Personal Journey

U is for Unexpected

UTrue Story.

Science class in the ninth grade. Film day. The lights are off, the bubblesque TV perched atop a rolling stand soothes the room with flickering glow. Students slink down into their chairs, rest their feet on other chairs. For a few sacred moments, school is not a jungle. We put our masks away because no one is looking. X sat beside me, but to see the screen, we oriented ourselves toward the front of the room, X behind me.

You know that feeling, when a ladybug or an ant crawls on your skin, how it tickles? If I were commander of planet earth or even dictator of a small European country, I’d have my minions bring in buckets of non-stinging insects and let them crawl on my arms and legs. That fact may just be the weirdest piece of intel you’ve ever heard. I realize that. Apologies, but I feel it’s important you understand just how much I enjoy that featherlight touch, so that you’ll believe the rest of my story.

Back to science. We were watching something about the Hubble and why we should be amazed by it and by mankind’s genius for building it and all hail science class… thank you, science class. This doctrine delivered by that deep, trustworthy voice my generation has come to associate with boring school films. Everyone was getting as comfy as we could in the hard plastic and metal chairs on the harder tiled floor, in the stark decoreless science room that smelled of magic markers and sulfur.

I was daydreaming/snoozing/definitely not-watching when I felt this tickle on my back. It was late in the school year, one of those blazing hot days. I wore a light shirt that didn’t tuck in, the small of my back open to the air when I slouched down in the chair. X behind me must have accidentally brushed against me with his knee. X’s knee felt so nice against my back, like one of those ladybugs. And though X’s knee was brushing against me an awful lot, I just figured he was a bit clueless and unaware (ironic). And it felt so nice… I let it go.

Right up until the moment I felt his hand reach around, clearly not his jeans, not an accident, still feathery but (zoinks!) not worth it, going for the front of my shirt.

Well that was unexpected.

All that time, all those touches. None of them accidental. Had my chair suddenly become electrified with 100 volts it wouldn’t have launched me higher into the air than that horrible realization. I yanked my chair forward a safe distance, the screeching chair legs screaming for me. Heads turned. The voice of boring science droned on, and I was just a bit more wary of the world. When the lights came on, X asked me if I would go with him. That was the phrase we used. Stupid, I know.

True story.



Personal Journey, Poetry

Timothy McVeigh & I Agree on One Thing

DSC00183My favorite poem was basically written by the one-legged pirate, Long John Silver. What’s worse, my favorite poem was also the favorite of Timothy McVeigh, infamous building-bomber-baby-killer, who went so far as to quote it just before leaving this world by lethal injection in June, 2001. I remember thinking that McVeigh was about to meet the true captain of his soul. I remember wishing that “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, the real-life inspiration for Treasure Island’s antagonist, wasn’t my favorite poem. But still, it is.

Don’t go. Stay with me.

I can still picture my 8th grade English classroom, and the balding, feather-haired, doughy teacher who introduced “Invictus” to me. A muted man, I hardly remember a thing about his character, but I do remember the feeling of being broadsided by the power of words. It was the first time I loved words enough to write them on my heart. Perseverance was my only prince back then: the only strength I knew, and “Invictus” was the portrait of my prince.

Henley ascribes his “unconquerable soul” to “whatever gods may be.” This too, was me. I could have written that poem, had I been so gifted. And– agnostic I remained until I was 27, until my own strength failed me for the straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back time, and I dived into a faith that has held me ever since.

Poor Henley. How he inspired 8th-grade-me and so many others. Yet he most likely died, not knowing how strong he could have been.The strongest we can ever be, we can only be after admitting our weakness– at least once. The moment I acknowledge my limit, God pushes it way beyond my wildest imaginings. That’s what Henley never knew, though he had an iron will.

A broken bone heals stronger than the original bone. Henley never broke.

Henley had reason to call this life “a place of wrath and tears.” When he was 12 years old, his father died. As if that weren’t enough, Henley developed tuberculosis and had to have his foot amputated. “Invictus” was written as he lay in the hospital, in the agonizing phantom pain that plagues amputees. His remaining foot was in jeopardy of being amputated as well, but Henley wouldn’t have it.

