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Saturday, April 21, 2018

LICENSED TO SMILE


My dark-hued cape of self-pity proved futile against the chilly wind. Not even a base-layer of resignation was sufficient to buffer me from the biting dread. The April day itself was as gray as my soul. The sun struggled valiantly to throw off its own murky covering, but the temperatures dropped as the day progressed. Only my need to check another item off an unending list propelled me forward; that…and the knowledge I was on a collision course (metaphorically speaking) with Louisiana and North Carolina and their irritating insistence that my vehicle should be registered to the address where it resides.

An online study of DMV regulations did little to quell my anxiety. A somewhat straightforward list of required documents was sabotaged by an ambiguous reference to having something notarized. Furthermore, the reasonableness of my DMV avoidance had been reinforced during the process of getting a new driver’s license a few weeks before. It took two trips before I had the necessary paperwork, and I still had to wait three hours.

I asked a friend for advice. She had no personal experience, but her husband, who had overheard my concerns, answered from the other room. This solid, masculine counsel confirmed the reason for my self-pity. Registering a vehicle is not women’s work! At least it wasn’t as long as I had my own husband who did such things for me.

George was the one who spoke the language of vehicular bureaucracy, took time off work to stand in line, and then presented me with a new license plate at the end of the day. I was better suited to pouring him a glass of wine, rubbing his aching back, and paying online renewals. My oft-intoned mantra of ‘women-can-do-anything’ did not apply when it came to this intersection between personal property and state regulations.

Now, with no one but me to handle such tasks, I braved the cold and my own uncertainty to join the line inside DMV. I clutched a document-filled folder and staggered under the weight of my widowhood as I stood at the back of the queue.

“Is this where I get an ID?” the latest arrival asked. I was pretty sure it wasn’t. This was the vehicle registration office. My two trips to get a driver’s license had been at a different location, one that presumably issued IDs. Signs everywhere clearly marked this distinction. The smiling and confident woman who stood there with a white cane couldn’t see any of them.

No one in line offered a solution or a helping hand. No husband, parent or friend came to her aid. Where were her people? Who would be brave enough, or crazy enough, to go blind and alone, to the DMV? I thought it would be best for her to speak with one of the officials, so I suggested she join me in line and go to the counter with me.

If I sounded more like an interrogator than a friendly extrovert, this friendly woman didn’t let on. She had used Uber to get to the DMV. She had just moved to Durham and didn’t know anyone here. Her move was neither job nor education related. Although she did not have family in the area, she was relocating her aging mother here. She had picked Durham because it seemed like a good fit for her, and it was a midway point of sorts between where she had been living in Paris and where her mother currently lived in Spokane.

She spoke as if it were the most normal thing in the world for a blind woman to move around the globe and to take up residence in an unfamiliar city where she had no connections. She acted as if keeping an eye on an elderly relative when you can’t see a thing is something people do every day. She moved purposefully, as one who can only feel their way but who doesn't doubt they will get where they want to go. She radiated warmth and joy, and she did it without the apparent support of friends or family. There was no mention of a husband.

“Next,” called the man, and we made our way to the counter. Never before had a long line seemed too short. He answered her questions quickly; then she was on her way.

I wanted to follow, to hear more of her story, to offer friendship and help, and to discover the secret of her confidence. Instead, I did what I had come to do. I presented my documents and hoped for the best. Five minutes and a design choice later, I left with a new license plate. I looked for the woman; she was nowhere to be seen.

Stepping through the heavy glass doors, I discovered the world had warmed during my absence. The clouds were beating a steady retreat from the victorious sun. I was overdressed for such a day. With eyes awakened by the brightness of the day and by the fortitude of a woman who could only feel the sun, I saw how tattered and threadbare my covering of self-pity had become. Maybe I needn’t wear it so often. Perhaps I should hang it in the back of my closet. In time I might even give it away, I thought. And, I smiled.

I cried because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet. – Helen Keller

For You have been my help, And in the shadow of Your wings I sing for joy.
Psalms 63:7 (NASB)

Friday, April 6, 2018

SO THIS IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE


It was the final day of a chaotic year. Because New Year’s Eve came on Sunday, large numbers of establishments—including the church I attend and the restaurant where we had hoped to lunch—locked their doors for a year-end reprieve. A deep chill invaded a city unaccustomed to such arctic influence. Only the promise of worshiping with my daughter and soon-to-be son-in-law lured me from my cozy home.

A church I had attended on previous occasions would be holding a mid-morning service. This church, with its inspiring worship and preaching, was full of people in my life stage. I sometimes wondered if it would have been a better fit for me than the small church of Millennials I had chosen.

