Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pay It Forward

"Pay it forward."
More than just a movie title, these words remain in my heart as advice from a former co-worker who passed away from cancer late last week.
Marti and I worked together in a mental health office: I was the evening secretary and she was, well, pretty much all other things clerical at that time of the day:
She dealt with insurance companies, processed paperwork, and scheduled appointments. She was the secretary for the MD who came in once a week. And she did it all dressed to the nines in her impeccably organized office. 

Marti worked and laughed hard; she had a friendly and compassionate demeanor that made her beloved by both clients and co-workers alike.
I received a Christmas gift from Marti--and several other coworkers-- not even a year after I started working in the office. One day during the season, after the day shift left, I sat at my desk quietly, looking through the latest Christmas trinkets that had made their way to my mailbox, embarrassed because I knew that I would not be able to give gifts in return.
At the time, I had a new baby at home, a pile of debt, and barely two pennies to rub together after all the bills were paid each month. I hadn't the time, energy, or money to spread any tangible Christmas cheer.
Marti must've sensed my angst because she asked me what was wrong and I told her--even more embarrassed-- and she started shaking her head. "No, no, no," she said. "No one gives you a gift expecting anything in return. That's not what Christmas is all about."
I nodded my head slowly, considering but not convinced, my pride still wounded as it was.
She studied my face and then added, thoughtfully, "Don't worry about giving something back now, Michelle. Just receive the kindness, and, when you can, pay it forward."
Pay it forward.
Toward the end of this August, though unbeknownst to me at the time, Marti's health started to take a turn for the worse. Around that same time, our priest wrote a bulletin on forgiveness with perhaps a poignant passage for this place and time:
"'Offended' is a word that in our society is overused. Would that it might go away from our vocabulary, for we use it to persecute those who bring offense by lawsuits, and legal actions. 
"How different would our world be today if in every case that we were offended we could simply 'forgive and forget' the offense? We'd still have prayer in schools. There would be no civil strife in the streets. And the divorce rate would be near zero.
"Repent. Forgive. These two are the formula for living a life pleasing to God."
Just before I left my secretarial job, Marti scribbled "pay it forward" on a business card and gave it to me.

What she had done, perhaps unwittingly, was written me her reminder of not just how to handle a blue Christmas, but how to live a life in the Christian Faith: to pay forward the forgiveness and kindness that God (often through others in my life) has shown to me, without expecting anything in return.
In a world that currently seems shrouded in all manner of fears and hell-bent on tearing itself apart with "eye-for-an-eye" sentiments, perhaps the crazy-but-true way to handle such harrowing times--or any times for that matter-- is to be kind, to forgive:
To let go of the foibles and failings we ALL display, probably more often than we'd like to admit.

To give second chances. And maybe even thirds and fourths. 

To shut up when we have nothing kind to say.

To stuff our newsfeeds and tweets and salt-of-the-earth, human interactions (remember those?) with love, respect, and encouragement instead of political lambasts, negativity, and vitriolic statements that strip everyone who disagrees with us of their humanity.       
Pay it forward: unable as I am to travel to her out-of-town calling hours and funeral, this is the way I want to pay my respects to a wonderful woman who, though imperfect, passed on the love and compassion overflowing from her own generous heart.
Remember Marti, O Lord, in Your Kingdom.
May her memory be eternal.    

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Random Acts of Kindness

My hands were full going into the library today.

I was steering my older son with one hand, and a small, umbrella stroller with the other, which was loaded down on each handle by a full diaper bag and a heavy bag of books needing returned (not to mention my younger son in the seat). On top of the stroller, I balanced a box of old books, games, and DVDs needing to be donated to the ongoing library sale.

"Need a hand?" A stranger's heavily-accented, Irish voice startled me as I waded toward the door with my pile of boys and stuff.

I turned around to find a sturdy woman with short grey hair and gentle eyes, offering her help. 

Despite my obvious need, I almost refused. 

While I stumbled to conjure up a polite and graceful decline and straighten myself into looking competent and in control under pressure, my mind hearkened back to another recent errand incident that made me change my mind:

My whole family was headed to the grocery store a few weeks ago to buy milk. We brought four empty glass milk bottles along with us to be redeemed for cash for recycling them. My husband took my older son to get a cart. Meanwhile, instead of waiting for him to come back, I decided to take my younger son and all the jugs and head into the store.

After all, I'm a strong, independent woman, right? I easily can handle one toddler and a few milk bottles, can't I?

Well, it wasn't long before an elderly couple saw me with my hands full.

"Do you need some help?" The wife asked me.

"No, no, I got it. I'm okay, thanks," I replied, a comment which of course was immediately followed by my son suddenly kicking and squirming and twisting out of my arms. As I reached down to scoop him back up with my free hand, another, young couple, comes along.

