When my family moved to rural Virginia, I was 14 years old and petulant about the move. I didn’t like the new place; I didn’t like being so far away from the people and mountains I loved; I didn’t like living – quite literally – out in the middle of nowhere on 3,500 acres in the midst of a county that didn’t even have a stoplight.
But on Sundays, we went to church, and I sat in a classroom full of military academy cadets from the local boarding high school and listened to this loud man with a strange Southern accent talk about what it meant to be a person who lived for God. This guy was lanky and goofy – the kind of person you might think would be ignored or whispered about at the back of the room. But none of that happened because, within minutes of meeting him, every person knew that Coach Arritt was a man worthy of respect. He was worthy because he always respected you, knew your name, and took the time to greet you when you came in the room.
Sometimes, I’d see him running along the roads of our small town putting in his many, many miles on the road. Sometimes, I’d see him at the military academy on Sunday afternoons when I went up to see the boys I knew there in parades. I’m sure Coach knew my motives were hormonal in large part, but he never made me feel bad about being who I was at that moment in my life. He always just said, “Ms. Cumbo, how are you today?” listened to my answer, and then said, “It’s good to see you.” Respectful all the way.
For four years I sat in his classroom and listened to him talk. He asked questions sometimes, but he’s more of that old-school lecturer. To be honest, I can’t remember the themes of any of his lessons, or any particular passages of Scripture he pointed out. But I do remember this advice because it is some of the best I have ever received:
If you want to really show people you care and that your reason for caring is Jesus, live your life to show you care. Your words don’t matter much, but your actions, those are what count.
I have never forgotten that wisdom, and it has been the best advice I have ever been given about how to share my faith with other people.
Today, Coach Arritt will coach his last home basketball game. He’s been coaching for years and years – I can’t remember off-hand, right now – and people have, rightly, honored him for his ability to coach young men in both the game and life. But today, on this day that will inevitably be hard for him, I want to honor him for another reason. I want to honor him as a man who taught me through his actions AND his words what it means to be a true believer and witness for what is good and true in this life. This is why I will be at his game tonight because, as he taught me, sometimes words just don’t cut it – people need to see actions to know we care.
Thank you, Coach Arritt. Thank you.
I love Magritte’s paintings. I love Escher’s drawings. Now, I love Erik Johansson’s photos. . . All of these artists play with perception and make me stop, wonder, and think.
If you are an artist, I imagine this is your goal as well. I know it’s mine.
What makes you stop and wonder? An artist? A natural thing? A person?
I find myself in one of those “dreaming of the future” kind of moods. I blame the financial planner I met with last week.She got me thinking again about buying a house, having a little land, a couple of alpacas. . .I think I need this dream just now.
When I dream big and let myself go into what I really want in a house, here’s what I imagine.
A timberframe structure with about 1800 square feet of living space. A separate bedroom/sitting room and bathroom for me, and then an open floor plan with kitchen, dining, and living rooms all connected in a wide open space with a double-sided fireplace. Guest rooms upstairs off the lofted library. A tiny little cabin separate from the house that would be my office.
I’d have a few acres of land where I could raise a garden and probably a couple of alpacas. There would be a stream nearby, close enough that I could hear it at night with the windows open. Lots of tress and seclusion, no neighbors in sight.
I’d live in the mountains in a rural community where people do things for themselves out of necessity rather than vogue. A city would be within 45 minutes so that I could see concerts and watch movies and spend time with people in anonymous settings if need be.
It’s not much, but it is so much . . . so much that would fill me and thrill me.
What would your dream house look like?
I’m writing today to ask you to please mind your tone in your online correspondence. It’s so easy to come off irate or bitter or jealous or devastated in email, especially if you are writing to someone who doesn’t know you or the full context about which you are writing.
Take this example: “We NEED to fix this problem NOW.” In email, this sentence sounds harsh and irritated and angry; it also implies that the person reading the email does not think the problem needs fixing or at least doesn’t need fixing immediately. However, the case may be – as it was for me when I received this email – that I hadn’t know there was a problem until that very minute when the email reached me.
Or consider this familiar Facebook refrain: “Today is absolutely the worst day of my life.” My initial response is to call or drive right over to be sure this person is okay. However, often such posts have to do with dentist appointments and frustrating children, not the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or deep depression as the hyperbolic tone of the statement implies in written form.
