Real Patriotism

The recent decision of NFL owners to require football players to stand while the national anthem is played before football games got me, along with many others, thinking again about the meaning of patriotism.

As I wrote before (God bless the whole world, no exceptions), I come to this issue as someone born in Zimbabwe to an American mother and a Canadian father (who much later became an American citizen). So I am predisposed by birth and my early years not to pledge blind loyalty to any one country, even the one in which I have now lived for more than 56 of my 70 years. In addition, as a Christian, I believe that we are citizens first of all of God’s kingdom before we are citizens of any particular country. Citizenship in God’s kingdom and its values demand my primary loyalty.

Therefore, pledging allegiance to the flag is difficult for me. I do have patriotic feelings toward the United States, such as love of country and gratitude for the kind of life I and my family enjoy, and those feelings are often stirred when the national anthem is sung or played. But I’m always a bit uncomfortable with its glorification of war (“the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there”).

Despite my general discomfort with the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, however, embedded in both of them are important values. The pledge ends with a commitment to “liberty and justice for all,” and the national anthem ends, “O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave/O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

Liberty/freedom, justice, bravery. These are important ideals, fundamental to what the United States is supposed to be. Which is why it is incomprehensible to me that some would banish to the locker room or otherwise condemn those who respectfully and silently protest the reality that these ideals are not equally available to all in this country and that many people are routinely denied basic justice. Standing with your hand over your heart while the anthem is played/sung and the flag is raised does not necessarily mean that the rest of your life is being lived in ways that advance freedom and justice.

In fact, it seems to me that the very person who lashes out at NFL players who protest, suggesting they should be fired or leave the country, is doing the exact opposite. He threatens basic tenets of democracy (like free speech and the free press), engages in overt and dog-whistle racist speech, assaults the basic rule of law that brings justice, allows cruelty toward children and their parents with his anti-immigrant threats,** and his administration adopts policies and loosens regulations that will make it less likely for everyone to be treated justly and fairly.

There are many ways to be patriotic. Pledging allegiance to the flag and standing for the national anthem, even though I understand how they are important symbols, are insignificant in the great scheme of things. Real patriotism ought to include nonviolent protest and resistance when one’s country is not living up to its highest values and best self, acting in ways that promote rather than restrict liberty and justice for all, and living one’s own life in keeping with those values.

**In the interest of fairness, I note that during the Obama administration’s attempt to crack down on illegal immigration, children and families (many of whom were seeking asylum) were also often held for months in detention camps under inhumane conditions. This was not right then and it’s not right now.


Brownies at Beit School

1st Choma Brownie Pack of 1960, Beit School, Choma

I thought I remembered that a photo like this existed, but I didn’t know if I still had it or where it was. And then earlier this week when I was rummaging in a container of mostly old high school and college yearbooks, I found it. Yay!

On the back of the photo above are these identifying words (I’m so pleased for having at least this once ID’d a photo!): “1st Choma Brownie Pack of 1960.” While I don’t have vivid memories of being a Brownie while I was at Beit, I do recall a few things:

  • We met weekly, probably in the afternoons after our homework was done and before we were called in for our evening routines. It’s possible the meetings were on Saturdays.
  • We worked for badges, although I don’t remember any specific badges that I earned.
  • Our Brownie troop included both boarding and day students.

My Girl Guides pin (Brownies are a a division of Girl Guides for younger girls)

This caption on the back suggests that this was a Brownie troop for the town of Choma, and not specifically run by Beit School. I’m quite sure, however, that we met on the grounds of the boarding hostel. The photo also suggests that we had Brownie uniforms. I’m almost positive the outfits we’re wearing were not our regular school uniforms. I think, though, that the hats we’re wearing in the photo are our felt uniform hats. My copy of the photo is about 4 1/2 x 7 inches. The size and the three well-posed rows of Brownies tell me that this was a formal picture of our troop. Unfortunately, it is a bit over-exposed, although most of the faces are still fairly recognizable.

The only person in the photo I recognize for sure and can name is the girl fourth from the right in the back row. Her name was Judy and she was one of my best friends. I think she lived on a farm in the Kalomo area, south of Choma, and I’m pretty sure I went home with her for a weekend visit one time.

When I first found the photo this week, what struck me forcefully all over again was why I always felt huge as a pre-teen. In case you can’t pick me out, I am the tallest one, fourth from the right in the back row. I am probably 12 in the photo, in my last year at Beit, and therefore one of the oldest girls. I tower above everyone else, even my friend Judy who was also my age and the second tallest. I was often self-conscious about the fact that I matured physically before other girls my age at school, and this photo helps to confirm why!