"Do you need some help?" The husband asks, looking concerned.

"No, no, it's okay. I got it. Thanks. My husband is right over there," I unconvincingly replied, glancing desperately in my husband's direction as I squatted on the asphalt, trying to pick up my son and my bottles and regain my balance. 

Well, then a jug broke. And I cut my hand on it as I picked up the pieces.

Upon hearing the sound of shattering glass, the other couple, who had started to walk away, rushed back over too. 

Now I'm really humiliated.

"Are you sure you don't need any help?" the old lady asked again. "No, no," I protested. Please don't help me, just let me just disappear into the asphalt, I thought.

"Oh hogwash," she said, before taking my bottles from me and heading in the direction of the shopping carts and my husband. "I'm helping."   

No matter how dicey or arduous a task, there is proud streak in me that always wants to do it myself, thank you very much, and even sort of thrives on these mundane yet precarious challenges. (This may be the same spirit that compels some of us to carry ALL of our groceries into the house in one trip, just to prove that we can. "What? Eight bags? That's only four per arm..." You know!)

And so, today in the library parking lot, if for no other reason than simply to spare myself another scene, I decided to go along with it.

"Sure," I replied to observant Irish woman. "Thank you."

"No problem," she replied, taking my box. "You looked delicately balanced with the bags and the box and the wee ones."

Yes, I was-- I am-- delicately balanced, much of the time, as are many of us, I suspect, in different ways.

Though it is usually more comfortable for me to play Proud Mary than Damsel in Distress, I'm realizing that, more often than I'd like to recognize, help can really help. And allowing someone to help gives them the chance to do something good, too.

As she slipped my box into the donation bin, I thanked my anonymous helper again.

"It's my good deed for the day," she smiled at me before leaving the library.

Random acts of kindness are so underrated!

Even just one "daily good deed" can make a difference. Doing little things for others--even strangers--has the power to make us more helpful, more compassionate, more human. Not everyone asks for help. This is why paying attention matters.

May we have eyes open to the needs of others, hands willing to serve, and hearts ready to receive kindness as well as give it.     

Friday, February 7, 2014

Teach Your Children Well

My grandma with my cousin
"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
--Robert A. Heinlein, American science fiction writer

My aunt
My mom called me this morning on her way to work. 

Did I want to change our plans for this weekend and bring the boys over to her house instead of my dad and her coming to mine? She asked.

Not really, I replied. I wanted my parents and sister to come up to our house so my dad could hang some shelves for us with his cordless drill (a power tool we do not own). Oh that's right, Okay, she agreed.

After relaying this conversation to my husband, his face fell. At first he was disappointed; he wanted to break our string of stir-crazy winter days with a visit to my parents'. Then, he was almost (being the perpetually cheery soul he is...) a little indignant. 

"It just seems silly to have your dad come all the way up here to do something I could do myself," he remarked.

Yeah, I realized as I thought about it for a little bit. It did seem silly. Not only was it silly for my dad to do something for us that my husband probably could do himself, it was silly that my husband really doesn't know how to hang a shelf. (Not yet, at least).

And for that matter, I realized, it was silly that I couldn't hang a shelf either!

My dad (left front) getting early experience hanging things 
We must be swift as a coursing river
With all the force of a great typhoon
With all the strength of a raging fire
Mysterious as the dark side of the moon"
Those lyrics from the Disney movie Mulan sprang to mind as I thought over the shelf hanging situation. "I'll make a man out of you..." I thought, regarding my boys-- and even myself-- in the sense that all of us should be able to learn certain "manly" skills

Now, this is not some gender equality manifesto, because really, I believe there are ways men and women really are different. But it might be a learning manifesto. That is, I think Heinlein is right: there are certain things human beings should be able to do, and why not add "hang a shelf" to that list?

My grandpa
Habits form in families as well as individuals. My dad was always the one who did the hanging, the painting, the assembling, the driving on trips... Once, on a trip to Washington, D.C., my husband asked me to drive. I'm tired, he added. I looked at him, puzzled. What was he asking? Driving was the man's job. But why? Did I not know how to drive? So why not?

It's not that we all have to be good at everything. Or that we shouldn't rely on each other. But, sometimes certain torches need to be passed so that I can do some of the things my mom or dad always did when they're not around anymore.

My aunt (again)
"Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can”
said Methodist minister John Wesley in his day.

The thing is, you--and I-- can do more good the more we know how to do. 

That actually isn't to say anything against specialization. I do happen to believe that specializing in something is a good thing... that is why I spend my free time writing blog posts instead of building tables. I happen to be better at this. And yet, I can also do laundry, make a basic soup, drive a car, clean a toilet, and play Go Fish (but don't ask me to play euchre).

