From the News

Haunted by Bullies

I am haunted by a story I saw on the Today show this week about a 14-year old boy named Jamey Rodemyer from Buffalo, New York that committed suicide after being harassed by his classmates for being gay.  Just a week after they buried their son, his parents appeared on the Today show to decry bullying and to honor their son’s life.

Jamey Rodemyer (photo from Today Show website)

As if it weren’t shocking enough to discover him dead, their daughter went to the school’s Homecoming dance where the offending students chanted that he was better off dead.

Today I saw a story on AOL about an 11-year old Canadian boy named Mitchell Wilson who suffered from muscular dystrophy who killed himself after being teased, taunted, and mugged by his classmates.

Mitchell Wilson (photo from CNN)

About a week ago, my daughter told me about some tweets flooding Twitter about a friend of hers from her former high school.  The girl’s classmates tweeted messages saying the girl was “ugly and stupid, and that everybody hated her.”  Someone tried to stop the trend by standing up for the girl, and telling the mean tweeting girls they were bullying.

They didn’t care that they were sending out cruel messages, destroying the girl’s reputation, and coming across as bullies.  In fact, they said they were exercising their freedom of speech, and they seemed to gather steam from each other.  As one defended her actions, others responded, tweeting that the girl deserved to be called out “for being weird.”

None of them were remorseful.  None of them could see the damage they were causing, and none of them know the challenges this girl must overcome at home every day of her life. I don’t know whether the victim of these tweets ever saw or heard about them but I cannot get these examples of abhorrent behavior out of my head.

All the usual questions rush into my brain like what makes people think that abusing people this way is okay?  Is it impossible for young people to imagine how it might feel to be bullied? Maybe it’s that very fear that puts them on the offense.  Maybe they are so insecure about their own lives, appearances, weaknesses, and frailties that they leap out ahead of the pack to prey on those they think won’t fight back. Then they find strength in numbers.  They band together and feed off a kind of mob mentality that they seem to believe gives them license to terrorize.

I went online to read the comments about the Today show story on Jamey Rodemyer and felt even more discouraged.  The discussion started civilly but quickly deteriorated into blaming every sector of society.  Some blamed Christians, the Bible, and morally bankrupt religions for being intellectually dishonest.  Some blamed the parents for modeling bad behavior.  And some blamed the schools.  Then it turned into an angry, hate filled debate about government rights and narrow-minded Christians.

Even our public discourse on bullying is full of viciousness and rancor.

If Christians are bullying they are not doing it in the name of Christ.  The government is not responsible.  Religions don’t preach hatred. Society itself isn’t evil. And parents, while not perfect, generally don’t teach their children to mistreat others.

I’m not saying society is perfect.  We are far from it.  We have evolved (maybe devolved) into a society that cannot believe in absolute truth, meaning there are no absolute wrongs or rights.  I heard recently that twenty years ago a study of American adults found that 80 percent of those surveyed believed in clear guidelines about what’s good and evil.  A recent poll of college seniors showed that three-fourths of them believe everything is relative.

This kind of anything-goes thinking leads to comments like the high school girls made about their freedom of speech, convincing them that they can say any cruel thing that enters their adolescent brains because it can all be rationalized – “she deserves it; she’s weird, and I can say whatever I want.”

Maybe we’ve gone too far on the personal liberty front making people think that what they think, feel, and believe is all that matters.  We’ve become so centered on our individual rights and freedom to choose we’ve lost the ability to respect the choices of people around us simply because we disagree with them. People slip into abusive behavior without even realizing it because they’ve told themselves everything is relative.

This also raises the question of tolerance.  It seems like we only understand one side of the tolerance coin, the side that says everybody should be tolerant about what we think and feel, but not that we should return the favor. We’ve made a mess of this whole tolerance virtue over the years by making it one-sided. You must tolerate my choices and freedoms but I don’t have to tolerate yours.

Remember, this cuts both ways.  So before you start thinking, “Yeah, society should tolerate me and my choices.” Consider that you also must tolerant them and their choices, even, and maybe especially, when they are diametrically opposed.

