Grace in the cracks.

Last year, I attended the ordination of a friend.  In our church, ordination comes after a long process of discernment, evaluation, and three years of seminary and field work. Many, if not most, Episcopal priests have had other careers before entering seminary. 

The sermon at the ordination was given by a priest from North Carolina. One of the things she said has stayed with me.  Speaking about what makes a priest effective, she said that — more than homiletic skills or teaching ability or a knack for crafting excellent prayers —  it’s the recognition of the futility of perfection that makes a priest most effective.

Imperfection, she said, is the prerequisite to grace. After all, light only gets in through the cracks.  

This is not an original thought, of course. But it got me thinking about the brokenness we all work so hard to conceal, and the freedom that comes with letting go of the expectation that we’re ever going to get anywhere close to perfection.

duvall-copy
As close to perfection as it is possible for a mere mortal to be: the Man, the Legend, Robert Duvall.

Last year, around the time of that ordination, a friend sent me a text about something inconsequential. At the end of it, she wrote, This comes at the end of a week of feeling generally inadequate.  

I was taken aback by this admission, not because I think my friend believes she’s perfect; on the contrary, she is one of the most down-to-Earth people I know, which is one of the things I like most about her. Rather, I was taken aback because, in my mind, she is Superwoman: always smiling, always juggling a million responsibilities, universally loved and admired. It never crossed my mind that she would ever feel inadequate in any way!

The funny thing is, though, her admission made me love and respect her even more.  It was as if she’d made a bit more room for me, and for our friendship, by pointing out that little crack in her life, that little bit of herself that wasn’t perfect.

There was a TED talk a few years ago that got a lot of traction after it went viral. Oprah brought the woman who gave it onto her show, and into the pages of her magazine. You’ve probably heard of it.  

The talk was called The Power of Vulnerability by Brene Brown.

Brown explains her research by saying, “I started with connection. Because, by the time you’re a social worker for 10 years, what you realize is that connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it’s all about. It doesn’t matter whether you talk to people who work in social justice and mental health and abuse and neglect, what we know is that connection, the ability to feel connected, is — neurobiologically that’s how we’re wired — it’s why we’re here.”

 

Brown further explains that her research showed that “[t]here was only one variable that separated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging.”

That sounds simple, right? Just believe you’re worthy of love and belonging, and connection — and happiness — will follow! 

But it’s not that easy, because fear and shame get in the way. 

shame.jpg

“Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection: Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection?” Brown says. This is a problem, because “[i]n order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”

So how did the connected people — those happy, fulfilled, loved people — get that way? How did they get past the fear and shame we all carry?

This is they key.

Brown says that the people who are happiest:

“fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating… They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”

 

But this is difficult, and it’s uncomfortable, and it’s why we all let fear rule!  We don’t take risks, we don’t put ourselves out there, we don’t take the leaps of faith that could lead to greatness — because we are afraid.

But if we weren’t afraid, what would we do?  What changes would we make in our lives? What challenges would we take on?  What rewards would we reap? 

Imagine how brightly we would shine, if we replaced fear and shame with joy and love? Imagine who we could be, if we weren’t ruled by fear…and what we might gain, if we let go of the fear of loss?

I think that’s exactly what the priest from North Carolina meant, in her sermon.  

Grace — the favor of God that we’ve been given, undeserved and unearned — comes through in the moments we are less than perfect.  Grace comes to us in our weakness, our brokenness, our vulnerability.

It remind us that while we were not created to be perfect, we were also not put here to be ruled by fear.  

There’s grace in the cracks.

 

In the words of Leonard Cohen,

Ring the bells that still can ring. 
Forget your perfect offering. 
There is a crack, a crack in everything. 
That’s how the light gets in.

You can watch Brene Brown On Vulnerability here. Listen to Leonard Cohen, Anthem here.

Life Goals.

We all have aspirations: to get fit, find a better job, finish a big project, take up a new hobby, travel to distant lands, write the next great American novel, whatever. I still haven’t given up my childhood hope of being Quincy, M.E.

Yesterday, however, based on an article in the Wall Street Journal, I changed my life goal. The article was on the bottom of the front page, and was titled “Dairy Queens Get Water Beds, Country Tunes and Backscratchers.”

Naturally, I thought this was a new initiative by the Dairy Queen ice cream franchise to lure in a new demographic (Luke Bryan lovers with eczema and arthritis).

But as it turns out, the article was about dairy cows, and in it, reporter Benjamin Parkin detailed the efforts American farmers are undertaking to keep their cows producing at the highest rate in the world. (Go, American Cows! USA! USA!)

Reading the article, I got thinking about what bovine stress might look like…

The barn is mortgaged, the cost of hay is rising, you’re concerned about the stock market*, and Angus just doesn’t look at your haunches the way he used to. The calves are rowdy, Farmer Bob is ornery, and it’s been ages since you, Bessie, and Flossie got together to chew the cud. (*ha, ha. Get it? Stock market?)

Stressed cows, it would seem, produce less milk. This negatively impacts the farmer’s bottom line, so, in the great spirit of American innovation, our farmers have come up with some genius ways to reduce bovine stress. Here they are:

  1. Water beds
  2. Back scratchers
  3. Robotic cleaners
  4. 12 hours per day minimum lying down
  5. Memory foam resting places
  6. Open plan barns
  7. Beach balls
  8. Fans
  9. Sprinklers
  10. Music

According to the Journal, the stress-reduction efforts are working! Cows are socializing more (particularly in the line for the back scratcher), producing more milk, and generally exhibiting more placid, stress-free behavior.