Back in April 2013, when I wrote about my memories of growing up as a missionary kid in Southern and Northern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe and Zambia, I wrote specifically about Beit School, a British-run girls boarding school in Choma, Northern Rhodesia (remember, this was before Northern Rhodesia became the independent country of Zambia). The two posts were Can I Pull My Plug? and Movies and Midnight Feasts (“Boarding School Memories, Parts 1 and 2). In the five years since those two pieces were published here on the blog, they have become my second and fourth most popular posts ever, and in the last 12 months specifically, they are the two most popular posts. Why, you ask? Because, I think, former Beit School students have been taking their own trips down memory lane and searching for information about the school; Google searches for “Beit School” turn up my blog posts.

So I’m kind of hoping that one or two (or more) of the girls in the photo will happen upon this post during their internet searches and respond with their own memories of Beit School in general and this Brownie pack in particular. Wouldn’t it be cool if Judy and I connected again after all these years?!

Reasons to Live: Happy 70th Birthday to Me!

I’ve grown up knowing these familiar words from Psalm 90: “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. . . . Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”

Today I reach that biblical age of 70, and feel very much like I’m not done with life yet. I’m definitely hoping my strength endures until at least 80, and that the best of the days I have left are NOT trouble and sorrow! My parents both lived into their early 90s, as did my maternal grandmother and several aunts and uncles on both sides of my family; longevity is in the genes. But since no one knows how long he or she will live, the Psalmist’s admonition to “number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” is good advice.

The reasons I want to go on living are many, but right now they fall into three categories. Two are probably obvious, while the third dips into controversial waters but is something very much on my mind these days.

Our next Cape May beach pic will include two more little ones!

My family. You would expect me to say this, but it’s still true! I love my husband and want to grow old with him. I also love my two children and their spouses, I’m proud of the truly good people they are and how they’ve chosen to live their lives, much of which I never could have imagined 20-25 years ago. I look forward to seeing what else life has in store for them.

Then there are the grandchildren. This year, with the impending arrival of two more, I have a particularly strong reason to want to live. I am so excited about being grandma to twins. I certainly never thought such a thing would happen in our family, but here we are, about two months out from welcoming twins. I want to be available and healthy enough to help with the extra work that will be involved in caring for them, not only in the early months when things are sure to be hectic and stressful for their parents but also in the years to come. Meanwhile, Alecia (15) is fast approaching young adulthood, Justis (almost 12) will be a teenager before you know it, and the “little cousins,” Selena and Piper (six just yesterday and four, respectively), won’t be little much longer. They’re all growing up and I want to be around to see it happen. I never knew three of my own grandparents, and the fourth always seemed somewhat stern and remote, so I want my grandchildren to remember this grandma (me) as available, generous, and at least a little fun to be around.

Doing what I enjoy. In retirement, I haven’t been bored. There’s always something else to think about doing. Sometimes, I feel like I still have too many deadlines – as soon as I get one publication to the printer, it’s time to work on the next, or I’m working on multiple projects simultaneously. I remind myself that being able to manage all those projects and deadlines relatively competently is a sign that my brain is still working well, and that’s encouraging! In addition to the formal editorial assignments I still have (mostly volunteer, with one small paid contract that is almost over), I want to continue writing for myself. I’m part of two book clubs and always have a pile of non-book-club books waiting on my to-read list. With the impending arrival of twin grandbabies, Dale and I have put our travel plans on hold for a bit, but there are still places I’d like to go – especially in other parts of the world.

One of my fraternal twin-themed knitting projects

Knitting also continues to give me pleasure. Lately, I’ve read a number of articles touting the health benefits of knitting, providing justification for my yarn stash and habit of checking out local yarn stores wherever we travel. I will never measure up to my mother’s knitting skills, but it won’t be for lacking of knitting! And then there’s always the basement with its boxes of memorabilia to be sorted (while memories are jogged) and “stuff” to be thrown away. I only wish I enjoyed the de-cluttering process as much as I enjoy lots of other things!

Surviving a national nightmare. Sometime, after he became president following the resignation of Richard Nixon over Watergate, Gerald Ford declared: “Our long national nightmare is over.” Now I feel like we are in the middle of another national nightmare, and I long for the day when this one is over. I can’t count the number of times someone has said about something our current president has done or said, “This is not normal.” I know that “not normal” is exactly why many people voted for him, but personally I’d like a bit of normal.

