Ministry of Rides and Snacks

Or, How a Drudge Becomes a Calling, Part II (you can see Part I here)

It is time for girls soccer at my daughter’s school, which means many things — smelly socks, mad scrambles for hair ties, more dinners at Subway than I can stand. Did I mention the unholy stench of the feet? But the thing any middle school sports season always means for me is heavy use of the Ministry of Rides and Snacks.

I haven’t written about this before, because it smacks a little too much of, “I am awesome!” for my tastes, but I was telling some friends about it, and they insisted. (So if you think I’m being too self-congratulatory, let me know, and I’ll tell you who to blame.)

Here’s the situation. At my kids’ elementary and middle school, over 80% of the students qualify for free or reduced hot lunch; many also get free breakfast and a free bag lunch from a local organization. There are kids there from over 50 countries, and when I say “from” I mean actually from; there are recent immigrants who don’t speak much English and children whose families came over when they were very young, so the kids’ English is good, but the parents, not so much.

It’s always easy to find my kids in a school crowd; all I have to do is look for the blonde heads. But there aren’t many stay-at-home parents to come and volunteer in the school. There aren’t many families who have two vehicles, or who can take time off work to watch their children play a sport.

And kids love to play sports. Whether it’s for the love of a particular game or a chance to hang out with their friends or an opportunity to shine at something you’re good at, there is no shortage of kids who want to participate. There is, however, a shortage of rides.

I’ve been a stay-at-home mom, or at least a freelance-at-home mom for most of my years at the school, so I’ve done a lot of volunteering. From class parties and field trips to my regular gig in the library to guest editor stints for a couple of classrooms, I am a regular face at the school. And then my kids entered middle school and sports eligibility.

boys soccer 2012
boys soccer 2012

The year my son played soccer, two boys, both recent immigrants from Africa (different parts), one of whom spoke almost no English, needed rides. One lived near us, so we drove him home after practices and to and from games. The other became a regular rider on game days. Soon, the van was full of kids who needed rides.

girls volleyball 2013
girls volleyball 2013

I could’ve grumbled. But I chose to think of it as a way to be of service to these kids who otherwise couldn’t participate, and to their parents. Of course, I couldn’t let kids play hungry or thirsty, so I bought extra snacks and cases of water, and made sure they had something in their stomachs before game time. And, often, after.

Hence, the Ministry of Rides and Snacks.

You may be unsurprised to learn that the kids love riding in my van. There are benefits for me. The kids kind of forget that I’m there, and I get a great window into how my kids are with their friends, and what the school scuttlebutt is. I learn new slang (that my daughter forbids me to use). The girls give me hugs when they see me at school.

I won’t lie; it’s exhausting. It can add close to an hour after the game to bring everyone home. But I love this school and I love these kids. It’s so thrilling to see a Muslim girl wearing a head scarf charge up the basketball court. Or to hear dads yell soccer instructions in four different languages. The variety of kids we know from all over the world and from different backgrounds here in our same city is just … beautiful. I will miss that gorgeous diversity when my daughter graduates in June.

But, for now, I will drive. I will buy way too many bags of Cheez-Its and boxes of granola bars. And probably Krispy Kreme for the last game. And love every minute of it.

So let me encourage you: if there is something you do that you feel a little grumbly about it, think of it as a ministry. Give it a fun name. It might help you feel differently about it. (Sadly, this doesn’t seem to apply to the doing of laundry or dishes.)


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Spiritual Leprosy: A Devotional

St. Francis and the leper

The person who has the leprous disease shall . . . remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.          Leviticus 13:45-46 (NRSV)

Skin diseases were serious business for the ancient Israelites, but what could it have to do with us today? We’ve conquered most ailments that plagued them, including Hansen’s disease, aka leprosy.

Beyond offering thanks, we can take it to a spiritual level.

