Lining up spectacularly

Eclipse photo

Did you pay attention to the eclipse? I enjoyed how people put aside their differences for one day, looked up through protective glasses, and felt a collective sense of awe. I enjoyed all the eclipse photos shared on social media.

For a brief time, the moon and the sun and the Earth lined up spectacularly and we paid attention and went: Wow! Look at that!

And then, after a few minutes, the moon moved into a different alignment, the eclipse ended, and things went back to the usual.

The sun and the moon are no longer big news. I didn’t even pay attention to the moon again until yesterday evening when I spotted it just above the horizon, partially eclipsed by the shadow of earth. It was a different kind of eclipse, but one that’s so familiar that we don’t even look for it or feel a sense of wonder at seeing it.

When things become “ordinary” to us, they’re often out of mind, out of sight.

It’s a parable, isn’t it?

It’s much easier to pay attention when things line up in a spectacular way for a short time. Then when things soon go back to “normal,” we turn our attention to something else and stop seeing the miracle all around us.

Everyday moments of miracle

We overlook the reality that the sun and the moon are still amazing and still right there, just not in the same alignment. The moon is circling the Earth, and we’re circling the sun together, and we’re all zooming through space at a mind-blowing speed along with trillions of other celestial bodies.

It’s all there doing the same thing, just in a different path. It’s all a miracle, even when we don’t recognize it as such.

And the same goes for grace.

Grace is always moving around us and within us, pulling on us and directing us with its divinely gravitational powers. But we forget to notice it working in its “ordinary” ways to produce extraordinary things.

We all know those moments when grace gets our attention and it’s easy to say: Wow, God really is working here! Someone comes into our life at just the right time, or something falls into place in an unexpected way that we’d never imagined.

It’s easy to feel God’s presence when everything seems to be lined up in a grace-filled way.

Squint and recognize it

Then there are those common, everyday moments when we have a difficult time seeing grace in the ordinariness and the messiness of life. Things seem to be zooming along without any discernible pattern — discernible to us, anyway.

It’s easy to lose track of grace when we’re going through a difficult time – we lose someone, we can’t find a job, we get sick, a relationship ends, a loved one is struggling, we feel lost and lonely. It’s easy to forget about grace at work when we’ve settled into our daily slog.

Just like the sun and the moon, grace is right there doing its thing. Grace isn’t missing; we’re just less attentive to it.

Grace invites us to pay attention not only to the dramatic eclipses, but also to the everyday moments of miracle. Grace is spectacularly at work in our lives, even when it’s not in our line of sight or it’s lined up differently than we’d hoped.

It’s still right there. We just need to squint and recognize it.

Grams’ lesson in persistent love

Grams

My grandmother’s name is Ann, but we’ve always called her Grams – just Grams. Her birthday is today, so it’s made me think about her again. And smile again.

Grams has made me smile a lot over the years, often by finding humor in something when I couldn’t see it by myself. She’s taught me a lot over the years, too, like how to appreciate a really good cup of coffee (that’s one of her mugs above) and how to make pierogi from scratch so that that don’t fall apart when you cook them.

She was independent and feisty and lively, even when the arthritis in her legs slowed her. And she understood the importance of persistence, especially when it came to love.

Her husband died of cancer when her three daughters were young. Friends and relatives told her to find another husband to support her – that’s what women did back then. Uh-uh, not Grams. She found a babysitter and went to work at a business where women weren’t exactly welcomed. She didn’t care what they thought – she had a family to support!

She did it her way, raising her daughters and building a family that grew with each wedding and each birth.

Persistent about life and love

When I was young, my family had some tough years. I remember many times when Grams would recognize my worry, pull me tight and reassure me: “Don’t worry, Joey. It’s going to be all right.” She meant it, and so I believed her. She turned out to be right.

She liked to say that life is too short, so don’t shortchange yourself. Don’t waste it. Keep at it. Don’t let anyone mistreat you. Be generous. Help others. And when you care about someone, make sure they know it.