I’ll spare you my detailed list of the things about this presidency that are not normal and distress me, but here’s a sampling: regular attacks on the basic underpinnings of democracy and the rule of law, unprecedented levels of dishonesty and misinformation, gaslighting, petty insults and bullying that are beneath the dignity of anyone let alone the president of the United States, hypocrisy, racist and xenophobic language and behavior, apparent conflicts of interest and self-dealing, questionable ethics, ill-advised and mean-spirited policies, and so on.

As I’ve said before, I expect the typical ebb and flow of policy changes when one party takes over from another. I can somewhat understand how the president’s supporters believe he is doing exactly what they wanted when they voted for him. What I can’t understand is how policy changes are worth the assaults on democracy, fundamental decency, truth, and basic morality, and how so many who would be outraged by such behavior in anyone else seem to have little problem with it in this president as long as they get what they want.

A good friend told me last year that one of her goals in life is to take care of herself so she will live to see decency and democratic norms restored when this presidency finally ends. I have joined her in that goal!

Finally, my challenge to myself on my 70th birthday: I want to increase my ability to focus on the good things – my family, the daily aspects of life that I enjoy, and my primary commitment to the kingdom of God rather than any earthly kingdom or political party – instead of on the chaos of the current political scene. Even while I long for this “national nightmare” to be over, I want to keep doing the right thing and, as I wrote before, “to speak truth with words that give grace. Whatever awfulness is happening in politics, I want to live by the Christian values that have guided my whole life, even when it is really hard. I’m also reaffirming the three wishes I wrote for my birthday in 2016 (the ability to “be still and know that I am God,” a sharp mind, and an attitude of gratitude) and in 2017 (a fair U. S. political system, a world where my grandchildren can survive and thrive, and the ability to age well).

Returning to Psalm 90: I want to cultivate that “heart of wisdom” that should come with age – another good reason to live!


Seventieth Birthday Month Reflections, Part 3: Teaching High School English

Dale and me, circa 1972, in the middle of my three-year high school teaching career.

When I think back to the three years I taught high school English at the Mechanicsburg Area Senior High School (1970-1973), in between completing my master’s degree and giving birth to my first child, I mostly remember how ill-suited I generally felt to a teaching career. I’ve written before about how I went into teaching somewhat by default (amazingly, by far my most popular post of all time!), and how I didn’t feel like there were many viable options open to me at the time. I don’t usually look back on my time as a high school English teacher with a great deal of confidence that I was a good teacher and had a lasting positive impact on my students.

So it was a bit of surprise to hear from a former student by way of Facebook. She and her classmates are planning their 45th class reunion this year and as part of their celebration are collecting interviews with former teachers. She invited me to participate, and when I agreed, she sent me a list of questions that formed the basis for the interview. I met her and another classmate at the Mechanicsburg Area School District Archives (yes, there actually is such a place!), where we chatted about the old days and they video-taped my reflections on teaching.

The questions helped me remember details I thought I had long ago forgotten. Here’s a sampling of questions they asked and the memories I shared in the interview:

What do you remember about the class of 1973? Are there any particular people who stand out, good or bad? Over the course of three years of teaching, I had 15 different classes (five each year). All except one were 11th grade English, and in those days of separation into academic “tracks,” all but one were second-level college prep and “general.” The other was a top-level college prep class of 10th graders, during my first year. Class of 1973 students were in that 10th grade class and the five 11th grade classes during my second year.

I don’t remember many specific students (although perusing the yearbook helped jog my memory). I had previously known one student in the 10th grade class because she and her family went to the Grantham Church  (her parents were friends of my parents, and she was distantly related to me). She sat in the front row in the middle (in my memory, at least), and she always participated enthusiastically in class discussion. Her smiles every day in class were always positive reinforcements when I needed them badly. Another student in the same class sat just a couple rows behind her. He was a little unconventional but very bright and an excellent writer – so good, in fact, that I allowed him leeway with traditional rules of grammar because the result was creative and effective communication.

I remember another student in one of the “general” classes for the opposite reason. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure she had some kind of learning disability, perhaps dyslexia, but of course, I knew next to nothing about such things at the time and obviously had no training to know how to help her. I found her absolute inability to spell and make any sense in her writing very frustrating. I don’t remember being unkind to her, but I regret that I couldn’t do anything that would help her. I’ve often wondered what happened to her, and wished I knew then what I know now about learning disabilities.

Did you have any mentors to guide you through your first year of teaching? This question was easy to answer. The chair of the English Department was Jacob Kuhns, a small but mighty man. He had been my 11th grade English teacher when I was in the same high school, and he and his family also went to the Grantham Church. He assigned himself as my “master teacher” during that first year and was always available to offer support and advice when I asked.

