My Pop and I, circa October 1971

A popular blogger, Glennon Melton, coined a word to describe the world as she sees it. Life brings joy and pain, good and evil, comedy and tragedy, frequently in the same day, sometimes in the very same moment. All in all, she says, it is a brutiful world, beautiful and brutal, all wrapped in one extraordinary package.

I read her description of her brutiful life and was captivated, not only by her story, but also by her word choice. I love new words, so when my father inadvertently gave me one a few days ago, I was delighted.

My father and I don’t live very close to each other and we aren’t terribly good about using the phone, so we usually rely on email to stay connected. It’s a good venue for us. I like to write and he likes to read. I share my latest ideas and he usually has some valuable commentary. On this particular day, I had emailed him an essay by one of our favorite authors (Ron Rolheiser in case you were wondering) and I shared the connections I had made between the article, his life and my own. He got back to me and ended his response in this way:

            Wishing i could hug you right now to send my love and joy in you my wounderful daughter.

Pop

I have to admit that as a former English professor, I frequently need to remind myself to appreciate what he says, instead of judging how he says it, but that day, my impulse to correct his grammar quickly fled in the face of the sentiment his sentence held.

He called me his wounderful daughter. What a gift! I know he meant wonderful, but whether it was a Freudian slip, or serendipity, being wounderful felt even more significant. It felt profound.

Somehow, I have been made wonderful in his eyes, by my wounds.

He thinks I am wounderful.

Like any father, he wanted to protect me from injury and he thought he could do it through sheer size, force of will and determination. He was an intimidating, 6’6”, successful breadwinner, with a 7-foot wingspan and a size 13 shoe. He thought that if he could keep the world at bay, including teenage boys and the smut on TV, his little girl would be just fine. Ultimately, and obviously, he discovered he couldn’t. He watched me tumble and fall too many times to count, from little ego bruises, like the 7th grade softball team I didn’t make, to major heartbreaks in friendship and love. He helped me recover, and hoped that I would learn about myself and the world around me from the pain I experienced. He watched me learn about courage, compassion, and humility. He watched me cry, thinking I would never stop and then he saw me laugh again. Through it all, he was there to bind up my wounds with his fatherly supply of unconditional love.

Our animal friends have been given adaptations. They have hard outer shells, leathery skin, horns, beaks, claws, speed, agility, and size. All these evolutionary gifts help them avoid being wounded. Their very ability to survive depends on their invulnerability.

But humans haven’t been given many physical gifts. We are slow – slow to mature and slow to move. We need to be kept warm and cool; we need artificial protection of all kinds, from clothes and sunscreen to armored tanks and bike helmets. We have few anatomically-given ways to avoid being wounded, but we have psychological weapons in spades. We have sarcasm and introversion, indifference and aggression. We have pride and arrogance. But none of them keep us from being injured in the first place. The wounding always comes first. We grow our armor later.

But hopefully, no matter how defensive we become, there remain chinks in our armor, ways we can still be wounded, and places where we are vulnerable. Wounding frequently draws blood, but sometimes it is the only way we know we are still alive: by feeling something coursing through our veins, filling our hearts and spilling over.

I would rather be wounderful than wonderful any day. In the first place, I am approachable; I am human and in some way, beautiful in my pop’s eyes. In the second, I am plastic, perhaps pleasant, but never vulnerable, which is the essence of humanity.

If you have the choice, if you are brave enough, be wounderful. It’s the only way to truly experience this brutiful world.

Tomorrow, Lent begins. For those of you not familiar with the season, Lent takes place for the 40 days before Easter. It is traditionally a time of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. If you had Catholic friends growing up, you may have overheard, or participated in earnest discussions about what to “give up” for Lent. Until I was 16, it always boiled down to candy.  For a kid with a serious sweet tooth, and the dental work to prove it, giving up candy for 40 days was a real sacrifice. And it seemed that Heaven itself blessed my offering, for on Easter morning, all my hard work was rewarded by a basketful of sweet, candy goodness. I still get excited when I see row upon row of pastel-colored Peeps, sweet and sour jelly beans, and rich, gooey Cadbury Creme eggs in the aisles of my local Target.

