Category: family

Goodnight, Maya

There is no mourning here…

[a poem for his mother by Guy Johnson]

Sequined in the black velvet sky of night 

shines a star with

fiery hot fire possessed,

leading all those who wish to claim

what is right

to look within themselves and find their best.

Over my life shines this glorious beacon,

lighting my path through the dark shadowland.

With this as my guide,

I shall not weaken..

my striving to be a strong but gentle man. 

Others have been led by its incandescence

to be more than mere flesh and bone

to love and be loved is its true essence

for only the heart can change this world of stone.

Thus fortune graces me like none other

for this star, this nova

is my mother.



Today I went to see the movie Courageous. Before you read another word of this blog, let me say upfront, that this was one of the most powerful movies I have ever seen [and I’ll come back to the high praise in a moment]. This movie is another movie from megachurch Sherwood Baptist in Albany, GA– not to be confused with the God Hates Fags imbeciles at Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas.  Sherwood Baptist’s best known production so far has been Fireproof, the movie that helps men be better husbands and all people build a better marriage by following some biblical principles and some therapeutic & relationship common sense.  I didn’t expect much when I first saw Fireproof, perennial skeptic that I am, I had some doubts about a movie with my little Growing Pains friend, Kirk Cameron, who seemed to have gone all Left Behind on me.  I also typically eschew Christian-themed or produced narratives because I prefer not to be told what to think or to be hit over the head with messages I would like to be able to ferret out for myself on my own walk with Christ.  But, I enjoyed Fireproof, and I thought, while it did have sort of a Lifetime movie feel to it, it also had a lot to contribute to marriage and relationships in general and it did so without making me gag or feel nauseous. 

So, I had heard some buzz about Courageous, not at my church– I’m Episcopalian and we typically don’t receive encouragement toward mainstream Christian media, but in my community and among friends. I watched the preview and thought it looked like it could be powerful.  And, powerful it was– powerful, engaging, humbling, gut-wrenching, and entertaining.  It got 4 stars on what I call my smart phone rating.  That is, whether or not I am tempted to look at my phone during a movie.  Here is the scale:

  • **** never glanced at my phone
  • *** glanced a couple of times to check for calls or texts
  • ** answered a text or two
  • *  passed time in the movie by checking my facebook, listening to voicemail, and texting

The movie begins with an action scene that pulls you right in and satisfies the adrenaline junkie’s needs; it does not let up by alternating drama, shameless tear-jerking scenes, and more action.  Yes, sometimes, it felt a little Lifetime, movie-ish, and yes, sometimes it got a bit preachy, but the parts that enacted the message were emotive and well done enough to make up for the preachy parts.  Yes, it presented some very traditional gender roles, but that did not interfere with the message or impact of Courageous.  Every father should see this movie.  Every parent should see this movie.  I was sobbing audibly during a number of scenes.  Anyone who has experienced loss of any kind, but especially loss through the abandonment of a parent, poor parenting, or the death of a loved one, will be moved to tears- male or female, no question.  The movie exposes many contemporary issues, including the link between fatherless children and gangs and crime. 

They work very diligently to present a cultural rainbow of characters and I think they tried not to typecast any race, gender, or ethnicity, but inevitably we do see some sadly predictable roles– the black criminals [although they do arrest some white boys one time], the poor, heavily accented hispanic man who needs work and must be helped along by a white police officer, and the all black gang members.  However, the spirit of this film and alternately positive scripting and casting, kept this from interfering with my ability to enjoy the film or be moved it.  The underlying message is of grave importance.  Fathers are missing from the American family, some physically and some emotionally, some are present and abusive or neglectful, many, many are absent.  The impact of this void is far-reaching has a tragic trickle-down effect.  It is time for Fathers to step up.

If you know me well, you know my parents divorced when I was in high school.  You would have to know me quite intimately however, to know that my father prior to that, though physically present, was emotionally absent and sometimes abusive.  To say that I have “Daddy issues” would be a gross understatement.  I have been working on them all of my adult life.  I know the importance of a good Dad, I know the void, I know the impact.  I know what it is like to fantasize about having the perfect Dad.  The father I was born with and the attentive, loving, protective father I wished for live on different planets.  I am still grieving for the fantasy one I never had. 

Many men who feel they are good fathers may be moved to be better fathers after watching Courageous.  I felt moved to be a better parent.  I wish I had seen this movie about 25 years ago.  I wish my Dad had seen this movie about 47 or 48 years ago.  Kids are our most important resource and our greatest legacy; and contributing to their future productivity, happiness, and spirituality is our most crucial responsibility. 