Be persistent about life and love.

And boy, she was persistent, all right. When I was in college and would visit home for a weekend, Grams always called to see how I was doing. She’d invite me over for a cup of coffee. Sadly, I was a busy young person and often turned her down because of other plans with friends. She said that was OK. She never sounded disappointed. She just seemed glad that we had talked.

How cool is that?

Grams was persistent, but not insistent. She taught me that important distinction. Love never insists, it just offers.

Thankfully, I got many more chances to spend time with Grams. We’d get together for holidays or just to hobnob about old times. We’d go to her apartment and make batches of pierogi for Christmas.

No matter what you were doing together, she made you know that she was happy to see you. Without even trying, she reminded you that you were loved.

She had her peculiarities, of course, and that was part of the charm of being Grams. Her apartment was filled with tacky knickknacks from various places she’d visited. She wore wigs over her thinning hair and would keep them arranged on Styrofoam heads. She kept a votive candle burning on her bedroom dresser in front of a small likeness of Jesus. The candle rested on a tray with an image from John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

I miss those things.

Love offers but never insists

Grams died in her apartment from a heart attack years ago. As I was driving home from her funeral, I thought about how incredibly blessed I’ve been to have her in my life. And in the years since, there have been lots of little reminders that she’s still there.

Grams occasionally shows up in dreams – mine and other family members’ — with some guidance. For instance, my sister was taking a nap one afternoon because she’d been up all night with sick kids, and Grams showed up in the dream and told her to go pay attention to our mom. My sister knew not to discount a dream with Grams, so she called my brother and they got to my mom’s apartment just as she was having a stroke. It saved her life.

Pretty freaky, huh?

I’ve share that story with many people, and they’re shared their own stories about dearly departed friends and family showing up in dreams and in other ways, reminding us that they’re still dear but not so departed. We don’t understand how it all works, exactly, but we know there’s something there, something beyond our comprehension.

And none of it is really surprising. After all, persistent love would never let a little thing like death get in the way.

Chemo drips, left-handed layups, and a sleeping baby

baby-with-mom

(Note: It was two years ago tomorrow that I met Lauren Hill for the first time. I showed up for her 5 a.m. basketball practice — yes, 5 a.m. ! — grumbling about having to get up so early. And then I watched this amazing young woman jog up and down the court. She changed my outlook on life in some ways. I wrote this blog about it two years ago. Here is is again in case you missed it. It’s worth thinking about again. — Joe)

My day yesterday started with my usual wake-up routine — sitting in a chair, sipping my first cup of coffee, checking up on Facebook posts — when one of them made me smile.

A long-time friend in Cleveland has endured 250 days of chemotherapy and radiation. He’d just received the results of his latest scan: No trace of cancer anywhere. Yes! Chuck noted that “the collateral damage has been great” from all the chemicals and radiation. He now stumbles around and has trouble typing, both temporary conditions. But he’s cancer-free.

Stumbling, yet still standing.

What a great way to start a day. A friend had a new chance at life.

A few hours later, I wrote a story about Lauren Hill. She’s the freshman basketball player at Mount St. Joseph University who has an inoperable brain tumor. She’s getting ready to play in her first game on Sunday. The tumor has protrusions that squeeze her brain, robbing her gradually of coordination. She’s right-handed, but has to shoot lay-ups with her left hand now because of the cancer. She gets dizzy if she turns her head.

The tumor squeezes, and she squeezes back, holding onto life as tightly as she can. Her life is measured in weeks and days. She’s living them as fully as she can.

The tumor squeezes, and she squeezes back

Loving as much as she can. Making as many left-handed lay-ups as she can.

I finished the story, got ready to head off to a friend’s retirement party, and checked Facebook one more time. Surprise! Another friend had just posted that he, too, received scan results. Mark was diagnosed with colorectal cancer on Nov. 1 last year. The arduous and exhausting treatment program had worked. The cancer is gone.

