Come and Gather

The table came to our home from another’s – a second hand treasure Mom found in a newspaper ad. It was the perfect fit for our kitchen and our lives. It sat in the front window where passersby could see the activities around it day and night.

I could write an entire book recounting memories around the table. Last meals, first meetings, school lessons, days-long board games, hard conversations, and celebratory moments. It was the spot where Grandma would drop her behemoth purse and five grocery bags when she sat down to slice fresh apples. There were several more comfortable spaces in the home for spending long periods of time, but the kitchen table always seemed to draw people. 

So many descriptors could be used when explaining the table’s guests: felon, homeless, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat, anarchist, Atheist, Agnostic, Jewish, Christian – often they gathered at the same time. Descriptors are helpful when discussing the diversity of thoughts perspectives that were present, but honestly at the time, they were simply people who mattered to us. We spent hours talking around the table, debating and discussing everything under the sun. We never seemed to run out of space on those benches. 

The table kept watch in the window for years after most of us left the house. A memorial to what once was. It got a facelift – some sanding and staining to make it more modern, but the grooves and nicks of previous life were still visible to the keen eye. 

Last week the table was delivered to my apartment. It is not the ideal size or shape for my small dining space, but this is where it belongs for now. The table is ready for new memories and new people. The next generation of kids in our family will climb on the benches and hear stories of the dog who is the reason a chunk is missing from one of the legs. They’ll sit and learn to shout “Yahtzee!” when they get a lucky roll of the dice. My friends will gather for long talks over meals. We’ll solve the world’s problems or just laugh at ridiculous things.  I’ll assemble puzzles and gaze out the window with a cup of coffee in the mornings. Life happens around a table. Messy, glorious life.

The other day, I walked by the table and thought I heard the echoes of moments from the past. It’s just an object, but it’s also a symbol of the people and events that shaped me and my family. 

One day the table will be in a bigger room. After all, there must always be space for one more. 

The Sixth February 27th

Each year I write a letter to my Grandma and post it on her birthday. When she was living, I wrote her poems every few years. Since she’s been gone, I’ve found these letters to be an integral part of learning to navigate a life without her in the daily happenings.

In many ways, this was the hardest one to write. This year was equal parts wishing you were here for monumental family events and being grateful you weren’t here because the isolation of this pandemic would have broken you in many ways.

Oh, how we needed you this year.

A few weeks after my last letter, one of your own beloveds received a diagnosis that rocked us all. The pandemic and distancing made our solidarity during operations and treatment through the year that much harder. I tried to channel your determined energy to encourage her to keep fighting…but it’s much harder to do through a screen. We needed you to hold her hand and be her strength. You were always so good at being strong for us when we felt we couldn’t take another step. She’s still with us, but for how long is anyone’s guess. 

I tried so hard to be the cheerleader, but that is not my role. I am the family administrator, the advice giver, the researcher. I’m the one with the plan. This year nearly broke me with all its chaos. I’m tired. I just want to curl up on your couch one more time with your tiger blanket and watch a musical. 

We needed you for the good times, too.

Your other beloved walked down the aisle with a bouquet crafted by her own hands instead of yours. She made something beautiful out of a wild situation – the first livestreamed wedding in our family history. 

Today, your first great-grandchild is four days old. He knew he’d be in great company with a February birthday, so he arrived a bit early. What a precious amethyst baby. I found myself wondering how you’d handle meeting him over a video chat as we all did.

As much as your absence was felt, I found your presence this year as well. 

I spent more time than ever in your park. It became a place to safely spend time with friends. We walked and talked and enjoyed the scenery you loved so much. I found a new path that I’d never walked in all our years there. Two of my dearest friends chose your park for their wedding and asked me to officiate. It was a glorious day and so full of joy. I felt your spirit in the air. 

I took some risks this year for the sake of my own wellbeing. I chose myself in big ways. It was hard and scary and I tried to imagine you cheering for me as you did for so many years. I made the brave decisions and realized that I’ve been prepared for this my whole life. You helped raise a strong, resilient woman who can push past her comfort zone and it’s all going to be okay. It’s going to be messy and tough, but okay. I’ve never been good with uncertainty, but I’m learning to embrace it. 

