Grief and Miscarriage — in Quito, Ecuador

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay,” Robert Frost

One of my first little class activities for my students is to use cut-out lines of this poem (one per student, in groups depending on the size of the class) to try to put the poem back together based on content, rhyme, and chronology. Sometimes the students vaguely remember this poem from the book The Outsiders, and it’s fun to see when that lightbulb turns on. It’s gratifying to see the students working together to figure things out like, “Oh my gosh, these lines rhyme!” or, “Maybe because this line says ‘first,’ it should be the first line!” Then we get to discuss their choices and, ultimately, the poem itself.

As I begin prep work to tutor a student this year (as I am not full-time teaching anymore), I came across the activity and poem again. Wonderful memories of first days of school flooded back. What a joy it was to teach. What a joy it was to get to know the students and form real relationships with them.

I read this poem again, and my heart is flooded with something else, too.

Grief.

One of the very beautiful things about poems is that you go into them with your own life experiences: your burdens, your hurts, your joys, your worries, your faith, yourself. To a fourteen-year-old, this poem might mean a loss of a friendship, a loss of a love interest, a loss of closeness with parents, a loss of parents’ marriage, a loss of “childhood” and the time that came with it, or even a loss of identity.

I empathize with my students. It is not easy being a teenager and navigating the relationships, the friendships, the politics, the parents, the social media. It’s completely overwhelming, and I’m glad I made it through. But I’ll never forget how hard it was.

But for me in this season of life, I think of the golden excitement of being pregnant . . .
and then not being pregnant anymore.

~

Trigger warning: Miscarriage description. Graphic.

~

Two Thursdays ago, I peed and noticed some pink color. I had just gotten home from a particularly rough city-streets-and-sidewalks bike ride, so I thought there was a chance I had exercised a little too hard. And when it was just the one instance of pink over the course of the next few days, I exhaled a huge sigh of relief. The following Sunday I went to get my blood drawn to “prove” to the insurance company here in Ecuador that I was, indeed, pregnant. My HCG levels were in the 7-week range, even though I was 10 weeks. I was a little concerned, but I knew worrying wouldn’t help anything. I tried to put it out of my mind. Then on Wednesday there was that pink color again, but more. And then the pink turned a little more red. But it was really slow, and I had zero pain. I thought maybe I had twins and I was losing one of them. I googled it, and I had all the symptoms: I was older, I had lower HCB levels, the pain was on par with a mild period.

I had hope.

Thursday came, and I was still bleeding, slowly but steadily. I decided to make an appointment with an OBGYN. I got on the phone with him directly, and he told me to go ahead and come in that evening, that he’d make room for me. My kind-hearted neighbor offered to take me, my other neighbors offered to watch my kids, and, because Steve was still at school and somewhat unreachable, I accepted the help. (I am learning to accept help. It is a work in progress. But I was incredibly thankful for the kindness of my neighbors. I will bake them bread in the near future.)

The ultrasound clearly showed an egg sac.

But it was empty. And it was an irregular shape (not perfectly round). My kind doctor told me that the baby was not in the sac and that the sac had started detaching from the uterine wall. There was a teeny tiny little shape just below the sac, and my doctor said that it might be the baby.

Such a sad little gray lump on the screen.

He measured the sac and told me it measured about 7 weeks. He drew a line to show me how big a 7-week baby would be. He then drew a line about quadruple that, and way beyond the size of the sac, to show me how big an 11-week baby would be (which on that Thursday was the size baby I was supposed to have). I learned that something had gone awry around 6 or 7 weeks and that it was just now physically manifesting in my body.

We finished up with the ultrasound, sat back down at his desk, and discussed options: pills to expedite the process, a D&C (dilation and curettage — basically a scraping of the uterine lining to get everything out), or waiting it out. I chose to wait. I had done this three times already, so I felt I knew what to expect. I knew the worst was coming. I could brace for that.

I walked back out to the waiting room and cried as I hugged my neighbor. She drove me home. Steve was then at soccer with the boys, so I texted him “Miscarriage.”

I ordered Sushi on UberEats. I enjoyed what I wanted before anyone else got home.

My 9- and 6-year-olds were very sad about the news. My two-year-old was sad because he could see that I was crying; he opened his eyes wide and said, “Awww.” It was cute, in the most devastating way.

After reading a chapter of Christopher Mouse to the boys and tucking them in, I went out to watch some Netflix with Steve.

And wait.

I didn’t have to wait long. The blood started flowing heavier and heavier. Oftentimes, shuffling back from the bathroom to watch a few more minutes of our show, I didn’t even get to the couch before I had to turn around and head back to the bathroom.

Here’s my experience with miscarriage: when it comes, you know. The bleeding becomes very heavy and there are blood clots, ranging in size from very small to two inches in diameter. It’s terrifying.

And you know that one of those clots is the fetus.

This miscarriage was so sudden, I had a difficult time managing it. And in Ecuador, the plumbing is such that you are not supposed to flush toilet paper or the toilet will clog. So all the bloody toilet paper started piling up in the little wastebasket that sits next to the toilet. Clots splashed. Blood splattered onto the toilet bowl and somehow onto the bathroom floor and wall. Blood dripped down my legs.

The word that came to mind was “massacre.”

I decided to move to the shower to clean myself up. But the simple act of taking off my clothes and walking one foot over to the shower proved difficult. More blood dripped onto the floor, but I made it to the shower. In the shower, though, the blood was flowing so heavily, I started to worry I was losing too much too quickly. Clots stubbornly got caught in the drain. I felt dizzy. I decided to get out of the shower and try to just lie down. I grabbed a big bath towel, squished it between my legs, and waddled out to try to find a place to lie down and get warm. I ended up on the cold wood floor with Steve trying to get blankets and pillows to keep me warm and make it more comfortable. I didn’t have a fever, so I figured it was safe to try to rest, even as the blood flowed. At a couple points, I thought I was going to throw up, so a trash can was my sleeping partner for the night. Eventually, I felt able to get into bed. With a new bath towel acting as a the world’s biggest pad, I was able to get some sleep in a bed.

