Lessons from a Stranger

Today is my granddaughter Olivia’s birthday, a day that reminds me of the juxtaposition of “things,” things like emotions, events, and experiences. I’m thinking of a man I never met who had a profound effect on my thinking. Because of him, I’ll never take my blessings for granted; nor will I ever be insensitive to the feelings of others (or at least that’s my goal).

On that spring morning the other grandparents and I felt excitement, mine bordering on giddiness. We walked and talked and snacked and waited. And then we waited some more. We were allowed in and out of Amanda’s room for part of the day, and then as the big event became more imminent, the medical personnel shooed us out. We adjourned to the huge waiting lobby filled with clusters of sage vinyl couches and found a vacant sitting area. As we made small talk, a feeling of anxious anticipation permeated the atmosphere.

“Dumas said all human wisdom could be summed up in two words, wait and hope,” I quipped. Anxious smiles greeted the remark. We knew the moment was close, and yet there was nothing the four adults could do. It was in the hands of the doctor and Amanda. And God.

Life teemed all around us. At least two groups of expectant parents came for “the tour.” Led by a member of the hospital staff, the excited parents-to-be were given instructions on where everything was and what they could expect on delivery day. The group stopped just short of the double doors that led to the labor and birthing rooms, and we listened as their guide informed them about what went on behind those doors. Securely locked, the doors were sacred portals beyond which no one could pass without permission and a code of some type.

Several medical personnel bustled about with clipboards and pagers, all busily intent on their missions. I watched the scurrying about of doctors, nurses, and orderlies and recalled Annie Dillard’s poignant passage in For the Time Being about an obstetrical ward in a busy city hospital. As Dillard described the activity level, she said there “might well be a rough angel guarding this ward, or a dragon, or an upwelling current that dashes boats on rocks.” She then asks if we, her readers, should perhaps “remove our shoes, drink potions, and take baths?” Because, Dillard writes, “This is where the people come out.”

Chitchatting about various topics, none of them too serious, we scarcely noticed the quiet arrival of an older man who came to join our group. Truthfully, he didn’t so much join us as he filled an empty seat for a few minutes. Because of the various seating combinations in the waiting area, and we had grown accustomed to sharing our space with an assorted crew of people as the day had progressed. He was just another seat filler, someone with whom we’d share small talk and commiserate about the waiting…or so I thought.

Cap pulled halfway down his forehead, his coal black eyes stared straight ahead. On the frail side, his downcast demeanor made him appear even more shrunken as he sat still and silent on the sage green sofa, his dark face immobile and unreadable. He appeared to be around 60, but frankly, it was hard to determine his age. Serious sorrow, rather than his age, could have been responsible for the deep lines etched beside his mouth and the empty look in his eyes.

The four grandparents-in-waiting continued to talk, and hoping to bring him into our conversation, I tried to establish some eye contact with the newest member of our cluster. My friendly overtures were to no avail, and I could tell from my surreptitious glances at his face that to him we might as well be pieces of furniture. He seemed oblivious to his surroundings as he dealt with some inner turmoil or heartache. Still and silent, he created a sacred inviolate space around him that no one could enter.

Looking straight ahead, the sad, silent man pulled a brown bag of plain M & M’s from his shirt pocket, and for the entire time he sat amongst us, he slowly and methodically ate the chocolate pieces. He didn’t tilt his head back and jiggle several at a time out of the bag. Nor did he spill a few in one hand and examine the multi-colored morsels before popping them into his mouth. He ate them unhurriedly, one by one, not savoring–merely chewing. Did he even notice their sweetness? Did eating them merely give him something to do, something to momentarily assuage his pain?

After a few moments, I noticed a lone tear streaking down his cheek, and then another and another. From my vantage point, I could see only his right profile, but I’m certain the tears were coursing down both sides of his face. Despite his sorrow, the candy man’s demeanor was one of dignity and restraint. The juxtaposition between our emotions and his couldn’t have been more obvious. Seeing his pain almost made me feel guilty for feeling so much hope and happiness.

What had happened to cause him such distress? Had he lost a wife or a daughter? Had one of the women in his life given birth to a stillborn child? Northside Hospital’s Women Center is a full-care facility that handles just about any women’s issue imaginable. From surgery to seminars, females from 12 to 100 are treated. The area where we sat was right outside of the labor and delivery area, but there were other sets of doors radiating from the waiting area, all leading to some mystery-shrouded ward. Which ward had he come from?

