This Is My Story

I wonder if we have ever considered that our willingness to share from exposed places is what connects us in experience to others? If we do not share stories of vulnerability, share moments of weakness, share the things we consider our failures, share perceived inadequacies or share areas in which we feel insufficient, how will others ever know that they are not alone? Know that there are common experiences known to human kind of which we can speak, can cry, can maybe even laugh? How will we ever learn to accept and live beyond the sorrow, searching always for the joy?  How will we ever experience the power of forgiveness?

Our stories are what connect us.

Let me tell you a story.

I grew up in the heart of the Annapolis Valley, a small rural farming community known for its potatoes and apple orchards. My community was aptly named Melvern Square, a squared-off corridor that was also firmly tethered by four anchors: farming, family, community and faith. My father was one of many pastors called to minister in this area, ensuring that I lived my life firmly fixed within the public’s eye, on first name basis with most everyone I’d meet. This reality served to both enable and impede my personal growth and development by times, as anyone who has had parents as visible figureheads in the community can attest to.

It was an idyllic life in some ways.  But difficult in other ways. We were often strapped financially, but we got by. I remember trips to the country store— a one room building with wide wooden clapboards filling in the floor space, glass candy jars containing five-cent goodies lining the back wall. When the front door was cracked even so much as an inch, an old-fashioned bell signalled both your appearance and your exit, ensuring you would never peruse the ice cream freezer or chip rack anonymously. Our house was sandwiched between the community center on the right and my father’s little brown country church on the left. Behind our property was the community pond for skating on in the winter and avoiding in the summer, as we all speculated that alligators or other forms of creepy-crawlies might live in there. Across the street was the consolidated school housing grades 1-6: a school which I never had the privilege of attending.

The school I attended was a private institution located in a neighboring community. When I started school in primary, I quickly realized that my life was not what it had seemed to be. I immediately became the “other”: teased for my different religious affiliation, tortured for my family connection, belittled for my appearance. Separated for my difference. I was disconnected from the other children in many ways, and I soon came to understand the term “white trash” and its unflattering connotations, as that is what I began to feel I was while in this school. Like a piece of rubbish— unloved and undesirable.

My schooling experience was thus one in which oppression was very obvious. This same private school I attended later came to be exposed regarding “issues” of a very serious, abusive nature. These privately held secrets of the school leaders and administration came to be ‘outed’ in a very visible way via news media when I was in high school. When I now see images of residential schools, it brings to mind sordid mental pictures of what that time of life was like for both me and my classmates. That experience has forever changed the way I look at education.

So then, as long as I have been a student, I have been interested in ethics of care in classrooms. As I did not have the privilege of being exposed to ethics of care in most of my formative years of schooling, I now spend my life advocating for these pedagogies of love and care along with the foundational rights that I believe all people— young and old, are worthy of receiving and deserve to experience as a basic human right. We all deserve this kind of love and attentive care by virtue of our humanity (Gard, 2014).

Let me tell another story.

As a child, I felt so insecure. So unattractive, so unappealing. That day of which I am about to tell—still etched in my memory, that day I wore a yellow dress. We were all walking to the fire station for a field trip, and it was a beautiful, sunny day. I remember getting inside the big, red truck, and looking all around the fire station. A day up to this point that was mostly insignificant for its events, beyond this bare-bones description. But it was the walk back that will forever be imprinted in my memory.

I was just a little girl. Facing some cruel childhood bullies. Was this the day pivotal in my desire to know about the power of care in transforming lives?

Or was it the countless other days of enduring taunting, teasing, ridicule and scorn? Of living with put downs and mockery?  What was it that made me care so much about the underdog? What caused me to care so much about people?

And still another story.

Why is it that the adults in our lives still have power over us even as we ourselves have now become adults? There are adults in my life still—to this day: that I feel beholden to protect and shelter. Even though they have grievously hurt me. Even though what harm was done was more than injurious to my spirit and psyche. Why? Is it that even for them I offer a form of care?

But why is it, on the other hand, that we as adults think we have that power over children: power to influence them to even resist the urges of their own conscience. Telling them what is right or wrong, when in their hearts they already know. “This is not okay.”

WHY?

A little girl told “not to tell”. Left to deal with these feelings on her own until she was an adult herself. Until she could face the monsters face on. WHY?

