Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Wrong Question

Yesterday I was looking through the past 5 years of photos on my iPad with my granddaughter which is always a rollicking good time. As I listen to her giggle at seeing herself as an infant and toddler, I find myself wondering how much I have changed in that time. Ever the one seeking self-improvement, I begin to wonder have I improved? At all? In any aspect of life? I start going down the checklist. Do I know more? Am I smarter? Have better people skills? Am I wiser? Have more understanding? Compassion? Am I a better wife? Parent? Sister? Friend? Realtor? Am I healthier? More physically fit? And then I start to panic. What has this past 5 years gotten me. Nothing? Was it all for nothing?

Then I was in the shower this morning and, as per the usual, I do my best thinking in the shower, either that or while walking the dog. Either way I do my best thinking when in a place where I can't write it down and I have usually forgotten it by the time I get home to write it down which is why I never write blog posts any more. Well, one of the many reasons. So I write this while dripping wet, wrapped in a towel, lest I forget this important less.

So there I was in the shower and I realized that I was asking the wrong question. It shouldn't be "what have I gained?" but "what have I given away?" What point is gaining wisdom and compassion and knowledge and skill and understanding if I don't share those with others? Even John the Baptist said, "He must become greater, I must become less."

The whole point of being on this planet is to love God and to love other people. If there is not love, there is nothing. Don't believe me then read it for yourself in I Corinthians 13.

The past 5 years have seen a whole lot of ups and downs in my personal and professional life and it would be really hard to look at the current product of who I am now and say that I am a new and improved Ginny. I'm afraid that I am not. But have I loved? Have I cared for people? Have I crawled into the pit with them? Sat on the mourning bench with them? Brought them a cup of cold water? Lifted their spirits with some self-deprecating humor? Showed them that God is not far away but very, very close?

If so, it doesn't matter about the rest. Any improvement I may make is not to be stockpiled, it is to be given away.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

On History and Powder Kegs

It has happened again. Twice in the past week or so black men have been shot dead by police officers. One in Tulsa and one in Charlotte. Charlotte has been turned into a State of Emergency with the National Guard called in to deal with the protests and rioting. It is confusing. It is heartbreaking.

I have friends who are black. I have friends who are police officers. I am no specialist on race relations. I don't know what went on in these situations. I don't know what the intentions were with the men who were killed. I don't know what was going on in their head. Or the heads of the police officers who killed them. As a white, middle-class American there is no way I can get it.

Last night I watched the video "The Pruitt Igoe Myth" about the rise and fall (quite literally) of the famous public housing project in St. Louis. The place lasted barely 20 years. It was doomed from the start.

Most fascinating were the stories of the people who lived there. The memories, both good and bad, comforting and horrifying, spilled out for viewers like me to lap up. At first the project provided shelter, community. But as time went on, conditions deteriorated. Crime, danger, fear set in. And Pruitt-Igoe became the poster child for public housing gone bad.

I found this video particularly fascinating and enlightening against the backdrop of the recent racial conflicts in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte. Because the protests and the rioting are never just about the incident at hand. That incident is only the spark to set off a powder keg. And how do decades and centuries of oppression and abuse, much of it institutionalized, systemic, very legal oppression, not lead to a build up of fear, anger, hopelessness.

Take an entire race of people. Throw them in a pit. Stomp on their fingers every time they attempt to pull themselves out of the pit. Blame them for not pulling themselves out of the pit. Complain about the conditions in the pit. And then scratch your head in confusion when the pit erupts?

I am not an expert on black history but I am a realtor. I have read deeds on properties and seen entire neighborhoods that prohibited the sale of the property to blacks. I know that for years the Federal Housing Authority would not back loans to blacks. I know that in 1973 my entire neighborhood was up in arms when word got out that a black couple had looked at a house on our street. These are but tiny nuggets in an entire system of oppression. At some point I would think that you would just flat out give up.

A lot of destruction went on in Charlotte this past week. Can we look at what is behind it?

A couple of years ago a friend of mine was teaching a training class on childhood sexual abuse. The instructional video included a section where victims talked about how the abuse played itself out in their behavior and, indeed, much of that behavior was unpleasant and destructive. During the discussion time my friend mentioned this and asked, "What do we call these kids? We call them bad kids." The point being that bad behavior is often more than just bad behavior. It is sign of something going on much deeper in the human soul.

