Silicon Valley Suicides

Silicon Valley Suicides

Its been another devastating month for Bay Area students and their loved ones. Three suicides in as many weeks. Two students jumped in front of CALTrains and another off a 280 freeway overpass. Those are just the ones I’ve heard of through friends and social networks, the ones that were reported on by news media. School administrators, teachers, parents, education policy experts, we all keep talking about the fact that our students are under incredible pressure, quite literally killing themselves to meet expectations, to achieve, to compete. Schools add suicide prevention programs, parents attend seminars and read books such as this one on the “Price of Privilege” to try to discern a way through the craziness. And still our kids are killing themselves, death perceived as a viable alternative to the weight of adolescent living. This dire situation is not abstract for me. I’m in the middle of it, trying desperately to lead two pre-teen daughters through the minefield that is Silicon Valley, through the even larger minefield that is a “21st Century Education” and even larger still the Global Economy in which they must someday exchange goods and services in order to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. I make my choices. I pray, I worry. I do my best. But none of it feels adequate. Sometimes I inadvertently even add to the pressure when what I am trying most desperately to do is simply to give them the tools they need to thrive, my good intentions paving a well-traveled road that is only ever down and out.

I heard of these suicides within a few hours of reading this article, Better All the Time: How the “performance revolution” came to athletics and beyond— in the New Yorker. Author James Surowiecki explores the impact of ever-increasing levels of performance training to produce the best “fill-in-the-blank”: the best athlete, chess player, musician, corporate worker, student, teacher. Summing up his observations, he writes,

“That’s actually the biggest change in performance over the past few decades—it’s not so much that the best of the best are so much better as that so many people are so extraordinarily good.”

I have been told by friends who live elsewhere in the States that the pressure — no, the need — to be extraordinarily good is now nearly universal in affluent communities, of which Silicon Valley surely is the vanguard. Where money is no object, we can invest it in churning out the best and the brightest, no longer understood as limited or more positively, shaped by natural talent, God-given ability or grit, but only by the amount of focused training a developing student receives, either at their request or at the insistence of a well-meaning, petrified parent. It goes without saying this applies not only to athletics but to music, academics, extracurriculars of every stripe. I will never forget the day the Principal of our local public elementary school informed me that in excess of 80% of attending students went to “school after school” — not remedial tutoring, mind you, but accelerated learning: Kumon, STEM curricula, language classes (for second and third languages). She admitted to me without even flinching that her teachers did not need to teach basic skills because 80% of her students were learning those basics and more after hours, and if I wanted to compete I should consider putting my Kindergartener too in after-school learning programs. Because, you see, the assumption was that this was the only way to produce a student who was extraordinarily good, and that manufacturing of said student was what I desired to do. Kindergarten, it turns out, was actually all about me and not in the least about my 5 year old.

Let’s talk for a moment about that parent I mentioned above, the well-meaning, petrified one. I know that parent because on too many days of too many weeks, I am one. Every day I wrestle with how to help my daughters grow and thrive, and my wrestling is not always infused with excitement and anticipation but rather with anxiety and doubt. They are inheriting a difficult world absolutely saturated with dog-eat-dog competition. Nevertheless, it is a world they need to be able to cope with, make sense of, thrive within. But they were born into a cultural moment suffocating beneath technology, succumbing to the relentless pounding of elusive forces driving us into isolation and fragmentation, a moment where childhood is cast as a race to the top and where the complexities of daily life befuddle even the grown-ups who are supposed to know how to navigate — but we don’t, we can’t, because the world changed beneath our feet. It changed so fast we were knocked off-kilter and many of us are having an increasingly hard time figuring out how to right ourselves first, let alone help our children keep their wits about them. I quite literally cannot tell you the number of times I have talked with friends who grew up in the America of the 60s and 70s, where kids played in the neighborhood after school until the streetlights came on, where homework arrived for the first time in modest amounts somewhere around 6th grade, where being good at cheery drops off the high bar on the playground was enough to make you feel like you were something special. This is the world we understand, the world we were prepared to pass along to our children. Work hard at school and do your best, find what excites you, learn how to get along with peers by playing baseball and soccer in the neighborhood, no adult supervision required, with sweatshirts for bases and goals and the ubiquitous though contentious “Do Over.” Do I even need to say it? Those Days Are Forever Gone and in their place are high octane days of rigorous school and hours of homework, special projects and travel teams and Tiger Moms. In the circles I run in, for many it is a given that their child will not merely attend Stanford (that is a fait accompli) but will attend on an academic or athletic scholarship — never mind the fact that the parents have 10s if not 100s of millions of dollars in the bank and the scholarship is purely for parental bragging rights, proof positive that their labor to produce an award-winning child has succeeded.

