September’s Wholesome List

September’s Wholesome List
An unusual approach for this month's list. I've got 5 questions for you about your life. Are you living it the way you say you want to?
Original photo by Anton Sukhinov on Unsplash. Words, mine.

September wasn’t a typical month. Yes, there was the back-to-school hoopla and a re-establishment of routines, but for me, two events also consumed a fair amount of my attention: a 5-day girls’ trip to Des Moines with my mom for the International Convention of the P.E.O. Sisterhood, and my oldest son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor. (For a few more details, you can check out the highlighted links.) If you’re a parent, you know you can’t leave town or host an event without doing A LOT of prep work.

What this meant, in effect, was that I did a poor job of leaving myself a bread-crumb trail of observations for my monthly “wholesome” list. What I DID do, was contemplate what it means to: 1. try to live virtuously, and 2. belong to organizations that affirm and uphold values such as faith, trust, honor, kindness, justice, and thriftiness. Being part of a group holds us accountable to the values we profess.

Not all of us are “joiners,” as they say, but I would guess that most of us like to think of ourselves as “good people.”

Are we?

A friend of mine told me she once heard a priest ask the following in a homily:

“If you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

That certainly would have gotten my attention.

For those of us who are Christians, it is a very pointed and appropriate question.

Rather than offer you 5 wholesome items to consider this month such as films, songs, or even yogurt, I have a few questions for reflection. See if you agree with me when I say that I think checking to see if our outer lives are truly aligned with our inner desire to be “good people” is a valuable and wholesome exercise.

Ask yourself:

  1. Do I have a personal creed that I (try to) live by?
  2. What are the components or virtues of this creed? Is it altruistic and centered on serving others, or not?
  3. How am I doing? Do my daily decisions (big and small) reflect my desires to live by my creed? If not, where do I need to make changes so that the virtues I want to develop further will manifest themselves in my life?
  4. Do those I love know which virtues matter most to me and why?
  5. Am I a good role model to the younger people in my life?

If we want to live with purpose and intention, we need to think about what we do and why we do it.

God didn’t create us to be automatons. He gave us reason and choice to promote His love in a world that needs to hear of it so very, very much.

To my Christian brothers and sisters – do not lose heart if you read these questions and realize you are coming up short. I know I am.

Remember that Jesus fills the gap between us and heaven, and He sent us the Advocate, “the Spirit of Truth, which the world cannot accept, because it neither sees nor knows it. But you know it, because it remains with you, and will be in you.” (John 14:17) Don’t give up when the battle is hard. The Holy Spirit fills our hearts and minds with wisdom, knowledge, and holy respect for the Father, and when we rely on Him – and not ourselves – He guides us to the Father’s will.

Think of a time when you offered up a faint prayer – a cry for help – and it was answered in a powerful, inexplicable whisper of peace that filled you from head to toe. You somehow knew the next step to take, the next words to say.

This is a small example of grace. Though we deny and forget God, He has never forgotten us. He’s loved us since before time began.

Perhaps we can take a step today to recommit ourselves to valuing and practicing the virtues He cares about most, leaning into His strength to carry us through.

10 Wholesome Things I Learned in July & August

10 Wholesome Things I Learned in July & August
Photo taken at the base of the Roundtower (c. 1100), Rock of Cashel.

I didn’t intend to take 8 weeks off from writing. But when late June arrived and the kids were suddenly home and alert every day between 8 and 3, eating all the time, leaving their drinking cups in every room of the house, and asking on an hourly basis for rides to other side of the planet, well, the warning signs were there that I would have a hard time keeping to a schedule. I beat myself up a bit, “shoulding” all over myself but that got me – predictably – nowhere. Yes, summer. I finally surrendered to its charms and just lived it.

By the end of July I had decided I couldn’t muster a Wholesome List. I would wait and give you one at the end of August – a double doozy of 10 good things to think about as we leave this season behind. Here it is, broken into two parts.

