I felt all of them. And then I went out and bought a box of hair dye.

Fast forward fifteen years. Fifteen years of fighting off the inevitable. Fifteen years of longing for somebody to say, "I never dreamed you were that old!" "You don't look old enough to be a grandmother!" "Can I see your ID please?" (OK, that's a bit of a stretch.) But you get the picture. I wanted to not only not look older than I was. I didn't even want to look my age.

But that isn't me. I am nothing if not honest. Sometimes painstakingly so. I am so much of a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of person. And I wish the world was like that, too. No games. No putting on masks. No pretending. If I've spent most of the past 10 years living one great experiment in vulnerability then why on earth am I covering up who I am? Who set the arbitrary ideal that grey is old and grey is bad and old is bad?

In the book Going Gray (why can't we decide how to spell it?) by Anne Kreamer, she chronicles her own journey from decades of dying her hair to embracing her grey. In it she says that, by the age of 50, fifty percent of women are at least fifty percent grey. That's a fascinating thought. How many of us cover the grey because we think we are the only ones? How many of us know women who continue to color their hair well into their really old years and it looks downright odd? Why did so many of us drink the Kool-aid?

Anyway, I've decided. I am what I am and my hair will be what it will be. Yes, it's a bit scary. I'm terrified of the day I get offered the senior discount. Or when I am mistaken for my older sister's older sister. Or when it is ever so obvious that I really am my granddaughter's grandmother, and not just a mother on the older side. I am sure all those days are coming. Some have already come.

With only about 2-3 inches of grey coming in, my granddaughter has taken to calling me an "old lady."
Last night, a gentleman asked what our relationship was with the 2 young women a few yards away. Matt answered that they are our daughters, and this man said back to him... to my husband...not to me...but to my husband, you know, the one with the GREY beard, "But YOU look too young to have daughters that age!" Translation: but this haggard old thing here, the one resembling Granny Clampett or Old Mother Hubbard, she's washed up and hung to dry. It was disquieting, to say the least. But, strangely enough, it didn't deter me.

There comes a time and a place to put away some things. To step out. Or in the words of Theodore Roosevelt (and Brene Brown) to step out into the arena and dare greatly. No, this isn't a bull fight or a boxing match, but it does take courage. To take on society's values and turn them on their head. And to take on my own value of myself. And seeing my worth in my appearance. In my body. In the things that are aging, changing, mellowing...if you will.

For me it is time to throw away the endless pursuit of youth and physical beauty (at least by our screwed up society's standards anyway) and channel my energy into the things that really matter. Kindness, integrity, compassion, humor, authenticity, courage, mercy. Those things I can be no matter what color my hair is.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Beyond Behavior

People communicate. One way or another, they communicate. They don't always use words. The powerless and children (who are almost always powerless) are less likely to use words. They may not know the words or be able to find them. Or they may fear (or they may know) that their words will fall on deaf ears. But they communicate all the same.

They communicate by what they do and often that includes what we consider bad behavior.

I recently read Gregory Boyle's heart-wrenching and heartwarming book Tattoos on the Heart about his decades long work with gang members in Los Angeles.

You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is; the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear. 

Several years ago I attended the Darkness to Light Training, led by my friend Steve Collins of Adults Protecting Children. Much of the training was in video form as we watched interviews with survivors of childhood sexual abuse. After hearing the stories, the survivors then shared how the abuse impacted their mind, soul, body, behavior. As Steve led us in discussion, he asked the question, "What do we call these kids?" And answered it himself, "We call them bad kids." The point being, we see the behavior rather than hear the language of defeat, the yelp of despair, or the cry for help behind the behavior. This should not be so.

We Christians talk an awful lot about the heart to be so focused on the behavior. I think it would do us all a lot of good to see the person behind the behavior. To ask what might be going on. To think outside the box of what we see. I understand that this can be hard. It is difficult to imagine the level of trauma or pain or mental illness or desperation that would drive people to do things we disapprove of. If you just don't get it, seek understanding. Listen to stories. Read books. Expand your horizons so that other life experiences are on your radar.

Sure, pride or lust or greed or selfishness or a downright wicked heart might be the reason behind bad behavior. Or it might not be.

Willful sin is not always the reason behind every act that doesn't pass muster. We are quick to punish the starving beggar who steals a slice of bread and slow to feed his gnawing hunger. I think there is such a fear of "excusing" sin and such an eagerness to jump on the admonishment and accountability bandwagon that we never even listen to the sinner...and thus miss the real message, the cry for help, and the opportunity to be Jesus to that person.

