Hindsight is 20-20, they say

A couple of years ago, I was in a production of “Inherit the Wind” at Villagers Theatre.

The play is a theater staple, portraying a fictitious account of the Scopes Monkey Trial. In the play the science teacher charged with violating the ban on teaching evolution is one Bertram Cates. A media circus soon follows as all the politicial interests get riled up, and the locals themselves take sides over the trial.

There’s a scene in the play where the Rev. Jeremiah Brown delivers a fire-and-brimstone sermon inveighing against the ungodliness of evolution, and warning that any who follow Cates’ teachings tempt the wrath of God for forsaking biblical teaching. It’s oldtime Pentecostal religion at its oldtimest.

I was cast to fill out the townsfolk scenes, but as a former Pentecostal, this was one scene where I was really able to whoop it up. I echoed Brown’s words back at him, I shouted “amen” and “hallelujah” whenever it seemed appropriate, and a few times in performance, I started rhythmic clapping. (“The spirit led me, ” I quipped when the director asked where that had come from.)

Some of the other actors complained that I was upstaging them with my antics. I asked the director once or twice if I should tone it down, and his response was always no. “Everyone else needs to step it up. You’re making it real.”

One of the trustees at the theater remarked after each performance that she could tell I had the background.

It wasn’t until tonight, as I was watching “Blessed are the Damned,” that I realized the fatal flaw in my performance.

I should have asked for a couple rattlesnakes.

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The gains we made

About 16 years ago, we had a foster son who arrived at our house almost 2 years old who was sadly delayed in gross and fine motor skills. While our own daughter was holding crayons and moving them in back-and-forth motions on paper, Lumpy seemed incapable of using his fingers with anything approximating dexterity. We would put cereal on his tray, and Lumpy would try to grab it in his fist and shovel it into his mouth. He was a messy eater.

He was also preverbal. Our daughter could fire off a bunch of single words, understand simple directions, and could put her thoughts together into two-word phrases. Lumpy could shout “Eeeeee!” as he ran excitedly from room to room, typically falling down after three or four steps because he barely could stand, much less walk.

The folks from Early Intervention gave us some really good advice on those motor skills. When we sat him down to eat breakfast, we didn’t give him a handful of cereal. (A bowl was out of the question, as he would just throw it.) We put the cereal, typically Cheerios, on his tray in groups of two or three. This led him to use his fingers to pick them up and place them in his mouth more carefully. Less mess, less waste, and an important developmental step up.

By the time he left us nine months later, he was eating with a spoon.

Language skills were obvious. Because he was so bad at standing (and walking), I took him to walk our dog Sandy at least once a day. The practice alone made him improve by leaps and bounds just at walking, but on those walks I talked nonstop. I would tell him about composting processes, about books I was reading, about the things we were seeing, and about the weather. I would tell him stories, I would sing songs to him, whatever it took. I never stopped talking, because I knew that one thing he almost never got from his birth parents was interaction.

I should mention that Lumpy had some food issues. I don’t know whether it was because there were food security issues his first two years, because his mother found that feeding him was the easiest way to comfort him, because his tongue was one of the ways he got any stimulation, or because of a combination of all three of those; but the kid would not stop eating if there was food in front of him. Seriously, there was one time he came home from a visit at Fuddrucker’s and Lumpy kept gagging because (I later learned) he had eaten five of their giant chicken fingers and he was so stuffed he was ready to puke.

So, as a result of that, we were pretty strict about food. He got to eat alloted portions at the alloted times, and that was it. No other snacking.

One day, after he’d been with us about seven or eight months, Lumpy caught me sneaking some Wheat Thins I hadn’t meant for him to see me with.

He looked up, held out his hand, smiled that smile of his, and asked, clear as a bell, “Some?”

My heart melted. I gave him the crackers that were still in my hand. He had earned them.

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A helmet that covers a multitude

One of the things I like about my church is that it’s deeply committed to adoption and foster care.