I found your voice in the most interesting of places. I heard phrases that you would say come out of the mouths of people who never knew you. They show me that same love you exuded. They tell me everything is fine even when it feels like life will never be fine again. They sit in my pain with me. They dance like fools. They’ve become family. They do not fill your void, but they somehow make it hurt a little less. You lived by the principle that family comes in all shapes and configurations…and it can change over time. Each passing day is only further proof of that truth. 

You’re not here, but you’re here. You’re in the eyes of my siblings when they crinkle with laughter over ridiculous things. You’re in mom’s voice when she completely changes topics mid-sentence. You’re in the sunrises and sunsets over the lake. You’re in my heart and mind when I’m pondering my next decision. You’re in the stillness when I wonder if my dreams are worth chasing. I hear you, and I pray I never forget your voice. 

You were my grandma, but really you were the extra parent I needed. The grieving continues because great loss is the result of the privilege of great love. I’ll dance for you today and always because dancing is the best medicine for an aching heart. 

Until next year,

Sunshine loves you infinity plus 74. 

When the familiar is no longer

Every year I track the books I read. It’s usually just a couple of pages somewhere in the back of my planner. 2020 was no exception…except that the entire year felt like an exception. I started the year strong – reading three books a month- and then we started staying home. You’d think that would be a book lover’s dream, but I found myself unable to read more than a few pages in a sitting.

Sometime around mid-July (four months into our stay-home practices) I sat down and read a good portion of a book in a day. It felt odd to read so much. Odder still was the fact that reading could feel foreign to me. I learned to read at 3 years old and books became an integral part of my life.

Book lovers practically train for the possibility to spend months at home with nothing but books to occupy their time. Turns out, a global pandemic can rewire your brain and keep you from that dream.  This year, my inability to do a simple thing I loved felt like an extra level of loneliness. 

Nonetheless, I did manage to read this year. I learned from some books, and just thoroughly enjoyed others. I have no insight to provide…except that I missed reading for a third of this year and I’m glad I had the privilege to regain the ability.

Non-Fiction Fiction
Changing our Mind – David Gushee The Wife – Alafair Burke
Does Jesus Really Love Me – Jeff Chu The Rooster Bar – John Grisham
Becoming – Michelle Obama When Life Gives you Lululemons – Lauren Weisberger
The Greatest Love Story Ever Told – Megan Mullally & Nick Offerman Sheer Abandon – Penny Vincenzi
The Myth of the American Dream – D.L. Mayfield All We Ever Wanted – Emily Giffin
Untamed – Glennon Doyle The Water Dancer – Ta Nehisi Coates
How to be an Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi The Most Fun We Ever Had – Claire Lombardo
Fierce, Free, & Full of Fire – Jen Hatmaker Kiss Carlo – Adriana Trigiani 
Born a Crime – Trevor Noah  
Be the Bridge – Latasha Morrison  
Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0 – Brenda Salter-McNeil  
Greenlights – Matthew McConaughey  
A Promised Land – Barack Obama   

Everything is Different This Time

In recent years I’ve found solace in the Church calendar. The rhythms of Lent, Ordinary Time, and Advent orient my soul to a cycle of renewal each year. It keeps my focus on the bigger picture, the collective experience rather than a self-centered view of the world. 

I thought I understood Advent until this year occurred. I grasped it in theory prior to 2020, but this year the idea of waiting took on a whole new meaning. I yearn for things to be restored, for new to arrive. I feel like we went from Lent straight into Advent. I’ve spent the better part of eight months in a state of waiting, a state of uncertainty, a state of wondering when things will change. 

Yes, I’ve found bright and encouraging moments over these months of distancing…but it doesn’t negate all of the hard, often painful things we’re enduring. 

I can count on one hand the number of hugs I’ve had in eight months. 

My sister is growing a human inside her…and my experience of this process is relegated to images on a screen. I’ll never get to put my hand on her belly and feel my nephew kick. 

I watch from a distance as my loved one battles a debilitating disease…and I can’t sit at her bedside to hold her hand. I can’t be with her in the moments when she needs someone to encourage her to fight. 

