Meet Chuck

Two weeks ago I sat across from a 17 year old guy who slouched in his desk, waiting for my writing lesson.  He listened politely enough but when asked to write a sentence, he said matter-of-factly, “I can’t.”  The others filled me in:  he always says that. They didn’t encourage or expect him to do anything.   Unoffended, he confirmed that, in his own words, he “can’t do much.”  With a shrug, he looked at me blandly as I stared at him, incredulously.  Can this kid be serious?  I perceived no attitude, no defiance… just a simple statement of fact – from his point of view, that is.  Apparently, from the reaction of his peers, everyone just took his inability as the way it is.  Ha! Challenge accepted, kid.

I wish I could have introduced him to Chuck.  In case you didn’t know, Chuck Close is a world famous artist and I stumbled upon his work this week.  I was drawn to his concept of only using faces as his subjects but as I read more, I was more and more impressed; not with his work as much as with him.  His book tells of his growing up as an artist which is quite predictable, I guess, but what grabbed me is that this man graduated from high school not being able to add, subtract or multiply.  To say he had learning challenges is an understatement.  Yet, he graduated from three colleges, the last being Yale.

After finding much success with his art, marrying and raising daughters, he suffered a medical emergency which left him a quadriplegic.  Many would find it reasonable that his art career would be over but not this guy.  His assistants Velcro the brushes to his hands and he’s fashioned special chairs and lifts so he can work on his super-large paintings.  Impressed yet?  I am!  So I think back to this kid who told me he can’t write a simple sentence.  He was perfectly healthy and academically capable but his attitude was awful.  Actually, I’ve seen lots and lots of negative attitude but this guy was indifferent, which some would say is worse.

I’m happy to report that at the end of our time together, this young man found some inspiration and wrote two pages for me.  I ribbed him before I left, “Couldn’t even write a sentence, huh?  Look at you now.”  He seemed pleased and not a little surprised.  I hope that’s all it took to shake him from his complacency and realize that he has so much more ability that he thought he did.  I hope even more that he finds himself meeting people who let him know just how capable he is.  Even if he were to lose the use of all his limbs, he is STILL able to do so much.  After all, look at Chuck!


Temporary idiocy

Since I spend the majority of my time with teenagers, I sometimes get the honor of being a friend, too.  And when they get hurt, I offer my love through a listening ear.  Recently, a few of these dear people have unburdened their hearts with stories that leave me sad but thankfully, not confused.  Here’s how it goes:

As adults, we know that it doesn’t take long on this planet before someone’s going to hurt us.  Well, these friends of mine were hurt so badly and couldn’t understand why the people who they previously thought were friends were behaving so, well, unfriendly!  In one case, they were unrepentantly snubbed with merely a shrug and in another, were the scapegoat for someone else’s sins.  People on the periphery did nothing to help, just left them stranded in cold water.

In talking to them, one observation made us mildly cheered and that is that most people are just temporary idiots.  The periphery people, especially teenagers, are basically good, solid kids.  Their hearts are in the right place and they want to do the right thing, but when friends’ relationships sour, the folks on the fringe don’t know what to do.  So, they end up doing nothing, which can hurt in its covertness as much as the original hurt in its overtness. Saying nothing is sometimes the wisest route, but other times, saying nothing hurts terribly. This is where temporary idiocy comes in. Their silence or hurtful actions are hopefully temporary.  Usually when the dust settles, they can see they were in error in stranding their friend.  The true friend will tell them that later.

I know this because I had a friend do something similar to me.  She had distanced herself with giant bounds because she guessed I wouldn’t like a decision she made.  I had no idea why she was so cool, but I gave her space and didn’t freak out.  Almost a year later, she called me and shared that she had changed course and now wanted to talk.  It was one of the best talks ever because I could honestly tell her that ignoring me didn’t help either of us.  She had assumed incorrectly.  I was completely indifferent about her decision so her fears were ungrounded but just having her say she was a temporary idiot made me admire and love her more.