I don’t know about you, but that list sounds pretty damn good to me. Twelve hours in bed? Done. Sprinklers and fans? Yes, please. Back scratchers? Sign me up!

So, I’m sorry, Quincy, but I no longer want to spend my days making Y-incisions and breathing formaldehyde. I have a new aspiration: I want to be a dairy cow.

laughingcow.jpg
Less stress means more time to be snarky.

But you should know right now that if any one of you writes back and says “Mission Accomplished,” I will find you. Locate you. Hunt . You . Down. I may be a simple dairy cow, but I’ve got feelings…

 

Venture a highway.

The Snarky Assbadger and I attended parochial school as kids. On the wall outside the church connected to the school was a phrase from John 3:16: Whoever believes in him will have eternal life.

My mom taught me to read very early, because I used to follow her everywhere.

She also bought me a typewriter, but I kept messing up drafts of my first novel — Skate Brakes Don’t Work, and Other Stories of Calamity Jane [Jane, a Calamity.] — and having to start completely over, which is why this very dramatic photo of me weeping over the keyboard of my Royal Typewriter exists:

typewritertears.jpeg
It should be noted that this is exactly how I looked writing my final three or four papers for grad school forty years later. Also, by New Year’s, I’d discovered that the musical snow globe could be used as a weapon…

I read anything and everything that crossed my path: cereal boxes, food labels, shampoo bottles, record liner notes, pamphlets, magazines, billboards…EVERYTHING.

(The only thing I didn’t ever get in the habit of reading was directions because I didn’t like to be told what to do.  I’m sure this comes as a great surprise to anyone who knows me.)

Morning reading material. But I’m just wondering: what is the actual point of a 2-sided poster?

So, every time I passed it, I read the church wall. And I knew, because I’d been told in church and school, that what was being promised on that church wall, in return for believing in Jesus, was a life that lasted forever. Eternal, I knew, meant always.

This was fine, except for the fact that somewhere along the way, I got ETERNAL and EXTERNAL confused.

So when I got really sick, and our babysitter tried to give me cough medicine, I put up a battle. I’d read other medicine labels. Mentholatum, for instance, had a warning:  For External Use Only. There was no way in hell I was going to take that nasty, chalky, cherry-flavored cough medicine for the rest of my life!

I mean, what if I lived to be really old — like 35 or 40?  That would mean I’d be taking that horrible medicine for YEARS.  Even at the age of 5, I understood that I wasn’t in any position to be taking on lifelong obligations. I mean, I couldn’t even get the damn typewriter to work…

That was the 1970s, when For External Use Only was the only warning on our labels. Back then, it was assumed that, since people managed to keep themselves alive from day to day, they must possess some modicum of common sense.

Now, however, we live in a world where it is necessary to mark everything from flip flops to drill bits For External Use Only, lest someone eat them and sue the manufacturer when their lower intestine erupts.

I once saw an episode of My Strange Addiction in which a woman confessed to having systematically chomped her way through the bed mattress of each of her family members (beginning with her mother’s mattress, which I thought indicated some underlying trouble in that relationship… I may be wrong), so now that I think about it, maybe the assumption of complete, rodent-like stupidity in the general population has some merit.

lp.jpeg
Children, before music was on your phone, it was on plastic Frisbees. Small ones required a special insert for your record player, which you could never find in daylight hours, but which magically appeared underfoot on the path to the bathroom at 2 am.

I got ETERNAL/EXTERNAL sorted out eventually, but until I was about 40, I thought that the words to America’s song were “Venture a highway in the sunshine…” as in, Hey Joe, I see that you’re lost; why don’t you venture a highway, try it out, see if a road trip makes you feel better?  It’s actually Ventura Highway, of course. Funny that the chorus (“alligator lizards in the air”) didn’t give me any trouble.

My daughter, when she was little, thought the words to AC/DC’s Dirty Deeds were “Dirty jeans, not good jeans, dirty jeans and they’re not good jeans” — which, let’s face it — are actually much nicer lyrics than the real ones.

And then there’s ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down. The chorus, supposedly, is “Don’t bring me down, grooss” – which is some word Jeff Lynne made up to fill the space. But of course, everyone heard it as “Bruce,” and eventually, Lynne himself began to sing it as Don’t bring me down, Bruce in concert.  I am desperate for a friend named Bruce, so that any time he says anything even remotely disagreeable, I can sing, “Don’t bring me down, Bruce!”  It will be a short-lived friendship….

The addition or deletion or substitution of a word can make a huge difference in how you experience something — little words like please, or the difference between I like you and I love you, or I want you and I need you.  Some years ago, I had an interim rector who proved this point every Sunday by adjusting one little phrase in the liturgy.

It’s supposed to go like this: the priest does all the preparation for the Eucharist, filling the chalice with wine and gathering the bread or wafers, and then he or she blesses the bread and wine with a recollection of the Last Supper from the Gospels. After this has been done, the priest who is running the service says: The Gifts of God for the People of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.

Archbishop of Canterbury celebrate Communion Eucharist mass.jpg
The priest running the service is called the Celebrant, ’cause you know we like to PARTY! Woot! Woot! Episcopalians in the house! (*These are actually Anglicans. They’re not as much fun.)