I’d like to say that someone offered him a tissue and that we became shoulders to cry on. But no, that didn’t happen. Subdued by the newcomer’s obvious distress, we grew quieter, and after a few moments we gave up our feeble attempts to continue our earlier lighthearted banter. We all tried to ignore him, not because we didn’t care but rather because we respected him and his anguish. The candy man had built an invisible wall around himself and seemed to be saying, “I’ve got to get myself together before moving forward.” His grief was a private thing, and we all sensed and respected that; we too had experienced punctured hearts.

But that was eight years ago. Today I’m feeling jangled by the memory of a stranger whose sadness continues to haunt me. What is he doing on this May afternoon? Have his tears dried? If we met today, would he talk to me? And if so, what would he say?

I think he’d tell me something that I already knew, that while there is suffering, there is also joy. And that perhaps pain serves to make us more aware of the exquisite sweetness of life. I hope that the candy man’s heartache has eased and that he has joy in his life.

Nowhere Boy Thoughts

 

 

I mostly agree with Anne Lamott on her Mother’s Day thoughts. To clarify, I agree that it’s a tough day for many people—motherless children; childless adults; parents of wayward, lost, deceased, or disappointing children; children of abusive, mean-spirited, dismissive, or absentee mothers. Then too, there are the mothers who cannot let their children go. Not now. Not ever.

You get the picture. We live in an imperfect world, and sometimes it’s a wonder people turn out as well as they do.

One of the things I recall from SOC 101 is that one of the primary functions of the family is to raise the young. The family, not just the mother, has the responsibility to look after the development and well-being of children. It takes a village and all that. Aunts, mothers’ friends, neighbors, grandmotherly types (ha ha—like me), and other females can all play the mother role.

In church Sunday a woman who happened to be holding a baby for a young friend was asked to say the opening prayer. She didn’t hand the baby off to someone but promptly stood, walked to the stand, and babe in arms, said the prayer. Her husband later remarked that he couldn’t recall ever seeing a man give a prayer holding a child but had seen several women doing so. Women are coded differently, he intimated. Maybe they have a nurturing gene—or something.

On Mother’s day evening, I watched Nowhere Boy, a movie about John Lennon’s youth and his complicated and sometimes stormy relationships with his aunt who raised him, Mimi, and his mother whom he hardly knew. I’ll use estranged to describe the relationship between Lennon’s parents, Alf and Julia, and complicated to describe the one between Mimi and Julia, Lennon’s aunt and his mother.

For many reasons, John Lennon lived with Aunt Mimi and her husband for most of his childhood and adolescence. At some point, he became increasingly involved with his mother, to Mimi’s disappointment and concern, and Julia encouraged his musical gifts. A fun and free-spirited woman who eventually gave birth to three other children, Julia doted on John, and with her he felt acceptance. In the movie, he moved in with her and her family for a short time (just a few days as I recall), and Mimi was heartbroken.

I wasn’t there so anything I write is based on the movie and on my subsequent reading, but from my “research,” it appears that John was a resilient child who had the love of many adults, including his mother and her four sisters, especially Mimi. Julia loved him ferociously and was overjoyed to have him back in her life. As an aside, when John was finally reunited with his father, twenty years had passed.

Tragedy struck one afternoon when Julia was struck by a car leaving Mimi’s house. I have no knowledge of the effect on the rest of the family, but John and Mimi were both devastated. Distraught, he cried out, “I was just getting to know her, and now I’ll never see her again.” (paraphrase). Much of his music was influenced by Julia, and his older son Julian was named after her.

The point of the above? I don’t know except to say that mothers, however imperfect, can and usually do make a difference in a child’s life. But so can aunts and grandmothers and teachers and others with the desire to nurture. According to what I’ve read, John stayed in close contact with Mimi until his death in 1980.

 

Live, Laugh, Love

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The beach is a happening place. People of all shapes, sizes, and ages walk past the dunes and let their hair down, and people watchers are guaranteed to see interesting sights, some that that make you smile and others that give you pause for thought.

Here are some things I heard, saw, and smelled within five minutes as I walked along the strand.

  • “Daddy, I caught one, the young boy said, holding up a tiny fish for his father to see. His dad laughed. I grinned.
  • A few steps further brought the smell of cigar smoke wafting my way, and instantly I saw its source—a middle-aged man sat in a beach chair, smoking cigar and fishing. Ah, the life of Riley, I thought.
  • And then there was a grandfather with frizzy gray hair walking along cradling his his sleeping blonde-haired granddaughter. The toddler was leaning against his chest and shoulder as he cradled her in his arms.

I realize the above might not seem that spectacular, but I jotted them down later for one reason: they all lifted my spirits. Love, relaxation, and joie de vivre were common themes of all three scenarios.

