Category: Her Words

Blogposts by Cindi Woods

Why Grover’s Corners is the best day trip for the New Year

Chris Drumm, Flickr, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/2isFlCB

Now there are some things we all know, but we don’t take’m out and look at’m very often. We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars…everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.

Stage Manager, Our Town

Thornton Wilder’s play, Our Town, opens in the year 1901. His three-act story follows the daily, mundane events of a few families in Grover’s Corners…events which, when all strung together, encapsulate the beauty and mystery of life…mostly unappreciated until it’s over.

Not much has changed in a hundred or so years. Most of us spend our days sleep-walking through the daily-ness of our existence, taking for granted the gifts of health, family, employment, hot water, and grilled cheese sandwiches. We stare through people and rush through moments to get to “the next thing.”

But what if it’s true, as someone has said, that “The divine moment is the present moment”? If divine is to be “of, from, or like God…or excellent; delightful” then each moment holds incredible power. Shouldn’t our perspective change when we remember that each moment offers us an opportunity to influence the human heart—our own and other’s—for good or ill?

To make things interesting, add Simone Weil’s words about beauty and affliction being the only things to pierce the human heart. And let’s be honest, it’s usually affliction which causes us to appreciate the beauty.

In early December I had what seemed to be a run-of-the-mill infection. However, my visit to the doctor turned into some unexpected tests and waiting! For most people this scenario would be a nuisance at best and a bit troublesome at worst. But for a woman with a PhD in hypochondria, this was the beginning of my end.

Len says I’m a walking medical miracle. In our early years of marriage, I was routinely cured of cancers, heart attacks, and a variety of other life-threatening illnesses. It was common for me to say as we drifted off to sleep, “If you wake up and I’m dead, I have a headache…so it was probably an aneurism.”

After a couple of weeks of waiting for results and a referral to a specialist, I had worked myself up to the real possibility that this could be my last Christmas. What if it was?

As residents of the universal Grover’s Corners, we all know death is a reality. And yet every time we hear of someone passing, our jaws drop as if a Cosmic Congress voted at midnight to slip a mortality amendment into the constitution of life.

I have friends who have received actual diagnoses of life-threatening illnesses. I always feel bad for them and pray for them. (Only to be encouraged by their positive outlook in spite of their fuzzy immediate future) But with my recent health scare I was forced to embrace the truth that we’re all terminal. Most of us just don’t know what we’re dying of yet.

For those of us who claim to believe in the stage manager’s “eternal,” the reality of death shouldn’t hold so much power. We might be healed in a temporal sense along the road of life and live to a ripe old age. But if not, we can find solace in the promise of “ultimate healing” in heaven where there is “no more sorrow, no more tears”…no more fear of terminal illnesses. (revised Cindi version)

But I’m greedy. Even though I have had an embarrassment of riches with the life I’ve already lived, I want more! The truth is, often the world my eyes can see brings more comfort than the hope of the one I can’t…even if it’s to be better. Many days my faith is on the life-support verse of Mark 9:24b, “I do believe; help my unbelief.” Practicing faith at my house involves not looking up dire scenarios on the Johns Hopkins website.

With my renewed zeal for the precious commodity of time, I realize I have squandered millions of moments. A reflection by the deceased Simon Stimson, from Our Town, sums it up best:

…That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another.

Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, this earthly gig will end for us all. So what if I get “the call?” What if you do? How do we want to be living in light of dying?

In the third act of Our Town, one of the main characters, Emily, dies and takes her place among the rest of the cemetery residents and they matter-of-factly discuss how the living “don’t get it.” Emily wants to go back and witness one day of her life, thinking it will be a great joy. Against the counsel of her grave-mates, she chooses her twelfth birthday. After only a few minutes into the flashback, she realizes how the living, really do “miss it”…miss life as it’s happening.

Emily: I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back—up the hill—to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you. (She looks at the stage manager and asks abruptly through tears) Do any humans beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?

Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe—they do some.

Walter and Jack arrived home on the 23rd. I spent hours in the kitchen stirring love into soups, cookies, and coffee cakes. Our little family watched movies and ate popcorn dripping with butter. We worked puzzles, played scrabble and laughed. We talked about the previous years accomplishments and hopes for 2017. I leaned into the Christmas tree and breathed deep the smell of sweet pine. I stared at Len and the boys when they weren’t looking and thanked God for these three gifts. We were in the present together. It was exactly how I would want to spend my last Christmas.

I have some exciting professional opportunities in 2017. Chances are good I will be around to see what (if anything) happens, but you never know. And I’m getting okay with that. Why waste the blessings right in front of me worrying about a reality I can’t change?

We have a grapevine wreath wrapped with little white lights that hangs above the French doors leading into our den. I love those lights but usually stop myself from using them with the thought, “If you use them now they might burn out when you really want them for a special occasion.”

My mortality reality check and a day trip to Grover’s Corners have shown me that today is the special occasion—this very moment a gift.

Life’s too short to not use twinkle lights.

A whole heart in a broken body

mom-the-nurseThe first time Len introduced me to his mom was in January of 1987. I was nervous and awkward…she was poised and gracious. Four months later when Len and I married, mom and I began our journey as in-laws.

Mom and I were very different. She had a place for everything while I had everything out of place. She was a gifted seamstress while I duct taped the hems on my boys pants. She was a meticulous cleaner while I nurtured dust bunnies under every appliance. But she never made me feel bad. Instead, she loved me “as-is” and we bonded over the thing we had in common— our love of family.