We raced from the car through the bitter cold to find seats in a sanctuary alive with the sounds of friends greeting each other after the holidays. As a detached observer, I concluded these people had intimate relationships that spanned generations. How comforting it would be to nestle into fellowship with such warm-hearted people.

Yet I already knew that if I wanted to connect with this body of believers, I would have to take the initiative. During previous visits, I had learned members didn't talk to strangers—except when they passed the peace by offering limp hands and a perfunctory, “Peace of Christ.” I had been surprised, but not offended, when no one spoke to me as I entered or when I left. I had simply filled out the attendance sheet and waited for the follow-up that never came.
I had not entirely given up on the notion of getting involved with this church. Perhaps in the spring I would join one of their women’s groups. Maybe I would begin attending their early service before heading to my own small church. I could always meet with one of the pastors.

Seated next to my daughter and her fiancé, I reveled in the exquisite pleasure of worshiping with two people who loved me well. Our voices blended in harmony as we sang familiar songs. Our elbows touched as we knelt during silent confession. I anticipated the warmth of receiving their heartfelt “Peace of Christ” and was grateful I wouldn’t be left standing awkwardly alone as people around me resumed conversations begun days or weeks before.

To my surprise, when I turned to offer the “Peace of Christ” to my loved ones, they were already engaged in an intense conversation. The group of older couples who surrounded them apparently had dispensed with ‘passing the peace’ and moved directly to ‘let’s get acquainted.’

“Good morning. We are so glad to have you with us,” one woman gushed. “Are you students at Duke?” “Did you just move to Durham?” “We would love to have you join us regularly.” “You must meet our friends.”

My daughter and her fiancé were like a horseshoe magnet in a bowl of paper clips. Her engaging smile, his Asian heritage, and their vibrant youth proved an irresistible draw for this gray-headed flock.

My daughter tried to pull me into the conversation, “I want you meet my mother. She just moved to Durham and really doesn’t know anyone yet.” I smiled warmly into faces fleetingly diverted in my direction and offered my name for good measure. Only one woman responded. Her obligatory ‘how very nice to meet you,’ sounded alarmingly like ‘how nice for you, dear,’ but I couldn’t be sure. In her haste to turn back to my daughter, her intentions spoke more clearly than her actual words.

“So this is what it feels like," I thought, borrowing the words and bemused expression of Andrew Hennings, the jilted groom in Sweet Home Alabama. This is what it feels like to be looked over and then summarily overlooked. This is what it means to be denied acceptance—not because of who I am, but because of what I am perceived to be. This is what discrimination feels like—to be rejected for criteria beyond my control—to know that I will always be too old and too American, that I will always lie outside the demographic of their intended mission.

Even as I reeled from the sting of this transitory discomfort, I recognized it as an insignificant incident in a primarily privileged life. My previous experiences with prejudice had been based on gender or things aligned with choice, like education or beliefs. Oh, I had sometimes been ridiculed for being blond—and for living up to the reputation—but other than that, I had no recollection of being discriminated against based on identity until this day. But at that same moment, I was jolted by remembering that encounters more blatant than this are the way of life for multitudes of men, women and children. My heart responded with a newly awakened compassion for those who have reaped the harvest of repeated discrimination.

I cringed anew as I remembered an incident that occurred years ago while we were hosting a stranger from West Virginia. Her son was participating in the Special Olympics; we had registered as a host family. We had inadvertently overheard her conversation as she tried to reassure her mother long-distance, “No, I’ll be fine. They seem like a nice white family. I don't think they will murder me in my sleep.” And we didn’t. On the contrary, we discovered, along with our guest, that what we held in common was greater than the differences on our skin. At the time I assessed her mother’s concern as the laughable worry of an old woman. Now I recognized it as a reflection of personal experience.

I recalled books I had read, and I saw the characters more sharply defined and illustrated in denser hues. I experienced a profound empathy with Ruth Jefferson, the protagonist in Small Great Things (Jodi Picoult), whose education, competence and reputation were of less consequence than the color of her skin. Whereas previously I had absorbed with abhorrence the experiences chronicled in the fictionalized history of Lalita Tedemy’s family (Cane River and Red River), I had gained a new perspective and a small glimpse into the despair that must surely settle into marginalized and persecuted souls.

I have thought about the incident for months now and have shared the story with other people. Some have winced at the transparent age discrimination; others have shuddered at an unfortunate church growth strategy. Many have encouraged me to talk to one of the pastors. To do so would be to miss the point of what I gained that day. That brief episode was a gift I opened and am slowly unpacking. In it I am uncovering new insight, greater compassion, and a heightened awareness of injustice. (As a bonus, I also gained deep gratitude for the young people who embraced me in the very diverse faith family I truly call my church home.)

It would be tempting, and far too easy, to come away from this experience with grand declarations for radical personal change. Reality reminds me this is the start of a journey.

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.