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Since I’m Not Catholic or a Lesbian…

On Sunday morning, I’ll be worshiping at a Catholic mass. I’ll also be briefly speaking about the Catholic who-am-iorganization for which I work.

The Catholic Church has always been a part of my life during the Christmas season. My parents met on the campus of Notre Dame University back in 1961, and their annual Christmas cards from Father Theodore “Ted” Hesburgh always held a place of honor in their home.

Despite that, my parents aren’t Catholic, and I’m not Catholic.

Just learning to call their church service “mass” was an accomplishment for me.  Less than a month after I started my current job, I made the mistake of walking into a Catholic Church on a Sunday morning and asking two women about “the service.” They looked at me blankly until one of them, with a note of disbelief, asked “do you mean the mass?”

I did. Since then, I’ve also discovered that a Catholic priest doesn’t deliver a sermon but instead gives a homily and that Catholics don’t say The Lord’s Prayer. Instead they say a shortened prayer called the Our Father. It has the exact same words as The Lord’s Prayer, but it ends sooner. Which means, if you are a Protestant (like me) in a Catholic Church, you quickly become the center of attention when you are still loudly reciting the end of the prayer you know while everyone around you is silent. That may actually be more embarrassing than loudly saying “Amen” at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance during a school program. Yeah – I did that once too.

But back to my original point: many people assume I’m Catholic because of my job (unless, of course, they get the opportunity to observe me during an actual Catholic mass.)

I had a similar experience back in the early 1990’s when I worked for the statewide AIDS Program. At that time, the popular belief was that AIDS was a gay disease. Therefore, many people assumed that I must be a lesbian, especially since my job required my going to some very interesting events at some very interesting places. Needless to say,  I became quite familiar with the gay community.

But here’s the deal: not being Catholic doesn’t prevent me from doing my job or serving people in need any more than not being a lesbian prevented me from addressing the growing AIDS epidemic in the early 1990’s. And I’m fairly confident that the people who know me and have worked with me will agree.

What my work does require is that I accept people for who they are just as I hope they will accept me for who I am. In doing so, we can all work together for the common good.

During the last few months, I’ve witnessed too many individuals make negative comments about people who don’t share the same religion, the same sexual orientation or even the same skin color.

I just don’t get it.

Considering our differences as negative will never, ever allow us to work together. It certainly won’t help us identify and use our various strengths to build a better country. Most of all, it won’t help us eliminate hate, which is an enemy to all of us.

As a small child, one of the first Bible stories I learned was a parable that Jesus told  in the Gospel of Luke. It went  like this:

 “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”    Luke 10:25 -37

I’m not a Biblical expert. Instead, I’m just a lowly social worker trying to do a small bit of good in a world that can be harsh, brutal and often downright cruel. But to make even the slightest difference, I have to work with and be a good neighbor to people who are extremely different to me.

I can only hope that this Christmas, all of you will “go and do likewise” as well.

Dear Daughter,

Dear Daughter,dear-daughter

Please humor me as I write this.

Even though you are as concerned as I am about the direction in which our country is headed, you are living your life with a positive attitude and a pocket full of possibilities.

At this very moment, you are out pursuing one of your many passions in a theater only a few miles away. That’s not difficult for you. Your love and enthusiasm for music, books, theater, science fiction, writing, art, and collecting odd and random pieces of information are inspiring and contagious.

But as your mom, I’m obligated to tell you that harnessing those passions is a challenge, and achieving your dreams won’t be easy.

As you’ve witnessed this past week, not everyone will agree with you or even want the best for you.

In other words, life can be tough. But so can you.

