The Final Task of the Mama Bird

 

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As we pulled into the highway that would take us back home last Friday, after moving our youngest daughter into her college dorm, my husband asked, “Did you get to do everything you wanted to Mama?” I knew he was asking about setting up the room, having a quick supper, making sure our daughter knew where the stairs, laundry, post office, market and health services were, all those preparations that would give her a good start on this journey away from parental guidance toward independence. But the hot tears that sprang from my eyes betrayed the truth that no, I had not gotten to do everything I wanted to.

I wanted more baby snuggles and snuffles. I wanted more fat, dimpled fists, belly laughs, chunky little feet and round, un-self-conscious bellies. I wanted more faltering first steps, more crayon portraits, more high-chairs graduating to booster seats and cribs to bunk beds. I wanted my house filled with giggling, decorated holiday batches of cookies, birthday cakes in front of glowing faces and sparkling eyes, hands gracefully holding back long, dark tresses from icing and flame; those same graceful hands dancing over the keyboard or placing bows to strings. I wanted more Narnia, more Hogwarts, more orchestra concerts, more sleepovers and prom gowns, more first days of school, first cars, first dates.

But those times are past and I must dry my tears and look to the future. After all, this is the time my husband and I have been looking forward to for twenty-four years, since we first learned we would be parents. We are grateful for the children we have and the people they have chosen to be. Some of our friends and family have lost children along the way, to accidents, to disease, to unfortunate and deadly choices. And some friends and family members have children who will never be able to live independent lives for a variety of reasons. They have their own joys, and different kinds of hope, journeying down the roads that are their lives, so I am daily reminding myself to be grateful.

Grateful for the joy in all the times I have shared, and will share with my grown daughters. Grateful for the hope that I felt twenty-four, twenty-two and nineteen years ago and all the years since as I’ve watched my daughters mature and blossom into the delightful, thoughtful, compassionate, independent young women they are. Grateful for the peace I have knowing they made it safely through childhood, and while adulthood has its own share of frights and faults, I am at peace knowing we’ve done the best we could to prepare them to make the lives they want for themselves. Were we perfect parents? A resounding no! Have they made, and will they make mistakes? Of course! That’s life. But we learn from those mistakes and so I am grateful for them as well. And I am grateful for all the light moments we have shared, moments of faith and laughter, moments of relief from pain and fear after months of illness and several years of loss.

One of my favorite episodes of The Andy Griffith Show is “Opie, the Birdman,” in which Opie accidentally kills a mother bird with his new slingshot. He places her orphaned baby birds into a cage where he feeds and cares for them as best he can. With Opie we watch the birds grow and when they begin flopping around in the cage, trying to fly, Andy tells Opie there is one more thing the mother bird would have done for her babies, and that is to let them go. Opie reluctantly acknowledges that he knows its time, but he worries, “What if I haven’t done something right? What if they’re not ready?” Andy assures him they are ready. Opie opens the cage and carefully lifts out each fledgling, calling them by name, Wynken, Blynken and Nod, and hoists them into the air, watching them soar away from him, never to return to the cage. He sadly looks back at the cage and remarks on how empty it is, but wise Andy, with a brilliant and knowing smile, turns Opie’s attention away from the vacant cage, declaring, “Yes, but aren’t the trees nice and full!”

We’ve released the last of our fledglings. Wynken is engaged to be married soon, working in her father’s business, Blynken embarked on her teaching career this month, and was very proud to send us a pic of her first paycheck, independent at last, and Nod, well, she’s spreading her wings and taking to the skies of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

My nest is empty, for now, but aren’t the trees nice and full?!

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Lessons From the Garden

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I’ve heard it said that gardening is good for the soul. Almost every year of my life I have had a vegetable garden and certainly always enjoyed eating fresh produce from it, but I never cared much for tending the garden. As a child it was one of my chores to weed the garden, but of course that is never much fun, not like picking tomatoes or corn or cucumbers or squash.

My husband used to call me a deist gardener, because I would do the work of soil preparation, plant the seeds, fertilize and water – set the whole thing spinning in motion – and then step back to let whatever was going to happen, happen. After spending a school year with one-hundred or so sixth graders, and trying to catch up during the summer on all the housework, home projects, my own children, and much-needed rest, I just never seemed to have time to maintain what I started in the raised plot I called our family garden. But this summer, my first summer in retirement, I have not only set the garden in motion once, twice, only to have my tender squash blossoms, okra blooms, and almost ripe tomatoes gobbled up by voracious deer, but I have actually begun all over again the third time this year, this time, using ample amounts of a natural deer and rabbit repellent spray, apparently made of rotten eggs, and touted as a liquid fence. We’ll see how that goes. Meanwhile, with quiet time weeding and turning soil and planting again, I’d like to share with you some lessons life in my garden has taught me:

  1. There are some things I cannot do anything about. When I acknowledge that, it takes the pressure and stress off me to change what I cannot change and lets me be more focused and productive on what I can.
  2. I compost. Coffee filters and grinds, egg shells, peach and potato peelings, bruised bits of tomatoes. It’s not pretty or sweet smelling during the rotting process, but once the process is complete, that stuff sure makes everything my garden produces prettier and sweeter and in the end, enriches my garden and benefits me.
  3. No matter what, if I really want a garden and all its benefits, I’m going to have to put in time and energy. And be very patient.
  4. If it’s not the rabbits, it’ll be the deer, and if not the deer, birds, and if not birds, caterpillars. There will always be someone ready to dismantle my work and take the fruits of my labors, but if I want the garden, I’ll plant anyway, and do the work, and do it again if I have to.
  5. There are going to be weeds. I don’t have to pull them all at one time but the longer I leave them, the deeper the roots, and the more nutrients they will take away from the plants I do want to produce. Pull the weeds. Early. Roots and all.
  6. Water, water, water. If it doesn’t rain, I have to water. There is a point of no return, when the garden has gone too long without water, when the damage is done and there is no recovery possible. I try not to get there.
  7. There is a season for everything. I might plant something out of season that will take root, but it won’t produce. Enjoy the pleasures each season brings and take them in their turn.
  8. Chemicals may help short term, but they have long-term downsides. I try not to rely on them.
  9. The garden is a great place to center and be in the moment. I frequently pause and focus on each sense, naming what I see, smell, feel, taste and hear. A good way to stop worrying about the past or the future and just enjoy the moment.
  10. The soil can be stripped of nutrients and energy, and must have a time to rest and renew, just like me, or it becomes barren and unable to yield. Just like me.

So, how does your garden grow? Share in the comments what your garden produces, physically or metaphysically. I’d love to hear from you.

Friends, in this gardening season, I wish you joy as you tend and cultivate the garden that is your life, hope for what may come, peace with what you have, and light to see the results of your labors.

Into the Mystic…

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It has been a reflective summer for me, the first since 1970 I have not spent these precious weeks anticipating the coming school year, either as a student or as a teacher. I have had time to pull weeds and plant flowers in the beds Edward built for me twenty-four years ago. I have taken many morning walks accompanied by bird-song and lake breezes. I started playing tennis with  a very gracious group of ladies and gentlemen who have played forty or more years and who have been quite patient and encouraging with this beginner. I’ve had time to work in my vegetable garden, even though the deer have pillaged it twice.

My professional career as a teacher is ended and although I miss my students, my curriculum and the teachers I worked with, I am grateful for reduced stress, increased rest, and a healing sense of my own worth after feeling like an exhausted, cracking cog in the relentless testing machine (that used to be public education) for too long.

Our oldest daughter is learning my husband’s trade and looking to the future as a self-employed business owner while making forever plans with her boyfriend. Our middle daughter graduated college in May, has made several road trips with friends, moved out of our home and in with her older sister, and recently signed her first teaching contract. Our youngest daughter has completed high-school and will leave in one month for university life. Several times when we were the only ones in the house for a couple of hours, she and I have made a gigantic bowl of salty, buttery popcorn, iced down a large Coca-Cola, and put on a movie to watch, chattering through it as friends will do, enjoying each other’s air-conditioned company in these last long, lazy, hot days before she leaves.

So what now? I am in an area I don’t have a map for, no lesson plans, no papers to grade, no meetings to attend, no testing or technology trainings, no continuing education credits to earn, no certifications to renew, nothing on the horizon, no goals I am accountable for to any supervisor or administrator. The pavement has ended. There are no more street lights. No road signs. I’m not even sure there is a road. And still I am moving forward, into a murky unknown, wondering what the future will reveal to Edward and me and our girls.

And I’m okay with that.

There are things I want to do, things I am doing. Places I want to go. People I want to spend time with. I have never cared for the idea of a bucket-list, so I’m not making lists, nor am I anticipating kicking the bucket, although undoubtedly that is part of the misty future. Squared that away six years ago with a cancer diagnosis, and as my friend Kim says, “If that’s what gets me, at least I know how I went!”