I can’t spend extended time with Mom. I have to consult weather reports and figure out distancing logistics just for us to spend a few minutes together. 

None of this is fair. We didn’t ask for this. But we take steps now because we are anticipating a change in the future. We have faith that a vaccine, an antidote, is on the horizon. 

These months feel like an eternity…

Imagine waiting centuries for a break in the silence, a break in the waiting. The waiting became a way of life. Generations of waiting. I cannot fathom such a concept. 

I yearn for a change, for a break of light on the horizon. Advent is no longer theoretical for us. It’s not just symbolism and remembrance. It’s reality. The whole world is in the midst of a type of Advent right now. 

May we carry the experience of this year with us – to remember the uncertainty and frustration of what it’s like to truly wait for something. 

Kindness is not Justice

I am a white woman.

I deeply believe that all people are imprinted with the image of God, and I strive to treat everyone I meet as a fellow image-bearer. I don’t have to understand someone or align with anything they believe to treat them with dignity. They bear the image of God, and I will not do anything to damage or diminish that image within them.

It’s not enough.

I said “I will not do anything to damage…” But what if I stay quiet while others do it?

If I see someone behaving in a way that damages the image of God in another, I must call it out. I can do so in a way that also protects the image of God within the person inflicting the damage.

I know I actively work to foster love, kindness, dialogue, and respect among my circles.

But individual kindness does not bring institutional justice.

I’ve spent the last decade educating myself on systemic injustice and racial reconciliation.

When someone calls out racism or racial injustice in a news event, is your first response “Well I’m not racist! I treat everyone the same.” It may be true, but it’s an individual response to an institutional problem. It’s apples and oranges.

Institutional justice requires action beyond ourselves.

There are many videos circulating of positive interactions during the protests: people kneeling together, protecting each other, asking for forgiveness. It’s beautiful and necessary, but it’s not justice.

Justice comes when we change the systems that brought us to the point of unrest. Officers kneeling and asking forgiveness is a powerful image, but do they go back to their union and advocate for policy change? People post black squares on their social media, but are they contacting their officials and demanding change? Are they voting for interests beyond their own?

Kindness might change the mind of an individual, but it won’t change a system of oppression. Kindness without action…will see us repeat this cycle of injustice and protest in the near future. Action must go beyond a social media post. It must last longer than the trending hashtags. If you have the privilege to decide whether to act, you must act. It is your responsibility to use your privilege for good.

So how do you start? Read, listen, watch. Educate yourself. Examine your own complicity. Grieve. Have difficult conversations. Vote. Be vocal about your care for others.

It is hard to confront your own shortcomings. It is uncomfortable. It doesn’t come with a quick solution. You won’t get it right the first time…or maybe even the tenth time. 

Let’s lament together. And then let’s change the world.

All We Can Do

It’s day 43 of staying at home. I’m one of those with the privilege of working from home in this time when many are unemployed or working on the front lines. My heart is with those who are suffering. 

In the first week, I was determined to “make the most” of the extra time at home. I wrote out a daily routine to make sure I didn’t waste the opportunity to be productive. I made a list of projects to accomplish and hobbies to practice. 

I tried to maintain control in an uncontrollable situation. 

I crashed. My body told me it was time for a break.

We’re living through a trauma. The body’s natural reaction is a fight or flight response, but that’s not possible during a global pandemic. So…the body goes into protective mode and cannot function at highest capacity. 

This is not business as usual in a new setting. This is something altogether different. We cannot expect our minds and bodies to function normally. Even though I’m relatively safe in my home with a paycheck, my mind and body are stressed. Stressed about loved ones who are vulnerable, stressed about friends losing money, stressed about essential workers, stressed about what the future may look like…etc. 

So I gave myself a break. I spent two days with no expectations, no schedules. I watched movies, played video games, and slept more than usual. I fully expected to emerge ready to jump back into what I’d been doing. Instead, I came out of the break with the realization that I needed to make some adjustments. I wrote a list of things I must do, a list of optional activities, and a list of things to avoid.

I’ll include the lists at the end of the post, but I want to spend a bit of space writing about what the change has meant to me. 