Which is why, even though I’m sure you’ve “got this” with or without your mom, I still have an obligation to share some incredibly important lessons that have taken me nearly five decades to figure out:

  1. Don’t believe all the hype about needing a relationship to make you complete. You are already complete. Relationships are great, but so are you. Gain your self-worth from doing anything and everything on your own. Carve your own space in the world instead of waiting or depending on someone else to help you create it.
  2. Never underestimate your abilities, your intelligence and your inner voice. Doubt is the enemy, and you can’t let it be part of your life.
  3. Ignore your critics. There will always be people who disagree with you, who are jealous of you or whom you might even intimidate. Don’t measure yourself by what they say about you. Measure yourself by how you treat them despite their efforts to undermine you.
  4. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, and let them inspire you strive to learn more and to be curious. Curiosity is incredibly underrated.
  5. Travel as much as you possibly can. You can’t make good decisions when you are making them from a limited world view.
  6. Study different religions. Faith shouldn’t be something you are spoon fed in order to make you feel better about your life. It should be something your embrace only after you explore other possibilities.
  7. Go with your gut.  If you don’t, you will spend countless hours defending a decision out of guilt.
  8. Don’t use memes or trite quotes to express your opinions or feelings. No one will take you seriously if you steal the thoughts of others. Use your own words to share your most important thoughts and beliefs. If you can’t come up with your own words, then maybe you should question your own beliefs.
  9. Look directly at yourself in the mirror at least once a day and see only beauty and strength. Weakness only makes its way into the cracks of our lives if we let it. You are too strong for that.
  10. Spend at least one year of your life living by yourself.  There is nothing more empowering than paying your own rent and your own electric bill while simultaneously answering to no one but yourself.
  11. Always have a back up plan and always make sure you are the hero in it.
  12. Never, ever stop learning and never, ever underestimate the power of a good education.
  13. Do as much as you can and go as many places as you can by yourself. Depending on others to go with you is a crutch that will always hold you back.
  14. Love your family but build a network of smart, strong women around you. Men are great, but they will never truly understand your struggles or perspective like other women can.
  15. Never forget that other people haven’t had the same opportunities as you. What some of us perceive to be weakness or ignorance might actually be a strength built out of struggles we will never truly understand.

So there you my amazing, wonderful, spirited, and talented 15-year-old daughter. I’ve handed you information that no one ever told me – I had to learn it all on my own.

So don’t take these words lightly.  Treasure them, embrace them, and, most importantly, use them.

Our Country’s future depends on that.

Love,

Mom

The Meme I Hate the Most

megaI regretfully admit that I was in my forties before I truly understood one of life’s most important tenets: being right will never feel as good as being kind. That’s why I almost didn’t write this.

I don’t want to shame or embarrass anyone who has shared or posted the meme that makes me cringe every time I see it.

I know that it was posted with the best of intentions by great people with good hearts, kind souls and a desire to make the world a better place.

But a statement suggesting that big homeless shelters are somehow better than big churches is, well, just wrong on so many levels.

Let’s start with the fact that we live in America, a nation founded by people seeking a right to worship in the way they wanted. Dismissing how others choose  to worship is completely un-American.

Personally, I’m not a fan of churches with memberships larger than the population of the town in which I live. But that’s why I don’t attend one.

I understand concerns that the money used to build, maintain, and equip such large churches could be better used to pay for services to the disadvantaged, but couldn’t the same be said for almost any aspect of our own lives? If we had a smaller house or a less expensive cars, all of us would be able to give more to charity.

We should all spend less time judging and more time actually helping others.

Which brings me to the other reason I hate this meme.

Are there really people who think that building more and bigger homeless shelters is the answer to our homeless problems?

To me, that statement is like waving the white flag in surrender to all of the issues that cause homelessness. We are accepting that we are helpless in the face of the root causes, such as mental illness and social injustice. We are admitting that prevention doesn’t work and that people and systems can’t change.

And I’m not willing to accept that.

I work for a social service organization that fights poverty. Yet every day, I also fight a mentality that providing financial assistance and food to the poor is all we can do to help.

In reality, that’s doing people in poverty a disservice. It’s sending a message that they are not capable of doing more or being more. It’s telling them we’ve given up on the possibility that they are capable of helping themselves and helping others.

Addressing issues of poverty is hard work. It involves developing relationships with people who are often hard to love or don’t understand the manner in which middle class people live and interact. It’s our job to walk with them, teach them, and set expectations for them.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for emergency financial, food, and housing. There is. We can’t expect anyone to make big changes in their lives when they are in the middle of a crisis.