As I continued my walk along the beach, I began thinking about my hair and the hassle of coloring my roots every few weeks. Such a bother, I thought and wondered how much longer I would be willing to do it. Within seconds, I spotted a woman who appeared to be about my age or a little younger with no hair at all.

She was playing with grandchildren and talking with her adult children as though she were the happiest person on the beach. And it’s not like she was trying to hide her baldness. On the contrary, she was not even wearing a hat to protect her scalp. She wore large fashionable earrings in her lobes, and sported a lime green cover-up. Her message seemed to be live and love every day!

Embarrassed by my vanity and humbled by her appearance, I walked on. I observed people throwing Frisbees, football, darts, and horseshoes and soon forgot the grandmother. But not for long.

On my return trip I saw her from a distance as she stood in the edge of the water with several little children. The other adults, likely the children’s parents, sat in a semi-circle a few feet away. I looked from them to her and back to them again and locked eyes with one of the young women. She was taking a video of the bald woman in the lime green cover-up  who was laughing with the children in the surf. Mother and daughter? I wondered.

I backed up and walked behind the group rather than between them and the group in the ocean, and as I did, the photographer/video-taper gave me a thumbs-up. Sobered, I walked back to my spot on the beach. That evening, I shared that scene with some family members, reinforcing the fact that people and love and memories are more important than looks, money, and prestige.

“So does that mean you’re going to stop coloring your hair?” someone kidded.

“No, not yet,” I said. “I’m not as far along the path as she is.” They knew what I was trying to say, though. Live, laugh, love.

Six weeks later, I’m thinking of the little boy who caught a minnow, the cigar-smoking fisherman, the toddler-toting grandfather, and the grandmother in lime. Where are they today? Do they have moments when they recollect their moments by the sea and smile? I hope so, and I hope all will find a way  to rekindle the joy they demonstrated that summer day.

Love How You Can

Love is the word. Love makes the world go ‘round. And then there’s that commandment to love one another.

But what does love mean? And what exactly did Christ’s word really mean? How can we love everyone?

My brother Mike and I sat with our spouses and dozens of other people, all strangers, in the happy, busy, buzzy atmosphere of Abeulo’s in Myrtle Beach Friday night discussing the above questions. Our appetites sated and our moods elevated, we began talking about the homeless, the tired, the needy and what our responsibility was to them.

“We’re supposed to love everyone,” Mike said, not in a preaching way, just stating a reminder of something the four of us already knew, and he and I began to toss thoughts and feelings back and forth. I said my heart hurt as I thought of the Syrian refugees, especially the mothers and those little children. They’re as “precious in His sight” as my own grandchildren who had the good fortune to be born in America to parents who love them.

Did we come to a consensus or vow to devote ten percent of our time and money towards aid for the less fortunate? No. In fact, the only things we agreed on were (1) charity begins at home and we need to be more loving and kind to the people we live with and (2) we need to ponder Christ’s words and their implication for our lives.

Later that night I recalled Aaron Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love. There are several kinds of love, including one called plain old “liking,” but the ideal love is consummate love. Consummate love is comprised of intimacy, passion, and commitment and is an ideal towards which many aspire. Not everyone is fortunate enough to experience consummate love, however, and even if it were possible, it’s not the type of love one can feel towards everyone.

I’ll spare you the rest of my pondering about Sternberg’s theory and its application to Christ’s commandment. It’s quite interesting and something you can easily find and read more about online. What popped in my mind as I was thinking of Sternberg is something a former colleague of mine quipped one afternoon as some colleagues were chatting about an office romance. The chatter turned into a heated discussion as people began to actually take sides. This is going nowhere I thought and was about to leave when someone said, “There are a lot of ways to love, Folks. People love how they can.”

There are a lot of ways to love, Folks. People love how they can. What I love (there’s that word again) is that it cuts right to the chase and, without embellishment or hifalutin theories, speaks volumes. I can’t take everyone home to raise or join the Peace Corps or round up all the homeless people or love people who abuse children. I can’t. But I can love how I can.

Saturday afternoon I parked my car toward the back of the parking lot at HomeGoods in Myrtle Beach. After I turned off the ignition, I read a couple of texts and was in the middle of responding to the second one when someone thumped on the passenger side window. Momentarily startled, I looked around to see a face (no description because of the situation) that I perceived as non-threatening, so I lowered the window.

“Hello, Ma’am. Don’t be afraid. I’m harmless. My name is ____________, and I’m a Vet who hasn’t been able to find a job no matter how hard I’ve tried, and I just need some money for a meal. Can you help Old _________ out?” All of this was delivered in one long string while I stared at her, recalling the conversation of the night before. I found the change purse my husband had bought me as a souvenir in Denali on a land/sea cruise we lucky ducks had taken and rummaged through it until I found a ten dollar bill. I gave it to the kindly-looking, well-spoken, middle-aged woman standing at the window, and off she went.