Mark posted a photo of himself hugging his oncologist as he got the good news.

What a snapshot of life, huh? Beating cancer in two cases, fighting it to the end in the other.

There was more.

Before heading to sleep, I checked my email and read an update from a friend. Her daughter-in-law had gone through a very difficult pregnancy that was a very tough struggle. The baby was born early. All are doing well.

A sacred struggle lived with great love

A life was brought into the world through a sacred struggle, one that starts with our first breath and continues until our last. A struggle that we recognize as an integral part of the greatest gift.

A sacred struggle lived with great love.

Giving birth. Getting chemo drips. Making left-handed lay-ups. Clinging tightly to life even as it sometimes squeezes the life out of us for a little while. Developing a deep appreciation for the challenges and struggles that are exquisite, daunting and divine.

And worth it. Oh so worth it.

Losing our leaves

tree

Autumn got sidetracked on its way to southwest Ohio. In the last few weeks, we’ve topped 80 degrees regularly and enjoyed delicious summer breezes coming through open windows from the moment we awaken.

Until the last few days, the trees have held stubbornly to their greenness, with only an occasional brushstroke of color dabbed about. Few leaves have taken leave from their limbs, although that will soon change.

It’s a gorgeous time of year in the Midwest, one of my favorites. And I feel a bit sad over what’s coming next.

Soon, the tree limbs will be bare, left naked in the winter winds. The cracks in the bark will show like scars on skin. The gravity-defying nests of squirrels and birds will be totally exposed to the elements.

Seeing a stripped-down tree gives me a chill.

Dark, sacred nights

In the summertime, there are few things more glorious than standing beneath a big tree on a warm night and listening to the soothing, rustling sound as the southern wind blows through it. Fireflies rise from the ground and blink their way toward the treetops like flashing holiday lights.

In those moments, life is so warm and so magical and so good. As Louis Armstrong called it, dark sacred nights.

Then along comes autumn. First, a gush of luminescent color. Then, the wind starts tugging and pulling, and all of the beautiful pieces get pulled off.

We all know that feeling, right?

A relationship ends, and a part of you seems to fly away with it. A medical test comes back positive, and all of the color drains out of your life. A parent falls and breaks a hip and needs to move into a nursing home, and you feel cold and exposed. A loved one dies. A child struggles. Another act of brutality jolts the world and tears at your heart.

Or maybe it’s just the normality of living that gets to you a bit. You see another wrinkle, get another ache, lose a little more hair, feel a little more forgetful as you look for the car keys you’re holding in your hand.

What’s happening?

There are times when you feel like you’re losing yourself, bit by bit. Life is tugging at you and disassembling you. You feel vulnerable. Naked. Exposed. Shaken right down to your roots.

You start to wonder who you are.

Losing yourself, piece by piece

You try to hold onto those parts of your life that are getting plucked away, but it does no good. The wind won’t relent. Another piece flies away, floats to the ground, turns brown and gets trampled.

Instead of rustling in the breeze, all you can do creak.

In those moments, people will try to be helpful by telling you that things will get better – spring and summer will return soon enough – but that doesn’t help. You know it’s true, but it’s not what you need.

What you need is an equally dissembled person to keep you company in the wind. To just stand with you for a while, until everything subsides and your twiggy limbs calm down.

Then the resurrection can begin.

And after a while, you start to notice something in your stripped-down state. You see the squirrels and birds still living in the nests that you support, keeping life going within you. They climb and flap and move about as if nothing’s changed.

Instinct tell them it will soon be time to start the circle of life over again.

In that moment, you also remember that the next generation of fireflies is right there with you, too, deposited safely in the shelter of the crevices in your bark and your roots. You’re serving as a womb for their blinky wonder.

The resurrection begins

Eventually, you take a close look at yourself and notice little bumps protruding from the spots where those leaves once attached. New buds are growing imperceptibly but steadily. And, truthfully, you recognize that you’re bigger and stronger entering this next cycle of rebirth.