This interim rector didn’t change much; it wasn’t like he went completely off-script and started riffing the liturgy.  Rather, he simply said, “These are the Gifts of God, and you are the People of God...take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

Not a big change, but let me tell you, after hearing the liturgy at least once a week for more than 30 years, his little change caught my attention! I sat up in my pew and realized, perhaps for the first time ever, that this liturgy was speaking directly to me: a person of God.  As I walked up to receive Communion, I felt — also for the first time ever — truly connected to the millions of believers who’d participated in this ritual before me. I knew, because of that small change in the wording, that I was seen, and acknowledged, by God

So the moral of this story is, choose your words carefully. You never know when your word choice will change the way someone sees himself, or his life!

meme.jpeg
Yeh, if you could stop bringing us all down, Bruce, that’d be great…

Yay! It’s Time for College!

I got a text from a friend today about her child’s college decision. I was excited for the kid, who’s an all-around excellent human being, but I had to laugh when the mom followed up that text by asking, “Hey, didn’t you write something about going to college orientation? I’d love some advice about how to make the most of it.”

Ummm….yeh. I wrote something.  I’m not sure it’s the advice you’re looking for, but here here you go.

Last summer, I attended freshman orientation at a large, very highly-regarded public university. Beautiful place, great people, stellar academics…but oh my Lord, the hand-holding that goes on at college these days!

Remember your own college orientation (if your school even bothered to have one)? Your parents slowed the car to a crawl, you grabbed your stuff and rolled out, found your dorm by asking ten different people for directions (nine of whom recognized you as a dumb-ass freshman and purposefully sent you the wrong way), and figured things out. On your own.

beerconsumption.jpg
This terrifying statistic can be explained by the fact that 90% of today’s college freshmen are still nursing….

At my undergrad, we stood in a line miles long in a hot, stuffy gymnasium to register for classes. The poor professors (tenure be damned!) sat at rickety desks, sweating profusely in their tweed jackets.

If you wanted to be in a particular class, you inched along for hours until you reached the front of the line, where you begged the grouchy professor for a signature on your registration card. If you were a freshman, the answer was usually NO. Then you moved to a new line, with a new professor wondering why he thought teaching was a good idea.

The whole process took a hundred hours and was miserable and often times you’d get a signature only to realize that the only section open didn’t work with your schedule at all and you had to start all over again. It was exhausting and nerve-wracking, but you figured it out because you had no other choice.

When I was a Junior, my university got a telephone registration system. This meant getting a busy signal for approximately 82 hours, then finally getting through, inputting a series of NASA-level numerical codes, registering for one class, and then having the system disconnect for no apparent reason.

Our phone system’s name was Caroline, and the day after she debuted, the headline of the campus paper was CAROLINE IS A REAL BITCH.  That was an understatement.

old man.jpeg
A typical freshman, at the end of the registration period. Disillusioned. Emaciated. Exhausted.  

In case you do not have college-aged kids, I will share with you a cold, hard fact: This is NOT how college works now. Your college freshman is no longer required to think for him or herself, much less experience more than thirty seconds of being uninformed or — God forbid — uncomfortable. Furthermore, YOU, dear mom and dad, are expected to participate fully in the orientation experience. Hooray!!!

I participated for an hour and a half, total.  By “participate,” I mean I bought us breakfast at the bookstore and kept up a running snarky commentary about the other parents who were snapping up anything and everything with the college logo on it: dog toys, raincoats, kitty condos, socks, floormats, toothbrushes, notebooks, silverware, hair ribbons, gardening tools, deodorant, candy bars, lighter fluid, chewing gum. Seriously.

After breakfast, I bailed, with my son’s blessing. He didn’t need his mommy tagging along through orientation, because (1) he is far more intelligent than I’ll ever be, and (2) he is far more resourceful than I ever was.

But to say I was the exception was an understatement. The other four hundred parents were gung-ho, making friends, setting up carpools, making plans for Parents Weekend, taking selfies in front of campus signs, and waiting impatiently to ask anyone with an official looking shirt who would be holding the hoof of their special unicorn for the next four years.

 

It was exhausting.

After I got back to the hotel, I glanced at the Parent Handbook I received in my super-nifty Parent Portfolio. Clocking in at 35 pages, it was full of really helpful FAQs, some of which I’ve reproduced here for you. Mind you, these answers differ slightly from the Handbook.

What if my child is unhappy with his or her schedule? You mean the fact that there’s not a cookie break and a nap built in? Tell him to man the f*ck up and do something about it, rather than bitch to mommy.

What if my child doesn’t like his or her roommate?  This is a given. As any married person in Manhattan will confirm, sharing a small space with another human being is a fast track to Murderville. By Fall Break, your student will have spent far more hours fantasizing about ways to hide the roommate’s body than studying — and this is especially true of the high school “besties” your baby has arranged to room with. This is natural, and the upside is that suddenly, your house won’t seem like such a horrible place.

