Recently I tried to strike up an awkward, dating advice-laden conversation with a 15-year-old girl who was not at all interested in hearing it. Go figure! Having been that age at one long-ago point myself, I get it. It’s uncomfortable at best, preachy at worst and regardless of its truth, advice is usually unwelcome. I still have to grit my teeth if someone begins to tell me how I should be acting, thinking or feeling. I’d rather learn it all on my own, thank you.
But I also get how age begets pseudo-wisdom and I share with other old fogeys the desire to use my hard-earned knowledge to save someone from a particular pain or heartache I endured.
Though this specific 15-year-old girl needed no advice, I thought I might share with my readers what I may have said had I been given the chance. If you have a teenage girl in your life, feel free to cut and paste your favorite tip and pass it along to her as if it’s coming directly from you. If she’ll hear you, of course. If she won’t listen, just post it on her facebook wall.
- Only date guys your own age. (At least until you graduate from college.) I know that your male peers look and act horribly immature right now, and the older guys are so attractive, but stick with the same-agers. Much about dating and relationships can accidentally turn into a power struggle and a battle for control. Maintaining as equal a playing field as possible will only help you. (Yes, I know that I mostly dated older guys, but my favorite ex-boyfriends are all very close to my age!)
- A truly platonic friendship is rare and special. Treasure it if you come across it. It’s rare because it’s likely that the relationship is platonic because one of you doesn’t want to make it romantic and the other does. And I bet that you’ve each wanted it to be more at different times. If you are lucky enough to be friends first, tread carefully before allowing it to become something else. I always found it much harder to undo the damage of a break-up and get back to the business of being friends than to just experience a little unrequited crushing.
- When dressing for a date, ask yourself this one question: Could anybody accidentally mistake this dress, this skirt or these shoes for a stripper costume? If the answer is no, carry on and enjoy your night.
- Okay, this one is where the awkward part may have begun if I had been allowed to share my tips that night. During my own teenage dating years, we used the timeworn “four bases” shorthand to describe any form of sexual relations. (Yeah, I know that now it’s called “hooking up.”) First base was kissing, second base was a hand up, third base a hand down and by the time you crossed home plate for a homerun you were engaging in full intercourse. (It sounds much swifter than it was, btw.) We spoke about it so casually – “did you get to second base?” “How far did you go with him?” “Just to third base and then I stopped him.” My tips on bases: If you decide to kiss a boy, kiss him again the following week, again in the movie theater and one more time at the bus stop, this does not mean that by the fifth time you must go to second base. If you decide to kiss him when you are both alone and have loads of time on your hands and nothing else to do, this does not mean you have agreed to go to the next base, though he may try to convince you differently. If you agree to go to a base one day, this does not mean that you have automatically agreed to go to that base the following day. If you break up with a boy that you went to a base with, you do not need to feel obligated to go to that base again with your next boyfriend.
- I hope you only go to any base because of love and not for any other reason than to express that love. Someday you will know a friend who will go to bases in hopes of gaining love, acceptance or popularity, to get attention, to numb a sadness inside her or because she feels obligated. Please tell her she doesn’t need to, and bases won’t get her what she is looking for anyway. (PS. Just to be clear: notwithstanding that it’s 2013 and this will sound old-fashioned and out-of-touch, I hope you save most of those bases, and especially home plate, for the man you marry.)
- In my day we understood that emotions and feelings were attached to going to bases. Today it looks like kids pretend differently and act cavalier and nonchalant about hooking up. Take it from a sage, right now your heart is capable of profound affection and deep hurt. Don’t stuff those feelings, listen to them.
- Know that he may kiss (bases!) and tell. You should keep it quiet.
- Be kind to each boy you date. He may act tough, be hard to read or hold himself aloof, but I bet that you turn him into a nervous wreck and he can’t figure out how to impress you. Give him a break if he stutters, says the wrong thing or trips while opening a door for you. He’s learning too. (Yes, I know older guys have already mastered this stuff, but go back to tip #1!)
- If you are finished dating him, try to be as honest as possible without being cruel.
- Don’t be that girl who puts her friends down in that sarcastic jokey way when boys are around. You are beautiful. The kindness you show to your friends will make you more attractive to boys as you get older. Catty = turn off.
- If you ever feel like you are trying to make yourself smaller, less smart, less funny, or less the center of attention to help your boyfriend or date feel better, bigger or smarter, move on from that boy right away.
- Your gut instinct is your friend. If you get creeped-out at the thought of being alone with him, listen to that. (It doesn’t matter if he is the captain of the lacrosse team and the boy all the girls are swooning about and he is choosing you. You don’t have to swoon unless you want to.)
- No matter how broke you are, always carry enough money to pay for your own meal and get yourself safely home. Yes, he should pay for your meal, provide transportation and hold the door for you. If he doesn’t, that doesn’t mean he is a jerk, but it might mean the evening is not as special to him as you had imagined it to be. Or it might mean he isn’t well trained. Listen to your gut.
- I know you’ll disregard tip #1 at some point. If you do date older boys or men, please make sure they are not your teacher or coach, your friend’s father, or anyone who is closer to my age than yours. It will be obvious why they want to be near you, but seriously… yuck.
- My final tip (for now – I reserve the right to add to this list!) comes from my dear friend who has successfully parented loads of boys and girls. Here’s what she whispered to her daughters as they were heading out the door for their first prom: “When you are dancing, be careful not to rub up against his body because it will make his wee-wee hard.” ‘Nuff said.
Go forth and have a blast in your non-stripper-costume-looking outfit. I trust your judgment and I hope you will too.
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Ten years ago, my friend Judith leaned out of her car window and shouted, “Hey, I heard you turn thirty today! You will love your thirties. You finally get to enjoy who you are!” I was standing on the curb at preschool pick-up with one child in a stroller awaiting another to come bounding from the building. I was overweight and worn out. I resented my work-all-the-time husband and I awoke many mornings planning the bedtime routine for that night. The idea that something was going to change that would allow me to enjoy myself in this life of responsibly and exhaustion was hard to believe. But, Judith was right! Although the last ten years have had hiccups, a little thyroid medicine corrected the constant tiredness, some therapy and a lot of work sorted out the resentment, and the kids turned out to be my greatest pleasure. Go figure! Here are a few other random things I know about myself now that I didn’t know ten years ago.
Bitterness looks ugly on me.
My husband has a few pet names for me, and one that hits close to home describes the ugly seeds of resentment I sometimes let take root in my soul. He calls me Total Recall. Trust me, if you wronged me twelve years ago I can describe what we were wearing when you said what you said that changed everything. I can quote you verbatim, and I add emphasis when I repeat the story to show how wrong you were. I wake up in the mornings and remember things that happened that I still have not made peace with and I feel the anger and hatred all over again before I even throw back the comforter. But no more.
