What I Know for Sure

Sometimes life is funny
You think you’re in your darkest hour
When the lights are coming on in the house of love- Amy Grant*

Each morning as I drive to work, I try to get my brain and heart into a healthy setting, one that enables me to walk through my day in a way that’s uplifting. I am not the greatest at living with a happy face, my sunshine-spreader is faulty, I think. It needs a little nudge every day. So I listen to Oprah. I love Oprah deeply, though I have never met her. No matter, I love her. Sometimes I play a little movie in my mind in which my doorbell rings and when I open it, she’s standing there in all her Oprah-ness and I essentially collapse to the hardwood floor inside my entry, sobbing in joyous abandon. She picks me up, wraps me in her arms, fixes me tea, and we curl up on my sofa for an afternoon of chat.

Funny, right? Her podcast is as close as I may ever get (I refuse to phrase that as a definitive “will ever get” because I have listened to enough Oprah Super Soul to know about manifesting what I speak. But still.) to meeting her and basking in her sunny aura. So I listen every morning. I need fortification before entering my workplace.

Susan's Special Needs: Oprah Talks to Cheryl Strayed About ...

Today, she asked Cheryl Strayed (another hero) a question that I have heard her ask so many times: “What do you know for sure?” I don’t always have a response, usually, my brain is a little too foggy at 7:45 in the morning to snap to attention for the question. But not today. Today, my brain, no, my heart, had a ready answer. What do I know for sure?

I am loved.

Not by everyone I meet, no. I think one of the blessings of getting older is coming to the realization that it’s not necessary to be loved by everyone. It’s not necessary, nor is it possible. An authentic life is a little messy and an authentic person is too. The rougher, unpolished edges of authenticity will scrape upon some in my path. The vibration that I walk with won’t resonate with everyone I meet. In fact, it will create dissonance with people whose vibrations aren’t compatible.

That’s okay.

I am loved anyway, and by enough people that life is good.

Here’s my shortlist of people who love me. It’s not a definitive list, I will probably think of people to add and add and add.

My cousins Rebecca and Jen.

My friends Whitney, Angela, Eide, Jen, Becky, Sherry, and Rosella.

My colleagues Sylvia, Teresa, Darla, and Melody.

College pals Kayla, Cheryl, and Heidi.

The children I have heart-adopted: Jorge, Rileigh, Mandy, and Trevor. As well as other former students gathered in 22 years in the public school classroom.

My in-laws: Jackie, Tom, Trent, Holly, Mason, and Abi.

The mother of my heart, Dorothy.

My angel-in-heaven mentor, Ellen.

My children, Hilary, Travis Austin.

My husband, Travis.

Back of Family

My heart is full as I type the list. There have been dark days in the 52 years I have walked this planet. Days when I was sure that if I disappeared, no one would notice or care. Do you remember planning to run away when you were a child? Throwing your essentials in a backpack while muttering to yourself, “I’ll show them. They won’t even know that I left. Mom and Dad can just sit around and watch TV and I will go do what I want!” Of course, that’s not likely what would happen, but I know I had a couple of days much like that when a kid. But also when an adult. Once, driving home from a session with my therapist, I contemplated committing suicide. I thought maybe I’d just drive my car at high speed into the cement barriers that separated the lanes of traffic on the busy Houston freeways. As I drove, I tried to imagine whether people would even bother to come to my funeral. I mean, I knew Travis and the kids would. But would anyone else? My brain began to populate the pews of a church sanctuary and before I’d passed too many more exits off the highway, and I realized that there were more people who’d miss me than I had thought. So instead of ramming my Ford Escort into the barriers, I drove on home and gave each of my family hugs. They didn’t know, though I did, how close I’d come that day to checking out.

I think it’s important to know for sure that we are loved. It’s the most important thing there is to know. It’s what enables resilience. Love gets under us and lifts us up when we’re low.

Look around today, let the Divine One remind you of the people who love you. Open your heart to that love. Let it flow through you, break you open, patch you up, strengthen your steps. Accept it. You are loved.

