Suffer The Little Children

Some people have an innate gift with children. My friend Tracy and I were having coffee at a local restaurant and at the table next to us there was an adorable yet rascally little girl seated with her mother. The angelic strawberry blonde curls failed to mask the mischief in her eyes as she repeatedly pushed her drink off the table’s edge. The young Mom was as patient as a saint, repeatedly picking up and replacing the drink, only for the act to be repeated again with more gusto.

I have raised ten children, eight of them through this stage. I was tolerant and hid a smile but was willing to ignore it. The Mom was dealing with it better than I would have. But Tracy, an experienced elementary school educator made eye contact, then spoke animatedly with the little girl and her Mom. After a few minutes’ interruption of our coffee-time, the angel was restored to good behavior and the Mom was visibly thankful. Whether skill or experience, compassion or caring, Tracy was a gift to them.

How many of us go that extra mile? Some of us may not have the calling or skill in a particular instance, but we can watch for those who do, and we can wish for the good of others. I know that when we are in church and a child is raising a tantrum, the parent desperate, I pray so very hard for them. I have been there many times, sometimes vowing that I wouldn’t return to church until they were years-older. But there we were the next day, or the next Sunday. I know that hundreds of sermons drifted around and over my stressed-out head.

Least helpful were snorts of disapproval or bland stares. One elderly woman tried to make a case at church that there should always be a cry-room and that church was not the place for children. Thankfully, there was a cry-room to take inconsolable children, but the pastor disagreed and said that he wanted families together in church. Years later at a church we visited, the pastor stopped the service momentarily to address the parents of crying babies. He said not to feel flustered as this is what babies did. “Tend to their needs, and let’s all rejoice in the sound of life and of family and of Christians attending church despite difficulties.” Wow. Clearly, I’ve always remembered that.

Our own new priest has made a point to say that our being in church to worship is all about Jesus and Jesus welcomed children. He has incorporated baptisms and other sacramental events into the Sunday Masses. A few weeks ago our special needs daughter had her first communion and it was beautiful. Everyone gathered afterward to celebrate with us. I made a cake.

Some might say that she didn’t understand what was going on, but we believe she did.

Jesus knew.

Granted

I do have an Instagram account. It started off because I wanted to see photos posted by my friends and family. I was very happy that there was not the political unrest and mudslinging as on Facebook, which I started long ago for the same reason. Facebook has its pitfalls, but I must admire that it helps people to connect with others and even to find support systems previously unattainable.

I began to look at posts by interior designers, architects, a man who loves cold water swimming in Scotland, as well as some absolutely adorable little Dachshunds! Have you seen the little Scottish one dressed in a kilt in front of castles? Oh, my.

If you have read my blog, you could surmise that I love all-things-Loki. I chanced upon the Instagram of the actor who played “old” or “classic” Loki in the Disney-produced series. I recognized him as the actor who played the character in Downton Abbey, Simon Bricker, who was punched by Lord Grantham when found in Lady Grantham’s bedroom. Prior to seeing him in Downton Abbey, my American eyes don’t remember any works by him, but I learned that he was very well-known and loved in the UK and elsewhere. Richard E. Grant played Bricker extremely well, but I was blown away by his performance in the Loki series. He was witty, vulnerable, commanding, and heroic to perfection. The intensity of his finale stays with me.

Since then, I learned that his loving wife of 40 years passed away in 2021. There is a raw intimacy in his Instagram posts, close-up videos of his face, allowing us to see into his grief journey, and it is gripping. His smile lights up your heart, if not the room, and is guaranteed to lift my spirits (and obviously those of his many followers) when it flashes brightly. His authenticity is genuine and truly a gift.

I mean to read his latest memoir when released, A Pocketful of Happiness. His wife Joan knew that he would suffer after she passed away, and commissioned him to try to find a “pocketful of happiness” in each and every day of his life. He has remained faithful to the quest. Perhaps knowing that he journals every day and is an author, intrigues me more than his even his acting. See what you think of his Instagram.

Life is a journey. Recently I’ve written contemplatively about when it just does not go the way we have planned. And more surprises have visited upon my family. We will react, each in our own ways, and we will stay strong when push comes to shove. We will lament and cry, rage and sulk, but we will love each other as best as we can. We will accept the kindness offered, the prayers and support of friends and family. Granted, we will find those pockets full of happiness, which when looked for, abound.

Best Laid Plans

I have mentioned before the Army saying that “The plan is everything; the plan is nothing.” I’m not sure why it is phrased like that, but the meaning is that the plan is essential, and yet it must have flexibility built into it.

Such is life!

