How to Sleep Well

One summer evening 9 years ago, I was holding the reins of life so tightly that the tension had crept into my jaw. I knew I was grinding my teeth at night; it’s one of my body’s telltale signs that I’m seething with something that needs to be vented and hasn’t been. You’d have thought that pain in my jaw, neck, back, and legs would have brought me to some kind of reckoning – but No. People are stubborn. And if you mess with an animal in pain, often you just aggravate them further. So it was with me.

I was physically miserable, but I was compounding my misery by arguing with a few people – the main one being my husband. Today, I don’t even know what I was fuming about, exactly, but we were working through some tough things, individually and together, and it was all crashing in on me. So I was letting him have it.

Disagreements can be productive, but the problem on this day, and others like it, was that no amount of arguing was going to solve the issues at hand. Primarily for one very good reason. My husband was not in the room. He wasn’t even in the house. Whether he was traveling, working late, or out with friends, I don’t recall….it was long ago….and his whereabouts then are not germane to this story. What is germane is that I was very angry and resentful – feeling ‘put upon,’ as they say – and my rant with him, and some other people, lived entirely in my head, was leading me exactly – nowhere.

Our two kids at the time were ages 3 and 8 months. I had spent much of that day on a chore no mother can ignore. Laundry. I’d done 4 or 5 loads of it. But because I couldn’t find precious minutes to fold those loads between picking up toys, making meals and snacks, cleaning up messes, and entertaining my charges (especially the ‘older’ one of our babes), I had deposited the clean clothes on the only large, flat surface available – our bed in the Master bedroom. Through tight eyes, I was staring down a mountain of ‘lights,’ ‘darks,’ and ‘colors.’  I was NOT happy.

I wanted to crawl into that bed and shut out the world. Stop the spinning. Stop the incessant demands on me. Forget about life. And sleep. Front time to time, I was doing too much of that, too. Sleeping. It was an effort to refresh my body, sure, and I justified the mid-day naps by saying I needed them to cope. But the truth is, I used these breaks to not cope. It was a means of escape. And it wasn’t good, restful sleep. I wasn’t waking up feeling a whole lot better than when I’d laid down.

So, back to my tirade…I wanted to take that pile of laundry and hurl it across the room in a fit of rage. But I had hit a wall. I just couldn’t do even that. And that’s when, for some unknown reason, I sank to my knees next to the bed, buried my face in my hands, and prayed.

I hadn’t really prayed – in that position, or in that kind of way – since I was a little girl. A jumble of tangled thoughts, fears, concerns, worries, complaints, and frustrations tumbled up and out of me as I talked to God. And the longer I went on, the more I felt His steadying hand on me, the reality of His presence with me in my room, telling me that peace is possible – even for me. I was down there on the floor for about 20-25 minutes. I know because I looked at the clock when I got up and was shocked at how much time had passed. I had entered into a timeless space with God during our dialogue, one that in hindsight I’d see marked the beginning of a new way of living.

That singular experience with prayer changed my way of viewing God – from some distant, remote ‘being’ who has knowledge of me but no real interest, to a God who was approachable. Someone I could talk to. And in time, I stopped venting to Him, and started thanking Him, because I could see evidence of His love for me in my daily life, and then in my life in general, and finally, even in the parts of my past for which I felt ashamed.

Today, I know beyond the shadow of any doubt, that The Lord is my truest friend, the Lover of my soul, who cares for me so much more than I care for myself. And the key to a good night’s sleep is not my chamomile tea, or a few carefree moments with a novel – though I enjoy both of these before I turn in. No, the key for me is to lay everything within me at God’s feet, knowing and expecting Him to handle my present concerns with the same undivided attention He has given to me all of my life. His Hand on me is peace.

In peace I shall both lie down and sleep,

for you alone, Lord, make me secure. 

– Psalm 4:9

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My Good Husband

My Good Husband

The couple was passing me on the sidewalk as I was heading into the shopping center and they were walking out. He was slightly ahead of her and all of us were instinctively hunched over, bracing ourselves against the 14 degree temperature and sub-zero wind chill. He looked back at her and gruffly said:

“I’m not tryin’ to leave you, but I’m getting to the car.”