As Boyle says of his mission:
It's about gang members, not gangs. It's about infusing hope to kids who are stuck in despair. It's about healing the traumatized and damaged so that kids can transform their pain and cease to transmit it. It's about delivering mental health services in a timely and appropriate manner to the troubled young among us. Above all, it's about reverence for the complexity of this issue and a singular insistence that human beings are involved. There are no demons here. Just young people whose burdens are more than they can bear and who are having difficulty imagining a future for themselves. 

The pointing fingers and the Nike version of sin management, "Just Stop It,"  don't reach into the heart of a person in despair. Boyle's success with gang members has everything to do with looking beyond the behavior to the human beings dying behind it. Can we do that, too?

Thursday, January 4, 2018

The Numbers Game

We humans love numbers. And sometimes numbers really do matter. Blood pressure matters. Temperature, be it body, outdoor, or oven...matters. Money matters. especially when there isn't enough, it seems. Weight matters...if you are on an elevator, that is (how many of us haven't done some hasty estimating and computing when stuffed cheek by jowl with 15 other people in a tiny box of steel) . Weight on the scale...doesn't matter as much...or at all (I tell myself).

We like to use numbers to count things, too. Every year I write down each book I finish. Nowadays I need this remember to what it was I actually read, brains cells being AWOL and all, but I started this practice years ago in order to have a sense of accomplishment. I needed to see that I had done something that stayed done. The more books, the more accomplished I felt. And somehow, being the insecure and flawed human being that I am, the more accomplished I felt, the better I felt. I have to justify my existence somehow. Right? Sigh.

I think it is only human nature to count. To measure. And to use those numbers to measure our worth. But I don't see this counting being anywhere in God's economy.

Eugene Peterson in The Message has an interesting take on the first few verses of John 4. The other versions I have read don't say this is actually what happened but I wouldn't doubt it, humans being what we are. We like our numbers and a good competition any day.

Jesus realized that the Pharisees were keeping count of the baptisms that he and John performed (although his disciples, not Jesus, did the actual baptizing). They had posted the score that Jesus was ahead, turning him and John into rivals in the eyes of the people. So Jesus left the Judean countryside and went back to Galilee. 

Keeping score. Really? Yes, really. It happens.

Churches count members and visitors and measure. All the time. It somehow determines the success of the ministry. The numbers.

And years ago I had a friend who was on staff with a campus ministry. Each Friday she had to meet with her superior and give an account of the number of people she had witnessed to and the number of converts. I think she even had a quota. As if the Kingdom of God operates on a budget. As if the hearts can be measured.

Bob Bennett nailed it.

You can show me your sales curves. Plot my life on a flow chart. You can count up your converts. And miss where it all starts. You can show me your sales curves. 
But there's just some things that numbers can't measure. These fragile pieces of priceless treasure. There's just some things that numbers can't measure.
In Matters of the Heart
Hope isn't another notch in the belt. Compassion can't be written in a ledger. The numbers game is dehumanizing. It strips us of our true worth, which can't be measured that way. We matter more than that.

I find it interesting that Jesus left all that baptizing and numbers behind and went back to Galilee.  But he went through Samaria. Where he encountered one woman. ONE. At a well. And we know how that turned out.


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Addiction and the Bolton Strid

I have noticed a trend recently. More and more obituaries including the cause of death of a young or middle-aged person, and that cause being a drug overdose ending a years-long hell of addiction. I read another story today about a beautiful young woman who in college tried heroin...tried it....tried it...and she was hooked.

The problem is that you don't know, when you try a drug, if you will get addicted. What sort of gamble is that?

In the north of England is a picturesque little creek called the Bolton Strid. It is, in this one area, only about 6 feet across. It looks innocent enough and people can be tempted to jump or wade across it. The problem is that nobody who has ever fallen in to the strid has survived. In fact, they don't even find the bodies. Apparently if you go about 100 yards upstream, the creek is about 30 feet wide. So, in effect, this quaint little creek is just the river turned on its side. Nobody knows how deep it goes or how many underground caverns there might be that hide the bodies that he waters gobble up. Nobody in their right mind would be fool enough to risk jumping across the strid, with so great a risk.

There isn't much of a difference, really, between hopping the Bolton Strid and trying heroin or meth or cocaine or opioids or, perhaps for those who are genetically predisposed, alcohol. It can be so tempting. The risk looks so small. It can promise so much.

