Notre Dame de Paris and Legacies at Easter

Notre Dame de Paris and  Legacies at Easter

Photo by Stephanie LeBlanc on Unsplash

On Monday, April 15, when the very first sparks caught deep in the forest of Notre Dame Cathedral’s 800-year old oak beams, my husband and I were singing the closing hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings,” at the funeral of a beloved man. His name was Jim, and he was the father of one of our dearest friends.

The church was packed, full of people whose lives had been touched by this husband of 51 years, father of 4, grandfather of 11, friend to hundreds, and volunteer whose time and contributions touched the lives of thousands through a long list of organizations within his community.

During the homily, the priest told a story about visiting the grave of Christopher Wren (1632-1723), the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the first person entombed within it. Wren’s gravestone reads, in Latin: “Reader, if you seek a monument, look around you.”

Wren’s monument was the entire building. Spectacular, of course, but buildings do fall down.

Jim’s legacy is one of love and connection. It is a baton that has been passed on – and will be – for generations to come.

I was so grateful for the priest’s reminder as I drove home, thinking about people I love – people very close to me – who are currently suffering. Some have been fighting health battles for months with no end in sight. Others are dealing with very emotional issues – facing new realities, changed expectations, and daunting unknowns.

Like a devastating fire, suffering leaves marks on us and changes the way we move forward in our lives.

The temptation is to believe that a happy ending requires that we – like Notre Dame – be restored to some version of a former glory.

We think that with enough rest, medicine, good food, positive words, and advice from experts and well-meaning friends we can shore up our mental and physical strength and proceed as if nothing ever happened.

But what if we’re not supposed to? What if suffering – in all its forms – has a larger purpose?

What if it is supposed to change us forever?

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction….” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)

Our suffering is allowed so that we might be brought closer to God’s face and then, in turn, use our experience to boost others on their journeys.

We are to pass the baton of Love.

So Jim’s life becomes a message of hope to us, just as Jesus’s resurrection – which we celebrate this weekend on Easter – is the tangible sign that with God, even death is not an end but an entryway.

Perhaps the Cathedral of Notre Dame will be rebuilt, but it can never be the same. The story must go on and be fashioned anew.

On Monday, we sat with our grieving friends and remembered that Jim was a man who gave generously of himself. He was beloved, because humans are attracted to the image of God reflected in a kind person.

Easter is coming. Suffering will end.

May Love be our guide to build legacies that last.

Do You Have Your Own Hogwarts House? I Do.

Do You Have Your Own Hogwarts House? I Do.

Do you have your own Hogwarts house? I don’t mean which of the 4 houses brilliantly imagined by J.K. Rowling for the Harry Potter** series do you think you would fit in, but do you have your OWN house?

Perhaps you should.

My family and I are big Harry Potter fans. Last summer during our vacation we finished up our 2-year adventure of listening to the entire series of audiobooks on long car rides (having already read them in print, of course). Then we visited the Pottermore website, created accounts, completed the online quizzes, were “sorted” into houses, and determined where our supposed loyalties should be.

According to Pottermore, my house is Ravenclaw – home of intelligent, creative, wise wizards. My patronus (spirit animal) is an otter (just like Hermione’s!), and my wand is Hawthorn Wood with a Unicorn hair core, 12 1/4” long and of quite bendy flexibility. I’m to use it with care and confidence, or it will create problems for me, as “hawthorn wands, which are complex and intriguing in their natures, [are] just like their owners who best suit them.”

I took this all in stride and my family hasn’t really pinned these descriptors to me, probably because we all know it’s just in good fun, plus – I had made a declaration months before.

In dinner-table conversation one night, everyone was busy trying to choose houses for one another when I announced, “I’m in my own house.”

“What do you mean?” they asked. So I explained.

“My house is called Dinglepouf, and it’s a very small house. Just for me.”

I was pressed for details…so I fashioned them on the spot.

“My colors are pink and green and my symbol? The Cockatoo. Because I think they’re cute and hilarious…all that hopping up and down with feathers puffed atop their heads.”

