Do We Overprotect Our Kids?

Last fall I posted a picture on Facebook of Dale and me with three of our grandchildren at Cherry Crest Adventure Farm in Lancaster County. The toddler was in a stroller. Dana (the toddler’s mom) commented, “My baby is not strapped! Caught you!” No, I had not belted Selena into the stroller. She was in and out of the thing all day, and I didn’t think it was necessary to strap her in every single time we moved a few yards from one farm attraction to another. Dana’s comment made me feel a little guilty, but also a little defensive.

What person my age hasn’t said multiple times, “It’s a wonder we survived,” as we observe and enforce all the safety precautions that are intended to protect our children and grandchildren from harm. In my childhood, there weren’t any seat belts or car seats, bike helmets and knee/elbow pads, or playground equipment standards. Even when my own children were young, the car seats we used weren’t that good and I would often hold (and even nurse) my baby on my lap – in the passenger seat, of course.

When I was a child growing up in the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), I did many things that today would likely be considered dangerous. All of us missionary kids loved to climb and play on the rocks at Matopo Mission. I can picture spots among the rocks behind the main mission house at Matopo that required a fair amount of scrambling to reach but were challenges we just had to tackle. I imagine we often climbed barefoot, and I’m sure there were skinned knees and stubbed toes. I rode my bicycle by myself around the mission stations, coming and going from our house pretty much at will. My brother and I played in the dirt, building roads and towns for his toy cars. We sat on the ground and moved the dirt with our hands–dirt where people walked in bare feet and where who knows what animal or insect had been. When Rich was still sucking his two middle fingers (which he did till he was past four), he would periodically stop his play and put his fingers in his mouth – no hand-washing first. It bothered my mother, and I’m sure he ingested all kinds of germs, but he didn’t get sick.

We also played in the river. I vaguely remember a caretaker (not my mother) who would go with us sometimes, but I’m pretty sure I went by myself too. The river was some distance from our house, so no one could watch out the window or from the back porch to make sure I was okay. It wasn’t the Susquehanna River, and depending on the season, the river sometimes wasn’t much more than a trickle, but it was a body of water nonetheless where I played without adult supervision. I loved climbing trees, going up as high as the branches would allow. We also had rope swings hung from high horizontal tree branches – two ropes connected to a board about five inches wide for the seat. I would swing as high as I could (sometimes at the highest point, the ropes were close to being parallel with the ground), or I would sit on the seat and twist the ropes as tightly as possible and then twirl rapidly as the ropes unwound, making me so dizzy I couldn’t walk! Again, all this was without adult supervision.

I was much more vigilant with my own kids, but permitted things I’m not sure I would be comfortable with today. Some years, they walked to or from school (some years they rode the bus), and one year Dana and her friends roller-skated to school with no helmets, elbow pads or knee pads until their principal decided he didn’t like them bringing their skates into the building. Dana and Derek and their friends on our block rode their “Big Wheels” down the sidewalk hill in front of our house, with the strong possibility they could have missed the turn at the bottom and gone right out into the street in front of a car. I did worry about abduction, so when they were playing outside or with friends, I always tried to make sure I knew where they were and who they were with. And in hindsight, I actually wish I had been more vigilant about certain things.

Now when we take care of our grandchildren, we are very careful – partly because we would feel absolutely horrible if anything happened to them while we’re responsible for them, but also because we are so much more aware of all the potential dangers that we didn’t even think or know about when we were growing up. Raising children these days can be a scary proposition. Some of the dangers are sinister and horrific – like school shootings, drugs, sexual predators, child abductions, internet-based crimes, fears of being accused of child abuse or neglect, or freak accidents. The media often portray the world as a dangerous place, with potential disaster for children lurking around every corner. Some parental (and grandparental) vigilance and attention also comes from the pressure to measure up to other people’s expectations and to make sure we are actively and constantly giving our children opportunities to learn and experience new things, so we won’t be accused of being lazy, neglectful and unengaged and so they will have as many advantages as the next kid and won’t be deprived or lag behind their peers.

What sparked these musings was an article I came across from The Atlantic, The Overprotected Kid.” The article describes a new kind of playground that encourages and allows free, imaginative and unsupervised play, unlike what has become the norm for so many families. The author, Hanna Rosen, notes that at one point, when her daughter was about 10, “my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.” It’s a lengthy article but well worth the read.