Now I welcome the amnesia that getting older brings. When I see you, I want to see a fresh start. This change from bitterness to grace was not (and still isn’t) easy for me, but one major habit change has made it possible: I’ve learned to forgive myself. In the way that math of the soul never really makes sense, when I added A, let myself off the hook, to B, recount all the wrongs ever done to me, they equaled C, forgive everybody. Sometimes when I realize I am still licking a wound and enough time has passed that I should have moved on, I have to force myself to examine my heart and find something to accept forgiveness for. And then boom, it doesn’t seem so hard to forgive that thing I’ve been carrying around against another person. In Christian lingo I hear, He forgave me, so how can I not forgive her? Another helpful tool is to realize that I have no idea what events or experiences led a person to that point when we had our misunderstanding. Context is everything, and often it’s missing during confusing, hurtful situations. Now I am trying to resist my knee-jerk go-bitter reaction, and choose forgiveness and grace instead. And whaddaya know? I look younger and more well rested for it!
Get myself to church.
Here’s a video that best expresses my churchy advice. (You’re welcome! I knew you’d like it!) I finally accepted that this side of death, I am unlikely to have all my faith-related issues sorted. I will dance and spin through and around tough questions with regularity. I will bang my head on the wall, throw my hands up and shout “I dunno!” and sometimes throw the Bible or concordance across the room in frustration. But, now I see that gathering with other believers and seekers is the best thing I can do to sort through those things. All the other good-for-Sundays kinds of things – brunch with friends, sports games for the kiddoes, sleeping in, biking with the family, cleaning out the garage, surfing the internet – will not challenge me to keep thinking, growing or engaging with the questions. On a given Sunday in my forties, you can find my unsure-of-much-but-going-with-my-hunch-self warming a pew. Is it a perfect church with the exact theology I can sign on to? Nope, not even close.
But each week I stand and let the words wash over me, I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
I walk forward and take the manna of communion into my mouth, This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
I stand and sing Here is love, vast as the ocean, and for a moment I can feel myself buoyed by all that is good, filled with hope and full of love to offer to those around me.
Strangers turn to me and say Peace be with you. And peace enters in.
I have to love my body no matter its shape or size.
Here’s the dealio: It’s a must, and no one is going to do it for me. In my profession I see all types of bodies in their underwear and after helping a thousand or so women find clothes, I can attest to an epidemic of self-loathing in our ranks. The size sixteen wishes she were just a twelve and the size zero wishes she were better proportioned. The small-chested woman goes on and on about how her friends can fill out a top better, and the endowed has hated her boobs since puberty. The woman with “perfect” measurements looks in the mirror and obsesses about her hair and won’t try on anything else until she adds lipstick. I’ve heard with my own ears, “I hate myself so much,” said quietly while gazing in the mirror. It’s called “fat talk,” this female bonding ritual we do to connect. No stranger to this angst, I too can pick apart my body piece-by-piece and name what I wish were different. After a fashion show a few years ago, five women were discussing the new clothing line we’d just seen. Turned out those of us with big thighs had only stared at the models’ thighs the entire time, and the women who struggle with their waist lines had been obsessing over the flat tummies on the runway. None of us had actually seen the clothes for what they were because we were too busy comparing ourselves and coming up short. But no more.
Girlfriends try to help, but I am a master at deflecting compliments. “You look fabulous, Joy!” “Ugh, I hate the way this shows my middle,” I’ll respond. Fat Talk. But no more.
The husband makes attempts to be supportive and loving, but I am so suspicious that I discount anything he says. (Do I think he is lying? That he just wants action? That he, too, wishes I were a leggy blonde? What keeps me from believing that he finds me beautiful?) When he compliments me I’ll roll my eyes with a you’ve got to be kidding signal. But no more.
Our culture is really lousy at helping me feel good. Seems no matter where I look – at magazines, movies or even in the school drop-off line – I encounter desperation to look younger and thinner. A friend in her fifties told me recently, “It’s a scientific fact that a woman looks her best at thirty.” What a defeating idea to believe!
So, it appears the job’s on me. In addition to offering this body some nutritious meals and physical activity, I need to hear it being loved as well.
I look at my size nine feet and say thank you for holding me up all these years. I know you hate high heels and I don’t blame you. They hurt! You’ve walked me wherever I’ve wanted to go and whether in ballet flats or doc martins you always keep me going. Thank you.
I look at these thighs and calves and say it’s ok that you aren’t the best fit for skinny jeans or that the zippers of tall leather boots usually won’t go all the way up– you’ve moved and carried me around the world and I am grateful.
It’s gets harder, but now I can touch my soft torso and say thank you for carrying two babies and helping me bend and lift all of these years. You’ve done a great job of keeping all the limbs connected and my whole body centered. You let me know when you are full and when you are hungry. I apologize that I don’t do sit-ups often enough for you, but somehow you still maintain enough strength to keep me upright.
And these arms of mine are so useful at hugging my friends and pulling the husband close and also carrying groceries for my family, so I say thank you for all the lugging and hugging you do.
Finally I reach my head and I toss my graying hair out of my eyes and peer close into the mirror and whisper, You are beautiful.
That’s the job of loving myself. Lather, rinse – and do it often.
I need to loosen my grip.
Yup, I’m a control freak and operate as if the more invested and engaged I get with something, the more I can turn it into what I want it to be. These last ten years have taught me to take a step back and let the thing be what it is supposed to be and stop trying to dictate or invest in particular outcomes.
Health – I’ve seen yearned-for infants, twenty-year-olds on the brink of launching, active and involved fifty-year-old fathers, and ancient beloved grandparents all pass away. None of those deaths came easily, and no amount of my wishing them away made any difference. I will have my health and life for some amount of time and am determined to cherish and honor it. I have no promises about tomorrow.
Money – I’ve lived in abundance and in worry. No longer will either define my worth or my outlook on life. I agree that money can make life easier, but it brings the possibility of a crapload of dysfunction along with it. Beyond providing the basic necessities (for us this means housing, food and education) it doesn’t do much for self-confidence, family love, or identity building. I say, Easy come, easy go, Miss Money. I’ll enjoy you while you are with me, but I won’t grieve very long when you take a vacation from my bank account.
Friendship – I am wired to need girlfriends and I thrive on female energy flowing through me, helping me self-examine and guiding me toward my future-me. I stand by the advice I heard many years ago: “Look for the best in a friend rather than a best friend.” Though some women come close, I don’t need any single friend to be my perfect soul mate. If I start measuring her by a standard in my head, she’ll certainly fail. When women come into my life – and new ones appear all the time – I try to figure out what part of her is the best fit for what part of me. Should we connect about mothering, wife-ing, walking, faith, books, travel, or will she challenge me to grow in a new direction? While I am trying to discover what is a piece in her to fit with a piece in me, I am also trying to offer my best. This approach guarantees that an amorphous cloud of friendship holds me at all times. I still struggle with rejection, though. Even I can feel like a left-out middleschooler while scrolling through face book and looking at party shots that do not include me, or watching two women giggle in a way that neither does with me. Those pangs of exclusion serve as a reminder to peel my fingers back again and recognize that for whatever reason – insecurity, mis-reading cues, rough patches of neediness – I’ve begun to cling too hard to that particular friendship.
My Children – Well, I wish I could add them to this list, but I am still learning to hold their sweet souls in an open palm. I know they are on loan from God to me, I know their lives do not reflect my identity, and I know that if I do my job well, they will find their own path and it will be headed away from me. I am still processing this one.