Are there any embarrassing moments that you’d be willing to share? Yes, there is at least one that I remember vividly, but no, I’m still not willing to share it publicly!

What innovations or strategies did you use to make your English classes interesting? I sometimes used contemporary popular music to illustrate poetry – Simon and Garfunkel, for example. The student who contacted me recently says she remembers that I invited students to bring in their own records (and yes, they would have been vinyl records!) to illustrate particular rhythms in poetry. When I was teaching The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn one year, I assigned group projects that were intended to get students more actively involved in the story. One group decided to build a raft, and took me to a parking lot after school to show me their project so I could evaluate it for a grade. I’m not sure whether the project really taught them all that much about the novel (and it certainly wouldn’t have taught them anything they needed to know for today’s state tests), but at least they were enjoying English class! It was the 70s, after all.

What made a good day at school? And what was the hardest thing about teaching? A good day was when I felt like I had connected with students, when they genuinely seemed interested in what we were doing in class, and when I didn’t have to stop teaching every few minutes to reprimand someone for misbehaving. The hardest thing about teaching was keeping order in the classroom. I was simply not a good disciplinarian, and I often felt out of control of the classroom. Some students took advantage of me, while I know others wished for better order and would have been interested in learning if the classroom atmosphere had been more conducive.

I was so young – only 22 years old when I started. During those three years, I became engaged to Dale, we married about a week after the first school year ended, and when I resigned at the end of the 1972-1973 school year, I was pregnant with Dana. I don’t regret ending my teaching career after three years and, in the midst of raising my two children, beginning to forge a different career for which I was much better suited temperamentally.

Reflecting on those three years of teaching, I usually remember mostly the “nightmare” aspect and all those Rolaids I chewed to calm my nerves. With generally negative feelings about my short-lived teaching career, therefore, it was life-affirming to be reminded that it wasn’t all bad, I actually do have some good memories, and I am remembered fondly by at least some of my former students. I’m grateful to Laurie and Pat, the two class of 1973 members who interviewed me, for giving me that gift!

Cat Stories

The recent untimely death of our beloved cat Sophie sent me on a trip down memory lane as I recalled the various cats that have been part of my life. For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve loved cats. On the mission stations in Zimbabwe and Zambia, there were always cats running around. Sometimes they were treated as family pets, and other times they were just part of the scenery or made themselves useful as mouse-hunters. One assignment when I was in primary school was to write an essay titled either “I Love Cats” or “I Hate Cats.” Can you guess which title I chose?! My dad, also a cat-lover, who was not one to dish out praise gratuitously, complimented me on my essay. I’ve never forgotten his praise!

I don’t remember the cats featured in these two photos. I was probably about 4-5 years old, and clearly infatuated with these kitties who had free run of Wanezi Mission (Zimbabwe) and showed up at our house for food – and perhaps for the brand of tender-loving care that 4-5 year-olds could give. One specific cat-related story I do remember from Wanezi (from accounts my parents shared) involves another missionary kid, Janet Musser (Kipe). During a missionary gathering in her parents’ house, she couldn’t find her kitten. One missionary auntie, of somewhat sizable girth, kept “meowing” until Janet was convinced the auntie was sitting on the poor kitten.

Some years later, when we were living at Sikalongo Mission in Zambia, my dad brought two kitten siblings from Macha Mission. I named them Ginger (orange) and Tabby (grey striped). When they arrived, they were “wild,” and we kept them in a chicken-coop-style cage in an out-building. Multiple times each day I would go to the cage and talk to them soothingly until gradually they allowed me to pet them and hold them. Even though they were outdoor cats, I took them in the house to play with them. To their great chagrin and kitty embarrassment, I’m sure, I would dress them up in doll clothes. One time, one of them got away from me while clothed in a doll dress and bonnet. He ran out into a nearby cornfield. I called and called for him, but no kitty. However, some hours later he returned, with the dress and bonnet still hanging from him.

I was away at boarding school when we moved from Sikalongo to Macha, and so learned from my parents that they put both kitties in a burlap sack to transport them. Apparently, they didn’t appreciate being confined together in that sack for several hours, because from then on they were mortal enemies. They continued to be my pets at Macha, and both allowed me to play with them, but never together! They fought with each other and other cats (often loudly at night), and had scars on their ears from wounds sustained in those fights. They stayed at Macha when we left for the U.S.

The next cat I remember lived with my family in Grantham after we returned from Africa. I think his name was Pawtucket (no idea where that came from). He would periodically disappear only to show up again not too much worse for the wear. I also don’t remember what caused his demise.