Just “how charged with punishment [were] the scrolls” for Henley? More than most of us can imagine. I don’t know about you, but I wish, when in my own shallow ruts of despair, that I could be half the person Henley was in that Mariana trench experience of losing a foot and a father.

When Henley speaks of life’s “bludgeons,” he’s not being theoretical.

So that’s it. Henley, in one sense, is my hero. In another, I pity him. I no longer agree with many of the notions in “Invictus.” I don’t think it all resides in me. I know that God is completely in charge of my ever-so-conquerable soul. I still hope to have an unbowed head–if it must be bloody– but a deeply bowed soul in the presence of my Lord and Savior.

Nelson Mandela drew strength from “Invictus” while in jail and passed it on to his fellow inmates. Later, he motivated the South African Rugby team with its empowering lines. I still love “Invictus” for its message of strength, but I now know the name of that strength: Jesus. He is my strength, my shield, my everlasting hope.

I wish Timothy McVeigh didn’t like my favorite poem.

But think about this: Hitler liked tea parties.


Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the pit, from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.


In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeons of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.


Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.


It matters not how straight the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

— William Ernest Henley, 1888




Personal Journey

God Loves Even the Meanest Person – Testimony Part I

There was a time when I did not take God seriously.  But no matter.  He took me seriously.

Of my early memories, this one stands out– my husband and I at age 16 were climbing on a jungle gym, talking about the meaning of life, and blithely dismissing God’s hand in parting the Red Sea because, thanks to advances in technology, we could do it ourselves.  He was into Scientology; I into the Tao of Pooh or Danse Macabre, whichever suited the moment. The deep questions of life I thought could all be solved with reason and logic. I ridiculed faith wherever I saw it and in all its forms, considering it absolutely equivalent to stupidity.  Once, in what I intended to be an act of malice, I sent my sister and her friend to a booth at the county fair that had nearly wasted more than five minutes of my time trying to shepherd me into its folly with a logical question: What is the #1 cause of death?  Bob and I watched, full of venomous giggles, as Heather and her friend listened– it seemed to us, in rapturous attention.  I kept waiting for recognition to register on their faces, to see surprise and annoyance that the booth was a swindle, that big sister had pulled a good one on her little. None came. The joke was on me.

That was interesting, she said when she came back.  Seriously?  Interesting?  How about baloney?  How about gentle people who are off their rockers?  How about being mad that they suck you in with a scientific question and then bait and switch for faith?  I was beside myself.  And confused.

Fast forward ten years.  My husband and I were buying a used car.  We took it for a test drive and of course blasted the radio, which was the most important feature (because we were in denial that this minivan would suck out whatever cool we had left in our souls, and we hadn’t even come to grips with the fact that loud noises of all kinds would be poisonous to us as we advanced in years and had to share our eardrums with little people and all their natural audio).  But what should come pouring out of the speakers?  Jesus music.  I nearly threw up my hand in protest.  I couldn’t turn the station fast enough.  WMMS, please.  And we left it there for them, turned way up so they could get at least a few seconds of good music.  That was the present we left them.  Nice, huh?

I was the kind of person you’d think would never, ever come around to God.  To say I spoke in the dialect of sailors would be an extreme understatement.  I used expletives more liberally than article adjectives and offended anyone misfortunate enough to be within reach.   Here’s an example.  Chrismas shopping at a mall with half the number of parking spaces it needs.  My little sister chats happily next to me about what stores she wants to visit, and my 1-year-old gibbers in her car seat.  Neither one seems to notice or care that I’m in parking hell.  Every time I see an open space it’s taken before I can even shift up into first gear. Stupid stick shift… I am swearing, and not under my breath.  Wait.  Up ahead. An open spot.  As I fumble with the clutch, lurching into 1st gear, a woman sprints by my car.  That’s not surprising, but what is, is that she bolts past my very obvious turn signal and plants herself in my spot, hands on hips, feet wider than hip distance apart.


