29 April 2012

Ramblings on Friendship

It’s been a crazy week, full of “she said-she said”, tears, betrayal, nasty words and nastier notes. Fourth grade girls, easy to anger and hard to reason with. Harder still to determine the truth. A careful conversation with another girl’s mother, oh-so-polite agreement, though it was clear that each of us mostly believed her own daughter’s story. Tentative apologies, symbolic gift-giving, finally chattering at the bus stop. And parents unsure whether a change is in order—is this a blip or an indication of other problems to come?

No one tells you that having children means you get to revisit the worst and hardest parts of childhood. And the best, of course, but that was not what this week held.

Last day of British school.
 Two of them left the country the next day.
“Mom,” she said in tears. “How could she do that to me? I thought she was my friend. I thought she knew how hard it’s been for me being new this year. I want to go back to Germany! ” At her old school, where she was one of a handful of Americans, where she stuck out for her accent, her culture, but where she felt a sense of belonging, of trust. She doesn’t feel that at her very good suburban elementary school, in her home country, which—for now, at least—still feels a bit foreign to her.

As an adult, I can see that I never did fit into the culture of my childhood home. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have fit in elsewhere, but Tyrone is all I have to go by. When I go back, the beauty of the mountains, the openness of the landscape—no five-lane highways, no hustle-bustle, no feeling like other people are just in your way, simply because there are so many of them—it feels like home. And the junior-senior high school, which looks the same now as it did in the 80s (at least from the front), where I impressed the hell out of the teachers. Not so much the students.  High school is where smart became a dirty word to me.

Junior high is where I learned how mean girls can be.

Even nice girls from good homes, even church-going girls.

It went on for months, in my memory. Notes telling me how stuck-up I was. Girls I didn’t know well telling me that so-and-so was mad at me. Girls cluster in groups, you know. Rarely is a conflict between just two people.

For the record, the “mean girls” in my memory grew up to be lovely adults. In fact, they grew into lovely 17-year-olds. Thirteen is a bitch.

I never understood the “stuck-up” accusations. I desperately wanted to belong.

It wasn’t my fault books were more interesting than people.

In my memory, I spent elementary school hiding my own books inside of textbooks. I rarely got caught. The few times I was, I didn’t get in trouble. Maybe the teachers knew how boring it all was. Maybe they had their hands full with the kids whose lack of attention was louder, whose grades were lower. I was quiet and low-maintenance. I did light up and participate when they moved on to something interesting. And it’s hard for an educator to knock a kid who loves to read.

In my memory, when I wasn’t reading, I was constantly assessing my own and everyone else’s status in the social order. I knew I wasn’t the core of my group of friends. I wasn’t fun enough, or pretty enough, or free enough. I was self-contained, abstracted, wondering how the flamboyant among us had the courage to draw attention to themselves, and resenting the attention they got. I subtly (or maybe not-so-subtly) rejected those whom I thought would make me look bad to my desired friends. And I was rejected (or felt rejected) by kids who forged closer friendships with others than with me.

Even as young as elementary school, I knew: if you aren’t noticed, you don’t make yourself a target. Don’t think that others will like you just because you like them. Don’t display your neediness. Be cool, and funny, and unemotional.

Don’t show your friends that you really like them. Don’t trust your friends with your secrets or your real self. You’re just asking to get hurt.

I always wanted a best friend. I never had one.

As an adult, I am aware of the dichotomy of the previous two paragraphs. I’m just not sure how to overcome a lifetime of knee-jerk distancing.

K. has an open heart, so open it scares me. She is not fickle about her friends. Once she considers you a friend, you are a friend for life. So far, at least, she has wished only the best for her friends. When her close friend beat her out in an art contest in the fall, both were upset because they placed lower than they expected. K. came home upset not just for herself, but for her friend. “That person in second shouldn’t have been ahead of us! R. should have gotten second and me third!”

She’s had difficulties with kids at school on and off, but this is the first time someone she considers a friend has turned on her. Unfortunately, it probably won’t be the last. There are a lot of years between her and a time when she and her peers have the social skills to accept others’ flaws, or to forgive, or to confront issues head-on. Hopefully, she will learn these skills faster than I did. Faster than I am.

