A Swear Bear’s Confession

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

If memory serves, most people I knew growing up in Flint, Michigan were unfazed by your garden variety swear words. Skip ahead a couple a dozen years and I find myself living an idealized suburban life surrounded by some who find the word “crap” offensive.

I once told my son, when he was a toddler, to sit on his butt in a lawn chair so he wouldn’t fall out. Another mother, shocked by my language, said, “Butt? Don’t you think bottom is better?”

What the??? Here I thought I’d evolved
Eliza Doolittle style into a sophisticated suburban parent having all but dropped my surplus supply of profanity after having kids.

But no. Apparently evolved parents never say, “shut up,” even when channeling Elaine Benes. And I’m supposed to believe good people don’t say anything is “stupid” or “that sucks,” when the Internet goes down.

If the quality of my character is judged by what comes out of my mouth, I’m screwed. I can’t say anything right. And since my kids have entered adolescence and are likely exposed to language more extensive than George Carlin’s classic list of dirty words on their bus ride to school, I’ve become more lax about letting an occasional swear word slip in front of them; like when another cereal spoon gets snarled in the garbage disposal.

I even enjoy a properly placed swear word in a joke or a movie. Is that a crime?
Am I not fit for polite society?

Now, let me be clear. I never swear at my children. I rarely swear on the job or in church. But if I’m alone in the car–and running late because the @^&*+ dog threw up on the carpet and I backed out of the driveway before the @$#! garage door was fully open and some s#$% for brains driver at the intersection doesn’t notice the light is green because they’re busy checking their phone–by golly, I’m gonna let my frustration fly in the form of a less than genteel behind the wheel riff.

I’m an all-around bad example when it comes to language. Once, my teenage son told me about a kid at school who accidently poked his head into the wrong classroom. When the student realized his mistake, he muttered a curse word and hurriedly made his exit. But the teacher sent someone after him. And when the potty-mouthed culprit returned, the teacher asked, “Did you just swear?” The student shook his head. But she pressed, “Yes you did. You’re a swear bear!”

Instead of leveraging a teachable moment about the inappropriate use of colorful language, I burst into laughter. In my opinion, calling a middle schooler a swear bear is unlikely to change his behavior. And the idea of actual swear bears is intriguing. Stuffed bears that curse when you squeeze them. A way to vent frustration or lighten a mood without actually spewing anything taboo. Seems practical and funny! Wish I’d though of it first.

Instead, I must accept that nothing I say or don’t say can disguise my flawed character. I will always fall short. We all fall short in various ways. But I still roll out of bed each day with hope. That I am loved. That I am forgiven. And that mouthy B*&^%s like me can still offer something positive to the world.


Better Living Through Selective Neurosis

Have a Cookie

I consider myself a health conscience person. I don’t smoke or use drugs. I get moderate, regular exercise and try to eat a balanced diet. But I’ll admit; when it comes to health, and most other aspects of life, I pick and choose what to be neurotic about. I can’t be neurotic about everything because it’s not good for my mental health. Being neurotic about everything focuses our minds too darkly on trying to avoid death rather than how best to live life.

A passage in the novel, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, struck me as profoundly insightful. It tells of an Indian doctor who practiced medicine in an impoverished African country before arriving in New York City. The first time this doctor had to tell an American patient there was nothing more medicine could do to cure his cancer and that he would likely die, the patient becomes incredulous that death is even a possibility. The doctor is perplexed by the American’s reaction in comparison to his African patients who were routinely amazed when told they were going to live.

Americans eschew certain foods, gulp down vitamins and hop aboard crazy train fitness regimens, not entirely because they want to live healthy lives, but because they fear death. But nutrition information can be as conflicting and convoluted as a
J.J. Abrams television series. We’re told certain foods are good and then bad, that taking vitamins is essential and then useless, that aerobic activity is better than weight training, but then again, no. And all of this conflicting information can only get you in a twist if you pursue trends more in hopes of avoiding death than living life.

A recent New York Times article repeats a common lament, “Why does everyone seem to have cancer?” The article goes on to provide some perspective. But more striking is when the writer asks, “If we win the war on cancer, what then will we die from?” It seems when people wring their hands over eating sugar or gluten or fat, what they really want is control. Control over life and when and how they will die.

This type of hand-wringing among people of faith is particularly puzzling to me. Isn’t the whole point of embracing a higher power to acknowledge that we have very little control over life and death? Life is a chronic condition of uncertainty except for one thing–the love of God for all people.

And if faithful people choose to wring their hands about something, shouldn’t it be over the plights of those who could indeed live longer if not for curable diseases caused by dirty drinking water, insufficient medical care or little access to nutritious food? Energy focused toward caring for others seems more fruitful than the paralyzing fear of eating a cookie.

So eat your fruits and vegetables. Drink plenty of water. Don’t smoke. Wear your seatbelt. And get adequate rest and exercise. Beyond that, try improving your mental health by being choosier about your neuroses. Or try worrying less in general. Instead, breathe and spend a few moments each day being amazed that you’re alive.


Flex Your Memory Muscles

Photo from wisconsinwatch.org

I push old people. I yell at them too. But rest assured; it’s for good reason. So you need not be alarmed. Every Thursday morning, I help gather residents at a nearby skilled nursing facility for a weekly chapel service. I push them in wheelchairs that require a rolling boost down the corridor. Many are hard of hearing or easily confused. So I’m forced to use my outdoor voice and annunciate when telling them it’s time for church. And a few will wave away any offer of the large print songbook as their eyesight has deteriorated past the point of reading the gigantic words.

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

But when the service begins, an otherwise weary audience easily recalls the melodies and lyrics to traditional hymns. Rigid bodies relax and faces familiar with the daily struggles of disease and aging soften into smiles for a few moments of bliss. The pastor delivers a message, and then all are united in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer–cherished words of petition that bring comfort to those very near the end of life.

Skip ahead to the weekend and my third-grade Sunday School class. Most of my students cannot recite the Lord’s Prayer. The assigned lesson plan was to spend two weeks on this ancient prayer. It wasn’t enough. So, I made a decision. I will devote a portion of each class time to bribe my students with candy until each of them know the prayer by heart.

And then, there is my mid-week confirmation class. Confirmation is for middle schoolers, the stage in a student’s religious training where he/she learns to articulate what they believe and why they believe it. But when asked, few in my current class can recite the Apostles’ Creed, a historic and universal statement of the Christian faith. Sheesh, I wonder if I can even do it!

It seems memorization isn’t taught much anymore. Expert educators tell us that when we force kiddos to memorize text, facts or methods for solving equations, we rob them of opportunities to truly learn and understand valuable concepts. I agree to some extent. Pushing memorization without explanation or discussion simply fills minds with mumbo jumbo that we hope can be regurgitated on command. BUT, has the baby been tossed out with the bathwater? I’m convinced there are benefits to the memorization of certain words. Specifically, sacred words like prayers, creeds or songs.

Of course, it is also important that we understand where religious words come from, who said them, and what they mean. Memorization isn’t a perfect education tool. A middle-aged family member reminds me of this when telling of his astonishment to discover that the words of the Aaronic Benediction–a blessing said at the end of every church service during his entire childhood–comes directly from the bible! He would just repeat the words, not knowing their significance. So memorization and rote recitation without explanation are obviously of no use in forming a thoughtful appreciation of one’s faith.

But religious ritual has its purposes like focusing the mind, uniting believers and offering a sanctuary of comfort from a chaotic and confusing world.

And for different, but still compelling reasons, I also suggest we have kids memorize multiplication tables, poetry and how to spell the word, discipline.