I politely tell her to move with my teeth clenched and a face not unlike Jack Nicholson’s in The Shining.  I’m here.

“I’m saving this spot for my mother,” she tells me.

“I don’t see your mother,” I say, “and I’m here, with a car. Right now.” The idea of saving a spot with your body broadsided me, I must confess.  I think I lost my head for a minute because I warned her that if she didn’t move I was going to run her over.

She, unlike my sister, didn’t believe me.

I won’t bore you with the details, but let’s just say I parked the car and commenced our Christmas shopping experience. This is the person God took seriously. When I say God can love the meanest person, I know.

Here is a trustworth saying that deserves full acceptance– Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst. — The Apostle Paul, 1 Timothy 1:15

Personal Journey, Politics

Hollow. Ween. A Zombie Tradition I Wish Would Just Die Already

GravestoneSkeletonPopsUpMore disgusting and mutilated than any front yard ornament or trick-or-treat costume I’ll see this year is the philosophy behind this “cultural tradition” we call Halloween. Yes, some of you will hate me when I’m done.

An impressionable sapling of a boy was riding in the car with his mom one day when he made this remark: What I like best about Halloween is that everyone gives away candy and you don’t  have to pay any money for it.

Wait.  What?  I nearly threw my computer across the room.  I thought I’d gotten lost in cyberland and was redirected to the democratic party platform or the Affordable Care Act website.  Everyone givesand you don’t have to pay any money for it?!?  I’m not very good at math, but even I know that if everyone is giving, someone is paying money for it.  Just not him– the recipient of the windfall.  But he’s just a kid, right?  He can’t be expected to understand that, can he?  That is the lie our culture perpetrates on young minds.  Thanks for stating it so succinctly, kid.

ZombieAttackUncleSamOf course someone is paying for it; Halloween candy doesn’t grow on trees.  But that’s precisely the problem with our culture and is laser-spotlighted by this boy’s dewy remark.  We teach, sometimes overtly and sometimes through our traditions that it’s possible there really is a free lunch out there somewhere, that it’s possible for everyone to give and for no one to pay.  Isn’t that what we were promised back in 2008 by a certain candygiver, our national SugarDaddy?  But I know many people who are paying for the candy now. And they’re not happy about it.

It gets worse.  His Mom writes:  We all agreed heartily and even as we said so it sunk in further how right he is.  Halloween may be the most givingest holiday we have in the U.S.A. Seriously. Candy is handed out to our friends’ children, our neighbors, and complete strangers all the same. And people who give out treats on Halloween expect virtually nothing in return.  Maybe just a thank you.

Then the coup de grace (again from Mom): Is there any other cultural tradition that compares when it comes to the spirit of altruism?

If Halloween is “the most givingest holiday we have in the U.S.A.” then we may as well build bunkers in the backyard because we’re doomed.  Seriously.  If our greatest act of selflessness, of altruism is to give fun-size chocolate bars to kids dressed up in disturbing costumes, we are an empty, vaporous people, valueless, clueless, and without a scaffold of truth on which to hang anything meaningful.  This is the Kool-Aid of the default culture; it’s the Common Core Curriculum of our moment-by-moment reality: the idea that there is no ultimate responsibility.  Everyone gets and no one gives.  And no one is ever wrong either. Don’t miss that. It’s the real pollution we breathe day in and day out.  It whispers to us in the sidebar ads, screams in the commercials, and lies seductively all throughout the show.  If we don’t step in front of the media tsunami that is our culture, we too will wake up and think the best thing to happen to us is hollow.  Hollow. Ween.  

The greatest act of altruism happened 2000 years ago.  Sorry.  I know it’s not popular right now. But it wasn’t then either.  It was so unpopular that it just might have killed you to sign on.  Now that’s a scary proposition.  But it didn’t deter them from signing on in droves.


