On Ignoring Your Writing Instructor, or, Back to Family Council

Sure, I read the article (Frame of Reference by John McPhee) that my instructor, Jonathan Rogers, had shared.

Well, I kind of skimmed it, enough to get the gist, which was — don’t shortcut description by using a shared reference.

I even thought about that advice as I wrote my post, Family Council.

But everyone knows who Tevye is, I thought. Surely Fiddler on the Roof is iconic enough to reference.

…thought the mother who didn’t allow her children to watch that movie.

Yes, I was that mother.

Fiddler on the Roof was one of the first VHS movies we purchased. We popped the first cassette into the player and settled as a family to watch it. But when Tevye told his dream and the ghosts came flying out of the grave, Philip — he was maybe 6 or 7 at the time — was terrified and we turned it off.

Of course, I stayed up to put in the second cassette and watch the rest.  I cried when the Russians performed their “demonstration” after the wedding, and again when Chava chose to marry outside the faith and Tevye couldn’t reconcile that choice.  Watching Tevye’s fingers being pried from this tenuous thing we call “tradition” still gives me knots in my stomach.

Okay, so I didn’t watch all of Fiddler on the Roof with any of my children because I didn’t want to teach them words like “pogrom” when they were little and I never got back to it when they were teens.

So, the Tevye reference in Family Council was lost on Philip.

Today, let me be clearer. I was picturing the new owner of the nursing home to be a roundish, graying,  crusty-but-still-lovable, Tevye-ish person. Not dressed in the rough clothing of a milkman in a Russian village, but in business attire. I would have liked him to misquote the Good Book a few times, like Tevye.

Instead the new owner was a very young walking statistics book.  He knew industry standards, not Yiddish folktales. The fact that he wore a yarmulke, and thus wore his faith for all to see, gave me hope.

I had mis-anticipated him, but I hope that I haven’t misjudged him.

The bottom line for Tevye involved finding a balance between holding onto the traditions of his faith in a changing world and loving his family.

The new owner will also have to find a balance — between managing the statistics and industry standards in his head and caring for the people, real flesh-and-blood people, in the facility he has purchased.

At one point, Tevye says, “Love, it’s a new style.”

I’m hoping love and compassion are still in vogue.

Quick – 20 Things You Love

A friend posted this challenge: “Quick. Twenty things you love. (Not family, friends, or Jesus. We know that.)”
1. Going for a walk
2. My mother’s smile
3. Biscotti

4. A Military Tattoo — the kind with bagpipes, not ink on skin
5. Old stained glass windows
6. The smell of chlorine from a swimming pool
7. Days when I have nowhere to go
8. Bare trees of winter
9. Bare trees of winter with cardinals adding color
10. A good poem
11. A handmade quilt
12. Sunrise
13. Losing weight
14. A full tank of gas
15. Sleeping in my own bed when I’ve been away
16. Lilacs
17. Getting real mail
18. Warm feet
19. A free hour to spend in a used bookstore
20. A new song that catches my heart so I listen to it six times in a row.

Feeding the Dog

009Maggie, our happy black mutt, speaks up when her meal time arrives.

In fact, she can be downright annoying when it’s mealtime.

For that reason, I don’t generally feed her.  So she doesn’t annoy me. Usually.

I’m the first one down every morning and she barely acknowledges me because she knows I won’t feed her then. Her acknowledgment of my presence is that fact that she sneaks off the couch and onto her blanket as I come down the stairs — like I won’t notice that the couch is warm where a furry body has been sleeping.  The kids let her on the couch; I regularly kick her off. She knows.

When Bud arrives, however, it’s breakfast time for her.

She leaves her blanket when she hears him get up upstairs.

When he comes down, he gives me a morning hug and kiss.

Maggie woofs.

Sometimes, if we hug too long, she’ll start barking. How dare we delay her breakfast!

If Bud pours himself a bowl of cereal and sits down to eat it without feeding her, she starts nosing his arm, pushing him, reminding him. If he ignores her, she starts on me.

Nudge, nudge.  Push, push.  Feed me, feed me.