In the morning, I felt like I had given birth that night: sore, tired, mentally exhausted, and dizzy at times.

But there was no newborn sleeping next to me. Just a trash can on the floor and lots of blood in the bathroom.

It is Saturday today, and I am taking breaks from writing this to go change my pad. But the blood is very slow now, just a drizzle to remind me of the massacre that’s taken place.

When I posted about my miscarriage on Instagram, several people reached out to offer condolences and to thank me for sharing.

Several of those several people were former students. It makes me well up just thinking about the fact that my students care about me. Teaching is a job that is so much more than a job. It is the potential for life-long friendships. It is the potential to make a lasting difference in lives — both teacher to student and student to teacher (Students, do you realize you make a difference in your teachers’ lives? You do. You matter, so much.) Maybe a poem like “Nothing Gold Can Stay” resonates with a student and stays with her for the rest of her life. Maybe the poem makes her realize that happiness is fleeting and that’s OK. Maybe she realizes that trying to prolong happiness with people and things is an act in futility but on some level it’s still worth it.

Life is not simply long stretches of happiness. And it’s the big lie if you think it is supposed to be. There are massacres along the way. And they suck every ounce of happiness right out of your body — maybe for a day or three or 58.

So we move on as humans, beaten in spirit and body, but not broken. When I am beaten, I look at my kids and soak in the love. I hug my husband hard and know he cares about me on a deeper level than any human alive. I accept help from kind neighbors who have become like family to me. I pray to God and know that there are better things to come. I talk to my parents and know that they love me on an ethereal level, whatever that means exactly.

Perhaps it’s true that nothing gold can stay. And that’s OK. It’s a good reminder to appreciate what we have. So go hug your people. Call your mom. Tell your teachers thanks. And do your best in this life to be the kind of human that makes a positive difference in other people’s lives.

Sending you all the love.

J.

Yet Another Storm — in Quito, Ecuador

The sky is blue, or the rain
falls with its spills of pearl.

“Spring,” from Owls and Other Fantasies, Mary Oliver

Well it’s been spilling pearls here in Quito lately.

So

many

pearls,

drops

upon pearly

drops.

We are officially in rainy season. I see it outside; I feel it in my heart. Sometimes it feels like each Zoomy-Gloomy class is a fat drop of rain. This relentless rain pelts us, and instead of giving us life and growth and blooms, we’re just cold, soaked, and exhausted.

And while most everything here in the city is open for the masked human, school campuses remain closed. While restaurants are packed with unmasked humans eating food, school campuses remain closed. While grocery stores and malls and markets and buses are crammed with people, school campuses remain closed. Ecuador, I do not understand.

But while I sit here complaining about what a drag Zoomy Gloomies are, I have to remember what a privilege it is that my kids have devices, internet, and a connection — albeit through a screen — to classmates and teachers.

So many kids aren’t having any school whatsoever right now. So I think about all that rain and realize that it’s better than scorched and burning earth.

I am trying to see those raindrops as beautiful pearls and be grateful. But I’m human. And I’m cold, soaked, and exhausted. As I write this, yet another storm is rolling in. The thunder just cracked so loudly that a couple of car alarms went off. Pearls — they’re comin’.

All this talk of pearls — I should mention that in my household, “Pearl” has a very different meaning from the beautiful gem used for earrings and necklaces and rings. A long, long time ago, when kids were not even a thought, Steve and I used to entertain ourselves during church services by making little drawings of animal combinations on the bulletins. For example: a “feagle” was a fox with an eagle head and wings, a “duake,” a snake with a duck head, etc. One of our all-time favorites, both in name and illustration, was our beloved “Pearl.” Steve drew the most hilarious depiction of a pig and squirrel that I remember physically covering my mouth with my hands, stifling the laughs, feeling like my insides were going to explode from the pressure. All this during church.

So of course I start thinking about that poem excerpt, picturing our Pearls spilling from the sky. And though the sky is DARK right now, the thought of hundreds of pig-squirrels dropping from the sky brightens my day.

This. This is why I married Steve. We laugh SO HARD together, sometimes at the most inappropriate times. But isn’t that part of the fun? Tell me you haven’t gotten the case of the giggles during church, or during class, or during a meeting. You feel that tightening of your stomach and lungs; your face contorts; perhaps there are tears; and this volcanic laughter-air does everything in its power to escape out of your mouth and nose.

It’s the best.

Maybe it’s a reason I loved teaching so much. Those crazy students would make me laugh so hard. And laughing is energizing! And fun!

One time during Wellness Club, a club I sponsored, I decided to talk about this very concept of laughter being energizing (if you haven’t ever worked with teenagers, I’ll tell you: there’s a lot of sleepiness happening at school). I thought to my 30-something self: I know! I’ll search around the internet and find some super hilarious videos to show them. We’ll all laugh together, AND IT WILL BE AWESOME!

I had such good motives. And such confidence!

So they all filed into my room, collapsed into desks, and I started what was sure to be a total laugh-fest. I started with the hilarious Steve Carell blooper reel from Anchorman. I started playing it, giggling in anticipation. But soon enough, I side-eyed my students to see them practically melting off their desks in boredom. (Think of those Salvador Dali melting clocks — those were my students drooping and dripping off their desks and onto the multi-colored classroom carpet.)

It was so bad that I casually grape-vined over to my computer with a squinty smile and pressed pause. Heads turned expectantly toward me. It was awkward, so I — as I do — filled the silence by talking. Soon enough, we were all laughing at how NOT funny the video was to everyone except me and how clearly out of touch I was with teenage humor.

Even when the rain is pouring, we can choose to view the raindrops as pearls.

Or Pearls.

So maybe this post is a pep-talk to myself during this Zoomy-Gloomy cloudy rainy time. I’ll take it. But I’ll say this to the nine of you reading this: find the humor in this life. Spend time with people who make you laugh. Start there. And maybe your own artist’s rendering of Pearl might help.

And if you happen to be one of my former students reading this, thank you for the laughs.

In all her glory.
More church shenanigans. You know those “connect cards” that churches always have? Yeah.
“I give Journey Church permission to print My Story.”

