Away. At The Manger

December 18, 2010

Mom had been incoherent for a long time. Alzheimer’s turned her into a completely different person for the last eight years of her life.

I sat next to her in the assisted living cafeteria. Dad was at the piano playing Christmas carols for the room filled with other residents, staff, and family. It was their annual Christmas dinner and celebration but it happened to also be my mother’s birthday. Dad was being Dad – entertaining the troops, so to speak. Scott found a box of rubber gloves, had blown them up, and was making obscene gestures with them under the table. Mom sat motionless through the whole event. I was awkwardly trying to bridge both worlds.

People yelled out requests as Dad played along. Grandmas getting run over by reindeer and Old Saint Nick tunes cheered up the space. But when he started playing Away in the Manger, Mom immediately sang along. She didn’t sing the melody, but rather the alto line. Her beautiful alto voice carried the tune as perfectly as she’d done all my life. Her brain knew the part. Her mouth knew the words. Her heart knew the meaning.

She died one month later.

When I hear this song now, I usually rearrange the punctuation. Mom is not here, she’s Away. At the manger. She’s the little southern lady in the alto section, strong, perfectly on tune, and filled with joy.

Meanwhile, jokes are still being told behind the scenes, the piano sing-a-longs are still at the ready, and Anna-Margaret and I are attempting to further the song to each generation that follows.

Happy birthday, Mom. Thank you for a deeply southern heritage filled with kindness, faith, and the perfect cookie tier combination.

Meet Me at the Front Door

The anticipation had been building for six hours. We’d sung The Little Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly and my personal favorite, Sweet Violets. We’d found things out our car windows that started with an A, anthill. Then a B, bird! Always cheating our way through those pesky letters like Q or X. Our sandwiches had warmed to that perfect car temperature and the cheese slices with apple were beginning to form that delicious oily condensation cheese gets when warmed in the highway-bound backseat. Tolls had been paid and we finally got to open the car package Mom always made for us weeks before a car trip: the newest Seventeen magazine, some word searches, a new deck of Old Maid and a few sweet treats (Bit-O-Honey paper stuck in the corners) promised just to ourselves, no sharing required.

But by Wichita our spirits were starting to wane. Have you traveled across Kansas and Oklahoma with two daughters who believe STRONGLY in the infamous imaginary middle line that forms down the backseat? There are only so many white horses to ‘Snitch!’ before antsyness starts to settle in.

And yet, as we spotted the identifying red dirt of Oklahoma, our eagerness was stirred up anew. We were getting close! We drove through Bethany, listening impatiently as Dad exasperated, “I always miss that turn. We need to turn around and go back.” AAACK!, we sigh. We were so close we could taste it. The car would make the u-turn on one of those perfectly-curbed streets lined with brick-built houses, the wholly unique look of an Oklahoma neighborhood.

The excitement was overwhelming! Edged up on our seats, nervously looking through the front window, ready to see that beautiful white-washed brick home that held all our favorite people. They were all there, waiting for us.

Before cell phones could announce our estimated arrival time, Dad would stop somewhere once we got into town, and Mom used a pay phone to call her older sister, Mary, to say we were just a few minutes away. “Yes, yes”, Aunt Mary assured Mom, “Evelyn got in this morning and Peggy and the boys just got in about an hour ago.” “We’re all here, just waiting for you!”

Pulling up in front of that car-filled driveway held so much excitement I didn’t think I could stand another second of it. I couldn’t wait to see all those cousins. Older cousins who could do no wrong. Aunts and uncles and above all, grandparents.

No chance to knock on the front door before it was slung open to crowds of people standing in the entryway. One by one we fell into hugs and faces that lit up the whole house. The front of the pack would fade back while a new crew would take their place. Soon Pop Pop would appear, arms outstretched, asking for some sugar. It was a few minutes of whole and unadulterated acceptance. No words were fully understood as everyone talked over each other but warmth and love permeated each embrace.

The crowd would instinctively part ways as Mom Mom came into the living room from the kitchen wearing a full smile and wisps of flour dusting her long, manicured fingers. Aunt Mary was behind her as she was assisting the cooking process by taking their completed masterpieces out to the cold garage and placing them in large trash cans dedicated specifically for the purpose of holding our feast until the anticipatory air was filled with ‘Pass me the green beans, please’, quickly followed by an update on disparate lives spread out all over the mid, southern and eastern states.

