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Sunday, April 9, 2017

NOT BY DEFAULT, BUT BY DECLARATION

My friend needed a ride. I had a car. She was just out of the hospital. I had just left church. She needed groceries. I needed a moment of quiet. It was an errand of mercy—as it turns out, more for my benefit than hers.

While she shopped, I waited contentedly in the parking lot. The slight breeze coming through open car windows provided the perfect counterpoint to the enthusiastic effort of the sun. I checked emails on my phone. I planned my week. I had a front row seat to a constantly moving parade of humanity.

From this vantage point, I saw the motorized shopping cart the moment it emerged through the automatic doors. It moved ever so slowly across the driveway toward handicapped parking. I opened my door, ready to spring into action should a speedy driver fail to see the cart in time to stop. (Years of hanging out with children have made me hyper-vigilant in areas shared by cars and shorter than hood-height humans.) My relief at seeing the cart come to rest by a car was interrupted by my dismay over the challenges facing the woman who drove it.

Perhaps she had a plan. Perhaps she knew how to get multiple bags of groceries and two 12-pack cartons of drinks from the cart into her car, but it was not apparent to me. At the risk of insulting her independence, I met her at the car and asked if I could help. She hesitated. She had a plan, and I wasn’t it. Her plan was to yell loudly and ask the cell-phone talking stranger leaning against his truck in the next row to help her. I assured her I was strong enough for the task at hand.

She pulled her cane from the back of the cart and stood as tall as a body resembling a lower case ‘c’ allowed. Her movements appeared painful and agonizingly slow.  I finished loading the car several minutes before she was able to lower herself into the driver’s seat.

From the comfort of seated security, she began, “I wasn’t always like this, you know. I used to be so strong. I could do anything.” To make sure I understood, she recounted details of those former years. I heard this as no mere lament but as a plea to see her as more than she now appeared. For one brief moment my heart joined hers in the backward glance. I saw her as the blushing bride and eager first time mom. I saw her in the tennis skirt and as the faithful wife and as the soccer mom.

This woman, who could no longer walk, was at heart all these things and more. Time had changed what she could do. It had not altered who she was. In her own way, she asked, “See me! See me for who I am and not what I can do. Know that I am more than what my body has become.” I was instantly convicted of my too quick tendency to brand people by the packaging in which they are wrapped—of my propensity to mete out pity or praise based on momentary observation.

In that moment, her self-disclosure of a richer, fuller life now lost reminded me that identity exists beyond the transitory circumstances of our temporal lives. It cannot be defined by the innocence of childhood, the vigor of youth, or the surprising frailty of an aging body. It resides deeper and rises higher than the events we use to mark our steady progress to an eternal destiny. Identity is determined not by default, but by the declaration of a heavenly Father.

Her face brightened, as if she suddenly remembered who she was. “There is one thing I am really grateful for,” she said. “I can still get to my church on Sunday morning.” She put up her window. Our encounter was over; the truth remains.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

SUCH AS I HAVE, I GIVE TO YOU

I had no cash on me as I raced into my neighborhood market. The plastic card tucked into my cell phone case would be sufficient for two small items.

The sun had just relinquished its claim to the sky, reluctantly handing over its task to the artificial radiance of security lights and neon signs. This changing of the guard went unnoticed by the unusually large number of people who crowded the entryway.

Husbands, on their way home, shopped with lists so short they didn’t have to write them down. Vibrant young adults arrived as couples or in groups, apparently having not yet learned a list saves time and money. A Girl Scout troop, hoping to entice shoppers with their famous cookies and winsome smiles, flanked one side of the sliding door. A solitary figure, sat round-shouldered, cross-legged and alcohol-fogged on the filthy concrete, a counterpoint to the happy and expectant scouts.

Fellow shoppers with cash and a sweet tooth cheerfully greeted the scouts. They paid no more attention to the man on the ground than they did to a misplaced shopping cart they had to step around. I was careful to avoid eye contact with either the Scouts or the derelict. It seemed easier than explaining I had nothing to give.

I was dismayed to discover nothing had changed by the time I left the store. No Good Samaritan had brought a hungry man food or helped him on his way. He continued to sit there, while I, heartsick over the scene, escaped quickly to my car--feeling more and more like the hypocritical priest and Levite who hurried past the robbed and beaten man in the parable in Luke.

“Really, now,” I argued with the inner voice that is not my own. “What was I supposed to do?”

“Give him the gift of human dignity. Look him in the eye. Acknowledge he is a person.”

I retraced my steps across the parking lot. Hoping to make our encounter less awkward, I had retrieved cash from the emergency stash in my car. It wasn’t much, but it was what I had. A store employee confirmed the man had been there an hour. No one else had talked to him.

