An Unlikely Exit

blooper the dog

unfortunately there is a photo…

When I was twelve I played a spotted dog in my church’s holiday musical. I ran up the aisle of the old Presbyterian Church on my hands and knees, howling, and barking. I was a confident, loud dog. I loved my costume’s fleecy ears and the black sweat pants and knee pads. It never occurred to me to be embarrassed by the casting – Blooper was the most coveted role in the play. My stardom was fleeting; the singing songbook stole the show and I never appeared on stage again. It turns out I’m tone deaf and my sense of timing is frightening – I still can’t believe I was allowed near musical theater. Leaving the stage was a no brainer.

My departure from church life took a bit longer.

christmas at grandmas

matching church outfits for Christmas circa 1982

In retrospect, I stuck around so long because of the Blooper effect. The Presbyterian Church on Main Street in Miles City, Montana was familiar and comfortable. In the 80’s it seemed like everyone in Eastern Montana went to church on Sundays. The Catholics were in and out quickly, the Mormons stayed all day, and the Presbyterians sat in the back of their beautiful stained glass chapel for exactly one hour. My family went to church early for Sunday school and singing. We stayed after church for weak coffee and sugar cookies in the Narthex. My mother attended church circles on most Wednesdays and I went to the church basement for youth group and rubbery lasagna.

But church looked different after Blooper. Most teenagers hate church, so maybe my dissent was normal. As my experience of world widened, the messages I heard at church and from church friends no longer seemed so solid. I found myself caught in circular arguments about diversity and acceptance – about certainty and concrete answers. I read about Buddhism in my AP humanities classroom. I celebrated Hanukkah with two of the seven Jewish people in Eastern Montana. I studied Catholicism and Lutheranism in Presbyterian Sunday school. I was enamored with a world of possibilities outside of my own experience. And almost without knowing it, I made a big decision about my natural approach to the world: I learned to value healthy skepticism.

I now know that my skepticism was no accident. My father set himself at the task of raising skeptical children – his quiet, unobtrusive faith highlighted life’s gray areas. My mother voiced her opinions as only her own. She was careful to give voice to lots of different ideas, “Some people believe…” she’d say before she suggested some alternative view of the world. This couldn’t have been an easy way to raise a teenager – I argued at every turn. And ultimately, my need for supportive skepticism led me away from American Christianity.

What I am just now realizing is that the comfortable cultural community that was the 1980’s church, has changed for much of the country. All too often, it seems that skepticism and doubt is not tolerated by most faith communities. If patience for doubt exists, it is temporary – a momentary separation from an inevitable truth.

But shouldn’t healthy skepticism be at the heart of faith? If we are to accept and trust that which we cannot see or touch, shouldn’t we consider all of our options? Shouldn’t we find our way to church by way of understanding and thought rather than fear? For me this is the only certainty, the only thing I know for sure about church – I don’t always need my questions answered, but I must have the opportunity to ask them. I want to wallow in skepticism, to sink into doubt, and find the solid ground beneath.

I don’t remember not liking church as a child. No one asked me if I wanted to be there – it was a given. No one asked me if I believed the stories or if I’d been saved. No one mentioned doubt. My parents talked about God in the abstract – there wasn’t a man in the clouds with a beard or a robe; God was an idea or maybe an action. My father was fond of saying, “God is a verb.”

I cling to this idea of action. It exists without the church, without the rules and regulations that disallow skepticism and doubt. And it may be enough.

In the Bleak MidWinter




In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,

Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;

Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,

In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

Christina Rossetti’s words, set to music by Gustave Holst remind us that much about winter is unforgiving. She is, of course, writing about the winter of northern Europe and North America, and not about the Christmas of the Middle East or Australia, but for us who live in these latitudes, winter is often bleak. I remember the first winter I spent in Wyoming, and how I looked out of my window at what seemed like a moonscape. It seemed that there was “snow on snow, snow on snow.” In pioneer days, people who died in the winter often remained a cold corpse in someone’s barn until the ground was thawed enough to dig a grave.

