Study Birds and Turtles – Or How to Love in Life’s Mundane Moments

Study Birds and Turtles – Or  How to Love in Life’s Mundane Moments
Me and my first-born at the National Zoo many years ago.

How do you love those closest to you in life’s mundane moments? Those times when all you see are the remains of everyday life and the residue bugs you…Toothpaste stuck to the sides of the sink. Towels in crumpled heaps on the floor. Crumbs all over the countertop.

When our first child – a boy – was still an ‘only’, my husband and I took him on regular visits to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. We had high hopes that our son would embrace our love of animals – all the same majestic beasts of power I admired (like the great cats), and the intelligence and antics of the creatures my husband favored (such as the primates and the otters). Instead, we often found ourselves wandering around the Bird House or lingering beside a pond of lily pads as eternal minutes dragged on. But these locales were positively scintillating for our son. He was mesmerized by the tiniest of brown birds, the plainest of turtles sitting motionless on its mini-island rock in the center of a lagoon.

I couldn’t understand it until my husband made the wise observation, “These animals are small. Closer to his size. They’re easier for him to study and appreciate.”

It was true. While we may be attracted by the bright, colorful, and bold, it’s more often the case that passionate love for a creature, person, place, or anything else develops in a slower, more nuanced way. We connect with what seems within reach – with what we understand – starting from the outside and exploring within. Once there, we bridge the gap, allowing our hearts to grow stronger in affection for that which we have come to esteem.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” but even she knew her sonnet would inadequately describe love of a person – the greatest experience known to man this side of heaven.

“I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace….
and, if God choose, I shall love thee better after death.”

-Sonnet 43

It takes a lifetime and beyond to fully value an individual, doesn’t it?

When we truly stretch ourselves to love the entirety of another person, accepting him or her as a unique and irreplaceable gift, we experience a taste of the vastness of God.

But most days, we are blind to the divine glory of our loved ones.

We get tired. We fuss and fidget over our to-dos. We become automatons in the stress and hustle of our world. And in the modern age, we stare blankly and numbly at our screens, scrolling past the myriad faces of people who don’t play significant roles in our lives.

Why? Why are we wasting this precious time?

God’s grace – as evidenced by the immense creativity across the depth of the people we love – is there for the knowing, if only we would look up and SEE.

Post-Valentine’s Day, I would encourage us all to recommit ourselves to the study and appreciation of the people closest to us. The ones who really matter.

Memorize the feel of your child’s hair under your palm. Fix your beloved’s smile in your mind’s eye. Etch the echoes of voices you treasure on your heart.

Listen. Not to just the words, but to the yearning to be understood that lies behind the words.

Love never ends, but opportunities to see it shimmering like dewfall in life’s most mundane moments – do.

Let’s not rely on a holiday to savor the beauty of our valentines. Today is as perfect a day as any.

Our First Valentine’s Day We Did A Few Things Right …And You Can Do Them Too

Our First Valentine’s Day We Did A Few Things Right …And You Can Do Them Too
Photo by Diego PH on Unsplash

Late in February 2016, Grandma and I were talking alone in her living room when I spotted a vase of flowers on a side table and said they were pretty.

“Grandpa gave them to me for Valentine’s Day,” she said. “They were a week late.”

My mouth started to form into a surprised ‘O’ as she looked me square in the eye and added with a giggle, “Don’t tell him.”

When you love someone – as she had him for more than 74 years – you forgive them their faults and oversights. You become increasingly willing to bear all things. Endure all things. Seek your own interests less.

We know this. Writ large or very, very small, in one way or another we have all experienced love, and our souls yearn endlessly to find the consummate, unending experience of it, where we are fully caught up – cherished and known – by the One who has loved us perfectly from the very beginning of our creation.

As St. Paul so eloquently explains at the end of his definition of love, “At present, I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:12-13)

Love is without question – the greatest.

And it can be passionate, expansive, life-giving, and life-transforming.

But…

When Valentine’s Day rolls around and pictures of cherubs and candy hearts are everywhere…Well, I don’t know about you, but most years, I’m not really feeling it. I want to celebrate the holiday about as much as I want to hang wallpaper from a ceiling.

That is, until I re-frame the picture and consider HOW it is I’m called to love my beloved.

My husband and I have been married for 20 years, but I probably did the best job selecting a Valentine’s Day gift for him on our very first Feb. 14th together.

We’d only been dating for about 3 weeks, riding around in his battered Geo Prizm, which he’d bought just after college graduation. I chatted with my very new boyfriend about our entry-level jobs and trying to live cheaply in D.C., and came to understand that we were alike, working hard to prove our worth. There was little time or attention paid to things like a car’s interior.

And while sitting in the passenger seat, I noticed two knobs were missing from his car’s climate controls – one for air and the other for temperature. This didn’t seem to bother him; he just used his fingers to turn what was left of the plastic tube inside each space to make necessary changes. But I wondered…

So, shortly before Valentine’s Day I walked into the local Geo dealership’s parts and service department and explained the situation.