Thanksgiving weekend was alive and energetic and filled with an unparalleled feeling of completeness as lives who shared a genetic code and who lived so separately all over the country began to slowly fit our edges back together into the puzzle that was Family.

And so I say to you this challenging year, let’s hang on tightly to each other, even if virtually. Let’s celebrate as an act of rebellion in our individual homes. A slower holiday season is precisely what we need, in spite of its surface disappointments. And then, once we’ve separated and bumped elbows and Zoom called our way through the next year, let’s rise up next year, full of grins and flour-tinged aprons. Slaps on the back and long-overdue hugs of love.

I will look forward to your beautiful faces and laughing spirits all year. 2020: quiet and separate. 2021: doors thrown open, crowded cousins, familiar faces and strong handshakes.

This year, cautious safety and health. But next year, with warmth and wide smiles, let’s make up for lost time. We’ve got stories to tell and hugs to share. Not this year, right? But next year – meet me at the front door.

for this moment.

2020. Dude. We are tired.

Just like you, I have felt overwhelmed and confused and demotivated and quite frankly, just SAD this year.

I lost a college friend today to sudden heart failure. He was 58 years old. To some of you, that may sound logical. To someone nearer that age, you know how young that truly is. He left behind a wife, two girls in college and a 7th grade son.

He has served as mayor of a thriving city for 20 some odd years. He was beloved and effective and will be deeply missed.

My physical world, currently, is immersed in fog and smoke and terrible air quality from the California fires. So not only was I feeling heavy at the loss of Mike today, but I was surrounded by the physical reminder that all around me was the loss of property and animals and memories and ancient trees and breath-taking beauty.

It’s too much, God. It’s too much. I felt listless and directionless.

Then this verse came to mind and a small shift happened in my brain. While I am raising my fists and confusion to the sky thinking WHY do we have to live through this tumultuous time of pandemic and political division and racial injustice and illness and death? WHY do the punches keep piling up? Lord – come ON. Enough!

Esther says that perhaps…THIS is the time that was meant for you. YOU are needed right now. In the midst of all the grief, it is not that you have to live through such difficulty but that the difficulty and injustice and sickness and division needs you.

If you are here right now in 2020, is it because you are needed for a task uniquely suited for your talents? Your intelligence? Your capacity for compassion and empathy? Is that why you’re here today? Is this the moment that is waiting for you?

We were each fearfully and wonderfully and wildly uniquely made. What is the moment you were created to own? To lead? To listen to? To advise or protest or hug or cry or text or smile into?

Perhaps this is the moment for which you have been created.

I don’t know what to do, so I just keep doing what I know…even when it’s not quite right

Every day there’s a new alert that takes hostage of my phone screen. Our county, our state – hitting a new COVID-19 high. And now today, worldwide records being broken, the U.S. topping the list.

I don’t know what to do to help solve this problem. I wear my mask and keep my distance but I am not (nor probably are the majority of you) equipped to help in any medically-significant way in this pandemic. I have no medical training and can barely understand my own weird ailments. I have no political clout (except my vote!) and my caregiving skills are woefully lacking.

I don’t know what to do.

My husband is genuinely gifted at baking bread for our neighbors. He has done things like that everywhere we’ve lived. When someone is sick or going through a difficult time, I am not the person to call for a food circle. Cooking and baking are things I enjoy occasionally but Scott can go into cooking mode on the spot and produce things ten times faster than me.

So what do I offer?

I doubt my prolific cross-stitching skills are going to help much in a pinch. Most of my enate talents are creative-related and who the heck needs a new mixed media piece when death is knocking on our doors?!

I read books about women faithfully ‘tending the wounded’. I’m not even really sure what that means for the non-medically inclined but the women in the books rush to the cause. Whatever it means, I know it’s not my giftedness in the least. I faint easily and have a highly sensitive stomach.

Do you need community organizing for activism and protests? Yeah…I don’t really have that skill set either.

So what does a mildly creative person do in the middle of a worldwide pandemic filled with fear and angst?