But if that’s all we do, then we are selling them, and ourselves, short.

So instead of calling for more homeless shelters, I want to hear a rallying cry for more preventive and support services. I want a united demand for better mental health and drug treatment programs. And, most of all, I want people to stop putting the band-aid of temporary shelter on gaping, life-long wounds created in part by the inference that some people should just accept their place in life.

An Overdose of Reality

shep pointingLast Monday night, family and friends celebrated as my son and 255 of his classmates received their high school diplomas

A week later, one of those students died.

My daughter was told about the death at school. My son found out via social media. My husband learned of it from my son. And I received  a text message telling me the Spring Mills High School class of 2016 had already lost a member.

Within a few hours, the rumors were swirling through the neighborhood and on the internet. But there was element that never changed: the culprit was heroin

And while many are simply shocked that a kid with so much potential died from a drug overdose, I’m dealing with a range of emotions.

I’m saddened, and my heart breaks for my son’s classmates who are struggling to understand what happened. I’m overwhelmed with how this drug continues to gain strength in my community. And I’m frustrated with the  political posturing that’s preventing real solutions to this horrible epidemic.

But, most of all, I’m angry.

I’m angry that so many people are expressing surprise that an athlete with decent grades could die from an overdose. This has been happening for years across the country, and pretending it couldn’t happen at our school was ridiculous.

I’m angry that my community has experienced dozens of overdose deaths since the beginning of 2016 and yet so many people want to blame the victims and their families instead of work toward a solution.

And most of all, I’m angry that drug dealing is yet another example of how money has become more important than human lives.

Nobody in the Class of 2016 can rewind the clock a week and get a do-over, and there is still plenty more heartache to come for everyone involved in this situation.

I can only hope that the members of my son’s graduating class, as well as the underclassmen who will follow in their footsteps, recognize that some of life’s most important lessons don’t happen in the classroom. Even more importantly, I hope they understand that those lessons mean nothing if they don’t use that knowledge in a meaningful way.

In a situation like this, turning those lessons into action is a matter of life and death.

The Graduate

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Thirteen years ago,”Pomp and Circumstance” played as my son wore a red cap and gown to accept his diploma.

Because his class was extremely small, the formal ceremony was short. As the post-graduation celebration began, my son led his friends in a unique rendition of the “Chicken Dance.”

Throughout the afternoon, there were several other moments when he grabbed, or attempted to grab, the limelight. At one point, his teacher pulled me aside and whispered “All the world is a stage for Shepherd. Just enjoy it.”

But I couldn’t.

The next 13 years, starting in kindergarten, weren’t easy.

I worried obsessively about my son.

Even though my son was very smart and very funny, I worried that he didn’t have the same interests as his peers.

I worried that he was awkward and uncoordinated and would never find the place where he belonged.

I worried that he often seemed oblivious to what others automatically understood.

I even worried that he didn’t care that I was worried.

But somewhere between kindergarten and twelfth grade, my son taught me more than algebra and English literature classes ever could.

He taught me that going out on a limb will always be more interesting than standing on the ground hugging the trunk.

He taught me that winning a dance contest doesn’t necessarily require the best moves. It simply requires the most guts.

He taught me that more people appreciate the sheep who wonders off to explore new pastures than the ones who stay with the herd.

And he taught me that grabbing a mic and singing in front of the entire student body can never be embarrassing if you get everyone to sing with you.

On Monday, I will listen to “Pomp and Circumstance” while my son wears a red cap and gown  to accept his diploma.

I wish I could guarantee he won’t lead his entire graduating class  in a rendition of  “The Chicken Dance,” but I can’t. Neither can I  guarantee he won’t pull off one final, ridiculous high school stunt.

But here’s what I can guarantee: I won’t be worried.

Because I know that my unique, gifted, funny, ridiculous, smart, sarcastic son already has plenty of experience in finding his way in the often rocky terrain of life.

I also know, that his preschool teacher wasn’t entirely right. All the world is not just a stage for my Shepherd. Instead, all the world is HIS stage.

And I can’t wait to see his upcoming performances.

Donald Trump and the Gritters

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“Gritter.” It was such a completely foreign and wrong word, yet it was also very powerful.