A loved one may suddenly experience a crisis and we shift our attentions and time to them, perhaps becoming a caregiver. More and more attention and resources have been given to caregivers recently, and none too soon. Caregiving is associated with great stress, and I have written about this before.

How many times have you had a plan laid out for your life, and suddenly there is a change–in marital status, or health, in family size, or work? Oh, so many for me! Hardest, are those sudden changes which affect our individual identity. The earth shakes. There is shock, grief, anger, fear, panic. These are all normal and perhaps necessary in order for us to come to terms with the event.

Our available support system is important to identify and to lean on. We may need additional support groups. But these take time to develop because at first we are stunned and feeling intense grief. Who could possibly understand? And even if they do, if many have gone through this, it is still happening to “me.”

When my late husband passed away in 2000 it was as though the entire floor dropped out of my life. My family was incredible, and integral to my healing; they lovingly said I was not alone, but of course, I was in a profound way. Only I knew how I intensely hurt. I refer back to that experience with an allegorical image of having to walk through a tar pit of pain and grief. One cannot go over it or under it or around it. Step by burning step we wade through. Prayers strengthen us, perhaps numb the intensity of the pain so that we can take another step. Support from loved ones on the perimeter encourage us, but there is no escaping the fact that we feel this pain, experiencing this very personal journey. We eventually emerge on the other side, scarred but alive and ready to move on.

At some point, others with similar journeys can give us hope, strength, encouragement and inspiration.

One question I learned as a nursing student, and which I later taught as a preceptor, and then as an instructor, was to ask patients who are experiencing a health crisis if they have a faith life or spiritual support system. It is meant to assess and help them to plan their support system, not to insinuate or evangelize. Spiritual support and faith life increase positive patient outcomes, but if the patient indicates none, we focus on friends and family support.

At the original shock of the crisis, tragedy or event, we may ask, “Why? Why did this happen to me?” It is important not to feel guilty for this because it is human to wonder, to reason. Sometimes the reasoning has no answer: another person went through the stop sign, an environmental event occurred that was beyond our control. An existential “why” may still persist. That is okay.

Step by step we wade the tar pit, at times able to jump a little further and at others, stumbling. Life goes on, sometimes incredulously. Tasks that need to be performed can and sometimes must be delegated. It is important to eat healthy foods when able, and to stay hydrated. We must conserve and build strength.

It is important to keep the immune system strong, to decrease stress hormones. It is important to try to smile, to laugh. Hopefully a loved one will help us to do just that. “Laughter heals the bones,” so a Proverb in the Bible says. Recent studies have proven this to be true. I would say that it also heals the heart and the rest of the body.

It is normal to wonder what is to come. Sometimes it is difficult to avoid catastrophic thinking. This is where it is so important to have a loved one or trusted friend or therapist to whom you can express your worst fears. Crying, railing, ranting, are all okay early on. The time will come to make decisions without quite so much emotion, with more information learned, and with loving support.

Life plans may need to be re-evaluated or altered. There is a grief in each of these that must be dealt with. This is such a journey, this one toward healing. Sometimes the healing is in the body and sometimes not. Often the greatest healing is in our soul, our character. When in the early stages of grief the last thing I wanted to hear was that I would be able to help others some day. Right then I needed to be able to rant and feel miserable for myself for a bit. After dealing with that I could get stronger, little by little. One day in the future I would find that I was on the perimeter of someone else’s individual “tarpit.” And I understood. I was there for them, quietly or constructively helping, offering support, respecting their journey.

If you are going through something tragic or unexpected, my prayers are with you in the journey ahead. Life is truly a gift. None of us knows which day is our last. It is important after the dark, initial shock, to eventually see the good and the beauty around you. It is still there and you are still inextricably a part of it. May God bless you!

Beautiful in His Eyes

The golden fish may carry scars,

she may have wounds, maimed fins;

she ages, moving more slowly,

but she swims on, giving thanks

for the beauty that still exists around her.

She cannot know what is ahead,

what further challenges,

or how far she has to go;

she swims because

that is what God created her to do,

And she is beautiful in His eyes.

Suzy Roeder, December 2019, London England

Tradition

Tradition. It is the title of a famous song from the movie, “Fiddler on the Roof.” In the movie, tradition forms the framework of society and culture. There seems to be a negative side to almost everything that is considered good. Ice cream is delicious, and yet if we over-indulge it causes negative effects on our health. In the movie, the father’s love is tested when one of his daughters marries out of the traditional path, and another of his daughters wants to marry a man from a different religion. Faith and religion are arguably very good, but can go wrong if fueled with selfish or errant intentions.

