Friday, December 28, 2007

The Velveteen Rabbit

I was annoyed by the "three-minute bedtime" version of the Velveteen Rabbit, which we purchased in a desperate moment at an airport a few years ago so that we'd have entertainment for our kids on a long flight. For Christmas this year, my children received the authentic, original version, which thrilled me--classic literature with pictures. Wonderful.

Sadly, I'd forgotten the narrative twist that occurs when, after the Boy's bout with Scarlet Fever, the doctor exclaims when looking at the Bunny: "Why, it's a mass of scarlet fever germs! --Burn it at once. What? Nonsense! Get him a new one. He mustn't have it any more!"

And what follows: "The little Rabbit was put into a a sack with the old picture-books and a lot of rubbish, and carried out to the end of the garden behind the fowl-house. That was a fine place to make a bonfire...."

I'm thinking Margery William's own children must not have had their own "Real" stuffed animals, because if they did they might have exhibited a reaction similar to my children's, who each have their own tattered, much-loved, Puppies.

The fact that a fairy princess rescues Bunny from the bonfire pile did little to relieve the trauma of picturing the cremation of their own precious Puppies. The three year old had tears streaming down her face mid-story, and after the "happy" ending, my five-year-old laid on the couch with her head in my lap and sobbed, frequently asking, "You'll never burn my puppy, will you?"

Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Oh, no, Mom! It's made in China!"

It's nice to know that some things I teach my kids about are actually making an impact. I've been thinking about ethical consumerism quite a bit this fall with the holidays coming up. I've changed my chocolate buying habits to exclusively fair trade chocolates, and I've limited white sugar consumption (check this link out). I've also been harping on the problems of lead paint in children's toys, not to mention the uncovering of many many sweatshops in China (run by contractors for our toy god, Mattel) where human rights are trampled on and pregnant workers are exposed to toxic levels of lead in the paint they use to make the toys. Because we have a one-year-old at our home every week, I've been telling the girls to be careful about what Josh puts in his mouth, since only God knows if and in what instances Mattel can be trusted.

Well something sunk in. The other day I heard Una shriek from the hallway where she and her sister were playing with a Nativity set (not Mattel's). "Mom! The angel's wing is broken off. Josh must have eaten it. AND IT'S MADE IN CHINA and FULL OF LEAD PAINT!"

"Oh no!" Evvy, the three year old, chimed in.
I knew for a fact that Josh hadn't bit off the angel wings. They were factory defects, breaking within just a few minutes of play in almost the exact same spot on each wing. And we didn't actually know if these toys were made in China or any place that might use lead paint. But Evvy clearly did not believe me when I explained this. As she folded her hands under her chin, she announced, "I'm going to pray for Josh." She then uttered a half-intelligible prayer, "Lord, please... Josh... paint... China.. thank you. Amen." She lifted her head and smiled.
This afternoon, Una and I were wrapping Christmas ornaments to give as gifts to friends and I turned one over and saw the little "made in China" sticker on the back of one. Darn, I'd missed that when we bought it at the store. "It's made in China," I told Una, who became more distressed than I expected. "OH NO. MADE IN CHINA?? MADE IN CHINA??? ON NO. There's probably lead paint in there."
All this is to say, it's nice when you realize your kids have been listening to you, even if the message they regurgitate is slightly lacking in balance. And really, what a sincere prayer for social justice scripted by Evvy: "Lord...paint...China. Thank you. Amen."

Monday, December 17, 2007

Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Politics of Address

It's the one time of year that I sit down to address a hundred Christmas letters to friends, relatives and acquaintances, and every time I do it I agonize over the greeting and the sign-off. I've received enough greeting cards and invitations in my life to be thoroughly disgusted with the form of address to our family that seems to ignore the fact that I am a part of it. "Mrs. Mark Weber" has a way of pissing me off, unmatched by many things. But a lot of women in my generation identify with feelings of anger over their identity being subsumed under their husbands' names, and I'm getting fewer and fewer cards like that anymore. The more subtle and challenging politics of address come, for me, in the ordering of names at, say, the opening of our Christmas letter. "Dear Mike, Susan, and kids" is the traditional route, not "Dear Susan, Mike and kids," but I'm finding myself compelled to embrace a sort of affirmative action when it comes to naming females in the families.