I knelt beside the man so I could look him in the eye. I asked if he was all right—if he needed help. He said he was hungry. I slipped my meager offering into his hands, hoping he would buy food but suspecting he wouldn’t. The help he needed was beyond my ability to give.

I said I would pray for him—and I meant it. He challenged me, asking if I knew how to really pray. I assured him I did, and he began, “Our Father.” Together we said the Lord’s Prayer, word by word, line by line, outside on the concrete amid the noise of shoppers and Scouts. Few sanctuaries have ever seemed as sacred.

He took my hand and touched it to his head. We connected, one child of God with another, and then I was free to go.  “Silver and gold have I none, but what I have that I give you.”


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Sunday, October 23, 2016

FOG

October 17 at University Lake
Tentacles of moisture stroked my cheeks and dampened my just dried hair. I stood still and silent, cocooned in the mists of early fall morning fog. Staring ahead, I willed my eyes to focus, or at least to remember the lakeside scene I had photographed just days before. 

The trees that still clung to water’s edge were now but shadowy images against the backdrop of uncertain gray. Gone were the wind-whipped ripples that sparkled in the sunlight of brighter days. Gone were the gentle clouds that teased the imagination with suggestions of characters—like actors dressed for the part on a stage of brilliant blue. Gone was the line of trees that stood as stalwart witness to the certainty of a shoreline on the other side. It was a panorama of promised nothingness.

My grief is like a foggy morning—a season when a bright kaleidoscope of ever after dreams, has repainted itself in shades of speculative gray. This miasma is neither as dark nor as fearsome as some might think. Wrapped in a shroud of pain, I remember two things. First, although the mist obscures the distant shore, I have no doubt solid ground I cannot see still exists. Although I may not see far front of me, I can continue my way forward with cautious steps.

Secondly, sorrow is but a vapor that, given time, relinquishes its grip in the heat of unrelenting light. Lines penned by Carl Sandburg, one of my favorite poets, surface as I stand peering into the gray,

The fog comes on little cat feet.
It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on. 

And then moves on….

In time the fog will lift; it will move on. Until it does, you will find me walking resolutely through a metaphorical fog, confident that,

Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 
(Psalm 30:5b, 2 Corinthians 4:17)

Saturday, October 15, 2016

LET THERE BE LIGHTS

George and I didn’t fight often, and we didn’t fight about many things. We did fight about the lights.

He thought I should turn them off when I left the room. I thought I should leave them on—in case I came back later. He said leaving on the lights wasted electricity. I said light-filled windows cast a friendly glow that made our home smile in defiance of a sun-quenched sky. Sometimes he followed me around just to flip the switches off. It was not beneath me to circle back around and defiantly return them to their brightful position.

As much as I loved lights, I hated buying light bulbs. George regularly added them to the grocery list. I conveniently ‘forgot’ to buy them. I seldom saw a need. The lights were always working as far as I could tell, but he would insist and sometimes go with me to the store in order to stock up. I am sure George was quite aware that my refusal to buy bulbs was illogical and inconsistent with my insistence in leaving them on. He was wise enough never to point it out.

I could never figure out which bulbs to buy. Bulbs come with different bases, different shapes, different watts, and different hues. The selection of just one pack of bulbs took more time than picking out produce for a week—and did nothing for family nutrition. 

The cost wreaked havoc on a kid-friendly food budget and made me feel I couldn’t afford sacred purchases like Milano Mints. Then there was the challenge of getting them home—unbroken. They couldn’t be packed at the bottom of the bag where they would certainly lose if they jockeyed for space with peanut butter.  They couldn’t be too close to the top where they might take a suicidal tumble to the parking lot below.

As suddenly as George was gone, the struggle over lights and light bulbs ended. I stopped turning out lights because I seldom turned them on. I stopped buying light bulbs because I had no need.

The house wasn’t totally dark as long as I had houseguests and people who lived with me. But once they were gone, and all switches were under my sole control, the house settled into comfortable twilight, only enjoying reprieve when the sun extended mercy through partially curtained windows. When a lamp burned out, I used another lamp until that too was gone, and I either sat in darkness or moved on to another room. Overhead fixtures with multiple bulbs grew dimmer by 60 watts at a time until they gave up entirely.  I often used the flashlight on my cell phone so I could see where I was going.

I cannot explain why I didn’t see the growing darkness, anymore than I can explain why one night I had a startled recognition, “It is really dark in here and none of the lights work anymore.” My first thought—unfortunately this is true—was that I would have to do something about the lights before Christmas. By the next morning, I knew I had to do something immediately. One ladder, two hours and more light bulbs than I knew we had stashed away and once again I could turn on lights—if or when I wanted to.