Until I moved to West Virginia as an awkward adolescent, I never knew such words even existed. I was aware that some people used negative words to describe different races, but I didn’t know that there were also words to describe people by their social status. I had certainly witnessed my share of ridicule of the poor and outcast, but I didn’t know there were actual labels for such individuals.

What I did know was that associating with people who wore such labels was social suicide and defending them could be just as dangerous.

I was already teetering on the edge of not belonging, and I was worried that even the slightest mistake would send me hurtling over the edge. I was already considered weird because I had transferred from a state that was thousands of miles away. Then I had made a near fatal error of  comparing my old life to my new one. In other words, in the eyes of my peers, I thought I was better than they were.

Nothing was farther from the truth. Maybe, if we hadn’t all been so wrapped up in the complexity of adolescence, my classmates might have recognized how completely alone and alien I felt.

But, they didn’t. Or, if they did, they didn’t care.

And so, I felt a complete urgency to assimilate into a new culture and to adopt a new language, even when it went in the face of everything in which I believed.

I made the mistake of trying out my newly acquired word “gritter” on my family during dinner.

“What does that mean?” my mom asked

I tried my best to explain about the kids on the bus that were gritters and how they wore the same clothes over and over again, lived in the mobile home park and were generally unacceptable.

My parents got really, really angry.

More than 30 years later, I don’t remember much of what my parents said, but I do remember the look on my dad’s face when he said that he would have been a “gritter” in high school. And I remember my ambivalence.

To the depths of my soul, I knew how wrong judging and labeling other people was. But I also knew that I had absolutely no social footing, so standing up against what was a social norm would just further alienate me. My peers had a pecking order, and I wasn’t about to question it.

Until this past week, I’d completely forgotten all about gritters and my parents complete outrage at the ease with which I had used the word.

But then the West Virginia primary election brought it all back.

Donald Trump easily won West Virginia’s nod for President of the United States. While this wasn’t a surprise, the political pundits immediately began analyzing how one of the nation’s poorest states could engage in a love affair with a man who has nothing in common with the people, the culture and, of course, the lack of resources.

And even though I’m personally frustrated by the whole situation, I kind of get it.

West Virginians have been ridiculed for decades. The entire population is often stereotyped as poor, uneducated hillbillies whose culture is defined as being on par with the dueling banjos in the movie Deliverance. 

No one wants to be called the equivalent of a gritter. We want people to believe we are better than that, even if that means we point our fingers at other people and blame them, not ourselves, for our problems.

That is Donald Trump’s schtick.

He builds himself up while tearing others down – the poor, the undocumented, women, people with disabilities, people with accents, etc. Basically, he has taken license to belittle anyone who isn’t exactly like him.

No wonder West Virginians are buying it. If elected, they will have a leader who gives them license to call their neighbors gritters and blame others for their problems.

I am only grateful that I am no longer that awkward adolescent that was afraid to speak out or embrace the wisdom of her parents. Now, I’m willing to yell at the top of my lungs “Putting other people down doesn’t make you a leader or a better person. In fact, it does the exact opposite.”

Maybe Donald Trump will never hear me, but at least I know someone will.

And that’s a start.

 

What Mom Never Said

Here arI deservee three truths that guide my life:

1) Perfection is highly overrated. I’ve never met a perfect person, and I certainly wasn’t raised by anyone who met the criteria.

2) We learn more far more from our mistakes than we will ever learn from accomplishments.

3) The best advice we receive isn’t handed to us wrapped in words of wisdom. Instead, the most meaningful lessons are often hidden in what we observe, what we hear, and, in many cases, what we don’t hear.

My mom has spent more than 51 years trying to impart these nuggets of truth on my brother and me.

When I was young, she sometimes interspersed her acquired wisdom into our conversations, but what went unsaid was always more powerful.

For example, my mom never once told me I deserved anything. NEVER.

I was well into adulthood before I realized that.

No matter what I achieved, she never used the word deserve. Of course she encouraged me and told me that I’d earned my successes, but she implied that earning something is entirely different from deserving it.

