On Not Being Chosen

GenevaI just interviewed for what would have been my dream job, once upon a time. I might have become pastor at a congregation in Geneva, Switzerland where the trains run on time, the view is either tall mountains or deep lake, the chocolate is plentiful and the lifestyle inviting. And did I mention there was chocolate? It would have meant my girls could have what I dearly want to give them – opportunity to live in a different culture and learn another language. Next to my own parents’ love, this is the gift they gave me (several times!) that I most treasure. I applied mostly because a friend in the congregation invited me to. I kept making the cut until I was in the top two and was asked to come in person for several days. As I have gotten every job I have ever interviewed for, I went assuming the position was mine to decide.

A funny thing happened on the way to moving to Switzerland. The congregation voted to call the other candidate. And after I got over the ego bruise at not being chosen, I realized that this was the right decision, not only for the congregation and the other candidate, but also for me. I probably would have taken the call, if offered, because when will an opportunity like this come up again? I’ve always erred on the side of the new opportunity and having an adventure. My jobs have always come to me. That’s my MO. But doing so would have meant overruling some nagging doubts. Is this really the best thing for my children, especially one with whom we are just getting to address learning and behavioral issues? Is this the best thing for me, to leave the advocacy work that gives me so much meaning, just when I’m getting good at it? And face it, Geneva may be cool but the actual work is more tending to the internal congregation and less about addressing the society and working for change that I enjoy the most about being a pastor.

Ten years ago this may have been my dream. But now, when I know I probably have one more good call in me (plus a good call here I’m not ready to end yet), I want to be a lot more picky in what I do next. At 51, time is limited and the choices become more real. It certainly helps when God shuts the door for me. The sound of that slam is simultaneously a recommitment to what I am and do now. Which is a pretty big blessing. And when its time for a change, who knows, maybe this time I’ll go out and find it instead of it coming to me.

And – BONUS – I get to stay in the relationships here that I felt so conflicted about leaving. Quilting group with friends of 25 years, treasured colleagues at work, summers at Camp du Nord and our lake house, quick trips to see my Mom every few weeks instead of once per year. I still feel some disappointment at not packing up and moving to Europe, but I also feel tremendous relief at staying put, even if that means staying in Harrisburg of all places. Who knew coming in second could feel so right? Plus, a bar of Toblerone is cheaper at the Target checkout than you can get it there.


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Signature Scent

Smells yummy!

Smells yummy!

I would have walked by the Colonial Drug store in Cambridge MA, except for a glimpse through the open door that suggested this was not your usual place to stock up on toothpaste and deodorant. The sight of the long, narrow space packed with floor to ceiling shelves was enough to make me double back and discover what its tagline calls “no common scents – hundreds of hard to find fragrances for ladies and gents”. Right away, I spotted a display of 4711 Cologne. Its blue and gold bottle transported me right back to my mother’s bureau where I would surreptitiously squirt myself with its heady fragrance, and subsequently be mystified how my parents knew I was filching mom’s perfume.

The lady behind the counter knew her stuff. I told her I liked unisex fragrances (no cloying rose or overwhelming gardenia for me, please) but lighter perfumes just didn’t last very long. In a few seconds she had pulled bottles and boxes from the groaning shelves and was squirting scents on little paper strips. Try this. Sniff. No, too flowery. This one? Sniff. No, too vanilla. Sniff. No, too something. Then I whiffed the last one. Fruity. Spicy. Sweet, but not sugary. This heaven in my nose turned out to be called Spanish Fig and Nutmeg, a men’s cologne that hit all the notes I want to play. In an uncharacteristic impulse, I said I’d take it without even asking the price. As she wrapped up the purchase, the proprietor announced, “Now you have your signature scent. Enjoy!”.

I recently read an article that tattoos and multiple piercings provide people a mark of individuality in culture of anonymity and uniformity. I’ll buy that, but contend that scents have been doing that for much, much longer. I remember my mother going out to fancy events, looking beautiful and wafting Chanel Number 5 when she bent to kiss me good night. My boyfriend wears something called Gray Flannel aftershave that is now part of the delight of planting a kiss on his neck. There are other signature scents that transport me – the Murphy’s Oil Soap smell used to make church pews shine, the bees was smell of a sacristy, even the cleaner used in a gas station rest room that immediately took me back to our high school toilets.

This association of scent and memory are nothing new. Theologian Joseph Sittler’s brilliant piece, “Eleanor and the Big Brown Buick”, tells about a scent he encounters while walking through the perfume aisle in a department store where “clerks are always squirting that stuff at you.” One scent immediately transports him back decades to an amorous encounter with a girl named Eleanor in the back seat of a car. He concludes, “Eleanor is gone, the car is gone and I am damn near gone” but that there is something miraculous in the associational, the ability to be transported by one whiff, “that makes computers look simple”.

