The Story of US

Maddalena Simonutti was born in 1904 in a small Italian town near Spilimbergo. When she was only four years old her mother, at age 29, died while giving birth to her fourth child, who also died at the same time. Ten years later World War I began, and near the end of the war, Maddalena’s two brothers, Constantine and Ugo, were killed with some other boys while playing near a bomb that detonated. They were only 15 and 12 years old at the time. Maddalena’s neighbor, Pietro Tonelli, a boy a few years older than Maddalena, was moved with emotion when he saw her crying at their funeral and he vowed to himself to marry her someday when they were older. Maddalena’s father, grief-stricken at the terrible losses began to drink heavily. He later married another woman, who made life miserable for Maddalena.

At age 17, Maddalena moved to Milan to work as a governess in a home. Her employers loved her and treated her like a daughter. They took Maddalena on vacations with them and included her when they went to the opera, which she loved. The kids she raised adored her as well.

Meanwhile, Pietro had moved around Europe looking for work after the war. He lived in France for a few years working as a carpenter near Paris. Then he moved to Turkey, but only stayed a few weeks due to the extreme heat. In 1927 he sailed to America, in search of opportunity. He joined the masses entering the United States through Ellis Island, where he was processed and allowed entry.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
-From New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus, on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty

Pietro found work in construction in New Rochelle, New York, and wrote to Maddalena asking her to marry him. Her employers made Maddalena turn over all of her letters from Pietro so that they could determine if this young man was good enough Maddalena. They approved, made a trousseau for her, and sent her to America in 1930 on a tourist visa, officially to visit her uncle Daniel in New Jersey. Once in America, she travelled to Canada to visit more relatives, and was able re-enter the United States as a Canadian in order to gain citizenship (because there were no more visas that year for Italians) and marry Pietro Tonelli, just two months after entering the country.

It is unclear how Pietro became a US citizen. Family legend has it that he was here illegally for a time, and when asked, Pietro would laugh and claim to have jumped ship. According to his good friend and extended family member, “Uncle Alfred,” Pietro may have gone to Cuba before Maddalena arrived to re-enter legally and gain citizenship.

Peter (Pietro) and Madeline (Maddalena) Tonelli spent the first years of their marriage in an Italian community in New Rochelle, NY. Peter worked construction, building houses. There they had two daughters, Loretta and Marisa Enes, whose first language was the Italian their parents lovingly spoke to them. Uncle Alfred lived with them almost the entire time they lived in NY.

When the girls were still young, their parents moved the family to Washington, DC, where Peter started his own construction company as an entrepreneur. He built the house they lived in on Franklin Street, and Madeline managed their home and the boarders to whom they rented a room.

Loretta, also known as Nonie by her grandchildren, is my mother-in-law. She lived her entire life in the United States, married Robert Dahlstedt, and they raised three children, Maureen, Stephen (my husband), and Eileen. Loretta shared many letters with me last weekend from her Uncle Alfred containing bits and pieces of her family tree: years, names, stories. After the deaths of Madeline and Peter, Loretta had asked Uncle Alfred to fill in the blanks of her family tree for her. She would mail him letters in English, he would translate them to Italian and forward them to her relatives in Italy. They would reply to Alfred, who would translate them back to English and send them to Loretta.

Last February, Stephen and I took the boys to New York for my birthday weekend. The first item on our agenda was to visit Ellis Island, to see where his grandparents entered America. We found their names on the wall and sent photos to Loretta. Here are some photos from that trip:

As Loretta shared her letters and memorabilia from her past, I asked her if she ever faced discrimination in the United States as the daughter of Italian immigrants. “Oh, yes,” she replied. “Other children were not allowed to play with my sister and me because we were ”the enemy” during WWII.” She went on to explain how she has always empathized with other groups because of how she felt as a child, and she was quick to tell me that there were also plenty of good, accepting people who made up for the discrimination she experienced.