“Name three friendships you have lost over the years.  What did you learn from their loss?” That was the question we were to answer for Bible study this week. In small group discussion, I glossed over my own friendship failures in favor of focusing on K’s current drama. Because the truth is, most friendships I can point to were not lost suddenly—no fight or unconquerable life issue. Just—a slow distancing. Me fumbling around, crippled by an inner sense that I didn’t want to force myself where I might not be wanted. Missed opportunities. Acquaintances that never became friends.  Feeling perpetually on the outside, the observer. Knowing that that feeling may not reflect reality, but feeling it nonetheless.

A pitfall of the writer, and the introvert, I’d guess. Always observing, and analyzing, rarely entering into the moment but storing moments to take out and look at later, to write about, to make them make sense.

Something I’ve learned this week: my instincts about people are good, correct more often than I’d like. I was not very surprised about the source of K.’s drama. The conversation with the girl’s mother went about like I expected it would (thank goodness). I was surprised that K. and her friend so readily reconciled, but I suppose attention spans are not that long in fourth grade.

Which tells me that people are not so unreadable to me. That what gets in the way is…myself.

15 April 2012

Picture of Grace

Communion today. We sing hymns and check that K. is behaving herself in the choir loft and wait for the usher to motion us from our seat. Hubby stands up slowly, burdened with fast-asleep A. We walk up the aisle to kneel at the altar. “The body of Christ, given for you.” A moment, a prayer, a walk back to our seat near the back of the church. Singing, or staring off into space, waiting for the end of communion. The line up front dissipates, the last communicants file back to their seats, the ushers begin to tidy the altar area.

The pastor walks swiftly back the aisle, holding the vessel containing the Communion wafers. I’ve never noticed him do this before. He is tall and thin, in white robes with a white-and-gold stole for Easter. He stops at the very back pew, in front of a small old lady with white hair. Her shoulders are hunched forward as she sits. She does not raise her head. He bends down, down, to look her in the eye. I cannot hear him, of course, but I know what he’s saying. “The Body of Christ, broken for you. The Blood of Christ, shed for you.” The Body of Christ, hand-delivered personally, while the organ plays and the congregation readies itself for the final blessing and closing hymn. She cannot come forward to receive the bread and wine. But it comes to her anyway. She is valued, in her infirmity and in her old age. Valued, even cherished, enough that the leader of a large congregation takes those few extra minutes to bring Christ to her. To bend down, look her in the eye, and tell her that God loves her.

We cannot reach to the God of the Universe under our own power. So the Body of Christ comes to us. Personally, hand-delivered. Even when we cannot raise our head to look him in the eye. He bends down to touch our weary hearts, to tell us, “You are valuable to me. I give my all for you.”

11 April 2012

Ahem. Is This Thing On?

My poor blog, limping along in the wake of Facebook, where I can throw up a quick sentence or two and feel like I’m connecting. Also, now that we’ve moved back to the States, my musings are not nearly so interesting, to me or (I presume) anyone else. Northern Virginians are busy! I’m still socially awkward and clueless about how to make friends! My kids are still cute, except when they are screaming terrors! Allergies or spring cold: a riveting mystery involving phlegm, coughing, and Robitussin. Hmm. That one has some potential—a “cozy” on the microscopic level. Just when you think the virus did it, the devilish duo of Histamine and Pollen steps out from a dark corner….

So. In no particular order, here’s an update of what’s in my jumbled brain. Maybe you can tell me in the comments if you’d like a whole post on one or more of these topics. (Or one that says, please, for the love of all things holy, NO MORE on that one!) (I’m not picky.)