I know it. For sure.

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*”House of Love” written by Greg W. Barnhill, Kenny Greenberg, Wally Wilson

 

 

Short and Sweet: Mushrooms and the Force of Good

Just last week, I found this little mushroom circle out on a walk at work. It’s already brutally hot here in south Texas, and these little fungi were bravely popping up out of the dry, rocky soil, a visible testament to the sheer determination of our planet’s flora to survive and sustain.

A few days later, I cued up the next Supersoul podcast on my app, and it was an interview with cinematographer Louie Schwartzberg, a renowned pioneer of time lapse photography. He specializes in nature time lapse, he’s very passionate about it, truly (isn’t it fun to encounter people who are passionate about what they love?). He described a film project about a phenomenon of which I had never known: mushrooms are but the visible part of a vast underground mycelium network that connects plants over miles and acres. The plants share nutrients and information. Isn’t that staggeringly awesome?!

Paul Stamets, an environmentalist at the center of the film, says, “I believe nature is a force of good. ‘Good’ is not only a concept, it is a spirit. And so hopefully, the spirit of goodness will survive.”

Even at the ripe old age of 52, I find myself newly amazed by our planet, and with a refreshed love of it. Ocean, tree, water, mushroom…mycelium. All miraculous. All connected to the Divine One. As are we.

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141111-plants-have-a-hidden-internet

 

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What’s Your Superpower?

 

 

I just spent an empowering weekend. I arrived at Sunday evening feeling a great big mix of things: fatigued, sore, exhilarated, hungry, and hopeful.

It all started on Friday, when I saw this meme, and it said, “No one is you, and that’s your superpower.” And I thought, “Cool!”

It’s true- no one else is me. No one else is you, either.

Now, before you roll your eyes and say something like, “I wouldn’t wish being me on my worst enemy,” just stop for a minute. Really and truly? I used to think that way. Not anymore. Nope. Now I think like the little girl I was when I watched Lynda Carter spin until she transformed into Wonder Woman, using wits and beauty to foil bad guys. I think like the little girl I was when I watched “Electra Woman and Dyna-Girl.” I loved Batman reruns, especially the ones with Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl, who challenged the men in the room with her brains and pluck.

 

That little girl didn’t question her intelligence. She didn’t question her thighs. She didn’t say much, but when she spoke it was because she believed in what she was saying. That little girl was not afraid to bring questions to the table. That little girl didn’t wait for permission to climb monkey bars or explore on her bike or jump in the pool or lose herself in a novel.

Little girls still love Wonder Woman. Big girls do, too. We know it because of the resounding success of this year’s film. Diana Prince still calls to the feminine spirit of power. My daughter Libby, who works for a company that sends characters to kids’ birthday parties, reveled in it this weekend, playing Wonder Woman for an eight year old. Not Aurora. Not Cinderella. Wonder Woman. Amazonian warrior. With a Lasso of Truth instead of a broom of submission. A woman who is her own hero, not the damsel waiting to be rescued.

I am learning to be my own hero, too.

I attended my first political protest this Saturday, standing along a busy thoroughfare, holding up a bright yellow poster. I donned my own super hero costume:

to protect my thighs of power: undershorts. Because even in March, south Texas is hot and sweaty and thigh chafe is no joke;

to add spring to my step: yellow Converse of joy. Because who can feel despondent in bright yellow Cons?

To embolden my heart: a Wonder Woman logo across my chest. Because I am my own Amazonian warrior.

I rode Thelma, my bike, for over one and a half hours to get to the protest site. I am not sure why I did it, I just know that my heart spoke it and I listened. Something in my advocate soul needed to prove that I had the courage and stamina to do it. Bearing in mind that I am fifty years old, have had one knee surgery and two discs replaced with a steel plate in my neck, have two more bulging discs, and two  knees that now sound like crinkling cellophane when I go up stairs, this was no small feat. I hadn’t been on a bike in two years, except for one thirty five minute ride a week ago. I honestly don’t know why I did it. But I arrived to the protest out of breath, sweat dripping down my backside, and exhilarated. I chugged water then found a spot in line.