Then there was also the recent incident of the mother who was arrested and jailed because she allowed her nine-year-old daughter to play in the park alone for three days while she was at work. The daughter had a cell phone so she could call her mother in case of an emergency. The mother worked at McDonald’s and couldn’t afford child care, but she didn’t want her daughter to sit inside all alone for hours all summer when she could be outside playing. Whatever else this story illustrates, it surely points out that for all our concern with protecting our children from dangers real or imagined, we don’t do very well at protecting ALL children: there are still far too many children in the U.S. who don’t have access to good quality child care, live in poverty (in fact, the child poverty rate in Pennsylvania increased three percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation), live in neighborhoods without adequately-funded and well-run schools, are in danger of being the victims of gun and other kinds of violence, or don’t have parents or other caregivers with the time, skills, resources or perhaps even the motivation to pay attention to their children’s most basic physical, social and emotional needs.

Do we overprotect our kids? Clearly, it seems to depend on whose kids we’re talking about. Perhaps a better question is to what extent in our efforts to protect our own kids, we are protecting ALL kids. Even as we must acknowledge that life is not risk-free and it is unrealistic and potentially crazy-making to think we can prevent our own children from ever being harmed, there’s nothing wrong with doing our absolute best to protect them. At the same time, let’s not forget the children who also need people to protect them and to advocate on their behalf when and where we can.

Oh, and I don’t feel all that guilty about not belting Selena in her stroller. We had eyes on her the whole time!

What I’ve Been Thinking About This Summer

Lots of thoughts have been swirling around in my head these last few weeks. My head and heart are heavy when I think about current world events, especially the resurgence of the unending violence in Palestine and Israel and the plight of children from Central America coming to the United States hoping for a better life. I have opinions and convictions about both of these issues, formed in large part by a Christian faith that believes violence and retribution are not the answer, justice (making things right) is important, and we’re called to welcome the stranger and care for those in need. But both topics are too complex and multi-faceted for me to sort out in a short blog post. (OK, I’ll be honest: after reading the harsh comments on a Facebook post about the Palestine-Israel conflict by someone I highly respect, I don’t have the courage to enter the fray!) SO: on to two other unrelated topics I’ve also been thinking about.

Anxiety rears its ugly head again: During the last two weeks of June, I experienced a level of anxiety I haven’t felt for a while. It was not pleasant. All the prayer, self-talk, deep-breathing, positive thinking, and distracting myself with other tasks that usually help me control my tendency to anxiety and worry didn’t work very well. I felt like I was close to being back in the place I was nine years ago in the aftermath of my colon cancer diagnosis and treatment and some family concerns, when anxiety and depression threatened to overwhelm me.

The cause this time? Another health scare. My routine annual mammogram revealed some calcifications on one side, and I had to have additional pictures taken. The additional pictures weren’t conclusive, so I was scheduled for a stereotactic biopsy to collect some tissue from the calcifications. In the days leading up to the biopsy, I could feel my anxiety level rising. Between the biopsy and the call from the doctor the next day that it was benign and no further action is necessary until my next annual mammogram, I was more anxious than I have been for a long time.

Calcifications in the breast are common and usually don’t mean anything. The coordinator at the radiology facility told me more than once that eighty percent of these biopsies are benign. But they can be a sign of early breast cancer and in twenty percent of these cases a biopsy will discover a malignancy. That’s what I couldn’t put out of my mind. I was having a hard time coming to terms with what felt like the very real possibility that I could be facing another round of cancer with all the associated treatments.

As I worked to control my anxiety, I realized that it was to some extent out of my control. I could mitigate it with the various disciplines I’ve learned over the years, but I couldn’t eliminate it. And as I beat myself up for my inability to control it, I also had to remind myself that anxiety disorders are not caused by personal weakness, a character flaw, or a lack of faith. Rather, they come from a combination of environmental factors (like the threat of breast cancer), genetic predisposition (my mother also suffered from anxiety), and malfunctioning in the brain circuits that regulate fear and emotion. Recognizing the complex and “organic” nature of anxiety doesn’t make dealing with it any easier, but it does help me not blame myself for being unable to control the waves that overwhelmed me last month and empathize with those for whom anxiety is often far more crippling than it is for me.

Trust is a two-way street: In denominational business meetings last weekend where I was a delegate from my congregation, as questions were raised about proposed changes in governance, the issue of trust took center stage. I firmly believe that our denominational leaders want what is best for the church; I also understand and sympathize with those who were questioning past actions and current proposals and displaying what appeared to be a lack of trust in their leaders.

