Lost in the Crowd?


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Lost in the Crowd

Flying in and out of a big airport recently, I was struck by how few people ever made eye contact with me during the 2 hours we called it home. It was very odd. Because we had waited in the same lines, offered our identity to gloved handlers who made sure our faces matched our photo, literally rubbed shoulders as we retrieved our possessions from the TSA scanner, and knelt alongside one another to put our shoes back on. We were living a shared experience without acknowledging our togetherness. I quietly wondered how many of us were widows, how many of us were grieving someone, how many of us had received a dreaded diagnosis and I mourned our lack of community.

I bustled down one of those moving sidewalks. The one where some are grateful to rest and ride while the icy and stoic veterans of the runway brusquely walk past. I found my departure gate, located an open chair, unwrapped my over-priced sandwich, and indulged in a little people watching.

I felt like I was watching fish in an aquarium. My son and I were aquarists for years with both salt and fresh water tanks. At night we would turn on the light that lived inside the hood that kept the fish safe from the cat and watch them swim around in their little underwater world. It was like having pop art in your den. The yellow tang, azure damsel, orange and white striped clowns, spotted triggerfish, and elegant angels would claim first one corner and then another, darting behind or inside the miniature sunken ship for rare moments of solitude. They never made eye contact with one another or with you, but they all knew where the container of food resided and when you made your way to that, they would swim in quick formation to the top to await their feeding.

So it was with us. The glass-walled airport was our home away from home. We the little fish swimming inside, darting inside restrooms or restaurants for rare moments of solitude. It was like watching pop art in a public place. The garish overhead lights accentuating the neon colors of clothing, the white lettering on T-shirts, the “whoa girl!” make-up applied by eyes not yet fully awake. Avoiding eye contact with the other, we rose in formation when our group was called to board. It was at once a claustrophobic and lonely experience.

An archaeologist would remind us that isolation for humans is dangerous. That isolation makes us vulnerable to predators and defenseless when attacked. That being unaware of others and our surroundings is, in and of itself, dangerous. We are pack animals, healthiest in a tribe, happiest when we belong to someone or something.

My day in the fish tank was a reminder that being truly seen and authentically known by another is an increasingly rare experience in our age of online identity and text messaging. We long to be understood, to have our story heard, and yet continue to isolate ourselves from the contact that makes such a knowing possible. Reaching out, being the first to lock eyes and offer a smile is a gift we can all afford to give. Isolation is never a good survival strategy.

Trip to the Artic

I imagine you heard about the bitter Artic weather in Chicago recently. Minus 41. Please know that was the actual temperature, not the modern-day, Dixie-darlin’ weather-girl, wind-chill stuff. Six homeless people and scores of animals left outside died, giving new meaning to the words “bitter cold.”

So I guess you can imagine how excited I was to be flying there to perform stories and lead a Navigating Loss retreat. As we began our descent into O’Hare, the depth of the cold was perceptible. No, that’s too small a word. You could feel its wickedness rising up. It was palpable. Even the clouds looked cold. The landscape was white on white, snow distinguished from ice only by its opacity. Thick icicles hung from rooftops, trees, and power lines. The outside walls of the warehouses at the edges of the city were frozen in place, as if they had been spray-painted by the cold. I felt like I was flying into the set of “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.” The airport had just reopened after several days in the deep freeze and we landed on an ice rink of a runway lined by four-feet high walls of piled up snow.

This is yet another reason that I reside in the South. But my dear storytelling friend Patricia had been waiting for me in the cell lot with a warm car so I can’t even pretend to have been affected by what they had just endured. We slid across the hotel parking lot with my luggage and then left for dinner at the pastor’s house where we were greeted by two very curious dogs and a warm fire in the hearth. It was a symbolic beginning for what was to be a very friendly, enthusiastically embracing, achingly lovely weekend.

The story concert came first. My sister was there. Friends from the Network of Biblical Storytellers’ Prairie Wind Guild came. I felt enfolded in warmth and affection.