For Len and I, some of our fondest memories were when we would jump in the car with Walter and Jack and head to Mamma and Ghee’s house. In five short hours we could be sitting at the long counter at 101 Matthews Drive stuffing our faces with mom’s shrimp po-boys and frosty Barqs root beers. We laughed, lounged, and played games. If the whole family was gathered, inevitably someone would say, “remember the time…?” The siblings would laugh and embellish and argue about details until mom reminded them of the facts. Mom also had a deadpan way of telling stories that made them even funnier than they were.

There was something about being in her home that made you feel like you could go off duty. (Guess that’s because mom had been on duty preparing for two weeks prior to our arrival.) We descended on them like the proverbial plague and left them, as mom liked to say, “ruined” by the end of our visit.

How someone who liked things “just so” endured the chaos we dragged into her house is a testament to mom’s love. We were loud and messy. And while the three-ring family circus swirled in her living room, she was quietly observing…taking the emotional temperature of those around her to make sure all her babies, actual and grown, were all doing well. We might have been a unruly brood, but she had a mother’s intentional heart—saying or doing just the right things to encourage us individually.

We were fortunate to have so many good years with mom. We’re blessed with memories of celebrating birthdays, holidays and countless significant life events. And we could write volumes about the times mom and Jack rode in like the cavalry (if the cavalry pulled Airstream trailers) to help us out with a home repair, a new baby, or a crisis.

The years flew by as we raised kids and tried to make ends meet. We slept a few times and all got older. It’s just that the same number of years added to mom and Jack’s stack of time shifted them into a stage requiring more help.

The decisions families are forced to make in the face of aging and declining health are brutal. There are no great options. For mom this meant moving to Ruston in 2014 to be near Len and I. It was a move from a city she had called home for 50 years, from a husband of 37 years, and from a whole community of her people. She was understandably upset and confused.

The three of us spent the first months trying to learn our new normal—Len and I adjusting to caring for someone who used to care for us and mom out of her element and out of control. She was lonely…but refused to leave her room for activities or meals. She obsessed about “going home” to the point of packing her walker to make an escape.

photoBut eventually we found a rhythm. She would always be surprised and thrilled when I walked in the door. My first order of business was to fetch her a “good cup of coffee.” We would visit, running through the same talking points everyday. She was happy to sit in her favorite Lazy-boy recliner and watch the nursing home world parade by her open door. In true Southern style she would kindly speak to the people when they reached her doorway, and then, speak about the people after they passed.

It took a while for me to change my perspective from the sadness of mom’s condition to recognizing the beauty of this stripped down version of a person. There was no pretense or distraction. No yesterday or tomorrow. Only the moment we were sharing. I couldn’t change her situation, but I could ride it out with her.

For all of the downsides of dementia, these past two and a half years I’ve had the privilege of watching the cream rise to the top of mom’s life. The qualities she spent a lifetime cultivating couldn’t be squelched by her mental foe. They might not have presented in a way we recognized at first, but there they were: loving, helpful, orderly, purposeful, thankful, and a lover of God.

On more than one occasion during this difficult transition, mom would suddenly close her eyes, bow her head and pray. While I was busy fretting or raging against some new obstacle, her default mode was to go to the source of all comfort and hope. Even in her confused state, her faith put me to shame.

Before mom lost her ability to communicate, she would often protest fretfully that I was doing so much for her and she couldn’t do anything for me. I would remind her that she had already done so much for all of us through the years and now it was our turn to help her. She would give me a puzzled look and say, “I did?”

I would run through an abbreviated list of the countless, selfless ways she had loved our family. I would tell her of our visits to her home in Slidell and how she would roll out shrimp, “mamma chicken” and ice cream pie. She listened like a child hearing about Santa Claus for the first time —with pure wonder.

We tell stories with our lives—with our words and actions—and pass them down to the next generation. And then when we can no longer remember our own stories, our children tell them back to us.

One of the last coherent things mom said to me was, “You’re a good carer.” It was tender and precious. But it was really the story she taught me with her life. It was an honor to remind mom of her story for the past two and a half years.

She lived a great story.

The day reality got real

Last Friday as I was leaving the nursing home, the parking lot was full of residents holding American flags as they hobbled and rolled to the curb. They were waiting for the Blue Angels to fly over in honor of Veterans Day.

 

img_3423

I drove past the group and waved. With minds held captive by dementia, many stared blankly back at me and waved their red, white and blue on the cue of their caretakers. To keep from driving off the road in despair, I had to focus on positives: 1. These residents were once vital contributors to society—mothers and fathers, teachers, businessmen, pastors, nurses, engineers and veterans. 2. It’s an honor to care for such trailblazers.

But a bigger part of me wanted to punch the accelerator to speed away from this preview of all our futures. I tried to fill my mind with all the urgent tasks I needed to accomplish. But something within me knew I had to turn around and share this important moment with my unlikely adopted community. And so I did.

I turned around. I parked. I walked from my car and joined the huddled geriatric masses slumped in their wheelchairs. Out of the 15 facility residents who are veterans, only one made it out for the festivities. The activities director moved him to the front row. I kneeled down and thanked him for his service. He gave me a nod. I’m not sure he could hear or understand me. But in that moment, it didn’t matter. We were all just united…Americans celebrating the freedom we enjoy.

