17 November 2011


Two weeks ago,  I took A. to the playground. It was a beautiful fall day, warm but breezy, and we were surrounded by blazing red- and yellow-leafed trees and that golden, slanting autumn sunshine.

An older man arrived, with an Alaskan husky on a leash and a young boy (maybe 5 years old) with him. Both man and boy were dressed in maroon football shirts, and the little boy carried a small plastic football. Eventually, A. and a few other children started playing catch with the football. The man gave instruction and encouragement to the boy, who grinned at the two preschool girls and the toddler boy just waiting for him to throw the ball to them. A. chased down the ball and threw it back. “She’s got a good arm!” the man said gruffly. He was just old enough that I couldn’t tell if he was the boy’s father or grandfather. A somewhat weathered, tanned face, salt and pepper hair. “You got to throw it up, a little higher,” he told the boy after one toss went straight into the ground. “That’s it, like that!”

After years spent in soccer-mad Europe, this felt oddly  familiar. It felt like home. It felt like Pennsylvania.


No one who grew up 30 minutes from State College, like I did, can be indifferent to what’s going on there. I did not attend Penn State. But my grandfather did. He came from coal country and worked his way through college; and then on the strength of his smarts and hard work and education, he succeeded as a chemical engineer, recruited for his company at Penn State, amassed a small fortune through prudent saving and investing,  moved to State College in retirement, and (I’m sure) gave a small fortune to  Penn State. I know that because I remember sitting in his season-ticket seats on the 40 yard line.

He would be heart-broken. And angry. Pop-pop was something to see when he was angry.

One of my uncles worked at Penn State, and my step-brother and cousins on both sides of my family attended there. Many of my high school friends and acquaintances. Everyone in Tyrone watches Penn State football, whether they went there or not.


In the Bible study I’m attending this fall, we talk about leaving a legacy. It Starts at Home, the book is called. It calls adult Christians to think about what their lives say to their children, their children’s children. How to structure family life so that kids have a chance of seeing faith at work at home.

The leader started out by telling us about finding an old newspaper clipping among her mother’s things after her death. It was an obituary of her great-grandmother. It listed all the usual information, and then said something like, “She was devoted to the spiritual welfare of her children.” That was a wake-up call in her own life, the leader told us. Would anyone be able to say that about her, when she passed on? What did her priorities look like? Did she want her obituary to say “She loved gardening” or “Her house was pretty”? What would her children remember about her?

She noted that it doesn’t take very long for the world to forget us. Just a generation or two before there is no one left on earth who knew us. Like her great-grandmother, now known only through a yellowed obituary. Like Pop-pop, like my other grandparents, who passed away before or just after K. was born. When my children are grown, will they look through old family photos and wonder who those people are?


One chapter examines the legacy of Abraham and Sarah. Not that legacy, the one where they start a nation of chosen people, and are considered the parents of not one but three major religions. No, the other one, where Abraham is afraid for his own skin, so he lies and says Sarah is his sister.  The king who took him at his word is pretty pissed off when he gets a little midnight visitation from the Lord Almighty. Make that kings. Abraham uses the same lie twice, with two different kings. Abraham is rightly commended for his faith, but it’s clear he has some pretty significant faults, too.  A generation later, Abraham’s son Isaac does the same thing. Lies to the king that his wife is his sister, to protect himself.  Ah, but Isaac reaps what he sows. His own son, Jacob, pretends to be his twin brother, and on Isaac’s deathbed, deceives his blind, sick father into giving Jacob the blessing and inheritance that Isaac intended to give to Esau. Wily Jacob eventually makes up with his brother and has a bunch of kids—12 sons, to be exact. Ten of them sell the eleventh into slavery, then lie to their father about it for years. It’s only when they encounter Joseph, now in a position of power in Egypt, that they are forced to tell old Jacob the truth. The book argues that Joseph breaks the chain by remaining honest and forgiving his brothers. But I seem to remember Joseph not being totally up front when he sees his brothers and realizes they do not recognize him. Of course, when your own brothers throw you in a pit and sell you into slavery, I suppose it would be hard to trust them when they show up 20 years later, begging for food.