This was met with incredulous amazement. And laughter. But it was quickly accepted as family fact, and no one questioned me further.

And how could you? There’s only one member of my house, and so any of her qualities are those of the house as well. In general, she is sensitive, inquisitive, and a seeker of knowledge. She’s devoted to the people and pursuits of her heart, soft-spoken, and a lifelong daydreamer who still laughs at silly puns and other forms of low humor. People have often told her she’s sweet, but those closest to her know she can be mean, and that she outrageously stubborn.

And – she likes her own space. Hence, her own house.

Imaginary lives are entertaining. But we know where to draw the lines.

My 13-year old daughter enjoys playing online quizzes. She likes to see which celebrity’s style she supposedly matches, car she should drive, city she might prefer, or animal she would be if she were to miraculously transform.

And she likes me to play along. Sometimes, I do.

“Mom,” she said recently as she pointed to one such quiz on her iPad. “What do you really want from your life? Fame? Money? Power? or Other?”

“Other,” I answered.

“What do you mean?”

“What I really want is for my kids to grow up and have a close relationship with God.”

Her face crinkled, eyebrows pinched in the middle.

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

“But this is about YOU. What do you want?” she asked again.

“To live forever with God.”

She smiled and shook her head.

“Mom! You’re no fun!”

She was laughing and I knew she wanted me to be more accommodating to the quiz.

“I know. My answers don’t fit. But that’s often the way it is for me. I think differently.” I met her gaze, then added, “And that’s good.”

She nodded because she understood, chose ‘Other’ for me, and for the rest of the quiz I picked whatever sounded alright until I ended up being a blue aardvark or something at the end. It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is this: our kids are listening, and observing what we believe. About ourselves. About life. About where we find meaning and purpose.

It’s great to be a member of a “house” or a team – to find commonality and fellowship, to contribute our talents toward a greater cause, to be part of a unified effort – but each of us individually is worthy of celebration and we don’t need to be afraid to step apart.

I don’t want my daughter to pigeonhole herself. She CANNOT be pigeonholed. All of her traits, gifts, and talents are far too robust and varied for her to ever fit into just one category. It’s the way she was fantastically created. I don’t want her to be anyone but herself. Though I tell her this, I also have to lead by example.

In my adult life, I have been intrigued by personality-type frameworks such as the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram, and I know that I am not alone. I recently enjoyed Reading People by Anne Bogel (Free on Kindle now!), a thoughtful overview of several of these popular frameworks, which can provide us with valuable insights on our inner lives and the ways we interact with others, especially those who seem so different from us. Knowing our “type” – be it an ENFJ, or a Number 2 with a 5 wing, etc. (see the book if that’s all goo to you) – can help us in our careers, marriages, parenting, and spiritual lives. These frameworks are more meaningful, grown-up versions of “type” quizzes.

BUT, even if we can be grouped because we are similar to others, we are still uniquely made by One Creator. No two people are even remotely the same.

I am uniquely created to fulfill God’s purpose for my life, just as you are uniquely created by Him for yours, and each of my kids are for theirs.

And my life’s purpose is to love and serve God – my maker and lover of my soul – in all the ways He calls me right here and now. On paper yours might be the same, but it will play out in countless different ways.

This is a process of discernment which basically boils down to asking Him on the daily: 1) Where do You want me to show love? 2) Where do You want me to give of my time, talents, and treasure?

It took me a long, long time to figure this out, but once I did, all my days – even the bad ones, all through my history of pushing Him away – made sense. In light of this calling, in the light of God’s unending love for me – a deep, unshakable joy welled up from within, and I am happy to share it with everyone – especially my kids.

When I tell them I have my own house or that I want to live forever with God, I’m not saying it’s not good to be part of a team.

I am saying – embrace the person God made you to be, and know that this world can’t pin you down. You were made to go far, far beyond it. You are unique. You are wonderfully made. You are beloved. Don’t you ever, ever forget it.