But I pause with each new couple. Is the re-ordering of their family names something they'll notice? And depending on their age, socio-economic status, religious and political persuasions, etc, is this reordering something they'll be offended by? Additionally, I suspect everyone getting our Christmas card will know that I am the main composer and signer-offer on it, that it's the woman in the Weber family making these executive decisions on how to order names. Will they, therefore, perceive these address decisions as the subversion I intend them to be? I prefer it not be so noticeable, and prefer to subtly sneak my female-affirming greeting into their lives, catch one of those mothers or wives off-guard with the site of her name first leaping off the line of greeting in our Christmas letter. How refreshing, I imagine.

At the same time I want affirmative action in these lines of greetings, I am also an egalitarian, and I"m conflicted by the desire to make up for centuries of female-identity-subsumed-under-male-identity (by listing female names first consistently) with a desire for fairness, to affirm the importance of both the sexes in the present.

So it turns out, none of my lines of greeting take the same format. If I address the family as "Susan, Mike and kids" I might find myself signing off with "Mark, Heather, and kids," and if I'm scared of the reaction of a rather patriarchal family in South Dakota (they might write me off b/c I'm a feminist??), then I might just go the traditional route, cringing all the while. This makes for a painstaking Christmas Card mailing, pausing with each recipient, wondering how best to acknowledge them this Christmas.

The possibility that no one will either notice nor care how I acknowledge them has also occurred to me. This is both good and bad news.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Holy Family Faberge-Style Egg

This advertisement is funnier if you can imagine it being spoken by a deep male voice, very stiff, very paced.

"And for your gift of 25 dollars a month or 250 dollars one time, [Paul and Jan would] like to send this beautiful Holy Family Faberge-Style Egg, decorated with sparkling jewel-like emblems. This fabergĂ©-style egg is a special work of art you’ll want to display year round. Inside is the Holy Family gathered around the greatest miracle of all: the Christ child, who would become the savior of the world. Send your love gift to TBN at post office box...."

Covert Christian TV Fundraising

I won't comment yet. But here's what I watched during an illness-induced moment of weakness today, as I lay on the couch recovering from a head cold.

I flip on TBN to the Paula White show. I've never seen her before. She looks about thirty, thin, blonde, made up. The shows almost over and she's wrapping up a few main points from, presumably, her show's topic today....

"...And then the third key is this: Give thanks to him and bless his name. To be thankful means 'to hold out the hand and to throw, especially to revere or worship with extended hands.' Someone once said, 'Paula, why do you lift your hands when you worship?'

If someone came and held you up at gunpoint, and the first thing you would do is you lift your hands. What are you saying? I surrender. So worship--which I’m going to teach you in a program real soon--worship is this: 'God, this isn’t about me.' It’s a surrendered life. 'I surrender. You are lord. You’re lord over my life. I extend my hands to you to say I live a surrendered life. This isn’t about Paula. This is about you.' And so it says to be thankful and bless [here the text from Psalm 100:4 appears overlaying a field of wheat]. 'Bless' means 'to kneel as an act of adoration.' So not only do we extend up, but we also get down, we kneel, saying, 'God I understand that you are Lord over my life. And I kneel as an act of adoration, reverence and respect for who you are.'

God wants to show up in your life. I challenge you right now. Don’t miss out on the spiritual possibilities that God wants to give to you. There is a passage that you have right now, a portal to enter into his gates, into his portal and to receive the presence of God in a very profound way. But you have to do it this way: You have to bring him a thanks offering. It’s the first thing.
What do you mean Paula? [one might ask] Just like what I taught: What is the value of God in your life? Your sacrifice, YOUR sacrifice validates his value. Call that toll free number right now. Get up and go to the phone and say, 'God I want to honor you, I want to worship you. I want to denote the worthiness of your value in my life by extending my hand with a sacrifice.' And maybe it’s simply to say, 'Thank you God for the unexpected blessing.' Maybe it’s a vow for something you’re believing God for. Or maybe it’s simply to honor and recognize who God is in your life. Whatever the reason, whatever the motive, it’s the act of worship that says 'God, because of who you are, I can’t help but to sacrifice, to exchange what I call valuable for something else: your presence in my life.'

During this thanksgiving season, have an attitude of gratitude...

[At this the visual of Paula is lost. Her voice blares out over a still frame of a cornucopia filled with pumpkins, squash, apples and corn. “Honor God with a Special Thanksgiving Offering!” reads the headline at the top of the screen. Below that viewers are instructed to “include your praise report and a list of 5 things you are thankful for.”]

...and not only bring an offering to the Lord, but why don’t you write down 2 or 3, maybe 4 or 5 things you are grateful for. I promise you your perception’s going to change. As you call that number, as you go to the website, or write the p.o. box, and you extend your hand with a valuable sacrifice, a seed that magnifies who God is in your life, also write down those things, or tell that person [on the phone] what you’re grateful for. It is imperative. I believe the best is yet to come in your life. And as you do it God’s way, expect God-results."