I can’t wait to see how life treats me now that I will be a lady in her forties. I hear that all sorts of fun things will happen to my body. I’ve already had the pleasure of experiencing a few personal summers, and I can see that the rumor about eyebrows disappearing and showing up on chins might have some truth to it. Over the next ten years I’ll be saying goodbye to two kids as they fly the coop and I hope I am able to do it with equipoise. (Current trends indicate I might have a rough time with this, but I am betting on grace to reign when needed.)
Whatever heads my way, you can be sure I’ll be writing about it, because that’s another thing I discovered during the last decade. I love to write! Stick around; it’s going to be a fun ride.
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No matter if we grew up in a secular home or a home where faith of a religion other than Christianity was taught, we are likely familiar with the basic elements of the story of the birth of Christ. The Crèche Scene: animals, angels, shepherds and wise men. There are swaddling clothes, and a great big star, and sometimes in the re-telling of the story a little drummer boy is in the picture as well.
I could write for pages about the back story of that scene, starting with the prophecies that appear in the book of Isaiah about the Messiah who would save the people of God, or we could walk through Jesus’ lineage and hear the stories of all the colorful people listed who would be included in the house of David from which Jesus would emerge. We could even spend a few hours just detailing how the conception, birth and ultimate death of John the Baptist was so intriguingly linked to Jesus every step of the way.
We might examine Jesus’ mother and discuss the courage and bravery she had to exhibit to bring him to life. If you are experiencing the unique tensions of a blended family you might enjoy focusing on Joseph, the stepfather. We could step back further and see what was happening in the world around the stable on that night: oppression of entire swaths of classes and races and greedy, power-hungry world leaders looking out only for themselves.
The broader story of Jesus’ birth offers as many Christmas Eve homily ideas as there are priests to deliver them. I hope each of us – no matter our faith – has time to find a place to listen to any clergy give a Christmas-related sermon. It’s always interesting to hear which perspective and entry point to the story is used.
I am stuck on one such entry point, recorded in the book of Luke. Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem to be counted in the census, and then –
She brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
I used to be in charge of a Christmas Pageant and the youngest kids would dress as stable animals, and would say things like Moo and Baa on cue, and the next-to-the-youngest would often get the roles of Inn Keepers. The seven and eight-year-old Mary and Joseph would approach several Inn Keepers who would hold up signs reading, No Vacancy and if the kids had the courage they would shout out “NO VACANCY!” And the audience always laughed.
I don’t know how many accommodations Joseph tried to find that night, only to be re-buffed. Even the place that ultimately let them in could only offer them the animals’ stable. The town was overcrowded with the hustle and bustle of people coming home to register. Probably families were reuniting, and I bet there was a lot of cooking and housecleaning going on to prepare for all the guests that would descend on the town. I imagine the shop keepers were lining the shelves with extra goods to sell and maybe even increasing their prices a bit thinking, this would be the opportunity to cash in. The streets would have been crowded – even parking the donkey may have been difficult.
The scene sounds like it could be 2012 here in my neighborhood just before any holiday. And the message Joseph and Mary were hearing was, There is no room for you here. We are all too busy preparing for and taking advantage of the census, reuniting with our families, dreading our families’ visit, preparing our homes, or dashing back out to the store. You are an unexpected visitor and we simply have no bandwidth to deal with you.
If you are friends with me on Facebook, you already know that my tree fell down last Sunday night. One minute it was standing tall and stable in its stand and the next minute we heard a crash and ran in to find water flooding the floorboards, broken ornaments covering the carpet and the tree prone on the ground. If my husband hadn’t been home I would have carefully picked off the unbroken ornaments, packed them away and dragged that tree to the curb. But by Brad’s grace we managed to right the tree, dry the water, and re-hang what wasn’t broken – and the Christmas spirit lived on in the house on Baker Street.
Earlier in the weekend we had tooooootally overdone it. Brad landed late on Friday night and was flying out again first thing on Monday morning. We were cramming in things like birthday party planning, Christmas photo shots, Christmas card ordering and gift buying and, of course, buying the tree from Home Depot at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning. Our children were exhausted, behind on homework and one of them was not being particularly nice to the other one.
To say that we had no room in our inn for the tree to fall down was evident in the way we handled it. We yelled at each other. As I dashed up the stairs to get towels he yelled from downstairs, “Would somebody puh-leeeaze get me a towel?” I scrambled to put shoes on my bare feet and screamed down to him, “What do you think I am dooooooing?” I dried the floor around the base and demanded that he lift up the tree – base and all – so I could dry under it. “Just try harder,” I screamed into the bottom branches. “There is no way I can do it,” He yelled into the middle branches his face was buried in. Once we got the floor dry, we decided we needed some string to tie the tree to something – what, we still hadn’t figured out, but the kids and I went on a hunt for string. And I tell you, it’s like we entered the twilight zone.
Brad stood waiting in the living room holding the tree upright. We were in the garage numbly looking around in random areas for string. Perhaps we’d lost some brain cells on the way down the steps. I fought the urge to suddenly straighten up and maybe even catalogue all the board games. I saw one of my kids reach out for a ball and then catch himself. We looked in all the dark corners, and on all the shelves and I even gave the ceiling a quick glance to see if by some sort of magic there might be a ball of string hanging from it. But no… not a single length of string to be found. Meanwhile he was upstairs bellowing, “I am waiting on some striiiiiinnnggg.” Eventually – even in my stupor – I found the staircase up to the living room again, and switched places with him. He reappeared in thirty seconds with a large bundle of twine and tied the tree to the window shade and then we began vacuuming up needles and glass. We couldn’t leave it alone, though. Even while cleaning up, we were at each other, the stress of this ‘most wonderful time of the year,’ nearly causing us to come to verbal blows.
Eventually we restored peace, the children finished enough homework to go to bed and he caught a few hours of sleep before he left for the airport. Honestly, some weekends we just need to congratulate ourselves that they’re over. The trophy goes to anyone who makes it to Monday morning.
A few days later I was planning to spend the morning poring over seasonal poems, Scriptures and inspirational readings in preparation for a little talk I was facilitating about the meaning of Christmas. I had put off planning for an entire week. (Those Law and Order episodes weren’t going to watch themselves, you know.) And after the crazy weekend I needed to use Monday to get my nails done with a girlfriend, and so Tuesday was the day.
All I needed to do first was drop off a box at the post office, and then I could come home and plan, research and write and just relax into the spirit of Christmas. But as I checked one and then another post office and found each not yet open and with lines forming outside ten people deep, I decided to drive into the Presidio and see if that post office was any better. And that’s when my car broke down. I got to sit in my car with the hazard lights blinking and cars honking at me for eighty minutes while waiting on a tow truck.
I couldn’t find pen or paper in the car to at least jot down my thoughts, but decided to use the time wisely in other ways. I went through my phone and deleted or answered 262 unattended emails. I called my Mom who jokingly said “Oh, now I see where I fit into your priorities. When you have nothing else to do but sit on the side of the road in a broken down car, then you call me.” I returned the calls of three friends and heard all about what they are going through right now. One is dealing with financial stress like you wouldn’t believe, another is frustrated and down about her job, and the other is worried about both of her kids for different reasons. None of them has any room in their inns for one more thing to go wrong.
