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Mere Writing

Forty years ago, author Madeleine L’Engle was throwing shade. At fellow writers, no less.

In her book Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art (an otherwise excellent book), her love of words leads her to warn about language that becomes exhausted, and how a diminished shared vocabulary can lead to injustice and dictatorship. So far, so good.

Then she takes off the gloves.

“I might even go to the extreme of declaring that the deliberate diminution of vocabulary by a dictator, or an advertising copywriter, is anti-Christian.” (page 39)

Ouch.

I’ve been writing professionally for more than 30 years. Right out of college, I got a job in department store newspaper advertising, writing about perfume and clothing and furniture. It was incredibly boring (to me) and lasted a blessedly short four months. But I’m glad I did it because it led to a much better job in medical publishing, writing about books, periodicals, and conferences for doctors, nurses, and others in healthcare. Which led to a long-term, part-time job doing much the same thing, only at home with our children, which was where my husband and I both wanted me to be.

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Abortion, Pregnancy Scares, and Perfect Love

For the first 30 years of my life, I was, like everyone else I knew in my family, my schools, and my workplaces, fiercely pro-choice. Today, and for the past 20+ years, my views are unapologetically pro-life. So I’ve totally changed my position on this issue, but equally importantly, I’ve also changed my attitude.

Where I was once loudly adamant, even angry, in my pro-choice views, I’m considerably more thoughtful and measured with my words as someone who is pro-life. Yes, I’ve probably mellowed with age, but as someone who has been on “the other side,” I also have an empathy that I wouldn’t have otherwise had for women who face unplanned or unwanted pregnancies.

Back when I believed strongly in abortion rights, the very thought that a woman’s legal right to an abortion could be taken away was absolutely terrifying to me. And I believe that’s still the case with most pro-choice women today, especially those of child-bearing years. You may see anger in their faces and hear it in their voices, but it’s likely that underlying that anger is fear. Fear of loss of control, fear of personal harm, and fear of being shackled to an uncertain and frightening future.

Now, I’ve never actually had an abortion, although I did come close—in my own head, at least. When I was in my late teens, years before I became a Christian, I had a pregnancy scare. I immediately panicked, but consoled myself with the reminder that if I was pregnant, I knew right where to go for an abortion because a close relative had gone there just a few months before. (This was in the 1980s, when nearly 20,000 abortions were performed in my state alone during every year of that decade.) I knew without a second thought that I would choose this path—the alternative never once entered my mind. The thought of an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy terrified me, and the only possible outcome I could envision was a visit to a doctor and the elimination of the problem. The cost to me, whether financial, physical, and/or emotional, was worth whatever it took.

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“I’m So Sorry” — “Thank You”

My mom had just died (this was twelve and a half years ago, but it’s like yesterday to me), and the sympathy notes were pouring in.

By “pouring in,” I mean I was getting two or three each day, which was a 100% increase over the number of sympathy notes I was accustomed to getting. My mom didn’t have many close friends and was from a rapidly shrinking and mostly estranged family, so the total number of cards came to about 25 in all. But still, that was a large number to me, her only child.

In the midst of my grief (randomly intermittent and shocking in its intensity), in the midst of going through all her worldly possessions (not much to speak of but still a difficult and emotional task), and in the midst of adjusting to the new silence in my life (no daily phone calls from her to tell me about the weather, no daily phone calls from me to tell her what her grandchildren were doing that day), I had an ever-growing stack of notes from people who had taken the time to write to me and offer comfort.

I was pretty sure I didn’t have to “do anything” about those notes—i.e., I didn’t have to respond in any way. Still, because I was raised to Do the Right Thing, etiquette-wise, and because the person who raised me this way was my own mother who had just died, I quickly Googled “do I send thank you’s for sympathy notes?”