After Dale and I were married, knowing we would be moving to a rural log house in the country from our suburban apartment, we acquired a kitten. We named her Katanya, which was just an “official” name because we always called her “Kitty.” She was an indoor-outdoor cat and ended up pregnant. When her first litter was born, we kept one (a male named Tosh) and gave the rest away. After not quite two years in that house, we moved again and took Kitty and Tosh with us. Kitty disappeared, and we assumed she had tried to find her way back to the log house. Tosh stuck around, but eventually met an untimely death on the highway. Soon after, we acquired another set of sibling kittens – names forgotten. They too met early deaths.

Kitty “helped” me with my home-based writing and editorial work.

Dana with Tigger

For several years after we moved to Harrisburg, we resisted getting another cat. Then one day Dale unexpectedly came home with an adult orange tabby cat from a shelter who may have had a real name, but we also called her Kitty (we weren’t too creative with our pet names!). She settled in and became a member of the family. Along the way, Dana acquired a long-haired orange kitten she named Tigger. Unfortunately, Tigger was killed by a dog in our backyard. Some years later, we got a puppy – a mix, but mostly golden lab. Kitty wasn’t amused, but she adjusted to Sandy’s exuberant presence. Eventually, Kitty became ill and started having litter box problems. We took her to the vet, but I don’t remember the diagnosis. However, at some point, she disappeared and never returned.

We moved to our current home with our dog Sandy. We sometimes thought about getting another cat, but decided we would wait until Sandy went to doggy heaven. Then early one morning while Sandy was still with us, I was alone at work in our third floor offices on Front Street in Harrisburg and found a young calico cat. Who knows how she ended up on the third floor; she must have snuck in with the cleaning crew the evening before. She was obviously well cared for, because she was clean, sociable, and had a bell on a red collar around her neck. We put up signs in the neighborhood and I called the Humane Society, but no one claimed her. She and I bonded in the office, and after a couple days, she came home to stay. We named her Callie (creative name for a calico cat, huh?!), and she became a much-loved member of our family.

Aside: When I was growing up in Africa, our cats were always outdoor cats (kind of like farm cats), and Dale remembers the same thing from his childhood. So it was natural for us to allow our cats to come and go from the house at will. After several experiences of losing cats to accidents or “disappearances,” added to the growing societal expectation that cats not be allowed to roam the neighborhood, we decided that Callie and then Sophie would be indoor cats only. Callie often tried to sneak out (and succeeded a few times), but Sophie never did.

Our two oldest grandchildren remember Callie fondly because she was sociable, and allowed them to pet and play with her. My brother memorialized her in a beautiful and realistic stained glass creation he gave me for my 60th birthday.

Callie was a large cat – and I do mean large, like 19 pounds at her heaviest. When she started having some urinary problems and we took her to the vet, we discovered she had feline diabetes. We tried to control the diabetes with a change in diet, hoping to avoid daily insulin shots or other intrusive and expensive treatment, and she had started to lose some weight. But in March 2010, when we returned in the middle of the night from a vacation in Costa Rica, we found her lying dead in our bedroom. So sad. She was less than 10 years old.

Later that year, we started looking for another kitty and found Sophie. She was about four months old when she came to live with us. We felt like we had to sign our lives away to adopt her from PAWs (even listing references who could affirm that we would provide her with a good home), but she was worth it. When we first adopted her, we had no idea she would turn into a semi-long-haired cat with the softest and silkiest fur you can imagine. She always carried her fluffy tail as if she knew it was her best feature. We often referred to her as “Her Royal Furriness.” She was not particularly sociable, however, and hid behind the sofa when the grandchildren came (or anyone, for that matter). They loved shining a flashlight to see her staring at them from her place of safety. Occasionally, she would come out when they were here and try to be sociable, but she was always a little on edge. She was the quintessential “scaredy cat.”

Even with Dale and me, she was not really a lap cat (something I frequently lamented). When she did come to us, it was always on her terms, and the slightest move on our part would send her running away. But when she was in the mood, she could be very affectionate, purring loudly and rubbing against us. She would often wave her voluminous tail across my face or the screen as I worked at the computer. Earlier on the day she died, I was out in the sunroom with her, and she settled herself on the chair beside me, purring all the while. That evening, she died – way too young (not even eight years old), suddenly, and of an unknown cause. We miss her a lot; it’s just not the same in the house without Sophie!

Will we get another cat? I don’t know. I’d love another one, of course, but there are other considerations. In the meantime, I remember fondly a lifetime of loving my feline furry friends.