Fear and misunderstanding of immigrants is nothing new in our country; many different groups were singled out in the past: Irish, Italian, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, African-Americans, and Latinos, to name a few. But our country was built by immigrants. Unless you’re of Native American descent, or your ancestors were forced here as slaves, you came from an immigrant. To put it into perspective, there are over 51 million records of immigrants in the Ellis Island archives. That is more people than the combined populations of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia today.

I never met Peter or Madeline, and Stephen was still a child when they passed away. They, as many still do, immigrated to the United States in order to find work and better opportunity than they had in their country of origin. They worked hard, building family, community, and a great country, which they passed on to their own children.

Though I didn’t know Peter and Madeline, I can say that their daughters, Loretta and Marisa Enes (Inez) have been a blessing to me. In fact my life has been enriched and blessed by many of the immigrants, people with dual citizenships, and expatriates that I’ve known through the years. They make us better by bringing different perspectives. Many bring special expertise to us. They bring their cultures, and yes, their food. They show us that America is not alone in the world; there is much to be seen, known, and experienced beyond our borders. They are our cousins. They are our ancestors. They are us.

*Photo of the ship Guiseppe Verde from www.libertyellisfoundation.org.  It was the ship that brought Pietro to America.

Hypocrisy of a “Christian” Nation

There is a story in Christian tradition from the book of Matthew, of the events that happened after the three wise men visited the baby Jesus and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The story goes like this (Matthew 2, 13-33):

When they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.”

Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt.
He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

When Herod realized that he had been deceived by the magi, he became furious. He ordered the massacre of all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had ascertained from the magi.
Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet:

“A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.”

When Herod had died, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”

He rose, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel.

But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee.

He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazorean.”

Fellow Christians, our Savior, the Son of God, was himself a refugee. When his young life was threatened, his mother and father fled with him to Egypt, until it was safe for them to return.

I wonder what Jesus, whose life was saved at that time, would say about the United States closing it’s doors to refugees from Syria? I’m pretty sure he already gave us a clue when he taught us in Matthew 25:35, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.”

We, the wealthiest country on the planet, have just forsaken those most vulnerable and needy: children, women, and men fleeing violence in their homeland. For them, it is run or die. And for us to sit in our comfort and our safety and refuse them refuge, makes us complicit in the atrocity. It is inhumane and callous. We have room for them. We’ll make room. It is our moral obligation to do so. Otherwise, we have their blood on our hands.

Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more. (Luke 12:48)

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Image from Fox News.

Quiet

In a time of tremendous noise from social media, 24/7 news, advertisements, and the constant temptation to escape every spare, dull moment with a hit of technology, we are called to unplug. We cannot escape the pollution around us, but we must make space for quiet, for without quiet there is no other way to hear the still, quiet voice of God. If you doubt for a moment whether you are affected by noise, take an honest look at the division in our country and pay attention to the feelings of anger and self-righteousness you experience in your personal bubble. The common thread here, if there is one, is that we ALL are experiencing the same concurrent feelings of being misunderstood and judging others. We are talking without listening. We are shoring up our own (mis)perceptions with evidence from those who think just like we think.

An unchecked barrage of noise only makes the situation worse. We get carried away in emotion and the noise level increases. There are no level heads to steer the course. As my husband is fond of advising before helping in an emergency, “First, take your own pulse.”

This poem, by Max Ehrmann, is a good place to start.

Desiderata

Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexatious to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.

With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Be cheerful.
Strive to be happy.

 

You Gotta Start With Something

In the news this week is an upcoming vote about possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act. The NY Times reported on Tuesday, “Doctors are telling Congress to proceed with caution, insisting that no one should lose coverage. The American College of Physicians, representing 148,000 specialists in internal medicine, has sent letters to senators urging them to “vote no” this week on the budget resolution.”