In seventh grade, I was scolded by a home economics teacher (yes, that really was a class we had) for not being able to thread a bobbin in a sewing machine, even after I was shown several times. And yet, in tech ed., I could drill a mean hole with the drill press. I guess I'm just more of a man in that way. 

A photo from my uncle's photojournalism days
My hope for my children is that they will be able to thread a bobbin and drill a hole. My hope is that, whatever their "specialty", it will not limit the skills they have as men, or as Americans, or as people living in this century. 

I want my children to be able to navigate a G.P.S. and an M.A.P.; to work an iPad and a pressure canner; to change their oil and their loads of laundry; to knit together a computer program and a scarf. 

There are trade-offs, I suppose, in all things. Will I make them sacrifice hours of practice at doing something they love and/or are good at just to learn calligraphy or stenography or some dead language? 

Eh, probably not. 

My aunt in college
But I don't want the whole of their existence to be pressing buttons and swiping cards. 

I want to teach them as many things as I can so that they can do good in many different ways in many different places for many different people.

I want them to be able to sweep their own floor and not have to rely on some iAutomatic device to do it for them. 

I want them to be human beings, not machines.  

My oldest son after his birth
"Teach your children well..." instructed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Sometimes to teach them well, I have to learn something myself. 

So here's to threading that bobbin and drilling that hole in the wall.


Dear Uncle J., I stole most of these photos from your FB page. Thanks and I hope you don't mind. :)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Soil

Long blue shadows reach across a gloss of snow in late afternoon. Filtering through winter grey and wide windows, sunlight lifts the heads of sprouts peeking through pellets of peat moss. 

While chives still sleep, stalks of dill and marjoram silently slip through, a little green to break the malaise of winter. 

"Life begins in the soil..." 

is scrawled across the back of a glass milk bottle, a local dairy delight currently lining our family's bottom refrigerator shelf.

Sunday, while Superbowl parties swept the nation, I sat around the wide, wooden kitchen table of a farmhouse. Chickens scuttled and clucked outside the window behind me, while a sea of seed packets, steaming soup and bread sprawled out before me. 

The "Garden Freaks" group, an amalgam of friends and family from around this little corner of the Midwest, was gathered together for the first time to share stories, skills, and seeds.

The click of knitting needles and laughter filled the farm house as a group filed down the stairs. In the back of the stone basement, the glow of white fluorescent lighting illumined several rows of seed shelves waiting to be filled. 

The soft voice of the farmer reached through the small crowd, humbly relating his family's process of diligent farm work over the years. A generational exchange followed his presentation as a seasoned group of gardeners imparted their wisdom to a new generation of garden enthusiasts.

As he closed, I meandered back upstairs to survey the selection of seeds stretching across the table. I scooped up sunflower and nasturtium, a hopeful bounty of bejeweled beauty and delight to crown the summer garden. 

Just before I left the farmhouse, I stole a glance of the Eastern Christian icons on the wall: stopping for a moment to whisper a prayer, to savor the mystery. 

Food and friendship, family and faith: a narrative of life all wrapped up in Sunday soil and seed. 

Taste and see how good it is.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


"So much in writing depends on the superficiality of one's days. One may be preoccupied with shopping and income tax returns and chance conversations, but the stream of the unconscious continues to flow undisturbed, solving problems, planning ahead: one sits down sterile and dispirited at the desk, and suddenly the words came as though from the air. The situations that seemed blocked in a hopeless impasse move forward: the work has been done while one slept or shopped or talked with friends"
from Graham Greene's The End of the Affair.

This afternoon, chocolate sunlight streams through sheer curtains. Behind them, smoke spins from chimneys into brilliant blue and shovel rests against grey garage, a foot deep in snow. 

House is quiet, the foul mood of my nearly daily afternoon malaise wiped away by a nap. 

It's true. Sometimes all it takes to solve the "flow of problems," crankiness, or "existential despair" (as a friend recently described to me in an e-mail) is to sleep on it. 

The afternoon nap: though it often garners a bad reputation for being "unproductive," "lazy," or a "waste of time," I like to take it anyway when I can. 

For me, it seems to boost my moods and productivity by eons when I'm sinking under the heat of that "noonday devil" which makes all the world's problems (and my own) seem to fester and seethe in larger-than-life proportions. 

Didn't Winston Churchill even make use of a "napping couch" during WWII?

"Puzzles?" spoke "the mother" in last night's episode of How I Met Your Mother. "What kind of name is that for a bar?

"Or maybe..." she continues, with a dramatic pause. "That's the puzzle!"

Ha ha. Okay. Sometimes problems just need some comic relief, especially at day's end. 

For today, may you find some time to "sleep on it."

