A Choice of Convenience and Necessity

It was an attic room in a four bedroom apartment, just a few miles from UNH and $140 a month. Eight months stood between me and college graduation: I could live with three strangers in an in-town Dover Colonial until then. It was a roof over my head and a short commute to work and school. It didn’t need to be any more than that.

Seven roommates came and went in the sixteen months I lived on Horne Street. Save one, the rest were luck-of-the-draw choices made by the landlady. But out of our sharing the same cheap apartment came some amazing things:

I was a bridesmaid in two of their weddings (Sharon and Marilyn).

I got one of them to the hospital for emergency surgery when no one else was around (Sue).

In the other attic room, in the four months we both lived there, I found a friend for life (Maryann).

In January a year later, Maryann and I celebrated our 25th birthdays in my Portsmouth apartment. A few weeks beyond that, an abnormal pap smear turned into aggressive cancer. Eighteen precious months of surgeries, hospital visits and driving to radiation treatments later, I sat in a church with her family to give her back to God.

I don’t think there’s any such thing as a choice of necessity and convenience that doesn’t hold within it the possibility to be life altering in unimaginable ways. Every so often, when I’m passing through the Dover area, I drive past my Horne Street home to remind myself of this.

A beautiful day in the neighborhood…

Twenty-four years and two months ago, I served Mr. Rogers dinner. He was visiting Princeton Theological Seminary, lending his expertise to the media department as it moved into the 21st century. Other than the slight disappointment that he didn’t change into sneakers and a sweater when he arrived at the seminary president’s house, he was everything I’d hoped and expected he’d be: kind, soft spoken, and attentive. When I served rolls, refilled glasses, or set dessert in front of him, Fred Rogers looked me in the eye and thanked me. But that wasn’t all that happened…

Toward the end of the meal, one of the dinner guests mentioned to Mr. Rogers that I would be starting a PhD program in the Fall.

“Make sure to look at the robes worn by the PhD grads,” he said. “One day, you will wear those colorful robes.”

I thought it an odd comment, but nodded politely. It was then that I had my Mr. Rogers moment. He turned in his chair, looked directly at me and said, “It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

“I think so, too,” I said.

Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister whose work with children blessed countless numbers of pre-schoolers. Rather than entertain, he chose to engage, moving at a pace most suitable to the under five crowd. He chose to interpret Jesus’ summary of faith – love God, self, and neighbor – literally, by being a good neighbor and a kind presence in a medium that too often only wanted to sell toys or breakfast cereal.

One of the most profound truths of faith is that we are all connected. Through prayer, work, and play, we touch the lives of those around us in this time and place – and well into the future. In a world that values sarcasm over kindness and speed over intention, it’s a marvelous thing to have a neighbor like Fred Rogers – even if it’s only through the tv set. When others went for cleverness, he stayed with sincerity. His message at all times: You are lovable, loved, and unique. You are a delight to God and a gift to the world. I don’t know anyone who can live a good life without someone saying these truths to them.

Thank you, Fred Rogers. I’m so glad you were my neighbor.

[Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is playing in theaters. It’s wonderful, bring tissues.]

Living Large

chalk_newdurham

(Our home was on the road just after Birch Hill passes between Chalk and March ponds. Our beach is at the end of this small road.)

Two years and a new baby brother later, I came home to a brown raised ranch in New Durham, New Hampshire. It was miles up Birch Hill from a town center that had a general store, a multipurpose town office building, a volunteer fire department, an elementary school (student count under 100), and a tiny post office. The entire population of New Durham was lower than the number of students that attended my elementary school in Virginia. The bedroom I shared with my sister was much smaller than either of the ones we had to ourselves for the past couple of years, but what lay beyond the house was amazing: trees everywhere and our own sandy spot on Chalk Pond.

The spring-fed pond was already cooling down that first August, and sweaters were pulled out once the sun set. There were no street lights to interfere with nature’s light show of moon and stars, and most evenings the pond grew so still that it mirrored the celestial canopy above it. From the sitting rock on my beach, I could star gaze in the sky and in the water, and find in both the gracious presence of God.

Autumn painted the trees around the pond yellow, red, orange, and brown – all reflected as impressionist paintings in the wavy water. Winter brought bitter winds across the iced-over pond, snow drifts in the road, and a beautiful world to explore on cross country skis and winter boots. Some years, the ice froze like glass – a window into the depths of the pond. At night, the ice groaned.

Spring came with winds strong enough to overturn the ice among whitecaps. Fiddlehead ferns appeared in the marshes, and baby turtles emerged among the lily pads. A walk around the pond or up Blueberry hill was an adventure in new life – birds in nests, flowers on bushes, an occasional fisher cat or fox crossing the path. There was no street noise, very few people, and no need to hurry from one place to another – where was there to go in such a small town?

Life wasn’t perfect, but there was room for my spirit to grow along with the rest of me. Small house, quiet space, and sufficient time to enjoy both = large life: something I value to this day, and the template for how I’ve lived since.

Needles

Just before my 5th grade year, my father left the Navy for a civilian job in Virginia. He and my mother found a good school district, then went looking for a house to rent. They found a 3+ bedroom ranch with attached garage and on a wooded lot. The owners lived overseas, and their last renters had left a few weeks earlier. Since the furniture wouldn’t arrive for several days, there was plenty of time to give the place a good scrubbing. From top to bottom, everything got the soapy water/Comet/Murphy’s Oil Soap treatment. It was while my sister and I were cleaning that we found the hypodermic needles – under baseboard heaters, in cupboards, even a few on the screened in patio. My parents collected them, making sure none of us would suffer a needle stick.

