They can keep changing the rules, but we don’t have to be obedient. (Plus 3 sneak peeks into Book 8)

My 6-year-old tried to play chess with me at their school’s STEM night last week. I didn’t realize he knew the rules, and it turns out he doesn’t, because he produced a secret weapon: a 6-legged spider he’d made out of clay in his class earlier.

“This is spider-guy,” he announced. “And he can eat all of your little white guys there.”

Before I knew it, the clay creature had wiped a handful of my “white guys” off the board.20180501_182939.
So that’s how this was going to be played.

“Fine,” I said, and looked around for my secret weapon. “This is Stapler Man, and he can chomp your spider-guy.”

“Good job, Mom!” he cheered as I nudged his spider off the board, but then he plunked spider-guy back into play. “But my guy has 175 lives.”

“I see,” I said, and if he was going to change all the rules every minute, like a game of Calvin Ball in Calvin and Hobbes, so could I. “Stapler Man has 180 lives, and he’s coming after your king.”

My son sighed and said, “You can’t change the rules like that, Mom.”

“But you just did.”

He hesitated, seeing that if he turned things unfairly to his advantage, I might too. (Yeah, I’m that kind of mom.) “Let’s go see the salmon babies,” he said, and the game was over as we headed to the fish tanks.

In my sophomore English classes we’re reading All But My Life, about a 15-year-old Jewish girl who is forced into the Nazi labor camps and is one of the few who survives. Last week we read about the ever-changing rules in regards to Jews; they can’t own phones, or cars, or bikes, or even fountain pens. They have to turn over the gold, their goods, their houses. Signs go up: “Gardens only for Germans,” and “No dogs or Jews allowed.”

The rules change daily, to the advantage of the Nazis, but the Jews aren’t able to play that game back at them or they’re shot.

My students, while fascinated by the story, have asked why this “history” book is in our English curriculum. We talk about language—euphemisms, propaganda, etc.—but the class is also about thinking and analyzing.

So I’ll tell them, “This memoir isn’t only about history, but about language, about control, about the direction we’re going right now. How are you going to survive in a country where the rules are changing daily?”

We all see this—it’s no secret: the elite, in various organizations, are manipulating situations to fit what they want to have happen. It’s not about the good of the country, but the selfishness of a handful. The rest of us struggle to know if we can shift those rules again, or somehow subvert them.

In the book we’re reading, Gerda Weissmann begins to learn English on the sly, and even though she’s denied an education, her father teachers her out of the textbooks they still own in the privacy of their house. (Proving that homeschooling is for subversives.)

My parents grew up in Nazi Germany. Their families–not Jews and certainly not Nazis—realized early on Hitler was going to be disastrous for Germany. Quietly, privately, they tried to subvert the changing rules the elite imposed upon them. They had more chickens than allotted and hid them when the inspectors came; they had doctors write notes excusing their children from attending Hitler Youth; they traded cigarette and coffee rations (Mormons don’t use those) on the black market for more flour and sugar; and my great-grandfather blackmailed a Nazi recruiter who tried to secure his money for their cause. The Nazis never bothered him again.

In the Book of Mormon is a story about a group of followers of God who are oppressed by their government (Mosiah 24). They’re told they can’t pray or they’ll be executed. The people simply didn’t pray out loud, but in secret, knowing that God would still hear them. Quiet subversiveness when the rules are purposely stacked against them.

It seems almost daily that the rules are changing, that more and more laws are purposely designed to hold down one group while elevating another.

Unfair? Absolutely.

But the question is, how do we respond—individually and collectively—to the oppressive elite?

Maybe a situation is benign enough that we can pull out our own “stapler guy” and change the rules once again for more even odds.

Or maybe a problem is so grave that our defiance equates our death—politically, mentally, spiritually, or literally. That’s a much more difficult situation to manage.

But there seem to be many opportunities for outward obedience yet inward rebellion.
However, there should never, ever be quiet acceptance.

Because if we don’t even try to fight, then we’ve already given up and they win.

(Because I’m so eager to get you Book 8 “The Last Day” this summer, I’m giving you THREE sneak peeks!)

