Blue-ish cards and fairytale endings

God

I’ve developed a better attitude about Valentine’s Day this year. Really. I actually ventured into the seasonal aisle of the grocery store, the one where the shelves are a retail bouquet of all things pink, red and fuzzy.

I even picked up one of the Valentine’s cards and read it. For $1.99, you got a greeting with sparkles on the cover and this verse inside: “Some candy’s red, some of it’s blue-ish, hope your day is sweet and totally you-ish.”

And there went my attitude.

Really?!? The writer’s idea of a heart-warming rhyme is to tack -ish on the end of unrelated words? Can we get a restraining order against -ishness?

The seasonal grumpiness set in again. My feelings about red flowers and hearts are pretty much the same as Sam-I-am’s feelings about green eggs and ham. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere. Especially in my grocery store where I have to walk by them every few days.

Last year, a friend tried to help me get over my Feb. 14 Grinch-ish-ness. She pointed out that the day is a light-hearted, fun occasion for a lot of people. Who knows, maybe somebody will be inspired to make the first move to start a relationship by sending a Valentine. She told how her father got Valentines for her, her mom and her brothers every year.

Very sweet. I get it.

Still, I have to bite my lip every time love gets turned into an -ish. And you have to buy something to show your –ish-ness. When you think about it, we treat love and giving on St. Valentine’s Day the same way we do at Christmas.

Cupid becomes a two-month-later version of Santa – a little smaller, but they both fly and they’re both fond of red. And St. Nicholas and St. Valentine morph into patron saints of the retail world.

Something important gets lost – the reason for the season. That’s what gets underneath my otherwise romantic skin. I could befriend Cupid a little better if we actually spent a little time talking about the meaning of it.

If we spent a little more time thinking like Joan.

She’s the main character in the program “Joan of Arcadia” that ran for two seasons on CBS. Joan is a typical high school girl, going through typical teenage crises, when she starts getting regular visits from God. The Divine One shows up in many guises – a hot young man, a crusty cafeteria worker, a homeless person. My favorite is a young girl – that’s Her in the photo above.

In one episode (I’ve attached a link), Joan is having major love-life problems. Her fairytale relationship with Adam has hit the rocks. He’s working on a project and has hired an attractive female to help him. He wants to make Joan jealous, and it works. She ends up getting kissed by another young man.

The relationship is a mess. Joan’s fairytale romance has turned Grimm. Maybe she should just abandon it and move on to someone else.

Little Girl God visits Joan in a bookstore, reading a fairytale. God mentions that we humans seem to love that “happily ever after” ending. Joan asks if God has a better idea. God suggests: “They all moved towards spiritual growth and enlightenment?”

Oh yeah, that’ll go over big. That’s not romantic.

Well, actually, it is. God points out that in fairytales, one character is near death and the other risks death to help them. It’s a death-and-resurrection metaphor.

“It happens all the time,” God says in her little voice. “The illusion dies so that something deeper can take its place.”

Love is big. It’s a bright light in the universe, God says, and it casts a big shadow. And it’s not easy. But it’s up to us to decide whether we want to risk ourselves for it.

And that’s the real story.

“Real love is hard work,” God says. “You have to decide if you want it in your story. Or if you’d rather just stay in the dream.”

I like to talk more about that. About something that challenges us in many ways every day, not once a year-ish. I wish they’d put that in a Valentine’s card. I might actually buy it.

Assuming it didn’t cost more than $1.99, of course. I have standards.

___

The YouTube link:

https://youtu.be/UYYWNpkiT2k?list=PLB260DBE3C1509BAC&t=45

 

 

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Mr. Chicken and misfit toys

Misfits

Jean turned 92 years old last weekend. She’s one of the ladies I visit each week as a hospice volunteer. Her mind is sharp, her legs not so much, so she has to use a wheelchair.

On my way to the nursing home, I stopped at a grocery store and got her a small bouquet of flowers. When I walked through the door to her room and wished her happy birthday, Jean smiled.