You formed my inmost being; you knit me in my mother’s womb. I praise you, so wonderfully you made me; wonderful are your works! – Psalm 139:13-14

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What Does the Cashier See in Our Eyes?

What Does the Cashier See in Our Eyes?

Photo by Barrett Baker on Unsplash

“What does the cashier see in our eyes?” I wondered as my teenage son and I approached the woman at counter number 17 of the Motor Vehicle Administration, after waiting for 3 1/2 hours to replace his lost learner’s permit.

Does she see anger? Frustration? Impatience? Or can we turn that all around?

While we were waiting, I’d been reading Brene Brown’s book Daring Greatly,** in which she writes of the many virtues of sharing our vulnerabilities in order to live wholeheartedly – that is, in a manner that creates meaningful connections between ourselves and everyone we encounter.

In a sidebar that stretches across three grayed-out pages she highlights the way service people are often treated, recounting a story where she was caught on the phone in the middle of a drive-thru and had the presence of mind to tell the cashier:

“I’m so sorry. The phone rang right when I was pulling up and I thought it was my son’s school.”

I must have surprised her because she got huge tears in her eyes and said, “Thank you. Thank you so much. You have no idea how humiliating it is sometimes. They don’t even see us.” (p.149)

Brown goes on to explain,

“I see adults who don’t even look at their waiters when they speak to them. I see parents who let their young children talk down to store clerks. I see people rage and scream at receptionists…

When we treat people as objects we dehumanize them. We do something really terrible to their souls and our own. Martin Buber, an Austrian-born philosopher, wrote about the differences between an I-it relationship and an I-you relationship. An I-it relationship is basically what we create when we are in transactions with people whom we treat as objects— people who are simply there to serve us or complete a task. I-you relationships are characterized by human connection and empathy.

Buber wrote, ‘When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly, God is the electricity that surges between them.’” (p.149-150)

I finished the three pages in Brown’s book and handed it to my son.

“Read this segment,” I said, and he did, agreeing with all of Brown’s observations about the current state of our society – people so involved with their phones and so wrapped up in themselves that they never once look a person across the counter from them in the eye.

If we know in our hearts that every individual is made in the image of God, imagine what we’re missing when we don’t stop to appreciate that kind of beauty every time we encounter it in a person each day.

And if we are God’s vessels – broken but still useful – can’t we summon enough courage to step out of ourselves so He can use us to promote peace in the world?

The rewards far outweigh the risk.

By the time we got to counter number 17, my son and I were tired, hungry, and more than ready to go home. But we both knew the woman who greeted us was doing her best. We smiled and were courteous. And lo and behold – she smiled back. We made small talk. She was surprised and laughed a little.

We learned she has kids of her own, was sympathetic to our situation, was patient and understanding.

Most importantly, we looked her in the eye as we spoke to her. And I saw she had big, brown gorgeous ones with tiny gold flecks and long, black eyelashes. And her hands moved across her keyboard with confident grace because she was very quick and knowledgeable in her work.

I’m glad I took a few moments to really see her – yet another one of God’s masterpieces.

****This post contains affiliate links, and I will be compensated if you make a purchase after clicking on my links.

I Am Where I’m Meant to Be

I Am Where I’m Meant to Be

Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash

“I am where I’m meant to be,” I kept telling myself as all my Friday plans were ditched and I succumbed to day two of a migraine.

Things happen for a divine reason and here I was, re-learning what it means to be present. My daughter was home sick and we’d just come through a rough 72 hours.

I walked into the family room to check on her – my daughter-patient – lounging in front of the TV. I was thinking I could console her in some way when she reached her arms up to me. There was a fraction of a smile in her eyes and I realized in an instant, she wasn’t asking for a hug, she was giving one.

“Mom.”

I let myself sink down into the soft couch corner beside her and rested my head on hers, our blond hair commingling on the blue pillows. We exhaled at the same time.

“I need to work on an article,” I said.

“No, you don’t.”

“I also need to write a blog post.”