And if you think of me when you smell a ripe fig, so much the better.

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When I started my blog, a friend warned that I would likely abandon it before long, noting that the skeletons of several blogs he created were floating out in the Internet. Not me, I vowed. I love my blog. I need to write and I’ve got so much I want to say. Give it up as if blogging were a mere hobby? Never.

A brief glance at recent posts proves my confidence was overstated. Decomposition has set in. I have barely posted in nine months, leaving only bones. But the lack of activity is not for the usual reasons… I have time, I have plenty to write about, and I am sketching pieces in my head all the time.

I let my blog go for the opposite reason. I have something to write about, but I couldn’t put it out in public because it was too raw and unfinished. I haven’t been ready to write about what has been both private and painful, bu until I did, I couldn’t write about anything else. Until I say it, posting anything else seemed hollow or false. Thus the silence of months, and finally the need to get it over with.

So here goes.

I found out at the beginning of the summer that my five-year-old daughter had been molested by an adult we knew and trusted. We were driving along the Susquehanna River on a beautiful morning, when I overheard from the back seat her telling her sister what this family friend had done. My heart stopped. “What did you say?” I demanded, a bit too sharply. I hoped that I had heard it wrong. She then refused to tell me what she was talking about. By this time I had pulled over so I could look her in the face. After repeated requests, she finally said, “Will _______ get in trouble if I tell you?” It’s the easiest lie I ever told.

Since then, I’ve been assured I did all the right things. I reported the incident to the child abuse hotline, where I was assured follow up would be within 24 hours. It took more like six weeks, after my persistent calling. School started before the police finally interviewed her and found her account credible. The perpetrator lawyered up and, after a delay of several months, took a lie detector test, which turned out to be faulty, and then several more months passed before a second one was scheduled in March. This one did “not detect deception”. Case closed.

But not for me. I’ve accompanied my child to therapy and PTSD treatment. I’ve raged and I’ve cried alone and with friends. I have blamed myself, yelled at God and astonished myself by thinking this sort of think didn’t happen in my family. I have also felt relieved that it was caught when it was and not after a second, third or thirtieth incident. I’m relieved my child didn’t have to go to court and be questioned by a hostile defense lawyer and that I have been rudely but blessedly woken up from the magical thinking that my kids are immune from abuse. There’s a reason they are both taking Kung Fu now. There’s a lot to be thankful for.

For me, it was never about settling the legal part, which was out of my hands anyway. I know what happened. But the end of the official investigation has freed me from waiting for others to act. After nine really long months, I can move on now. Once the deception was detected, my job has been taking care of my kids and myself. I’ll keep doing that. And with this composition, I can start reanimating the bones of my blog.


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Quoth the Raven

nevermoreIt is getting crowded in our car, which seats four comfortably, five at a stretch. The children’s tunes on our CD player that I actually enjoy (see Ralph’s World, Laurie Birkener, Two of a Kind) have recently been replaced by the tweenie (rhymes with weenie) sounds of Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepson, Justin Bieber, Fun. and and they fill all the available vehicle space. Their latest hits are played with remarkably frequency on the oh-so-commercial radio station my kids have decided shall be the soundtrack of our road trips and drives about town.

Today we were treated yet again to Mei’s favorite, Taylor Swift’s breakaway hit “We Will Never Ever (with echo: Ever, Ever, Ever) Getting Back Together”. “What part of this song do you like best?” I asked Mei, attempting to understand the attraction of a breakup song to my six year old. She threw back her head , replying, “The NEVER, EVER, EVER, EVER, EVER part,” at the top of her lungs.

This makes some sense. Mei is not one of those kids who went through a “no” phase, like some do when the response to every question is “no”. What she did go through, and has yet to emerge from, is a “never” phase. It still takes me aback.

I say, “Mei, its time to wash your hand before dinner”. “NEVER!” she roars, like an inflamed Patrick Henry preferring death over defeat.
“Mei, did you brush your teeth?” “NEVER!” she declares, with Che Guevara-like revolutionary fervor.
So Taylor’s pronouncement that she is never, ever, ever, ever getting back together fits right into Mei’s lexicon.

Fortunately, Mei’s nevermore is often tempered by the fact that she’s already completed said action or is on her way to do it. It’s more style than substance. More façade than fact. Which is a relief to this Mom who would never ever, ever, ever have the patience for that kind of resistance.

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Ollivander’s: Makers of Fine Wands Since 382 BC

The blog is back!

