A truthful 12-year-old

Gun

(Note: I wrote this exactly one year ago. In the past year, the only thing that has changed is the body count. We need to do better.)

I filled my foam plate with fruit, yogurt and a bagel from the hotel’s complementary breakfast, and then found an open table in the corner. I wanted to be far away from the big-screen television on the wall that was tuned to an annoying cable news station.

I was getting ready for another day covering the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. Several families with Little Leaguers were staying at the hotel. This was the morning that a television reporter and videographer were shot in Virginia, so that was the big story on the big TV.

Another shooting. Really? I just couldn’t deal with it emotionally. I tried to tune it out mentally while I spread cream cheese on my bagel with the flimsy plastic knife.

Instead, five boys got my attention.

They sat at the next table. They’d finished their breakfast and were acting their age – around 12 years old. Laughing, teasing, playing with their plastic forks and spoons.

When the cable news station went back to the shooting and said there was video, the boys looked up and got quiet. (The station didn’t show the actual shooting, thank God.) Their playfulness was replaced with silence. They looked appalled. Or scared.

“That’s crazy!” one of them said.

They watched until the station switched to a commercial. Then they switched back to being playful 12-year-olds, quickly moving beyond the moment.

Just like us adults, no?

How many times have we watched some shooting somewhere – a school, a theater, a workplace, a military base, a church – and felt shock and disbelief? We feel bad, post something on social media, say a prayer and move on.

I remember seeing the video of the shooting at the church in Charleston for the first time when I got home from work on June 17. I couldn’t sleep that night. I wondered how this could keep happening.

So when the latest shots were fired in Virginia, I was numb. If it’s going to just keep happening – new day, new place, new victims – then why even pay attention? Why become emotionally invested again?

I was tired of my heart hurting. Like those 12-year-old boys, I had to turn away. I’d lost my outrage that these massacres happen again and again, and we fail to do anything to prevent the next one.

And that’s when I realized I’d become part of the problem.

Instead of turning away, I needed to be like the boy who saw with eyes fully open and said: “This is crazy!” And then to say that this has to change. I have to do something about this craziness.

Why don’t we do something?

It’s daunting, I know. Our society is so saturated with violence, from our entertainment to our news. Weapons are seen as solutions. Even some churches give away guns to lure new congregants – certainly more attractive than reading passages about loving our enemies and turning the other cheek.

Our outrage has been co-opted, too.

We’ll get worked up over someone who says their rights are being compromised because they have to bake a wedding cake or issue a marriage license. But when a twisted individual takes away all of someone’s rights with one pull of the trigger, we shrug and say that’s just the way of the world.

And if we start to question too much, we hear: Don’t ask what we could do differently. Now is not the time to talk about it. Blame the shooter alone. We can’t save everyone from gun violence, so don’t save anyone. Let’s get back to talking about that person who doesn’t want to bake the cake or issue the license.

Really, how crazy is that?

And until we say it out loud, we’re part of the problem. You and me.

There was a time when drunken driving was an accepted part of our culture. Comedians joked about tipsy drivers. People insisted that they had a right to drink and a right to drive and everyone else should just leave them alone. But a courageous group of mothers who’d lost their children decided it was crazy that thousands were being killed by drunk drivers each year. They met a lot of resistance, but they wouldn’t relent. They insisted that we as a society needed to change our attitudes and our culture and our laws.

We have. Many people are alive today – perhaps you and me and those five 12-year-old boys at the hotel — because a drunken-driving accident was prevented. Because we finally did something.

Change begins when we say: “This is crazy and it has to changeAnd I have to contribute my part to making it change.”

Passionate people make a difference. Indifferent people perpetuate the status quo and enable it to continue. Nothing changes until we do.

 

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Washing underwear at the Olympics

Underwear

I’ve had the opportunity to cover four summer Olympics during my career as a writer. I went to Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Athens. I witnessed amazing things, met many wonderful people, had unforgettable experiences.