#1 Sneak Peek

“Oh yes, General.” Young Pere squinted with disdain. “That makes me want to call you ‘father.’ Hit me all you want, Thorne, but you can never change who I am or what you are. So choose the slagging canyon yourself.”

From the corner of his eye, Young Pere could see Hili beaming. But Thorne stood shocked, not used to such flagrant insubordination, and evidently didn’t know how to proceed.

Finally Thorne whispered, in as sinister a voice as he could muster, “I have one more thing to do with you, Shin. Then I will kill you myself. Nothing will give me greater pleasure. Your days are numbered, make no mistake about that!”

Young Pere nodded once, not at all intimidated. Thorne was full of unmet promises; just ask anyone he’d told he’d give a medal. He still owed Young Pere a few.

#2 Sneak Peek

Shin frowned at Sergeant Beaved. “So I’m supposed to go along with all of this?” 

“If you want to live, yes!”

“Is that what all of you do?” Shin exclaimed. “Just go along with whatever unbelievable and unlikely story preserves you for another day?”

“Yes,” Beaved said shortly. “Why not?”

“Living in lies? That doesn’t bother you?”

Beaved leaned in. “What bothers me is the idea of dying, Shin.”

“Doesn’t bother me,” he said, almost believably.

“Look, Shin, just . . .” Beaved groaned quietly. “I don’t know what the truth is myself, but I do know this: you have a chance to survive this. A small chance, getting smaller each time you open that big mouth of yours. But if I were you I’d cling to that chance, do whatever it takes to preserve your life. You can fix the lies later, if necessary, but you can’t if you’re dead.”

#3 Sneak Peek

“I’m as helpful as I know to be, Teach,” Shin said down to the man following him on the slope of the mountain.

“But one could be more helpful, Shin. Considering that Thorne has repeatedly threatened one of your security detail if you fail.”

Below him, Cloud Man bounced his head, oblivious that Thorne had threatened to bounce the vial head down the mountain if the private wouldn’t be more cooperative.

“Interesting,” Shin said as he searched for better footing. “Thorne’s so ‘noble’ as to force us to seek out Salem, and he’s so ‘noble’ that he’s also threatening one of his own soldier’s lives to do so. Perhaps I’m not that familiar with the definition of nobility. Enlighten me, Teach.”

He heard Teach moan below him again, maybe because of the question or because he was smacked by another tree branch. Hopefully both.

“Nobility. Doing that which the circumstances demand.”

“That’s it?”

“Language usage wasn’t my specialty in the university,” Teach admitted.

“What was your specialty?”

“I specialized in it all.”

Shin stifled a snort. “But not language usage?”

“Why bother? Everyone knows how to talk, don’t they?”

Shin reached for another scrubby brush. “So who decides ‘what circumstances demand’? When someone is acting in everyone’s best interests and not just out of his own selfishness?”

“Are you suggesting General Thorne is selfish?” Teach asked.

“Yes.”

The scoff behind him made Shin glance down.

Teach was aghast. “You actually admit that?”

“I said only what you’re thinking, Teach. What everyone on this hill is thinking but is too afraid to say.”

A surprising perspective of Godliness I’ve learned from teaching high school (yes, He’s still there)

They come into my room with complaints, always. It’s the nature of teenagers, and because I sit behind the desk I hear it all.

Usually they march right up to me and express how annoying, or rude, or fake, or awful someone is. It’s more important than lunch, more important than study hall, more important than catching the bus after school that I know just how wronged they were.

Sometimes they sit at a desk and vent to another student about so-and-so’s inhumanity, and because teenagers are notoriously loud, I hear all of that too.

Later, more come in and I hear the other sides of the stories—because these students are friends of the horribly offensive one or might even be the offender themselves.

And then I put together the picture based on the selected pieces dropped in front of me, and a new image emerges.

I understand many new angles, a variety of aspects.

Who’s at fault?
Well, all of them.

Who deserves retribution?
None of them.

Who deserves mercy and another chance?
Each and every last one of them.

Sometimes the students demand that I take a side, that I assure them that their anger is justified. I can’t do that, because I’ve seen the backside and know that there is plenty of blame to go around. I’ve never seen anyone wholly innocent.

I think deep down all of them see that too.