These run-on, ramblings—they form the foundation for some of my untold stories.
But now for a story with a happy ending.

It was the fall of my Grade 12 year, the year I remember as ‘The Move’. My father— having been relocated in his job as the pastor to a small country church, packed up alongside his wife our meagre family possessions, and then moved all that, along with four children (minus me) over the course of a weekend. It sometimes takes a weekend to unravel a family. At other times, it just takes a moment.

I alone remained behind in our community, determined that I wouldn’t be trading in all I had known and loved for something new and less desirable. Sixteen is a brazen age. It is old enough to know that you can’t leave behind thirteen years worth of childhood memories, leave behind home, leave behind life; and it’s old enough to physically stay behind, watching the rest go. Yet it is not quite old enough to know exactly how to pull it all off. My parents in their wisdom allowed me the choice to remain back, so long as

I chose to live with a family friend, staying with someone they trusted. But I was on my own when it came to paying rent and looking after essentials. I agreed to their terms and so it was decided— I would stay. But the day they pulled out from the driveway of our first family home, moving van loaded up with my childhood toys, my bed and dresser, van full to the brim with my four younger siblings and weeping mother: that is a day that will forever be imprinted on my memory.

I lasted until the following Monday evening when I finally caved, coming to my senses as well as to the bittersweet realization that at sixteen, I still needed to be with my family. I needed to go ‘home’, whatever that meant now. And so, there was a scramble— a gathering of my own small assemblage of life possessions followed by a drive from one province to another. Which is to say, I found a way to reunite with my family a few days later (as bittersweet as that reunion might have felt in those earliest of moments).

The move crushed me— left me feeling as if the bottom had fallen out from my world. And it left me to cope with the difficult task of ‘starting over’, starting fresh at a time in life when one should be celebrating the finish line.

I found myself in a brand new high school, a strange place to find yourself when you are young, ‘in love’ and at what you think is the pinnacle of your school career. Starting over was humbling. Perhaps it was what I needed, although I wouldn’t have said so then. I went from knowing everyone to knowing no one. I went from being part of a crowd, to feeling outside the crowd. I went from having a presence to feeling invisible. At the time, I would have readily admitted it was my worst sixteen year-old nightmare come true, but somehow I managed to pull things together enough to make it work. I made a few friends, did well in my classes and tried to keep up on the news from my former school and friendship circle— places and people I identified in my heart as representing my real home.

But it was still hard, incredibly so.

There were a few classes in the new school that I did enjoy, especially one subject taught by Mr. D. A funny, earnest man, he infused life into the classroom with his stories, his wealth of knowledge and his love of all things chemistry. I can’t remember at what point in the semester he called me down to his classroom for a chat, but I will never forget the care and concern in his voice.

Somehow, he had seen me there in the back row of his classroom, hiding underneath a veil of resentment, shadowed by fear and insecurity; not the least of which, feeling angry that my life had been interrupted. In spite of it all, he made a point of looking past the image so as to connect with me as a person, letting me know that I had potential and possibility, showing me that he saw the best in me at a time in my life when I couldn’t see the best in my circumstances.

Mr. D. was unforgettable. Was it the chemistry lessons he delivered? The curriculum outcomes he covered? Was it his vast knowledge and seemingly infinite understanding that I remember? What was it, exactly, that forever etched his impression on my memory? What I remember now—now that I am a teacher myself, was his care: his smile, his laughter, his enthusiasm. And I remember that when I was in his class, I wasn’t invisible any longer.

And all because he saw me

For me, I care about care so very much because I have felt both the presence as well as the absence of care. In knowing care as experienced through a child’s embrace, a mother’s love— through a friend’s loyalty, through a teacher’s support, a husband’s touch: I am now better equipped to sense the absence of such when I find it missing from my life. There have certainly been days in which I have felt isolated, uncared-for, and unloved. Those were days in which I searched for care and found that it eluded me. Seeking what I could not find brought me eventually to a place of willingness to be the change I so desperately needed in my own life. While I have come to believe that care is our innate right as human beings, sometimes we must choose to be the care-giver at the on-set, so as to experience the benefits of care as might be felt within our own hearts and souls in the process. To care, that is, to be cared for and to care for one another, these processes of human interaction primarily are what define our purpose towards each other, individual living with individual.