But bullying, intimidating, name-calling, and hate mongering are never the answers.

Maybe returning to some basics like the Golden Rule might help – Do unto others as you would have them do to you. And maybe we could focus more on how we should behave and not on how we shouldn’t.

In the story involving the girl in our local high school, my daughter called her former principal and alerted him to the Tweets.  The principal quickly became involved and the girls quickly deleted their mean comments and replaced with apologies. While this is good news, if the girl found out about the tweets, the damage was already done, right?  Some things can’t be taken back, rewound, and started over.

Maybe that’s the lesson we need to teach.

Health

Awash In Pink

The world again is awash in pink. Pink pajamas and t-shirts, pens and notepads, cups and coffee mugs, earrings and necklaces, bookmarks and backpacks.  Anything you could ever want you can now find in breast cancer pink. October used to usher in a transformation in the woods behind my house from lush shades of green to autumn’s shades of orange, burgundy, purple, and gold. Now it means everything, everywhere is pink.

Even the NFL will wear breast cancer pink.

As a breast cancer survivor, my October calendar is full of check-ups with the breast surgeon, the oncologist, the gynecologist, and it is time to schedule another mammogram.

Hard to believe but this year marks my fifth year as a breast cancer survivor. After a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, four months of chemotherapy, and reconstructive surgery, and five years of adjunct therapy in the form of a daily dose of tamoxifen, the doctors predict my chances of a recurrence of cancer will be below two percent.

Five years cancer-free is a milestone to be celebrated. But, is it the “crucible of combat” that it’s made out to be? Sometimes when I read articles about breast cancer survivors, I feel uncomfortable because we are portrayed as heroes, warriors who should hoist heavy trophies over our heads and proudly parade our accomplishments around like Olympic gold medalists. But if survivors or “thrivers,” as some like to call us, are heroes, what do we call the ones who die or the ones who fight it their entire lives? Almost two years ago, my friend Connie, who lived in Richmond, was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer.  She had a mastectomy and was ready to start a heavy dose of chemotherapy when I saw her.  She looked beautiful even though I know she didn’t feel that way with one breast removed and a horribly uncomfortable and noticeable breast expander stretching the skin around it and bulging out of her chest.

“I feel pregnant,” she said, “like a baby is growing inside me.”

I panicked and worried the cancer had already spread to her organs.

A few weeks later, she told her doctors she felt bloated and uncomfortable.  More tests confirmed my fears.  The cancer metastasized in her liver, causing a tumor that she thought felt like a baby.

For over a year, she tried different chemotherapy regimes, trying to beat back the cancer.  Nothing worked. Last spring, worn and thin, she returned home from the hospital, and told her sister the fight was over.  The cancer could not be stopped.  Her liver stopped functioning, and her body was quickly shutting down.

“Are you mad at me?” she asked her sister.

“Why would I ever be mad at you?” she asked.

“Because I’m giving up,” Connie quietly said.  “I just can’t do it anymore.”

But Connie did not give up.  She got real.

To me, that is most heroic act in life.  Nothing requires more courage than facing reality and accepting it, especially when reality is dying and leaving the people you love.

For Connie that meant leaving a husband and four kids.

After my first dose of chemotherapy five years ago, I felt consumed by a fear I never imagined. I sat down at my computer and thought, “I am in for the fight of my life.  What am I going to do to make it through this — not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually?”  I made a list of everything I thought I needed in my arsenal, starting with contacting the people closest to me and asking for their support in very specific ways.  I assessed everything in my life.  My wide array of activities and responsibilities suddenly narrowed down to two things – take care of myself and maintain the most normal home life possible for my family.  It was my first step in getting real with what was happening in my life. My cancer fight took every ounce of my mental, physical, spiritual and emotional energy. I know Connie’s did too, except that she had the added knowledge that her fight would not end with her standing at the finish line with her gold medal. I think in her heart, she knew she wouldn’t survive the minute they told her the cancer had spread to her liver. But, she did not give up then.  She looked at her family and fought for them for as long as she could.