I’ve heard all about the grand idea of Margin. To me, “margin” means leaving some room around the edges of our lives – in our calendars, in our sleep schedules, or in the time we allot to get places. We hear a lot about how we need to protect margin and how easily it can slip away from us. Even though I need to embrace it, sometimes I just get so sick of hearing any sort of modern-day wisdom. I feel impatient and claustrophobic with mumbo-jumbo like just let go or remain open. As much as I want to say Margin Smargin, I do realize that margin is what makes it ok when the tree falls and the power steering fails. When the kid sends you that text that makes your heart break or your spine chill, or when you count the pennies and realize there is no way you will make it to the next month without missing some of the due dates on those utility bills. Margin, space, room – extra – is what we need.
Even though we only have a limited amount of room, there is no end to all the things we can use to fill us. Right now, there are amazing events to attend (I went to two fabulous holiday parties before the tree fell), sparkly clothes to wear and decorations to hang. There is food to enjoy and as many obsessive thoughts as you’ll welcome about eating or not. There are songs, music and concerts, and shopping, buying and spending and worrying about reactions to what we bought and worrying about how to pay the credit card bills we just ran up. But what we don’t seem to have a lot of is extra room.
We’re not too different from the people in that crowded Bethlehem all those years ago, with all the busyness and distraction that envelops us. We have to learn to say no and establish boundaries or we’ll get overrun with good things.
But I wonder, especially at this time of the year, what we might be missing by not leaving just a little room in the inn of our hearts? Those people way back in Bethlehem, they’d been told from the time they were in the cradle that a savior would be born to their people. They had been raised with hope in their hearts and expectation on their breath, yet there was no room for Him when He finally showed up. They were too preoccupied.
When I have no room in my inn for things to go wrong, I let criticism, anger, blame and defensiveness take over. Those are my knee-jerk reactions when I am stretched and tired. I miss what could be a memory-making funny moment, or a moment to help a child or spouse and be a support.
When I am around extended family tension, something that is common and perhaps predictable around the holidays, there is no room in me for grace and forgiveness. I allow judgment and superiority to reign instead of opening the door to humility and compassion.
Here is a kicker: Around this time of year we might come face-to-face with spiritual and faith-related crossroads. Perhaps we will be on the tipping point of diving in, rejecting or cautiously dipping the tip of our big toe nail into the pool of faith. If the opportunity presents itself, will there be room in the inn of our hearts? Will there be too much suspicion, disappointment or general numbness to allow a quickening or movement in our souls?
What steps can we take when we are faced with so much pressure and work right now?
I wish I could give us a plan to follow. I would entitle it How to create Holy Margin during Christmastime. But, because we are unique and on our own paths, each of us probably needs to take an inventory and feel the answer specific to our own lives. Where I might need to turn off the Law and Order and instead turn to my husband and ask about his day, you might need to stop cleaning the kitchen and come watch a football game with yours. While I might need to invite my kids to take a walk and get away from their screens, you might need to allow yours some more screen time and stop being such a taskmaster. Where I need to make and hold eye contact with family members and actually listen to their hearts, you might need to protect yourself from certain members of your extended family who do not have your best interests at heart. Where I might need to reiterate my spiritual values to myself – actually note where I am and where I am headed, you might simply need to throw your hands up and shout out, I have no idea what I believe.
You may be alone this Christmas and your heart might be filled with sadness and loneliness. Perhaps you need to leave room for hope and joy to return as well.
Thinking back to Bethlehem, I want to sneak in at night before Mary and Joseph trudge into town and knock on the doors to give a heads up.
I would whisper through the closed doors, He’s coming tomorrow. Be ready. He’ll be here and He is not what you are expecting. Be on the lookout for a total shocker. Try not to plan how it will be and how you will react. Guess what? The world will be changed forever tomorrow and I don’t want you to be too busy, too angry, too numb, too disappointed, too worried, too suspicious, or too distracted to notice. Keep your door ajar and leave some room in your inn in case He comes here. Tomorrow there will definitely be a Holy moment and I hope you don’t miss it.
I need to take time to sit quietly, breathe deeply, and imagine my margin growing bigger. As thoughts creep in and worries return, I’ll no doubt notice them, but I won’t let them stay long enough to take root. Instead, with however much margin I have built up in my heart, I ask, What Holy Moment is waiting for me?
I awoke on the morning of November 6th, 2012 feeling so relieved. I turned to my husband and said “No matter what happens today, I deserve a trophy for staying married to you through one more election season.” We shared a somewhat-forced chuckle and the day moved on.
He’s a political junkie. More factoids float around in his brain than are useful and he can name all candidates in congressional and senatorial races at all times. If you meet him at a cocktail party and happen to mention the small town in the Midwest from whence you hail, he’ll tell you the candidates he hopes you voted for in the last four elections, and he’s likely to know which issues were most at play during those races. Most of the time his interest in politics is charming and I slot it into the category of a hobby. He doesn’t golf; he follows politics. But every four years, like clockwork, he switches his focus from just a hearty interest in the process, the system, the players, the pundits, and the websites, and he gets tunnel vision. He changes his lingo and begins to use words like “our side, “ and “when we win” and makes disparaging remarks about people who disagree with him. (And sometimes to people who disagree! Upon meeting one of our daughter’s brand new friends and finding out she was of a different political persuasion – note, she is a fifteen-year-old and cannot actually vote – he said, “Somehow I thought you’d be smarter.” So, yeah…. disparaging.) He becomes obsessed with his own Very Big Opinion. And that’s when it all ceases to be cute or clever. It becomes suffocating and intolerable. Every single conversation leads back to politics and there’s not a lot of space for other topics or personal discussions or projects. It’s alllllllllll about the election, his VBO.
Now that election season is over, the instances of graceless conversations between us are getting less frequent. We might go days between those tightlipped moments when his eyebrows are up around his hairline and he uses his incredulous tone. Here’s the kicker: We mostly agree on every single topic, yet, I still wanted to skirt the room and avoid him for most of September and October. People who allow their interests and passions to become Very Big Opinions rarely notice the effect it has on those around them.
I have a girlfriend who has a VBO and it also happens to be about politics, but is polar opposite of my husband’s. Most of the time we just gently laugh at the differences, but recently it became uncomfortable. We had twenty minutes to meet for coffee and I tried to spend the time catching up about our children, our work, and various friends we have in common. You know… girlfriend chat. But she was like a dog after a bone. “Ask your husband how he feels about this…” “Oh, I already know how he feels about that,” I answered. “And he’s still voting for him?” Sigh, “Yep, he still is.” “Ok, well then tell him this and see what he says.” She totally missed my non-verbal cues to move the topic along. Her own VBO was so huge and present that there was little room for anything else.