To have this experience on the heels of the bloodiest (political) battle since Antietam is not lost on me. Last Tuesday we all watched—some with excitement, some with horror, and all in disbelief—as Donald Trump was elected our next President.

I’m not gonna lie…I spent the better part of the Fall burying my head in the sands of entertainment. My biggest nail-biter, while eating Skittles and watching back-to-back episodes of Say Yes to the Dress, was hoping Pnina Tornai could come through for the picky bride and her overbearing mother.

But even with my news fast, stories about the two candidates seeped into our house like black mold. Hillary left me with huge trust issues and Trump just made me sick. No amount of mental gymnastics would allow me to pull the lever for either one. So armed with my conscience and a handful of sugar high, I voted third party.

Whether the former Celebrity Apprentice star really meant to win or not, November 8th is the day reality got real for us all. The negative fallout was immediate. I was extremely proud and encouraged when Hillary Clinton and President Obama urged our country to come together and give the new President-elect a chance to lead. But unless acceptance looks like riots and #notmypresident, a lot of people are still pretty worked up.

Here’s the deal…Contrary to the inflammatory rhetoric on both sides, I think people just voted for whomever they felt could better help them survive their daily lives. And on lots of days for lots of people, just surviving is a bitch.

My biggest take away from this election cycle is that we have become a nation that has lost the ability to communicate. Screaming obscenities over police lines or firing verbal bombs from social media bunkers doesn’t count. I’m talking about face-to-face conversations…asking questions and actually listening to each other’s answers. It’s a lot harder to demonize someone when you’re looking him/her in the eye.

It’s normal for us to filter everything through the grid of our own realities. For us it’s self-employment and trying to squeeze life-blood from our bank account turnip while holding a health insurance letter saying our premiums will just about double in 2017. But guess what? Our needs are only two out of 318.9 million.

I recently learned that we have a poverty rate pushing 40% (according to census.gov) in our little town of Ruston…40 percent!!! What? (Randy has never mentioned that on Say Yes to the Dress.) Aside from our inherited involvement with eldercare, a few years volunteering at an elementary school, and annual holiday drive-by good deeds, I’ve been oblivious to the needs of others.

So while I’m watching and praying that President-elect Trump will have an attack of humility, I’m going to focus on my own need for change and engagement. No politician can fix all our nation’s ills. We each have a responsibility to be a part of the solution.

img_3425-2-1

Back in the parking lot, it was all a blur. “I see them!” someone yelled. “Wave your flags!” Old hands held up Old Glorys as the Blue Angels screamed by and dipped their wings. Set against the backdrop of a brutal election, this was a freakin’ Hallmark commercial—these aerial symbols of freedom zooming past our living heirlooms. The only thing that could have added more emotion to the mix was if the Angels had air-dropped a box full of cute babies and puppies.

I stumbled back to my car and ugly-cried for a few minutes. But then, I felt hopeful. When you get right down to it, we all want the same things—safety, respect, and a little compassion. Surely we can work at making that a reality for everyone?

How to enjoy the beach 35 years of cellulite later

IMG_2205Nothing strikes fear in the heart of a middle-aged woman like these two words: Swimsuit Season!

So tell me: Would you rather have your 20 year-old body,  or the current broken down version you drag out of bed each morning? What fool wouldn’t choose the younger, more energetic model? Until my recent trip to the beach, I would have knocked you over to get to the front of that trade-in line.

The last time I took a substantial beach vacation was about 35 years ago. Patty, Renny, Kathy, Gaynelle and I hopped into Patty’s Ford Mustang with our bikinis, hairspray and our bank rolls of money saved from donating plasma. (There’s every parents dream for their kid!) The Knack blared on the stereo while we banged our hairbrushes in time on the dashboard.

I wish I could tell you our trip goal was to appreciate God’s beautiful creation…looking over the waters to marvel at dolphins diving in and out of the surf. Nope. We drove 972 miles to Daytona Beach to do exactly what we did everyday in the spring back home in Indiana—lie out in the sun, listen to music, and drink. But in Florida, we could drink legally while acquiring second-degree burns. So unless a dolphin cruised up shoreside with a tray of Tom Collins on its back, we had bigger fish to fry.

Renny was always the first to crisp up. Wanting to get her money’s worth of sun, she would dip herself in a vat of baby oil and fall asleep on the beach the first day. She spent the remainder of the trip lying on a lounge chair looking like the invisible man in sweats and sunglasses to protect her blistered skin.

Mid-week, we strutted along the beach with our toned, tanned bodies like seaside CEOs, sniggering at the older people ruining our youthful view. Middle-aged women hid their bulges under skirted swimsuits while their husbands sported bermuda shorts, black socks and sandals.

I cringe a little when I think about those trips. But mostly, I smile. We were in a stage of life…a self-centered, irresponsible, potentially dangerous, necessary stage of life. Most of us are not “born older“ like George Bailey, so we do time wasting time, talent and resources.

A couple of weeks ago I climbed into another Ford and headed to the beach. This time it was in a practical, family-friendly Edge owned by my friend, Julie who graciously invited Tisdale and I to join her on a trip to Orange Beach. Since I prefer the mountains to the beach and since I have developed a raging case of “hermit“ these past few years, it took some serious persuading to get me on board.

If they didn’t question the wisdom of my inclusion when I texted the night before our departure to inform them that I didn’t even own a beach towel, they certainly did when we made our first trek out to the water.