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Why I Stopped Paying It Forward in the Drive-Thru

I have what may be an unpopular opinion about paying for the person behind me in the drive-thru. It’s not the “paying it forward” (or is that backward?) aspect that I have problems with. It’s what the practice has morphed into in the past few years.

Quite a few years ago, our local Christian radio station began encouraging people to “spread joy” during the first week of each month. Many people chose to do this by paying for the person behind them in the drive-thru lane (Starbucks, McDonald’s, wherever). My middle son was a young teen at the time, and we spent more than a little time together in the drive-thru lanes of fast food restaurants. When he heard about this new way to spread joy, he was all over it.

“Let’s do it! Next time we go to McDonald’s, we should do this!” The radio DJs talked up what a blessing we could be to others, to surprise strangers with a message that their bill had already been paid. My 13-year-old was 100% on board with this. Who was I to tell him that no, I didn’t want to bless others?

So we did it. While we waited in line, we talked about how the person behind us would feel and the ways that it might truly bless them. They might be having a really bad day, and this unexpected gift might remind them that someone cares, that they are loved by God. Or they might have just lost their job or be down to their last few dollars, and this unexpected gift might be a more practical blessing, demonstrating how God comes through when we need it most. We talked about sharing the love of Christ with a stranger in a tangible way, believing that God would bring just the right person behind us in the drive-thru for this moment.

I remember the first time we did this, the cashier was a little surprised, then happy to participate. My son was really enthusiastic about what we had done, and that meant at least as much to me as the blessing we had given to the man behind us.

At other times, we were the beneficiary of this type of kindness, once at Baskin-Robbins and once at Chick-fil-A. Both times almost brought tears to my eyes at this unexpected and entirely anonymous generosity. It was also a joy to share this with my children, that complete strangers had done this kind thing for us and wasn’t God good?

In the past few years, though, this “paying it forward” has morphed into something else. Today, quite often, when someone pays it forward in the drive-thru, it starts a chain reaction of everyone in line paying for the person behind them, and so on and so on. Cashiers start counting how many cars are paying for each other (we’re up to 8! now we’re at 15!). Customers realize what’s happening and ask the cashier how much is owed on the receipt behind them before deciding to participate in this game—a long chain of “blessing” from car to car.

But is it a blessing, really?

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Recipe for Disaster

Ingredients:

  • One 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, 2/3 complete, left unattended for less than five minutes
  • Two cats in the immediate vicinity, washing each other’s ears with increasing intensity, which often leads to a spat
  • One smooth wooden puzzle table, left (did I mention?) unattended for—really!—less than five minutes

Directions:

Allow cats to continue their ear-washing with no human supervision whatsoever, directly on top of the unfinished puzzle. A spat will naturally ensue. Expect to hear an unfamiliar, extended crashing noise, followed by a frantic skittering sound. The cats will then disappear for several hours. Visit the scene of their crime to find a completely empty table and approximately 700 pieces of previously-completed puzzle on the floor in a jumbled heap.

Aftermath:

Your offspring will see the tears spring to your eyes and the shock and horror on your face. One of them (young adult daughter—so sweet and thoughtful) will rush to help, immediately offering to return all of the pieces to the puzzle box so you don’t have to even touch them in their current state. The other (teenage son—brimming with vast, impressive knowledge on all topics, like all teenage sons) will offer advice.

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“If You’re Vaccinated, Why Do You Still Wear a Mask?”

Over the past seventeen months, my opinion on certain virus-related issues has changed from time to time based on new developments, new information, and new experiences I’ve had. For instance, I originally was vaccine-hesitant but later changed my mind on that and was gratefully vaccinated in April of this year. And very early on in the pandemic, I wondered about mask effectiveness but both scientific and anecdotal evidence led me to fully support the use of masks to greatly limit virus transmission.

Do I love wearing a mask? Well, no—who does? But I will absolutely wear one when asked to, when others would prefer me to, or when I feel more comfortable doing so. It honestly is not a big deal to me to do any of this.

Even now. Even though I’m vaccinated.

