commonality

In a world of disconnection, it has felt even more comforting to gather with people all over the world as we circle the same scripture on the same day. That is the beauty of the liturgy, for me. Similar thoughts are being mulled over. Time of year is being considered. The great joining together happens at different times throughout the day and probably over different types of coffee or chai or a whiskey sour. We enter God’s presence with our burlap bags of angsty needs, we read through our ancient common prayer, and then leave that space, emboldened to help those less fortunate than ourselves. I find a great sense of connection with the world in those moments. Even in the solitude of my home.

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 GIVER OF STARS by Jojo Moyes

Books celebrating books. Authors paying homage to readers. This enticing concoction of book-celebrating is an intoxicating elixir when it occurs in a storyline and The Giver of Stars is no exception.

This book is based on a true story in American history.

Historical reference: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Works Progress Administration created librarians – primarily made up of women – to ride horses into rural areas and high in the mountains, bringing books to those who otherwise would have no access to books at all. The purpose of this New Deal program was to expand the minds of those that knew very little of a world outside their own immediate family.

Pack-Horse-Eleanor

These women were often referred to as ‘book ladies’ or ‘packsaddle librarians’. Riding through snow, rain, and very difficult terrain, these traveling librarians dropped off books (and picked up returning books) to the outskirts of society. It is estimated that 63% of the state of Kentucky were without access to public libraries and around 30% of rural Kentuckians were illiterate. Roosevelt understood that education was the foundation of change and a path out of poverty and that the education gained from borrowing donated books could have a lasting effect.

Pack-Horse-1

This program also created jobs for women during the Great Depression. ‘Book ladies’ made around $28 a month (the equivalent of about $500 a month today), delivering books to homes and schoolhouses between 1935 and 1943. In 1943 the service lost its funding leaving many Appalachian communities without books for decades until bookmobiles were introduced in the late 1950’s.

The Giver of Stars is a harrowing story of five extraordinary women and their remarkable journey through the mountains of Kentucky and beyond, to bring books to those who had no access.

Alice Wright, born and raised in England, marries wealthy businessman, Bennett Van Cleave, an American from Kentucky. After settling into their new home in rural Appalachia, Alice soon discovers small-town living in Baileyville, Kentucky can feel very claustrophobic. When she learns of the packhorse book project, she eagerly signs up. ‘She covered her own anxiety with activity.’ The five heroic women who eventually form the book distribution team, soon learn to rely on each other as a means of support against familial and community outrage. Many townsmen (led by Alice’s wealthy father-in-law) were indignant that a woman would be capable of such a daunting task.

In any other town, such misdemeanors might eventually be forgotten, but in Baileyville a grudge could last a century and still nurture a head of steam. The people of Baileyville were descended from Celts, from Scots and Irish families, who could hold on to resentment until it was dried out like beef jerky, and bearing no resemblance to its original self.

Alice begins to gain confidence and independence through the difficult work of the packhorse library, traveling hours by herself in the beauty of Kentucky mountains and wide open skies, meeting the warm-hearted people of the rural country, while learning to trust and lean on her fellow librarians.

She had built a new Alice over the frame of one with whom she had never felt entirely comfortable.

I highly recommend this beautifully written book. At times it seems certain they cannot recover from many of their adventures and Moyes leaves you hanging until the last minute. Loss and love and renewal and commitment weave themselves through each adventure. Getting to know each of these remarkable women was a literary privilege for me as well as delving deeper into the historical facts surrounding this amazing chapter in American history.

Lessons from the Pretty Polka Dot Pink

The Polka Dot Plant. (Hypoestes phyllostachya)

As a general rule, I always suggest people do a quick google search about a plant before they buy it. That way you will know whether or not you can supply what the plant needs: proper lighting, space, etc. But of course occaaaaaaasionally, you just see a plant in the store and want to grab it and bring it home.

Such is the case with this hypoestes. I mean – you had me at pink, right?

After buying it, bringing it home, planting it…I then sat down to add it to my journal of plants that I own. I keep a journal of one-page notes on what each plant prefers for lighting, watering schedule, quirks and even historical data where interesting. I later add notes as a ‘best practices’ for what the plant didn’t like and how (or if) I remedied it.

So it wasn’t until everything was all said and done with this pretty pink plant that I read that one of the downfalls of the hypoestes is their short-lived life. (ugh! head thump!) After a polka dot plant flowers, it will go dormant and then die.

WHYYYYYYYYY?! Why did I bring home a plant with a short shelf life (one or two years max) just to fall in love with it and then have to let it go?!

Just my luck, I moaned, reading the snippet aloud to my husband – complete with a heavy sigh and dramatically rolled eyes!

However…if there’s one thing I have said repeatedly: Plants teach me things. I immediately felt myself detaching from this plant (‘Oh you’re not getting ME to love you! I know you’ll break my heart quicker than others!’) until my meditation practice gave me the old shoulder tap.

Isn’t the whole goal of a meditative practice to live in the now?! Aren’t we to let go of the past and realize we cannot control the future but we can focus, instead, on the here and now?? It seems like such a kitschy comparison but for some reason, it really settled into my thoughts. I’ve spent a few days living with this concept.

You see, I’m someone who finds a writing pen she likes and then buys a whole packet of them on Amazon for fear I’ll run out of the original one I bought and they’ll either be out of stock or – gasp! – no longer making them. I find a pair of jeans that fit perfectly and immediately go back to the store to buy two more. I like to know I have back-up. If you study the enneagram, I am a 5. Fives are constantly balancing their resources. Whether it’s the resource of time or sleep or favored Post-it notes. So a plant with brevity initially made me very uncomfortable.

Until I was reminded in the most circuitous of ways that I simply cannot guarantee any level of ‘resource reserve’ in life.

I breathe in for 6 counts. Hold my breath for 4 counts. Breathe out loudly for 6 counts. I feel the rise and fall of my stomach as breath fills my lungs, then rushes its way out of my mouth. Repeat.

Disappointments are inevitable. Excitement and expectations run furiously through our lives. Our hope is not just in the future. Hope can be found throughout our daily lives. The everyday-ness of living. We take advantage of things we love in the hopes that they will always be available to us. The thought of losing them is paralyzing. But we must bring our minds back to the joys right in front of us. They are plentiful and they are worthy of our appreciation.

I must empty my lungs in order to draw my next breath.

The depletion of one thing allows the new situation to emerge.

Life is a cyclical process. Be it a polka dot pink, an ancient Parisian cathedral, or a mom trying to get the PB&J made fast enough before her crew heads out the door.

Rest in resources unseen. There is Someone refilling our reserves daily, if only we’d stop to notice.