Remember and Then Feast; It’s Not BBQ Day

I was perhaps seven years old when I first read the first few books in the American Girl ‘Molly’ series, even though I didn’t actually receive the coveted doll until the Christmas I was ten.

It’s hard to say what made me love Molly more than the other American Girl characters then available: Kirsten, the Swedish pioneer; Samantha, the orphan being raised by her wealthy grandmother at the turn of the century.

Like my friend Andrea, who also had Molly, I supposed I loved her glasses, having had worn glasses every waking minute since the start of the third grade. I loved the little silver locket with the picture of her father, an Army doctor, in it.

And I suppose being raised by a history buff who’s especially knowledgeable on the second world war helped, too, as did the fact that my grandparents were all roughly Molly’s age in her time. I loved the things that Molly did with her friends to help out ‘on the home front’; things like knitting blankets for soldiers, collecting scrap metal, and growing ‘victory gardens’ so as to conserve resources for munitions. The books are filled with what philosopher Albert Borgman calls “focal things”; things that

“ha[ve] a commanding presence, engages your body and mind and engages you with others.”

It was this, and the sense that Molly, as a girl only about my age, was able to participate in something so much larger than herself, that captivated my imagination. I loved her stories. I loved her. Truth be told, she–and all her clothing and accessories–remain in what eBay sellers might describe as ‘mint’ condition in my parents’ house to this day, and over the years, I have taken her out to dress her, re-braid her hair, unpack and repack her schoolbag, and page through the tiny replica of a 1940s Nancy Drew novel that fits nicely inside the nightstand next to her bed.

You don’t have to hunt around very long to figure out that ‘pacifist’ would be a fair label to put to me, except that I greatly prefer the notion that theologian Walter Wink calls the ‘third way,’ the way that Jesus embodied, of resisting evil but without force. And so while I have no problem with patriotism–and even consider myself fairly patriotic, in that I love my country–my country’s involvement in war, torture, unjust incarceration, the death penalty, and other things troubles me deeply.

However, I’m also troubled that sometimes  those who  share my so-called ‘progressive’ (but really, ancient) values on nonviolence sometimes seem to resent patriotism, or feel that honoring the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families undercuts pacifist commitments. We can certainly argue the when, how, why and whether about war, and the possibility of just war, and so on. We can discuss what might be the various merits of a universal draft (with a conscientious objector option for civil service) as against a volunteer army. But for all that, I was unreasonably depressed (though not really surprised) to see the American Girl company’s Facebook status the other day:

Screen shot 2013-05-27 at 11.58.19 AM

What I want to say today is really quite simple. Whatever your convictions on war and peace, today is not the ‘unofficial start of the summer season.’ It is not Barbeque Day or Picnic Day. From Beverly Cleary’s lovely book, Emily’s Runaway Imagination, which I read about the same time I first read the ‘Molly’ books, I learned that today was not always known as ‘Memorial Day’; it was, in fact, Decoration Day, the day on which people would, appropriately enough, given the weather in the US at this time of year, drive out to the graves of loved ones and decorate them. Clear away rotting leaves and make room the crocuses to bloom. Lay a wreath. Say a prayer.

When I was still small enough to play with my Molly doll in public without anyone thinking me strange, I was also a Girl Scout. I loved the focal things we Girl Scouts did; I loved the badges and the uniforms. And I loved marching on Memorial Day down to the docks where a bugler would play ‘Taps’ and we would throw wreaths into the water, one for each branch of service. It was solemn. It was sad. It was beautiful. I believe we then marched back to the fire house for hot dogs and baked beans.

In these hugely divided times, where patriotism is seen as partisan and where a critical stance toward some policy or other is decried as ‘unAmerican’ (what strikes me as truly unAmerican is declaring that a different opinion is unAmerican), it is easy enough to turn Memorial Day into Cookout Day, or Picnic Day. Don’t get me wrong, I love barbeques way too much and long for them when I’m living overseas (as I am now), but Memorial Day–Decoration Day–is about more than just another day off from work. It is about remembering and honoring the lives lost to war (and, I think, remembering the lives lost in nonviolent struggle and by the innocent victims of war) it is–or should be–about clearing the deadness of winter away so that the hopeful blooming of spring can be unsprung. A day to remember that, in the Christian story, death and war and pain do not get the final say.