I remember calling a friend to ask her to help me find a Homecoming dress for my daughter because I knew I couldn’t make it through a shopping trip without some help.  She asked how I felt, and I started crying. “It’s harder than you thought, isn’t it?” Oh, was that an understatement. Then she said, ”Just remember, you’re not doing this for you.  If you were, it would be easy to give up.  You’re doing it for your husband, your daughters, your other family members and friends.  If you remember that you’re doing it for us, you won’t give up.”

She was right, and I believe that’s what motivated Connie to fight so hard, even when she probably knew she wouldn’t survive.  She wisely used the short time she had with her family to show them her true self, the strong-willed, funny, and wise lady that would never give up her life with them without a fight.

Her life and her motto, “Faith in God means faith in his timing,” are daily inspirations to me.

I recently sent a donation to my friend Brianne in Arizona who is registered to participate in her third Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk to honor her mother who died of breast cancer over a year ago. In her fundraising letter, she said, “I hate cancer and I’m determined to do everything possible to stop it in its ugly little tracks.” (Click her to help her raise funds http://www.the3day.org/site/TR/2011/SanDiegoEvent2011?px=1053554&pg=personal&fr_id=1627)

Brianne pushing her mom in the 3-day walk

Her mom, Shelley, was diagnosed in 1997 and had a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and radiation.  For nearly eight weeks, she drove two-and-a-half hours to and from the hospital for her radiation treatments.

In 2004, the cancer came back in her bones.  Just two weeks into her radiation treatments, her husband was diagnosed with prostate cancer, so the two of them drove together from a tiny town called Koosharem, Utah to Provo for their radiation treatments.

She took a chemo pill for two years after that, which made her hands and feet turn black.  Still, the cancer moved into her spine, ribs, and neck.  She returned to the hospital for six more weeks of radiation, driving the long distance to and from the hospital every day, and somehow managing to maintain her full-time job in the cafeteria of an elementary school. A year later the cancer moved into her femur, all up her spine, and into her pelvis.

Later they found tumors in her kidneys and stomach, and she knew her fight was over.  She begged Brianne not to put “cancer” as her cause of death.  After such a hard fight, she could not let the cancer have the final say.

While I am happy to be five years out from my cancer diagnosis, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about it, either because a lingering chemotherapy side effect reminds me or a friend is either fighting it or has died from it. I also know that even though the odds are in my favor, there is no guarantee that it will never reappear in my body. I don’t think any cancer survivor ever feels completely sure that a recurrence won’t happen.

Cancer humbled and changed me in permanent ways, and while I have recovered and moved forward, I am always reminded of it.  While I am grateful to be a five-year survivor, I am no hero.  I just did what I had to do to save my life.

The real heroes are the ones who have died, and their families that supported them. While their physical bodies were beaten and battered to the point that they hardly recognized themselves, their spirits were strong, determined, and brave.

In the end, they did not “give up” like Connie thought and Shelly would not have “let cancer win” if it ended up as the cause of death on her death certificate. Their lives were given up for something much holier.  They gave their lives back to God.  That requires a rare kind of bravery, the kind rooted in the deepest humility.

They had faith in God and his timing.

They are the ones we need to remember every time we see a pink ribbon.

Personal, Uncategorized

A few things you’ve gotta try

Bloggers love lists.

So, I decided to join the list craze.

Here are five things you gotta try:

1.  pinterest.com

Pinterest!  :-)

Sara introduced me to this website this summer and my life has never been the same.

Okay, that’s an overstatement.

But, saying it’s my go-to place for great ideas is 100 percent right.

Really.

It’s a lot more fun than Facebook because you can search for what interests you.

Fair warning:  it is addictive.

I told my niece about it and she called me one night

and said her family stayed up until 2 a.m. looking at Pinterest boards.

“I’m never buying a magazine again!” she said.  “Pinterest is so much better.”

Need to discover some great entertaining ideas? Pinterest.

.

Want to find a great new outfit? Pinterest.

How about a holiday craft or ideas for decorating your home?  Pinterest.

 Imagine thumbing through a colorful magazine full of beautiful pictures to inspire you.