1. The Paleo Diet. Started it on Ash Wednesday, except I didn’t give up dairy , so more of a “primal” approach. No grains, no sugar, no seed oils, no legumes. Meat (preferably grass-fed/pastured), vegetables, nuts, fruits. I lost ten pounds by Easter. But the, ahem, digestive problems I had hoped this diet would alleviate did not go away. So I gave myself a couple of “cheat” days—made gluten-free brownies on Easter, and pizza on Easter Monday—and am now back on the diet, using coconut milk in my coffee and giving up cheese and yogurt. I have been going on and ON about this thing. I’m a bit obsessed, because the diet’s philosophy includes a lot about the quality of food. I’m probably the last person to have NOT read the Omnivore’s Dilemma or seen Food Inc, but give me a break, I’ve been out of the country for a few years. I’d like to get the whole family on board, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. My husband is already sick to death of me talking about it. Also, grass-fed, pasture-raised, organic etc. is not cheap. A Budget Talk is upcoming.

2. Speaking of socially awkward, I told my Bible study today (you know, the one led by the senior pastor’s wife?) that the Good Friday service that her husband led made me miss my church in Germany. Thank goodness I preceded that stellar observation with saying that I thought it was a great service and that it made an impression on my daughter. But oh, I missed Pastor Morrison standing at the back of our echoing church singing, “O My People.”

3. I had a short conversation today with the associate pastor at our current church, while A. played on the church playground after Bible study. He asked how we “found” Prince of Peace, and in a roundabout way I got to why we’ve made the switch from ELCA churches (the more “liberal” of the Lutheran denominations) to this church, which is part of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (the more “conservative” Lutheran body, though there is at least one body that’s even more conservative).  The ELCA is going through an ongoing…disagreement?…among its member churches similar to that of the American Episcopal church, concerning the acceptance/ordination of gays/lesbians. And here is where I managed to convey entirely the wrong meaning, by vaguely mentioning that the ELCA has become too “liberal” for us. Because the decision to try out the more conservative denomination had nothing to do with the issue of gays in ministry (or in the pews). It had to do with sitting through too many sermons full of amusing anecdotes and feel-good platitudes, but no substance or challenge. With a high-ranking guest pastor, years ago, telling us that “virgin” did not mean virgin, but “young girl.” With a pastor saying he didn’t believe that Noah’s Ark actually existed. With a new hymnal where old lyrics were changed beyond recognition, or hymns were left out altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, I also have strong points of disagreement with the LCMS, the greatest being its refusal to ordain women. And maybe if we lived in the Midwest, the stronghold of old-school American Lutheranism, LCMS churches would be too conservative and the ELCA about right. But here in the cosmopolitan DC suburbs, a somewhat liberal-leaning “conservative” congregation suits us just fine.  I think we have come to the conclusion that no particular denomination is going to agree with all of our idiosyncratic beliefs/opinions, and maybe it shouldn’t have to. Grace. I’ve about given up on “fitting in” and now just want to be among people who do their best to follow Jesus and give others some leeway when they fail.

4. The Book. Yeah, I have this…story thing rattling around in my head. Except it’s not a full story, like with a plot or anything. It’s a character, and a situation, and I don’t have an ending or really a middle. I started it maybe 2 years ago, just a few short chapters, and it sat in my computer files for about a year. I’m getting back to it. It’s a novel. Doesn’t every writer have a novel somewhere begging to be written? I made the mistake of mentioning it to my daughter some time ago. Every so often she says, “So, are you done with that book yet?” Ruh-roh. So. I have approximately 6 hours a week “free” while both children are in school. I can blog, I can work on The Book, I can go grocery shopping without having to keep track of a 3-yr-old who thinks the yogurt aisle is a vast tower-making facility. Or I can watch American Idol or Chopped while folding laundry. I think you can see where I’m going here. I love Colton but I think Jessica or Joshua will win it. Also, I’ve got two characters in a dead farmer’s car on the back roads of post-apocalyptic Pennsylvania, and I’m not sure what to do with them. They have guns now so at some point there will be some shooting. It’s like a law of storytelling or something.

5. My 9-yr-old told me last night that she misses the way our house smelled in Germany. I…didn’t know what to do with that. Except to tell her that I miss that house, too. Especially the family/dining room with the wall of windows looking out on our backyard. I like our house and our backyard now, but older houses just weren’t built to maximize windows and natural light.

6. On the other hand, our “juh-man house,” as A. puts it, did not come with family just around the corner. That’s been the best part of moving back.