But alas, we all must grow up and although I still love candy, I’ve definitely outgrown “giving it up” for Lent. There are many things, spiritual and otherwise, that I’ve grown out of, but I’ve tried to hold on to the season of Lent. As an adult, I’m always on the look out for new ways to commit to this season and what it’s supposed to bring about in me and my spiritual journey. This morning, I came across a great reflection, which you can check out here if you like. That Time of Year Again – Busted Halo.

Sr. Bernadette makes some very good, very funny points in her essay, and offers a series of questions to help you figure out what action, or “inaction” you might take this Lenten season to become more like Jesus, the man that Christians purport to follow with their lives. There was one question in particular that struck me at my very core.

“If I choose to fast from something in my life, what would make me feel its absence so keenly that without it I would need to cling to God?”

Wow! When you put it that way, I obviously can’t fill in that blank with candy. I may love my Sweet Tarts and Sugar Babies, but do I really need God to help me do without them? I don’t think so. I can just as easily pop in a piece of gum, or brush my teeth and temptation is avoided. There is no reliance on any Higher Power, except my own will power.

Her question made me ask this question of myself, “What compulsion, or habit of mine do I have so little control over that I would have to turn to God to actually be able to do without it?”

Without a conscious thought, I had my answer. It came unbidden, as impulses from the Holy Spirit often do, but I quickly buried it. (Which, by the way, is what we often do with those impulses.) It seemed too strange, and more significantly, too impossible. But after messing around with a list of the typical vices we try to get rid of, from caffeine and alcohol to technology, I gave up and went back to my first thought.

For Lent 2012, I have to give up worrying. I have developed a compulsive need to ‘fix’ things these days. I am not talking about appliances, and messy closets. I am talking about people and situations over which I have little control. But that lack of control doesn’t stop me from spending many of my waking hours and more than a few of my sleeping ones worrying about how things could be different. I go over in my head what I could have done, should have done, might have done and might still do to correct these “problems” as I see them. I long for things to be resolved, ultimately to my own satisfaction.

I realize that this habit of worry is neither productive, nor life-giving to myself or anyone I love. It is not contemplation, or even problem-solving. It will not produce better results, or fix anything at all. It merely prevents me from being in the Now and embracing the present moment. How can I enjoy a morning hug from my Molly, or a Starbucks run with my teens if I am mulling over all the ways they need to be ‘fixed?’  How can I sleep peacefully next to Tim at night if I am thinking of all the things that I’ve left undone?

How can there be any peace if it all depends on me?

And there is the crux of the matter.

There can’t be.

For me, worrying is the act of separating myself from God and His love. If I consider Sr. Bernadette’s question, worrying is the one thing that “would make me feel its absence so keenly that without it I would need to cling to God.” I have no other way to combat my worry besides seeking the presence of God. God is not worried about the same things I am. He simply says, “Hand it over. It will sort itself out, in its own way, in its own time. In the meanwhile, do your best. Use your mind, your heart and the gifts I’ve given you, but don’t forget to swim in the river of Love. When you worry, you’re standing on the shore.”

I’d love to know what you’re thinking of giving up. What would make you turn to God every time you were about to turn to “it”, whatever it is? I promise not to worry about you, but I will send good thoughts your way over the next 40 days and hopefully, we won’t pick up right where we left off today.

 

Yesterday was a bit of a brutal day around our house. It was Valentine’s Day and there is a single lady around our house who is none to happy about it. Although she is turning 15 this weekend, she is convinced that her chance at romance has passed her by. She is a member of the as-yet-unrecognized “Forever Alone” club at her all-girls high school. When I said, “Happy Valentine’s Day” to her over breakfast, she growled, “You mean ‘Happy Biggest Joke of a Holiday Ever.’” Oh, so that’s how it’s going to be, I thought. Got it.

Honestly, what can a mother, or father say to convince their single, teenage daughters that someday, they will fall in love and more significantly, be fallen in love with? Not much. I know, because my parents tried. No matter how many times you say that someone would be lucky to have her, she doesn’t believe you. We can say that she is beautiful until we are blue in the face, but until the mirror, or a boy makes her see it differently, it’s not going to count. To praise her intelligence, sense of humor, and kind heart is just adding salt to the wound.

So although I wanted to resist the platitudes, I couldn’t help myself. I made her a valentine and told her that someone will be lucky to have her. I told her that she was beautiful, intelligent, funny and kind. She might have flicked it aside yesterday, but I have no doubt it will end up in a drawer, or a box, where she will find it one day, before she goes off to college and a life of her own. I pray she will read it over and know that I was right, at least about something.

