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.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Año Viejo*

Debris from fear and anger uncontrolled.
Leftover expectations misinvested,
   Hurts visited by others,
   and those that I provoked.
Bits of self-absorption unprotested.

I lay them in a pile: my might-have-beens.
One by one, I shape with them an effigy -
   my stunted best intentions,
   my must-begin-agains -
and in my imperfection write the elegy.

By choice I lay them down:
   my rightful unmet claims,
   the unfilled aspirations once held dear:
and watch the flames convert  
my año viejo sacrifice
into ash that sanctifies this coming year.

-cs 123116
*In Ecuador, an effigy is built of the Old Year (Año Viejo), then burnt on the stroke of midnight of December 31.

(c) Can Stock Photo / ragsac

Friday, November 11, 2016

Thank You for Your Service

It’s Veteran’s Day and I’ve been pondering. There’s a journey that lies behind every veteran we meet. They’ve done something. They’ve been somewhere beyond themselves. At some point in their lives, they stepped forward to serve and we rightly honor them.

It’s Veteran’s Day and I’m glad it comes after the harrowing race for power we’ve just been through. It wasn’t the bad toupees and pantsuits that got to me. It was the years of politicians and pundits and radio entertainers telling people to embrace their anger and fear, telling them that anger and fear would give them strength. It’s the months of watching candidates expertly tap into that same toxic well, leaving us with a country on the edge and a populace that is both angry and fearful.

We have children chanting in school about building walls. Signs taped over water fountains, one labeled “Whites only.”  The twin parasites of anger and fear consume their hosts and spill into the streets, and this country that our veterans have sought to protect against external threat is in turmoil from the inside out.

My father was a veteran. He was a man of service. After he took off his last uniform, he continued serving until his last breath. Thinking of Dad, and Veteran’s Day, and the pain this country is in, I'm thinking there's something we can all do. 


Let’s each find ways to go beyond ourselves. Let’s stop posting angry or fearful messages about those who are angry and fearful and instead reach out to them with peace, even if we have to do it five or ten or a thousand times.

Let’s take down the signs over water fountains, hug an immigrant and, if we must, teach children songs about purple dinosaurs again. Let’s honor our men and women in uniform by taking our own journey of service.

To those of you who now or once wore the uniform, I wish you a Happy Veteran’s Day.

And to all of you - thank you for serving.

Thursday, June 23, 2016


My life is a tapestry of scars.

When I was nearly eight, the top item on my birthday wish list was my very own pocket knife. We lived in the jungle. There were so very many things I could do with a knife in the jungle. My brothers had knives. I needed one. So I pleaded and begged and my birthday arrived and my parents gave me my perfect, silver pocket knife – and a caveat. If I cut myself, I had to give it up until they decided I could handle a knife properly.  

They had good cause for imposing that caveat. I have a long history of unwittingly inviting harm to my person. When I was three, my brother was using a machete to cut weeds in the yard. I thought it would be fun to sneak up and surprise him… barefoot. That scar is still faintly visible.

When I was five, my other brother’s pet monkey bit me. I was nearly six before I learned to crawl under a barbed-wire fence without tearing up my backside.

I was thinking about scars the other day (as I held my finger in the air, stanching the flow of blood). Embracing life is almost an invitation to accumulate scars, both inside and out.  I was thinking about free choice (as I rummaged for bandages), and how it means we get to choose our response to the things life throws our way. We can roll ourselves up in metaphorical bubblewrap, too frightened to walk out the front door. We can arm ourselves to the teeth – literally and figuratively – determined that we will get before we are gotten.

Or we can incorporate our scars and keep embracing life. Messy, painful, rewarding life.

On my eighth birthday. I took that beautiful, silver pocket knife and ran out to find something to carve. Less than two hours later, I tried unsuccessfully to sneak back into my room to hide the knife before Mom or Dad could see the trail of blood behind me.

Losing my knife didn’t stop me. There’s the scar from the chisel, from when Ruby and I tried to make wooden shoes (we couldn’t.) That’s next to the scar from the butcher knife, on the hand with the scars from sailing off my bike into a pile of sand and gravel. Dogs, plastic boxes, car doors, turtles: there was no malice and yet I bear the scars that prove our paths once crossed.

Scars create texture in our stories and I don’t regret my collection. I actually cherish a few of the ones you can’t see. Scars form when there’s healing, and I’m grateful for healing.

As I stood there wrapping my latest wound, I thought about my parents and how they could have only protected me from harm by keeping me from life. I’m grateful they didn’t.

My finger will soon sport a new scar. I must be slowing down, though. This time I cut myself on the soap dish.

[canstock csp21011106 / Milo827]

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Toast to Tradition (sort of)

It allows us to dance in the streets at Mardi Gras and demands a sacrificial turkey at Thanksgiving. It reflects culture, history and our personal stories. And of late, it has been on my mind.
This particular chain of ruminations was sparked by a casual encounter in the bank lobby a week or two ago. I was seated, waiting on a bank officer, when three women walked in: two in traditional Middle Eastern garb and one not.  I waved at the seats near me, commenting, “You might prefer sitting over here – if you sit in those chairs (gesturing to the other side), you'll be in the sun.” The woman not wearing a hijab smiled, sat down next to me and countered, “But I’m from Kuwait. I’m used to being in the sun!” 
We laughed and fell into conversation. With one bank officer on duty and half-a-dozen customers waiting, there was plenty of time to chat.
My new acquaintance shared that she had come for the wedding of a nephew and was reveling in the chance to spend time with her sisters, whom she had not seen in a while. Then she said something profoundly gracious. “I love that my first visit to your country happened during your Christmas. As a Muslim, I respect Jesus highly and think your traditions celebrating his birth are beautiful.”
My first thought was that she must not have gotten stuck yet in the madness of a sale-induced frenzy at the mall.  
But on the heels of that thought was appreciation for the ease with which she let me know “This is who I am. I see who you are. I respect your story.”  
When the bank officer called my name, I kind of wished he’d delayed a little longer. There was a certain delight in that casual, unguarded encounter of two people from very different traditions.
Thus, my current line of reflection.
Tonight, our tradition dictates that we restart the clock. Over the past 12 months we have filled the stage of 2015 and tonight, on the stroke of midnight, we are supposed to let it go. In the tradition I grew up with, we set fire to the stage on which we have placed our memories of the unforgettable, missed chances to fix the unfixable, and the failed certainty that those 10 pounds would never find us again.
Tomorrow will rise from the ashes, a clean slate, complete with resolutions with which to fill 2016.
Except that I already made my resolution before Christmas. I even blogged about it.
And I don’t really want to let 2015 go up in smoke. Even the painful moments are part of my story.
So tonight, I’m bending tradition a little. Instead of letting go of the old, I’m learning something new. (Or will, as soon as I quit procrastinating. Honestly, the tutorial for my something new is 4 hours long!)
Not a fan of black-eyed peas, I generally opt for the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes. But I’m out of grapes and the grocery store was too busy for comfort, so I'm bending that tradition, too.
I'm thinking 4 grapes per glass of wine should be about right. 
Happy New Year, everyone!