So when the first snow fell this November, I looked out the window with trepidation. It was still half-dark. The sun had not fully risen, and the buffalo in the pasture across from my house all wore thick white shawls. My heart sank a bit because we have had such a beautiful and warm fall, with the colors lasting weeks longer than usual, but at the same time I could see the beauty of the fresh snow, the way it caught in the branches of trees, the way it covered the lawns that had faded to brown.

Contrast is necessary for our spirits. We need the snow, and the ice. We need the diminishing light so that we can rejoice in its return. I know that in another six weeks, the sun will begin, once again, to rise earlier and set later, but right now, the late afternoon darkness makes me want to crawl into bed at six o’clock.

Long ago, I lived in California for two years, and for two Christmases, I experienced warm days when I wore shorts and worked outside. I didn’t live there long enough to learn to appreciate the subtleties of the weather, the almost imperceptible changes in the seasons. For me the jasmine was always blooming, and it rarely rained and it felt odd, as if the world I knew were slightly off balance.

We talk about life-cycles, birth, death, rebirth, leading again to death and rebirth. Sometimes where we live reinforces these cycles. We feel them in our bones as we turn up the heat, hunker down in from of a fire, but even when the climate doesn’t tune itself to our spiritual cycles, they are there. We must go through the dark times in order to see the light. Sometimes the light in our hearts returns slowly; sometimes it bursts out like a sudden sunrise, lighting our world with joy.

Recently I listened to a Ted Talk in which the woman spoke of whole-hearted people those people who rejoice in vulnerability, and who embrace the world in which they find themselves. Who throw themselves into whatever situation arises. Whole-hearted implies generosity of spirit, and implies a person who is alive to the world.  The last stanza of the Rossetti poem goes like this:

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.

I need to remember to give my heart over to the seasons and cycles of my life. I need to rejoice in the snow as much as in the fall sunshine, or the summer’s warmth, to feel within me the recurring life, death and rebirth that all our human lives entail.






On Communication: Situational Awareness


City Center: AciReale

This month I think I wrote seven nonsense paragraphs about text messaging and fragmented conversation. Nothing made sense. Usually, I love language. I love finding the perfect word for my perfect sentence. I deal all day in words. And many, many days words fail me. So instead of insight, I offer my favorite miscommunication story:

When my car died in a parking lot near AciReale, Sicily, I did what seemed logical and called by husband. He drove thirty minutes from his office on the Navy base to pick me up. I left my car unattended despite the gas station attendant’s insistence that it was “molto pericoloso” next to the fuel tankers stacked three deep on the side of the road. I made Cody drive me to the mechanic in the city who spoke no English, but always bought me a café and called me “Bella.” Giuseppe offered to go get the car later in the day, but Cody and I were worried about my grandmother’s old Chevy Cavalier, so we drove back up the streets of AciReale with the shop’s long, gray tow rope.

AciReale is an ancient city famous for its wild Carnavale held every spring since the 1500s. The narrow, cobbled streets wind through 16th century churches and modern apartment complexes. Most corners are blind and in some places cars pull into driveways to let downhill traffic pass. Every road climbs up and away from the sparkling Ionian coast. It’s picturesque – and a traffic nightmare.

As we pulled into the Agip gas station, men in blue coveralls watched us stop Cody’s white Fiat next to my car. They shook their heads as we looped the tow rope between our two cars. I was grateful I couldn’t understand the dialect – they clearly thought we were crazy or stupid. Maybe both.

Cody and I didn’t speak. Instead we grunted and huffed at each other, the anger and frustration simmering to near boiling. This was a rushed, unfamiliar operation; one that we needed to be done with, now.
As I started the Fiat’s engine, I noted the tension building in Cody’s neck as he reached into the car for a bottle of water. His khaki uniform looked out of place in the dusty, hot parking lot. He was supposed to be behind his desk, not under my car.

Cody is at home almost anywhere, but a flight squadron suited him especially well. Military communication is systematic, predictable, and direct. You give orders. You follow orders. He was trained to work quickly and without question. Cody can size up a situation before I even recognize what is happening around me. His hyper-awareness served him well in the cockpit and in his work as an operations officer, but it sometimes made life with me frustrating.