There’s a great line in the new movie, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  Dev Patel says to a disappointed hotel guest, “In India we have a saying. ‘In the end, it will be all right.’ So, if it is not all right, it means it is not the end yet.”

It’s not the end yet, Keara. It’s just the beginning. You’ve got a lifetime of love ahead of you and it really will be all right.

Was it just me, or did anyone else confuse a Tasmanian Devil with a whirling dervish in their childhood? When I was younger, I knew of only one difference: Taz was an actual star of a cartoon show. That was it. I had no idea whether a whirling dervish was man or beast, good or evil, though I tended to think the latter. Whenever the phrase was used in my childhood home, it had a negative connotation. It meant I needed to slow down, to stop being so wild. For the sake of my mother’s nerves and my backside, I needed to be still.

I hadn’t thought about my juvenile transposition of those terms for many, many years, but recently a friend posted this picture of me on Facebook, which was taken at her wedding last summer.

Image 

Uh-oh, I thought, but I figured that it might get even worse, or better, depending on how you look at it. I was right. Apparently, we were just getting started. This moment followed.

Image  

My partner and I were like turbines picking up steam. Though I haven’t seen the photographic evidence, I have vague memories of being sprawled across the dance floor, on our bums, laughing hysterically.

When I saw these photos, my mother’s phrase “whirling dervish” immediately came to mind. It had been 30 years since it had been used to scold me for playing so wildly with my friends. It was always followed by an encouragement to read instead, to pick up our messes, or at the very least to go outside! And since I am now an adult with access to cool technology like the Internet and Wikipedia, I decided to look up the term for myself. Imagine my surprise when I saw beautiful images like this one below.

Image

Whirling dervishes are not a menace to society, some wild, uncontrollable animal, or a tic that overtakes someone like a seizure, or a stroke. A whirling dervish is someone who dances in circles in order worship and discover God. They don’t even refer to themselves by that name. Technically, they are the Mevlevi sect of Sufism.

 In my research, I also discovered a beautiful quote by a member of that sect, Sherif Baba. He said,  “The dervish whirls so that the true form of the world can be seen. When we whirl, all the individual pieces we think are separate blend together and we begin to sense the totality that is God.”

Amen to that. When I read why a dervish whirls, my need to spin on the dance floor with my lovely friend on my arm became crystal clear. We had joyously celebrated her marriage a few short years before and now, she is going through some events that are unexpected, unwanted and frankly, unpleasant and yet together, we were celebrating the marriage of another friend. The bride’s childhood had been marked by a tragic loss, but her commitment to her new husband signified a belief in hope, joy, love, and the promise of all those blessings in greater measure in her future. Life spins on its axis and we are constantly called to accept changes in our circumstances and perspective.

 I tend to seek God in stillness, in the slow, silent moments of the dark morning, or the star-filled night. I find it difficult to see the Divine Presence in the fractal events of my life, particularly when they are upsetting or tragic. I am more likely to view them as something to be borne, something to be gotten through, rather than an opportunity to “sense the totality of God.”

 But the dance floor offers me another way. If I follow the example of the whirling dervishes, I might remember that sometimes, God can best be found in chaos, in change, in the very eye of the storm. If the Divine Presence is the centrifugal force of life, then sometimes we must spin in order to lose our own egos as the central reference point for all things. There is wisdom in letting go, in dancing through life, “so that the true form of the world can be seen.” 

I recently read Alan Brennert’s novel Moloka’i and enjoyed it thoroughly. It is set around the turn of the century in the leper colony of Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. To control the leprosy epidemic, everyone found infected with the bacteria, was sent to live in isolation there. For many patients, that isolation lasted their whole lives.  Historical fiction like this is my favorite genre, because it appeals to me on two levels. The reader in me gets lost in the story, while the scholar in me absorbs all sorts of new historical facts and trivia to bore my friends and family with later. In my nerdy opinion, historical fiction is the perfect combination of fact and fiction, research and escapism, a fabulous two-for-one deal.

However, reading the novel reminded me of an experience I had a couple months back. It made me think about historical fiction in a more personal way, because it wasn’t in a book anymore. At a cocktail party in my neighborhood, I saw all too clearly how our own personal historical fictions influence the stories we tell ourselves each and every day. While the fiction is probably harmless most of the time, it may actually cost us something valuable in the long run: our ability to see ourselves as we are today.

