Ending as Beginning

How my mother’s journey is helping me find strength and perspective

Some moments are easier than others. Those are the moments when I’m on top of everything. A loving daughter, a compassionate family member, the most responsible human being on earth. A superhero with organizational prowess and limitless patience.

The other moments, the hard ones, pull me down like a two-ton anchor. I fall into a tailspin of inadequacy, and I am exhausted. Paying the bills, picking up the prescriptions, cleaning the litterbox of her two aging kitties, scheduling the doctor’s appointments, helping her cull the faded family photos we’ve looked at a dozen times before. There are multiple black-and-white images of Dad and her in the early days of their courtship. Snapshots of my older brother as an infant. A picture of me in a stroller on the street where my parents rented part of a two-flat before getting their house. My younger sister’s first recital.

These images both pause and speed up time. For a gentle, fleeting moment, I can recall when my siblings and I were young, and Mom and Dad, the vital, strong adults in our lives. We were loved, and we felt safe. Now when I glance over at my mother, seated next to me on the couch that’s been with her for two decades, I note the stark contrast between who she is in the photos and who she has become.

After my father died, the woman I knew disappeared for a while. And then she slowly reemerged, but as a subdued, less confident version of herself. At times she seemed utterly unmoored. My own marriage having lasted just five years, I didn’t know how to relate to a widow aching from the death of her partner of half a century. In her grief she seemed unrecognizable.

I missed the stern matriarch with whom I used to do battle. The killjoy who nagged me to clean my room, turn off the TV, and practice the piano. Showdowns over music lessons and church had been much easier to navigate than conversations with a woman whose happiness seemed to have died with her husband. In some of my more desperate moments, I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and remind her that not all of us are lucky enough to find a soulmate with whom we can share our lives. Of course I restrained myself.

My mother was drowning and I could barely swim, so I went in search of a life raft that could bring us both to a calmer shore.

I remember a car ride one night about a year after Dad’s death. I was driving, and Mom was in the passenger seat. I was reminiscing about one of his many quirky habits, my eyes welling up with tears. Without missing a beat, she posed a question that almost caused me to miss our turn: “If I had died first, would you have missed me as much?” I was mortified, and reluctant even to ponder an answer.

Dad and I had shared a passion for words, bad puns, poetry, and stories about travel. As a young child, I was also close to Mom. But once I started school, I pulled away. I felt conflicted about my biracial identity, and I blamed her. Distancing myself from the parent who had sat vigil by my bed throughout my serious childhood illnesses would become one of the deepest regrets in my life.

It has been six years since I sold my parents’ home and helped Mom downsize. Today, she lives in an apartment just five minutes from my house. The hands that once sewed many of my grade-school clothes now grasp the handles of a fancy maroon walker and the silver safety bars in the bathroom.

One recent evening after dinner, Mom and I leaned back on the old couch trying to decide what to watch on TV. Self-conscious about her thinning hair, she suddenly exclaimed, “I hope I die before I go bald.” She was more than half-serious. I looked at her in disbelief. “Can you imagine if men thought that way? Then women really would rule the world.” We broke into fits of laughter.

A few months ago I hired a personal care aide to help me with the caregiving and light housekeeping. D visits my mom twice a week, and they adore each other. I am grateful for this life raft, one of many I’ve found in the past several years. And still I hold my breath, wondering what part of the journey may be next.

Fifty may be the new 30, but 90 is still just that — especially in a culture that avoids uncomfortable subjects like loneliness, thinning hair, age spots, infections, incontinence, and DNR orders.

Today I am no longer just my mother’s daughter. I am Power of Attorney, Rep Payee, Health Care Proxy. And after years of fighting and pulling away, I am also, finally, her friend.

My love and determination are unshakable, but the stress of knowing how to care for Mom is real; the burden and privilege are bound together. Helping the woman who fed me during the first hours of my life navigate the bittersweet homestretch of hers — it’s the most complex path I’ve ever known.

Buffalo’s Redheaded Bagpiper

Dressed in her tartan kilt and white shirt and carrying her 7-pound instrument, the 5-foot-5 redheaded bagpiper can strike quite a pose. As she presses the bag and blows, a lugubrious vibrato gradually builds into a haunting skirl. Within minutes, the majestic sounds of the Great Highland pipes dominate the air.

“When I was young, I was extremely shy and wouldn’t say a peep,” Marley Becker explains. She describes how her face turned beet red whenever she was called on in class. “Not until college, really, did I come out of my shell.” It was a passion for woodwinds that liberated her spirit.

Proficient in both the flute and the bassoon, the self-described band nerd joined campus music groups and connected with peers through a shared love of music. In the fall of 2005, three years after graduating from college, she yearned to be part of a group again. She was also eager to tackle a new instrument. Over the years, she had become fascinated with bagpipes. How hard would it be to learn the instrument? How difficult would it be to find a band? She did some research and made a few calls. The pipe band major from the Celtic Spirit Pipe Band invited her to a rehearsal. “He said he would teach me how to play for free, as long as I joined the band.”

For the next several months, Becker learned to play on a practice chanter, a double-reeded woodwind instrument that resembles a recorder. Then on March 17, 2006 — St. Patrick’s Day, fittingly — she picked up her own set of bagpipes from The British Shop on Englewood in Kenmore. Although many varieties of bagpipes can be found throughout Europe and in parts of Asia, in the Celtic world the two main types are Irish (Uilleann) and Scottish. Becker’s Great Highland bagpipes, native to Scotland and arguably the most famous of the Celtic pipes, have four main parts: a blowpipe with a mouthpiece, a bag that fits under the arm, a bass drone and two tenor drones that lean against the shoulder, and a chanter (a melody stick).

When Becker first tried out her new instrument, the best she could manage was a few pitiful sounds from the drones. “This was going to be a lot more difficult than I thought it would be.” It took her a few months to produce some respectable notes, and six more months before she was playing songs. She remembers practicing one afternoon, only to have a neighbor stop by and inquire what the awful noise was. “You know when someone is just starting the violin? The bagpipes are even worse!” she laughs. The key, she was quickly learning, was to balance the sounds from the different pipes.