Then he turned and headed off into the parking lot, leaving her there, moving along slowly with a downcast face.

I immediately thought of my husband. I’m not going to say we’re perfect people and have never had a rough patch in our marriage, and unfortunately on this Friday afternoon, I also don’t have time to paint a full picture for you and list all of his best qualities.  But I just HAD to write this.

In our 17 years of marriage (plus one year of dating), he has never left me alone. Not without his love, not without his friendship, not without his support, not without his concern, not without his physical presence at a moment when I really needed him. Never left me alone.

And when it comes to cars and parking lots – there’s the truth about him in a nutshell.  If the weather was bad or the situation iffy, he’d tell me to stay where I’d be warm, or dry, or cool, or safe, etc. and he’d go get the car and bring it around to me.  I admit, there might have been times when this was better for him (he’s a faster walker than me, and if the road is icy you don’t want to walk with me!), but whatever the case, he’s always considering my best interests, and if the kids are with us, theirs as well.

DSC_0093 - Version 2Last weekend when I woke up on Valentine’s Day, the first thing I saw were gorgeous red roses from my husband. And down the hall, my daughter saw pink tulips, from that same good man. Tonight, he will take our daughter to the annual Father-Daughter Dance at her school. It’s the fourth time they’ve been, and my little girl looks forward to it every year. This ritual is close to her heart and I know why.  It’s a night where she has the undivided attention of her first love, her dad. I love this night, too, because I know that day by day her interactions with her dad form her expectations about how she is to be treated by a man somewhere down the road. Tonight she gets to practice being the apple of someone’s eye. And my sweet girl is blessed, just like me.

73 Valentine’s Days

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They were married by the local pastor on January 18, 1942 in the living room of her parents’ home. It was a simple ceremony with immediate family in attendance.  She wore a navy blue dress and an orchid corsage, and afterwards they had a celebratory lunch. For their 60th wedding anniversary, I asked her sisters what kind of cake they’d had so that I could replicate it. Neither one could remember. I had wanted the cake to be a surprise, but I finally broke down and asked the bride – my grandmother – and even she couldn’t remember.  Such details weren’t important, apparently.  What was important was that they’d made a lifelong commitment that day, at the young age, both of them, of just 19.

As of today, they have celebrated 73 years of marriage, and 73 Valentine’s Days as husband and wife.  If that isn’t “a love that lasts,” I’m not sure what is.

In 2012, my family gathered to celebrate my grandparents’ 70th anniversary, and I was one of several people who gave toasts at dinner. I read a longer version of the letter below in a trembling voice. A few months later, my grandmother wanted to publish my letter in their church’s quarterly newsletter, and so my thoughts were shared with a broader audience. I was flattered, but also a bit nervous, since I guess you could say this was my public writing debut – at least for the kind of writing I care most about – matters of faith and the heart.

On Tuesday this week, as Grandma told me she and Grandpa would attend a Sweethearts Luncheon for Valentine’s Day, I asked for her thoughts on publishing a short form of the letter here. She consented and said it was a good idea. She has always encouraged me. And so, in celebration of this day of love, I venture into heart-filled terrain once again.

A tribute to my grandparents:

January 2012

Dear Grandma and Grandpa,

Five years ago we gathered together to celebrate your 65th wedding anniversary, an extraordinary event. Yet here we are, blessed again, with another 5 years of a remarkable marriage….  

Your marriage didn’t simply last, it flourished. How did that happen? I explored the idea with the goal of more deeply appreciating your marriage, and strengthening my own. And here’s my theory.

For the last seven decades, consciously or not, you have each cultivated a servant’s heart. You have awoken each morning and asked your soul, “How can I promote the well-being and happiness of this person I love – today?” And then you got up and did what was needed. It was through billions of kind words, billions of small acts of love, and billions of tiny moments. In short, whether you always did it intentionally or not, you made the love you share a higher calling.