Thankfully, the political VBO in our home only reaches the intolerable threshold every four years. But each time, it gets harder to deal with and I get more disappointed that we are right back where we started, with one spouse gritting her teeth and the other crazily ranting. It only lasts eight or nine weeks and then we go back to being two people who share views most of the time, and one who has a much greater interest in following how those views play out in our country. Though nothing seems quite as divisive and conversation stopping as political hot buttons, the idea of the Very Big Opinion is not unique to politics or even to my marriage.
I know a few people who live year-round this way. It seems like they have a VBO about everything. If you buy lawn furniture, they criticize the pieces you bought or the store from which you purchased it. If you mention you like smoothies, they know the place to get the specific juicer, high-powered blender, single-serve bullet machine, or pulverizing appliance and how to get the discount code to get it. It’s like being in a house of mirrors; everywhere you turn you bump into another one of their Very Big Opinions.
I used to be friends with a woman in between her VBOs. During her down times she was always a gamer to try new things, a great cook and hostess, and a good add-on to any group. She was relatively mild unless a VBO came her way. At one point the news was filled with sad stories about a few cases of sickness and death in children caused by toxic items made in China. We were all concerned about it and the stories raised lots of questions for all of us to ponder. But she became obsessed about it. She harassed sales clerks by turning over items and showing them the made in China stamp. She loudly criticized volunteers at school who had purchased decorations with a made in China stamp on the plastic bag. She became super smug about her personal ban on it and very demeaning to others, like me, who didn’t join her in her absolute strike on all products. The ban on China increased until it reached a VBO status and it’s all she’d talk about each time we were together.
Later our daughters were attending the same sports camp and I asked her daughter if she was enjoying it. “My Mom likes it.” She replied. I was confused for a moment. Her mom wasn’t attending the camp, the child was. “But what do you think of it?” I asked. “I don’t really know; I just know that she thinks it’s really great.” See, the “Fabulousness of This Amazing Camp” had become another VBO in their family and there was absolutely no room for this child to have an opinion – different or the same! All of the opinion real estate was being taken up by the VBO.
Although I’m sure I’ve held a few VBO’s of my own over the years (don’t get me going about the culture of bullying in middle school!), going forward I hope I am able to keep them in a place where they don’t define me, or grow bigger than the amount of care I have for people around me. I give a pass to anyone in her twenties and any new mothers. Those are times when zealous belief and righteousness help us because we need something to combat the ever-present self-doubt lurking behind each corner. This is the right path. I do know better than everyone else. I must trust my own instincts.
Everyone else – be warned. It’s likely at some point you’ll need to choose between your VBO and your relationships. Usually, there’s not room for both. And also, if you want to help change the world in an emotionally sensitive way (if you care about that kind of thing), you’re never going to do it with a VBO weighing you down. People stop hearing you as soon as you start talking at them instead of listening to them.
I sometimes wonder if carrying around a VBO makes a person feel more secure. Maybe, she is afraid to lay it down for even one day. Maybe he’s afraid if he doesn’t rise to each occasion – or, bite at every comment, instead of (gasp) letting it go – he won’t have my respect or I might not remember where he stands on a subject. Who would she be if she didn’t assert her VBO?
I know that getting a VBO going, pumping the bellows and stoking the flames of my own self-righteousness feels good. I mean… it feels reeeealllllllly good. Oh the joys of being Right! And Loud! And Proud! And a Voice Of Reason! And if I am particularly delusional about a VBO, it can almost feel Brave! too. And here is a tricky part: the people in the forefront of the world usually have VBOs. Leaders, Activists, Influencers, Stakeholders, Directors, Bosses… yeah, I bet they got there in part by holding on with all their might to a few VBOs. (I wonder if there might be a trail of failed relationships on their heels, though.) So maybe a particular VBO is important enough to me to keep clenching my fists with all my might. But before I decide, I need to look around at the faces in my inner circle and count the cost.
Here’s where my VBO has worked against me in the past:
When the VBO is prioritized above a relationship.
When it’s more important to me that people know where I stand on a topic than my knowing their story.
When I am willing to end a relationship if someone disagrees with my VBO.
When I won’t stop talking about it even when a person asks me to.
When I won’t share intimate vulnerable details of myself, but I’ll share rhetoric.
When I stop being a nuanced person and become a machine for “the cause.”
When I refer to my VBO as “the truth.”
When I’ve bullied those around me into remaining mute for fear of igniting my VBO.
When those who love me most are unable to communicate how they feel because there is simply no room in my heart to hear it.
Yeah, some of those do sound dramatic, but if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a VBO you are probably cheering me on, right now.
Recently, I was at a memorial service. Although the room was filled with grief, many people were standing and sharing happy memories and stories of this man’s wonderful contribution to life. I’ll never forget his friend Brian’s words. “No matter your politics or your religion, he made sure hanging out with him was a relaxing and pleasant experience.”
Seems like a small thing, but in our world of self-absorption, aggression and clawing competition, it’s actually heroic. Oh, that I will be blessed enough to have similar words spoken about me.
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Yesterday, I ran into an old friend who has much younger kids (Egads, one is still in preschool! Can you imagine how utterly exhausted she is?) and she asked, “How is life as the mother of a high-schooler?”
Oh, there are so many ways I could answer that question…
Normally I would reply with a quick and breezy, “It’s great! She loves it!” This is 100% true. My daughter has taken to high school like a fish to water. After an initial pause of bewilderment that was over before I even had time to panic, I’ve seen weeks of smiles.
I could have said, “Oh, it’s so far away from our house!” It’s true: I leave at 7am each morning and after dropping everyone where they need to be I finally get home to begin my own day at 8:30am. I usually have a little bit of road rage by that point and am still wearing some version of a pajama outfit. Sometimes, but not always, my teeth are brushed.
Occasionally I might say, “She loves it so much I have to keep reminding her that it’s school and not summer camp!” But this is a little misleading. She’s having as much fun as she’s ever had at a camp, but she’s remaining dedicated to her academic work as well.
Right now a lot of 8th grade Moms are calling to hear about her experience because they are in the midst of high school decision-making, and so sometimes I say “It was the right choice for her. It’s been a great fit.” And what I mean by that is she’s thriving in all the obvious ways: Good grades so far, made the sports team she tried out for, has friends to eat lunch with and doesn’t dread the day. As simple as it sounds, this is every parent’s dream for her kid.
[BTW, if you don’t live in San Francisco and you are wondering what in the world a “high school decision” is, well… I’ll give a shot at explaining. Many kids in this city attend a K-8 school and then apply to a private or public high school during their 8th grade year. The process seems to empower these 13-year-olds to make the decision themselves, but the parents are the ones who pay the tuition so we get a say as well. The kids go and “shadow” for a day at each school they are interested in, and then fill out these intensive applications, each with different deadlines and then we wait. On the same day in March, all the schools mail letters or post on-line their decisions and kids juggle waiting out their first choice and moving off a wait list or accepting immediately and plunking down a deposit. Yes, I know it sounds crazy and more like a college process, but that’s what it’s like here and I thought I would explain it.]
But back to yesterday… I had the feeling this gal was asking about me and her curiosity made me feel brave enough to be honest, so here is what I said: “It’s very different and the change is one I didn’t see coming.”
