Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Red Crayon

Is this bad blogging form?  The following post was recycled.  I originally wrote it this past fall for a magazine contest.  When I sent it off, I knew it was not a contender but I was very tickled to have finished something I started (NOT my forte.) I've changed it up slightly to fit my little corner of the Interwebs.

The clouds are moving in. It's about to get personal and very dark here at The Crooked Clothesline.  If you like your blogs the way you like your laundry...mountain-fresh and stain-free...well, then, you might want to move along for now.  And if you're my principal, it would be best for you and me both if you just turned away from the ugly truth, shielded your eyes from this marred and sweat-stained load of stinky laundry.

You see, the persistent, melty, red crayon in the dryer of my life is this: I am a loser. Oh, I don’t mean a “Nobody likes me, might as well eat some worms” loser. I am a “Stand back! Do NOT hand that to me if you ever want to see it again!” loser. I lose every piece of paper I touch. Whether that paper has been used to print a grocery list, federal currency or my teaching contract, I will lose it. I’ve lost countless phone bills, my proof of car insurance and my Social Security card. When I was a fifth-grader and the whole fifth grade was climbing onto a bus for the big field trip to the airport, I had to stay behind at school because I had lost my permission slip. (And if Mr. Waite is still alive, you are welcome to look him up and verify this sad fact.)

Losing paperwork at home is inconvenient and frustrating.  At school, as a teacher responsible for piles and piles of papers, including legal documents, this is a horrific disaster. What I seem to lose over and over again, no matter how many different organizational systems I try, is student work. Yes, I am that teacher. (I am assuming my principal took my kindly advice and has moved on to enjoy other more positive, uplifting pockets of the Internet.) Sometimes I lose one student’s late writing assignment. Sometimes it’s an entire stack of reading tests. It happens on a regular basis and, obviously, it’s entirely unacceptable. I have neither the time nor sufficient behavioral health coverage to fully explain how this defect of mine affects my self-esteem and confidence as an educator. But it’s awful.

It’s like cracking your shin in the same spot on the coffee table several nights in a row without time for the goose egg to go down between injuries. It’s more and more painful every time. Eventually, your shin will turn to the consistency of applesauce and you won’t be able to walk anymore. Every time I lose another paper or stack of papers, I’m more and more ashamed of myself. I feel worn down a little more. It’s a regular reminder that I’m not really cut out for this most noble of professions and I don’t belong in the classroom.

Thanks to my self-deprecating sense of humor, I had always been able to laugh at myself about my tendency to misplace things. I’d always made jokes about it with co-workers. However, after being so open about my embarrassing flaw for so long, I’m starting to feel like the high school sleaze who the whole school knows is making out with a different guy in the backseat every weekend - I haven’t any pride.

Last year, I had to choose between preserving the last milligram of pride I had left as a semi-competent teacher or maintaining my integrity as a person. You see, some genius decided to put me on a committee. And give me responsibilities. I think it was my principal. (You don't think she's reading this, do you?  I mean, I did tell her...ya' know...not to.) The committee was collecting data to help teachers analyze the effectiveness of our math instruction. Each teacher would administer a designated math test and pass the scores on to the committee member representing her grade level. Then, we highly-organized and responsible grade-level reps would reassemble to share this data amongst ourselves. However, immediately after giving the assessment to my own class, I lost my entire stack of graded tests before I managed to record the scores.

It wasn’t a huge deal at first because I had some time before the committee would meet again. I basically ransacked the joint, flipping madly through every sheet of paper in my classroom until I had pretty much licked my index finger print clean off. As the next committee meeting grew near, I began to panic. I knew I hadn’t thrown them away - I wasn’t an idiot, regardless of the nasty rumor going around in my head. I certainly hadn’t incinerated them or flushed them down the toilet. They were in that classroom somewhere. I knew without a doubt I would find them someday. Unfortunately, I knew from past experience it was highly possible that “Someday” would be too late. Like when I found my unsigned airport permission slip in my desk the last week of fifth grade. So I had to make a decision.

I couldn’t bear to tell my principal that I had once again lost something. I couldn’t take another moment of feeling incompetent - another crack from the coffee table on my bruised and mushy self-esteem. I was now teetering precariously on the line between being a loser of papers and being a Total Loser. In a dark moment, it occurred to me that I could just make up those missing scores. I was familiar with my students’ abilities. This information wasn’t going into the grade book. I could just plug fake grades into the computer. No one would know and no one would care.