Was I crazy to have done that? She wasn’t dirty, disheveled, or lean—just the opposite. She asked, I gave. No questions asked.

If Mike is reading this, my answer to our questions Friday night is that you (all of us) love how you can.

 

A Simple Message

Joining the LDS church 32 years ago was a big decision, not one that I considered lightly. I knew that if I converted to what many call “Mormonism,” there would be some backlash and downright discomfort on the part of many. And yet, I knew what I knew with my head and felt what I felt with my spirit and heart. How could I deny such a force?

I said yes and have never looked back.

Today in church I pondered for the umpteenth time what it is that’s so off-putting about Mormonism. Is it because it’s strange and peculiar for those in the Bible belt? Are its precepts and guidelines too demanding? Is the way too straight? It could be that many (most?) people don’t believe there can be prophets on the earth today.

Now Moses…that was a man, a prophet with name recognition and credibility, one who saw God face-to-face and who gave us the Ten Commandments. Even people who don’t live by these directives give lip service to their usefulness and credit to the prophet who wrote them on stone.

And of course Moses isn’t the only one. To name a few, there are Joshua, Isaiah, Samuel, Jeremiah, and John the Baptist. If I’m mentioning Moses, then I must include his sister Miriam who has long been accepted as a prophetess. And there’s Anna, an elderly New Testament prophetess who instantly recognized the Messiah though he was but a babe.

But what 2015? Doesn’t it make sense that the world is in need of prophets today, ones that understand current issues and challenges? Pornography, drug addiction, gender issues (and transgender ones), mass killings, broken homes, hungry children, homelessness, and a myriad of other contemporary problems plague our society. Couldn’t this ol’ world benefit from the words of a prophet?

I think yes. That’s where Thomas S. Monson, President and Prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, comes in. His message is simple. Love one another. Follow the example of the Savior.

Here are some of his words I used in a lesson this morning: “Love should be the heart of family life, and yet sometimes it is not. There can be too much impatience, too much arguing, too many fights, too many tears. I would hope that we could strive always to be considerate and to be sensitive to the thoughts and feelings and circumstances of those around us. Let us not demean or belittle Rather, let us be compassionate and encouraging. We must be careful that we do now destroy another person’s confidence through careless words or actions.”

I’m not trying to stir up contention. I’m a lover, not a fighter. It’s just that as I consider the recent horror that took place in Charleston, I’m reminded that love is the answer to every question. Rich or poor, black or white, American or Haitian, we are all children of the same Creator. He loves us all and expects us to do the same. After telling us to love our neighbors as ourselves, Christ remarks that there is no greater commandment.

President Monson says we cannot truly love God if we do not love our fellow travelers on this mortal journey, and I concur. I want to be a forgiving, compassionate, turn-the-other-cheek type of gal, and that’s the kind of instruction I pretty much always get at church.

But I Was Right!

I have an internal moral compass. I really do. At the same time, regular church attendance helps me keep it pointed north. Without the lessons I pick up and the fellowship I enjoy with my ward family, I’d probably be more inclined to lie, steal, cheat, and so forth.

Yesterday, I was reminded of the power of forgiveness, the layers of meaning in the parables of Christ, and the importance of making one’s home a place of order, refuge, protection, and holiness. Nothing I heard was new, but all I heard was shared in such a way that it pierced my heart and renewed my resolve to be a better person.

In the first service of the day, a speaker told a powerful story that illustrated love, peace, and forgiveness. A person had committed a transgression of a serious nature, and his bishop counseled him on the wrongdoing. Lest there be some doubt, the sin was a serious one. After the “talk,” the person who had received the counsel was offended, and so was his family, so upset and hurt that they didn’t feel they could return to church.

Here’s what happened. The bishop’s leader talked with him about the matter and indicated that an apology to the man and his family was in order.

“But I was right,” the bishop insisted. “What he was doing was wrong and needed to stop.”

His leader again encouraged him to apologize. “Someone was hurt. See if you can handle the situation with more love.”

The bishop did as he was advised, and the hearts of the man and his entire family were softened, and yes, the behavior changed for the better. The man, a sinner like me and like you, responded to compassion and understanding in a positive manner. He, like all of us, had responded to condemnation and blame with hurt and anger.

Yesterday’s speaker went on to add that this situation had applications for all of us. It doesn’t matter who’s right and who’s wrong. If you’ve offended someone by your words or actions, apologize. Failure to do so could lead to family, both church and kin, rifts that can never be repaired. Bitterness will ensue.