How do I talk to my son or daughter about drinking on campus? First, open your mouth and force air over your vocal cords. That’s step one to talking. Then tell your college freshman that there are certain rules that must be obeyed:

  • 1) Wine coolers, fruity drinks, frozen drinks, drinks made out of fermented Gummi Bears, or served out of watermelons…these are all verboten. Not because they’re alcohol, but because they’re an abomination unto the Lord and shouldn’t exist.
  • 2) At some point in your college career, you will be offered a Solo cup of something ladled out of a trash can. Every school calls this concoction something different. We called it Purple Jesus, and this is the same god you’ll be praying to as you hang over the toilet in the wee hours of the morning. It’s a rite of passage, but you only need to do it once.
  • 3) Learn to have fun responsibly. It’s neither necessary nor desirable to get paralyzed drunk. Nobody wants to cart your sorry ass home on a regular basis, or make sure you’re safe, or hold your hair back, or run interference when you decide to argue with the campus police. Don’t be that guy, and for God’s sakes, don’t be that girl.
images (5).jpeg
Part of the College Student Food Pyramid. 

Here’s the thing, fellow parents:

If you’ve been micromanaging your kids’ lives, so far up in their shizzle that they’ve gone underground in order to have a personal life, you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ve been lying to you about everything — drinking included. (Also sex, who their friends are, and what they really want to do with their lives).

It’s time to back off, Mom and Dad. Let your baby learn to fly — which will likely involve falling out of the nest a few times, and possibly also hitting a few windows. But they’ll survive. You did, after all!

So really, the only question in that Orientation FAQ ought to be: What’s the best way to help my child thrive in college? 

Answer: Go home, and let the little darling figure it out.

 

Love Loosely.

In the past five weeks, there’s been a lot left undone here at What’s Left Undone. Some projects have come to an end, and others are taking their sweet time coming together. The unknown has loomed large, and I simply haven’t felt much like writing.

Today, however, I sat in a church full of people I love, sobbing on the suit coat of my cousin, and listened to a message that I feel compelled to share.

sandy and hastings tarts.jpeg
This is Sandy, holding a basket of the famous Hastings Tarts. 

Last Wednesday morning, my cousin Sandy died. She was 55, healthy, happy, and had spent Tuesday evening making plans for her latest business endeavor. She kissed her husband goodnight, went to bed…and simply didn’t wake up.

The news came as a horrible shock. In a large family like ours, we’re fairly accustomed to loss, but this….this was something else altogether. Sandy was special.

My whole life, I had Sandy. She was my cousin, but far more than that, she was my friend. We had more laughs together than I could possibly recount, and she was huge part of the milestones of my life. Sandy used to tell me all the time, starting from when I was about 14 and having children was nowhere on my radar screen, that when I had my own twins, I should have boy twins, because we already had girl twins (hers!) When I did, she told me what a great job I’d done.

sandy grand opening.jpeg
Grand opening of the cafe she’d always wanted to run.

Sandy used to say that we were identical cousins, like Patty and Cathy on the Patty Duke Show. “Meet Cathy, who’s lived most everywhere, From Zanzibar to Barclay Square. But Patty’s only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights – What a crazy pair! But they’re cousins, Identical cousins all the way.  One pair of matching bookends, as different as night and day!”

Yesterday was the wake, and today was the funeral. To say that they were difficult is a ridiculous understatement. Sandy was so well-loved, by so many people, that it seemed impossible that our collective tears wouldn’t fill the church clear up to the steeple.

Sandy’s eldest daughter, Lisa, gave the eulogy, on behalf of her brothers and sisters. She made us all so proud.

There’s a lot of wisdom in this eulogy — wisdom that Sandy imparted to her kids, and, by example, to everyone who was lucky enough to know her. This is what Lisa said, and what I wanted to share with you:

Our childhood was filled with garage sales, farm days, and sporadic dance parties. Sometimes children don’t realize how awesome their parents are until they are older, but that wasn’t the case with our mother. We knew how cool she was…because she told us every day! She was a carefree spirit, she knew that life was all about love. She saw the good in everyone, and showered even strangers with love. She didn’t waste her time concerning herself with what others thought of her. She would laugh and tell us, “I do what I want!” She made sure to instill that in all of her children, too, and her favorite phrase was, “You do you.” This made it so easy to make mama proud.

She taught us the value of hard work. She would tell us that God gave us each talents, and it was our job to use them. That was the purpose of this life: to let our light shine, and not hide it under a basket. Everyday, my mom would put herself aside and go to work on the farm, where she devoted herself to honoring her mother’s memory…just as we will do.

A perfect day for our mom would be a picnic in the sunshine, with everyone together and enough food to feed an army. Even in her simplicity, there was so much more to her than met the eye. She thought on a deeper level. She was a dreamer. She was a poet. She was the best person we knew, and we were blessed to call her our mother.

Our mom’s selflessness went beyond the love of a mother. She truly loved with the heart of Christ. She gave everything she had to others, and no one ever went hungry. She never felt the need to take care of herself, because she was always so concerned with taking care of everyone else. As long as we were happy, mom was happy.

We will remember her beautiful smile, as bright as the sun. She was filled with supernatural joy, and her family was the apple of her eye. We will never have to doubt how much she loved us.

We are here to celebrate the life of our mother. Although her death has shocked us to the core, we will stand firm in our faith that this is not the end, but only the beginning. Our mother is in glory…rejoicing with the angels, having a dance party with Jesus!

So even in the midst of all of our pain, let us remember mom’s words: Each day is a precious gift. Do not be stingy with your love. Let us love loosely. 

This is what I hope we’ll all take to heart: Dance when the mood strikes. Don’t let others’ opinions keep you from being joyous. Let your light shine. And LOVE — fiercely, abundantly, largely, relentlessly, and loosely. Do it because you never know which day is your last.