I get it. I get the temptation of drugs. Maybe not of cocaine or meth. But there have been times in my life, quite recently in be honest...ongoing....I have times when I am so tempted to track down and gulp the leftover Percocet from some family member's surgery because I am in pain. Emotional pain. I just want to not hurt so bad. I want to not feel so intensely the despair or guilt or loneliness or hopelessness. It is just too much and I want it to stop, even just for a few hours. Yet I know that one pill could so very easily lead to another. And another. And those pills change your body and change your brain and before you know it you may never, ever be the same. That is truly terrifying to me.

I would imagine that on a hot day, a jump in the water would be nice. If you are worked up into a sweat, covered in mud, or perhaps dying of thirst, a babbling brook or a nearby river might seem like the answer to your prayers. You long to feel relief. The water calls.

When I look at pictures of the Bolton Strid I am appalled that there are no fences around that stretch of water. There are only signs warning people away. I noticed the same thing at the Niagara River, just above the falls. You can walk right down to the edge, jump in, and be gone. There is nobody there...nothing protect you. You have to make the choice yourself. You have to make the decision to stay away from the edge. You have to keep yourself safe.

It makes me stop and wonder what can I do to keep myself safe? What about others? People I love? What sort of fences can I set up?

I am not an addict but I can see how I could easily be one. I've been known to flush the tempting substance down the toilet to prevent myself from covering my pain with pills. I read recently that the opposite of addiction isn't sobriety but connection. That is something to think about the next time the longing for immediate relief in the form of a substance rears its ugly head.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Living Below Sea Level

I live below sea level. Well, not physically. Physically I am about 2275 feet above sea level in the Southern Appalachians. But emotionally...well, emotionally I'm below. My husband calls me The Netherlands. Prone to flooding. Dependent on dikes and windmills to keep the water out and the land dry and productive.

I have have days that are dry and sunny and all is well, thanks to the dikes and the weather. But dikes have to be maintained and dikes aren't foolproof. Waves can overpower them. Cracks can form and let in the sea. And weather can be unpredictable Some days my life goes from sunny to storms. My world floods. I drown. Again. Time to repair the dikes. Crank up the windmills. Pump out the water. It takes work. Hard work.

My husband says The Netherlands are beautiful. Me, I prefer mountains. But God has made me The Netherlands anyway. (I'm only a small percentage Dutch and not prone to cleaning as they do. I guess it's all that water they have.)

Much of The Netherlands is alluvial soil, brought in from eons on floods. This is what makes the earth so rich, so productive. I see that pretty much anything in me that is beautiful is the result of my weathering the storms and the floods. I pray I can grow a crop of tulips.

I remember the old tale about the little boy with his finger in the dike. I don't want my husband to have to be that boy. He says he doesn't mind. He signed up for the job. My tulips are for him.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Plan D and Real Estate

Sixteen years ago this month I started to feel the first tremors of the coming earthquake which would change the trajectory of my life. For the past 12 years I had been a mom. Just a mom. Well, not really. I had earned a bit of my keep by screening kids' books for a catalog and fact checking for a magazine and occasionally substituting for the school librarian. I had toyed with the idea, now that my youngest was in school, of getting my Masters Degree in Library and Information Studies, seeing how I have an unusually strong passion for information and the past decade or more of my life had entailed reading children's literature for often several hours a day. But before grad school was the GRE. That formidable opponent. And the realization that I hadn't had a math class since 1983. And I had a bad case of Mommy Brain. Sigh.

But while I hemmed and hawed over my future pursuits, the ground was quaking. My husband worked for a wonderful kids' magazine, a startup that relied on outside funding to exist. It was close to being self-supporting, but not quite there. Then 9/11 happened. The financial world reeled. And then our world did.

By November we knew there could be changes coming to the magazine due to the rocky financial landscape. What would happen? Plan A, stay the course. Plan B, enact a few changes and budget cuts to stay afloat. Plan C, perhaps more drastic changes. We were eager but upbeat about what the future held and considered ourselves relatively flexible people, able to ride the waves.

The first, or was it second (?), week of December I was standing at the kitchen sink when my husband walked in the room and said, "Well, they are going with Plan D." Plan D? Yes, Plan D. Pull the funding. All of it. No magazine. No job.

8.9 on the Barker Family Richter Scale.

We were faced with a number of options, all of them involving relatively drastic changes. With 4 kids in Christian school and a desire to stay put if at all possible, we rooted around for what to do.

