Have you ever gotten excited because you found a four-leaf clover tucked amongst all the usual, run-of-the-mill three leaf clovers? Have you ever picked it and called yourself lucky because you had something rare? Have you ever been the one to discover an upturned penny on concrete, dirty and dusty, but with the face looking up toward you? Have you ever picked it up and pocketed it, thinking to yourself about how lucky you were to have found it? Have you ever seen a red bird and stared at it a moment longer than you would have appreciated the usual breed? Have you ever caught yourself wondering what piece of good fortune was going to befall you since you were the one to see the red bird? My sister wins things from the radio stations so frequently I’m surprised the disc jockeys do not have her name memorized. It seems at least once or twice a month, she calls me to tell me about how she was just on the radio and has won a pair of tickets to some music venue. On more than one occasion, I’ve commented on how “lucky” she is, to win as often as she does. My Senior year in high school, my foreign language teacher organized a trip to France. Going to France had been my dream for years; I’d spent four years studying the language and romanticizing the City of Lights in my books and in my dreams. My mother never would have been able to afford a trip like that but my uncle, whom I only saw once or twice a year, agreed to send me to France. Not very many other high school students get a “Senior Trip” like that, particularly ones living in the midst of an abusive and totally dysfunctional family like mine. You could say I was “lucky.” I probably would have said the same thing as recently as yesterday.
Yesterday, we went to church and participated in our Stars’ Missionettes Club Night. This program is fantastic and I could (and probably will before the year’s out) devote at least an entire post to all the reasons why it is such a beautiful part of our lives. For the sake of staying on topic, though, I will just say that the program works similarly to programs such as The American Heritage Girls or the Girls’ Scouts, but with a Christian emphasis. The girls earn badges for completing units and for things like cooking, camping and visual arts. They also have the opportunity to graduate as an “Honor” by doing additional work that includes such tasks as reading the entire New Testament, memorizing tons of Scripture and a Statement of Faith, writing an essay and completing a 30 day prayer journal. The work, and things like extra field trips (my class takes one every month of the year) and sleepovers, really encourages the girls to form a bond that is deeper than acquaintances. Classes are designed to encourage girls to share their lives and fears with each other and with the leader. I have taught in the Missionette’s program for five years and every, single Wednesday of the last five years, I have come home grateful and feeling very lucky indeed that my girls have this class as a part of their lives. Yesterday was no exception. In class, we are working on a unit called Puppetry, which encourages girls to use puppetry as a means for ministering to younger children. We talked about what it really means to witness and how we can do that without saying a word. We also had a science object lesson and puppet show and made our very own sock puppets. And one little girl shared her testimony of how she “acted bad” in school last year, doing things like “getting so mad I would hit kids”, but then “God took over” and “this year, I ain’t been bad at all.” It was a short testimony, but it melted my heart. It reminded me of how lucky we all are to be in that class and to feel comfortable enough with each other to share things like that after only 4 weeks of class together.
Then, the girls and I came home. Instead of having movietime like we normally do, the girls and I watched “America’s Got Talent.” Midway through the show, a red banner streamed across the bottom of our screen, declaring an “Amber Alert” for an eleven-year old boy named Benjamin. We said a prayer for the boy and continued with our movietime, storytime, song time and bedtime routines. We woke up this morning and started school, just like we do every day of the week. On her break, my oldest went outside to the front porch with some paper and started writing while the youngest helped me fix lunch. Some time later, my oldest came back in and laid the pile of paper she’d taken outside on the table, then went off to play. I went to clean the papers up and found that, on one of them, she had written a letter to God. It read simply: “Dear God. Thank you for letting Benjamin find his parents. Thank You. Breathe.”
And, just like that, the word “luck” disappeared from my vocabulary.
“Luck”, in my mind, is little more than coincidence; a happy thing, sometimes, sure, but not an orchestrated event designed to bring peace and gratitude not only from those intimately connected with the event itself but also from those completely unrelated to the said event. While reading about this eleven-year-old child who was missing for several hours, I saw that his picture had been “shared” via Facebook 2K times in just a matter of a couple hours. Search parties wasted no time in gathering in his home town to look for him; police were vigilant by posting BOLO alerts and following that up with an Amber Alert. But it wasn’t the fact that everyone was searching for him that got to me. It was that my little girl, who has no connection to that family or that eleven-year-old child, was grateful he was found safe. What affected me the most was that an event that didn’t concern her at all made her write a letter to God to thank Him. In other words, she’d cared about that boy’s whereabouts and safety. I’m certain she wasn’t the only stranger affected by the news that a child was missing and parents were worried about him. Something that creates emotional response in a multitude of people who otherwise would never have known a particular family even existed was orchestrated. It wasn’t luck that brought that little boy home; it was God’s divine intervention. I’m certain he’s not completely out of the woods. There are undoubtedly uncertainties surrounding that boy’s home life and emotional state that probably need some examining but he isn’t alone in a big world with dangers he couldn’t possibly foresee any longer. He did not spend a night alone on the streets. And, I’d like to believe, that this event will lead to an intervention in his overall life that will ultimately lead to his happiness and emotional well-being. God had bigger plans than an Amber Alert.