But, of course, God would know. Jesus told his followers, “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy with worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”1

Pride certainly falls under the category of worldly wealth. Pride, so unimportant in the overall scheme, was one of the few things I could afford to lose. So I made up my mind to go to the next committee meeting prepared to share my teammates’ scores and to admit that I had temporarily misplaced my own set of tests. I would hand over my last little scrap of pride, the size of an elbow patch, and brave any possible reprimands from my principal and/or looks of unspoken disdain from my co-workers. It was very difficult to walk into that meeting knowing that I was going to be exposed as foolish and incompetent yet again but I knew that I would tell the whole truth.

However, the subject never came up. There was no time for that particular part of our overall task. This happened two times. Twice, I walked into the committee meeting knowing that I would be revealing my failure and sacrificing the remnant of my pride. Twice, the principal pushed the completion of that one assignment to the back burner for a while longer.

Finally, as the end of the quarter neared, an email was sent out to the committee members declaring a final due date for the information. Apparently, God does care about the little things because suddenly, my set of tests showed up in the classroom, like my own little ram in the thicket. Trying to follow Jesus, I had handed my pride over to God and He kept it intact. I ended up committing an after-school violation of church and state there on the spot, by thanking God right out loud for his grace.

In the end, I entered my scores and was able to present them as part of the fourth grade data. Subsequently, my principal was not forced to fire me. 

Oh, look!  The clouds are clearing. The sun has returned above The Crooked Clothesline.  

I think, though, it's quite possible the infuriating red crayon, marking up all of my laundry with a scarlet D for disorganized, is going to be with me all of my life. Maybe I should be thankful for this defect because it certainly keeps me turning to God again and again. Maybe without these unattractive stains, I would not be as sharply aware of my need for God.  As much as I hate being disorganized, I would hate even more to miss out on experiencing the wonderful, crazy ways He shows His love in the midst of my chaos....
Psalm 124 in action

1 New International Version (©2011)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Obnoxious, Maybe. Loveable, Yes!

Look at this obnoxious little guy, sitting on my neighbor’s roof, cawing up an early morning storm on my day off!  You’d think I’d be irritated with this inconsiderate grackle but I’m not.  For some reason, I love these silly birds. 

One thing that endears them to me is they don’t hop like other birds.  They walk, putting one foot in front of the other. They strut around like little, rude people.

Curbside Attitude: I mean, seriously.
Who do they think they are?
They also seem pretty smart. One day a few years ago, as I was driving out of the library parking lot, I saw a big grackle working hard to tip over a Burger King bag to get at what was inside. I found him so entertaining, I pulled into a parking spot across from him to watch his efforts.  Here he was, digging into a greasy, fast food bag in the middle of the oil-stained asphalt.  Others might've found him disgusting but I thought he was clever and cute.

This past fall, I discovered a beat-up, old grackle hobbling around on a ugly, bent leg in my backyard.  His tail was nothing but a pointy, stripped feather shaft.  He was unable to fly and I was worried my horrid cats would get him.  My heart went out to the tattered thing so I began devising a plan to catch him and take care of him.  Then I started to wonder if this was a stupid idea.  I called the vet who confirmed my suspicions. He also went on to express how much he hated these birds, saying that they are awful and selfish.  According to him, they shove the young out of nests occupied by other bird species and dump their grackle eggs and the subsequent baby grackle-rearing duties on the poor, hapless nest owners.

(Now, I did not verify this claim.  So if you’re a kid doing a report for science and happened across this blog because you googled grackles, I’d advise you to not use this information.  A library card would serve you well.)

After talking with the vet, I fretted for a short while about what to do, worrying that one of the many neighborhood cats would get him before the night was over.  Finally, cringing with guilt, I just opened the backyard gate and watched that bent-legged grackle walk out into the world like a crooked, little man.  Well, he must’ve walked a crooked mile because a week later, while riding my bike, I saw that little stinker down the street and around the corner, strutting around a front yard. I was thrilled that he had survived!

It occurs to me that I would be a much better representative of Christ if I could take my ability to see past the pest-like qualities of the rude, selfish grackle and apply it to those I consider to be rude, selfish people, overlooking what I perceive to be their ugly behavior and pushy ways.  Of course, birds don’t cut me off in traffic or make a living dreaming up insanely annoying, unreasonable expectations for teachers (Yeah, I'm looking at you, Robert Marzano.) or let their kids scream relentlessly during their long, drawn-out shopping trip from one end of the store to the next with a shopping list that is apparently written in the exact same order as mine.  So it’s easier for me to look past the faults of annoying birds than to look past what I perceive as the faults of the people who make up the background of my life - those souls I encounter ever so briefly in traffic or at the post office, etc .  But that’s exactly what Jesus commanded his followers to do.

