We Don’t Need Superhero Powers

Last week, the kids and I were in Los Angeles over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and decided to spend the afternoon at the Museum of Tolerance.

We started at the Holocaust exhibit, where each visitor is given a photo card with the story of a Jewish child living in Europe during the second World War. We inserted our cards into computers throughout the exhibits to find out what happened to “us” during the Holocaust.

Katie was forced into a ghetto that was eventually sealed off and then destroyed. Megan was rounded up and transported to a concentration camp. My twins, Ryan and Paige, somehow survived.

Although we were museum guests, I actually shuddered when we walked up to the entrance to the “shower” room where the kids were separated from me to walk through the door marked “Children and Others” while I had to walk through another entrance for the “Able-bodied.”

Hall of Testimony

Inside the room, we sat on cold, concrete slabs and listened to Holocaust stories in what the museum calls the Hall of Testimony. One Jewish woman talked about the birth of her niece.

Her sister-in-law had given birth six days earlier and was now ready to come home with her baby. The woman’s brother was an ecstatic first-time father. He had gathered the baby’s grandparents, his sister, and other relatives to meet his wife and baby at the hospital. But when they reached the building, they were blocked behind chain-linked fences, unable to get to the entrance.

Outside the hospital, several trucks were lined up, and the family watched helplessly as German soldiers marched the patients, the sick and the infirmed, from the hospital and loaded them into vehicles. The woman saw her sister-in-law herded from the hospital, saw her frantically scanning the crowds behind the chain-linked fence, but she didn’t see her husband and family helplessly watching her as she was transported away.

Every truck drove off, except one. “We wondered why that one truck remained parked by the hospital,” the woman said. And then a window opened from the third floor of the hospital and an object was tossed out of the window into the trailer of the truck below. Then another bundle. “They were throwing newborn babies out the window into the truck three stories below. We stood and watched and knew that one of those babies was our baby.”

I’ve thought about that story several times this week. Every time it comes to mind, I cry. I cried walking out of the Hall of Testimony that day and wasn’t sure how much more of the exhibit I wanted to see. But we walked out of the room and immediately outside, an entire wall was filled with stories of those who dared to make a difference. An old nun, suffering from cancer, gave refuge to Jewish families hiding from Nazis. A businessman employed Jews to keep them from being sent to concentration camps. Some forged papers to help Jews leave Germany and Poland.

There is darkness. Babies hurled from windows and smashed on a truck bed below. And then there is light. Ordinary people willing to do brave and courageous things on behalf of others.

It doesn’t require extraordinary power—X-ray vision, Thor’s hammer, Captain America’s shield—to care for people. It requires that we see needs and meet them. We speak up when it would be tempting to remain silent. We exert the effort when it would be easy to do nothing.

I was driving home from class tonight and feeling a little ineffectual in my world. I was thinking of friends in high-powered careers; I was thinking of those who have achieved fame and recognition. And then I remembered the wall of largely nameless people who reached out and made a difference.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. I hope we remember…and take the time to see and do that thing which liberates and brings light to a sometimes dark world.

Learning to Love Mother’s Day

I love featuring guest bloggers here, writer friends who have written things that touch me and stay with me over time. A few years ago, I came across this piece in Relevant Magazine on Mother’s Day, written by Penny Carothers. And then I had the privilege of actually meeting Penny at the movie premiere of Blue Like Jazz in Portland. (In case you’re familiar with the book, Blue Like Jazz, Penny is Penny from the book.) Every now and then you meet someone, and you just know you instantly like them. Penny is one of those people. I love her authenticity; her spirit and wisdom. I met her, and I knew she was someone I wanted to get to know. Below is a reprint of her Mother’s Day piece from 2010, shared with her permission. You’ll read it and want to know Penny as well. And when you finish, there’s more to the story on Penny’s blog here.

I used to hate Mother’s Day.

The mylar balloons, the pink cards, the stories on everyone’s lips about their plans for taking their mom out to eat or to a movie. They all72148_10152018184636097_5447682523273862333_n seemed to taunt me in a sing-song voice: look what we have and you don’t.

After a headlong flight from my stepfather at the age of eleven, the mother I knew disappeared, retreating somewhere deep inside. In her place, a withdrawn but angry woman rose up to take over her beloved facial features and voice.  By the time I was a teenager I had stopped caring, and stopped listening to the woman who birthed me.