As I said before, I had been at home with the kids for 12 years. In my previous, childless life I had worked both as a Registered Dietitian and a secretary/receptionist but my registration had lapsed years earlier and I had not kept pace with the technological skills now needed for most office work. I was, in effect, unemployable except at the most basic level. Then my husband said those words.
"Time to get your real estate license, honey."
Sometimes the aftershocks are just as terrifying as the quake itself.

In his defense, he wasn't just pulling things out of a hat. He and I had been fascinated with real estate since we had bought our house in 1993. We would crawl in bed at night and look through the weekly real estate newspaper together because in the olden days this is all you had to go on. I had helped a number of friends find houses and had even gained a bit of a reputation as the go-to person if you were looking for a house. So, to my husband it made sense. Put my real estate fascination and skills (?) to work. Literally.

And so it began.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Where I Disagree Openly and Loudly With Elisabeth Elliot

I'm sorry people but I just flipped a biscuit (and one I didn't bake, either, as I'm so not the Queen of Domesticity). I read this quote by the ever revered within our circles Elisabeth Elliot.
“The way you keep your house, the way you organize your time, the care you take in your personal appearance, the things you spend your money on all speak loudly about what you believe.'The beauty of Thy peace’ shines forth in an ordered life. A disordered life speaks loudly of disorder in the soul.” - Elisabeth Elliot
You've got to be kidding me. Where on earth does she get off on equating a tidy house with tidy soul....and does one even want a tidy soul?

A disordered life may have absolutely nothing to do with a disordered soul. It may have much more to do with circumstances, free time, finances, skills and gifts, temperaments, wiring of the brain, cultural emphasis, and priorities. A messy room is supposedly the sign of a creative person. A messy desk, a genius. People with ADD have a real struggle with organization, an issue totally outside of their spiritual condition. Some people have the inclination, the time, the motivation to be super tidy and put together. Others place other priorities ahead of housekeeping and personal appearance and others may just be struggling to keep their head above water.

My concern with this quote is what it is telling young women. Does how you keep your house really a reflection of who you are on the inside?

In one of Elisabeth Elliot's essays, "Little Things," she emphasizes this idea again, telling us how important the little things like neatly made beds and flat toothpaste tubes and swept corners are. She was taught this herself by a woman who chided, "Don't go around with a Bible under your arm if you didn't sweep under your bed." And to that I want to ask what the **** she is talking about.

And she goes on with "So many lives seem honeycombed with small failures, neglectful of the little things that make the difference between order and chaos." Holy crap! I'm the freaking Swiss cheese of failure here.

Since when....SINCE WHEN...was the measure of a woman how tidy her house is or how neat her appearance? I know that may have been a thing in the 1950s but DANG! It sure ain't biblical.

Yes, Jesus tells us to be faithful in the small things and we should. But should those small things not be matters of eternal value? If indeed we are given the answer to what God requires of us and if indeed that answer is to "do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with our God," then I think the little things we do should be about that kinds of business.

Now I'm not saying that you have no business cleaning your house or making sure your hair is brushed. Some people can't function otherwise. But to make the assessment that the state of a woman's house or her appearance or her organization is indicative in some way of the state of her soul is ignorant at best and ultimately cruel. You are putting on a woman a burden God never asked her to bear.

Did Jesus not call the tidy, goody-two-shoes Pharisees "whitewashed tombs"? I bet they sure looked great on the outside, and had smooth sheets, too. And Mary, she shirked her domestic duties and plopped herself down at the feet of Jesus to listen. Yes, making a meal was a good thing but spending time learning and listening to Jesus was the better thing and he said so.
I truly believe that to be faithful in the little things may have quite the opposite outcome than Eliisabeth Elliot was shooting for. If I am really faithful to what God is calling me to do, it might mean spending more time listening to a heartbroken friend, caring for a curious and lively granddaughter, reading books about experiences I've never had so that I can understand my friends better. It might mean rubbing my daughter's back after she's had a tough day at her very strenuous job or listening to my husband hash out a difficult thought or spend hours combing back through the real estate listings trying to find the best property for a client. It might even mean taking a long walk to keep my mind clear and my body healthy. And if in all of this there is a dust bunny population explosion, then so be it.
I know people who are doing wonderful good in this world and just don't have it in them to include a tidy house in the mix. I am not saying that organized and neat is wrong but I am saying that to equate a disordered house with a disordered soul, that is just plain wrong. And to publish it for women all around to read, well that is even worse.
I know Elisabeth Elliot has written down a great amount of wisdom through the years but this time I think she gave her preferences and her cultural upbringing with spiritual coating that God never intended.