This time at home is not a vacation or the extended productivity time you’ve always wished for. It’s a time of protection and survival. As someone who is still working full-time, I have to remember that my mind still needs to rest during time off as it did when I went into the office. 

Our society has taught us to believe that free time must be filled and justified with activities and projects. In reality, during the week my only “extra” free time during this season is the commute I’d usually spend getting to an activity. I still have those activities virtually, which takes time and brainpower. My weekends have more time because I’m not running errands or going on day-trips. I’m tempted to fill that time with projects and busywork. But you know what? Slowing down is not a crime or a failure. Sometimes it’s what you need. 

In the slowing down, I’ve come to cherish the peace and gentleness that comes from it. Not just peace and gentleness expressed to others, but the peace and gentleness I allow in myself. My mind won’t allow the copious amounts of reading I usually rely on for relaxation, so rather than forcing it, I’ve decided to let my mind tell me when it’s ready. I still read…but a chapter here and there rather than hundreds of pages. My usual tendency would be to try to increase my reading until I was back to “normal,” but not this time. I don’t need to “fix” anything because I’m not broken. 

I love that my friends have time for chats. We talk about our neighborhood walks and funny little things that we never really bothered to tell each other in the time before pandemic. The random bits of our lives are now worth sharing. Then again, they were always worth it…but we decided not to bother.

I love that bubble baths are now more than an occasional treat. 

I love that technology allows me to play games with my siblings even though we’re in three different states. 

I love learning that I’m perfectly content spending hours with myself. Y’all know I’m an introvert, but I’m not accustomed to long periods of solitude.

There are plenty of things that frustrate and discourage me – things are not rosy. But there is so much to love at the same time. 

When we come out of this time, I hope we don’t write up summaries of all we accomplished. I hope we talk about how we loved one another. I hope we share the joys we found. I hope we continue to cherish the random, small bits of life that were once things we hurried past. 

Must Do: May Do: Avoid:
Nourish body and soul Hobbies/Crafts Fixating on bad news
Stay in contact with people Reading Comparison
Take vitamins Home organization Focusing on the “cannots” of this time
Meaningful movement a few times per week. (but don’t try to become a marathon runner)    
Share joyful and encouraging content you find    

The Fifth February 27th

Each year I write a letter to my Grandma and post it on her birthday. When she was living, I wrote her poems every few years. Since she’s been gone, I’ve found these letters to be an integral part of learning to navigate a life without her in the daily happenings.

This year’s letter was harder to write than I expected. I didn’t feel like I had much to report, but then again, you’d love to read even the most mundane things if it meant I took the time to write.

In many ways I would describe this last year as both wonderful and weary. I made some tough decisions and tried to conjure what I thought you’d give as advice in each situation. I’m not sure I got it right…but I know I tried.

It was a year full of “I thought I would ____________ by now” and honestly it was hard to accept. No major milestones, but I’m learning to acknowledge progress as being enough.  The perfectionist overachiever in me doesn’t want to leave, but I’m finding a way to muffle her voice.

There were a few moments when I longed to return to your living room – to curl up on the couch with your tiger blanket, a warm bowl of mac ‘n cheese, and the Sound of Music on the tv. Your off-key singing wafting in from the kitchen as you danced and did the dishes.

The two of us in her living room. I still have that reindeer.

You’d be so proud of the community in which I’ve found myself a part. A group of questioners, oddballs, and sillies who know the secret combination of laughter and vulnerability. They’re my go-to people. They’re not you – they won’t ever quite “get” me as much as you did…but it’s the closest I’ve felt to normal since you left. I sometimes think about how they’d love to have you as a communal Grandma –they would cherish your knack for showing up at the most unexpected, but perfect, times.

Sister and I were sitting together a few months ago and she said, “I wish Grandma was here. She’s missed so much.” We sat in somber acknowledgement. This coming year will bring the third wedding bouquet not assembled by your hands. We continue to reach milestones while we strain to hear the memory of your cheers. We think fondly of your spot at our kitchen table and your ever-presence in the bleachers and pews of our lives. We’re following your example – we try our best to support and advocate for those around us. We move forward imperfectly, but in love.