Even today when I sit and observe you, I see the ripple effect of a small, seemingly insignificant choice – the way you say one another’s names. Hazel. Allen. You say each other’s names lovingly, softly, in a voice that asks, “Are you here for me, my love?” And the response, however it comes, is always, “Yes. I am here for you. I am fully present to you. You can be confident in me. I am devoted to you.”

In all my life, as I have listened to your exchanges, I have never heard resentment or bitterness creep into your voices when you speak to one another. If you have been angry, you have discussed the issue, reached a decision together, and let it go. To my knowledge, and from what I have witnessed, you have never carried grudges against one another. You have never ledgered wrongs. You forgive.   …

Now I look forward and ask, “What can we as a family do to continue your accomplishment? What lessons do we carry forward?”

We can move forward as you have, with servants’ hearts. Love is only advanced in the world when people choose to serve others. To do that, we must set ourselves aside and focus on one another. I look to you both as role models in how to do this, and in how to live a full life, rich in all the ways I want mine to be.   …

Cathedral builders worked entire lifetimes without ever seeing the results of their work fully incorporated into the finished structure. Every individual life is like this. We don’t always know the full impact of the countless small decisions we make every day. But we move forward in faith, and in your lives, the results have been beautiful.

Our family gathered here is your cathedral. Your marriage was the cornerstone, and we are building upward. The values, skills, and morals you have passed on to us are the buttresses and beams. The memories and stories are the artwork and stained glass windows. And an occasion as special as this one is like a visit to the cathedral – a chance to celebrate what has been accomplished.

I love you more than I can ever express here. I am honored to be your granddaughter. And I will take what I have learned from you and pass it on. I will do my very best to make your story my own. 

With love and more love,

Gretchen

 

Three Italian Women

We’re standing in the church sanctuary, a place of holy refuge, and I know she feels safe. She’s facing a very tough day. She’s been carrying heavy burdens for several people, trying to help where and however she can, and I can see the weight of many hard weeks bearing down on her.  She’s got herself together – she’s beautiful and graceful, keeping up with self-care, but none of us can do the impossible. We can’t bring people back from the dead, or stop the march of a loved one’s disease right there in its tracks with one desperate, pleading prayer.  Her eyes fill up and flood over and I don’t have words so I do what friends do then.  I hug her.  And I don’t let go until she lets go first.

Later in the day I remember three women I haven’t thought of in many years.  I dig up their picture:

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Three friends. Rome. January, 1993.

Arms linked together, they were a bit of an obstacle walking down the Roman street at dusk on that cold, January day.  I followed them for a little before snapping this photo.  They were in no hurry, and didn’t sway from between these yellow lines.  People went around them.  I was wishing I  spoke Italian so that I could catch snippets of their conversation, though I’m fairly sure the bulk of it was the same as that of women’s talk everywhere – mostly family, the work of homemaking, marriage, schedules, maybe some chit-chat about clothing, books, and other entertainment thrown in for fun.

But I took the picture because I was most captivated by the fact that they were linked.  They were unified. They were together. They were walking through life, sharing the journey, and their joined arms confirmed to one another not just an intellectual support system, but a true physical presence.  My arm in yours says, “You are really not alone.”  Touch comforts when words can’t.

Valentine’s Day is coming up.  Who else needs a hug?  Maybe even a walking hug  – where we join arms and travel some of this life together, sharing what we can, and letting the silent strength of one another’s arms be the reassurance we need when words fail us?

A friend loves at all times, 

And a brother is born for adversity. 

– Proverbs 17:17

 

Valentines for Everyone!

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They burst into the kitchen, their young faces flush with excitement. “We have a GREAT idea!” they said.  “We’re going to make Valentines for everyone in the neighborhood!”

“Um, ok.”  I said, incredulous. “That’s a….good idea..??”

With amazed and delighted disbelief I watched my daughter and her friend follow through on this loving, joyful impulse.  In the unusually warm weather, they spent all of Sunday afternoon sitting on our front porch making Valentines for neighbors, most of whom they don’t know, taking breaks now and then to run off with exuberance for “deliveries.”  If the recipient was a friend, he or she received the card face-to-face.  If not, the Valentines were left in the house mailbox, one from each girl, sweetly signed with only their first names. In a span of 4 hours, the girls industriously covered our little section of the world, 4 tiny streets, with love.