As Tim and I walked up to our hosts’ front door, he reminded me that I was his wingman. I wasn’t allowed to go mingle, if he didn’t find a buddy to talk to. He doesn’t usually worry about that happening, but this wasn’t our normal social circle, so I acquiesced. For my part, I straightened my skirt and checked my make up one more time. I was as ready as I would ever be. I knew we were both responding to some personal insecurities, but figured our secrets were safe with each other.

So imagine my surprise when our hostess asked us to put on a nametag, complete with three adjectives that described us in high school. It was, after all, a fundraiser for a youth organization. Oh boy, I thought, but honesty was probably the best policy here as anywhere else. Tim jotted down Lone Wolf, figuring that pretty much said it all, while I scrawled geek, klutz and swimmer under my name. We looked at what the other had written and shrugged. We’ve been together for so long and shared so many stories from our childhoods that we knew exactly where the adjectives had come from and accepted them as some approximation of the truth. I knew that after several moves, Tim had only a few friends at any given time growing up. He frequently ate alone in the cafeteria, and spent many of his afternoons, kicking a soccer ball at the backyard fence, scoring goal after game-winning goal for an audience of one. He knew how awkward I had felt as a child, skinny and freckle-faced, more at home in water than on land. He’d counted the scars I still have on my body that testify to the face-first, flat out falls I took on the black top, off bikes and into thorn bushes. He has also tried to heal the scars on my psyche from years of feeling inferior to so many of my peers.

So we stuck on the wounded egos of our teenage selves and started to mingle. I couldn’t believe all the casual friends and acquaintances we met, who were apparently all popular, smart, beautiful and athletic. Honestly, the ratio of class presidents, cheerleaders and homecoming queens to the rest of us was a little ridiculous. But what was even funnier was how they responded to our nametags. They thought we were kidding, or at least really exaggerating who we used to be. I assured them we were not. They thought we were “one of them,” and until that night, I had thought so too.

Not a single person at that party would have pegged Tim for a lone wolf. At this point in his life, my husband is known as “Coach Tim” to a large swathe of the under-15 population in our community and their parents. He’s spent years coaching our kids’ sports teams, from softball to soccer. He is sarcastic and funny, hangs out with the guys, but prefers to chat with the ladies. And as for me, I haven’t tripped over my own feet (much) since my second child was born, and I have become a fairly self-confident and capable woman, athletic even, since discovering Pilates.

The night was fun, but I didn’t love reliving my past. I put those words down, thinking they were harmless, that I had moved beyond those labels and memories, that they were “history” and I know Tim did the same. But when we reflected on the last things we had done before we walked into that party, we saw the evidence that our past is hardly history at all. He was making sure that he wouldn’t be the lone wolf, and by adding another layer of lipstick, I was re-arming myself against the superficial judgments of other girls. Despite twenty years of love and success, our historical fiction is still a palpable presence in our lives.

Does anyone ever get over who they once were, and thought they might always be? Is it worse for the class presidents, valedictorians, or homecoming queens, who perhaps never lived up to the promise of those early days? I don’t know the answer to that. My story runs the other way and they aren’t exactly the kind of questions you’d ask a casual acquaintance over a glass of wine at a cocktail party.

By the end of the novel Moloka’i, a cure for leprosy is found and the patients are free to move back into society, leaving their “shameful” past behind them. But virtually no matter where they go, they face prejudice, scorn and outright discrimination. There are no jobs for them, no places to live, and frequently no family willing to love them. They are technically “free,” but they are bound by their past and the evidence is written all over their bodies and souls. A few of them find the freedom they seek, but many of them return to the leper colony, Kalaupapa, where they are known and loved for who and what they are.

As I read this book, I was taken back to that cocktail party and the way our histories can continue to haunt us. Thankfully, for the most part, I am free. I laughed with everyone at what my nametag said. I am no longer that geeky girl, who lacks the self-confidence, courage and grace to be fully herself. However, when I went home that night, done socializing with the world at large, I was glad to be alone with Tim, my own personal Kalaupapa, where I am known and loved for who I was and who I try to be today.