Abraham’s legacy, then, despite his faith, is a cord of light and dark intertwined. “The ties that bind” within any family—even legendary ones—have greater or lesser amounts of virtue, faith, pain, deception, love, addiction, respect, anger…


“Write at the top of the page your name and the word ‘legacy',” the leader says. Dutifully I write down “Jennifer’s Legacy.” It looks weird. It looks wrong. The thought comes to me, “What makes you think you deserve a legacy?” I feel...almost shame, definitely discomfort. Acknowledging that I could have an impact on the world, or even specifically my children, seemed like hubris. Aren’t legacies what presidents leave? It takes a few minutes before I realize. That thought, and those feelings, do not come from God.  They do not fit with what I have learned about how God loves us. For days, I think about that moment and try to figure out why I reacted that way. It has something to do with the culture I grew up in, I think, and something to do with my own flawed view of myself and the world.

But here’s the conclusion I’ve finally reached, in this unlikely juxtaposition of my little world and the world of “updates in the Penn State scandal.” Everyone leaves a legacy, whether they mean to or not. Most of us leave accidental legacies. We just do what we think is right, we get through the day, we do what comes naturally to us. Life is hard, and it’s easy to get caught up in the latest crisis and miss the people who are looking to us. Little ones who study us to find out what life is all about. Who see the best and worst of their parents. Who hear what we are saying, and then look at what we are doing. No wonder we see our own faults in our children. And, hopefully, our own strengths.


I saw a TV show once where an investigator was interviewing a suspect in a child molestation. And she drew a word picture that I’ve remembered since. She talked about the times when the pedophile himself had been abused as a child, and then further back, to the person who abused that guy, and so on. It was a chain of abuse going back generations. Not necessarily within one family, but within a long line of the abused who became abusers.

A horrible, twisted legacy, but a legacy nonetheless.


The word legacy and Joe Paterno go naturally together. But the heft and color and shape of JoePa’s legacy has been warped by that other, twisted legacy of abuse. One may argue about who knew when and who did what and on and on. I know, because I have. No one in my family or among my Pennsylvania friends could be accused of not having strong opinions.

Penn State has never had a recruiting scandal. Joe’s legacy is an academically focused, clean, honest football program. Until now.

I’m not entirely sure what I think about it, other than the pedophile did what pedophiles do and that someone—many someones—should have stopped him sooner. For those little boys, now men, Penn State’s legacy means something sordid and frightening and uncaring.

It’s all so very sad.


And so I come back around to myself, my family. It’s finally clear to me that legacy is not just a word for great men and women. All of us leave some kind of legacy. All of us have an imprint on those around us, whether we recognize it or not.

Will my legacy, the cords that connect me to my children, and my children’s children, be bright and encouraging, something hopeful to hang on to? Or will they be dark and slippery, binding and chafing? I am not foolish enough to think it has ever been an either/or choice. But I can make choices today, and tomorrow, and for the rest of my life, that give my children more light than dark. “Choose this day whom you will serve.” For too long, I have chosen not to choose. It is time. I fail every day, but I can also strive every day to shelter the light in my daughters’ eyes, to give them something to hang on to when life gets hard, to show them that life has joy and meaning. That each of them has joy and meaning.

What will your legacy be?


03 November 2011

What Lies Beneath

What I would call the conventional view of God sees him as above. Heaven is up, hell is down. Of course, as modern-day scientific-type people we know that the moon and the solar system and the Milky Way and, what the heck, SPACE, the FINAL frontier! is up. Down is dirt and crust and rocks and lava and diamonds and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

[K said just yesterday that she wonders where heaven is. Note that she did not ask me where heaven is. She’s now old enough to know that I probably can’t answer all her questions (or even most of them) satisfactorily. Truthfully, I was thisclose to telling her that heaven is in an alternate dimension, which is pretty much how I think about it. But then I’d have to explain alternate dimensions and since most of my scientific “knowledge” is from (1) reading science fiction and (2) correcting the grammar of medical researchers without actually knowing what many of the words mean, uh, yeah, no.]

But that is just a preface to saying this: for a while now, my mental picture of how God works has been changing. I often think of the “kingdom of God” as running beneath what we see as reality. Underground springs leading into rivers of grace, moving silently beneath the hard rock and red clay of the everyday.

“God is the same yesterday, today, and forever” to me does not mean his ways of dealing with us haven’t changed. The Old Testament is a top-down story. God chooses a people and then spends generations trying to beat his law and Himself into their heads. Sometimes they listen; most times they do not. A stiff-necked people, they are. “I am the LORD your God! Hey, what are you doing with that golden calf? I just parted the Red Sea for you! You call that gratitude?”

Hmm. Sometimes parenting sucks.