When we write things down, our readers take things much more seriously than if we just said them. Taking the time to commit something to print typically signals a greater seriousness than might be conveyed in a spoken conversation. Our challenge, in our 21st century cultures, is to be remember that just because we use online media like we use speech does not mean that our readers perceive them that way.
So instead of, “We NEED to fix this problem NOW.” perhaps we should say, “I would appreciate hearing from you about how we might handle this issue.” Instead of “Today is absolutely the worst day of my life.” maybe it would be more appropriate to post, “I’ve had a really long, hard day.” Then, we – the readers – can respond appropriately as the thinking, feeling people we are.
Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
What tonal mistakes have you seen in online correspondence? Why do you think we tend to write these types of things?
The house even seems bigger now, without the chairs and table and wardrobes, the carpets and end tables and piles of things we never used but only moved from spot to spot. It’s been a good reminder to me, about how our life can expand if we’re willing to throw some of our stuff on to the altar. — Shawn Smucker
The sky is that soft pink that I only like in things not human-made – clouds and tiny multi-floral roses, sea urchins and the underbellies of hummingbirds. I feel like I could spend all day looking out this window at the sky.
Last night, I stood outside my old high school waiting for someone I had known in twenty years ago and am getting to know a bit now. I watched the girls from the travel softball team move in and out, bats slung to their backpacks with elastic straps, and then, I looked up at the sky. It was that perfect silver blue of dusk, and across it, planes etched pink trails that faded quickly back to blue. I breathed deep and marvelled at the mystery that is flight and our ability to become accustomed to it.
Lately, I have been filling my life up with activities, with obligations and plans. Not quite subconsciously, I’ve been trying to make-up for things that I am lacking – a partner, children, a home of my own – and yet, still, I find that these things don’t fill me. Instead, I get full from pink skies and plane trails.
Perhaps this is what is asked when we are told to be like little children. Sometimes filling up means letting go.
In what ways do you try to make up for “lack” in your life? With activity? Food? Alcohol? TV? Does it work?
No offense to any men out there, but women are the strongest people I know. I watch one friend raise her son, work full-time and help her husband battle a substance abuse problem. I see another struggle with her own identity as her two young children require her time in this time of her life. I see others, despite wanting a family, celebrate their singleness and freedom in a world where family is then norm. I see others who want so desperately to be home with their children and also want so desperately be experts in their field, who feel guilty no matter where they are and still keep going. Women – women are strong.
Still, we do not achieve like me. In this video, Sheryl Sandberg urges us to change our own thinking and own our strength. It’s worth 15 minutes of your day; it really is.
What do we, as women, tell ourselves that holds us back? How we do conquer those internal messages so that we can change the external ones?
Over the past few weeks, many wonderful women have sent me blog posts to share with you. None of these women know each other, and yet, several of them have written about Christmas letters, without any prompting from me. I think something significant is going on here. We should probably pay attention.
I made a resolution this New Year’s Day (well, actually in December) when I started to get the annual round of Christmas cards from friends. Except most of them weren’t cards at all. They were simply photos of their children, on a single piece of photo paper–sometimes a collage, sometimes just one photo with a phrase like, “Happy Holidays!” or “Seasons Greetings from the [insert family name here]”. Every time I got a mailing like that (I hesitate to even call them “cards”, I looked into the envelope, hoping for a letter to go along with it. Practically every time I was disappointed –and hurt, to tell the truth; there was no narrative about what they had done over the past year–no listing of their children’s accomplishments or developmental milestones, no litanies about their family vacations or staycations. To those of you who did include a letter, or at least a brief handwritten note, I thank you. For some, it doesn’t seem to make too much sense to give me that whole narrative (or even a card) if I’ve seen you every week; I would have welcomed a letter though, and not found it boring.
There have been many jokes and derogatory comments about gushing Christmas missives written by braggadocios that only serve to belittle the recipient. But that type of correspondence is extremely rare. Perhaps those snide remarks have discouraged many people from writing notes, or perhaps given them an excuse not to do so. Really, when do most of my friends have a chance to boast about their kids? It shows their love and pride, and the progeny that are old enough (and care enough) to read their parents’ letters feel good about themselves. For this reason we get: “Johnny’s working hard this year in school, really dedicated to his schoolwork. He has made many friends and his teachers often mention how much he adds to their classes” instead of “Johnny is failing in school and is either in remedial tutoring after school or in detention for disruptive behavior that creates frustration for his teachers. He has many acquaintances in the school office where he commonly visits the principal; the secretaries all know him by name”. So parents may sugar coat their children’s activities–that’s okay. I understand and expect that to a certain degree.