I’ve been on both sides of this matter of organizational trust. I’ve been on boards (and chaired one of them) that made decisions that weren’t always appreciated or supported by the rank-and-file. I’ve been hurt by accusations both direct and indirect that the board didn’t know what it was doing, we had some kind of hidden agenda, we weren’t worthy of trust. The truth is that members of the boards I was on really had the best interests of the organization at heart, tried to be wise and careful in our decision-making, but among many good decisions also made some that in hindsight didn’t work out so well. Being considered untrustworthy feels like a low blow when we were doing our best to do the right thing.

On the other hand, I’ve also been the “victim” of decisions by organizations that didn’t make sense to me, seemed to head the organization in a direction that would result in a loss of things I believe(d) critical to the organization’s mission and identity, and could have unintended consequences (or perhaps intended, I would think, when I was in my most distrustful and cynical frame of mind). I’ve been frustrated by leaders, who when challenged say something like, “you chose us to be your leaders, so you need to trust us; you need to submit to our authority.” It doesn’t sit well with me when those who support organizational decisions and directions seem to want to shut down dissent and conversation and move on.

The issue of organizational trust often comes down to different views of leadership and decision-making, whether we prefer a more top-down style or more diffuse, shared and consensus-building. For some years now, the trend in our denomination has been toward the former, with fewer rather than more people involved in leadership and decision-making. The reasons are varied and include financial considerations and the associated need to be efficient and organizationally lean, but some have lamented the trend. To some extent, whether you support top-down or shared leadership and decision-making depends on where you sit – that is, if you’re one of the few at the top you’re likely to support top-down decisions, but if you’re an ordinary person at the “bottom” of the organizational flowchart you’re more inclined to question and less willing to trust and submit happily. That’s overly simplistic, of course, but it is part of what’s going on.

One bottom line (out of many possible bottom lines on this issue) is that trust goes both ways, as my pastor said at the close of the business meeting. All of us need to trust our leaders, recognizing that they have been chosen to lead and make decisions. At the same time, leaders also need to trust the people to provide wise counsel, gentle correctives and honest opinions about the impact of their decisions and to give space and time for those conversations to take place.

You can read more about trust and “Organizational Decision-Making” within the church context, with some practical perspectives and ideas, from a denominational publication I edit.

High School Revisited

This month marks the 50th anniversary of my graduation from high school. Now there’s a sentence that really makes me feel old! Over the years since I graduated from Mechanicsburg High School in 1964, I’ve received many invitations to reunions – the 10th, 25th, 40th, 45th, etc. Each time I received another one, I would briefly consider attending and then decide I just couldn’t face it. But this year when the information arrived, I made a different decision. It was, after all, the 50th anniversary, plus one of the reunion events – the alumni association’s annual dinner honoring the 50-year class – seemed less intimate and intimidating, so I decided I would attend.

Understanding why going to my high school reunion has loomed impossibly scary for so long involves revisiting those first couple years after my family returned to the U.S. from Africa. I wrote about this last year in a post called “Re-Entry.” As I described in that post, my American high school years were fraught with anxiety and extreme self-consciousness. With typical teenage narcissism I was pretty sure at the time that I was the only one to feel like a misfit. This was my eighth school experience in as many years. As a 13-year-old coming from another country and entering the second half of 10th grade fully two years younger than my classmates, I think I had ample reason for feeling like a foreigner. In retrospect, however, I also think I not only may have misjudged them but also did not realize how many of them probably also felt like misfits.

One of the main reasons I have never attended a high school reunion is that I have not kept in touch with most high school classmates. I never knew them all that well. Except for those who went to church with me (most of whom were not in my class), I hardly ever did things outside of the school day with them. We didn’t have the shared experience of having grown up in the same small town and going to school together since kindergarten. I always felt like something of an interloper. For example, on my first day at Mechanicsburg, the guidance counselor assigned another student to take me under her wing and show me around. The student was very kind and helpful but she had her own group of friends, so I felt like a tag-along who wasn’t really part of the group. It was a relief when I graduated and went to Messiah College where I was among people who understood better where I had come from and who I was.