The other night, my little Molly Grace came in at suppertime. She was muddy bedraggled, and limping a bit. This is not unusual. Molly and Finn frequently come in to supper, covered in mud and grass-stains. They are often limping too, but they almost always have silly-looking grins plastered on their faces as well. But something was different this night. Molly’s cheeks were dirty and tear-stained and she couldn’t really talk, without starting to cry all over again. When I asked if she was hurt, she shook her head, so I just hugged her while I ran a hot bath, figuring a little love was the best remedy for what ailed her and I had a pretty good guess what it was.

To say that our cul-de-sac is a little “masculine” would be an understatement. It is athletic, dirty, physical, and loud. If you set foot on our front grass, you are signing up for a full-body, contact version of whatever sport is being played. The six kids who share the front yard (3 of ours & 3 of theirs) have invented more games than I can count, but all of them allow, perhaps even encourage, tripping, tackling, kicking, goal-scoring and shoddy refereeing. Usually, there is another little girl out there to balance the feminine factor, but that night, Molly was trying to hold her own, against the aggressive gamesmanship of at least 4 much bigger boys. She is not one to give up, but she cashed in her chips early that night. Luckily, the only serious injury was to her pride and sense of justice.

She just kept repeating, “Those boys are just so hard.” She didn’t have another word for it and I didn’t think I should label it for her.

Her experience reminded me of a movie I watched last week called The Tree of Life by Terrence Malick, starring Brad Pitt. Despite his box-office appeal, I don’t think it did very well and I am not surprised after seeing it. It’s not what you’d expect.

The movie opens with these lines, spoken in a young woman’s, beautiful, lilting voice.

            There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You  have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself, accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked, accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself and others to please it too, likes to lord it over them, to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is smiling around it and love is shining through all things.  They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.

You don’t know to whom she is speaking or why, but as I listened, I didn’t care and that was the trick to enjoying the movie. You couldn’t care about the details, like plot and resolution. You had to absorb the images and the allegories. This was not a family drama; rather, this was the tension between human nature and grace personified, in a human family, a mother and father and their sons.

The father is not evil. That would make it too simple, too familiar of a story. The father is just human: disappointed in and proud of his sons at the same time. In love with and frustrated by his beautiful, but silent wife. Engaged in and stifled by his job and his dreams in equal measure and as such, he is mercurial and unpredictable. He is laughing and affectionate one moment, but angry and rough the next. The more he pushes his boys to love him, the further they pull away. It sounds like many fathers I know, including my own thirty years ago.

The fear in his sons’ eyes might be his fault, but I sympathized with him, because it is not a level playing field. He is married to grace incarnate. The mother is always loving, affectionate and kind. She is playful, and whimsical. She is seemingly perfect, but not in any way that makes you distrust or despise her, because unlike the ‘perfect’ women we know, it’s not a sham. This woman is not meant to be one of us. She is meant to be grace: for these boys, for this man, to save them from their human nature.

Her grace cannot save the father, but her sons can’t help but be affected by the love that pours over them every day. In one of the few scenes where she speaks at all, she tells them, “Help each other. Love everyone. Every leaf. Every ray of light. Forgive.”

The young boys try; you watch them struggle with the humanity inside them and the grace they’ve been given, which never fails. The eldest son, who has born the brunt of his father’s all-too-human pain, struggles the most to live out his mother’s message of grace. He says to his father in a moment of anger and confusion, “I wrestle with you inside me. I am more like you than I am like her.” And you can tell he is saddened by that reality.

My son is 13, about the same age as the boy in the movie, when he has that conversation with his father. I know that he too struggles within himself to be a gentle man, the kind of man we want him to be: strong and sure of himself on the playing field, or in the classroom and yet ever mindful of the gift of grace he’s been given and which it is his obligation to bestow. When Molly came in crying that night, wounded, my first impulse was to go out and lecture Finn (and his friends) about looking out for the little ones. But remembering the The Tree of Life stopped me. Grace can’t be forced. It can only be given time and time again. It works best in silence when it wants to heal, to inspire, to love.

Those boys were working out their human nature with each other and my little 9-year-old girl got herself caught in the crossfire. It isn’t the first time and I don’t think it will be the last. She’s got her own little humanity to work out, even if her middle name is Grace.

January 1, 2012

As this day approached, I began to pore over my thoughts and memories about January “Ones” from the past – events, people, resolutions, and if I am honest, the occasional hangover. But no matter how hard I thought about it, nothing significant was coming to mind.

I might have written about my lukewarm feelings towards New Year’s Resolutions, which might be due to my seeming inability to keep them. I decided that would be a subject better kept until late February or March, when I typically get around to turning over any new leaves that might want to sprout.