They walked out of their rooms looking like page 42 of the Land’s End summer catalog—cute beach bags, classy coverups and straw hats. I walked out of a Kurt Cobain music video with my gym shorts, a baggy, gray tank, and a previous vacation’s souvenir-equivalent of a reusable grocery bag.

IMG_3118I think Julie tried to set up her chair a distance from mine making it plausible for passersby to think we weren’t together. I inched my chair closer to hers. Soon, the great equalizer of our post-child bearing bodies and minds made the experience of lying half-naked in the world a lot more comfortable than it was all those years ago when we actually had the goods to flaunt.

Our conversations drifted toward our children and our hopes and dreams for them as they make their way in the world. We talked about politics, healthcare, bills, and our failing memories. With bladders that hang by a thread, we even stood in the waves and warmed the ocean. It was that or spend the week doing stair laps up to the condo bathroom.

One day nasty weather pushed us off the beach and to the Outlets. Julie and Tisdale force-fed my dressing room with skirts, pants, and dresses. (Guess my beach attire had them worried about what I might wear out to dinner?) The public mirror of three angles of bad was the worst. Is this too short? Too tight? Too young?! Nothing says you’ve aged out of fashion like feeling out-of-place at a chain clothing store. I even caught a mannequin rolling her eyes at me.

Back in the safety of our condo and my boxers, I crawled into a stem of chardonnay and realized how thankful I am to not be the 20 year-old on the beach. I don’t mind my saggy, wrinkled body. I’ve earned it along with the wisdom that comes from every trial, success, and humbling experience of my life.

They all add up to that blob on the beach who can watch the new young thing stroll by like she owns the place, and feel nothing but gratitude.

I’m thrilled to be past her stage of life. I’m sure she looks at me with the same pity I felt for the old couple back in the 80’s. But for one moment when our eyes met, I caught a glimpse of the insecurity and fear that bely the confident beachcomber. Who knew the exposing of our skin was only a cover up?

My college friends, current partners in crime and I are all older now. The exhausting business of keeping up a youthful facade is behind us. It won’t be long before we’re asking, “Can you see my Depends through this suit?”

I’m just happy I can still adjust my cellulite to fit on the lounge chair.

Love in the human lost and found

Once upon a time, before I came, you cried and cried and watched TV all day, until you were a zombie. But then I zoomed down from heaven, through skylight, into Room. Whoosh-pshew! And I was kicking you from the inside. Boom, boom! And then I shot out onto Rug with my eyes wide open, and you cutt-ed the cord and said, ‘Hello, Jack!’

Room

The movie Room is the story of Jack and Ma. When Ma (Joy) was seventeen, she was abducted and locked in a garden shed. Jack, was born out of the horrendous actions of her captor, Old Nick. The film opens on Jack’s fifth birthday, seven years after the kidnapping.

In order to protect him from the ugly truth of their plight, Ma allows Jack to believe the only real world is their tiny room and its contents. Jack narrates his understanding of the world:

There’s Room, then Outer Space, then Heaven. Plant is real but not trees. Spiders are real and one time the mosquito that was sucking my blood. But squirrels and dogs are just TV, except Lucky my dog that might be some day. Mountains are too big to be real and the sea.

As outsiders with the benefit of understanding there is a larger reality, it’s shocking to see Jack’s relative peace with his existence. But his stability lies in his mother’s love, not in his surroundings.

None of us have a vote about the family into which we’re born. Many families muddle through, managing to grow their broods to adulthood relatively unscathed. But far too many children find themselves in homes that are tenuous at best and downright dangerous at worst.

In the fall, I sat in a tiny courtroom with two little boys, their biological parents, and my friend who was their foster mom. I watched as the birth parents relinquished their parental rights. Products themselves of poverty, abuse, poor role models, and addiction—compounded by their own unfortunate choices—led them to this decision. The situation was not sustainable.

In Room, Old Nick’s threats force Ma to confront their own unsustainable life. Jack is their only hope to pull off a plan of escape, but she can’t send him out into a world he doesn’t believe exists. She comes clean about the truth of their life in the shed. He responds to the news with confusion and anger.

Jack: “I want a different story!”

Ma: “No, this is the story that you get!”

After many tears and much discussion…

Ma: “You’re going to love it.”

Jack: “What?”

Ma: “The world.”

The plan is successful and the two are finally free. Even though their rescue is the best possible outcome, the new reality for Ma and Jack is overwhelming. Their simple, co-dependent world built for two is now stretched to accommodate life outside of the room. Jack’s observes:

The world’s like all TV planets on at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen. There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. 

On April 19, 2016, I entered the same court that sanctioned the demise of a family in the fall. But this time I got to witness the legal rescue of the same little boys. A judge signed adoption papers making my friend their new forever mom. Whoosh-pshew! A new family was born. Love in the human lost and found.

The three year-old was playful and smiling. The five year-old wore uncertainty like the Halloween mask he wore on the fall day that set this arrangement into motion.

He loves his adoptive mother and his new life with her and his brother. But like Jack, his rescue from a simple, but broken life with his biological family leaves him with a confusing mix of emotions.

His forever mommy is willing to lean into the tension of a life that includes the birth parents so the boys will know they were loved on all fronts. But still he is left in an emotional wrestling match of one—trying to sort out where his allegiances should lie.

