I’d just exited the freeway, and was driving down the little highway leading to my sister’s home. I was looking forward to seeing everyone, and knew that we’d laugh, share stories and Thanksgiving dinner as soon as I arrived. I had a few moments of quiet ponderings yet, and I looked out across the horizon.
The afternoon sun shone across the plowed fields, with a few head of cattle here and there noshing on the leftover cornstalks. It’s not unusual to see a good-sized train making its way across the country, and I’ll recognize cargo from San Franscisco Bay. Where is he headed? I passed the beaver pond with its piles and piles of wood heaps. Marshy waters, tired cat-tails and yellowed prairie grasses stood in the stillness. I didn’t stop but I let the peacefulness of the sight wash over me.
Some gals dream about the future, and want things to be just so. They find deep satisfaction in planning how it’s all going to go. She’ll wear the red dress with her black heels, and have her hair up. And there are men who will be satisfied when they get that shelving unit installed or the spare bedroom carpeted. Some girls insist on roses but why won’t a daisy do? I’m kind of funny, I guess. I don’t know if it’s because I need to learn to dream or if I so absolutely live in my moments.
The hubbub of my days is consumed with my search for a bit of something for my spirit to nibble on. A strawberry sunrise while in a traffic jam…how else do you get strawberry jam? Snowflakes…just because. Napping with my cats in the sunshine. Seeing the look in a friend’s eye when you have shared with one another, deeply from the heart.
Beauty, yes. Or is it life?
Do you ever stop to think about your adult siblings, and compare them with the awkward, pimply teenagers you grew up with? (Note to self: do not alert family members to this post.) It’s really hard to believe that those adults-in-the-making became the professionals that I interact with today. Seriously? You’d hire my brother as your engineer, or let my sister near your baby with a needle? Why, exactly? And when did they become experts in their field, and where was I? Believe me, they’re saying the same thing about me. “That’s my little sister! You’re not going to let her consult on anything, are you?!” What was really happening while we were so busy coping with one another?
My intent in focusing on family is not to define what a family is. As a single, I’ve been adopted into a family or two, and I’ve been incredibly grateful to have the lines re-drawn to include me at the table and, in some years, under the Christmas tree. I know the quiet desperation, at times, of wanting to have my own family, so I do not take any relationship lightly. But families are different from friendships, even the best of friendships. As adults we are in a family paradigm as a result of choices we’ve made. We choose to stay relevent to one another, or we allow our loved ones to be cast aside like a paper boat, listing and taking on water.
I have had the amazing and wonderful blessing, in these last few years, to connect with my sister’s family now that I live here in the Midwest. As the interactions take place, I see family from a different perspective. There is simply nothing to prepare you for what comes next: a crisis with tears; a question; a deeply profound insight from an unlikely source; two more questions; an argument over an undetermined, yet coveted item interrupted by the bleating of an abandoned toy and the repetition of the first question, only louder. There’s nothing extraordinary about repeated questions, howls of distress or the “Shh, I’m on the phone.” What’s extraordinary is that before we have the chance to ponder it twice, these family members will be conducting teleconferences in the middle of La Guardia and flying stand-by in order to get home for Thanksgiving. They’ll be doing our dishes and reminding us of doctor’s appointments because we’re not as razor sharp as we once were. Oh, believe me. I’m thankful for the moments.
My growing up years were more about relationship than I realized. I learned how to live with my siblings, in spite of their inane, absurd, highly annoying, arrogant or antagonizing ways. And they with me. It’s true that my parents taught a great many life skills, e.g., cooking, and gardening, etc. but maybe those were the superficial lessons after all. Is it possible that conflict resolution, forgiveness, patience, listening-while-frustrated, and peacemaking were the lessons they were modeling but not really discussing? I wonder if there was anything else they were saying?