Fifteen years later, the bagpipes are a natural extension of the musician’s soulful personality. She is drawn to the beauty of the plaintive sounds of an instrument that some historians trace back to ancient Egypt. “Ioften get lost in the music, and during practice, I may even miss my cue to come in.” Becker explains that traditional bagpipe music is highly regimented and played a certain way. Her group puts their own twist on Celtic music, through modern arrangements that combine several other instruments with bagpipes. “We play with our hearts.” The band has performed at numerous festivals and parades, and in 2008, the musicians had the pleasure of leading the Buffalo Sabres National Hockey League team out onto the ice for the Ice Bowl.

Of Becker’s many solo gigs, the most meaningful have often been the memorial services. She played at the funeral of the first female musician of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, an upright bass player who had requested a female bagpiper for her service. This past summer Becker was honored to play at the funeral service for a 95-year-old United States Marine veteran who had fought in World War Two. Other, far less somber solo engagements include a lavish dinner party at a mansion once owned by the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo. And in contrast to the neighbor who complained 15 years ago, back when Becker was first learning the bagpipes, a different neighbor recently left a note at the musician’s door. She wanted to know if Becker could stand in the back yard and play “Happy Birthday” for her husband’s 50th birthday.

The piper smiles broadly when recalling her childhood reticence. “It’s interesting that I picked out the loudest instrument. Was it me finally coming out of my shell and being bold?”

To learn more about Marley Becker and her music, check out her website.

Photo by Mark Mulville for The Buffalo News.

In Praise of Victor Gruen

In the 1970s, family outings often meant going to the local discount department store. Mom and Dad headed for the clearance racks in the clothing and shoe sections. My brother went in search of a new model airplane kit. My sister and I gawked at the Mattel toys we were adding to our Christmas wish list.

And then one day, we all discovered the unique wonders of that 20th-century mecca of American consumerism: the indoor shopping mall.

On a Saturday morning, usually once a month, we piled into the car and headed to the Eastern Hills Mall, located in a nearby suburb about twenty minutes away. We entered through Woolworth’s and proceeded to the main concourse. After walking around together for about ten minutes, we split up. Dad slipped away to Waldenbooks, where he could browse for hours. Mom preferred department stores like J.C. Penney’s. My brother usually wandered off on his own in search of a hobby store, while my sister and I took turns hanging with Mom or Dad. By dinnertime, we all reunited outside Harvest House Cafeteria, a buffet-style restaurant that was part of a chain owned by Woolworth’s.

The buffet line in Harvest House was nothing like the cafeteria line at school. There were no middle-aged ladies in hairnets pushing a plate of wax beans toward me. In fact, I was oblivious to any adults who might be working behind the line. I fixated instead on the fancy glass dishes of red Jello and chocolate pudding, each topped off with glorious ribbons of whipped cream. I was bedazzled by the large metal pans of Salisbury steak, mashed potatoes, and thick brown gravy. The buffet line was also my introduction to what felt like a very adult vegetable dish: salad made with iceberg lettuce, orange tomato wedges, thin round slices of purple onions, and crunchy croutons, all drizzled in Italian dressing.

I inevitably piled too much food onto too many plates. It then took a bit of strength and a lot of concentration to bring the tray over to the table without spilling anything. Setting the tray down and then sliding over the smooth expanse of the fire-engine-red banquette resulted in fart sounds, sending my siblings and me into fits of laughter. Dad greeted me with a bemused smile, leaned over, and whispered reassuringly: “Whatever you can’t eat, I’ll take care of it.” True to his word, he gobbled up the leftovers on my tray after I’d reached my limit. Mom just sighed, though I was never quite sure if it was because my eyes were once again bigger than my stomach, or Dad was putting on a few too many pounds.

Over the next few years, the mall experience changed. Instead of the whole family going together, we might venture out in pairs. I remember helping my brother search for a gift one Christmas Eve, the two of us navigating our way through the crowds of fellow last-minute shoppers. Later, in my mid-twenties, whether it was a consequence of getting older or becoming a bit of a big-city snob after living in Chicago for a few years, I saw my childhood consumer paradise as impersonal and tacky. If hell indeed existed, it must be a gigantic indoor mall with no exits.

In 1956, the first indoor shopping mall, Southdale Center, opened just southwest of Minneapolis in Edina, Minnesota. Designed by Austrian-born architect, Victor Gruen, Southdale was a two-level, climate-controlled structure with a covered, skylit courtyard surrounded by stores. The new shopping center garnered rave reviews and attracted eager consumers. Yet the execution of Gruen’s vision was incomplete.

Distressed by the phenomenon of suburban sprawl in his adopted country, he had conceived of a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use community reminiscent of his native Europe. In addition to the shopping center, he envisioned apartments, schools, daycare facilities, medical centers, and parks. He wanted spaces that would combat the isolation he associated with American suburbs. Instead, Southdale’s success paved the way for more shopping malls to be built throughout the United States.

Interestingly, the mall of my youth, Eastern Hills, which first opened in 1971, is undergoing a renovation. The current owners plan to transform the 100-acre property into Western New York’s first “town center.” I wonder what Victor Gruen would say.

For more history, check out A Viennese Architect Pioneered the American Shopping Mall. Then He Became Its №1 Critic and The strange, surprisingly radical roots of the shopping mall.

The Southdale Shopping Center, the world’s first indoor mall.
Photo credit: Bobak Ha’Eri — Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7009965


Reflections

“That’s for Pearl Harbor!”

I was hit hard with a thwack, right in the back of my head. I turned around. Next to a snowbank a few feet away, two blonde-haired boys were grinning triumphantly. These were the same boys who had been teasing me during the daily bus ride home over the past several weeks.

I kept walking and turned the corner, expecting them to go the other way. But they stayed right behind me and I quickened my pace. I could hear the clomp, clomp of their boots in the crunchy white snow. My breathing became harder and harder, as I fought off the bitter chill of the December air. I heard the boys shouting and laughing, calling me by my new nickname. “Mini Jap! Mini Jap!” When I finally reached home, I felt brave enough to turn my head. There they were — just a few steps away and flashing a glinty smile. They passed by me and kept walking, and soon all I could see was the back of their heads getting smaller and smaller in the distance. Fresh snowflakes began to float gently down around me, as I wiped my eyes and went toward the door.