In a recent movie, I heard this wonderful line: The heart is not so easily changed, but the head can be persuaded.  Isn’t that true?  Our hearts and minds get entangled so easily, but our heads have hope!  When we give each other some time, and talk openly, we can confess that we all mess up.  With time, we come around.  May we all have the grace to give to each other generously through warm hearts and listening ears.

Perception is NOT reality

When I was in high school, my group of friends was more guys than girls.  We got along great and never, to my knowledge, liked each other in any way other than friends.  It freed us to just have fun and spared us from any drama that could occur when emotions get tangled.  So it was quite surprising when,  home for summer break after my first year away at college, one of those guy friends told me something shocking after lunch.  He knew that I was “setting my hat for him” (an archaic phrase if there ever was one).  This according to his mother.  What?  Yes, she had seen the signs (huh?) and he was just going to get it out in the open.  The poor guy.  The look on my face must have confirmed that I had no intention whatsoever of …wearing his hat?…being sweet on him…who knows.   Guess who I haven’t talked to since?

Clearly, just because we perceive something, doesn’t mean it’s true.  Countless times I’ve heard someone proclaim something as fact when indeed that is not the case at all.   Years ago my principal informed me that a student was quite certain I didn’t like him.  Seems that every time he was in my room, I was quiet and a little tired.  When I showed surprise, the principal uttered those words, ” well, you know, perception is reality.”  Ugh!  No!  It’s not!  The class time I had this student was right after lunch.  I was pregnant and struggled to stay wakeful at that hour.  My lethargy had everything to do with my body and nothing to do with anyone else.

It’s human nature to draw conclusions when we wonder about something but taking it one step further and taking your guess as gospel is dangerous.  It’s very common to make private decisions about someone or some situation based on our flawed guesses.  How many relationships have been damaged or dinged because of it?  If we perceive something, we better ask for facts, and listen with an open heart to what is true.  Unfortunately, sometimes this happens late, and the “truth” version is so ingrained, minds can’t be changed.  I’m sure I must be guilty of this myself.

Maybe you remember reading To Kill a Mockingbird in high school.  So much of the childhood stories center around Boo Radley, the neighbor who the neighborhood kids are convinced is a creeper.  They have tons of “evidence” and are convinced that nothing else could be true.  The last scene of Scout taking Boo’s arm and walking him home is so poignant.    She allows him to lead so that anyone who watches (and you can bet they were) would see the dignified gentlemen he was. She’s learned he’s a recluse, but no monster. That is fact…and it took an 8 year old to show the town.

I think the reason we assume, presume and believe our perceptions is because it’s easier.  It takes courage to ask questions or believe something that might belie what our eyes tell us.  But there’s so much more to every story and we owe it to our friends and neighbors to find out what reality really is.

“I can’t” usually means “I won’t”

As a mom and teacher and cook, I’ve heard “I can’t” so many times, I’ve lost count.  Here’s a sampling:  “I can’t eat tomatoes (or insert other God-created food)”, “There’s no way I can clean my room”, or “I can’t read that…it’s too hard”.  I’ve got their number – they’re looking for sympathy…and a way out.  Too bad they’re stuck with a lady who believes more for them than they do for themselves.

Before you think I’m a harsh task-master, I know that a number of tasks are legitimately too much for someone to handle; but like most moms, teachers and cooks, I’m not asking for something I don’t think my young charges can handle.  They find it hard to believe that I’m actually asking them to do something that I believe they can do, based on what I know about them emotionally and intellectually.

If you’ve read my previous posts, you know I’ve had students who either believed about themselves, or had others tell them, that they couldn’t.  The work was too hard or they weren’t capable.  Well, we changed that.  One such student will hold his own in his post- high school classes and no one will guess that not long ago, it seemed that he couldn’t.  We have a reading program in our house that everyone must read at least one book a month.  Not doing so earns you 2 weeks free of all distracting screens.  How sweet, right?  It downright scares my kids.  The thought!!!  Well, I gave my son a 700+ page whopper to read and a few, including him, thought it was a little much.  Guess who’s reading for hours each night?  Yep!  He CAN!  (I already knew that.)