Healthcare has been a hot topic for years, and most of us know just enough about it to be dangerous! I hear a lot about it because I’m married to a physician, Dr. Stephen Dahlstedt of Alliance Urology Specialists, and he keeps me abreast of the changing landscape. His main concern with a possible repeal of the ACA is for the millions of people who now have insurance who previously did not. What will happen to them? He worries that if we go back to our previous fee-for-service system, sick people without insurance will over-utilize the emergency rooms unable to pay for conditions that were preventable. Of course, healthcare is different from, say, buying groceries; if you can’t pay for what’s in your basket at checkout, you don’t get to leave with the groceries. But when sick people arrive at the hospital, or at my husband’s practice, they are not turned away, which means the hospital loses out, and physicians give away their services for free. (And the reimbursements not only pay their salaries, but also those of their nurses, staff, equipment, etc.)

Even with a direct line to my husband, I myself only know enough about the ACA to be dangerous, as I don’t work in the healthcare industry; so I wanted to better understand and explain what the Affordable Care Act is, how it has benefitted our country, and how it has fallen short of expectations. I reached out and engaged some professionals who know much more than I do about this topic. They were all very willing to answer my questions.

I called John Wrenn, MD, President of Alliance Urology Specialists in Greensboro, a large private practice; David Grapey, MD, a physician at Alliance Urology Specialists and one of the Medical Directors of Triad Healthcare Network, a small, local ACO (Accountable Care Organization); and Stephen Parsons, a Senior Program Director at United Healthcare, the largest provider of healthcare insurance in the United States.

A few themes repeatedly came up with everyone I spoke to:

  • 20 million additional people now have insurance coverage
  • Patient’s rights have improved
  • The ACA had fundamental flaws with funding from the start

Dr. Grapey explained that funding of the Affordable Care Act depended on young, healthy people buying insurance, which would have paid for the newly insured sick people who previously didn’t qualify for insurance, a redistribution of funds. But not enough young, healthy people entered the risk pool. Many actuaries say that in order for a system to be financially stable at least 40% of the people in the risk pool should be healthy. But the ACA risk pool contains only about 25% healthy people.

“What about the mandate?” I asked Dr. Grapey, referring to the penalty for not purchasing coverage.

It was unenforceable, he told me. The penalty for not purchasing health insurance was much lower than the cost of insurance, so many healthy people just didn’t buy it, meaning the money to fund ACA didn’t come in.

Initially, the very poorest citizens were to qualify for Medicaid under an expansion. Then, those citizens who didn’t quite qualify for Medicaid would be able to go onto exchanges and purchase insurance subsidized by the federal government on a sliding scale, depending on their income. But the states sued the federal government, because many of them didn’t want to expand Medicaid, and that’s when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the states, resulting in some of them, including North Carolina, choosing not to expand Medicaid. “The way that worked was that the government said, if you expand Medicaid, we’ll pay 90% of it, but you have to pay 10% of it. And some, mostly Republican governors, including [Governor] McCrory in our state, decided that they did not want to expand Medicaid,” said Dr. Grapey. This resulted in many North Carolinians, who didn’t quite qualify for Medicaid, falling into a gap where they also didn’t qualify for insurance on the ACA exchanges. So states like North Carolina, Florida, and Texas didn’t see as much of an improvement in their uninsured rates as other states that did expand Medicaid, like Kentucky. Overall, our country made it to around 10% uninsured lives, though there are great discrepancies in that number from state to state.

Those 20 million additional covered adults resulted from:

  1. Medicaid expansion
  2. The change in the law that allows young adults to remain on their parent’s insurance until age 26
  3. Insurance purchased on the ACA exchanges.

If the Republicans vote for a budgetary reconciliation, they can strip away the funding for those who obtained insurance through Medicaid expansion, and they can decide to stop subsidizing the insurance policies purchased on the ACA exchanges. Those insured people will be threatened with loss of their coverage.

