Better Red(head) than Dead

VanGoghSelfPortrait1889-90OrsayAA webOne day my mother came home from the interior decorating shop where she worked, very upset about a young man who had come into the store with his mother.

“You wouldn’t believe what his T-shirt said!” my mom cried. “‘Better Dead Than Red!’”

I asked her what it meant.

“He’s making fun of redheads, of course!” she lamented, her curly, fiery hair aflutter. “Why would anyone wear such a thing?”

It was the early eighties, in the thick of the Cold War, but I had yet to learn about Communism. It didn’t occur to me for another decade or so that the shirt that would pierce her to the core was merely calling for the demise of Soviets. But that memory has always defined my mother and her abiding personal connection with her hair, something the rest of the family would never fully understand.

I didn’t inherit the red but passed it on to my middle daughter, whose hair stops people cold in grocery aisles and brings elderly Irishmen to tears. We have fielded questions about her hair since she emerged with the carrotty fuzz nine years ago. Almost without exception, it’s the first topic of discussion when she meets someone new. It’s made for some pleasant talk but also some awkward situations, such as when she is praised as rare and beautiful just inches from her brown-haired siblings.

Not long ago I asked my daughter what she thought about her hair, and she said, “I like it. In the sun, it’s shiny, and underwater it looks all coppery. But talking to everyone about it gets annoying.” [Read more...]

How to End an Era

runyanWe’re supposed to shake our heads when Daisy Buchanan, considering a summer solstice celebration on her East Egg porch, turns to Nick Carraway, and asks, “‘What’ll we plan? What do people plan?’” But I get her helpless bewilderment all too well.

I grew up in a family that doesn’t mark life’s transitions with much ceremony. My mother visited a courthouse for all three marriages, no pictures to show for it. When her parents died, she and an uncle or two I’d never met threw ashes in the ocean. Funerals were silly when a person’s spirit no longer resided in the body.

As if funerals are for the dead.

Even my move to college was completed without fanfare. I packed my car, drove to campus by myself, and set up my bed and shelves in less than an hour. When I watched the other students emerge from the dorm lot flanked with camera-toting parents and siblings, I smirked. You can’t even move into a small room without your parents’ help? I thought. This is college!

It wasn’t until I talked with a therapist ten years later that I understood I was the odd one. “It’s not that they couldn’t move into a room themselves,” she explained. “The parents came to mark the event.” I stared at her. Moving into the dorm was supposed to be an event? That had never occurred to me. [Read more...]

Your Life Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

minecraft-chicken-hatchingOn the last night of Image’s Glen West Workshop earlier this month, after a moving concert by Over the Rhine and all manner of sniffling and hugging, Father Richard Rohr invited us to make spaces in our souls for worship.

“How you live this moment is how you live your life,” he said. “How you do anything is how you do everything.”

His words nailed my heart to the floor.

I like to think I am “good” at worship. I often prepare myself by opening my hands, a posture that helps me focus. But my mind has a way of hairline-cracking within seconds: Do these people like me? Have they noticed my discolored tooth? On a scale of one to ten, how much of an idiot have I made myself today?

I like to think I lose myself in the beauty of God, but as my mind splinters and my prayerful hands go numb, I have to acknowledge that this moment of unrest reflects a life of unrest.

[Read more...]

He Fits Right In: Our Story of Open Adoption

imageI’ve tried to stop policing adoption language, no matter how much phrases like “real mom,” “put up for adoption,” and “kids of your own” make me flinch. Before I entered the world of adoption (and not even the cross-cultural or international variety, which invite their own plethora of zingers), I didn’t understand the negative emotional power of these phrases. Such language virtually never originates from a place of disdain, however, but from a genuine lack of understanding.

We gave birth to two daughters who are now eleven and nine. We adopted Samuel, now six, when he was a newborn. One of the most common comments we receive goes something like this:

“He looks just like you guys! He fits in so well, you can’t even tell he’s adopted.” [Read more...]

My Own Desert (Tortoise) Father

I didn’t spend enough time with Oscar this summer. For forty years I’ve believed time will never run out.

Visiting California, I took my annual walk through my childhood backyard of bougainvillea, crepe myrtle, and fruit. I picked some strawberries, paid homage to my name scratched in a concrete border in 1980, then wandered to the side yard to find Oscar.

I sat in the gravel as he gummed a piece of lettuce hanging in seaweedy strips. He’s always been a sloppy eater, clomping around the yard with leftover pollen or hibiscus petals sticking to his mouth. We exchanged eye contact briefly: aging gray meeting steady green sea-glass. I tapped his nose, just as I did as an annoying kid, and he snorted, yanking his head back in his shell.

My mother rescued the brooding desert tortoise when I was four. She found him lumbering across the street, a reptilian tank with no regard for traffic.  She grabbed the huffing beast and went door to door asking if he belonged to anyone. According to Mom lore, everyone laughed, exclaiming, “We don’t want that ugly tortoise!” and slammed the door. [Read more...]


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