Amidst Angels: A Short Post on Gratitude

Amidst Angels: A Short Post on Gratitude
U.S. Navy Blue Angels, 2015. Photo taken at Hospital Point, U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis.

“It’s so beautiful,” I said as we watched the Blue Angels making the final pass of their 2019 flight demonstration over the Severn River.

“Mom, you think everything is beautiful,” replied my teenage daughter.

I looked over at her – sandy blonde hair – taking videos with my phone.

Yep. Beautiful.

Me and my daughter at the 2019 Blue Angels flight demonstration.

Practically all of Annapolis clamors to find a spot somewhere near the water to view the planes at 2 pm on the Wednesday of Commissioning Week – those 5 blissful days in May when the Academy sends off its newest batch of brilliant officers to represent our nation across the globe. I give that praise with no sarcasm whatsoever. They are – to a woman and man – among the very best and brightest our country has to offer.

So we’ve come to watch the flight demonstration honoring them every year for the past 12? I’ve lost count. Except when the Blue Angels were grounded because of weather or budget cuts (2013), we were there. With friends or by ourselves, we make this annual pilgrimage to appreciate the display of skill, training, courage, complete trust and raw nerve it takes to fly one combat airplane at 800 mph just inches from another. The show celebrates those who serve. It is about noble character, sacrifice, and working as a team for a cause greater than one’s self.

The elegance and energy of the moment will take your breath away.

And the glinting sun on the wings, the howling engines, and the cooling breeze make me wistful. In this week, more than any other in the year, I feel the passage of time.

My wedding anniversary…the near-end of another school year…the dying away of the spring flowers and the full-on growth of green shade for summer…all are happening right now in this week.

Is there a spot in your geography which makes you grateful? Where you see your days spread out before and behind you? You remember the good and the bad simultaneously? You hold the joy and the pain together as one?

2019. View across the Severn River.

The key to a full heart, I’ve found, is taking an inventory of the GOOD and raising it up high.

Even when there’s hurt. Even when there’s suffering. Even when concern is knocking on your door.

My days are not the same as they were just last year or two years ago, and I’m sure yours aren’t either. There has been success and sadness. There have been sound decisions and bad ones. And there are battles still being waged.

But in our favorite spots we are reminded that we are never independent of God’s grace. His presence – which continually blesses us despite all the ways we continually screw up – is just that – PRESENT. Always.

Every year, I stand on Hospital Point and I just feel so darn thankful to be alive. And this time, I knew why.

It’s all beautiful. All of it. Beautiful.

5 Wholesome Things I Learned in April

5 Wholesome Things I Learned in April

So April has passed and we’re still buying 7 avocados a week. If you’re new around here, that’s a reference to my February Wholesome List, where I shared that my daughter has discovered the delights of avocado toast. Now 4 out of 5 of us are converts. Can you grow avocados in Maryland? Soon, we might need our own grove….

My Wholesome List is a just a collection of things I learned during the month that brightened my days. It’s in keeping with my faith that God wants us to enjoy the fullness of life, and my belief that we should do as St. Paul instructs us in Philippians 4:8, focusing on what is pure, good, and lovely. April’s list is light and breezy.