I see parents responding to this cultural moment in a few ways, and I am not casting judgement on any of us. The older I get the more I realize we are all doing the best we can and maybe that’s why I feel so compelled to talk about why we are choosing what we are choosing –to deconstruct our choices if we can so we can see more clearly the places where we parent from fear and where we lead and nurture our kids from a place of faith, confidence and unimpeded vision. If you have comments and nuances to add to these categories — or challenges to them even — please do so, keeping in mind that language choices must be made carefully and with attention to the fact that others might be choosing differently than you. If you can’t find a place of genuine collaboration, it might be wise to just listen for a while. Perhaps if we can understand the available options we can invent better ways through the quagmire, because invention seems to me the only way forward.

Rejection. Parents literally relocate their families to rural or intentionally non-affluent settings to make it easier to embrace values that dominated in previous generations. Unschooling and extreme homeschooling, Christian patriarchy, homesteading and communal living are all examples.

Co-opting. Parents opt out of traditional schooling and secular-based organized sports, music and drama programs and put their kids into Christian versions of the same programs, an argument in kind that says the institutions aren’t the problem, only the people running the institutions.

Competing. Parents play the game — top schools, expensive sports programs, private music lessons, after school academic classes to augment in-class learning — with or without a self-reflexive awareness that they are in fact playing the game.

Combining. Parents try to cobble together a unique way forward based on what they think are the best parts of each approach. I see the most doubt in this group, frankly, perhaps because they can’t locate themselves in any of the other spaces.

How do we connect the dots then, between the horror of children broken beneath trains, broken beneath the pressure to achieve, and how we are parenting as individuals and as villages? How do we help our children develop into adults — find their passions, discover their talents and gifts, connect with the people who will enrich their lives — given the changing landscape of the world we now inhabit, where excelling above and beyond the pack seems to be Job #1 and yet ironically where “so many people are so extraordinarily good”? How do we stop talking and start doing, in ways that shield our kids from the worst of the worst but still prepare them to step into adulthood as fully functioning members of an ethnically and religiously diverse, fast-paced, global society? This all feels incredibly urgent to me. My daughters are growing fast, and they are looking to me to guide them — to know when to intervene and when to step out of the way, to know when to give counsel and when to show I trust them by my silence.

I don’t know about you but bromides and pat answers don’t work for me when the stakes are this high. This feels complex and risky and totally resistant to anything that could be stuck on a Pinterest board or Tweeted. Plus, I have that chilling sense that I only get one shot at getting it “right” — scare quotes intentional, because perhaps ultimately that’s the root of all this evil.

What do you think?imgres-1

Header image is taken from promotional materials for Race to Nowhere.

Where Dead Poets and faith meet

MV5BMzA5MTE0NTUwOV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTgyMDUxMDE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”

This quote is from an early scene in the 1989 movie, Dead Poets Society. I first saw this film when I was in college and loved it. At the time I thought my future involved a PhD in rhetoric, a small liberal arts classroom and a lifetime of teaching, so Robin Williams’ character was more than just momentarily inspiring.

Last night, happily ensconced in our flat with the chatter from the Sherlock Holmes pub providing the perfect city din below, I watched it again, and it was just as captivating.

More than 20 years have passed since I first saw the movie, and although it is exactly the same, I am not. Those intervening years have altered my perspective in much the same way as climbing up on their desks’ critically and forever altered those school boys’ point of view. Once you climb up, there’s simply no going back.

What struck me in this viewing was the sympathy I had for Neil’s father, the antagonist in the film, pitch-perfectly played by Kurtwood Smith. When I first saw the film so many years ago, I read him quite flatly as the villainous, domineering parent who refused to nurture even the slightest hint of passion in his son.

But now I am a parent.

Every day I think about the future my children will have, and even if I try not to, there’s always Facebook and the Mommy Wars to remind me that other parents are making wildly different choices — in school choice, in extracurricular activities, in priorities — that throw shade on my own.

Neil’s father was doing the best he could. He loved his son, and he envisioned his son’s future unfolding in a particular, certain way — ripe with meaningful achievement, financial security, social acceptance.

The fatal flaw in Mr. Perry, of course, is not what he wishes for his son; it is that he lacks all self-awareness. Having (conveniently) fixated on Neil, he excuses himself from doing the hard work of understanding where he ends and his son begins, where his own fears and lusts, forged in the crucible of “real” life, threaten to overwhelm the adolescent hopes and dreams of his child. Controlled by dark, unexamined emotions, Mr. Perry will not — indeed cannot — let Neil make his own choices; the consequences are perceived as life-threatening. Mr. Perry’s self-ignorance is so oppressive it robs Neil of his future, backing him into a corner from which he will not escape.