“I’m so old!” she said. “92! Gawd, I never thought I’d be this old!”

For some reason, turning 92 really resonated with her. She mentioned how she still feels 25 years old, until she looks in the mirror and wonders how this all happened.

I can identify.

Aging never bothered me, until lately. I’ve always looked forward to celebrating birthdays. Like Jean, I feel 25 in many ways, despite those reminders that I’m not.

When it was time to start checking the over-40 box on forms, I noticed that men my age were featured in television commercials less often. And when they were, they were sitting in an old-fashioned bathtub, on a cliff, with the word “dysfunction” blazoned above their head. (I know, it’s much, much worse for women, who get hit with the age thing every step of the way.)

I played in an over-50 softball league until my rotator cuff wore out. I still played outfield. When a ball was hit over my head, my brain would remind me I’d made this catch a million times. After a few steps, my hamstrings would remind me that my brain is delusional and my legs more in tune with reality. The ball would sail over my outstretched glove and roll to the fence, with me in chase.

How can that be?

Several of my friends are approaching notable birthdays, and it’s gotten under their not-quite-so-young skin. I assume it’s universal. Maybe the realization that our lives come equipped only with a forward button – there’s no rewind. Oftentimes it feels like we’re on fast-forward. And we get that unsettling realization that we’re closer to the final credits than the opening ones.

It keeps you up at night sometimes.

I had a feel-your-age moment last August while I was covering a tennis tournament. A lot of the spectators from my age group show off perfect tans, smooth faces and un-gray hair. (I know how that works, but I’m going to be kind and not say anything.) I’ve covered the tournament many times, but this time I got to feeling like an alien: I was walking around the Land of Pretty People, and I myself was from the Island of Misfit Toys.

After one of Rafael Nadal’s matches, a couple of event volunteers sneaked into the back of the interview room and sat behind me. The two young women thought Nadal – who turns 30 this year – was just adorable and they were excited to see him in person.

The Spaniard walked into the interview room shortly after ending a tough match. His dark, wet hair was pulled back. His drained face showed the exertion that had gone into the match.

One of the young women whispered to the other: “Look! His hairline is receding!”

“And he’s got wrinkles!” the other said. “How old is he? He looks old!”

At that point, I’m thinking: Wait, you’re aware that I’m sitting here in front of you, right? I may have wrinkles and thinning hair, but my hearing is still perfect.

Which brings us back to my birthday visit with Jean. (Not her actual name, by the way. I have to comply with HIPPA.)

We talked about old times – how she met her handsome Navy husband, all 6-foot-3 of him, at a club while she was on a date with someone else. She immediately fell in love and decided that she wasn’t going to let this one get away. They got married despite their parents’ objections – she was Protestant, he was Catholic – and raised two kids. So much changed when he died. She really misses him on special days like birthdays. Sometimes she just feels old and worn out.

“I know what you mean,” I said.

She sat upright in her wheelchair and reminded me that I’m more than three decades younger than her, so I have no standing to complain about age.

“You’re a young-un,” she said, in her New England accent. “A spring chicken!”

We both laughed. When it was time to go, I checked to see if she needed help with anything. She was fine. I told her I’d see her again next week. As I headed for the door, she called out.

“Goodbye Mr. Chicken!” she said, giggling.

Mr. Chicken. I kinda like that.

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Some more wine, please

wine

The reading at church last Sunday involved a big party and a lot of wine. You may be familiar with the passage about how Jesus was at a wedding celebration and they ran out of wine. So, as the symbolic story goes, his mother prompted him to do something to help with the problem, and he changed water into wine. And not just any wine – really good wine.

As our pastor put it, he did everything in his power to keep the party going.

I like that. I like that a lot.

And the timing was perfect. I’d been to parties the two previous nights. Both times, I wished the party could have kept going.