When I was sixteen, the severity of her condition hit home when a social worker drove up in a yellow Volkswagen bug several times a month. But there was still no explanation as to why Mom seemed to be losing her grip on reality, why she thought her mother was trying to kill her and the neighbors were Soviet spies. But at least there was this: the tall and kind woman who met with my mother gave us hope, “In my entire career, I have never seen anyone work so hard to get better.”

But her hard work didn’t matter; the illness was just too much for her.  Fifteen years ago, after threatening my grandmother with a knife, my mother became homeless and has gone without medication for the paranoid schizophrenia that had been taking over her mind since her twenties.

I did a fine job ignoring it—it’s easy to do when there’s no hope for recovery–and when I graduated from college, I planned to just get on with my life. My mother wasn’t in the picture anywhere, except for a visit here and a visit there. I wanted to be normal, like everyone else. At least I did, until my sister convinced me we had to help somehow. That’s how I ended up in Seattle, having lunch with my mom every week, for eight years now.

A typical lunch will include odd comments, but rarely any threats.

She’ll hand over something she’s picked up off the ground: “Here, take this rock/bottlecap/pamphlet. It’ll pay your rent.” Or she’ll hand me a piece of paper covered in handwriting and symbols, little snippets that read like code. “Put this in the reader [garbage can] outside and you’ll get fresh groceries delivered to your door.”

Whenever I think, “Oh, I wish I had a mom like yours,” (and I do), I remind myself that Mom does the best she can with the flesh and blood and mind she was given. I used to have high hopes that I could save her, could help her get medicated and an apartment, but now I just let her be who she is. Because here’s the thing: Most of the delusions that tear apart her mind are about us, her children, and about keeping us safe. Nearly every day, she faces obstacles nightmares are made of, fighting against the fear and the chaos to care for us. Because that’s what a mother does.

In many ways, she is the most loving mother I know. And this Sunday, I’ll bring her flowers and a cheesy card covered in cursive writing, telling her so.

From Penny Carothers: When I was eleven my mother had a psychotic break. Ten years later I discovered the Jewish Jesus. I write about coming to terms with my mom’s condition, the itinerant preacher who changed everything and nothing, and all that came after.

Getting Beyond Random Acts of Kindness

Random acts of kindness are so overrated. I mean, really. It doesn’t take much to pay for someone’s coffee in line behind you at the drive-thru. And, sure, it’s wonderful to buy groceries for November food drives, but most of us aren’t putting our own groceries back on the shelves in order to purchase food for someone else’s Thanksgiving meal.

Every year, my church seeks out several families in the community who are experiencing a lean Christmas. We collect an offering, find out the families’ needs, and church volunteers shop for gifts. My friend Kathy, has typically been the angel shopper in our church, buying gift cards for groceries and gas; clothing and toys for children, and whatever else we find on a wish list. The lists can give you a glimpse at how basic some needs are. One year, a mother asked for feminine hygiene products for Christmas.

These are good things: buying coffee for a stranger; feeding the hungry; sharing with others in need. They are good things, but let’s face it, in so many ways, it is ever so much easier to swoop in and perform some quick, kind deed for a stranger than it is to be consistently kind and generous and thoughtful and self-sacrificing to those closest to us.  It can also be easier to hand over some money to buy a stranger some stuff rather than take the time to get to know people well and be personally invested in their lives.

A few weeks before Thanksgiving, my pastor preached a sermon about how difficult it can be to be close to certain people over the holidays, and yet how important it is for us to tend to those very pesky relationships. There were knowing nods and grimaces across the pews.

Sometimes, I’m short with my children even as I’m wrapping Christmas gifts for a stranger. I’ll be horribly impatient and annoyed with my parents as I’m rushing off to deliver items for an Angel Tree.

I don’t have any great insights to share here, just the thought that our moment-by-moment interactions with the people around us, related to us, should be every bit as grace-filled as our random acts of kindness to strangers. I don’t know why, but it’s just harder to do.

I’m also thinking about how to extend Christmas further through the year. No, I’m not planning to leave my Christmas lights up until June. And Kathy, you can relax. My Christmas tree won’t go up a moment before Veterans’ Day. I guess I’m thinking about the families we adopt at Christmas and wondering how I/we can walk beside them through January, February, March…

Do their children need some adults to help with homework? Are there parents who need transportation to doctor appointments? Help figuring out taxes, government forms, or healthcare forms?