An organizer led a chant, it went like this:

Tell me what democracy looks like!

And we answered:

This is what democracy looks like!

 

 

With eleven year old blonde girls on one side, and a mom with heavily accented English on the other, we chanted and I got choked up. Because it is what democracy looks- and sounds- like: heavily accented or native English, young or middle aged, rich or poor. This was a gathering of diverse people. Toward the end of the event, a young dad came to me with so much excitement it couldn’t be contained in his body. He wanted to know how we had all gotten organized, and he was thrilled to see like minded people in what has traditionally been an ultra conservative community. He ended up bringing his elementary aged boys over to meet me and to take in what was happening. This was what democracy looks like. And by the way, the folks on the other end of the political spectrum have the same freedom to gather. Isn’t this a great country?

I managed to get halfway back home, and was grateful to my sweet husband for meeting me at a cafe to taxi me back home after a lemon drop martini and a turkey burger. At that moment, Diana the Amazon princess needed a ride from her rescuer because her legs were wobbly and her softer parts felt bruised. Hey, even super heroes need a little help every now and then.

Image result for a wrinkle in time movie

After a lovely and restful night, I drove (no Thelma on this day) and then limped into the cinema to revisit another childhood hero: Meg Murry in the film adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time.” I don’t know that I can adequately describe what this book meant to me as an awkward, introverted, brainy, dreamy pre-adolescent with an even brighter little brother. Meg was a hero. She saved her dad with her courage and her brain. She visited dream planets by believing and being open. She was magnificent. Oprah did what she does- drop wisdom and grace, while Reese and Mindy brought humor and joy. My own heroes were invoked and quoted over and over: Jesus, Ghandi, Maya Angelou, Lin Manuel Miranda. I didn’t love the movie because it was a perfect piece of cinema.  I loved the movie because it was visually stunning, it celebrated diversity, it exalted intelligence, it honored love. After all, as Meg’s father discovered when his science experiment came to life, “Love is the frequency.”

The film continued the work that I think is underway on our planet. The work of soul and mission and caring.

As Mrs. Which, Oprah challenges Meg, “Be a warrior. Can you?” I felt the challenge in my seat in the darkened theater, too.

What’s my superpower? It’s a belief, down deep in my bones, that life is magical.

What are my tools? First, a listening ear. Then, my written words.

What is my mission, my personal legend, my work? To help others see, create, and accept the magic of their own lives.

Can I be a warrior? Hell, yes. Bring me my shield and my invisible jet. Let my heart be open. Let my soul be brave. Let my life have its own heroic tale.

 

Between Shame and Ovation (Thoughts From the Wife of a Former Texas Youth Minister)

Sunday night, after a quiet day of reading and watching television while my husband stayed tucked in bed fighting off a cold, we watched the news together, and looked on in horror and recognition as a story broke about a pastor in Tennessee who had confessed to the 1998 sexual assault of a seventeen year old girl in his youth group. The news program showed footage of Andy Savage apparently remorseful, as he confessed to a megachurch audience. They gave him a standing ovation.

A standing ovation.

I have something to say about all this.

In 1999, living in the very same town (I currently live just five minutes from the church where Savage was a youth minister), my husband was also a youth minister. Though he doesn’t specifically remember Andy Savage, it’s likely they at least attended the same monthly youth minister luncheons that were held at the various churches around our town.

And in October of 1999, my husband stood in front of the congregation and confessed, at three different church services, a sex addiction.

There was no standing ovation.

Thankfully, he never touched a member of his youth group. His struggle was with the fantasy world of pornography and adult bookstores, not with the flesh and blood reality of teenagers.