I empathize with Mr. Perry now in a way I didn’t before. But I don’t want to be like him. I want to parent my daughters the way my mom and dad parented me.

They gave me my life and let me live it, let me choose it, knowing fully well the risk they were taking. They flooded my world with all sorts of ideas, even ones they disagreed with, to teach me ideas matter and to train me to be unafraid in a world much larger than my own. Our home was flush with literature, poetry and all sorts of music. And we dreamed. Big dreams, together dreams.

Even still I made naive choices in my adolescence that would impact me for decades to come, choices that would eventually break my heart and my spirit too, almost to the point of no return.

But they didn’t just let me choose my life and then stand at a distance and watch it unfold. They walked every step of the way with me and still do. They accompany me on my journey even when they disagree with the road I choose. And they pray a lot, entrusting me — oh what faith! — to the God who promises to make all things brand new.

As I lay awake in the dark hours of the morning, thinking about Mr. Perry and his spirited, doomed son, thinking about my parents and the scars they carry, my daughters and the wounds that surely wait for them, I come back to the same thing John Keating did, but with a God-shaped twist:

Carpe diem, my sweet little girls, as you daily place all your faith, all your hope, all your love in I AM. Live life large and unafraid, for there is no road you can take that will not lead you further up and further in, no suffering He will not redeem, no locust that can forever steal the years. Find the voice God gave you and write the poem of your life for His great Kingdom play. Here: take my hand, hold it when you wish and let go when you must. I promise you will never walk alone. 

Romantical Moments

We arrived in London two days ago and were treated to an absolutely glorious day — blue skis, warm sun, a light breeze off the Thames.

After dinner we decided to catch the last ride of the night on the London Eye.bigben_night

As we strolled along the pedestrian walkway that stretches over the river about halfway between the Waterloo and Westminster Bridges, this was our view — Big Ben and the Parliament buildings aglow, their lights mirrored in the river below.

As you might imagine, people had stopped up and down the footbridge to take in the view, and quite a few were sharing the moment with a lover. Hands held, kisses shared. Quite romantic.

Julia — ever the observant one — said to me, “Mom, there are a lot of romantical moments going on right now!”

I replied, “Well, Joey, this is quite a romantic spot don’t you think? In fact, maybe Daddy and I will have a romantical moment too!”

At which point, Julia wrinkled up her nine-year old nose, tried very hard to suppress a wry little grin, and squealed “OH NO!” and ran off down the bridge in search of her sister.

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.


From the Rabbi, on Mother’s Day: From “Tears in the Night” to “Wiping Away Every Tear”

Having ended my last blog with my poem, “Tears in the Night,” I thought I should recap God’s grace over the last 38 years to “wipe away every tear.” My grief for Jessica was not only due to the shortness of her life, but also the fact that I was not able to connect with her for her short six days of life or in the days that followed her death. With both our children the hospital offered to take care of their bodies to spare us the agony of having to make funeral arrangements. Little did I know then how much I would regret this “gift.” As a pastor, I am called to bury other people’s children. I stand beside them as they silently place their children in the ground and say their painful goodbyes. The grave of their son or daughter is forever marked with a stone. That stone becomes a sacred place of memory to which they return on a regular basis to remember, to mourn, to worship, to cry and to laugh. For years Emily and I had no place to go.

Where did the Sower plant the seed?
I long to know,
but it is hidden from me.

Years passed and then my friend Jim Zeigler, a counselor at Alta Mesa Cemetery, discovered that Jessica’s ashes had been scattered at his cemetery. He called me to get all the information about our children, and then had a gravestone specially made for them. Slide05Their names and dates are now etched in stone in our backyard. Underneath their names is the verse from David’s psalm:

Weeping my lodge for the night,
but a shout of joy comes in the morning.
Psalm 30:5

How do you thank someone who goes to such lengths to carve your children’s names in stone? One tear wiped away.

After we had been restored with sacred space, God gave me the gift of my daughter’s voice. Whenever I teach the Psalms, I always have my students share their personal psalms at the end of the quarter. It is the highlight of the class. On one occasion at Western Seminary, a young woman named Jessica stood to read her poem. Before she began I asked, “What is your middle name?”

She smiled and said, “Lynne” (my daughter’s middle name).

“What year were you born?”


“What month?”


Jessica Lynne Morgan


Now I can feel my gut tightening and my tears beginning to swell.

