The Flowers That Saved My Life

The divorce separated me from my two small children, and the teaching job was more of a calling that I loved with all my being.  I was officially divorced in the morning and served my pink slip that afternoon.  Both identities were painfully stripped away… and the very next day was my birthday. What irony.

I spent weeks in bed.  My best friend would come over after work to make sure I was eating, which I wasn’t. She’d make me get dressed to come eat, but when that didn’t work she brought it in to me. And when that didn’t work she’d leave it on the bedside table to get cold.  It was certainly not one of my finer moments.

After a couple weeks I received a phone call.  It woke me up.  I had to wrestle the covers to actually find the phone hiding in my smelly nest. The gruff voice on the other end said, “Get out of bed, get dressed, brush your teeth, and come let me in.”

“Huh?”

Not getting any more patient, “Get out of bed, get dressed, brush your teeth, and come let me in.”

“Bob? The door is unlocked.  Just come on in.”

“No. You stink.”

“Bob, I don’t care.”

“I do.  Go get dressed and brush your teeth and hurry.  This is getting very heavy.”

Just as he said the word heavy a big truck went whizzing by my window… and at that very same moment I heard a big truck go whizzing by on the phone.  I ran to the window and there was Bob across the street on the pay phone holding a huge, I mean huge, abstract painting of flowers.

This was no ordinary painting. This was the painting that used to hang in the hallway at church. I loved the painting.  It made me happy.  Bright yellows, reds, purples, greens. Evidently the Aesthetics Committee didn’t share in my appreciation.  It got moved to the bathroom. I simply took more bathroom breaks to visit my friend. And eventually it got relegated to the basement.  During a congregational Spring Cleaning I found it in the huge storage closet.  I was so sure the painting was lonely, and I would go gaze at her when I was feeling low. I was oblivious to the fact that Bob knew of my love affair with this painting.  And there he was on a street corner payphone with an armful of abstract flowers.

I dashed to throw on clothes. I tried to grab ones from the heap that weren’t too offensive to the olfactory system.  I rushed to the bathroom to brush my teeth – it felt soooo good!  As I was coming out of the bathroom Bob was barging into my bedroom.  He traipsed across my bed with muddy shoes.

“Oops.” He said flatly. “I guess you’re going to have to wash that bedding.”

He leaned the immense painting against the wall and pounded a handful of nails one by one into the wall above my headboard.  He balanced the painting on the cluster and stepped back to admire his work.

“There.”  He turned to me. “Kiddo.  I know you’re hurting.  You’ve been through a lot. But we need you.  We’re waiting.  The world is waiting.  There is work to be done.”

My eyes teared up.  I nodded.

“Tandi, every morning, look up at this painting.  And remember.  The world is waiting.  We need you.”

I broke down and sobbed like I had not been able to do.  Bob held me and rocked me until I was ready to come back.

By this time you’re probably wondering who Bob is.  Bob is the church curmudgeon.  All churches have at least one.  For most of his church career Bob has been the soul person on the building committee.  He was kind of pokey and contrary.  And there he was rocking me while I learned to cry.  I knew he was uncomfortable with this he’d just stepped into.  We were both practicing being human at this very sacred moment.

That is the kind of Religious Education I am all about.  The greatest thing we can give each other is our love, ourselves, and our presence. These are among the most potent curriculums.  Church is where we practice being human.

No matter where I live that painting will be prominently placed so it is among the first things I see each morning.  It is part of my morning prayers and spiritual practice.

Once my basic needs of being seen, heard, and loved were met I could rejoin the land of the living and get about my business of finding my calling and living my personal mission.  Sometimes I wonder where I’d be if Bob hadn’t noticed I was gone and tracked me done.  Who is missing from this religious community?

Religious Education teaches us to be present to each other.  Religious Education is community that sees us at our most vulnerable, loves us anyway, and calls us to our higher selves.

Request: This Sunday look around and notice who is not there. Please check in with them just to make sure they’re okay and to let them know that you noticed their absence.   And if they’ve been gone awhile, let them know they’ve been missed.  There are a myriad of reasons we each can slip away.  There is a main reason to reach out:  we are interconnected in love.

