An Imperfect Legacy

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“Clay is my favorite,” my then 5-year old Alex pronounced one day in the van after school.  He was not talking about art supplies, however.  Clay is his 8-year old brother.

In response, my first-born child, daughter Riley said, “Alex, that is not nice.”

“Yeah, Alex,” Jed, my oldest son chimed in.

To make her point that this kind of favoritism was hurtful, Riley said, “Well, Jed is my favorite then.”

“Riley’s my favorite,” Jed said.

Alex held firm.  “Clay is still my favorite.”

Throughout this conversation, Clay had been sitting silent by himself in the back row of the van.  “Who’s your favorite, Clay?” one of the older two asked.

“I’m not saying,” Clay said.  Smart, I thought.  He’s going to avoid the whole issue.  But he waited a beat, then revealed his real answer with deadpan seriousness, “I hate you all.”

Clay can bring the funny.  On that day, with that statement, he broke the tension as we all laughed, long and hard.

But the whole conversation stayed with me, and not just because of the comedic gold.  One of my greatest desires as a mother is for my kids to grow up and like each other.  To stay close to home, in the “home is where the heart is” sense.  No matter where they roam, near or far, I want them to miss each other, long to see one another, and show up for each other when it counts.

I’ve always loved those movies in which large families gather for Thanksgiving or Christmas or a family reunion.  Hilarity ensues, with dashes of turmoil and discord, but in the end, they all come together and announce how much they love each other and will stay together as a family no matter what.  I know it doesn’t always work that way, though.  Siblings can be very different people with little in common.  Think about all the genetic material, which goes back for generations, coming together in myriad and infinite ways in each child.  They didn’t choose to be in the same family.  If given a blank slate, they might not associate with one another at all.

As children, or even as adults, choices are made and slights are divvied out, intentionally or unintentionally.  A comment from your brother or sister can stay with you for a lifetime.  My brother and I are friends, but when I try on a pair of jeans for the first time and view my backside, I always think about the time he called me “long butt.”  Of course, I was not without sin.  My kids love to hear the story of me dragging said brother across the floor when he was little and leaving a huge carpet burn on his back that got me in big time trouble.

My kids can fight with the best of them.  A lightsaber battle can turn ugly in a second.  The car can become a war zone on a road trip.  But emotionally, things can be much worse.  If Riley and Jed are really mad at each other, she will inevitably bring up that trip to Disney World when Jed was younger and had several raging fits when he didn’t get his way.  She ignores the times when she used to scream and cry when we tried to get her to go to bed.  Then there is the insult that can really cut deep: one of the older kids calls a younger sibling a “baby.”  Make it “cry baby” and all hell breaks loose.

They keep mental count of how many basketball tournaments, soccer games, and dance recitals each of the other siblings has attended.  They keep detailed score, inaccurately, yes, but it’s a real competition to them.

I learned early on in my parenting career that my job is more of a manager.  The illusion of actual control dies a startling and sudden death when your beautiful toddler daughter, who does not like to wear dresses, lays flat out on the floor in a tantrum when you try to put a dress on her for photos.  She only ceased to cry when we put on an Elmo T-shirt, which she proudly wore in the picture that graced our holiday card.  By the way, she is a ballerina now and wears tights and beautiful costumes all of the time.  Go figure.

I know that once they are adults and no longer subject to punishment, or “consequences” as we call it these days, I will have absolutely no control over whether they come home at all to see their father and I or to see each other.  I won’t be able to make them do anything.  So, here I am putting my wish into the universe, praying that they will be close friends one day, or at least have the grace to tolerate each other.  Or maybe, they will read this when I’m old and say, “oh yeah, Mom wanted us to at least speak occasionally.”