“What day?”

“November 30” – the exact day my daughter had been born.

As Jessica read her poem, I was in speechless wonder that, for just this one day, I was able to hear my daughter’s voice. There may be joys that equal it, but for this father none surpass the elation of hearing a daughter’s voice. One more tear wiped away.

Time would fail me if I were to recount the scores of conferences, retreats and schools where I have had the joy of teaching the Psalms and the power of the poem––locally, Southern California, Texas, Colorado, Canada, Oregon, Washington, Romania, Albania, Croatia––and on each and every occasion, after teaching on David’s lament for Jonathan, I offer my poem to Jessica. Funny thing about poetry, the words never get old, worn out or banal. The metaphors remain as rich and carry as much emotion as the first time they were uttered. And the love that I experience for my daughter is enriched and deepened in the presence of God’s people in ways I couldn’t have imagined. The key is you have to be free to cry. Many more tears wiped away.

God’s grace was still not done. In the spring of 2011 my dear friend Jim Zeigler died of ALS. Jim was deeply loved by our church and community, so much so that we had to move his memorial service to a church that could accommodate over 1000 people. The service was one of those rare times where time stood still, the worship was dense with a palpable presence that released our tears, and every word was as heart spoken and tender as our beloved Jim. A residue of God’s presence from Jim’s memorial carried me into the pulpit the next day. My text I had planned that week was 2 Samuel 1, to be concluded with Jessica’s poem. However, after Jim’s passing I wasn’t sure it was appropriate to do my daughter’s poem. But Karen (the one you all know) encouraged me and said, “When you read her poem, make sure you breathe in between the lines to let her in.” I took her advice and it worked. A special tear wiped away.

The next day our pastoral staff left for a retreat at Lake Tahoe. We were led by Jim Gaderlund, a fellow pastor and gifted spiritual director. The first night he led us in a reflective communion time. Before we took the elements he told us to take stock of where we have been. If we were hurting, we cold select a rock from a selection he had arranged on the table and place it on the altar. If we were rejoicing, we could select a flower from a large bouquet he had bought and place it on the altar. When my turn came, I decided I wanted to express my appreciation to Jesus for incredible gift of healing he had granted to me since the death of my daughter, Jessica. From the bouquet I selected a large yellow daisy and just before I set it on the altar I kissed it. Immediately after I kissed it I had the strange sensation that I had just kissed my daughter––Jessica’s presence was palpable. I couldn’t hold back my tears and felt compelled to tell someone, but I thought, “Who can I tell who won’t think I’m crazy?” When communion ended, I grabbed my friend and co-pastor, James, and said, “I just kissed my daughter!” Now more tears, but these are ones I don’t want to wipe away.

On the eve of Mother’s Day I thought it appropriate to include one more Jessica moment. Emily and I never had celebrated Jessica’s birthday until 2011. Two of our grandchildren were coming for dinner, and being that it was Jessica’s birthday, she thought it would be fun to celebrate her birthday. Since God had allowed me to hear Jessica’s voice, I thought Emily should as well. So I composed a letter from Jessica to her mother. I called my daughter, Jenny, and asked if she would come join us for dinner and give her sister a voice to her mother, which she did.

November 30th, 2011

Dear Mom,

Today is my 35th birthday and I heard you will be celebrating with dad and my little sister, Jenny, along with my nieces, Mary and Emmy, and my nephew Wesley. So I asked papa to get you some yellow roses to remember me by. Yellow is my favorite color, because it matches my blonde hair, but most of all, because it reminds me of you. You probably wonder what I look like. It’s hard to describe my glorious, new body – but I look a lot like Jenny, but with Katie’s curls. Lucky for me I didn’t get daddy’s nose, but like all your children, my eyes are blue.

As you celebrate my birthday I want you to know what a blessing you are to me.

Though I was tragically taken out of your arms to be by my brother’s side, my little life was shaped and sheltered solely by a mother’s love. For nine months as I bonded with you i n the sweet shelter of your womb, my delicate frame was knitted together by God’s loving hands. I was wondrously made, and all my days ordained for me, were written in His book, before even one of them came to be. You took such good care of me, even though you could not see my face. I know you and dad worked hard to prepare a special place for my arrival, with new wallpaper, a refurbished crib and a changing table.

When I arrived, you held me with an indescribable love and tenderness. For three wonderful days I had the privilege of gazing into your eyes as I nursed. The feeling of security and well-being you provided was so compelling, I quickly learned to trust God in the trouble that lay ahead.