And that’s the truth. One day I was the active and awesome parent of two kids who needed so much from me and I had divvied my heart, time and energy up so that each got just enough and I still had some “me” left. I kept a busy calendar filled with work and volunteer duties and a touch of social activities thrown in. And then one day I awoke to realize that most of what I needed and wanted to do for her is already done.
And it doesn’t feel that great. It feels a little like my invisible expiration date just showed itself and I didn’t know that it had passed. My shelf life was a much smaller number than I had imagined.
On Halloween her new, super-cool, high school canceled classes for the whole day so their students could attend the Welcome Home Giants parade. (No wonder it feels like summer camp around that place!) At 8:30 in the morning she said goodbye and walked off to take the bus to meet up with her friends. Hours later I sent a text: “Please just confirm you are safe and with people.” “Yes!” she replied with no details. Apparently they wandered the crowded city, most likely inhaling gallons of pot-filled air while smashed up against other San Franciscans, and eventually made their way to a friend’s house to change into Halloween costumes and make the rounds as trick-or-treaters. It was pouring rain and freezing outside. I sent a text at 8:30pm saying, “Surely you are wet, freezing and miserable and ready to come home, right?” “No, we’re having a blast. Can I spend the night here?” was her response.
Here’s the thing. This is what flourishing looks like in teenageland. She’s happy, (and crossing my fingers in hope as I type this) safe and having a ball. But back to me for a moment….I just felt desolate. I hadn’t even seen her in her costume. I hadn’t walked up to houses with her and her friends and mentally recorded the excitement on their faces. I hadn’t weighed her candy and decided when we’d finished enough blocks. I didn’t even know if she’d used a bag or borrowed a pillowcase. The plastic bag with a pumpkin painted on it that she’s used for years sat in our garage on that rainy night. Who am I on Halloween if I am not with my kids trick-or-treating? It’s been so long since I’ve even had the opportunity to be anything other than their ever-present-meeter-of-needs that there might be a vast void opening up where mothering her used to be. And just so you know, I work a job I love, I have more loving female friends than I can count and am active in all sorts of community projects. It’s just that I have always prioritized my kids’ needs and my job as their mother way above any of those other things. So what does one do when her biggest priority takes itself off the list?
I was moping around the house mumbling things about how boarding school makes so much more sense on this side of the high school decision, when my husband looked at me and said in a very compassionate voice, “You are done. You did a really good job parenting her, and that is why you can relax now. It’s basically over.”
And you and I both know my work is far from over, but the job that I have been doing in that way I’ve been doing it… yeah, that one’s done. And seriously, if one more well-meaning mom of an older kid patiently explains that I have simply moved from “manager to consultant” I think I might scream. I get it; I just have no idea what that means or how it looks.
[BTW, It’s such a strange conflict to be rejoicing for your child and weeping for yourself. Especially when you are trying to hide your weeping from your child lest she be confused about the direction she is supposed to be heading. Like yea, you are doing such a great job separating from me in a healthy way. And like, boo, I miss my best friend… manic/depressive much, Joy?]
This week I was pulling away from my house to attend a monthly women’s group meeting. (You know, one of those things in my uber-full and rich life that’s not at all pathetic.) Bing, went my phone. “I just got on the bus now, I’ll be home in 30 mins.” I reply, “Don’t forget that I am going out tonight. Dinner’s on the stove.” And I think for a minute and then say “ AND… how was your day.” Bing: “It was actually an awful day, I’ll tell you about it later tonight.”
Because you know me so well, you must know that I wanted to veer right and drive out to the Sunset until I had tracked the bus down and carried her home myself. But I didn’t. I sent an empathetic note back, offered to cancel my plans, and then went ahead with my evening.
When I got home I heard all about her Very First Bad Day In High School. It included some stomach pain, a forgotten assignment, a lunch period full of volunteer obligations and no time to connect with friends, and finally the pervasive worry about a friend who is going through a rough patch. Nothing I could do a single thing about.
As I rubbed her feet and offered a tissue, I heard, “I knew I’d be ok as soon as I got home. I feel so much better now that I am with you. Thanks for listening, Mom.”
And one tiny block of understanding clicked into place. It seems that this new-fangled consultant gig I’ve been hired for involves a lot of waiting around and keeping myself occupied and busy until I am needed. And when I get that call or happen into an open conversation, then it means being the same consistently loving and listening mom I’ve always been.
My work is nearly done. I just need to be available, never rushing in too quickly, always looking out for her best interests and relentlessly nurturing her independent but relational spirit.
N.B.D. It’s the same job, just waaaaaaaaay less of it.
Turns out, I talk too much. I simply Can. Not. Keep. My. Mouth. Closed. I should have been in the RUN-DMC video back in the day.
Last week I saw my friend Lilly exiting our church. She had attended the early service and I was heading into the later one. Lilly had just returned from a three month sabbatical and had used her time to travel all over the world. She started in Canada and after a few stops in the States she wandered around all the places in Europe I’ve always intended to visit. I stalked her on facebook like any good girlfriend would do, and when I saw her in all of her beaming glory walking down the front steps of the church I shouted “Liiiiiiiiilllllllllllyyyyyyyyy!” and wrapped her in a big hug. And then I started talking. And I couldn’t stop. I prattled on and on about myself and my kids and all that we’d done all summer and the whole time Lilly was just standing there beaming and smiling and nodding and then I realized I was now late to church and I laughed – ha ha, ha, gotta run! – and I dashed into the service. That’s when it dawned on me that this girl, whom I had missed so much, hadn’t had a chance to say one tiny thing about her amazing, probably-life-changing adventure. Because I talk too much; I nevvah shut up!
Anne Lamott refers to an acronym for mothers-in-law or Grandmothers called W.A.I.T, which stands for “Why Am I Talking?” When I heard her explain it, I immediately embraced it in theory. (Am obviously still trying to shift it to practice.) It at once acknowledges that I have so much to offer and all of it is something almost no one wants to hear. So, Anne Lamott just keeps quiet with all her grandmotherly advice. I am supposed to be asking myself what the purpose of my words are, and whether they want to be heard by anyone in the room. If not, I am practicing thinking those words instead of saying them. You can probably guess how very challenged I am by this idea.
I was out for crepes with my daughter and her friend, Angie.
Me: Angie, how do you get to your new school in the mornings?
Angie: Takes a bite of crepe and motions to me that she’ll answer as soon as she swallows.
Me, not missing a beat: Do you take the bus every day? I wonder which bus goes from your house to the Haight? I bet it’s two buses.
Angie: Still chewing, nods and holds up two fingers.
Me: Oh, so it is two buses. How long does it take you? Do you take the bus every single day? Oh wait, did you mean you take it two days each week?
Angie: Finally, she swallows, and says: I take the bus on Mondays, yes it’s two buses, and my mom drives me two days and I ride with Samantha the other two days. Then she takes another bite.
Me: Why do you take the bus on Mondays? Wait, Samantha doesn’t live near you, how do you car pool with her? Oh… I remember her father lives near you and Samantha must stay with him two days a week.