Instead of tearing out the pages

and pinning them on your bulletin board at home,

you pin them on virtual boards and give each board a theme.

Give it a try.

Just go there with a purpose and then get out

or you’ll be stuck forever in the pinterest land of cuteness.

Number 2 –A Visit to the Newseum

Sara and I went before she returned to college.

It’s probably because I’m a journalist at heart but it’s my favorite museum.

It’s expensive, but worth it.

If you want to see the impact of news in our lives, this is the place to visit.

Critics complain that it glorifies the press too much, but I love the stories behind the stories.

The 9-11 Exhibit is powerful, and moving.

I loved seeing Tim Russert’s office in all its messiness and character.

USA Today photo

It’s worth a trip.  If you’re clever and thrifty, you can go one day,

then hand off your ticket to your friend for the next day and split the cost.

(Each ticket is a two-day pass but I doubt anybody spends two entire days there.)

Wear your professional clothes for your live shot in front of the Capitol!

3. The Beach in October.

The locals at the Outer Banks say it’s their best kept secret.  October is delightful at the beach.

The hurricanes have settled down.  Tourists have gone home.  Kids are back in school.

And the beach is tranquil, and the weather divine.

I went to the beach alone last fall to get some writing done.

I’d love to do it again.  And the bonus?  The snow cone shack is still open!

4. Modern Family

I don’t know what it is about this sitcom, but it is laugh-out-loud funny to me.

Gloria is my favorite character, and this clip cracks me up.

Check it out on ABC.

5. Feed the Hungry

It surprised me to find out how many people in our community need food.

My friend, Keary, helped organize a “snack pack” program at Clearview Elementary School

to send food home with children for the weekend.

They noticed that on Fridays, some of the children didn’t eat their lunches.

They saved their food and put it in their backpacks for the weekend.

Apparently this is a problem in many of the schools in the area.

According to the principal, thirty percent of the students at Clearview live in poverty.

The school counselor noticed that students were showing up to school on Mondays

having had only two meals over the weekend.

Their primary meals come from breakfast and lunch at the school.

Keary organized members of our church to donate food and assemble “snack packs”

to slip discreetly into their backpacks for the weekend.

Serve!

We also recently volunteered for the LINK food pantry run by a community of local churches.

http://linkagainsthunger.org/donate.html

I loved carrying bags of groceries into a family with five hungry children waiting on the porch,

all eager to see what food they’d been given to fill their empty cupboards.

Who knew we were surrounded by such need?

One afternoon when I came out of the public library,

there was a long line in front of the building and a police officer directing people.

I asked one of the women why they were waiting in line.

“Free food!” she said.

Here we are in one of the most affluent areas of the country,

and we have people starving.

We are probably one of the least hit areas of the country in terms of the recession.

Yet we have families in our communities without food.

If you can help, do it.

Don’t wait until Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Find a food pantry, a school, a family in need, and share your abundance.

Service Sign

These are just a few things I love.  Stay tuned.  I’m sure I’ll share more.

From the News

Worth Remembering

I have mixed feelings about blogging on the topic of the 10th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.  There is such a fine line between commemorating the nation’s resilience, loss of lives, and heroic responses and celebrating the success of the terrorists.

I thought I would write about where I was when I heard the news, how I ran to the school to bring my children home, how the busy skies around our house were silent when air travel halted. But every time I thought about rehashing all of it, I wondered about the point of those memories.

We’ve heard the words, “Never Forget” so many times but how can anyone who lived through it forget? It’s impossible.

One of the images stuck in my head is my burly  brick mason brother hearing the news at a construction  job site then later, sitting on a curb opening his metal lunchbox, and putting his head in his hands and sobbing.

We all have these kinds of images stored in our memories. We don’t need reminders about what it was like on that day, and all the days that followed.

I remember listening to President Bush address the nation, and crying through the entire speech. It was one of the most eloquent speeches I’ve ever heard.

So whether you like George Bush or “don’t love him” like my mom, I think his speech deserves remembering:

“In the normal course of events, Presidents come to this chamber to report on the state of the Union. Tonight, no such report is needed. It has already been delivered by the American people.