  • My youngest son and I are glued to Our Planet on Netflix. Rated G with breathtaking cinematography of wildlife and natural wonders from every part of the planet, it is a not-to-be-missed series. David Attenborough narrates each episode, highlighting a particular type of habitat and the urgent need to create environmental protections to reverse damage from human activities and prevent more damage from being done. My favorite segment so far is the High Seas, with close-up live footage of a blue whale and her calf, as well as an entire pod of humpbacks feasting on krill. The scenes are truly extraordinary and every time we watch a segment together, my son inevitably whispers, “So beautiful,” and “Oh my gosh, wow.” There are no better descriptors.
  • Speaking of caring for the environment, awhile back (and I mean about 2 years ago) I bought some E-cloths for cleaning that somehow ended up on the bottom of my rag pile. I found them this month and WOW – I’ll never buy any other kind of microfiber cloth. You don’t need soap or cleaners to scrub any surface! For my showers, I do spray some Method Antibac Bathroom Cleaner first and let it sit for 10 minutes to disinfect, and then wipe away the grime with the E-cloths. But still – WHY did I forget about them for all that time? Fantastic!
  • Did you learn to make something this month? I did! For the first time ever, I made genoise batter for sponge cakes and layered them into this Easter confection. Genoise is started with eggs and sugar, heated in a double boiler, and then whipped in a mixer until the two ingredients fuse into a thick ribbon-like batter. Flour is only added at the end. This process might not be news to you, but I was shocked and delighted when it actually worked in my kitchen and my family ate the results! I’m not quite ready to audition for Season 6 of The Great British Baking Show, but I must admit, it was “a good bake.” Cheers to small victories!
  • I haven’t been reading as much as I prefer this month (only one book halfway finished), because I’ve been busy with my husband planning our family’s summer trip – to Ireland! We’ll be there for 10 days in August. The Rick Steves, Frommer’s, and DK Eyewitness travel guides are all on our coffeetable so that all 5 of us can peruse and daydream to our hearts’ content. One wall of the family room is mapped as if we’re planning some sort of land invasion. This will be our first family trip abroad – and my husband and I are very excited. But what have we learned so far? Well, when I asked the kids what they were looking forward to seeing on the Emerald Isle, our youngest looked at me quizzically and said, “That’s too long from now.” Time is relative, people. When you’re 9 and it’s April – August is as far away as Christmas.
  • Finally, I noticed that lilacs bloom here in Maryland in April. I know, it’s silly to have never taken note of such a thing before, especially when I love flowers as much as I do. But as I’m getting older and earnestly trying to savor every day, I look around a bit more. The daffodils come up first. Then the forsythia and the pink magnolias burst into color. Then the cherry trees and tulips. Then the lilacs. Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” (NIV) We grow wiser when we understand we don’t have endless days. Each one is worthy of our attention. So let’s take time to reconsider the order of things – whether it be the flowers or what’s much more important – faith, family, friends, and time and how we use it.

That’s it for this month’s list! Wishing you a beautiful May with the ones you love.

Blessings always,

Gretchen

Can We Be Like Kids?

Can We Be Like Kids?
In one of our happy places.

Can we be like kids?

Maybe.

How are kids, exactly? Are they innocent? Carefree? Curious? Imaginative? Easily duped? Yes and no. It all depends on their ages and life experiences.

But one thing most of them can do – at least for a few moments at a time – is suspend whatever bothers them, relax, and PLAY.

This week, my younger two kids have been on Spring Break. Their school’s schedule is different from my older son’s and we’re not planning a family vacation until summer, so there were would be no “getting away” from our day-to-day. It was incumbent upon me to make plans to keep us from climbing the walls.

We did some closet cleaning and clothes shopping, but I also wanted to incorporate some fun, so we went to the aquarium, played mini-golf, and visited (brace yourself) IKEA!!

When a 9-year old drives.

I don’t know why IKEA has become a playground for our family over the years, but we can go there to buy a few organizer bins and spend hours. Yesterday was no exception.

Maybe it’s the bright, happy yellow and blue logo that sparks our endorphins, or the Swedish words we can’t pronounce – bjorksta, lustigt, or djungelskog, anyone? Better yet – the hundreds of inexpensive household trinkets. Or perhaps it’s the tasty food in the cafeteria, and the simple, functional furniture. Personally, I like the small designer showrooms – because I secretly dream of living in a tiny home with very few possessions. What’s funny is, on most trips, we don’t even buy very much (except the frozen meatballs, we always get lots of those). But whatever the allure…we all love it.

They’d like apartments in NYC with kitchens just like this…

And so my kids went into full IKEA mode. In the Showroom, they each claimed a perfectly-planned model apartment as ‘theirs,’ and pretended to serve one another in the mock kitchens. They sat at desks, opened and closed cabinets and closets, made themselves comfy on sofas, and spun round and round on bar stools.

Making himself at home.

And of course, in the kids’ section, they re-lived their “little” years, trying to fit into every playspace item that used to be a favorite.

She’s a good egg. Just not so little anymore.
What does it take to be like a kid? For most of us, it's fairly difficult. Here's why.
He spun her and spun her and spun her. It never gets old.

And what did I do? I took pictures.

Because for adults – watching kids be kids is easy. But being kid-like is hard.

I didn’t roll around on the couches or put my feet up on the coffee tables as if I were home watching TV. But maybe I should have.

And when my daughter yelled, “Mom, come try out this mattress,” I declined, thinking of all the people who had already done that. Ick.

The fact is, I was thinking about adult things – people I’m worried about, stuff on my to-do list – albeit with a smile on my face as I watched my kids.