The Reumann threesome headed out into the backyard this morning to take stock of Hurricane Sandy’s toll on our property. From the house it didn’t look too bad, but our old enormous oak tree had lost countless leaves and twigs and branches that needed clearing.

At first, my grounds crew worked diligently picking up sticks, until they found a better use for them. They decamped to the deck, dousing the straightest and longest sticks with glue, and covering them with blue and purple glitter, affixing spangles and sparkles and ribbons.

“What you doing?” I yelled. “We’ve got a lot to do!” “Making wands,” they replied.  Deciding to be a crab about it, I pointed out that wasn’t going to help get the leaves and sticks taken care of. Mei took the high road. “Mom”, she said, “Don’t you know that with enough wands we can clean the yard up by magic?”

Chastened, I joined the wand makers at their craft. The leaves can wait.


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Single Parent

I do single parenting every day.  It’s a demanding occupation and identity, since you are THE person on call 24/7 for  all your children’s, physical, emotional, developmental and spiritual needs. The only respites are when you are at work or asleep, and not even those are sacred.

The hard part, actually, is not the intensity, the exhaustion or the worries, although there is plenty of each. The hard part is lacking a ready person with whom to share the good things. Whom shall I tell about Helen’s fabulous report card, the acrostic poem she wrote about me, the perfectionism of her magnetism science project, or how the squawks of her clarinet have suddenly turned into sounds. And who will ever know about Mei’s latest lost tooth, how she laughed the magical moment she learned to swim, her devotion to digging up worms, bugs and grubs and making them new homes. What I miss the most are savoring with someone else the small exchanges about the everyday moments of Helen and Mei’s lives as they live and learn and grow. Not to mention the silly stuff they say.

This week, I am single parenting in a new way. Helen is off for her first ever week of overnight camp and for the first time in four years, I’m parenting just one child instead of two. Tomorrow it will be four years of juggling two children, and I realize how distracted I’ve been, performing the balancing act between the two, refereeing rather than parenting. This week Mei and I got to sprawl on couch reading book, after book after book (Michael Catchpool’s “The Cloud Spinner” featured every time). We had long conversations about how to paint stars on your fingernails, what happens to seeds in the ground and why cucumbers from the garden are so good.  We tried to catch the big frog that had hopped into our neighbors pool and we both woke up at exactly 3 a.m. and fled our hot rooms for the more comfortable air conditioned living room (but not before having having some crackers with peanut butter as a midnight snack). We got to tend to each other in a new way, know each other and really enjoy being together.

I can’t wait for Helen to get back. But its been great to be the single parent of a single child for a week. And to share that with you.


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The Hunger Games – Pennsylvania Style

If you haven’t read the hottest series since Harry Potter, here’s the gist of it. The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic United States where every year the capitol city requires its 12 enslaved and impoverished districts to select two teenagers to compete in a televised survival contest as punishment for an earlier rebellion. Only one of the twenty-four will emerge alive as winner of the hunger games.

In Pennsylvania we are engaged in our own version of the games in the 2012-13 state budget, which will result in pitting programs that serve the most vulnerable of our citizens against one another. Not all will survive, either. It starts with the Human Services Development Fund (HSDF), a flexible funding stream used for a wide variety of human services at the county level, that has been repeatedly reduced in recent years. The new budget combines funding for several other programs into a single Human Services Development Fund Block Grant, while reducing total funding for all programs by $168.4 million, or 20%. The new HSDF block grant now includes Medical Assistance Outpatient, Behavior Health Services, Mental Health Services, County Child Welfare, the prior HSDF and Homeless Assistance.

What this means is that programs as vital and diverse as child welfare and mental health will have to compete at the county level for attention and support. Domestic violence initiatives in the HSDF will have to vie with homeless assistance to see who will come out on top.

What is curious about this move is that there was first supposed to be a pilot program in a county or two to see how a block granting experiment would work out. If there has been a pilot, no report has been issued on its results. Governor Corbett has been intentional about putting together commissions on issues of statewide impact, including natural gas drilling, child abuse, transportation, liquor store privatization and higher education, to name a few. Moving to this new system of funding deserves no less attention and scrutiny before putting in place changes that will hugely impact the very old, the very young, the very ill and the very vulnerable among us. Block grants may have merit, but not this one as currently constructed.

The Hunger Games (spoiler alert!) ends with the surprise of two victors who team up to support one another through the fear and killing. Some of the impacted programs may join cause to advocate together and emerge relatively unscathed. But not all will. By kicking the can to the county level while simultaneously slashing the fund, the state is abdicating its responsibility to safeguard the welfare of our most vulnerable residents. We dare not treat the well-being of so many in such a casual fashion. It’s no game.