Other than that, I don’t hate anything about the innocuous holiday known as Halloween. Trick-or-treat until your heart’s content.  Dress up. Have fun.  Don’t forget to thank the person who did spend quite a bit of dough on your boon.  And learn as much as you can about the other altruistic days we celebrate.  Please.  Oh please do learn so you won’t think Halloween is the pinnacle of goodness on this earth.  Oh, and the word– holiday originally meant “holy day,” as in celebration of something holy, like God. Sadly, for many people, it now just denotes a hollow day.  There really was someone who didn’t stay dead.  And He didn’t look like a mutilated zombie either, which is probably why His story won’t die. Either that– or it’s true.

Personal Journey

Defined: Trouble

I grew up in a trailer court.  It was like our own little ecosystem some sick developer plopped in the middle of a Pennsylvania corn field.  Most of that corn never made it to harvest, as we stomped it down for forts and trails, hide and seek, and just for the thrill of destroying something.  Next to the cornfield was a grassy patch where we’d play kickball, and lining the field were mature oak trees with low limbs, perfect for climbing.  At the top I could look out onto all that green and never appreciate how fragile the limbs were or how beautiful the world can be when you get up high enough. It was just another thrill.

Unfortunately for my music teacher, Mr. Komenski, he also lived in that squalid little trailer court, neighbor to the worst-behaved kids he’d ever have in his classes.  It would be like living in the projects with your principal.  A fun trailer court fact is that all our electric boxes are set up together in a little row in the middle of the “backyards” (I use that term very loosely).  They can be manually shut off simply by pulling the lever down.  Poof.  No more electricity for you, Mr. Komenski.  One time he must have been cooking because he came hurtling out his front door wearing an apron and brandishing a wooden spoon.

Even those distractions lose their luster when you’re nine.  One day my little brother, Kevin, my friend Tony, and I were on a mission in the woods near our Darwinian enclave, trying to dispel the boredom that so often afflicts the irresponsible.  When, tah-dah!  Leaning against a tree in the middle of nowhere was an old, rust-encrusted bay window, the kind that had nine panes and took up an entire wall of the living room.  Neglect showed in the dust that lined the panes like laundry lint.   Obviously whoever left this nasty old piece of house didn’t really care about it, and we were sure they wouldn’t mind us playing with it.  I don’t remember whose idea it was to throw crab apples into the panes, set up as they were into nine separate targets, challenging us.  We hit most of them, eventually placating ourselves with knocking off the stubborn shards that clung to the iron frame.   In our reverie, we didn’t hear the crunching of the leaves. When I finally registered the angry, hissing leaves and the low voice, he was upon us.   I was definitely in trouble.

Homeschool Life

Good Morning

feet by fireUpon waking, I sip my coffee either upstairs or downstairs, depending on which living space is less messy.  Today was a toss up.   These are my slippered feet and my PJ’s; that is my cat, and this is what my view usually does NOT look like in the morning.

Warning:  this may sound like complaining.  It’s not.  I really like the destruction.  Just ask my husband.  He’ll tell you how incredulous he finds the fact that I don’t even get mad anymore when the box-spring frame cracks under the weight of someone who MUST have been jumping on it or at my discovery of  firewood splinters all over the carpet (the least of possible evils when it comes to my dog’s chewing habits).  I’m just recording the moment.  In 10 years I may forget how the mornings went.  I won’t remember a time when things I place somewhere don’t stay there.

So I’ll start with the piano.  It’s dusty.  The floor is an ocean dotted with  Lego buoys and their large shallow boxes that remind me of  abandoned barges of perfectly recyclable trash floating along forever (a most deeply branded image on my subconscious, all I’ve retained of my public schooling).  Cups, bowls of cereal cement, an unwanted bowl of spicy black beans, a lemon half, and a frat party’s worth of cups greet me from the kitchen counter.  The cat meows that he wants his good-milk (2%, NOT skim, NOT whole– 2%).  Even the goldfish wiggles excitedly when I come close to brew my coffee.   He always seems to say the same thing.

Someone (I know who) was searching for a cough drop last night before bed, so the first aid box is on the living room dresser, and all its contents remain perched on said dresser, as if the reciprocal of taking stuff out of a container can’t possibly be to place them back in.   Inconceivable.    And this one’s mine:  Katae’s puzzle from Christmas break is still rolled up under the glass coffee table, its refugee pieces in sorted piles.  My defense is I’m leaving it until spring break, when I’m sure she’ll finish it.