How Not to Fall to Your Death: Climbing Life with No Ropes

But once you’ve proven to yourself that you can do a move or even an entire route, it’s like a tiny door opens inside your mind, and the belief that you can do it, that you will succeed, creates a powerful positive visualization.

Mark Synnott, The Impossible Climb

Listen 7:34

I don’t know a whole lot about rock climbing. But there’s something about those granite walls and cracks and slab pitches that lures me in. I don’t need to do it; I’m happy in my platonic voyeurism of the sport. And I admire the mental keenness it takes to get from ground to peak.

The context of this quote is that climbers can fail again and again and again on one particular move, but once they complete it, they’re likely to complete it every subsequent time. Synnott mentions a certain “warrior spirit” that enables climbers to give just a little more to succeed on the move. And when they keep coming up short? He says that it could feel like an intentional fail, called “punting” in the climbing world.

I want to have a warrior spirit.

But isn’t it interesting that a whole phenomenon exists where people intentionally fail? I have to wonder what that looks like off the wall.

For the longest time, I failed at writing. Intentionally. I was an English teacher teaching writing who didn’t write — not really. And the reason I didn’t write? Funny enough, fear of failure. So let’s climb through this, rock by rock, crack by crack: I taught writing without writing myself. The fear of failure (negative feedback, judgment from colleagues and students) kept me from it. But listen: the actual failure was not “turning on the faucet” — not writing that first sentence, and then that second one, and then the third, the fourth, and on. That first sentence for me was like that move on the granite wall that the climbers just couldn’t muster the spirit to do.

It seems silly comparing a sentence to the wrinkle of granite being used as a hand hold. Sentences don’t seem quite as scary — or dangerous. But in my bubble, I felt like I was on that wall, holding on for dear life, refusing to grab that granite wrinkle. I’d rather stay frozen, splayed to the side of the wall. No progress. But a feeling of safety.

I’d rather fail than take a chance on that move.

But just like some of the great rock climbers who scale a wall only after experiencing a traumatic event (watch the documentary The Dawn Wall to see Tommy Caldwell succeed only after heartbreak), it took a traumatic event at my school to finally light that fire under me.

I recently became “email friends” with Berit Gordon, and she mentioned that teaching is an “oddly lonely endeavor.” So true. We teachers don’t get much attention or validation from our peers. What validation we do get normally comes from the students themselves, which is great, but they’re not in charge of scheduling, pay raises, tenure, etc. So when I came back to school after taking maternity leave in the spring of 2019 to my department head demoting me, I was stunned. I would no longer be teaching my beloved AP Literature class.

There’s a whole messy story behind it, but suffice it to say, I was traumatized. And even though formal apologies were later made to me and I didn’t completely lose my AP class (I taught one section; a colleague taught another), the damage had been done. To liken my teaching to climbing, for years I felt like I was basically alone on the wall, taking care of myself, making sure I was taking all the safety precautions, successfully making my way to the summit. And I felt very confident in my abilities.

But then, in the middle of being alone on the wall, someone came out of nowhere and started fiddling with my rope, unclipping it from my harness, pulling it loose from the anchor. And then I was alone again. Without a rope. Scared. I was at the point where either I needed that warrior spirit or I was going to fall to my death.

Finally (finally), I decided to write. My starting a blog and putting my writing out there for the world (reality: tens of people) to read was my way of free-soloing the rest of my climb. No ropes, just me on the wall at my most vulnerable.

And did I mention that I’d never been on this particular wall?

But I’m making it up, trying to hold on to that warrior spirit, allowing that tiny door to open inside my mind. And let me tell you, it’s freeing. I don’t need to actually climb up a mountain wall sans ropes to feel liberated from the boundaries of this world.

And that’s the beauty of the analogy. What is rock climbing for you? What is that move you just can’t let yourself do in life? And do you realize that it’s you holding yourself back, failing intentionally? It’s a harsh reality, but one that we can face. And this difficult move you’re facing — you don’t have to wait for a traumatic event to happen to force you to make it. Alex Honnold free-soloed El Capitan without just having broken up with his girlfriend (he did wonder, though, if he was in the right headspace because his previous climbing feat was a result of a bad break-up).

So make the move. And live the rest of your life believing that you can do it, that you will succeed. Meanwhile, I’ll keep tapping the keys, wondering what my next move will be. Because, remember, I haven’t been on this wall before.

And neither have you.

Last weekend, my family and I went to El Refugio retreat center up in the mountains near Quito. The rock wall beckoned us, so we climbed. That’s me on the right and my 8-year-old son Asher on the left. We both made it to the top. With ropes.
At the top of one of the mountains. We didn’t have to rock climb to get up, but it was a feat nevertheless. No ropes.

All’s Not Well in Paradise. And That’s OK.

It was necessary, and the necessary was always possible.

Out of the Silent Planet, C. S. Lewis

Listen 8:23

It was a rough week. Necessary, but rough.

School was in full grind: Steve working all hours of the day; the boys logging on and off and on and off and on and off Zoom; me washing so many dishes.

I got a mango rash all over the right side of my face. Apparently, mangos have urushiol oil in them, the same oil in poison oak and ivy.

Trivial things, yes. But as you know (because you are a human), it’s those trivial things that add up to make you want to bang your (red, puffy, itchy) face into a wall.

These necessary kinds of weeks happen to the best of us. And dealing with them is tough. Because more than likely, the things happening to us are a result of choices we’ve made, which makes the dealing with the emotions part of it a little trickier.

Steve chose to go back to teaching. (Granted, he didn’t know it would be in the midst of a pandemic.) We chose for the boys to go to school, and that means virtual right now. We chose to live without a dishwasher. And my rash? I’ve known I’m allergic to mango since a trip to Costa Rica in 1997. And yet I wasn’t careful about washing my hands after handling mangos. My fault. Lesson learned. Well, I guess we’ll see in another 23 years.

So here’s the catch: We get mad at these stupid little things happening in our lives that are caused completely by us, or we get mad at these stupid little things happening in our lives that are completely outside of our sphere of control. Either way, are we justified in getting angry or sad or tired or or or?

I don’t know.

