Family Matters

What Is Family?

It is a clear fall day in 1986 and I am walking the block home from the bus stop. It is my second month of high school; I am 13, a freshman, an artist. I am thinking about my new dog-sitting job; I will soon have enough money to buy a box of pastels I have been wanting. My brother, Carl, who is 10, is drawing with chalk on the sidewalk outside of our house. I am in a good mood; I stop and draw hair on one of his figures, and then stomp into the house, letting the screen door slam behind me.

The first sign that something is wrong is my mother's absence; she is typically in the kitchen or at her desk. Since the death of our father several years ago, the three of us are very close. My mom and I usually talk together while I eat an after-school snack. Then we read books or go for long walks with my brother.

I go looking for her and see that she has pulled the kitchen phone into the garage. I can hear her murmuring behind the closed door. All of a sudden I am nervous. I step closer and place my ear to the door. "Cancer," she whispers. Cancer.

Two weeks later she undergoes a massive operation for throat cancer. Surgeons remove one of her eyes and most of her jaw and sew up her face with rough black stitches. Carl and I visit her in the intensive care unit. When the nurses warn us that seeing her will be bad, my tough, independent brother takes my hand. It is worse than bad, her face is swollen and unrecognizable. She isn't supposed to wake up, but she does, and I hold her head while she retches. She collapses back on the pillow, her hands seeking ours. I take one hand. The other one searches blindly for my brother. He is collapsed in the corner, in a blind fetal position, sobbing soundlessly. He seems impossibly small. I take her other hand, and hold it in mine.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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Ayumi's Gift

Sometimes self-knowledge can be gleaned from the most unlikely of sources. From a glimpse of sunset, or a chance reading of a poem. Or, say, from a 14-year-old Japanese girl.

Ayumi came to stay with us for three weeks last summer. After a slight arm-twist by an enthusiastic friend, we volunteered to be a host family for a cultural exchange program. Since we have four daughters, we were assigned a girl, in the hope that she would feel more at home than would a Japanese teen-age boy in our decidedly feminine household. We were told she would speak some English, would need American plumbing explained, would attend morning classes, and would go on several field trips to the Los Angeles area, but for the rest of the time expected to live with a typical American family.

I worried about the "typical" part. We are strict vegetarians and live on a remote mountain ridge. But in many bad ways we are quite typical: We need an urgent reason to clean our house, we have far too many simultaneous events scheduled, and we rarely seem to sit down all together for a meal. Is this what we wanted to teach Ayumi about the American way?

Our first conversations with her upon her arrival taught us several lessons. First, we had to slow down, and we couldn’t slur our words the way we usually did. We had to avoid odd or slangy expressions. We had to ask questions that required more than a yes or no response if we wanted to draw our guest out.

After a week of tentative exchanges, Ayumi brought forth a tool that opened a new world of communication: a Japanese-English dictionary. We could look up words like "bowling" and point to the Japanese translation. Ayumi could look up words like "juku" and point to the English translation (extra private school for cramming for exams). Ah! Then we would all nod our heads and laugh. Exactly! My little girls delighted in greeting Ayumi each morning with "Konnichiwa," and developed a taste for ramen noodles for breakfast.

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1998
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Escalating Love

Jesus' words as he wept over Jerusalem are probably more compelling today than ever: "If this day you only knew the ways that make for peace..." (Luke 19:42). Surely Jesus weeps today as he did then. He weeps over Jonesboro, Arkansas; over Pearl, Mississippi; over Paducah, Kentucky; over Springfield, Oregon; and every other school and playground where children are killed, especially by other children.

The circle of safety, love, and peace that once surrounded most children in this society has been broken. Children are no longer as safe at school, on the way to and from school, in their neighborhoods, and even at home. Jesus who so loved the children of his own time continues to love and mourn the children of our time. And he does so in a special way through parents, teachers, and all others who nurture children. While he needs our tears of mourning, he needs us even more to teach and live the ways that make for peace.

These shocking events should be a national wake-up call; they should serve as teachable moments to help young people cope with increasing social violence. The first level of response is within our own hearts and touches the hearts of our children. Its guiding principle reads: "In the face of escalating violence, escalate love." We can embrace our children, grandchildren, neighbors, and friends with unconditional love and respect. We can reach out to those kids who have been marginalized in any way, pull them in to the center of our homes and our schools, and let them know that they, too, are a gift from God. We can seek out mentors who can serve as their guardian angels.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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At Home, In the World

When we made the decision to take our older two children out of public school, my husband and I felt it was the only real choice we had. After years in a successful public Montessori program, their current public school was getting the best of them. They kept their discoveries to themselves (and these discoveries happened out of sight), and they invariably came home tired, hungry, and unsatisfied.

My son Charles, 12, is an avid reader who enjoys music and dance. But school seemed to interfere with his real learning. Instead of actively engaging him, it was just something he had to cope with. My daughter, Helen, 9, enjoyed her friends at school but when it came to learning it seemed that she was mainly just killing time. Or worse. (When a broken and desperate Washington, D.C. school system felt the pressure to improve student test scores, my daughter found herself in a windowless classroom memorizing the 20s times tables. This did not help her learn anything, least of all math.)

Our twin 6-year-old girls were doing fine in their D.C. Montessori program, but in the case of our two older children, we felt intervention was necessary.

Home schooling was a big step for us. I had never taken on such an important task. I quickly discovered that I would be more of an "unschooler," since my children—like all children, I believe—have a strong desire to learn and do not necessarily need a school curriculum to do it. We decided not to replace schoolwork with home-school work, although we did develop some regular structures for learning. Several other home-schooling families join us at different times for weekly math lessons, units on geography, a writing class, and a reading discussion group.

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Sojourners Magazine July-August 1998
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From Generation to Generation

Ruth Bornstein’s The Dancing Man relates the story of an orphan boy, Joseph, who lives in a dreary village where life is hard and the people are laughless. Worst of all, no one dances.

One evening, an old man appears before Joseph and, stepping slowly, offers him a gift—dancing shoes. For years, the boy dances in these shoes, bringing great joy to many who live in the multitude of dreary villages throughout the region. But eventually Joseph grows old and tires. He can no longer dance, even though he knows the world will return to its dreariness without the gift he offers.

Just as he can go no further, he spots a young boy alone on the beach. Joseph dances up to the boy, sweeps off his hat, and declares, "I’m the Dancing Man, and I have a gift for you...."

Parents have long worried about passing on their moral systems to the next generation. Will our beliefs, values, and hopes end with our generation? Will the good news become old news? Parents whose faith calls them to address issues of social injustice experience an added burden—to pass on a world ever more just and peace-filled. From generation to generation, stories and experiences are passed—sometimes more effectively than others.

"Family Matters" is a new column intended to explore the interactions between and within generations, to explore the meaning of family in a postmodern culture. Here such topics as changing lifestyles to include aging parents, modeling just gender roles, and balancing work and parenting will be considered. One issue confronting activist parents when sabers are rattled is the inclusion of children in protest activities.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1998
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