Monday, I go in, again, for a three hour intravenous iron drip. Again. I’ve almost reached the point where it doesn’t phase me anymore. I almost didn’t even mention it on Facebook when I went for it the last time. I mean, it’s just a part of my life now, it’s not something to stress over. Right? Except, to tell you the truth, I do kind of stress over these iron drips. Although they are necessary for my overall well-being, energy, emotional sappiness level, ability to function like a semi-normal human being…. I do not particularly enjoy these iron drips. Frankly, just going to the oncology floor is enough to raise my anxiety. I try hard to be nonchalant and optimistic. I haven’t posted a single status on Facebook, for instance, that has said anything about the massive migraine these iron drips induce. Why? Because, overall, I know that the iron drip is a good thing. Without it, just getting out of the bed is an Olympic sport that requires so much effort, I usually start crying just from sheer exhaustion before I’ve ever even gotten upright. Five days after the second dose of iron, it’s kind of like a fairy energy Godmother has waved her magic wand and I suddenly feel like a human being again. Walking downstairs doesn’t cause me to nearly black out; driving isn’t such a terrifying idea. I can’t even begin to tell you how many years I spent talking to neurotic doctors who didn’t seem to understand that the pills they were prescribing me were useless on my body. So I am thankful for the iron and I will do it for the rest of my life, if I have to, so that I can continue to be Tiffini. I do not accept “exhaustion” or “weakness” as an excuse to avoid playing games like Elephant in the Jungle or indoor foot volleyball, which we played today. If I have to take 3 hour iron drips every month in order to keep playing those games and speaking and doing all the things that are important to me, then I will. But I don’t particularly jump for joy when my Feretin and hemoglobin levels drop to single digits.
And, sometimes, as much as I hate to admit it, it is hard to see the forest for the trees. Until, that is, tonight, when I saw my daughter’s letter to God and was reminded that He is actively involved in my life. He’s got plans that He sets in motion. I know it because I have lots of things in my life, right now, that make me “lucky.” I used to keep a “gratitude journal” in which I religiously listed five things, every day, for which I was grateful. The only rules were that I had to list five things and I could not repeat an item every day of the week unless there was a specific reason. For example, “My family” was only acceptable on Mondays, unless a member of my family did something specific that warranted “extra” appreciation, like going to lunch with me or buying me a birthday present or something. In essence, it listed five ways I was “lucky” every day. I kept this journal for two years and then, over time, found I was acknowledging the things for which I was grateful in my head before I ever wrote them down. Instead of having to think about the good things that had come from my day, I was recognizing them as the day progressed. Appreciation and gratitude had become a habit. I didn’t really need the journal anymore. So I let the physical journal go but still practiced expecting good news, a kind stranger, a happy letter, joy.
Sometimes, though, I need a reminder.
Fawasi lives in Syria. Her hometown was shelled and bombed. Her house was destroyed. Fawasi has three children; during the shelling and bombing, her 8 year old son Mustafa went missing. Perhaps he hid beneath a metal scrap. Maybe he ran for cover in a ditch, or in an abandoned shack that had not yet been demolished. Maybe a bomb landed on him, and he’s dead. Fawasi could not find him. And she didn’t have time to look; her city was being destroyed and she has two other young children. So she made an impossible decision to leave her city, with her younger children, even though she had no idea where Mustafa, her eight-year-old son, is. She registered his name with the council and she fled. This is a true story and, when I read it tonight, I cried and said a prayer for Mustafa’s protection. I share this story because, tonight, it made me feel lucky. It made me feel blessed. And protected. My home is not in danger tonight of being bombed. Both my children are asleep in their beds, safe. They wrote letters to Santa Claus today and worked on multiplication and subtraction. Ironically, this week, we are studying symbols of the United States: we’ve discussed the Statue of Liberty, the eagle and America’s flag. Representations of freedom. We’ve learned that the chains lying at the feet of Lady Liberty are broken: she isn’t bound.