My heart breaks for everybody. My heart breaks for the police officers who are often caught between a rock and a hard place. Protect or don't protect? Arrest or don't arrest? Shoot or don't shoot? And all the while bear the brunt of pain, hopelessness, anger, and fear. My heart breaks for an entire race of people who, after centuries of oppression, can't help but find their anger welling up and spilling over.

I have never been a Pollyanna. I know that there are no easy answers. But my prayer is that we can all stop and listen to the pain behind the eruption. It makes sense. Where do we go from here?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

My Story, Part 13

To start at the beginning, click here.
For Part 12, click here.

1994 found me thirty and pregnant with our third child. I distinctly remember one night lying on my bed, watching the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer as my varicose veins throbbed and my belly wobbled and heard myself say "I'll never do that." I don't know what part of me had been so delusional that I thought I ever actually could do that (as in be in the Olympics or even be an athlete of any stripe) but there I was. Pregnant, thirty, and all washed up. My entire life I had looked ahead to the "some day" part of life and now, out of nowhere, I had passed that and was looking back with longing and regret for missed opportunities.

Fast forward a few months and I became the mother of a bouncing baby boy. I had heard a number of moms say "If you can handle three kids, you can handle any number above that." I am not so sure what I did counted as "handling" three kids. I cried. I despaired. I daydreamed about running off to Montana with my baby. I daydreamed about the OB that delivered my baby. Seriously. I got a freakin' crush on the doctor that delivered my baby. Who does that?

Postpartum with Baby #3 was just plain hard. Matt was working long, long hours and I wasn't so much depressed as resigned and hopeless. It was all too much and I really wanted to start over with a new and different life. Or at least a new and different husband. (Sorry, honey.)

To add insult to injury, enter The Ezzo Reign of Terror. As if I wasn't overwhelmed enough, Gary Ezzo's "Growing Kids God's Way" and "Preparation for Parenting/Babywise" parenting programs took hold in our church and in the Christian community at large. If you don't know about this, please read the link. It will help you understand the atmosphere I lived in.

Always up close and personal with insecurity, guilt, and crippling self-doubt, the emphasis that there was one way to Do It Right when it came to parenting was just disastrous for me. My thinking self read the material and recoiled at the ludicrous claims and cruel and even dangerous directives yet my emotional self hated being the odd man out and the one who didn't Do It Right.

Behind all of this stuff was a really distorted view of God. Even though at I had been a Christian for 13 years at this point, I still struggled terribly with my image of God as the stern taskmaster who was never, ever satisfied with my performance. So there I was. Convinced that God hated me because of my failure as a mother and convicted and horrified over my lack of love for my husband.

I was pretty much at the end of myself. Turns out that that is exactly where God wanted me.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Why I Hate Awards Ceremonies

I have seen so many articles lately bemoaning the fact that kids now get "participation trophies" and blame that for the sense of entitlement and woes of an entire generation, I understand that getting a trophy just for being on the team seems a little odd, but I understand the problem it is trying to address.

At the end of every school year are awards ceremonies. These things take hours. I endured them as a student. I endured them as a parent. Every year it seemed the same kids got the awards. It became predictable. For the students and the parents.

There were the academic awards. The athletic awards. The character awards. Some of the awards were objective by grades and GPA. Others were voted on by teachers. Some were voted on by fellow students. The smart and the talented got the awards. The popular got the awards. And everybody else sat there.

As a student you learn to deal with it. To expect it. To know that nothing you can do will really change it. As a parent it is more heartbreaking. You hope your child takes it in stride. Learns from it. Develops resiliency and peace with who they are.

As much as awards may be there to encourage students to compete and push themselves to be the best they can be, the reality is that for many students, their best will never, ever be good enough.

Life is not an even playing field. So many factors play into a child's achievements. Some kids are born with intellectual gifts or natural abilities. Some are born into families that are driven and push for accomplishment. Some kids are born into families that have the resources to provide the opportunities that spark interest and hone skills. Some are born with an ear for music or athletic zest dripping from their muscles. Some are born with a bubbly personality and a chatty disposition.

On the converse, some kids are born with challenges. Learning disabilities and ADD and autism spectrum disorders can prove to be hurdles that require much effort to manage. Some kids struggle with anxiety or depression or other mental health challenges that may force academic performance to take a back seat. Some kids are born into homes where there is violence or negligence or addiction or poverty. Survival is the goal.