In case Paula's message hasn't hit home yet, a deep male-announcer voice speaks as the camera pans over a thanksgiving table, feast laid out, glassware and dishes awaiting food:

"The thanksgiving season is more than turkey and dressing, family and friends. In psalm 100, we are commanded to enter his gates, ...

[the image now: double doors opening in a stone archway. Beyond the doors is a great light]

...or divine presence, with thanksgiving and into his courts with praise, to be thankful unto him and bless and honor his name.

[Image: a written list of the ‘commandments’ overlay the darkness on the viewers' side of the double doors: “1. Enter His gates with thanksgiving; 2: Into his courts with praise; 3: Be thankful unto him and bless his name."]

. . .There are two simple steps you can take. . .

[Image: a bleach-blonde viewer with perm-curly hair in her twenties, with frosted blue eyeshadow, sits on her living room sofa and smiles at the camera. Underneath her are the words “A Spirit of Thanksgiving”. Quickly the image changes to an African-American (?) couple who are nestling into one another, looking VERY thankful. The man is kissing the woman's cheek and wraps his arms around her shoulders as they both look up and smile at the camera]

. . .to come before God with a spirit of thanksgiving. [1] Give the Lord a special thanksgiving offering today as an act of gratitude for the things he has done and will do in your life by calling toll-free, writing, or visiting on-line and sowing into God’s kingdom through the worldwide outreach of Paula White ministries. 2) write down five things you are thankful for and include them when you write. In appreciation for your best thanksgiving offering unto God, Paula will send you her newest teaching series, “An Attitude of Gratitude,” featuring five messages on your choice of CD or DVD. Enter through his gates of thanksgiving this year through a life of greater blessing through an ‘Attitude of Gratitude.’

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Mom's Group

This morning I went to a woman's/mom's group at a church in town. They have a nice set up: child care for a suggested donation of $2; the moms go to their own room, where they help themselves to coffee, pastries and fresh fruit. Each week, guest speakers pontificate on the theme for that week. Today it was "Transitions in Motherhood." Someone with a microphone in hand elaborated on the specifics of the topic: entering the workforce after having children. After the speakers talked, each table of women discussed the topical questions for the morning.

I left depressed. "That was hard," I told Kate afterwards. Kate attends twice per month. "I don't know how you do that." The odd thing was I couldn't articulate fully what teh problem was. It's not like anyone said one specific thing that knocked the wind out of me. It was more the sum of little things expressed that helped to construct the big picture for me--a picture of the mindset of many of these women in regard to motherhood, marriage and friendship with God.

I've learned, for instance, that the new hip thing to be these days is "Real." "Being Real" is the end game, from the way the first speaker talked about it. "I wish I could get up here and say I'm perfect and I've got all my issues straightened out, but I don't," she confessed. "I'm far from perfect!" She laughed and smiled and ended her talk soon after that, leaving us with the impression that simply saying you're having a hard time in life is tantamount to dealing with it and getting somewhere. Later, when a question from an audience member was directed at her [How do you overcome what others will think of you? How do you start beign real?], the speaker crossed her arms over her chest defensively and shrugged. I don't know, she said. I guess I just realized that my friends still liked me even when I went through hard times.

Some of the women at our discussion table expressed appreciation for people who could "be real and say 'I struggle with that, too.'" But I wonder if politely saying, "I struggle with that" is the same thing as Being Real. Saying "I struggle with that" is easy for me and doesn't involve a lot of emotional risk. What's hard (and humbling) is calling Kate up when I'm about to start sobbing from whiny children, and tell her I can't handle it. When I think of Being Real, I think of prayer times I've allowed myself to speak, uncensored, and cry if I needed to. Scream if I needed to. But that brings up the issue of prayer requests at this mom's group, which are written down at the end of our table's discussion and then emailed to, presumably, all forty women at the meeting. A women at my table was having trouble with her stepchildren questioning her authority. Another has a child with a severe developmental problem. Another "needs wisdom" on how to confront her parents. We don't, of course, talk about any of those things other than to get the story straight in order to write it down. The mother with the child with the developmental problem only alludes to her concern over the cost of diagnostic testing and the fact that she is worried over her son.