My goals now would never appear in a Personal Development Plan like the ones I had to fill out and submit for approval every year of my professional life nor would they be acceptable if they did. They are not measurable by any test, and they don’t tie in to any standards except those of my own making. They can’t be bubbled in or scanned, nor are they observable to the infrequent clip-board or laptop-bearing visitor. They are:

Share joy. Seek hope. Pursue peace. Lift light.

It is so hard to not anticipate, when I have spent my whole life looking forward. Planning. Knowing in detail what was coming next, what was on the calendar. But this time is for the moment. The now. The future will come of its own and too quickly be the past. I like the way Van Morrison describes it in his 1970 recording, “Into the Mystic” :

Hark, now hear the sailors cry, smell the sea and feel the sky,

Let your soul and spirit fly, into the mystic…

Wishing you unexpected joy, unquenchable hope, peace that passes understanding, and reflective light for the murky places you may encounter on your own path.

 

God Takes Notes

 

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In 1985 I eloped to New York City and married a man my parents did not approve of for many reasons, but he told me many times every day he loved me, and because I was a naive 20-year old, I thought that meant he loved me. Turned out, not so much. We returned from the city and moved away from home to finish our college degrees. After graduation, when I accepted my first teaching position, he moved in with his girlfriend. That went as might be expected and our divorce was finalized January of 1991.

Also in 1985, while at university, I would occasionally run into a lifelong acquaintance, Edward. He and I had grown up in the same church and had always known each other, although our age difference made courtship inappropriate as kids. Once when we passed each other on campus and spoke briefly, Edward later told me he had commented to himself, “Thank you God I’m not married to her. She’s so miserable!” And God, hearing His name, took note.

What He and I knew, that Edward could not know, was that I had admired Edward throughout my childhood. When we were in elementary school I watched for him on the side walk, in the halls, the library and the cafeteria. In town I looked for his Mustang. At church I watched for him at the water fountain and even joined the choir in 8th grade so I could be closer to him and have the additional chance to see him at Wednesday evening choir practice. I never had any real hope that he could ever be romantically interested in me. Then he graduated high school and left for college, and after earning his degree he moved to Nashville, TN. I finished my degree, secured my first professional position, filed for divorce and took my miserable, heart-broken self home.

A few months later, Edward was laid off from the company where he worked and he also came home and God set about healing my misery and my broken heart. We both rejoined our home church and choir and struck up an adult friendship that has brought us many wonderful times, as well as carried us through some incredibly rough patches in life. It has also been the foundation that made a home for our three daughters to grow up in. Next month we will celebrate our twenty-sixth anniversary. Although he never said the words, “I love you,” until after we were married, I knew from the way he spoke to me and treated me that his love and affection were deep and true, not just a momentary feeling, but a commitment to a loving way of life.

I admire Edward as a tennis player, a musician, a handsome and honorable man, a hard worker, a respectful and dutiful son, a loyal friend, and a caring and kind husband. On this day when we celebrate fathers, I honor him for being a father who would love his children unconditionally, be patient and thoughtful of them from the moment he was aware of their presence in his life, cuddle, diaper, rock, and walk them as infants. He cooked for me and kept our house running when I went into labor early and was put on bed rest. He went to all my doctor appointments and attended the birth of all his girls. He made up little songs for them, played games with them, told them stories, listened to their chatter, welcomed their friends, encouraged them, and shared the lessons he had learned along the way, offering, not insisting, suggesting, not dictating, and allowed them the space and freedom to figure out their own gifts and find their own way. I never doubted that if something happened to me, Edward would be able to finish rearing our girls with grace, faith, patience, and love. He is not perfect, but he’s the best he can be more often than not, and he demonstrates the ancient word “husband,” – house bond, or, the one who bonds the home together.

Not everyone has the fortune to grow up with such a daddy, and surely many suffer neglect and abuse at the hands of those they call “father.” I am grateful today that our girls, young women now, have had this example and model of what a good father, a good husband, a good friend, a good man looks like and how he behaves. And I am grateful for the little screenshot Edward shared with me, “Thank you God I’m not married to her!” Sometimes the world is confusing and confounding, chipping away at our peace of mind, casting shade across our light, crushing our joy, and snuffing out our hope. But God, our Heavenly Father, takes note of what we need, sometimes even granting us the desires of our hearts, maybe even with a little chuckle along the way.

May He grant you joy, hope, peace and light, a laugh to lighten the load, and good memories in rough times until the path straightens and points you to a brighter view.

Gather Moments While You May

Our youngest daughter graduated from high school today, the high school that was our biggest county rival thirty-six years ago when I graduated. When we moved into this house in 1994, I wasn’t thinking then about what high school my as-yet-non-existent children would got to. I wasn’t thinking, Oh, now we’ll have to say Go Patriots, instead of Go Vikings! I didn’t think about green and gold instead of blue and white. I didn’t think.

But today I’m thinking. I’m thinking about how quickly time goes. I’m thinking about Philip, the classmate who drowned a few days before our June 10 graduation. I’m picturing that empty chair next to me that muggy June night, and how he will forever be eighteen, while those of us who have survived have turned mostly grey. I can still hear the chorus singing Paul Anka’s, “Times of Your Life,” which I thought so sadly, sappily sweet at the time, but which now makes me cry because there is so much truth in the lyrics, something we could not know that night:

The laughter and the tears
The shadows of misty yesteryears
The good times and the bad you’ve seen
And all the others in between
Remember, do you remember
The times of your life?

Most of us are parents, many are grandparents. Some of us attended each other’s weddings, comforted each other when divorce or death ended those plans, celebrated college graduations, new jobs, new homes, new families. We have observed moments of silence at reunions for those who passed between-times. We have prayed each other through cancer, car wrecks, heart attacks, loss of parents, and children, and kept up with each other through changes in jobs, homes, names, the changes time brings. But mostly the last thirty-six years are misty, filled with the laughter and tears, the good times and the bad that we experienced on our own personal journeys.

We graduated before Columbine, when kids and teachers kept their shotguns and rifles in their trucks or cars, even bringing them to school to show each other, prepared for the next hunting trip or target shooting session. We graduated before Facebook and Snapchat and Instagram, before the world-wide-web, before cell phones. Many of us who cared to have stayed in touch, through letters, emails, calls and texts, sharing highlights of the times of our lives, and remembering.

And it will be the same for my daughter. Most of her classmates will become parents and eventually grandparents. They will celebrate weddings, graduations, jobs, homes, families, friendships, and they will find comfort in lifelong friends when they need a shoulder or an ear, a sympathetic heart who can recall the laughter and the good times, when times are not so good. They will dance and grieve, pray and hope, weep and exult.

In a sadly similar situation, my daughter lost a classmate this week. His mother accepted his diploma today when his name was announced, and she will somehow live through his funeral service tomorrow at the same high school where he would have graduated today.

For whatever time these 2019 graduates have on this Earth, they will feel the same feelings humans have always felt. They will shed tears. They will laugh together. They will have moments of chaos, confusion, anger and frustration, and if they can just hang in there until the storms exhaust themselves, likely they will experience moments of absolute tranquility, of serenity, of their own peace and joy. They will share meals, lift glasses to cheer each other and the new friends life brings, and eventually they will observe moments of silence for those classmates whose journeys are concluded.

And they will remember…

 

Last Man Standing…

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Uncle Joe was one of nine children born to my maternal great-grandparents: Gilliard, Dorothy, Janey, Lena, Jacob, Annie, Joe, Hubert and Betty Ann. From a small town in Alabama, they all answered the call to serve our nation and all of them survived to return and make civilian lives for themselves. Of the nine, Joe lived closest to the land, raising his garden year after year, putting up quarts of tomatoes, corn, beans and peas, soup starter, peaches, apples and a variety of other vegetables and fruits that would carry he and his family through the winter. He also enjoyed hunting. It was at Uncle Joe’s table that I first tasted venison, and it was delicious, well-seasoned, well-prepared. Uncle Joe was a prepper before prepping was popular, when everybody prepped because, well, that’s what they did.

I guess that was why it chafed him so badly when he offered to serve his country and they insisted he go where they sent him and stay there until they sent him elsewhere. He was a G.I., but G.I. Joe he was not. The story has been told that he missed his mother’s cooking so badly that he would sneak off his guard duty post and run home through the woods for a few meals, and then head back to camp with biscuits and cornbread filling his pockets. After being reprimanded for this a couple of times the Army realized it could not break Joe of this annoying habit and so put him on a ship, a place from which he could not run. The first shore liberty he received, his feet had barely hit solid ground when he spied his older sister Dorothy, an Army Captain, walking down the street ahead of him. He ran up to her and whisked her up in a big, brotherly bear hug, for which he was again punished, this time assigned to chipping paint off a destroyer scheduled to receive a fresh new coat. Apparently G.I.s weren’t allowed to come into physical contact with officers, even if the officer was his sister.