Yet, alas!  That’s one of the hardest things for judgemental me to do! I’m awful!  It seems the place my lack of human kindness is made most manifest is at the grocery store. On a bad Christian-walk day, when navigating the aisles of my least favorite national chain store, I find myself thinking things like, “Really, mister? You thought that t-shirt was appropriate to wear in front of your young, impressionable children?”  At the check out lane, I might be silently screaming in my head, “WHY? Why are these crazy parents buying two carts of soda and cookies for their ill-behaved children?!"

Sadly, my good Christian-walk days aren’t much better.  I whisk through my least favorite national chain store thinking something along the lines of, “I’m a nice person.  Look, how nice I am – smiling kindly at all these weirdos.”  

Sheesh, Andrea, shop at Gall-mart much? When I first started this blog, my mom said, “Oo, this might be so cathartic for you!”  Yeah, maybe, Mom, if carthartic means realizing I’m a gigantic jerk!

Oh, and you know!  You just know, I’m the annoying grackle in the background of someone else’s life. When I’m standing too long in front of a freezer case at the grocery store, some disgruntled shopper is thinking to herself, “WHY? Why is that lady with the ridiculous haircut blocking the entire Ben & Jerry’s section with her large backside and a cart full of cat food and wine?!” 

This is why, lady.
What business do I have being annoyed with other people? 

My really great Christian-walk days are those days when I walk through my least favorite national chain store (Dang, I go there way too much!) and pray, “Lord Jesus, please help me to see each and every one of these people through your holy eyes.”  Yes, it happens once in a while.  If it happened more often, I would see a store full of people who are in need of love and forgiveness just like me (Romans 3:23), who are fearfully and wonderfully made by the Creator (Psalm 139:14), who are uniquely equipped for a purpose (Ephesians 2:10).

I don't know about you but this ain't easy for me. Hopefully, it's clear that I'm exaggerating a little for comic effect.  However, despite wanting to be a super nice person, I'm still incredibly selfish.  I want the snack aisle to offer me a conveniently clear path to the Chex Mix, uncluttered by girls cussing at someone on their cellphones.  I will judge such girls for their lack of tact, instead of reminding myself that they are madly loved by God.   I have figured out that I am unable to change this about my wretched self. 

How relieved I am that God offers people like me grace. Jesus reassured his followers, "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing." What a load off! Jesus says right there, "You can't do this on your own."  The apostle Paul (who, by the way, may just be the church's most annoying nice guy) encouraged his friends in Philippi by writing to them, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13.)"

So instead of berating myself for being a creep, I can leave this up to God.  With a little humility and time spent in prayer, I can trust Jesus to change me and enable me to sincerely look at people in a different light. Just as I can look at a greedy, little grackle in a greasy parking lot, admire his ingenuity and root for him, with my eyes on Christ, I can see the beauty and potential in every single human being I briefly encounter!  That is a great reason to caw up a storm.  :)

Sunday, April 13, 2014

This is Getting Old!

"What a drag it is getting old."  That's what Mick Jagger sang in one of my favorite songs by The Rolling Stones.  I don't know anyone who would argue with him on that point but I'm here to reassure you that it's not all that bad.  

I recently turned 50 and I'm thinking, "Man, I need to take better care of myself."  Setting down the ice cream scoop and doing some sit-ups would be a great start!

There is no question that I need to develop a healthier lifestyle with better food choices, more exercise and a commitment to take better care of the earthen vessel God gave me to use for a while. However, I am not going to concern myself too much with how I look because the fact is this earthen vessel is really on its way out.

While I've never been thrilled with the idea of growing old, I've never stressed out about it.  At least, not enough to do anything about it. I mean, sure, if someone makes eye-contact with me, I WILL complain to them that my face is so criss-crossed with dry, little wrinkles I look like a Triscuit.

Ultimately, though, I know my looks are so unimportant.  Of course, this is not astounding news to you.  You are wise and well-grounded (and might I add, looking fabulous!)  However, some of the more shallow of us (me), when hurtling toward 50 at breakneck speed, need a little reminder that there's more to us than that creamy complexion we once possessed.