Instead, I commiserate with them, tell them I’m sorry they’re dealing with this, then . . . I leave it.

Because I realize they’re not as far apart from their enemy as they think they are. Actually, they’re so close they’re nearly side-by-side, except for this sliver of animosity wedged between them. I’m not going to try to remove that wedge because I see how close they are to resolving it themselves, and the knowledge and growth they get as they do so will be the best learning they’ll have in school.

So I watch, and on a rare occasion call an authority because a law’s being broken, but for 99% of the time I pray silently these silly teenagers get over themselves and move on.

And so far, they have been. Grudges melt away. Enemies share a pencil. Students put on suspension come back with sly smiles and ask, “I’m still your favorite student, right?” (I hesitate to answer that one, every time.)

And this, I’ve discovered, is a tiny glimpse of how God works. We wander into His heavenly room full of complaining prayers, demanding He wreak vengeance for us, tell Him how unfair and unjust life is. He smiles consolingly, wraps His comfort around us, then because He sees just how close we are to solving the problem ourselves, He steps back and lets us flail and muck about, giving us words of encouragement, but not interfering 99% of the time. He knows we’ve got this, if we’ll just calm down enough to hear His words.

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If we accept His perspective and insights, our hearts soften, our anger dissolves, and we leave with our enemies not so enemy-ish (and grateful that God didn’t smite them with a falling piano as we earlier requested).

Then He smiles and hopes that next time we’ll remember to first show a little more mercy, a little more patience, a little more love, a little more Godliness.

“He was very easy to talk to,” Versa said. “He listened to my long descriptions without any expression of surprise or dismay, as if he’d heard it all before. No judgments, no criticisms, just patient listening. Much like I imagine the Creator would listen.”

~Book 8, coming Summer 2018

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How an invasion of ladybugs brought down this pacifist and is making her rethink her stance on guns.

See this photo of our latest snowstorm?

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Look closer—see all the spots on the image when I turn on my camera’s flash?

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Ladybugs.

No, no, no—don’t start saying, “Oh, how sweet!” because they aren’t. Not one bit.

They are everywhere. Hundreds, every single day, springing up in the oddest of places. Usually I find them my bedroom and in kitchen–literally IN the butter dish and in the refrigerator (under the veggie drawer, trying to get to my lime).

 

They don’t respect anything or care where they die. My curtains seem to be their favorite death spot. And our cat is useless against them.

 

Did you know that when you step on them with bare feet, they have the softest crunch? Not as bad as cockroaches, but still very unsettling when, in the middle of the night, you pad clumsily to the bathroom and feel tiny “crunch . . . crunch . . . crunch” under your feet.

This has been problematic for me because I’ve gone on the offensive, vacuuming up these creatures every day—hundreds a day–and every morning the window looks again like this:

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I like to believe I’m a pacifist. I don’t destroy spiders, but back away respectfully and let them have the room until they feel like leaving. I’ve caught mice in past houses and released them into the wild. I have a “live-and-let-live” philosophy: everything deserves life, as much as I do.

Except for hornets. Just the other day I followed a disoriented one who must have come out of hibernation early in my classroom. It landed on the floor and I whacked it repeatedly with a binder, to the cheers of my students. Hornets serve no purpose except to sting me and make my hands swell up.

And ants. They can do anything they want outside, but if they invade the house, they’ll meet my can of Raid and my cries of “DIE! DIE!”

Ok, so I’m a pretty bad pacifist, with a “live-but-not-in-my-house” philosophy.

Funny how circumstances can make you rethink your philosophies, how something hitting close to home—or invading your home—can shift everything.

For example, I hate guns. Always have. I recoil when I see one nearby, and the desire to run for cover overwhelms me.

Until recently, when I realized that as a “permanent substitute teacher” I have a responsibility beyond myself.

Our school has recently been discussing ways to improve safety. New measures began this week, and as I explained them to my students, we naturally joked about how to deal with real threats. (These are teenagers—the only way to deal with heavy issues is to make them lighter.) We talked about the door, and how I might be rearranging the classroom to put me nearest the door, in to open it first whenever someone knocks.

A student said, “So that means you get to die first? Mrs. Mercer, how’s THAT supposed to help us?”