Of course, I have favorite stories from each place. Like the time several of us found a restaurant in Barcelona that was far off the beaten path, and our helpful server tried to bridge the language difference by describing their specialty – squid with tentacles attached – as “fish with feet.” Or the wonderful afternoon spent sipping a glass of wine at Sydney harbor. Or that incredible feeling of touching history when you touch the stone on a Greek temple. Or the way the marathon runners whooshed past me and made me realize how they run so far, so fast.

Great stuff. But maybe my favorite memory from all of those Olympics involves doing the laundry.

Yes, the laundry.

Most Olympic games feature secured villages for athletes and the media. There are sleeping quarters – sometimes small apartment buildings, sometimes dorm-like structures, other times rented trailers – and areas for eating and shopping. Also, a place to do your laundry.

You get to take your two luggage items along, and you have to leave plenty of space for souvenirs on the return trip. Basically, you have enough clothes for a week and a half. At some point during your three-week stay, you toss all of your dirty clothes in a bag and head for the laundromat in the media village.

Members of the media spend long days covering the games, so it’s not uncommon to see the laundry facility full at midnight when the work day is finally done. No matter which country you’re visiting, it’s all the same process. You buy your little box of detergent, toss your clothes in a washing machine, then sit down and strike up conversation with someone while everything gets suds.

It’s not uncommon to hear a half-dozen different languages being spoken in the laundromat. People from all over the world – different cultures, different religions, different ethnic backgrounds – load a washer with their dirty underwear, fill the coin slots, pour in the detergent and pass the time socializing.

English is such a common language that it was easy to strike up a conversation with anybody, which is great — I enjoy getting to meet people from different cultures. We’d ask each other how their day went and share our cross-cultural horror stories – how the laptop locked up in the middle of writing a story, how an editor slashed at our beautiful prose (yes, that writer-and-editor thing is universal), how it was so hot at the various venues and there was no time for lunch because things were so busy.

And we’d get around to the personal stuff, too. Back before social media, people would carry photos of their families with them. We’d show each other our pictures, point to our kids and tell their names and ages. We’d talk about the last time we got to see them, what they were doing, what grade they were entering. How they were taking their first steps or getting ready to graduate.

Always, there would be a smile. Often, a tear as well. In those moments, you were no longer strangers at all. You were sharing tears and feelings.

Those moments in the laundromats reminded me of how we’re all alike. We may look a bit different or speak a different language or eat different foods, but inside we all want the same things: To love and be loved, to have a safe and peaceful world for our families, to get along with one another.

And clean underwear. We all want clean underwear.

It’s good to remind ourselves of this underlying truth of our human family. We hear so many fearful voices in our world nowadays saying we can’t trust those who are different from us. They insist that we can’t let people from other countries get close to us because we don’t know who they are. Instead, they want to build walls and patrol borders and practice exclusion.

I have a better idea. Let’s pack up our dirty clothes and all meet at the nearest laundromat. Let’s load our clothes in the washer, empty the little boxes of detergent, and then sit down and share pictures of our families while our underwear goes around-and-around in the sudsy water.

And for a few minutes, we can tell our stories and realize they’re not really all that different, when you come right down to it. They all bring a smile. And a few tears, too.

 

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Whose crayons are they?

crayons

I was sitting in a restaurant booth waiting for my food to arrive. A couple and their two small boys were seated across from me. The boys were about 5 and 3, I’d guess. The restaurant provides a bowl of crayons and drawings to occupy children until their food arrives. My attention was drawn to how the two boys went about coloring so differently.

The younger boy took a crayon from the bowl, used it, put it back, and swapped it out for a different color. By contrast, the older boy would use a crayon and lay it beside him on the table, keeping it handy for when he’d need it again. Then he would take another crayon, use it, put it beside him.

Soon the older brother had a big stash of crayons next to him and few were left in the bowl. The younger brother noticed and complained, “Hey, I need those!” The older brother put his arm around his stash protectively and said, “These are MY crayons!”

If you’re a parent, you’ve lived through this many times and you know what happens next. The mother intervened and told the older son: “Put those crayons back in the bowl! Those are not YOUR crayons. They were given to you to share.”

Yep. We have to share.