Aviary Photo_130706362186928766And, thus, Maggie always gets fed.

I once heard this tale about two dogs:

A Native American elder described his inner struggles in this manner: “Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog, all of the time.” When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied “The one I feed the most.”

(From “Experiencing the Soul: Before Birth, During Life, After Death,” by Eliot Rosen and Ellen Burstyn (1997))

Don’t we all have that mean dog inside us, woofing, nudging our elbow, demanding to be fed?

Every morning, I make a conscious decision not to feed that inner mean dog.

Some days he gets a bunch of food anyway. Rotten dog.

I just need to make sure I give my good dog more. Lots more.

The battle never ends.


And that is why I swore never to be silent when and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

Elie Wiesel, in his 1986 Nobel acceptance speech

I decided to read Elie Wiesel’s trilogy — Night, Dawn, and Day — for Lent.

I know, these are probably odd choices for a Christian holy time, written by a Jew and all, but I had never read Night and, somehow, it just seemed the right time to do so.

My other reading in 2015 has been Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl.

Are you sensing a theme?

It’s a heavy burden — this knowledge of such an awful piece of our history.

Over and over, I go back to a day in 1978, when, as a Syracuse University student, I was taking a class in Judaism, and first learned of the Holocaust.

I exited Maxwell Hall to crisp fall day.

“Six million people,” I whispered to myself, looking up at the blue skies and smelling autumn in the air. “Six. Million. People.”

It seemed so unreal. Students were bustling past, laughing and talking together.  Colorful maple leaves fluttered from the trees. The sky was so, so blue and clear.  Yet the world had somehow changed for me.

In my parents’ lifetime, over six million people had been systematically annihilated.

And the world remained silent.

This morning I read in the Psalm 62

Those of low estate are but a breath;
    those of high estate are a delusion;
in the balances they go up;
    they are together lighter than a breath.

I pictured the awful chimneys, where the smoke, rising up, lighter than breath, was people. Low estate, high estate, elderly, children — no difference — smoke, rising to heaven, and filling the air with the stench of burnt flesh.

How should we then live?

We do not know the worth of one single drop of blood, one single tear. All is grace. If the Almighty is the Almighty, the last word for each of us belongs to Him.

Francois Mauriac, in his Foreword to the original Night.

As a Christian pondering Lent, Night carries great power.

The only words by which I can live are compassion, action, and grace.

I Prefer Substantive Discussion

(This post is a response to the following comment left on my blog. “From seeing you about Greene and from reading your blogs, I see that you have made some very poor choices throughout your life, as an adolescent (rebellion, hepatitis, not respecting church camp rules and authority), as a wife (disloyalty, belittling your husband), as a parent (home schooling, hoarding, not allowing your children to experience a normal life), and as a supposed religious person (not capable of forgiveness, wanting revenge). You describe yourself as open-minded, thoughtful, attractive, outgoing and moralistic. You believe that you are omniscient – 1) having infinite awareness, understanding and insight – 2) possessing complete or universal knowledge. You are and never were any of them. You are not the beauty, but are the beast. You are delusional – a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary. Typically, they occur in the context of mental illness. Any person would have to be insane to want a relationship with you.“)

Dear Joan Jackson,

I received your comment on my blog the other day. Wow! You are a very astute reader! You’ve keyed in on many details that others have missed.

I had to search through back posts to read exactly what I had said. I’m sort of like Yogi Berra in that aspect; I haven’t really said all the things I said.

I knew that I had spoken of my rebellious teenage years on several occasions. I had forgotten when I mentioned that I had hepatitis. I found it – in the piles of posts I had taken down a few years ago; I reposted it yesterday.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me why you find this so significant. My hepatitis was associated with my bout with mono and doesn’t have anything to do with my poor teenage choices.

The reason I mention my poor choices as a teenager is that I never would want to portray myself as someone who is perfect. I am very imperfect. Very. It’s the same reason I mention my poor housekeeping skills. It’s the same reason I post family pictures where I am often looking down or making a goofy face. Life isn’t about me.