“But think about it from an insurance standpoint,” added Dr. Grapey. “If anybody can sign up for insurance that already has cancer, that already has diabetes, that already has had three heart attacks, and none of the young healthy people are signing up for your insurance, well that’s not a business model that’s very sustainable, and that’s why all these insurance companies have lost a tremendous amount of money.”

So are the insurance companies in favor of repealing the ACA altogether? Mr. Parsons suggests that insurance companies have a real expertise to offer in healthcare management, including their networks of physicians who have been rated by insurance companies as excellent providers. A public/private partnership could help rein in costs and make shopping for a doctor more straightforward. He says that United Healthcare, for one, was on board with some of the changes brought about by the ACA, such as eliminating pre-existing conditions as a barrier to buying coverage. United Healthcare also went to great lengths and costs to support the Affordable Care Act, and would likely favor a redesign over a complete repeal.

“Government has a strong role to play,” says Dr. Wrenn, referring to how hospitals, insurance companies, physicians, and drug companies tend to look out for their own interests. Discriminating based on age and gender, exclusions for pre-existing conditions, prescription overcharges, were abuses of the prior system. “The Democrats and President Obama got the ball rolling as best they could,” he said.

The United States is the only advanced country without a universal healthcare, says Dr. Wrenn. And Dr. Grapey agrees, adding that if nothing else, the Affordable Care Act has put a spotlight on our wealth as a country and how many uninsured citizens we have.

Dr. Grapey thinks there is an opportunity here for the Republicans. Obamacare wasn’t
bipartisan, he says. The Democrats own it. Instead of an outright repeal, the Republicans can fix the flaws. “If you slowly made it better, then you would own that better product. And if you just repeal it, put nothing in there or put something even worse in place, then you own that, so I don’t understand the strategy there at all.” He described the worst-case scenario, “If they just repeal Obamacare through all these mechanisms and just dismantle it and don’t have something in to help these people and to provide these safety nets and help hospitals, it’s just going to be a huge mess.”

Dr. Dahlstedt summed it up, “You have to start with something. Think about the first Model T. The one that came ten years later was nothing like the original; the first was much like a prototype.”

Young Single Woman

Back in my twenties, when I was wandering through a string of temporary and contract job positions and I had no such thing as benefits (although I worked forty hours per week with each of these jobs), I remember the alarm expressed by one of my friends when she found out I didn’t have health insurance, a 401k, or disability insurance. “What if you get in a car wreck? Do you want to burden your parents with taking care of you?” I had never considered the possibility. I was young, healthy, and earning a living – but now I had to worry about burdening my parents!

You’ll be glad to know that I took her concern to heart and I made an appointment with someone who sold health insurance. One day on my lunch break I went to her office, where she presented me with my options. The plans were laid out on a table, side-by-side, so that I could compare. After seeing the monthly costs, my main concern was catastrophic coverage. It would be a stretch for me to buy this insurance, but I had been fearfully convinced of it’s need, and I could afford only the basic plan, which the insurance lady assured me was all I probably needed.

As we discussed benefits, deductibles, and other new terminology, I asked her about the considerably lower price printed beside the rate she quoted me. “That price is for men your age,” she explained.

I was puzzled. “Why do they pay so much less?” I asked.

“Because they don’t need pregnancy care,” she answered.

“But I’m not married or even in a relationship,” I objected.

“It doesn’t matter. You’re of childbearing age. The coverage is going to be higher for you because you can get pregnant.”

Not only did I probably make less money at my job as my male peers, but now I could see in black and white that I was paying significantly more for my health coverage, and only because I’m female. I burned inside with fury at the injustice. Must women bear every burden of reproduction? If I was being responsible for myself, why did I have to pay more? I couldn’t even afford a plan that included maternity, but I still had to pay more! And if I was paying more because I could get pregnant, why didn’t men pay more because they could get me pregnant?