What I do know is that it was a rough week. I got angry. I was sad at times. Tired. And when I start thinking about these emotions and why I’m having them I start thinking that surely I can’t be justified in feeling these things because my complaints are rather trivial and mostly a result of my own choices and there are so many people out there dealing with legitimate hardship and I better just slap a smile on my face and START A GRATITUDE JOURNAL BECAUSE THAT WILL FIX EVERYTHING.

But you know what? I believe in a God that gives grace. And I think that same God would want us to give ourselves some grace. Grace to allow ourselves to feel justified in our pain. So as I sit in my rocking chair out on my porch molding a frozen bag of peas into my right eye socket, cheek bone, and chin, I think about how emotions — even the negative ones — are a necessary part of life.

And I also think of the things in my life that are not trivial. The things that hit harder than a “rough week.” Losing my beautiful, best-friend mom over ten years ago. She never got to meet her grandkids. It hangs on me like a shroud. Losing my fiercely loyal dad four years ago. He met and spent time with my first two boys and loved them unconditionally. The boys are already forgetting him.

They say that high altitude living practically sucks the moisture out of your body. So I try to drink lots of water here in Quito, where I live at over 9,000 feet.

But what happens when it feels like your very vital essence is being sucked out of you?

[No one-size-fits-all answer here.]

There are a few things that help me:

  • getting outside, walking, being in nature
  • reading a fantastic book
  • baking bread
  • cleaning the kitchen (yes, yes, I get it: the kitchen is both a source of pain AND of therapy — maybe there’s something to that combo)

And sometimes doing all of those things doesn’t scrub through to the bright, shiny happiness.

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Why?

Because life is necessary. And while I don’t believe that we are “borne back ceaselessly into the past” (poor Gatsby), I do know that the past is absolutely a part of our lives. It should be acknowledged. Dealt with if necessary. Learned from.

Acknowledging and dealing with and learning from our past — these might not be necessary for life, but they sure are helpful in living an authentic life and having authentic relationships.

Life is necessary. And because it’s necessary, it’s possible. Maybe not happy all the time.