In Sunday school, the teacher helped her listeners better understand the deeper meanings of several parables. In a graduate class entitled The Principles of College Teaching, I learned that there are several types of teachers. Actually, I already knew that, but what I didn’t know was that even in this nuts and bolts methodology course, Christ was perceived to be the master teacher. Asking, demonstrating, and telling stories, He’s the teacher to emulate.

In the final meeting of the day, the teacher shared ideas about making homes places of order, refuge, protection, and holiness. I was already familiar with everything she said, and yet there was something about the spirit in the room that caused me to sit up and take notice. All throughout her lesson, I kept looking at a collection of children’s building blocks that she had on the table. What was their purpose? 

Anne, the teacher, built a wall with the blocks, an object lesson that literally rocked my world. I told my husband about it last night, and something in the story prompted him to wash the dishes! I shared it with my daughter Elizabeth, and even she, a teacher, was impressed. I’m going to buy some wooden blocks and carry out he activity with my grandchildren soon. It was that good!

Everyone needs gentle reminders of how to live better, happier, more peaceful lives. And while you don’t have to be a church goer to hear those reminders, I most definitely do!

Want to share something you’ve recently learned that can improve the quality of your relationships?

Backyard Wedding

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I went to a beautiful backyard wedding last night, Carol and Randy’s.  On the way home, we talked about what made the event especially nice, and we finally decided that it was EVERYTHING. From the setting to the music and food and special combination of people, we loved it. Oh, and then there’s the fact that love was involved; that always adds the icing on the cake (quite a cliché, but still true).

It rained all the way to Sumter, and the closer we got to the house, the heavier the showers became. When we arrived, the bride’s son-in-law was standing barefoot in the drive, umbrella overhead, directing guests back to their cars to wait it out. The family had been closely watching the weather reports, and all were confident that the storm would pass by 5:00.  Sure enough, the downpour turned to a light sprinkle, and by the time we made it to the backyard, we put our umbrellas away. I loved the symbolism of the cleansing rain followed by the life-giving sun.

The back yard was beautifully decorated, and as we waited for the nuptials to begin, we watched as several close friends and family members wiped down tables and chairs, one of whom was Marna. She had come from Wilmington and at the moment, clad in her wedding attire and white tennis shoes, was working diligently to help sop up the rain with a thick towel. In case you’re wondering, yes, she later changed from the wet tennis shoes to a pair of stylish white sandals. (Marna, we miss you at CCTC!)

The music was provided by two of my co-workers, T-Bo and Jackson, and by Brent, a fabulous DJ; all three did a great job of adding just the right musical ambience to the evening. The co-worker duo played their guitars, and T-Bo sang a few of Carol’s favorites including “Love Remains.” It was beautiful, and I became quite emotional as I listened carefully to the words of the song. I think the setting beneath the trees, glistening after the spring showers, added to the sentimental feelings. And lest I forget, two birds soared high between the treetops during the vows, a sight that seemed to say, “We’re in love too!”

Vows complete, Carol’s brother, a minister who had conducted the service, pronounced them husband and wife, and everyone clapped.  As the afternoon and evening progressed, people chatted, danced to the DJ’s selections (each carefully selected by Carol and Randy), reunited with old friends, ate scrumptious barbeque and the fixin’s, shared stories, and laughed a lot. Everyone was happy for the couple and grateful for love, sweet love. I met a couple who met (or re-met?) at their 15th high school reunion a few decades ago and married not quite two months later. We chatted briefly about the importance of timing, but before I could hear more about their romance, my hubby snagged me to go to the drink table with him.

I must share this. While we were eating, Nancy, a friend and techno-savvy person, came to our table and asked each couple for advice to give Carol and Randy. It was impromptu, but I think we did “okay” in our brief videotaping segments. Rex and Patricia advice was to remember that each of them loved the other more than anyone else in the world. In their case, whenever either of them gets perturbed, they think, “No one loves me more than Patrica (or Rex),” and that thought quells acrimony or annoyance. Patricia went on to say that although he doesn’t drink coffee, Rex gets up every morning and fixes it for her. One day when he didn’t have time to prepare it (can’t remember the reason), he went to Baker’s Sweets, a local eatery and coffee shop, and bought her a cup. That’s love. The rest of us gave some pretty good advice too, but I don’t have time to write about it now. Maybe later.

People drank peach tea and wine, ate fruit and wedding cookies, and savored barbeque and rice. They thought about love and families and connections. “The sun comes up and seasons change, but though it all, love remains.” A good time was had by all, and I hope the Brileys have a long and happy life together.