We have seen it in the courage of passengers, who rushed terrorists to save others on the ground — passengers like an exceptional man named Todd Beamer. And would you please help me to welcome his wife, Lisa Beamer, here tonight. We have seen the state of our Union in the endurance of rescuers, working past exhaustion. We’ve seen the unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers — in English, Hebrew, and Arabic. We have seen the decency of a loving and giving people who have made the grief of strangers their own. My fellow citizens, for the last nine days, the entire world has seen for itself the state of our Union — and it is strong.

Tonight we are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom. Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done. I thank the Congress for its leadership at such an important time. All of America was touched on the evening of the tragedy to see Republicans and Democrats joined together on the steps of this Capitol, singing “God Bless America.” And you did more than sing; you acted, by delivering 40 billion dollars to rebuild our communities and meet the needs of our military. Speaker Hastert, Minority Leader Gephardt, Majority Leader Daschle, and Senator Lott, I thank you for your friendship, for your leadership, and for your service to our country. And on behalf of the American people, I thank the world for its outpouring of support. America will never forget the sounds of our National Anthem playing at Buckingham Palace, on the streets of Paris, and at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

We will not forget South Korean children gathering to pray outside our embassy in Seoul, or the prayers of sympathy offered at a mosque in Cairo. We will not forget moments of silence and days of mourning in Australia and Africa and Latin America. Nor will we forget the citizens of 80 other nations who died with our own: dozens of Pakistanis; more than 130 Israelis; more than 250 citizens of India; men and women from El Salvador, Iran, Mexico, and Japan; and hundreds of British citizens. America has no truer friend than Great Britain. Once again, we are joined together in a great cause — so honored the British Prime Minister has crossed an ocean to show his unity with America. Thank you for coming, friend.

On September the 11th, enemies of freedom committed an act of war against our country. Americans have known wars — but for the past 136 years, they have been wars on foreign soil, except for one Sunday in 1941. Americans have known the casualties of war — but not at the center of a great city on a peaceful morning.  Americans have known surprise attacks — but never before on thousands of civilians. All of this was brought upon us in a single day — and night fell on a different world, a world where freedom itself is under attack.

After all that has just passed — all the lives taken, and all the possibilities and hopes that died with them — it is natural to wonder if America’s future is one of fear.  Some speak of an age of terror. I know there are struggles ahead, and dangers to face. But this country will define our times, not be defined by them. As long as the United States of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror; this will be an age of liberty, here and across the world.

Great harm has been done to us. We have suffered great loss. And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment. Freedom and fear are at war.  The advance of human freedom — the great achievement of our time, and the great hope of every time — now depends on us. Our nation, this generation will lift a dark threat of violence from our people and our future. We will rally the world to this cause by our efforts, by our courage. We will not tire, we will not falter, and we will not fail.

It is my hope that in the months and years ahead, life will return almost to normal.  We’ll go back to our lives and routines, and that is good.  Even grief recedes with time and grace. But our resolve must not pass. Each of us will remember what happened that day, and to whom it happened. We’ll remember the moment the news came — where we were and what we were doing. Some will remember an image of a fire, or a story of rescue. Some will carry memories of a face and a voice gone forever.

And I will carry this: It is the police shield of a man named George Howard, who died at the World Trade Center trying to save others. It was given to me by his mom, Arlene, as a proud memorial to her son. This is my reminder of lives that ended, and a task that does not end. I will not forget this wound to our country or those who inflicted it. I will not yield; I will not rest; I will not relent in waging this struggle for freedom and security for the American people. The course of this conflict is not known, yet its outcome is certain. Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is not neutral between them.

Fellow citizens, we’ll meet violence with patient justice — assured of the rightness of our cause, and confident of the victories to come. In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom, and may He watch over the United States of America. Thank you.”

To me, that is worth remembering.

Family, Uncategorized

The Closeness That Does You In

This essay was published in the Johns Hopkins Mass Ave Review many years ago. I’m posting a shortened version today because it’s the first day of school and in my current empty nest life, it still feels right.

