Grams’ lesson in persistent love

Grams Hawaii

I was dusting off my annual tribute-to-Grams blog last night when, out of the blue, one of my siblings shared this photo of her on a trip to Hawaii long ago. The image and the coincidence made me smile. These things happen with Grams. She’s persistently present, even now.

We call her Grams, though her name is Ann. Her birthday is today, so everyone in the family will think of her, raise a coffee cup or glass in her honor, and smile. She’s always had a way of making us smile.

She’s made us smile simply by being her funny, feisty, life-loving self, and that’s such a great gift – showing others what it means to have the courage to be.

She’s taught us many important things, too, such as how to appreciate a really good cup of coffee and how to make pierogi from scratch in such a way that they won’t fall apart when you cook them.

And persistence – she’s taught us about persistence.

The courage to be

Her husband died of cancer when they had three young daughters. She had many tough choices to make. Friends and relatives told her to find another husband to support her – that’s what women did back then.

Uh-uh, not Grams. Instead, she found a babysitter and went to work at a business where women weren’t exactly welcomed.

She heard the men’s comments but 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.

When I was young, my family went through difficult years. There were moments when Grams would 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. Treat everyone the way you want to be treated. And when you care about someone, make sure they know it.

Be persistent about life and love.

And she was persistent, all right! When I was away at 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 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, again and again.

Thankfully, I got many more chances to spend time with Grams. We’d get together to celebrate special occasions or just hobnob about old times. No matter what we were doing, she made us know that she was happy to see us. Without even saying it, she reminded us that we were loved.

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 many not-so-subtle reminders that she’s still an important part of it.

Persistent presence

Grams occasionally shows up in dreams – mine and other family members’ — with needed guidance. For instance, my sister was taking a nap one afternoon because she’d been up all night with her two 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? But not surprising at all. Not if you know Grams.

Many people have shared similar stories about loved ones showing up in unexpected ways, providing reminders that they’re still dear and not so departed. We don’t understand how it all works exactly, but we know there’s something to it that’s beyond our comprehension.

There’s a line in one of Paul’s letters that describes God’s love as so powerful that nothing can separate us from it, not even death. That’s how love works – it recognizes no barriers or boundaries. I also believe that we can never be separated from the people in our lives who love us so powerfully.

Persistent love would never let a small thing like death get in its way.

Sharing the hot chocolate

hot-chocolate hands

A packet of hot cocoa mix rests on the shelf above my computer, reminding me daily of a lesson my mom taught.

At age 73, she had a stroke that paralyzed her right side. She’d been confined to a wheelchair for many years because of multiple sclerosis. Now she would be in a nursing home for the final 10 months of this phase in her life.

Mom loved to give gifts, even when she was limited in her ability to get around and do things. Living in a retirement apartment, she took a ceramics class and learned how to make seasonal gifts for everyone in the family.

The stroke left her very limited. She still found a way to give.

She started ordering a packet of hot chocolate with every meal, which was quite a surprise to us. She never drank hot chocolate; her two main food groups were bakery and coffee.

She didn’t intend to drink the hot chocolate. Instead, she collected the packets and gave them to my sister to pass along to her two young boys. The hot chocolate became her gift to her grandsons.

Flat on her back, she reminded us it’s always possible to find ways to give. Sometimes, you just need to get a little creative.

With her act of giving, she also taught us that there really is such a thing as too much of a good thing. The nursing home staff learned what she was doing and started bringing extra packets.

Do the math: At least 3 packets a day, 7 days a week, 4 weeks a month, going on for months … We’re talking hundreds of packets of hot chocolate!

Soon, my sister’s food cupboard was overflowing with hot chocolate. Nobody could drink that much! She began farming it out to my brothers and me, and we shared it with others, too.

I kept that one packet. It reminds me daily of the importance of finding ways to give.

hot-chocolate4

We all have so much to share — our time, our energy, our humor, our love, our compassion, our many individual talents. All can be shared in so many ways with so many people, even if we have to get a little creative.

The idea is to keep looking for ways to give, even if the best we can come up with is something the size of a packet.

I’m grateful not only for all that my mom taught me and her ongoing presence in my life, but also for all the other people who have mothered me and taught me so much.

May we live those lessons and share them.

 

Leaving a mark on the worn counter

Arcade restaurant

The blue, tan and pink-trimmed booths hearken to the 1950s, when The Arcade Restaurant in downtown Memphis was renovated after a fire. It’s a cool place because of the history – a Greek immigrant opened the restaurant in 1919, and it’s undergone many renovations over the generations.

There’s a booth by the back door that Elvis favorited – he could slip in and out unobtrusively. A plaque marks the spot. There are black-and-white photos spanning generations.

What caught my eye were the marks on the serving counter.

In front of each stool was a rub mark along the edge of the counter. For generations, people have walked in off the street, sat on a stool, rested their forearms on the counter, and unknowingly rubbed off a little of its laminate.