Saturday dawned bright and cold as 27 people arrived for the Navigating Loss retreat. We were a mess of a mix: Widows and widowers, orphaned 50-somethings, those facing unrelenting illness and its accompanying loss of financial and physical freedom. As we shared our stories of love and loss we bonded deeply. As we laughed at the absurdity of society’s rules about grieving and the deeper absurdity and danger of pretending we’re not, the weather warmed to a balmy 26. Homemade soup and thick sandwiches were consumed, along with cookies of every description. (I hate the cold but love the heartiness of a Midwest buffet!)

Sunday it rose above freezing, I took credit for bringing the warmth of the South with me as I shared the sermon-story “Sometimes the Angels Ride Harleys,” which you can listen to here:

Then I spent the night with my sister and met her new dog. Drank some red wine and ate take-out Chinese. As I flew back through the friendly skies the white clouds of change were appearing on the horizon. Thank God I was back on Southern soil before they were socked again by an ice storm. May the fire of love and understanding warm what’s left of this winter for all of us!

Frozen?

I woke today to a world encased in ice. A glassy vision held stunningly still by the frozen air. The beauty of it took my breath away, as did the treachery I watched as the dogs slipped and stumbled in the undertaking of their morning constitutional.

For a moment I wondered if my heart had brought this upon the earth. If nature had somehow created a mirror image for the numbness that has all but rendered me useless for the last several months.

I watched a small bird fight to free its feathers and understood its agony explicitly. Frozen is a dreadful state to be in. When one gray moment blends into the next it’s hard not to feel hopelessly suspended. I’ve been up against something larger than my will.

The icy suspension brought metaphor, too: The tens of thousands who can’t pay a house note on frozen wages and the freezing of our personal freedoms in the name of safety. Environmental salvation so hard won disappearing into thin, cold air. Children ripped from the arms of parents and teachers with icy zeal in a Nazi-style round up. Yes, perhaps I am not the only one who feels a cold grip upon the very nature of my soul.

Just as it all becomes unbearable, the air outside warms and the stillness gives way to melting water that falls like rain. The ice loses its grip on limb and roof and chunks of it crash to the ground. I close my eyes and pray for a warmth like this to come and free our frozen hearts.

 

 

To Whine or Give Thanks? That is the Question.

I was out to a lunch buffet the other day and overheard a conversation that disgusted me. Two entitled twenty-somethings were discussing the upcoming holiday (Black Friday). They were mutually annoyed that before they could get around to having their parents order stuff or go shopping for deals they first had to suffer through Thanksgiving.

As they rose several times to refill their plates with what I must say was some pretty awesome Indian food (I do love me some Indian cuisine!), they were openly wishing that they could cherry-pick the food someone would lovingly prepare for them at home like they were doing with the buffet. The cloth napkins there are quite large and I thought about reaching out and swatting the girl, that’s what my grandmother would have done and her words were that 1. spoiled and 2. annoying.

There they were, putting fine food on a credit card that probably gets paid off by Daddy, whining about how long they had to wait to shop and then how they always had to wait until “at least Christmas eve” before they could get the loot they’d asked for. It gave me pause.

I’ve been pausing a lot this Thanksgiving season. It’s been pretty personally hard and I’ve been sorely tempted (and sorrily not always resisted the temptation) to whine about the stuff that’s been happening in my life. But then God keeps giving me conversations that make me hit the pause button.

Like the one I had with a friend whose spouse is undergoing not only dialysis but chemotherapy. Good Lord have mercy. It’s a medical miracle, to be sure, but one that involves so much pain and suffering. And this is a dear, dear person who is doing the suffering. Or the one I had with a stranger whose dog was hit by a car when she opened her door to receive a package and it ran out. Bless her heart. She was walking the lake, by herself, crying the whole way and asked if she could pet Pip. Her dog was a Jack Russell, too.

And then there is a new widow I’m working with who has no one to spend the holiday with and she’s too far away to invite over. She’s dreading it. Is in a countdown for it. Her only son is in the Army and he’s overseas. She fears for him. He’s all she has left of her life. They moved to a new town shortly before her spouse was diagnosed with end-stage pancreatic cancer (a nasty way to go). She knows no one. Doesn’t feel like going anywhere to meet anyone. It’s only been 3 months. How long does this take, she asks?

Maybe you’re not feeling lucky right now, either. Maybe things haven’t been that great for you, either. But you know what? You should still be grateful for all the parts of you that still work and for the blessings you have in your life. Because gratitude is an attitude and it brings good things to your heart.