Your worship can be too loud and have all the euphonious qualities of a garbage truck at three in the morning, your preacher can have the politics of your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving and be as coherent as that same uncle after his third fifth of whiskey, and you can push Promise Keepers and its toxic masculinity, but if it’s got a real heart for adoption and foster care, it’s like none of that other stuff matters. 

Even the theology can be errant and it won’t matter. Anyone who places her hands on the shoulders of an orphan and says “This is my child,” is someone who walks in the very heart of God. That helmet covers a multitude of sins.

Off the top of my head, I can think of six other families in my church that either have adopted children or have provided foster homes for them. Adoption is a wonderful thing that glows as gently as the sunset.

For its part, foster care sags beneath a terrible glory about it. If you’re a relatively decent person, you’re going to throw yourself into it. You’re going to love that child as much as your own, you’re going to give your heart to her, you’re going to have dreams for her.

And then one day you may find that child is gone, and in an instant you discover that your every nerve has been shredded with broken glass. Loving someone in this world means giving the world permission to hurt you. (Love anyway.)

Foster arrangements aren’t supposed to last more than a year. They’re supposed to be temporary arrangements while the birth parents get their acts together, and once that happens, the child is supposed to return to them.

One couple at our church went through considerably more than a year of uncertainty. The judge handling the case kept seeing a glimmer of hope for the birth mother. At every hearing he would delay a decision to end parental rights, and at every hearing this couple’s nerves would jangle and burn with an uncertainty that kept dragging on and on.

One week, the foster dad commented that he was surprised how attuned I was to their situation. I groaned with every delay, asked every month if there was any news, and wanted a resolution in their favor as much as they did, if that was possible. He was struck by the empathy I kept showing.

There’s a simple reason for that. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the casual indifference of the people we used to worship with, and the way they walked away from us in the twilight days of our foster arrangement. Theirs was a cruelty I can’t even name, but I wouldn’t trade what happened now that I’ve seen the fruit that it’s born.

I’m glad for this: I know what it’s like to walk that journey without the support you were promised you could count on, and I swear to God I will never let anyone go through that alone.

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The loss of a child

It’s funny the things we do to cope.

It was around this time of year that the state returned Lumpy to his birth parents. His caseworker’s assessment was that his parents hadn’t improved a damn bit, but as she said, the state was obliged to give them the chance.

He’s still alive, so I guess that wasn’t as bad a call as it might have been. His mom isn’t in the picture any more, and though I sound like a royal bastard to say it, I think that’s for the best, honestly. After Lumpy and his younger sister returned, their mom discovered that she loved the idea of being a mother more than she loved the actual experience of it, and she left.

His father’s been a bit more of a presence, in the sense that Lumpy has stayed with him at least some of the past 15 years. Last time I bumped into the guy, he wasn’t sure what grade his son was in.

As the state geared up to return Lumpy to his birth parents, he started staying for longer visits. Early in the foster process, a visit typically runs for an hour or so, a few times a week. Toward the end of the foster process, because they’re trying to reacclimate the children to their home environment and ease the trauma of losing their foster home, the state sends the kids for overnight visits.

I can’t speak for the birth family on what they’re like. I hope to God that they’re a joyous reunion, one that smells more and more like heaven each time, because the long separation is coming to an end, and the family is being reunited. I pray to God that’s exactly what is, only moreso.

For foster families, it’s hell.

We’d tried to explain it to her, but our daughter had no idea why her brother was going away overnight. How does someone not yet 3 years old understand something like that? I was working at the newspaper from hell, and on nights that I came home past midnight, I’d find her wide awake and wondering what was going on.

At the newspaper, I had a family picture: my wife, me, our daughter, our foster son. Every Tuesday night while he was with his birth parents, I put that photo face down on the desk. I couldn’t bear to look at it.

I’m putting the final touches right now on a paper for one of my grad school classes, about trauma and how it affects the long-term heath and development of a child. It’s bringing all these memories up, and so I’m writing them down and posting them on Facebook.