As grown-ups, we carry burdens of concern, and we have a hard time setting them down. We offer up prayers and have to remind ourselves not to take them back again – to let the One above handle our issues.

Always trying to find resolutions on our own when we know that He is in charge is prideful. It shows we lack faith.

But we can start again. Every second of the day is a new opportunity to re-surrender.

When Jesus said, “Let the children come to me,” (Matthew 19:14) he wasn’t just talking about kids. He was also talking about a state of the heart. “[T]he kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” He said. When we become trusting and humble – when we open ourselves to the grace of this very moment – we will find Him there, and it will give our souls respite, a place to relax.

I need a place to go that’s far better than my own mind. Even better than a vacation or – need I say it, the make-believe spaces of IKEA. I need to be like a kid – finding joy at the feet of God.

I need to re-surrender and rest in Him. How about you?

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.

The Day I Stopped Judging My Neighbor

The Day I Stopped Judging My Neighbor

I’m finally speaking to my neighbor. Many years ago, we had a sort of run-in that I chose not to overlook. And I recently passed her two times in the Whole Foods supermarket before I decided to say something.

No. That’s a lie. It didn’t exactly happen that way.

Here’s how it did.

I saw the white-haired woman twice – once in the produce section and once by meats – before I headed over to the bakery to get myself a loaf of Italian bread. I decided to try the new slicing machine and was just reaching in to retrieve my freshly cut loaf when I heard a voice say,

“Is that thing turned off? Are you sure you should stick your hand in there?”

I turned my head to see her standing next to me. My neighbor. The woman with whom I had only interacted once in all the years we’ve lived on the same block, her backyard kitty-corner to mine. She always seemed to have the same stern expression on face, as if she were assessing the world and finding it unsuitable to her taste.

It was years ago when we passed in the street while walking our dogs. She and her husband had their two Jack Russells and I had my Beagle and mutt. From the other curb she greeted me only with unsolicited advice, saying that the double harness I was using – which connected to one leash – was “a very bad idea.” “Those things are terrible,” she yelled without ever saying hello. “They never work. It’s better to walk them on two.”

We had just gotten the dogs and I would learn she was right. But I was taken aback by her comments because I was in a tender spot. Our last dog had passed very suddenly just weeks before, and I was determined to do absolutely everything in my power to be the best possible dog mom I could be to these two new rescues.

Soon enough, one of the dogs – our lemon Beagle – proved to be a real backyard nuisance, always barking at passersby, other dogs, and rogue squirrels seeking global domination. Or at the very least, to cross our yard.

And I began to feel a bit angry and ashamed. How could any neighbor not hate us for the ruckus our little girl canine makes?

I assumed the whole block was judging us.

Especially her.

Back at the bread slicer, I sighed to myself and quickly asked the One above for grace.

“You’re probably right,” I said to her, and pulled my hand out of the machine that might very well cut it off.

Instantly, a Whole Foods bakery worker appeared, assured me I was doing alright, and deftly slid the sliced loaf into a plastic bag. I thanked her and turned back to my neighbor, deciding in a split second to suck down what was left of my pride.

“I’m Gretchen. You don’t know me, but we’re neighbors.”

“I thought you looked familiar.”

“I’ve seen you out walking your Jacks with your husband.”

We exchanged pleasantries – about how long we’d lived in the area and how we ended up there. She’d also been a mother of three. Her husband also went to an all-boys Catholic high school and had done a long commute before he’d retired.

When we really listen to people, it’s always possible to find common ground.

A few minutes later, she said…

“We’ve had five Jacks total. Now just two. But John’s* been in a memory-care facility for two years.”

Her face softened all over and she looked away. She continued.

“They line them up 30 minutes before meals to go in to eat. Sometimes I don’t get there in time.”

Suddenly, I realized I’d read it all wrong. The face wasn’t stern; it was determined. Steadfast and purposeful in a difficult situation.

And she wasn’t the judgmental person. I was.

Then she asked, “Which ones are your dogs?”

I explained and she knew immediately, especially the Beagle.

“I’m so sorry about the barking,” I told her.

“Oh, it doesn’t bother me! I love that little dog! She runs along the fence line and talks to all the others. She wears an electric collar.”

“Yes,” I halfheartedly laughed. “She has to or she’d follow the scents right over our fence.”