My hope is that the heart we are building in this home, and the memories that come from it, will tie them together somehow.  I don’t even care if they reminisce about the times when Mom was a raging banshee about – whatever – fill in the blank.  Or how they learned to cuss because I drove them everywhere for years.  I hope they laugh about how silly we were, how cluttered the house was because everyone treasured their books, and Legos, and paper, so many pieces of paper.  But mostly, remember that their Dad and I love them beyond measure.  That they will always have our parental hearts in common.  And I hope that my heart, the one they heard for nine months in utero and laid against as they nursed, will continue to beat in their minds and souls and remind them that they are my legacy.  Hopefully, that legacy will be one of love, imperfect, but unconditional.  One that might bring them a little bit closer to home and each other every time they remember.

Published in Bella Grace, Issue 18, Winter 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

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No Room?

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Mary “brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2:7 (KJV). These are the words and images ingrained into my head as far back as I can remember. Mary and Joseph wandering from place to place, but because everyone else was in town too, all the rooms were full. Jesus was born in poverty, amongst the animals, as a demonstration of how humble, how human, how much like us he was.

But recently I read this version: she “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Luke 2:7 (NRSV). It struck me that not having a place to stay might not just be an example of Jesus’ humility, and honestly, poor planning on the part of his parents, but perhaps a bit of foreshadowing.

When we say there was no room at the inn, it sounds like bad luck. If there’d only been a bit more space, they would have gladly let Mary and Joseph stay. When we say there is no place for them, it sounds more like rejection. Even if the innkeepers had some space, they weren’t going to let Mary and Joseph inside, especially if they’d had any inkling of their story, her being pregnant before they wed and all.

Maybe it was a lack of accommodation, but maybe there was more to the story. Jesus would be rejected all of his life by everyone from the people in power to those from his hometown. Almost every time we see Jesus eating, preaching, or simply being kind to others, he is with the outcasts, the ones who had no place in society. He told stories about servants, shepherds, and farmers, and praised good Samaritans and widows who gave all they had.

Everyone had a place at Jesus’ table, which was, in fact, metaphoric given he did not actually have a table and was dependent on others for welcome and sustenance. And so, we need to ask ourselves some questions. Is the table at school merely full without extra chairs or are some students not allowed to sit there? Do we extend welcome or subtly let others know they don’t have a place in our communities, be they small or large? Do we try to understand that some people have felt like outcasts their entire lives even if we’ve never felt that level of rejection?

There is a difference between no room right now and no place at all, ever. Jesus understood the people on the outside. He cared about every person he met, and he made sure each one felt his love. My prayer is that we be ever more mindful of those who feel left out, walked on, and cast aside, and that we seek ways in which to include them. Jesus showed us that love is expansive, not a limited commodity to hoard. May we follow in his outcast footsteps.

 

 

 

No More Pecking

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About ten years ago, my family and I were at the zoo, sitting at a picnic table having a snack, when we noticed one of the free roaming peacocks close by. But this peacock was not showing off its beautiful feathers. Instead, it was standing in front of a soda machine, feathers down, staring at its own image reflected in the machine.   All of a sudden, the peacock began pecking at the soda machine. Not just a few gentle pecks, but aggressive pecks, angry pecks. I assume it thought that there was another peacock glaring back and was trying to protect its territory, but actually its behavior was aimed at itself.

The peacock reminded me of myself and almost every other woman I know. While I may not physically peck at my image, I examine every blemish and imperfection when I look in the mirror. I don’t need a real mirror though to put myself down. Words and thoughts can be just as powerful. I can mentally list all of my shortcomings with ease, and I tend to recite them often. If do not live up to my expectations as a mother, wife, writer or contributor to the community, I beat myself up emotionally. Even if my expectations are completely unrealistic, I feel bad about myself when I do not meet them.

Even though my actions often mimic the antics of that particular peacock, I could take a few lessons from the other times I’ve seen peacocks in the zoo. As recently as a month ago, we were at a different zoo and came upon a peacock with its plumage on full display. This peacock stood proudly in all of its beauty with its gorgeous blues and greens.   My kids and I were in awe of the breadth and reach of its feathers as it acted as though it knew we wanted to see all of its glory.