And that’s ok.

~~~

Tasting the Earth
James Oppenheim


In a dark hour, tasting the Earth.

As I lay on my couch in the muffled night, and the rain lashed at my window,
And my forsaken heart would give me no rest, no pause and no peace,
Though I turned my face far from the wailing of my bereavement…
Then I said: I will eat of this sorrow to its last shred,
I will take it unto me utterly,
I will see if I be not strong enough to contain it…
What do I fear? Discomfort?
How can it hurt me, this bitterness?


The miracle, then!
Turning toward it, and giving up to it,
I found it deeper than my own self…
O dark great mother-globe so close beneath me…
It was she with her inexhaustable grief,
Ages of blood-drenched jungles, and the smoking of craters, and the roar of tempests,
And moan of the forsaken seas,
It was she with the hills beginning to walk in the shapes of the dark-hearted animals,
It was she risen, dashing away tears and praying to dumb skies, in the pomp-crumbling tragedy of man…
It was she, container of all griefs, and the buried dust of broken hearts,
Cry of the christs and the lovers and the child-stripped mothers,
And ambition gone down to defeat, and the battle overborne,
And the dreams that have no waking…

My heart became her ancient heart:
On the food of the strong I fed, on dark strange life itself:
Wisdom-giving and sombre with the unremitting love of ages…

There was dank soil in my mouth,
And bitter sea on my lips,
In a dark hour, tasting the Earth.

A Quito rainbow. Look closely, and you can see it’s a double.

We’re Burning Down Our Own Island: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 12

Roger sharpened a stick at both ends.

“Cry of the Hunters,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

Oh, boy. A stick sharpened at both ends. You know what that means, right? One end for the head, the other to stick in the ground. And who are the boys hunting in this final chapter?

Ralph.

A stick sharpened at both ends.

Ralph lies in a covert (like a pig), knowing that if he’s found, he will be stabbed to death.

How did things get to this point? How did the boys go from building shelters, getting water, building sandcastles, and swimming . . . to this?

Humans have done (and are doing) some horrific things to each other, and I do find myself asking How did things get to this point?

And we think of ourselves, here, and just know that we’d never do something so bad as take the life of another human. We’re good, honest people after all.

I think the point of this chapter is to show that even “good” humans can get to an unrecognizably evil point.

In the Hidden Brain podcast “Everybody Lies, And That’s Not Always A Bad Thing,” guest Dan Ariely talks about how it’s not about humans being good or evil, honest or dishonest — it’s about opportunity. He gives an example of cyclist Joe Papp who ended up becoming a drug user and a drug dealer. The compelling part of the story is that it all began with Papp simply filling a prescription for EPO (a drug that increases red blood cells — i.e., energy) that his doctor ordered and that insurance covered. Something seemingly mundane and completely justifiable. But something that would lead him down the path to eventually become someone who imports EPO from China for himself and others. He becomes a drug user and a drug dealer. But Ariely assures us that even though Papp ended up doing things that are deemed “bad,” that there’s so much good in humans — more good than bad, actually. So Ariely might agree with Ralph when Ralph, thinking back to the murder of Simon and Piggy, says, “No. They’re not as bad as that. It was an accident.” Ariely might just say “opportunity” instead.

So the boys on the island are hunting Ralph, and have realized that the best way to catch him is to smoke him out. They light a fire. I should rephrase that. They light the island on fire.

And then out of nowhere, we have God from the machine — deus ex machina — AKA, a uniformed naval officer who appears and saves all the boys, especially Ralph, just in the nick of time. How lovely! Ralph was about to be murdered and beheaded, and the boys were literally burning down their home, the island (conveniently, this is what alerts the officer to the island — you know, an entire island in flames and smoking). Before the officer appeared, things were looking grim for the boys.

The officer asks the boys if anyone’s been killed (they say two, forgetting the boy with the mulberry birthmark) and how many of them are there (they don’t know — remember, Piggy tried to get a list but everyone scattered to build that very first fire). The officer seems surprised (“I would have thought that a pack of British boys … would have put up a better show than that…”). It’s all about the “show” to the officer, and he’s disappointed that the boys haven’t put up a better one.

But is that what it’s about? Putting on a good show? This diction is alarming. It makes you think that maybe this naval officer believes killing humans is just part of a good “war show,” full of heroes overcoming the evil villains. And if we think of war in that way, it’s palatable. It becomes a movie, a show, about the good guys winning.

And it’s justifiable.

But it gets tricky when throughout our human history we have had to justify murdering people. Something just doesn’t seem right about it.

Golding ponders in Notes on Lord of the Flies that even though the officer rescues the boys in the midst of a manhunt, “who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?” In other words, that’s nice that the manhunt got thwarted, but who’s going to thwart THE WAR?

Who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?

It’s the *big question* of the entire book, and the one that should resonate with you long after you finish reading.

And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.

And while Ralph weeps for the end of innocence and the darkness of man’s heart, I implore you to hold fast to what is good. As we end out on this series of posts, I’d like to leave you with some prayers from the book Prayer: Forty Days of Practice by Justin McRoberts and Scott Erickson:

May I have the courage
to expect good for my life
and world,
And resilience if and when
those expectations are disappointed.

May love and forgiveness for others
be less and less optional.

Even in conflict, may I see people
as beloved
Instead of problematic.

And finally:

May I have the eyes to see this
as a good world in need of
restoration
Rather than a bad world and
an obstacle to my personal peace
and rest.

Amen.

White Fragility and More Murder: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 11

What’s grownups goin’ to think?

Piggy, “Castle Rock,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

I play a game with my students towards the end of the book. I read various quotes, and they race to raise their hands to tell me who said them. This Piggy quote is definitely one of them. At this point in the book, you should well know that Piggy is concerned — nay, obsessed — with what grownups think.

I should also tell you that the game is basically their test — but on paper. “Fun game!” — what all my students are thinking, I’m sure.

But this line is so important (and so Piggy) because it underscores yet again the biggest irony of the book: the grownups — the people kids are taught to obey and respect — are the ones killing each other in a war. Piggy, bless him, can’t see this, though. Even after his words Piggy said back in chapter 5 — “There isn’t no fear…unless we get frightened of people” — he still can’t see it.

People are the problem. Piggy, you’re right! But in his myopic view, he can’t see past the boys on the island to realize the scope of his words.

Aren’t we a lot like Piggy sometimes? We know truth, but we suppress it. We’ll take just enough truth to be in reality and live among other humans. But digging deeper into that truth? It starts getting messy. And humans don’t like messy.

Flashback to chapter 10 when Piggy thought that Jack’s raid was to get the conch. Piggy understood the truth of Jack’s being bad and stealing, but denied himself the real truth of Jack’s stealing his glasses. Think about it: had Jack’s concern been the conch, that would have given everyone a glimmer of hope. He would have acknowledged his respect for what the conch symbolized: order and rules. But he didn’t want the conch.