I went a lot of places during this movie.  I thought of how I need to forgive my father and really let it go.  I thought of Maya Angelou’s quote:  “Do the best you can until you know better; and when you know better, do better.”  People literally do what they know how to do, and people change and grow, and then they do better.  This movie can identify the mark for how to be a present, engaged Dad who is also a teacher and a leader or for how to be a present, engaged parent no matter what kind of parent you had or what kind of loss you have experienced.  See it.  Let me know what you think.


Having a child with Bipolar Disorder is like…

One of my children has a mood disorder. I don’t want to violate his confidentiality, so I won’t tell you which one it is. In case you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to parent a child, teen, or young adult with a mood disorder, I will help you out.

It’s like riding a rollercoaster all day long while trying to do everything else you need to do. I get quite a bit done while we are clicking along on the upswing, but those plunges, well they can be downright challenging.

That's me trying to make a business call. Well, not really, but you get the point.

I’ve taken to keeping lids on my drinks.

Don’t get me wrong.. he is a fun and funny kid. It’s just that trying to do the rollercoaster thing every day, well, it sometimes wears you out.

To be fair, I’m sure he gets weary too.

sad movie

Dec 20

Today I watched the saddest movie I have seen in a long time.  I was literally nauseous after I watched it [but to be truthful I often get nauseous after watching poorly filmed home movies].

Yes, it was a home movie.  I got a glimpse of a Christmas morning past.  I have been sitting here trying to determine which year or how many years ago by studying the kids and the dog.  Jason appears to be about 14 or 15.  Alex’s age is always deceiving in videos..  He appears to be about 8, so that could be right.  It is the Christmas we got Holly as puppy and my memory of that Christmas has always been happy.  How strange that we can think we are happy when we are so clearly not or that we can take a sad memory and fold it and file it into a happy one.  Looking at myself on this home movie is like watching a stranger.  Who is this pale and pasty, subdued, dysphoric woman whose voice I don’t even recognize?

If it is 1999, the undertones of sadness make some sense.  That year, my favorite grandmother died in early November.  I was forging ahead in one of the most difficult tasks I have ever undertaken- quitting smoking– in October of that same year and did not want to dishonor her memory [she died of lung cancer] by caving in to cravings.  By the look of my double chin, I was apparently caving in to lots of other cravings instead.  I sit perched on the ottoman of the ‘coffee store’ chair wearing a purple gown and a white robe with my long hair twisted and clipped up on the back of my head.  I don’t seem excited by all this Christmas morning hoopla.  I am talking in monotone syllables with a perfunctory but syrupy tone– like I am on some sort of medication [but I wasn’t].  Jason is filming, making jokes and keeping things light and bubbling along.  Alex is trying to grab presents from under the tree and knocking about ornaments and once my tone gets sharper with him when I ask him to calm down and slow down and wait.  Kenney is calmly sitting in his throne the recliner chewing on a chocolate cigar from his stocking.  His voice is smooth, cool, and confident.  He makes some witty comments and baby talks to the puppy in his lap.  He is funny and he makes me laugh watching.  So, why was I so unhappy?

Well, I could tell you so many reasons, but I think I should save them for a therapist’s sofa so my children don’t have to stumble upon them and be tortured.  But, my children, that is what gives me the most pause and horror watching.  I believe that I approached being the model mother when they were very small.  My entire focus was them– I spent nearly every waking moment making our home like I remembered mine as a small child and planning our next enriching adventure… but here when they were beginning to pull away from me and live lives where peers become more important than parents my spirit appears to have fallen into some sort of wormhole and disappeared.  So, I wonder what kind of a mother I was then and what it was like to be mothered by this seemingly absent woman when you are a boy of 9 or 15?

I ask Alex later if he remembers me being depressed.  He says, “yes, I think you were depressed sometimes.  I can remember you being depressed.”  I tell him that I found a movie of a Christmas where I am almost unrecognizable to myself, where I seem so sad and strange, and he queries; “do you look big and pale and have your hair pulled up on your head” like he has been studying this movie and waiting for this question so that he can make this pronouncement. I know this is not possible because I found this movie in a box in the spare room today. I am stunned.  I sit sort of dumbfounded taking this all in, then probe further.  “When do you remember me being depressed,” I ask.  He answers that it was a lot of the time.  I ask him if he thinks I am depressed now.  “No, you’re lively now– not depressed at all.”  I ask “when do you think I stopped being depressed?”  He thinks about this for a moment, then answers, “when Dad died.”  Then he laughs, and says, “I don’t want to think about that too hard, or I might get mad at you” or something like that.  We continue talking and I apologize for the times I wasn’t such a great mother.  Alex says “I wouldn’t change a minute of my life as it has happened so far.”  Epiphanies wash over me like a warm summer wave.



