Imperfect Serenity

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Please Hold

I'm still recovering from the two days school was closed for President's Day. Between the holiday and a long list of exasperating chores, I haven’t had time to write in a week. This state of affairs has made a few things clear: 1) If I don’t write, I get cranky (a fact I’ve observed before but periodically forget); and 2) Computerized corporations will be the downfall of humanity.

First, I have to complain about the corporations that are using computers to replace common sense. Let me preface this by saying that I am not a Luddite. I love laptop. I make use of many modern conveniences, including automatic deposit of my paycheck and automatic withdrawl of my phone bill. My mother also appreciated these services, correctly foreseeing that she might get sick someday, and that things would be easier for her (and me) if her phone bill, energy bill, and Blue Cross bill were all paid every month, whether she was up to writing a check or not. I appreciate her foresight, but here’s the problem. Getting these three companies to stop, withdrawing her money every month has reminded me of Satre’s No Way Out.

Let me just give Blue Cross as an example. I called them at the beginning of January to notify them of my mother’s death. After pressing 1 for current accounts and entering my mother’s account number, I was greeted with a message that began, “Due to higher than anticipated call volumes…” In early January there probably was high call volume due to all the new customers trying to sign up for the gym discount, so I dutifully held until I got a real person who assured me she would take care of everything. I was, therefore, surprised when I found on mom’s next bank statement that Blue Cross had withdrawn $171 on January 6. After calling back, entering the right numbers, listening to the “higher than anticipated call volume message” and waiting on hold again, a real person finally came on the line to say that they were so busy they would have to take my name and number and call me back within twenty-four hours. Ten days later I got the call on my cell phone while driving. A very nice woman assured me that my mother’s death was noted on the computer and that she would make sure I was reimbursed for the January payment. I told her I was planning to close my mother’s checking account at the end of the month, so I wanted to be sure they would not to try to withdraw in February. She assured me she would take care of it.

Imagine my joy last week when I got a notice from my bank that the account I thought I had closed now had a negative balance due to the Blue Cross withdrawl and the $35 bounced check fee the bank had slapped me with. After calling the bank, entering the account number, and waiting on hold, a woman explained that closed accounts aren’t really closed right away, just in case there are outstanding checks or automatic withdrawls. She said I could negotiate for a waiver of the bounced check fee, after Blue Cross refunded the money, which they said they were going to do, but haven’t done yet. When I called them again yesterday (for at least the fourth time), I noticed that they are not very good at anticipating their call volume which always seems to be higher than usual. The cheery message that repeated while I was on hold told me I could be a better parent on Valentine’s Day by giving my children positive feedback instead of candy. The mousy woman I finally reached said there was a note on the computer that my claim was being processed, but she couldn’t tell me if they would be putting the money back into the bank account or sending me a check. (It was apparently impossible to speak to the people who actually handle the reimbursing.) It wasn’t until after I hung up that I realized I still haven’t been reimbursed for the January payment.

Similar scenarios have played out with all three of the companies that had their tentacles in mom’s bank account, as well as the company that had her pension annuity. Some companies ask you to give the last four digits of the account owner’s social security number as confirmation, which always sends me scrambling for the piece of paper where it’s written. One company has voice recognition software that doesn’t recognize “death” as a real problem. It also doesn’t work right if there are children yelling “No” and “Stop it!” at each other in the background.

I should add that every real person I have dealt with was polite and sympathetic, if not always well informed. The problem is that the information these people type into the computer doesn’t translate into action, or when it does, the person taking the action doesn’t understand what is needed from the short note on the computer (This has been the problem with the annuity company.) At first I thought the companies were just inefficient, but now I’m getting cynical. I suspect Blue Cross wants to earn interest off my mom’s money for as long as possible. More importantly, they want us to feel disempowered and intimidated so we’ll think twice about challenging them when they refuse to pay a claim.

This bit about feeling disempowered feels related to The Wisdom to Know the Difference, though I haven’t sifted it all out yet. It seems that the more control we give large institutions, the less we have ourselves. I certainly have felt disempowered several times during this process, helpless to solve a simple problem or even speak to the person with the power to solve it. It makes me wonder how our globalized economy affects the way we see our ability to “change what can be changed.”