Leprosy is an infectious disease that, besides causing skin sores, also causes nerve damage in the sufferer’s arms and legs. This nerve damage means that people with leprosy do not feel pain in those areas. People with leprosy often lose fingers, ears, even feet because of serious injuries they couldn’t prevent because the pain didn’t register.

What, then, is spiritual leprosy?

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ . . . we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit.     2 Corinthians 12:12-13 (NLT)

We have spiritual leprosy when we do not feel or acknowledge the pain in (what we see as) our body-of-Christ extremities: fellow believers who are different from us (whoever the majority “us” is in your part of the kingdom), either in looks, upbringing, worship style, socioeconomic status, political affiliation, developmental ability, country of origin.

Spiritual leprosy looks like dismissing a fellow believer’s experience out of hand. It looks like turning a blind eye to injustice. It looks like self-justification for our lack of compassion or action. It looks like blaming the victim. It looks like glee at the downfall of Christian leaders. It looks like that favorite term of the prophets: hardheartedness.

It’s dangerous for the same reason physical leprosy was so harshly dealt with in ancient times: because it spreads. And the more it spreads, the more disfigured our Christian communities become: less hospitable to the widow, the orphan, the stranger at our gate, not to mention the hungry, the jailed, the immigrant, the broken.

Plow up the hard soil of our hearts. Help us to listen wholeheartedly. Help us to not see our part of the body of believers as more important than another part. And thank you, Lord, for Jesus. He was not afraid of lepers. He touched them. He healed them. May he heal us, too.



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The Summer of Big Sid

photo by Stacy Braswell, used with permission
photo by Stacy Braswell, used with permission

Saturday, June 24, 1978

“I’m not telling you the big news until I get a ‘Hi, Dad.’”

I swallowed my half-chewed hotdog and said it. Jenny and Brian muttered it around their food.

“I guess that’s good enough.” He took his time stabbing two hotdogs from the pan and letting them drip before putting them on his plate and joining us at the kitchen table.

“Is this going to be like that time your big news was that Mrs. Rzepka needed some kids to shovel her driveway?” Jenny crossed her arms. “For free.”

“Nope.” He loaded up his hotdogs. “Big Sid escaped.”

Brian glared at me like it was my fault. “The Jacobowskis are going to lord it over us all summer.”

“Who’s Big Sid?” Jenny never remembered the important stuff.

“Not who,” Dad said. “What.”

She rolled her eyes, which she did a lot since she turned twelve.

“It’s that sixteen-foot python at the Wonderful World Circus,” Brian told her.

Dad nodded. “I’m disappointed in you guys.”

“What did we do?” Since Brian’s mouth was full, it sounded more like, “Wad we dough?”

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” Dad leaned his chair back. “When I was your age, I—”

Mom tipped her untouched food onto Dad’s plate. We watched her drift over to the garbage can, throw away her barely-dirty paper plate, and then shuffle back to the living room.

Dad leaned forward. “Doesn’t it make you want to look for him?”

I was as shocked as Mikey’s brothers in the Life cereal commercial.

“He was only staying about a mile from here and it’s not like he could fly.”

I bolted the rest of my food and gulped down my Tang. “I’m ready.”

Brian was already at the front door. “Can Jimmy come along?”

“Bring anyone you like.”

I dashed to the living room. “Mom. Mom. Big Sid escaped and we’re going to look for him!”

“With me,” Dad shouted from the kitchen. “No going off on your own.”

But I was already outside, running to my best friend’s house. By the time Dad joined us, the whole Cummings Avenue pack had piled into the Kingswood. Jenny rode shotgun with two friends. Brian shared the back seat with three buddies. And all five of us seven-year-olds got the way back.

When we got to O’Brien Road, there were lots of serious-looking grownups there, so Dad drove past. He turned onto Maynard and slowed to a crawl. The station wagon growled like a lion on the hunt.

He hit the button to lower the way back window and the five of us scooted to the end, stuck our heads and shoulders out, and scanned the scrub for any unexpected movement. Every time someone said they saw something, Dad slammed on the brakes, and the way back crew tumbled backwards onto our butts, laughing.