Uncle Joe’s next assignment was on a cruiser in the Pacific, the last place he could run away from or get into trouble with his siblings because he did not receive shore leave in the Pacific theater. Joe was put to work in the kitchen. One morning a curt young officer approached Joe as he was cooking breakfast and stated, “The Captain would like butter on his eggs.” Without looking up, Joe responded, “You can tell the Captain he’ll get his eggs just like everybody else,” and as he finished the sentence, he turned to find himself face to face with…the Captain. And that is how he found himself chipping paint again, only this time in the Pacific instead of the Atlantic, exhausting work and much harder than scrambling eggs or peeling potatoes.

And perhaps that explains why Uncle Joe slept through battle stations a few days later when the ship came under attack. He tried to explain he was just so worn out from the intense heat and labor that he simply did not hear the alarms. This time he was court-martialed, and although the details are unclear exactly what his punishment was, I know he finished out the war without any more stories, at least no stories he would tell his great nieces and nephews.

I only saw Uncle Joe a couple dozen times in my life. We lived so far apart, and once I was married I never went back to Alabama with my mother and aunts for the annual family reunion, with the covered-dish dinners, 4-part hymns around the piano, little cousins spread out on palettes wall-to-wall at Aunt Annie’s or Aunt Dot’s. Over the years, there were less and less siblings of that large family to gather with. Uncle Joe did come up to North Carolina once a few years ago with his sister Dorothy, Aunt Dot to me, and my husband finally got to meet him and listen to his stories and see his great beaming smile. Aunt Dot passed away a couple of years later, and that left Uncle Joe, the last of the nine siblings.

Uncle Joe suffered a stroke three weeks ago and passed a week later. He has rejoined all his brothers and sisters now, as well as his wife and all his in-laws, and my Grandaddy and Granny Hogue. I imagine there is great joy in that reunion, and probably quite a bit of 4-part harmony in the hymns they’re now singing, in that place of eternal light, where there is no longer the need for hope, and where they practice war no more.

As I saw the flags lining the main drive on my way to town this morning, I thought again of all those good people, and gave thanks for their willingness to risk everything, to sacrifice their health and potentially their lives so that I, and my children, could enjoy the freedoms we have today because, well, that’s just what they did.

Thank you, Uncle Joe, for your service, even if it was reluctant at times, for the light in your smile, and the joy you spread through your stories and your memories. And many thanks to all those families who observe an empty place at the table this Memorial Day, who continue to burn the light of hope, who dare approach each day with joy, until the time we all rejoice that at last there is peace on Earth.

 

Try a Little Tenderness

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Harry Woods, born in 1896, could attribute much of his success in the music business to his mother’s guidance and encouragement. Born without fingers on his left hand, his mother, herself an accomplished singer, encouraged Harry to learn to play the piano, and he developed his incredible talent covering much of the keyboard with his right hand, while hammering out a bass rhythm with his deformed left hand.

Harry was so successful as a piano player and vocalist that he put himself through Harvard singing in choirs and hiring himself out as a musician in various groups and bands. When he was drafted into WWI, despite his handicap, he began to write music in his free time. Once the war ended he moved to New York City and began to make a living as a songwriter, crafting dozens of great Tin-Pan Alley and depression-era hits, such as “I’m Looking Over a Four-leaf Clover,” “Paddlin’ Madeleine Home,” “When the Red, Red Robin Comes Bob-bob-bobbin’ Along,” and “Side by Side.”

Because of his malformed left hand, because of being drafted into “the war to end all wars,” because of the difficult economic times he lived through, Harry Woods had plenty of reasons to be down, to wonder, “why me?”, but he chose to adopt a life philosophy that accepted the hard things life seemed to toss his way, and reached out with his music to lift up and encourage those around him, living through many of the same difficult circumstances.

One of my favorite Harry Woods’ songs is “Try a Little Tenderness,” published in 1932, and covered by many greats, including Otis Redding and Three Dog Night. I don’t know, but I imagine that through the post-war years and the Great Depression, Woods must have felt tremendous compassion for the wives and girlfriends also affected by those tough economic times. In the lyrics, Woods urges men, husbands, boyfriends, fathers, brothers, to be gentle with the women in their lives:

She may be weary, women do get weary, wearing the same shabby dress,

And when she’s weary, try a little tenderness.

You know she’s waiting, just anticipating, things she may never possess,

While she’s without them, try a little tenderness.

It’s not just sentimental, she has her grief and care, and a word that’s soft and gentle,

Makes it easier to bear.

You won’t regret it. Women don’t forget it. Love is their whole happiness.

It’s all so easy.

Try a little tenderness.

It’s really good advice for all of us. As the saying goes, we should be kind to everyone we meet because we never know what kind of battle each one is facing. It’s not easy, waking up each day to look for joy. Some days it just seems more and more elusive, and the smiles do not come as easily. The light itself is so dim it is more discouraging to seek and see it than it is to just stare into the darkness. It is so tempting to give up hope in some circumstances, to snarl back, to growl, to snap in self-defense.

So what do we do? We try a little tenderness, with ourselves, with others. In my last post I wrote about forgiveness. It is so much easier to write about than to offer sometimes, and often it is most difficult to extend it to ourselves and accept it.

Whatever your situation today, whether the sun is shining brightly for you, or if you’re in a deep, dark cavern with no visible way out, try a little tenderness, with yourself and whoever might be there beside you. If what you’ve been doing is taking you along a joyful path, be sure to speak tenderly to those along the way who don’t seem to be making forward progress. You may just shine a little hope and light on the route that helps them get moving again. If what you’ve been doing has your wheels spinning, maybe it’s time for a little tenderness. Remember, “a word that’s soft and gentle makes it easier to bear.”

Thanks Harry…I needed that.

 

As we forgive those…

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On my birthday I had lunch with my father.

That doesn’t sound too momentous, but there was a time, years ago, when that would have been a bridge I would have thought impossible to cross. For twenty-nine years we have been friends, but for the first nineteen years of my life we built a steady and sturdy resentment against each other that finally caused a six-year stalemate during which we had no communication. The details are not important now.

What is important is that we let it go.  We let go of bitterness that was poisoning each of us. We let go of the hateful and hurtful things we had said. We forgave each other and became friends.

What was the catalyst for this transformation? How could it all just suddenly not matter?We could have continued not speaking, not sharing holidays, not observing birthdays, not giving thanks for the lives we have because of each other, and life would have gone on for us both. But there came a Sunday morning during church, as I was repeating the Lord’s Prayer, when I said the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and I heard those words as I had never heard them before. They spoke to me. And if I wasn’t forgiving, then I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, be forgiven. And I not only needed to extend forgiveness – I needed to ask for forgiveness. It took me almost a month, but I finally worked up the courage to call my father. We spoke for the first time in six years, agreed to meet soon, and did, and have remained in at least weekly contact since then.

I recognize it might not be that easy for everyone. Sometimes it is impossible to re-establish contact for a variety of reasons. Perhaps a name has changed and the new name is un-known. Perhaps there has been a relocation and the new residence is unknown and internet searches just aren’t yielding results. Perhaps there has been a death. Or perhaps what went before created a physically or mentally dangerous situation and it is best to not re-establish contact. But even without contact, there can be forgiveness.

I once read of a teacher who, on the first day of school, assigned her students to bring a potato and a zippered, re-sealable plastic bag for an assignment. The next day those students were instructed to carry the potatoes, in the zippered bags, for the first grading period, and then the lesson of the potatoes would be revealed. Of course some students did not complete the assignment. Potatoes were lost, left on the bus, tossed away in silly games, thrown away as it was evident they were decomposing, etc., but for the students who completed the assignment, at the end of the first term, the teacher asked them to consider the state of the potato. The potatoes were placed on desks and examined. Most were a stinky, rotting mess. As they unzipped their bags, even the students without potatoes were affected by the rotten odor. The teacher then asked the students to reflect on lessons they learned from the assignment. In their responses, students stated that at first it had been novel to keep up with the potato, to talk about it, to explain why they were carrying a potato in a plastic bag, but after awhile, it became a burden, and even though they wished to put it down, they felt the duty to keep carrying the potato. For some, it simply became a habit and they carried it naturally as it became a part of who they were for those few weeks. Most stated they were proud to have been able to keep up with the potato, even as it began to soften and smell bad.