Yes, life most certainly is not about me – but I love the fact that I can live it, make mistakes, recover from them, and keep plugging away.

I love that I have an imperfect family. My husband is wonderful, but he isn’t perfect. Oh dear. Is that belittling?

My kids are wonderful, but they aren’t perfect either. And, no, they haven’t had a normal life. So far, though, half have graduated from college. Some have multiple degrees. I don’t think that homeschooling has held them back.

What is a normal life anyway?

I searched my posts for the following terms:

  • Open-minded – zero posts. I guess I’m not.
  • Thoughtful – twelve posts, and, truth be told, I probably would describe myself as thoughtful.
  • Attractive – two posts, neither of which are in reference to me.
  • Outgoing – um, really? I think I’ve made it pretty clear that I am the opposite of that.
  • Moralistic – not a word I use, but I have referred to morals in eight posts.
  • Revenge — zero posts.

I’m not omniscient, never thought I was omniscient, and never want to be omniscient. That’s for God.

I’m not a beauty. You’re right there.

I don’t know about delusional. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m living in the Matrix. That is an irrational fear I have.

But I will say this – I am incredibly thankful that there are so many insane people in the world. At church, there’s a whole congregation of people who accept me just as I am – imperfect, delusional, beastly. I go to a conference once a year in Nashville. I’m pretty sure it’s for insane people because they all accept me there too. I have many friends, lifelong and more recent, that must be downright nuts – they love me and my whole imperfect family.

So, Joan, thank you for the opportunity to do a little self-examination and blog review. As a rule, though, I prefer more substantive discussion and less personal attack.

Unfortunately, if you comment again, I won’t see it. I’ve chosen to block you. It’s my prerogative as a blogger.


Emergency Room

(This post was first published June 28, 2011)

It all started with bilirubin.

Bud and I have some sort of blood incompatibility issue which caused each of our newborn children to have elevated bilirubin levels.  Even though I had had hepatitis and jaundice as a teenager when I had mono, I didn’t know much about bilirubin.  I just knew that, at the time, I was a strange shade of orangey-yellow when I looked in the mirror.  And then, when my babies were orange and needed extra lights and watching and such, I learned more about it.  But this post isn’t really about bilirubin.

Each child had newborn jaundice.  Each needed their bilirubin levels checked multiple times.  Helen actually was re-admitted to be put under the lights at the hospital.  And this post is about Helen, but not about her bilirubin.

When Karl was a newborn, he had newborn jaundice.  I had to take him up to the hospital to have his bilirubin level checked.  Karl is number 6 in birth order, which meant I had to farm out five other children to take him for his doctor’s appointment.  Either that, or take my little tribe with me.  Nobody likes watching a baby get stuck for a blood draw, especially not siblings, and I have wonderful friends, so I farmed them out.

When I got home from this doctor’s appointment, I called Bud to let him know that I was home and everything went well.  One of his co-workers answered the phone.

“Hi, John.  This is Sally.  Could I speak with Bud?”

“Oh, he just went to the Emergency Room with the little girl.”


“Someone called and he had to go to the Emergency Room.”

“What happened?!?”

Here the co-worker started back-pedaling.  He didn’t know.  He hadn’t known that I didn’t know.  He didn’t know what to tell me.  Basically, he wanted to get off the phone with me because who wants to deal with a frantic, hormonal, post-partum mother.

My next call was to my friend who was watching Helen.  No answer.

My next call was to the Emergency Room and they put Bud on the phone.

“Everything’s fine.  Don’t worry,” he said.

Let me just say that if you ever have occasion to talk with someone while in an Emergency Room, don’t first say “everything’s fine” because obviously everything is not fine.  If everything was fine, you would not be in an Emergency Room.

“Helen got hit in the head and needs some stitches,” he went on. He reassured me that he had everything under control and would let me know what was going on when they had more information.

Helen and Caleb

Helen and Caleb

I hung up the phone wondering what had happened.  The phone rang almost immediately.  It was my friend, Jean, who had been watching Helen.  She explained the whole thing.  Jean had four sons at that point. Caleb and Helen were outside smashing ice and somehow he smashed Helen’s head by mistake.  With an ice chopper.