All we spotted were three squirrels and two dogs.

“You’d think a sixteen-foot snake’d stick out more,” Dad said. “Time to head back.” To make it up to us, he gunned the station wagon when the road was clear. The Kingswood might be a dinged-up ’69, but its engine roared like a brand new Chevy. I leaned back over the top of the door, closed my eyes, and pretended I was Luke Skywalker on his X-34 landspeeder.

When we got home, I popped inside to stand in the doorway of the living room to tell Mom about our adventure.

She actually smiled a little.

Day 5

Jenny had made me pinky-swear that I wouldn’t tell Mom or Dad what we were up to. The official story was that we were biking around with our friends, like we always did. To avoid the living room, I only used the side door.

It was easy to not talk at dinner. Dad brought Mr. Burger home two nights in a row and we ate on tray tables in the living room so we could watch the latest news on Big Sid. It was my job to sit next to the console and change the channel. Our TV was pretty old, so sometimes it took both my hands to crank the dial.

And then I forgot, and came in the front door. I tried to not look, but I couldn’t help it. Mom was sitting in her armchair, in her bathrobe, one wrist perched on the arm of the chair. The pale underside of her arm faced up, and her fingers curled around her cigarette.


It was just a whisper, but I heard it.

She tilted her head, which meant, come closer, so I took two steps in.

“What’s happening on the Big Sid front?”

I concentrated on the lit end of her cigarette. “Nothing much.”

At first, she didn’t say anything, and I almost left, but then she said, “I won’t snitch,” and it all came tumbling out. How Jenny had made a map and how we were searching in a scientific way. How half my friends couldn’t bike around anymore because their parents were afraid the snake would eat them. How weird it was to have no dogs or cats loose anywhere anymore.

And then the biggest news of all: we’d met the guy who lost Big Sid.

“We were behind the De Vrieses who live on Maynard. Freddie was there, but his grandma wouldn’t let him go past the raspberry bushes, so he stayed there and kept yelling to ask whether we’d found anything. Once, Brian told him we had, even though we hadn’t, and he about peed his pants. Anyway, we were in the low part where the ground is always squishy, and that’s where the guy was, because pythons like streams and damp areas. The best thing of all was he told us that Big Sid wasn’t dangerous to kids or dogs because he only ate rats. He said, ‘Sid’s real mellow.’ Did you know he used to curl around the necks of the circus girls? But now he’s too big. And then the best, best thing was that he said, ‘May the Force be with you,” when he left. Isn’t that cool-city?”

She smiled again.

I gave her a snake report every day.

Day 14

“Any signs of him?”

“None. None at all.” I was finally all the way in the room, standing next to the ashtray, close enough for her to pat my arm and comfort me or something, but she didn’t. “We were in the far corner of our territory, near Maynard and Lake Michigan Drive when some other kids came zooming past, saying that some lady had found him in her pool, so we went with.”

I paused for effect.

“It was a long skinny tree branch. Jenny thinks someone threw it into the pool on purpose because it hasn’t been near windy enough for a branch like that to come down on its own, and there were no big trees by the pool. What do you think?”

Mom shrugged.

“Today was an easier day biking because me and Jimmy did a trade. I got his silver Huffy from last year and his little brother got my bike from last year that I was still riding. It was great to not have to pedal so much to keep up with everyone.”

“I’m glad you guys figured something out.”

But she didn’t sound glad. She sounded sad.

“We’ll trade back at the end of the summer.”

Now she patted my arm.

 Day 20

“Is Big Sid still free?”

The Big Sid Roll sat on its plate on the side table, untouched from that morning when I’d gotten up extra early and biked to the bakery and bought one for everyone and put it on a plate and left it for her with a note. The note wasn’t there, but the snake-shaped donut still was.

“You think he’s free?”