The first was a birthday party celebrated at the local VFW hall. Someone brought a Mounds cake – coconut, chocolate and almonds, just like the candy bar – and a German chocolate cake that was delish. You were encouraged to get a little of both – the sampler platter.

Folks ate their cake and told stories on each other for the umpteenth time. Stories about silly things they did while growing up. Stories about silly things their kids did while growing up, although they didn’t seem quite so silly one generation removed. A few could tell stories about their grandkids.

The conversation lapsed into work at one point, and a couple of people got into disagreements over the necessity of banking regulations and HIPPA rules. What’s a party without some dust-up, right? Others soon directed the conversation back to more fun topics, like how in heaven’s name any of them got to be bankers or health care professionals.

The party went on for a few hours before everyone decided it was best to head for home because snow was moving in.

The following night, I drove to my landlords’ house for another small get-together. A couple from India owns the house I rent. They moved to the United States to be with their extended family more than a decade ago. They have a darling 10-year-old daughter who loves to write. When she learned I’m a writer, she went to her room and retrieved a notebook with a 20-page story she’s written, complete with dialogue.

Later, we sat around the dining room table, the seven of us, eating southern Indian food and telling stories. I asked the couple how they met each other in India. He said their families knew each other. It was an arranged marriage. They didn’t know each other very well at the outset.

Can you imagine?

I wondered how they made such a relationship work. Their answer is with a lot of respect, patience and acceptance. And laughter, plenty of laughter. They started telling stories about each other – fond, funny stories that showed how much they know and appreciate each other’s peculiarities. He told how she can’t figure out how to put air in the tires or check the oil level – or, at least, pretends that she can’t. She winked back.

She told how he likes electronic gadgets and goes to Best Buy and asks  the staff about various products, but leaves without making a purchase. To repay the workers’ kindness, she invited some of them to their house for a meal recently.

How cool, huh?

Of course, they eventually got into a whole series of funny stories about their parents, which got everyone else around the table telling stories about their parents. And their kids. And each other. For six hours, we shared self-deprecating tales about how we’re all amusingly frayed around the edges. We laughed until we had tears many times.

As I left their house shortly before midnight, I thought about how people from such different cultures and upbringings and religions – basically, from two different sides of the planet – got to share a meal and stories about our sameness at the core.

It reminded me of one of my favorite Anne Lamott lines: Laughter is carbonated holiness. Moments when the little divine bubbles rise to the surface.

I have a feeling that a certain Jewish rabbi would ask to join the party and tell hilarious stories about his family, too. And bring the refreshments, of course. Not the cheap stuff, either.

Only the best for a party that never ends.

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To hell with Hell

Hell

I enjoy the annual photos of Hell, Mich., covered in snow. Yeah, Hell has frozen over – hah-hah. You know me, I love a bad joke. Plus, it’s good to have some fun at hell’s expense.

We don’t do that nearly enough.

Hell is serious business and a hot-button topic (get it?) for a lot of people. Growing up Catholic, I was reminded of hell all the time and how we’re one bad decision and one ill-timed death away from being turned into crispy critters. Permanently.

We were taught what to avoid so we could steer clear of that place down there. There was a list of sins that could send us straight to eternal torment — usually the ones involving s-e-x. Others were not as egregious and would land us a stint in purgatory, which is sort of like a suburb of hell but with a more lenient emigration policy.

Limbo was another potential destination – kind of like heaven-light for some of the unbaptized. Basically, you get to visit the heavenly ice cream shop but you only get one scoop instead of two. (FYI, the church has since removed limbo from the Register of Theologically Historical Places and shuttered it. No yard sale was involved, as far as I know.)

Even as I squirmed about the prospect of eternal torture, part of me thought the whole concept simply didn’t add up.

For one thing, the whole stay-out-of-hell approach turns life into a negative. Life becomes about avoiding something instead of immersing yourself into something. It’s like being a decent parent solely because you want to avoid being reported to Children’s Services. What kind of parent is that?

Then there’s the whole roadmap-to-hell part.