We were all conceived by the One who loves like this – with abandon. But somewhere along the way, we usually acquire a harder-hearted response – the one that I showed yesterday – to love, freely given. Lord, open my eyes today.  Help me to see all the ways you love me.  Help me share your everlasting love with the world.

Many waters cannot quench love,

Nor will rivers overflow it;

If a man were to give all the riches of his house for love,

It would be utterly despised.

–  Song of Solomon 8:7

 

Feed the Hungry

It was Christmas time, 1985.  My sister and I were visiting our dad, who was living alone in Washington, DC.  At that point in his life, my dad was driving a VW camper – the perfect vehicle for our excursions to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. But this night, we had brought it to the Mall, stopping here and there to see decorations and our nation’s monuments all lit up.

Somewhere downtown, we were sitting in a parking spot, warming up slowly, snug in our vehicle shelter, when a man rapped on my dad’s window, then respectfully took about three steps back.

“Excuse me, sir?”

My dad rolled down the window just a little and said,

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m sorry to bother you, but um…..ah – do you have any food in…there?”

That was when I looked at him – standing with his hands folded together at his chest, his dirty clothes hanging off his slim frame, his chiseled face gray and weary.  I don’t know how old he was, but he seemed older than my dad – not in chronological age, exactly, but in demeanor.  He was weathered.  Tired. 

“Gretchen?”

“Yes, Dad?”

“What food do we have back there in the cabinet?”

I looked and found a few cans – of beans, corn, whatever… and passed them up to my dad, who rolled down his window and handed them out to the man.

“Oh,” he said, obviously surprised. “Thank you.  Oh, oh, thank you,” he said, smiling now.

My dad cocked his head to the side and asked,

“Do you have any way to open those?”

“Umm, no sir.  But that’s alright…”  He was moving back again.

“Wait a minute.  Gretchen – there’s a can opener in the drawer.”

Sure enough, there was. It went to the front and out the window.

The man was turning to leave when my dad asked one more question – the one that became emblazoned on my soul.  It impressed upon me for all time the difference between this man’s life….and mine.

“Are you cold?”

There was no way he couldn’t be. It was in the 20s.

“Well, uh….”

“Do you have any way to stay warm?”

The man looked down, resigned, and shrugged his shoulders in such a way that let us know. His answer was No. Not really. I make do.

“Gretchen – Give me that sleeping bag.”

I reached back behind the bench seat I was sitting on, heat from underneath it blowing out on the back of my legs, and found the navy blue sleeping bag.  It too went up to the front and out the window.

He was so grateful – the kind of grateful I so rarely, rarely see.  And he murmured many more thank-yous as he moved away for the last time.  I watched him walk away into the shadows, his arms overflowing with his newfound bounty.

My dad rolled up his window and we drove home.  All I could see was the back of his head, but if I hazard a guess, I’d say his blue eyes were shining – with love.

Dad – You were light in the darkness, Christ’s hands in the world.  Thank you for showing me how it’s done – humbly, freely, with a heart overflowing with God’s grace.

And the King will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

– Matthew 25:40 

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Day 30 – Baby Love

On my husband’s side of the family, we had a new reason to be grateful this Thanksgiving – our newborn niece – who was exactly 7 weeks old on the holiday itself.  She is a beautiful and tiny little cherub, with long fingers and long legs. It was fun to speculate about what she might do with her life, and to study her face, trying to discern whom she most closely resembles.

The immediate family ate dinner together, and my husband’s large extended family joined us for dessert.  Many had not seen the new princess before.  Something happens to a person when they “meet” a newborn, especially one in their family, for the first time.  Their face noticeably softens, tension drains from their shoulders.  They stop moving and often fall silent for several seconds. Scientists say women’s pupils dilate when they look at a baby’s face.

I think staring into the eyes of a newborn we are meeting for the first time is awe-inspiring on a deeply subconscious level.  Newborns are people in their purest possible state.  And it just might be the closest we can come to seeing the face of God.

