Kindness is not Justice

I am a white woman.

I deeply believe that all people are imprinted with the image of God, and I strive to treat everyone I meet as a fellow image-bearer. I don’t have to understand someone or align with anything they believe to treat them with dignity. They bear the image of God, and I will not do anything to damage or diminish that image within them.

It’s not enough.

I said “I will not do anything to damage…” But what if I stay quiet while others do it?

If I see someone behaving in a way that damages the image of God in another, I must call it out. I can do so in a way that also protects the image of God within the person inflicting the damage.

I know I actively work to foster love, kindness, dialogue, and respect among my circles.

But individual kindness does not bring institutional justice.

I’ve spent the last decade educating myself on systemic injustice and racial reconciliation.

When someone calls out racism or racial injustice in a news event, is your first response “Well I’m not racist! I treat everyone the same.” It may be true, but it’s an individual response to an institutional problem. It’s apples and oranges.

Institutional justice requires action beyond ourselves.

There are many videos circulating of positive interactions during the protests: people kneeling together, protecting each other, asking for forgiveness. It’s beautiful and necessary, but it’s not justice.

Justice comes when we change the systems that brought us to the point of unrest. Officers kneeling and asking forgiveness is a powerful image, but do they go back to their union and advocate for policy change? People post black squares on their social media, but are they contacting their officials and demanding change? Are they voting for interests beyond their own?

Kindness might change the mind of an individual, but it won’t change a system of oppression. Kindness without action…will see us repeat this cycle of injustice and protest in the near future. Action must go beyond a social media post. It must last longer than the trending hashtags. If you have the privilege to decide whether to act, you must act. It is your responsibility to use your privilege for good.

So how do you start? Read, listen, watch. Educate yourself. Examine your own complicity. Grieve. Have difficult conversations. Vote. Be vocal about your care for others.

It is hard to confront your own shortcomings. It is uncomfortable. It doesn’t come with a quick solution. You won’t get it right the first time…or maybe even the tenth time. 

Let’s lament together. And then let’s change the world.

The Fifth February 27th

Each year I write a letter to my Grandma and post it on her birthday. When she was living, I wrote her poems every few years. Since she’s been gone, I’ve found these letters to be an integral part of learning to navigate a life without her in the daily happenings.

This year’s letter was harder to write than I expected. I didn’t feel like I had much to report, but then again, you’d love to read even the most mundane things if it meant I took the time to write.

In many ways I would describe this last year as both wonderful and weary. I made some tough decisions and tried to conjure what I thought you’d give as advice in each situation. I’m not sure I got it right…but I know I tried.

It was a year full of “I thought I would ____________ by now” and honestly it was hard to accept. No major milestones, but I’m learning to acknowledge progress as being enough.  The perfectionist overachiever in me doesn’t want to leave, but I’m finding a way to muffle her voice.

There were a few moments when I longed to return to your living room – to curl up on the couch with your tiger blanket, a warm bowl of mac ‘n cheese, and the Sound of Music on the tv. Your off-key singing wafting in from the kitchen as you danced and did the dishes.

The two of us in her living room. I still have that reindeer.

You’d be so proud of the community in which I’ve found myself a part. A group of questioners, oddballs, and sillies who know the secret combination of laughter and vulnerability. They’re my go-to people. They’re not you – they won’t ever quite “get” me as much as you did…but it’s the closest I’ve felt to normal since you left. I sometimes think about how they’d love to have you as a communal Grandma –they would cherish your knack for showing up at the most unexpected, but perfect, times.

Sister and I were sitting together a few months ago and she said, “I wish Grandma was here. She’s missed so much.” We sat in somber acknowledgement. This coming year will bring the third wedding bouquet not assembled by your hands. We continue to reach milestones while we strain to hear the memory of your cheers. We think fondly of your spot at our kitchen table and your ever-presence in the bleachers and pews of our lives. We’re following your example – we try our best to support and advocate for those around us. We move forward imperfectly, but in love.

I went back to your park a few weeks ago – the warm days in February seem to increase with each passing year. I wandered through the trees and spent some time by the water. I almost made it to sunset this time.

Happy Birthday, Carolyn Diana. Your sunshine loves you infinity plus seventy-three.