Once inside, I gave my mother a full account of what had happened. She gasped as I mentioned the boys’ names. “I’m going to call his mother!” She was referring to M, whose mom she knew from church. I begged her not to. Sitting in the next room, my socks wet from the snow that had leaked through my boots, I listened as she cleared her throat and picked up the phone. I could feel my stomach churning and the familiar anger welling up inside.

That day was just another reminder of how much I hated being hafu. Half white, half yellow — as if that even made sense. I asked my Caucasian father why Asians were described as yellow. He shrugged his shoulders and said it was simply ignorance.

In the early years of elementary school, a few classmates would often ask with a straight face, “Do you speak China?,” to which I would usually reply: “No, just America.” At first I offered the retort rather sheepishly, but with practice my response became snappier. When I was seven, I made the mistake of saying my Japanese middle name in front of the class and telling everyone what it meant. “Tsuyuka, pronounced Tsoo-yoo-kah, means ‘the fragrance of dew.’” Our teacher, Mrs. Golibersuch, proclaimed it a beautiful name, but the last word in the translation provoked only titters among my classmates. I soon grew accustomed to a familiar taunt: “Chinese, Japanese … look at these!” The speaker, almost always a boy, would act out each part of the phrase by stretching the outer corners of his eyes up and then down, and finally pointing to his nipples.

I remember once standing up on the stage in the auditorium with my classmates. We were practicing a few songs for an all-school assembly. One had a refrain that went like this:

What color is God’s skin?
I said, what color is God’s skin?
It is black, brown, yellow,
It is red, it is white.
Everyone’s the same in the good Lord’s sight!

There we were, a motley collection of fidgety kids, elbowing each other in the chest as we lined up under the American flag and belted out those noble words. At one point I felt tears welling up in the corners of my eyes. I opened my mouth to sing, even as I struggled to keep myself from falling off the stage.

On a daily basis, I blamed myself for not having curly hair, for not being born with round blue eyes, for not being taller, and by junior high, for not being as chesty as the girls with the long Italian surnames. I would stand in the second floor bathroom of my parents’ house, comparing the reflection in the mirror with images of what I thought real American girls were supposed to look like. I wanted to be like Farrah, with her wild mane of wavy blonde hair.

One day, when I was in either first or second grade, my mother volunteered as a school lunchroom monitor. I chose a table in the corner farthest from the doorway. My head down, I sat munching on carrot sticks and pretended I hadn’t noticed her arrival. My guilty conscience finally got the better of me; I looked up, only to discover she was surrounded by some kids. To help pass the time, she had started doing origami with paper from home. There she was, folding yellow, green, and orange paper cranes as her circle of admirers grew.

Aware of her audience, she pulled out a white lace handkerchief and asked them if they wanted to play a game. Heads quickly nodded, so she slid the handkerchief back and forth in the space between her thumb and pointer-finger, daring someone to pull it out before she could clamp her thumb down. No one was fast enough — her hands were as nimble as they were elegant. She smiled and urged everyone to keep trying. Suddenly there was laughter and then a round of applause. One of the toughest boys in school — an eighth grader who used to threaten anyone who made fun of his braids — had snatched the handkerchief away after three tries.

Part of me wanted to walk over, reach up and pat him on the back, and say something like, “Well, I guess this makes us pals now.” But my mind fast-forwarded to 3 p.m., when the natural order of things would be restored. As it turned out, he made sure that no one in school ever teased me again, at least not when he was around.


It’s been more than forty years since these events occurred. It still amazes me how childhood experiences can shape our view of the world, and ourselves. Years after the snowball incident, I ended up taking M, no longer a pint-sized nemesis, as my date to a high school dance. I don’t know what happened to the boy who rose to my mother’s handkerchief challenge. Wherever he is, I certainly hope he’s doing well. I’ll always consider him one of my earliest heroes.

Originally published in Medium.

Falling Up

This sermon was first delivered on July 5, 2009, at Westminster Presbyterian Church.

Yesterday we celebrated our two-hundred-thirty-third year of independence. Today, at the end of the service, we will sing a hymn that could easily be mistaken for our national anthem. The words are an unabashed expression of love for a country characterized by “spacious skies,” “purple mountain majesties” and “alabaster cities.” Quite frankly—and with no offense to Francis Scott Key—I prefer it to “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Having traveled and lived abroad for a few years, I hope I’ve developed a relatively mature appreciation of everything our country has to offer, both politically and culturally. And judging from recent world events, we have many reasons to feel proud of, and grateful for, our democratic tradition.

But to tell you the truth, July Fourth has never been one of my favorite holidays. It’s not the holiday itself—yesterday, in fact, I read the Declaration of Independence and listened to Ray Charles’ rendition of “America, the Beautiful.” No, it’s the pomp and circumstance with which we tend to celebrate our birthday. I’ve just never been one for marching bands, boisterous crowds and loud fireworks. My paternal grandfather, on the other hand, loved Independence Day. He delighted in the grand parade that each sultry July would work its way down Temple Avenue in Ocean Park, Maine. A former chaplain from World War II, he sometimes wept at the sight of the American flag, especially when a miniature version was being waved about by his exuberant grandson. Gramps was a lifelong Republican and member of the Kiwanis Club; he had served as a town councilman after his retirement. The summer before he died, he was invited by the town leaders to ride on the fire engine in the annual parade. I’ll never forget how happy he looked that day; his body may have been weakened by a heart attack, but his spirit soared.

I do respect how my grandfather chose to honor July Fourth. I am just less comfortable with very public displays of patriotism, especially if they inspire an unwavering belief that we are somehow the best, and the only, nation that God has blessed. For me, the challenge is to feel grateful and respectful, while maintaining humility and a sense of connection with something larger than our national identity. So during a weekend when we celebrate both our independence as a country and our individualism as Americans, I would also like to affirm our interdependence as human beings.

We each have our own journey in this life, but none of us is truly alone. You and I have each other—when we allow ourselves to be brave enough to give, and vulnerable enough to receive.

When I volunteered to be a lay preacher several months ago, I did so out of a sense of stewardship, excitement, and to be honest, with a degree of hubris. I felt sure of my ability to ascend the pulpit, stand here in front of all of you and fill the sanctuary with elegant, upbeat pronouncements of my faith. After all, I had survived a year of teaching antsy teenagers in confirmation class. How hard could it be to talk to a group of reasonable adults for a few minutes?