Someone once spoke of the gifts of the Magi. The gift of gold denoted royalty. Frankincense was burned on the Altar of Incense in the temple, with its rising smoke, denoting the prayers of the people rising to the heavens. (In the temple, the offering of incense took place only after the sacrifice had been done, when Atonement allowed for communion with God.) And Myrrh, in those days, was used on burial shrouds to help prevent the smell of decay.

The gifts were, at once, both symbolic of Christ and immensely practical as the impoverished family of Jesus likely sold the precious gifts as they fled King Herod and escaped to Egypt.

The gifts of the Magi, it seems, were less random, more intentional. Maybe it’s time for our acts of kindness to be the same…

Sixpence None the Richer


My 10 year old, Katie, has been working harder than usual around the house, looking for extra ways to earn money to buy Christmas gifts. Not sure you’d call it a hand-to-mouth existence, per se, but she earns and spends in equal proportions. As soon as she was paid for her work, she asked me to take her to the store so she could buy Christmas presents.

At the Target cash register, she counted out almost all the money in her purse to purchase a present for Ryan. Katie got home and asked for more chores.

On her second trip to the store, she had a handful of spare change left after getting Grandma a gift. The next day, I stumbled across a note Katie had written to herself to find ways to earn additional money.

When my parents arrived for Thanksgiving this week, Katie sat my father down and explained to him that this was his last chance to “donate” some money to her Christmas gift fund.

“If you give me more money, Grandpa, I can buy you a bigger gift,” Katie told him. Difficult to argue with that logic!

Katie’s conversation with my Dad reminded me of an analogy C.S. Lewis gave in his book, Mere Christianity:

“Every faculty you have, your power of thinking or of moving your limbs from moment to moment, is given you by God. If you devoted every moment of your whole life exclusively to His service you could not give Him anything that was not in a sense His own already. So that when we talk of a man doing anything for God or giving anything to God, I will tell you what that is really like. It is like a small child going to its father and saying, ‘Daddy, give me sixpence to buy you a birthday present.’ Of course, the father does, and he is pleased with the child’s present. It is all very nice and proper, but only an idiot would think that the father is sixpence to the good on the transaction. When a man has made these two discoveries God can really get to work. It is after this that real life begins. The man is awake now.”

It’s interesting to watch my kids’ behaviors and attitudes toward money. They haven’t had to endure backbreaking labor to earn their spending money. They’re not choosing between food to eat and Christmas gifts for others, so, in a way, there’s a certain easy generosity that grows out of their abundance. It’s akin (on a vastly different scale) to Bill Gates’ ability to donate hundreds of millions of dollars without sensing a loss.

If they are called to make sacrificial gifts, I hope they do so with the same generosity they display now.

Few of us realize, though, that we actually are the Bill Gates of the world: wealthy recipients of unending grace. How miserly of us to count others’ transgressions; how horrible to hoard our time and talents and treasures when they aren’t really ours in the first place. We would judge Bill harshly if he begrudgingly gave someone in need $1,000 in light of his billions.

The abundance of our Thanksgiving tables often makes us drowsy. But gratitude awakens us. Mercy moves us so that we are able to extend our tables to others; Offer a bigger gift of grace because of what we have received.

Top 10 Reasons a Heater-less House is a Good Thing

IMG_7035My home heater is not working, but my house is fairly well insulated. As temperatures outside dropped to 38, then 35, then 33 degrees at night, inside, the thermostat registered a balmy 51 degrees.

I called a technician who informed me he’d be happy to take a look at my furnace for an additional $100 above the regular service fee because it’s a weekend.

I am my father’s daughter. We do not buy things at full retail price, nor neglect to use coupons, or pay an extra $100 for mere warmth. So I piled some extra blankets on my bed and donned my sweatpants (and scarves and mittens), and I’m wearing my North Face until Monday. In the meantime, here are my TOP 10 REASONS A HEATER-LESS HOUSE IS A GOOD THING:

10. Perfect opportunity to host a Frosty-the-Snowman/Snowmen-at-Night themed party with a chillin’ atmosphere to match.

9. Winter temperatures mean that it’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas not only in my heart, but in my home, too.

8. I don’t sweat as much doing the Jillian Michaels workout. I merely perspire now. (Then again, it’s hard to hold hand weights when I can’t feel my fingers.)

7. Dry heat isn’t great for my skin anyway, so I’m not only saving money on weekend technician fees, I’m saving myself the cost of expensive skin moisturizers!