Some traditions are inherently errant. Most would agree that stoning, maiming of women, or slavery are inacceptable, inhumane practices; these are traditions gone way wrong. But most traditions are positive for society, and perhaps essential. Some people may link tradition negatively to verses in the Bible when Jesus spoke about the Pharisees, but he was commenting on their hearts and intentions. In reality, Jesus followed the traditions of his Jewish people in an exemplary way.

Traditions serve to form the framework of society. I grew up in the Episcopalian Church, and it was traditional to be baptized young, and confirmed when a teenager. It was wonderful and very meaningful for me, forming a healthy world-view of humanity. A daily tradition in our family was to eat dinner together when my father returned home from work each day. A yearly tradition was to celebrate Christmas on Christmas Eve, which was from my mother’s Austro-Hungarian heritage. Life had structure every day, every season, and we grew up feeling a sense of security, our lives responding in very healthy ways. We learned to value others and respect them.

In regard to Baptism, some churches perform these early in life, some perform them later, and some call them Christenings. There are people who argue strongly for one or the other. Some churches feel that others lean too heavily on tradition, and they quote certain verses from the Bible. In an effort to improve, change or reform a tradition, it is sometimes thrown out completely, in effect “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” as the American phrase describes. There is no real work to reform and it is just eliminated, often with violence or great unrest. When this happens, we can lose the most important aspects of the tradition.

Our grandson was recently baptized. It could not have been more beautiful, save for more family being able to attend. Our son-in-law’s parents and one of two brothers flew in. The other brother, the baby’s Godfather, was out at sea with the Navy, but he was able to watch in real-time by smartphone. Our oldest daughter flew in to attend as the baby’s Godmother. Our grandson was peaceful the entire time. He is now almost six-months-old and smiled throughout. He fell asleep as the water was poured over his head in the name of The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit. Just beautiful.

Afterward, my daughter and son-in-law had us all over to their home for a cookout. Gifts were presented, and elements from the baby’s great-grandparents were used, like the silver tray passed down from his great-great-grandmother, which held a cake. Over a dozen of us feasted and laughed and celebrated. Two families blended as one.

Tradition has the purpose and potential to form the framework of society, of culture, of family, of life. Good routines and practices are edifying, strengthening and restorative. I pray that you find yours, and that they bring you peace and joy.

Pendulous Times

Changes in the last few decades in the United States in regard to marriage, the dignity of life, self-empowerment, feminism, abortion, and racial issues have been significant. They have caused many to become angry, worried or even depressed–whether they feel that there have been too many changes, or not enough fast enough.

World-view and personal philosophy fuels how we see things and react. I try to resist black-and-white, linear or negative philosophies. I have read and re-read the Bible. I pray and I trust God with any matter in which I am confused or even disappointed. I do not wish for “X” country to be “nuked,” or for those “Y” people to go to hell. I do not believe that violent acts are the answer. In the big picture I believe that God’s got this. He is Love and therefore He is just and merciful. I still see much good in this world.

It is not relativistic to acknowledge that we are living in time. If there are alternate realities or eternity, well, we are still here and we cannot avoid the passage of time, aging and death. Our cultural climate will shift with time. My mind often analyzes concepts in images. The image of a pendulum helps grapple with the world and its polarized right/left, political and philosophical extremes. I think of the constantly moving, never static Focault Pendulum we visited as schoolchildren at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC.

Standing on a high floor, looking over the railing we all stared, mesmerized, as the 50-foot-long pendulum swung slowly through the center of a large circle on the floor below below, reaching out to a point on the perimeter to knock over a pin at its furthest reach. It seemed still for a moment, but then reversed, and headed in the opposite direction to repeat the process, back and forth, slowly rotating round and round, eventually knocking over every pin on the circumference of the circle. The point of the exhibit was to prove that the earth rotated, but I believe that it can serve as a metaphor to grapple with the times, and to argue for love.

Throughout tragic events in history (slavery, concentration camps, genocides) there arose incredible individuals who led others, who helped and inspired despite their horrid circumstances. Fred Rogers famously quoted his mother’s advice, that in troubled times he should “look for the helpers.” Look for the heroes who inspire.

The pendulum reminds me that times will indeed change. It passes through the middle all too swiftly, where there could be more understanding and compromise. Times may shift as significantly as we’ve seen politically in the United States from one extremely different President to another. At one far reach of the pendulum of time something is outlawed, but at the opposite it becomes legal.