I’m still sitting with the book idea, but this week has reminded me how much I miss writing when I don’t get to do it. I like teaching, and I do miss it, but I don’t get cranky after a week of not teaching the way I get cranky after a week of not writing. This should tell me something about how I want to prioritize my time and give me the courage to focus on writing again, even as I finish sorting out my mother’s affairs.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


I’m not sure who is still out there reading this, but I’m going to try to use this post for discernment feedback. As I’ve written before, I’m trying to figure out what work to do next. There is one idea for a book that has kept coming back to me over the years, so I’m going to post a few paragraphs below and see what thoughts they evoke. The general idea would be a book length work called The Wisdom to Know the Difference, based on many personal interviews and covering issues ranging from the individual (like birth and death) to the societal/global (like poverty and the environment). It might start something like this:

God grant me
Serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Courage to change the things I can change,
And Wisdom to know the difference

I started contemplating The Serenity Prayer while I was pregnant with my first child. On the one hand, I realized that I could not control the miracle growing inside me. From the baby’s health to the timing of labor, I was going to need the serenity to accept that I was not completely in charge. On the other hand, I understood that I had unprecedented control over someone else’s life, and I was going to need courage to face this daunting responsibility. One of the first challenges came when my pregnancy went post-term, and along with my doctor, I needed the wisdom to know how long to wait patiently and when to intervene with labor inducing drugs. Talking to other mothers, I noticed how our personalities and our childbirth philosophies influenced where we each drew the line between accepting and acting, challenging me to consider how I drew the line myself.

The Serenity Prayer continued to hold special meaning for me as my children grew and I needed to insist on boundaries and car seats. On the one hand, what I did as a parent was critically important to their safety and development. On the other hand, I felt powerless to make my daughter forgive her brother, let alone guarantee her protection in a world inhabited by drunk drivers and terrorists. As my aunt, my uncle, and finally my mother approached the end of their lives, I faced new questions about the ethical relationship between action and acceptance and the dance between fighting for life and accepting the inevitability of death. As I sat with my mother during her last hours, I was reminded of the hours waiting for my daughter’s birth, hoping for the wisdom to know what to do and how to just be.

What the Serenity Prayer calls “The Wisdom to Know the Difference” is central to my definition of a well-lived life. We waste energy when we rail against things that can’t be changed, and we waste grief when we put up with what we shouldn’t, not just in personal matters like birth and death, but in societal concerns, like poverty, injustice, and war. In fact the original Serenity Prayer was written in the plural “we,” and it’s author Reinhold Neibur was concerned with racism and anti-Semitism at least as much as with individual spiritual concerns. The individual wording made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous in some ways robs the prayer of its bigger challenge, to see the relationship between my individual actions and the wider world around me.

There are many more ideas, but that’s a taste. What do you all think?

Thursday, February 09, 2006


For three years—the three years when Luke was nursing—I taught a class at Pendle Hill titled “Discerning Our Calls.” I could use a class like that right now, so I find myself trying to remember the things I taught others.

The first stage of discernment we discussed was opening a space to listen. Often the business of daily life keeps us from attending to our own thoughts and feelings, let alone listening for divine guidance (which is how I understand discernment). I was reminded of this last night when Tom asked me how my day had been, and I felt embarrassed to admit I hadn’t done very much. I’m used to packing some accomplishment into every minute the children are in school. Going to the gym, visiting a friend, and reading all felt self indulgent, especially given how hard Tom has been working lately. But talking to Tom helped me realize that I’m in this phase again of needing to make space to listen. Exercise is necessary for my mental and physical health. The visit with my friend gave me a chance to think aloud about different writing projects I could pursue. The half hour I spent reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X helped me stay connected with the tug I’ve felt lately toward social justice work.