If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, “thank you,” that would suffice.  ~Meister Eckhart

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.  ~G.K. Chesterton

My Thanksgiving holiday began yesterday afternoon at 3 o’clock when I left my classroom until next Monday morning.  Today [Wednesday before] is always a day of cooking and preparation for the holiday.

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.  Jason always says that it is his favorite.  There is no pressure to buy gifts or decorate extensively.  It is a simple, beautiful holiday that is all about abundance– family, food, laughter.  We meet at Shana’s house in Wake Forest and everyone brings food.  We used to go to Wilmington to Mom’s but she finally found that she could not handle all of us descending upon her with our families that were expanding so quickly.  The chaos of all of us staying in her house, even given its size, was just too much and she found it exhausting instead of exhilarating.  So, now she comes to us.  Shana volunteered to be the host for this annual event at least 5 years ago-  maybe more.  She & Scott and the kids wouldn’t have it any other way.  Mom makes a huge turkey and Scott likes making his alternative Turkey– sometimes deep-fried, sometimes cooked in a pit, or under a large trashcan.  Hannah likes decorating and making her homemade applesauce.  Mom makes her s’mores on sticks for all the kids.  I always make the greens, this year they will be curly kale, organic, from Whole Foods made with uncured smoked and peppered bacon.  I also make sauerkraut with diced apples and bacon, corn pudding, and tiny chocolate pie tarts for the kids [Jim loves them too].  I might get ambitious and make a Mexican Chocolate Pound Cake.  Every year there is family, Mom, Jim, us three girls and our families, sometimes Julian, Andrew & now Courtney, and most years there are also others.  Last year, Scott’s cousins from MI joined us along with my new friend, Duane.  Duane will be back this year with his kids. In some other years we have had other random guests– our coworkers or friends with no family close by.  Each year we take family photos, some of us for our holiday cards- and Mom always wants one of her grandchildren.  This one is from two years ago– 2008.  It was my boys’ first Thanksgiving after losing their Daddy.  Before we divorced, when Thanksgiving was still in Wilmington, Kenney would have a huge pig pickin’ or oyster roast at his parents that weekend and/or again on New Year’s Eve each year, so these holidays are times Jason & Alex remember their Daddy cooking and entertaining and making things happen at his parents’ home in Myrtle Grove.

So far, Mom has 10 grandchildren including Jenny and 2 great-grandchildren and another about to arrive at any time– Cooper Thomas Whitman will be her 3rd great-grandchild bringing the grand total to 13!

Thanksgiving is a holiday centered on gratitude and over the past ten years or so, I have truly come to realize what a sacred gift gratitude really is.  I have always expected goodness in my life, and that is what I have received.  I have had my trials, some more challenging than I ever dreamed I would face.  I have felt deep emotional pain, fear, and doubt; but underlying any adversity in my life, I have always been able to draw from a reservoir of hope.  I continually believe that good triumphs over evil- not only in the world at large- but in my small world.  I look for it and I find it every time.  In between times of great sorrow or happiness, I simmer gratitude.

I have so many things in my life to be grateful for:  my children are smart, healthy, happy, and they are close to me– they make me laugh daily.  I am surrounded by dozens of other children who also give me great joy– Cameron, my students, my foster children, nieces and nephews, and children of friends. I not only have a job– I have two that I love.  I am healthy enough to work hard and sleep deeply each night.  I am in love with a man who is kind, funny, loving, and gracious.  I am blessed with two sisters and close friends to share stories, secrets, and laughter. I find beauty in small things every single day.

And so, this Thanksgiving, I will savor every moment of a day shared with the people I love most in the world, and the prayer I will live this day will be: ‘thank you.’

Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls “ blossom.” — Marcel Proust

Home movies, Christmas letters, & facebook

Listening to a recent episode of This American Life on my ipod the other weekend, I heard an episode titled ‘Home Movies.’  Ira Glass astutely pointed out that home movies tend to catch glimpses of families at their best during times of joy and celebration or recreation and relaxation.  We don’t tend to take, keep, or catalog home movies of horrible family arguments, Grandpa’s drunken binges, family funerals, or other equally painful events.  He noted that if beings from another galaxy were to study us given only our home movies, they would likely conclude that we humans are a pretty laid back, carefree lot who spend lots of time playing– either around a decorated tree indoors or in or near a body of water outdoors wearing little clothing.

Listening to this episode, my thoughts drifted to other such misleading snapshots in our lives, especially those we share through two other venues:  the annual Christmas letter and everyone’s new favorite pastime:  facebook.