What's also in the water at this church is the idea that wives are called to aid/abet/assist their husbands in whatever they so desire. If husband wants to start a restaurant, she should not argue. If husband wants to move to Kenya, she should say "Okay, honey. What should I pack first." The oft-quoted-from text this morning was the book "Created to Be His Helpmeet," which gives wives handy profiles of the three main types of husbands and how one should tailor her responses based on the kind of husband she has. As one discussion group member put it, "If I say that it'll make him mad. So I better not say it."

What some of my discussion group also found inspiring was the idea of a "Priorities Umbrella System." It looks like this. "My relationship with God comes first. THen my marriage. My relationship with God is like an umbrella that covers my marriage and my marriage is the umbrella that covers my children." "How do we put our marriage (i.e. our husbands) first?" one of the questions asked. Our discussion facilitator described how it's hard for her to be constantly thinking about showing more love to her husband than the children. "He comes home and I'm cutting the kids' food and getting the drinks at dinner time and [she enacts looking over her shoulder] i'm like, 'how was your day?' So then my husband feels left out and asks when he gets to have time with me...." In this scene she paints, her husband appears entirely inactive. He is not helping cut chicken or green beans for the children. It's almost as if it's completley her job to figure out how to balance everything, make the kids disapear for a little while so she can be with the hubby. In the picture she paints he comes off in a bad light, a little spoiled, with little agency other than to whine, yet getting dinner and his wife handed to him on a silver platter.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Musing on Church Growth Strategies

I keep wondering what would happen if the flyer (see "Church Flyer," posted 9/28) advertised Jesus in the same way it advertised the pastor. What would it say?


I'm not advocating this as an effective method for getting people in your door for church. If anything, I think the new church in town will get more people in the door with the football angle. Althought I doubt they will be a very desperate demographic and it seems like, in the Bible anyway, the desperate people were the ones who got healed the most. Not that Jesus isn't madly in love with the football fans.

I was talking to a pastor recently about different church growth strategies. His friend has a church where people get healed all the time. You'd think that would be an effective church growth strategy--cancer cured in a church service?? But he says his friend's church is not "seeker friendly." The pastor of that church readily admits people walk in and walk out because, along with the healings are all these other odd-looking things happenign in the church, like bodies splayed out along the aisles in worship before the service even starts, and, I imagine, people whooping and hollering.

Still, I can't help but believe that the power of the Gospel could speak for itself. Wouldn't healings at the mall, at Wal-Mart, at the park be sufficient introduction to Jesus? Wouldn't that be better than door prizes and gimmicky slogans for getting people into church?

Is the only reason we're working so hard on church growth strategies because we've lost the power of the gospel? Whatever power those first century church Christians had we've seen only glimpses of. But wherever the glimpses are in the world, those are the places church programs and slogans become irrelevant because the Gospel is speaking for itself.

The other thing is the Church is currently operating on such a top-down model: get people to church, then introduce them to Jesus. In the old days, people met Jesus and then they were the church.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Gender and Design

Have you ever experienced God in spite of stupid preaching?

I visited a "prayer center" over the weekend that I'd heard a lot about. Apparently, in the year it's been running, they've seen forty-some miracles--healings, I presume. The prayer center wasn't an actual church, but a place staffed by multiple denominations where prayer and worship take place 24/7. On Saturday nights, they have a service, sort of. This is what I went to. I was not disappointed. I could feel God's presence during the music time, felt like I could almost go to sleep--not from boredom, but from this sweet feeling that God was very close, almost like I was wearing him as a jacket zipped snug across my chest. When the music ended I wanted to lay myself out on the floor and just sit with that feeling I was having.

I tried to keep my eyes open, though, for the guy who was speaking that night. His topic was somethign about beign dependent on God and how our culture fosters independence, which seems, in a sense, counterintuitive to the idea of following Christ and trusting him to meet our needs. I don't think this dude was in any way advocating blowing all your rent money on an LCD screen TV because Jesus can take care of the rent. Rather, his focus was on the way our attitudes are shaped toward independence, without acknowledgement of God's ability to care for us. We were designed for dependence, he said.

Then he tried to give an illustration to show how badly things go when we are not fitting our intended design. He said he hopes his daughters will continue to live with him until the day they are married. Because God designed for their husbands to meet all their needs. What's the point of them moving out and learning all this independence they'll "have to undo" once they get married? Wouldn't that be counterintuitive to send them out in the world to be somethign they're not designed to be?

What did he even mean? Here are the things I can think of that you learn when you live on your own: balancing a checkbook, grocery shopping, taking out trash, doing laundry, cooking.