Jack’s Ma gets pinned by her formidable re-entry opponent and tries to tap out with a handful of pills. While she is recovering in a hospital, Jack continues his acclimation with the care of his grandmother, Nancy. As he becomes stronger, he wants to offer some of his strength to his mother.

In true Samson fashion, he decides to cut his five year-old mane and send the locks of bravery to his mom.

Jack: “Do you think this will work? Can my strong be her strong too?”

Nancy:  “Oh. Of course it can. We all help each other stay strong. No one is strong alone.”

AdoptionMy friend, the new forever mom, has spent most of her life wondering why she has experienced so much pain, disappointment, and disillusionment. Wondering what God could possibly be thinking? I have sat with her, cried with her, and listened. “Doesn’t He care? Doesn’t he see my pain? If only it had a purpose.”

It did. And He saw. He sat with her through it and then looked past it to two little boys who would need her to understand their pain. All the struggle and counseling and wrestling with a life that did not go as planned uniquely qualified her to welcome two tiny souls now battling the same questions. Her trials prepared her “for such a time as this.”

If we could choose our stories, I would guess these brothers would not have picked this scenario. But this is their story. The beautiful thing is, while there are wounds to be healed and hardships to overcome, there is hope.

In his book, A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer writes:

Wholeness does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life. Knowing this gives me hope that human wholeness—mine, yours, ours—need not be a utopian dream, if we can use devastation as a seedbed for new life.

Two little boys burst into the room of my friend. It was unplanned and messy. The truth was ugly and sad. But after the truth comes love. Lots of love. Together, they saved each other.

Squinting our red eyes at the hope of a new day

Photo courtesy of jdurham, morgueFile, http://bit.ly/1WkFEiE
Photo courtesy of jdurham, morgueFile, http://bit.ly/1WkFEiE

Do you ever get the sense that life is a series of red eye flights from birth to the grave? Darkness and light duking it out over the course of 70 or so years.

Thanks to some insomniac in the 70’s, airlines realized they could maximize their fleet’s productivity/profit by using their planes to transport freight overnight from the west coast to the east coast, thereby arriving in time for morning deliveries. Additionally, this repositioned the aircrafts for the morning flights heading west.

From there, a few over-achievers discovered they could work all day on the west coast, hop on board this night flight, fly during non-business hours, and arrive on the east coast rested* and ready for a new business day.

*About as rested as Gulliver on Lilliput Airways.

Bi-coastal executives magically appeared at morning meetings with eyes redder than a baboon’s butt. Thus the red-eye was born.

A confessed wanderer, I see travel metaphors at every turn. Sitting in church a couple of weeks ago I pictured the whole motley lot of us sharing the flight of life. We inch forward on our individual paths all week and then meet up to travel collectively for a couple of hours aboard the Sunday flyer.

Our altruistic side wants to be there because we desire to worship a loving God who chose to “save a wretch like me”. However, if the communion cups contained truth serum, many of us wretches would confess our attendance is tied more to the hope of an express journey over the dark, difficult passages of life to a brighter destination. A spiritual red-eye.

In church circles,  darkness refers to spiritual obscurity or deprivation of light (insight). Daylight refers to life, salvation, goodness, and truth. Who wouldn’t love to sleep through the dark, scary stretches and awaken to the hope of a brand new day?

The circumstances that lead each of us to the pew will vary, but the question we’re asking is the same: Why is my life not working out like I thought it would?

So I squeeze past the mission-minded, home-schooling, self-sacrificing, high-tithing cats in the first class section of the congregation on my way to the business class of sinners. Sometimes I spend the first few moments of the service sizing up my traveling companions.

If I strain hard enough I can compare myself not only to the present company, but to spiritual heavy hitters through all of human history. Surely up in that front row, just beyond my view, Moses and Paul are wiping their faces with hot towels, clinking mini bottles of champagne, and eating their pre-ordered kosher meals.

It feels like there is a holy/unholy separation of the population there in the rows, but there is no division. Only broken people in need of forgiveness, grace, and acceptance. Even Moses and Paul were a mixed bag. Two murderers who by God’s grace “broke good”.

CongregationThe church has to take us in. The liars, the abusers, the adulterers, the gossipers, the self-righteous, the embezzlers, the addicted, the prideful scum of the earth. You know…you and me.

Call it crazy hope, wishful thinking, or last-ditched effort, people are searching for illumination. Some of my darkest times in life were a result of bad experiences within the church and with people claiming to represent God. But even then, I didn’t know what else to do except show up in the place where, in the end, there might be some light.

This past week, I skipped the Sunday “flight.” And in a true rebellious preacher’s kid move, I even cut the grass during God’s business hours. I half expected illumination in the form of a lightening bolt from the clear blue sky. But nothing happened.

Turns out God does not take attendance. Showing up is for our benefit not His. What I really missed was the collective weekly reminder: There is hope. I’m not alone. There’s something about being crammed together with a bunch of forgiven losers that sets the tone for the rest of the week.

It comes in handy when stumbling out onto the tarmac of Monday squinting our red eyes at the hope of a new day.

The world needs your help…even when it itches

Cindi & MomOn a typical visit to see my mother-in-law at the nursing home, I will greet her, take a seat on her walker, and roll to my position directly in front of her La-Z Boy.

(There is only one other chair in the room that made the cut when the downsizing began about six years ago—a small country-blue number from her house in Slidell.)