Flash to the current reality of our leader acknowledging the coronavirus (part of the truth), but denying the fact that at this time the US is 8th on the list of mortality rates (the full truth). He said that the US has “one of the lowest mortality rates in the world.” That’s like Piggy saying that all we need to do is “meet and have tea and discuss” like grownups do and we’ll be alright when in reality the grownups are blowing each other’s brains out. Piggy, buddy, friend, champ — we do NOT want to be like grownups. We do need to be frightened of people, and not just the boys on the island.

Part of the truth isn’t good enough.

But even a little bit of truth is threatening to people like Jack and Roger. They’ve painted themselves, moved camp to a rocky section of island that is unsustainable for life, beaten poor Wilfred up just for kicks, and, of course, stolen Piggy’s glasses. Suffice it to say, they are not concerned with the truth of their situation. They get to do whatever they want with no consequences! What human doesn’t want that sometimes?

So when Ralph confronts Jack about stealing Piggy’s specs and tells him, “You’ve got to give them back,” Jack responds by saying, “Got to? Says who?” Jack doesn’t have to follow rules! He’s dictator! He does whatever he wants whenever he wants!

Ralph and Jack then proceed to do what we expect them to do at this point: fight with sharpened sticks. Meanwhile Roger is hanging out by a big boulder (watch him). Piggy is desperately clinging to the rock, knowing that one wrong step for him means falling to his death. But Piggy realizes the importance of coming to face Jack, and he tries to remind Ralph: “remember what we came for. The fire. My specs.”

Poor Piggy. He can’t even see what’s going on, but I’m sure he can hear them fighting. I’m sure he’s thinking “meet . . . have tea . . . discuss.”

Then, somehow in the scuffle, the twins are grabbed and tied up. Jack’s pretty proud of this, but Ralph loses it. He yells, “You’re a beast and a swine and a bloody, bloody thief!” (Interesting to note here that Ralph uses the word “beast” — the evil thing the boys are so afraid of throughout the story.)

Piggy decides to speak up and delivers several logical, rhetorical questions to the boys:

“Which is better — to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?”

(Answer: sensible.)

“Which is better — to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?”

(Answer: have rules and agree.)

“Which is better — law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?”

(Answer: law and rescue.)

Can you imagine presenting logic to a group only to be met with “booing,” “clamor,” “yelling,” and “Zup” ? Sounds like my department meetings. It’s aggravating, really, when people can’t understand what the right thing to do is.

(But have you been watching Roger in this chapter? Hanging out next to the boulder? Leaning on a lever that — with his weight — would tip the boulder onto the path right where Piggy is standing?)

Piggy finishes, holds up his fragile white talisman while the sound of the boys becomes an “incantation of hatred.”

It is at this point that by Piggy presenting bits of truth and bits of logic, something becomes unsettled in Roger and he, “with a sense of delirious abandonment, leaned all his weight on the lever,” releasing the boulder — directly towards Piggy.

Piggy falls forty feet to his death, the tide pulls his body out to sea, the conch “exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist,” and the twins have now been taken captive.

Piggy thought that the only fear is the fear of people.

Simon thought that the beast was really inside them all.

Both of them verbalizing ugly truths about humans. Both of them murdered. By humans.

When truth seems threatening, it’s our chance to face it and reconcile with it. Is it true that Black Americans have been discriminated against since the forming of our nation? YES. Now what are we going to do about it? Feel threatened? Hear “Black Lives Matter” and have to clap-back with “No, no, no — all lives matter” and “No, no, no — blue lives matter”? All lives matter is the part-truth — the part where we tell ourselves that the focus needs to be on everyone, that giving anything extra to black people is wrong and unfair. But when white people have been getting extra for over a century, maybe the fair thing now is some reparations. Let’s even things out. Maybe we can talk about equality. Maybe we can go from this:

To this:

The chapter ends with Roger advancing upon the twins “as one wielding a nameless authority.” Friends, this is evil. Recognize it. Resist it. Don’t be like Roger. And don’t follow leaders like Jack.

See you next time for our very last LOTF post! Read chapter 12, “Cry of the Hunters,” and as you read, ask yourself “How can lessons learned through the reading of this book make me a better human?” Because that’s what it’s all about:

Being better humans.

He Was Asking for It: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 10

That was Simon. That was murder.

Ralph, “The Shell and the Glasses,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

Ralph admits it.

They murdered Simon.

And remember what Piggy said back in chapter 5? “There isn’t no fear…unless we get frightened of people.”

Well, Ralph is frightened now:

“I’m frightened. Of us.”

Can you just take a moment and think about how you’d feel if the most frightening thing in your world was other people? Having just finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson, I have been shocked and heartbroken to understand just how frightening white people have been to black people in our American history. Even after the Civil War. Even in the North. Even after the Civil Rights Movement. Even still. Today.

But even after his insight about fear, interestingly, Piggy is the one giving excuses about killing Simon: “It was an accident . . . Coming in the dark — he hadn’t no business crawling like that out of the dark . . . He was batty . . . He asked for it . . . It was an accident.”

He asked for it.

When the police are out there killing people, even with the body cams recording everything, they (maybe we?) are still saying that what they did was justified. That from our angle, we couldn’t see that actually the black man was threatening in some fill-in-the-blank way. That from the limited footage, we don’t really get the full picture of what happened. You know what that is? It’s Piggy Speak. It’s a distortion of reality. Here are the facts:

That was Philando Castile. That was murder.

That was Breonna Taylor. That was murder.

That was George Floyd. That was murder.

So let’s stop with the Piggy Speak already.

But after Piggy spews Piggy Speak, he begins to backpedal. He realizes that he can’t justify what they did, so he switches tactics to denial: “We was on the outside. We never done nothing, we never seen nothing.” Interesting to think about what we’d actually see if one of the boys was recording all of it with his cell phone. And then even more interesting to hear how Piggy would Piggy Speak it.

Piggy Speak aside, though, we need to be aware of our response to injustices. We can’t allow ourselves to justify bad behavior, but we also can’t allow ourselves to become desensitized to it. In his article “Videos of Police Killings Are Numbing Us to the Spectacle of Black Death,” Tamil Smith says the following:

Unfortunately, the increased visibility of trauma and death at the hands of cops isn’t doing as much as it should be. The legacy of our increased exposure to black death has merely been the deadening of our collective senses.
. . .
I tremble to think what act, or accompanying footage, will be required for the powers that be to finally see what’s going on.

After reading that, it seems silly to talk about a fictional book about little boys running around on an island. It’s easy to think that the events in this fictional book don’t matter. And they don’t! But what they represent matters. Because remember: Lord of the Flies is an allegory. It’s not really about boys on an island. It’s about us.