Are these things he means will be good for a woman to unlearn when she gets married? As far as I know, with the exception of balancing the checkbook and taking out trash, these are all the stereotypical roles a woman will take on during marriage--domestic work, regardless of whether she has a job outside the home as well.

Not that I am in any way advocating these stereotypes, but does he expect them to sit on their asses and eat bon bons or something? These chivalrous metaphors of marriage people subscribe to seem to run away from them at times. The metaphor might serve some need to make romantic sense of the world, but when they start talking about what it looks like practically (laundry, trash, groceries) it doesn't make any sense. It doesn't serve them even in the way they think it does.

"Do you guys get me?" He asked

I shook my head no.

The guy a few rows in front of me nodded his head vehemently yes.

With some relief, what I concluded after my visit was: God is truly alive and well in the Midwest. Hence, the miracles, his sweet presence, and the peace I felt.

Additionally, I concluded: Dear God, he is in THE MIDWEST, working his way through in spite of stupid stupid cultural paradigms.


My friend Kate and I were talking about the flyer today.

She said she thinks there's this move away from Jesus-centered evangelism toward a more Tony Robbins/Deepak Chopra rules-to-live-by approach that may be based on biblical principles.

For example, she said, there's this new guy who's writing all sorts of books. She hadn't read them, but none of them appeared to be overtly Jesus-centered.

I knew exactly who she meant. I saw him on TBN (yes, I'm guilty of watching, only because I want to know what's going on in Christian-TV land) last week for the very first time. I've heard tons about this guy. He's got a mega church in the south, a friendly drawl and a wide-mouthed smile that doesn't go away when he talks. When I saw him he was preaching to what appeared to be a stadium full of happy-looking couples. He was talking about relationships.

He said it's important to get to know the people in our lives. What makes them tick? What makes them upset, angry? What do they need in order to live a peaceful existence? And what can we do to help them achieve that?

For instance, I told Kate, he said 'men,' [wink wink], 'you know that a certain time of the month for our sensitive. That's not the time to be making big decisions....' not the time to have conversations about important issues, etc etc."

("Because we don't have a brain?" Kate asked.)

Mr. Smiley Preacher was full of more examples of how we can get along and have peace with the people in our lives. His own life is a virutal handbook of fallenness and redemption. 1) He used to sort of ignore his kids when they'd come in his office while he works. Now he knows how important it is to give him his full attention for two minutes, to let them know he cares. 2)Because he works at home, his wife loves to join him for lunch. But on those days when he was working on his sermons, he'd be so engrossed that he could hardly engage with her in conversation. He'd nod, say 'yeah yeah' but not get too involved. One day he had an epiphany that that wasn't "fair" to his wife. He apologized. And now, **drumroll please** she doesn't eat lunch with him on those days he's working on the sermon. He never asked her not to. She just stopped coming in because she understands and respects him. And we can show respect to our own spouses in similar ways. When your spouse comes home from a long day at work, that's not the proper time to tell them that the toilet broke today or the hamster died or whatever.

We should also pay attention to the fact that what our SPOUSE needs to unwind is not what we need to unwind. "Sometimes i just tell V. to take a little trip to the mall. And when she comes back, she's a new person!"

To be fair, I only heard about half an hour of this, but it all seems reasonably Jesus-free, not to mention some of it midly co-dependent.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Church Flyer

I got a flyer in the mail last week from a new church in town. I've met the pastor and his wife. They seem normal.

The thing that struck me about their flyer is that you almost couldn't tell it was for a church. Sure it did say "Join us for the grand opening at Coralville's Newest church", but the front of the flyer had a guy in an Iowa Hawkeyes sweatshirt holding a football, next to the question, "Who is this champion coach?"

On the flip side was a little bio of the pastor, next to his grinning mug shot: "Meet a guy who will bring out the 'champion' in you. Someone who has proven not all champions eat their wheaties. Rather there is a Champion in us all! Joe Smith* is a 9 time coach of the year with over 700 career wins and 35 championshis. This former principal is a 23 year school veteran who has coached football, basketball, and baseball. He is a Disney educator of the year finalist, and a 3 time Who's Who Among American Teachers. Joe Smith is considered by many to be a master communicator and motivator who helps deal with real life issues and questions head-on. He is encouraging, funny, and passionate about providing inspiration for daily living."

Beneath Joe Smith's bio was a picture of the worship pastors, next to the heading, "What to expect at NEW CHURCH*:" with the following bulleted answers:

*CASUAL, laid back atmosphere;
*WORSHIP/MUSIC by popular artist Bill Brown*;
*EXCITING ADVENTURES for KIDS at Iowa Children's Museum, nursery-6th grade;
*A RELEVANT message that makes sense and applies to YOUR life;
*People who are ACTUALLY HAVING FUN--Bordedom Factor Zero!"