Every person left a bit of their DNA behind and took a bit of the counter with them. Each one contributed to the mark.

Arcade counter

In our society, we try to keep things nice-looking and new. When a counter gets a bit worn, we replace it. Not the counter at The Arcade, though.

It’s a reminder of how our lives intersect.

I looked at the worn spots and wondered: Who made these marks? Who sat here?

How many children sat on these stools with their parents and shared their first meal at a restaurant, a moment they’ll remember and retell for the rest of their lives?

Or maybe on that stool sat a black person who’d been turned away from lunch counters their entire life, now proudly ordering a cup of coffee that had the sweet taste of equality?

Perhaps the white person sitting next to that proud black person was unhappy over all of this and huffily moved to a different spot or different restaurant.

Maybe those marks in the counter were fashioned by someone on their way home from the hospital after receiving devasting news about a relative. Or maybe by a new parent still feeling that Adrenalin rush on their way home from visiting their son or daughter in the maternity ward.

Maybe all the above.

The marks were worn into the counter by someone who just got a job, and someone who just lost a job. Someone who recently got married, and someone who recently got divorced.

A newcomer to the city feeling homesick as they thought about a similar diner in their old neighborhood. A visitor like me taking it all in with fresh eyes.

So many lives intersected at those places on the counter top.

Rubbing off on each other

I was reminded of that when we paid our check and headed out the door. A few blocks to the west is the Mississippi River, a wide expanse that has deposited many visitors to the restaurant’s doorstep over the century.

Beal Street is only a few blocks away, a place where different musical styles intersected and overlapped and gave birth to many more. So is Sun Studio, where musical pioneers – including Elvis – cut their first record.

The Lorraine Motel is blocks away, too, the place where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated 50 years ago on the balcony outside room 306. So is the church where he gave his final speech on the night before he death, speaking so powerfully about how we need to keep moving toward the promised land.

So much history, so many lives, all intersecting and rubbing against one another – and rubbing off on each other, too.

We tend to forget that last part, how we all influence and are influenced by so many others. How we’re never in our own space alone – we share the places of those who have come before us.

The reminder is right in front of us on the counter.

Twelve kind jurors

jurors

We filed into the courtroom and sat before the judge. I was part of the pool of prospective jurors for a trial – my latest stint of jury duty.

The bailiff seated 12 of us in the jury box to begin the selection process. I and the others sat in the benches, waiting to see if we were needed.

The judge told us that we were chosen for a murder trial. There would be graphic autopsy photos and video of a nasty fight that led to the shooting. If any of us felt we weren’t up for that, we would be excused and assigned to a different trial.

Hearing his words made me swallow hard. One prospective juror asked to be excused. The rest of us felt like leaving, too, but decided to stay. Someone had to do this duty.

I ended up as the first alternate juror. The trial lasted more than a week. The 14 of us – 12 jurors and two alternates – listened to hours of testimony and saw evidence from DNA and gunshot residue testing.

We wrestled with how we held a person’s fate in our hands. It was intense and emotional. Also, inspiring.

We were as diverse a group and you’ll find when we reported for duty in mid-January, a group of strangers with a wide range in age, race, ethnic background and religion.

As different as could be

We live in different neighborhoods. We’ve had very different life experiences. There were single people and married people on the jury, parents and grandparents. There were people who love Cincinnati-style chili and those who despise it.

How do I know all this? We told each other.

Jurors aren’t allowed to discuss a case until deliberations begin, so the one topic we all had in common was off-limits for the week of testimony. Instead, we talked about each other during the many pauses in the trial.

We learned about each other’s medical conditions. We knew who had a sick kid. We shared our life stories. When we reconvened each morning, we’d ask how that sick child did overnight. Or how the commute went. Whether there was any news about that job prospect.

People brought muffins to share for breakfast. They offered a ride home to those who had arrived by bus on a cold day. They encouraged each other with a smile or a small joke during a break from the trial’s grim images.

We became like family. There was so much kindness in that jury room.

It made me think of one of my favorite passages from Paul, the one that’s used at a lot of weddings. He writes that love matters more than anything, and he describes its defining traits in beautiful and poetic language.

He says first that love is patient, which makes sense – there can be no love without patience. We must be patient with others and with ourselves as we grow and learn.

Then he says love is kind. Kindness is love embodied — in a word, a touch, an act, a moment of attention. Where kindness is present, so is love. If kindness is absent, there is no love, either.

It’s tempting to look at our society, read the headlines, hear the harsh words and conclude that kindness is a thing of the past. So many other things dominate the headlines – conflict, division, greed, self-interest.

It’s in our divine DNA

Before we reach any such conclusion, we should stop, look and listen to the many everyday expressions of kindness all around us. It’s everywhere — even if it’s not the top story on the news – and it’s central to who we are.