That should not be not partisan, or even political in anyway. It should–or at least, could–remind us that all flesh is like grass. That flowers bloom and flowers fade and flowers bloom again, and, hope against hope, we who are given the gift of one more day; one more chance to take in a picnic or a barbeque or a parade can remember that not everyone has received that gift.

Remember, then, and then feast.

Why Play-Fighting Is Actually Good For Kids

I’ll admit it: I’m a pacifist mom who doesn’t freak out (anymore) when her boys play with Nerf (and other) toy weapons.

Here’s why, explained in my most recent Her.meneutics post:

Early this month, a six-year-old in Silver Spring, Maryland, was suspended from school after he pointed his finger like a gun and said, “pow.” In a letter to his parents, school officials described the incident as one in which their son “threatened to shoot a student.”

In one way, this reaction is understandable. After the horrific events at Sandy Hook Elementary School, seeing any sort of gunplay at school would be, on a gut level, distressing. This sort of reaction certainly has historical precedent: in 1968, following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the Sears Roebuck Christmas catalog pulled all toy guns from its pages.

But, beyond visceral reactions—exclamations of distaste at child behavior that uncomfortably resonates with tragedy—does pretend violence perpetuate real violence?

Not necessarily. According to Stuart Brown, psychiatrist and the founder and director of the National Institutes of Play, “Play can act as a powerful deterrent, even an antidote to prevent violence. Play is a powerful catalyst for positive socialization.”

But parents and teachers—like the teachers in Silver Spring, Maryland—are often not inclined to see it that way.”Teachers…often see normal rough and tumble play behavior such as hitting, diving, wrestling, (all done with a smile, between friends who stay friends), not as a state of play, but one of anarchy that must be controlled.”

In a study of adults who had committed violent crimes, including the Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho, Brown discovered that their childhoods had been marked not by violent play but, more strangely, by a lack of play: the very thing that helps people, especially little people, work through conflict and aggression safely and productively.

An adult may see a kid wield a thumb-and-forefinger “gun” and think of Adam Lanza. But unless the child is already troubled, he is thinking of nothing like that. More likely it has nothing to do with a desire to harm another human being.

(Continue reading…)

Happy Easter Monday! Hop along with me!

Happy Easter Monday!

Today I’m participating in Ellen Painter Dollar’s“Best Thing Blog Hop,”  a chance for bloggers to shine new light on older blog posts that we consider to be among our best work.

Visit Ellen’s blog to see a list of other participants, with links to their “Best Thing” blog posts, and click through to read a few. This event is designed not only to give bloggers an opportunity to dust off old work, but also to introduce readers to new bloggers whose work might appeal. 

Click here to learn more about the Blog Hop and read all of the participating bloggers’ entries.

I wrote this piece almost exactly two years ago; it was the longest, most personal piece I’d ever published and reached the widest readership I’d ever had, appearing (thanks to Kendra Langdon Juskus!) in Christianity Today, Catapult/*cino, and ESA’s ePistle.

I’m an American living in the town in Germany where a bomb from World War II detonated 3 days ago, killing three people. Last week, my husband Tim came home early from his regular Thursday pick-up game of basketball at the university sports center here in Gottingen, Germany. I was puzzled to see him; I’d expected him to be much later, and he explained the reason for his premature return: “They found a bomb from World War II near the sports center where they’re doing some construction, and everyone had to leave the building.” This seemed bizarre; we hadn’t realized that thousands of leftover bombs still litter Germany—they’re usually found and deactivated without incident. I didn’t give it much further thought.

My father spent nearly three years as a “cold-warrior” at Hahn Air Base in west-central Germany in the mid-1970s. As an SP (special police) he guarded bombs—lots of very big and potentially very destructive bombs. He never saw combat, spending most of his time in Germany living off the military base, learning German, disco dancing, and flirting with German girls. At the same time, he became something of a military history buff, eagerly absorbing World War II history, and—being a guy with lots of Jewish girlfriends in his past and a fascination with Judaism—he also studied the Holocaust and visited former concentration camps. Later, back in the States, he re-met and married one of those former Jewish girlfriends, and they had me.

