I grew up in a time where children were quickly labeled in school based upon their reading ability. A student was tested, identified and leveled as evidenced for all to see by the "color coding" of the books they were given. Every student knew who the smart, average and below average students were based on the yellow, green or red books they were associated with.
I longed to be in the smart group, even the average group but found myself in the below average category. The tough part about being in that position, is you began at the bottom. On the one hand, you could argue that things could only look up or you could also argue that while you were working to get out of the pit, your peers already had the advantage as they had a shorter distance to run.
Fast forward to the fourth grade. There was a reading challenge. A teacher "breathed" hope into my tiny, fragile bones. There was a banner that ran the length of the room. It was near the top of the ceiling. Everyone's name was on an arrow and all began at the same starting point. But this time, the stakes were designed to be an "even-playing" field. It didn't matter which reading group a student was in. The criteria for advancing in the race was the number of books read and not the level of complexity.
The prize? The top three students would win a special field trip to see the American League West's, Oakland A's professional baseball team. The trip was on a Saturday and included hot dogs, drinks, and tickets to watch the game. It was a field trip designed for four: three students and one teacher. Of course, the trip was grand and extravagant but the recognition of being the "best" in the class was also a noteworthy reward.
My spirit had the "perfect" storm for being singled out as a "below-average" sort of person. There stood the potential for three strikes against me: 1) I was tall, skinny and had allergies, 2) My parents were barely 20 when they had me and because life seemed difficult, I took it upon my shoulders to "make life easier" for them by taking care of my younger siblings, cleaning the house and cooking dinner. There wasn't time for reading even if we had books around and 3) I was introspective, sensitive and could notice the feelings of people around me.
In fourth grade and in the 70's, schools did not have the support, resources and education of "building" up the self-esteem of children like they do today. The endless bullying in my life only magnified the distance I had to run to be among the top three finalist in a race to the finish.
I don't remember ever trying for anything harder. Each page was excruciatingly difficult. I struggled with the words on the page; each page seemed a victory in itself. The harder I tried, the more the teacher encouraged me. My name slowly progressed across the lane. My opponents started out strong but began to "fizzle" and slow when it got boring and they got interested in other things. For me, the opposite ran true. The more I saw the other names slow, the greater my determination grew. At the mid-point of the race, my name began to advance; my opponents seemed to be lagging behind or even dropping out of the race. Hope had taken root and I began to believe I could win!
Part II (of V) .. Hope
Hope: Even before my son was born, I began buying children's books. A girlfriend of mine (an elementary school educator) and I began to purchase them for every holiday. That passion continued when my two daughters were born. The single most consistent thing I did was read to my children. I loved children's books. I still do and lovingly turn the pages even now as I read them to friends with little kids. Opening their pages are like revisiting old friends I have grown to love: the memories of my three almost adult children flow out of the pages as I hear their giggles, bright-eyed adventures and sleepy time songs.
I never quite know what I am going to write about. God plants seeds in my heart for the direction I must go but He, and He alone cultivates the soil.
The Secret Garden is a novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, written in the autumn of 1910 as a series and was published in it's entirety in 1911. I knew the scene I wanted to show in this website but couldn't find it. Every reader has his/her own interpretation of a story and although I would have included a scene from the movie, I will need to paraphrase it.
Mary Lennox, a ten year old girl is thought to be insignificant and unimportant. She is shipped to a place where again she is thought to be a troubled nuisance with few gifts to offer. She hears the sweet sound of a bird- a small yellow robin that draws her to the discovery of an old wooden door covered with overgrown vines, buried, forgotten and hidden. She must find the key that opens the door. She does. An old, large, castle-looking key opens it; she enters. Beyond the door is a garden. It is a dead, over-grown thicket of brush, bramble and branches. The music is mystical, haunting (but hopeful too) as she walks further into the grounds. A swing blows empty in the wind.
She carefully kneels down to the ground. She is as delicate as a child can be with open hands and an open heart, clearing the brush that strangles the life beneath it. She sweeps away the dry, brittle leaves to expose a small green bud. She begins to "breathe" life into the garden. A gentle rain falls bringing fresh water, sunshine begins to filter in and a child's love brings forth life in a forgotten, secret garden. A miracle grows in her but also in the friendships around her. Hope has taken root in dead places.
Part III (of V) .. a song
William Martin "Billy" Joel was born in the Bronx May 9, 1949. He began playing piano at an early age at the insistence of his mother. As a teenager, he began taking up boxing in order to defend himself. Although he was successful on the amateur circuit, he gave it up after breaking his nose. In high school, Joel was playing in a piano bar to help his mother make ends meet. He ended his senior year of high school short of credits and entered into a lifetime of music, getting his diploma twenty five years later. Joel's first big hit was "Piano Man" released in 1973. He is a six-time Grammy Award winner and has been inducted to the Songwriters and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Having sold 150 million records worldwide, he is considered among the best-selling artist of all time.
Part IV (of V) ... reaching out
We moved the summer before my sixth grade. I left the pain of grammar school but also left my stable and predictable posts- my nana and papa. Large italian holidays were replaced with quiet family holidays. Although this new home was only four hours from the old, it felt like a million miles away. Nana and Papa were frequent visitors; their arrival was the greatest and most perfect gifts to me but Lisa, my new friend, was the everyday constant my junior high school years.