Cheese Fries

The previous year our youth group had 18 teens who made a joyful presence in our congregation.  16 graduated and there were no 8th graders moving up.  What to do?  Do two people make up a youth group?

Our congregation made a bold decision.  They funded the two-member youth group as if they were the rowdy 18.

And I have to say, that while the previous year was fun and eventful. It was the year of Ben and Justin that I found to be the most profound and worthwhile.

Justin was the popular, likable Prom King.  Ben was from a newly divorced family, in a new school, and had just gotten word that his father had seriously ill.  When I asked them each what they wanted out of youth group, Justin, said, “I just want to be myself without the stress.”  Ben said, “I want to do what normal kids do.”

“Ben, what do normal kids do?” He hesitated… “I think they hang out at Denny’s and eat cheese fries.”   

And that is what we did most of the year.  We hung out at Denny’s and ate cheese fries and just talked. And tried to grasp a sense of normalcy.

One night we hung out in the youth group room painting our toe nails (because we could) and someone had the idea of paining a nail polish chalice on the stereo.  We declared the stereo a Unitarian Universalist Only Zone (pronounced ooze) and our ritual became debating the UU appropriateness of current musical lyrics.  What could we play that upheld our faith tradition and principles?  Which songs would be tossed, at least while in the sanctuary of our black-light lit youth room?  Such conversations were continued at Denny’s over cheese fries.  Rarely have opportunities arisen to go that deep theologically for any of us. Ben, Justin and I were forever changed.

I’m still in contact with both Justin and Ben, who are in their mid-20s now. They look back at our youth group year with just the three of us and are grateful that the congregation saw them as legitimate and worthy of the effort.

Religious Education is implicit in the decisions we make as a congregation, including fiscal decisions. Religious Education is nestled in those leaps of faith and small actions that say, “We see you.  We need you. You are worthy.”

Anger Solidarity

A loud pounding interrupted the instructions for the learning assignment.  The class gave a collective sigh.  We knew what the sound was.  We heard it daily. When Benny’s frustration level piqued he clenched his jaw, broke his pencil and started kicking the nearest wall. I had marked him absent just a bit ago, but evidently he made it to school and now was in the front yard repeatedly kicking the porch of our portable classroom.

Benny was faced with some hefty decisions at age of 9.  He had just begun running drugs for his mother and older brother. And now his brother was offering him a chance to “get jumped in” to the gang that ran the reservation underground. Gang initiation usually started with the young ones out here.

His Individual Education Plan, required by the Special Education department, listed many challenges, one of them being suspected Fetal Alcohol Effects. Benny was developmentally delayed, but I suspected the constant barrage of anger is what really stunted his neurological growth.  The traveling school psychologist listed “Anger Disorder” in his folder.  I found this label odd. The anger didn’t seem to be unwarranted or based on disillusion.  I found little in his life that didn’t merit intense anger. The injustice was glaring.  Had I written the IEP, perhaps I would have written, “Reality Disordered, anger justified.”

The frail portable shook with every kick.  I had gone on giving instructions, but I could tell by the student’s wide eyes and glances toward Benny’s direction, that the learning moment was lost.

I stopped.  Three kicks passed.  A family picture on my desk tipped over.

“Wonderkids, sometimes we experience such pain, such anger, that we can’t keep it in and we can’t understand it and we can’t do it alone.  Benny is experiencing that kind of pain and anger.  He needs our help.  We are going to go outside and help him kick the porch until the anger is all kicked out.”

Everyone stood up and walked outside, single file. They joined Benny on the porch. Benny was too busy kicking to notice.  Then all the kids started kicking with him.  There were grunts and groans as our toes smacked solid wood.  Benny came out of his trance and blinked at me.  He looked around at his classmates who had stopped kicking to see if he was all right.

I put my arm around his shoulders. “Together we’re bigger than the anger, Benny.”