Fighting against myself constantly is not actually effective in making myself better. I do not improve by berating myself. I cannot move forward but become paralyzed just as the peacock attacking its own image. If I focused on the pieces of my being that are special or unique, I might find that I too would be more confident and more willing to reveal my true colors to others instead of hiding behind convenient masks that dull my luster. Like the peacocks that fly freely throughout the zoos, I have freedom to pursue my dreams and desires – I am not caged. When I dwell on my flaws though, I build my own bars and restraints. By focusing on my strengths, I might start to understand that I am not my own enemy.

Getting out of my own way is not always easy.   Honestly, at times, I don’t even realize I’m sabotaging myself. But when were at the zoo last month, I bought a small zippered pouch with an image of a peacock on it. Maybe if I carry it around in my purse, I will remember to give myself a break, stop pecking, and believe in the worthiness and beauty inside me. Inside all of us.

 

 

 

 

Your Name Is?

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Your Name Is?

Maybe Alex’s big brown eyes draw people in. At age four, he gets a lot of comments still like, “he’s so cute.” But as adorable as he is, I’m pretty sure the reason he is so likable to those he encounters is his willingness to engage with people first. Picture a little boy, head cocked back as he attempts to peer over the cash register counter so that he can ask the person helping us, “What’s your name?” Every. Single. Time.

He first started this habit on our spring break trip last year when we visited Washington, DC and New York City. While we walked most of the time in those great cities, with four children, we ended up taking numerous taxi and Uber rides as well. Alex is our youngest child, but that did not stop him from inquiring of each driver, “What’s your name?” We heard a range of names from Omar to Buddy. Alex tried to repeat every name, even the more exotic ones we heard.

His affinity for asking this most basic question only continued when we came back home to Texas. Many of the people to whom he poses the question wear nametags, but because he cannot read yet, he asks. He asks the folks who work the drive-thru’s, check out the groceries, and stock the gas station shelves.

Often, his inquiry catches the other person off guard. They will knit their brows, pause, and at times, look at me for confirmation that they heard him correctly. They seem puzzled that anyone, let alone this little person, is bothering to talk to them in more than a cursory manner. Once the momentary surprise vanishes, the person will fill in the blank, “My name is Steve, or Miranda, or Robert.” We even know another Alex, which completely delights my Alex.

And then, the person looks down at Alex, and asks in return, “What’s your name?” He responds, “I’m Alex.” Almost without fail, the other person will say some version of “nice to meet you Alex,” with a smile on his or her face.

We happen to be creatures of habit, visiting the same stores again and again. After Alex has his initial conversation, the clerks will say “Hi, Alex” upon our inevitable return. They seem to enjoy seeing him again and will talk to him while we get our drinks or snacks. Their relationship becomes a two-way street.

By being outgoing, Alex has set the foundation to build an ongoing relationship with each person. He has opened a door of friendship because he sees them, he is interested in them, and he recognizes their worth as a human being. By returning Alex’s curiosity with their own, the people we meet are bolstering a little boy’s confidence. They are teaching him how to be a good member of his community, that if you reach out in kindness, you will receive kindness in return. My little boy’s repetitive act of compassion, while small, touches on the deeply held desire that each of has to be known. His simple question impacts his world, my world, and that of the people he meets, in a beautiful way, making all of our daily lives just a tiny bit brighter.

More Gifts from the Sea

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This past summer, my family and I went on vacation to Captiva Island on the Gulf coast of Florida. When we arrived at the resort, I noticed an Anne Morrow Lindbergh quote from her book “Gift from the Sea” on the wall. Then, I saw her book in the store on the Island. Wait a minute, I thought, did she write this book, one of my favorites, when she was on Captiva? I first read the book fifteen years ago, and did not remember which sea had given her the inspiration for the book. All I knew was that it was a monumental book in my life, and one that I dearly loved. I grabbed the book off of the shelf and flipped through it to discover that indeed Captiva was THE island where Lindbergh brought this book into the world.