Sharing is challenging for all of us, isn’t it? We tend to build our stash and think it’s all ours. In the process, we lose sight of what underlies our life and our faith: Everything that we have and all that we are is given to us by God in order to share.

Instead, we worry about not having enough and build and defend our stashes. The truth is, we have so much! More than we need. We’re reminded when we have to move and we go through our closets and basements and marvel at how much we have. We wonder why we’ve held onto it when we could have shared with someone in need.

Or we’re walking down the street, worrying about how we’ll pay the bills, and we see a homeless person asking for help. We’re reminded: I have SO MUCH and this person has nothing. So what do we do? Stop, offer some money, a few kind words, a handshake.

We need to share.

Sharing doesn’t apply only to our stuff. In a sense, there’s something even more important to share – ourselves. Each of us has God’s DNA woven into us: The ability to love, to be kind, to heal, to laugh, to encourage, to forgive, to create. Each of us has a unique set of talents and abilities and life experiences. We have SO MUCH good stuff inside each of us, and we need to share it.

I think our challenge on this one might be in recognizing just how much we are and how much people need us. We can make a difference – in ways big and small – in so many lives.

And then there’s our time. We need to share that, too. Time is our fundamental gift, in a sense. The universe has been bumping along for a very long time without you or me being part of it. And it’s done quite well without us. You and me, we didn’t have to be part of human history. Ever. But at this point in time, God decided that creation was incomplete without us. We were given time. What do we do with it? How do we share it?

Understand, none of this is meant to cause anyone guilt. That’s not God’s way. Instead of being shamed, we’re offered an opportunity to love and to be loved. We’ve all had moments when we’ve shared – our money, our self, our time – and recognized how deeply it touched someone. In those moments, we feel good because we’ve had an experience of God, who is love.

Those moments remind us of who God is: An overly generous parent who gives us more and more of all this amazing stuff around us and inside of us each day.

Those moments also remind us of who we are, too: God’s equally beloved children, sitting side-by-side at God’s table, sharing an overflowing cup of God’s crayons.

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Just blink

Firefly2

Fewer fireflies are taking flight these days. In early June, hundreds would rise slowly from the ground at dusk in my neighborhood and start blinking. Now, there’s not so many of them. Their days among us are starting to run out. It makes me sad.

Fireflies are one of my favorite things in life. Have been for as long as I can remember.

Everyone has their stories of chasing them, clasping them loosely in their hand, then depositing them in a jar to watch them do their magic up-close. I remember summers at a cottage near Youngstown, Ohio where the darkness was so deep and rich and the flash of those bugs so magnificent. They’d rise into the trees and turn them into a Christmas display with their nonstop blinking. We’d temporarily capture them, marvel at them, and then let them go.

Don’t believe in magic? Spend a little time watching fireflies do their thing.

What’s always amazed me was how they produce such beautiful light from their little bug bodies. When I got older and learned the science behind the blinking bugs, they became even more magical.

It was cool to learn about their incredibly complicated lighting-up process, called bioluminescence. How the bugs’ little bodies combine oxygen with calcium, adenosine triphosphate (yes, I’m cutting and pasting now!) and a chemical called luciferin to produce an enzyme that’s luminescent. And they do this without producing any heat whatsoever.

Don’t you wish you could do that?

So, that’s how they blink. But why do they blink? To communicate information, apparently, including their intentions to make baby fireflies. Their blinking patterns attract each other. So yes, the blinking you see is fireflies making sure we will have more fireflies next year. And the next year and the next. The blinking will never end.

Pretty miraculous stuff, all in all. I think fireflies are among the creator’s best work.

Last week, it was especially comforting and encouraging to watch the magical bugs take flight. All of the shootings and bombings and hatred in our world made it feel like a very dark place. And I was reminded that it’s only when the world starts to become really dark that the fireflies recognize that it’s time to come out of hiding and light it up.

A good lesson for you and me, no?

There are a lot of bugs that don’t light up. They do nothing to push back the darkness. And then there are others that transform it by doing what comes naturally to them.

Same with people, too.