He nodded and started up the stairs to the classroom.  He immediately crawled under a table.  Pearl, one of his peers, brought a blanket over for him to curl up with.  We all took a deep breath and a prayerful moment of silence.  And then I went back to the board knowing that Benny would come out when he was ready and the assignment would be waiting for him.

Religious Educations knows that sometimes academic or planned curriculum needs to be put on hold so that life curriculum can be lived in its moment.

Involuntary Volunteer Sabbatical

I was one of those lay leaders in a smallish-midsized congregation who was on almost every committee.  I think I’ve held every leadership position except board in that church. Operative word being held.  I held leadership positions close to me without letting go, because with it came some semblance of control to keep the congregational structure and community just the way I liked it. I had standards.  There’s a certain way you do things.

Then one bright, sunny Sunday the president and minister called me up to the chancel during announcements.  The minister gave me a beautiful, carved chalice and the president, putting his hand firmly on my shoulder said, “Tandi, you have served this religious community well with your extended service.”  He went on to list all the committees I’ve chaired and projects I headed up over the most recent years. “We are giving you a volunteer sabbatical for an entire year.  You are not allowed to chair or volunteer for any committee.  You are not allowed to even make coffee.  This year we ask that you simple come and be fed.”

I have no idea what the sermon was that Sunday, because I spent the rest of worship trying to figure out what his “honor” meant.  They couldn’t be serious, could they? I can’t volunteer for a thing?  What will I do with this time?  What will they do without me?

Over the next couple of months I went through the classic stages of grief:

Denial: They couldn’t possible mean it.  I mean, who is going to know how to coax a paper jam out of the copy machine for the newsletter assembly?  Who knows how to make the canvass forms just right? No one else on the worship committee really knows our liturgical calendar. And they didn’t really mean I wouldn’t co-lead the youth group, right?  That’s different.

It turns out the entire congregation was in on it.  I’d turn up to a committee meeting and I’d be cheerfully greeted and then asked to leave.  I showed up at youth group like always.  The youth didn’t even let me stay for check-in.  They sang a song about “thank you” as if they practiced it.

Anger: You know, the youth seemed especially delighted to send me home. I bet this was their idea.  Why do they hate me? What a hateful place.  And they call themselves a religious community! Luckily I knew enough not to spew my venom onto the other members. I made an appointment with a spiritual director when the gym punching bag wasn’t enough.

Bargaining: I showed up to worship a little early and noticed one of the greeters hadn’t arrived yet.  I grabbed a stack of Orders of Service and slipped into place by the sanctuary doorway.  Someone came up behind me with a hug and slipped the OoS right out of my hand. “But surely this doesn’t count!” I pleaded surprised by the desperation in my voice, “It’s just a little thing, really… We don’t even need to mention this to the president.”  Our membership chair tenderly smiled and put an arm around my shoulders. “You’ll understand if invite a newer member to fulfill this volunteer gateway position. Go enjoy the quiet before it gets busy in here.”

Depression. And then the gloomy clouds moved in. I mean, who was I without my volunteering?  No one knew I was important anymore.  I was just… average.  I actually moped around the house and cried for a couple weeks.  Not only wasn’t I frequenting the congregational building for meetings during the week, I didn’t go to worship every Sunday.  Why bother? They don’t need me.  They probably don’t miss me.

Acceptance. A note came from our minister that simply said, “Thinking of you on your sabbatical. I hope you’re having fun with your kids and doing all the art projects you talked about getting to someday.  I hope this is your someday.”  I stared at the note for a long time, rereading it over and over. Oh, yeah.  And there is that stack of books by my bed that I’ve wanted to read… Like a veil lifting it finally occurred to me that this is my life, my time, my agenda. I get to choose.  Color came back to my cheeks as I spent down time dancing in the kitchen with my children.  I made home-made meals and started teaching them family recipes.  I picked up my sketch pad and filled it with images for my own personal amusement.  A calm emerged and I could easily locate my center.

Another calm, energy came into the congregation.  The worship committee not only experimented with additions to our traditional calendar, they also played with the format. And I liked it even better!  Two elders joined the youth ministry team much to the delight of the teenagers who were craving older mentors.  Someone else figured out how to tame the copier. The congregation figured it all out without me.