The fact of the matter is that Average Joe will never be able to compete academically with Mr. Gifted High IQ. The kid raised by a single mom who works the night shift will likely never have the same opportunities to hone his skills as the kid whose parents have traveled with him every weekend, year round, to play in state soccer leagues. The quiet, shy introvert will never catch the attention of the teachers the way Miss Congeniality will. The popular kids stay popular and the not-popular ones rarely have a chance to break into that exclusive club.

Even though I am saying all this, I am not advocating for a trophy for everybody. It is really a pain to store those things and nobody really cares about them anyway. I just want to make the point that all these awards can be frustrating and discouraging and downright painful. Some will try their hardest and never make the grade. Some will give up. Some won't care and never try at all.

I don't know the answer. I am just pondering. I do wonder if the whole awards thing is necessary at all.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Ezzo Reign of Terror

Before I continue with my story, I need to go ahead and give a more in depth description of what I encountered next. I call it The Ezzo Reign of Terror.

I didn't embark on parenthood with a lot of philosophies or systems under my belt. I didn't want them. All it really took me was a few nights, post c-section, of sitting up trying to nurse a newborn before I realized that it was the pits. So I pulled my baby in the bed next to me. She wanted to nurse. I wanted to sleep. It was a win-win for everybody. I didn't go around pushing co-sleeping and the family bed as a philosophy. It was just what worked for us. I thought that was what parenting was about.

I have never been a rigid parent by any means. It has never been my style. It isn't in my genetic code. Kid after kid blasted on to the scene and we just sort of muddled through. Parenthood was hard and I often felt I was in over my head but, by and large, I figured that's what parenthood was about.

Early in parenthood I read an article in a parenting magazine (a Christian parenting magazine, no less) where older, empty nest parents were asked what they would change about parenting if they were to do it all over again. The answers were things like "I'd say 'yes' more often" and "I would pick my fights" and "I wouldn't major on the minors." These all seems like sensible things to me. Don't sweat the small stuff. Leave room for growth and personal decision making. Don't get caught up in hyper-control. Sounded wise and reasonable enough to me.

Well, a few weeks after the birth of my third child, the entire family went to watch my husband play a softball game with our church's team. The game went long and my then 2.5 year-old, highly emotional toddler started to melt down. She wanted to go to the car and I wanted her to just sit in my lap on the ground until the game was over. She fussed a bit but I didn't give in to her whining. I was actually quite pleased with myself for being so calm so recently post-partum and standing my ground while being gentle with my daughter. James Dobson would have been proud. Then it happened. Another mom spoke.

"Ginny, have you heard about that new parenting class they are teaching at church? I think you should take it. You would find it really helpful."

I. Was. Crushed. The Ezzo Reign of Terror had begun.

For those of you fortunate enough to be totally oblivious to what I am talking about, let me illuminate you. Gary Ezzo was a dude out in California at John MacArthur's church who was a self-proclaimed parenting expert with no training whatsoever in medicine or psychology or child development but had, according to my husband, a PhD in self-righteousness. To be fair, his wife was, or had been, a nurse, striking horror in the hearts of responsible, reasonable RNs across the country.

Ezzo took it upon himself to write up an entire parenting curriculum for churches and named it the most presumptuous of names possible: "Growing Kids God's Way." Because Gary Ezzo apparently had his own hotline to the Almighty, I suppose. It sounds arrogant. It sounds crazy. But people ate. it. up.

Some of his advice was decent. Some of it was insane. But what was so very hideous about it all was the assumption that his way was the right way because it was God's way and he twisted and perverted scripture to back it up.

Back in the very early days of the internet my husband would go online at work and look up info on him. He came across a comment thread hundreds of comments long about high chair etiquette. I exploded. How dare this man shrink the Kingdom of God down to high chair etiquette!

It gained a foothold in our church. People raved about the classes. Others glanced disapprovingly at me nursing my baby when he fussed and they gushed about their sleep training schedules. Formerly free spirited toddlers were corralled and trained and stepped to the orders.

It took over entire churches. I had a friend at another church who was told that they didn't know if they wanted her baby in the nursery if she was not going to put him on the Ezzo schedule.