It’s in our divine DNA. It’s the glue that holds us together, the healing touch for whatever ails or divides us.

For two weeks, I saw many small moments of kindness pull together a group of strangers. I was reminded that despite our surface differences, we’re all the same — people who just need a smile, a word of encouragement, a little love as they get through the day.

Our society and our world are in turbulent times – aren’t they always? Kindness is the way out of the darkness. It can bring us together and heal us, if we let it.

In a world where we can be anything, let’s remember to be kind.

The risk of living authentically

CHALLENGER EXPLOSION

Several of my friends commemorated the anniversary of the Challenger disaster by recalling what they were doing when they heard of the shuttle’s explosion 32 years ago this month. I remember it well.

And not just because of what happened to the shuttle.

I first saw that awful image of the Y-shape smoke on a small television set outside my counselor’s office. It reinforced what Jenny and I had just talked about for 45 minutes.

We’d talked about living authentically. And the rewards — and the risks — involved.

Jenny specializes in working with adult children of alcoholics. That’s me. When I reached adulthood — well, as much as any of us does — I realized that some things weren’t working for me. Something was missing from my life.

Me. I was missing.

Jenny helped me connect the dots. She helped me to see that the coping strategies I’d used as a child to deal with a challenging situation were getting in the way of living.

I was missing

As a child, I’d learned not to talk about the craziness going on around me. And especially not to talk to anyone outside the family about it — their lives are so perfect and they’ll think you’re so weird, which will make it all worse.

Instead, put up walls. Protect yourself from being disappointed by not expecting or hoping for much. Don’t get in situations where you could get hurt. Try to love from a safe distance.

And dream about the day when someone will ride in and save you from all of this. Everything will be great. God will wave a divine magic wand or someone in shining armor will show up and save you.

Or, maybe not.

During my talks with Jenny, I learned that every one of us has a lot of room to grow and a lot of stuff to sort out and move past. Each of us struggles with our own stuff in our own ways.

It’s our human challenge. As we embrace the struggle and grow, we become more comfortable with the process. We start figuring things out a bit more.

And we become more authentic.

Being authentic doesn’t mean being the loudest voice or insisting that we have all the answers and that other people should live our way. That’s not being authentic; that’s being an ass.

Love is risky

It doesn’t mean that we’ll ever fully understand ourselves or why we do some of the things we do. Instead, we decide to be guided less often by the selfish, insecure and scared parts inside each of us.

Being authentic means trying our best to love, because we’re at our most authentic when we love.

It means tapping into the kind, compassionate, creative parts and letting them guide our decisions a bit more as we go along. It means doing what makes us feel the most genuine and the most alive.

It also means working to put ourselves a little more fully into our relationships. It’s about taking the risk of actually loving, which is always fulfilling and unsettling and messy and wonderful and awkward and challenging.

And this is where it gets risky.

To love is to risk. The deeper and more authentic the love, the bigger the risk. We take a chance whenever we let our love and our passion take us places.

We do so knowing that things will sometimes blow up in our faces. We‘re going to get hurt, maybe very deeply. We do it anyway.

Which brings us to the Challenger.

Taking the risk

Teacher Christa McAuliffe was on the Challenger. She could have stayed in the safety of her classroom instead of risking outer space. She followed her passion.

After the disaster, President Reagan said that McAuliffe and the astronauts had “slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God.”

So have we.

By living authentically, we take the risk and accept the challenge to reconstitute our lives when things inevitably fall apart. We put ourselves back on the launch pad — still hurting and healing — and head boldly and authentically toward a new place.

A place where we touch the face of God. And where God oh-so-tenderly touches us back.

The life within these walls

Snow globe house

The furniture was arranged in place. Boxes were stacked in each room, ready for unpacking. I plopped onto the couch to rest a few minutes before plunging into the next phase of moving in.

I looked around at the bare, unfamiliar walls and wondered: What’s happened within these walls? How have many people have experienced life within this space?

Moving is so stressful and unsettling. You trade a familiar place for a different one that doesn’t yet feel like home. It looks different, smells different, sounds different, feels different.

And you wonder: What has happened within this space? What stories could it tell?

In my case, moving in had already made me a little familiar with the new place. As I walked up the stairs to the bedrooms for the first time, I noticed that a couple of the steps creak.

I wondered: How many times had some parent walked up these stairs holding a finally-asleep child, only to have that creaky stair awaken them? How many times had children tried to sneak down these stairs on Christmas morning, and they still remember the creak that awakened their parents?

How many lives were conceived within these walls? Had someone died here? How many times had someone laid in bed awake with worry, staring at this bedroom ceiling?

How many birthday candles were blown out during parties in the hardwood-floored dining room? How many special holiday meals were prepared in this kitchen, spreading a wonderful aroma through the entire house?