“I understand! You can’t let a Jack run anywhere he’d like either. They don’t stay with you. An unleashed Jack is a dead Jack.”

We parted with ‘so glad to have met yous’ that I for one, certainly meant, because not only was she a pleasure, there was a real lesson for me in this encounter.

I am fatally flawed and need to consistently ask for the eyes to see as God does, for “man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

Had I been more forgiving, had I decided to not judge this woman based on a faulty first impression or the look on her face, had I not unconsciously believed I was semi-omniscient and could read my neighbors’ minds – who knows what blessings of friendship we might have uncovered in all these years?

Grace happens when we put down our preconceived notions – when we surrender our assumptions and theories – and allow love to enter into in.

If we hold too tightly to what we think we know, we can’t see what’s still there for us to learn. And the picture is so much richer than we can imagine or see on our own.

*Not his real name.

God the “Father” – When Language Falls Short

God the “Father” – When Language Falls Short

Photo by Dylan Sosso on Unsplash

I call God my “Father.” But the word falls short in many ways.

Let me preface this by saying I have a gentle earthly father. One who spoke to me in childhood with kindness and patience, and talks to me now with respect and care. I always knew his intentions were good. I understood that he loved me, even when he disciplined me.

But many people don’t share this experience. The word “father” is a powerful trigger for deeply complex, old and painful wounds. It becomes very difficult to think of God in heaven as the Best Dad Ever when you perpetually wonder why you were paired with one here who left you aching.

I’d been ruminating on this subject for a few days when a long-forgotten memory sprang up while I was sitting in a streak of warm sunlight at my kitchen table, early one spring morning.

I’m four years old and it’s Christmastime 1976 in New London, CT. My parents are shepherding a Bible study group for cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, where my father is an alum and is now working in the Admissions Office. This evening, some cadets are caroling at a retirement home, and my parents decide to take me along. I am the only child in the group.

I’m hiding from the tall, loud adults in my handwoven gray and ivory Icelandic sweater – each strand of it thick and soft – and distracting myself from the strange surroundings by playing with the round pewter buttons on my belly and twisting the thin belt between my fingers.

We walk through long corridors, passing room after room, singing “Jingle Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Through most of the doorways, I see only feet. Feet covered with blankets. On beds. In wheelchairs.

I stay by my mom’s side, listening to her lilting soprano and the swish-swish of her arms against her yellow parka.

We finally come to a community hall, where people sit in high-back chairs and more wheelchairs along the perimeter of a ring.

There is a small collective sigh.

My mother begins stroking my blond hair and saying my name, my age, and things about me.

A woman in the middle of the circle, hunched over in her wheelchair, fixes her deeply wrinkled face on me and smiles like a cherubim. With great effort, she raises her left hand and holds it, trembling, mid-air.

My mother runs her hand down my back and inches me forward until I take the last few steps to this woman on my own.

She sits above me on metal wheels, but I look into her peaceful eyes and feel the radiance of my rosy cheeks, the warmth of my tiny body in my woolen sweater, and without thinking, hold out my small hands to hers.

We clasp our hands together on the armrest and I notice how hers are bluish and ropy with veins, but soft, tender, and pulsing with life.

Looking up again, I see that we share this: life. And a desire to love.

I don’t know her, but I like being with her.

Her presence takes away my fear.

She sees beauty in me. And I see it in her.

That was more than 40 years ago.

I’m back in my kitchen now, remembering that we are all made in God’s image. We bear an imprint of Him.

In that moment, I saw peace, goodness, stability, kindness, hope, trust, and love.

I wonder how many days passed before that gentle lady went to meet her Maker, and how many other people saw God in her eyes?

When we recognize that God is present in all situations, we begin to understand His character and heart.

We begin to see that every life experience carries a whisper of His grace.

I call God my “Father” in the language of my faith tradition, and I always understood Him to be the origin of everything and the transcendent authority. I prayed to the Father alone before I ever became comfortable with His son Jesus Christ – whom I viewed as a divisive figure bent on punishing me forever. By asking God the Father to help me trust Him and by spending time in Scripture, my understanding of Jesus changed, and now He is my dearest friend whom I often visualize sitting with me when I pray. I’m comfortable when I read the words, “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” (Colossians 1:15)

But God’s qualities transcend the bodily distinction between the sexes. And God is continually drawing us to Himself.