But then something happened. On May 28, I became one of the many people contributing to the current 9.5% U.S. unemployment rate. One day, I was the cool copywriter at a local ad agency; the next day, I was just another laid-off American. One day, a confident wage-earner for my family; the next day, just another middle-aged white-collar worker in need of a job.

Now of course, I was still in much better shape than many folks. But an impoverished spirit can cut across socioeconomic lines.

So when it came time to begin thinking about this sermon, instead of feeling the words flow right onto my computer screen, I suffered some of the worst writer’s block I can remember. Not quite as bad as my college days, when I had procrastinating down to an art form, but pretty darn close.

You see, it’s hard to feel God’s presence when you’ve been stripped of your familiar routine, are unsure of the next opportunity and anxious about financial responsibilities.

It’s hard to experience such a huge loss of control. It’s scary, shocking and disorienting. It’s a real ego killer, alright. Not since my divorce more than a decade ago did I feel so exposed and helpless. I told one friend I felt like I was in the midst of a career free fall.

Yet even as my pride was adjusting to the surreal nature of having nowhere to go each morning, I was moved by something more powerful than my own self-consciousness and fear: the compassion and empathy of so many people. Some of these folks—a few of them are here right now—know me quite well and others, not well at all. They inundated me with advice, offers of help and words of comfort. I am still overwhelmed by their generosity of spirit.

There I was, experiencing anew something I had taken great pains to explain to a few dubious kids in the confirmation class: the force and beauty of God’s love, as manifested in the actions of others.

Friends, the Holy Spirit is not just inside us, but around us. Indeed, God’s infinite, immeasurable love works through each of us—and between us. It’s a force so real and expansive, I believe it can flourish between Christian and Christian, Christian and Jew, Jew and Muslim, “believer” and “nonbeliever.” You and me. God’s power and love are felt in our relationships with each other.

So out of this crisis has come clarity. A renewed sense of what really matters, and how much we matter to each other. William Sloane Coffin writes: “Many of us overvalue autonomy, the strength to stand alone, the capacity to act independently. Far too few of us pay attention to the virtues of dependence and interdependence, and especially to the capacity to be vulnerable.”

Today’s New Testament reading is an excerpt from one of Paul’s letters to the church leaders in Corinth. It’s not the familiar passage about faith, hope and love that we all know from 1 Corinthians, but rather, a more abstruse passage from the apostle’s second letter. I had to read it several times to plumb its depths. It’s one of those scriptures that remind me just how much I don’t know, how much I still need to learn.

Let me try to summarize. Paul has been writing to the early Christian leaders, who have called him out for not demonstrating powers suitable for an apostle. Referring to himself in the third person, Paul uses the rhetoric of a “fool’s speech” to highlight just the opposite of what the Corinthians are stressing. His glimpse of paradise represents the most sublime of personal experiences; his mention of the persistent thorn in his flesh denotes the cruelest. Paul gives us a very dramatic description of the highs and lows of our human condition, reassuring us that through God’s grace we find strength.

Now it’s important to consider what boasting of weakness does not mean. By admitting our weakness, we are not abdicating our responsibility to keep trying and to do our best. In fact, it would be all too easy to wallow in our imperfect state, never trying to improve ourselves or change destructive patterns. The trick, I think, is to acknowledge our limitations without losing perspective and succumbing to despair. We can never let the status quo crush the potential for hope, and positive, healthy change. In fact, to do so would be to indulge in spiritual passivity or even laziness.

Remember what Paul is telling the Corinthians: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.” The language may be melodramatic, but his message is clear: his suffering is ultimately what saves him.

One Christian scholar puts it this way:

2 Corinthians fills much the same place in the New Testament as does the book of Job in the Old. It is a letter written by one whose heart has been broken by the many intolerable burdens heaped on him… If in Romans and Galatians we see the apostle [Paul] ‘proclaiming’ the cross with might and main, in 2 Corinthians we see him ‘bearing’ the cross, and bearing it triumphantly.

Have you noticed that this sanctuary has no American flag? I think that’s a good thing. The purest symbol for us, as Christians in worship, is the cross. There can be no other. God is not a Republican or a Democrat. God is not an American. God does not belong to usWe, as children of the world, belong to God. And it was through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, his son and our Lord and Savior, that God’s promise of love and salvation was fully revealed.

So there is the cross—the perfect symbol of strength in weakness, the ultimate symbol of God’s love. And in a few moments, we will share in the Lord’s Supper, another poignant reminder of God’s grace.

Are we attentive enough to recognize it? Mature enough to receive it? Humble enough to accept it? Strong enough to live it, each and every day?

I know I don’t always feel so strong. On more days than I care to admit, I falter—especially these days, when I don’t know where I’m going, let alone how I’ll get there. But I do know this: I am not alone. You are not alone. We are not alone.

We have each other, and we have the promise of grace. And even when we try to keep God at arm’s length or shut God out completely, God has us.

So during this time of fireworks and barbecues, celebration and reflection, fear and hope, I would like to reaffirm not just our dependence on each other, but also our ultimate dependence on God.

I am reminded of a childhood friend who died five years ago. Diagnosed with a rare form of cancer at 33, he ended up living several months past his doctor’s expectations. He spent much of that time enjoying his family and reconnecting with friends. In the last email message I got from him before he went to hospice, my friend wrote: “One great thing to come of all this. I’m drawing closer to God and realizing that, in the end, that’s all that really matters.”

In a time of uncertainty, it’s natural to feel lost, angry, sad, out of control, terrified. But even life’s most unsettling free fall can become a gift that brings us closer to God.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness,” the apostle writes.

What better way to find our faith than to lay ourselves bare, embracing our humanity while allowing God’s grace to flow in and through us?

We will stumble and we will fall in this life. Often. And sometimes the drop will feel endless and almost unbearable. But not impossible. For when we find ourselves in a truly vulnerable position, I think the best way to fall—perhaps the only way—is up.

Based on the New Testament Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Requiem for the Boob Tube

I grew up on a steady diet of sitcoms, westerns, and police dramas, with a dash of science fiction for good measure. After-school indulgences included half-hour reruns like Gilligan’s Island, The Munsters, The Rifleman, and The Brady BunchStar Trek came on each weekday at 5.