I like sending notes. It sounds like the dumbest thing in the world to do while Dr. Fauci is warning us to cover our mouths and stay indoors. I’ve dismissed the thought of note-sending a million times since March. But last month, I dug out my old stationery and I started paying attention. That house at 6825 has the cutest birdbath. 7205 always keeps their lawn so green and trim. How in the world does that house over on Quenton grow their rose bushes so huge??! I sent them each a note. I talked trash with the house on the end of the street with the Yankees flag on their front lawn. I asked advice from a number of hydrangea-growing neighbors. I told them they were doing a good job. I’ve never met one of them.

That’s all I have to offer. No wrapping bandages or bullhorn cheers. No buttery french bread or arm cuff blood pressure monitors. (well actually, I DO have one of those.) All I have is what little dusting God sprinkled on me in the beginning. I cannot change the world. Man oh man do I want to. I want to cure this stupid disease. I want to rally the troops. But I wasn’t created to do that – some of you guys are. Some of you are to sit quietly and listen. Some of you are to speak loudly and change your community.

We are all meant for contribution it just might not look like what your friends are doing or those you follow online. Don’t let that trip you up like it has me. Some people change the world. Others change minds. Still others change a moment with a surprise card or a bouquet of flowers. It all matters. It all helps.

I don’t know what to do. So I turn to the things I’ve done consistently over the years and lean in. Lean in hard. My postal carrier probably thinks I’m on a letter-writing campaign to free hostages or make significant school changes.

Nah. I’m just saying ‘hey’ and ‘I like the way you arranged your landscaping in front of your house.’

Sitting in our living room this afternoon, I was listening to Scott tell me a story about something that had happened the previous day at work. There was a knock on the door. Probably Amazon. With no more than a quick hesitation in his sentence, Scott continued on with his story after the front door rap.

A second knock. Everything froze. We don’t get drop-by guests. What was happening?!

Do you want me to get it”, Scott asked. “No!”, I whispered emphatically from just the other side of the door.

A third – who tries three times?! – attempt but this time it was the doorbell! I snuck to the window and peeked around to look for a car. I saw none. Must be a door to door salesman, I thought with a quick feeling of impertinence.

The knocking (dare I say, incessant knocking) subsided and we went about our conversation with a dog who needs a bath and laundry hanging on a rolling rack in the middle of our dining room, quickly drying in the California heat. Later that day Scott was getting ready for work and I was giving in to the urge for a McFlurry as the temperatures rose and surpassed 100 degrees outside. I yelled over my shoulder for Scott to keep an eye on our puppy and that I’d be back soon. Sunglasses? Check. Wallet? Did I have my wallet? Oh yes – here it is. Check. I was pushing open the door and pulling the straps of my bag over my shoulder as I nearly stumbled into a beautiful hydrangea arrangement just outside the door. The sweet arrangement in these pictures. That neighbor that I’d asked advice from about her enormous hydrangea bush? She brought me some. She probably had advice to offer me. She most likely just wanted to say hi and introduce herself and acknowledge the note I’d sent.

I was hiding behind the curtains as she was trying to fulfill her part. Her talent. Her thing. I was the one that stopped the cycle of friendliness. I was worried about a dog-smelling house with clean but hanging laundry and piles of paperwork and books on the table.

I was poignantly reminded that my job was not just to give but to also allow others to give in their way as well. To receive kindness.

What is that thing you do? How could it help change the trajectory of someone else’s day? Maybe that’s all they need in the midst of the same ol’ scary news alerts and statistics that we’re all hearing. That thing – it might be more significant than you think. In the end, it’s not for you to decide. If you’ve been given the talent or urging, then take the step and act. I hope you’ll be rewarded with a surprise hydrangea arrangement on your front porch, but more likely, you’ll never know the look on their face or the way that they reacted to your step of faith. That’s okay. Offer hope in the midst of fear. Can’t change the world? Then rally the hope in one person’s heart that there are still soft allies in a hard world that seems to be going completely mad.