I mention this now because in the years since that encounter, healthcare has made great strides in addressing women’s needs. As recently as 2012, a 25 year-old woman might pay 81% more in health insurance than a man the same age – even for plans that didn’t include maternity care. But now it is illegal for insurance companies to charge women more than men, and even better, insurance companies are required to include these essential services for everyone:

  • Ambulatory patient services (outpatient care you get without being admitted to a hospital)
  • Emergency services
  • Hospitalization (like surgery and overnight stays)
  • Pregnancy, maternity, and newborn care (both before and after birth)
  • Mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment (this includes counseling and psychotherapy)
  • Prescription drugs
  • Rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices (services and devices to help people with injuries, disabilities, or chronic conditions gain or recover mental and physical skills)
  • Laboratory services
  • Preventive and wellness services and chronic disease management
  • Pediatric services, including oral and vision care (but adult dental and vision coverage aren’t essential health benefits)

Additionally, many employers are now required to accommodate the needs of nursing mothers by giving them a reasonable break time in order for them to pump milk for their babies, and to provide a private space in which to obtain that milk. (And that space cannot be a bathroom – ick!). Not only do breastfed babies benefit from from the antibodies in breastmilk, their decreased risk of developing asthma, allergies, ear infections, respiratory illness, and bouts of diarrhea results in lower healthcare costs for those children and fewer missed work days for their mothers. Over time, what we pay out in preventive care results in lower sick-care costs.

I could say that the gender discrepancy in the insurance rates has been corrected. Indeed, men now pay more for their health coverage. But this leveling of the playing field has an even broader, and more just effect, in that (in theory) all of the adults in our society (who have health care insurance) are now sharing the financial cost of reproduction, which by pregnancy occurs through the body of a woman, with the cooperation of a man, but benefits the wider community as a whole, men, and non-childbearing women alike. Reproduction is a part of life, and societies need healthy babies to be born, educated, and raised to be productive members.

When I was single and looking over those insurance plans, I would not have thought twice about paying that high rate, as long as everyone else had to pay it, too, and it covered necessary services should I have found myself pregnant (whether through my actions or through rape).

Unfortunately, these services that women and their babies have been receiving for the price of their insurance are at risk of being lost. Women may again have to pay more than men for their insurance, and that insurance might not even include maternity care. For as our new president-elect and congress take office, their first order of business is to dismantle the law that brought such important improvements to our healthcare system: the Affordable Care Act. And what’s worse is that they don’t even have a proposal for what will replace the law.

If you want to know more about what you stand to lose, take a look at your protections enacted by the law:

The Affordable Care Act and Maternity: https://www.hhs.gov/healthcare/facts-and-features/fact-sheets/aca-and-maternity-care/index.html

The Patient’s Bill of Rights and other key features of the law: https://www.hhs.gov/healthcare/facts-and-features/key-features-of-aca-by-year/index.html

Running of the Balls

img_1690Since the election, I’ve had to grapple with my own powerlessness, an uncomfortable but necessary experience we all must face at times in our lives. With each new cabinet appointment I frown as I watch the progress our country has made on climate change, human rights, and expanding healthcare coverage recede. Our recent election serves as a reminder that each of us is a very small person in a big empire. But this knowledge, depressing though it is, needn’t cause despair; I received a happy reminder over the weekend of the goodness of humanity.

About twenty years ago in Greensboro, a man’s daughter was home from college, and she told her dad about a lighted ball she had seen. They re-created the ball out of chicken wire and Christmas lights and hung it in their yard. The ball received attention, so they made more of them. A neighbor joined in, then another neighbor. After a few years, their entire neighborhood was covered in these lighted balls! With all the additional traffic flowing through during the Christmas season, the Smith family decided to use the decorations to draw attention to hunger in our city. They placed a giant trailer in front of their house to collect food and donations for our local food bank, Urban Ministry. Last year the Today show covered the annual Sunset Hills ball-making party, and in recent years other neighborhoods in Greensboro and even other cities have begun decorating with the balls.