Mom would usually have dinner ready by the time Dad got home from work — just after 5:30 — so I often missed the last 20 minutes of the episode. It was indeed a rare treat to negotiate a deal with her and watch for the full hour, which meant sharing a tiny table tray in the living room with my brother while the rest of the family enjoyed dinner in the kitchen.

By junior high I was hooked on grown-up sitcoms like M*A*S*H and cop shows like Baretta and Starsky & Hutch. Sunday nights meant sitting on the couch with my parents to watch Kojak or Columbo. My crush on Hawkeye Pierce was just as strong as my admiration for the police lieutenant in the rumpled tan raincoat. To see Columbo suddenly drop his absent-minded-professor routine and ensnare the killer during the final moments of each episode was to understand the word shrewd.

The one constant in all of this TV consumption was the bliss of a shared viewing experience.

Whether sitting next to my siblings and wondering if Captain Kirk would make it back to the Enterprise unscathed, or clutching my dad’s arm during a high-speed, two-car police chase, I felt an intimate human connection. As fellow consumers, we witnessed each other’s spontaneous reactions to the stories being depicted on the TV screen. Sometimes our responses were the same. We might gasp in unison during a cliffhanger ending, or share a raucous laugh after a hilarious one-liner. We might even catch each other crying during an especially poignant program.

All in the Family was the show that really brought us all together. The entire family, including my grandparents and my aunt, would gather around the TV set to giggle over Archie’s malapropisms and cheer on Edith’s sweetness.

These days I do appreciate the convenience of online streaming and apps, and I can relate to the consumer urgency captured in a phrase like “on demand.” After stumbling upon a review of Kim’s Convenience a few months ago, I consumed half a season of the Canadian sitcom in a single weekend, thanks to Netflix. When Anthony Bourdain died, my grieving process included cradling my iPhone and binge-watching several seasons of Parts Unknown.

And yet I mourn the decline of the communal viewing experience. I miss the thought of family and friends huddled around a television to watch a beloved program — even one in grainy black-and-white. I miss the need to plan ahead for a show that comes on once a week at a certain time. There was a bit of magic in knowing that as I fluffed the pillow on the family couch to get ready for my favorite program, countless others across the country might be doing the same thing.

Flat-screen TVs, fancy smartphones, and streaming services are all nice. But when left to our own devices, what might we also be missing?

Originally published in Medium.

“Half-slanted”

I recently returned from a family reunion on my late father’s side in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. My 87-year-old mother and I stayed at a charming two-story hotel called the Flagship Inn off Route 27. One of the highlights was the complimentary breakfast, served in a small building on the other side of the parking lot with a sign that read Restaurant over the two front doors. It was the ideal place to reminisce over a cup of coffee.

On the last morning my mom and I got there early, so we sat down at one of the long tables to save seats for cousins Cherie, Bob, Ruth, and Al. Within a few minutes an older gentleman in his 70s and a woman (his wife, I’m assuming) sat down across from us.

When the woman got up to go through the buffet line and my mom went to the restroom, I decided to make conversation with the man, who was giving me a bit of a quizzical look. I explained how my parents had met in Japan and how Maine was where my grandparents had retired. I quickly realized he wasn’t really listening to me. Instead, he was staring at my face. I paused, and then he looked at me and said, “One of my sons married a Filipino woman. Their children have half-slanted eyes, too.”

My father was stationed in the Army during the end of the Korean War when he met my mother in the summer of 1955. They had a whirlwind romance, got married that December, and lived in Yokohama, Japan, for three years before moving to the United States. That gave my grandfather, who had served as a chaplain in Europe during World War Two, enough time to get used to the idea of his American son marrying a native from a country that had been on the wrong side of a world war.

A flurry of letters back and forth helped pave the way for an emotional first meeting, and by the time Mom and Dad arrived in the US in 1958, my grandparents couldn’t wait to hug their new daughter-in-law. In preparation, Grams had read several books on Japan and developed a talk for her ladies’ groups called “I Enter a New World.” At the first big family gathering that my mom attended, the only gaffe was when some well-meaning uncle called her Topeka before being corrected.

After Grams and Gramps retired in the late 1960s, Mom and Dad brought my siblings and me to their cottage in Maine every summer. I realize only now how much I took those glorious three-month vacations for granted. They were a staple of my childhood. I was keenly aware that everyone around me was white, unlike back home in Western New York, where I interacted with friends and classmates of different ethnicities and races. Yet the racial homogeneity of Ocean Park, a small town just south of Portland, never bothered me. I never felt out of place or unwelcome.

Ocean Park was home, thanks in no small part to the enthusiastic embrace of my grandparents, and all the doting aunts, uncles, and cousins. I still have vivid memories of building sandcastles at the beach, splashing around in the ice-cold water, whether at high tide or low, stuffing myself with blueberry muffins from Jordan Marsh, and simply hanging out with people who loved me.

I remember cousin Patsy giving me a piggyback ride as a bunch of us walked back to the cottage one evening. I remember Aunt Shirley, Uncle Bob, Uncle Ed, and Gramps — all diehard Red Sox fans — huddled around the big television set during a baseball game. From the way the armchair coaches were hollering, I assumed Carl Yastrzemski was the worst player in the world. I remember playing board games with cousin DeDe, my sister Elaine, and Grams whenever it was too cold or rainy to venture down to the beach. So many more memories float to the surface when I realize the joy that was — and still is — Maine.

When summer ended and it was time for all of us to pile into the car and head back to Buffalo, the goodbyes weighed heavily, especially on Gramps. Usually loud and jovial, he would have watery eyes and be clutching his hanky. It was a little jarring, to see him so subdued. I dreaded the sloppy wet kisses and bearhugs that were inevitable, once Dad finished loading up the car.

I can still picture Gramps, with his deep summer tan and blue Hawaiian shirt, standing on the patch of blacktop driveway in front of the cottage and waving as we drove away. “Until next summer…”

My grandmother’s memorial service in 2000 was the only time I saw my father cry. By the time she died at age 93, my grandfather had been gone for more than 20 years. Days before her service, Dad labored over the tribute he would read. When it was time for him to speak, he stood and looked out at the familiar faces of friends and family members. His 6-foot-2 frame towering over the small podium, he took out his handwritten notes and began reading in his emphatic professor’s voice. There was an uncomfortable pause and soon, he could barely open his mouth without sighing, sniffling, and sobbing. He told the story of how a young American soldier, away from home for the first time in his life, traveled halfway around the world with the army and fell in love with a Japanese woman. He spoke of his parents’ warm welcome when the two of them returned to the US to make a home.

