Wednesday, December 29, 2010


When my daughter was 6-years-old, she shoved four stuffed animals inside her shirt and proudly announced, “I’m having four triplets!”  I explained to her that four babies would be quadruplets—triplets are “only” three babies.  When I began to expound upon quintuplets and sextuplets, she interrupted my impromptu lesson, wailing, “I’m uncomfortable!”  Like any mother expecting quads, she was very anxious for them to be delivered.
Motherhood brings with it a wide range of emotions:  joy, sorrow, excitement and  exasperation to name a few.  I was alarmed to learn that mothering can bring out the worst (as well as the best) in you.  It grieved me to discover that I had so much yet to learn in life.  My sister then welcomed me to the “motherhood club” by stating, “When I became a mom I realized, ‘Ahhh, I get it!  Mom and Dad only started the work of raising me—it will be my kids who finish the job.’”
My own mother had this magical ability while I was growing up:  no matter how broken life felt, she was able to help me fix it.  I knew I could always count on her.  What is more, she passed on her belief in me that I could accomplish whatever I set out to do.

The sacrifices involved with mothering help us grow through both the delightful and the tearful times.  One of the lessons I treasure most that I learned from my kids is to step outside my stress and laugh with them.
"A mother is not a person to lean on but a person to make leaning unnecessary."
-- Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Mother Bickerdyke
(1817 - 1901)
She was a liability to the establishment—nosing around where she had no business, taking supplies she was not entitled to.  She was outspoken and defiantly skirted the mandated procedures.  The general in charge exclaimed in exasperation, “I can’t do a thing in the world” about her.
But her “boys in blue” called her Mother.
When her infant daughter died, Mary Ann Bickerdyke took the first steps down the road that would become her life mission.  She studied medicine to learn how to help others from dying needlessly.  She later put her medical knowledge to work as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War.
When she learned of the deplorable condition of the medical unit at the Union camp, she led a fund drive to buy much-needed supplies.  Once she delivered them to the Union base, she was appalled at the lack of sanitation so she refused to leave.  She ignored the army regulations forbidding her presence in camp and she cooked, cleaned and washed with a confidence, care and comfort that charmed her way into the soldiers’ hearts.  And their recovery rates increased.
But she pushed it too far when she insisted on roaming around the battlefields looking for the wounded.  When a surgeon asked her, “Under whose authority are you working?” she affirmed, “I have received my authority from the Lord God Almighty.  Have you anything that ranks higher than that?”
Apparently General Sherman agreed because he conceded, “She outranks me.”
She spent four years traveling from one battlefield to the next with the Union Army.  She was appointed to serve on the sanitation commission.  At first she was offended when they offered to pay her for something she was determined to do anyway.  But when she realized her wages could provide her with the means of buying extras for her boys in blue, she finally accepted her wages.
At the end of the war, Sherman asked her to participate in the Grand Review of the nation’s capital.  She led a corps of soldiers in the parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.  When Sherman offered her a seat on the review stand she refused, preferring to pass out water to the soldiers.
After the war, she continued serving her veterans and fellow nurses.  She helped hundreds work through the legal issues so they could secure their pensions.  She, however, did not receive a pension for over 20 years. 
Her greatest honor was engraved upon her tombstone:  “Mother to the boys in Blue.”

Baker, Nina Brown, Cyclone in Calico: The Story of Mary Ann Bickerdyke. Boston: Little, Brown, 1952.
DeLeeuw, Adele, Civil War Nurse, Mary Ann Bickerdyke. New York: J. Messner, 1973
Greenbie, Marjorie Barstow, Lincoln’s Daughters of Mercy. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1944.
McKown, Robin, Heroic Nurses. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1966.
See also: Livermore, Mary (1888). "XXIV". My Story of the War.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Pursuit of Happiness

I was feeling pretty good about my triumphs, taking over little parcels of land one square inch at a time.  My opponent in the game of Othello was a master of the art and I a mere novice, so to see the board nearly covered in my color was extremely satisfying.  But in the end, my sister stealthily turned all my tokens against me and captured the board.   Her conquest amounted to only about a square foot of territory, yet I was devastated.  When she noted my dejection she apologized, “I’m sorry—I had no idea you thought you could actually beat me.”
Years later, my husband and I bought our first piece of property—one that couldn’t be reclaimed by a sleight of hand.  Whether on a game board or a city block, we feel a pride in ownership.
John Locke inspired Thomas Jefferson to list our unalienable rights as “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” but Locke’s original thought was “Life, liberty and property.”  It’s a fitting exchange because freedom of opportunity brings happiness, whether that pursuit is external (property) or internal (our well-being).  Even when our efforts are less than successful, we still have the opportunity to try again . . . or move on to other challenges. 
I’ve never met my sister in a rematch of Othello but I did win her at . . . No, . . . What about . . . hmmm?  She’s got me there, too.  Hey, it’s not about winning or losing but how you pursue the game.

Finding My Gem in the Geode
Have you ever read a book that just made you mad?  I was so peeved at the protagonist of The Virginian that I started asking some serious questions.  And it changed my life.

Five years ago I read a western novel for a class I was taking.  The book was about a man who risked everything to shoot his enemy.  When I was challenged to write an essay about it I asked myself why he would risk losing both his life and the woman he loved in order to fight.  I saw that he had to or that enemy would haunt him all his days.  Then I asked myself if I had an enemy that haunted me and the profound realization struck me that I did.

Only my enemy was more insidious—it was my own self-doubts.  
So I envisioned myself in the middle of a dirt road, squaring off to meet my opponent in a western-style showdown. I shot the shadow that filled my head with negative thoughts about myself and I haven’t let it “darken my sites” since.  I conquered the enemy within.
Freed from the burden of self-doubt, I fell in love with life.  I discovered the joy of joining hands with the Creator in seeking His inspiration to craft my own creations.  

That’s one facet of my story.  Owning the pursuit of my happiness helped me square up to my responsibility to value myself and the gifts God has given me.