I went back to your park a few weeks ago – the warm days in February seem to increase with each passing year. I wandered through the trees and spent some time by the water. I almost made it to sunset this time.

Happy Birthday, Carolyn Diana. Your sunshine loves you infinity plus seventy-three.

Goodbyes and Hellos

In the spring of 2006, I saw her photo for the first time. She was a joyful jumble of cheeks, scrunched nose, and pigtails. As I walked up to the table of packets, I saw her face and picked her immediately. Josselyn needed a sponsor, and as a college student with no consistent income, I decided to take the role. I agreed to a monthly commitment of money that would be a stretch for my little budget, but I was determined to make it work. I had no idea we’d spend the next 13 years in community with one another through letters and photos.

As years passed, I watched her baby face mature and her pigtails disappear. I marveled as her correspondence evolved from pictures, to words, to paragraphs full of insights and encouragement. She gave me descriptions of her life, her hobbies, and her dreams. I did my best to write back and send her pictures of my own, sharing milestones along the way. I beamed with pride as she recently told me of her wish to attend university and to visit Paris…and to one day meet me.

…and then yesterday, it all came to an end.

I received written notice from the organization that Josselyn had aged out of the program. No warning. No formal way to say goodbye, just a phone number to call to arrange my next sponsored child.  

After more than 13 years, we deserved closure. We’d built a friendship that deserved recognition.

I learned so much from my interactions with Josselyn over those years. She helped me keep a global focus and remember that my actions can affect people I will never meet. In a way, we both grew up. I am certainly not the same person I was in college, and she’s transitioned from preschooler to adult in that time.

I received the notice about Josselyn right after I scheduled my interview to begin the process of becoming a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children in foster care. Coincidence?

I’m no longer Josselyn’s sponsor, but I’m going to be a voice for children in my community. My interactions with her are part of the journey that heightened my awareness of vulnerable children. This volunteer opportunity is the first step in what I hope will be a much larger story.

Thank you, Josselyn. Maybe we’ll meet in Paris someday.

Like Holding Sand in the Ocean…

The title of this post is my attempt to describe the way I feel when I’m overwhelmed with life. I’m not talking about being overwhelmed with a busy schedule or an influx of tasks. There are times when it is hard to find motivation to function. My coping tendency is to isolate and vegetate – not great solutions.

In recent years, I’ve recognized January/February as a typical timeframe for the appearance of this overwhelm. I could blame it on the weather or the abundance of free time I seem to have during those months, but regardless of the cause, it’s an experience I do not enjoy. Once I saw a pattern, I developed a plan to combat reoccurrence. So, this year I’m trying a few things to battle the “winter blues” and continue thriving:

  • Be intentional with free time
    • The hours between work and bedtime seem to multiply in the winter, and my mind likes to run marathons if left idle for long stretches of time. This year I am attempting to schedule tasks and errands throughout each week to make sure I have a goal to accomplish every day. For example: rather than cramming all my chores into one day, I’ll wash clothes on Monday, fold them on Tuesday, go grocery shopping on Wednesday, etc. It seems simple, but assigning tasks to specific days encourages me to avoid wallowing in a dark room with Netflix.

  • Take on a new project
    • I like to be crafty. I often knit in the winter, but this year I’m trying diamond art instead. It’s similar to paint by numbers, but you place acrylic gemstones instead of paint. When I’m finished I’ll have a nice image to frame. I work on it while I’m watching a show or listening to an audio book, and it keeps my mind from wandering.

  • Yoga
    • I’m striving for a peaceful demeanor, so I chose a fitness practice that emphasizes calm. I try to complete three sessions a week.

  • Pick small things on my “someday” list and do them
    • I love to cook, especially in the winter. I have a family recipe for tomato sauce and meatballs that I’ve wanted to attempt for a few years. It’s an all-day process so I kept saying I’d do it sometime in the future. This time I set a date and invited good friends to share a meal. I was tired by the time we sat down to eat, but the food was delicious and the company made it all worth it.