I will never, as long as I live, forget the glare of the lights and the wide eyes of the church members as we stood on the stage, hand in hand, and Travis told everyone his deepest, darkest secret. This was a move that was required by the church leadership if he wanted to receive a severance salary.

Unlike Andy Savage, whose church leadership demanded silence, both of him and the young lady he abused, our church leadership insisted on full and public disclosure.

I don’t think it is coincidental that last week I downloaded a double episode of Oprah’s Super Soul podcast, with guest Brene’ Brown . The universe was getting me ready to see this story on the news and in my social media feed. Last night, on the way home from work, Brene’ spoke her mantra to Oprah: “You share with people who earn the right to hear your story. It’s an honor to hold space for me when I am in shame.”

As my husband stood in the sanctuary and, in a broken voice, told 2,000 people, most of whom were complete strangers, his darkest struggle, I felt like we had been raped. It was as if our clothes had been ripped from us, and we stood bare for all to see. My children also had to bear the burden of the sidelong (or worse, pitying) looks that were sent their way over the next few months as we struggled to keep attending the church where every room, every person, and every worship service sent us spiraling back into shame. Two years later, when I sat in a therapist’s office and told her this story, she was horrified and told me, in no uncertain terms, that we had been victims of profound spiritual abuse. I have often wondered how many men sat in the pews that morning and breathed great big sighs of relief that their own garage stash or computer files hadn’t been found yet. My husband got to be the whipping boy, the sacrificial lamb, for them.*

Is it any wonder I can’t do church anymore?

There has to be a middle place- somewhere between public shaming and standing ovations. A place where healthy confession is possible, accountability is attainable, and healing is administered for all.

I am beyond thankful that my own husband didn’t ever actually touch a kid in his youth group. We have a close friend, A.,  for whom that was not the case. Earlier in our church work, Travis was compelled to share his struggle with a fellow youth minister who, it turned out, was crawling a similar path. They went to the same support group together. A. didn’t come out unscathed, either. He molested a youth group member.

There’s a lot to think about here: impossible standards of perfection that set young men up for deep, internal sexual struggle; spouses who suffer in silence as they try to raise children and create the model home, knowing that they dare not speak a word because their family’s very livelihood depends on maintaining the veneer of holiness; how to maintain accountability that is safe for both ministers and their charges.

But standing ovations? No. Andy Savage has to make this right with a humble apology to Jules Woodson. She needs healing. Savage and the church leadership must stop making excuses and hiding behind the passage of time. Because I know that if my own experience is any indication, 1998 can feel like five minutes ago. Shame can rear its ugly head at any moment and utterly incapacitate you. I hope Woodson gets the love and joy she deserves. I hope Andy Savage can move forward in honesty. I hope his wife has courage and a couple of love warriors** by her side.

And I hope that his current congregation learns how to support, but not idolize, the penitent minister. I hope they know who the victims are and I desperately hope that they have compassion and love for all concerned.

May the Divine One breathe healing and peace on all of these broken people. And may we all know that we can be broken and healed, as well as being instruments of grace and healing.

 

*There was one particular family who sat in our shame with us. They listened as we cried, watched our kids while we went to therapy, and never gave us that pitying look. They know who they are, and they are blessedly still in our lives. Most folks just ignored us or tried to pretend nothing weird had happened. I get it- once you’ve seen someone’s nakedess, it’s hard to go back.

**Love Warrior is a phenomenal book by Glennon Doyle. A recovering addict, Doyle was married to a sex addict herself. She knows this journey. I highly recommend this book, which was fortuitously and prophetically given to me this Christmas by my eldest daughter.