The picture below is one of my favorites. It’s Sandy and some of her favorite people. They’re in the midst of baking for an enormous festival, and no doubt had already put in more time on their feet than most people do in a month. But I’ll think you’ll agree that this picture captures a truth that we all know: everything was more fun with Sandy.

Rest in peace, Sandy. You loved so well, and were so well loved.

dreamteam.jpg

 

Hey, Kool Aid!

Remember when you’d travel, as a kid, and each town felt different, and had different stores and restaurants and experiences? Now it’s all Walmart and McDonald’s, and you can be blindfolded in Georgia and teletransported to Ohio and never know the difference. And don’t get me started on how much I miss the days before the EU, when traveling in Europe meant changing cuisine, currency, and language every few hours…..

italyfood.jpg
You want some bread? That will be 80 billion lire.

Now everything has been Disney-ized. I used to love General Stores, the kind with totally random merchandise and a one-eyed cat behind the counter.  But the last General Store I went in was far too clean, and far too modern (as in, the overhead lights didn’t flicker and the roof wasn’t held up by a broom).

The merchandise was all made to look old.  There was a stack of jigsaw puzzles by the register, and one of them had a Nostalgia theme, and featured photos of tin lunchboxes.

snoopylunchbox
My all-time favorite accessory. Stylish, practical, and useful as a playground weapon.

Remember tin lunch boxes? They all had a distinct smell, of warm peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, forgotten bananas, and stale apple juice.  I had a Snoopy lunch box, a Snoopy tennis watch, and a blue Snoopy jumper, which I wore on picture day with a pair of saddle oxfords. Striding down the hallway to first grade, I was a vision of sophistication and style.

saddleoxfords
Perfect for kicking ass at parochial school.

Being a kid in the 1970s was fun.  My brother and I spent every waking moment outside, roaming the neighborhood or swimming.  The only time we watched TV was on the rare Saturday evening when the star-shooting logo started spinning on the screen, signalling that something awesome was coming, like The Shaggy D.A. or The Love Bug or Rikki Tikki Tavi.

rikki.jpg
I have serious snake issues from this movie. Also, from growing up in Florida.

Commercials were awesome in the ’70s, too. Remember Iron Eyes Cody, the Native American who shed a single, poignant tear because of pollution?  Turns out he was Sicilian, not an Indian, but that commercial is indelibly inked into our collective psyche. And the shampoo commercial: They’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends… And who does wear short-shorts?

charmin.jpg
And then there was this guy, with his dirty little Charmin-squeezing habit…

One of the craziest, and longest-running, ad campaigns was for Kool Aid. A group of kids would be playing basketball in a gymnasium, wearing short-shorts and knee socks, and one kid would dramatically wipe the sweat from his brow with his super-cool rainbow striped sweatband.

Suddenly, fueled by an overwhelming desire for flavored sugar water, that kid would stop in his tracks and yell, “Hey, Kool Aid!

Summoned by this urgent incantation, the Kool Aid man, an obese pitcher of maniacally-grinning red drink product, would crash through the brick walls of the gym, crushing everything in his path — small children, referees, concession workers, coaches and spectators — in his hurry to satiate the kid’s thirst.

koolaid.jpeg
Aww, dang! Was that a load-bearing wall? My bad!

God is like that pitcher of Kool Aid. You’re just humming along, minding your own business, at one with the universe….when out of nowhere, boom! God appears, minus the artificial flavor and Red Dye #40.

Of course, God doesn’t appear in the flesh, since none of us are really equipped to handle that. Instead, we experience God as some incident or event or entity that turns our life on its ear.  Whether it’s the death of someone we love or the death of a dream we’ve held dear, the beginning of a new life or the beginning of a life-altering love, an opportunity or an obstacle that we never saw coming, God can interrupt our lives in the most unexpected ways.

Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of the disruption, even when it’s to our benefit, because the ruts we live in – the nice little ditches we spend years digging, decorating, and feathering – can be so familiar and comfortable.

ditch.jpg
This seems like a good place to stop.

But I don’t believe God calls us to be comfortable.  I think he calls us to constantly challenge ourselves, to climb ever higher.

FullSizeRender
“You coming?”

If you spend some time in the Old Testament, you come away with the clear perception that Yahweh wasn’t overly concerned with anyone being comfortable.  In establishing the covenant with the Israelites, God did promise blessings and land and abundance — but no one got to just sit on a rock and wait for those things to be delivered.

And Jesus, as the New Testament makes abundantly clear, was anything but complacent. He was a radical force within the world of the 1st century CE, turning social conventions on their heads and sending the disciples out into a hostile world with nothing but a staff, some old sandals, and new faith.

The whole story of the people of Israel is one of constant challenge, as is the account of the very first believers in Jesus Christ. So where did we ever get the idea that life is supposed to comfortable?

I don’t think life is meant to be comfortable. I don’t think we were put here to be background music or muted colors. We were created to shine, to thrive, to live and love and find our joy.  We were meant to avoid ruts at all costs, because ruts — like graves — are not meant for the living.

kool aid surprise
If that giant pitcher busts into my kitchen, Timmy,  I swear to God…

So I’ll leave you with God as the Kool Aid Man, and a thought from theologian Henri Nouwen:

Each day holds a surprise. But only if we expect it can we see, hear, or feel it when it comes to us. Let’s not be afraid to receive each day’s surprise, whether it comes to us as sorrow or as joy. It will open a new place in our hearts, a place where we can welcome new friends and celebrate more fully our shared humanity.