It doesn’t bring him back. It doesn’t unhurt the daughter I love more than life, nor does it heal the son who was never mine to keep.

Writing is one of the ways I find resolution to things that trouble me. It’s one of the ways I explore the screaming world around me, and try to make my peace with it and with the wounds love has inflicted on me.

It doesn’t work on its own, but it’s all I’ve got right now.

God, I could use a drink.

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In memoriam: Scott Eiland

An old friend of mine, Scott Eiland, passed away around 2:30 a.m. Sept. 27, following a major heart attack he’d suffered several days ago.

I first got to know Scott more than 15 years ago. At the time we were attending Community Gospel Church in North Brunswick. I had started and was overseeing a new drama ministry at the church, a team that would take the stage between the worship team and the preacher, and prepare the way for the sermon with a 10-minute performance. Sometimes the things we did were serious, like a dramatic monologue about a married man who was falling for a co-worker. Sometimes they were silly, like our recurring sketches about Frank and Gloria, the married couple from hell.

Scott was one of the faithful. He joined the drama team right from the start, was available whenever I needed someone, and never complained. Someone once remarked that the drama team was mine, but it really wasn’t. It was Scott’s as much as it was anyone’s.

Aside from his regular forays as Frank, the part I most associate with Scott is Baruch the Zealot. One year for Good Friday, we decided to stage an adaptation of “The Princes of this World,” the 11th installment of Dorothy L. Sayers’ “The Man Born to be King.” I worked Scott relentlessly to get him to play the character right, and he more than rose to the occasion. I played opposite him as Judas, and the night we performed, Scott sizzled. He turned Baruch’s interrogation of Judas into a searing indictment of the apostle’s treachery and guilt for projecting his own frailties onto the messiah. It remains, to me, one of the highlights of the evening.

I’ve seen Scott just once in the past 15 years or so, but I’ve never forgotten the big galoot, and I’ve always loved him. He was a great big lovable and loving lump of himself.

Heaven is a happier and goofier place today than it was yesterday, but how I wish we had been allowed to hold onto that goofiness a while longer.

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Angela Davis on radicalism

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Hating the sinner

My experience is that when we say, “We need to speak the truth in love,” it’s the same as when we talk about “Hating the sin but loving the sinner.”

Both phrases are a coded way of saying “I’m about to be a royal jerk, but want to blame everything on you.”

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Recruitment drive

A lot of nonprofits complain that they have difficulty finding volunteers to make the organization run. The same small core group of people always does 90 percent of the work.

SCENARIO 1
LEADER. We need some new volunteers to help with some of our efforts.
PERSON. I’ll help.
LEADER. Anyone? Anyone at all?
PERSON. Right here. Here are my skills, and all the things I can do. When can I start?
LEADER. I don’t get it. Why Isn’t anyone new ever interested in helping us?

SCENARIO 2
LEADER. We need some new volunteeers to help with jobs that require certain skill sets.
PERSON. I have those skill sets.
LEADER. So you do. Here,we’re going to have you clean the water fountain instead until you get bored and go away.

If either of those scenarios is common to your church or organization, I think I’ve found your recruiting problem.

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Headcase

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Log Jammer remembered

I remember riding the Log Jammer the first summer it opened, in 1975. I was 5 years old, it was the park’s first water ride, and in the Pittsburgh summers, the lines were so long that you could get into line at 10 when the park opened, and by the time you reached the front of the line, the park would be opening again two days later.

I rode it that every summer, and even though I never got as wet as I hoped,  I rode the Log Jammer every summer I returned to Kennywood in the years since.

I really am bummed that they’re taking it out. It’s like a piece of my childhood has been retired. It’s like when I found out that Kennywood had removed its Turnpike ride and replaced it with something so unremarkable that I can’t even remember what it is.

Bad call, Kennywood. Bad call.

At least they still have the Thunderbolt. And the Jackrabbit.

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