Be patient. There is a way through whatever mess you see. Heroes will indeed emerge. Maybe you are one of them. Keep focused on the good that still exists, and strive for love and understanding. The ability to have compassion and to stand in another person’s shoes makes life much more meaningful and full of hope. Love not only endures throughout the languorous swing of the pendulum through time, but it heals, and it brings us all closer to God.

Calming the Beast

In the 1980s I rode horses with my friend Judy. Judy was a timid rider at first; we covered the countryside on my friend’s hunters, horses used to traveling cross-country and jumping obstacles. Hours-long rides, covering hill and dale, hopping over logs and some man-made fences, we were challenged and grew in tenacity, all-the-while, laughing and making wonderful memories.

My husband and I spoke of hindsight bias the other day and I know that I have some, but I was strong and pretty fearless, confident in my skills. I will always treasure those memories as some of the best of my life.

“Winston,” an English Hunter

Riding one summer in Ireland along the rocky shores of County Sligo, one of the men had been put on a very large, very excitable horse. After 30 minutes he gave in humbly, and switched to my smaller, calmer horse. The big dark bay I was put on settled down and we finished the ride a few hours later. Was it my skill? Maybe, but I also believe it was due to experience with many horses and a lack of anxiety. Horses sense the rider’s calm.

At Rosses Point, County Sligo, 1984

Something began to change in my “calm, anxiety-less” demeanor after completing college, becoming a registered nurse and having children. My kids would now say that I am an anxious sort. I never used to be. Once upon a time I was the go-to person to get on the crazy horses because of my calm. What happened? I believe that with my education of disease processes, with experiences in traumatic injuries, and with the great responsibility a parent feels, I became a worrier. I do work on it, and it has lessened since the children have grown older. The worries are now more about their driving, or dating, or navigating this increasingly complex world.

Back in the 70s and 80s we watched a popular show called The Waltons. Set in Virginia in the depression era the series followed the lives of a wholesome, large family. I loved it. It seemed like we were lightyears ahead of those times with appliances, fast cars, chunky mobile phones the size of a brick; we were so much smarter and advanced. At the time I watched it, the depression era was 35 to 45 years past. Now, my days riding with Judy and riding in Ireland were 40 years ago. I look nostalgically back on those simpler times, much as my parents did while watching The Waltons.

The world has continued to advance exponentially. We now have immediate connection and knowledge at our fingertips with smartphones. The James Webb telescope is transmitting back incredible, challenging photos of the universe. Artificial intelligence has become a reality to the extent that experts argue on what limits should be set for it.

And yet, have we come as far as we would have thought, as far as we should by this point? I believe that this process of improving human rights is continuous. I do wish we were not so polarized and could work together more efficiently and diligently. Perhaps the news and social media have stewed a pot that was more manageable when not boiling over, out of control.

Judy is sailing with her husband this week. They are taking a break from the anxious world, instead, courageously navigating the Atlantic Ocean. Her daughter got word to her that I was thinking of her and our times together so long ago. I was told that she smiled thinking back to them, too.

Nostalgia and good memories are balm for the unrest around us. Gratitude is calming and centering. No matter the tumult around us, no matter the inability to get a “good bit in the beast’s mouth” and guide it right where we want it to go, we can sit astride it with experience and confidence. “Nothing is new under the sun.” Humanity has in many ways been here before, and our contribution of calm, of gratitude, can make a difference in the anxious world.

On “Justin” with my nephew. Justin, an ex racehorse, calmed beautifully over time.

Dream Griever

Life does not always go as expected. Whether a problem with our health, our career, our children, or despite how hard we planned and worked sometimes our dreams do not come true.

We may follow a healthy diet, but a genetic problem or an accident can suddenly change everything. We might plan a certain course of study but then there is no job available, or life events keep us from accepting that dream job. Our children? Well, weren’t we always told that they would become their own persons?

It is too easy to cast blame and become disgruntled and negative. What is healthier and necessary is to do the work of grieving the unattained dream. Only then comes acceptance and the realization that where we are at this moment holds potential. We are each a work in progress, the masterpiece of our life is unfinished.

My friend Marilyn was ordained in the United Church of Christ, educated during the late 50s through the 70s and mentored by civil rights and academic giants. She obtained her doctorate and became a pastoral counselor. Marilyn longed to found a retreat center. She had a fully visualized dream, obtained necessary licenses, aligned herself with the right people, amassed supplies, furniture and know-how, ran many group conferences, and yet never saw the full dream to fruition. She came close a few times. We spoke recently about how it was necessary for her to grieve this life-long dream.

It is easy for me to see all of the good that Marilyn has done throughout her life for individuals and for the communities in which she has lived. She does acknowledge some of this, but it has been important for her to grieve her original dream. She goes about this while at the same time dealing with severe, chronic pain issues, and with an adult daughter who continues to require significant support. Day by day Marilyn faces her challenges, continues to take one generative step after another, and strives to remain grateful.