6. I’m motivated to find my thermals and skiwear before the ski season really gets underway.

5. No need to take Paige and Katie to the Kent Ice Arena for ice skating practice this week. I’ll just wait for them to spill water on the kitchen floor.

4. Starbucks has Peppermint mochas in red Christmas cups, Wifi, and heat. On my way to Gold Star status.

3. It’s harder for the kids to argue with each other through chattering teeth and blue lips.

2. Sure the “Hunger Games: Catching Fire” is a good movie, but so are awesome YouTube videos about rebooting your furnace. There’s this one guy who actually reads furnace codes to you. Take that, Liam Hemsworth!

1. I was starting to run out of room in my freezer for my stockpiles of Peppermint ice cream. Soon, I’ll be able to store Peppermint Wonderland cartons in the pantry.


How Can a Tree Inspire Good Behavior?

I picked up Katie from school early the other day for a dental appointment. She wasn’t happy. It wasn’t because she dislikes our dentist. Dr. Sam is our longtime family friend, and my kids like going to his office. (Er, they like Sam. I’m not sure I can fairly say they like teeth cleaning appointments.) Katie was bummed that day because she was missing her teacher’s weekly drawing.

During the week, if a student gets “caught” doing something right—working quietly, putting away supplies, being kind and courteous to another student—the teacher puts your name into a box. At the end of the week, she draws names from the box for a prize. You increase your chances of winning by having your name entered more times into the drawing. (My kids will be ready to play Washington State Lotto in no time!)

Last year, one of the prizes was lunch with the school principal. Katie, somehow, didn’t think this was a coveted reward. “I don’t want to eat lunch with the principal,” Katie told me halfway through the year. “When my teacher tells me to write my name on a paper and put it in the box, I write down the name of a girl I don’t like and enter her name into the drawing for lunch with the principal.”

Yup, that’s Katie, working the system. This year, she’s more excited about the prizes. I asked her what she would have won if her name was drawn on teeth cleaning day. “Well, if my teacher drew my name, I get to take my shoes off in the classroom!” Katie told me. I’ve smelled Katie’s feet when she doesn’t wear socks in her Toms. I’ve smelled them from the driver’s seat when Katie removed her shoes in the back row of the minivan. Her classmates do not want Katie to win this particular drawing.

But shoes aside, it’s really classic classroom management stuff: Catch good behavior and reward it. I was also thinking about the Festival of Trees, put on annually to benefit Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma. I’ve volunteered for the Jinglebell Jam for years, and I love to see the amazing trees that volunteers decorate and put up for auction. A travel-themed tree may have first class tickets to Europe and hotel accommodations awarded to the winning bidder. A Toyland tree might come complete with bedroom furniture and a motorized toddler car.


Today, I decided to create my own behavior management, reward-themed mini tree with Starbucks and iTunes and Barnes and Noble gift cards and more as tree swag. If I catch my kids doing their chores without being reminded, doing extra work to help around the house, or anything I deem particularly noteworthy, I’ll enter their names into the tree drawing. Bad behavior will require a contribution of allowance money for me to purchase tree swag.

Christmas Eve, I’m drawing the name of the winner who gets all the prizes on the tree. May the odds be ever in your favor…


What is a Marriage Made of?

UnknownOn Valentine’s Day this past year, my mother told me my father bought her a necklace she liked in the store. I asked what she bought him. Mom said she bought Dad a Kit Kat bar.

“Dad gave you a necklace, and you bought him Kit Kats?” I asked.

“He likes Kit Kats,” Mom replied. “And I bought him a giant, king-sized Kit Kat.”

Today is my parents’ 48th wedding anniversary—two years away from their Golden anniversary. Dad offered to make reservations at a swanky restaurant in Laguna Beach. Mom suggested they get noodles at a local strip mall restaurant instead, which suits my father just fine.

Theirs is the marriage that formed some of my earliest notions of matrimony, the marriage I’ve been most privy to, next to my own. My parents are closing in on 50 years. Mine officially ended on what would have been our 14th wedding anniversary.

I think a lot about what makes some marriages last and others fail. I’ve read stacks of marriage and relationship books after my divorce, which is a bit like going through your car’s owner manual after you’ve signed the pink slip transferring ownership.

I’ve often thought it would be interesting to gather couples married for 50+ years and ask them how they’ve made their marriages last. No doubt, some couples just endure. But I’d like to know about the marriages that last and grow richer through the years.