Bring it on.

Advertising our worries

Now that the thesis has been written, submitted and defended, the Fat Lady is in the wings, warming up. It’s almost all over. Yay! It was enormously gratifying to “do” grad school — and it also allowed me to forget about some things for awhile…like, how to keep romance alive and still get the dishes done.

dishpanhands.jpg
This has been my primary lifelong concern:  how to retain my lovely honeymoon hands?

But let’s face it, Ladies. Even if you’re lucky enough to bait and catch a man with your lovely, soft hands, you’re sure to ruin his life with your irrational nerves.

momonwarpath.jpg
Control your erratic outbursts with Ivory Soap. Or Vicodin and vodka. Whatever works, you crazy b*tch.

How did all this fear-mongering get started?  I want to get on an Eve Got Framed rant here, and trace back to the 1st century misogyny in the church that cast the biblical first woman as a cunning seductress, but that would involve conducting a close-reading of Paradise Lost, evaluating centuries of art and literature and music and film….basically, cataloging the thousands of ways women have been cast as devils whose whole aim is to attract and destroy men. I don’t have time for that, what with all the Ivory Soap baths I’m taking.

dentalassistant.jpg
Dream, little one, dream…

 

Some of the old ads are so ridiculous, there had to be a point when the chemical companies held meetings specifically to come up with new things for women to worry about.  Imagine a bunch of fat cats puffing cigars around a glossy conference room table while a nervous secretary sat in the corners taking notes (after fetching coffee, of course).

“Well, now, Jenkins, what have you got for us? Come up with a way to sell more product, have you?”

*stammering slightly* “Uh, yes Sir, I have. You see, Sir, we’ve already got women worried about properly disinfecting their countertops, dishes, appliances and bathrooms. Now I thought we could get them worried about properly disinfecting *coughs* their, umm, well, their lady parts, Sir.”

“Lady parts, you say? Genius, Jenkins! Genius!”

lysol2.jpg
Roger surely would have stayed, had his wife not smelled like a three-week old corpse.

Meanwhile, across town, the cosmetics company meetings were underway.

“We’ve already got grown women thinking they’ve got to paint their faces every day in order to be fit for human interaction, Bob.  How in the hell can we move more product?”

“I’ve got an idea, Jack. It may seem a little crazy, but here goes… Let’s shift our message. Instead of encouraging women to smell clean, we’ll make them think they should smell young!”

“Young? How young, Bob?”

“Well, I was thinking…eight? nine? Smelling like a second grader will be the new sexy!”

loves.jpeg
Right up there with the movie Blue Lagoon as the creepiest thing EVER.

Once you’d managed your hands and nerves, and were smelling like a prepubescent femme fatale, you could worry about

Being too fat…

fatsuit.jpg
A rubber union suit is the answer to your dreams, Chubs! But it’s gonna make you sweat, so don’t forget the Lysol.

Or too skinny….

tooskinny.jpg
Being skinny left me friendless and alone. Once I began packing on the pounds, though, I had to find new things to worry about…like being too fat.

Having smelly hair….

hairodor.jpg
Darling, I want to love you, but your coiffure reeks of bacon and despair. Have you tried washing it with Lysol?

Or a flat chest…

blowupboobs.jpg
In case of a shipwreck, hold tight to Dorothy, and inflate her boobs.

Hormones….

gaymidol.jpg
Wait just a damn second…I thought being gay was biological? You’re telling me it was MIDOL all this time??!

And, once you’ve managed to get your weight, skin, hands, hormones, hair and lady bits under control, you need to worry about falling into every woman’s specialty: emotional manipulation.

emotionalappliances
What if I set the house on fire? Can I have both the can opener AND the skillet then, dear?

Of course, now it’s men who are depicted as incompetent idiots in advertising, which is equally wrong. Men are mainly supposed to be afraid of hair loss, E.D., graying, low testosterone, and aging. And, most importantly, incompetence at the grill.

dadgrilling.jpg
My daughter looks up to me now…but if I mess up this steak, we both know it’s all over.

I’m tired of worrying about my hands, hair, hormones, or gender-determined inclination towards destructive emotional outbursts, and I bet you are, too. Thus, I’ve compiled a short list of things we actually need to be afraid of (You’re welcome!):
1. Being carjacked by the large cats that roam loose in many American cities.

mountain-lion.jpeg
Meow, motherf*cker. I’m gonna need you to step out of the Honda.

 

2. Alpacas with road rage.

angryalpaca.jpg

3. Dogs who are too high to function.

carterupsidedown.jpg
Dude…Did you know if you listen to Dark Side of the Moon backwards, it says “John Lennon is a good boy?”

4. Rabbits the size of Smart Cars.

bad-assrabbit.jpg
Seriously, Jessica. You think a carrot is going to satisfy me? Tell Kevin to get the grill fired up.

5. Cats with guns.

gunsafetyforcats.jpg
You think Whiskers is napping in the sunshine, but he’s really plotting to pop a cap in your ass.

If you can avoid encountering any of these things during the day, you’ve done well.  So stop worrying!

Unless you are approached by a mountain lion at a red light. Then you can worry….

 

Let Your Donkey Walk

There’s a story that crops up in sermons every once in awhile that you may have heard. It’s about donkeys. I don’t mean the story about Balaam’s ass, although that’s a good one (Balaam’s donkey can see angels!), but rather, a tale about missionaries in South America.