I looked around the room at all of those people and for a few minutes saw babies everywhere. We all were, of course, just like my niece. And someone took care of us, however well or imperfectly. The people who brought us up did their best to love us, and they were babies once too, loved by imperfect people.

Some of us are blessed to be parents to babies now growing.  I am humbled every day by the realization that I make tons of mistakes, and that while I start out with the best of intentions, and I love my kids so much it hurts sometimes, there is One far greater who loves them infinitely more than me, and He proved it by dying for me on a cross. He alone, of all babies who grew up throughout time, did not have the stuff inside that makes me do things that leave me knowing I’m guilty, or ashamed. Thank goodness for Him, because He forgives me for messing up, and can show me how to try again, and how to love myself and my babies better the next time.

And there’s another thing I’ve learned from Him, but also from watching parents here whose babies have gone to heaven heartbreakingly young.  And that is, that a living parent NEVER stops loving their baby.  In fact, love never ends.  I am so thankful for the assurance I have in knowing that. Because I too am a baby.  And my Father is the Living God.

“I’ll love you forever,
I’ll like you for always,
as long as I’m living
my baby you’ll be.”

― Robert Munsch, Love You Forever

 

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My daughter (9) holds my niece’s hand.                                     She was 7 weeks old on Thanksgiving day.

 

Day 15 – Keep Him Close

“I love you, Mommy,” he says as he greets me in the morning, still sleepy-eyed and warm from his bed. He wraps his arms around my legs and squeezes. I have to unwrap him to kneel and hug back. Hours later, after he’s the last to be picked up from school and we return home, amidst the noise of his older siblings clamoring through the front door ahead of him, dumping their backpacks on the floor and tossing their shoes to the side, he does it again.  He stops me where I am, and wraps himself around my legs. “Mommy, I love you. I love you SO much.”  And when I bend down to hug him, he’s puckered up for a big kiss – then gives two of them.

My youngest does this all the time. He is extremely affectionate with me, and always has been.  At the advice of the nurses who said he was not breathing well, he spent the very first full day of his life outside the womb pressed to my chest, his skin against mine, listening to my heart. I often wonder if these precious hours set a precedent for our relationship, because our physical closeness is just…different somehow.  As with all my children, I loved him from the beginning, and I will love him forever.

It is amazing to think that for a period of time, not more than five years ago, he was as physically close to me as two souls can get, but I was not aware of his existence.  He had been conceived, but not yet discovered.  His life was known only to his Creator – the genesis of the spark that created my son. My son simply wasn’t. And then he was.  All the later steps of the biological process are just the dynamic unfolding of how a unique soul became encased in a body suited to this world. Scientists are starting to unravel the nuts and bolts of this code. But the true mystery of the entire world comes down to that one divine spark. A person isn’t. Then he is. And the only One there with him, is God.

Not long ago (relatively speaking), St. Paul stood up in a meeting in Athens and spoke to the people concerning the idols he saw in their city.  One bore the inscription “To An Unknown God.”  He explained to the crowd why their worship was incorrect – and far too limited.

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’  — Acts 17: 24-28 (NIV)

God gave us life so we would seek Him and reach out for Him. We are the Lord’s offspring. Once we were closer than breath to only Him. And if I desire closeness to my dear sweet son, who was once closer than breath to me, I can only imagine how God must feel about those to whom he gave the gift of life.

My son’s love means so much to me because he gives it freely. It is his choice. Our love for God is important to Him because we choose to give it – freely. 

We are at Mass and the priest is preparing to consecrate the Host. I am kneeling, hands folded in prayer, when I feel little arms encircle my neck. In my peripheral vision I see my son’s lips coming and ‘SMACK’ – he plants a loud kiss on my left cheek. Oh – we’re supposed to be quiet here, right? Hmm. Awkward as it is at first, I actually feel more reverent, more joyful, more present to the Almighty now, because of this child’s selfless gift of love. In this uniquely holy moment, I smile, unfold my hands, wrap them around my son’s head, smell his hair, and quietly kiss him back.