May rest open constricted flow of thought, allowing sunlight to stream into your refreshed mind.

May you find the solution to at least one of your puzzles! 

Monday, January 20, 2014

How to Proceed.

I am crouched on my hands and knees, scrubbing stubborn linoleum. With a bottle of Murphy's Oil Soap in one hand and a scruffy blue scrub brush in the other, I slowly chip away a layer of sticky film speckled with black splotches of grime. 

Yes, gross, I know. 

After a year of living here, I've tried everything--well, almost everything, it seems-- to get this kitchen floor to look good--or at least sort of good: lavender Pine Sol, vinegar, washing soda, Borax, Dawn, Mop and Glow, lemon juice...by themselves and in DIY combinations that people swear by online. 

And yet, 12 months later, sticky film and murky residue remain. 

Until now. 

I pull back from my test patch and discover something strange: a smooth gloss, not sparkly or pristine necessarily, but sort of--well, clean! 

"Today, are you avoiding something or some place unpleasant because you don’t want to deal with the necessary responsibility you have for a situation? Why? What’s stopping you from faithfully even going where you don’t want to go? What is the barrier, either internal or external that’s standing in your way of being faithful no matter what? Is it fear? Is it pride? Perhaps you simply don’t know how to proceed. Get with a wise spiritual father and talk it out"
writes Fr. Barnabas Powell in his blog Orthodox on Purpose.

I stood over a big green bucket today, pouring in the last of many cleaning essentials crammed into my cupboards. As I dumped a heavy, chalky mixture into an old water pitcher, the powder filled to just below the top, and I felt a strange confidence that this could be the recipe. This could be the laundry soap I've been looking for--just like that, the answer forwarded straight to my e-mail inbox! 

Sometimes you simply don't know how to proceed.

Then, sometimes, you do. 

There is something deeply satisfying about finding the answer to something I've been puzzling over for days or weeks or even years.

I almost laughed when my friend and former owner of our home told me the "secret" to her clean kitchen floors. Duh! With three bottles of Murphy's stuffed on top of a shelf, I couldn't help but happily kick myself for finally finding out an answer that had been right in front of my face, right within my reach the whole time. I just hadn't tried it. 

I just hadn't asked

Not everyone has a "wise spiritual father"... but often, there is someone who has the answer to the questions we puzzle over. 

How to clean the grime off the floor. How to concoct the perfect laundry soap. How to knit a cozy cap. What to do with that drawer full of writing scraps you're sitting on (on which you're sitting?). 

Perhaps it's a matter of asking. Perhaps it's a matter of listening for serendipitous (or not so serendipitous) answers. 

A professor told me once that writing a dissertation is like traveling down a funnel. You ask questions, you look for answers, the answers lead you to more questions, the questions lead you to better answers. It often can feel like going round and round a maddening circle, but, hopefully, the circle is more like a funnel, leading you down to a smaller point of focus. 

How to proceed: it seems this often requires a delicate tension between asking and listening, taking initiative and waiting for someone else to act...or respond. 

Maybe sometimes things haven't fallen into place because it's not the right time, or the pieces aren't all there yet. 

But, oh, bless the person bringing us the missing pieces we seek. 

For today, may we harvest the answers to our ripe crops of questions.

May the pieces fall into place; and may peace surround those that yet haven't. 

May we find out, in all circumstances, how to proceed.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Happy New Year!

My husband and I watched an educational special the other day on cathedral construction in the Middle Ages.The special's narrator commented that the craftsmen in those days built such elaborate structures in order to help people rise above the mire and muck of everyday life; to turn their perspective heavenward. 

I thought about attempting one of those photo "365" projects this year. Then I realized that with my shaky discipline--and little boys--and life being what it is-- it likely would be a "project 270" or a project "3 every 5 days." 

I'm already down to a project 358. 

Ah heck, I've never been much for New Year's Resolutions, anyway. 

Regardless, I'm still carrying a camera into the New Year, in hopes that it will, in its own little way, function as those Medieval cathedrals: to turn my perspective heavenward and magnify the Good. 

I'm looking for little moments that stir my heart to gratitude; little moments right in the midst of everyday life that remind me that THIS is more than the sum of its parts. 

Like pudgy fingers gripping a thick mug of Echinacea tea "for immune support", may gratitude and love support our spiritual health this year.

May negativity, criticism, and worry be shattered to dust, and may all that is true, lovely, and beautiful be built up in our homes, in ourselves: one brick at a time.

Arise, O my lazy soul! Behold the wonder of the day! 

Drink the goodness of 2014 down to the last drop!

Happy New Year! 

... and 8 days late. Here's to a year of losing perfectionism...

As my grandmother always said, "I'll drink to that!"