So get out the magnifying glass and a piece of paper. Write down 10 things you’re grateful for. Do it today. Do it tomorrow. Do it on Thanksgiving. And get ready to feel better. Then go one more. Tell somebody that you’re grateful for them. Maybe it’s just the clerk at the drive-through window, maybe it’s your neighbor or the guy who empties your trash into that monster truck every week. None of us ever get enough gratitude really. We all want to know that we matter. So give that to someone. It won’t cost you a dime.

And it will refocus your heart and your mind on what you have. Which, no matter who you are or what your circumstances are, is a lot.

My rant is done. Happy THANKS-GIVING to you!

Feeling Secure?

I’ve been on the road working most of October. Half the time I’ve driven and the other times I’ve flown. And flying is where this story begins.

It started at 4:30 a.m. when I had to be AT the Asheville airport at 5:30 a.m. in order to make my 6:30 a.m. flight. When I awoke to the sound of a torrential rainfall (thanks to Hurricane Michael) I saw a text on my phone, “Your flight to Charlotte has been cancelled. Our next available flight leaves at 9:30 a.m. tomorrow. Please call….” Really?! My hospice-sponsored retreat was to start at that same time on Friday – in Pennsylvania! How in the @#&$ was I going to get there?

I looked at my watch. I looked at my already-packed luggage. I threw it all in the car and began driving to Charlotte in a torrential rainfall, in the dark. I called the airline on my cell and asked if flights would be cancelled from Charlotte. “Well, probably, yes, but we’re not sure when that will start.” A quick glance at the weather radar revealed that I was racing along the edge of a powerful and rapidly advancing front. I put the pedal to the metal. Thank God the troopers were somewhere having eggs and bacon.

I had to park in the “long term lot” so I could afford to leave and the only available lot was located somewhere in outer Mongolia. But, the good news is that there was a shuttle which I was able to walk about a block to catch in the pouring rain. The lovely woman driving it waited for me. “Honey, I’m not supposed to wait on anybody, but it looked to me like you’d had a hard day.” God love her.

Inside the airport, as sopping wet as wet gets, standing in my own little puddle of sweat and rainwater, I checked the flight board. My flight to Pittsburgh was on time. I took a deep breath, uttered a prayer of thanks under my breath, got my boarding pass and entered security. And that’s when things got weird…

You know how I have dark hair and eyes? And my eyes kind of have that Asian fold due to my wee bit of Cherokee heritage (I think…). Well, apparently that makes me appear middle eastern to folks who have never left central North Carolina. Who knew? I was “removed” from the security line and patted down as a terrorist threat. Then I was handed over to a tall, rail-thin, 30-something, skin-headed man whose moments of power apparently don’t come often enough. As I watched him carefully snap on his exam gloves, I prayed he wasn’t the cavity search person. Instead, he unzipped my already x-rayed luggage and ruthlessly riflied through it.

He tossed my underwear onto the counter and uncovered what he knew he would find: Contraband.

“Well now, what do we have here?” his testosterone and power-syndrome rapidly rising. He ripped the tops off my watercolor pens and began rubbing them on a TSA memo pad. Now, I know that it pays to remain courteous when dealing with law-enforcement because they have a very stressful job and there really are dangerous people out there but It had already been a very trying day and my flight was leaving in less than 20 minutes and before I could stop myself the words, “What are you? 6? They’re watercolor markers!” flew out of my mouth and that was that.

As I tried to apologize and explain that I lead retreats for women and that’s why I had the “contraband” in my luggage while dropping hints that my flight left in less than 20 minutes, he opened the package of printed retreat workbooks and examined them closely. Felt the staples on each one. Then he leaned into my face and said, “Just what is it that do you do again?” And I said meekly that I lead retreats for women. And he says, “Widows, right? This says widows” And I replied, “Sometimes, yes.This time, yes.”

Well, small world. His mother was a widow. Where was this retreat anyway? She’d been having a really hard time in the three years since his Dad had died and he wanted her to come. I heard the last call for my flight over the PA so, desperately and rapidly, I said, “It’s really far away and that’s why I need to fly there and can I please go now so I can make my flight? I’m so sorry you lost your Daddy. Please give your Mom this magazine (Widow) and maybe I can come to her town some time and lead a retreat.”