Goodbyes and Hellos

In the spring of 2006, I saw her photo for the first time. She was a joyful jumble of cheeks, scrunched nose, and pigtails. As I walked up to the table of packets, I saw her face and picked her immediately. Josselyn needed a sponsor, and as a college student with no consistent income, I decided to take the role. I agreed to a monthly commitment of money that would be a stretch for my little budget, but I was determined to make it work. I had no idea we’d spend the next 13 years in community with one another through letters and photos.

As years passed, I watched her baby face mature and her pigtails disappear. I marveled as her correspondence evolved from pictures, to words, to paragraphs full of insights and encouragement. She gave me descriptions of her life, her hobbies, and her dreams. I did my best to write back and send her pictures of my own, sharing milestones along the way. I beamed with pride as she recently told me of her wish to attend university and to visit Paris…and to one day meet me.

…and then yesterday, it all came to an end.

I received written notice from the organization that Josselyn had aged out of the program. No warning. No formal way to say goodbye, just a phone number to call to arrange my next sponsored child.  

After more than 13 years, we deserved closure. We’d built a friendship that deserved recognition.

I learned so much from my interactions with Josselyn over those years. She helped me keep a global focus and remember that my actions can affect people I will never meet. In a way, we both grew up. I am certainly not the same person I was in college, and she’s transitioned from preschooler to adult in that time.

I received the notice about Josselyn right after I scheduled my interview to begin the process of becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children in foster care. Coincidence?

I’m no longer Josselyn’s sponsor, but I’m going to be a voice for children in my community. My interactions with her are part of the journey that heightened my awareness of vulnerable children. This volunteer opportunity is the first step in what I hope will be a much larger story.

Thank you, Josselyn. Maybe we’ll meet in Paris someday.

The End of the Beginning

I stepped into a mall during the holiday season. Not just any mall, but THE mall of my youth. This particular mall quite literally makes an appearance in the telling of my birth story (more on that later), so when I say it’s the mall of my youth, I truly mean my ENTIRE childhood. 

There were other malls in the county, but Lakeforest was closest and it had everything we needed. White Flint felt small and fancy. Montgomery Mall was too expensive and far away. Lakeforest was just right for us. 

The mall is dying. 
Three of the anchor stores have closed. Many shops are empty. Even Starbucks abandoned their post. 

I was struck by a wave of nostalgia mixed with sadness as I walked through the mall and still found Santa in the center, sitting on his chair and posing for photos. That’s the spot where I took my first photo with Santa, and my siblings did as well. 

I haven’t been a regular shopper at the mall in years, so I’m a contributor to the decline of such establishments, but I found myself mourning the end of the kind of memories I made in that building. Many people see malls as monuments to consumerism, but those walls created a social space that we no longer possess. The gathering areas in the center of the mall and in the corners by the anchor stores became places for people to chat and hang out while their kids had safe places to deplete their rambunctious energy. Most of my memories are not about money spent, or things purchased, but about people and quality time in that space.

I haven’t created new memories there in quite some time, but I’ll miss being able to walk through and reminisce – to point out those memories to people who are new to my life. So, I’m going to share some of them with you now. 

Let’s start at the very beginning:

The day of my birth: Mom went into labor. My Aunt was working at the mall, and Grandma called to say she’d be there in 10 minutes so they could get to the hospital before I was born. 90 minutes later, Grandma finally pulled up to get my Aunt who was frantically wondering what had taken so long (this was before cell phones, kids). To this day, no one knows what Grandma did during that time. She called it the missing hour and a half for the rest of her life. 

Other memories I cherish:

  • Countless hours of playing in the middle of the mall with friends and kids I’d just met.
  • Eating Jerry’s pizza after hours of playing. 
  • So many family photos at the Sears studio.
  • My high school senior photos (also at Sears)
  • Grandma’s illegal parking spot in the service lane at Sears – no one ever stopped her!
  • Walking many, many laps around the mall with my mom when she was pregnant with all three of my siblings.  
  • Family dinners and celebrations at Chi-Chi’s.
  • The clerks in the women’s department of Hecht’s knowing me by name because I walked my sister Amanda to the bathroom there so many times. 
  • Turning all the rain sticks in the Natural Wonders store at once to make the waterfall sound as loud as possible. 
  • Wandering through the music box store and always playing the ones from Phantom of the Opera. 
  • Shopping at Claire’s and KB Toys. 
  • Saving up all my money in 6th grade to buy one “cool” outfit at Limited Too. 
  • Being trusted to shop with my friends while my Mom was somewhere else in the mall. 
  • Buying cd’s. 
  • Getting an egg bagel toasted with cream cheese and a Mystic drink from Bagel Time. 
  • Sitting in the couch alcove under the staircases with a book and feeling like I’d found a hidden oasis.
  • Tasting my first caramel macchiato – the real thing, not the Starbucks version. 