I’m fuzzy on the details of the story, because it’s been a couple of years since I heard it, but the basic plot is this: the missionaries need to get to some far-flung location, but the only mode of available transportation is a couple of donkeys. So they saddle up, but the going is slow, and the route is dangerous.

mtn.jpeg
No passing lane, and the shoulder is closed.

The path winds up the side of a mountain, and with every step, the animals’ hooves dislodge rocks, which clatter down, down, down and out of sight.  It’s not difficult to imagine the same thing happening to a donkey and its rider. Fear – and the darkness and the treacherous terrain and their unfamiliarity with the area – cause the missionaries to grip the donkeys’ reins as tightly as possible in their hands.

The donkeys balk at the missionaries’ death grip on the reins. They stumble and bray and pull their heads and refuse to go further. The missionaries — who are just trying to accomplish some good in the world and spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, dammit! — lament the fact that no matter how tightly they try to control the donkeys, they can’t seem to make any forward progress.

Going backwards isn’t an option. Donkeys don’t have a REVERSE function, and even if they did, there is no way to back up on a narrow path. The missionaries’ only choice is to keep moving forward, but the path is so rough, and the danger is so near, and the night is so dark,  and the donkeys are so stubborn…the whole situation seems impossible.

And so it dawns on these folks — these well-meaning, God-loving, servant-hearted missionaries — that they have …

A Serious Donkey Problem.

donkey.jpg
You got that right.

I can’t remember if the solution to The Serious Donkey Problem dawns on one of the missionaries, or they get advice from a local, or an angel of the Lord appears, or what. The details aren’t really important, actually. What IS important is the solution itself. Here it is:

When the way is unclear (even though you’re out in the world trying to do some good!), and the path is loaded with hazards, and you are gripped with fear, and can’t see what’s ahead of you, and your donkey won’t move, there is only one thing to do. Only one!

Let go of the reins and let your donkey walk.

modeldonkey.jpg
Duh.

The donkey, of course, is a metaphor for life. I know you got that already.

Because as much as you might want to manipulate and manage and massage all of the elements of your existence, the truth is, you can’t. Your life is a donkey. It is willful and bull-headed and full of surprises that lie beyond your control, and often also beyond your comprehension. But it will get you where you need to go, if you just relax, and let your donkey walk.

cowboyondonkey.jpg
Kick me one more time, Cowboy, and I will destroy you.

This is much easier said than done, particularly for Type A personalities. (Not that I know any of those people…) Our instinct is to try to manage every aspect of our existence, and it is counterintuitive, to say the least, to simply let the donkey go where it needs to go, because doing so requires trusting that life is unfolding the way it is meant to. Maintaining that kind of trust can be extraordinarily hard!

But it really is all about trust, not about being passive or inactive.

Being passive means pulling the sheets over your head and pretending there’s not a donkey in your bedroom. Trust means setting the donkey on the right path, and feeding him, and watering him, and giving him rest, and allowing him the company of other donkeys who love and support him and will walk part of his journey with him. Trust lets you whisper in his furry ear, “Hey, donkey, this is where I want to end up. How we get there is going to be largely up to you, but I’m going to do what needs to be done to get us started.”

Trust means that you don’t fight the donkey.

donkey.jpeg
Don’t fight me. I bite.

In the middle of an already-aggravating week, I got some news a few days ago that was sorely disappointing. I was wait-listed to a program that I was sure was what I should be doing next. I texted my partner-in-crime (you met her in last week’s post) a bad word and a brief explanation, and she wrote back:

“That wasn’t your donkey.” 

Succinct, no? And also true. That program wasn’t my donkey. My donkey is out there in the field, waiting for me to stop micromanaging my own life and have some faith that how I am meant to do what I am meant to do will become clear in good time.  Eventually, he’ll amble over, and we’ll get started.

donkey2.jpeg
You ready, dumbass?

The missionaries got where they were going, thanks to their donkeys. You will, too, and so will I.

The first step is trust.

The second is letting go of the reins.

The third is letting your donkey walk. (He knows where he’s going!)

The fourth step is enjoying the journey.

beerdonkey.jpeg
When you get there, your donkey will want a beer. Just accept that, and give it to him.

 

 

 

 

 

At the Crossroads

A friend and I are at a crossroads. Not about our friendship — that’s not in question — but in that each of us finds ourselves currently on the precipice of a new beginning. (We always do everything at the same time, except have calamities; we try to take turns doing that.)

fork.jpeg
Literally, a fork in the road.

Much of that new beginning has to do with the fact that, after a quarter century of dealing with the logistical considerations that come with motherhood, we are both looking smack in the face of something both wonderful and unsettling: freedom! Freedom from the daily parameters of school drop-off and pick-up times, freedom from being the main mode of transport for kids, freedom from making sure there’s food for lunches in the house, etc. – all the little things that keep life clicking along.

That sounds great, right? And it is; it’s exciting! But it’s also a tiny bit unsettling, if you’ve been in the habit of considering everyone else’s needs and agenda before your own for years and years. What to do with all that freedom?

Untitled 2.png
And the secret to a great martini is to leave the vermouth bottle in the liquor cabinet.

Yesterday, a priest/friend asked me a question, in regards to the looming dilemma of what I should do with my freedom.  The question he posed was this:

“How do you discern?”