There is too much to say about this ad. I will just jump in on a small point and come back later. Here's the thing: I think people will come. People love the Iowa Hawkeyes around here. I bet people will go to church if they think it has something to do with football. Also, the Children's Museum is a huge and expensive experience that many families (if they don't already have a membership) would love to do for free. The "artist Bill Brown" leading worship is sure to be a draw as well, seeing that he's "popular."

Joe Smith has a great bio. It's the kind of thing people in Iowa City flock to--resumes, achievements. He's got instant respect, and lucky for him since he's starting a church and wants people to come (and lots of people dont' go to church). But I can't help hating the fact that this all feels so gimmicky and false. I dont' doubt for a second the sincerity of the hearts of these people, but their strategies sadden me.

Red flags go up when you have to work this hard for people to get to church. Red flags when you have to say in your flyer that people "ACTUALLY HAVE FUN" at your church. And if anyone tells me straight up, "Boredom Factor Zero," I'm willing to bet 100$ the Boredom Factor is off the charts.

The whole thing sounds club-ish, scouts-ish, as well as corporate. I hate clubs, and I hate companies that try to sell themselves on their "authentic," "fun," and "personal" streaks. If you have to sell yourself, then that doesn't make it authentic, fun, or personal.

I understand church growth issues. I'm sure this pastor has some limited funding from the mothership (his church's denominational headquarters). The funding will last so many months. When it stops, he better have a congregation of some sort so he can feed his kids, as well as feed the other hungry people in the community, pay rent the theater and the children's museum, pay for advertisements, sound equipment, etc, etc, etc. And how one gets warm bodies in the door of your new church when you dont' know anyone else in town is you advertise. You get a couple shots through the USPS with your limited budget and you have to take your best--say what you need in order to get those people through the door. And then, after you tell them about Jesus, maybe some of them will stick around.

This doesn't make it any easier.

*not his real name

When I Say It's "Always the Boys",

(see previous post), I am merely reporting fact. The boys in Una's class have, so far, been the violent ones. I sure hope nobody takes this as evidence of an innate difference between girls and boys. That would be unfair, especially since girls are taught to coo at plastic baby dolls and do the cradle-hold while boys are handed water guns and light sabers and video games that are won through physical prowess.

Sometimes I think we're just plain stupid. We turn around after handing out light sabers and say, "Golly, gee, boys are so aggressive"

There's a boy in Una's class, M. The only way he knows how to interact is physical. Give him a car, he'll pound it on a kid's forehead. Smile at him, he'll start running after you, clobber on the shoulder if he can catch up. For no apparent reason, M smashed Una's face into the drinking fountain while she was getting a drink--the first day of school.

The worst part about his behavior is that it causes people not to like him. Even grown ups who should know better. Every other parent dropping their kindergartener off seems annoyed at M's behavior, and therefore annoyed at M. And there are few kind words spoken in his direction. I was one of those parents the first couple weeks, and then I wondered who was going to love this kid? Who was goign to love him out of his crazy, mixed-up, ways of relating. If he kept it up, he'd get more ostracized, and even less capable of connecting with the rest of the world.

I decided to be nice when he walked up to the line the other morning. And not just nice--but engaged. "Hey James," I said, as if he were my favorite kid. "How are you?" All the other parents stared at me.

M stared at me. Then he stopped walking and smiled. He turned around so I could see his backpack imprinted with the image of Lightening McQueen. "Cars," he told me and smiled.

"Cars. Very cool," I said back.

He went to stand in the end of the line, and that day, I don't think he punched or grabbed anyone while waiting for the bell.

More on Kindergarten Relationships (and meditations on Grown Up Relationships)

I told J's parents about the conversation (see previous post) at the school carnival. I was in line behind them with the kids, who were waiting for five minutes on a big bouncer the school rented for the event. J's parents are both educators in our community, at different schools. His dad laughs when I tell the story, though underneath the laugh I think I hear a mild groan.

My first encounter with J is at school the following week. I join Una and her class at lunch time in the cafeteria and J sits across the table from us, with his carton of chocolate milk and hot lunch tray. He makes funny faces and funny noises and Una laughs like crazy. When J finishes his milk, he pounds the container with his fists and yells, "DIE! DIE! DIE!" Una, of course, thinks this is hilarious and cannot stop laughing.

