Category Archives: life basics

Finding Ourselves

A few years back, the book club I joined read two books by women whose first books had sparked marvelous discussion and admiration. One was autobiographical in nature, the other fictional; both were full of pain, difficulty, and loss – but infused with a hope that difficulties can lead to greater understanding and love. The same could not be said for the second books by the same authors. Both were autobiographical, but without a larger love that could offer generosity to the great wide world. Both authors “woke up,” convicted by the belief that only by putting their wants first could they mature into the people they wished to be. Families were left, temporarily or permanently. Friends and lovers were notable for their shortcomings, not their attempts to overcome them. Women who grew in different ways were discounted as immature or sleepwalking through a world not of their own making. Neither book ended on a particularly good note as neither women seemed to feel embraced by their own lives.

Many of the book club members saw the authors as only selfish, self-promoting, and defined by anger. The writing was admired, the women’s conclusions contested. The conviction both authors professed – that women whose life paths went a different way were immature or somehow inferior in their understanding of the world – didn’t set well. Many decided they wouldn’t bother reading any more works by either author.

I understood how the book club members felt, and I also understood the authors’ newfound acceptance of the importance of their own stories and voices. The world is not a fair place, and women’s contributions have been undervalued and suppressed. Waking up to the injustice of it is not an easy experience. The question is whether this waking up inevitably leads to a single interpretation or stance for all women (not much is said about men in either book).

I believe the authors were women who were growing into their potential, and that their second books were autobiographies of a transition rather than of a final resolution or destination. Rejecting what demeans the self and limits the soul is necessary, but not something that can support a good and holy life by itself. The next step must be taken: loving the brokenness of others as much as our own shortcomings. Unless and until love and joy define how we see self and others, we aren’t yet where we need to be. Or, as Joseph Brackett put it:

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

Lord, help me love everyone who comes my way – and love the person you made me to be! Amen.

Elder Joseph Brackett, Simple Gifts, The Carols of Christmas: A Windham Hill Collection; Windham Hill Records, 1996; Liz Story, performer, recorded at Luna Recording Studio, Prescott, AZ, 1996

What you can fix…

Today has been a day of getting things done. I spent time in my library’s learning garden, dividing perennials for families attending story time. After that, I was on to prepping and painting the bathroom ceiling and closet. Both of these activities have been a lot of work, and will require many additional hours of work to complete. But there’s something immensely satisfying about seeing the changes that my work brings – changes that will last well beyond this season. The garden is much improved for the weeding, pruning, and dividing; the new paint on the walls and ceiling refresh the whole room. Such tangible results for a day’s work!

But there are changes that will come from today’s efforts that are well beyond what I will see. The perennials I dug up today will grace many yards in this town and beyond – who knows how many times they will be divided in the coming years, growing out of a few plants hundreds more. The new bathroom paint is likely to last for years, providing a clean and bright space for family and guests.

Perhaps that’s why Proverbs was included in our holy scripture: to remind us that our daily actions and choices affect the world around us in ways that just may go beyond our own little communities and life spans. It’s not the only message that helps me honor God, self,and neighbor, but it certainly reminds me to do improve what I can through work and action as well as through thought and contemplation…

Self-Inflicted

My child, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, “Come with us; let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent; like Sheol let us swallow them alive and whole, like those who go down to the Pit. We shall find all kinds of costly things; we shall fill our houses with booty. Throw in your lot among us; we will all have one purse” –

My child, do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood. For in vain is the net baited while the bird is looking on; yet they lie in wait – to kill themselves! and set an ambush – for their own lives! 

Such is the end for all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.

Proverbs 1:10-19 NRSV

When you grab all you can get, that’s what happens: the more you get, the less you are. Proverbs 1:19, The Message

Years ago, I watched a biography of Michael Douglas. Most of it, I’ve forgotten, but one part stands out still. When asked about one of his most famous lines – “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good” (Gordon Gekko, Wall Street)- he said with some astonishment: “I was amazed how many people adopted that as a creed. They missed the whole point.”

Gordon Gekko the character has a Wikipedia page; he was the archetype for many a Wall Street player who contributed to the destabilization of the financial market and the disappearance of untold retirement fund millions a decade ago. Many were never prosecuted and it seems that most paid very little if any cost for the devastation they caused. They robbed others to live a life of luxury, and they got away with it…or so it seems.