The teacher listened to all responses without comment, and then she explained, “When we hold grudges, and do not extend forgiveness, it’s like these potatoes. Sometimes we get extra attention because of them and we talk about them repeatedly to our friends and family, even to strangers. For some people the grudge becomes a burden, but they don’t want to put it down, to let it go, to forget, to be vulnerable again. They determine to always be mindful so they won’t get hurt or insulted or slighted or left out or misunderstood again. They carry that rotting potato with them and even though it stinks and they’d like to be rid of it, they will carry it as a reminder to never forget. Some people will carry the grudge and never acknowledge the burden it is. The grudge becomes a habit and they put up a wall, not realizing they have walled themselves in with the grudge, and while the person who caused the hurt can’t get in, neither can the hurt one get out.  Meanwhile, the grudges, like the potatoes, continue to rot and fester and smell up our own environment and to affect those around us.” The teacher had given her students a priceless lesson on not being easily offended, as well as the impact and value of forgiveness. She reported that the atmosphere of her classroom changed immediately as students made the connection between the slights, errors and bumps of everyday life with humans, and the bagged potatoes. They realized they had control to discard the potatoes and not have to bear those offensive burdens anymore.

Forgiveness can be hard. The longer we carry that potato, it may seem impossible. Or it might become more comfortable to carry it than to put it down, but if we can find a way to it, if we can allow forgiveness to rule each day, we can have the peace we long for, the joy we crave, and we can not only hope to see light, but we can be light as we bring that peace and joy to our corner of the world.

Excuse me, I think I might need to go clean out my potato bin…

 

A Little Laugh

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“You grow up the day you have the first real laugh – at yourself.”    Ethel Barrymore

There are lots of different kinds of laughs. Chuckles, guffaws, titters, giggles, roars, snickers, snorts, and they all describe the reactions that take us beyond smiles. This past week I had a good laugh with a former student I taught sixteen years ago over something silly I used to do at my school.

The middle school where I spent my last eighteen years teaching had two Lees, me, Mrs. Lee in sixth grade Social Studies, and Mr. Lee in eighth grade Social Studies. Most students assumed we were married and so we played along. Each time we passed in the halls we would greet one another, “Morning darling,” or “Hello dear.”  If anyone asked we told them the truth, but otherwise it was just a running joke that brought a smile to a sometimes very stressful environment.

Fast-forward to this past Tuesday evening when I attended  a presentation by a young lady I taught in 2003. It was a great opportunity to catch up with her, to see one of “my kids” grown and starting her music therapy business, and to learn more about a topic I was interested in. She was endearing, spoke eloquently, sang and played beautifully, and captivated us with stories from her chosen profession. The program ended, she spoke with several attendees, and then as I stepped up to introduce myself her eyes popped wide and she exclaimed, “Mrs. Lee!” and gave me a great hug. We laughed together and I told her how much I admired her talent and how proud I was of her utilizing it and especially of her service with dementia patients. She asked if we live on the north side of our community because she sees Mr. Lee every once in awhile. I told her yes, we’ve been here for about twenty-five years. We finished our conversation, shared hugs once more, and I left. As I started my car I wondered how she knew my husband.

And then it hit me. That silly little joke Mr. Lee and I used to play, was still rolling along, and I laughed out loud. For just a split second she was that innocent little 11-year old, taking in the world around her and organizing her understanding of it according to the evidence she observed, and I was an adult in her life, sharing a morning greeting and a laugh with another adult, oblivious to the questioning eyes looking up to us. And in her mind, we have been connected all these years, Mr. and Mrs. Lee, Social Studies teachers at the local middle school. I pictured her imagining us grading papers together, eating dinner together, riding to and from school together. And I laughed again, loving her as a child, making sense of her own little world.

I circled back through the parking lot. Her husband was standing there talking with a couple of folks who had attended his wife’s program, and I briefly told him the story. Because he had previously been a teacher at the same school, he knew Mr. Lee and me as well, and this brought him a good laugh also, since he had questioned our status when he first came to our school as a teacher. I asked him to shed some light for her, with her, and set straight what had gone amusingly awry all those years ago.

It wasn’t a belly-laugh. We didn’t roll around with tears streaming down our faces at the hilarity of the situation. We simply shared a humorous reaction to a mistaken assumption several years old. It was a light moment, a joyful and peaceful moment, and those moments always come with the hope that there will be many more to follow.

May we all be able to laugh more at our mistakes and at ourselves, and live always expectantly watching for joy and the next reason to smile.

 

Gee means go…

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My father-in-law always called his wife Mary G., but over time the nickname was shortened to just G, (spelled Gee,) and that’s how everyone knew her. And we all knew that Gee meant “go.” Because she was always on the go. Touring Scotland, Ireland, England, and Wales, accompanying her husband on a business trip, shopping, having her nails done, vacationing in their condo at the beach,  playing bridge, singing in the choir at church, or dining in one of her favorite restaurants. At the Bonefish Grill she was such a regular that when she walked in, her server immediately brought out an espresso martini, her favorite. At Christmas, the manager presented her with a box of Godiva truffles. She was always on the go, always having fun, and always prepared no matter the occasion. Her clothes were stylish, her hair chic, her nails perfect and her face smiling. And it was a little family chuckle that Gee and her sister Charlotte graduated from the BOOH School of Driving. (Bat-Out-Of-Hell, that is.) She could tell a good story, had a wickedly sharp sense of humor, and was recognized and admired for her positive attitude. Through the last few years, I recall her saying during many trying circumstances, “I can laugh or I can cry.” It was her protocol, therefore, to look for something to laugh, or at least smile about.

She had grown up the daughter of a railway man, and so even after the stock-market crash of 1929, her family did not face the dire situation many families suffered through. She went with her brother and sister and friends to school and with her family to church. It was there she met a handsome young man who was the new preacher’s eldest son, and in 1946, she married him in that same little church. She finished college as a married young lady, and she and her husband moved to take teaching positions in a nearby county, he teaching History, and she English. A couple of years later, when they started their family, she gave up teaching to rear the five children they would produce, and keep a home for all of them to retreat to at the end of each school day.

On Sunday, Thanksgiving weekend, 2017, she took one last drive, although she had promised herself she wouldn’t drive anymore, to see her children play a family tennis match at a local country club. We received a call that she had failed to complete an almost 90-degree turn, struck a magnolia tree, and was en route to the local ER, where we all rushed. As expected, she was in good spirits, and said she had very little pain, although she had a broken ankle and several broken ribs. A few days in the hospital, then to a rehab unit, and then, we all hoped, home, where she would stay and we would take turns staying with her until she was on her feet again. She was 91 years old.

On Tuesday afternoon some cardiac/respiratory event occurred and from that time she rarely spoke to any of us, but began to see people in the room we could not see and would talk to them instead. She was transitioning although we were not ready to say goodbye.

Our eldest daughter was a senior at university at the time, and was in her final week of exams, but she wanted to see Grandmama, whose middle name she carries. They had a special bond, as one was Big Little Gee, and the other Little Big Gee. I never understood which was which, but I didn’t need to. They understood each other.

At the end of Tuesday’s exam, this granddaughter drove back home and got to the hospital after dark, after most family had said goodnight, and then she waited until she was the last family member in the room. She approached the hospital bed where Gee was propped up on pillows, and spoke quietly, “How are you Grandmama? I wanted to tell you goodnight.” Gee looked into her eyes, but could only smile. Thinking she was probably tired and ready to go to sleep, our daughter asked, “Would you like to lay back Grandmama?” My mother-in-law motioned her closer and Kinsey leaned in. “Yes ma’am?”  “Lie, Kinsey. Chickens lay. People lie.” Grandmama rested into her pillows, staring into Kinsey’s eyes. A proper, gifted English teacher to the end, these were the last words Gee would speak on this Earth, and Kinsey rushed home, delighted to share with her daddy the gem she had been given. This story was also shared at the funeral service two weeks later on December 9. It was the parting gift of a smile that became part of the celebration of this life so joyfully lived, but not the last one, as we stepped out of the sanctuary into huge, fluffy goose-down snowflakes, letting us know she had arrived safely.

The time had come for Gee to go. But when she left, she left us with joy in our hearts, with hope of seeing her again, with peace in our minds, and with the light of her smile in our lives.

 

 

 

We must gather all our courage…

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A light was extinguished this past Saturday afternoon, at approximately 2:15 pm, on a highway on the edge of my hometown.

It was the end of a gorgeous spring day for the classic car show the men’s group of my church sponsors every last Saturday of March to provide for college scholarships and a variety of community ministries. The temperature was low 70s and breezy, with lots of sunshine, beach music and great cars. We generally have every make and model from Model Ts through ’30s coupes, ’40s sedans, several rarities, a few trucks, but oh, the muscle cars. GTOs, Cutlasses, Corvettes, and my favorite, Mustangs. Some are stock, some chopped, some restored. Many of them purr, a lot of them roar and growl. This year we even had a restored motor boat, all wood hull, in pristine condition. We had a record number of entries and raised a record amount of money. The mood was light, the air filled with the smells of hotdogs, hamburgers, and bologna sandwiches off the grill, and there were plenty of ice cold soft drinks. Admiration, stories, and laughter filled the day.