I could have written about my most memorable New Year’s Eve nights, but that would have been embarrassing, since most of them involve a bunch of little girls, banging our mother’s pots and pans with wooden spoons just before we passed out at 12:01. Fun? Yes. Engaging in print? Probably not.

Perhaps I should have written about the neighborhood party we attended last night, where middle-aged mothers rocked out to Just Dance 3 on the Wii system, thinking we were still in our prime, but that might have just sounded like déjà vu to many of you.

So I gave up and let it go, hoping that next year, I would have something insightful to say about the cosmic passing of one year into another.

But after our late night out, Tim, Molly and I had an early morning drive to Huntington Beach ahead of us today. As you can imagine, the roads were fairly quiet, as the sun rose on this New Year’s morning. The fog rolled in and out as we crossed the lagoons in Del Mar and hugged the rocky coast for most of our 90-mile drive. Molly, still in her feety jammies, had buried her head in her pillow with her pink blanky protecting her from the unwanted morning sun. Tim reclined his seat back and vetoed any music with too much bass, or vocals.  Left to my own devices, I turned on my favorite NPR station and listened to an interview with singer-songwriter Ryan Adams.

After a long period of non-productivity, Adams shared how hard he worked at completing his most recent album, including an exercise he called “Stacks.” Alone in his office, he would sit between two stacks of books, one on his right and one on his left. On any given day, he would go back and forth between the two stacks of books, randomly reading lines, trying to make a connection between one side and another, with himself as the conduit.

Tim scoffed at the idea, thinking it sounded contrived, but I was intrigued. What kind of books were in those stacks? How were they organized? How often did he get ‘lucky’ and actually find an idea for a song, a line, or a melody by that seemingly random method? The interviewer laughed at Adams description of his creative process and moved on to her next question, but I wasn’t able to get the image out of my mind.

Adams creative exercise sounded like a perfect metaphor for a way to live a more meaningful life. We compartmentalize things; we put them in stacks and think they don’t touch each other, or hope that they don’t. We stack up our feelings, hopes and fears about our work, spouse, friends, family, kids, money, spirituality (or lack thereof), health, self, security, etc… in these little ivory towers. I have plenty of stacks and some are grouped roughly on the right, and some on the left, but they have no conduit except me. Unless, like Adams, I am willing to sit down and open up to the possibility for overlap, connection and meaning, those towers stay solid but compartmentalized, and almost surely unable to contribute to personal growth, or a greater outcome. I might know what is in each stack, but I won’t know what they might inspire in me, if I don’t look at them in total, in relationship to each other.

So although I won’t call it an official New Year’s Resolution, I am going to try to live my life a little more like “Stacks” for the next few months and see what happens. By opening up the different towers of my life to each other, I hope  to find new connections, be inspired and generate some original thoughts. That last one is my main goal. Psychologists have said that 98% of our thoughts are repetitive, the same ones we had yesterday. I don’t know about you, but I’m a little tired of those. As I begin 2012, I am ready for some new material and I hope you’ll join me.

 

 

 

I curled up in my bed a couple weeks ago and watched a movie called Sarah’s Key. The movie was good and I’ve heard that the book is excellent, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. As the movie begins, the narrator is writing a letter to her daughter and she says,

Sometimes if a story is never told, it becomes something else, forgotten. 

Obviously, I loved that line, because I think of myself as a storyteller. I think that sharing our stories is the most powerful way we have to learn about the world and how to be in it. I put that line away in my memory, happy that another author had captured the way I feel.

But as I was opening Christmas cards this week, I came across one that jogged the memory of that line and I thought it was a story that should not be forgotten. Among the usual assortment of polished photos and professional printing jobs, I opened one card and was immediately brought to tears. There was a picture in this one as well, a multigenerational family photo. Everyone had a huge smile, except for the matriarch of this crew. She was looking sideways, away from the camera lens, and if you didn’t know better, you’d think that the photographer had just caught her by surprise. But I know better. I know how that woman would have had a brilliant smile directed at that camera, beaming with pride if she had any choice in the matter. But she doesn’t. She’s forgotten her story. This beautiful woman, loving mother of 6 children, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 57, and over the last 10 years, she’s forgotten most, if not all of her story.

This is the story I wish she still knew, the story I would tell her.