That night at the school's open house, I tell J's mother about his words to the milk carton. "Sometimes I wish I could be a fly on the wall," she confesses. "Other times, I'm glad I'm not."

It concerns me that the boys in Una's class are so aggressive. She's been hit a number of times. Always the boys are the perpetrators of these crimes, and usually the same handful of boys, who aren't singling Una out for any special bullying. They hit all the kids.

K hit her the other day for not playing a game with him at the playground. "I told him, 'I dont' play games with people who hit me. So I'm not going to play with you.'"

I am dumbfounded when she tells me her declaration to K. Really, my child has boundaries? If it were me, well, when it was me, some 20 years ago, all I wanted was for someone to like me. Of course I was going to play dodge ball if a boy asked me to play, even if I had to drag my feet, even if I ended up getting slammed in the face with the ball and a bloody nose and the boy never stopped to see if I was okay. Of course I would play.

Who is my child and where did she get this self-esteem?

In my early twenties even, when the "cool" friends were having an unhealthy effect on me, I could not disengage from them. I wanted them to like me. It took me getting real unhealthy before I was able to change my ways.

Jesus said to pray for those who persecute us. To love our enemies. I used to think that the final word on an unhealthy relationship was to avoid the unhealthy person at all costs. I've learned that may be necessary when I'm in self-preservation mode, i.e., when I lack the strength to deal with an emotionally unstable person. But once I get some strength, fill up on what God has for me, I am beginning to see he's calling me to a more active form of love. Not just theoretical love from a distance. Which is why I tell Una it's okay not to play with kids if their gonna be mean, but we can still be kind to them in other ways. Like, she can offer them the place in front of her in the line to the drinking fountain. She can help them carry their library books.

As I'm dishing out this advice, my anxiety rises. I'm calling myself to a higher standard by telling her this. I know pro-active loving of my enemies sure doesn't come naturally or easy for me.

I was encouraged by my daughter though. At the open house last week, her teacher said, "Una was real sweet when K. apologized. She said, 'I forgive you.' " In all her years of teaching, Mrs. C. said she'd never heard a kindergartener forgive before.

Conversation about Love with the Five-Year-Old Over Dinner

Una, the five year old, announces her new best friend is J.: "I want to marry him!"

"You want to marry him? What about Titus?"

"Well, I love titus too. I love both of them. But you know who I love the best? J.!!!!

"Really, we'll what's he like?"

"Well, he likes to play crazy games like bat girl and bat boy."

"Oh yeah, what's that?"

"It's superheros."

"Do you play with him?"

"Sometimes. He's my best friend. I love him best of all."

"And does he feel that way too. Does he like you a whole lot?"

"Well, I told him he's my best friend and he doesn't care." She shrugs.

"He said that? Wait--what did he say when you told him you liked him?"

"He just said he doesn't care." She shrugs and waves her arm as if annoyed with my question.

"Oh really? Well, honey, maybe you should find a different best friend? Usually best friends BOTH care about each other."

"But I LOVE HIM!" She begins to cry, indignant at the idea of withdrawing her love from J.

"Well, you can love him." I backtrack. "You can totally love him."

"I can?"

"In fact, Jesus says we should love people even if they don't love us, and you know, sometimes, it's true, that if we show love to people then they might love us back." This is not goign how I hoped. It sounds as if I'm proponing manipulation, when in fact I only mean that sometimes love changes people, though there aren't any guarantees.

"They do?" She hops down from the table, wipes her hands on a dishtowel and looks at me.

"Yeah, sometimes."

"Well, I"m gonna be like that." She walks out of the kitchen.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A Small-Town Girl's Perspective

I told my friend Michelle about dance class last night and she nodded her head knowingly. She grew up in a small Iowa town about thirty miles from West Liberty.

"I wasn't sure if she was serious," I told Michelle, about the mother I overheard saying she would beat her daughter.

"Of course not," Michelle shook her head. According to her, it's all just talk with those sorts of moms. She said she knows them, grew up with those kinds of moms. That's how they know to parent. She herself is very kind to her children, chuckling with her son in a non-judgmental way when he comes looking for a third or fourth piece of gum after swallowing the others at the school carnival last week.

Michelle says she can probably guess how the hard-talking dance Mom looked. I described her: "She had permed, frosted hair that was short on top and came out in a triangle shape around her face."

"There you go. There you go," said Michelle, as if this explained everything. She added, "And I bet she had white canvas shoes."