Lindbergh’s daughter, Reeve, wrote the Forward to the 50th edition of her mother’s book after Reeve visited Captiva herself. She wrote that “it was not the writer’s cottage that I was looking for on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, but the writer.” I found that as a writer myself, our vacation took on added significance as I began looking for the writer too. I wondered if Anne Morrow Lindbergh had been on this stretch of beach or visited this part of the Island when she was here. I also started searching within myself – where was the writer in me? She’d been a bit dormant after a series of hard rejections, and I hadn’t even realized how much I missed her.

In Lindbergh’s book, she used seashells as symbols for her ideas. The shells she found inspired her. As my family and I visited the beach every day, we too began looking for seashells. At first, we kept every one we picked up. As we were there longer, we became pickier. Not that we were expert seashell collectors by any means, but we would throw them back into the ocean if we already had a similar one or if the shell was broken.

The longer we searched for the perfect shells, however, the more interested I became in the ones that were nicked or had holes. Many of them had deep scars in addition to the normal grooves and ridges. I wondered where these shells had been before they landed in our hands. What were their stories? Where had they traveled? How had the ocean treated them? What animals had called some of the shells home? The more shells I held, the more I realized that finding a perfect shell was not only unlikely, but almost impossible. And despite the damage that most of them incurred, or perhaps because of their injuries, these imperfect shells were beautiful. The shells were still graceful and unique, every last one.

Often times, I would pick up a seashell and examine the front only to turn it over and find the most glorious colors of pink or purple or orange underneath waiting to be admired. And here I’d thought the exterior was the most precious part.

Our limited exploration of the ocean and some of its smallest inhabitants got me thinking. It seems that we often feel lost in the vastness of the world around us, each of us just one of many.  We suffer pain that leaves us with scars – physical, mental, spiritual and emotional. And while we know the old adage that difficulty makes us stronger and makes us into the people we are, the feelings of unworthiness often remain. We feel “less than” because of the bruises and the wounds. We compare our insides to others’ lives as they appear on the outside, and come up short again and again.

But I don’t think that is how God sees us. He knows why we carry the burdens we do. He doesn’t have to wonder what the story is behind the fears or the reluctance. He saw when we were tossed by the ocean of life; when we were thrown against the rocks; when some piece of us was crushed leaving a gaping hole. He knows all of the details, choices, and time spent on the decisions or in the circumstances that turned out wrong.

We are like the seashells: imperfect and marred. Sometimes even used or tossed aside.  And God loves us anyway. We may not be able to see the beauty in ourselves, but he sees it. He believes we are still of value. God sees the inside of us where the real beauty lies no matter what kind of exterior armor we have erected to guard our hearts from more hurt.   He sees us for who we are, the real person, no matter what we look like or feel like. Rest assured, God will not throw us away. Instead, he treasures each of us, for the brokenness and the beauty.

 

 

 

 

“Your Name Is?”

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Maybe Alex’s big brown eyes draw people in. At age four, he gets a lot of comments still like, “he’s so cute.” But as adorable as he is, I’m pretty sure the reason he is so likable to those he encounters is his willingness to engage with people first. Picture a little boy, head cocked back as he attempts to peer over the cash register counter so that he can ask the person helping us, “What’s your name?” Every. Single. Time.

He first started this habit on our spring break trip last year when we visited Washington, DC and New York City. While we walked most of the time in those great cities, with four children, we ended up taking numerous taxi and Uber rides as well. Alex is our youngest child, but that did not stop him from inquiring of each driver, “What’s your name?” We heard a range of names from Omar to Buddy. Alex tried to repeat every name, even the more exotic ones we heard.

His affinity for asking this most basic question only continued when we came back home to Texas. Many of the people to whom he poses the question wear nametags, but because he cannot read yet, he asks. He asks the folks who work the drive-thru’s, check out the groceries, and stock the gas station shelves.

