Thursday, October 28, 2010

Getting Out

Once a week I leave my family for a few hours and sit in a room in a "manufactured home community" with a group of women that are becoming my friends.

This time is precious to me, not just because it gives me an hour of quiet while I drive 30 minutes each way, but because I feel like I'm accomplishing something while I'm there.

The majority of the women in the room with me don't speak English as their native language. I don't know the status of their residency here or what type of documentation they do or don't have. That isn't why I'm there. I'm teaching English. I'm sharing stories, listening to dreams, answering questions and I'm developing relationships. I'm sitting with women who are mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters far away from all that is familiar. I'm helping them navigate grocery shopping, parent-teacher conferences, doctor's offices, and job applications. I'm laughing at things that amuse us all and feeling concern for issues that can't easily be remedied.

I know that it is frustrating to want to communicate something that you simply don't have the words for. I know the vulnerability of living in a place with a culture very different from the one you've always known. I know the imbalance and struggle of wanting your children to be more fluent than yourself, but trying not to depend on their fluency and become complacent in your own attempts to learn a new language.

When I hear people complaining about immigrants and how "they need to learn English if they want to live here" I have a few questions I want to ask:

1-Will you help teach one person English?
2-Do you speak another language fluently?
3-Have you ever loved someone who didn't speak the same language as you?

If you're able to answer "yes" to any of the above questions, I'm willing to continue discussing this issue with you. If your answer to all three questions is, "no" then we should probably change the subject.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Fantasy vs. Reality: Revelations from Disney (Part 3)

The Virtue and Vice of Fantasy

A little girl dreams of being a princess--not just an overindulgent spoiled girl, but the child of a king, able to bring positive change to the masses, her beauty matched only by her goodness. Like the title character in Frances Hodgson Burnett's, A Little Princess, she knows, deep down, that she's a princess even when her circumstances indicate otherwise.

A little boy longs to be a superhero--defending justice, protecting the weak, defeating the "bad guys". He has a weakness of his own, but his strength is proved greater each time he battles evil and gains another victory for good.

The childhood fantasies built on fables & fairy tales are not all bad. They can actually be quite good, which is why it was so exciting to visit Disney World with my children while they are young. It is a "magical" place. A place where fables and fairy tales come to life, and yet, even in this place, I was continually drawn back to reality.

It is fun to be in a fantasy land. However, when you are responsible for others, even in a fantasy your choices have consequences. If we stayed in the sun all day we could have great fun, but without sunscreen we would suffer the consequences of sunburn indefinitely. We could eat junk food and let our young children skip naps because we were having fun, but the consequences of cranky and irritable kids and adults would soon catch up with us.

I've noticed, as we've recently been reading some of the original tales of H.C. Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, and even Mother Goose nursery rhymes, that there is a depth to these tales that our modern culture seems to overlook, or even eliminate in the retelling.

Take The Little Mermaid, for example. If you've never read the original, by Hans Christian Andersen, you should. The images created by his words in the opening paragraph are exquisite. I love the Disney version & can sing along with each tune, but I can't get over the extraordinary differences between the two tales and the subtle messages each presents to the audience.

In Andersen's tale the little mermaid suffers greatly for the "deal" she makes with the enchantress who lived under the sea. If she is unable to win the love of the prince, she will cease to exist. She receives legs to visit the prince she rescued, but she loses her voice and experiences excruciating pain when she walks or dances and her feet bleed terribly. She does not win the prince's love, her sister's also make personal sacrifices to try to save their younger sister, and in the end she is separated from her love and her family.

In the Disney version, Ariel directly disobeys her father, Triton. She makes the "deal" with the sea witch and also exchanges her voice for legs, though not nearly so painfully as Andersen's version. If she is unable to win the prince's affection, she will become a mermaid again and belong to the sea witch. She does win the love of the prince, without ever speaking. Her father sacrifices himself for her happiness. When the sea witch is defeated and all spells are broken, Ariel receives her father's blessing and he grants her desire to be human.

So here is my struggle. "Happily ever after" endings are fun. They're just not realistic when you are making choices that have unhappy consequences. And here is where the fables and fairy tales of childhood make their way into adulthood.

I am concerned that our current culture is selling a version of fantasy to adults that ignores the natural consequences of such fantasies. Since we have access to information and images at a much more rapid pace than even 15 years ago, we must be even more diligent when choosing where we will focus our attention.