Before I could answer with, “Gee, I really don’t know. I hadn’t considered that,” another student suggested, “Seeing her get shot gives us half a second to realize what’s happening so we can hide under our non-bulletproof desks.”

“But if Mrs. Mercer had a gun,” someone said, “she could take out the shooter and save us all!”

Shockingly, I found myself smiling at that.

Wait, what?!

No. No, no, no I hate guns. I don’t even like their shapes. But suddenly, looking at all of my students who daily test and try me, but who I love far more than I ever thought I would, I wavered.

Would I try to take out their shooter? I like to think I’d rush him, like a manic mama bear, screaming and flailing and maybe doing some good before I was cut down.

But if a gun appeared in my hands at that moment—and I knew what to do with it—would I use it in a situation where I thought my students were in danger?

Shockingly, I just might.

Oh, I know all of the arguments against guns—I’ve written them all in my head. Every time I read about an accidental shooting, or another child finding a loaded gun, or someone else being careless and causing injury or death, I point it out to my husband and say, “Again, THIS is why I insist you keep the ammo and guns separate.” He does. It took him years to convince me to let him have any weapons at all.

I’ve always maintained that I would rather lay down and die in front of a gunman, instead of risking taking someone else’s life. Especially if there was the possibility of my misreading the situation and using a weapon on an innocent bystander. Judging a life-or-death situation accurately in a moment’s notice is difficult for highly trained soldiers and police. They sometimes get it wrong, despite all their experience.

But someone like me? Untrained and emotional and terrified? I wouldn’t trust myself to make the right decision. That’s why I’d prefer to lay down and let happen whatever would happen. God will sort it all in the end.

But as a teacher—even a mere permanent substitute—it’s not just my life in that classroom. I’m a pseudo parent for every child in that room, and I have to consider, “What would each of those parents expect me to do for their child?” I still hate guns. I never want to hold one, but . . .

I’m wrestling with that idea as I vacuum up yet another batch of invading ladybugs.

Only a year ago, I would have carefully rescued the stray ladybug I found in the house and escorted it outside, not unceremoniously suck them up and throw them into 22 inches of new snow.

Circumstances have changed, and I’m changing too.

And I’m still debating if that’s a good thing or not.

Mrs. Yordin chased after Mahrree. “Don’t you dare interfere with my soldiers!”

Mahrree stopped. “Your soldiers? Eltana, no one in Salem owns anything, especially soldiers! But this is what it’s about for you, isn’t it? Revenge for Gari? You don’t care one bit for these people. You never really tried to live the Salem way. You harbored resentment and anger all this time, and now you’re using these gullible people to try to, what, kill Lemuel Thorne? Is that your goal?”

“Yes!” Mrs. Yordin declared. “For me AND for all these people, and even for you, Mahrree! We kill Thorne, we change the world.”

“Change it to what? Not all change is for the best, Eltana, I promise you. The kind of place where bitter old women like you get their way and peace-loving people suddenly want to know how to bleed a man to death is not a place I’d want to live in!”

Mrs. Yordin folded her arms. “You were always so self-righteous,” she announced smugly. “Always had to tell everyone else what they were doing wrong and why nothing was ever right. No wonder the world forced you from it. They were sick of listening to you. Everyone in Edge was. And now you’re breathing your sanctimonious ranting here.”

“Yes, I am.”

~Book 8, The Last Day, coming Summer 2018

Book 8 teaser: Your heritage doesn’t determine your legacy, and that’s a good thing.

As a 10th grade English teacher, I learn a lot about students from their writing. I read about divorces, neglect, drug use, alcohol problems, and misery.

And I hold all of their words sacred. They’ve trusted me with them, and they could write about something easier, but they share what eats at them. They have to, before it consumes them.

My students likely don’t realize how much they’re revealing, but maybe they do. Maybe they hope someone’s paying attention when they write, “But that’s not who I want to be. I plan to be different.”

And I write back to them. “I know you’ll be different. You’re amazing already.”

They apologize for turning in work late—someone was kicked out of the house in the middle of the night, someone was taken away by the police, someone was using again, someone didn’t pay the electricity bill, an elderly guardian was afraid of the snow and didn’t want to send the child out into more danger—

I smile and say, “Whenever you can get it to me.”

