pledges, prayers, and promises

My family has an unparalleled gift of gab.

I’m sure other families feel this way too, and I imagine one or two of them might be able to keep up with us for a few stretches at a time.  But let’s just say that if conversation were an Olympic sport, the IOC would have to invent a new medal to give us…possibly just to get us to shut up.  (They would fail).

One example: when I was fourteen years old, I stayed home from school with some malady or another that I can’t quite remember right now.  What I do remember is my aunt calling to check on me.  In the course of our, I don’t know,  maybe thirty minute conversation, we explored and thoroughly excavated at least a dozen wide-ranging topics including, but not limited to, the latest family gossip, holidays, women’s health, the American education system, music, movies, the Holocaust, and the plight of the Native American.  Imagine what we could have covered if she’d actually come over!

(pretty sure we're related to this guy)

(pretty sure we’re related to this guy)

It comes as no surprise then, that over last Sunday’s dinner, my girls, my mom and I got into a spirited and occasionally heated discussion about the Pledge of Allegiance and its appropriate usage in our schools today.  Sensing the impending skirmish, each of us immediately donned our gear of choice and slid comfortably into our positions on the field:

dissent_is_patriotic_tshirtMy twelve-year-old is a fierce independent thinker and hater of all things rote or compulsory.  She immediately dug in as the voice of the anti-pledge contingency, helpfully drawing a deep furrow in the sand to delineate sides for the rest of us.


love_it_or_leave_it_teeMy mom, a devoted Baby Boomer, has committed her life to conservativism and the study of all things World War II.  Her pro-pledge stance was inherently rooted; all she had to do was square her shoulders and hunker down, ready to defend.


referee_womens_cap_sleeve_tshirtMy position as the mediator / peacemaker was firmly established long ago, so I am always on the alert for the signs of conflict. Before the starting bell had even properly sounded, I was already rolling out the rules of engagement and foul boundaries.


invisible woman shirtMy anti-confrontational fifteen-year-old, despondent at having accidentally introduced such an incendiary topic, tried her best to duck the whole thing.  Desperate for escape, she immersed herself in whatever horrible 90s-era Wesley Snipes movie was playing soundlessly over our heads, only looking away to take a sip of her drink (and not always then).


indexAnd then there was my ten-year-old, who managed to remain completely non-partisan…mostly due to the fact that she had about seven more pressing subjects on her mind (the puzzle on her children’s menu, subversive political undertones in the latest Tinkerbell movie, snails) and could not have cared less about this one.  She focused her efforts instead on tapping my arm about a hundred times per minute, trying to shift everyone’s attention to her.

I am pleased to report no injuries or casualties resulting from the match, unless you count my naivete about just how innocuous the Pledge of Allegiance really is (truth: not at all).  Apparently, today’s middle schoolers are actually thinking about the words in the pledge as they say them.  Imagine that!  I can honestly say I never did, nor did any of my cohorts…at least, not that they admitted.  It’s just the pledge, right?   You recite it, get a piece of candy for eventually memorizing it, and then move on to whatever academic and/or social hurdles the day holds in store.

Not my young people.  They have come to the conscious realization that they are being asked, on a daily basis, to make a public. permanent promise of fidelity to the USA and everything it stands for.  They don’t object to our country, mind you; mostly they are very happy here and thankful for everything they have.  What they object to is being forced to swear fealty in this manner when they really have no choice even if they did disagree.

It’s not an unfair point.

It is remarkable, come to think of it, that a nation so beset by hot debates over parenting styles and rights, freedom of speech, and even infant baptism should be so lackadaisical about this secular compulsory vow (regardless whether “under God” is included).  They aren’t just memorizing it like the Preamble to the Constitution or a monologue from Shakespeare; they’re actively swearing it as part of their daily education goals.


It’s interesting.

We landed in a fairly comfortable place on the subject, thankfully.  I told them that when I think of being faithful to my country, I don’t think of the government; I think of people.  I am not allegiant to my leaders or legislators; it’s actually their job to be faithful to us.  I am, however, allegiant to my neighbors, my family, and most of all to the Body of Christ – regardless of political borders.  Unity, liberty, justice…yeah, I can pledge to pursue those things without reservation.

The greatest thing about the USA is that it is a safe place for conversation.  Debates, dialogue, and dissension are all welcome here.  They’re part of who we are.  I hope that, with the help of this rising generation, we can continue expanding our definition of neighbors to include the global community.  Isn’t that what the world peace that we are supposed to be seeking will ultimately look like anyway?

That’s also the greatest thing about this crazy clan of mine.  I am so happy my girls feel safe to be themselves here…and to know that when they make a promise, they think about it and really mean what they say.

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off. ― Gloria Steinem

The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.
― Gloria Steinem



When my girls were little, I quickly noticed that they based a large percentage of their feelings and reactions on mine.  This was most evident when they were learning to walk.  Anytime they wobbled, tripped, fell down, or even just startled themselves, they immediately looked to my face for a response.