Parking on the street in AciReale

I started down the road back to the city center pulling Cody and the old Cavalier by the gray rope. The road was just wide enough for passing cars and I hugged the concrete wall as passed the Tabbachi and the fish man. I could hear Cody shouting instructions. He pounded his fist on the steering wheel as I swerved to miss a cart of artichokes in front of the corner grocery. The rope between the vehicles swung low and drug against the stones of the street.
I ignored Cody’s shouts.

I could see Cody waving his arms, urging me to get down the hill. I stopped at a busy intersection and watched my mirror as the blue car rolled to a stop behind me. The traffic ran past us – bumper to bumper little clown cars weaving in and out of each other like a hungry school of piranha. I saw the break in traffic just as Cody threw his arm upward and yelled, “Go, Go!”

I hit the gas hard on to the floor of the Fiat, but the car didn’t move. I downshifted and tried again. Nothing. I looked in my mirror and saw Cody rushing to get out of his vehicle. The rope was stretched taut between the cars and the air smelled like burning rubber.

a-roman-traffic-jamCody stalked toward me, his hands clenched at his sides. My car was in the middle of the intersection, but the traffic still buzzed around us, squeezing up and over the tiny sidewalk.

“Situational awareness!” he yelled.

My mouth gaped. I felt my head swivel on my neck. The rope between the cars was frayed and stretched, almost broken. The old cobbled road was marked with black. An old woman stood on the corner shaking her handbag at us and yelling in Sicilian. She backed up along the tiny sidewalk, desperate to get away from us.

“What is happening?” I yelled back.

The story spilled out: the old woman had walked between our cars. Cody watched her think it through: she looked at the rope. She looked at my car and then at Cody’s vehicle and then back at the rope. She stepped over just as I pulled into traffic. The rope went tight, caught a foot, and sent the woman flying, her shopping bags stretched out in front like paper wings.

I never even saw her.

Instead of the “Go, Go!” I heard, Cody was yelling “No, no!”

“How could you get that so wrong?” he said.

I’m not sure which words failed more that day in Sicily. Every time I think about the old woman on the corner, I gasp for air and then laugh – we were so lucky we didn’t hit her with our oversized American machine. But I also remember how clearly I heard Cody’s instructions – and how wrong I got them. The funniest part of the story though was Cody’s reaction, labeled so quickly and accurately: situational awareness. Somehow he found the perfect words.

~ Sarah

Good communication skills: what does this actually mean?

communication crossword (blue-white cubes crossword series)

communication crossword (blue-white cubes crossword series)

Research supports the idea that employers seek new employees with strong written and oral communication skills; however, I suspect that like the educational buzzword, “Critical thinking,” people don’t actually know what good “Communication Skills” mean.

When I was in college, I had to take two required Communication courses. One was a public speaking class whose main function was to rid my classmates of their Bronx and Brooklyn accents. Since that was not something I struggled with, I had an odd sort of “mid-Atlantic” non-specific accent, I did well in the class even though I wrote my speeches on the bus traveling back to New York, after having spent my weekend with my boyfriend in Philadelphia. I have almost no memory of the second class except that it was a large lecture class, held in a nondescript lecture hall. The only other thing I remember is the final exam that asked one question; “How do we know if we actually communicate with anyone?”

In those days, we handwrote our exams in blue books with odd thinish paper. We had three hours to write this exam. I looked at the question and was kind of flummoxed. I had no idea how I would create an answer that would take me three hours to write.

What I wrote was essentially this: “We do not know, and have no real way of knowing if we communicate with someone else. We have to take communication on faith. It is fairly safe to assume that if we ask someone to shut the door, and they do it, we are communicating with them. However, their act of shutting the door could, in fact, be unrelated to the fact that we asked them to shut the door. We simply have to take it on faith that we communicate when we say something to someone and they respond in what appears to be an appropriate manner.”

I think that answer is fairly glib, but I did get an A in the class. I referred to no communication theory in my answer, and in fact, I have no memory of studying any theory in the class at all. I would say that neither of my Communications classes was a high point of my education.

So, what are employers asking for? Are they using “Communication Skills” as a short-hand for something else? Clearly, employees need to be able to speak well, to ask good questions, to understand directions and to be courteous. If the job requires it, they need to be able to put together a logical, complete sentence. They need to be able to adjust to the cultural climate of the job. Do all of these attributes get lumped into “Communication Skills”? Should they be?

