Out of This Nettle…

Beirut. Chicago. Minneapolis. Paris.

Recent headlines and this season of increasing darkness magnify fears. And I find myself thinking about parenting in today’s world. Specifically, how do we raise children and instill in them a sense of safety?


Marine Corps Birthday Celebration. (MCBH Kaneohe, HI, November 2015)

Helicopter parenting is one way to shield children from risk and harm. (So much so that children cannot grow into confident, competent adults.) This parenting style seems to have emerged during my childhood, in part, from a series of public scares—jagged little encroachments on the belief that American middle-class life was always and everywhere safe for children.

One instance hit close to home, literally: the Tylenol poisonings, which caused seven deaths from Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. It was September 1982, early in my sophomore year of high school. I was sitting in Spanish class when the announcement came overhead instructing anyone who took the medication within the past 24 hours to report to the nurse’s office.

The first victim was from a neighboring town—a girl with a sore throat. Her parents gave her a Tylenol, and within hours she died. The next three victims who died shortly thereafter purchased the medication at my local Osco Drugs. A stranger—dubbed the Tylenol Terrorist—injected danger into the heart of family life.

Safety measures were enacted, and panic soon died down. But the event left a cloud of safety measures and parental anxiety in its wake. That Halloween, I noticed a shift in trick-or-treating. No more bright-colored popcorn balls or candied apples. No more roaming the neighborhood unchaperoned after dark. Homemade goodies and being out at night were objects of fear.

Curiously, Halloween candy poisonings are almost entirely the stuff of myth. In 1974, a man killed his own son at Halloween by filling Pixie Stix with cyanide. (He wanted the insurance money.) He tried to cover his tracks by slipping tainted candy into other children’s trick-or-treat bags, but no one else was hurt.

That is the only case on modern record of a child eating poisoned Halloween treats. It had nothing to do with strangers or homemade goodies. Yet somehow, it has become a fixed, yearly ritual for parents to sort the stuff children get on Halloween and throw out anything odd-looking or homemade.

During this same time, fears of kidnapping grew exponentially, sparked by the 1979 disappearance of 6-year-old Etan Patz. In actuality, stranger abductions are exceedingly rare events. Yet our fear of them has curtailed the freedom my generation had to run around outside, play, and explore.

Holding on so tightly to our children—controlling their environments so closely and intervening so frequently on their behalf—cause psychologists and educators to believe our children’s transition to adulthood is being compromised. That many college-aged student now have trouble acting independently. That they seek safety rather than showing boldness. That they meet risk with overblown anxiety.

As a parent, I see a cautionary tale in helicopter parenting. I want to keep my children safe. Yet I also want to not get bogged down in sensationalized threats and miss the obvious ones. Traffic. Hot things on the stove. Wet bathroom floors.

I choose not to get bogged down in fears and I strive to teach my children not to either.

I want my children—all children—to travel down a path where they claim independence, competence, and joy in ever-widening circles. I want them to learn to assess their risks with sober calm, so that they will not sit out the swimming pool for fear of sharks or help cause a stampede when a fire alarm goes off.

I cannot make a risk-free world for my children or for the young adults to whom I minister in the military. I can only help them nurture the inner strength that lets people act with integrity and calm, even when danger is close and very real.

Which relates to questions I have, specifically, concerning refugees in the wake of the Paris bombings.

Do those people loudly bemoaning this generation’s “overly soft” and anxious children realize the same rules apply to adults? That by dwelling on the worst, most spectacular fears we take our eyes off the ball and miss the bigger picture? That by failing to weigh risks with a measure of objective calm, we drive to tragically flawed results?

Why is it we rightly want our children to be so practical, competent, and brave, yet we ourselves are exempt from the same when it comes to adult-sized problems and risks?

The facts of refugees and terrorism are something like the facts on Halloween candy poisonings. Since September 11, 2001, many Muslims have sought asylum in the US. None of the asylum seekers permitted to enter our country committed a terrorist act. Though the risk exists that a terrorist could infiltrate streams of refugees, the screening process for asylum seekers is far more rigorous than the one for tourists.

Refugeeism is just not the logical way for ISIL to arrive. Statistically speaking, Americans are more likely to die from falling furniture than from a terrorist strike. And terrorism experts are confident on the point that refugee camps (i.e., where refugees go if we do not let them in) are prime sites of extremist recruitment. Resettlement tends, just the opposite, to lead to…settling in.

Yet we fear the specter of Syrian refugees in tragically outsized and neurotic ways.

Every piece of Halloween candy could be poisoned.

Every refugee could be a terrorist.

As a parent, I wish for a world of children strong enough not to lose their sense of perspective and cool with every new experience that masquerades as risk.

A world of children strong enough to embrace ever-widening worlds of joy and knowledge and competence, rather than retreating to ever smaller and seemingly safer spaces.

As a minister, I wish the same for the world of adults.

During this season of days growing darker, may we be mindful not to give in to outsized fears of the dark. May this season where so many cultures celebrate light be one not simply about lighting the darkness, but substantively be one about bringing light into our reasoning.

Stop Being Afraid



Home as a Transitive Verb

Home is where the Navy sends us“Home is where the Navy sends us.” So it is said within my military world.

Yet, I prefer the better known cliché: “Home is where the heart is.”

Home and heart go together. As a military mom raising two beautiful children, that’s a comforting message.

Home is where the people we love most are. It is the place we most want to be. The place we long for most when we are away from it.