If I heeded my natural impulse to rush in and begin fussing over them, looking for injuries and cooing, “Oh, poor baby, are you okay?  Are you hurt?” they would take that as a cue that something was wrong – or should be.  Immediate result: terrified wailing, screaming, and gnashing of what few teeth they had.

It didn’t take me long to see that a better way was needed.  Instead of projecting worry, I trained myself to treat every fall like the world’s greatest magic trick.  Whenever they took a tumble, I would hold my breath, throw my hands in the air, and exclaim, “Ta-dah!”

To everyone’s great relief, it worked.  The girls were distracted, I was at peace, and we were all able to move forward with whatever business had been at hand.

Fast forward to today and the great thorn in my fourteen-year-old’s side: Algebra.  Well, it’s not really Algebra that’s the problem; it’s the teacher’s method.  He’s a super nice guy and his students love him, but he only teaches to one learning style.  He lectures and gives quizzes and tests, and that’s it.

My girl is a visual and kinesthetic learner.  She needs graphics and models and most of all, lots of tactile practice.  In the absence of those tools, she struggled mightily through the first semester of that class, barely passing by the skin of her teeth.  Even though she scored no grades lower than a 98 in every other class, she takes each mistake and under-performance in this one as a personal condemnation.  She must just be “bad” at math.

This week, I had the idea to talk to her about this class in terms of a new strategy.  Among some other tools that we sought out, I dusted off the old, “Ta-dah!” approach and challenged her to use it herself every time she makes a mistake on a problem in this class.

As always, my words to my daughter immediately took on an unexpected resonance for myself.  I get enveloped in self-defeating cycles in my work and aspirations every day.  Each time I miss a task, break my diet, or even just oversleep, I face the choice of whether to pick up and and move on, or take it as a “sign” of futility and an excuse not to try again.

I read just this week in the Harvard Business Review that cultivating a positive attitude toward failure is a great contributor to ultimate success.  “In fact, evidence suggests venture capitalists often see failure as an asset—not a liability—in an entrepreneur’s record. Why? Because failure suggests a tolerance for risk, a perseverance to succeed and, most important, a passion to push the envelope.”

What works for babies and pioneers can surely work for me too, right?

Forgot to put an important date on the calendar?  Ta-dah!
Procrastinated through two-thirds of my writing time this morning?  Ta-dah!
Snapped at my mom, put my socks on backwards, and dropped everything I touched today?  Ta-freaking-dah!  (Also maybe some chamomile tea at that point.  Or a cocktail.)

And now, for my next trick…

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it. -Maya Angelou

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.
-Maya Angelou


2015 is now three weeks old, and the best gift I’ve received so far is plants.

Not real plants, mind you, as in flower boxes or a house cactus, but just the word itself.

My family did an exercise this holiday wherein we each chose a word – any word that was on our hearts – and threw it in a hat.  Then we drew them out randomly, and whichever one each drew would be her word of meditation for 2015.

(Before I go accidentally taking credit for this lovely idea, please know it did not originate with me; my aunt suggested it based on a testimony she read recently, and there’s even a whole website dedicated to the concept here.)

So we drew our words and the most beautiful thoughts began to emerge: purposeful, patience, change, treasure…  And then I drew plantsIt was not at all what I expected, but the more I think about it, the more I love it.  You can do so many things with plants!

My daughter submitted it thinking of biological plants, with the implication that the person who received it would use the year to learn more about them scientifically.  To kick that off, we have some philodendron leaves soaking in our kitchen window sill right now.  They are cuttings from a plant of my aunt’s (the same one who initiated the exercise, in fact, so I love the symbolism of that); in a short time, they will sprout roots, and we will plant them into pots to begin new lives of their own.

phil leaves

But there’s so much more!

I love that, as a noun, the word is plural, implying a plentiful yield from that which was sown.

I love that, besides flora, it also can refer to places (again, plural!) where large quantities of manufacturing work happens – centers of productivity and industry.

Best of all, I love plants as a verb: to place or fix something in a specified location, usually with the intent that it will grow.  Whether I’m planting the seeds of our Three Sisters garden or planting a kiss on my girls’ cheeks or planting my stake in the ground, I am definitely praying for exponential growth this year.

And I pray the same for you.