Why do we feel the obligation to write Christmas letters, anyway? It is the same need as putting up decorations and a tree, or the holiday won’t be a holiday. You must make cookies and have family dinners and fill your calendars with Christmas programs. You must get the shopping done, searching around for the best deals whether that means going from store to store or just searching the internet to buy online. You need to find that perfect gift for your family and friends. Busy and ragged, we don’t really celebrate at all.
Slow down a bit. Take a couple of hours to write a letter, to print it out and mail it. You’re doing the stuffing of the envelopes already, since you’re planning to send the photographs. Go ahead and include them, too. My perfect gift from you doesn’t cost you any more than some time (probably less than what you may have spent in looking for a gift anyway) and the price of ink and a piece of paper. I just want to hear about you–your excitements, your hopes and dreams, what you desire for your children, the sorrows you have met in the past year. Yes, I would love to see your kids’ pictures but I also want to hear about you and what has filled your life. I’ve lost touch with so many of you over the years. Sure, I have your addresses, but I no longer know how to reach you. I may have you as a friend on Facebook (thank goodness for that connection or I would have lost so many more of you) but those updates are snippets, not narratives; comic strips, not short stories. All I have of you is a picture that may end up on my refrigerator for a couple of weeks and then get thrown away. (I do throw them out; you do too, just admit it.) I’d like a letter that I tuck away to read a number of times, perhaps keep for years (although I do, of course, eventually throw most of them out).
What would happen if we met on the street? I might recognize you (assuming I can recollect what you look like and that you really haven’t changed since high school or college–doubtful by now), but could I easily strike up a conversation with you? I want to be able to ask, “How is Johnny doing? Has he won the Merit Scholarship? He sounds so dedicated, he must have a lot of college prospects!” No, it would be that awkward getting-to-know-a-stranger conversation: what do you do, what are your hobbies, how many kids do you have and how old are they? A letter makes more of an imprint on the soul than a casual photograph. It is an etching, a work of art. I can run my fingers over it and feel the texture of your lives.
I would like an etching for Christmas, a keepsake of you. I resolve to give you one of myself this year.
Jill Herr dreams of receiving countless Christmas letters from everyone she knows. She is an intermediate knitter, an insatiable reader, an eager writer, and a neophyte voice actor.
This weekend on Facebook, I posted a link to Honoree Fannone Jeffer’s analysis of the angry encounter between President Obama and Governor Brewer. The response to that post was intense. People found Jeffer’s ideas correct and sound; others found her divisive and hyperbolic. Many didn’t, it seem to me, even read the post but simply reacted to the idea that she was suggesting a racial element to the encounter. It was this last reaction that frustrated me so.
I believe – with everything I am – that the only way beyond pain and hardship is through it. I don’t believe we can back away from it, or hide from it, or skirt it and make any progress as individual people or as a nation. Thus, when the subject of race comes up, I want to talk about it. I don’t want to hide. I don’t want to pretend I have it all figured out or that race isn’t an issue. I want to have a real conversation. And to have a conversation, we have to hear (or in this case, read) the other person’s point of view.
No doubt, these conversations are so hard. They require us to be vulnerable and admit what we don’t know; they can reveal our own undiscovered prejudices and stereotypes; they can make us angry and hurt and sad. But they can also lead us to more understanding, a deeper appreciation of our individual struggles and our cultural clashes. They can show us more of who we are and help us become more of who we want to become.
To pretend that race is not an area where we, as a country, struggle mightily is very naive. To pretend that some of the things we all do – consciously or unconsciously – are racially motivated is willfully ignorant. For example, do I think Governor Brewer was doing something that was intentionally racist? No. Do I think that her action may have been spurred by unacknowledged racial attitudes? Maybe. Do I think, after reading Jeffer’s post, that President Obama and other black people in this country might have seen it as racially and culturally insulting? Definitely.