Books are everywhere.

I like that kind of a mess because, really, it’s strategic.  Convenient books.  Anywhere you look you can see one… or ten.   I even take the piles apart so a roving eye can get curious about what excitement lies between the different covers.  (That was an unintentional double entendre.)  Not that I encourage judging a book solely by its cover, of course.  Just pick one up.

Where does my Lord fit into this?  I was supposed to be reading the Bible; instead I’m penning this record of state of our home.  All I know is that– before I knew Him, my house was spotless because aesthetics were all I had on which to stand.  Now I know that, more important than a tidy home is a happy heart, lots of them in fact.  They are happy making havoc.  I can’t keep up with their joy, is all.  And I’m too busy having fun myself.  So when I survey the jobs-like-stars awaiting my organizational hand and military bearing, I am not overwhelmed.

And I didn’t even bother to describe the room I DIDN’T sit in this morning. 🙂

Personal Journey

Memories That Define Me

Handspring! (Photo credit: Marilyn M)

Gymnastics.  That defined me.  We practiced two nights a week and four hours on Saturdays.  Meets were Sundays.  I breathed gymnastics and can still mentally perform a round-off, back-handspring, double full twist.  That’s 360° twice while revolving in  plank position.  And I can even get this  41-year-old body to perform it off a diving board.  A most impressive feat, which garners me “cool mom” and/or “show off” (depending on who you ask).  Oh, the sheer delight of knowing how to throw myself about!  I can still feel the power of my arms and legs pounding and rebounding off the mat… back-handspring, back-handspring, back-handspring– like a slinky with thunder.  I felt so strong.  Who am I kidding?  I was strong.

Summers were especially arduous, as practice was held in the non-air conditioned YWCA.  My coach led us in excruciating aerobics after a mile run on the greenless streets of center-city Allentown.  That asphalt radiated enough heat to kill anything carbon-based within four feet.  Topping out at five feet, I managed to stay alive.  This also after riding my bike six miles to the pool, diving and cavorting all day at said pool and peddling six miles home.  I’m sure some mama bears kept their gymnasts inside on practice days to save their strength.  My father was (thankfully)  more concerned about whether or not I was having fun on practice days and every other summer day.  I paid for that fun during aerobics.  During aerobics my name was not Kelly.  My name was “Lazy Dog.”  My coach fiercely claimed that her… “grandmother could do better than you, Kelly, and she’s dead.”  Back then that was considered creative wounding, at least by 10-year-old me.  My militant coaches looked like Grace Jones, barked fluently in the dialect of  incensed sailors, and ran their team like the Spartan mothers who said, “Come home with your shield, or on it.”

The Grace Jones Story
Grace Jones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I mean, I was dying during those calisthenics.  The non-negotiable and emphatic disapproval of my coaches made me believe that I was indeed a dog, and though I’d been sapped by a day of arduous physical activity, I did not connect that fact to  my lethargy in endless squats.   The truth was that I’d been singled out as the one who couldn’t hang, the lazy dog, no better than the dead grandmother.

Thankfully, so much of youth is a study in contrasts.  Gymnastics camp.  I was trying to master a release trick on the bars when I overheard the Davidic and beautiful camp counselor who was coaching me casually remark to another, “She works harder than any of the guys.”  Wait.   You must be mistaken. I’m Lazy Dog, the one who can’t hold her own in aerobics.  He didn’t know about the aerobics.  And that was the most delicious piece of affirmation I had ever eaten, and it became my lifelong goal to garner more of such praise.   I cried when I had to leave camp that year; that was the only year I cried.

Only much later when the zoom of perspective got wide enough, could I entertain the possibility that I was not defined by my despicable coaches.  And still the lens must push back beyond the outer limits of this universe to prove to me that no man on earth defines another.  That is God’s vista.

M51 "Whirlpool" Galaxy
M51 “Whirlpool” Galaxy (Photo credit: Phil Ostroff)