In July, I learned or observed that:

  • Surprise bouquets are the ABSOLUTE BEST. On the second day of the month, a dear college friend shocked me…..FOUR bouquets of tulips arrived on my doorstep from The Bouqs Co.! Gorgeous! (See photo below.) These sustainable, eco-friendly growers were new to me. They only cut what they sell, clipping flowers the day they are ordered. If there is a delay in the shipment, they will send more blooms to make up for those that might have died or wilted in the process, which is how I ended up with 4 beautiful bouquets. I was bowled over and felt oh-so-loved by my old friend. Go on – you know what to do. At the right time, make someone’s day.
Flowers from The Bouqs. Co.
  • Colorizing old films reawakens our hearts to history. When I was a little girl, I once asked my mother if when she’d grown up, the world looked black and white, like the pictures we’d seen of her. The truth is, we all get used to thinking of life ‘long ago’ that way – as discrete and removed from our current technicolor days. On a flight to Sacramento, I watched “They Shall Not Grow Old,” a 2019 documentary made by Peter Jackson, who restored and colorized World War I footage stored for the last century in the Imperial War Museum in London. He interviewed veterans and made the filmed soldiers “talk” using the veterans’ voices. As in other wars, boys lied about their ages to enlist in WWI. The faces of the kids in the battles – they were just like those of my 16-year old son and his friends. If you’d told me – there’s Jack and Joey and James – I could have believed you. It’s vital to pay attention to the beauty of every single life and count the true cost of conflict.
  • Maybe ‘killin’ it’ – in so many ways – isn’t so great. Stop and savor. Then do it again. While reading Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb, I came across this quote from the late psychoanalyst and social philosopher Erich Fromm. He said, “Modern man thinks he loses something — time — when he does not do things quickly; yet he does not know what to do with the time he gains except kill it.” Sounds right to me. What do you think?
  • Bigger (natural space) is better…for my soul. In July, I visited Yosemite for the first time since I was 2 with some of my extended family to honor my grandparents who spent weekends there in the 1950s. The vistas are breathtaking and there is a majesty in the space that can only be experienced, not explained. Tension evaporated off my shoulders as I stood in the sunshine on Olmstead Point and took in the huge, panoramic view of Clouds Rest and Half-Dome in the distance. I find it impossible to think self-importantly when I can see that I’m a speck. From dust we came and to dust we shall return, but oh how He loves us as we stumble along our way.
At Olmstead Point. Yosemite National Park.
  • In the love of family is always the right place to be. I have a new nephew. He’s a beautiful gift my brother- and sister-in-law brought into the world in June, and our family is so thrilled that he’s here. The tough part is that he’s been having some health issues. He’s got a ventricular septal defect (VSD) — or “hole in the heart” — an opening between the heart’s lower chambers, and we all want desperately for him to be healed. Nevertheless, holding him – seeing his beautiful face and praying daily for God’s help – is joy itself. This is why we are given to one another – to reconnect us to what’s most important – Love.
With my precious nephew.

In August, our family vacationed in Ireland. My husband and I visited the Emerald Isle on our honeymoon 21 years ago, returned two years later with friends, and hadn’t been back since. We wanted to experience it with our kids – who give me something to think about nearly every single day.