  • Make plans to see people
    • It sounds silly, but scheduling time with friends and loved ones is one of my best practices. There are plenty of spontaneous events, but putting coffee meetups or shopping trips on the calendar helps me break up my workweeks and ensures that I’ll spend time with people who care.

So far I’ve been successful with these practices, and it seems to be making the winter more pleasant. January feels forever long, but I think everyone feels that way this year? Are you trying new things to make winter fun?

The End of the Beginning

I stepped into a mall during the holiday season. Not just any mall, but THE mall of my youth. This particular mall quite literally makes an appearance in the telling of my birth story (more on that later), so when I say it’s the mall of my youth, I truly mean my ENTIRE childhood. 

There were other malls in the county, but Lakeforest was closest and it had everything we needed. White Flint felt small and fancy. Montgomery Mall was too expensive and far away. Lakeforest was just right for us. 

The mall is dying. 
Three of the anchor stores have closed. Many shops are empty. Even Starbucks abandoned their post. 

I was struck by a wave of nostalgia mixed with sadness as I walked through the mall and still found Santa in the center, sitting on his chair and posing for photos. That’s the spot where I took my first photo with Santa, and my siblings did as well. 

I haven’t been a regular shopper at the mall in years, so I’m a contributor to the decline of such establishments, but I found myself mourning the end of the kind of memories I made in that building. Many people see malls as monuments to consumerism, but those walls created a social space that we no longer possess. The gathering areas in the center of the mall and in the corners by the anchor stores became places for people to chat and hang out while their kids had safe places to deplete their rambunctious energy. Most of my memories are not about money spent, or things purchased, but about people and quality time in that space.

I haven’t created new memories there in quite some time, but I’ll miss being able to walk through and reminisce – to point out those memories to people who are new to my life. So, I’m going to share some of them with you now. 

Let’s start at the very beginning:

The day of my birth: Mom went into labor. My Aunt was working at the mall, and Grandma called to say she’d be there in 10 minutes so they could get to the hospital before I was born. 90 minutes later, Grandma finally pulled up to get my Aunt who was frantically wondering what had taken so long (this was before cell phones, kids). To this day, no one knows what Grandma did during that time. She called it the missing hour and a half for the rest of her life. 

Other memories I cherish:

  • Countless hours of playing in the middle of the mall with friends and kids I’d just met.
  • Eating Jerry’s pizza after hours of playing. 
  • So many family photos at the Sears studio.
  • My high school senior photos (also at Sears)
  • Grandma’s illegal parking spot in the service lane at Sears – no one ever stopped her!
  • Walking many, many laps around the mall with my mom when she was pregnant with all three of my siblings.  
  • Family dinners and celebrations at Chi-Chi’s.
  • The clerks in the women’s department of Hecht’s knowing me by name because I walked my sister Amanda to the bathroom there so many times. 
  • Turning all the rain sticks in the Natural Wonders store at once to make the waterfall sound as loud as possible. 
  • Wandering through the music box store and always playing the ones from Phantom of the Opera. 
  • Shopping at Claire’s and KB Toys. 
  • Saving up all my money in 6th grade to buy one “cool” outfit at Limited Too. 
  • Being trusted to shop with my friends while my Mom was somewhere else in the mall. 
  • Buying cd’s. 
  • Getting an egg bagel toasted with cream cheese and a Mystic drink from Bagel Time. 
  • Sitting in the couch alcove under the staircases with a book and feeling like I’d found a hidden oasis.
  • Tasting my first caramel macchiato – the real thing, not the Starbucks version. 

I could write pages and pages of things I did in that mall. It was quite normal for our family, when I was growing up, to spend a day just being there. We always ran into people we knew. 

I snapped a photo of Santa, knowing this is probably his last hurrah in Lakeforest…and mine as well. My mom asked if I wanted to wait in line and sit on his lap for old times’ sake, but I chose instead to capture an image of the center of the mall…and the place of so many memories.  

We’re closing another decade. It’s hard to summarize all that’s happened in ten years except to say that things have changed – just like the mall. To call it a tumultuous decade would be fair, but that’s not the whole picture. I’ve experienced the deepest valleys accompanied by the most inexplicable joys. It’s been far from safe, but it’s been good. 

Here’s to the twenties.