During the drive to and from Disney I was bombarded with advertisements emblazoned on billboards announcing various types of fantasy without mention of the consequences. None of the signs that welcomed truckers with promises to "bare it all" warned men that partaking in such fantasies would inhibit or greatly impair their ability to have true intimacy with women now or in the future, could destroy marriages, and/or cause extraordinary damage to their children. None of the advertisements for books or movies in the Twilight series warned women that if you "need" someone the way that Bella and Edward do, you're probably right in the middle of an extremely unhealthy cycle of co-dependency that will likely prevent either partner from experiencing wholeness.

Maybe the surgeon general should start printing warnings for these adult forms of fantasy. To keep things simple, she could just write, "WARNING: YOUR CHOICES DO HAVE CONSEQUENCES".

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fantasy vs. Reality: Revelations from Disney (Part 2)

Picture with a Princess

Have you ever had the opportunity to meet someone that you admired from a distance? Maybe it was a celebrity, an author, a politician, a sports figure, a musician? When you were finally face to face with this person, how did you respond?

Last weekend, my three-year-old, Mackenzie, met some REAL princesses. Five real princesses, to be exact. While at Disney we decided to surprise the kids with some "Character Dining" experiences, so that each one could get a little extra time with some of their favorite characters. Mackenzie's dining experience was first.

As the hostess escorted us into the restaurant, we were "next in line" to meet Belle, from Beauty and the Beast. Mackenzie's eyes lit up with excitement and she immediately began to reach for a hand, or leg, or any part of a familiar person that she could hold to help calm the anxiety that comes when she meets someone new. She wasn't prepared to make the introductions alone and Daddy was holding the camera, so I walked forward with her. Annie, our not-quite-two-year-old, slept soundly on my shoulder.

Belle was gracious. She knelt down to talk with Mackenzie and listened carefully, trying to discern the whispers that only a Mommy or Daddy can translate into recognizable words. She made a clever comment that Annie must be Sleeping Beauty. Then we stood together and smiled as a photographer snapped a picture that would become a commemorative keepsake.

We enjoyed our meal. Just as dessert was served, the other princesses began making their trip through the dining area, stopping at each table to talk with starry-eyed girls. Mackenzie was excited and nervous at the same time. She would wiggle in her seat, unable to sit still as each princess came closer and closer to our table. Then she would be frozen in awe as each one stopped beside her chair and began to talk. It was such fun to watch.

Near the end of the meal, we received the photo that was taken when we entered the restaurant. I opened the folder. I looked at the photo. And as most women will, I began to scrutinize myself, not aloud, but the words were there, running through my mind as fast as the synapses could fire.

I continued to think about this photo throughout the day. I was reminded once again that, "I must continually choose between the pursuit of a fantasy or acceptance of reality."

If I choose the pursuit of a fantasy, in this situation, I'll be apt to make comments about the things that I view as my own imperfections. We've all heard women do this, whether while looking in the dressing room mirror, flipping through old photo albums, or watching home movies. "My hips look so wide...Does my stomach really hang over my pants like that?...My eyes are so small...My nose is too big...I should never wear a swimsuit again, EVER...Why did you let me wear that?...I look awful!" And the list could go on.

Then the reality sinks in. The words that I speak about myself now are the words that will play back in my daughter's mind as she gets older. She will receive plenty of messages from the media and her peers about what her positive and negative attributes are. The most consistent messages she receives will come from home. I must use my words responsibly because "the tongue has the power of life and death". One day, someone might say, "You remind me so much of your mom." I want my daughters to receive this as a positive. I don't want them to replay negative comments that I made about myself.

When I look at the picture with Belle now, I see it more clearly. Belle is a cartoon character. Cartoon characters don't age. Cartoon characters don't live. Belle went through wardrobe, hair, and make-up then stood in an air conditioned building before we met. I woke up and bathed 3 children, walked in the central Florida humidity, and stood in the sun for a few minutes before we met. Belle stands with shoulders back, hands posed, and a smile that doesn't reach her eyes. I stand leaning a little, one hand to support my own excited and nervous princess, one hand holding the sleeping child on my shoulder, and a smile that creases the corners of my eyes.