Often, his inquiry catches the other person off guard. They will knit their brows, pause, and at times, look at me for confirmation that they heard him correctly. They seem puzzled that anyone, let alone this little person, is bothering to talk to them in more than a cursory manner. Once the momentary surprise vanishes, the person will fill in the blank, “My name is Steve, or Miranda, or Robert.” We even know another Alex, which completely delights my Alex.

And then, the person looks down at Alex, and asks in return, “What’s your name?” He responds, “I’m Alex.” Almost without fail, the other person will say some version of “nice to meet you Alex,” with a smile on his or her face.

We happen to be creatures of habit, visiting the same stores again and again. After Alex has his initial conversation, the clerks will say “Hi, Alex” upon our inevitable return. They seem to enjoy seeing him again and will talk to him while we get our drinks or snacks. Their relationship becomes a two-way street.

By being outgoing, Alex has set the foundation to build an ongoing relationship with each person. He has opened a door of friendship because he sees them, he is interested in them, and he recognizes their worth as a human being. By returning Alex’s curiosity with their own, the people we meet are bolstering a little boy’s confidence. They are teaching him how to be a good member of his community, that if you reach out in kindness, you will receive kindness in return. My little boy’s repetitive act of compassion, while small, touches on the deeply held desire that each of has to be known. His simple question impacts his world, my world, and that of the people he meets, in a beautiful way, making all of our daily lives just a tiny bit brighter.

In the Neighborhood

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This year, our family had a wonderful visit to Washington, DC during spring break. After our early morning tour of the White House, we divided up so that Ben and Jed could go on a whirlwind circuit of the museums to satisfy Jed’s love of history and politics. Riley and I took Clay and Alex to the National Zoo because the younger boys needed something fun to do and because there are pandas in residence.

I took my group on the mass transit Metro, which is not my area of specialty. I am that suburban mom who can spend a whole week driving kids around a five-mile radius of home. I was a bit nervous that we would miss our stop or go the wrong direction on our walk to the zoo. So, when we passed two homeless men in front of a store, I kept walking without much thought. That is, until Clay, who was six-years old at the time, stopped, turned back, walked directly up to one of the men and stared down into his cup. Clay immediately returned to my side, and said, “He has nothing in his cup.” His tone was indignant and accusatory. Clearly, we were not leaving until we put something in that cup. I dug in my purse and gave him some money for both men. He marched over, dropped the money in, and we continued on our way. But Clay’s words and actions have stayed with me.

In the book of John, the story of Christmas is summarized by this verse: “The Word (Jesus) became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14 MSG). Later during his ministry, Jesus had a conversation about the meaning of being a neighbor. The person with whom he was talking correctly asserted that God’s law required, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself.” But then the man asked Jesus, “And just how would you define ‘neighbor?’” Jesus, in his typical fashion, answered the question with a story. He told the now familiar, but at the time revolutionary, story of the Good Samaritan, in which a man is beaten, robbed and left for dead, and ignored by two passersby. The only one who stopped and helped was a Samaritan, who was not a person of high standing in Jesus’ culture. Jesus then asked, “What do you think? Which of the three became a neighbor to the man attacked by robbers?” “The one who treated him kindly,” the man responded. Jesus said, “Go and do the same.” (Luke 10:25-37 MSG).

At times, the world can be chaotic, uncaring, and unkind. Our highest ideals are not always realized. The daunting nature of things can feel overwhelming – we want to help others, but there is so much that needs to be done. When we cannot see a way to make a dent in the problems of others, the tendency to isolate and withdraw into ourselves can take over. We can be overcome by guilt that we have not done enough in the past, and now we don’t know where to start. I know I have felt all of these emotions and frustrations.

But maybe, during this time of year, we can commit that going forward, we will pray that God opens our eyes to the “neighbor” in our community, whether it be an individual or organization, that needs our help. And then, just begin. Start small. When we see an empty “cup,” whatever form that cup takes, we will do our part to fill it, even just a little bit. May no cup remain empty. Amen.

Love,
The Carter Family
2016
We hope you have a Happy Holiday Season and a Beautiful New Year!