But the fun doesn’t stop with decorations. Just last weekend, my family ran in the fifth annual “Running of the Balls” 5K in this bright neighborhood. The race is not for the ultra-competitive. The distance is 5K-ish; it is dark, there are walkers and strollers and dogs, and did I mention that it is dark? Runners wear warm clothes and string themselves with Christmas lights, glow sticks, and sleigh bells. At the start, 3,000 people bounce through the gate sounding like Santa’s reindeer heading off into the night. Several bands play, interspersed along the course, both official bands on stage and random groups of carolers and solo singers. Residents who aren’t running invite friends over and cheer on the runners, standing by fire pits or bundled up in lawn chair clusters. It’s a blast! And it’s one of my favorite seasonal traditions.

My kids enjoy the end of the race the best: the hot chocolate and cookie station. Like I said, this is not a race for the serious competitor! It takes awhile to get through the starting gate, and you end with hot chocolate. I saw groups wearing white tutus (with lights, of course), lots of Santa hats, and reindeer antlers. Proceeds from the race benefit Second Harvest Food Bank, a regional organization that supports local efforts to end hunger.

Shivering with my husband and children before the race began, my heart gushed with emotion. The excitement was palpable as the band played, energizing the crowd. Everyone seemed happy to be there, despite the 30 degree temperature (cold, for Southerners). What had started a few years ago with one lighted ball had become before my own eyes a moving display of love and charity. I do not live in the Sunset Hills neighborhood, but I’ve been a witness to this spread of wholesome cheer, and with each successive year I’m blessed again. As Jonathan Smith said to the News and Record last year, “This is one of those ideas that has become 100 times better than we thought. It makes me see the power in taking one step, in building one ball, in doing something in collaboration with others.”

We might not feel our small actions amount to much globally, but small acts, when multiplied can effect change, while warming hearts and spirits along the way.

Advent Light and Darkness

When I turn on the news lately, I can’t tell which is worse: the fake news, the real news, or the real news resulting from the fake news. Just last week a man from Salisbury, NC drove from his home to Washington, D.C. and entered a restaurant with an assault rifle under the false belief that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring there. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

Advent couldn’t come at a better time for America. Advent: the four weeks leading up to Christmas, which are a time of quiet preparation, of penance, of reflection. Looking back at the divisiveness of 2016, I know my soul could use a period of quiet reflection.

Just three days after Thanksgiving, Advent started, along with the rush of madness that our consumer culture pins on Christmas. After the turkey, the family, and the football, my husband and I suddenly were in a frenzy, realizing we were missing that extra week in-between the holidays that helps to get a grip on the upcoming tasks.

The day we returned from our Thanksgiving trip, we purchased our tree and placed it in the window as we do every year. But we wouldn’t have time to decorate it until the following weekend, which meant that I’d be putting on the lights at some point during the week. Several days later, I began my job as Christmas Tree Lighter.

With Christmas music filling the air, I painstakingly wrapped lights around branches for about an hour before stepping back to admire my work. I smiled at the bright tree, when all of a sudden, it went dark before my eyes. All of the lights except for the two older strands I started with at the bottom turned off at the same time! I spent another hour trying to identify and repair the problem, removing one strand, hooking up the remaining strands – which lit up! – only to watch it all go dark again after a few moments. I used two of those Lightkeeper Pro guns, which I began to curse as a gimmick when they didn’t fix any of the strands. At one point, I looked around to see if someone was playing a prank on me – no one’s luck is this bad! I sent my husband to the store multiple times to purchase more lights. Eventually I had to give up in order to make it to an appointment, a Godsend for my psyche.

That night I lay awake in bed trying to figure out what was going wrong with those *^&# lights. The next morning, clearheaded, I resolved to make the tree light up. My previous strategy of removing one strand at a time had failed, and I was left with no choice but to remove every strand and start over. I had to set aside my feelings about it and just do the job. And I had to get rid of the noise; that morning I needed peace and quiet.