“I don’t suppose you would have these knobs, would you?” I asked sheepishly of a guy in a royal blue baseball cap. He looked in the stockroom and returned with two black pieces wrapped in clear cellophane bags.

“That will be $6.00,” he said, grinning. I dug a five and a one out of my purse, dazzled by the serendipity of the moment.

That Valentine’s Day, my brand-new boyfriend sent me a dozen long-stem roses at my office and took me to dinner in Georgetown. He went the BIG and impressive route, and I went absolutely gaga. I felt like royalty.

And for him?

I told him to close his eyes and hold out his hands, and when I pressed a small plastic knob into each one, he whooped with joy and hugged me tight. I could be wrong, but I don’t think he’s ever again responded with such enthusiasm to a gift.

As I look back now, I see that first February as foundational in our relationship, because we had mysteriously figured out HOW to love one another well.

My husband gave openly and generously. Consequently – I felt cherished.

I noticed a need in his life and filled it. Consequently – he felt known.

Without planning it, both of us focused our efforts on meeting one of two core human desires: 1) to be cherished and 2) to be known.

Now yes, I admit, we were dating. The endorphins were on full blast. Everyday life isn’t quite the same.

But what we did then by happenstance, anyone can do today with intention.

We can all ask for divine guidance to love as God intends – unselfishly, with hope and endurance.

We can all learn to open our hearts to what’s new – what’s there for us to appreciate right in the moment.

My husband still gives me flowers, and I still feel honored and adored every time he does. And I continue to notice things about him. To me, he smells of sunshine in warm, spring woods. He always asks if the dogs and kids have been fed before dishing up his own plate.

Over two decades, we have learned the fundamentals of love and continue to practice them as best we can. The sustained efforts add up, little by little, day by day.

As I said, with the help of Providence, anyone can love like this, because we are wired for love. Created for it by Love Himself.

Love means caring more about the other person than you do about yourself. It means taking note. It means embracing. It means acceptance.

How does all this translate into a Valentine’s Day gift for my husband?

That’s for me to know, and him to find out, but I doubt I’ll ever find a better one than two plastic knobs.

You Don’t Need a Valentine to Be One

You Don’t Need a Valentine to Be One

Valentine’s Day is upon us. The celebration of the heart.

Three years ago, my daughter and her friend made Valentines for our whole neighborhood.

No. I’m not kidding.

(If you aren’t familiar with it, feel free to read the story above by clicking the purple words and then come back.)

I was astounded by the girls’ actions, and I’ve never forgotten watching them spread light in a dark world.

I was in awe of their enthusiasm. I was enamored with their openness.

They reminded me of a simple lesson: Don’t ignore a generous impulse.

Even if you are not a Jesus-believer, you probably know this verse, a favorite of mine:

“I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)

Notice, there are no caveats in that command. (i.e. Only love those who love you, who live with you, who look like you, who are convenient to love, etc.)

If you’re really going to do it right, love demands a lot.

Walking in faith, you learn from experience that loving well isn’t something you do by yourself.

Knowing True Love is being in relationship. With Someone. The One.

He – the Spirit – makes it possible for us to really love others, because we alone do it so very, very poorly.

We think that Valentine’s Day is all about romantic love. And for most people, it is. But I would argue that it can be so, so much more. Because the world needs LOVE — in all its biggest and most brilliant, and smallest and very humblest forms.

I was thinking along these lines when I gave a short presentation to a group of 20 women a year ago. I told them the story of my daughter and her friend, and I explained the following:

“Don’t ignore a generous impulse. We all know that our world is beautiful, but broken. Lately, when we read the news, it may seem particularly dark and ugly. But the light isn’t far off. It lives within each of us. And we see it when we give it away….While many people told the girls how much they had appreciated the Valentines, the real gift the girls received was the joy they’d given themselves.”

Following the promptings of the Spirit will in all likelihood move us beyond our comfort zones. But how is God ever supposed to share ALL THE LOVE He has to GIVE if WE don’t step out and SHARE IT with OUR very own hands?

After speaking, I gave out 20 very basic valentines that I’d put together myself, and I invited the group to think about the people in their lives. Friends. Colleagues. Neighbors. Acquaintances.

I asked:

“Do you know a woman who was just diagnosed with a devastating illness?
Do you know someone going through a divorce?
Have a coworker who has a troubled child?
Have an elderly neighbor who lives alone?
Is there someone in your circle who is bearing a heavy, heavy burden?
Is there someone you can just tell feels hopeless?
Is there someone who seems fearful?
Is there anyone you haven’t thanked for a kindness you’ve been shown?

Valentine’s Day is about love, and we can make it about so much more than romance and friendship between elementary school classmates. Let’s use it as an opportunity to reach out and say, “I see you, I value you, and I care about you.”

We wrote those Valentines to the people we felt might need a bit of True Love, and gave them away.

Maybe tomorrow, you could buy or make a simple note, and then extend your heart and the Spirit to someone in your circle who might appreciate a little something sweet.

Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. (Hebrews 4:7)

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:

3_ItalianWomen_Jan1993
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