At 2:00 we awarded trophies, took photographs, cheered and applauded all the hard work and loving care that went into these amazing pieces of technology, and the show was over. Engines revved, mufflers grumbled, and everyone headed toward home.

Two of our drivers did not get home though. And one never will.

About two miles down the road another driver crossed the center line and struck a restored 1970 Mustang, went airborne and flipped several times, striking and taking the top off a 1970 Roadrunner, coming to rest several hundred feet down the road. The classic car driver was declared dead at the scene. The other two drivers were transported to the local hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. The accident is still under investigation.

The morning began with hope. Who would win the trophies? What beautiful cars would we see and what fun stories would we hear?

The day was filled with joy. So much laughter, so many shared experiences, so many good memories, delicious food, great music, success with fund-raising to be able to help many people.

The day was peaceful, despite the rumbling, roaring motors. The sunshine baked us all while the spring breeze cooled us. No one rushed. We were just there, relishing the moment.

And yet, one less light shone into the night. I don’t know any of the drivers involved in the accident, but feel tremendous sadness for their families. One lost his car, the result of countless hours of work, a prized possession of a lifetime, and at least for awhile, peace of mind as he makes his way down the road. One lost what had been a relatively carefree existence, as well as her vehicle, and will spend the rest of her days knowing she was responsible for this horrible accident that took an innocent life. And there is that lost life.

When I hear a story like this it always tends to renew my fears, especially for my children, all grown and daily on the road in their own vehicles. I caution them regularly, “Be careful. Keep your eyes on the road. Watch out for the other guy, both oncoming and behind you. Stay alert. Always check twice. Check that blindspot and check it again. Drive defensively. Left-right-left again…”, as though if I can warn against it, it won’t happen. And yet, in a case like this, they can do everything right and still not be able to anticipate and prevent an accident. So what to do?

Do we hide out in the house? Become hermits in order to avoid the chance of a roadway accident? Do we insist on doing all the driving, trying to stay in control of our fate? Do we miss opportunities because of the roads between us and them? Where does good decision-making and careful driving end, and fear take over? And do these fears spill over into other areas of our lives?

Do we avoid starting a relationship because it might crash and burn sooner or later? Do we decline a different career path because we might not like it any better than the one we are now traveling? Do we stay in the same house because it’s so much trouble to move even though we’ve always dreamed of living at the beach, in the mountains, on a lake, in a cozy neighborhood or surrounded by forest? Are we forsaking the pursuit of joy, hope, peace and light because of fear of the unknown and untried? Or because of fear of the known and tried?

One of my favorite musical duos, Seals and Crofts, released a song in 1973, “We May Never Pass This Way Again.” In it they sing,

Like Columbus in the olden days, we must gather all our courage.

Sail our ships out on the open sea. Cast away our fears,

And all the years that come and go, will take us up, always up.

The man who died in that wreck last Saturday will never pass this way again, but as his friends said, he died doing what he loved. I have laughed with a comedian who says, “I don’t want to die doing what I love. I want to die doing what I dislike so I can get out of it.” While I agree with his point, today it gives me a sobering peace to know that at the moment he passed from this life to the next, that driver had gathered his courage, and was pursuing joy. His light is now carried by the family and friends he left behind, providing hope and encouragement in a painful and bewildering time.

May we all sail our ships out on the open sea, and cast away our fears in all the years that come and go, despite the dangers, despite the risk, despite the known, and the unknown, with hope for peace and joy in this life, and the next.

When I grow up…

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What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s the go-to conversation-starter with kids.

After watching the first Moon landing in July, 1969, I only wanted to be an astronaut. I read everything available about outer space. I learned stars and located constellations, and after getting a small telescope for Christmas one year, I began to make my own star charts. I would go outside each night and study the sky, noting changes from season to season. Space fever struck many of my schoolmates as well, and several of us met regularly on the playground to share our experiences of “shooting stars,” and strange happenings beyond the stratosphere. We were fascinated and energized when a television movie aired, Stowaway to the Moon, in which a boy just a little older than us hid out on a rocket to the moon, and after his trials and tribulations, finally made it back to Earth. We were sobered and somber when three cosmonauts died in the summer of 1971 due to decompression within their space capsule.

Nevertheless, my goal was to work for NASA. To soar above the clouds, through the layers of the atmosphere, until I reached space, “the final frontier,” where I would drift from planet to planet, sampling, photographing and noting everything I observed, and, I hoped, meeting beings of all shapes, sizes and colors. I was a huge Star Trek fan, and Ensign Pavel Chekov was my favorite series character, although I had great admiration for Communications Officer Uhura and implicitly trusted “Bones” McKoy.

In 1976, when Star Wars premiered, I was hooked. I had a Star Wars digital watch, Star Wars bedsheets, action figurines, posters, records. I begged my piano teacher to get the sheet music for me, and I learned several pieces from the soundtrack score. I braided my long dark hair and tried to twist it over my ears like Princess Leia, but my glasses spoiled the effect. I saw all of the movies multiple times and bought books about George Lucas’ saga. I collected any magazines or newspapers that yielded more information about the movies or any of the actors from the movies.

In 1977, my space fever ramped to a new level with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a Steven Spielberg production in which people’s lives are turned upside down after contact with aliens from deep space.  Project U.F.O. followed in 1978, a television series that dramatized Project Blue Book, a government study on whether we were indeed being visited and influenced by extraterrestrial civilizations who had gotten to us before we could get to them.

In 1985, I contacted NASA to learn the requirements for their civilian-in-space program, but item #1 on the list knocked me out of consideration immediately. An astronaut had to have eyesight no worse than 20/40, and I had passed 20/1200 before starting high school. I knew President Ronald Reagan was very vocal about schools and businesses encouraging physically-challenged persons to full participation in all vocations, and so with this glimmer of hope I again contacted NASA, explaining that while I was somewhat visually impaired, my vision was easily corrected with prescription lenses and I could serve as the first handicapped civilian payload specialist. After all, I was also training to be a teacher, and NASA was sending Science teacher Christa McAuliffe on board the space shuttle Challenger. NASA kindly declined my offer.

With the explosion of the Challenger, in January, 1986, the civilian-in-space program dropped from NASA’s agenda, and becoming an astronaut disappeared from my personal agenda. While it had been an astronomically long shot anyway, it was now, obviously, an impossible fantasy. I would focus on being the best teacher I could be. The dream was over and I was permanently Earthbound. Perhaps I would teach an astronaut.

Fast-forward thirty-two years, through which I finished school, married and reared three amazing young women, experienced all kinds of joy and heartache, lost and found hope again and again, prayed a lot, laughed a lot, and cried a lot, changed a lot, taught a lot. I haven’t seen the astronaut yet, but I’ve taught firefighters, nurses, teachers, soldiers, truck drivers, singers, farmers, mechanics, x-ray technicians, photographers, football players, musicians, attorneys, accountants, day care owners, entrepreneurs, bankers, and police officers.

I’m retired now, no longer looking into young faces, asking, “What will you be?” “What fascinates you?” “What gifts do you possess?” “What do you dream of?” Now I look into the mirror each morning and ask my own reflection, “What will you be?” “What fascinates you?” “What gifts do you possess?” “What do you dream of?” The countdown is on, but I have no idea of the departure time.

I just hope before I leave that I can reflect some light, maybe starlight, spread some peace, such as may be found on the dark side of the Moon, and leave a comet-like trail of joyful memories.

*Won’t you consider sharing your own dreams of being “grown-up” in the comments? I’d love to hear from you. Wishing you joy, hope, peace and light…

 

Taking Inventory

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My father-in-law loved people. And people loved him. The son of a Methodist minister, he grew up moving frequently as his father received new church assignments. As a boy this had its downside because in each town the other boys would have to size up the newcomer to find his standing in their school and neighborhood. He learned early to throw a hard first punch to eliminate any further questions.  In his era, this was a common practice, although it might sound shocking to our modern sensibilities. This moving and sizing up served him well in several ways. First, it honed his punching skills, and allowed him to become a Golden Gloves boxer during his service in the Merchant Marines. Second, it forced him to take in a big picture through noise and chaos, and make sense of it by filtering out distracting details, a very useful talent in his life’s work. Third, by the time he left for college he had lived in so many small towns that he already had lots of acquaintances, and was adept at meeting and greeting and making connections, also necessary in his career choice.

