Imperfect Serenity

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Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Ireland Update

Ireland is beautiful, and the weather has been fine. I've been particularly struck by the ancient ruins, like the 5th century monastic beehive I hiked to yesterday morning on one of the Aran Islands (I had to sneak through a cow pasture to get there.). Of course our own land has been inhabited for thousands of years too, but in the eastern United States the evidence of an earlier civilization has been paved over. Seeing the places of earlier people and their decendents gives me a different sense of time. In general, there is a different sense of time here. The Aran Islands reminded me of Africa in that way.

We've has lots of adventures, including getting a flat tire on a narrow, windy country road amid sheep and the Connamara Mountains. Details on our return!

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Perfect Family

My daughter just said that we’d have a perfect family if it weren’t for her brother. This seems a little uncharitable since she just hit him.

The idea of a perfect family got me thinking about a conversation I was part of a few nights ago with a group of people, most of whom are parents as well as spiritual teachers of adults. Chris, who teaches scripture, mentioned his problem with the Biblical injunction to “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “I just think it’s a bad translation,” said Chris. Of course, I can’t remember the recent translation that Chris thought was more accurate, but it didn’t imply an impossible ideal to strive for, the way the word perfect does. It was more loving. Later in the conversation, Chris said that we were in this world to learn to deal with imperfection, our own and other people’s, which led to a conversation about acceptance, even as we try to improve the places we work and world we live in.

This is all a good reminder to me not to expert a perfect family. Sometimes when we have a morning like today’s where I have too much to do and the kids are nipping at each other, I wonder why they can’t just sit peacefully reading edifying literature. Of course, I have to teach them how to act, but I also have to accept that they won’t always be perfect. Actually, they won't ever be perfect. They're human.

It hasn’t been a perfect day either, but the clouds are starting to clear. We’re flying tonight to Ireland (which by the way means I won’t be posting for over a week)! There are the usual things to do: water the plants, pay the bills, etc. In addition I had a new stove being delivered and a plumber coming, and just to complicate things I have a relative having problems, so I had to drive around putting out brush fires this morning with two kids in the back seat who just want to get on the plane already. Then I tried to print our plane tickets and discovered the airline moved me twenty rows away from Tom and the kids. Good thing learning imperfection is good for my spiritual growth.

I have a sense that it will all work out. I have two hours and twenty-three minutes before we have to leave, and I only have six things left on my to-do list. The plumber, who had to run out for someone else’s emergency, swears he’ll be done by then, so what could go wrong? Vacation is a good time to let go of anxiety and expectations, and Ireland should be a good place to practice.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Speaking of Faith

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with NPR’s Speaking of Faith, but it’s a wonderful weekly radio program that explores different spiritual traditions and topics. This week’s show is called "The Spirituality of Parenting", and as if that were not exciting enough, I may be on it! I definitely have a short piece (along with several other parents from different traditions) on their web site from Thursday, June 15 through Wednesday, June 21. It was an interesting exercise, trying to sum up my experience with parenting and spirituality in a paragraph. It was also fun recording my words, though I don’t yet know if my clip made the radio broadcast. With baseball playoffs and school ending, I don’t have time to figure out how to listen to a podcast tonight, but I wanted to post this now because I suspect many of you will be interested in the topic regardless of whether or not I'm on the show.

"The Sprituality of Parenting" will air in Philadelphia on Sunday, June 18, at 7:00am on WHYY, 91.0 FM. In other parts of the country, it airs between the 15th and the 21st (2006). Broadcast times and locations can be found on the Web site.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Last night I went to see An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s new documentary about the perils of global warning. I drove, of course, since that was more convenient than taking two buses. Then I saw the film in a theatre that, like most, was over air conditioned. Then I drove home depressed. Still, I recommend seeing it.

The film’s main point is that we humans need to wake up to the effect we’re having on the planet. As a parent, I couldn’t watch without wondering what kind of world my children will live in, not to mention my grandchildren. Even if my own children are not directly harmed by rising sea levels, the way children in Bangladesh will be, it’s clear that changes in the planet’s climate will affect everyone in ways we can hardly imagine. We’ve known this for awhile, just as we’ve known that cigarettes are harmful to our health. Gore uses this analogy in what I thought was one of the most moving parts of the film. When Gore tells the story of his big sister who died of lung cancer after years of smoking, he adds that his own family grew tobacco for years after the surgeon general’s warning about cigarettes. Only after his sister died did Gore’s father decide to quit the tobacco business. In reference to a government official with close ties to the oil industry, Gore quoted Upton Sinclair: “It’s difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on not understanding it.”

On the way home, the friend I went with said, “So what will your family do?” We already use energy efficient light bulbs and buy our electricity from renewable sources. We keep our heat low in the winter and don’t have an air conditioner. And I always try to remember to click “reply” on those environmental e-mail campaigns. Still, it doesn’t feel like enough. We drive our car more and faster than necessary. We eat food imported from long distances. We’re addicted to our lifestyle as surely as my dad was addicted to the cigarettes that killed him.

This post is about as depressing as the movie, and I’m feeling the need to end on some note of hope, which brings me back to the children. Recently Megan suggested parking at the far end of the Kohl’s parking lot to reduce our affect on global warming, and this morning the Kindergarten is selling popcorn to raise money for the rainforest. Megan says she wants to buy ten bags because she cares about the environment that much. I guess that’s a start.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Rich and Poor

I have an ambivalent relationship with privilege. My mother worked as the cafeteria cashier in the elite private school that I attended. My Irish grandmother worked as a maid in the neighborhood where I now worship and have many friends. Neither of my immigrant grandparents got as far as eighth grade, and my own parents graduated from high school, but not college. I, on the other hand, have an MA from Yale and a BA from Duke. When I was twenty, I thought my education made me smarter than the rest of my family. Now I know I was just luckier.