The different denominations and religions that are fond of hell have very different ideas about how to avoid it. For centuries, Catholics insisted that Protestants were automatically going to hell, and vice-versa. (Here’s a thought: If they both turned out to be right, then there would be no Christians in heaven. How about them apples off the forbidden tree?)

When the tour guide lacks a reliable map, you know something else is in play. Maybe they just enjoy scaring people or controlling people or beating them up with a rolled-up map of hell.

But here’s what has always bothered me the most about the popular concept of hell: It turns God into a psychopath. God is an unconditionally loving parent who will absolutely turn on you in an instant. Sees you when you’re sleeping, knows when you’re awake, dumps a lump of eternally burning coal into your stocking if you make a bad choice.

The unconditional lover becomes the heartless torturer, just like that. If you knew a parent who treated their kids that way, you’d call Children’s Services to have them protected, right? And the courts would send the parent off for a psych eval.

So why do we hold onto this image of God and hell?

Well, maybe because what really, really, really scares the hell out of us is the notion that we are unconditionally loved, just as we are. Screw-ups and all. No matter what we do. And so is everyone else.

If that’s true, it changes everything – how we see ourselves, how we treat others, the way that we live. Everything gets turned upside-down.

Unconditional love? That really makes us squirm. We prefer the crime-and-punishment model that fits our mindset. We want grace to have an expiration date, a you’ll-get-yours moment when we’re rewarded and we can enjoy watching others get charbroiled.

I’ve gotten to the point where I no longer even think about hell, except when I see a photo of the snowbound town in Michigan. I couldn’t care less — whatever God wants to do with me, I’m cool with it.

Truthfully, I am expecting a wild party like the one the prodigal son got when he returned home after violating pretty much every rule. (Hey there God? For party-planning purposes, I really like cake, especially date-nut or dark chocolate. You’re paying attention and taking notes on this, right?)

One interesting thing happens when you stop being concerned about hell: You’re free to start putting yourself fully into each day. Screw-ups and all. It’s liberating. You start to encounter God when you’re no longer afraid.

Love replaces fear. And everything changes.

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When peace gets personal

Peace-in-Person-Picture

Many people just celebrated the Christmas season with its message of peace on earth, goodwill to all people. Today we celebrate a holiday remembering the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who showed us what it means to wage peace.

Yes, we have to wage peace.

Peace doesn’t just happen. Peace involves the courage and commitment to work through our disagreements without hurting each other. And it starts with each of us individually, in how we conduct our lives.

We have to do more than just support peace with posts on social media. Or sing songs and say peace prayers in places of worship. Or entrust the job to politicians and world leaders.

Our personal lives have to become portals for peace to enter the world. We get peace only when we live it and thereby establish it.

And this isn’t surprising. As with all things divine, peace is personal. It starts inside of each of us. We can bring peace into our world only to the extent that we’ve brought it into our own lives first.

We can’t wage peace if we’re not living it. We have to pay attention to our attitudes about ourselves and others. We have to look at how we’re treating others.

If we see our interests and needs as more important than the interests and needs of others, then we’ll never have peace in our lives or in our world. Peace requires a recognition that we’re all equally beloved children of the same loving creator with equally important needs.

Peace involves recognizing that all lives matter equally. And then doing some introspection to see if we’re living up to it in our various relationships.

When we have those moments of disagreement and frustration and misunderstanding – things that occur in every relationship – how do we respond? Do we run away and abandon the relationship? Do we lash out others? Do we dig in and try to get our way? Or are we committed to working through it with respect and discussion and forgiveness and compromise?

This applies to working out relationships between people, between groups of people, between nations.

We can’t work through disagreements peacefully unless we have a commitment to respect others and to listen to what they’re saying. We have to be willing to try to put ourselves in their place and see the situation through their eyes. We have to listen – really listen – to what they want to tell us.