Those were painful days, I know more for you than me. You wanted to see me grow up, to crawl, to walk, to sing, to play soccer, to date, to give me away, and to see my children. But, as daddy wrote, it ended much too quickly:

            My eyes could not gaze on your little tent,
            which would all too soon
            be broken down and laid to rest
            in the earth, rather than upon a breast.

As you and daddy were engulfed in sorrow, I lay down to sleep and awoke in a new world where heaven fills the very air you breathe. I began to grow and explore its never-ending beauty with my brother, David. Like him, I never experienced the pains of sin or any of the cruelty that happens on earth. I only knew a mother’s love.

But there is more. I got to see another side of things, that perhaps you could not see. When you prayed for me, heaven became silent for about half an hour. Then I heard the deepest groaning and sighs that were beyond compassion, followed by a sudden burst of energy and commotion. Angels were summoned and sent with an urgency I have rarely seen. Out of the death of dreams, seeds of hope were planted in human hearts and corporate prayers were offered in faith. A baby born by Christmas, who would have thought? The gift of another daughter for my broken-hearted mother.

As I peer into your world 35 years later, I can see the fruit of a mother’s prayers. Did you ever dream of being entrusted with so many gifts? One son and four daughters, three granddaughters and two grandsons! Not to mention the scores of preschoolers who found shelter under your wings.

In Hebrew your name means “mother.” And I, Jessica Lynne Morgan, am forever privileged to be known as your daughter.



The Woman in the Fascinator

This past Saturday, whilst cleaning out embarrassingly messy closets, I came across this photo:

photoIt was taken the third week of June, 2001, at Royal Ascot — one of the most famous horse racing events in the world. A woman simply Does Not Go To Royal Ascot without wearing a fascinator, and this was mine, purchased a few days before at Harrod’s in London. I still have it in a hatbox at the top of my closet. About once a year it comes down and the girls try it on for size and I, I remember it all.

My favorite musical growing up was My Fair Lady, so this particular moment was rich with signifiers. On at least two occasions during the afternoon, I muttered under my breath, “Come on, Dover! Come on, Dover! Move your bloomin’ arse!” There was champagne flowing and pageantry, Royals and drunks and exquisite horses. It was a fabulous experience and is now, more than a decade later, a great memory.

I stare at the woman in the photo, and I realize I am looking not at myself but for myself. She was 31, still a newlywed. She strikes me as sassy and beautiful and full of life, someone I would have loved to be around as much as possible. My kind of person.

I can guarantee you that was not how I felt about myself on the day that photo was taken.

I felt ugly. Fat. Out of my element. Awkward. An outsider, face and palms pressed to the window, wondering what it felt like to be on the inside, with the beautiful people, the popular people, the ones who mattered.

I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I did not meet cultural expectations for what a beautiful woman was, let alone a Christian woman. I had more than one fine young man point out that I was not feminine, not attractive, not Godly. I was too opinionated, they said. Sharp tongued. I was mannish — athletic, intellectual, interested in theology, assertive — and what among my male peers would have been considered “robust discussion” was “argumentative” and “nitpicking” when I engaged. I was not demure, not a follower. I would make a lousy “helper,” they said.

How these words sunk into my soul! Made me feel less than and ashamed. Made me hyper-focus on my body and its flaws, convinced me that my personality was rank and displeasing to God, was something to mitigate, wrestle down, erase.

I actually tried, my senior year in college, to change. I had lost a very important relationship due, apparently, to my flaws, and so, trying desperately to hide an excruciating pain, I set out to cultivate a “gentle and quiet spirit” — which meant holding my tongue, dressing in feminine clothing, listening to Every Word that proceedeth from the mouth of the boys in my College group, those not-quite-yet men whom God had put in authority over me, who would be my spiritual leader someday. The ones to whom God had given the keys to the Kingdom, the ones God had determined before the foundations of the world that I would be beneath.

Friends, it lasted two days. Two. I couldn’t do it. Could Not. My authentic self simply leaked out, seeped through my skin. My best friend, a boy who loved me for who I was and (dare I say it) loved God for who God was, laughed in my face when I told him of my failure. “Well duh, Geek (his favorite nickname for me). You are never going to be gentle and quiet and who would want you to be? You are never going to be a follower. You carry a machete and you carve your own path through places most of us are scared to go.”

I loved that boy with my whole heart and seeing myself in his eyes did more for my understanding of God than I could possibly have known at the time.