Yes, absolutely. Of course. With tears in his eyes he threw all my stuff back into the suitcase, zipped it and followed me until the last possible moment, to tell me about his Mom and the loss of his Daddy and how much it hurt. I squeezed his hand, ran down the corridor, and made my flight.

While I caught my breath I looked around at all the other people squished into that tin can with wings, ignoring the safety instructions (and one another) and I wondered how many of them, like my new friend in security, had lost someone dear to them and never really dealt with it. I wondered how many were still hiding their pain, stuffing it deep down inside because they never received any help to sort through their feelings, or felt truly heard, or treated themselves with enough compassion to recover from that loss.

And I started wondering what would happen if we just reached out and touched each other’s pain. What would happen if we looked each other gently in the eyes and began sharing our stories of love and loss? Love is what makes life real and loss is what shows us how much we have loved. And our stories are what can guide us through this life we share together on this little blue and green ball spinning in space called Earth.

 

The Mud Wedding

“Love is a many splendored thing” says the song and I recently had a chance to discover that, when things get deep enough, it actually is.

It happened when I attended a wedding between my musical partner Andy’s youngest daughter Emelyn and a Virginia gentleman farmer named Breck Light. The setting was the spectacular Claytor Nature Center near the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Peaks of Otter Lodge. As you can see from the photo above, the bride is gorgeous and the wedding was framed by a reflecting pool in the midst of formal hedged gardens. How splendid and romantic is that?

What the photo doesn’t show is the white, pillared antebellum mansion above them AND the black storm clouds forming beyond the reflecting pool. An outdoor wedding with 80% chance of rain needs a lot of prayer, so of course I went to work and invited some warriors I know to join me. The prayers worked and the clouds were held back by the invisible hand of the Almighty from the minute the service began until the cocktail hour was completed (Episcopalian warriors were involved).

But the reception in the tent was a different story. Once everyone was safely inside, what can only be described as an epic deluge began. As we dined on locally farmed meat and vegetables I felt droplets of water pinging down the back of my burgundy, floor-length sheath. I glanced up when I felt the drops and saw that I was sitting under a bulging seam. Sweet. Lightning flashed and the band’s amp zinged out.

Rain poured off the sides of the tent like waterfalls and, with nowhere to go in the plantation field under it, started to climb. As I laughed over amusing small talk and parmesan potatoes, I had this odd feeling that mud was seeping in between my toes. When I went to get a bite of cake, the water was up past my ankles and the brave grass still actually standing was rapidly giving way to mud. It went from pretty to scary in about an hour or less.

But Mother Nature was just getting the party started. At least Daddy Gwynn got his dance in with the bride before the parquet floor slipped under the muddy mess like the Titantic going down. For hours it poured the rain. Buckets of rain. It rained cats and dogs, giraffes and elephants. It was more like being in a pond than a field, that’s how fast the grass disappeared. The sound system zapped a few more times, the drummer vamped like mad while they recovered it. Andy wished he’d brought a fishing pole.

Glass after glass of wine was poured out, beer kegs were emptied, and love and laughter was everywhere. After all, what else can you do? These two are the fortunate offspring of strong families and supportive friends. His family does the horse show thing and Andy led outdoor wilderness programs so they were all nonplussed. The band was playing great music, people were filled with food and drink, and the wedding party wanted to get their party on so they kept on dancing until every item of clothing was covered in mud. Not splashed with – covered with. A hashtag of Mud Bride was developed and videos of the mud slide lover’s leaps that ended the night went viral on Facebook.

The next day when we went to help clean up, there was actually a bridesmaid’s dress and a pair of strapless sandals in the trash. They got that muddy. That’s all the information I have and that’s all the information I want, you know? And because seeing is believing, check out this photo below of Andy’s older daughter, Lisle, and her husband Paul at the end of the mud wedding.

Congratulations Eme and Breck! You are proof positive that love really does conquer all! If you can make it through this with a smile on your face, I think it’s gonna be all right.