Over coffee we caught up on events and made plans to tour a local botanical garden that features a “Monet Pond.” Marilyn will be 87 at the end of the summer. When I left her house she was taking a phone call from a young man seeking help with his girlfriend. I heard the tone of her voice shift to that of a caring professional. I left quietly with a smile and a wave, feeling proud and inspired. Marilyn hasn’t created the retreat center that she’d always dreamt of, but she has forever changed countless lives including my own. I hope that one day she is fulfilled by the alternate, unplanned course in her life that blessedly intersected with ours.

Polyanna

If you have not seen the movie Polyanna with Haley Mills and Richard Egan, I recommend it highly. It is a children’s movie adapted from the book of the same title by Eleanor H. Porter. It is entertaining and moving. Polyanna is an orphan who goes to live with a wealthy aunt. Her life has been very difficult and yet she has adopted an attitude of gratitude and positivity that is her strength, and far from annoying, becomes inspirational to all who know her.

The word Polyanna has since been used as an adjective to describe unrealistic, starry-eyed idealism. Toxic positivity is a more modern and extreme concept today, purposely ignoring the actual distress of what another is going through. It is more dismissive than just a lack of social grace. I propose that ignorant bliss and the slang, synonymous interpretation of Polyanna is at one end of a positive philosophy, and toxic positivity is at the other. Both are extremes. At the center is a more balanced state, the actual example of the character Polyanna, and perhaps it is very much needed at this time.

I feel immensely blessed by friends from so many different walks of life. Rather than surround myself only with those who adhere to my beliefs, I am challenged by friends who have different theologies, philosophies and world views. Throughout the political ping-pong match of the last few decades in the United States I have witnessed a similar back-and-forth of reactions by those who hold one view or another. My prayer has been in each instance that hearts will remain hopeful, wills determined, anger channeled constructively, and heads cool. For those who are relieved or exuberant with various changes, I hope that they have compassion, not contempt, for those who feel the opposite.

In the news and on social media we see too many instances of rudeness and hatred. The constant presence of negativity on our televisions, computers and hand-held devices does great damage–if we let it. Fake news, strawman arguments and false narratives abound. If evil has a persona then its greatest tactic is to divide, then stand back and watch us destroy each other.

We can resist. We can strive to maintain peace and hope in our homes and communities. We can be more like Polyanna and inspirational, historical figures who despite poor odds and circumstances worked steadfastly, lovingly and peacefully for the good of others.

At the Core

Whatever your assumption about a particular apple, if the core is bad, then however it is prepared, you’ll likely end up with an inferior bite, or pie, or strudel.

Apple core? Every analogy breaks down somewhere. A bad apple can’t really be fixed, but we have the ability to fix core problems in society.

I see the problems around us but I know that in order to correct them there are no easy or quick fixes. Our polarized political system makes more of vilifying the other side and advancing self-seeking agendas than true reform, which is a difficult task at best. But we must keep trying.

Gun violence is abhorrent, and yet gun violence is not the only problem. There are still knives, fists, arson, bombs, cyber-bullying and other objects that can be and are used to harm others. There is no one fix to the problem of violence, because the problem is deeper and more complex than the method used. It is within the offenders. Our mental health system is in a terrible state, and our pediatric mental health system is even worse. Our culture is failing our young people in the formation of a healthy conscience, of a healthy body, of hope, and of individual resiliency.

My good friend, a decades-tenured college professor and wonderful, self-giving educator believes that education is the key. I would agree, except that it is not the only key. Earlier interventions are just as integral–including healthy prenatal environments and pregnancies, committed parents and guardians, and high-quality healthcare. No quick fix here, either. I believe that it is greed, corruption, fear and self-seeking that hinder efforts, that create future problems from impulsive actions, even when many deem those actions as needed. We are not great at evaluating long-term effects.

I avoid extreme arguments and stands because they rarely convince and they are rarely effective. The hardest work comes from getting into the most difficult of arenas, rolling up sleeves, examining evidence, arguments and proposed solutions, being willing to compromise, then agreeing on multiple strategies and preventative measures. Can we do this? Yes.

Will we? That is the question. We are up against much corruption.

Let us not fail. A divided populace is an impotent one. We need committed, selfless, caring citizens, advocates, lobbyists and elected officials to comprehensively fix problems at their core, to value and help our young people, our culture, our nation, and the world.

Though it was a recent meme on social media, the truth remains: We need much prayer.