    “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb


the kingdom for a cookie

The most beautiful Christmas tree I ever saw was a discard on its way to the dump. kingdom treeIt had been a lean Christmas for us, and in the absence of funding for elaborate decorations, my mother built a simple faux fireplace on the main wall of our living room. The mantle allowed just enough room for our stockings and for the nativity scene to rest in prominent view as the center of our celebration. The whole display was actually made of cardboard, but it was colorful and festive and she got it special for me, so I was perfectly content. My uncle, however, who came visiting the day after Christmas, found it confusing. He pressed my mother at some length for a good reason that I did not have a Christmas tree, as all children rightfully should. (This is probably a good time to note that it was my first Christmas, and he was only five years old.) Not having the financial acumen or social sensitivity required to grasp the situation, he finally resigned himself to the injustice of it all and – no doubt at the behest of the adults – decided to spend his energies playing outside. kingdom fireplaceSome time later, in the midst of dinner preparations, my uncle came bursting back into the house. He was red-faced and out of breath, yet oddly reserved and mannerly for a young boy in the throes of vigorous exercise. This could only mean that he wanted something. Sure enough, not even waiting for a pause in the conversation, he donned his most cherubic face, widened his eyes with pure innocence, and inquired as to whether he might have six of my mother’s chocolate chip cookies, please, right away. This was oddly specific. My mother had made plenty of cookies and was happy to dispense them to her sweet little brother generously, but there was something curious in his manner that led her to question him. Why six cookies, and why the urgency? It turns out, my uncle hadn’t resigned himself to injustice at all; he had been busily setting things right. kingdom cookies 6As he was enjoying the outdoors, one of our neighbor boys had been assigned the chore of taking his family’s used Christmas tree to the curb for pick-up. Sensing providence and opportunity, my uncle immediately approached the boy and began wheeling and dealing for its acquisition. Since cookies were the only currency available to him, that’s what he offered and the neighbor decided six would be fair. All my uncle needed was to take those cookies out, and the tree would be ours. Swallowing back a rising lump in her throat, my mother opened the cookie jar and let him choose his six perfect cookies. He ran them outside, then talked his new friend into helping to carry it into our house. These two earnest young boys muscled my tree across the street, through the door, and into a corner near the nativity scene, then somehow managed to prop it up securely enough for display. This was some tree. What had originally been perfect form was now lopsided from the weight of its former decorations. There were scattered clumps of crushed icicles all over it on random branches. It had lost a fair number of needles at the hands of its young movers, too – but it was mine: my tree, my gift, bought with the uninhibited love of a young boy who cared enough to go find it for me. Love made it perfect. I don’t know whether my family added any decorations to my tree that night, or how long it was allowed to stay. In truth, I don’t actually have a visual memory of it at all, just images imprinted on my heart from the story as we’ve told it over the years. Yet that tattered old leftover tree remains as the standard to which I hold all Christmas trees, and the epitome of love made tangible and real. Oh, and to this day, my mother still gives her little brother cookies for Christmas.  Every year. kingdom cookies

much and more: a tale of four apple seeds

4 apple seedsFour little apple seeds.  That’s how it all started.

Four tiny little apple seeds have dominated – nay, wrecked my household over the past two weeks.

Because of four little apple seeds, I have lost approximately fifty hours that I had earmarked for other purposes.  Instead of getting my hair cut, reorganizing my bedroom, and a host of other noble activities, I have been forced to heed the urgent, silent cry of 50 lbs. of produce on my counter: Clean us!  Cook us!  Preserve us before we rot and grow flies!

Because of four little apple seeds, my house is a mess.  My precious living space, which I prefer to keep tidy and full of peace (or at least vacuumed), is gasping for breath beneath a layer of earth and leaves.  Sweep as I may, it is all for naught; the moment I approach the next apple, another dusting begins to fall.  This endless cycle has led me to neglect my regular weekly chores as well, and the cost is piling up.

Because of four little apple seeds, I am exhausted.  Working through my days off and cooking into the night have trimmed much needed hours off of my commitment to rest and relaxation.  My hair is frizzy, I’m always hot, and my clothes are riddled with patches of cinnamon-scented goo.  I am not a pretty picture.

And we’re still not done.  There’s another whole load of apples at my aunt’s house, whimpering and waiting for me to come pick them up!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd yet…I wouldn’t change a thing.

Thanks to those four little apple seeds, my family has spent the majority of our last two weeks in real face time together.  We have filled our humble kitchen with slicing, stirring, boiling, laughing, arguing, singing, and more, with nothing but music to accompany us.  We have made memories that we already enjoy to recount – and we’re still not done.

Thanks to four little apple seeds, our hands have generated more than 40 pints of locally grown, chemical-free, homemade apple butter.  It is – and I say this with all due humility – the best apple butter I have ever tasted.  Of course, we have more than we could ever possibly hope to eat ourselves, so we will be able to take the excess and sell it.  At $4.00 per half pint, the project will more than have paid for our investment – and we’re still not done.

Thanks to four little apple seeds, we have been given a chance to participate in the harvest.  We have shared, in a very small way, the sweat and vigor of those who live off of only what their own hands can produce and preserve.  We have a physical reminder of the multiplied blessings that come when we plant good seeds in the world and in the lives of others.  We have received and given back thousands of times more than what was originally sown.

And we’re still not done.

Anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the number of apples in a seed."  -Robert H. Schuller

Anyone can count the seeds in an apple, but only God can count the number of apples in a seed. -Robert H. Schuller