Lately my posts here have mostly been about sorting through my mom’s stuff, but two and a half weeks ago I enjoyed a wonderful Christmas present from Tom, a weekend conference at Pendle Hill titled Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Malcolm X: The Quest for Personal and Social Transformation. It was my first weekend away in the nine years since Megan’s birth, so mostly I just enjoyed not having to mediate a sibling spat for forty-three whole hours. In addition to that and uninterrupted adult conversation, I was also nurtured by the life stories of three remarkable people who worked tirelessly to combat the injustice around them. I was particularly moved by the discussion that stemmed from Malcolm X’s story about a teacher who told him that it was unrealistic for a “nigger” to become a lawyer, despite the fact that Malcolm was a top student and class president. The teacher encouraged him to become a carpenter, an incident that prompted some of the course participants to share their observations of how black students are still limited by teachers’ low expectations of them. There were stories of urban schools that didn’t even bother to give homework or teach how to write a research paper because the teachers had already given up on their students, stories that put my complaints about the amount of Megan’s third grade homework and her upcoming research paper into a totally different perspective.

For at least twenty years I’ve had what Quakers would call “a concern” about racism in our country. I’ve tried to become aware of my own socialization about race and the messages my children are now receiving from the world around them. I’ve tried to speak up when I hear or see racism, though I have to admit that what I mostly see and hear are patterns that aren’t as deliberate as the Montgomery bus segregation of my childhood and therefore harder for me to know how to combat (see Pool Politics). I’ve felt this concern about racism and its companion, economic injustice, stirring in me again lately, but I’m uncertain about what to do with it. Volunteer to tutor at a public school? Develop more courses to diversify the university’s curriculum? Write about it?

And then there are all the other issues of our day: the war, the environment, government surveillance…This administration is giving us no lack of issues to protest. Why is racism the concern that’s percolating in me now? One possibility is that it’s connected to my mother’s death. My mother was liberal, down right progressive on many issues. We could commiserate about the war or the Bush administration or the greed of Enron. The only thing we fought about was racism, namely hers which surfaced whenever I dated someone who wasn’t white. This is one of the things I find hard to forgive her for.

Part of discernment is listening to what is stirring within us. Another part is sifting through that stuff to discover what we’re called to do in response. I want to try to be patient with this process and give myself the time and space to discern what I’m called to do next.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006


I wonder if it’s time for me to start thinking more about the meaning of my mother’s passing. I haven’t dwelt on it, I have to say. I’m not sure what, if anything, I’m repressing: grief, anger, relief? Mostly I’ve been fine. However, in the last few days, I’ve started feeling a little oppressed by all the things in our house that belonged to my mother, even though I love some of them. The one day we tried out her bed in our bedroom (where we already have two of her dressers, a bookshelf, two lamps and two pictures), Megan looked around and said, “Wow, it’s like all Grandma in here.” The bed is now in the dining room, awaiting a new home.

I find myself thinking mostly of the painful memories these days, replaying long-ago conversations I wish had gone differently. I also find myself sleeping a bit more than usual, which could be a way of coping with suppressed emotions or just normal winter behavior (as opposed to waking up at 5 to go to the gym, which is arguably not that normal). In any case, today was the first day I cracked the book Tom gave me for Christmas: Losing Your Parents, Finding Your Self. I also looked up the schedule of the grief support groups in the hospice newsletter. The one for daughters seemed inviting.

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend who is finishing Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies, a book I enjoyed reading a number of years ago when it first came out. My friend, however, was feeling impatient with Lamott, especially since the last book she had read was the autobiography of a woman who had suffered extreme political repression and real deprivation. My friend felt that in comparison to the other woman, Lamott’s psychic suffering just seemed whiny and self-absorbed. I worry about being that way myself when I focus on the unfinished business I have with my mother, a woman who did many things right as a parent. Given how many mothers are negligent or abusive, I don’t want to pretend I got the short straw. I didn’t. On the other hand, I don’t want to deny the mixture of feelings I have toward her or pretend our relationship was perfect. It wasn’t.

I suppose this is a first step, acknowledging the messiness. But like the headboard in the dining room, I don’t quite know where to put some of my feelings. They are just there, a bit in the way as I sweep up the dining room or serve the dinner.

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