The older I get, the more I am convinced that there is no such thing as “getting away with it.” There’s a spiritual and emotional cost to the damage a greedy person inflicts on others. The bill that comes due may not be a prison sentence or a revoking of civil liberties. For a short period of time, a thief may even think himself or herself fortunate for dodging consequences. But the harm we do others for material gain we don’t even need is real and it’s deadly. The Ferrari may still be in the garage, the ocean view stunning, and a continued life of luxury guaranteed. Yet, such an opulent stage won’t bring happiness, peace, or the ability to escape the spiritual cannibalism that is no less deadly for being self-inflicted.

 

Between Garden and 10th Avenue

It’s now the High Line Hotel. Before that, the Desmond Tutu Conference Center; right before that, the Chelsea apartment I called home for a year. It stretched the width of the building, wrapping around the grand marble staircase leading to General Seminary’s vaulted refectory. Windows on one side revealed dumpsters, a dilapidated parking lot, and the 10th Avenue municipal maintenance facility for Manhattan’s trash and utility trucks. The window on the opposite side offered a leafy view of a quiet garden alive with birds, butterflies, squirrels, and brown rabbits. This gothic building, along with several others, formed the wall that surrounded the entire block along 9th and 10th avenues, between 20th to 21st streets. My older son learned to walk on its painted wooden floors and its hosta-lined garden paths while my husband learned how to be an Episcopal priest and I wrote my dissertation.

It’s a curious space to occupy, the residential barrier betwixt garden and city traffic. In recent years, I’ve come to see it as an image of the spiritual life. Cultivating a quiet space of reflection and communion with God on the inside while living in the world of noise, opportunity, strife, and beauty. Without the larger world as a reference point, my spiritual life can become disconnected – something that only has to do with me and my particular understanding of God. Without a quiet space of reflection and worship, the noise of everyday life drowns out angel song and prophetic vision alike.

There were a lot of inconvenient things about living between garden and avenue – car exhaust sprinkled fine black powder on the window sills every day, the closest exit to the street was a half block walk, and there were three keys necessary to get from street to my front door. But I am grateful for all of them: a deeply faithful life that connects inner peace with the broken, beautiful world isn’t lived at my convenience – nothing true and sacred ever is, was, or could be convenient.

[For images, go to www.thehighlinehotel.com or gts.edu.]

2nd Floor Alex

It was the first thing I saw when I drove onto campus. Alexander Hall, Princeton Theological Seminary’s first building: four stories of beige and brown stone, mortar, with the old lecture and worship hall on its second floor, it was one of the three dorms for seminary students. I called it home for the better part of three years – rooms 205b and 203.

It wasn’t a place I chose for myself, and dorm living brought its share of frustrations – sharing a bathroom with twenty or so other women and the necessity of cafeteria food because I had no kitchen. I hadn’t planned on moving to New Jersey, so far from family and the New England coast that I called home. But I soon found my place among new people. I also discovered that New Jersey had a lot to offer.

Before returning to New England, New Jersey gave me many friends and several years of deeply satisfying study and work. I also met my husband there, and gave birth to both of my sons. Who would have guessed that a small room on the second floor of Alexander Hall could contain such marvels?

610 State Street, Apartment F

[Google Maps image]

It’s a block from the John Paul Jones house, half a mile from Prescott Park, and across the street from the old Whipple Elementary School. After a brief search and a good scrubbing, it was my first home that wasn’t my parents’ or a student apartment. 

It took a bit of paint and some wallpaper, but it felt like home within weeks of moving in. My bedroom was three stories above street level; when fog rolled in, the ground disappeared in streetlamp haloes. The kitchen window was my doorway to the flat roof and thank-God-never-needed fire escape. I registered to vote and settled in. It was my refuge when work was difficult, and a place I shared with friends, family and roommates. Until I drove to graduate school in New Jersey, its four rooms-plus bath and large entry hall were where I laughed, cried, smiled, and mourned.

To this day, part of me considers Portsmouth, New Hampshire home. I learned to love coastal small city life because of its people and places. Had I not lived here in an old three story house, I doubt I’d be in this Southcoast Cape style home I’ve loved for the past sixteen years…

For four walls and a roof, thanks be to God.

For more on this series, click “No Place like home(s)” above.

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.

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.