We don’t need a search light to counterbalance darkness. No powerful flashlight, no enormous bonfire. Most of us have all that we need right inside of us. We have to recognize it and then have the courage to use it — to blink our blink – and put a little light into our darkening world.

And that, too, is pretty magical.

Just blink.

 

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Would you like me to take your picture?

FamilyCleveland

We were at the back of the line, waiting our turn to take a family photo in one of Cleveland’s parks. The city’s name is spelled out in a display that overlooks the lakefront and downtown. It’s perfectly placed to make a postcard-worthy keepsake.

Most of the fun came from watching each family take its turn and seeing everyone interact. There were Clevelanders and out-of-towners, people of different ethnic backgrounds, total strangers waiting patiently for their turn to do something fun.

First, they took turns doing something kind. A family would get ready to pose, and the family behind them would offer to snap the photo for them so everyone could be included. A total stranger would show another total stranger how to focus their camera phone and then hand it over.

Smile. Snap. Snap. Snap. Wait! One more just in case! Smile and snap while the kind stranger takes one final shot.

And then, it was the next family’s turn to share in the group photo project. Total strangers took each other’s photos, ones that would be posted on social media and maybe framed and hung on the wall back home next to the graduation and wedding and travel photos.

How utterly cool is that?

When my family was done posing and saying cheese, I asked the family behind us if they’d like me to do the honors. A woman who appeared to be the mother didn’t respond. It was as if she didn’t understand what I’d just said.

Turns out, she didn’t.

The family was Hispanic. She spoke very broken English. After a moment, she recognized what was going on, smiled and very politely said no thank you. As her family got ready to pose, she recognized how the stranger-turned-friendly-photographer thing worked, and she allowed the family behind them to take their picture.

Smile. Snap, snap, snap. Wait, one more! Snap. And then they did the same.

People speaking different languages figured out a common language. Different worlds, same world. Different families, one family.

Again, how utterly cool is that?

The photo session came at the end of a tough week for all of us. More black people killed by police. Police officers gunned down by a man filled with hatred. And on the other side of the world, countless people getting blown up by others filled with hatred.

There are times when hatred seems to overwhelm us. Darkness seeps inside of us for a while. We’re tempted to think that the whole world is a dark place.

But it’s not. It’s always followed by a sunny, breezy, hopeful day of smiling photos.

The truth is, there’s far more love and life in the world than there is hatred and death. Kindness is our human default setting – for most of us, anyway. If we pay attention, we see countless acts of kindness all around us every day.

#LoveWins isn’t just a slogan. It’s us. We doubt, we struggle, we reach the end of our rope. And then we pull back and we let love do its healing, resetting thing. We find a place deep inside of us – a familiar place where humanity and divinity intersect – and we start again.

Snap. Wait, one more. Smile again!

Honestly, given how many of us there are and how much we endure each day, it’s a wonder that there’s not more ugliness in the world. And yes, it’s true that there are some people who, for whatever reason, seem to be missing the divine DNA of kindness. Maybe they’ve been hurt so deeply that it’s scarred over. Maybe they’ve simply made the choice to hate because it’s less challenging than love.

Who knows?

Here’s what we know: Most people strive to get along. We recognize that we’re all the same in the ways that matter. We care about each other. We speak the same language even when we don’t know the same words.

And we consider it a wonderful thing to hold a stranger’s phone in our hands and do something for them that they will cherish. Something that reminds us of what we’re all about.

With each touch of the screen, we take our collective family portrait.  Snap! Wait, one more!

OK, here’s your phone back. Oh, you’re most definitely welcome. After all, someone else just did the same for me. And the picture is perfect.

In every way.

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The liberty to love

Circle of hands

We’re going to hear a lot about our independence this weekend, which is good. It’s also good to take some time to appreciate our interdependence as well. Those two things are closely intertwined, just like all of us. Neither one can exist apart from the other.

Everything that we do, everything that we have, all that we are bears the fingerprints of countless others from around the world who have brought us to this moment and sustain us in it.