The lights took matters into their own hands a few weeks later. I installed timers before an out of town trip—hoping to make my absence less apparent—and forgot to turn them off on my return. When my alarm rang the first morning back, the bedside light came on, even before I reached for the switch. Stumbling toward the kitchen for coffee, I saw warm lights anticipated my appearance. With utmost consideration, they humbly turned themselves off before I headed off to work. When I arrived home after dark, they were waiting cheerfully for my arrival. I have chosen to let the lights have their way.

I have discovered it takes light to find my way back to life. And when I am too tired or sad or out-of-touch to turn them on myself, it’s nice when they can lead the way. I am setting up those safeguards for myself.

I am belatedly apologetic to the man I took for granted when he kept the lights lit all those years. I get it now—the reason he always needed more bulbs. It is the price we pay when we insist, “Let there be lights.”

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

OUTSOURCING DISCIPLINE

I was six bites into my lunch when my purse-shrouded phone vibrated with an urgency that couldn’t be ignored. Although I didn’t want to be ‘that woman’—the one who abandons friends she can see for the one she can hear—I reached for my phone. The message on the screen alerted me this was not a call, but an electronic reminder, one of many that regulate my days and keep me on track.

I am not alone in depending on technology for the prompts necessary for a disciplined life. Friends’ watches vibrate when they sit too long. When they get up and move, they calculate and tally the number of steps taken. There is even an app to regulate caloric intake.

Recently my iPhone installed an upgrade called ‘Bedtime,’ a feature that tells you when to go to bed in addition to sending a wake up call. It seems like living with an overprotective mother—without the benefit of warm cinnamon milk at night and the smell of bacon in the morning.

Once upon a time, traits necessary for a well-ordered society, like punctuality, temperance and perseverance were virtues to attain. Striving to achieve them marked a person as disciplined. Now we are free from depending solely on such antiquated devices as fragmented memory and erratic willpower. Instead we can rely on electronic gadgets to mark the cadence of a regulated life—as long as we remember to set them correctly.  In the electronic age, we can outsource discipline.

I, for one, could not be happier!

This development comes at a perfect time—the time in my life when I am transitioning from established routines to some as-yet-to be-determined ones. I am a novice in this pursuit. Although a lot of routine was established during four decades of marriage, it was my husband who was born for routine. I mostly adopted his ways. We discussed the rules of engagement early in our marriage.

We agreed on the what—that we would develop couple rhythms that kept us together as much as possible. We had witnessed marriages disintegrate, and based on our own observations with no corroborating research, we had concluded that bedtime, breakfast together and a predictable dinner hour were keys to a solid marriage.

We had to negotiate the how because he had been nurtured by an early-to-bed, early-to-rise family, and I was raised in a family of routine-adverse owls. We came to terms on a middle ground that leaned more heavily toward his way of organizing life than mine. I let that slide for two reasons. First, his way seemed the better of the two, and I hoped I could improve by emulating his habits (although I never admitted this to him).  Secondly, it wasn’t hard to give up habits I didn’t possess to adopt ones that meant a lot to him.

And so our life together was framed by structures that signaled we lived a disciplined life. He was up before the birds began their morning song; perhaps he even summoned them to sing. I was never sure. I may have been less enthusiastic, but I was not far behind. I could have set my watch by when he was ready to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner. Countless other patterns made for a regulated and predictable life. He was a creature of habit…but he was not a man of discipline.

A disciplined man would have resisted ice cream every night before bed. He would have chosen a shiny red apple or a juice-filled orange, not chocolate with toffee crunch—especially after high cholesterol became his constant companion and dominated the consultation at every doctor visit. Nevertheless, his nearly nightly ritual—after an evening shower, and precisely at 9—was to go to the freezer with a bowl in hand, find the ice cream and finish off the day with a couple of generous scoops. It was one of his favorite routines, but I digress.

Routines of a lifetime, along with the disciplines of everyday, are up for renewal. Their continuing presence in the lineup of my life depends on the benefits they offer. Routines like bedtime ice cream were his alone, and they have disappeared. Other routines remain, offering comforting familiarity and a lingering bond with the woman I used to be.

As I am in the market for new routines, I am aware that routine can spring up willy-nilly or be cultivated through thoughtful decision and disciplined follow-through. It is the latter kind of routine I seek; routine chosen with intentionality to order my hours and organize my days. Life-giving routine doesn’t appear overnight. It develops through careful choices and white-knuckle tenacity. It takes discipline until a thought becomes action, action becomes habit and habit becomes routine. 

It may require the aid of all of my electronics, but I think I can do it as long as I outsource the discipline.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

PORTION CONTROL


“Portion control.”

“What?” I mumbled, as I reached into the bag for another cookie.

“What happened to portion control?” she pressed on.