I Googled the question, “How many strands of Christmas lights can you plug into one outlet?” Instead of a direct answer such as “8,” Google suggested a math equation including amps, watts, voltage, and number of bulbs on the strand. The equation didn’t consider my 91-year-old house that uses knob and tube wiring, so even if I understood the math, I still had an unknown variable in my wiring.

So by trial and error, I separated the lights and plugged into two separate outlets; I reduced the total number of strands, and hoped for the best. It worked!  I stood and watched awhile to make sure there were no more electrical gremlins out to get me.

My tree-lighting experience this year, frustrating as it was, illuminated the need for me to step back and reassess. I need some quiet, or the noise of the world will overtake me and I’ll lose my direction. The shopping, the news, the pressure of the calendar, all obstruct my perspective if I don’t stop regularly and allow God’s voice to come through. The voice is always there, but I don’t hear it if I don’t listen. If I constantly slog through my to-do lists and treat each day like business as usual, eventually my lights will burn out and I’ll be in the dark, forced at last to reckon with my wiring.

All Americans could all use a little Advent right now – both Christians and non-Christians. We can use this season to turn down the noise and chaos, take a break from social media and the daily sales events, and tune in to the quiet. It can help heal our wounds, it can help heal our relationships, it can calm and offer perspective.

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Map the World

After college, this small-town Southern girl moved to New York City to start my first “real” job; a job that offered a salary, health insurance, and a handful of vacation days. Those were pre-smartphone days. There were no car navigation systems or MapQuest websites to direct me to my destination before traveling. What I had back then, which I actually studied every time I ventured out, was a map of NYC posted on my bedroom wall. I had memorized my most common routes, including possible detours. My biggest fear, having grown up in a two stop-light town, was getting lost in the big city and ending up with a gun to my head, the most likely outcome of getting lost, right?

Version 2

Eleven months after I moved there, my parents and sister drove up, and I had planned some fun things for us to do. I drove us from my apartment in Queens to Manhattan (I drove everywhere, even though I knew how to ride the subways in Manhattan). While looking for a parking spot in a safe-enough area to leave my car for the day, I turned down an unfamiliar street. Realizing my mistake, I immediately made a U-Turn, to my screaming family’s horror. “It’s ok!” I reassured them, “That’s not as bad as getting lost here!” (My queasy passengers were NOT reassured.)

We make mental maps wherever we live, even with Siri now easily accessible. Mine tend to have fuzzy edges. I know my usual routes well, but the areas I don’t frequent are blank spaces in my mind. I might have a vague idea of a main thoroughfare, but basically, it’s just a blank space where the lines drop off. I’d like to look beyond my fuzzy borders to find out what I’m missing.

I recently read a book called “Hillbilly Elegy”, by J.D. Vance. The book challenged my notions of poverty and the solutions I’ve long believed would best address it. Mr. Vance, a Yale Law School graduate, was an unlikely Ivy Leaguer, having come from a poor family. In his memoir, he describes the culture surrounding his family, the decline of jobs where he grew up, and the unseen networks and systems that wealthier kids utilize to navigate their way into successful adulthood. While Mr. Vance doesn’t offer a neatly packaged solution to our national wealth disparity, he does paint a picture around one of the blank spaces where the edges of my mental map begin to blur.

I think the road to deeper understanding begins with identifying our fuzzy map edges. Taken literally, I can drive to a section of town I’ve never explored and have a look around. Even this small act can serve to reorient my little corner of the world. I’ll gain a different perspective of something I think of as familiar. Metaphorically, I can pick up another book to gain a view into someone else’s experience. Their experience will inform my own experience, and I can grow in understanding and compassion. Only through understanding and compassion will we ever connect and recognize our shared humanity in each other. Then we can rise above the din of angry voices surrounding us and work together to make our country and our world a better, more heartfelt place to live.