God is neither masculine nor feminine, but both and all, and the more that I understand God as Creator, Friend, and Lover of my soul, the more I yearn to remember how this One Source of Life and Love met me in my past and beckoned me to Himself.

Do you want to remember, too?

I stretch out my hands to you;
I thirst for you like a parched land.

Teach me to do your will,
For you are my God.
-Psalm 143: 6,10

5 Wholesome Things I Learned in February

5 Wholesome Things I Learned in February
Photo by K. Bingel

At the end of January, I started a monthly series highlighting a few wholesome things I’d learned over past several weeks, and now I’m carrying on the new tradition.**

Why “wholesome?” Because things that are wholesome contribute to, or are associated with, a state of well-being, which is a glimpse into the kind of life we are meant to know as we walk peacefully with God.

When Jesus said, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10), He gave us the promise of eternal life, but He also wanted us to know that we can enjoy the here and now. We can have some fun while we wait in hopeful expectation of God’s mercies.

So here are a few delights from February:

  1. Re-adopting a childhood habit can be a very good idea. When I was a child I read constantly. My parents had CB radios in their cars and encouraged my sister and me to have ‘handles’ just like them. Mine was “Bookworm.” So is it any wonder that I’d become an English major (well, double major of English & French), or that my not-so-secret fantasy is always to retreat to a quiet corner with a big, fat memoir? But we give so much up in adulthood, so this year I’ve made an effort to read more. A LOT more. And Anne Bogel’s podcast “What Should I Read Next” has been a big help. Her fascinating interview (#165) with James Mustich, author of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die added another level to my self-created challenge, so I used a Bas Bleu gift certificate I received at Christmas to buy this doorstopper, which checks in at 948 pages. Having read only 95 of his suggestions, I’ve been eager to dig in. This month, I read Night by Elie Wiesel and wrote a blog post about it. In March, I’ll be reading Beryl Markham’s West With the Night and C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. Nirvana for a bibliophile! I’ll be in a corner if you need me….
  2. A son can make his mother proud…especially when he challenges her. Early on in the month, my 16-year old son and I had our first-ever, slightly heated exchange over an issue in the national news – the wall at the southern border. We weren’t totally opposed to one another, just both expressing concerns, and before things got truly uncomfortable my husband wisely said, “Let’s just admit that no one in this room is an expert on this subject or has any firsthand knowledge. We don’t live in a directly affected area.” We both conceded immediately. Aside from the fact that it was fascinating to see my son’s critical thinking skills in play, what impressed me more was the question he threw out to me just before my husband stepped in: “Mom, what are your sources?” I was stunned with shock and pride. Thank God for bright young minds who are considering the sources of information, and checking their credibility and trustworthiness. Carry on young people, carry on.
  3. The latest food fad – avocado toast – is actually pretty good. My husband went on a business trip to NYC and had breakfast in a place with limited offerings. He ended up eating avocado toast, which was – as you’d imagine – avocado spread on toast – and, with a little twist on the obvious, a lightly poached egg. Surprise, surprise – he found it tasty and we replicated it at home. Now I’m buying 7 avocados a week and our daughter is making avocado toast for after-school snacks every day. There are certainly worse things.
  4. The “good camera” is still worth using. In one of this month’s blog posts, Study Birds and Turtles – Or How to Love in Life’s Mundane Moments, I featured a photo of me and my oldest son when he was about 18 months. It was taken with a Nikon N70 back when that was still an expensive camera. We bought it used, and it was worth every penny. Today, we’re all taking pictures with our phones and the quality seems alright most of the time, but when I found this particular shot my heart fluttered. I could see so clearly every detail of my son – even the little curl at the back of his head. I remembered a friend’s recent comment, “Twenty years from now I might regret not making the effort to get out the nice camera and take better pictures.” Indeed. My intention for March is look ahead two decades, and then do what I think Future Me would appreciate.
  5. I learned new ways to pray. I began the month on a weekend retreat with fellow mothers from my son’s all-boys Jesuit high school. In fact, one of those moms took the photo I used in this post at sunset on the second day. In our fellowship together, my prayer life was strengthened in two ways: First, I was taught a new way to pray the Rosary. The Scriptural Rosary incorporates a verse of scripture between each Hail Mary; it helped me to focus more clearly on the mystery of Christ’s life contemplated in each decade. You can order the book we used here on Amazon. Second, I learned the Suscipe, a prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola incorporated into his Spiritual Exercises. I loved it enough to place it in a frame on my desk where I can offer the words to the Lord daily. I leave it here with you in closing.