I could write pages and pages of things I did in that mall. It was quite normal for our family, when I was growing up, to spend a day just being there. We always ran into people we knew. 

I snapped a photo of Santa, knowing this is probably his last hurrah in Lakeforest…and mine as well. My mom asked if I wanted to wait in line and sit on his lap for old times’ sake, but I chose instead to capture an image of the center of the mall…and the place of so many memories.  

We’re closing another decade. It’s hard to summarize all that’s happened in ten years except to say that things have changed – just like the mall. To call it a tumultuous decade would be fair, but that’s not the whole picture. I’ve experienced the deepest valleys accompanied by the most inexplicable joys. It’s been far from safe, but it’s been good. 

Here’s to the twenties. 

The Fourth February 27th

I wrote my grandmother a letter on her birthday in 2016 – the first birthday after her death. It has since become a tradition. It’s a way for me to honor her memory and document the evolution of my grief.

Recently found this photo…

It’s been an eventful year, and there were moments where I felt your presence in the midst of it all.

You would’ve loved this year’s family wedding because it was a beautiful reflection of love. I made a fool of myself on the dance floor in your honor. We all did.

I shaved my head…again. You’d be thrilled at the fact that I raised so much money for a good cause, but I know you’d still say, “Your beautiful hair is gone!” You’d laugh-cry about it.

I got a tattoo. I know you would’ve thrown a fit because I remember how you reacted when Mom got one. I can imagine the scene: I would tell you I got it and you would start lecturing about how they’re permanent and I’m probably going to regret it, and what if it’s in a spot I can’t hide. But then I’d remove the bandage and you’d smile and cry. Because you see, I chose to permanently mark myself with the name you gave me at birth. You said you couldn’t remember life before I was born, and I can’t imagine living life without an external representation of the truth you spoke into my soul.

The tattoo on my left arm.

I have roommates now. You’d approve of them and our house. It has lots of natural light, and I catch myself staring out the window and thinking about how much you loved the sun. Your Michelangelo print hangs in my hallway. I spent so many hours staring at that frame in your house, and now it hangs in mine. Maybe next year I’ll finally get to see the original in Italy.

Proof that I used to stare at the art prints in Grandma’s house. The print in the top left corner is the one I have now. She framed it soon after this photo was taken.

We had a very warm day a few weeks ago. You know if it’s warm in February I drive to your park and spend some time. Since my last letter, I’ve taken a lot of photos in that park. It seems my clients enjoy the setting as much as you did. But on this warm, February day I did not bring my camera. I stood barefoot at the edge of the lake and absorbed the peace. I thanked God for the honor of sharing life with you. You gave me the privilege of being and feeling known; you fully saw me in a way I can’t explain to others. Even if I never feel that way again on this earth, I had it in the formative years when I needed it most. You helped instill resilience, and I’m ever grateful for the lasting effects.

I had a moment the other day. Those moments are fewer and further between with each passing year, but they still catch me every so often. This one transported me back to the last time we spoke. After several rounds of singing your favorite hymns and quoting from Tombstone, you saw us and we had you back for a few minutes. You grabbed my hands and I’ll never forget the look in your eyes – you knew you’d been freed from your prison and were on borrowed time. With an urgency as you held my hands you said, “I love you so much. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

In that moment, I couldn’t argue. It really wasn’t supposed to be like this. Silly me, I thought you’d be here in my 30s and 40s because you’d only be in your 70s and 80s. You weren’t supposed to die in your 60s. That amazing mind of yours wasn’t supposed to wither and rob us of precious time. I guess that’s the whole point: we aren’t promised any amount of time – regardless of our expectations.

One of our last photos. She always preferred making silly faces rather than smiling.

I started writing your story, and in a way, my own. It’s still in progress, but it’s been very healing for me. One day the world will know your story…or at least your life through my eyes. What a wild and redemptive ride.

Until next year, Sunshine loves you – infinity plus 72.