Though both my parents are practicing Christians, they were eager for me to have a sense of Jewish identity. They taught me to say the Shema in Hebrew (“Hear, O Israel, the LORD is G-d; the LORD is One”). They had me baptized—but in Israel, in the Sea of Galilee. They dragged me to Schindler’s List when I was way too young to handle it, and I read and re-read my autographed copy of I Am a Star until my mom brought me to work with her to meet Inge Auerbacher, the author. I had Hebrew lessons with the local rabbi when my dad was the pastor of the nearby Baptist church. He was Israeli, made great coffee, had a cat named Nefertiti, and refused to eat anything imported from Germany.

My husband and I moved here, to Gottingen, Germany, last September. When we arrived on the train, I got off first with our two young sons; Tim headed back into the train to grab our suitcase. The train was running late and the engineer must have been trying to make up time, because the doors closed faster than had been usual; I clapped my hands against the glass door, mouthing “goodbye” to my husband before he sped on to the next city. It was silly, but my mind kept remembering horrific scenes of separation by trains—scenes culled from my overexposure to World War II films.

These are my boys on our couch in Germany. I'm sorry, but those golden curls of Graeme's make me want to weep! I miss his long hair!

I work hard to live in the moment. For me, this means I try to live here in Germany without forgetting what happened to people of my pedigree 70 years ago but also realizing that those tragic events are over and done with. When my dad visited me last year, he also returned to the air base. Delightfully, the old weapons storage facility has been converted into a green energy plant with wind and water mills. We rhapsodized about the beating of “swords into plowshares,” quoting Isaiah and feeling comfortable leaving the past in the past to enjoy and admire the peaceful and democratic culture of Germany.

But last night, I came home late from a local saltwater pool, where I’d enjoyed a long swim, to find my husband waiting up for me. “I heard a loud explosion and then an hour’s worth of emergency sirens,” he said. “I’m not sure what’s going on.” This morning, we learned another bomb, an American bomb, had been discovered near the same area; just before it was to be deactivated, it detonated, killing three people, seriously injuring two others, and blowing the fronts off of two nearby houses. One of Germany’s bomb disposal experts explained that the acetone detonators in these old bombs are deteriorating, meaning that as time goes on, they’ll become increasingly fragile and essentially impossible to deactivate safely. Many of these bombs are buried well below the ground, covered by buildings erected in the post-war period.

Continue reading Happy Easter Monday! Hop along with me!

Gruesome Pirates, Heroic Grandpas, and Graeme…

One of the reasons my dad is great is because when my son Graeme asks him to draw a pirate, he grabs whatever paper and writing implement is to hand and effortlessly produces stuff like this:

Or this:

At this point I need to make a confession.

“Forgive me, Parents who have been Parenting Longer than I, for I have sinned. Before I had children, I was inclined to Judge Thee In My Heart Without Knowing What the Heck Your Life was Like.”

“I wrongly believed that any Child Enamored of Violence Had Been Left to His Electronic Devices to Absorb the Evil Influences of Movies, TV, Violent Video Games, and Martial Arts.”

Now that I’m six years into this parenting racket, I’m not ready to call “nurture” an “assumption”, but I’m much less Blank Slate than I used to be. My boys, they have a very limited media diet. I’m a pacifist, for cryin’ out loud! Nonetheless, my boys crave pirates, knights, and anything involving weapons. They just do. They always have!

Graeme (3) even wants to change his name to “Graeme Pirate Stone.” Oh, and? He’s not satisfied if a pirate has just one deadly weapon. They must have, at least, a sword and a dagger–

My dad was initially reluctant to give in to every request for a drawing, fearful that Graeme would not stretch out his own little creative wings and make his own art. Never fear, Dad. Graeme carries the pictures around with them, colors them in, scribbles on them, and is {finally!} starting to produce his own Scary Art:

{Have I mentioned that Graeme also has a thing for TEETH? “Make teeth, Grandpa. Scaryteeth.”}

But the best part of Graeme’s obsession with his grandpa’s art is the way he sits by, watching delightedly, occasionally even panting with utter delight and anticipation as he watches Grandpa’s squiggles, dots, and lines become something that quickens his pulse, frightens him just a little, and fascinates him a lot.

Watching that tiny boy’s delight is almost sacramental, and I don’t say that lightly.

{Even if I do wish he was delighted in Grandpa’s drawing of somewhat less gruesome subject matter.}

Those of you who have children: have you ever been surprised by the things that capture their imaginations?