But then, it seems like some of them listen. They abide by the Law. They like the Law so much that they make addendums—not just sentences but whole books. They like being the chosen ones so much that they make sure the UNchosen ones know it.  Keeping the Law becomes a formal dance—one step wrong, and you’re disqualified. And it doesn’t really matter if you’re heart is in it. Just do the steps, precisely and perfectly. Even if you have to step on others to keep the rhythm. Those others don’t know the dance, they are out of step, so they don’t matter.

The Law turns cold, demanding, heartless.

Then Jesus comes on the scene. And he says something revolutionary—that the Law is not the all in all. God is. People are. And the kingdom of God is not about cold obedience to rules. It is about someone finding a precious jewel in a field. A secret find, in a field not his own. He hugs the knowledge of the jewel to himself, and tries to figure out how to buy that field. He ends up selling everything else to get it. Or the woman who loses a coin and spends all day looking for it. It’s hidden, not obvious. You may have to go looking for it. But it’s there.

Nothing is as it seems. The powerful, the rich of this world, the well-known, they are not the point. The sweeping events of our time or any other affect millions of lives. And many of the Old Testament events show that God sometimes chooses to effect change in big, showy ways. But Jesus shows that God is also the God of the small, the individual. Maybe even moreso than that God of the Flood or the Red Sea. He welcomes small children. He talks to women as equals in a time when they were anything but. He touches the nasty sores of the leper, the grimy faces of filthy blind beggars. No one is beneath him. And in a small, annoying  backwater of the largest empire in the world, he dies a small, humiliating death, dashing the hopes of his followers for a big revolution.

Even the Resurrection is small, individual. Jesus is raised from the dead and hangs out in the cemetery to talk to one woman. He walks from Jerusalem to Emmaus with two of his followers, eavesdropping and then anonymously teaching them a thing or two about prophecy. He eats breakfast with his disciples on the lake shore. And not too long after that, he’s gone.

Then the real fun begins. The Holy Spirit enters the picture, the disciples get inspired, and the whole drama of the church begins. And somewhere along the way, the church goes from being subversive to being…versive? It gains too much power, and it becomes part of the problem. Sometimes it can still be part of the problem. But, see, that Holy Spirit is still there, doing its work on the human spirit.




Underneath the surface.


We live in a noisy time. Politics, religion, science, the Real Housewives of wherever. We’re all shouting at each other, and few are really listening.  But underneath? Underneath the noise, the Spirit is still at work. In every tragedy are people who quietly help others. In every political party are those who sincerely try to do what is right. For every disgusting, blasphemous sign a rogue cult holds up at a funeral, there are hundreds who will stand between them and the mourners. For every loud-mouthed talking head on TV, there are a thousand people who listen for the distant roar of an underground spring.

Make no mistake—God is still the God of grand gestures, the maker of the Rocky Mountains, and the Sahara Desert, and the bold autumnal forest. But he is also God of the hidden cavern in which centuries of slow drips form stalactites that no one sees, and of a microscopic universe of bacteria and viruses and amoeba, unseen—not even suspected—by humans for millions of years.

Perhaps a time will come when God speaks to the multitudes again, and Revelation says that he will.  Some in every generation believe that “the time is near.” But as the world seems to gets louder, and harder, and coarser, and colder—listen and look. All is not what it seems. God is still at work, beneath the chaos, seeping into the cracked and dry rocks of our hearts, streaming under and around those who serve, rushing in as soon as we ask to be filled.

This song just seems to go with this post. I don’t know why. Gorgeous, though.

26 October 2011


We’re back in Northern Virginia, the home base of Busy.  And Traffic, which adds to the Busy. As a stay-at-home mom, I am the director of logistics and the social chairman of the family. These are not my spiritual gifts. The other day, I dropped K off for Girl Scouts. Except there was no meeting. I had mis-read the 2-page schedule of Girl Scout events and activities. For the record, several such schedules currently reside on the kitchen corkboard: Girl Scouts, Junior Choir, preschool, the church women’s ministry. It occurs to me that I never actually printed out the school schedule. I should do that before we end up some morning waiting for a bus that never comes.

I’m attending a women’s Bible study at our new church. It’s about spiritual formation in the home. How to intentionally order family life so that children grow up knowing God. Knowing that God is not just for Sunday morning. How to teach faith…or, more accurately, live faith and talk about that faith with our children. 

Today the leader of the study (also the head of women’s ministry at the church) said that a typical conversation with moms went something like this: “How are you doing?” “I’m good. Overwhelmed, but fine.”