Hand to hand, heart to heart.

Advertisements

Why Small Matters

2015-02-01 15.22.452015-02-01 15.23.052015-02-01 15.02.272015-02-01 15.06.222015-02-01 15.17.00

I walk the length of our house looking for something with color to photograph, something to contrast with the vast expanse of white stretching as far as the eye can see. We’ve been hit with our third storm of the week- outside, winds swirl tossing snow in endless piles around our lawn. These February days are what define the heart of winter in Prince Edward Island.

I cross the veranda, where on better days I might cradle a mug of coffee in one hand and a good book in the other. Today, the wicker chairs are laden with frost and hardened snow-ice, my hands encased in thick, black gloves. I trudge down the steps and find myself immediately sinking in foot-and-a-half high snow drifts. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of an isolated icicle hanging from a low-lying branch on the old pine on our side lawn. I make my way toward it, wishing to capture it’s essence through the lens. I snap a picture even as the icicle itself threatens to snap, bent in the middle and dripping water in a slow and steady rhythm.

It is small and minute against the picturesque landscape I can see surrounding it- only entering my line of vision because I went deliberately looking for something charming to photograph. And yet, this dripping, bent-over icicle has captured my attention in spite of its imperfection.

Small and flawed, it is still enchanting.

Certainly small is significant. I live in a beautiful, yet very small ‘island-province’ in Canada, residing in the western end of the same. My community is small enough that most everyone knows your name. I teach at a small rural school five minutes from my home and my own kindergarten class is the smallest class in the school. Incidentally, I also teach the smallest students in the school- the four and five year-olds.

But sometimes I struggle with the smallness of my life, feeling my insignificance in comparison to the world around me. My lack of reach, the difficulty I have experienced in expanding my professional identity, the obstacles in my path- all point to the smallness of me as one individual. And I struggle with the fact that being small means at times: small circles of influence, small impacts and seemingly insignificant means of effect. I write a blog for which sometimes there is a very small audience, for some pieces I write there are even little to no readers. And I feel my voice is sometimes small and muted – even when speaking to my own children who tend to have selective hearing (!). In terms of outreach, my scope is sometimes not more than an arm’s length.

Small is sometimes limiting.

I talk to my mom on the phone and she shares stories with me about my Dad. We both see that because of the reality in which he finds himself, the extent of his effect and the scope of his influence has been made very limited. He was once a pastor of a large urban church where hundreds were in attendance.  A ministry for him that was demanding, substantial in impact and important. And now his ability to live life has been debilitated. I am sure there are times when he wonders and questions the scope of his reach as he sits in a restoration facility waiting to be discharged and given his release. I am sure he questions why, although I never hear him voice the words.

I would, if it were me.

In spite of these limitations, he continues to be an inspiration to those around him- using the smallness of his life to enrich others in very large ways. I can’t even count the times in which he has used his words, both written and verbal, to encourage, help and care for those around him. This is not wasted time that he spends dealing with the effects of his disease- this is purposeful, intentional opportunity, and he is using it to be a care-giver to others whom he sees as needing compassion and consideration.

Every small act of kindness is important and meaningful to the one receiving.  Nothing is insignificant when it comes to acts of care.

And in this way, small can be an opportunity- an occasion in which to make something big out of something very little. Who can ever forget the words of the starfish poem, in which something so very small has become the source of such great and worldwide inspiration:

One day an old man was walking down the beach just before dawn.  In the distance he saw a young man picking up stranded starfish and throwing them back into the sea.  As the old man approached the young man, he asked, “Why do you spend so much energy doing what seems to be a waste of time?”  The young man explained that the stranded starfish would die if left in the morning sun.  The old man exclaimed, “But there must be thousands of starfish.  How can your efforts make any difference?”  The young man looked down at the starfish in his hand and as he threw it to safety in the sea, he said,” It makes a difference to this one!”(retrieved from http://hopefulhealing.com/Starfish_Poem.html)

It must be said: if it matters to one, then it matters indeed.

That tiny icicle is now gone- melted or blown away. It was never meant to last, only there to shine for a short time. But while it hung suspended from that branch, letting light refract through its intricate design, it mattered.