Sacred spaces where life unfolds

We tend to think of spaces as belonging to us, but they never really do. We share them with all those who came before us, those who live with us now, and those who will move in when we’re gone.

I think of them as sacred places, spaces where life unfolds in all its glory and challenges. These spaces remind us how our lives intersect, overlap and intertwine.

We occupy the same spaces as many others. They remind us of our commonality and our web of mutuality. Our lives are always interconnected on the deepest levels.

I think about it especially when I enter an old church and wonder what people have experienced here – baptisms, weddings, funerals. People congregated within these walls for some of the most profound moments of their lives.

Older houses make me feel that way, too.

I moved into my current house – built in the 1930s – a little more than two years ago. I rent from a couple who moved to this country 17 years ago and raised their daughter within its walls.

Before I spent my first night – an unsettling night in an unfamiliar space with its own creaks _ I did something to make it my own. I got my bottle of water from the lake where I swam as a child – my “holy” water — and sprinkled a few drops in each room.

Those drops baptized me into this space. I was now part of the lives of all who came before me and lived within these walls.

Interconnected on a deep level

A few months ago, the home owners visited to have me sign a lease extension. They brought their daughter, who is in junior high and was eager to revisit the place where she was raised.

She had a huge smile as she scurried to the basement and showed me the room that was her private play area as a young girl. Her parents took me to one of the bedrooms and pointed to the corner where they kept their daughter’s crib.

We stood there silently and smiled.

As they were ready to leave, their daughter walked past the refrigerator and noticed that I’d kept a “Hello Kitty” sticker she’d purposely left behind when they moved out. She told me how she acquired the sticker and why it was meaningful to her.

I told her she could take it home. She said no – she wanted Kitty to stay in this house.

I totally understood.

Every time I walk past the refrigerator, Kitty reminds me that I’m a temporary inhabitant of a sacred space, as are we all. Even when we leave, we always leave part of ourselves behind.

And there’s something very cool and connecting about all of it.

Hearing God in a female voice

Female voice

Many courageous women are challenging powerful men who abused them. Those female voices have started a national conversation and brought about significant changes already.

It’s fitting that we’re focused on those voices as Advent begins. It’s a season for all of us to honor, encourage and hear the many female voices that challenge us, teach us, love us, and bring us into a deeper experience of God, if we let them.

Throughout history, female voices have been ignored, marginalized, and muted by those who think that only males should be heard. By contrast, the Jesus story places women front-and-center, right from the start.

 

All by herself

In Luke’s telling of the tale, a woman decides all by herself – a subversive thing, then or now – whether the Jesus story will even happen. Mary’s let-it-be gets everything started.
 
A courageous, hesitant, female voice brings God more fully into the world.
 
Mary’s role is shocking in a time and a place when only men made important decisions and women were treated more like property than persons. That’s only the beginning of this theologically radical and socially subversive story.
 
Luke’s version has Mary visiting her relative Elizabeth — two strong women — and talking about God’s passion for justice in ways that her son would later repeat, which is no surprise. After all, who teaches Jesus and molds him? His mom.
Jesus first learns about God through a female voice.
 
Perhaps that’s why Jesus is so persistent about ignoring and violating the rules in his society and his religion that try to limit the role of women. He constantly interacts with women in ways the religious and social leaders find scandalous.
 
There’s the famous story of Jesus visiting two sisters and one of them chooses to sit with him and discuss religion – a man’s realm – instead of joining her sister Martha in preparing the meal, as a woman was required. Jesus encourages Mary to do what she values.

Men will learn from the women

The story culminates in a crucifixion, and it’s the women who show courage and love while the men run and hide. Peter denies knowing Jesus to save his hide. The women? They risk their lives to be with Jesus up to his last breath.
 
And as the story goes, it’s the women who have the courage to go to the tomb. While the men are still hiding in fear, the women experience the still-alive Jesus. He tells them to tell the men about what they’ve experienced — the men will learn from the women.
 
Predictably, the men don’t believe the women and dismiss their accounts. They run to the tomb to see for themselves.
 
The same thing happens in every generation. Men choose to ignore the voices of women who have experienced things they know nothing about.
 
Today, many faith communities bar women from going to the pulpit and telling about their experiences. Women’s voices are marginalized and ignored, just like 2,000 years ago.
 

#MeToo

Our society considers a female voice less believable and less important than a male voice. When it comes to sexual abuse, for instance, a man’s shifting denial is believed over the word of so many courageous and prophetic women saying #MeToo.
 
It’s long past a time for change.
 
Let’s use this Advent – the season that starts with one woman’s courageous voice – to pay closer attention to all the female voices in our world. Let’s honor them and hear God still speaking to all of us through them.
 
May we let those voices teach us their truths, especially the truths that we’re reluctant to hear. May we allow their courageous and persistent “let it be” change each of us and our world all over again.