As he stood there, grief-stricken and exposed, Dad confessed that he couldn’t imagine how life would have been, had his parents not welcomed Mom into the family.

I’m thinking of that elderly man I met in the dining area of the Flagship Inn. Our exchange lasted for just a few minutes, so I really can’t say if he meant me ill or if he was just being obtuse. But for a few excruciating moments, I slipped back in time and remembered what it felt like to be an insecure little girl who sometimes questioned her worth but whose confidence soared under the loving gaze of her American Grammie and Gramps. While it’s tempting to blame the man’s lack of grace on age or to label him a bigot and move on, I can’t help thinking about his own grandchildren.

I believe that the opposite of love is fear. And to conquer that fear, we must search our own hearts. What prejudices do we each harbor because of, or despite, our life experiences?

“Diversity may be the hardest thing for a society to live with, and perhaps the most dangerous thing for a society to be without.” ~ William Sloane Coffin

Aunt Myrtle, Gramps, Grams, my brother George, and me in Ocean Park, Maine, during the late 1960s

No One to Kick Around Anymore

As a child, what I lacked in peer social skills I more than made up for with my ability to entertain the adults around me. Who needs whiffle ball or hopscotch when you can try out your latest celebrity impersonation in front of your parents’ doting dinner guests? My subjects included Cher, Lucille Ball, and Arte Johnson from “Laugh-In.” By the time I was ten, I was mimicking the idiosyncratic gestures and speech patterns of Richard Milhous Nixon.

Why, at such a tender age, was I somewhat obsessed with the 37th president of the United States? Blame the two strong-willed patriarchs in my family: my paternal grandfather, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, and his son, a liberal academic.

Gramps had served in Europe as a chaplain during World War II. He became a faithful US News & World Report subscriber, voted for Goldwater in ‘64, and worshipped Nixon. The consummate extrovert, he loved big, loud Fourth of July parades and always had an American flag on full display. My father, an only son, took his parents’ dreams for him to become a doctor as far as he could—halfway around the world to Korea, where he served as part of a MASH unit during the Korean War. After being transferred to Tokyo, he met and fell in love with my mother and her country. It was there he also uncovered a passion for history. After my parents moved to the US in 1958, Dad went on to become a professor of history. During the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, he often turned his college lectures into thinly veiled rants against our involvement in the Vietnam War.

Family gatherings could be intense, especially when Gramps and Dad locked horns over politics and patriotism—which happened a lot. My grandfather’s way was to respect authority; my father’s was to question it. You could say they were my family’s versions of Archie Bunker and the Meathead.

In 1974, a few months shy of my eleventh birthday, I spent the summer with my mother’s sister and her husband in Long Beach, California. It was my first solo airplane trip and my first summer away from my parents and siblings. Once the novelty of palm trees and stucco houses wore off, I became homesick for the East Coast. To pass the time and to entertain my aunt and her neighbors, I did my Nixon impersonation. I raised my arms to flash a defiant victory sign and made the most of every slurred syllable. My fellow Americans, let me make one thing perfectly clear … I am not a crook!

One early evening in August, I was sitting on the hassock in the living room, getting ready to watch another “Bonanza” rerun. Aunt Kiyoko was in the kitchen making dinner, and Uncle Dave was out in the garage tinkering with his car. I was sitting too close to the TV as usual, and just as my show was about to come on, the station cut to a special news bulletin. There on the screen was President Nixon. With his piercing dark-brown eyes and droopy jowls, he was announcing his decision to resign. I knew this was a serious, shocking event, and from that moment on, I had no desire to impersonate him.

It’s been 45 years since that historic broadcast. Now when I remember the disgraced president, I think of my dad, whose disdain for “Tricky Dick” taught me about adult rage and cheerless sanctimony. I also think of my grandfather, whose dogged support for his political idol made him both honorable and pathetic in my young eyes. I still remember Gramps describing to my brother and me the heartfelt letter he had written during the Watergate hearings. He then proudly showed us the printed thank-you note from the White House.

Richard Nixon, HR Haldeman, John Ehrlichman, and my favorite white-haired celebrity at the time—Senator Sam Ervin—have long been gone from the political stage. Gramps died in 1977 and we lost Dad in 2007. Neither is around to witness today’s presidential drama and political chaos, and for that I’m grateful. Still, I can’t help but wonder: If father and son were alive right now, what would they make of it all? I’d like to think that at long last, they’d be fighting on the same side.

The title is a reference to Nixon’s concession speech after losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election. The speech was given at what was supposed to be his last press conference.

Dad and Gramps in the early ’50s, just before my father left for Korea with the US Army.

“For everything there is a season…”

Meditation on Ecclesiastes 3:1-15

I wrote this nearly four years ago, a few weeks before driving my daughter to college. Today she’s no longer a child or even a teen, but a 21-year-old about to enter the real world of adult dreams and responsibilities. I suspect I’ll have some new thoughts to write down as graduation day gets nearer. But for now, here’s a flashback to my final lay sermon, which I delivered in August of 2013.

To borrow a song lyric from Jerry Garcia, “Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.” By “trip,” I’m talking about the odyssey I’ve been on for the past 17 years and eight months –- one that’s about to change its course quite dramatically.

As many of you know, I’m the mother of a high-school graduate who, in just a matter of days, will embark on her own adult journey as a college freshman. She’s not here this morning; I suspect she knew that our current transition would be the jumping-off point for my message to you now. I can just imagine the eye-roll and hear her soft moan. “Oh, Mom…

Letting my child go off on her own, truly, for the first time, is a huge step for both of us. It’s one of the trickiest things I’ve ever had to do. Nonetheless, it’s in the job description of Parent. For the past four months or so, I’ve made a concerted effort to ease us both into the climactic moment when, having moved her safely into the dorms, I will hug her tight, give her a peck on the cheek (or more, if she’ll let me), and drive away, leaving her to her own devices on a 125-year-old college campus in North Carolina.