Poor Jean felt terrible.  Once I knew, I was okay.  I understood about boys.  Bud’s reassurance had worked.  I knew Helen was in good hands.  Today she has only a small scar along her hairline from the ice chopper incident and a great story to tell.

That day replayed for me yesterday.  Here I had spent to whole day worrying/wondering about Jacob’s first day at work.  Finally, I decided to call Helen to see how everything had gone.  I dialed her cell and this was our conversation:

“Hello, Helen?”

“Hi, Mom.  I’m in the Emergency Room.  Everything’s fine.  Can I call you back?”

“Is Jacob okay?”

“Yeah.  Can I call you back?”


I hung up and realized I knew nothing.  Jacob had been on my mind, so I assumed she was there with Jacob.  I hadn’t even asked about her.  I hadn’t even had the opportunity to find out what was going on.

Then the phone rang.  It was Helen.  She had a health question that told me she was giving her history.  As soon as I answered the question, she was gone again, with an “I’ll call you back.”

So now I knew that Helen was the patient.  She was well enough to answer questions.  BUT WHAT WAS GOING ON?!?!?

I paced and fretted until I couldn’t stand it anymore — which was about five minutes.

I called again and found out that she had gotten stain in her eyes.  She was staining a high ropes course and somehow some spilled in her face.

Over the course of the afternoon and evening, I spoke with her and her brothers that were with her several times.  She’s okay.  Everything’s fine.

The words “Emergency Room” and “Everything’s fine” don’t belong in the same sentence.

But then I find myself thinking, “O me of little faith.”  I have such a hard time believing everything is fine before I know the facts.  I think that somehow facts help my faith.   And that just shows me how small my faith really is.

I’ve been reading in the Old Testament.  God tells Abraham, “Everything is going to be fine.  Now go sacrifice Isaac.”  And Abraham did it!  Well, he didn’t end up having to sacrifice Isaac because God had it under control.

God tells the Israelites,  “I know the spies reported giants in the land, but everything is going to be fine.  Now go take the land.”  And they didn’t do it, and paid a heavy price.

In the case where they had they facts (i.e. knowledge of the giants) they actually had no faith.  In Abraham’s case, it was only God’s word and he acted on it.

The next time I get an Emergency Room call (which I hope is never) I need to remember that if they start off with “everything’s fine,” it’s time for a little faith and believing on my part.

From bilirubin to ice choppers to wood stain to … faith.  Everything’s fine.

Lent 2015

Last year I was all set to begin Lent with lofty goals. I remember being excited about engaging in the season of Lent in a new way, a more prayerful way, a strengthen-my-faith way.

It had barely begun — the sun hadn’t even risen on Ash Wednesday, so maybe, technically, it hadn’t begun — when my sister called. Stewart, my oldest brother, had had a heart attack and died.

Thus began Lent 2014, a season of death.

Every person I saw that day with an ashen cross on their forehead reminded me: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

I had been thinking about giving up Facebook for Lent, but God required me to give up something much more meaningful.

In a sick sense, I gave up my brother for Lent.

Stewart 002Last year, God spent those forty-some Lenten days prying my fingers off Stewart.  God pried my fingers off the anger — anger that Stewart had died, that I had to clean his apartment, that I never got to say good-bye to him. God pried my fingers off the hurt and the sad and the mourning — especially as I saw how Stewart had lived.

I needed to see how Stewart lived so that I wouldn’t be consumed with the fact that he died.

He had been a minister in the truest sense of the word.

This year, I don’t want to give UP anything for Lent — I want to give OUT everything.

Give to the people I’m in contact with every day.

Give thanks for them, and give them thanks for the part they play in my life.

Give whatever I have at hand, whatever they need.

Give — not UNTIL it feels good, but BECAUSE it feels good.

Isn’t that what Jesus did? Give?

Lofty goals again, I suppose.

But with a different heart.

Happy Ash Wednesday.