Apparently, this sort of parenting occurs in a particular subculture of the Midwest. In the rural, less literate parts of Iowa, for sure. Of course there are exceptions to the stereotype, but the mean-talking seems to go along with particular mannerisms, fashion, educational achievement, and economic status.

Dance Class and Parents Who Beat Their Kids

Una (the five year old) just started dance classes in West Liberty last week. West Liberty is a town of about 3500 in southeastern Iowa. It is a huge Latino immigrant hotspot, with about 40% of the community having Mexican roots. The town boasts a single main street with two or three Mexican restaurants, a drug store, and an old movie theater that smells inside like musty gym socks. The New Strand plays one movie per week Friday through Sunday nights for about $2.50 and kids five and up crowd the front rows of the theater and giggle and throw popcorn while their parents sit further back, on some sort of date.

The dance classes are offered by a local pastor's wife who happens to be a good friend of my friend Kate, who went to the dance instructor's church many years ago. The dance classes are low-key for five year olds, without a lot of emphasis on image like there is in the Iowa City dance studios (pink ballet shoes, black leotard, white tights, hair in a bun), and it's cheap, making the 20 minute drive down interstate 80 worth it.

Liberty Dance Studio is downtown, a block north of the main street, in an old storefront. It, too, smells like musty gym socks, but is painted brightly yellow to distract one's senses. Last week we got to the studio a few minutes after Una's class had started. She ran through the door in the yellow lobby to the dance floor, where Cindy (the dance instructor) was sitting cross-legged in a circle with the other 4 and 5 year olds. I plopped myself down in a white plastic lawn chair next to Kate in the lobby, which I could do only because she gave up her chair and sat on the floor next to her three month old, Claire, who sat curled up in a carseat. The lobby was packed with chattering mothers and siblings of the dancers. The children ranged in age from newborn to eight years old and they created their own kind of chatter.

I was almost instantly distracted by a young caucasion mother, early twenties, who grabbed her two year old by the shoulders, picked him up and plunked him in a chair while saying "YOU SIT HERE AND DON'T MOVE." Her tone sounded affected, liek I wasn't sure if she was really angry or just acting like it to get results with her toddler. I raised my eyebrows and looked at Kate, who raised hers back.

"Wow," I said quietly.

"Yeah. It was like this last week. The mothers here, they all talk the same way. Did you hear that?--" she paused so I could pick something out of the din of the parents and children.


"'Turd'. They call their kids 'little turd'. I sat through half an hour of turd name-calling last week." She laughed the way you do at something absurd.

We decided to leave to take Claire on a walk through the neighborhood, but this week I determined to come prepared to document conversations between parents and kids, if I could hear them in all that racket. I packed a pen and notepad in my purse.

Yesterday was part of "observation" week, where Cindy leaves the blinds up in the windows separating the lobby from the dance studio. So most of the parents were crowded around the windows watchign their kids. I found an empty chair next to two older mothers, maybe mid thirties or early forties, furthest from the windows. Before I could even get out my notepad I vaguely picked up that a girl, who looked about 8 years old, was standing in front of me, askign one of the older mothers for something.

"TAKE YOUR SISTER AND GIT ONE." The mother glared at the little girl and said this in an almost-yell. "I am gonna beat you when we get home."

I had the same feelign as the week before, of not being sure the mother was really angry. How could she be? The 8 year old hadn't misbehaved as far as I could tell. A few minutes later the girl and her little sister returned with long fuzzy thigns that looked like pipe cleaners with feathery ends.

"What are those?" I asked her.

"They'are pens--that can bend." And with that she began wrapping pens-that-bend around her wrists and her ankles and wandered off to sit with some kids.

A few minutes later she was back asking her mother if she could go somewhere.

"Okay. Go outside. Buzz off....[quietly] I dont' wanna beat you in front of everyone."

The woman the mother was talking to chimed in,"just like her father," with a cluck of her tongue, about the girl, I presumed.

"Ornery," the mother agreed.

The little girl looked from one woman to another and quipped in perhaps the only suitable and sane response an 8 year old girl could give her mother who was threatening to beat her over pipe cleaner pens: "How rude." She sighed and left.

I had reflected to Kate on our walk the week before, "What's the difference between them and us? Is it education? That's the way they were raised and so that's how they raise their kids and they don't know any better?"

She thought this was so. But it's stunning to me, that only ten miles away from Iowa City, where parents wouldn't think twice about taking their toddlers to therapy, there are parents who not only threaten to beat their kids, but are almost jocular about it, as if it is something so sewn into the fabric of their family life and parenting practices that their jocularity simply reveals what they believe to be inevitable and the natural order of things.