About midway through this past year, I stopped giving Hanna a weekend curfew. Instead of a strict deadline for her arrival home after an evening out with friends, I gave her a strongly recommended time, then a suggested time, then a range, and finally, the freedom and responsibility to use her best judgment about when to come home. Eventually, I got to a point where I could fall asleep without having to hear her key unlock the front door. You see, at some point — maybe it was in March — I’d had an epiphany. In less than a year, she’d be away on a campus far from home, with no more rules or requests from Mom to constrain or to protect her. Why not let her practice this burgeoning autonomy close to home, by cutting her some slack and in some instances, giving her just enough rope with which to hang herself? I assure you I did not completely unplug — that’s why I love our family cell-phone plan — nor have I ever really stopped worrying. Even when I’m able to sleep soundly through the night, the first thing I look for when I wake up is her set of keys dangling from the hook by the front door — or a text message letting me know she’d decided to stay at a friend’s house.

Standing here before you this morning, I can tell you that this “long, strange trip” has given birth to a kaleidoscope of emotions: joy, sadness, pride, nostalgia, denial, grief, hope, faith. And gratitude.

Like the African proverb says, it does take a village. And as members of this congregation -– this church family — you have been part of the village that raised my daughter. I am grateful.

From the time Hanna was very little and attending Sunday School taught by so many terrific adults, I liked to remind her that there was a love even greater and stronger than my own maternal love for her — God’s love. That the phrase “child of God” is not simply a figure of speech. “See what love the Creator has given us, that we should be called the children of God — and we are.”

Even without the prospect of a family member leaving home, the final weeks of summer have always made me wistful. By mid-August, the days have grown a little shorter, the air has become a little cooler, and the pace has quickened, just a bit, in anticipation of the new year. I work at a school, so September, not January, marks the start of a new year.

Every August I’m also reminded of the summers of my own youth, spent on the coast of Maine in a close-knit community called Ocean Park.The family ritual went like this: In June, just after school let out, my dad would drive my mom, siblings and me to his parents’ cottage. Within a few days, Dad would head back to Buffalo to teach summer courses at Niagara University. The rest of us spent a long and leisurely vacation. I can vividly recall playing in the cold Atlantic with my mom, collecting seashells with my brother, biking to Camp Ellis with my sister, reading the Anne of Green Gables books with my grandmother, and eating the juicy, well-done hamburgers my grandfather would cook for us on the outdoor grill.

Dad would rejoin us in late August, and spend a few days in Ocean Park before we all headed home to Buffalo just before Labor Day. Unlike our morning treks to the beach with Gramps, my father’s pilgrimages to the ocean occurred in the late afternoon or even at dusk. One reason for this was very practical — he had inherited his mother’s fair skin and easily burned under the hot sun. But I also think the dreamer (and the world-weary cynic) in him preferred the sunset over the midday sun. Dad favored a rather secluded part of the beach that had many sandbars and very few tourists, which he nicknamed, appropriately enough, The Quiet Waters. I suspect it was one of his favorite places to reflect and to feel a deep connection with the Almighty at a time when he was growing in his adult faith.

Today’s reading, often attributed to Solomon, was written by a teacher living in Jerusalem several hundred years before Christ’s birth. It’s one of my favorite passages from the Old Testament because it deals quite pointedly, and poignantly, with the human condition – expressing the gamut of raw and conflicting emotions tucked deeply and neatly inside calming, rhythmic verse.

For everything there is a season…

Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that the author’s “description of the human situation is truer than any poetry glorifying man and his destiny. His honesty opens our eyes…”

Indeed, many folks might be put off by Ecclesiastes’ fatalistic outlook. Some may rightfully question its usefulness within the larger context of choosing hope over despair.

Is it possible to have an appreciation for the nihilism of Ecclesiastes, while still believing in a higher purpose and meaning, as demanded by a Christian life?

I say yes.

For me, the poem from Ecclesiastes reaffirms the mystery of God amid the beautiful, banal, tragic, harsh, and sometimes baffling realities of our daily existence. To me, it’s not bleak. It’s life-affirming. The candid affirmations of random circumstance and human limitation create a space in my head and more importantly, my heart, for a deeper, more powerful message: one that speaks of grace and salvation.

Here’s Tillich again: “Only if we accept an honest view of the human situation, of man’s old reality, can we understand the message that in Christ a new reality has appeared.”

Ecclesiastes inspired folksinger Pete Seeger to write a song in the late 1950s, which became a hit for the pop-rock group, the Byrds, in 1965, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” Have I got the tune stuck in your head yet? The mid-sixties was a time when, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, so much was changing in our society. As laws supporting racism were being challenged here at home, our involvement in a war on the other side of the world was escalating.

“A time to love, and a time to hate. A time for war, and a time for peace. I swear it’s not too late.” Seeger’s song was popular in the last century, but the words remain relevant. Like the original verses, they are timeless. Think about the political tensions throughout our country, and the continuing bloodshed in Egypt.

For the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of helping Mark Aquino and Debbie Katz with Westminster’s confirmation class. We lead the kids in two culminating exercises a few weeks before they are to be confirmed during worship. Each confirmand is asked to produce an individual faith statement. The entire class, working with the three of us, also creates a corporate faith statement. Depending on the individuals, not to mention group dynamics, one exercise can be harder than the other.

For their individual faith statement, most of the confirmands follow a familiar approach: they write a couple of sentences or a few paragraphs, and they often write several drafts. I remember the experience of three students from my very first year as a co-teacher.

The first one, a boy, didn’t want to write his faith statement. Instead, he chose to create a PowerPoint filled with photos of a camping trip with his dad. The slideshow he put together using his own images of the sky, the mountains, the trees, the water, and rocks became a visual prayer of praise to God the Creator. Another confirmand wasn’t so sure she could commit anything to paper. She needed some answers before she could begin to write. So we sat together one afternoon, poring over the passage from Acts about the Holy Spirit coming down at Pentecost. This girl, both blessed and burdened by her keen intellect, wanted definitions and concrete examples, not a description of the supernatural. Her faith statement ended up acknowledging the role of healthy doubt as part of an evolving, authentic faith. The third student was a girl whose mother had died of cancer just a few months before confirmation. The eighth grader was heartbroken — and furious with God. Several passionate questions were scattered throughout the final version of her faith statement.