The overall effect that the Ezzo reign had was what you find in any sort of legalism. Those who could get with the program and do it right and found that it worked for their child grew arrogant and self-righteous and those who tried and failed crumbled in despair.

Being who I am, even with my very strong opinions and knowing in my head that this man's proclamations were bullshit, self-doubt took over. I was swimming upstream against an entire culture of "do this" and "don't do that" and chiding and chastising and I just didn't cope very well with that. Ezzo had reduced the most basic of loving, nurturing relationships into a factory assembly line of Robot Babies.  I hated the very arrogant presumptions of this man and his formula but felt powerless and worthless as a parent because, in the eyes of so many others, I was doing it wrong.

Thankfully, over times, Gary Ezzo and his kingdom met resistance. His infant baby training programs were called out by the American Academy of Pediatrics, among other organizations, for producing failure to thrive in a number of babies. His twisting of scripture was called out by theologians and Christian medical professionals across the country. He was excommunicated by a successive churches. His daughters, who he had supposedly grown God's way, broke off relationship with him.

Yet I still see his books out there. I know many who prefer to use his sleep training methods. He still has some influence. I will never tell people not to use his methods. Some may need the structure. What I will say is that it isn't for everyone and that, no matter what he says, there are no guarantees. Your baby is not a lab rat or Pavlov's dog. Your baby is a beautiful person, created in the image of God. There are no formulas. There are a million different ways to raise children and still be within the framework of a loving, God-honoring family. Gary Ezzo's way is not the magic bullet for the Perfect Christian Child. And do not ever, ever tell me that this way or that way is God's way.

But even though Gary Ezzo doesn't have a corner on the parenting market any more, the damage was done. The idea that there was a right way to raise kids was out there. It still is.

Friday, March 11, 2016

My Story, Part 12

To start at the beginning, click here.
To read Part 11, click here.

It was December 1992 and, with a bit of excitement, but also fear and trepidation, we moved south again. Much of what we were moving back to was incredibly familiar. Back to the south. Back to Asheville, Back to the company that Matt had worked with in the 80s. Back, even, to the church where we had met. But we were different people now. Parents with children. And we had been changed by our experience in Philadelphia.

I cried every day that first year.

We moved into a 2 bedroom apartment on the side of Beaucatcher Mountain overlooking downtown. Only we couldn't cough up the extra $50/month to get the view, so our windows looked out into the 3 story hillside. If you smashed your nose up against the glass and looked up, you might be able to see sky.

Matt started working late the second night on the job. Within the first week he had pulled an all-nighter. I was at home all day with 2 small children, one with chronic ear infections. We had one car to share between us which meant loading the kiddos up at the crack of dawn or late at night to take Matt to and from work or spend the day at home without a car. Isolated and claustrophobic against the steep mountainside. I was lonely. Very, very lonely.

Even though we returned to the church where we had met, we never felt like we belonged. At the time it was a typical southern upper-middle class church and known, informally, as the place where the beautiful people went. I recoiled. These people were tidy. Put together. Suburban. Upwardly mobile. I was a mess. Painstakingly honest. Eager to live in a racially mixed neighborhood and live simply and not give a rip about social conventions and niceties. To a certain extent, it was culture shock, as if I had moved to a foreign country. Even though it was the country I had known first.

Yes. I was lonely. I was angry. I was angry at my husband for taking me away from the community that I loved. So many times I wanted to pack up the kids and just go back. With or without him.

Somewhere in the middle of all this we bought a house. It was an old house built in 1925, chock full of old pipes and bad wiring and cigarette smoke and bacon grease and 3 layers of window treatments held to the wall with gutter nails. And full of charm. And we fixed it up. And moved in. And began a new life for good. Matt had told me that we had to conceive a house before we could conceive another child, so I not-so-patiently waited and the first egg that dropped from my over-eager ovaries after we moved in became Baby #3.

December came. We passed the one year mark in Asheville. I was through the nausea-laden first trimester. I was settling in. Then it snowed. It snowed again the day we left to go for Philadelphia for Christmas. I remember regretting leaving the beautiful snow on the mountains. And as we drove into Philadelphia from the south, past the industrial smokestacks and treeless expanse, I didn't get that twinge of longing I expected. I realized that God had orchestrated things just right. To peel my fingers off our old home and make me long for our new one.