Right out of school he became a History teacher and coach, and pretty soon afterwards, a principal. As  county administration took notice of his leadership skills, he was offered the position of Superintendent of the local school system, an office he held for nearly thirty years. During his tenure he consolidated the city and county school systems, then oversaw the building of three centralized high schools within the district, and finally integrated all the schools a year before federal mandates required him to, a move that won him both admiration and notoriety. Because of his obvious care and respect for his neighbors, fellow citizens, and all the teachers, students and families involved, and his unsurpassed diplomatic skills, I have heard he was the only school superintendent in the nation to hold onto his job during the era of consolidation and integration.  He was known for doing the right thing, because it was the right thing to do.

He was also known for his love of sayings. “Always be as pretty as you can be, no matter how ugly you are,” was a favorite that elicited many thoughtful laughs. He frequently greeted me with the question, “How’s your conduct?” and after hearing my review, would respond, “Good report.” If asked how he were, he would often reply, “If I were any better there’d be two of me!”

In May of 1990, while at his kennel training field trial dogs, the house he had built with his wife in 1977 began to burn inside the walls due to wiring that had been slowly melting down after a recent lightening strike. By the time my mother-in-law alerted to the problem, there was only time to grab the dog, her purse, and a tackle-box that contained a few precious mementos, such as the marriage advice his own father had hand-written him, and his Golden Gloves pin. She ran next door to use the neighbor’s phone to call the fire department, but by the time they arrived the house was completely engulfed in flames. My father-in-law arrived shortly afterwards and stood with neighbors and friends watching the house burn while firefighters did their best to extinguish the flames and protect nearby homes.

My husband, their youngest son, had recently moved back from Nashville, and was temporarily living with his parents. He received a call at work informing him that the house was burning, so he quickly drove home to assess the damage. It was obvious at first sight that the home and all possessions were a total loss. And then he spotted his father, laughing to the side with friends who had come to offer comfort and whatever material help the family might need.

My husband, exasperated with the disaster in front of him, and frustrated with his father’s lackadaisical attitude, demanded, “Daddy! What’s so funny? How can you stand here and laugh? Don’t you know your house and everything you own, everything we own, is going up in smoke?” His father, not unsympathetic to his son’s upset, turned to him and placed an arm around his shoulders. “Well Boy, I’m not happy that my house is gone, and I was worried when I first heard what was happening, but then I got here and saw it for myself and I took inventory. Your mother is alright, none of my five children were in there, I’m okay. Even the dog is okay. I’ve got everything that was important to me, so it’s all good.”

In the billowing dark clouds of smoke, the light of that fire had illuminated for all of us what was really most important, and even in the face of loss, there was peace and joy. My father-in-law pointed us to it. Over the next few days, the family was amazed at the outpouring of love and comfort that walked through the front door of their new, short-term rental as they made plans to purchase their next home. People brought food, clothing, and household necessaries, shared stories, hugs and prayers, and offered many words of hope and encouragement. A lifelong practice of reaching out to others generously, in love and respect and kindness, now came flooding back and sustained them in what would have otherwise been a difficult time.

No matter what you are facing today friend, birthday candles or your own all-consuming inferno, I pray you are able to take inventory, to find a moment of peace, a moment of joy, and with hope, to discover that what is most important to you is intact, and it’s all good.

 

I Need to Ask a Favor…

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I received the text February 22, 2016.

Hey Tamara. I have a kind of difficult question to ask and would like you to call if you could. Don’t be too surprised if the answering system comes on. If it does please try calling again over the next several days – I should be home soon. Thanks! Chris

I called Chris back three nights later, but he wasn’t home, and his mom answered his phone. I told her Chris had asked me to call and she explained that he was in the hospital for a follow-up after his January illness. I fumbled a bit, trying to explain that I knew nothing of what had happened in January. I had wished Chris a Happy Birthday on Facebook, January 23, and he had responded, no mention of illness. She told me he had been admitted to the hospital with pneumonia mid-January, stayed a couple of days and went home. And then, with continuing problems, had gone back mid-February and was diagnosed with a very aggressive lung cancer.

Chris had never smoked. He was employed by a local phone company out of college and worked in an office for years, tried substitute teaching but decided not to pursue education as a second career, and had worked on his family farm most recently.

In high school Chris and I had been very close friends, but not romantic. We were in classes together, sang in chorus together, were lab partners in Biology and Anatomy. Chris had good work ethic paired with academic integrity and lived by the rule that if he couldn’t say something nice, he wouldn’t say anything. He was kind to everyone, quiet and polite, and I liked to think we had a lot in common. We were both Sunday School teachers, accompanists at our respective churches, each had a younger sister, and we volunteered in the community.  But the fact is, Chris outclassed me, outworked me, and outshone me in every aspect of our lives, although it was not competition for him. He was just naturally a golden-hearted person. Sometimes I would tease him and tell him what a good monk he would make. He would smile and mildly reply that I’d make a lovely nun. The night we graduated was the last time I would see him for about six years, while our young adult lives took very different trajectories.

When I moved back home to take a teaching position, I began to run into Chris at charity fundraisers and volunteer events in the community. It was good to see my gentle friend again. Seeing him reminded me of the days when we were carefree and I had not yet made mistakes that I still regret, even now, almost forty years later. It was sadly sweet to reminisce when we were “the monk and the nun,” just for our brief social visits.

On Tuesday, March 1, I drove to the hospital after my school day ended. Over the weekend I had researched the kind of cancer Chris had. My own experience with cancer, taught me how a positive attitude was crucial to survival, and how vital it was to remain hopeful. A good friend, another survivor, had taken my hand the day of my diagnosis and promised to walk with me every step of the way, and I was prepared to walk this journey with Chris. After checking in at the nurse station I stepped into Chris’ room. His mother, father and sister were keeping company with him that afternoon. It didn’t seem the right time to ask about the favor he had mentioned in the text. We chatted for a little while and I asked if I could give him a kiss. On the forehead, of course. He smiled and said he would like that. His skin felt cool to me and he asked me to come back Thursday evening so we could talk.

Wednesday came and went, and before I could get to the hospital Thursday afternoon, Chris’ sister posted on Facebook, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” That could not mean what I thought it meant. I tried to call, but no one answered his phone. I drove to the hospital as soon as I could, but his family had already left, and Chris was gone.

What was the favor my friend had wanted to ask? Hot tears spilled over my cheeks as I began to grieve that I would never be able to grant him his favor. What could it have been? Why could he not just text me, or call me, or tell me when I went to see him? For all the years of kindness, respect and honor he had shown me, I would never be able to return those favors or even to thank him.  And we would never celebrate his survival.

My phone rang Saturday morning, and when I answered, I heard Chris’ sister say, “I need to ask a favor.” Tears spilled again, as I told her my anguish that I would never get to grant Chris’ favor, and she cried too as she explained that yes, I would, that was the reason for her call. On the previous Thursday morning, as she was caring for her brother, he took her hand and whispered to her, “I’m going to die soon.” She leaned closer to hug him and he asked her to ask me to play for his funeral. And then he closed his eyes and slipped away as quietly as he had lived. And that was it. That was the favor.

Wednesday morning dawned sunny and cool. The sturdy white church was brimming with family, congregation members, his college roommate, former co-workers, and several of our high school friends. A bagpiper stood in full regalia, ready to pipe Chris to his final resting place. The gospel quartet he had been a member of in life now lifted one of his favorite hymns to the heavens. The pastor told of a man who directed his choir, accompanied his congregation, mentored his young friends and nephews, visited his older friends, baked cakes and pies for his church and his community, and wrote devotions for fellow followers. She spoke of a steady man who honored his family, kept company with the lonely, honed his skills at the piano, and enjoyed much meditation before he passed into eternity, away from the noise of this life. He was not political, followed no celebrities, stirred no controversy, expressed no temper, never made the news, He was fifty-one years old.

All the hymns I played, “When We All Get to Heaven,” “When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” “Beyond the Sunset,” “Sweet By and By,” “I’ll Fly Away,” and “We’re Marching to Zion,” spoke of a time in the future, when I know I will see Chris again, healed and whole. But for now, I need to ask a favor…

If you have a friend who has shown a kindness, tell them what it meant to you. If you have a friend who lifted you up in a dark time, tell them how their light shown a way. If you have a friend who made you smile, return that smile. If you have a friend who shed tears with you, marvel that their heart could feel what yours did, and rejoice at your human connection. If you have drifted from a dear friend, reach out a hand. Today.

We don’t have to have millions of dollars to bring joy to the world. We don’t have to be in an international spotlight to be a light. We don’t have to rub elbows with the politically powerful to bring peace to our corner. And we don’t have know the future to point each other toward hope.