She never explained this, and we never discussed the matter.

But by not speaking that one word, deserve, she said volumes.

In matters of every day life, human beings don’t have the right, or the ability, to decide who is deserving of something. Because, in doing so, we imply that others are not deserving.

Life is one big poker game in which the draw sometimes determines everything. Yes, some people are better at playing the game. Yes, some people use their cards to gain an advantage. Yes, some people avoid temptations and are able to improve their chances. And yes, some people are so charming and engaging that they can cloud reality to sway the beliefs of others.

But in the end, some people are simply luckier, and luck has nothing to do with their character, their abilities, their  fortitude, their courage, or whether they are more “deserving” than others

So even though Mom never talked about why she threw “deserve” into her junk pile of words that are either misused or meaningless, she said everything through the life she’s led.

And for that, I will always be grateful.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom.

A Grown Up Question

Shortly before I graduated from college, I sat in a friend’s apartment listening to the song “I’m an Adult Now” by the Pursuit of Happiness and thinking it would soon be included on the soundtrack of my life. (Back in those days, life soundtracks were limited to 60 or 90 minute cassette tapes.)

I was 22 years old, and I had absolutely no idea what being a grown up really meant. But I was convinced that once I had my college diploma in hand, I would quickly learn.

I didn’t.

Now, more than a quarter of a century later, I’m still trying on various hats in hopes of discovering the one that will officially make me feel like a grown up. So far, none have worked.

Yes, I lived on my own and paid my own bills. Yes, I dealt with mortgages and debt and the IRS. Yes, I got married. Yes, I gave birth and became a parent. And yes, I even discovered that I can sound more like my mother than I ever imagined.

But despite all of that, I’ve never felt like an authentic adult. Instead, I feel as though I’m pretending to be an adult when I’m actually more like that 22 year-old still trying to decide which songs should be on my life’s soundtrack.

Maybe that’s because I’ve never been able to answer that one question that so many adults think is incredibly important. It’s a question that was asked of me hundreds of times from the time I was a toddler all the way through high school.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Ironically, the younger I was, the more easily I could answer the question.

When I was five, I wanted to be a trapeze artist. That dream was short-lived when my dad hung a wooden trapeze from a tree in a backyard and I made him lower it because its height five feet off the ground scared me. By the time I was ten, I had my heart set on being a best-selling author which, by the time I was 15, and evolved into a desire to be a journalist. And, at what I considered to be the mature age of 20, I truly believed I was destined to produce documentaries that would change the world.

With the exception of a few months I spent as a radio news reporter, I never achieved any of those goals. I could consider myself a failure, but that would discount all my accomplishments never on my “I want to” list. Nor would it take into account how the experience of living life to its fullest sometimes gets in the way of the expectations we think we are supposed to meet.

I don’t think I could have known, at the age of 22, how life’s river of circumstances has a generally steady and sometimes ferociously rapid current that can easily sweep us away from where we thought we belonged to the places we are needed most.

I was thinking about that river this week when my son celebrated his eighteenth birthday. In only a few months, he’ll be starting college, so he’s regularly being asked what he’ll be studying. To me, that’s  the more mature equivalent of the question  “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

jouneyAnd, even though I understand why everyone feels compelled to ask, I think the more meaningful question is “are you keeping your heart and your mind open to making adjustments to your plan with each new opportunity and complication?”

If my son does that, he faces the danger of ending up like his mother – nearly 50 years old and not entirely sure what he wants to be when he grows up. At the same time, he might also learn that being an adult isn’t about reaching a certain age or about achieving a certain status. And he might figure out that making mature decisions doesn’t mean letting go of the child within.

Instead, getting older should be about learning to adjust to the currents of life even when you aren’t confident you are headed in the direction you had originally planned.

 

 

For All I Do Wrong

I felt like a child on the verge of a temper tantrum. I wanted to put my hands over my ears, stomp my feet and  tell temper tantrumeveryone to be quiet.

But, I couldn’t. I was attending a meeting in a professional capacity.

And so, I could only throw an internal temper tantrum during which I raged about how easily people can point fingers.