For now, the only thing to do is open your arms wide and embrace the cold. Look for those signs of unabated life all around you and within you. Think of the fireflies’ blinks and the crickets’ melodies about to return.

Be patient. Embrace the nakedness and get ready to blossom yet again, more beautiful than ever. It won’t be long now.

In fact, if you listen closely, you can practically hear the crickets warming up.

Peanuts, macaroni salad, and a eulogy

Mac

I’ve got a small scar on the back of the pinkie knuckle on my left hand. It’s been there since I was about 4 years old.

At that time, my parents both worked at the West Side Market in Cleveland, so my grandmother – a.k.a. Grams – watched me during the day at her house. One day, my aunt Jean visited and brought a can of peanuts and offered me some.

Safety lids hadn’t been invented yet.  You had to use a key-like implement attached to the can to peel off a strip of metal and free the lid. That would leave a sharp edge by the opening — people often cut themselves on it. (I don’t know how any of us survived those days!)

As Jean opened the can and held it toward me, I reached up with my left hand and – SLASH! – cut a flap of skin off the back of the knuckle. It hung there as I cried. Jean is a very kind, sensitive person, and I think she was more upset than me. Grams came out of the house and did what Grams does – she comforted me and Jean, got a bandage and put the flap of skin back in place. It healed nicely, but left a small, narrow scar.

That scar has been with me every moment since that day. It was there on that scary first day of kindergarten, and on the proud day of graduation. It was there the first time I held hands with a girl – yes, awkward moment – and the first time I held both of my children in my hands – truly divine and holy moments. The scar was there when I held a notebook and interviewed Desmond Tutu and Dr. Seuss. In a sense, it’s been a reminder of Jean and my whole family and that they’re always with me. I’m never alone.

And the scar was there yesterday, when I gave the eulogy at Jean’s funeral in Cleveland.

I held up my hand and pointed to the scar and told everyone that although they may not have a scar like that one, Jean has left deep imprints on each of us with her gentleness, her kindness, her hopefulness, her love of life and laughter. And that’s true for all of us – the ones whom we love always shape us and leave imprints on our hearts, beautiful and holy marks that never go away.

And neither do they.

One of my favorite theological constructs is that we’re all part of a “communion of saints.” In other words, we’re all in this together, even with those who have moved on. We tend to think that whatever comes next – call it heaven or whatever you wish – is somewhere way over there, while we’re way over here. But that’s not really the case. There’s only here. And us. We’re all still seated at the table enjoying a communion meal in some ways.

Or, in Jean’s case, a meal with macaroni salad.

Her family asked me to include a mention of how in her final weeks, Jean wanted to make sure some important things got passed along, including her recipe for the macaroni salad that she made for every family get-together. She recited it from memory while lying in her hospital bed, and her recollection went like this: Macaroni. Celery. Hellmann’s salad dressing. Celery. Chopped egg. Celery. A little pickle relish. Celery. Celery. Celery. She kept coming back to the celery. It made everybody laugh.

It’s good to laugh at such times. It helps us get through them. They’re so damn hard. We miss the one we love. As one of my cousins put it: It just really sucks.

Yeah, it does.

In those moments, maybe it’s a little comforting to remember that they’re really still with us – the whole communion of saints thing. Creation is all one thing, like a giant blanket with many threads. Someone may have passed on to an adjoining thread, but we’re still pulled tightly together. Even now, they’re wrapped securely, snugly around us, and we around them.

And we know this because we know the Weaver of Life. One who is so passionate about us, about life, about holding tightly to one another in unconditional love. One who insists that life will always endure – theirs and ours – and love will always prevail.

Love always wins. Over everything, including what we call death.

So maybe when we’re missing someone, we could take our fingertips and trace the imprint they have left on us – on our hands, in our hearts. Be reminded that they are still with us.

And maybe celebrate our never-ending life and love with them once again by making some macaroni salad and having a meal. But make sure not to skimp on the celery, for heaven’s sake.