Busy is the definition of life in this area. The leader said that for many years she would hear from other people that she was too busy. “Oh, don’t go to C with this; she’s so busy.” So she decided that she wanted to be known as available, not busy. She stopped talking about how busy she was. If a young mom called her and needed to talk over coffee, she went. It was more important to be available.

The challenge is, we are busy with good stuff. School and work and Girl Scouts and swimming and choir and homework and violin and “no, you can’t go over to your friend’s house because you need to do homework plus your half-hour of reading before we leave for swim practice.”

How’s it going? Oh, busy. Yeah, we are, too. We’re SO busy. Busy, busy, busy. And you compare notes. Because the busier you are, the more important you are. Right? You’re in demand, you’re successful (or your kids are successful, which of course means you are, too), you’re on the go, active, involved. Busy.

And now Christmas is coming. More things to do.  Shopping, cooking, decorations, cards…it makes me tired just thinking about it.

But what am I showing my kids about what’s important? Homework comes first, all the things succeeding in school requires…but what is success without meaning? I’m teaching something valuable about work before play, about meeting your obligations, but duty by itself is empty. When do I teach the Why and the Who? Why is learning important? Who do we live our lives for?

So I’m thinking a lot about how to create space for prayer. For conversations that go deeper than “Have you finished your homework? What do you need to do now?”. For lighting a candle during Advent and talking about the Light of the World. I’m not sure how to do it, though.  For someone who expresses herself better in writing, who prefers silence over noise, talking about important things feels awkward, forced somehow.

Besides, we’re so busy.

16 June 2011


I drive past it at least once a week. I come around a curve and it looms at the end of the street, an oldish building that reminds me of my high school, but taller. Windows outlined in metal with white and green and blue flat outer walls. The West-Pfalz Klinikum, the center of our lives during the summer of 2008, when our second daughter was born two months premature. I remember, every time I see it. Fear and hope and sadness and anticipation and love and exhaustion and fear and fear and fear. And not being able to breathe as I drove back toward the hospital, suddenly sure against all logic that I was too late, would be met at the door with bad news. And crying in the car as I drove away, getting out all the tears and desperate prayers before I arrived home and tried to give my older daughter some semblance of normality.

A few months ago, I went to a baby shower. The mom-to-be was beautiful, even though she clearly didn’t think so. Thin with a big baby belly and a 5-year-old daughter. The new baby will be a daughter, too. Even though I didn’t know very many people, everyone was friendly and I had fun. As we played that silly game where you cut lengths of string to estimate the size of the mom’s belly, I suddenly thought, “By this time in my pregnancy, Annika would have already been born.” And I felt a twinge of jealousy, that I had missed those final weeks. That I had missed that sticky-outty belly button, the supposed nesting instinct, the easy confidence that a baby would actually come out of this.

Even as those days recede, as my clearly healthy and robust toddler asserts her healthy and robust independence, I realize that my infertility/childbearing experience has marked me.

I feel cheated of what I think is a “normal” experience. Left out again. Those long years when I began to think we would never have a child of our own, when I walked around with an open wound barely covered under a veneer of pleasantness. Unwomanly. Failure. Deformed.

Miscarriage. I think most women would tell you that pregnancy after miscarriage is different. The innocence, the blind confidence that a pregnancy will of course lead to a real, live baby, is shaken. And me being on the anxious side to begin with, well. I counted the weeks until the 28th week. Only then did I even start to think that it “might really happen.” 28 weeks, when something like 80 to 90 percent of babies actually survive if born too early. I know this because I looked up a chart with survival rates of premature babies. And I tried really hard not to think about things like cord accidents, which could happen at any time.

So when my water broke in the early morning of June 16, 2008, it was shocking and scary, but not a total surprise. My first was born at 34 weeks, also because my water broke weeks too early. She, however, was a whopping 6 pounds, the biggest baby in the neonatal intensive care unit, where she stayed only a few days.

I prayed. How I prayed, as I called my husband, called the hospital, got Katrina out of bed and dressed (it was the first day of her summer vacation). Desperately worried, but remaining calm—even faux cheerful—so as not to panic my sensitive 6 year old.

No comical mishaps or huffing and puffing through contractions while stuck in traffic, like the movie versions of birth. Just a grim silence, punctuated by endless questions from Katrina, and even-toned answers from hubby, as I tried to keep my tears at bay.