Later in the chapter, the sadistic side of Jack is revealed further to us when Robert says, “[Jack’s] going to beat Wilfred . . . He got angry and made us tie Wilfred up.” Robert doesn’t understand why Jack is going to do this, but he’s giggling excitedly about it nonetheless when he says that Wilfred has been “tied for hours, waiting.”

Upon hearing this, Roger (remember to keep an eye on him) “sat still, assimilating the possibilities of irresponsible authority.” I’ll tell you right now, Roger is excited about this irresponsible authority. And that, readers, should scare us.

And this irresponsible authority? Well, Jack is in full denial of Simon’s murder. He tweets claims that “[the beast] came — disguised.” And that any source that says otherwise is #fakenews.

The chapter ends with Jack and crew sneaking into Ralph’s camp in the middle of the night to steal Piggy’s glasses. During the scuffle and in the darkness, Ralph doesn’t realize what is happening or who is there, and, desperately, he “prayed that the beast would prefer littluns.”

So Jack’s tribe now has control of fire. And Piggy has been rendered effectively blind, although if you were to ask me, Piggy has been going blind for awhile now (so blind, in fact, that when Jack et al. came to steal the glasses, Piggy thought he was coming for the conch).

As we live our lives, let’s make sure our eyes are open, especially as people led by irresponsible authority are lying in wait, ready to snatch the glasses right off our face.

Lots to think about. Lots to do. And on top of all that, you’re to read chapter 11, “Castle Rock.”

Don’t Miss Your Ship: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 4

Roger led the way straight through the castles, kicking them over, burying the flowers, scattering the chosen stones.

“Painted Faces and Long Hair,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

I told you to watch out for Roger! Here he is, leading the way. And what is he up to exactly? Kicking over sand castles that the “littluns” had been building. That’s just wrong, Roger. Being mean to little kids is a special type of evil.

Here’s what’s going on with the littluns in this chapter: lots of diarrhea, stomachaches, and night terrors. And sand castles getting kicked over.

Here’s what’s going on with the bigguns: more blatant cruelty, violence, painted faces, long hair, the thrill of power, and some good, ol’ fashioned selfishness.

Cruelty: Roger and Maurice kick over sand castles. Maurice “still felt the unease of wrongdoing.” Roger? Not so much.

We may not go around kicking over little kids’ sand castles, but are we without cruelty all the time? I’m sure we never think of ourselves as cruel, but maybe we ought to really ask ourselves if there are times that we are. If we’re having an argument with our spouse or our parents or even our kids, are we cruel in our tone of voice? Are we cruel in the things we say to them? I bet the answer is yes. Even if ours is “righteous” anger, there’s no reason to be cruel. Ultimately — hopefully — the objective of an argument is to resolve an issue. Yelling or having a sarcastic tone of voice or bringing up garbage from the past is taking steps away from resolution, not towards it. We thank Roger and the sand castles for this lesson.

Violence: Jack gets annoyed with Piggy (surprise!) and punches him in the gut. Smacks him, too. Breaks one of the lenses of his glasses. (That’s bad. Really bad. Not only can Piggy now see out of only one eye, the boys now have only the one lens to use to start fires. Poor planning, boys.)

Again, you may not go around punching and smacking and breaking people’s glasses, but you might let it happen, which some say is just as bad. You might punch and smack and break indirectly by the leader you vote for, the laws you create or follow or promote, the organizations and people you support, the products you buy, the flag that you fly. Be aware. Don’t follow a Jack. Or, heaven forbid, a Roger.

Painted Faces: “Jack planned his new face.” Yikes. Jack paints a mask onto his face, behind which he “hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness.” Shame and self-consciousness are necessary emotions for Jack (and all people) to have. We can only imagine what idiot moves Jack is going to pull in the rest of the book without experiencing shame or self-consciousness (it’s Piggy’s gut and glasses now; what will it be next?).

Well, well, well. What are the painted-face masks that we have? This is one I think we can all resonate with because we actively choose how we want the world to see us. Some of us might use social media as a mask. Some might use a happy, I’ve-got-my-life-totally-together face as a mask. Some might use busyness as a mask. I could go on. So what is it for you? What is your mask, and what is it hiding?

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.

Carl Jung, psychiatrist

Long hair: The boys clearly are becoming little uncivilized savages because oh my gosh look at their long, shaggy hair. Yes, Golding, we see what you’re doing there.

Hey. Hey there, Friend. I know we’ve been in quarantine. But that doesn’t mean you have to turn into a savage. If you feel you need to, I encourage you to go ahead and cut your hair. Here’s the video I watched to learn how to cut my own hair.

Thrill of power: There’s a special kid in this chapter. His name is Henry. He is playing down at the beach, dragging his stick into the sand to create runnels for the water and these little sea creatures called “transparencies” to flow into. This may not seem significant, but it is. First of all, the transparencies are said to be scavengers. Just tuck that fact away for later. Second, Henry is enjoying his game a little too much: “He became absorbed beyond mere happiness as he felt himself exercising control over other living things.” This is not about a boy dragging a stick in the sand, creating runnels for the water and the creatures. It’s about absolute power and the thrill it gives.

I ask you this: what or whom in your life do you have unhealthy control over? There’s probably something. Or someone. And there’s a difference between being a parent, exercising healthy control over our kids, and becoming absorbed beyond mere happiness as we feel ourselves exercising control over other living things. *uncomfortable clearing of throat* So, Friends, let’s all take a minute and make sure we’re not being like Henry.

Good, ol’ fashioned selfishness: Jack wants to hunt pig. Jack wants to hunt pig with other boys. Jack takes boys tending the fire away from fire to hunt pig. Fire goes out. Ship comes. No smoke. Ship leaves. Jack realizes what he’s done. Isn’t sorry. But is excited about hunting pig: “We needed meat.”

This is the classic needs versus wants discussion. We’ve all thought about it. Maybe we’ve even talked about it with a spouse or a therapist or a pastor or a friend. Maybe we’ve made a T-chart! Well, good for us! But we need to continue to think about it. Every single day. You never know when you might miss your ship because you wanted to hunt pig.

Takeaways from chapter 4: don’t be like Roger, don’t be like Jack, and don’t be like Henry. See ya next time for chapter 5, “Beast from Water.”

Sharpened Sticks and Tattered Shorts: Lord of the Flies, Chapter 3

A sharpened stick about five feet long trailed from his right hand, and except for a pair of tattered shorts held up by his knife belt he was naked.

“Huts on the Beach,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

The boys are really gettin’ naked now. And skinny. And with longer hair. This book could have taken a wildly different direction if Golding had realized that the boys are basically turning into runway models.

The chapter begins with Jack “bent double” — oh, how very devolutionary, Golding. This is always a special day when I teach. I make sure to wear pants this day, and I definitely get down on my hands and knees on the classroom floor to demonstrate how Jack is “bent double” — so low to the ground, in fact, that he can cock his head up to see the underside of a tendril, polished from the bristly-backed pigs running through and to feel the warmth emanating from the “olive green, smooth,” steaming pile of pig poop. He hears the “hard patter of hoofs” and it feels to him “seductive.” Yikes. (I say that a lot during this book. I feel that a lot during this book.)