We tend to overlook that fact. I know I do. I prefer to think of myself as independent. It’s certainly “safer” to go that way than to make myself vulnerable and acknowledge my dependence upon so many others for so much. I prefer to feel like I’m in control of my life when, in fact, that’s only half of the truth.

I think we all dread those times when we feel dependent, when we’re sick or struggling and need some sort of assistance. We’d rather do it ourselves. We prefer to feel like we’re living independently, even though that is never the case.

If we think about our day for even a few seconds, we’re reminded of just how much we depend upon others for pretty much everything.

We woke up this morning in a bed that someone else made. We showered in water that someone else delivered to our homes, which someone else also built. We dressed in clothes that are the work of others’ hands. We ate a meal that someone else grew, harvested, shipped, inspected and prepared. We got into our car or boarded a bus that others engineered, built, and tested for safety. We rode along roads that others designed and maintained … And on and on.

In every moment of every day, we are affected by the lives of so many others from around the planet. Others who live in different countries and follow different religions and different social norms.

We’re also intertwined with our planet. That breath we are taking right now is possible because of all the plants making oxygen. Our food and our water are provided by the earth. And on and on.

Everyone and everything is interconnected. The creator made it so.

Recognizing our connectedness is at the heart of our religious traditions. The creation stories locate us within a diverse web of life. They put us in relationship with each other and with everything that’s in the world – it’s never good to think of ourselves as being alone.

One touchstone prayer refers to God as our parent, not just my parent. And it asks our creator to give us our daily bread. To forgive us. Lead us. Deliver us. There’s not a single mention of “me” or “my” or “I” in the prayer.

And it concludes with a collective amen, an affirmation that we’re all in this together.

It can’t be any other way. Actual religion has love at its heart, and love by definition always requires connection. It’s lived and expressed within the context of relationship to someone and something other than ourselves. It’s always plural.

Compassion, love, forgiveness, kindness, creativity, healing — all of the divine qualities within us draw us deeper into our interdependence. By embracing it, we embrace the one who wants us to be as one.

The more we try to imagine ourselves as independent of others — other people, other countries, other religions — the less we are able to love and to live together peacefully. We know from experience how self-interest subverts any society, any government, any religion. We stop thinking about the common good — about the we — and we ignore our deep, divine need for each other.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us beautifully how “all life is interrelated.”

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

As we celebrate our independence together, it’s fitting that we also remember the blessing of our interdependence. We can be thankful that we have the freedom to care for each other, the liberty to love one other.

 

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No, thank YOU for the lessons in love

Rainbow

In the past year since the Supreme Court ruled for marriage equality, many of my gay friends have thanked me for being a straight ally. At first, I didn’t know quite how to respond.

I’d say something along the lines of: “You’re welcome, of course! You matter to me. You’re so worth it. I’m just glad I could help in some way.” Somehow, though, that answer seemed inadequate.

Or I might have followed up with: “It’s just sad that it took so long and involved so much pain to get to this point. I’m sorry for that.” Which is better, but still lacking. Something more needed to be said.

One day, it occurred to me. I needed to say more than just “you’re welcome.” I also needed to say something back to them:

Thank you.

First, thank you for inviting me to be your friend. Thank you for the love and encouragement you’ve given me over the years. It means far more than you know.

Thank you for showing me what it means to love someone when there’s a great cost involved. When simply holding someone’s hand in public could have enormous repercussions, and you do it anyway. Thank you for that courageous example.

Thank you for reminding me that it’s important to be myself and to celebrate who I am, even when I’m not exactly sure who I am. Especially when some others would like me to be something that I’m not.

Thank you for showing me what it means to live in a way that’s true to yourself.

Thank you for teaching me what it means to live courageously and to love courageously. And to recognize God at work in all of it.

Thank you for showing me how to keep trying, even when justice seems so absent and distant. Especially when justice is absent and distant.

Thank you for giving me an example of what it means to be graceful in the face of hatred and discrimination. I will never forget that.

Thank you for showing me what it means to respond to hatred with love, time and time again. Orlando is just the latest example.

And thank you for being a visible reminder that love wins. Always does. Sometimes, it just takes a little time.

Thank you.

 

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