Southerners Driving in the Snow

It’s happened again.

winter storm
Southern dogs not intimidated by snow (from 2010)

The south has gotten what our forecasters call a Major Winter Event and northerners call a nice day. The internet is full of the snickers from snow savvy people as they watch entires cities becoming paralyzed by an inch (or less) of snow.

My first reaction, as a southerner, is to be a tad defensive and to invite them to go running with me. In August. At noon. The problem is that life-sucking humidity doesn’t make for the same compelling video as pirouetting cars on ice.

My second reaction is to point out that  I am writing this blog from my office , that despite being both a southerner and a woman I navigated snow covered streets just fine. But that feels like tempting fate. After all, I do have to get home.

And then I realized that this is a great example of something that often comes up with my clients. Sometimes clients will beat themselves up for not knowing how to do something. They’re missing a crucial life skill or social skill. On some level they know that as adults they should know how to do these things but they don’t. Maybe it’s dealing with money. Maybe it’s dealing with feelings.

They take that lack as more evidence of their unworthiness as a person. They must be defective. In the words of Bill Murray from Stripes, “There’s something wrooong with us, something terribly wrooooong with us.” But there isn’t.  They aren’t fundamentally defective. The truth is,  they’re just like southerners in the snow.

There are two parts to knowing how to drive in the snow. First, there’s information. You have to know what to do; for example, don’t slam on brakes. Secondly, you have to have practice. When you live  in a a place where there’s meaningful snow once every five or ten years, there’s not much chance to practice. In addition, in the south winter weather usually means as much ice as snow. Ice is the great equalizer. No one can drive on ice – all you can do is ride it out and try not to overreact.

These people sitting in my office aren’t defective. They just missed out on something. For whatever reason, they didn’t have adults in their lives to teach them these things. The adults in their lives didn’t model good habits and social skills. I tell my clients that it is as if they grew up in a house (and school) where only English was spoken, and now they are down on themselves for not speaking fluent German. In the immortal words of Rocky Balboa while courting Adrienne, “Gaps, we all got gaps. You got gaps. I got gaps.”

Of course, now as adults they have the responsibility to fill in the gaps, to get for themselves the  things they need but didn’t get. That often takes a little work. And a not so small dose of humility. It’s easy to let your pride get in the way, thinking that you should know things and not being willing to admit that you don’t. Like learning to drive in snow, you have to get the information they need and then practice the skill.

I had a dad and brothers who taught me to drive and to drive in bad weather. But not everyone has that gift.

If you didn’t get what you needed, cut yourself some slack. Focus not on what your gaps say about your worth as a person (for in fact, they say nothing.) Focus on what you’re going to do to fill in that gap.

Driving lessons, anyone?

My devotional book, Strugglers, Stragglers and Seekers: daily devotions for the rest of us is available at Amazon.  Check it out!

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A Brick of a Fellow

Our sixth grade teacher had already given us the news so  I wasn’t surprised when I saw the obituary in our local paper. “Brick” Johnson, the much beloved custodian at our elementary school, was dead at age 95.

And yet I was completely surprised by the front page article announcing his death.

His role as the custodian at Brunson Elementary School was but a footnote. He and his wife were owners of Les Abres, a club that was a major gathering place for African-Americans during the days of segregation. Mixing jazz and soul and great food, the club was a gathering place for professionals, civil rights leaders and blue collar workers.

I never knew.

I don’t think my surprise was a case of prejudicial assumptions. At that age, I lumped Brick (who, incidentally, I liked a whole lot because he was always kind to me) in with the teachers and principals; that is, people who have no lives other than school. (A friend’s preschool age son saw his Sunday School teacher in the bookstore one day. “They let you out?” he exclaimed in surprise.) Brick running a club was just as unimaginable as the reality we later discovered: one of our fifth grade teachers was only ten years older than us. Back in those days, she was considered the ancient age universally shared by teachers.

But it did make me think about our human tendency to create judgments and assumptions about people based on the one small snapshot of their lives that we are able to see. A school custodian. A CEO. A welfare mom. A jock. A disabled person.

We see something that is indeed true about them. Too often we mistake it for the whole truth about them. The truth is we cannot know even a fraction of who they are until we have taken the time to listen to them, to listen to what their journey has been and what they hope it will be.

We see one photograph and mistake it for the whole movie.

Sometimes we even do it to ourselves. One moment of failure becomes the whole of our lives. One negative flaw in our makeup becomes the definitive statement of our character. What we do becomes who we are.

It’s not true for them. Neither is it true for us.

And by the way, upon reflection it’s not so surprising that Brick owned such a club. Any man who could shine such a light in the midst of snotty nosed, garishly dressed (it was the late sixties and early seventies) children must have had real music in his soul.

The little boy in the tree: Reflections on grief and life

The little boy in the tree: Reflections on grief and life

Just finished reading a new book the other day, “The Little Boy in the Tree” by Roland Russoli, a memoir of his son Andrew’s life and death and Roland’s life in the Peace Corps before, during and after that loss.

First, a disclaimer. I make no claim to be an impartial reviewer. I’ve known Roland for more years than I care to count at this point. For many years when his mother came to visit I gladly shared in her homemade green noodles. I called her “Ma” and she called me “Jenny.” (Somehow she never quite got it that my name was really Peggy.)

memoirI watched Andrew grow up from a young child to a young man. I’ve written of Andrew before in this blog. He was killed by an IED in Iraq as he was serving his second tour of duty as a Marine. Walking with his family through those first weeks was both holy and hard.

So, I come to this book with a heart already open.

Even so, I think it is a compelling book for anyone. Unlike many similar books, Andrew’s death is and isn’t the focus. Of course, it is the huge, inexplicable thread that runs throughout the pages. In a terrible moment, the focus shrinks to that single thread. But then life demands that the focus widens again. In this book we see the dance (sometimes more of a shuffle) between the loss and the life that somehow must go on.

Roland allows us into the depths of a father’s grief. One of the most poignant scenes is his trip home from Mongolia (where he was with the Peace Corps) after receiving word of Andrew’s death. He is lost in a strange airport where no one speaks his language and he does not know the way. He is lost in a world of devastating grief in which he knows neither the language nor the way.

And yet life  does go on. After the funeral he returns to his foreign posts. We see him trying to learn and become familiar with cultures so completely strange to him. But we see him equally determined that in the face of his loss he will find some way to give back, to bring some gift of life, somehow, someway, to someone. Having lost his son he somehow finds the grace and courage to allow a group of orphans to enter his heart and life.

This is a well written book, and I don’t mean that in the “It’s better than I thought Roland would do” sense. By anyone’s standards, it’s a well written book with the depth of someone who has always been willing to ask questions that sometimes have no answers. It is honest with being overwrought, heartfelt without being overly sentimental.

It is a gift for all of us who knew Andrew.

It is a gift for all who have to face difficult journeys of grief.

Which is another way of saying that it’s a book for all of us. I commend it to you.