“No, you don’t.”

“My head still hurts.”

“I know. That’s why you need to just sit here and be a couch potato. With me.”

There is a connection between a mother and her daughter that is unique. And when the nurturer in the daughter is born, it is with a wordless tenderness.

Late night on Shrove Tuesday, my daughter had come down with severe stomach pains. They were bad enough to bring on tears, and she is not the crying type. We rushed to our hospital’s pediatric ER and spent the rest of the night there. She had many ‘firsts:’ her first IV, first ultrasound, and first MRI – as the pain, which she rated an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10 – moved from all over her belly to the lower right quadrant. If you’re guessing appendicitis, so was everyone else.

The tests were all inconclusive, but thankfully, the pain was gradually subsiding by Wednesday afternoon. It seemed to be some weird viral issue. She could go home under the condition that she should return if things got worse or a fever developed. As it turned out, the slight, residual pain would last a few more days, and my mothering eyes didn’t rest until my daughter seemed fully herself once again.

I make it sound like it was all bad, don’t I? It wasn’t.

Ever since I acknowledged my dependence on God so many years ago, I carry within my soul an abiding sense of peace that doesn’t waver, even when circumstances make my mind wander into a land of worry and concern.

So when I pray, the two – mind and soul – are both at work. With my mind, I address the One I know is my ever-ready and ever-present help.

Watching needles going into my daughter’s veins….

Lord, steady her. Please relieve her pain.

As I saw her organs flash across a screen, images in black and white…

Please Lord, help this radiologist to find the problem.

And from my soul, words of praise and hope sometimes bubble up spontaneously. While standing next to the MRI, holding my daughter’s hands, extended above her head as she tried to remain still, my heart and soul sang the songs of my childhood.

Father, I adore You
Lay my life before you
How I love you

I didn’t know what the diagnosis would be, but I had faith that God was there.

He was there in the consoling words of the nurse who made my daughter smile as she put in the IV; in the kindness of the staff who brought us warm blankets so we could try to sleep; and in the gentle eyes of the doctor who listened carefully to the story of my own appendectomy and readily admitted that yes, appendicitis runs in families, so I had every reason to be suspicious when my daughter doubled up in pain.

The goodness God gives to us through the people who cross our paths gets passed on when we give it away.

We are His hands in the world.

And sometimes, His love comes back to us in the form of a needed hug from a daughter-patient.

God is always with us, and our souls want to talk with him.

Our relationship with God depends less on what we do than on which direction we face.

Are we turned toward Him? Or away?

There’s only one place I’m meant to be. Wherever I am, that’s looking up at Him.

Are We Eating Enough Humble Pie?

Are We Eating Enough Humble Pie?

Photo by Liana Mikah on Unsplash

Humble pie. An old-fashioned phrase. Makes me think of a picnic in springtime, a checkerboard tablecloth, and someone joyriding through a forest in a horse-drawn wagon. That person thinks he’s king of the world. He’s showing off but all-too-soon he hits a rock, is catapulted from his dinky wooden seat, and with arms and legs flailing catches air and unceremoniously lands in a huge puddle. Mud covers him from head to toe.

Don’t ask me where I got this visual. I have no idea. But when people say, “He’s too big for his britches,” something along these lines comes to mind.

What is humility, exactly?

In modern parlance, we’ve wrongly accepted it as having low self-esteem. It’s not that.

Merriam-Webster’s defines it as the quality or state of not being proud or haughty. To be humble is also to rank low in a hierarchy or scale. To be unpretentious.

Note that these definitions do not indicate intrinsic value. You can be a cog in the wheel of a large organization, but if doing your job enables others to get theirs done too, you’re not exactly worthless, are you?