At least it mattered to one.

2015-02-01 15.22.38

Taking care of ourselves

She playfully bats at the little ball of fluff, her baby. Tousling, grooming, cuddling, nursing. But when she sees the need, setting the little kitten free to explore without the ever-present eye of Mama to govern and oversee. Sometimes, she completely appears to abandon, lazing in the sun while her tiny kitten sits alone on the top stair of our steps, wary and uncertain. Is Mama neglectful? I think not.

When mama cat lovingly stretches out languidly on our top step with baby nearby, her tiny offspring responds to her in love. There is no doubt that there is a relationship between the two. But it is one designed to set free so that the younger can one day take care of herself. To never allow for the certainty that the baby will one day be on its own would be a tragedy. True. Everyone needs love- even barn cats. But you rarely see amongst animals any form of helicopter parenting as one often sees in human parenting. Animals seem to know instinctively the balance needed so as to nurture and prepare their offspring for life after the nursery.

Care requires that we respond within a relationship. Within relationships of care, there is always a two-way exchange happening at any given time- a process which can reverse and rearrange at seemingly a moment’s notice. And all because relationships of care are responsive. A caregiver in relationship to another acknowledges a need or a requirement, responds to that need and then allows for caring to occur. This process can be reversed almost immediately, depending on the relationship. The cared-for- in response to the care emitted, can then responsively give care to the other almost immediately.

In thinking about care so much and so often, I am realizing that there are elements of care that we have forgotten. I feel we have forgotten at times how to take care. A local radio personality whom I have listened to over the years often signs off with the phrase, ‘take care of one another today’; from the moment I first heard this phrase, it has stuck with me. How does one take care? And where does care-taking begin?

I would suggest that there are dimensions of caretaking that we must heed. That we have overlooked. The first being our need to take care of ourselves.

There is an underlying assumption that we need to take care of one another in life, but in order to do this, we first need to learn the secret of taking care of ourselves. In taking care of ourselves, we need to learn to listen to our bodies, listen to our hearts. We have all heard of the spoken rule, given by flight attendants on airlines, to put on your own mask on first prior to helping your children or other dependents. I am convinced in my own life that the growth and development of care woven throughout my life experiences has been a direct result of my learned ability to care for myself, self-care guided for me by faith through the direction of a loving Father. For years, I looked to others to care for me. Why weren’t they doing what I thought was the basic of all human responses- caring? Why were people not responding to my needs? And why wasn’t I feeling loved and looked after? Why was I feeling so bereft? These feelings of a deficit in care followed me into my marriage, leaving me looking to a husband to fulfil the role of caretaker, a tremendous responsibility considering he was not even the one who had left me feeling unloved and uncared for in the first place. That was baggage I had brought into our marriage- a composite of my difficult years of schooling, my years in the public eye as a pastor’s kid and the other personal experiences of my life that directly impacted me in very private ways. We cannot first expect others to care for us if we have not learned how to care for ourselves. And I am convinced that many, many problems in marriages could be avoided if we first were able to redirect our need for care back to ourselves- as well as if we could start to see that the ways people express care, initiate care, offer care, interpret care and understand care: are different. Different. Not bad, worse, inferior or poorer: just different. Maybe we need to start by seeing the best in what another human being is offering us, starting with our partners.

I would never, ever wish the message I am conveying to be one in which we reduce the responsibility we have toward others. My life is rich because I have learned to care for others. I believe that the transformation in my life has been one in which, with God’s guiding hand, I was able to take something that was painful and difficult and see the good in it. I think this is the reason I am now able to responsively express care to others: there has been a miracle in my life. But I would never want to overstep the responsibility I have been given to care for myself in all of this. That was a first step in this process- understanding the needs in my life and slowly taking measures to meet those needs one by one through loving myself. Through accepting myself. Unconditionally. I had to learn to love myself so as to love others. And I cannot personally underestimate my faith in Jesus and my Abbba Father in this process- as I have come to understand I have a Father who loves me intimately and expressly, I can now love myself as an expression of His love. I am free to love the others in my life as I now know how much I am loved myself.

And this is the very essence of care: freedom to love and responsively give to oneself and the others in one’s life. Freely, wholly, purely.

All because of love.