“He spent his whole life in a little plywood box with no choice when he eats, what he eats, when he gets taken out, and where he goes.”

That was the longest thing she’d said all summer.

“I think he’s scared. He only knew one way his whole life and now he’s in a giant world, and he doesn’t know what’s safe, or where his owner is, or whether he’ll ever get food again.”

She gave a weird smile. “You think of him as you, and I think of him as me.”

What was I supposed to say to that?

 Day 28

We were trying to be quiet in case Mom was already asleep, but we could see her cigarette end moving and flaring.

I turned on the light and sat on the arm of the chair. “Star Wars was even better at the drive-in because me and my friends were outside doing lightsaber fights and driving our landspeeders. And in the intermission, some man yelled, ‘Big Sid, where are you?’ and everyone laughed, and then in the quiet parts of the next movie, which wasn’t nearly as good as Star Wars, people yelled it some more. I wish you’d come with us.”

Day 30

I was out, searching alone, when I saw the crowd on Maynard. I stood up to pedal faster, but my legs got heavier and heavier the closer I got. The crowd was so huge that I couldn’t get close enough to see anything. But I heard.

Grand Rapids Press File Photo of the crowd watching them carry the captured Big Sid away
Grand Rapids Press File Photo of the crowd watching them carry the captured Big Sid away

They’d found Big Sid.

When I got home, I put my bike away properly and didn’t cut across the lawn, but I made it to the house eventually.

The final snake report.

I hovered in the doorway until she turned her blank face to me and blinked once, and then again before she clued in that it was me.

“They got him.”

For once, she did exactly the right thing. She stubbed out her cigarette and opened her arms. I ducked my head and ran to her, burrowing into her lap.

33 Days

Somehow, Mom found out exactly when and where they were unveiling Sid at the Standale Sid-walk Sale. It was our secret. Just like the snake reports had been.

Jenny and Brian had already biked there with friends. I waited for Mom in the Kingswood, finally getting to ride shotgun. She’d gotten up extra early to drive Dad to work so we could have the car. When she walked up, I couldn’t stop staring at her. She was wearing a jean skirt and some kind of flowy white top. She’d done her hair and put makeup on.

“You look like Sissy Spacek.”

“I used to look like Jane Fonda.” She checked her lipstick in the rearview mirror. “But thank you.”

I pointed out everything I’d been telling her about. The sign spray-painted on a pallet and nailed to a tree that said, “STANDALE HOME OF BIG SID.” The pizza place that made a special python pizza. The bakery that did the Big Sid Roll that she didn’t eat.

Grand Rapids Press File Photo
Grand Rapids Press File Photo

Even though it was 9 a.m., we stationed ourselves outside the ice cream shop with a couple of cones and counted how many people wore LaVeen Hardware’s “Standale Home of Big Sid” T-shirts. It took four men to carry Sid’s aquarium out. Mom’s hand was cold when I slipped my hand into hers.

The man from LaVeen’s stepped up and made fun of the mayor of Walker trying to call in the National Guard and said some other stuff that made other people laugh. But not me and Mom.

And then, like a magician flipping his cape, he threw off the cover. Big Sid was unveiled. His markings looked like gold in the sunshine.

I hated him.

“Poor guy,” Mom whispered.

I talked to him with my mind, like Obi Wan. Why did you have to go and get caught? Your escape was the only thing Mom liked. Now I’ve got nothing.

Mom squeezed my hand tighter for a second, but then she let go.

Stupid snake.


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When You’re President of Potkettleblackistan

Tea Time

I went with a friend to a writer’s conference — his first, which means it was his first time saying to himself and the world that he is a writer (in other words, a big deal!). Afterwards, we were talking about his two projects (not a man who does things by halves). He was asking a lot of questions about method, as if there were a magic method that would make the writing smooth and the manuscript finishable and require no false starts.

That characterization may sound mean, but the “is there any way to make this less overwhelming” impulse is strong and entirely human.