I recently heard someone say that parents form their children’s identity by reminding them of who they are, moment by moment, day after day. This is such a mystery to me. At what point does a young girl or fellow grasp what’s been instilled? And how does this feedback manage to so vividly shape the who of our identity? I remember well the verbal instructions, “Ladies don’t slouch. Stand up straight.” Surely my brother and sisters remember the imaginary plumb line Mother would draw from the tops of our heads. At what point does a parent stop saying the words and begin twinking their brow, a telegraphed message across the room, to pull yourself together? Yet my parent’s instructions were mild compared to my grandmother’s.
An expert seamstress and cook, Grams taught all her children and grandchildren a myriad of skills. My earliest memories were of watching my Mom and Grams cook and quilt together. They would nod sagely, wordlessly consulting one another, dismantle, re-assemble until a beautiful masterpiece was born. Their tireless work always seemed so effortless. Year after year, I would prepare my 4-H sewing projects beneath their watchful eyes. My wobbly seams were doomed. “Rip it out, child. It must be straight.” Heartbroken and frustrated, I would tug out the stitches and then battle with my temper and the sewing machine until a worthy outcome was produced. I basked in their hard-won pleasure with my work.
Grams always kept a charming home. It was where she wore her heart on her sleeve, with momentos and photographs of treasured places in Germany. The nostalgia and tchotchke always left you feeling like you had visited a place in her heart. That time had stopped for a moment and you had really lived. I did not realize that Grams’ standards for me would endear her to me. Her lectures I endured wordlessly as I learned she just needed a snuggle from me to stem the tide of words.
Though I’ve lived in many places through the years, it occurs to me that the walls of my kitchen have always resounded with the rumble of Grams’ deep German voice. Growing up, I perceived her to be stubborn, opinionated and, above all, outspoken. Yet she loved me. Deeply. I memorized the look in her eyes, her beautiful skin, and the wrinkles on her hands. I would hold hands with her just because I could and, over a cup of heavily sugared tea we would discuss all the world’s problems. Though she enjoyed people very much, it was in the quiet moments together that she showed me who she was. She would talk about her family in Germany, and history, and about her sons, and her daughter, my Mother. She would talk about the neighbor boys who had tragically died in the war, and how she taught herself to drive. While I wish that I could remember the stories, for I did not write them down, it occurs to me that it is not so much the historical accuracy that matters. What matters is that she told me, and I listened. And I carry within myself a part of who she was.
It’s been a while since I’ve taken on a sewing project. Yet, it’s pretty safe to say that the work that I produce today as a software developer bears a strong resemblence to those straight seams that Gram required. I think what surprises me even more is the motherly manner in which I exact straight seams from those I mentor in the office. Stubborn? Outspoken? Surely you jest! Let’s have a cup of tea.
There are women and men who stand like sentries around the periphery of my life, with whom I share an uncommon depth of relationship. Some have been there from the beginning of time, and some have only recently taken their place on the wall of my life. This is not an exclusive club with costly membership dues. Days turn into weeks, and they tirelessly listen to my dreams and breathe hope on them. They believe in me and remind me of who I want to be. The visceral strength they infuse is not something I can extract from them and, as a result, I cannot control who stands on the wall. You see we make the choice to love another unconditionally. We make the choice to shout down the mountains in their life, to stand with them in the floodwaters, shoulder locked with shoulder.
You might think I’m a relational ogre following this, or if you’ve known me for many years you may try and understand where you fit in to the schema. Nevertheless I must tell you that there have been times when I have tried to decide who would be my closest confidantes. I have intended to trust only those that seemed incapable of hurting me, only to be bitterly betrayed. I tried to care and feed for the few that seemed most advantageous to me with the result that I was left alone. To pour salt in my own vicious wounds, I wrecklessly wounded those who loved me dearly. You know who you are.
Why this confession?