And now I see, as I stare into the dark, dancing eyes of the woman in this picture, how wrong they all were. She was beautiful. Audacious. Brave. Funny. She loved Jesus more than life itself and wanted nothing less than Him in fullness. He would answer the prayer of her heart, to give her Himself, and she would learn just what it meant to follow Jesus to the cross, even the grave. Soon the body she was ashamed of would grow another human being, and then another. Her face would wrinkle, her hair begin to grey, but her voice, the one that caused her so much shame, God Himself would fill it up with the vowels and consonants of grace, truth and tears.

As my own daughters stand at the precipice of adolescence, I think about these things. How to teach them to inhabit their bodies without shame. How to gird them against the onslaught of a culture that will tell them they are less than, a Church that will tell them they are less than too. Writing those words, my hands shake at the keyboard for how wrong it is, at the rejection I know they will experience by men, by women too who, enslaved to their own theology, cannot let others live free.

I watched my daughter get ready for bed last night, brushing her hair and teeth, tidying her room, laying out her soccer clothes for the morning. I was overwhelmed with the reality that I can’t change the world for her.

So, instead, I will take her picture, and when she forgets who she is, I will show her. I will capture her words and when she forgets how to speak true, when she sits in mute silence, I will remind her what her own voice sounds like. I will tell her over and over again the story of how she was made in the image of God, how the same One who formed her in His imagination now calls her to become His unique likeness in the world. I will pray that she learns beyond a shadow of a doubt that every inch of her is fearfully and wonderfully made.






“The Book Thief” and taking words for granted

“Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out, like the rain. (p. 85)” ― Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

book thief

My daughter, Ella (age 10), just read The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

I encouraged her to read it and she did this past month and we’ve been talking about it ever since — World War II, Nazi Germany, the Holocaust, Liesel and Rudy, Max and what the written word does for a person and a community. It is a marvelous, breathtaking book, beautifully written. It tells an important story, and if you haven’t read it I urge you to do so. It is worth the investment of time and tears.

I read it first, in January, and I’m still not over it. Specifically, I keep coming back to the basic truth that words — and the ideas those words capture — matter.  They matter infinitely.

There have been times and places where books were burned. They were burned because the ideas in them threatened the powers that be. They were burned because powerful people wanted to control the thoughts and ideas, the beliefs and choices of others. In our modern moment we look at those book burnings and decry them and say we would never participate.  And we wouldn’t.

But I wonder: do we really realize the gift we have at our fingertips? Do we realize just how amazing it is to have access via the Internet and eBooks and traditional booksellers to ideas that differ from our own, to stories that offer us a way to see the world and our place in it differently? Or do we just keep reading the stuff that reinforces what we already believe, what we already think? We return over and over again to the pundits and the websites that regurgitate what we want to hear and in so doing we feel that we are not quite so alone. I understand this. I fall prey to it too at times. Perhaps it is an essentially human thing to do, this seeking out of solidarity, no matter where it presents itself.

But I wonder: if we didn’t have this outrageous wealth of ideas from which to pick and choose, if freedom wasn’t ours in the extravagant way it is today, would we, like Liesel, simply grab the first book we could out of the pile of flames, tuck it into our coats at the risk of a beating or death, simply to pour over the words, hold them in our hands, let them change us? Or would we pause at that flaming pile and decide which book to choose based on our entrenched ideology?

I watch Ella process this book, The Book Thief, as she awakens into the breaking dawn of her adolescence, and it is shaping her in matters of the heart and conscience. It is opening her eyes to a world she has to struggle to make sense of, and rightly so. It has ignited passion and given her a vision of heroism in the form of an 11 year old girl, an emaciated Jew and the accordion-playing German who taught them both the meaning of love.

I wondered for a while if Ella was too young to read The Book Thief. Listening to her now, hearing the crack in her voice when she describes the book, I know my answer.


When lingerie comes up twice in a week you just have to talk about it

God cares about lingerie, but not for the reasons you might think.

I came of age in the 80s, the era of the Supermodel and Victoria’s Secret. My mom probably tried to explain to me what these things were all about, but I don’t remember (she will point out I have the worst memory in the history of memory!)

I was not really into the girl scene, frankly. I played sports and read books and simply didn’t bother with the magazines targeted at pre-teens and teens.


This is how you market bras to girls. Image taken from

I was Not Fashionable In Any Way — those of you who know me not just can’t believe that, amiright??

But without my tacit knowledge, I took away something fundamental from those years: what made a female attractive was the degree to which she met all the cultural expectations for the male gaze. I wasted an unforgivable amount of time and energy trying to turn myself — through diet, exercise, shopping and self-loathing — into an acceptable thing that met all those expectations.

Needless to say, I failed. And now, finally, at the ripe age of almost 45, I’m glad I did.