Angie: Still chewing, just stares at me.
Me: Just nod – is that why you carpool with Samantha? And what is this about Mondays? Why can’t your Mom drive you on that day? Does she take a class that morning or does she work on Mondays?
At this point my own daughter can take no more and rescues her friend. “Mom, you are interrogating her!” And that’s the first moment I realize I’ve been grilling this poor child. Honestly, I thought I was just making polite conversation.
Yesterday I was catching up with my long time girl friend, Sally, whom I probably hadn’t seen in over a year. She’d invited me to come to Marin for a gentle hike, so I laced up my running shoes and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. After the initial hugs and hellos we set off through her neighborhood and headed west onto a dirt trail. Just as we had begun climbing the steep, apparently all-uphill route that was shockingly difficult, Sally casually asked, “So, how is your business going?” Suffice it to say that things are happening in my business and I am feeling very enthusiastic about the growth it’s experiencing. Booming might be overstating it a bit, but I could still easily talk non-stop for two hours about it. But, at that exact moment I was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other and was very aware that my heart was slamming itself into the wall of my chest and my lungs were threatening to revolt. Shy of sending myself into full cardiac arrest, all I could squeak out was, “It’s going very well, thanks for asking,” and then I sucked in as much oxygen as possible to make up for the herculean effort of speaking. And that is the only reason I didn’t bore poor Sally with Every. Single. Detail. right there on the trail. Unfortunately, I think I made up for it later at her kitchen table when she was re-hydrating me after sweating all over the Marin headlands.
Last month I got that call. You know the one every Mother of a teenager is supposed to prepare herself to get. “Mom, my friend is in trouble and we need to go pick her up.” On the way there, I got coached. “Don’t ask anything about what happened or why she is coming over. Just make casual conversation like this is normal. “ So I acted like this was exactly what I was expecting at 11pm on my Saturday evening.
Hello, sweetie. So glad you could come over and I’ve been looking forward to meeting you too. Have you had dinner? No? Well, let me heat up some casserole I happen to have in the fridge and here’s some sliced baguette to go with it. Let me go make up the spare bed for you — you girls have fun.” Basically, I was like a super-star mom… until the next morning. Once the morning flurry was over and the house was finally empty, my daughter and I lay down trying to catch our breaths. I oh-so-casually let the question roll off my tongue before I could snatch it back. “So…. did you ever figure out what was happening that made her call us for help?” Off came the sleep mask, and the tone got cold, “Mom, you promised you’d be that Mom, the one anyone could call for any reason, no questions asked. This is not our story; it’s hers. Leave it alone.” Once again, I realized how much trouble I have just keeping a lid on it.
I hope my daughter will trust me again the next time someone needs help. I will try my best not to morph into the interrogator or insert myself too much. I really do want to be that Mom, because I think so many of these kids need a judgment-free, grace-filled zone to enter when they get in over their heads. But, boy, do I have trouble keeping my chatty, opinion-filled, question-driven self in check.
By the way, Lilly is coming over for iced tea next Monday. Because we are not planning on hiking together, I’ve asked her to bring some duct tape to keep me quiet.
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One time, just for a few months, my schedule was a bit too ambitious. Probably other people could have handled with ease what I had signed up to do, but I knew, looking ahead, that I would be working and busy from morning til exhausted night every single day for many months, and somehow I would still need to cook dinner and do things like hug my children. I do this sometimes, this saying yes thing. I love to be involved, work hard, initiate and try new ideas, and sometimes I forget not to do all those things at one time. I have no trouble saying no to something I don’t want to do. The trouble comes because I usually want to do so many different things that I end up saying yes with abandon.
In this story, though, once I realized that I had done it again – said yes to too much – it was too late to undo it. I saw the coming busy season approaching and did what I could to prepare. I shopped, wrapped and mailed all my Christmas presents by August of that year. I hired a part-time cook to help with dinners. I organized every junk drawer and corner of my house so that there wouldn’t be any last minute scramble looking for the stapler or scotch tape as we’re rushing off to school. I wrote Sunday school lessons weeks ahead of time and gathered arts and crafts supplies for each week, stashed them in individual giant-sized Ziplocs and wrote in large sharpie letters on the bags, “loaves and fishes ” and “water into wine posters.” Seriously, I tried to make it easier. But it wasn’t easy.
Halfway through that particular overcommitted time period, my dear friend Shelly checked in with me to see what she could do to help.
(Side note: Don’t you love it when a friend approaches you to offer to help when she sees that you’ve royally screwed up being in charge of your own tiny life? She didn’t come to show me how this was all my fault and avoidable, but instead she came to see how she could alleviate my problem. The world needs fewer I-told-you-so people and more how-can-I-help-you-get-yourself-out-of-this-mess-you-created kind of people.)
I had a mini-breakdown for a few minutes as I told her all the things that were going wrong with my grand plan. I had tried to control and predict every detail, but that wasn’t working. The woman who was supposed to be helping me with dinner actually was making our lives much harder. My kids hated her food and she spent each afternoon in my home criticizing my freezer and pontificating about nutrition. The people I was supervising on a project were all doing things wrong and making each step take so much longer, and there were all sorts of spontaneous needs springing up from another assignment I was trying to finish. No matter what I had done ahead of time or what I did in the moment, each commitment appeared to be failing.
I thought that if the people involved would just do things exactly as I said to do them, all would be fine. “I just didn’t account for the idiot factor,” I told Shelly in disgust. She looked at me with such kindness as she shared her little nugget of wisdom: “Joy, the idiot factor is all that there is.”
Years later, I am still processing that response. If the idiot factor is all there is, then no matter what scenario I get myself in the middle of, there will always be idiots as key players. Maybe the only predictable aspect of any situation is that it will be filled with idiots.
Recently, I drove a long way to take a friend of my 14-year-old to an unfamiliar airport. We traversed two highways to get there and I am sure that at least one of them was planned by an idiot. The drive took longer than Siri told us it would take (Siri was an idiot that day, too!). When we finally parked in the hourly lot, I made the kids run! while dragging suitcases and stuffing iPhones into carry-ons. We approached an airline employee and asked for some assistance working out a kink. His mumbled response was so unhelpful I made him say it three times out loud in hopes that he would hear how inadequate it was. He didn’t get it, and I ran my ragged trio of kids over to the next person. She looked like she was used to being in charge, maybe a supervisor or something. She glared at me while we described our little “situation” and then gave an idiotic response. She even walked us over to another supervisor-sort and reiterated her dim-witted answer. I stormed off and placed the girl I was in charge of in the security line and tried asking one more person for help. You guessed it…. useless.
The child made it safely onto her flight and home to her mother and all is now well. Later that night I was recounting the story to my long-suffering husband and I could see him flinch each time I spewed the word “idiot.” And then I went up to another idiot to ask for help…
When I awoke the following morning I remembered Shelly’s famous line: The idiot factor is all there is.