Most of us want to arrive at the end of our lives with the confidence that we have loved deeply and been deeply loved. To be loved implies that we are known, for you cannot love someone without really knowing the ugly parts of them. If our life-goal was happiness we’d be sorely disappointed for happiness is merely a by-product of being fully known, and fully accepted. Some of us misunderstand the objective and clang around the countryside ‘looking for love in all the wrong places’. I know. I’ve done it. It’s as though we’re holding out a beggar’s cup with the words “LOVE ME” taped to the side.
There is only One who perfectly loves. Until we allow Him to know us fully, to see inside the crevices of our lives, even the uglies, we will always wonder if we are truly loved. Not only do we fail as friends and lovers, but our friends and lovers will fail us. It is not in our nature to perfectly love as the Father perfectly loves us. Even our best efforts will fall short. I’m reminded how the Perfect Lover knows when He’s been in intimate relationship with a man or woman and to some, with the deepest regret He says, ‘Depart from me. I never knew you.’
There is simply no mistaking intimacy, whether with the Father or a person. It’s intentional. We choose to maintain a soul connection with someone or we choose not to. But when we choose to make this step, the cost is paid from the heart. I was looking the other day at the story of Jonathon and David. “…the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him [David] as himself.” The king’s son put himself on the wall of David’s life, with complete disregard for what others might think as to rank or motive, timing or propriety. He stripped himself of his robe and armor, his sword, bow and belt, and placed it on David. Talk about making oneself vulnerable, I’m not sure that he had much else on after that. Jonathan knew that David was to be king one day and acknowledged it long before David’s time.
There is a grand lady who is in the latter seasons of her life. Though her memory is not what it used to be, its evident that her heart is given over to selflessly care for others. I want to be like that. I want to be known for “…loving [one] another deeply from the heart. For love covers a multitude of sins.”
The movie, The Untouchables, might not be to everyones’ liking in terms of entertainment and yet it teaches valuable lessons about life. One of my favorite movie quotes is by Jimmy Malone, the Irish beat cop, played by the one of the darlings of my parents’ era, Scot Sean Connery.
In the very violent scene depicting Malone’s death, he is discovered by his protege, Elliott Ness (Kevin Costner) and George Stone (Andy García). Seeing Malone stopped in his tracks is heart-wrenching because it is not just the death of a friend and colleague, there is an un-premeditated passing of the mantle from one generation to the next. Enforcement of the law is no longer an assignment that Ness can walk away from. Losing Malone makes the battle become personal. Malone’s last words contain the answer to Ness’ conflict as well as a missive to become fully engaged in this fight. Malone, with a raspy voice, challenges Ness, “What. are you. prepared to do?” This is the second time they’ve had this conversation. And this time Ness is prepared to do an end run for justice.
If you remember the movie, when Ness and Malone first have that conversation, Ness is very philosophical about his involvement. He’s prepared to do anything within the law; yet the objective of his mission is to enforce the law. He soon learns that his oppponent doesn’t operate within the confines of the law, and Malone instructs him to bring a knife to a gun fight, and so forth. Somehow this movie says a lot about our western culture. We’ve been taught to color inside the lines, to drive the speed limit, to make a career with a single company, and dream about a home with a white picket fence, 2.5 kids, a 52″ television, and a dog. Yet, like Ness, we are completely unprepared when it turns out that the rest of the world doesn’t think the same way. Seriously.
I can’t help but think about destiny these days, and calling. What kind of a legacy will I leave? What kind of a mark will I leave on the world? Will I have told you about the things that compel me? Will I have told you how much your Heavenly Father loves you? Will you know a journey of your own with the Father? Will you know about the orphaned children in Africa, and how they sing before daybreak? Will you weep with me as I tell you about the Mozambican babies scandalized by AIDS, left hanging on fence posts in a plastic grocery bag, abandoned by their mothers?
Engaging in this war we call life is not an assignment we can walk away from. It’s deeply personal, and our opponent doesn’t operate within the confines of the law. Yet neither do we. Our most powerful weapon is love. And it changes everything. Love beckons us to lay down our lives, sell our possessions, and live life on the edge. Dare to look. Dare to be affected.
“What. are you. prepared to do?”