My answers were very unsatisfying. Because there are a multitude of ways to write and ways to start and to organize, but (unless you are the special-est special sunflower there is) none of them guarantee diddly-squat. Especially since my friend’s process for similar work is quite loose and involves a fair bit of discovery along the way, I suspect that his process for writing these books will be similar.

Can I confess something to you? I was feeling just the wee-est bit smug that, at this stage, having been writing with the goal of publication for 11 years, I’d never get blocked by the question of how to start.

Which is how I became the President of Potkettleblackistan.

Remember with me all the way back to December 31, 2014. My word for the coming year was PRACTICE

Both in the sense of the things I want to work on: prayer practice, writing practice, dance practice. And in the sense that “we call it practice because we’re not that good at it yet” (something a dear friend who is a spiritual director said once, a couple of years ago, and I can’t get out of my head). So I will both go harder after my various practices, and be accepting of myself when I’m not that good at it. I will practice both patience and impatience, simultaneously (something one of the presenters at my November writing conference said).

So how am I doing on that?

Not very well. You see, I can’t get a handle on a time that will work for me — not because I’ve actually tried a number of different times, but because I can’t wrap my mind around a time. As if there were a magical time that I might choose that would make practicing my practices smooth and easy and consistent. [sigh]

I repent, dear friend, of my slight smugness. There is no way ahead that will solve all the issues in either of our writing or practices ahead of time. There is only the commitment to dive in and not abandon things when they get messy and require adjustment.

Perhaps now, after all this irritating self-awareness, I will actually start practicing my practices. And to give me a push, I’ll be reading my friend Ed Cyzewski’s latest, Pray, Write, Grow: Cultivating Prayer and Writing Together.

How about you? Are you a Cabinet Member in Potkettleblackistan?
Feel free to share in the comments.

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From child bride to American doctor

I have nothing to despise. The whole universe is a lesson to me.
from a letter to Theodosia Carpenter, December 26, 1881

Here are some of the things Indian woman Anandibai Joshi didn’t despise, but clearly could have:

  • Becoming a child bride at the age of 9 and moving far away from her home.
  • Living among people who were not of her caste or of her cultural group and being unable to eat food prepared by them, not even when they’d freshly arrived somewhere and hadn’t yet unpacked their belongings, so she often went hungry.
  • Being openly mocked and spit at for doing such radical things as: taking a walk by herself, dressing according to her customs, conversing with her husband in public, being educated.
  • Being beaten by her husband/teacher for taking time off of her studies or for cooking instead of studying.
  • When she was 14, her son dying after only 10 days of life.
  • Being rejected by everyone because she intended to go to America to get medical training.
  • Enduring set-back after set-back in her plans to come to America.

All this by the time she was 17.

Another example of her thought:

“I wish to preserve my manner and customs unless they are detrimental to my health. Can I live in your country as if it were my own, and what will it cost me? When I think over the sufferings of women in India in all ages, I am impatient to see the Western light dawn as the harbinger of emancipation. I am not able to say what I think; but no man or woman should depend upon another for maintenance and necessaries. Family discord and social degredation will never end till each depends upon herself.”

And this painful truth, inspired both by her countrymen and by the Christian missionaries she met in India:

“I rely on God, and do not seek to know who are his individual messengers to me. Take any religion you like and you will find that its founder was a holy man. Go to his followers and you will find holy men the exception.”

I am writing at The Mudroom today about this pioneer. Please join me. It’ll give you good background for when I write about her complicated marriage next week :-)


* Quotes above are from Anandibai Joshi’s letters to American woman, Theodosia Carpenter, as quoted in The Life of Anandabai Joshee, a kinswoman of the Pundita Rambai, by Caroline Wells Healey Dall, published in 1888, by Roberts Brothers.

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I survived a plane crash

In the icebreaker game, “Tell us something about yourself that you don’t think is true of anyone else here,” I have an ace: I’ve been in a plane crash.