Her home was filled with books... books stacked in the living room, piled in the kitchen and on the staircase. Her mother was an avid reader and so was Lisa and her sister. They loved history and adventure and I loved to hear about the stories. We even dressed up at Halloween in costumes from women in history. Aside from books, their home was filled with everything "Swedish". Beautiful linens, colorful horses, Christmas candles, Swedish flags, desserts and food. Because I had become such a big part of their family, they wanted me to go with them on a family visit to Sweden. I only had to pay for my airline ticket as they would cover all other costs. My parents couldn't afford it and my part-time job didn't cover the expense.
Maybe we began to slowly grow apart but the ending was as dramatic as my parent's fiery divorce. At fifteen, my foundation was once again shaken as I again moved to a new school. Sending out the old, I ushered in a new life. What did I give up?
I said good-bye to my dad's side of the family, good-bye to the home we had built from scratch, good-bye to Lisa and good-bye to everything familiar. In six months time, I had a new home, a new dad, a new school, new friends and social popularity I had not known. No wonder things looked a little confusing to someone otherwise so strong.
Faith is a two way street. As God has spoken love into my heart, I have taken a deliberate act of faith to try and find people I have hurt along the way. I had an old wedding invitation I had received from Lisa many years ago; I didn't attend and don't believe I even responded but I saved her invitation neatly tied with a ribbon in a stack of cards I keep. I retrieved the card and began looking for her.
In God's grace, I found a phone number for her on the East Coast. Aware of the time change, I "jumped" in and called her after work one day about six weeks ago. She answered; I fumbled. I told her who I was and offered her an apology for distancing her so many years ago. We talked for over an hour. Weeks later, I put together a box of "Swedish" things and a cd from music of the 1970's and a letter asking for her forgiveness. Three days ago, I received a letter back which brought tears streaming down my face.
Hope had again taken root and God's comforting arms held us both, thousand of miles away.
Part V (of V) .. reaching up
God has taken hold of my heart and reached into the deepest part of my hurts and hopes and caused me to live differently.
In adversity, I talked about books. The race, the challenge, the result? There is a good part/bad part. I worked harder than I had at anything before. That teacher took an interest in me and believed I was bigger than my circumstances. I won. I made it into the top 3; I think I was second. I had the brilliant reward of seeing my name on the finish line and hearing my name announced in class as the winner. The bad part was my parents did not let me go to the game. I don't remember why. I hung my head in disappointment but God sees all of us... the good, the bad, the circumstances we have brought on ourselves and the ones we haven't and extends his hands of grace and his redemptive power of love.
In the garden, God knows us intimately. He knows the areas that are dead, dry and forgotten in our hearts and in our lives. He uses people, circumstances, music, movies, books... anything to "breathe" life back into us. He longs to know us and for us to know him. I count each and every experience in my life as a blessing as it has brought me to this moment. I have lived my entire life with the volume on high (just- nobody can see it) but he has turned down the volume to a quiet whisper that says, "I am enough". I can hardly take in those words, I feel so unworthy of a love so extravagant but here we are. I am enough and so are you. He reminds me that he is interested in my character and that perseverance grows my character. He longs to grow hope in our dry, dead places and loves us so intimately that he has sent himself through the Holy Spirit to guide us and to hold on to.
In a song, he reminds me that I am beautifully and wonderfully made AND that I am enough. I do not need to change anything about me. That the conversation, the way I see life and the hopes and dreams, weaknesses and frailties, circumstances and experiences all combine to make me uniquely me. God takes broken, crumbled scraps of pottery and makes something beautiful out of them. He uses the weak to bring hope to a lost world in need of a promise of something greater.
In reaching out, God reminds me that love is an action word. It calls of obedience, stepping out in faith. It reminds me of the scene from "Indiana Jones" where the rubber meets the road and Indiana must take the first step; he could have fallen. He could have failed. I thought if I never talked about my experiences as a child, maybe they didn't happen. I could "reinvent" my history and just present the more pleasing, desirable parts of me but in the process, I lost something. In one sentence, Lisa reminded me of the pain I chose to bury deep within the garden of over-grown and dead places. God reminds me He is interested in my character and sometimes that requires perseverance, courage and guts and in the process he springs up hope in me.
Finally, in reaching up, I realize I cannot do anything on my own. Every single part of me wants to go my own way but it is only through the Father, the son and the holy spirit that I cling to a God that loves me. I have to crawl into his quiet whisper to hear his words, his song, and his picture for my life. I like to imagine myself as getting into the seat of a roller coaster. I rest my head back against his chest, his arms wrapped around me; buckled in together we soar through the ups, downs and circles of life AND that is enough.
The first word in this month's post is "Corragio". It is Italian for Courage. It is the word that my great-grandmother would speak to me often. I wear a silver necklace: on one side is the word, courage, on the other side is the symbol of the cross. It is a reminder that we must have courage in faith and in life.
May the God who loves you deeply grant you both courage and perseverance but also hope, faith and love and the greatest of these is love.
A person who searches for depth and beauty in the simple things.