Don’t even get me started on when my kids tell me they can’t eat carrots or bananas or broccoli.   I’m still trying to put words to those feelings.  Anyway, I’m inspired by people courageous enough to tell themselves that they can!  It inspires me!  After all, “I can’t” messages are often meant to be overridden.  When I was on the platform with ziplining gear on, the thought crossed my mind [strongly]!  When I took an accounting job for the summer even though I don’t even balance our checkbook, a few loved ones thought, she can’t.  But last night, I did payroll.  Oh how far we can come when we tell ourselves we can.

So, Son Two has just come home and feels one of his classes is going to be one long struggle uphill.  He’s probably right, but when I said that he might get a little outside help, he said no…quickly followed by, ‘I’ll just have to work harder.’  Maybe he’s finally getting the message that I’ve been telling him for years:  you can do it.  And I want to be right beside him showing him that I’m doing it, too.


We all need a shove sometime

I loved summer as a kid.  Summers meant playing outside with neighbors, spitting watermelon seeds, running around the Recreation Center while dozens of church leagues played softball, stopping at the open-air ice cream shop on the way home, mosquito bites and lots and lots of swimming.  A natural swimmer, I was always called a fish.  None of us took lessons; we just jumped in and figured it out.  But as easy as swimming was, diving was something entirely different.  I just couldn’t do it.

So there I was, one summer morning on Big Star Lake in Baldwin, Michigan where we rented a cottage for two glorious weeks every July of my childhood.  Rocking at the end of the dock, my brothers shouted personal remarks of the un-encouraging sort.  My dad, never a patient one with kids, decided he’d had enough and stomped up behind me.  Knowing how he works, I warned him that this time I was going to do it.  I was just going to dive in.  Any second now.  K…in a few minutes.

My thumbs were intertwined, my knees bent, my ears squeezed between my shoulders.  “I’m gonna do it.  I’m gonna do it.”  This was the day.  Or not.  “Oh for pity’s sake, just do it already!”  This did not help.  I decided to make a show of it to appease my dad, but I knew that I wasn’t going to do it, but… I rocked for his sake anyway.

Then, I was sucking lake.  With foot on my rear, (I’m not making this up) he gave me a good, hard shove.  My entrance into the lake was not the lovely arc I had hoped to have but more of head-first plop.  This did not thrill me, but I did dive and the first time didn’t have to be pretty.   A few summers ago I had the joy of diving and diving and diving from the dock in Lake Chelan with my two sons.  Oh it was fun and I have to say, my dives were quite graceful.

As much as I didn’t like it at the time, sometimes a good shove is exactly what we need.  Not many of us are going to ask for it, but when it comes to kicking us out of complacency, sometimes we need a friend behind us giving us a good shove.

Many times we find ourselves on a dock of some sort, about to be pushed in.   I think God needs to put us in situations like those because there’s no other way we’ll jump in.  (Ever avoided a dock altogether?) We all have standing-on-the-dock experiences.  Maybe it’s a new job, a life transition, a big move.  It’s scary but this is where we switch to autopilot and let God take over.

When I look back at my dock experiences, often I’m standing there in position, rocking, saying “I’m gonna do it; I’m gonna do it,” with absolutely no intention of doing it!!  So often we need to get shoved out of complacency or inactivity.  But, we argue, talking about it with friends is so much easier!  That’s when I pray someone gives me a shove!! After the fact, I’m so thankful.  It’s so much better to have done it.  Even if we’re sucking lake, we did it.  Might not look pretty, but who cares?  The next time will be better.   Graceful, even.

