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.

Sixpence None the Richer

Katie
Katie

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.

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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.

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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…

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Have a Habit You Want to Break?

Yesterday, I posted about New Year’s Resolutions. People who know me, and know of my propensity to run late for things, will think that I’m once again behind…posting about New Year’s resolutions on Feb. 1.

In reality, Chinese New Year begins on Feb. 10 this year, so this is actually a timely post for you to begin thinking about a new resolution you’d like to keep in your life. 

I have all sorts of ideas about habits I want to form and habits I want to break. Some of my habits are healthy. Others run the gamut from mildly bothersome to I-really-should-seek-out-a-12-step-program for this! But let’s not talk about me. Let’s talk about someone else. My daughter, for instance. 

Megan is quite simply a classic oldest child. She’s responsible. Self-motivated. A great student who’s also involved in everything under the sun from student government to knowledge bowl to the service organization Interact, and blah, blah, blah. I have very few complaints about the relatively easy job of parenting this kid except when she doesn’t eat. When Megan’s blood sugar dips, all of a sudden I have beast-girl for a daughter. 

She snarls. She snaps. And it takes me a few minutes to realize she has somehow missed a meal somewhere and is about to pounce and eat alive one of my other offspring/her siblings.  

It reminds me of the acronym HALT that my friend Bonnie, who’s a counselor, once taught me. Ask yourself: Are you Hungry? Angry? Lonely? Tired? If you are, it’s probably not the moment to make a major life decision, have a sensitive conversation, or even the right time to take an accurate assessment of things.  

Last summer, I read a fascinating book, “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg. In his book, Duhigg examines how we form and break habits in our lives. I recently came across a flowchart he created that looks at HALT a bit differently. 

Duhigg’s flowchart instructs you to figure out the cue when you feel the urge for a negative habit. What time is it? Where are you? Who else is around? What did you just do? What emotion are you feeling?  

Once you understand the cue, the next step is to figure out what “reward” the habit is satisfying. What are you really craving? Once you figure out what’s at the base of your habit, you can offer yourself a substitute reward or replace it with something new that satisfies the urge. 

Here’s a link to Duhigg’s flowchart teaching you how to create a new cue and reward loop to change a habit in your life. It’s interesting stuff. I’d write more, but I’m working on changing the cues and rewards for staying up too late at night…

Weighing That New Year’s Resolution

I’ve probably written about six posts since Thanksgiving. You didn’t see them? It’s because I wrote them in my head while driving or grocery shopping or exercising. I’ve mentally composed a few thoughts in the shower because warm water and soap inspire me.

It’s like that with most things. You have ideas. Intentions. Things you hope will happen. But ideas and intentions fall apart in the actual doing of something.

January begins, and by the end of the month (today), researchers say three-quarters of the people who created New Year’s resolutions have abandoned them. One month, and we’re paving the highway to hell, to mix my metaphors.

I was rather prosaic with my New Year’s resolution for 2013. It was as if I was on the set of Family Feud, and Richard Dawson was standing in front of me saying, “Name the top New Year’s resolutions Americans make each year.” I’m clapping my hands and shouting, “Lose weight” because I know it’s the #1 answer.

I’m challenging myself to lose 20 pounds by Dec. 31, although I’m more interested in reaching that goal in a very doable 25 weeks.

It’s not a bad goal. It’s admirable to commit to better health, improve your diet, and increase your exercise. But it strikes me as a little boring. Sometimes I weigh things (yeah, pun intended) in terms of how my kids might look back and remember their growing up years. Will they remember when Mom lost 20 pounds. Maybe. Will it matter? Possibly, if it modeled for them the importance of good health.

It’s also possible that it’s a bit more about vanity and fitting into my size 2 clothes again…and that’s not a great message for my kids.

This evening, I read a story about Sarah, a woman who decided to host 500 people around her table in 2012. Meal by meal, she gathered friends and neighbors and people she didn’t know to join together at her table. Over the year, she hosted 27 parties, so that by Thanksgiving, she reached her goal of serving a meal to her 500th guest. No vague talk about “building community,” Sarah chose a concrete way to actually go out there and do it!

It’s such an incredible and amazing story. How much more fun to remember the year we invited 500 old and new friends into our home than to recall the year Mom dropped 20 pounds!

And so I’m counting up my plates along with my calories…planning some lean cuisine for the masses. Happy New Year!