When writing to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul wrote, "Therefore, we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day"(2 Corinthians 4:16 NAS).

Okay, the word decaying is a little too graphic for my taste.  Makes me think of a real Egyptian mummy I saw on display at the Phoenix Art Museum and I am insulted by the comparison. Other than that, though, I find this to be extremely reassuring. While my outer swan is molting hideously, God is turning my inner ugly duckling into a swan.             

As I was careening toward the end of my forties, I started reading a book called Pursue the Intentional Life by Christian writer Jean Fleming. She writes, 
This can be my time of greatest growth in Christ, the final stretch to the finish line, a time to put away every stale and self-protective barrier and make a dash for the tape.  My best years, my richest insights, a time of quiet fruitfulness, various and ripe - my deepest experiences of Christ are still ahead of me. This is my eager expectation. This is my time of ripened fruit and flight, living increasingly in the reality of the resurrection life, my heart and mind set on things above, earnest and ready, expectant and alert. (page 37,  Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress 2013)

This passage was inspiring to me.  Not only am I not too bummed out about aging, now I am actually excited about the process.

Well, hang on a sec.  This is probably a good time to mention that if I ever suggest that I know the correct way to approach a situation, you should know that I have already failed or am currently failing at that very thing. I am never coming from a place of polished, put-together, wink-at-the-camera confidence. It's always more of a I'm-running-late, can't-find-my-other-shoe, frizzy-haired desperation kind of thing. And if I ever briefly forget that and think I've got something all together, rest assured, I will soon do a face plant.

For example, I felt pretty darn smug about writing this blog post, thinking that I had a masterful grip on this inner beauty vs. outer beauty concept until just the other day.  I was about to enter the doors to my school when I almost bumped into this squat old lady coming out.  I saw her through the glass doors, poor thing.  She looked like Humpty Dumpty's grandma sporting a bad haircut.  

Of course, I realized with horror that it was actually my reflection. Suddenly, my peace with aging, just like an inattentive bird barreling into a freshly-Windexed patio door, once again smacked up against that reflection and was knocked out cold.  I sometimes have to give that bird some brisk smacks in the face to revive her and remind her that a few wrinkles are nothing when compared to what is ahead of us...growing wisdom, more time to become more closely acquainted with Jesus and the opportunity to model to my kids how to truly grow old gracefully. 

Yes, it might behoove me to invest in a tub of anti-wrinkle cream but there is only so much I can do to combat the force of gravity. The spider veins are going to keep multiplying and my hair is probably going to get thinner.  So no matter how much effort I put into any kind of physical makeover, my looks are only going to go downhill from here.  But my spirit!  That is something that God will be beautifying for the rest of my life!  And I am excited about it!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Disillusioned in Yellowstone: The Cartwrights Led Me Astray

As a child of two working parents in the mid-1970’s, I was what would later be called a “latch-key child.”  Left unsupervised after school, I was subjected to the ever-increasing evils of television.  My daily diet of syndicated Bonanza episodes led to a variety of unsavory behaviors.  I began to covet the neighbor girl’s western action figure known as Johnny West and his amazing assortment of plastic trail gear.  Santa never brought me so much as a miniature plastic canteen.  I also made unreasonable demands of both the universe and its Creator, alternately wishing upon a star and praying that a horse would appear in my backyard.  Neither approach worked.  I had to settle for naming my bike Gus and petting it when I thought no one was looking.  The most detrimental effect came nearly forty years later when a good friend, apparently as mal-educated by television as I, suggested that we go on a four-day pack trip in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.  

After those impressionable years of being indoctrinated by Michael Landon, I actually thought this was a great idea.  Of course, I’d been camping many times but this would involve horses.  And maybe even canteens.  I could no more pass up this opportunity than Hoss could pass up a meal .  However, the differences between my decades-old Bonanza fantasy and my eventual pack trip experience turned out to be numerous.  For one thing, none of the other participants revealed himself to be a disgruntled, psychotic former ranch hand bent on revenge.  So I never had the opportunity to save the group using my quick wits.  Actually, this was probably a good thing as my wits aren’t known to be all that quick.  Other than that, though, the differences were fairly disconcerting.

The Campsite and the Confused Campers:  "Where the heck is the ranch house?"