The reunion weekend is over now, I attended the dinner, and I came away with a few observations and take-away lessons:

- It helped to go with a friend and a husband. My best friend Mary, while a junior at Mechanicsburg the year I was a senior, had been in classes mostly with seniors so she always felt more a part of my class than her own. Dale, who is also celebrating the 50th anniversary of his high school graduation and has no intention of attending his own reunion for reasons similar to mine, had no problem tagging along with me and being my support system!

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Commentary on the yearbook notations about me: 1) Yes, I was quiet – I was/am an introvert and I was so scared in high school that I would say or do something to embarrass myself. 2) The French question was because one place I could distinguish myself was in French class. 3) Future plans did indeed include college, but obviously the nursing thing never happened!

- Name tags are essential at these occasions, not to mention old yearbooks. I found my copy of the 1964 Artisan, the Mechanicsburg High School yearbook, in the black hole that is part of our basement and I looked through the senior class photos a couple times before going to the dinner. I was surprised to discover that I actually recognized and remembered more names and faces than I thought I did, and it was fun to read the notes some of them wrote in my yearbook. But the photos were of high school seniors, not senior citizens 50 years later, so being able to look at name tags at the dinner helped a lot. What I really wanted to do – surreptitiously, of course – was walk around to everyone, check out their name tags and then look them up the yearbook!

- I wasn’t the only one who had struggled in high school – which shouldn’t be a revelation to me, give my much better understanding of emotions now than I had then. At the dinner, I talked to several classmates, including one who also came to Mechanicsburg in 10th grade (although she always seemed perfectly put together to me!), someone else who moved in and out of the area several times during her school years, and another whose father died when he was young and who felt like he came from the “wrong side of the tracks.” It’s quite possible that many of the outward things that I was so self-conscious about as the new girl from Africa weren’t even noticed by many of my classmates. It’s a shame that teenagers, at least in those days and in my experience, weren’t better at talking with each other about their insecurities. Maybe we could have helped each other.

- My self-consciousness and insecurity convinced me that no one would remember me because I had been among them for such a short time and hadn’t distinguished myself in any way. Reality is a little different. While there were those at the dinner who looked at my name tag and obviously had no clue who I was, others remembered me, if for no other reason than I had come from an exotic place (Africa), had a bit of a British accent, and must have shown off my very (very!) limited knowledge of Ndebele, one of the African tribal languages with interesting clicks.

- There were four events over the reunion weekend – a meet-and-greet evening at the home of a classmate, the alumni association dinner, a dinner cruise on the river, and a brunch back at the same home. The only event I attended was the dinner, but in retrospect, I should have been brave and gone to the meet-and-greet. It would have given me a better opportunity to reconnect with and learn to know and appreciate in a different way the classmates I barely remember.

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Melenna and me together again for the first time in 50 years!

- The best thing about the dinner was that I reconnected with my closest friend in the class of 1964. After I had established my own relationships apart from the girl who was assigned to help me when I first arrived, I became friends with Melenna. One of the things I remember most clearly about her was her infatuation with the Beatles, who arrived in the U. S. for the first time during our senior year. I was fairly clueless about popular culture at the time (we didn’t have a TV in our home and never listened to popular music), so her obsession with the Beatles mystified and fascinated me. In the years since high school, especially since we’ve had the Internet, I have periodically searched for her but could never find anything. Yet there she was at the alumni dinner, having recently moved back to the U. S. after many years of living in Germany as an army nurse. And she was hoping to see me too!

All in all, I think it was easier to go to the 50th reunion than it would have been to go to the 25th, for example. Twenty-five years ago, many of us were still in the middle of establishing careers and raising families, and there might have been a greater tendency to compare our successes and failures with others, to measure ourselves against each other. Now with many if not most of us retired and/or enjoying grandchildren, those successes and failures don’t matter so much; what’s more important is relationship and connection with people we knew when we were young. And who knows, in five years, when the 55th reunion rolls around, maybe it will be even easier to participate!

Alaska Reflections

The phrase “once in a lifetime” is sometimes thrown around carelessly, when the experience it is being used to describe is probably not really once-in-a-lifetime. However, I think I can fairly safely say that our recent trip to Alaska was indeed a once-in-a-lifetime experience. This was my first time in Alaska, and I’m pretty sure it will be the last. It’s not that I wouldn’t enjoy going back, either to revisit some of the same places or, more likely, to see another part of this vast state, but with so many other places in the world I’d also like to see while we’re still able, I doubt whether we’ll ever go back to Alaska. During the short time we were there (11 days), we saw only a small part of the state, but that small part left me with some strong impressions.