It was January, 1986. I was 18 and I traveling from Toronto to Grand Rapids, Michigan (via Pittsburgh), to visit a friend at Calvin College. The weather was cold and icy, but that’s normal for winters in both places. We were scheduled to have a brief touchdown in Erie, Pennsylvania, but as the time for that drew close, the pilot told us that we wouldn’t be making it. Shortly after that, the pilot came on again: something was cleared up and we were going to go there.

You know that heavy rushing sound that lasts for maybe 20 seconds when a plane is first landing? It never ebbed. The whine just got louder. That was the first clue that something wasn’t right. Such a subtle clue, but enough that I tensed my legs and pushed myself back into my seat. There was a thud and snow flew back, obscuring the view out of the windows, so none of us knew what was happening, other than, “we hit something” and “we’re not stopping.”

And then silence and stillness.

The flight attendants were just as calm as you’d hope they’d be, guiding us to the front of the plane, telling us not to worry about our stuff, but to keep moving forward. To the slide.

Yes, I got to go down the slide, and yes, I did have the thought, “I get to go down the slide.” And then I turned around.

USAir Flight 499
USAir Flight 499

That was when I started shaking.

“The DC-9 went off the runway at about 9 a.m., rumbled down an embankment and came to rest straddling a local road” (from the AP story). It might be the embellishment of imagination that I saw a car pass under the front of the plane, but I know I watched a car stop on the side of the road (how could you not!?!), and another newspaper article said that the plane blocked the road.

airplane straddling a road
airplane straddling a road

There was only one injury: a woman bumped her head when she stood to evacuate the plane. We were bussed to the airport and put in a bright and airy room where several men ordered whiskey — at 9:30 in the morning. I kept it together very well. There was a gospel singer whose work I was familiar with on the plane, and I sat at her table.

When it was my turn for the phone, I called home first, although I was pretty sure my mother was teaching. So then I called my dad at the office. I was working for him at the time, taking a year off between high school and college. I even knew he was having an important meeting with huge clients, but I had to talk to someone. So when I got the secretary and she told me in an irritated tone that he was in a meeting, I was just petty enough to take a little satisfaction in saying, “Well, then tell him when he gets out of the meeting that I was just in a plane crash,” and having her rush off the phone to get my dad. My official reason for calling him was to let him know that I was okay, in case the plane crash made the news. But it wasn’t going to make the news. I just needed to hear my dad. And take the opportunity to not handle it like a grownup, and cry like a kid.

Writing about that phone call has made me cry all over again.

So what is your go-to story for that ice breaker game? Please share in the comments.

My favorite one (other than my own) is from the older student in my college freshman composition class: “I have 5 kids.” 


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Always replenishing. Never stagnant: a devotional.

Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.”

“But sir, you don’t have a rope or a bucket,” she said, “and this well is very deep. Where would you get this living water?…

Jesus replied, “Anyone who drinks this water will soon become thirsty again. But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life” (John 4:10-11,13-14).

To our modern ears, Jesus takes this conversation to a spiritual level right away, and we chuckle a bit because the Samaritan woman doesn’t get that Jesus isn’t talking about physical water anymore.

But we’re the ones who don’t get it.

Living water was a category of water.

image of Ein Prat from
image of Ein Prat from

Still water referred to open pools fed by seasonal rains, or by springs. Those fed by seasonal rains would eventually dry up.

Cistern water came from seasonal rains directed into chambers dug out of the rock and sealed with plaster. As people used it and the water level went down, the remaining water often became stagnant and bitter.

Well water was groundwater accessed by a tunnel and brought up with a rope and jar. Wells could go dry during a drought.

Streams (aka nahals and wadis) were natural water courses fed by seasonal rains, so they varied, depending on the season, from rampaging to trickling to dry.

Rivers flowed constantly but had seasonal changes as run off from winter rains made its way down the mountains. Depending on the size of the river, it might dry up during a drought.