  • If you want to see a place from a new perspective, give a kid a camera. You will get to see what interests her (or him), and if you’re lucky, some uniquely entertaining photos.
  • It doesn’t matter where you are – or how old the kids are – they will wrestle in the backseat. We drove at least an hour every day visiting sites and enjoying the scenery. (Listening to audio books such as The Lightning Thief – book 1 of Rick Riordan’s ‘Percy Jackson’ series – also helps pass the time). And honestly – they never complained. But – they did cut loose as needed.
Roughhousing. No matter where we go…
  • Live music blesses everyone. We caught some in Killarney and again in Galway, where we stumbled upon a show of world-renowned traditional Irish musicians and dancers – Trad on the Prom. My daughter does Irish dance, so it was a treat for her to get a photo with all of the dancers, including 6-time World Champion Claire Greavey. And I knew the evening had captured our oldest’s heart when I caught him trying to video Gerard Fahy – a master of the uilleann pipes, which have an ethereal, ghostly sound and are nigh impossible to learn.
My daughter in the middle of Trad on the Prom‘s world champion dancers. Claire Greavey is second from the right in the photo.
  • You don’t forget how to drive a manual, but doing it left-handed takes special fortitude. To get around, we rented a stick-shift Volkswagen Tiguan. My husband had driven in Ireland on our previous two trips but after this one – where he negotiated the tiny parking garages and narrow streets of 1,000 year-old Dublin before tackling the backroads of the Atlantic Way, constantly on the alert for daredevil mainland Europeans, I am sure of this: 1) I am glad he never asked me to drive, and 2) my guy can truly do anything.
  • The moments we remember most are the ones that brought us together. Like the adorable baby pigs we cooed over at Muckross Traditional Farms or how we got tired of bangers and mash and went for Indian food one night. Or better yet – when I made us pull over in a near-downpour in the Burren to see the Poulnabrone Dolmen – a tomb dating back 5,000 years that basically looks like a weathered table – and everyone hated it except me. I will never live down the teasing (and love) that came out in the laughter of that 5-minute stop.
  • And finally – A bonus observation! – The monks who isolated themselves some 1,000 years ago on Skellig Michael to pray and worship God in the quiet and rough elements were strongly disciplined in their practice and correct in their thinking. Traveling on a one-hour boat ride to see this sanctuary firsthand reminded me that carving out time for the Lord is a necessary part of my spiritual journey. Every era is turbulent in some way – ours is no exception – and our internal lives are challenged daily. To find the “peace that surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7), I need to regularly do as Jesus did – and go to my solitary places to seek Him – the only Source of refreshment and new life.
The beehive huts of Skellig Michael and its chapel below.

Many blessings to you as we head into September. In closing, I can find no better words than more of those from St. Paul – who inspired me to begin these monthly lists in the first place:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

Doing Ok? Reflect, and You May Find Out

Doing Ok? Reflect, and You May Find Out

Are you doing ok? Is this season – summer – going the way you’d hoped it would (so far)?

It’s taken me until mid-life to admit this, but I like my routines and have a difficult time when they’re changed. I become irritable. Sullen. Angry. And eventually, I’m sort of numb to those around me. Even I don’t want to spend time with me.

This came to my attention last week when I was snapping at my kids and husband hourly, and I finally realized that my days were looking dramatically different than they did just weeks ago. I needed to make a few changes to give myself some self-care over the summer months.

Renewing my commitments to daily prayer and Scripture time, talking through my feelings with my husband, doing a bit of exercise, and making an effort to see my friends went a long ways toward improving my mood. But so did one other thing I’d like to recommend: a gentle period of reflection.

Let me admit up front that I am not an expert in reflection. I’ve contemplated various periods of my life and written about many experiences, but I’m not someone who sits down every few months or even once a year and asks, “What is the overarching message of my current life? What do I need to learn?”

But now that I’ve done this, I can see its value. Annie Dillard famously said in The Writing Life, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing.”

So, what are we doing with our time? Periodically asking seems sage. Maybe even necessary.

In Episode 84 of her podcast, The Next Right Thing, Emily P. Freeman gives a great overview of how to do a reflection, and she encourages her listeners to start with the last 3 months. Using her questions as a guide, I recently reviewed April, May, and June. To trigger my memory, I reviewed the photos in my phone, my calendar, and a few of my to-do lists. You might try doing the same.

In the honesty of your own heart, ask yourself the following:

1) Which events were the happiest, most joyful, and life-giving for me?
2) Where did I experience disappointment, sadness, and fear?
3) What are my unresolved questions, both big and small, that bother me consistently?
4) Where do I use my time well? Where could I make better choices?
5) When I review my to-do lists, which things are consistently undone? Why are they undone?
6) What tasks make me feel most alive when I do them?
7) What small changes could I make that would imbue my life with more energy?
8) Can I ask God for the willingness to trust Him more in the areas where I need direction and help? How can I invite Him into my days?

If this exercise intrigues you, visit Emily’s site and dig deeper. My questions are very similar to Emily’s (because hers were great!) and in the same order, but they are far less comprehensive. She covers more topics.