 

A Little Bit Racist? Maybe…

 

I both laugh and cringe at the delightful song “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” from the brilliant Broadway musical Avenue Q, in which Sesame Street-style puppets sing about making rent, having adult relations, and surviving existential angst in riotous, bawdy joy:

“Everyone’s a little bit racist
Sometimes.
Doesn’t mean we go
Around committing hate crimes.
Look around and you will find
No one’s really color blind.
Maybe it’s a fact
We all should face
Everyone makes judgments
Based on race.
Princeton:
Now not big judgments, like who to hire
or who to buy a newspaper from –
Kate Monster:
No!
Princeton:
No, just little judgments like thinking that Mexican
busboys should learn to speak g****n English!”
I really love those puppets. They’re calling it like it is: we humans are a little distrustful of folks who look and live differently from ourselves. Different customs, clothing, and speech (everyone’s a rittle bit lacist!) plague us all, if we’re honest.

But over on a different end of the racial conversation spectrum, I just finished a powerful book, Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things. I really like Picoult’s narrative style- it’s simple, clean, and full of rich metaphor. Her characters struggle with things that all of us encounter in the span of living a normal life: loss, faith, suicide, dreams. Those you encounter in her books are complex, full of contradiction and beauty.

small-great-things-hc-400w

Her books always affect me. This one almost physically hurt.

It’s about race. Right here, right now, in these United States.

There is no way to live in our contemporary society and be oblivious to racial tension. Every week it seems there is another shooting or violent attack. And most of us white people don’t want to be racist- we’re horrified by the very idea! But maybe…just maybe, this book posits…we are.

Small Great Things puts us into the lives and thoughts of a Black nurse (the capital B is Picoult’s device), a white supremacist, and a white Liberal lawyer. A baby dies, a law suit is filed. And everything that each of these three people thinks they know about how the races relate to each other is challenged.

The character I most identified with, not surprisingly, is the white Liberal lawyer, Kennedy: she’s toiling away in the Public Defender’s office, spending her days working so that all defendants have a shot at justice. She knows about the inequity of sentencing for Blacks, it’s part of why she became a Public Defender- she is on a mission to balance the scales. Her desire comes from what seems like a good and noble place: an acknowledgement that the system is flawed and her position is privileged. And yet…she takes her privilege for granted. She is made to realize that she sees Ruth, and other Blacks, as victims. And that makes them Other. Less than. In need of rescue rather than true equity. Kennedy reminds me of what it was to teach in a  public school in Texas, where so many different ethnicities pile into buses, cafeterias, and classrooms with no choice but to figure it out.

I really struggled to read the sections from the White Supremacist’s point of view. These pages were so filled with anger and vitriol, described in language that I could barely stomach, that I told my husband I didn’t know if I could stay with the book, even though I have such admiration for the author. But I read reviews that indicated that others had struggled with this character and his world view, but that the journey was worth it. And it was.

I remember one time, back in my mid twenties, living in Abilene, Texas, and telling my husband that “I never held a slave. And none of the Blacks living now ever were slaves. So why are they still angry? Why can’t they just move on?” I cringe now that I was ever so callous. I have learned about systemic and historical oppression, and what it does to a people.

The book’s main protagonist, Ruth, is a Yale educated labor and delivery nurse who is raising her son alone- not because she was an always single mother, but because her husband, a soldier, died in Afghanistan. Her experiences on a day of shopping, being tailed by TJ Maxx sales clerks, being the only customer required to show ID at the cash register, then standing at the exit while security checks her receipt against the contents of her shopping bag while the white shoppers all exit unimpeded, rang true to me. Not because I have experienced those indignities, but because when I was working retail as a high school and college student, that was exactly what we were told to do. The shoplifting training videos all featured Blacks as the perps. When African Americans wandered into the men’s clothing store where I worked, my manager would send me over with instructions to follow them.

How many times might I have said “Ya know, if those Black people would just lay down and be still, the cops wouldn’t have to shoot them?” before I understood that might not be so simple? That when your people used to wear chains and be sold, that subservience can be a tough pill to swallow? And that sometimes, you can say “Sir” and still be shot.

How many times have I, without realizing it, clutched my purse a little tighter when a Black man passed me on the street?