I’m meant to be me

Many years ago I hosted someone for coffee and was a bit in awe of all she’d accomplished. Her resume was long and contained so much of what I wished mine would contain.  Half my mind listened to her talking, the other half cataloged my very short list of accomplishments. (why do we do that?)  That wasn’t the only time I’ve listened to an impressive list of works cited but I’ve noticed that each time, it’s more okay.  I’m not sitting there green with envy or seething with jealousy as much as I’m a little impatient with myself.  I’m not much of a visionary where I’m concerned, but I would like to add to my list of credits.  And, I like to think that it isn’t because I want my own name glorified, but because He’s given me gifts that I wholeheartedly believe must, and will, be used as He intended.

Well, it’s been 7 months since I declared this the year of courage and I realize that sometimes the most courageous thing we can do is accept ourselves and get going with using our gifts.  It’s my impression that most of us struggle with that.  Clearly, it takes some courage.  We’re quick to look at our flaws or our short list of accomplishments or worse, think we’re less than the next person.  In our minds we know that’s not right.  But in our hearts, we’re guilty some days.  Since then, I’ve also met with other accomplished folks and each time they’re gracious and friendly and warm.  And not only that, inspiring.

It’s a new concept that I’m embracing:  liking me and how I’m made.  It’s been a long time coming, but I’m getting it.  For many years it was more like an extra-large shirt that didn’t fit.  It felt inside-out, the color was wrong, the buttons didn’t match their holes…now I’m starting to think that I’m rockin’ this shirt!  I’m so glad it’s mine!!  At this rate, I’m expecting to find it quite flattering, even.   I can only expect that because He’s allowed me the courage to accept myself.

Paul Tillich says, “Trust is the courage to accept acceptance.”  So in this year of courage, I’d like to accept that the Lord has me firmly in His hand and is working out exactly what He has for ME to do.  My role is not going to be what someone else’s is, obviously; it’s tailor-made for me.  Not only does that inspire me to believe that exciting adventures await, but it also allows me to be genuinely happy for others when they become who they’re meant to be.

Earning the right to have a voice

Many, many years ago, my college writing teacher visited our town and I was able to hear him read from his new collection of stories.  He wrote about the Heartland, having an obvious love for it and its people.  The writing was honest but respectful and insightful, bringing pride to the locals who read and valued his observations.  In my conversation about writing with him afterwards, he mentioned something critically important that he had not while I was in class: “You have to earn the right to have a voice.  People don’t want to hear what you have to say unless you can show you can be trusted.”

He makes an excellent point.  So about what do we all have a voice?   Especially those of us who are not writers?  Well, plenty!  We all have something to say to the people around us.  Many levels of talk exist but when you’re with someone and you throw in your two cents, you must have first earned the right, in order to be heard.  And don’t we all want to be heard?  Here’s a short list of examples of how people have earned that right.

  •  a parent who has consistently loved and listened
  • an employee who has put in the time and been faithful and reliable
  • a spouse who is always where he/she is when he/she says they are
  • a friend who’s quicker to compassion than judgement
  • a writer/speaker who has lived it before speaking of it
  • a student who shows clear effort and communicates with their teacher

These are the folks who will be heard.  Even though I love to have a good conversation, there are a few places in which I say precious little and I’ve realized that it’s because I either have not earned the right to speak into the situation (lack of experience, haven’t known them long enough) or because I do not trust them with my thoughts (those who have been duplicitous or shown mean-spiritedness come to mind).

However, during the last several days, it’s struck me that the Lord has blessed me with some rich conversations (He knows I love that!)  And each one has been able to reach a depth that only comes when one has earned it.  Just yesterday I came home and said to my husband that I rarely revealed the details of my story to anyone, but I had over lunch to this new friend because she had already earned the right to hear the story.  I was also blessed, when others said, “I don’t know why I just told you that!”  but I knew it was because I had earned the right to listen….and they knew I would keep it in confidence.

So, soon, someone dear to me is going to return my call and I’m going to share what is on my heart about a particular nagging topic.  I have kept it to myself for many years, but I realize that she has earned my trust and I need to tell her.  Will it take courage?  Absolutely.  But that’s what this year is about:  taking a deep breath and diving in.