Wishing you all these things today friends – joy, hope, peace and light…

 

Ashes to ashes…

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In the Christian year, yesterday was a special day, Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of forty days of repentance leading up to the highest of holy days, Easter. We are challenged over the next forty days to examine ourselves, our thoughts, motives, actions and words. It is in the excellent practice of reflection that we discover ways we have fallen short. We lament the brokenness in our lives and in our world, and our hearts are wrenched for the pain we see and feel all around us and throughout humanity. No matter the religion we practice, or even if we subscribe to no religion, our human hearts can be broken as we see how our brothers and sisters suffer, physically, mentally, emotionally. And I do sincerely believe we are all brothers and sisters, all part of humanity, all on the way to the same certain fate, ashes to ashes…

Over thirty years of teaching I met many broken young people. Hurting, abused, homeless, angry, frustrated, disillusioned, and while I picture many of their faces in my mind, in this season of reflection I always recall the first truly hungry person I ever encountered. Her salt-and-pepper hair was pulled back in a tight bun, her nails painted bright red, and she was dressed appropriately for the weather. I was a newly-hired cashier at the local grocery, so when she placed several cans of dog food on the conveyor belt, alongside a box of popsicles, I tried to make conversation as I rang up her purchases.

“Does your dog enjoy popsicles?” I asked. When she didn’t answer I looked around to find angry, dark eyes staring from her weathered face. “I don’t have a dog,” she snapped, continuing to glare at me. I glanced down at the dog food and back at her, realizing I’d made a naive assumption, and I had embarrassed her with my silly question. Without saying anything further, my customer counted out a large handful of coins, snatched up her bagged purchases, and left.

The nearby manager, hearing the brief conversation, shrugged his shoulders and explained that the lady had nothing but pride, would not accept groceries he had offered her, and that she regularly went through the store’s garbage dumpster for discarded, stale, spoiled food. I watched for her each shift I worked, but never saw her again. Even as a teenager making minimum wages I felt I could help her, be friendly to her, speak a word of peace into her heart, but I never got another opportunity.

Perhaps you have heard the maxim that we should be kind to everyone we meet, for everyone is fighting a battle. This saying is attributed to Ian Maclaren, the pen name of a minister of the Free Church of Scotland. The lady in my grocery line was certainly fighting her own battle, and even now, thirty-six years later, I wonder what the outcome was. Where did she sleep? Where did she get the change she paid with? Did she have a family? Did she regularly eat dogfood? How was she so neat and clean? Who was she? As I reflect on the one sentence I shared with her, it grieves me still, that in my effort to be funny, I had wounded her.

Reflection is painful, because it forces me to admit where I have wronged others, but it is also healing because it gives me the chance to right wrongs, sometimes even before I commit them. Perhaps St. Francis, of Assisi, Italy, prayed most eloquently what I hope to be the outcome of this most introspective season:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,

grant that I may not so much seek

to be consoled as to console;

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive.

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

 

 

 

 

And in all things…

 

Mental health professionals have made it clear over decades of research that “an attitude of gratitude” is top of the list for good mental health. This is puzzling in a world that seems to encourage us to wallow in our victimhood and glorifies the offended. No one alive has not suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We have all encountered hardships of one kind or another, either through physical abuse, verbal abuse, illness, injustice, harsh treatment and sometimes outright cruelty.

When I was a child and first began to learn about the Holocaust perpetrated by the Socialist Workers Party of Germany, known commonly as Nazis, I was horrified, but all that evil seemed so far away and so long ago. Then, as a high school student, and later a college student, I learned more details through History classes, and finally having two decades to my own history, I realized again with horror that these atrocities had occurred within two decades of my own birth. It took my breath away to learn what had been happening in Europe just a few years before I was born, in modern times, and with air travel available, not really that far away. It made me take a rather dark view of humanity that people could treat other people so cruelly, and also that many people who knew what was going on could just turn a blind eye. Even when I learned about people who had protested, who had spoken up against the Socialist government, who had preached against Nazism, who had countered the Fascists, I only internalized more sadness and despair that they, too, had been tortured, murdered, their voices silenced and the lights of their lives snuffed out prematurely and coldly. How could we humans smile in each other’s face knowing the darkness and cruelty within the human heart?

And then I read Corrie Ten Boom’s, The Hiding Place. Through Ms. Ten Boom’s voice I experienced a first-hand account of life in a concentration camp. She too, after being captured and imprisoned, was at the point of despair and becoming cynical and bitter, when her sister Betsie pointed out that if she could find reasons to be grateful, she could survive and truly live, perhaps experience joy, even in the camp. Although Corrie was outraged at the suggestion, as she listened to her sister’s prayer that night she heard Betsie give thanks for the fleas. This was too much! Corrie angrily interrupted, “How can you be thankful for fleas, this pestilence, this infestation?! We are cold. We are hungry. We have lost our home and our family and are plagued with these biting beasts that draw our blood and take away even peaceful slumber!” Betsie gently pointed out that because the fleas were so bad in the bunks of their shed, the soldiers would rarely come in, and so the girls and women were pretty much left alone. Betsie again bowed her head and continued her prayers, but Corrie, in awe of her older sister’s humility and wisdom, determined that following this lesson she would likewise look with gratitude, for light, for joy, for hope, and therefore bring internal peace to the external violence and hatred all around her.

I have heard it said that what you look for you will find. That doesn’t mean we blithely turn away when we see wrongdoing, cruelty and injustice, pretending we don’t see it because we weren’t looking for it. All these things must be spoken against and we should take action on behalf of those who are incapable of acting and speaking for themselves. Our membership in the human race demands it. In the brief time we are here, however, let’s agree, like sisters Corrie and Betsie, to look for reasons to be grateful, no matter our situation. Let’s shed tears when we must, and share joy when we can. Let’s extend peace when possible, and always, always, bring light to darkness.

red candle
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

And the song of the day is…

In 1989, I signed a contract to begin teaching in the county of my birth. A complete physical was required. I made the appointment, showed up, and was immediately chilled  to hear the LPN say she had detected a lump during my breast exam. I had recently graduated, separated from my husband, moved back home to accept this teaching position, and felt very alone and frightened. My friends were far away and I hadn’t really re-established myself in my former hometown. A mammogram was scheduled. I was 24.

A week passed until the test. Almost another agonizing week of waiting for the results, and then great sighs of relief. The lump was a cyst that would soon resolve itself. I learned I had very dense breast tissue and fibrous cysts that might arise occasionally to cause concern, and which I would need to monitor with regular self-exams. I had no family history and did not smoke, so I was happy to put all that worry down and move on. I didn’t do the self-exams, and figured since I went for annual exams, they would find anything that might need attention.

It makes it easier to understand then, why I was not alarmed to feel the little lump, about the diameter of a pencil eraser, right after my clear mammogram in August of 2012. By October though, it seemed a little bigger, more like a small pea. When I asked my OB-GYN to check it out for me in October, she ordered another mammogram, “just to be sure.” Again, I got the all-clear. In November it seemed more the size of a plain M&M, and again I called my doctor. She ordered an ultra-sound, which lasted for nearly forty-five minutes before I got up from the table, nerves frayed, and again she patted me on the shoulder, comforting me. “Let’s watchfully wait,” she suggested, “And if it gets any larger call me, since the technician really can’t see anything worrisome.” December came and went, winter finally ended, my 48th birthday passed, and the school year ended, stressfully as usual. When I went for my annual exam mid-July, she began the breast exam at the spot we were monitoring, and I saw her face change instantly. “Why didn’t you call me?” she exclaimed. And thus began the most frightening day of my life, July 31, 2013.

Because all three of my daughters were still in school, I was immediately concerned for them and how my illness would affect their lives. I was also especially concerned for my husband who was dealing with health issues of his own and his oldest brother’s recent unexpected death. My mother-in-law’s words came to mind, “We can either laugh or we can cry.” On August 1, I determined that each day I would look for something beautiful, good, cheering, positive, some silver lining that might ordinarily be overlooked in each day’s busyness. While washing breakfast dishes, I heard The Rascals on the radio, “It’s a beautiful morning. I think I’ll go outside for awhile, and just smile, and drink in some clean, fresh air…”.  It became a daily game. What song might characterize my observation or experience for the day, that I could share with my family and friends to encourage them to hope with me? It would be something to look forward to each day, and because my chemotherapy drugs made me nauseated 24 hours a day, for almost two weeks after each treatment, I looked forward to this mental game I could play to keep my mind occupied when the workday was finished, all the laundry done, supper dishes washed and night falling.

One day might be characterized by a hymn, another day, Aerosmith. One day’s inspiration might be Broadway, while another brought forth a medieval madrigal. There was never any predicting where the song might come from, or what time of day it would appear. And with each song came a reflection that I could share with friends on Facebook. The game lasted as long as my chemotherapy lasted, into the middle of December, and then with my father-in-law’s death, the songs stopped coming and the game ended.