And I figured out that I really didn’t like doing all those things. Maybe I did at one time.  But I had grown to resent them and hadn’t realized it.  All the committee work had come to feel like a “should,” not a joy.  I would not have known this without the involuntary volunteer sabbatical.  And you know what I really missed? Making coffee for coffee hour and weeding the flower garden around the congregation.

At the end of my volunteer sabbatical the minister and new president invited me out for coffee.  The minister leaned in and asked, “Now that you’ve had a year respite, how do you really want to serve and be served?…”  And a new story began.

Warrior Boots

When I taught upper elementary school I had one particular student who stood out.  He had an incredible mind. Ezra scored high on analytical tests and had a large vocabulary.  He asked pointy questions that revealed his disillusionment of authority.  And he also became easily frustrated, called himself stupid, and cut into his skin with his pocketknife as punishment. Sometimes he projected the frustration on to people close by.  He got into fights and sent to the office on a regular basis.

Ezra was also curious about my peace sign.  I had an obnoxious, oversized peace sign charm woven into the laces of my high top Converse sneakers. My older brother gave it to me as a joke. Carl would roll his eyes every time I left for a protest march or ordered vegetarian or refused to shave my legs. He would shake his head and explain to me once again why I couldn’t save the world all at once – it has always been like this and will always be like this, so stop trying and enjoy it.  But at the same time, he would let me borrow his truck to haul street puppets for a demonstration or haul people in the Pride Parade.

Ezra wanted to know why I wore the peace symbol. Even though it came to me tongue in cheek, it had come to be a reminder for me to walk in peace. I gave Ezra writings by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi and Thich Nat Hahn.  Ezra read these books as quickly as I could bring them in, but pondered on how their lives would be different if they lived on a reservation with the highest poverty rate in the state and both their parents were drunk and unemployed and most of their classmates suffered from Fetal Alcohol Effects. I didn’t know how to respond.

I came into class on a Monday. The kids were gathered around Ezra.  They were admiring his boots.  He had gotten blood on them over the weekend. Shot a deer.  His father and uncles had taken Ezra out for his first hunt.  While gutting it he got blood all over himself.  It was a rite of passage.  He recounted the details with his classmates with his chest puffed out and his chin held high.

Ezra sat next to me in class.  He fiddled with peace sign on my shoes, and I eyed the dark brown splotches on his boots.

“How about we switch for a day?” he asked, still touching the peace sign.

“What?”

Ezra grinned with a twinkle in his eye, clearly hatching a plan.  “You wear my boots for the day and I’ll wear your peace shoes.”  Ezra was tall for his age. He had huge feet, which prophesied an even taller future.

I hesitated.

“Please.  I’ll take very good care of your shoes.” Looking up, eye to eye for the first time.

“Okay. But like you said, these are peace shoes.  You can’t hurt yourself or hit other people while you’re wearing them.”

He held up two fingers ‘on my honor.’  He quickly unlaced his boots to make the switch.  Our feet were almost the same size.

“Okay,  I promise to be a peacenik for the day. But those are hunter shoes you’re wearing. You have to walk like a warrior today.” And then Ezra ran off in my Converse.

Throughout the day I looked down to see the dried blood and wondered what it would be like to shoot a dear.  What it would be like to be so intelligent, but have no answers for the poverty, oppression, alcoholism, and slow genocide around? To be so fearful of the anger locked up inside that it started eating away at hope? What would it be like to have a family invested in my coming of age and ritualize it dramatically? What would it be like to depend on the shooting of that deer for the food on my table? What would it be like to be so forgotten as a people that my education didn’t matter on one hand, and then could be the only equalizer that could lift me up from the stranglehold of oppression?

With each step I let these questions sink into my flesh and bones. I didn’t play kickball with the kids that day.  I stood quietly and intentionally noticed the wind on my face.  I heard a basketball echo on the court and saw Ezra shooting hoops by himself.