Fantasy may make a pretty picture, but reality makes life more enjoyable.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fantasy vs. Reality: Revelations at Disney (Part 1)

Last weekend we took the kids to Disney World. It was their first trip ever, and my first time to go as a parent. It was filled with fun, excitement, and a bit of exhaustion.

I could spend time giving you a play by play of every event and activity we participated in, but one thought constantly made its way to the forefront in my mind, "In life, I must continually choose between the pursuit of a fantasy or acceptance of reality."

Please don't misunderstand. I am an idealist. I look for the best in people and circumstances. I am also a realist. I understand my own limits and have a firm grasp on the reality of human nature. It's the balance of seeing a Norman Rockwell Christmas painting, appreciating the ideal it captures, and embracing the reality of what Christmas is with my extended family (all the hurts, hang-ups, and habits that are attached to the individuals involved) and still finding joy in being together.

Now, back to Disney...When we began planning our trip to Disney, one image kept coming to my mind. I had discovered this photo on another blog and fallen in love. In the photo there are three sweet little girls with Mouseketeer Ears, sitting in front of Cinderella's castle with backs to the camera so that all you see is their closeness as the middle has her arms around each sister on the side. There is also an unworn pair of ears beside them, placed for the little sister that was growing then in their mother's womb. I thought, "How sweet it would be to have our own three children sitting with "ears" in front of the castle."

During our first day in the park, the kids noticed that other people were wearing "Mickey's ears" and my 5-year-old asked, "Daddy, can we get a hat with ears?" I was thrilled! I thought, "We're going to have a great picture in front of the castle, too!"

As we walked into the nearest gift shop, the kids discovered just how many different hats you can get at Disney. I was drawn to the simply classic "ears" thinking of the iconic photo I had fantasized about.

The kids were not interested.

My son had discovered a Goofy hat and his decision was made. He wanted Goofy. My girls had selected Princess Minnie hats that were cone shaped with a bit of tulle flowing from the top and little ears on the sides. Not quite the silhouette I had envisioned.

There I stood, in the middle of the store at a pivotal moment. During those seconds, unknown to anyone else, I was making my choice.

Would I force my fantasy on my children, sacrificing their joy for my Kodak moment?

Would I let go of the fantasy and embrace the reality of who my children are at this stage and what makes them happy, even if it doesn't produce the "ideal" picture that I hoped for?

The decision was made.

The photo was taken.

I smile every time I see it. I couldn't be happier with the memory. Here is the result:

Friday, October 1, 2010


When I was younger, and even now, if I were telling my parents or grandparents about meeting someone new and mentioned the person's first and last name, a round of questions was almost certain to ensue. Not in the form of an interrogation, but as the beginning of a conversation...

"Is he related to so-and-so? She might be his grandmother. Do you know his daddy's name? Does his grandpa live over on thus-and-such road? Did they have goats in the early '80s? Yeah, I think his uncle used to drive that old '74 Chevy pick-up...I towed him up outta Sims Creek that summer it flooded."

Now these are not direct quotes from any specific conversation, and if they were I likely would not be able to provide accurate answers, but you get the idea. It is all about how people are connected. Maybe it's because this was a big part of the culture I grew up in, maybe it's a personality trait I've inherited from one, or both, of my parents, but I can't help but make connections. When I play trivia games, especially if one of my siblings is a teammate, I work toward the answer through a series of connections. When I meet people for the first time, I may talk too much because I'm trying to find a connection, a common interest, a mutual friend, something that links us.

Being connected doesn't end with trivia and social interactions for me. It is woven throughout my life experiences, encounters I've had, people I've known, places I've been, and even my beliefs about God. It motivates my actions and reactions daily.

As an eighth grader, I remember being required to copy a quote from the board each day, then journal about what I thought it meant. One day we copied a brief quote from John Donne, "...No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main..." Some time later I read more of Donne's Devotions upon Emergent Occasions from which this quote was taken. It resonated with me.

I'm glad that we are connected. I am thankful that this is part of the heritage that was passed down to me. It allows me to see my neighbor as a neighbor, even if we don't speak the same language. It encourages me to be charitable and hospitable, without a prerequisite. It causes me to grieve a loss of life, even when I didn't know the people involved intimately. It gives me hope, that when I improve a moment in a day for one person, the consequence can impact numerous others. It also reminds me, that my choices will always have consequences (positive or negative) and those consequences are not limited to me, because, after all, I am connected to others.