My grandfather used to say he was a “peanut” when he described his career as an engineer at Boeing in Seattle, WA. A former WWII pilot and instructor, he was extremely bright and capable, and held a variety of positions which relocated his family a handful of times over the years. But no matter how much I admired his work, his perspective was different. He’d grown up in the Great Depression, and lived apart from his mom for seven years on a small farm outside of Vancouver, WA with his father and sister, while his mother provided income as washer woman in Seattle. She sent money down to her family every time she got a paycheck. He never forgot arriving at that farm house for the very first time and realizing that the only running water came through a rough, open pipe over the kitchen sink, fed by a trickling local stream. Though the amenities did improve, prolonged family separation – not by choice but by necessity – and hard times, left marks. He never took blessings for granted. Instead, he took the opportunities he was given and used them to serve others. He always gave others credit and downplayed his own contributions. He was holding all things in proper perspective, the way a truly humble person navigates life.

So it made sense to me, sitting at his memorial service, that here was a man who had spent his life making kind overtures. Yes, he helped feed and clothe the homeless through his church, and volunteered countless hours to manage the books for community groups. But another thing he did really struck me.

In his later years, he joined a yacht club and rose ‘through the chairs’ to become Commodore. At the end of the monthly members’ meeting, he had a personal tradition of “Naming the House.” Starting on one side of the room and making his way around, he would say the name of every person present, and if there was enough time, also the name of his/her spouse and their boat. At any meeting, there might be as many as 200 people present.

This is notable for a few reasons:

First, what a memory! Keeping his mind sharp was always important to him, but he must have spent days studying the roster. It shows a level of dedication to his organization that I believe most leaders don’t have.

Second, he was looking at each person as he said their name and relayed information pertinent to that person’s life. How often do we tell others that they are seen? That we know them? That we care who they are?

And finally, he was not doing this to show off or to elevate himself above his fellow members. He did it because he fully understood that once his term was up, he would reassume his place in the crew. Despite the fancy uniform and podium he was speaking from – he was – essentially – just like them, and he valued each of them for who they were individually. His heart was in serving them. He knew that each person was important – a valued member – and he wanted them to know that he would never forget a single one.  

This how God sees us.

He looks upon us with tremendous love – boundless affection – and says, “I know you. Every part of you. And in my leadership, I will never forget you.”

To show us that he understands, He sent us Himself in Jesus. Fully man, and fully divine, a person who was similarly tested in all ways, but remained without sin. (Hebrews 4:15) God “gets” us.

True humility on our part is recognizing our rightful place in the world, which is neither less than nor greater than any other human being, but bowing only toward the One Who is.

How does this thought strike you? Is it strange? Foreign? Liberating?

Our intrinsic value is not defined by our position. It is not related to our income, connections, careers, or even our bad habits.

We were created in love by the One Who cradles us in the palm of His hand and calls us Beloved. This is where we find our true worth. 

This kind of humble pie is Truth. And it’s deliciously filling.

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.

The Gift You Should Give Yourself

The Gift You Should Give Yourself
Photo by Elisa Coluccia on Unsplash.

Can you stop for 5 minutes?

FULL. STOP.

Close your eyes and tune out the world, right where you are?

If you’re like me, you think, “Sure. Anytime.”

But doing it isn’t easy.

My oldest child will receive the sacrament of Confirmation in the spring, so last night I attended a meeting for parents of candidates. Appropriately, we began in prayer.

I closed my eyes, but not before noticing that the mom next to me kept glancing down at the phone in her lap, reluctant to put it away. She crossed and uncrossed her knees. Shuffled in her purse. Wiped hair from her face. Pulled herself out of her nylon parka, making “swish, swish” sounds which seemed amplified in the quiet church sanctuary.

The fact that I can tell you this is an indication that I myself was not ‘fully present to God.’

My mind was also very much here on earth, following its whims.

Sitting quietly is hard for us.

We firmly believe that busyness is such a hallmark of our time that we’ve allowed the noise of it all to sweep us away from what our souls actually crave: silence.

A Real Simple article from September 2017 traces the influence of noise on our well-being. Writer Florence Williams points out that while loud noises have always been a threat to our hearing, recent research links increasing noise levels with heart attacks and high blood pressure. There is an association between elevated noise in our environment and the release of stress hormones.