This morning I had a picture of myself dancing before Michelangelo’s David. The high ceilings and marble walls of the gallery proved an amazing setting for perfect pirouettes and pas de bourrée. The beauty of my dance was perfected in my thoughts, and it became something akin to Viviana Durante in the Rose Adagio of Sleeping Beauty, … a wordless contribution of beauty for beauty.
It wasn’t long before I pondered not the perfection of my dance ~ this is my dream, after all ~ yet why dance before The David? An online travel guide for Florence, Italy so aptly reviews the sculpture, “Its position, though expressing perfect balance, alludes at movement, … The attitude is strong, arrogant and, above all, filled with inner life like no other similar classical statue.” 1
Balance. Movement. Attitude. Inner Life.
Isn’t it interesting that the reviewer detects these qualities, in a sculpture? That is part of the mystery of beauty. Just like a masterful pirouette depicts the paradox between strength and delicacy, so a marble statue depicts movement and inner life.
Reviewing the flawless dance in the presence of unparalleled, sculpted beauty, I was reminded of the nearly spontaneous combustion that can occur when individuals come together, in unity, to produce something more significant than they can produce individually. Musicians demonstrate this when their skill takes them collectively away from the written score to a breathless improvisation. Each one has submitted their skill, even rescinded their individual identities, to the greater purpose of the collective. Only mutually agreed-upon, non-verbal expressions lead to a change in key or tempo. Each musician not only participates, but also cooperates. No one person leads throughout, and no one hides. Eventually, each one takes his place to lead out into the unknown with precision. 2
2 Bents, E. Identity
I’m a girly-girl at heart. There’s nothing that makes my heart flutter more than a tiny bit of bling. Shiny, swirly, rings and things that go round and round and catch the sunlight, and make me smile for a while. Even better when that little something is accompanied by a word or two, an “I love you” or “I’m sorry”.
It’s a story worth telling since it still makes me chuckle. A former boyfriend erred by spouting words that were less than complimentary to me. Clearly, the memory is blocked due to trauma, but it involved a reference to a barnyard animal. Perhaps I was munching or crunching something with a bit too much enthusiasm. I hope I never recall. But he was rewarded with the opportunity to restore my smile that day with jewelry. We wandered into a sterling silver shop, picked out a bracelet, and together decided it was a bit of Barnyard Bling. Whenever that bracelet manages to spin about my wrist, I don’t recall the offense as much as I recall the apology. It was sincere.
I don’t own a lot of jewelry, but I treasure some of the pieces I’ve collected. A periodot from an antique shop at Five Points, NC. An amethyst from Basel, Switzerland. Two wedding bands from my Grams. A swanky 60’s necklace from my Mother comprised of blue glass ‘fingers’… fabulous. None have much financial value, and needn’t have, for the pieces I like the most are those with intense or unusual color.
The emerald-cut peridot is of the palest green. I like to flutter my hand in the sun and watch the room glitter with refracted rays piercing through it’s planes. The amethyst has a triangular gold ring band. It was one of the first pieces of jewelry I purchased for myself. When I wear it, I’m reminded of my jaunts to Europe. The old, yellow-gold wedding bands are chock full of family history, and remind me of my darling grandmother. She always wore one of them on her middle finger, and it seemed so classically handsome to me. Mother’s blue glass necklace speaks for itself as one that enters the room before its wearer. It’s dramatic and heavy, but lovely.
Color is provacative. It’s characteristics, whether brilliance or pallor, demand a response from their observer. Our minds make mental and even emotional connections with colors. The beautiful thing about color is that we are forced to engage with it, to really see it, and to let it affect us.
A man is never more masculine when his boyish grin flashes at the sight of a bright yellow biscuit joiner. They make power tools in canary yellow for a reason. A woman is never more feminine when she utters that childlike, “Ohhh LOOK!” and flutters over a proffered daisy with petals to ponder, “He loves me. He loves me not. He loves me….”