I know other people see this moment in our nation’s history differently, and that’s just fine with me. I would like to talk to those people, hear their opinions, weigh my own, and, perhaps, change my own. I would like the same respect shown to me and every other person – including Ms. Jeffer’s – who wants to participate in this discussion.
Too often, though, we choose not to have these conversations because they are hard and because, sometimes, we don’t really don’t want to risk having to change our opinions. That’s really sad and cowardly. We can do better.
What do you think about conversations about race and other tough topics like religion and politics? Are they important to have? How should we conduct them if they are?
By the way, I don’t think Facebook is necessarily the ideal place to have these conversations. In a perfect world where we spent time with people face to face, those personal, physical conversations would be so much better. But in our world where we connect so often via social media, maybe we need to learn to be better at having these conversations there, too. I certainly need to be better at that.
I wrote this for my other blog Andilit this morning, but then it occurred to me that this lack of quiet, still time is something that women especially seem to struggle with. Almost every woman I know, myself included, takes on too much and ends up frazzled and exhausted at the end of the day. So it seemed fitting to post this here, too. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
I’m sitting the gorgeous Rare Book Room in the Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress. I’m waiting for my book to arrive, and I started to think I had nothing to do.
Yet, I have pen and paper – or rather pencil and paper. Why does it not immediately enter my mind to write. To take advantage of this quiet still space. Is writing that connected to technology for me now?
I need more quiet. More time away from technology. More stillness. I love to hear that silence that makes my ears feel softly empty. To let them rest.
I long for moments like this when I can do nothing but sit and wait. No email to fill the time. No TV or browsing to occupy me. Just the soft whisper of a pencil traveling the page.
I wrote that yesterday, and as those words spiraled out of me, I found myself at a place that I didn’t now I had left – that quiet, stillness that comes from focus and intention. Somehow in the business of blogs and Twitter and email and Relay for Life and book research, I had become fragmented, divided against myself as I competed with my own time to get things done.
But in those few minutes when my smartphone was tucked away in a cloakroom with my laptop, when my books were stored in a locker, when all I had was me, a very sharp pencil and some blue-lined paper, I felt myself start to meld back together. And it felt lovely.
So here’s my challenge for you today, take at least 15 minutes away. Put your phone and your computer in a room. Trust the kids to a spouse or a friend or a movie. Leave your books behind. Take a pen/pencil and paper, and sit somewhere quiet. Climb into a closet if you have to. Just go somewhere where there is stillness. Then, stay there until you feel your mind calm down. If you want, write what comes to mind, but if you just want to sit in the still, do so. You deserve it.
What makes you come back to that still point? Where do you find that soft peace of silence?
This weekend, I had the absolute honor of spending time with two of my closest friends, their husbands, and their beautiful children. We talked, we walked, we ate (boy, did we eat), and we just relaxed in each other’s company. A lovely weekend, and one I really needed.
But it was also a very hard weekend for me in many ways. For one, I was again the single one in a group of not just couples but families, units that work together to make decisions and build a life. As much as I truly love seeing my friends with the people that give them hope and security, it is also hard to be the one still alone in that time.
Perhaps, though, the hardest thing was something I have gotten better at over the years but still find very challenging – the complexities of relating to someone else’s children. I am not a parent, and I am certainly not their parent; yet, I am an adult and not their friend either. It’s a tough position to be in – to help settle squabbles or not, to calm the legs kicking the cabinets or not, to hold a scared little boy or not. I’m never sure what my role is to be in those situations. I muddle through, but it’s a challenge.
Then, of course, there is the pain of not having my own children to muddle through with. Most days I am at peace with what seems to be a fairly solid reality, but when I spend time with kids, hear my friends talking about schools and books and the gorgeous, unique identities of these people with whom they build their lives – well, it makes me sad.
I also find myself absolutely unable to contribute to entire conversations. What do I have to say about school choice or discipline strategies? Usually, I just sit and listen – or check email on my phone.
I love my friends, and I wouldn’t trade them or one minutes with them for the world – not for anything at all. I wouldn’t want them to have any less of all the glorious people they have (even though I know they are not always glorious). Yet, sometimes, it is very hard to be in those friendships. Very hard.
How do you guys negotiate friendships with people who are married and/or have children? How do you find your place in those relationships?