May God bless you and keep you in March, and may you enjoy fullness of joy in your walk with Him.

Suscipe

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding,
and my entire will,
All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.
To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me.

-St. Ignatius of Loyola

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

How’s Your New Year’s Activism Going?

How’s Your New Year’s Activism Going?
Witness by Ariel Burger and Night, by Burger’s teacher, Professor Elie Wiesel.

Are you an activist? Is activism something you do – or observe?

Last night I finished Night by Elie Wiesel. It’s a short book I meant to read for years, and I put it off out of selfish knowledge that its contents would rattle me. And they did, because every word is true. I felt physically ill. I don’t remember the last time I read something this painful, powerful, important, or necessary.

In the very unlikely case you’ve never heard of it – Night is a harrowing first-person account of survival in the Nazi death camps. Taken – along with his family and the entire Jewish community of Sighet, Transylvania – to Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel recounts with lucidity, humility, and eloquence the unforgettable anguish of passing through hell and leaving behind every person he had ever loved. Deeply observant, this Jewish teenager faced a prolonged dark night of the soul unimaginable to most. I defy anyone with a heart to read this book and remain unmoved.

You will read Night and feel bereft. But there is a mighty epilogue. Elie Wiesel was much more than a survivor. Before his passing in 2016, he wrote 40 books (both fiction and nonfiction), was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, the French Legion of Honor, and most notably, in 1986, the Nobel Peace Prize. He taught Humanities at Boston University for nearly 40 years.

In conjunction with Night, I recently devoured a sort-of primer on moral education – Witness: Lessons from Elie Wiesel’s Classroom by Ariel Burger, who was a student of and later an assistant to, Elie Wiesel in Boston. It’s the next best thing to being in Professor Wiesel’s classes, pondering eternally significant questions such as, “How can we make the world a more compassionate place?”

Which brings me back to the whole point of this post – the steps we take after we are consumed with sadness and fury over the injustices in the world.

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Professor Wiesel said he had faith. “Faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and even in His creation. Without it no action would be possible. And action is the only remedy to indifference, the most insidious danger of all.” (emphasis mine)

To sit on our hands and do nothing when we are outraged is to fuel evil’s fire.

We may feel powerless, but we are not.

“Walt, a retired academic dean who [had] attended Wiesel’s classes for over a decade, [said], ‘My problem is, I do something small, write a check or something, and I feel better. I don’t want to feel better; I want to hold on to the outrage so I can do more. How do I do that?’

[Wiesel replied,] ‘The question is, how real are other people to you? Do you feel their suffering?…We can feel overwhelmed….And you can remain asleep to others’ pain. We need to find a balance between sleep and paralysis. Start with one person. A person is not an abstraction – we must be against abstraction. Six million pairs of shoes taken from children in the camps are a statistic; one is a tragedy.

But don’t just write a check; help them somehow with your own effort, your own energy. Buy them food and bring it to them. Help them find shelter. Speak to them, take the time to really speak and listen. Who will listen to them? We must be the ones who do. This means that your feelings of anxiety or calm, your presence or lack thereof for another person, your smile at a fellow human being or your turning away, your feeling overwhelmed and how you manage that – all of these little, internal things contribute somehow to the destiny of the world.’” (Witness, p. 176)

We cannot live lives of vicarious righteousness. We must step out and take action wherever we see a need. Big steps. Small steps. Forward steps.

So I ask you, and I ask myself, “How I am doing this new year, living an activist’s life? Am I obeying the daily, divine call to love?”

Am I feeding the hungry? Clothing the naked? Giving shelter? Speaking up – loudly – for the defenseless and oppressed?

Am I listening without judgment to the person who suffers from addiction? Am I offering compassion to the one who is sick, the one whose marriage is failing, the one whose child is estranged, and the one who has lost his job? Do I give rapt attention to the one who talks aimlessly because she’s been lonely for ages?

Who will welcome these battered hearts, if not me?

Am I asking God for help in discerning my next steps, and am I willing to accept that I am part of a greater whole, and that because God so loved the entire world, I must as well?

Or am I avoiding pain, because getting involved might cost me something?

These are questions for the would-be activist. Questions for you and me.

“We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them,” wrote Elie Wiesel.

So – how are we doing?

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.

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.