One startling difference was first realized when I suddenly remembered that, other than tending to Gus, my banana-seated bicycle, I had no horse experience.  Years of television viewing and daydreaming offered no great wisdom to draw from when I found myself in the driver’s seat of a large animal, crossing streams and climbing mountain paths, with no brake pedal, seat belt or airbags. The most intense moment came when one of our trail guides thought it best not to scare us and chose not to mention the treacherous conditions of the path ahead.  Our group of twelve had just wound through pine trees, across an open field with wildflowers and then onto a path wrapping around a mountain, just steep enough to be thrilling.  We looked at the rocks a short distance below and made some jokes about the possibility of plunging to our deaths. Everyone was jovial until, turning the next bend, we found ourselves on a narrow, hard, gravelly path no wider than a horse’s backside, carved into the side of a steep mountain.  

This was the fun, easy part of the ride.
In my memory, it was a straight drop off one side.  Maybe my memory is wrong but it is not an exaggeration to say that if my horse had slid from the path, he and I both would have died.  It was too late to pull a Pernell Roberts and quit. So I stared hard at the back of the rider ahead of me and attempted to comfort myself.  “We’re not going to die.  We’re not going to die.  The outfitters would never be foolish enough to take us on this trail if there were a chance we could die.”  Then, listening to the loose gravel scraping and sliding under my horse’s hooves as he strained to lug me up the steep path, I remembered - I had signed a waiver acknowledging that I could die on this trip and couldn’t blame the outfitters if I did.  The terror of this realization left me spewing cuss words, such as Pa Cartwright was never known to use, until my horse reached stable ground.

Another unpleasant difference reality presented was the possibility of running into a bear.  The biggest threat on the Ponderosa were righteously angry Indians played by white actors.  Obviously, that would not be a concern in Yellowstone.  So with no Bonanza episodes concerning bears in my memory, I took the threat of grizzlies just about as seriously.  While still anticipating the pack trip, I made all sorts of quips about my “fear” of being eaten by a bear. I thought it was hilarious up until that moment at the trailhead when, surrounded by snow covered mountain tops, the lead trail guide instructed us in his authoritative cowboy accent on how to behave if confronted by a grizzly as opposed to a black bear.  “If it’s a grizzly, your best bet is to play dead.  Now if it’s a black bear, folks, you need to be prepared to fight.  Try to hit ‘em in the snout.”  It was up to us to distinguish between the two.

Not only did Hoss and Little Joe never have to fight a black bear, they also never had to deal with menopause.  “How the heck is this relevant?” you might ask.  Oh, believe me.  It’s very relevant when you, newly-perimenopausal, have had a completely off-schedule pop-in visit from your period and you’re watching the trail guide use a rope and pulley to hoist “bear boxes” up twelve feet into the air. These boxes have been loaded with everyone’s snack food, toothpaste, deodorant...ANYTHING with an odor, because apparently bears can detect human-related scent from a million miles away.  Do you ask the trail guide, in his vest, fringed gloves and leather chaps, to lower a bear box so you can add to its contents what you normally go to great lengths to disguise in giant wads of toilet paper, bury at the bottom of wastebaskets and generally pretend, at least to the world’s male population, doesn’t exist? No, you do not.  Instead, you stuff the giant wad of t.p. into a plastic bag and shove it into the deepest corner of your purse.  Then you spend three sleepless nights, your eyelids frozen wide open, body stiff, ears straining to hear any sounds indicative of a flat-footed animal lumbering outside your tent. You are wracked with the guilt of a coward, knowing you’re risking eleven lives because you are still just an awkward teenager in gym class.  In the pitch black of the tent, you devise a plan to save the others in the event of a bear attack by running toward the treeline.  Suddenly, your body tenses up again at the sound of a snuffling low to the ground.

Take a deep breath.  It turned out to be the guy from Texas snoring in the next tent. You are safe. And, miraculously, so am I. I have lived to declare that I will never participate in a pack trip again. I made that vow to myself while answering the Call of Nature in nature. Sure, I can place this adventure alongside my dusty Bonanza memories in that little cigar box-turned-“treasure chest” in my mind.  And yes, now I know why women visiting the Ponderosa stayed so briefly.  Apparently, they needed to be flung onto that buckboard and rushed back to Virginia City before they drew grizzlies to the ranch with their confounded periods.  However, television ultimately betrayed me. The medium left me misguided and filled with unreasonable expectations. In response, I have made a life-changing decision and have cut way down on television viewing. Instead, I have taken up reading romance novels to seek out the truths of life.
Thanks to Srae for an amazing, fun, but never-to-be-repeated adventure!  <3