By the time my oldest child turned three, he had lived in three different states. Yet, I’d like to think that “home” will always be a robust notion for him and his baby brother—that they will always feel home instinctively, always find their way back to it, even if the list of consecutive new home addresses becomes a little dizzying…

But in this season of displacement, with millions of refugees surging out of the Middle East, I can’t help but recognize it is a privilege to believe in the existence of a heart-shaped GPS.

Pictures of destruction from Syria suggest that, even if it were safe to return, many refugees would find it impossible to locate the walls of the homes from which they have fled.

And what of those millions consigned to refugee camps, often in the wake of staggering personal loss? Should we assume that they have brought their hearts with them? Should we assume their sense of being home will catch up with them at these tough new addresses, sort of like forwarded mail?

Or will the very idea of home be, for them, trapped in a nostalgic past—home as a scent, an image, an elusive slip of memory that cannot be made flesh?

It is a privilege to believe heart and home share the same address.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

I have been thinking of home too, in connection with our military veterans, particularly those sent into conflict.

Thankfully, most combat veterans do come home, after surviving the depredations of war. Yet, once home, many find they cannot feel home anymore.

The recently departed Oliver Sacks told of patients who, due to stroke or brain injury, could no longer feel the authentic presence of loved ones. They could recognize people they cared about, but they did not believe they really were them. In some cases, they concluded that aliens had taken over the bodies of friends and relatives. For these rare sufferers, an essential ingredient of presence and recognition had gone missing.

At times, this feels to me like a metaphor for what so many combat veterans suffer with regard to the presence of home. They return to the places they most longed to return to. They return to people who shout, “Welcome home!” with hearts brimming over.

Yet many veterans find that “home” now lacks the flavor of comfort. It has been hollowed out. They cannot connect to their old lives or routines.

An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day in the US, often right in their own homes, or in places near them. They leave messages like, “I can’t go on like this,” and “There’s nothing here for me anymore.” My heart breaks.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Home has been on my mind a great deal lately, not only because the Navy will be moving us to a new “home” again in a few months. But also because of the recent birth of my second child—and because of my father’s death earlier in the year.

“Remember your roots,” my father said to me in his sage, soft-spoken way, just before I went off to college, leaving home.

I think he really meant, “Remember us.”

Remember the people you have loved here. Remember where your heart has been.

Prom 1985

My senior prom. (Suburban Chicago, IL, June 1985)

And now, on top of everything, the mother of all homecomings is nearly upon me: the high school reunion. (30 years!?!)

I will be there. I need that reminder.

I haven’t stayed close to my high school crowd, even though it was a wonderful time, with wonderful camaraderie. People move on, they drift apart.

Yet, the older I grow—the more I move on and move around—the more I realize how much of my sense of home, how much of my heart, will always be rooted there, in that cornfield-turned-Chicago-suburb where I was born and raised.

This past January, an old friend attended my father’s memorial service. We were never particularly close, even though we went to school with one another from kindergarten through high school. We were on swim team together; we dated the same boy in junior high; our older brothers were close. Our roots are entwined, and that is a powerful bond.

That she came to my father’s memorial service meant so much to me. Her presence helped bring me home.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

All this makes me realize that, just as with the word “house,” we need to begin thinking of “home” as a transitive verb. We don’t just have homes or build or buy them. We home one another. We create for one another that essential spark of presence and recognition that allows our brains to know: this is where my heart is; this is where I belong; this is home.

Childhood home

My childhood house…and home. (Arlington Heights, IL)

I don’t know precisely how we begin to home one another actively, the way I believe scriptures and conscience call us to.

When it comes to combat veterans, I know in part it means we must do a better job at reaching out—long after their first homecomings. Letting them know we are here, that we will listen…or simply sit with them in silence. Go for a drive, shoot some pool…

We need to advocate for better care, so that when veterans take that first tough step of seeking help, they are greeted by caring professionals who really see them, who recognize their ghosts, but do not make them feel like ghosts.

We need to find ways to allow combat veterans to spend time with their former comrades in arms, because—in the crucible of war—they come to know one another in ways that friends and family back home can only struggle to understand. We need to help them help each other home.

When it comes to refugees, I find it far more difficult to know what homing our fellow humans might mean. Certainly, it means ensuring they are treated with dignity wherever they arrive, ensuring they are not jailed, ensuring they are made to feel safe. (Homing and making safe—these seem like concepts that implicitly belong together.)

The people of Iceland helped us to begin to recognize the contours of homing when, several weeks ago, they offered to open their own homes to people fleeing war in Syria. As a nation, Iceland offered to take in 50 Syrians. Then an Icelandic writer set up a Facebook page dedicated to the crisis. Almost overnight, 12,000 Icelandic citizens signed on and personally offered to take in refugees.

Twelve thousand people, mind you, out of a population of 323,000. That’s like 12 million US citizens spontaneously offering to share their homes.

Still, I think of refugees who may be taken in by well-meaning families, and I wonder—even for those relatively lucky few, how does the feeling of home settle in again? I imagine them tiptoeing around at night, not wanting to wake their sponsors. Finding alien foods in an alien fridge. Everything not right, not familiar. A deep sense of absence haunting them. The absence of those left behind. The absence of those lost along the way.

How very odd that, in the end, the combat veteran and the war refugee are un-homed in ways that mirror one another. Each unable, wherever they are, to return to where the heart is.

Each unable to make home and heart coincide.

It makes me think that ultimately, if we want to make home a transitive verb, if we want to home one other and ourselves—if we want to home the world—there is no other option but to build peace.

So that for each and every one of us, irrespective of our roots and histories, home and heart can truly stay together. Wherever it is life sends us.