Even though it’s usually offered as comfort, I don’t subscribe to the blithely dismissive saying that “everything happens for a reason.” Everything? As a child, I spent too much time in the hospital surrounded by vivid examples of the pervasive unfairness of life. I don’t believe in a cynical or sadistic God that metes out suffering to keep us in line or teach us a lesson. I also don’t believe in a Santa Claus God or a genie God that will grant us our every wish.

We can’t control events or predict the future, despite our most fervent prayers. But that we pray, how we speak to God and what we do still matter. Our motives and actions in accordance with God’s purpose for our lives together still matter.

Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote: “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we must be saved by love.”

If I passed out some paper and pens right now, what would your faith statement be? How has it changed since you were confirmed? How will it change as you keep on living?

For me, at this moment in time — as a mother who is both excited and anxious to send her child out into a human world that doesn’t always make sense — I can share this: God is Love, the teachings of Jesus the Christ affirm this Love, and I believe in Love. In joy and in sorrow and even in death, Love endures. By the grace of God.

Let’s Talk

Updated June 9, 2018, following news of the death by suicide of Anthony Bourdain

If you’ve stumbled upon this note, then it’s because the algorithms or some other mysterious force in the universe brought you here. The topic isn’t going to be neat or comfortable. In fact, things might get quite jagged and painful. But if you can get through this, then I can, too. (Or should that be: If I can get through it, then so can you…?)

I have manic depression. Now many would use today’s parlance and say bipolar disorder. I prefer the phrasing in my first sentence, and let me explain why. I didn’t begin this paragraph by writing I am bipolar or even I am manic depressive. When self-disclosing about my chronic illness, my use of the verb have followed by an open noun compound is deliberate, and carefully constructed. That’s because my mental disease shouldn’t be boiled down to an all-encompassing label; it is indeed a preexisting medical condition, but not the totality of my identity. In this way, my manic depression is not dissimilar to your diabetes, your high blood pressure, your high cholesterol, and so on. And for me, the term bipolar conjures up images of an alien with two poles jutting out from her head. It also implies that mania and depression somehow cannot overlap. (I can assure you that during those times when I was traveling at the speed of light in my most manic stage, I was still deeply depressed. To understand this point better, check out Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison’s excellent memoir.)

Two decades ago, as a newly divorced individual, I was at a different point in my life. I had lost virtually everything, so I thought I had nothing more to lose. During the culminating job interview with a potential employer, I ended our congenial exchange with a question: “Oh, one more thing. I have manic depression. Would that be a problem?” Without missing a beat, he replied, “As long as you take your medication, it should be no problem.” I was hired, I did great work, and I learned a lot.

There have only been two times when I felt so alone, so hopeless amidst the confusion of the world and my place in it, I thought seriously about taking my own life. In the first instance, I was in my early twenties and trying to recover from a romantic breakup. Once it was clear that I had swallowed some pills, I had to be taken to the emergency room. Fortunately, the dose I ingested did not make a permanent impact. The second instance occurred when I was in my early thirties and living abroad with the man who was then my husband. As a new mother still suffering the effects of culture shock, I was exhausted in every possible way. One afternoon, when my husband was away at work and I found myself in the throes of postpartum free fall, I stood on the balcony of our fifth-floor apartment and pondered the distance between the railing and the ground below. I am thankful that at the pivotal moment, one sound pierced through my despair. It was the cry of our four-month-old daughter, who had just woken up from a nap and was hungry. I quite literally talked myself off the ledge so I could go inside, pick her up from her crib, hold her, and feed her. (The repetition of so many object pronouns in that previous sense is intentional, for it was my daughter’s reliance on me that somehow kickstarted my will to survive and gradually, to live.)

Today, I take 450 milligrams of extended-release lithium once a day, usually in the evening with my slew of vitamins. On rare occasion, in order to stave off one too many sleepless nights, I dip into my emergency supply of sleep medication prescribed by my doctor. I can happily say that more than twenty years after my official diagnosis, I now resort to this sort of “reset” button an average of two nights out of 365. A few years ago, my psychiatrist at the time announced his retirement from private practice. He had helped me navigate the first decade after my divorce, which was not coincidentally the most difficult period of raising my daughter. (Her father and I agreed that sole custody would be the most loving arrangement, given our circumstances at the time.) I brought Dr. W a mug and a card, on which I wrote these words: Thank you for the gift of mental health. He blushed, and with a broad smile, said I was one of his most successful patients.

But the hard-won fight for balance is never static. Indeed, my commitment to staying relentlessly focused on self-care is ingrained in my approach to life each day. It has to be. Family and close friends quickly become concerned when I am unusually exuberant, overly snappish, or inexplicably listless. Fortunately, these extremes don’t rule my life anymore.

In his brilliant TED Talk, writer Andrew Solomon explains that the opposite of depression isn’t happiness, but vitality. I can’t think of a better description.

The disease no longer terrifies me, but I do have to keep even fictitious demons at bay. Regular exercise, a healthy diet, adequate rest, time for reading and reflection, and lots of music and artistic expression sustain and modulate my creative energies. I no longer drink alcohol the way I did in college, where I once was so depressed, I retreated to my bottom bunk for three straight days. Life is good, as they say. And yet I sometimes let the past nag at me: the pre-diagnosis years and memories of being an unruly daughter, a confusing girlfriend, and later, an unhappy wife who sometimes felt caged. I still care for my ex-husband, but despite his loving and valiant attempts, during our marriage he fell woefully short of understanding what the disease was and wasn’t—and who I needed to be.

The stigma associated with mental illness can crush one’s spirit. Equally harmful, I believe, is the temptation to glamorize it. For even the most famous patients, the struggle is real. In my case, I’m no longer as brash as I was during that 1999 job interview. I am careful about which friends I confide in about my health. And of course, I sometimes worry about my employer or coworkers. Will they feel uncomfortable around me? Will they see the work that I do in a different, potentially negative, light? And what about the neighbors?

Recently, an article in my local newspaper, which you can read here, made me pause and reflect on how much I might lose if I remain silent. Or more to the point, how much others stand to gain if I speak up.