“Peggy, you are the sweetest woman I ever knew. I remember coming to your house throughout my childhood, after school, for Sunday dinners and youth group meetings. A hug from you was like being embraced by an angel on earth. It held all the promise of heaven, but allowed for the realities of the day. Your devotion to your husband and affection for your children was a model to me of the kind of wife and mother I wanted to be. In your hallway, you had a wall of portraits, 8x10s of your kids’ school and prom pictures. It was a proud moment for me when I made it up on that Wall of Fame as your only son’s senior prom date. At one point while washing dishes in your kitchen, your son and I promised to marry each other if we were still single at the old age of 30. We weren’t, but I might have waited, just to become your daughter-in-law. In your own words, it would have been ‘the best.’ Everything you loved, everyone you met, was simply ‘the best,’ said with a clap of your hands. And it didn’t matter how many times I heard you say it about everything from trash bags to TV shows, when you said it about me, I believed you.

You raised 6 wonderful children, who are raising wonderful children. You have lived a beautiful story Peggy and when it’s over, I know you will rediscover all the parts that you missed and love every bit of it.”

The movie, Sarah’s Key, ends with these words:

So I write this for you, my daughter, with a hope that one day when you’re old enough, this story that lives with me will live with you as well. When a story is told, it is not forgotten; it becomes something else: a memory of who we were, the hope of what we can become.

I write this thinking of her 5 daughters and son, with their big brown eyes and radiant smiles, knowing that her story lives on in them. I write this knowing that contemplating that Christmas card was like hearing Peggy’s story all over again, reminding me of who I was in her eyes and who I hoped to become, someone who would always be ‘the best,’ at least to her.

PostScript: Thinking about this family’s story prompted me to look at all of the Christmas cards I’ve received in a new light. Each one captures a moment in time, the story a family is trying to tell at this point in their lives. Some are glamorous; some are more realistic, but none of them want to be forgotten. I think I will take a little more time to look at them this year, to remember the stories we’ve shared over the years together. And if there is one that needs to be retold, one that helped me become who I hoped to be, like Peggy’s, I am not going to be afraid to share it, so that it won’t be forgotten. I hope you find the time and the courage to do the same.

I wrote last month about my addiction to sweeping, but if you didn’t get to read my confessional, you can check it out in my November archives. But sweeping isn’t my only addiction. I have an even better fix when it comes to facing the challenges the world throws at me. Maybe I shouldn’t call this one an addiction, though I think of it as such. It’s not a behavior that I could get rid of, even if I wanted to, which I don’t, but it is something worth confessing.

I am addicted to joy.big be joyous

I am addicted to seeing the bright side of things, the silver lining, the best in a bad situation. Somewhere deep in my DNA, the cosmos embedded a gene that made me an eternal optimist. While other people might say, “You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” I say “Watch me,” but don’t blame me if you end up wanting to kiss it. I am sure that my intractable tendency to joy is both endearing and frustrating to the people I know, especially my pessimistic husband, Tim. It may be one of the traits that he fell in love with, but it is also one of the things that has caused the most arguments in our household as well. I think his realistic point of view can be depressing, but sometimes he feels like he’s married to Mary Poppins. I have to admit that I agree with her theory. If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, then I say, “Bottoms up!”

I think optimism and joy need to be defended sometimes. They are too often seen as naïve, or immature emotions. But they are not the same as being oblivious to the sorrows of world, or mere shallowness. A true optimist is fully aware of the painful realities of life, but they are equally aware of the potential within each of those realities for growth, for transformation, for a positive outcome. If you trust in the existence of goodness within each person, or each problem, you call it forth by that your very belief in its presence. You can’t see something that you don’t believe in, so I think it’s a loss when we focus too much on reality, or what we think we know about life. We might lose our ability to affect the very outcome we most desire.

As you can imagine, Christmas is a wonderful time of year for people like me. It’s as if everyone finally catches on to what we’ve been saying all along. It may take you eleven months out of twelve every year, but we don’t get discouraged. We know it’s possible. We know that eventually we’ll all get on the same page. Peace! Hope! Joy! Love! We aren’t picky about what holiday you celebrate: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or even just New Years Day! Give yourself some time and space to believe it’s all going to be okay and it just might work out that way.