I have not written a Christmas letter in the last couple of years, the couple before that they have been quite short.  Prior to that, before my life imploded in 2004, I did take part in this painful ritual.  Painful, that is, to many of the readers of these yearly missives, especially if the writer is a braggart or writes in Faulknerian run- on sentences that cease to make sense midway through the holiday greeting.  Like so many others, I wrote of our joys and our successes and mentioned nothing of our failures.  I wrote of summer vacations, to Disney and Universal Studios, a summer trip to NYC, Jason’s athletic endeavors and academic awards, and Alex’s burgeoning art talent.  I wrote of my graduate school work and Kenney’s promotions.  In these letters, I announced the purchase of our new home, the prize-winning vegetables from our garden, the birth of our children and how they were blossoming each year.  Nothing can compare to the letters my mother writes where she highlights she and Jim’s big trip for the year and includes photos of the Canadian Rockies, Alaska, Italy, England, or Germany, and then proceeds to tell of the accomplishments that year of each of her three girls and her now eleven grandchildren.

This letter became a huge challenge, however, the year my life was turned upside down and shaken out like the contents of a messy handbag.  I remember several years ago, writing a ‘real’ Christmas letter that mentioned my youngest son’s increasing anger, the holes he was placing into the walls with his balled up fist, our nasty, horrible divorce, my ex-husband’s descent into drugs after quitting a six-figure job when faced with an executive intervention.  This letter detailed all the new psychotropic drugs we now purchased and that I had to take a second job to keep up; so now I was neglecting my children just to pay for their psychiatric care.  I never sent this letter, of course, but writing it gave me a perverse pleasure and allowed me to see just how silly the sugar-coated Christmas letter really is, and how painful a really lofty one is to read for someone who is presently walking through hell.

As to facebook, that playground where voyeurs and narcissists connect, just one look at the statuses provides evidence toward this comparison.  We create profiles that capture the best of who we are.  We include only the good photos of ourselves, and if we are under 20, they are most often self-taken at arm’s length or in the mirror of a bathroom.  If we are over 40, we don’t want the camera to magnify our new laugh lines or age spots, so we include photos taken from a slightly greater distance. The college-aged FB user shares updates of parties and adventures.  The newest facebook devotees, the 25-60 crowd share snapshots and status updates about current or upcoming vacations, children’s accomplishments, the incredible cake just created for a lavish party, all the holiday gifts piled round the tree, the new car, and even perhaps, what we had for lunch or the movie we are about to see.  I must admit I am part of this group.  I don’t share minutia, but I certainly log in almost daily to see who is [which I guess makes me one of the voyeurs].

Some fb friends are giving us glimpses of the real them; especially friends who are out doing good in the world, battling cancer, or sharing the nitty-gritty in their lives with freshness and honestly that puts it all into perspective.  My hat is off to them.

But, I have sometimes wondered what it would be like if we shared statuses that reflected the darker or baser sides of our lives or personalities.  If a user was to suddenly begin sharing his envy over his neighbor’s new pool, how excessive shopping led to a recent car repossession, a spouse’s suspected affair, or details about gambling debt or porn addiction.  I doubt I would want to stay tuned in.  I might want to turn off this friend and his problems like I turn off the nightly news when it just gets too bad to watch any longer.

I like finding long lost friends from high school and seeing how great they look and how well they are doing.  I like that facebook allows me to socialize with a whole lot of people I would not normally socialize with.  I keep in mind, however, that what I am seeing is a carefully crafted version of who these people are– that only gives me a few limited facets of their multi-faceted life.  I’m okay with that.

After listening to the episode ‘Home Movies’ on This American Life, I headed out to the back yard to play with my teenaged chickens.  I was shortly joined by Jason, Alex, Jenn, and Cam.  We did not film this moment, but it was one of those times that I would have liked to have captured on film or video.  A family laughing and talking on a bright, clear, early summer Saturday morning– enjoying the warmth of the sun on our faces, the soothing sounds made by the chickens, and the soft feel of the feathers in our hands as we held them.  The beauty of this moment did not escape me.  I was warmed by its simple joy.  We made a memory that morning, and I can imagine my children remembering it– perhaps one day a very long time from now after I am gone– where in laughter and conversation one of them might exclaim, ‘remember when Mom went through her chicken phase?’

So, keep taking snapshots and video of those moments of joy.  They are important because they remind us of the greatest pleasure in life– spending time with people who we love.  And those times, those joy-filled moments, make all of the hard times that we don’t want to capture and save, bearable.  They give us hope.