If you have ever been tasked with changing a glorified hospital room into a “home,” you know it’s like trying to solve the space-management equivalent of a Rubik’s Cube. However, we finally arrived at the correct placement of the maximum memory-jogging elements for our mom who lives with dementia.

Dr. Who would be proud. It was our own little nursing home Tardis—way more crap in there than should be physically possible.

In addition to the furnishings provided by the facility, we added a large La-Z Boy recliner, an end table, a lamp, a bookcase, a quilt rack, and the little blue chair. Impressive enough, but all this also had to be placed to allow for movement around the room in a wheelchair or walker.

All that is back story for this: I sit on the walker because it’s a pain in the neck to move the blue chair—from its very calculated spot. The walker is comfortable enough and—how sad is this to admit—I find it a little fun to roll around the room.

I was at my usual “post” on a Monday morning, chatting it up with Mom. She ran through her list of conversational questions: “You have a daughter, don’t you?” (Umm no, two sons.) “Did you have a nice Christmas?” (I don’t remember, it was three months ago.) I placed my actual responses on auto-pilot and started nosing around her table to see what new clutter could be disposed of to keep me from losing what was left of my mind.

I had to lean way over in the walker to reach a napkin holder that was stuffed with the dietary notices that arrive with her food tray three times a day. After a brief exchange with her about why she most certainly did not need to keep these papers—although they did look nice with her display of used toothpicks—I was allowed to drop them into the trashcan.

When I repositioned on the walker seat, I noticed my pants felt wet. I reached for the spot with my hand. Sure enough, wet. Call me crazy, but if I’ve learned nothing else from spending hours at the nursing home, it’s this: All wetness is suspect! I instinctively smelled my now damp fingers. Urine. NO, not “my-ine”!

I tried to hide my disgust and continue talking while thinking of an exit strategy. I made my way to her bathroom and yelled responses from there as I used wet wipes to clean up the affected area. I washed my hands and made my excuses to leave.

Here’s what I learned. I am all about loving and giving…until it’s gross. Take my time, take my money—“take your records, take your freedom, take your memories I don’t need ’em”—just don’t make me sit in pee.

Lest you think I’m a prude, I’ve had more than my share of other human’s bodily fluids where they don’t belong—on my body. I’m a mother of two boys. Each of my sons did their part to teach me humility and remind me that I’m not the center of the universe.

I’ve been the target of projectile vomit. I’ve endured the “I’m quicker than you” urine spray while changing diapers. I’ve felt the warm sensation on my hip as I held my precious bundle whose diaper was unable to contain the bowel movement that was now bonding us together.

But the bodily fluids of an adult? Apparently that’s another story for me. So what changed? It wasn’t that long ago I was playing the “Is this chocolate or poop?” game on a daily basis.

I have friends who don’t flinch or hedge when the opportunity comes to serve the “least of these.”

One answered the call to help an infant in need of a temporary home. She brought home one baby human—and about 50 baby roaches in the child’s car seat. “Thanks for serving!”

Others have offered their spare rooms to those in need and were rewarded with bugs that love beds—not once, but twice! “Thanks for serving!”

I actually listened to two families who had travelled together on a mission trip to the Amazon LAUGH as they shared the news, “We have lice.” “So do we!”

“Thanks for serving!”

I’m not proud of my reluctance to get down and dirty in the trenches of Jesus-ness. I find no recorded texts of Him wiping his hand on a tunic after ministering to a leper or running over to the Jordan to wash off the germs of Peter’s fever-riddled mother-in-law.

You most certainly would have seen me there bathing in Clorox. (With maybe even a drop or two in my kosher cocktail for good measure)

photo-2

Mom spent her life giving, selflessly, as a wife, mother, grandmother, nurse, neighbor, and church member. She pitched in more times than I can count when we were figuring out life as newlyweds, homeowners, and parents. We were truly clueless and messy humans. She got her hands (and, I’m sure, the seat of her pants) dirty for us on many occasions.

I’ll certainly continue my frequent visits with my precious mother-in-law. Just know however, I’ll be pulling out the blue chair.

And I’m pretty sure in heaven, I’ll be the door-holder, ushering my less-squeamish brothers and sisters of humanity to the front for their grasping of the truth that the world needs our help…even when it itches.

I think that’s what we’re called to do. I’m trying. But I may need a lot more Clorox (and a little more cocktail) to do it.

Hope beats a flush every time

SetbackFrom the family that brought you “puzzles as death sport” comes “confessions of sketchy card playing.”

My maternal grandmother was a shameless cheat. To be her partner in Setback earned you immediate “guilt by association” status. She scratched her chest for “hearts.” She fiddled with her ring for “diamonds.” She blatantly mouthed “spades” and “clubs.” Robert Redford from The Sting she was not.

Even when the deal was not in her favor, Grandma often came out on top. How? What she lacked in subtlety, she made up for in sheer will to win.

This apple didn’t fall far from the competitive tree. I have managed to evolve from my genetic predisposition to cheat. (Although Jack might tell you otherwise from a particularly ugly game of Christmas Scrabble.) I’m all in when it comes to board games and cards. It’s at the game of life where I find myself sorely lacking the competitive will to fight.

It occurs to me: Maybe I don’t understand the game?

In cards, the best way to learn is by playing an “open hand.” Watching the choices players make with their cards during actual play gives you a better grasp of the game and how to win.

In real life, social media affords the same “open hand” advantage. According to Facebook, I’m sitting at the table with people who have been dealt some really crappy hands.