IMG_0248The vastness of the land: Various guides tried to help us put the size of Alaska in perspective. One stat is that Alaska is bigger than California, Montana and Texas combined, or to bring it closer to home, Pennsylvania could fit into Alaska 14 times. (Here’s a handy little tool to compare your state to Alaska.)

If you look at a road map of Alaska, you’ll see that almost all the roads are concentrated in the southeast part of the state where most of the population is located. Once you get to Fairbanks, there aren’t many roads that go farther north. (On the other hand, Alaska has 102 seaplane bases – more than any other state!) Anchorage is the largest city at less than 300,000, which is 40 percent of the entire population of Alaska. As we cruised up the Inside Passage from Vancouver, British Columbia to Skagway, and then across the Gulf of Alaska to Seward, I couldn’t help wondering how the borders between Alaska (and therefore the U.S.) and Canada were established. What kind of negotiations or arm-twisting gave that entire southeastern coastline of Alaska to the U.S. instead of Canada? (If I had time and were in the right mood, I’m sure I could probably research the answer to that question!) The shape of Alaska, from that southeastern coastline to the Aleutian Islands which stretch farther west than our other outlier state of Hawaii, is proof that borders and boundaries are funny (as in peculiar), often arbitrary things.

The tourist view: Obviously, we saw Alaska as tourists, and therefore undoubtedly have a somewhat warped or unrealistic view of the whole state. But the tourist view is interesting in and of itself. In a small effort to justify indulging ourselves in this trip, Dale and I often noted that we were supporting Alaska’s tourism industry and helping to provide jobs. So we were surprised to learn that many tourism jobs don’t necessarily go to Alaskans but either to folks who head north from the lower 48 for the tourist season, such as college students and retirees, or to people the cruise lines bring in. The cruise ships themselves are staffed in large part by people from the Philippines and Indonesia who are separated from their families for large portions of the year.

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Ketchikan

There is sort of a fake aspect to the downtown areas of towns along the southeastern coast like Ketchikan, Juneau and Skagway. Many of the shops in the areas of these towns catering to cruise ships almost seem like movie sets that become ghost towns when the tourist season ends and the workers the cruise lines ship in to run all the T-shirt and jewelry stories leave town. We couldn’t help wondering why some of the young people we saw aimlessly hanging out in the town square in Anchorage can’t get jobs in the tourism industry. I’m sure it’s complicated, but it’s a question we asked ourselves. We were glad when the tours we took supported local businesses that employ individuals born and raised in Alaska as guides. Then we felt like we were getting a more authentic experience, even though it was still definitely catering to tourists.

IMG_1464Environmental observations: I am so unqualified to get into the debate about climate change and global warming, but it was something I thought about as we saw glaciers and heard our guides talk about how they have receded in recent years. For example, the Columbia Glacier in Prince William Sound has retreated about ten miles since 1982. What will happen to the environment as this glacier and others continue to recede?

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The mission of the National Park Service as displayed at Zion National Park in Utah

As Dale and I have traveled in the U. S., visiting national parks like Zion and Bryce in Utah, Yellowstone in Wyoming, the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the Everglades in Florida, the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, and now Denali in Alaska (not to mention various national forests and monuments in these and other states), we have been grateful every time for the foresight of U. S. presidents and legislators of the past to set aside and protect these wonderful lands for the future. In Alaska, we heard several times about how certain things like fishing and logging have been restricted or prohibited since areas were designated national forests. Sometimes the comments sounded like laments (perhaps even criticism of the federal government – imagine that!), but Dale and I are always  happy that the land has been protected from development and destruction and preserved for the amazing variety of wildlife that inhabits the land and for future generations to enjoy. We believe this is an example of the federal government at its best.

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Misty Fiords National Monument, Tsongass National Forest (near Ketchikan)

Alaska is billed as the “last frontier” and it truly is in so many ways. We flew by seaplane over the Tsongass National Forest and the Misty Fiords National Monument outside of Ketchikan, and over Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound and the glaciers near Anchorage. Those flights, along with our bus ride into the “tundra wilderness” in Denali, exposed us to real wilderness in a way we haven’t experienced it before. We hope it stays that way for many generations to come!