At lunch when I was handed a plate without meat I asked for a regular lunch.  Doris was surprised.  So was I. She shrugged and added a healthy dose of hamburger gravy to my mashed potatoes. I ate it.  It was good.

That day Ezra didn’t get into one fight. He didn’t growl or yell in anger. He didn’t hurt himself.  As we were waiting for his school bus we each untied our laces and exchanged shoes.

“How did it feel to be a peacenik for the day?”

“Not bad.  I passed… How did it feel to be a warrior?”

Our eyes locked on the others. And we were silent for many moments as the other kids ran for their bus with the typical frenzy and excitement of the final bell oblivious to the sacred turn in their midst.

“I walked taller.”  I said.

“Me, too.” said Ezra.

That day my understanding of our interconnectedness expanded. There are many ways to talk in peace.  There are many ways to be a warrior.  And sometimes being a peace warrior is what is required.  My education had begun.

Religious Education sometimes requires changing shoes.

Grampa Sunday School

The congregation had been through a lot of transition and nobody – I mean nobody — had time or energy for religious education. The poor Director of Religious Education couldn’t get a soul to sign up for teaching duty.  And duty is just what it was feeling like.

Finally the Men’s Group, which consisted of the elderly gray-haired gentlemen in that congregation, shyly stepped forward and said that they’d like to do something with the kids. The Religious Education Committee didn’t quite know what to do with this. They were not the typical Sunday school teachers.  But okay, everyone else was profoundly burned out. The only stipulations were that the safety policy be honored with background checks and that if somehow the principles could be slipped in, then that would be great.

What transpired was a busy basement full of Grampas and kids.  There was Richard in the corner with a pile of kids reading stories and then acting them out with puppets he found.  Walter, a thick glassed engineering geek, was happily working out math problem with an almost savant brilliant boy that previously never quite fit in.  They were two peas in a pod.  Ron would take some kids by the hand into the kitchen, “let’s see what we can find to make today…” and goodies for social hour would be created.  Bob – he took some kids outside with Sam.  Sam was a developmentally delayed young adult who loved to play tag with the kids on the playground.  Bob would be nearby with a block of wood, a box of big nails and a small hammer and a group of kids that needed to get out some anger.  Matt and the teens listened to music and gave the lyrics UU ratings according to Principle Relevancy. That season stories were shared, large life questions were pondered, and a fabric of extended family was woven.

Soon after that summer the Religious Education Committee found the volunteers to go back to their traditional program, which was fine. It was fall and people were ready to get back into a familiar schedule.  But something really magical happened. When families came in before worship, the kids would often break from their parents to go sit with their Grampas.  Grampas started showing up at school functions to cheer for their smaller friends. The community began sharing the child-rearing and the Grampa-raising.

Religious Education nurtures intergenerational relationships and cross learning.  Religious Education builds community where we can contribute our unique gifts.

Active Volcanoes

The year I taught eighth grade could be classified as the Bumble Bee Year.  Just like bumble bees whose bodies defy rules of aerodynamics (I read that somewhere), we flew only because we didn’t know we couldn’t. When that class graduated into high school they each had officially more education than anyone in their immediate families.

Each morning started with reading the paper on the classroom couch, passing sections all around and sipping our hot beverage of choice.  When all were present and awake, we would start our morning check-in and read from Chicken Soup for the Soul.  And then we would dive into our busy day.

Instead of traditional recess, various leadership groups would attend to aspects of our school organization.  Each day had a different focus. On Monday the students gave recommendations to the school administration and board, tribal council, and cafeteria.  Tuesday was a community service group.  Wednesday was for our emerging sports program. Thursday was a school spirit group. But Friday’s music panel remained the most hotly attended and debated.

Friday’s group chose the music for our classroom, a very important part of teenage life.  Lyrics would be spread out on the table and both the words and overall message scrutinized for integrity and appropriateness.  Those songs that upheld the mission and values of the school and classroom were passed on and plugged into the classroom stereo at appropriate times.