Though we all want kings and aces, straights and flushes all the time, sometimes it feels like we’re playing with a deck that has five threes. I see people who are facing divorce, illness, loss, unemployment, loneliness….

But here’s what I’ve noticed.

Some of the people holding the worst hands are still playing long after better hands have folded and moved to the bar.

So how is it that someone holding the cards of disappointment, betrayal, or cancer triumphs over another player’s better but folded hand?

Because hope beats a flush every time.

The people I respect don’t panic or wish for a better deal. They adjust their play. They understand the current circumstance is only part of a larger whole. They go all in on the bad days as well as the good.  They know the pot you can’t see is far richer than the one you can.

I heard a woman on a podcast the other day telling a story about her aunt who lives this way. On a recent visit the aunt said excitedly, “Guess what I got?!” Expecting to hear about a puppy or a winning lottery ticket her niece asked with anticipation, “What?” Her aunt’s reply? “Cancer! Isn’t that interesting?!”

We may not be able to control our crappy circumstances, but we can control our responses. And those responses matter for the good of our own hearts as well as for those on the journey with us. Some might call that bluffing. It smells more like hope to me.

Practically speaking, many people play their cards of chemo or dissolving families with more grace than I play my “charmed” hand of minor financial worry or dread of another nursing home visit. My cards look great by comparison, and yet I’m constantly throwing in the towel looking for a better deal. I believe the technical terminology is, “I fold like a cheap suit.”

Leanne StewartThis from a woman who claims to believe in a God strong enough and loving enough to carry us through—but not exempt us from—the worst of storms. Apparently I’m long on theory and short on practice when it comes to the Job-like streaks of life.

Here’s the rub: The people who have the greatest wisdom, integrity, and compassion have earned those qualities in the trenches of trials. They discovered it’s better to go all in than to be found sitting next to me drowning my sorrows at the bar of self-pity.

I may have learned a few cheats for cards from my grandma, but I am learning way more from friends and family who are playing out their lives with hope in spite of a bad deal.

I’m learning that hope beats a flush every single time.

 

How to be a Horton in a world full of Whos

Horton WhoAfter spending the holidays shuffling around in my melancholy pajamas, I’ve been slowly re-acclimating to life among functioning human beings. My guinea pig husband gets to watch my progress first hand.

One morning while standing in the kitchen starting my caffeine drip, I looked over at the table where Len was typing away on his computer and smiling. Smiling!?! At 6:00 a.m.!?! I wanted to throw an oatmeal muffin at his head for ruining my morning grump with a grin.

As I drank my magic brew, all the mental pathways began to open for reasonable business. The doors of civility (which crust over every night) were once again lubricated and pried apart. Turns out Len’s affront to my aversion of bakery owner hours was nothing more than him corresponding with a friend.

It struck me how important it is to find connection in this big world. In the whole scheme of eternity, we have a very short run at this “life thing.” For most of us, our existence will only be remembered for a few generations by just a few people—mostly family.

So, to find a tribe of people to share life’s mysteries, joys, and sorrows is critical for a meaningful life. We need to bounce our thoughts and feelings off of others and have them reflected back to us. We need to be seen and heard. All this, in a way, proves we were here. (Look at me, going from grump to Einstein in a single dose of Folgers)

Most of my philosophical meanderings reflect my rich literary past. In this instance it was the classic Horton Hears a Who, which captures this idea of our need for others…to be heard…to prove our existence.

On the surface, one might attribute Dr. Seuss’s use of talking animals and trippy dialog to an 80 proof cream in his morning cup of Joe. But this master philosopher uses the Trojan Horse of silliness to slip by our internal security system. Once inside, the gates are unlocked, allowing entry for all manner of truth and conviction regarding the human condition.

Horton Hears a Who opens with Horton the elephant playing in a pool in the Jungle of Nool when he hears a call for help. Seeing no one around, he realizes the plea is coming from a speck of dust floating by him. Horton carefully uses his trunk to collect the speck and place it on a small clover.

He engages in conversation with the invisible person in peril—the Mayor of Who-ville. To Horton’s surprise, he discovers this tiny particle is home to an entire city of people and buildings too small to be seen with the naked eye.

As the only one aware of the Whos’ vulnerability, he steps in as protector of a community too small to take care of itself. Because, after all, a person’s a person, no matter how small.”  

As with most things new or unusual—and especially things that can’t be easily proven—the jungle nay-sayers feel their status quo threatened. Hopping, climbing, and swooping in, they put the kibosh on the gentle giant’s nonsensical story.

Horton knows the only way to save the Whos—and his own wrinkled skin—is to prove they do exist. The desperate Who-Ville chants of, “We are here! We are here! We are here! We are here!” go unheard by Horton’s accusers. It isn’t until the very last Who adds his shout of “Yopp!” that the tipping point is reached for skeptical ears.

Without Horton, we’d have had a tragedy on our hands around page five with the Whos drowning in the Jungle of Nool pool. Thankfully, Dr. Seuss did not go to the Disney School of Killing Off Beloved Characters, so Horton and the Whos survive to appear in other best-selling Trojan Horses.

Sam Howzit, Flickr, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1SuKWGf
Sam Howzit, Flickr, Creative Commons, http://bit.ly/1SuKWGf

Some time ago, friends tagged me with the nickname, Cindi Lou-Who. The deeper meaning behind this is not lost on me. Like the Whos, I’m small and seemingly insignificant in relation to the big world. But I am here. And the bigger truth is that “We are here!”  Experiencing life. Needing others to recognize our existence. Looking out for each other along the way.