And, like Lady Liberty, I am free. But it goes deeper than being free to worship as a Christian without fear of persecution, or to vote for my government officials. You see, I am free to be whoever I want to be. I have permission to be sentimental. I have permission to cry. I have permission to allow my children to paint their entire selves with purple polka dots or to allow them to get all dressed up just to go to McDonald’s. I have permission to sleep alone. I have permission to be outspoken or quiet; shy or not. I have permission to voice disagreement. I have permission to be angry. I have permission to home-school my children and to instill in them whatever sense of values I deem appropriate. My choices are just as valid, just as good, as any other mother’s. For almost twenty-seven years, I have not felt allowed to do any of that. The only thing I was allowed to be was perfect. Which, since, by definition, human perfection is impossible, guaranteed a virtually non-existent self-esteem. Those chains are broken. I can be Tiffini, whoever that may be at any given moment because all of my emotions are valid. I don’t have to justify feeling afraid. I don’t have to justify feeling sad. I don’t have to justify feeling alone. I don’t have to justify feeling happy, either. I am free to just be.
But it goes beyond even all that.
See, I write books, stories that hold pieces of the nightmares that still rob me of sleep. And these books have been read by strangers. People who live in entirely different countries than I have purchased and read these books of mine. They’ve e-mailed, they’ve left comments online. And the books led to invitations to speak in front of others about my life; this led to connections I never would have imagined otherwise; it led to healing. When I was the seven-year-old writing about a little girl who wanted to buy her mother a hat for her birthday, God knew that it was the first of 142 stories. I just wanted to write; but God had bigger plans.
And, do you know, the other day, I was pilfering through a box of stuff in the garage and I ran across a folder that contained some of my high school work. There was a math worksheet I’d flunked (definitely should have been tossed). There was an English paper on the Holocaust that I had been so very proud of. Stapled to it was one of the very first yellow stars I hand-sewed that read “GUILTY”…. I still hand-sew these and pass them out during most of my speaking engagements. The box of work made me feel lucky because it reminded me of just how far I have come from when all that work was done. I looked them over, read the speech, then carefully tucked them all back into their place in the “special box.” I didn’t even throw away the failed math worksheet. Someone once said, “The further you can see back, the farther you can see ahead.” In other words, pieces of who we once were can remind us of how far we have come, and how lucky we are today. I was that scared girl. But today, I am a successful mother, teacher, advocate and author.
While I’ve never carried a shamrock in my pocket, I’ve been the one to stare at the red bird a moment longer than I would have appreciated the run-of-the-mill breed. I’ve been the one to say things like, “A penny! Pretty lucky, finding that.” Sometimes I make wishes on stars. I’d be pretty tickled if I found a four leaf clover. But coincidences like those do not change the course of a life. They do not heal. They do not find missing boys. They do not replace fear with courage. They do not bring financial stability or emotional peace. While luck, in a small way, may make our moments lighthearted and happy, it does not create freedom. Miracles and blessings, on the other hand, do. After all, the four leaf clover is camouflaged among dozens of three leaf clovers: without somenoe causing you to look in that exact spot, you would never have found that clover just as hundreds of others passed it by. Luck isn’t a being; it can’t guide you. But God can.
I will worry about Fawasi and her son Mustafa for a long time. That story hit me deep in the heart… both as a mother and as an adult survivor of a lonely and terrifying childhood. Just as stories from the Holocaust ripped my heart out as a teenager, this story and others of human torture and degradation that fill my nights and books, weigh my heart down. I know there are terrible acts of cruelty all over this world. I know there are vicious dictators that terrorize their own people in lots of countries. I know there are gut-wrenching stories of human, psychological torture that I just cannot fathom enduring. I also know there are everyday mountains the “lucky” ones of us who have food in our stomachs and roofs over our heads still have to climb, like three hour intravenous iron drips and literal years of being utterly alone. No matter how “lucky” we know we are, some days the mountains seem insurmountable because we’re human. I’m pretty much an expert champion at denying any and all negative feelings. I can deny and ignore all hints of unpleasantness. But the lesson I’m learning right now is that, in order to fully appreciate the blessing of finding the four leaf clover or seeing the red bird, you’ve got to allow yourself to feel the valleys. I’ve learned that the real treasure is when you learn to live life expecting blessings around every corner; this is why I will greet every gas station attendant with a bright smile, every family member and friend with a hug, every stranger with an enthusiastic and warm hello. After all, if you expect kindness, you will find it; if you expect joy, you will see it; if you knock, the door will be opened.