The question here is: What weird (gross?) thing in our lives is seductive to us? Maybe for the hunters out there reading my blog, it actually is pig poop … or deer poop … or some other kind of animal poop. But maybe it’s something more socially acceptable and ubiquitous like money. Do we want to get so close to money that we can feel its warmth and see its steam? In this chapter, Jack’s eyes are described as “bolting and nearly mad,” but I don’t know that that’s too far off from our eyes when we become lustful for whatever it is we decide we want. Yikes.

He tried to convey the convulsion to track down and kill that was swallowing him up.

Whoa. That’s seems pretty deep for 12-year-old Jack. And two lines down from that:

The madness came into his eyes again.

And then he acknowledges,

“But you can feel as if you’re not hunting, but — being hunted, as if something’s behind you all the time in the jungle.”

Just a friendly reminder, Readers, that this is not just a story about boys running around in tattered shorts getting sunburns on an island. This is about us. When Jack senses something hunting him, it hits us that he’s not talking about a literal beast. He’s talking about something intangible. He’s talking about his own evil nature. And, Golding might add, it’s not about Jack. It’s about us — the inevitability of our own evil natures constantly hunting us.

How refreshingly pleasant.

This is where I remind my students that just because we’re reading this book does NOT mean we have to believe in Golding’s philosophy. (I actually hope they don’t!) While we probably all have evil within us, we don’t have to live feeling like we’re being hunted down by it. I believe we have hope against evil. I hope my students believe that. And I hope you believe that, too. (Sucks to your ass-mar, William Golding!!)

But as their pee gets absorbed into the sand, so does their hope. Their clothes (symbol of civility) are in tatters, their shelters (symbol of civility) are shaky at best, their short hair (symbol of civility) is now long and unkempt. Oh, and the adults are still fighting in that war, you know, killing each other. But maybe there is a little hope. After all, hope is the thing with feathers as they say (well, Dickinson, anyway). I’m afraid, though, that the hope-birds flew away a long time ago when the boys hurled a boulder down the side of the mountain in chapter 1:

Echoes and birds flew, white and pink dust floated, the forest further down shook as with the passage of an enraged monster: and then the island was still.

Just to make sure we get the enormity of the hopelessness here, Golding mentions, “Jack had to think for a moment before he could remember what rescue was.” Jack was so obsessed with hunting pigs, he forgot what rescue was. HUH?? How could he possibly forget rescue? It’s literally the boys’ one job. The question begs: What is the “rescue” in our lives? What is the one thing we should be striving for in life? That might look a little different for everyone, but possibly some answers might be:

  • loving well
  • being kind
  • doing good
  • being honest
  • staying humble

All good things, I think. But, like Jack, we get distracted (or even obsessed) by other things. For him it was hunting pig.

But more importantly, what is it for us?

Other things of note in chapter 3:

  • Jack decides they should paint their faces in order to better sneak up on the pigs (here we go with mask symbolism).
  • Simon peaces out. The boys think he’s weird. He probably is. He finds a secret spot surrounded by a screen of leaves. This is a spot he’ll return to later in the book. He seems to enjoy time alone to do some deep thinking. (Remember that critics out there think Simon is a Jesus figure.)

See ya next time. Until then, read chapter 4, “Painted Faces and Long Hair.”

Fire on the Mountain: Run, Boys, Run! Lord of the Flies, Chapter 2

The choir…had discarded their cloaks.”

“Fire on the Mountain,” Lord of the Flies, William Golding

UH OH. Remember how I said to watch out for when the boys take off their clothes? And it’s the religious choir boys in their religious choir cloaks. Golding is practically yelling, “HEY HEY HEY HEY, THE MOST RELIGIOUS BOYS ARE THE FIRST TO BECOME SAVAGES — NAKED LITTLE SAVAGES!!”

Well good. Chapter 2, off to a great start.

Chapter 2 begins where a lot of things begin, and that is the setting up of rules. We do this quite frequently in life. Just look at the forming of any nation — rules. Lots of rules. Then when anyone breaks ’em — they’re punished. Fun!

Jack seems to think so, meaning: he’s less concerned with the order rules might provide and more concerned (excited? thrilled? obsessed?) with the punishment he’d inflict on people breaking the rules. Just like our founding fathers probably said, Jack says, “‘We’ll have rules!’ he cried excitedly. ‘Lots of rules! Then when anyone breaks ’em — ‘”

The boys proceed to be excited:

“Whee — oh!”

“Wacco”

“Bong!”

“Doink!”

But here’s the deal: Don’t we Whee–oh-Wacco-Bong-Doink when we get excited about people getting the punishment “they deserve”? I know this about humans: we love judging people. And then administering “justice.”

And while justice is definitely good, I think sometimes we get a little like Jack. A little too excited about the punishment part.

Yikes. (Please don’t be like Jack.)

So let’s Whee–oh-Wacco-Bong-Doink our way to the next part of the chapter: the mulberry-colored birthmark kid. He’s the one to bring up the “snake-thing” — the “beastie [that] came in the dark.”

Jack is quick to dismiss it, saying that “if there was a snake we’d hunt and kill it,” while Ralph has a more thoughtful response as he “felt himself facing something ungraspable.” Ohhhh. Could that “something ungraspable” be the EVIL IN MAN’S HEART?

Meanwhile, Piggy is busy caressing the shell and chiding the kids for being like kids:

“Like kids!”

“Acting like a crowd of kids!”

“Like a crowd of kids — “

“Like a pack of kids!”

Friendly reminder to Piggy: You, my friend, are a kid, too — though you have thinning hair and an Uncle-Vernon belly.

But Piggy is irritated at the boys, and rightly so. When Jack realizes they can use Piggy’s glasses to start the fire (after the “shameful knowledge” hit the boys that they — surprise! — had no matches), the boys surround Piggy, and Jack snatches the glasses off his face — all while Jack is belting out Ariana’s “7 Rings”: “I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.” (Keep this tune in your head; he’ll be singing it again and again in the book.)

And as soon as the fire is lit, the boys start dancing as Golding describes the burning pile as “so rotten…that whole limbs yielded passionately to the yellow flames.” (Is he talking about the pile of wood … or those rotten little naked savages?? Interesting to note that the first four uses of the words “savage” and “savages” occur in chapter 2.)

And, now, for the most disturbing parts of chapter 2 (tribal drum-roll, please)…

  1. When Piggy is nonchalantly looking at the fire, Golding writes, “Piggy glanced nervously into HELL and cradled the conch” (emphasis mine). Um, WHAT? So Piggy’s staring straight into Hell. Cool cool cool.
  2. THE MULBERRY-COLORED BIRTHMARK BOY IS GONE. Yeah, he’s for sure dead in the fire that the boys let ravage completely out of control, burning the entire side of the mountain. Whoopsie doozie!

And just in case you forget that the adults are killing each other in a war right now, Golding kills two birds with one boulder when he describes the wildfire: “A tree exploded in the fire like a bomb.” Explosions and bombs — sounds like war to me.

The final sentence leaves us with the sound of a “drum-roll” continuing on the “unfriendly side of the mountain.” Welp, sounds like more evil is to come, so stay tuned!

But here’s the question: What are you learning about yourself through reading this? Piggy is obsessed with the adults, but the adults are killing each other in a war. Who are our role models? And should they be? Jack is obsessively excited about punishing people for breaking rules (note: Jack is already changing the rules: “the conch doesn’t count on top of the mountain”). Do we take a dark pleasure in seeing people get punished?

Until next time, don’t be like Jack (or the mulberry-colored birthmark kid, for that matter)! Homework: Read chapter 3, “Huts on the Beach.”