But a spring was different. Its water was always running or bubbling or gushing at regular intervals. Always replenishing. Never getting stagnant. Providing fresh, living water.

In normal times, access to a spring meant the difference between subsisting and thriving; in times of drought, it was the difference between life and death.

All of these associations would have run through the Samaritan woman’s mind when Jesus took the conversation to a spiritual level — he is the source that never stops giving life.

 Whether you are diving in, scooping out one handful, or staring at it, this living water is always there. Ready for you.

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Three storytelling take-aways from Selma

Let’s ignore the fact that I saw the movie Selma with 60 6th graders who giggled inappropriately and got up incessantly and tossed a gummy bear into my lap. Let’s just talk about the phenomenal storytelling of the movie.

Because whatever else people might be saying about it, the storytelling was amazing.

still from the movie Selma

Here are three things I’m taking away for my own writing.

1. Every single person behaved like he or she was the star of his or her own drama.

It’s common writing advice to make sure that each character thinks he or she is the star, especially villains, who shouldn’t behave as if they are in the hero’s story. But it’s hard to do. And Ava DuVernay is a master at layering points of view.

Three specifics:

I loved how President Johnson was clearly respectful of Dr. King and of his purposes, and sympathetic, but he had his own list of priorities, and, if he had his way, civil rights was not high on it. His line late in the movie (paraphrased here) rang so true to what I imagine is an issue for every president: You’ve got one huge issue, I’ve got a hundred and one. It made me imagine being the president and having all these people with one big issue coming into your office all the time and having to negotiate and juggle and placate — all day long. It made the result of his conversation with the slimy George Wallace feel like such a hard-fought personal victory, and not just a victory for the movement and for the nation.

And it wasn’t like life within the Civil Rights movement was less complicated. There were so many layers of conflict in every interaction between “the adults” of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and “the kids” of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and between the two leaders of “the kids.” I confess that I fell a little in love with John Lewis as he was portrayed. SNCC was unhappy that, after two years of living among and working with the people of Selma, the SCLC was going to waltz in and take over and then leave all the people hanging when they decamped. King has a great little speech about how what SCLC does is very specific, and while it builds on SNCC’s work, it isn’t meant to be the same. The two leaders of SNCC, John Lewis and James Forman, argue repeatedly throughout the movie about tactics, about how they should involved themselves in the SCLC purpose, about John’s hero-worship of MLK. It costs Lewis his position with SNCC, and he gets brutally beaten by the state police, but he does get to deliver MLK’s own words back to him when he needs encouragement.

Even Coretta Scott King gets her own point of view. We see her struggle with being married to someone who’s gone so much. There’s a telling little moment when King takes the garbage out and doesn’t know where the roll of replacement garbage bags are kept. Scott King hands him the roll with only a little smirk. It was so subtle; it happens in the midst of a conversation. But it was a deep moment of showing that showed her isolation. We see her get nasty phone calls, at least some of which would’ve been planted by Hoover’s FBI in an attempt to weaken their marriage and thereby discredit King. We see a number of conversations between them, both tender and tough. She was her own person with her own take, and I was glad for it.

2. Showing vs. Telling.

This is an oft-repeated nugget of writing advice: don’t just tell the reader your character is happy/sad/frustrated/angry/etc. Show the reader.

This movie masters showing. I already mentioned one moment: the not knowing where the garbage bags are. Later, a ways into the movie, one of the SCLC leaders jokes about the jail cell being bugged, and other characters talk about their phones being bugged. But the audience knew that long before the character says it, because DuVernay superimposes lines from logged FBI reports that demonstrate how closely the FBI kept tabs on King — down to logging the fact that he’d called Mahalia Jackson late at night so she could sing “Precious Lord” to him to encourage him. The result is haunting and heavy for the viewer, much more so than merely hearing the characters talk about it would be.