Now, discern is a lovely, churchy word. It gets tossed around a lot when you’re talking about being called by God to a certain ministry. But ministry doesn’t necessarily mean a church-related job or task; rather, it just indicates a way of being, an intentional attempt to align your God-given talents with a desire to live in a way that betters the world.

So when my priest/friend asked me how I discern, he was asking how I get quiet, and calm the monkeys in my mind, and make decisions about what I want to do, and how, and when.

My answer was to laugh. “I don’t,” I said. “I just react.”

But it’s a valid question, because discernment is important, and people come at it in different ways.

Bracos gaze.jpg
My cat, King Chunk, is also a master of the silent gaze. Maybe my calling is to be his manager? $50 for a blank stare, $65 if he yawns in your presence. #discernmentdone #KingChunkseminars #blessup

But it is time for some discernment, and time for courage. Because what I don’t want to end up with, when things change again – as they inevitably will – is regret.

regretpic

With discernment, and regret, in mind, it’s time to revisit Bronnie Ware!

Bronnie Ware is an Australian woman who worked a variety of jobs before landing in palliative care, where the primary aim is relieving the pain and stress of dying. Last year I came across an interview about a book she wrote called “The Top Five Regrets of The Dying.” Based on the experiences of Ware’s patients at the end of their lives, here are the five biggest regrets:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

According to Ware, this was the most common regret. Ware said, “Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.”

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

“This came from every male patient that I nursed. They missed their children’s youth and their partner’s companionship,” Ware said. “All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

Ware said, “Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

“There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved,” Ware said.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

“Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice,” Ware said. “They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

Anne-Lamott-live-a-juicy-life.jpg

 

So this is the challenge of discernment, to figure out how to live in a way that employs your God-given talents, aligns with your principles and the mark you wish to make on the world, and leaves you with no regrets.

Time to get started!

If you need a little inspiration, and Braco’s silent gaze isn’t doing it for you, here’s more information about Bronnie Ware’s book:  Bronnie Ware, Huffington Post . And here’s Eric Clapton singing about going down to the crossroads: Clapton, Crossroads. And here is King Chunk:

Charlie.jpeg
King Chunk will gaze at you as soon as your check clears.

 

 

 

 

A Valentine to N.W.

Happy Valentine’s Day from all of us here at What’s Left Undone!  And by all of us, I mean me and my dogs.

FullSizeRender.jpg
…and frankly, they’re not that excited.

I’m not a huge fan of Valentine’s Day. It seems to be just another obligatory holiday manufactured by the greeting card industry to increase sales. *Yawn.*

saintvalentin
St. Valentine: miffed that he’s not getting a percentage of the royalties.

There’s something really toxic about the whole Valentine’s/wedding/love industry, too. It sets ridiculous standards for what a relationship should look like — and unfortunately for all of us, too many women seem to embrace the ridiculousness wholeheartedly.

princess.jpeg
Or maybe he’s just tired of your incessant b.s.?

First of all, what does it even mean, to want to be treated like a princess? That you want to make endless public appearances and have your every move scrutinized by a vicious press corps?

And secondly, we all get it: You’re a special snowflake. But that doesn’t mean you get to behave like a twit — despite the fact that our culture seems to idolize superficial twits.

unicorn.jpg
Radiating specialness. And entitlement. 

I tried to watch the movie Love Story — the 1970 flick that’s been held up as a gold standard of “true love” — one day last year when I was home with the flu. Ali McGraw’s character was so annoying that ten minutes into it, I was snorting lines of Theraflu and chasing it with chopped up Advil, hoping to black out.

lovestory3
In what universe is that even remotely true? Love means having “I’m Sorry” on Auto Repeat.

 

Because you probably have a lot of apologizing to do today, I’m going to keep this short. I just want to share with you a brief tale about Nicholas Winton– a man who lived a life of quiet heroism, driven by LOVE: real, deep, profound love.

Not romantic love, with glitter hearts and flowers, but love for humankind, with sacrifice and humility. The kind of love that doesn’t require recognition of its inherent sparkly superbness.

Nicholas Winton was a London stockbroker who went to Prague in 1938, shortly after Germany annexed the Sudetenland.  Hundreds of Jewish families were already living in refugee camps in Czechoslovakia.  There were no programs or plans in place for the rescue of the Jewish children, and it was obvious to Winton that their lives were in terrible danger.

refugee.jpg

So Winton created — through a network of bribes and secrecy and forgeries that put him directly in the crosshairs of the Nazis — a pipeline to get Jewish children out of Czechoslovakia and into safe homes in the UK.

At huge personal expense, and with tremendous danger to himself, Winton organized and funded eight trains — whole passenger trains! — to carry the children, armed with fake papers, to foster parents he selected in England.

 

nicholas winton
Winton, with a child he was rescuing.

Seven of the trains made the journey, safely relocating 669 children to England.

The final train was caught when Hitler closed the borders. The children in it, all 250 of them, are thought to have been killed in concentration camps.

nicholas-winton.jpeg

Nicholas Winton never once spoke of his efforts, even to his wife.  She only learned of them when she found a dusty record book full of names and ages and transport details in her attic in 1988.  Her husband urged her to throw the book and the paperwork it contained away, but she didn’t. Instead, she contacted the BBC.

nicholas winton.jpeg

If you do nothing else today, take the minute and a half to watch this clip, and remember what LOVE actually looks like.

 Sir Nicholas Winton, BBC

Happy Valentine’s Day, Nicholas Winton (1909-2015). I hope the angels are celebrating you.

wintonquote.jpg