I’ve taken some heat over the years for my Pollyanna way of looking at the world, but I hope it’s something I never lose, not just because it makes my life better, but because I’ve been told it does the same for the lives of those around me. Henri Nouwen had this to say about joy, “ Real joy always wants to share. It belongs to the nature of joy to communicate itself to others and to invite others to take part in the gifts we have received.”

I hope over the next two weeks, as we head into the home stretch of the holiday season, that you find yourself in the company of someone joyful and that the joyful person is you. I hope that true optimism fills your heart and soul, not ignoring the truth of the past year’s struggles, or losses, nor the challenges of the months ahead, but believing in the possibility of goodness, love, joy and peace. Making space for those realities can make the best of any bad situation.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you probably know that I have a daily prayer practice. I’d like to call it meditation, which sounds so much cooler, but I’d be lying. I don’t light incense, or chant. I don’t clear my mind. I am much more likely to have a thought, follow it and watch it unfold. However, I do breathe deeply. I do invite the divine presence (s) to be with me. I do try to be honest about my life – what I’ve done and failed to do, what has made laugh and/ or cry. I look for patterns, try to find perspective, and ask for grace. Having a serious prayer practice isn’t nearly as holy, or pious as it sounds, but I do know that it’s useful, or has been for me.

On my best days, I have an hour before my family wakes to sit and pray. But most days aren’t my “best days,” so more often than not, I get 30 minutes or so, and on the weekends, I might neglect to set the alarm and take what I can get later on. But last night, I did something that I have never done before. I was tossing and turning; it was close to midnight and I reached over and turned off my alarm, not because I wanted to sleep in (which I’ve done often enough before), but because God and I had had a bit of an argument the day before and I wasn’t sure I was ready to talk to Him yet. In short, I was planning on giving Him the silent treatment.

He, however, had other plans. I woke up this morning and thought to myself smugly, “Ha! I showed him. I slept right through our time,” but when I looked over at the clock, it was precisely 5:58 a.m., the exact time we begin every morning. Ha! He showed me. He seemed to be saying, “Whether you planned to speak to me or not, you’re up, so you may as well.”  I’ve been doing this for long enough to know that He was right, so I got up and began my prayer with equal parts relief and trepidation.

The danger with giving someone the silent treatment is that you’ll stay there for far too long. I think that there is a time for silence when you’re angry, when you’ve gotten past the point where words are useful, and they’ve become blunt force objects whose sole purpose is to injure and maim. Most of us have probably learned where that threshold is and can hold our tongues. However, the silent treatment is a different weapon all together. It’s meant to punish the other, but more effectively punishes us. While we might stop speaking our thoughts out loud, we typically launch into self-justifying monologues in our own heads, rants of George Carlin-esque proportions. We inflate the righteousness of our own position, while reducing the other person, usually someone we love, to an insignificant speck in the cosmic scheme of things. And then there’s that awkward moment when you do have to speak again, when you have to let go of your anger, and find a way to move on.

You can see why this might be a problem when your adversary is God.

So I sat on the couch, closed my eyes and sighed. The rants, the anger, the dirty looks are useless when your opponent is Love, boundless and unchangeable. There is nothing I can do that will hurt Him. Even if I’m angry, if I stamp my feet, and try to run away, I can’t. There is nowhere I can go that isn’t in the palm of His hand, inside the circle of His arms. The silent treatment is useless against unconditional Love.

So when I got over myself and began to speak again, He was there, waiting patiently for me. There was no awkwardness, no apologies needed. He was ready to listen, willing to hear whatever it was I had to say. And so I tried again to express what I was feeling and I tried even harder to listen to what He might have to say on the subject. No, I’m not a mystic, or a religious nut. I never hear His voice, or words coming down from the Heavens. But I hear Him all the same, if I am paying attention. If I am open to it, if I am aware, then His response unfolds in the every day occurrences of my life, in something I read, a movie I watch, a conversation I have. Sometimes, He even deigns to speak through a Facebook post.

After thinking about it, I’ll probably try to avoid giving anyone the silent treatment in the near future. Silence?  Yes, as long as it’s necessary and helpful. But mute anger? I think I’ll pass. And I hope that the next time someone (probably Keara) tries it on me, I’ll react differently. I hope I can take a lesson from God’s playbook and remain uninjured and unoffended. I’ll try to communicate that no matter how far she goes, my love goes farther and that I will be waiting here patiently, ready to listen, no apology necessary.

That’s what Love does, or so I’ve heard.