Monday, July 3, 2017

Friends and Fences

Robert Frost had his Mending Wall. I have my Friendship Fence.
It was a simple proposition, to start with. My neighbors needed a new fence. They knew I knew a good fence guy. They also knew that my fence guy’s English is not so much, and their Spanish is not much more. Could I please facilitate?
As a professional translator, I could hardly say no. I didn’t want to say no, anyway. I liked my neighbors (Dan and Dana) and my fence guy (Carlos), and if a little fence post interpreting would help them both, why not? When I called Carlos to ask him for a quote, we took the opportunity to discuss the new fence I was budgeting for later this summer. Dan and Dana accepted his quote. A start date was set and all was well.
Or so it seemed.
The day after the fence posts were committed to cement, Dan learned of a new city ordinance about fences on corner lots. Theirs was a corner lot.
Dan called me. He was on his way to work but wasn’t sure Carlos would see the revised drawing taped to the patio door. Could I please go over and make sure? Of course I would.
Carlos had indeed seen the drawing but thought it was incorrect. Would I please call Dan? No problem.
Dana's mother called. While I was figuring out the drawing, could I also ask Carlos if he was using treated wood? Sure.
Dan called back. The drawing had been done using the city’s guidelines.
Carlos called. If the drawing was right, he would have to move a couple of the posts he’d sunk into cement the day before. And the wood didn’t need to be treated yet.
I left a message for Dan about the posts.
Dana's mother called again; please ignore the question about treated wood. I gave her the answer anyway.
Dan called back. Please have Carlos stop everything until they could figure this out.
I walked next door for the umpteenth time and awkwardly gave Carlos the news. While I felt bad that he and his crew would lose a day's work, the sudden respite was welcome. Jobs were piling up on my desk and I desperately needed peace and quiet in which to catch up.
Twenty minutes later, I was deep in translation when a loud clattering echoed through my back yard.
Then I heard yelling – the kind of yelling people do when they’re trying to be heard over the sound of power tools.
When the hammering started, I got up to see what was going on. Stepping outside, I was greeted with a new fence in the making.
A new fence around my yard.
Carlos came over, grinning. “I promised my crew work for today,” he said. “You can pay me later.”
Dan and Dana and Carlos got things figured out the next day and by the end of the week we both had new fences. As we stood between our houses, laughing over the back-and-forth, I realized it was the most time we’d spent together since they moved in. After living next door to each other for 15 months, it took a pair of fences, a language barrier and a city ordinance to make us really neighbors.
Dan and Dana have moved away. It turns out the new fence was the last thing on their list before putting the house on the market.
I just wish it hadn’t been the first thing that made us connect.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Workshopping Life

My first morning in the charming town of Princeton, NJ, I got lost.
I don’t mean driving around the block three times to get my bearings lost. I’m talking driving what I thought was around the block and ending up going over a bridge heading toward Trenton lost. Twice. 
Eventually, I found my way and my destination.
On day two of the writers’ workshop in Princeton, I lost an earring. On the third day, I spied it in the chapel under a pew.
That afternoon, I lost my phone - my external left brain. Panicked, I got up early the next day to retrace my steps from the day before. My phone was in the first place I looked.
I made dear new friends, listened to stories that begged to be books, learned from experience and imagination, and in the process, I lost a few more things: 
Like fear of asking the dumb question that everyone says doesn’t exist;
and fear of publishing (apparently, that is a thing and I’m not weird);
and fear of finding that my particular stars really are out of reach.
We discussed the importance of intentionality in our work[1], of understanding our motives[2], and of stopping not doing what we needed to do[3] 
There were stories in the music[4] and poetry in the art[5] and kinship in the people by whose side I learned.
I lost a lot last week in Princeton, NJ, and I’m grateful. In the process, I also found my way.
And eventually, even if I end up crossing that bridge another fifty times, I’ll find my destination.

[1] Diana Butler Bass
[2] Jonathan Merritt
[3] Anne Lamott
[4] Andrew Peterson
[5] Makato Fujimora

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day

On this day, we bow our heads
to mourn with those who mourn:

The mothers with their empty arms,
The fathers with their heavy hearts,
The sisters and the brothers
whose history was torn apart,
The husbands, wives and sweethearts,
with amputated dreams,
The children born to loss and
those who never came to Be.
The friends who hold an empty seat,
the friends who might have been:
unique and sacred stories
that reach far beyond their end.

Today we stand in silence
As we mourn with those who mourn,
in solemn recognition of
the endless cost of war.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Here and Now

Sometimes my brain gets overloaded. More accurately, sometimes I overload my brain.