Mom Moments

I believe that my mother generally disliked Mother’s Day. She always felt inadequate as a mother and didn’t think she measured up to all the praise and adulation heaped on mothers in the typical Hallmark card. She also felt like she compared unfavorably to the ideal women and mothers often spoken about in old-time Mother’s Day sermons. I confess to having some of the same thoughts about Mother’s Day as she had. It’s easy for me to list the mistakes I made as a mother, the regrets I have for things done and undone. When things weren’t going well, I often laid awake at night obsessing about everything I must have done wrong as a mother. It’s not nearly as easy to list all the things I probably did right. So when Mother’s Day rolls around every year, I have to intentionally resist the temptation to compare myself with other mothers, whether real or fictional, because I will inevitably pale by comparison.

I write this not to suck out words of praise from others for what I have done right as a mother, but to be honest about my own feelings – and perhaps to give voice to something many other mothers feel as well. A day that began 100 years ago to honor women who were activists and peacemakers (something I can relate to, since I try to be the same), Mother’s Day has in many ways become the victim of commercial hype that could make even the most perfect mother feel hugely inadequate.

As I look back on more than forty years of being a mother, there are moments that stand out – moments that capture both the joy and hard work (okay, let’s be real – the pain) of being a parent. Here are just a few random “mom moments”:

Dana was born after many hours of difficult labor, while with Derek labor was much easier and shorter. The end result was worth it both times. Having never thought of myself as beautiful, I remember being immediately overwhelmed by how incredibly beautiful and cute Dana was as a newborn, and then we had a second cutie when Derek was born.

Potty-training was a challenge. When Dana and I would get home from her daycare and my part-time job, I would strip her down and let her run around the house naked because I knew she wouldn’t go if she didn’t have clothes on. I bribed Derek – every time he used the potty successfully, he could choose a small wrapped gift out of a basket. Not sure the parenting books would approve of my methods, but they worked – and at the time, that’s what I cared about!

When she was four years old, Dana informed me, “I’m four now; I can do what I want.” If there was an argument to be found to counteract what I said, she was the one who would find it. She was never one to comply quietly.

Sometimes Derek as a little boy would suddenly stop whatever he was doing and come to me and say, “I want to give you something special.” He’d give me a hug, a back rub, and a pat on the back, and then he’d go back to playing. It was indeed special!

In fourth grade, Dana had a “winning streak” in math tests. For a long time (I want to say the whole year, but that’s probably an exaggeration), she had perfect scores. The pressure started to mount as the winning streak continued – not only for her but for her mom who unaccountably felt the pressure too.

We learned how easy it is for a child to disappear. Derek disappeared at Sesame Place when he was about four. We looked everywhere, went to customer service, worried that he might have fallen into a retaining pond (which of course was safely behind a fence, but who knew what might have happened!), catastrophized about kidnapping. All the while he was happily going up and down one of the attractions. He wasn’t lost! Another time at the Grand Canyon when we were walking around the rim, Derek ran ahead of us and out of our sight. We had no idea where he was. Again, we imagined him slipping on some rocks and tumbling down into the canyon. When we reached the end of the trail, there he was, wondering what took us so long and certainly not understanding why I was so panic-stricken!

Like most parents, Dale and I often helped with school projects. One year, I dug out my old copy of The Tale of Two Cities (a copy I had won as a prize my last year in boarding school in Choma) and read it again so I could help Derek who was struggling with it. It’s a good book but it’s not the easiest, particularly if you don’t like to read. We attended Dana’s band concerts – including ones with the Central Pennsylvania Friends of Jazz youth ensemble – and Derek’s basketball games.

When they were young, I used to imagine that most of my mothering work would be done when the kids graduated from high school (in other words, when society considered them adults). Not so! I discovered that parenting young adults is sometimes much harder than parenting young children. I decided that getting up repeatedly in the middle of the night to feed a baby is far preferable to lying awake wondering when and whether one’s adolescent or young adult is going to come home.

When I remember Dana and Derek’s weddings, I think especially of all the friends and family members who surrounded them with love and support. I was so impressed by the diverse collection of wonderful friends Dana had found in Philadelphia. I’ll never forget the last dance at Derek and Katie’s wedding reception when everyone who was still there formed a circle around them while they danced once more to “I Won’t Give Up.” Knowing that Dana and Nes and Derek and Katie have many other caring people in their lives is a wonderful blessing. And now they have all given Dale and me four grandchildren, each of whom is uniquely special to me.