When you factor in visual stimulation – the way we are constantly bombarded with news, advertising, and even the accumulation of items in our spaces – it’s no wonder we feel some sense of peace just standing in a place that’s clutter-free.

So what’s the take-away?

We need quiet to find peace.

Quiet – and the practice of learning to be still – could be the very best thing you give yourself this holiday season and into the new year.

It won’t be easy. And not because you and I don’t have 5 minutes to spare.

Sit motionless with your eyes closed for 30 seconds and you’ll see that your other senses are amplified.

You’ll hear your own breathing and the air whirring about your head, feel shifts in your body, smell lingering odors, taste whatever you last ate…. You’ll experience any number of sensations before realizing your mind is cataloging them!

But we can change this.

Practice helps us progress.

After we parents at last night’s meeting finished our shuffling, we settled into clarity and calm. Eyes closed, I listened wholeheartedly to what came next – a song – and relaxed into its words of praise, letting the alto voice carry me toward a better frame of mind.

It wasn’t pure silence, but it was a start.

When we empty ourselves of ourselves, we find what’s greater than us.

Practicing silence, we hear the whisper of God.

So as you hustle around handing out presents to those you love, find a place in your day to… hush.

Stop where you are. Close your eyes.

Start with just one minute and grow from there. One day into the next.

But give yourself this gift, because we fool ourselves into thinking that stimulation is necessary and good, when the absence of it holds the promise of so much more.

The Unexpected Christmas Visitor

The Unexpected Christmas Visitor

When was the last time the events of a day seemed to be pointing to bad news for you? Did things actually turn out to be as awful as you’d feared?

I shared this story with my readers several seasons ago, but this year seems as good a time as any to revisit the lessons of that fateful day. 

Re-posting this story for your holidays. Blessings to you and yours.

– Gretchen 

The Unexpected Christmas Visitor

I can’t remember the year, but I know it was Christmas. And he called my brother-in-law by name. And that’s part of what set off the  tension in the air….

As I remember it, it was like this…
The doorbell rang and a 20-something guy in a fire department sport jacket was standing on the front steps of my sister- and brother-in-law’s house looking very nervous.

Photo my Les Anderson, Unsplash.

The door opened.
“Mr. D?” he asked.
“Yes, yes.”
“I’m uh. I’m uh…very sorry to tell you this. But…”
“Yeah??” my brother-in-law’s voice escalated a little.
“But, uhm. Uh…”
“YEah?”
 “I ran into your mailbox. I’m…”
“Oh, GOD!!!”
“I’m really, really sorry. The road is very icy and I just…”
“NO! No! No,” my brother-in-law was almost yelling, and beginning to let out bits of relieved laughter.
The guy in the doorway wasn’t sure what to think. He paused, dumbfounded.
“No! I…I have five brothers! I thought you were gonna tell me one of them had died!”
“Oh, God!! Oh, no!! No, man! I’m sorry.”
At this point, the rest of us adults in the house were laughing with relief too.
“It was just the fire department jacket, you know!?? And you looked so serious!”
“Well, I just feel so bad about the mailbox, and…”
“Ah no! This hill, the road, it’s ok. Really.”
“I want to pay for it.”
“No. No. Won’t let you do that. Merry Christmas!! Merry Christmas!!”
Isn’t it funny, how in a flash, we can calculate what’s truly most important to us? My brother-in-law knew that his wife and kids were right there at home with him, so his thoughts then followed to the next ring of people he loves – his brothers. And his heart was filled with gratitude for the fact that the news was not about them.
How often do I give thanks for ill that has not befallen me? I’m not saying I should look at other people’s tragedies and say, “I’m so glad that’s not happening in my life.” But if I’m honest, on the vast, vast, vast majority of days the good so far outweighs the bad that I have no reason to dwell unnecessarily on negative things.
Rejoice always. 
– 2 Thessalonians 5:16

Contemplating Home and the Passing of Days

Contemplating Home and the Passing of Days

Fall is turning to winter and we are, once again, considering Christmas preparations. But as we do, I think back on the events of my fall and they seem to coalesce around one concept: HOME.