I don’t know what your thing is to do. My thing was to send a friendly note to a neighbor. Check. My job was also to open the door and receive the gift they were offering me. I’ll check that box in the next few days when I return the glass bottle and thank them profusely for their sweet act of kindness. And then I’ll listen to the hydrangea advice and at a socially distanced space, we’ll close the circle between two people trying to combat the global fear with a small gesture of simple humankindness.

the second question

I hesitate to use the word ‘collector’. Many times it conjures up images of crammed shelves filled with wide-eyed porcelain figurines or collectible teacups. There’s nothing wrong with those things, mind you, but they weren’t really my mother’s style.

Let’s just say she enjoyed hearts. Especially unusual hearts. She found them difficult to pass up in antique shops or a good Jones Store department sale. 

As a result, I, too, find myself eyeing knick knack hearts. They are a universal symbol of love. But for me, they are also a nice reminder of my mother.

I wouldn’t call myself a collector either. Unless we talk about people’s stories. I am a sucker for a good story. Most of the books I’ve read over the years that stand out as favorites, are usually an intimately shared memoir or a big sky coming-of-age story. I am a pile of hard rocks when it comes to crying over the things most people find themselves easily weeping about. But give me a good Steve Hartman opening line and I’m a puddle of messy tears.

Collecting people’s stories has taken some practice, especially in current times. We are quick to give answers, many times assuming others do not want to truly hear how we’re doing or what our job is or how many children/grandchildren we have. We have cursory answers that almost always suffice – quick and to the point. I have found, however, the bigger story gets edged out of hiding at the moment of the second question. So how old were you when you started that hobby? Wait a minute, I don’t understand – where did you meet again? Tell me a little more about the town you grew up in…

The second question seems to be the go-ahead. The absolutely-I-want-to-know-more. The open-ended permission to go a little deeper. The whos and the whys and the wheres of a person’s life story are fascinating to me. I collect them covetously and the best part is – they don’t require much dusting.

I bought this wooden heart on the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death. As I type that I instinctively think about all she has missed in the last decade. Truthfully though, it was the eight years prior that she really missed out on, Alzheimer’s stealing each moment. I’d like to believe she’s been keeping an eye on the last ten. Mom was a strong woman. In a pinch, she’d be the one you counted on for no hysterics and a calm, steady voice. But her softer side came out when she held her newborn grandchildren or when she read from her red-pencil-underlined Bible. When she gathered with her siblings (the youngest of five children) she unexpectedly fell back into the youngest of the family role, deferring to her older siblings. 

Her tenderness also came through when she let her gaze take a second look at the brass jewelry holder at the store, now etched with her initials. Or the small red heart lapel pin or the antique heart with removable lid (still filled with a few safety pins, a teacher’s milestone pin and some ancillary buttons.) Her subtle tenderness came through where words sometimes failed her. 

In a time of societal disconnectedness, ask the second question. It will take more time and it might get lengthy or circuitous in nature, but it will lead the teller of the story to a soft remembrance and you to a better understanding of their life and your expansive capacity to share in it.

Where did you get that wooden heart decor? Why did you choose that particular one? Everyone has a section of their life story they’re waiting to make known. Be on the receiving end of that gift. 

Beautifully Mundane

It is early morning and I start another day. Tilly has an amazing internal alarm clock that insists on no more sleeping past 5:30am. Sometimes, it’s 5:33am.

I would love to be one of those people that wakes up pleasantly, stretches and thanks the Lord for a new day. I am not. I would like to blame the fact that I am not a morning person on the idea that I am, instead, a nighttime person. But the truth is I am neither. It takes me a little bit to gear up each morning and it takes me a bit to wind down each evening. I have come to except this as a part of who I am.

My concern about the world, the nation, my family, and my own personal place in life, doesn’t need to wind up or wind down. Those concerns exist at a pretty high level all the time. And so I find myself asking a lot lately, what is my thing to do?

It was in that mindframe that I ran across this quotation. It is not a quote that will change the world. It is not as quote that will eradicate racism. It is not a quote that will cure diseases. But it is a quote for just the next hour.

Wash the plate not because it is dirty nor because you were told to wash it, but because you love the person who will use it next. – St. Teresa of Calcutta

I met a new neighbor yesterday. Everyone walks early to beat the heat that is sure to set in mid-morning. From a safe distance we chatted for a minute, and I found out she lives about four doors down from me. Her parting words to were, “I need more neighbors like you.”