Most days we rock along in our well-ordered worlds. But sooner or later, we’ll get hit with gusts of unexpected life winds setting us adrift and putting us in peril. Without a community in place to prove we are here, we are untethered.

Even though I’m but a tiny Who myself, I can still make a big difference in the life of someone who feels smaller in spirit or in circumstance. How? I can listen. I can pay attention. Sometimes people only need one champion to hear their cry.

Of course, as Horton’s experience shows us, it’s easy to miss those cries for help over the splashing of our daily lives. But I’ll listen for your “Yopp!” if you listen for mine.

How to survive an empty-nested New Year

file0001013755186

Over-indulging in holiday anticipation makes for one wicked emotional hangover.

Three weeks ago, we were enjoying a long-awaited, pre-Christmas trip to Dallas with our sons, full of shopping, eating, and movie-watching wonder. Even though it was only a quick getaway, there was no post-trip let down. We still had the prospect of 10 more days of rich family bonding. All the boxes were checked for a very Rockwell Christmas—cookie baking, present wrapping, and Scrabbling.

But the icing on the expectancy cake was celebrating Jack’s December graduation from LSU. Seventeen years before, this same child held onto my leg like it was a floating door beside the sinking Titanic when I dropped him at kindergarten. Finally, he had emerged, a survivor of our educational system.

With champagne bubbles still tickling my nose, the never invited/always present Father Time hobbled by and spit a bit of reality into my flute:

You are aging out of your role as a mother.

(I had my first sip of this bitter drink when Walter defected in February.)

Laugh it up old man. I thought. That New Year’s Baby is about to come and kick your ancient butt to the curb too!

Look, I know my kids will always need me in some crappy parenting North Star sense. But, really, who wants to be a remote glimmer in the dark?

I wanted to excuse myself from Jack’s celebration and retreat to the back of the house. I wanted to climb into a bed of family photos. I wanted to re-cuddle our boys with memories of birthdays, pets, science fairs, basketball games, recitals, missing teeth, stitches, and vacations. I wanted to cry, rant, and drink chardonnay through a bendy straw.

Now, three short weeks later, I have moved from twinkle lights, It’s a Wonderful Life, and waving purple and gold…to tossing out stale coffee cakes, washing sheets, and looking for a reason to get up out of my post-parenting bed.

For those of us bouncing off the walls of an empty nest, the holidays are a sentimental parenting tease. My heart hears the familiar sound of life from inside the boys’ bedrooms and quickly reverts to its “Mom” default setting. On my side of the door I imagine a stinky kid with scraped knees playing on the carpet with plastic dinosaurs. On their side though, giant man bodies fill the beds, their worlds on the computer screens in front of them—friends, interests, dreams…their own lives.

Past and present separated by an inch and a half of wood and 17 years.

According to my Facebook feed, I’m not alone in looking to the holidays for a mothering fix. Some friends went the “matching union suit” route this Christmas. I’m assuming they got their kids all hopped up on mom’s cooking and then in this compromised state convinced their grown children to wear adult onesies—mainlining “ghost of parenting past” endorphins off of 20 year-olds in footy pajamas.

However, no matter how tightly we try to hang on to the past, eventually both the holidays and our intensive 18-22 years of parenting are over. Our kids leave. Their achievements—graduations, jobs, marriages—are stepping stones away from our nest to the building of their own. It is beautiful and sad. And in the truest, most self-absorbed sense, it is a great personal loss.

Len was a little taken aback when I blubbered, “My purpose in life is over! There’s nothing left for me!” I think his exact words were, “Uhhh, what about me?”

So how do we survive an empty-nested New Year?

Boot JackFirst, be thankful. We’ve had the amazing experience of raising children. Even though Jack is grown and moving on, no one can take away our shared history. We literally (by God’s grace) “made” him. We were there when he: took his first breath; kicked his pacifier addiction; discovered his unique two-handed side-fling basketball shot; earned the title, “Rain Man of Sports Facts” at age five; first demonstrated his compassionate heart; excelled in school; created lasting friendships; used his abilities to help others; lived life to the fullest. All of that is worth celebrating.

Second, keep living. Resolve not to become the parental version of Miss Havisham. Don’t skulk around the house wearing a tattered old pilgrim t-shirt costume one of the kids made in elementary school. Sentimental turns creepy if it’s not aired out by real life…so get a hobby. Keep your kids guessing with cryptic comments about your new pole-dancing class. I bet they’ll visit just to check up on you.

Third, look forward. Chances are good your children will hide family-of-origin skeletons long enough to hook a spouse. And from everything I’ve observed, grandkids are the cats.

There’s no Evelyn Wood speed course for the stages of grief. But I am slowly coming to terms with the fact that my turn at the initial parenting stage of life is done. Our finished products are out on the shelves. It is sad…and beautiful.

We are beyond proud and excited to see what wonderful things await Jack as he ventures out into the real world. I don’t know what he will do…what with all of his talent, interpersonal skills, intelligence, connections, drive, and zest for life. But I’m confident it will be great.

And hopefully both boys will occasionally seek out a little guidance from the dimly-lit “Mommy Star” in north Louisiana. I am already looking forward to next Christmas.

Union suits and bendy straws all around!