What a loaded word that is.

HOME. My third-grader listed it as one of the places he most likes to go on his “All About Me” poster for school. This blessed me greatly. For him, home is close to what it should be – a refuge and stronghold of love.

And I fervently hope my children will always feel this way about the home they’ve grown up in.

HOME is where we live, where we once lived, and what will be our place of living at some point in the future. And yet despite our best efforts to make HOME stable, it is perpetually in flux.

From one year to the next, home changes.

Because the people are changing. Moving in and out. Closer and farther away.

This is my lesson from fall 2018.

Last month, I sat across from my 15-year old son at a wedding our family attended, and felt the years stretch out ahead and behind.

The bride was radiant (as all brides are) and the groom was dazzled by her. Family and friends wished them well and prayed for their happiness. I was especially hopeful, as the bride is a diamond of a person whom I’ve known for 15 years. Yes – ever since she started babysitting an infant boy – who grew into the teenage boy sitting across from me at her reception dinner. Back then, she herself was his exact age.

I see the way his increasingly broad shoulders fill out his blazer, how remarkably relaxed he is in a tie, joking with his teenage sister in a manner closely approximating adulthood. There are clear outlines of the man he will become; only the shading need be filled in.

And I returned again to my mind’s refrain – the one I’ve heard daily since September.

I miss him already.

He’s only a sophomore in high school. A couple years to go.

But you can see a bird is going to take flight when it raises its wings off its back, and that’s where we are now.

How do you sit with melancholy?

The instability of knowing the inevitability of an event that is both happy and sad? Desirable – even prayed for – and yet – not exactly what your heart craves.

He will be leaving his home.

I can stand back and watch time pass quickly – like sand through an hourglass – or I can break open the glass and examine each grain.

So I watch him eat. I listen to him laugh. I hear his stories and respond empathetically. Try not to react with alarm when surprised or concerned. I ask questions that I hope will bring us closer, and when he shares with me – I thank him. His life is his. I know this. And yet….and yet….

Home is where we want to be….together. But togetherness is fleeting. All homes are temporary shelters of love since the members come and go. They draw closer to us. And pull away. For days, months, years, or forever.

There is no real home here on earth.

I bear this in mind, and take my heart to the only One who can console, and who loves my son more than me. It’s his Creator, and mine, after all.

And while I pray for my son’s protection, I am reminded that this boy was given to me for a time, and no more.

Let’s live the days as if they are numbered, for indeed – they are.

So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom. – Psalm 90:12

“All the Days of My Life” – a guest post by my husband, Chris

“All the Days of My Life” – a guest post by my husband, Chris

Today – May 23, 2018 – my husband Chris and I celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary. About a month ago, I asked my beloved if he’d like to write something about marriage for my blog to mark this occasion, and I was delighted when he said yes. The final product is a gift that exceeded all of my hopes and expectations, and I am both humbled and overjoyed to be sharing it with you.

 

All the days of my life

In our first week of dating, attending an inaugural ball for President Clinton’s second inauguration. January 1997.

The first 7,304

It never occurred to me that marrying Gretchen was a choice.  Truly, it was no more a decision than it was whether to draw another breath.  I suppose I could have put it off, but then I’d eventually pass out and start again.  Breathing that is.  But you get the point.

We were engaged ten months after our first date and wed six months later. It didn’t seem fast because marrying her was the most natural thing I have ever done.  I had also been brought up to believe that’s how it should be. Blessed to be born into a family overrun with happy marriages, my mother used say that “you just know it when you know it.”  It was a uniquely unsatisfying, irretrievably irrational and absolutely accurate piece of wisdom, and I never doubted.

I gave little real thought to how “just knowing it” would feel.  But when I fell in love with Gretchen, I remember having a sense of peace that I hadn’t known before.  It was the kind of serenity that comes when you flow effortlessly in the stream of life.  I recall thinking calmly to myself,

“So this is her. The love of my life.  I knew she’d be smart.  Glad she’s pretty. Figured she’d be blonde.”