While it was a dark time for our family, the light of hope burned, sometimes more steadily, sometimes barely flickering. Through mastectomy and thirty-three rounds of radiation, through baldness and pain and scars and sadness, still the previous joy of the game sustained me and bolstered me, until the burns healed over, the scars stopped aching, and a fine fuzz covered my head. It seemed with the longer light of the new spring, I too might emerge, like the delicate, pale leaves unfolding from the birch branches outside my window.

I don’t know what scars or pain you bear. I don’t know their origin, their purpose, or their destination. I only know we can laugh or cry, and both feel good in their time and both are needed.

Whatever it takes to get you from one day to the next, sometimes one hour to the next, and sometimes even one moment to the next, hang on to this miracle of life. For all its rivers of misery, there are great gushing waterfalls of inexpressible joy tumbling down over our heads, if we will only look up to drink them in. Joy may be in fireworks and raucous parties, but it doesn’t have to be. In my experience, joy is more often found in quiet moments and in still, small voices. Joy may be found in a delicious meal, in a familiar hug or a stranger’s smile. It may be experienced in pulling on a soft sweater, or snuggling into a comfortable pair of shoes. You may locate it in a banking cloud, or hear it in a bird’s chirp. Perhaps you’ll find it gazing into a candle’s flame, or taking a walk just after a summer rain.

And maybe, just maybe, you’ll hear a song that lightens your heart, even for a moment, to give you peace enough to get to the next moment, and the next…

waterfalls

The More Things Change…

planet earth
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

In October, 1967, Louis Armstrong recorded his Grammy award-winning song, “What a Wonderful World.” The song has enjoyed regular air-time since then, and it piqued another generation’s interest when it was included in the movie, Good Morning, Vietnam in 1987.  I have heard it played at weddings and funerals. Oddly, as the song floats out over the air waves in the movie, we view huge explosions and terrified, fleeing people as gunfire and helicopters threaten to drown out the singer’s voice.

The imagery of the lyrics paints a picture of an idyllic society of mutual love and respect, of appreciation and care for the natural world. Fifty-two years after the release of “What a Wonderful World,” it is hard to believe, looking at the news or following social media, that anyone could ever even conceive of the world pictured in that sweet song. War, terrorism, corruption, torture, exploitation, human trafficking, poverty, slavery, ignorance, hatred, disease, division, lack of care, respect, understanding or even desire to seek justice and insist on freedom for all people – that is the reality of the world that surrounds us and threatens to engulf us. It is easy to become discouraged, to lose hope, to feel unease rather than peace and to see more darkness than light.

1987 was also my junior year of college, and to this day I am grateful to a Sociology professor who assigned a research project in the university library micro-fiche records. Since there was no internet yet, I spent hours poring over pictures of newspapers from the last two centuries. It was astounding! War, terrorism, corruption, torture, exploitation, murder, robbery, poverty, slavery, epidemics, ignorance, division, lack of care, respect, understanding, justice – change the dates and the newspapers told the same stories. That assignment encouraged us that there never were any “good old days,” no special golden time that had come and gone before we got here. Mankind seems to suffer the same ills throughout history. No matter which century we are in though, despite the problems, people are still marrying, still creating businesses, still starting families, still studying and learning and striving for a better life, still composing music, writing great literature, cooking delicious meals, looking up to the stars, planting gardens and vineyards, creating art, building homes, going fishing, laughing with friends, inventing, reflecting, singing, and living, every hour of every day.

Our technology may look a little different, but people are still just people, and the cliche still rings true. The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Be encouraged friends. We have not passed some great golden age, with our best days behind us. Do you wish for joy? Bring a smile to someone else’s face. Is your hope draining away? Count how many mornings you have awakened, how many steps you have taken, how many breaths you have drawn, and give thanks in anticipation of yet another, and another. Do you long for peace? Give up a grudge, extend or receive forgiveness, make a stranger your friend. Does the light elude you? Perhaps you are looking in the wrong direction, eclipsing the brightness before you. Turn your eyes to the blessings of the present, with gratitude for the past, and expectation for the next shining moment.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

 

 

An Unlikely Source of Hope

man and woman holding each others hand wrapped with string lights
Photo by Anastasiya Lobanovskaya on Pexels.com

I have no idea how it came to be there.

Edward and I were taking our evening walk. We had enjoyed supper with our girls a couple of hours before and now the sun had set and muggy summer temperatures had dropped. We put on our shorts and running shoes, grabbed a flashlight, and headed out the door up Pleasant View Lane. We had followed the same two-and-a-half mile route around Lake Echo for the last two months, pursuing increased energy, improved circulation, better health all around, and time to hold hands and talk together, away from household chores. Across Firetree, up Edgewater past the fitness center, composition courts and the long flat stretch that curved downward just a few feet away from the lake, where we heard bullfrogs courting, croaking and plopping into the shallow water if we got too close. Then the road sloped up again past the stables and golf-ball water tower. Many nights we could hear the horses whickering softly as they munched tufts of grass next to the road. Earlier that day we received my doctor’s diagnosis – breast cancer. She had emphasized how important it would be for me to continue to exercise throughout my treatments and recovery, so we were proactively trying to stay ahead of the curve that would contain nausea, pain, scars, fear, loss and possibly death.

Turning left on Sunset Way we continued past our halfway point to a slight rise where the oak and ash trees leaned to meet overhead, and there, in the dark humidity, something glowed in the pine straw on the left side of the road. We walked toward it, assuming it was a piece of trash reflecting light, but as we drew closer it became apparent this was no reflection. Something was illuminating a nickel-sized area. Edward knelt down, and with a small branch, lightly lifted the luminescent semi-circle.

“It’s a glow-worm!” he exclaimed. Now I had read about glow-worms in James and the Giant Peach, but had never seen one. Edward declared he had never seen one either. This was a new experience for us within our whole range of new experiences – the threat of cancer, becoming intimately involved with the health-care system, facing chemotherapy, mastectomy, and radiation, and a life-time of waiting and wondering – and somehow this faint little creature attracted our attention in that one moment to remind us that hope was possible. With everything we were facing, hope would continue to shine in the darkness of our fear, pain, sickness and worry. A worm, a beetle larvae, had given us a great gift, beckoning us to continue the journey hand-in-hand, eyes alert, and looking forward to the future.

The Unexpected Stop

This past Saturday I attended a memorial service for a former student who took his life one week into the New Year. His mother told me he had Facetimed her the day before and they shared a three-hour conversation that basically boiled down to, “If I happened to die angry at God will I go to Hell?” She gave him all the comfort she could, explaining that God can handle our anger and He loves us no matter what we do or say or feel and that he could still go to Heaven just the same, no matter how he died and no matter how he was feeling at the time. He thanked her, closed the conversation with all the usuals, and ended the call.

The next morning he got up, washed and dried his laundry, rolled up all his clothes and tucked them neatly into drawers, took his father’s gun, went out in the woods behind his father’s house, sat down, and pulled the trigger. In the note he left his mom he explained that he was happy and that nothing anyone said would have changed the decision he had made, that he loved her and she had helped him have peace in his heart.

And for the rest of her life, she will hold onto those words of encouragement, cherishing them as a final gift from a broken son, who sought refuge in the thoughts and views of his now-broken-hearted mother. She, and he, are why I am starting 52 to a Brighter View.

Behavioral research scientists tell us we can break, or establish, a habit in thirty consecutive days of effort. I don’t know what habits this young man had. I have not seen him in five years. I know he enjoyed music, skateboarding and time with friends. To all appearances he seemed to be enjoying a ride many sixteen-year-olds would envy. I know a new habit his mom will have, and for many more than thirty days. She will question herself and her own choices in ways she never has, and reflect on her relationship with her two sons, with both ecstasy and agony.

I have to reflect too. When he was a student in my Social Studies class in sixth grade was there anything I said that put despair in his heart? Was there anything I said that caused him to lose hope? Did I encourage him in any way? Perhaps he hung on longer than he would have if we had never met. Just maybe I said something that lightened his load even briefly. Or maybe something I said was one of the proverbial straws that drove him to call out, “Stop!” before he reached his destination. There’s no way to know. He got off before I could find out. But I do know this. Words have power, and I want to use my words to encourage.

So. I hope you and I have thirty days in which to establish a habit of encouragement. I hope we have thirty weeks, maybe even thirty years. Let’s start with this year. Fifty-two weeks, each one the opportunity for a fresh start. I’ve lived long enough to know that they won’t all be happy or cheery or delightful. No rose-colored shades here. But I’ve also lived enough to know that we can feel joy as tears stream down our faces. We can experience hope in the midst of devastation. We can make peace when the world seems to be burning down around us. And we can find light in endless, darkest night.

Please join me each week, in pursuit of joy, hope, peace and light, as we encourage each other to A Brighter View in 52.