Purely by God’s grace, I met a man who wanted to go through life side by side with a person, an actual woman, not a sweetly packaged up set of cultural and religious check-boxes. Never, not once, in the 18 years since I met David, have I ever felt objectified by him. I cannot adequately describe in words what an unbelievable gift this is to me as a person but mostly as a woman who is constantly objectified everywhere else — to find in the safety of my marriage a place for my full and unfettered humanity.

So when a friend of mine said to me last week that he had bought lingerie for his girlfriend that he has “not yet enjoyed,” I cringed (and told him so), and suggested that perhaps he ought to get her something that isn’t for him at all.

Like, um, I don’t know, A GIFT.

And when an article popped up on my Facebook feed about a teenaged girl who crowdsourced a company to make bras for girls that do not sexualize them, I cried, actual tears, in appreciation for the young woman who built Yellowberry ( for girls like mine so that maybe, just maybe, they won’t waste the same number of hours and years I did trying to make themselves into a thing for male consumption.


This too! Image taken from

Times are most certainly changing.

My daughters are growing up as athletes and scholars, strong of body, mind and soul. They are growing up with the idea that the God who loves them with a fierce, wild, outrageous love made them to bear His image in the world, that God made their female bodies and pronounced them good, not because males approve of them but because with those bodies they become part of the body of Christ. They are learning what it means not only to have a body but to be a body, how to choose clothes and shoes, yes, even bras that free them up to live life on their own terms, and to seek God directly for what those terms might be. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

My girls are learning day by day that God made them to stand tall, with their shoulders back and their eyes up, in full and unapologetic equality with their brothers, tasked with bringing shalom to the whole Earth, tasked with being a blessing to the nations. And as far as men are concerned, my girls are already drawn to the ones who take them seriously, who listen to them and laugh with them, who play basketball with them in the pool and watch their soccer games from the sidelines. Men who are neither afraid of their female bodies nor overemphasize them, as if they were limited in some fundamental way because of them.

My daughters are not unique. This new generation of ezers is going to turn the world upside down.

I couldn’t be more proud.






Soccer and the C.I.A.

Today is Career Day at school. Students will be arriving bright-eyed this morning dressed as doctors, scientists, entrepreneurs, computer programmers, architects and Google employees (remember this is Silicon Valley — EVERYONE wants to be a Google employee).

Not the Downings. Nosiree. We are rule-breakers! Iconoclasts! We march to a different drum I tell you… Dif-Fer-Ent.

Ella wants to be a CIA agent with a NOC (that’s “non-official-cover” for all of you poor saps who have no spycraft) as a professional soccer player. Please note the name tag that lets everyone know she’s a top secret agent. I believe we have some work to do for her career development.

Julia wants to be a professional soccer player who raises bulldogs, because what other kind of soccer player is there? She figures GU is the right place for her to kickstart her career, because bulldogs! oh… and if she must, college.

So this morning, the girls dressed appropriately for Career Day, and I attempted a photo on the way out the door.


You guys, we Downings just cannot take a normal photo. Cannot. Our best effort was total cheese, although the CIA name tag is proudly displayed. I’ve got hundreds just like this photo — different settings, same photographic fail.

After alternating between pleading and chastisement, I got this photo:photo

At least Ella smiled. Julia, it seems, cannot smile and hold still the same time. They are, it would appear, mutually exclusive. I begged her to Just Stand Still and, nope. Every single one she’s wiggling. Blurry. Like, about to come out of her skin.

So, I’m going on record here: if you are thinking that at some point I’m going to start posting beautiful photos, attended to by witty narrative that catalogs our near-perfect life, um, best to move on.

This is how we roll around here.  Whether it is bulldogs or a career in The Agency, if something makes you happy you wiggle and can’t hold still; you take unflattering photographs that capture life in blurry lines, because our life is lived largely out of focus. We see as if in a mirror, and dimly.

It’s why God’s grace is such a big deal in our house.


Had I Known Then What I Know Now

A friend of mine is pregnant with her first baby and it got me thinking about how delusional I was when I was pregnant with my first baby 12 years ago.  Now, almost 11 years later, my life is beginning once again to resemble that of an adult human being. And so, from this lofty position, here’s what my 44 year old self, mother of 2, ages 10 and 8, would say to my then 32 year old self, on the verge of becoming a parent:

1.  Write off the next ten years. Just. Write. Them. Off. The next decade of your life will devolve into something unrecognizable. Right now you are fit, organized and ambitious, you fancy yourself learned and literary, you wear cute shoes. You are a paragon of confidence, stylish in your Pea In The Pod tunic and leggings, shoulders back and belly bulging, announcing you’ll buy a jogger! Kettlebell those abs back into shape! Make baby food from scratch! Scrapbook!