A few months ago, the highly contagious Delta variant began ramping up considerably, and we’ve also learned that vaccinated people can still transmit the virus. Now, in August, Delta is no longer just banging on the proverbial door but is in the house, affecting more of my friends and relatives than I could have imagined. That’s more people—real-life people, not statistical people—who are catching COVID, getting very sick, and staying sick for a long time.

All of that brings me to a question that I know some people have wondered about, and one that I’ve asked myself over the past few weeks. I think it’s a fair question:

“If you’re vaccinated, why do you still wear a mask?”

In my particular county, elected officials are arguing, flip-flopping, and even suing each other over whether or not masks should be required, and the recommendations of frontline medical professionals are largely ignored. So it’s a personal choice, for the time being, at least. I’ve thought a lot lately about why I’m wearing a mask again, and here are my reasons, along with a few ideas as to why others may be doing this, as well.

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Growing Up Poor and Bernie’s Mittens

Childhood memories remind me where I came from and who I really am.

Unexpectedly, the #1 viral image from the 2021 presidential inauguration hit me right in the gut. Oh, it was definitely funny to see all the Bernie memes: the old man in a mud-colored parka, disposable drugstore mask, and bulky hand-knit mittens in front of landmarks and embedded in pop culture. But before the memes, I had an unexpected encounter with that image that stretches back to my childhood.

On January 20, I watched the inauguration from beginning to end, as I do every four years, with whatever children happen to be at home with me as a part of their homeschool day. This time I was accompanied by my 14-year-old son who was extremely interested in the proceedings and required a play-by-play from me as to what was going on. Not a problem—I enjoyed that.

But what was going on inside my head was a very different, and somewhat odd, train of thought. The first thing I noticed, and could hardly tear my eyes from, were the gloves.

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The View from the Middle Back Seat

Remember the ride to school on the bus every day? Or maybe you’ve taken a public bus lately and can picture this in your head: The long, narrow aisle, the many seats on both sides, and on some buses, the special seat in the very back of the bus, right in the middle, at the end of the aisle.

I like that seat. In fact, I like it so much I’ve been sitting in it for more than 20 years.

Let me back up a bit and be very clear: I used to sit by a window. A window on the left, in fact.  Like others who had window seats, I’d stare out that window on my left, completely oblivious to those next to me and especially those way on the other side of the bus. Partly this was my youth, my need for excitement, and my self-centeredness, but partly it was because my view was ever-changing, ever-fascinating, and ever so much more interesting than the interior of that bus and the others along for the ride.

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A Teaching Story of Race, Reliability, and Regret

In the mid-‘90s, I taught English in an upper-class suburban high school. In my first year of teaching, I was assigned one class of “English Basics,” a class for students who were far behind their peers in their ability to read and write. Basics was a small class, usually only around 10 students, and in the class of sophomores that I was given, the kids were reading on about a second grade level. I was never told the educational or personal background of any child, and I had no special training to help these students, but like all new English teachers, was expected to teach one class of Basics for a couple of years. The positive side, I was told, was that I would only have the class for first quarter and then again for third quarter. Another teacher would take the class second quarter and fourth quarter, so we would each have a “break.”

This staggered-teaching arrangement, especially for a class of kids who were far behind academically, seemed odd to me. I wondered if it had the inadvertent effect of instability and impermanence for the students. The teachers seemed to like it, though, and who was I to say anything—me, a brand-new teacher? Still, I had nagging doubts about this set-up and how beneficial it was for the kids.

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Why “Great and Noble Tasks”?

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.” —Helen Keller

One day back in the late 1990s, I typed Helen Keller’s famous sentence into my PC in my favorite font, printed and cut it out, and glued it to a piece of red construction paper (because with two children under the age of four, that’s what was available at the time). I taped this masterpiece over my kitchen sink and it remains there to this day.

And here I am now using it for the title of my blog. Why?

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