Growing up, my mom taught me that I shouldn’t associate with people of other ethnicities- it was okay to be polite to them at school, but that was it. When I made a new friend when we moved to a neighborhood in a Dallas suburb, she was worried that they were Italian (their last name was Peters for heaven’s sake) and Catholic. I had to plead with her that religious topics never came up, and that when I worked up my courage to ask what the family’s religion was, discovered they were Baptist, which was okay. When my neighbor, Mrs. Hogeda, invited me in one day and showed me how she was making flour tortillas, I had to lie to my mom about where I had been because her disdain for Mexican Americans was so strong. When I developed a crush on one, I thought the roof would collapse on the house because of her fury. Shopping at the five and dime among Spanish speakers was an opportunity for her to mutter about people needing to go back where they belonged.

I have even heard a family member recently use the word “wetback.”

And a completely different family member, whose rep I want to protect, shared the wisdom that the Blacks are happier if they stay in their own neighborhoods, schools, and churches. That particular conversation occurred when I was a young college woman endeavoring to figure out how race fit into my world view. And though I voiced respectful opposition to the idea that benevolent segregation was American or godly or right, I still found myself, for all practical purposes, living in an all white world.

Once, as a younger adult, I asked myself the question: Would I want to be black? And the answer was, without hesitation, no. Not because I believed Black people are inferior, but because I knew that to be white in America was, and continues to be, a position of privilege. I have never been tailed in a retail store. I have never been denied service in a business establishment.  I have never had to worry, when pulled over for a traffic stop, that I would be shot or arrested if I wasn’t appropriately deferential.

This week, a jury handed down an innocent verdict in the Philando Castile shooting. It’s one of way too many killings of Blacks by panicked police. The phrase my daughter pulled out of Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show commentary was, “Clearly, black people never forget their training.” The training that, for all intents and purposes, keeps the “Massah” relationship alive and well in the United States:

 

We tell ourselves that the race issue is complicated. But is it? Is it really? Or have we made it so because we are afraid to truly own what is happening in our country?

In the Oprah Magazine’s May issue, Oprah and her staff confronted the issue of race in America. With photographs meant to compel thought, such as white women giving Asian women pedicures or a Black child looking at a shelf of white dolls at a toy store, the magazine challenged us to think about the subtle daily discrimination that we take for granted. Topics like Southern shame (I’m guilty), refugees, and ethnic traditions are laid bare. In one of the articles, entitled “A Force For Good” by criminologist David Kennedy, the author quotes the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Terrence Cunningham, who said that “police had often been ‘the face of oppression,’ and needed to ‘acknowledge and apologize for the actions of the past and the role that our profession has played in society’s historical mistreatment of communities of color.'”

http://www.oprah.com/inspiration/why-we-need-to-talk-about-race

Look, I am not targeting the police in this blog post. I get that they are under pressure and work in difficult situations. But Philando Castile should not have been shot. That jury reached the wrong verdict. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland should be alive. And we white Americans have got to start being honest: we clutch our bags tighter, we sometimes cross to the other side of the street or make jokes or judgements. We do. And yes, I know it goes both ways. But whites have power in this country, by virtue of being white. And we need to admit it. I need to admit it. Picoult says, in her afterword, “Most of us think the word racism is synonymous with the word prejudice. But racism is more than just discrimination based on skin color. It’s also about who has institutional power. Just as racism creates disadvantages for people of color that make success harder to achieve, it also gives advantages to white people that make success easier to achieve. It’s hard to see those advantages, much less own up to them.”

Back to Small Great Things: I loved the book. The storytelling was taut, the points of view were thoroughly researched and rang true and clear. The characters were raw and vulnerable, and nearly all learned and grew from the journey. My heart was fully invested as I read, breathless as the trial drew to a close. The stakes were huge in this book: career, college, reputation. The stakes in our real life America are even greater: Peace and Life itself. I hope we all can embrace change and growth. I am ready to embrace the philosophy preached by martin Luther King, Jr: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.” May my small life affect change. Hallelujah and amen.

http://www.jodipicoult.com/small-great-things.html

 

 

 

 

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