We listened to jazz and swing and pop music. I could see the blossoming of lawyers in Nathan as he argued lyrics from Marilyn Manson and Malikah as she defended Tu Pac. The students made the decision that they wanted to be inclusive, so Plains Pow Wow drumming was welcome, but the homemade bootlegs of northwest drumming was clearly preferred. There was one group that we almost unanimously liked, Presidents of the United States of America. They are a local, Seattle band with clever lyrics and contagious beats.

I used PUSA’s lyrics for language arts writing assignments.  Once we each rewrote the words to Peaches. Kitty was allowed, but with the requirement that profanities were manually bleeped out. Boll Weevil became classroom code for anyone who preferred to sit in his or her house and watch TV all day.  (And yes, I hope I’ve piqued your curiosity to check out the Presidents.)

Fast forward to Spring. We ditched the leadership groups for a month to focus on planning a class trip to the Sante Fe, New Mexico. There was a national science fair sponsored by the American Indian Science and Engineering Society in Sante Fe, and we were determined to go.  The requirements were that we would raise the money for the hotel and plain tickets and that each student must complete their own science fair project.

None of us (including me) had ever done a science project.  None of the students had ever been on a plane.  The students organized themselves so they each had a task. Ginger made sure everyone applied properly for the science project Courtney secured the plane tickets.  Nathan arranged for the hotel.  Louie, Frankie, and Malika poured over the tourist information they had sent away for and created a site-seeing schedule for us. Val contacted a distant family member from one of the Pueblos to tell them we were coming to visit.

When the letter came that none of our science project entries were accepted, it didn’t phase our traveling planning a bit.  Okay, maybe a bit, but our focus was finely tuned to our trip to Sante Fe. We were going.

We held our own science fair for the school and community.  The younger students filed through the table displays set up in the cafeteria. Frankie studied Ph balances of various liquids he found around the school.  Malika created a display on the effects of alcohol on the brain. Nathan’s study involved the physics of basketball.  One of the displays on the freezing point of different liquids melted into puddles.  Courtney charmed the younger ones with the science of bubbles.  Louie stood by his display with such pride ready to field questions. His was on Mt. Rainier.  He didn’t do an experiment but rather merged the scientific information of the volcano with the traditional terms and history.  The elders doted on his work and his family was proud.  It was a good celebration.

Fast forward to the plane trip. I was forever counting students afraid of leaving someone behind in the airport bustle. But we made it on the plane.  As we were walking up the aisle to our seats Nathan and I stopped in our tracks.

“Dude.” Nathan whispered.  “Is that?…”

I recognized Jason Finn’s bald head and boyish smirk immediately.  Standing before us in the middle of the airplane was the Presidents of the United States of America.  We found our assigned seats and then proceeded to peek and whisper.  I tried to nudge the students to introduce themselves, but didn’t succeed.

Finally, I went up to the foursome with my hand extended.  “Are you the Presidents of the United Stated of America?  I’m a teacher and these are my students.  We listen to your music all the time in class.  We just may be your biggest fans.”

Hearing that Chris Ballew chuckled, “Dude!” and gave me a high five.  We gathered for a group picture and I made introductions. I don’t know who enjoyed it more, the fans or the rock stars.

As the flight attendants started going through the aisle to settle us in, I pulled at the sleeve of  Jason Finn.  “Mr. Finn, the plane is about to pass Mt. Rainier and we have on this flight an expert on volcanoes.  His name is Louie.  He’s a special student.  It would mean a lot…”  I didn’t need to finish the sentence. Jason flashed a big smile and headed for the seat next to Louie.

“Are you Louie, the expert on volcanoes?  I understand we’ll be passing Mt. Rainier.”

Louie paused and looked at Jason. Then he took a deep breath, puffing himself up, trying to look important.  “Why yes I am.  A lot of people think Mt. Rainier is just a mountain, but it’s actually a volcano.  And Mt. Rainier is not her real name…”

I watched these two with their heads together, looking and pointing out the window.  We hadn’t landed in Sante Fe yet, but mission accomplished. Louie never asked me again, “When are we ever going to use this in the real world?”

Religious Education happens when we connect to people and things larger than ourselves and fly against all odds.