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Couched Terms

I just made the second major furniture purchase of my adult life (the first being a dining room table bought in a hurry so there would be somewhere to sit for Helen’s baptism party).  This is kind of pathetic when you know how long I’ve been an adult. It is understandable when you know about Pennsylvania Dutch thriftiness. The Sofa was made possible by several years worth of credit card purchases had built up to a mountain of points just waiting to be converted to major bucks to use anywhere I wanted. Like Pottery Barn! The couch I had coveted so long would soon be mine.

Helen and Mei were of course excited that we would be getting a real couch to replace the old futon. Not so fast, I warned them. This is a New Sofa. It is pristine and comes with some rules to keep it that way. There will be no eating on this sofa! No dirty feet on it! You will wash your hands before reclining (OK I didn’t say this but I thought it. You would understand if you saw Mei’s hand after some meals).

New Sofa was bringing out the worst in me and I was worried I may squelch their joy with my need to keep it looking good. I shouldn’t have. The day it was delivered I spent a half hour admiring The Sofa’s clean lines, the plush microfiber, its firm seat cushions and puffy back pillows. Then the girls got home from school.

“Girls, our new couch is here, isn’t it great!” I gushed.  “It’s perfect, mom,” they cried together. “What part do you like best – the color? fabric? The arms rolled just right?” “The Cushions!” they declared. “They are perfect for a fort. Can we make one now?” Within minutes The Sofa was deconstructed and two girls with dirty feet had a tea party inside. Which makes it the best couch ever.

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No Indication

“Mom,” Helen asked, “Do I have to believe in God?”. The question caught me off guard. Inside my head my brain spluttered – What? I’m not ready for this conversation yet.  How can she be asking this already? She’s only 10! Outside, I maintained what I hoped was a non-anxious presence and replied, “No, you don’t have to. No one can make you believe anything. Uh, but why don’t you?”. “Because,” she said, “So far God has given no indication of existing at all.”

My parenting experience is of always being one step behind my kids as they move to their next stage. So while I’ve been obsessing about when and how to talk to her about the signs of puberty, how to stand up to bullying and picking clothes off her floor, she has been dwelling on theology and the existence (or nonexistence) of God.

I refrained from launching into a litany of God indicators that might speak to her – creation, love, community, mystery, and settled in to listen. She gave me an earful about war and suffering and injustice. But at the end, she asked, “Mom, do I have to believe in God to do what you do?”.

“Well honey, I’m a pastor and its pretty important to believe in God to do that.”

“No, not that. Do I have to believe in God to do advocacy and try to change things, especially to protect animals and the earth and  people?

“No, you don’t have to believe in God to do that. But the reason I do advocacy is because I believe in God and God wants things to change.”

Long Silence.

“O.K. I’ll think about it.”

We left it at that.


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Backwards and in High Heels

   An old comic strip called Frank and Ernst shows the two characters standing in front of a movie billboard with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing together. Frank (or Ernst) says, “Sure he was great. But don’t forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did…backwards and in high heels”.

The phrase has been applied to women’s achievement in general, but I also think of it in regards to my daughter Mei, who has to put some extra effort into ordinary things. For those who don’t know, Mei was born missing her right arm below the elbow.  Amniotic Band Syndrome (ABS) left her with a boneless and non-functional “little hand” the size of a hazelnut on a shortened arm. Mei, who has never known anything different, just chugs along figuring out how to do what other people need two hands to accomplish. Getting dressed? Check. Swinging from monkey bars? Check. Zipping her coat? Check. I’ve tried out all these things one handed myself so I could help her learn. Turns out she mostly doesn’t need my help but figures things out herself, in her own time.

I tried swimming one armed, which is hard, and I worried Mei might never learn. Despite several swim classes, she still couldn’t keep herself afloat. I found little paddles you can strap to a stump, but considered them a last resort. I finally put her in a class for disabled children last month, thinking she might get the help she needs, but they kept putting her in a float belt instead of really teaching her to swim.

Last Monday we had a family swim and I left her floatie at home on purpose. I said, “Swim to me, Mei”. She waded over. “No, without touching the bottom. Kick your legs”. So she ran over. I moved further away. “Try again” And then she SWAM! Legs kicking behind her and arms churning she moved in the water, not even realizing what she had done. She never stopped for half an hour. She kept swimming, from me to the wall and back. In shallow water, then in deep. She laughed and laughed and I cried.

I realize now that her two handed sister learned to swim when she was five and a half, too. And that Mei has met every challenge she has set herself.  And although she may need some extra support, she figures everything out, eventually.

Yesterday, after another successful swim session, Mei said, “Helen is a gymnast and I am a swimnast. And Supergirl.”

She is both, backwards and in high heels.


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