Listening and understanding bring our compassion and empathy to bear on the moment and transform it. We recognize that the other person is worthy of our time and attention. We extend a mutual respect. We listen to their hopes, their dreams, their fears, their concerns, their pain. We share ours with them. We acknowledge our mutual shortcomings and failings. And then we try to work it out.

There a lot of listening involved in waging peace. A lot of patience and compromise and trust, too. And most of all, unfailing respect.

By living a deeper peace in our personal lives, we grow it in our communities, our nations, our world.

It takes persistence and commitment and courage to live in peace. There are always going to be those who don’t want peace. They prefer the haze of anger and recrimination and conflict. We have to be committed to showing a different way.

We have to challenge the illusion that peace can grow from a gun barrel or a bomb crater. Coercion never brings real peace. The two are as different as planting a seed and burying a body. Our solution to conflict and violence can never be more conflict and violence.

One more thing about peace: It always comes at a cost. We have to be willing to sacrifice for it, to take risks for it, to grow into it. We’ve paid a huge cost for our endless conflicts; now it’s time to pay the price for waging peace.

Part of the price is giving up our indifference. Waging peace means working to change relationships – personal relationships, social relationships – where people are being treated unjustly. Where respect isn’t being given to the other person.

The Rev. King noted that genuine peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice. Making sure each person is treated with the respect they deserve as a child of God. And there’s always going to be a creative and holy tension to the process. But as he put it, the only “weapon” we bring to the process is the weapon of love.

If there’s no peace, it’s because we’ve decided it’s not worth the effort. We’re not willing to put ourselves into the process of bringing peace on earth, starting with each of us.

It always begins with me.

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Packing up the plastic Jesus

Plastic

The church down the street has finally dismantled its nativity display. The three lighted figures are unplugged and packed up. Plastic Jesus has been put away for another year.

If only that were true.

I have a bit of history with plastic Jesus. I grew up in a Catholic family. We had a plastic Jesus statue on the dashboard of the red station wagon – there was a magnet in the base that made it stick to the metal. (Yeah, they used actual metal in cars back then.) The neighbors had a plastic Mary statue in their front yard.

Some years ago, I had another encounter with plastic Jesus. It was Christmas eve. I’d just stopped at the butcher shop to pick up the holiday ham. On my way home, I was stopped at a traffic light. A house on the corner at the intersection had life-size replicas of Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the front lawn as part of a gaudy holiday display.

I looked over and thought: What if it’s all plastic? You know – religion, God, all of it. What if it’s all fake?

At the time, there were daily revelations about the horrific things that so many Catholic priests had done to so many children and how bishops had enabled them by covering it up. It made you want to throw up.

And that’s not all.

Fundamentalists were raging against gay people and Muslim people and anybody who had different beliefs about anything. Prosperity preachers dressed like Wall Street investors were raising money to buy helicopters and planes and expand their religious turf, all in the name of sweet Jesus – oh, and please buy my book and give me an amen. Theologians were devising twisted justifications for starting wars and killing whoever some politicians deemed as an enemy at the moment.

Of course, adherents of other religions were declaring holy wars on those who saw things differently, too. It was pretty much all the same thing, really.

Such a twisted, disgusting mess.

I sat at the red light and thought: Maybe the atheists are right. Maybe religion is nothing more than a self-made justification for our own hatred and selfishness. Maybe there is no God.

Maybe it’s all as plastic as that Jesus in the manger over there.

The thought depressed me, but I figured that I needed to consider it. (It didn’t make for a very merry Christmas, I’ll tell you that!) It wasn’t too long, though, before I had another thought: Maybe there is a God who is so much bigger than all of this other stuff and shouldn’t be confused with it.

So I said a prayer that amounted to: If you do exist, show me what this is all about. I started to differentiate between the plastic and the real. To recognize that God is beyond our words and our religions and our understanding, but within our love and our compassion and our forgiveness.

And while we can’t truly comprehend God, we can encounter God when we care for the needy, help the hurting to heal, see the divine in our differences, and treat everyone as an equally beloved child of the same loving creator.