Then the waiting, the confirmation that indeed I was in labor, the problem of who to call to take care of Katrina. We had made no babysitter plans, because my mom-in-law was coming a full month before my due date—but her date of arrival was a week away. Thankfully, it took only one call and generous friends to get Katrina squared away.

I got to ride in an ambulance, which was less interesting than one would think. No sirens for me. Just two young German paramedics, one of whom had enough English to chat with me briefly, kindly. He looked as nervous as I felt.

Waiting, waiting, waiting, shots, IV, more waiting. Hubby went home to sleep. They hoped to keep the baby in as long as possible, but my body didn’t cooperate. At midnight I called my hubby back to the hospital. I was being prepped for surgery.

There was a surreal interlude while I waited for the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, my husband. The German soccer team was playing in the European Cup, and had just played that evening. So the nurses and the intern sat around me in an unused delivery room and talked about the game. It was after midnight, and the intern was the same woman who had done my intake at 11 am that morning. They were a little punchy, I think. It was comforting.

Hubby arrived as I climbed onto the operating table, dizzy from some sort of pre-anesthesia. They couldn’t do a spinal, so it would be general anesthesia for me. The last thing I remember is shivering, and seeing the door close on my husband.

I came out of anesthesia to see my husband sitting on the edge of my bed. “Is she okay? Is she okay?” He said something about her lip not being fully formed. I didn’t care. “Is she breathing on her own? Is she on oxygen? Is she REALLY okay?”

He assured me that she was better than okay. She was breathing on her own and had no need for oxygen, a rarity for babies born that early. Our girls both have good lungs, which our eardrums are reminded of nearly every day.

Then the coughing started. I had an asthma-like reaction to one of the medications. The medication probably saved my life, but it also gave me a 12-hour respiratory hangover that landed me in intensive care. Poor hubby went back and forth, from one end of the hospital to the other, from his new daughter’s incubator in the NICU to his wife struggling to breathe in adult intensive care.

It was more than 24 hours before I got to see my baby in person. The hospital kindly gave me a few pictures, and my husband took more. I stared and stared, trying to believe she was real.

The first time I saw her, with an IV attached to her foot and a feeding tube up her nose, I cried. I couldn’t stop crying. I just whispered, “I’m sorry, baby,” over and over. In that moment, it was my fault, my body’s failure. Already I had failed as a mother.

The doctors and nurses in the NICU seemed to think we’d be upset about her cleft lip. Every time we talked to a doctor, they brought it up. They would get a referral to a plastic surgeon, they said. They had a call in to the specialty center in Mainz, they said. Hubby and I cared nothing about her lip. It did not involve her palate, so it was a cosmetic issue, not a health one. We were just grateful she was alive.

After Annika was more than a month in the hospital, we finally heard noises about when she could go home. She was “stepped down” to the non-critical care unit. A day or two later, she was back in intensive care with an obviously painful but mysterious gastrointestinal issue. A frantic 24 hours followed, with the prospect of exploratory surgery hanging over our heads.

No one ever knew what it was. But she got better. So much better that she could come home.

Our German cleaning lady, herself a force to be reckoned with, calls Annika her “fighting princess”. Like Xena, she says. “Annika fought for life.”

So. I go to baby showers, and I’m happy and I’m wistful for the fearless birth I think we were cheated of, that mountain-top experience that many parents describe. Both of our daughters were whisked away to be poked and prodded and kept alive. Both times they seemed like little strangers to me. One cannot bond with a picture.

But both times, we were incredibly grateful just to have them. Glowing orange from jaundice? A cleft lip? Nothing. Nothing compared to being here. 

I’ve been struggling with motherhood lately. Some days my two little strong-willed extroverts seem to need more than this compliant introvert has to give. The arguments pile up, with the older one chanting her “it’s not fair” refrain while the younger one screams incoherently and stamps her foot. Until I am DONE.

Sometimes I feel cheated of the compliant, no-fuss child my mother says I was. (And sometimes I wonder if my mother has a selective memory of her children’s behaviors.) And then I remember how each of my children came into the world. How each one survived my inhospitable womb, her early arrival, her time hooked up to IVs, her frightened, scattered mother.  Of course they have strong wills.

They had to have strong wills, strong lungs, a fighting spirit.  So they could survive their precarious arrival and come out of babyhood healthy and happy. Thanks to modern medicine and the strength that God put into their spirits, my girls cheated death.

And THAT is the only cheating that matters.