Take this last week, for instance. On Monday evening, a friend and colleague asked me to cover a last-minute urgent request for a deposition the next day. She’s a good friend, so of course I said yes. Never mind that I was trying to get all my work finished up before leaving to visit my sister for a couple of weeks.

Tuesday morning, I was going about my business when my phone chimed. It was a text message from my friend. “The attorney wants to know where you are…”

I believe my first words were, “Oh crap!”

My mind was so full of details that I’d completely forgotten that last-minute request. It was nearly 25 minutes past the start time. The law firm was just a couple of miles away. “Tell them I’ll be there in 10-15 minutes”, I answered and started throwing on the appropriate clothes. Shoes. Next, face and…

Did I mention that just before her text came in, I’d started to apply a hot oil treatment to my hair?

Muttering under my breath, I tried to reduce that one little patch of oil. There was a can of dry shampoo in the stuff I’d bought for my sister. She wouldn’t mind sharing. I squirted a little onto the offending spot. It helped a bit, only now I smelled like baby powder.

Nevermind. I brushed my teeth and dashed out the door. Within a mere 12 minutes of the texted query, I was walking through the law firm’s doors – no makeup, no jewelry, smelling baby fresh, but nonetheless ready for business.

Afterward, grateful to the attorneys, court reporter and witness for their kind acceptance of my apologies and less than orthodox appearance, I got to thinking. Why do I keep overloading myself?

There’s no one else to blame. I’m the one who appears to believe she can manipulate time.

So I decided to at least sit down and make a list of everything I had to do, buy, pack or pay before leaving the country.  At least I could make sure everything was under control from that point forward; that I would forget nothing else.

My list was informative. Past and future were crammed together. In my zeal to make sure nothing that should have been done and nothing that needed to be done slipped through the cracks, I had left little room for the present.

So here I am in Santo Domingo de los Tsáchilas, spending time in the now.

Last night, I lay in bed for over an hour, listening to the rain and the frogs and the myriad little sounds of a tropical night.

Bamboo, papaya, coconut, lemon, banana, angel’s trumpet, and a dozen other trees of my childhood keep watch. A rooster crows in the distance. Hummingbirds busy themselves with the flowering bush in the middle of the yard, and an occasional breeze brushes my cheek. I have plenty of work to do but have set it aside, for now.

For now, I am just present.

Sometimes I pick up my Kindle and read a little. I had to adjust the font, though.

I forgot my reading glasses.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Lent: in my Opinion

You know those wonderful, wise people who listen with full attention, never jump to conclusions, and say only what needs to be said and not a hiccup more?

Yeah, that’s not me.

I am an experienced operative in the world of unsolicited advice. Don’t want an opinion? I have one anyway. Didn’t ask for advice? Mine is free and plentiful.

Until recently, I would have said I was fairly careful about sharing the advice and opinions that pop into my head. But after standing in line to cash a check ,hearing the non-stop thoughts of the man behind me, I got to thinking. What would happen if I consciously listened more and opined less?

I hadn’t decided yet what to sacrifice for Lent. This would be perfect! For 40 days, I would offer no unsolicited opinions and give no unsought advice.

It seemed easy enough, until I logged in to Facebook.

The first well-thought-out comment to a friend’s post flew from my fingers and I hit “send” before remembering. He hadn’t asked my opinion. I hit “delete”. 

Several comments have since been half-written and erased. I’ve had an internal debate over whether “liking” something constituted an opinion or just encouragement. The nuances are many.

In the store, I noticed a misspelled sign in Spanish. I instantly dug in my purse for pen and paper, then just as quickly stopped. The minimum-wage clerk behind the counter didn’t need someone telling him what his company should do.

To be honest, it drove me nuts for the first few days. Like a pressure cooker without a release valve, I became more and more aware of every advice-laden, opinionated thought that pressed on my lips. I began to wonder about the protocol for changing Lenten sacrifices; what do you do when it’s hard to tolerate the one you picked and you’d like to try a lighter fare?

Then, last night, I had to phone in to a committee meeting. In the course of discussion the chairman said those magic words: “What do you think?” Let me tell you, that was one heady brew. I aired my opinions! I gave my advice! As I excitedly laid out (in more detail than necessary) my recommendations for a possible event, I found myself scribbling, “Thank God for committee meetings!”  

It boggles the mind.

It also got me to thinking again. I tolerate the squeaky door. I tolerate the wrong salad dressing. A Lenten sacrifice should not be tolerated; it should expose me to the deeper nature of Jesus.