Maybe, I had just reached my capacity for simplistic thinking. Maybe I was exhausted by all of the people who expend all of their energy finding fault rather than solutions. Maybe I was tired of putting labels on people without taking into consideration all of the external forces that helped shape them. And maybe, just maybe, I was too aware of all of the mistakes I’ve made in my own life.

And so, when I was forced to listen to people make a blanket statement that all homeless people are drug addicts and criminals, I twitched.

Here’s the truth: not all homeless people are criminals or drug addicts and very few drug addicts and criminals are homeless.

Here’s a greater truth: no person arrives at rock bottom on purpose. No one makes decisions with the sole purpose of destroying all of the good things around them. Most important of all, no person can be described by one or two simple adjectives like addict or homeless or loser.

I’m not just saying this because my work involves individuals who struggle with those labels so I have the opportunity to see how complicated people and situations are.

I’m saying this because I make mistakes EVERY SINGLE DAY. Sometimes the mistakes are small and easily forgotten. Sometimes they are significant enough to hurt others, and I carry the guilt and regret with me as though they were an actual physical presence. And, more often than not, I’ve hurt myself with a pattern of wrong decisions that have left scars on both on my body and my soul.

And yet, few, if any people, label me by mistakes. Maybe that’s because I’m able to hide them behind a shield of respectable friends, family and job. Maybe it’s because I am surrounded by people who are not so weighed down by their own mistakes that they still have the energy and ability to help me when I fall. And maybe it’s because I was raised by parents who, even as they reached out a hand to help pick me up, never allowed me to escape the consequences of my mistakes.

But if I ever discovered that, instead of being identified as a unique individual, I was being forced to wear my mistakes as a label, I would not just feel shame. I would also feel less than human. And when I feel bad about myself, I am much more likely to make bad decisions.

Which is why, as I sat in that meeting where blame was being thrown around like baseballs at spring training, I wanted to fingers-pointing-1-away-3-at-you1remind people of that old saying “when you point a finger at someone, remember there are three pointing back at you.”

In other words, we can’t expect the world to change until each of us changes too. That starts with spending less time finding blame, more time trying to understand the complex issues that cause our biggest community problems, and, most importantly, relying on ourselves rather than others to be part of the solution.

Touched by an Angel

rubyFor several years, National Public Radio ran a series called This I Believe that encouraged listeners to share short audio essays about core beliefs that defined who they were and how they lived their lives.

I always had a secret desire to submit my own essay, but I never did.

I just couldn’t identify only one belief that defines  me.

I believe in karma.

I believe that the worst circumstances in our life are intended to teach us critical lessons that, in the end, will make us better people.

And I believe that angels show up in our lives when we need them most.

So it was last night when I got home from work in a foul mood. I was worn down by trying to do the right thing in a world often controlled by manipulative people. I was so angry that I had an almost physical need for everyone else to know exactly how I felt. I was already writing the words for this blog in my head,

But that was before I saw the package on my front steps.

My curiosity immediately overshadowed my anger. The return address was from my long ago babysitter, Carrie, in Oregon.

Growing up, I adored Carrie just as I had adored her mother, Ruby.

My childhood was spent living thousands of miles away from my own grandparents, and Ruby had stepped up and stepped into the role of foster grandmother.

Since Ruby had several daughters of her own, I never understood how someone as special as she was could possibly think I was special too. Not only was she was kind, gentle and loving, but she had the innate ability to draw into the light all the good in people while ignoring all that was ugly. When spending time with Ruby, you couldn’t be angry at the injustices in the world because you were too busy rejoicing in all its beauty.IMG_0161

When Ruby died in January  2007 at the age of 92, I never thought I’d hear from her again.

I was wrong.

The package on my front steps contained a photo album with the letters, announcements and photographs that my mother and I had sent Ruby over two decades. It also included a note with instructions.

As I read the note from Ruby and flipped through the pages of my life since I’d left Oregon, tears streamed down my face and my anger disappeared.

I had been touched by an angel who was reminding me not to focus on the negative. There is just too much in life to celebrate instead.

And so, thanks to Ruby, that’s exactly what I did.

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