And I exhaled, as if I had been holding a small measure of my breath for the better part of 24 years.

Of course we did have some difficulties which were also learning experiences.  To this day, our biggest fight came as newlyweds setting up our first apartment.  The Great Spice Rack Dispute will live on in family lore for decades to come.  Well it should as a tale rife with lessons about life.

The facts of the matter, as stipulated by the parties, are these: Gretchen wanted the spice rack concealed in a cabinet so the kitchen wouldn’t look messy.  I preferred the spices visible and within arm’s reach.  Needless to say, it’s a miracle our marriage survived.

I recollect nothing of what was said but I remember it being explosive, at least by our standards.  I think I even left the condo that night, coming back a little later.  After all, my magnificent dog, Crash, was still there.

When the dust settled, we spoke about what had happened.  It turns out that Gretchen was actually not arguing about the spice rack’s precise location. Instead, I learned that she had a lifetime of plans and ideas about how to create a home; that these notions were an extension of her identity; that our disagreement seemingly threatened our very being as well as endangering all manner of critically important, authentically valid, truly emotional and deeply-held thoughts about herself, me and our new life together.

And for my part, I was arguing about where to put the spice rack.

May 23, 1998.

An important lesson to this day, I understand that the real cause of most conflicts usually has little to do with the ostensible terms of the debate.  That is, it’s easy to confuse the symptom with the illness and growth in our marriage has usually come from focusing on underlying issues.

That said, we have developed a few everyday strategies to avoid unnecessary flare-ups.  These include:

  1. No discussing anything after 10pm. Not the kids, not tomorrow’s schedule, not rainbows, not unicorns.  No matter how seemingly innocuous, a late day conversation is about 500 times more likely to end poorly and/or stupidly.
  2. No mind reading. And no demands for telepathy.  We try not to conjure up each other’s thoughts and if we want something, we need to say it.
  3. Always assume the best intentions. We want the best for each other.  Our frustrations are usually borne of a lack of understanding rather than an absence of love.
  4. No quinoa. Ever.  I’ve forgiven Gretchen for knowingly eating Grape Nuts, but there’s a limit.  Quinoa is bad for a marriage, your soul and for America.

Most importantly, over the years we’ve found that approximately 99.3% of our issues are not between us as a couple, but within us as individuals.  Gretchen brings out my better qualities, but she doesn’t rid me of my flaws.  I still bring me into every situation.

That’s one of the many reasons spiritual growth has become part of our life together.  We don’t always approach it in the same way, nor do we have to.  For instance, Gretchen is a Catholic convert.  Her kind can be found singing during Mass and probably sitting upfront being all attentive and holy.  On the other hand, I was raised Philadelphia Irish Catholic, so my brand of religion involves telling jokes during funerals.

Such superficialities aside, we both care deeply about growing personally and growing as a couple.  Early on, especially when we were finding our own way, we stepped on each other a few times.   But we have accepted that our spiritual paths run alongside each other, each meandering at its own pace, sometimes crossing, sometimes in parallel, always moving the same direction. And that works for us.

When reflecting on marriage, it’s easy to dwell on the bumps in the road.  I think doing so misses the joy in it all. After all, perfection is a fine thought, but it means that there is no further growth, no greater joy, nothing more to be revealed. I’m in no hurry.

The fact is that our problems are really just challenges, and our challenges are really just worries. The worries, trifles.  Job stress, busy schedules, not enough time for all the people we care about.  Each and every one just a reflection of some wonderful blessing in our lives.

I often need to remind myself of that great truth and to bask in profound gratitude for having been given such a beautiful, intelligent, loving woman with whom I can greet life.  Gretchen is my greatest blessing.

When we married, I promised to love and honor Gretchen all the days of my life. Great days do adorn our past, but the best lay yet ahead.  And as each has passed over the last twenty years, I remain forever overwhelmed.