Self, bask in this illusion. In a matter of mere weeks you will trade your kitten heels for Dansko’s in dark colors and the most effort you will make on your personal appearance is for your post-delivery OB/GYN appointment because at least your doctor will pay attention to you. You will tell yourself this is a phase, that it will pass when … the baby sleeps through the night… turns 1… starts walking … turns 2 … goes to preschool … goes to Kindergarten … and on it goes until one day, despite your best effort, your 10 year old tells you that your butt is oddly squishy and makes a nice pillow, and as this truth sinks horribly in you will look around at the disorganized mess of your house, struggling to remember both your first and middle name, and you will realize T.S.Eliot did not know just how right he was, and this is how the world ends. Go ahead: lay your head on your arms and whimper.

2. When you exercise, everything will always hurt. You will never string together more than a few days or weeks of consistent exercise, despite your best effort. Since you can’t get consistent exercise, every time you do manage a workout, it will feel like you are exercising for the very first time in your whole entire life. Bravely, you will go out for a run, but your thighs will chafe and you will struggle to suppress the irrational thought that you might have a collapsed lung. You’ll scrap running and decide to take up cycling — it has cool gear and cyclists have great butts (cf. the pillow comment above). But after an excruciating hour in the saddle your private parts will hurt in ways that make you wonder if bipedalism is even worth it. So, swimming!  YES!  You will become a swimmer, only to realize that after a mere 15 minutes of intermittent, gasping laps you are ready to eat your dashboard on the drive home. The smattering of calories you managed to burn while mostly hanging onto the side of the pool is nothing compared to the food you will scarf later, and so you will decide that something is wrong with this sport and … wait for it… you will try running again. Repeat this ad nauseam for the Next Ten Years.

3. Whatever mad organizational skills you think you have will fail utterly when confronted with your children’s plastic toys.You will start out self-righteously buying expensive wooden toys from Melissa & Doug and you will bask in the sweet aether of superiority until one day you will look around and realize somehow, despite your best effort, your house is littered with extruded plastic crap that has magically, satanically proliferated in your home. You will swear that plastic procreates, breeds in the dark hours of the night, because how else do you explain tiny plastic shoes and helmets and horse bridles all over the floor? No taxonomy or organizational model on earth can cope with Polly Pockets and My Lego Friends and OMG The Rainbow Loom toy-from-the-pit-of-hell. You pick up, sort and label for weeks on end while the voice of Jim McKay loops endlessly in your brain … Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport… the thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat…” and you realize Vinko Bogataj has nothing on you. He wiped out once. You collapse in a heap at the end of every day, only to discover you are sitting … on a tiny plastic shoe.


4. Your prayer life will be radically transformed. Remember how you used to awake at first light, keen to talk through the day ahead with God, daydream about what might unfold, excited for the adventure? Now, you will lay there in bed at zero-dark-thirty, wondering why you can’t feel your legs and praying dear God, please let there be enough salami for at least one sandwich I can carve up for both girls oh God help me get Out Of This Bed and please oh please can I achieve telekinesis for one precious moment so I can turn the coffee pot while supine? Your conversations with God may slightly improve as the day progresses, but despite your best effort, the days of focused prayer are over. Gone. Not for lack of desire, but accumulating sleep deprivation will have the net effect of making it impossible for two thoughts to connect in your head, let alone thinking those thoughts in the general direction of God. I refer you to point 1 above: just write these years off. Amen.

5. You will suck at everything important. Yep. Everything. Oh you’ll have moments of brilliance when your children are showered and well-behaved, eating organic microgreens with a fork and offering each other the bread basket first while smugly you suspect you might be the best parent ever to walk the Earth. But then something will happen – usually within a millisecond – to prove you horribly, breathtakingly wrong about your parenting props. You will then realize that despite your best effort, entropy has prevailed and the unassailable trend of your entire decade has been down and out.  The crowning blow will be the moment you realize that sleep deprivation (see #4 above) has ensured that even if you have had competent parenting moments, you have no memory of them whatsoever.

So, dear 32 year old self, go easy on yourself. Despite your best effort, you are going to fail. Over and over again. Embrace it. Own it. You go gurl! Mostly be kind to all the rest of those failing parents – the stay at home ones and the gainfully employed ones, the ones who send their kid to school with beans and a can opener for lunch, the ones who still wear kitten heels and pretend they have it all together. Let grace prevail.

And for the love of all that is holy, do not EVER let your ten year old turn your butt into a pillow.