Later that day, I asked my mother why anyone would want needles in their house. As far as I knew, needles were used in hospitals and doctor’s offices, not in someone’s house.

“Diabetics use needles at home,” was all my mother said.

Several years went by before I gave those needles another thought. It was the day I pricked my finger in my high school Advanced Biology class. The image of those needles came back, along with the conviction that no diabetic would throw needles in bedroom corners and patio niches. The needles were for a whole different purpose altogether.

My parents certainly knew what those needles had been used for. Looking back, I think they wanted me to live a few more years before learning one of life’s sadder truths: homes can foster death as well as life for those who live there.

Lord, save us from harm- the harm others inflict and the harm we inflict upon ourselves. Amen.

High Street, Farmington

My parents bought the white duplex, moving us into the right side and renting out the left. It was a turn-of-the-century home, similar to my grandparents’ one, with a large front porch and an unheated second floor. I lived here longer than in any other house in my life: two calendar and school years. My sister and I both walked to school – a mile for me and a bit farther for her. My parents converted a downstairs room into their bedroom, giving my sister, brother, and me our own bedrooms upstairs. There was a small field off our back yard, and a river full of rocks to jump less than a mile away. It was just off Rte 11, a working class street in a poor town; I could ride my bike to Lone Star Avenue to visit friends and grandparents, or head on the path behind the A&P and end up at the town cemetery. It wasn’t perfect, but I loved it anyway.

A young couple with two babies rented the left side of the house. They had a beat-up car and no phone, and they argued. They left after a while, first the man and then the woman and kids. My father was out to sea for the better part of a year, but even a child my age could tell the difference between a loving if absent father and an absentee parent. It was my first close-up view of a family falling apart and falling through the cracks. It wasn’t my last.

I think about the side-by-side living experiences. Our homes were mirror images of each other, but our home life strikingly different. To this day, I look at the houses I pass while walking to town and I wonder what life is like for the people living behind the facades. I say a quiet prayer for the love and happiness of those who live there.

Lord, bless this home and all who enter it. Amen.

Passing Through…forgotten or not

There are a couple of places I called home for so brief a time that they left me with few distinct memories. One was in Norfolk, Virginia. I know it was on the military base, but I have no important stories about my time there.

It’s a curious thing, knowing I lived somewhere but remembering nothing of note about the experience. It was more a hallway leading from one place to another than a destination. If it left no impression on me, I’m sure I left no impression on anyone in that time and place.

Many of our most significant interactions aren’t remembered – how we were welcomed into the world, the mirroring of our parents, the first time we were sung to or read to. But after the first year or so, I associate important places and events with memory. There’s a connection, but memory isn’t the benchmark of all things that form me and everyone else.

As I think about all that I do not hold in active memory, I have found a new image for all I cannot remember and all I cannot relate: a house whose size and color are out of reach, but that kept me safe and loved for a brief time. I picture all that I’ve forgotten living happily in that house, a vital part of my life that is a mystery to my conscious mind. For all the love I do not recall, I am grateful; for the difficulties that escape me, I am grateful. For the certain truth that love is never a captive of recall, I am grateful.

I hope you have your own image, your own home for what has been forgotten. I hope whatever love resides there, you accept as yours. No memory required.

There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after. Ecclesiastes 1:11ESV

This is one in a series. See No Place Like Home (s) above…

Painting For A Change

My mother’s living room was showing its age, so my sister and I offered to paint it – a Mother’s Day gift of a fresh look. Off we went for a couple of cans of Bistro White (walls) and Dune Grass (doors) and a paint kit. An hour of cleaning, another for prepping the space, and we were ready to paint. A few hours later, the furniture was polished and back in place, curtains were up, and we were on the sofa looking at the results. Even though the color on the walls was the same, the difference that new paint and a little effort made was remarkable – to have fresh paint on the walls and things within the space given a good scrubbing has always been more than the sum of the labor and materials it took to do it.

The hundred and thirty mile drive between my mother’s home and mine gave me a chance to think back on the other rooms in other houses. Whenever possible, my mother let me and my siblings choose the paint color for our bedrooms; she and my father thought it was good to offer choices when possible – and that we should enjoy the spaces we lived in. It wasn’t so much the paint as it was the wish that we be at home in the world, accepted and loved for the unique souls we were.

I know that no amount of paint, spit, and polish can make a house a home, or a bad situation a good one. But I also know that every time walls are washed, painter’s tape applied, and gallon buckets opened a new opportunity emerges. I don’t know if it’s just the brighter and cleaner reality that a few hours of work ushers in, or if it’s the closer look at a living space necessary to get it done that matters most. Taken together, they open up the possibility to fall in love with the same old four walls I’ve barely noticed for years.

It’s been years since I’ve painted anything larger than a bedroom closet in my own home. But I’ve noticed lately that the bathroom ceiling above the shower has a few dark marks, and there are smudges near the light switch. It might be time to pull out the tarps, tape around the fixtures, and change this room through sweat, intention, and careful attention to detail. I just may get a glimpse of the grace I so often overlook – a place to call home, and the lovely way it holds everyone who lives here.

Thanks, Mom, for all the rooms and all the life you gave me within them. Thanks, Charna, for being my painting partner and lifelong sister and friend. I’m so glad I got to paint with you.