Then I thought about something I tell novice interpreters: that one of the most important skills they can develop is the ability to listen without the need to respond.

So maybe that’s what was missing from my Lenten sacrifice.

Perhaps instead of listening more, I should focus on only listening, even outside the interpreter’s booth. Maybe I need to cut loose the expectations lurking behind the advice I want to give, expectations the other person never asked for, and make room for the person they already are.

The impatience is gone now. I’m getting excited about this experiment. The next few weeks will be an adventure.

In fact, the excitement seems to be catching. My son called to chat, and I told him of my Lenten sacrifice and that I wouldn’t be giving unsolicited advice until Lent was over.

He and his brother are still out celebrating.

Monday, February 20, 2017


Twelve years ago today, I began to learn about Joy.

To be sure, I’d had glimpses before: in my children’s laughter. In the flash of color before the sun goes down. In the single, sweet notes of a violin.  

But those were gifts of joy, not Joy itself. That came in a very different way.

It started with grief.

It started with the kind of grief that slices every cell in half. “We spoke just 3 days ago”, you tell yourself. “We laughed together just last month”.  And then you quit counting because it just reminds you that time is taking you further and further away from that last moment of togetherness.

For a while, life wears a grey hood and you become OK with that.

But time doesn’t let the universe dress in grief forever. One day you dance at your son’s wedding. You travel with good friends. You sit on your back porch and watch the moon and sip a glass of wine, and one night it dawns on you that all is well.

That, unconstrained by human events, it always was well.

You examine the path stretched out behind and on examination find each silken thread is spun of stronger things than life itself. You look ahead and there is Joy, weaving the quiet undergirding of tomorrow and tomorrow’s tomorrows.  

Eternally real, though often out of sight.

“Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” said T.S. Eliot.

So I content myself with knowing that I'm only just learning about Joy.

And that is quite enough.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Prayers and Patience

Sometimes I am my friends’ answer to prayer.  Most often, the prayer is for patience.
Take my friend Ellen, for instance. Ellen is a mother, a pastor and a chaplain – I’m sure she’s prayed for patience more than once.
Some time ago, Ellen and I were to meet for lunch. Knowing how busy she is, I made sure to leave on time. I even got to the restaurant a few minutes early. But as I pulled into a nice, shady parking space, a thought wandered into my mind and set up camp. Was this the right restaurant?
I reached into my purse to find my phone and check her text.  No phone.
I tried to visualize our text messages.  “Fish City” – but no, I wasn’t at Fish City, I was at Flying Fish.  Where was Fish City?  Maybe I could drive over there and look for her car. 
No phone meant no map.  Oh well, the area wasn’t that big. I could probably drive around and find it and only be a couple of minutes late.
About 10 minutes (and one helpful security guard) later, I found Fish City, parked in the only spot available and dashed in. No Ellen.  I drank a glass of water, watching the door, pleased that even with my mistake I had beat her to the restaurant.
After another 10 minutes and still no Ellen, I began to second-think my second-thought. 
The helpful server loaned me her phone and I called my son. “Please find my phone in my room...” I asked, and could almost see him wince at the thought of finding anything in my room, “and see where I’m supposed to be.”  As he walked across the house, the sound of my ringing cell phone got louder and louder.
It was Ellen.
My patient son held a phone to each ear and relayed messages back and forth, and I learned that Ellen was patiently waiting for me - back at Flying Fish.
This scenario came to mind as I considered our current political drama and the atmosphere of commotion du jour. It’s so easy to lose sight of each other in the midst of the turmoil. 
We think we’re connecting here, while our friend patiently waits to connect there.  We convince ourselves we know what they feel. They think we do, too. And we’re both wrong.  I don’t know about you, but all too often, I find myself operating on assumptions when what I really need to do is get up, go meet my friend wherever they are, and sit down together.  And if I find that I'm the answer to their prayer for patience or understanding, it is a humbling thought but comforting even so.
The other day, my calendar reminded me that I was to lunch with my friend Maria. Determined (as I always am) to be on time (which I’m often not), I got up from my desk a full half-hour before necessary.  I put on clothes that say, “I may work at home but I’m still a professional”. I even put on make-up. A few minutes before it was time to leave, I checked my email to be sure of the restaurant.  There was no email.  I sent a text.  Nothing.  Finally, I called her office.
And the minute she answered, I remembered – we’d changed the date for lunch. At my request.
Sometimes I’m just the reason my friends pray.