Get Out from Under the Covers

When something really bad happens to you (like widowhood, for instance) it’s really tempting to go under the covers and stay there for a while. In fact, I don’t think this is a bad strategy, in the scheme of things. Sure beats sitting around listening to other people tell you what you should do, must do, and so on when whatever it is (like widowhood, for instance) hasn’t happened to them.

Have you ever noticed how much smarter other people get when it’s time for them to solve your problems? Seriously, there they are, muddling through their less-than-stellar lives, bumbling along, confused and stressed out, just like everyone else UNTIL you mention how overwhelming your feelings are (because you’re facing widowhood head on, for instance) and you make the mistake of stopping to take a breath and TA DAH! said persons suddenly leap into your life to try and FIX YOU.

Too bad that doesn’t ever work, right? I mean, why spend all that useless time on personal development and internal skill-sets when you could just let someone who hasn’t done what you are trying so desperately to do fix you? It’s laughable, really, and yet their “help” can keep you from coming out from under the covers and putting on your big-girl pants.

Sometimes these well-meaning people can make you feel like a failure before you’ve even taken one step forward. Just because you say, “I don’t know if I should _____ or ____ ” doesn’t mean you won’t figure it out. It doesn’t mean you won’t find the answer that’s right for you! All that question means is that you are aware of the fact that you have choices.

Choices are good things. Choices are brain-judo you do in the safety of your home gym. The contemplation of choices is essential to the act of crawling out from under the covers after the unthinkable happens. And YOU are the only person who knows which one of those choices is the right one for you, right now. (That’s the cool thing about considering your options, most things are reversible. More on that in another blog.)

So bravo on you for being brave enough to come out from under the covers! Instead of letting someone try to “fix” you, ask yourself cool, contemplative questions, like, “I wonder what it would look like to ___________.” Yeah, that’s the ticket. Because Helen Keller was right, “Life is a grand adventure, or it’s nothing.”

Memorial Day

Sarge was my Daddy’s last best friend. I never knew his “real” name, everyone just called him Sarge, which I guess pretty well tells you that he was a career military man. They were the two widowed roosters in a hen house called the assisted living center. They were handsome and ornery but as Sarge said, “We’re too old to do anything about it.” When they moved my Daddy to the nursing unit, he came twice a day, like clockwork, just to say hello. He was a faithful friend until the very end.

After Daddy died, I gave him the lift chair and he played with the remote for hours on end. He put it through its paces like the drill sergeant he was. “Attention!” he’d holler as he pushed the button to go up and then he’d push the button to go down and say “At ease.” It was really funny. He loved that chair.

Like Daddy, Sarge was a child of the great depression and like Daddy, he lost his mother before he turned 9. But unlike Daddy, his father sent him to live with a distant relative, to work on his farm in exchange for room and board. People did that back then—it was how folks survived.

The first Easter Sarge lived on the farm, he carefully lined his Easter basket with field grass, like his mother had taught him, and left it on the stairs for the Easter bunny to find it. But when he ran downstairs on Sunday morning, the basket had a big horse turd in it instead of candy and Sarge said, “That’s when I knew the Easter bunny wasn’t never coming again, Santa Claus neither.” What a cruel joke. What kind of man does that to a child?

Needless to say, he left that farm as soon as he could in the only way that gave him a safe way out: The US Army. Sarge was a hard worker accustomed to sacrifice. The Army needed men like him, men who understood hardship and death. He stayed at it, married a sweet woman from home, and rose to the rank of Sergeant.

He travelled the world with the military and regaled the assisted living hens with stories of his exploits over supper. The two missionary women would try to one-up him but it never worked. He’d seen things—lots of things. “I’ve seen too many things a man shouldn’t have to see and I wish the good Lord would let me forget.” he told Daddy more than once. I guess, in a way, God answered his prayer. Sarge developed dementia and barely knew who he was for a few years before he died.

As Memorial Day dawns, I salute men like Sarge. I salute all the men and women who have seen things no one should have to see so the rest of us don’t have to. They sacrificed themselves on a daily basis so we wouldn’t have to. Sarge, and his fellow soldiers, who lost their minds and limbs and lives serving our country and protecting our freedoms will always be honored in my home and heart. On this weekend when we acknowledge their service, may they know peace.