My confused look told her I had no idea what she was talking about. Her stern glare indicated I should have figured it out. Our personal confusions clashed mid-air and hung suspended during my internal conflict. My independent womanhood fought hard to maintain supremacy over my inner child caught in the act.

“You are eating those cookies right out of the bag. Yesterday it was the chips.”

I could have given her more examples—new habits she didn’t even know about—but I stayed quiet. It might be better if my daughter didn’t know I now ate ice cream out of the carton and daintily sipped wine directly from the bottle. People who live alone don’t worry as much about spreading germs as avoiding another bowl or goblet to wash.

I had a fleeting epiphany. I concluded her challenge came from self-interest and concern for getting her own fair share. “Here,” I offered. “Want a cookie? You can eat all you want. And if we run out, I can buy more tomorrow.”

“No. I don’t want a cookie, and I don’t care if I have one tomorrow. You are missing the point.” So much for my epiphany.

"When you eat from the package, you have no idea how much you are eating. You always eat more than you planned." I couldn’t argue with that because I knew that although I had never planned to eat sixteen giant, deliciously gluten-free ginger cookies in one sitting, I had done it on more than one occasion.

“Portion control allows you to enjoy treats in manageable—and calorie reasonable—amounts. It means you will have some tonight and can have some tomorrow. It keeps you from swinging wildly between craving a particular food to never wanting to eat it again.”

It was pointless to argue with her logic, and so I began to remove two cookies from the bag and serve chips and salsa in small size bowls. I dipped ice cream one scoop each time. I stopped eating cranberries, walnuts and mini-marshmallows out of the bag and carried them away from the pantry in cute little cups. In the process of asserting my true intentions regarding food in my life, I had a new epiphany. Portion control isn’t just about food.

Countless activities in my life are just as out of control. I start tasks and don't know when to quit. I spend hours on the hamster-wheel of ‘just one more thing.’ I work too long, I work too late, and then sometimes I don’t work at all. A justifiable put-your-feet-up with a new book break and a bracing cup of coffee becomes a seven-hour out-of-body experience. I discover too late that while I have been transported to far off lands in other centuries, my fictional traveling companions didn’t feed me dinner, empty the trash or turn on the lights.

I am instituting portion control in my life this fall. I am setting timers so I take reasonable breaks. Instead of avoiding an overwhelming task, I am tackling it in less stressful segments of an hour or two. I subscribed to a blog on simplicity that gives me practical tips for decluttering my life. I am cleaning out years of living one shelf or one drawer at a time. My days are consumed in bite-sized chunks.

My daughter is right. It is about portion control.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

OCTOBER

October Along the Cane River
Summer-spent leaves are losing their tenuous grip on the twigs to which they clung all summer. They endured then embraced the drenching rains and battering winds—satiating their thirsty roots and flexing with each gust.

It was the sun, more than the rain, that slowly changed them. Steady rays tanned their luxuriant green to crackling brown. One by one, they began their fluttering descent, giving in to much-needed rest as they settle on lawns and shrubs or crowd together in unwelcome clogs in downspouts and pool filter baskets.

It was these trendsetters in the autumn promenade that first got my attention as I skimmed the pool and emptied filter baskets. Their presence shouted October, as if it were their solemn duty to inform me—as if I hadn’t seen it on the calendar and braced against its impending arrival during the too-quickly-ending summer.  These harbingers of fall could have been subtler this year—I wasn’t likely to forget this was the month when life as my family had known and loved it ended and an uncertain future began.

Since I was a child, I have loved October—the cooler nights and drier air, the chin-dribbling taste of freshly picked apples and the smell of cinnamon-laced pumpkin. I have loved the crunch of leaves and the happy shouts of children on hayrides and in haunted houses. During my Mid-Western years, I was enchanted by the rich colors of leaves eager to shed uniform green and flaunt their adventurous individuality. Most of all, I have appreciated the way October signals change and transitions our pace from languorous summer into holiday festivity.

How can I celebrate October now when the hardest event in my life occurred during my favorite month of the year?

I contemplated following one of the rhythms of nature. Perhaps I could escape into mind numbing hibernation where sleep overtakes conscious thought. I considered flying south or east or west—not that direction matters since I only seek escape. I was sorely tempted to mimic the pattern set by leaves and drift downward to settle for decay. Yet such soul-numbing passivity contradicts the very nature of a month known for fests and frolics. I have already drifted too long on the Sea of What Might Have Been and the Ocean of What Will Never Be.

Now I look to October, a month that marches cheerfully toward the dark of impending winter, to inspire my own transition. I choose to face my lingering sadness head on. This October I want to enjoy the best of life around me, to engage new challenges and embrace fresh vision. I plan to write more so that I can chronicle my attempt—and truth be told—because it is the first of the things I most enjoy.