Unlike me, she was obviously athletic, tall, a bit younger, and our most obvious difference was that she was Black. I’ve never seen her before, but enjoyed our quick interaction.

There are big personalities doing huge and wonderous things in our nation right now. It is easy to feel overwhelmed, underutilized, and unable to compete with that level of energy and strength.

And so I will take St. Teresa’s words and simply wash the dish, read the book, text a friend, fill Haddie and Tilly’s water dishes with fresh water, deadhead the petunias, and stop for a minute on a walk to talk with a neighbor.

Small. Simple. Mundane.

Chipping away at the problem, one dish at a time…

The Call of the Bells

The sound of a bell is said to disengage our mind from the onslaught of thoughts and ideas and stimuli that is constantly grabbing our attention and time. The bell is a symbol of peace and freedom. Freedom from all that is twisting our minds, the bell sound ushers us into a place where we can imagine a more peaceful existence for us as well as for others. Bell ringing during prayer is to help snap us back into the present moment, controlling the ever-wandering mind and to focus us on God’s love and presence.

As we march into June, my mind is a riotous place, as I am sure you are also experiencing much dissonance and noise. Just like the riots in the streets, my thoughts frantically race. Burning down old, useless habits while also lifting up values and beliefs that are true and proven. How can I make a change? What do I need to say publicly? Who am I and what can I do in the midst of all this upheaval and needed (although painful) cultural growth?

I don’t have the answer to any of those internal questions yet but my thoughts have started to stumble over themselves in a rush to get out and get active. Seeing various sides of an issue can be an asset and it can be dangerously debilitating. My gut is telling me to slow down. To stop a minute. To gather my incoherent thoughts into a pile to sort through when I am in a clearer state of mind. That first and foremost I need to look at the basics. Go back to the basics.

The Church and all of its varying denominations have gotten things wrong many times. They have committed atrocities (forthrightly and passively) that are horrific in the name of God and their falsely inerrant rules and manuals. And so it is with hesitation that I say to myself, much less publicly, that there is truth and love and forgiveness and grace and humility when living and following God’s message of love and divinity. The one-on-one relationship is what I’m speaking about. Not the relationship through the hallowed halls of denominations or spiritual leaders, but the true experience of knowing and serving the Heavenly Father alone. Back to the basics. I fully believe He is in charge. He is capable of bringing about social and racial unification through the hands and feet of those He has placed on the earth. He is also capable of creating minds so scientifically brilliant that a cure for COVID-19 and other deadly diseases can be amended and eventually eradicated. I believe this. What is my place in your plan, Lord? 

Meanwhile, I hear the bell calling me to stop. To take deep breaths. Breathe in through my nose, expanding my lungs to their fullest. Hold the breath for a few seconds. Then blow out through my mouth with force and purpose, emptying my lungs and detoxifying my body and mind. Did you know that after five deep breaths like this your body will switch out of it’s fight or flight mode? That the oxygen signals to your body that you are no longer in danger? 

There is work to be done, personally and societally. But for myself, I must first quiet down. I must stop aimlessly running and completely stop. In those quiet moments I will find direction and purpose. I will find answers and creative ideas. The rioting in my mind must stop. I must first connect my feeble and stumbling thoughts to a mighty and limitless God. 

I am listening to the bells. Hearing their reminder to stop and listen and breathe. In the Catholic and other liturgical churches, they ring the church bells three times a day to summon the faithful to recite the Lord’s Prayer. 

…Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day…

He hears our cries. He sees our handmade signs and our protests and our anguish and our loss. He is equipping an army to serve in innumerable ways. Scientists and activists and peacemakers and writers and historians and neighbors and friends. The pot has been vigorously stirred and we are here, living in these days, for a reason and a purpose. We will do it wrong; say the wrong things. We will trip and perhaps even fall hard at times. But the bells are ringing. We must stop and listen. Get our minds in the right place and our hearts recalibrated before our feet start out in movement again. 

You are loved, my dear reader. Find a moment today…slight as it may be…to experience the quiet. To see unexpected beauty. To breathe deeply. To hear the bells.