We have a plaque in our home given to us last Christmas that says, “The only thing better than having you as my parents is my child having you as their grandparents.” Of course, I was deeply touched by the gift, but almost immediately, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that it was more than a slight exaggeration. Those old inadequacies that every Mother’s Day tends to bring out in me were rearing their ugly heads. But I am trying to take the plaque at face value and accept the love and gratitude that is contained in the words. I look at it often, and not only am I thankful and proud of the wonderful adults my children have become, but I decide that as their mother, I might even deserve a little credit for having done something right! I also hope that my mother was able to look at her adult children and know she had done well too.

 

 

 

Recommended Reading: Two African Novels

Once again my book clubs have introduced me to books I may not have found otherwise – two more to add to my growing collection of African novels.

Book coverHalf of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is about the civil war in Nigeria in the late 1960s, something I knew next to nothing about. Before reading this novel, I’m almost embarrassed to admit that the only mental image I had of “Biafra” was of starving children. If you’re like me and know next to nothing about Biafra, here’s some background from Wikipedia: “Biafra, officially the Republic of Biafra, was a secessionist state in south-eastern Nigeria that existed from 30 May 1967 to 15 January 1970, taking its name from the Bight of Biafra (the Atlantic bay to its south). The inhabitants were mostly the Igbo people who led the secession due to economic, ethnic, cultural and religious tensions among the various peoples of Nigeria. The creation of the new state that was pushing for recognition was among the causes of the Nigerian Civil War, also known as the Nigerian-Biafran War.” I had no clue about the war, and certainly not from the perspective of those who were on the minority Biafran side, so this book was educational in addition to being a good story.

When I think about where I was and what I was doing from 1967-1970, I suppose it’s at least a little understandable that I didn’t know much about Biafra. I was in college and graduate school at the time; I didn’t have TV and I didn’t listen to NPR in those days (actually, NPR was incorporated in February 1970, after the Biafran War was already over), so my knowledge of world events beyond the Vietnam War was fairly limited. That feels like a poor excuse, however, for my ignorance!

In Half of a Yellow Sun, the story of Biafra is told from the point of view of five characters (all Igbo except one): Ugwu, a thirteen-year-old houseboy; Odenigbo, a university professor and revolutionary; Olanna, the professor’s mistress; Olanna’s twin sister, Kainene; and Richard, an Englishman infatuated with Kainene. As you might imagine, the war was horrific, and yes, to explain why my only mental image of Biafra is of starving children, there was widespread hunger and deprivation because of the war.

Perhaps the most haunting sentence in the book is this one, which is also the title of a book about the war written by one of the characters: “The world was silent while we died.” During the war, the citizens of the breakaway country of Biafra struggled to gain recognition from other countries, and it didn’t seem like the rest of the world cared very much that thousands of people were suffering and dying in this little tiny country with few resources but lots of pride. I couldn’t help thinking of other times when it has seemed like “the world was silent”: Rwanda, Sarajevo, Bosnia, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Syria…and the list could probably go on. What is our responsibility in situations like this? What can and should we do? I honestly don’t know.

Front CoverThe second African novel I read recently is Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga. I was much more familiar with the setting and issues in this book because it takes place in colonial Rhodesia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is after I left Rhodesia in 1961 and after Ian Smith declared unilateral independence from Great Britain in 1965, but before the height of the war that resulted in majority black rule and the change of name to Zimbabwe in 1980. Nervous Conditions has been described as one of the best African novels, and is the first by a black Zimbabwean to be published in English outside the country.

The story is told from the point of view of Tambu, a young girl who leaves her rural village to go to the mission school run by her wealthy, British-educated uncle. The book explores coming of age, gender and identity issues. The title refers to the sense of displacement and feelings of ambivalence that come with being a native in a colonial system – everyone in the novel has a “nervous condition.”

There was a lot for me to identify with in this book. It takes places at a time that was not all that far removed from when I lived in Rhodesia. In many ways, the story felt like my story being told from the opposite point of view. As a missionary kid, however, I saw the world I lived in from the point of view of missionaries who believed they were doing a good and right thing – not only by bringing the good news of the gospel to the native people but also by improving their lives with education and medical care. These were good things, but it never occurred to me to think about how the missionaries and other white settlers also disrupted life and created a whole new set of of challenges for the native people. The novel shows the work of missionaries and colonialism from the other side, and how education and white people changed things irrevocably. I appreciated this perspective which is different than the one I grew up with.