I look at my students and wonder how many of them can figure out how to negotiate the work world. Some obviously can, and they are the students who figured out how to negotiate the elementary school playground, the junior high lunch room and the high school college application process. The students who will do well in the work world are the students who come to see me if they have questions about an assignment, or who email me that they will not be in class.

While all of these skills could be lumped into “Communication Skills,” I wonder how many of them can be taught. I wonder if Communications courses at the college level are the way to go about helping students acquire the many skills they need to be good communicators, because really, when it comes down to it, employers do not want someone who takes good communication on faith, but rather they want someone who is confident, flexible and articulate. They want someone who isn’t cowed or intimidated, as well as someone who is empathetic and thoughtful. All of these can be lumped into Communications, but can they all be taught?



Don’t coddle the slut-shamers.


Recommended reading:

The Coddling of the American Mind ~ The Atlantic

Slut-shaming undermines women ~ The Boston Globe

My Friday classes meet in a light filled computer lab on the second floor of our campus’ newest academic building. The room is state of the art. Six flat screen TV’s line the classroom and a Smartboard projection system lights up the white wall at the front of the lab. Despite the modern bells and whistles, my Comp students slump in their chairs like they’re attending a five a.m. paint drying lecture. They scatter their backpacks on the floor and prop their chins on giant cans of Monster Energy. English is not their top priority.

Right now we are working through an op/ed unit that has us reading and thinking about current events that in many cases divide our country. We’ve read articles about cultural appropriation, about empathy, about cellphones. My goal is always the same: to challenge the status quo, to question accepted ideas and typical patterns of thinking. My job is to teach critical thinking skills.

The trouble is, critical thinking is a slippery concept. Educators are fond of jargon – “critical thinking” might be our favorite phrase. We always have a new theory to roll out with a set of shiny, matching words to describe our latest iteration of the same old story: we’re supposed to teach students how to think. But teaching sometimes reluctant scholars how to think – instead of what to think – gets messy.   Recent criticisms of higher ed, point to reluctant engagement; many college instructors are afraid to venture into the fray. Some fear that students will take offense and find new ways to opt out of the difficult work of learning to think critically. We’ve been accused of “coddling” the “American mind” by allowing students to opt out of the tough conversations. But as the critics also point out, “critical thinking [by any definition] requires grounding one’s beliefs in evidence rather than emotion or desire, and learning how to search for and evaluate evidence that might contradict one’s initial thinking.” Too often, this seems like a tall order.

Sometimes it helps to practice critical thinking with an uncomfortable – even shocking – topic. In fact, it might just be necessary.

Fridays are rough – the college parking lot is noticeably empty, there is always more yawning, more groaning about lack of sleep and hangovers. It seemed like a good day to throw around some mildly shocking vocabulary, so I asked my students to consider the problem of slut-shaming.

We read an essay which claims that sexual assault on college campuses is exacerbated by the “wide spread belief that some women are sluts.” I began our discussion with an admission: we were all going to stumble over our words. The topic is taboo, but familiar. We would have to use language usually reserved for private, sotto voce exchanges. We’d all likely feel uncomfortable and embarrassed, but we were going to do it anyway. I told my students that I expected them to speak up if they were offended. I said I expected them to try – that our classroom space was a place of failure, a place to make attempts.

In the end we laughed a lot. We asked good, solid questions – mostly questions we couldn’t answer. We sketched out ideas about why we make judgments, about what we might do differently, about who was to blame. And we ended up in a new place. This new knowledge wasn’t about clarity or facts, but about the benefits of the thinking process. I think we learned that if we were willing to wrestle with new ideas and reconsider old ideas, that our world gets the slightest bit larger.

Larger is what learning looks like. But it is also a shock to the system. Starting with an idea that is uncomfortable – like slut-shamming or racism or human rights – might make the process easier. If we begin in a place of uneasiness, we are forced to deal with our “emotion and desire” directly. Considering factual evidence and alternative viewpoints might feel better than sitting with our own anxieties about a taboo topic. At least it’s a good place to start.

~ Sarah