“I will,” they say with determination. And they do. And it’s good.

My heart seizes nearly every day. Yesterday a student, with tears in her eyes, said, “Today’s my last day. My dad got custody again and I’m moving to his town this weekend.” Her best friend sat in the corner, weeping.

I realize I have no real problems—none at all. The ones I have are merely stubbed toes compared to the severed arteries these students walk around with, smiling bravely and vowing to be better to the world than it’s been to them.

I wish them luck. I pray silently for them, asking for inspiration as to how I can help. All I get back is, “Show them love. They need someone to love them.”

I know some people who take great pride in their heritage, brag about their legacy and ancestors, sit arrogantly on the shoulders of giants as if they climbed there all by themselves.

Then there are others who have crawled out of pits their families have dug, and they wipe themselves off and declare, “My children will never know of this place.”

I stand in awe of the second group.

Since I’ve moved to Maine last year and was asked to be a permanent substitute teacher (I love that oxymoron), I’ve taught my students probably a dozen things. In return they’ve taught me thousands.

I have a lot of catching up to do.

“I’ll remind her every day that her heritage doesn’t determine her actions. She’ll be the best beginning of a new legacy.”

~Book 8, The Last Day, coming Summer 2018

best beginning BOOK 8 teaser

Can God, the master plot builder, write you and me a happy ending, even if we’ve messed up the story?

Recently a friend and I were chatting online about a most stupid and aggravating character (Young Pere in “The Soldier in the Middle of the World”). Those of you who are reading it know that Young Pere keeps getting caught up in his own ideas of how things should be. Despite warnings and promptings, he insists on doing things his way, to disastrous ends.

My friend remarked, “I hate to admit that in so many ways, Young Pere mirrors my life.”

I had to agree. Far too often I’ve counseled God–told Him how I expected things to be–instead of taking counsel from Him. That’s how I got so much material for Young Pere—my own arrogant mistakes.

But then I told my friend, “The best part, though, has been writing salvation for him. Bringing in characters who help him, then developing for him an ultimately happy ending. Nothing has been more satisfying!

I could barely type those words before something big and beautiful bloomed from them: the idea that if I can so readily write a good ending for a character, couldn’t God also take my messed-up storyline and craft a happy ending as well?

I won’t detail my mistakes (it’s not THAT kind of blog) but I’ve made a few whoppers, and we’re still reeling, many years later, from some huge financial errors. So often I’ve decided there isn’t any hope, that this problem which grows yearly will go with me to my grave (the only way we’ll eventually be free from it).

But lately I’ve had this little niggling in the back of my head: What if there is a solution? What if God has seen the disasters caused by my younger arrogance, and has been quietly working on a subplot these past few years that will eventually surface and provide a glorious solution?

Then came to me the thought, “That’s exactly what I do. If you pay attention, eventually you’ll find it.”

In Moses 1:39 He says, “For behold, this is my work and my glory–to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.”

His “glory” is helping us secure a happy ending. Talk about a satisfying project!

I’ve written before that God’s the master plot builder, that through His twists and turns and even deus ex machina, He literally is the God in the Machine, frequently providing solutions and answers and lessons and growth that we never would have sought out for ourselves.

And He even provides miracles.

Daily.

Little ones. Big ones.

He hasn’t ceased to be a God of miracles.

And maybe, just maybe, He still has a few plot twists and miracles waiting for me. Perhaps even a most epic and glorious ending. Because, honestly, there’s nothing more wonderful than making a happy ending.

And I’m betting He’s got one for you, too.

 

You look so tired, Young Pere. So weary, my sweet boy. Did you ever have a day of peace in the world?

“No,” he sighed. “Not that I remember.”

Then isn’t it time to let go of the world?

Young Pere let the words wash over him, some remote part of him beginning to accept that maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea.

Isn’t it time to try someone else’s ideas for a while? The Creator has a plan for you, Young Pere. It’s been revealed to me, and my sweet boy, it’s wonderful!

He rubbed his face.

Do you trust me, Young Pere?

~Book 8, the final installment, coming in Summer 2018 (well, that’s the hope right now . . .)

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