Through the month of August, I listened to moms count down to the first day of school.  They anticipated glorious freedom.  But when I dropped off Annie for her first day of preschool, I felt an odd sense of loss that turned into a nagging worry over everything from whether I researched the school well enough to whether she would remember how to unhook her overalls to go to the bathroom.

When we pulled up to the “parent drop-off” curb, Miss Vivian and Miss Sandy greeted us.  Annie, my petite, blue-eyed blonde, climbed out of the van, confidently took Miss Sandy’s hand and walked away, never looking back.  She dragged her bright red Trinity Preschool book bag behind her until she disappeared through the door.

Since I experienced this separation with Sara, I felt like a seasoned mother.  I knew Annie’s day would be filled with coloring, playing, and mastering essential skills like cutting with small scissors.  Still I worried.

I followed the other vans out of the parking lot and headed to an aerobics class by myself for the first time in five years.  Before class started, I heard other moms talk about their newfound freedom.  One woman said, “this is payback time.”  She finally had plans to do her things instead of their things.

I politely smiled, but I didn’t share their feelings.  I missed my kids. For the rest of the morning, I wondered if I would ever relate to their feelings of emancipation.  I felt lonely.  While I watched the clock for “pick-up” time, I perused my old journals and came across one of my favorite lines from Anne Tyler’s “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant” when the character Pearl summarizes her family life, and says, “It’s the closeness that does you in.”  My closeness to Annie was doing me in. I felt the natural tension of that closeness during that brief separation.

While I only intended preschool as a way to help her grow, that tiny act of letting go tapped a fear in me that made me feel like I was losing a vital emotional and physical connection to her. On a smaller scale, it felt like when I turned away from my dad’s burial plot and went home without him. Our closeness to the people we love produces rich and complicated ties.

Before I became a mother, I trivialized “maternal instincts.” While I was pregnant with Sara I wondered how and when those powerful instincts would kick in.  When she was born I was so relieved to hear her healthy cry and know she was a perfectly formed infant, I forgot about how I was supposed to feel.  It was one of those brilliant moments when you’re so consumed by the reality of your experience that you can’t thing of anything else.  There was no vacancy in my mind or heart for anything except what was happening at that precise moment. An intense love completely enveloped me.  I felt like my heart surfaced and landed on top of my chest as I absorbed the reality that she was my child.

Some moments in life surprise us by knocking our props out from under us.  Having children did that to me.  When I held them for the first time I couldn’t comprehend what I had experienced.

I brought life into the world.

Beautiful baby photo from Pinterest

The miracle overwhelmed me.  I couldn’t believe these two very real, physical, living extensions of my husband, God, and me.

By some grand design they ended up in my arms as these glorious eternal spirits in human forms that I could touch, love, and nurture.

Few moments in life pull our hearts right up out of us like having children. But when they do, they make us feel like the Velveteen Rabbit in the classic children’s book by Margery Williams.  The book, “The Velveteen Rabbit or How Toys Become Real, is a timeless story of a stuffed rabbit who wanted to know what it would be like to be real.

As much as we try to control our lives and feelings, some rare and indescribable experiences catch us by complete surprise with their strength and power.

They are the experiences that make us real.

On some level, we all want to be like the rabbit and know how it “real” feels, but we don’t want any pain in the process. We can’t experience intense love without a little pain because love like everything else has a natural ebb and flow.  If we give everything to someone or something, we have to accept the inevitable pain that will come when there is separation, even if the distance is something as small and innocent as preschool.

In the end, my ambivalence about leaving Annie for a few hours of preschool amounted to nothing more than a miniature lesson of my reality.  She is one of the people in my life that make me real.  Just as I can’t short-circuit my heart and worry less about her, I can’t expect to find a short-cut through the other more painful parts of life either, grieving a bigger loss.  Both experiences take sure-fire aim at your heart and there is no armor to protect you from how it feels.  If you believe the Velveteen Rabbit, there is no other way to become real, and once that happens, we have to brace ourselves for a closeness that can do us in.