Each year when I see a nativity scene, I’m reminded of my red-light encounter with plastic Jesus on that Christmas eve. Also, I’m reminded how plastic Jesus remains very popular – we see him on display in many ways every day:

— People judging and condemning in the name of someone who admonished us to never judge.

— People screaming about the sliver of imperfection in someone else while ignoring the enormous plank of the same stuff inside themselves.

— People deciding that instead of transforming our enemies by loving them, we should get more guns and be on the ready to shoot them.

— People washing their hands of the needy.

— People perpetuating injustice by being indifferent to it.

— People insisting that God is pleased with them and those exactly like them, but no one else.

Plastic Jesus is very popular, and it’s not surprising. After all, he’s a very convenient prop.

Plastic Jesus doesn’t weigh much because he’s empty inside -– no heart, only a light bulb. That means you can easily pick him up and move him to any position you choose. And when it suits your purposes, you can move him to a different position. Again and again.

We get to decide where he goes, and we like controlling him that way.

We overlook the fact that plastic Jesus isn’t a real thing. The real thing wants to move us, not the other way around. Wants all of those radical words about love to be taken seriously. Wants to stay out year-round and live not on front lawns but in hearts.

Wants us to put the plastic stuff away.

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A gift of hot chocolate

hot-chocolate

My mom died in a nursing home seven years ago this week. She spent the last 10 months of her life there following a stroke. Mary was buried next to her mom, Ann, on a cold Cleveland day during a 13-inch snowfall.

Let me tell you, there was a lot of talk about hot chocolate that day.

My mom always found ways to give something to others. Even after multiple sclerosis confined her to a wheelchair for the last 15 years of her life, she invented ways to come up with gifts.

She took a ceramics class in her apartment building and made Christmas ornaments for family and friends every year. After she died, I got the foot-tall, red-nosed reindeer that she made. It stood next to the tree in her apartment every year. Just touching it makes me feel her touch in some ways.

After her stroke, she was very limited. The right side of her body didn’t work at all. She was bedridden those last 10 months. Still, she was looking for ways to give while flat on her back.

She came up with one creative way. When the attendants at her nursing home came around and asked what she wanted for each meal, she ordered a cup of coffee — her favorite  –and a packet of hot chocolate to go with with it.

Here’s the thing: She didn’t like hot chocolate. Not at all. Never drank it. But she saw an opportunity to come up with a gift. She saved the packets of hot chocolate and gave them to my sister Joanne, who has two boys. They would get the gift of hot chocolate from her.

What a remarkable gesture, huh? Even confined to a bed, she found a way to give.

And to give abundantly. To the point where you realize there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

My sister’s stash of hot chocolate soon overflowed and overwhelmed her pantry. Do the math: Three packets a day, 30 days a month, 10 months in a nursing home. Nobody can drink that much hot chocolate. Joanne started farming out the packets to the rest of the family. Soon, we all had our own little stash of the packets.

During her funeral, we joked with the pallbearers that if the casket felt a little heavier on one end, it’s because we gave some of the hot chocolate back. Those who knew about the trove of cocoa got a laugh.

When the funeral was over, the hot chocolate remained.

The following Christmas, a friend who knew my mom had an idea for the dozens of remaining packets. Her children were in an outdoor nativity scene at their school. The weather had turned cold. The school was looking for a lot of hot chocolate to keep the children and their families warm.

Perfect!

My sister shipped me the remainder of her stash, and I merged it with mine and gave it away. I kept one pack — that’s a photo of it at the top of this blog. The packet rests on a shelf where I see it every day. It reminds me of all that my mom gave to me, and all of the love and inspiration she continues to send my way.

It’s also a daily reminder that no matter how limited we may feel or how little we may think we have, we can always find some ways to give. We just have to be a little creative.

And we can always give a lot. More than we might imagine. So much so that others will receive our gift and have an abundance to share, too.

There’s always plenty of hot chocolate to go around.

 

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