I’ve been thinking about my Duke education since receiving the most recent issue of the alumni magazine, which traces the recent controversy surrounding rape allegations against three members of the Duke lacrosse team. The additional allegations of racism, sexism, and elitism have kept the national media intoxicated for months. I must admit that many of the stereotypes of Duke as an elite bastion ring true, as do the descriptions of drunken obnoxious behavior. On the other hand, as the magazine points out, not every Duke student comes from a wealthy family, and I must add that not all those who do are obnoxious bigots. One of the nicest women I knew at Duke was the granddaughter of a famous American entrepreneur. Her town and her high school shared her last name, yet she was unassuming and down to earth.

Just as the media have often portrayed Duke as white and rich, they have often portrayed Durham as black and poor. That, too, is an overgeneralization, though like the stereotype of Duke, not without some truth. When I was in college, there was a chasm between Duke and Durham that apparently hasn’t narrowed any. Lately, though, I’ve been remembering one woman who bridged the divide. She was one of Duke’s lowest paid teachers, a dorm cleaner named Annie.

Annie was an African American woman who worked in the fraternity and male dorm nearest to my dorm. God only knows how many beer bottles and condom wrappers she picked up during her many years there. If anyone had reason to believe the worst of Duke students, it was probably Annie. But in addition to her paid work, Annie had a ministry: every semester she would pick a few undergraduates to invite to her Durham church. Because I had friends in one of the dorms she cleaned, I was lucky enough to be included one Sunday.

Our small group of white Duke students was ushered to the front of Annie’s large black Baptist congregation. Although it wasn’t my first experience of being in the racial minority, I had never before felt so conspicuous, as the people around us reached over to shake our hands and smile at us. Annie looked transformed in her choir robe, no longer a maid but a minister of the church. When the choir started singing, the congregation was electrified. It was a striking contrast to the church where I had grown up, a church where most people mumbled the songs and the most common prayer was for a short mass. This service was anything but short, but the spirit never lagged. I remember joy and a sense of community that I had never felt in my own church. I suspected that we (the privileged students) were the ones who were impoverished.

I had a similar experience when I joined the Peace Corps after graduation. Two and a half years of watching my students easily share their only pencils made me realize that people who have less education and less stuff have much to teach those of us who have more degrees and pencils than we can use. I remember coming back to Duke to speak about my African experience when I was still in severe culture shock. I was part of a panel addressing students interested in international issues, and the speaker ahead of me told the students that they were smarter than everyone else in the workforce, so they just needed to work hard and invest in a sharp suit. I winced when she said we were smarter than everyone else, but I didn’t yet have the words to explain why she was wrong. When it was my turn, I just told them that after living in Botswana, I doubted I would ever again wear the expensive suite I had bought for job interviews my senior year because I no longer wanted those kinds of jobs.

All this makes me think of the simplistic ways we categorize people as rich or poor, intelligent or not. Although the three Duke students accused of rape were all from financially wealthy families, their overall behavior reveals a spiritual poverty, even if they are not guilty of the brutal rape. That the media loves this type of story so much—with sex, violence, race, and money all mixed together—probably says something about the spiritual poverty of our society as well.

Remembering Annie has got me wondering about my grandmother, who worked as a maid for rich people herself. She reportedly used her savings to bring several relatives over from Ireland, thus building herself a rich community in Philadelphia. That sounds pretty smart, if you ask me.

Club Mom

A few moons ago I mentioned the possibility of writing for ClubMom, a web site that provides information and shopping bonus points to mothers. Well, I am now officially a Mom “Expert” which really means that I’m a professional writer who writes about motherhood. (I believe we’re all experts after the first 100 diapers.) My first articles on ClubMom may sound familiar to those of you who have been reading this blog for a while, but you might enjoy checking out the site. Andi Buchanan and many other mom writers are posting pieces of their work there. There are also opportunities for mother bloggers who are interested in expanding their audiences.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Mini Retreat

I’ve taken to giving myself mini retreats every few months, or whenever I feel I’ve misplaced my spiritual compass. My favorite spot is the Quaker study center Pendle Hill, just south of Philadelphia, where I used to live and work. The other day I showed up for a few hours with my lap top, though I didn’t write much, other than brainstorming what my focus should be for the last few weeks of school. Once school ends, I’ll have four weeks of no child care, so it feels important to use this time well. Instead of rushing headlong through more books on race, as I have been doing, I decided to stand still for a few hours and get my bearings.

I didn’t have any glaring moments of clarity. Mostly I came away clear that I don’t need to figure out this next book in the next two weeks (seems obvious, but I have a tendency to pressure myself). Instead I need to focus on finishing other projects I’ve started so that my desk and mind are clear when the children become my constant companions again.

Maybe it’s a coincidence, but this morning we had a much easier time getting ready for school, even though Luke’s baseball game kept us up again last night. Lately our mornings have started with me begging Megan to get out of bed, while I'm simultaneously folding the laundry and checking the e-mail. Usually I’m tense by 7:20 and yelling by 7:45. But this morning both children woke up a few minutes early, so I visited each of them in their beds and had a peaceful chat and a hug before nudging them down the steps to breakfast. It was a reminder that they can be delightful (as well as exasperating) and that my state of mind can make a huge difference in how delightful they seem. I just hope I can keep this perspective during the muggy days when I’ll be unable to sneak off for a mini retreat.

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