My parents would tell you their marriage has not been endless walks on the beach and handholding at sunset. They’ve fought over in-laws and spending priorities…and everything else under the sun. They’ve had long, drawn-out arguments that started over who forgot to do something or why something was done, or not done, a certain way. And they often don’t seem to notice how short and sharp they sound talking to each other, in private and in public.

Over the years, I know they have come to places in their marriage where they’ve wondered about the very essence of the other, the impossible finality of traits that drive them insane…and likely won’t change.

But somehow, teetering on the precipice of calling it quits, they’ve managed to step back each time and stand by the vows of “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health…”

My father is the romantic one in their relationship—the one who still buys tickets to Broadway plays, where they both complain that the show isn’t as good as “The Sound of Music” or “My Fair Lady.” Dad plans dates to the Hollywood Bowl, or hires a singing telegram to show up at a house party, or surprises my mother with long-stemmed roses while she is just as happy with a flat of flowers from the nursery to plant in the backyard.

One year, Dad went through extraordinary efforts to surprise my mother with a designer dress she liked, talking her out of buying it at the store and having the sales woman quietly send the dress to his office. A few weeks later, on my mother’s birthday, Dad insisted he needed to pick up something from his office before they went home to get ready for an evening event, which infuriated my mother. She sat in the car mumbling and grumbling about how little time she would have to get ready. That was the afternoon the elevator in Dad’s office building malfunctioned, and Dad got stuck in the elevator with Mom’s “birthday suit,” waiting for someone to rescue him.

Mom gets Dad Kit Kats for Valentine’s Day. She also counts out vitamins and keeps track of any medications Dad needs to take. Over the years, as my father built his own business, my mother—an introvert who is shy until she knows you well—stood shoulder-to-shoulder with him as they met with his clients over dinner and entertained an endless stream of business colleagues at our home.

She’s not overly sentimental by nature, but I’ve watched my mother zealously stand in Dad’s corner throughout his career.

“Your Dad has so much integrity. He cares very personally about the welfare of each of his clients,” she’d tell me. She admires my Father’s work ethic and his honesty. She’d watch him handle the stresses of a fluctuating stock market and anxious clients watching the fluctuating market, and she would look for ways to help him manage the stress. Mom handled all of his packing for business trips, took him out on long walks in the evening where he could disconnect from persistent clients who wanted to reach him at home (in the pre-cellphone days); offered an empathetic ear when my father just needed to talk about his frustrations at work.

Two years ago, Dad was hospitalized with pneumonia and other health complications during a family vacation in Hawaii. Mom stayed up several nights, washing and changing his sweat-drenched pajamas before he was admitted to the hospital. She called family doctors for advice and stayed at his hospital bedside. Mom took active care of him through his convalescence. She may not be a romantic soul, but Mom loves people through her actions and her unwavering commitment.

At the worst points in their marriage, someone could have said, “Don’t stay in it for the children. If you’re not happy, your kids won’t be happy. Kids always know when their parents are miserable, and everyone is better off if you end a bad situation.” It’s the advice I hear offered up to people regularly these days. And I’m sure that in some situations, it might possibly be true (although social-science research would say divorce might be positive for adults but often has long-term detrimental effects for children*)

I look at 48 years of my parents’ marriage, and I’m both grateful and glad they stuck it out. For my sister. For me. For them. I don’t believe I’d be better off today if my parents had opted to divorce. I would have hated a parenting plan that divided my life between two houses. The financial resources stretched to cover two households would have closed off all kinds of opportunities I enjoyed growing up and through my college years. I can’t fathom the emotional upheaval I would have experienced if my parents had divorced, except by watching the life my kids have had to navigate.

Mom & Dad & Grandkids
My mother and father with their six grandchildren.

Today, my parents’ union also serves as the intact marriage my children get to see up close. My kids witness their romantic gestures. The spats. The respect and empathy. My children see commitment and sacrifice and partnership.

Grandma and Grandpa’s marriage is an example to my kids of what it looks like to live out the vows of “for better, for worse,” with both scenarios present on most days.


*Judith Wallerstein, who passed away in 2012, was a clinical psychologist and a researcher on the impact of divorce on children. Wallerstein, who conducted longitudinal studies over 25+ years on children of divorce, ignited a firestorm when she published findings on the long-term negative impact of divorce on children.While parents often claim their kids will be better off if they divorce because of the negative effect of marital tensions, Wallerstein’s research published in “The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25-year Landmark Study” presented a different picture.

Another interesting article on children and divorce is this older piece from journalist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.