We are here to live full, purposeful lives, but it’s difficult to do that when we’re rushing from one place to the next, meeting the demands of our days without drawing meaningful connections from our experiences. Take a little time to unwrap the gifts of the last three months; uncover the graces God has laid there for you.

5 Wholesome Things I Learned in June

5 Wholesome Things I Learned in June

We are halfway through 2019! Can you believe it? And as has been true for each month this year, I’m here to recap my wholesome ‘finds’ from the last few weeks. May they bless you or, at the very least, entertain you, for you are probably wiser than me and already know any bit of everyday wisdom I can share!

  • First, I’ll start with my most recent revelation, which is that in my early 20s, I had horrible taste in movies. I didn’t especially like Rocky, I thought Jerry Maguire was unconditionally wonderful, and I was bored silly by The Quiet Man, a classic made in 1952 and starring none other than America’s most famous actor, John Wayne. The infantile film critic in me was uncovered when I watched each film for the second time this month – the first two on a flight to Denver, CO, for a memorial service, and the last one with my husband and our kids in preparation for our upcoming family trip to Ireland. Now the kids finally know who John Wayne is (can you imagine not knowing!?! ha!), and I am questioning how fully developed my frontal lobe really was when I was 23. You should try this same exercise. Re-watch the films you once hated and loved. You might surprise yourself.
  • Next, if you’ve got teenagers, you know it can be difficult to bridge the generational gap. Chances are, you have different opinions about music. My oldest son is learning to drive, so we’ve been spending a lot of time in the car this month. One artist he’s shared with me on our longer rides is Lindsey Stirling, a classical crossover and rock violinist. He first heard her music featured in an Irish dance show. (His sister was also in the show, but perhaps that was beside the point?) In any case, I actually enjoy Stirling’s vibe! Who knew we’d find such a connection? Where there is peace while driving, mothers are grateful. And gratitude and good music are wholesome indeed.
  • Third, and now this is exciting – I learned how to revive wilting hydrangeas. I had gotten 6 stems of them for a dinner party and they looked just beautiful until the following morning. Droopy and sad, they resembled Snoopy in a rainstorm. So I scoured the internet and found a solution that actually worked! 1) Cut the stems at a 45 degree angle. 2) Make another 1-inch cut length-wise up each stem, starting at the bottom. 3) Submerge the stems in boiling water for 30 seconds (no longer) and then plunge them into clean lukewarm water. They will be bright green and the blooms should revive in a few hours. All but one of my 6 stems came back in full and lasted more than 8 days! This photo was taken on day 5.
  • Fourth, I read a few good books this month, but the best one BY FAR was Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning. I hardly know where to begin to explain why this text is so moving, so tender, so evocative and powerful except to say that Manning reaffirmed for me what I knew several years ago when I first truly encountered God and came to the understanding that He loves me (and you) personally. God is not interested in our posturing, law, or good works. Through Jesus Christ, he has made visible his invitation to us, and when we put aside our foolish pride and admit we are all paupers and in desperate need of His extravagant love, then He can make something beautiful of us. Each of us is made in His image, and He is for all of us. “God is a Being for others, not a Being for Himself alone,” Manning writes (p. 123). That’s why He is the very definition of Love. It’s the best book I’ve read in awhile. Period.
  • Finally, if you’re on Instagram, here are a few photography pages you really need to check out. They’re devoted to wild animals and especially the sea – a place many of us would like to be on a hot day! There are a couple photos on Sea Legacy that are so breathtaking my oldest son swore they were paintings and not actual shots.
  • Christina Mittermeier
  • Paul Nicklen
  • Sea Legacy
  • These pages are also in line with the two television series my youngest son and I have been glued to over the last few months: Our Planet and Planet Earth II from the BBC (both available on Netflix and narrated by David Attenborough). Like the TV series, the Instagram pages I’ve recommended are mesmerizing because they capture the indescribable beauty of our world. Let’s do what we can to care for it in whatever small ways we can.

That’s it for June. Thank you for reading! Look for a blog post later this week.

With gratitude for you,

Gretchen

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