3. Portrait of a Leader

This one will help my characterization of David as reluctant rebel on the run and then as king: the leader is almost never alone, and when he does manage to steal away, his thoughts are not pleasant (I use “he” because both King and David were male, not because I think all leaders must be male). While the movie isn’t about King, he’s often the focus. And he’s almost always in a group, if not a crowd, either of supporters or of opponents. The few times he’s alone, his thoughts are heavy. He thinks of the cost of his work, both in terms of his marriage and family life, and in terms of those who have lost their lives and those who will, because of what he’s leading them to do. He knows how difficult things are and also how much more difficult they will likely become.

I have to remember to portray the weight of being a leader — trying to escape it, to share it, to grapple with it, to express it, and trying not to give in to it.

Can you tell that I really loved this movie? I hope so.

If you’ve seen Selma, what did you think?


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Self-righteousness is always gross

extending the olive branch
extending the olive branch

Some people may blame the fact that I’m Canadian, but I apologize easily. If I’ve messed up, and I realize that I’ve messed up (not always immediately apparent), I will say that I’m sorry. I will take ownership for having hurt or wronged or flaked out, whatever it is.

One of my most freeing moments on Facebook was accepting a friend request from someone I went to school with in grade 6, and then apologizing to her publicly for something mean I’d done to her. We were playing hide and seek, and she was “it.” She’d found one of my friends, and they were both racing to the tree, and I ran out and pushed the girl who was “it,” thereby preventing her from beating my friend to the tree; my friend was, therefore, safe. That bothered me for years. Saying sorry to her, and hearing that we were good, was marvelous.

I’ve written here about another time I apologized — profusely, even — in a church setting to people I’d wronged.

I feel an apology coming on, and a big one, but it’s tough.

How to apologize without also defending myself?

Three years ago at this exact time we were struggling over whether to leave the church we were deeply involved in. The church we loved. It was going through a difficult time (which I will not detail), just barely holding things together. Deciding to leave was heartbreaking; I was sad for months.

Several months ago, we saw our old pastor at an event. Things were friendly; we hugged and we talked, and it was nice. He gave a tribute to a mutual friend, and in his speech, mentioned that this friend had stood by him at a difficult time when everyone else had abandoned him.

We were part of that “everyone else.”

His voice and his demeanor revealed both how hurtful it was to be abandoned and how much it meant to him that his friend had stuck by him. He revealed how vulnerable that left him.

I’ve been there while it felt like others kicked a member of my family when he was down, and it was terrible. And I wound up doing the same thing to someone who was very important to me. I had my reasons, but I can’t deny that that was the result.

So I want to say that I’m sorry. I feel bad for hurting him when he was down. But how do I do that without trying to re-explain why we left? Without trying to re-justify our decision? It’s sooooo tempting. Because I still think we made the right decision.

But an apology in which I defend my position is not a true apology.

I remember how meaningful it was to me when a friend who’d left the same church, and had left me in the lurch at the time, apologized to me — without reservation, although she wouldn’t have changed her decision, and I wouldn’t have asked her to. Her simple apology, her acknowledgment that her decision made things harder for me, set free a little nub of resentment I’d been nurturing.

Now that I’ve thought it through, it’s not all that tough. I care more that he knows that I’m sorry than that I defend my rightness — self-righteousness is always gross. I wish we could’ve figured out how to remain his friend while leaving that church, but we didn’t. I wish I’d negotiated it better. But I didn’t. I’m just plain sorry.

How are you with apologies? Have you given some that set you free? Received an apology you weren’t expecting?




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A limerick for a mythical visitor

Evidence of the unicorn mouse that visited the preschool children's worship room last weekend.
Evidence of the unicorn mouse that visited the preschool children’s worship room last weekend.

There once was a unicorn mouse,

That refused to stay in its house.

It left rainbow poop

(Enough to scoop)

That’s so cute, I can’t even grouse.

Close-up of rainbow poop.
Close-up of rainbow poop.
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