The effects of education, westernization and money are explored, along with the loss of traditional values. There is also a loss of language and culture, and distrust of the new culture that seems to be taking over. Family dynamics change when some are able to receive an education and others don’t, when some have wealth and opportunity and others don’t, when those with wealth and advantage are expected to share with and take care of those who don’t. The “nervous condition” of Tambu is clear as she desperately wants an education and forsakes her village and family to get it, even as she critiques her more worldly-wise cousin for her inability to speak the native language anymore and her rebellious attitude toward her parents, especially her father. The cousin’s own “nervous condition” has tragic results when she suffers from an eating disorder that eventually requires professional help to save her life. Interestingly, there are no significant white characters with unique personalities in the book, even though so much of life is controlled by whites. This is Tambu’s story, or as she puts it in the opening paragraph, a story of escape, entrapment and rebellion, told in a fairly introspective style.

There’s so much more to both books that I haven’t mentioned, so you’ll just have to read them if you want to know more!

 

 

On Creating Space

One year ago today, I launched a thirty-day discipline to write for this blog every day during the month of April. I had hoped that after the month was over I would continue to write regularly, but life intervened! What started as a goal to continue to write a couple times a week faded to maybe a couple times a month, and a year later I find myself having posted only twice so far in 2014. One was a summary of 2013 and one was a rerun from five years ago, so they hardly count.

It’s not that I haven’t thought about writing. I’ve written stuff in my head, I’ve jotted down notes, and I’ve even started drafts. But they haven’t yet seen the light of day. I don’t have time to fine-tune the writing, or the idea I have doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, or I fear the topic is too controversial and I’m quite frankly scared to enter the fray (think commentaries on gun violence or health care or some other hot button topic…).

Probably the issue of time is at the heart of my inability to write regularly, despite my best intentions. In my life, there is always a new deadline; it’s an occupational hazard for editors of what are supposed to be regular publications. I struggle enough to keep up with all the deadlines for the seven publications I’m currently editing that adding another deadline for this blog looms large. If I’m going to write more regularly (which I really want to do!), I need more space in my life.

As I’ve thought about how to create space, I can’t help drawing an analogy from my life as a writer and editor. Of the seven publications I edit, only one does not have a page limit. Take the almost-monthly news update I produce for the Bureau of Children’s Behavioral Health Services. More than 20 years ago, when it was created, we decided that it should fit on one piece of paper – using both sides. Keep in mind that this was still in the days of hard copies and snail mail. Over the years that length limit has not changed, despite the fact that it is mostly online now and could easily be much longer. I continue to maintain the discipline of sticking to those two sides of one piece of paper (or, more accurately now, two Word document pages). Some months, there is barely enough to fill the two pages and so I space things out a little more, or add a seasonal graphic to fill an empty corner. But more often than not, there’s too much copy. I could decrease the margins on the page, or decrease the font size, or eliminate space between news items to gain a few extra lines, but beyond a couple small exceptions to the font size thing, I have disciplined myself not to do that. Instead, I’ve become really good at editing out unnecessary words or even sentences, taking what I or someone else thought needed two paragraphs and making it say the same thing in just one. It’s amazing how many words you can get rid of if you have to and still maintain the meaning! Sometimes I’ll decide that an item I thought was really important isn’t important after all, or it can easily wait until next month when there might be more space. In almost 22 years, I have never gone over the two-page limit!

Now if I could just apply the same discipline in my life… Sigh! I wrote awhile back about my “multi-tasking life,” referring to all the juggling I do to manage many different projects and volunteer assignments, in addition to my part-time job. In the months since, I really have been trying to decrease my responsibilities, to get control and create some space in my life – to get it down to “two pages,” so to speak. I’ve decided to step down from one responsibility this summer, and I’m decreasing my part-time hours from 12-15 a week to 6-10 a week starting July 1. Next year I’m looking forward to creating even more space when I step down from a couple other responsibilities. I’ve recently even had a little (although not enough) practice saying no when I’ve been asked to take on something new, although I’ve also ended up saying yes to a couple shorter-term things I really wanted to do.

To push the two-page analogy a little further, it might even be nice to get my extra-curricular responsibilities down to just one page, but to do that, I would have to do some serious editing and make some hard decisions about what’s really necessary. In the meantime, as I keep working on the discipline of creating space, here’s hoping some of those partly-written posts and/or thoughts rattling around in my head will eventually (perhaps even soon!) find themselves on the virtual pages of this blog!