It took a while, but eventually a bit of regret and humility entered in. All those people I crossed paths with – all the idiots – they were people trying to do their jobs. I don’t know what training they received, what pressures they face, how late they were awake holding a crying baby or working a second job, or what stories brought them this far in life. I never took even a small moment to wonder about them. I didn’t even show them basic politeness or smile while I was asking them for help. I was just a frenzied mom shouting questions at them. They could have easily thought, here is another fool, late for her plane, unaware of the rules of young people traveling alone and now because of her lack of planning, she wants me to make this into an emergency. Lady, I deal with idiots like you all the time.
What it took me a whole night of sleep to realize is that from their perspective, I was probably the idiot. I bet at least one of them went home and told their spouse all about me: And then there was this idiotic woman who was so stressed out that she couldn’t listen to my answer…
It seems perhaps we’re all just a bunch of bumbling idiots, whether we’re in charge of big teams of people or just late for a flight. We’re all susceptible to poor reactions and impulsive moves that are only wrong in hindsight. We need strangers and friends to help us out of our self-made messes, and clearly no one thrives or flourishes on judgment. We all need… grace.
My faith in Jesus sometimes can be hard for me to articulate to others. People have enough religious thumping as it is, and I don’t want to add to that noise. But here goes a big piece of my own understanding: Jesus is the haven for my idiocy. He is where I feel most welcome to let down my guard, express my many failings, and drink in the soothing, restoring grace that redeems me in my worst moments. The hope is that I’ll drink enough to share with those around me
So, the next time I think what an idiot! I hope I am able to stop myself just for a moment and remember: idiots are all we’ve got in this world. And the next time I make a bone-headed move, whether it is across a lane of traffic, a sarcastic retort to my kids, or a colossal mistake with a client, I hope the people I affect will offer grace for the idiot instead of the disgust I recently handed out.
For God so loved all the idiots….
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I was sitting in a circle of meditating women the first time I knowingly met my future self. Future-Me and Current-Me had a short, life-altering conversation that afternoon two years ago, and her answers to a few simple questions have guided almost everything I’ve done since. With relief, I can look back at my growing-up-self, and see that my future self had been with me all along. Although she mostly hovered in the shadows, she’d also inserted herself at key moments in my history to make sure I stayed on the path that leads to her.
I caught a whiff of her this weekend and my heart raced a little bit as I wildly looked around trying to hone in on her location and what brought her to me again. It happens like this for me. I’ll stumble my way through life – cooking meals, shuttling people, running meetings, showing clothes, and then all of the sudden while I am pumping gas, I’ll know she’s there. Sometimes I can’t figure out where she fits into the picture, but other times it’s glaringly obvious. The most recent rendezvous with her seemed pretty mundane. I was standing in a hotel lobby and I turned to introduce my son to some women I barely know. While he was shaking their hands, this random thought raced through my head: I have an awesome son. Boom, the floodgates opened and I was practically crying and holding back the urge to hug him and pour gushy emotional words all over him. He’s a twelve-year-old boy and not really into all that. Perhaps the tiny realization of the gift I’ve received in parenting was what made her show up. It was almost as if she was shouting into a bull horn that only I could hear – This is a moment, Joy, lean into it and grab a piece to hide in your heart. I’m not sure what was special about that particular moment, but I listened to her. I’ve relived it a hundred times since it happened. I can tell you what he was wearing and what the other women said to him and how one of them leaned back out of his view as she mouthed the words “He is so cute.” And how he was placed just to my left, but out of reach and when he finished shaking hands how he nodded and put his hands in his pockets and walked away in that slightly leaning forward manner of his. I have no idea why this whole scenario made such an impression on me, but I’ve learned to listen to the nudge.
I know I risk sounding like a total nut job as I write this. If I named it intuition or gut instinct some of you might be more open to it. It could seem less, well … spiritual. Others would rather I use a language they understand and just listen to the Voice Of God and would be fine if I thought the Holy Spirit spoke to me at times. In all honesty, depending on the circumstances of this strange emotional urgency, I call it all sorts of different things.
A friend of mine was searching for a school for her special needs son. She sat in one after another admission presentations and during one of them she felt inexplicably weepy. She called me that night and said “Either I am about to get my period or I just found the right school for him.”
Perhaps something similar happens to you. You know that thing that helps you out when you are presented with two options and you just know which one to take? No amount of weighing or discussing really leads you to a logical decision, but deep inside the choice is crystal clear. When I experience this, and the answer is obvious, I know it’s because that’s the pick that will lead me closer to the woman I met forty years from now.
Maybe you only sense this phenomenon in a more negative way, like in regret. I feel it there too. When I have that gutty guilty feeling that gnaws at me until I want to throw up. I ask all my friends about what I did and they try to cheer me up and justify the thing I feel terrible about. We all have those days. Anybody would react that way. You are only human. I didn’t notice a thing. You were perfectly in your right. But I know. Deep down, I know that whatever I did or said made me take a step away from my future self. Or from the Holy Spirit. Or from God’s perfect will. Or from the purpose of my life. Or from listening to my intuition.
The sister of one of my friends repeats to her children, “Each day you get to decide what kind of person you will be.” I try to remember that. I have a say in this matter! My favorite Christian author/speaker is John Ortberg from Menlo Park, California. I devoured His book, The Me I Want To Be, because it was like being given permission to be who I already know I am. I try to reach that delicate balance between believing I am the master of my universe and can control everything, and being fatalistic and just letting life wash over me like an ocean wave without taking any responsibility for it. Somewhere in the middle is this idea that I have a course to plot and there really is a way to get there.
After I met my future self, I realized that if God knew me in my mother’s womb, He likely knows me in my seventies as well. If He created me to be who I am, He created who I will become. He probably wants me to follow the path to her as much as I do.
Here’s the thing that is complicated about chasing down my future self. Only God and I have met her. No one else gets those whiffs or emotional reactions when I bump into her. Sometimes the choices I make with my life, my parenting or my career, well, they just don’t look right to those around me. And I have to remember that other people don’t know the me I’m going to be and they have not been charged with the responsibility to get me to her. That’s on me. So, if I have to ignore criticism, endure well intentioned, but unsolicited guidance, or face down peer pressure to scramble my way to her, so be it. I know where I am headed, and there are a million tiny choices that will get me there.
Question for you: Does any of this sound familiar? What name do you give this idea? Can you remember the last time you experienced it?
Last week, my fourteen-year-old graduated from the eighth grade with a moving and beautiful ceremony that allowed us to reflect on the previous nine years and a crazy-fun dance party where we celebrated and whooped it up. Lodged right in the middle was a short speech given by one of my dear friends, Gordon Sharafinski. The closing comments he offered at her graduation may have been his last public remarks because he retired a few days later. The internet has been flooded with graduation speeches over the last few weeks, each one more inspiring than the one that pinged my in-box moments before, but the few words my buddy, Gordy, charged my daughter and her friends with are the ones that felt sticky and have been swirling in my mind ever since. By sharing bits of his own story, he encouraged the girls to “expect the unexpected.” He grew up a 10th child in an eleven-kid family in a tiny town in Wisconsin and became a parochial High School English teacher. Due only to many unexpected and surprising twists in his career, he is retiring as the Director of four prestigious independent schools in a city that many people would give their eye teeth to live in, and he gets to enjoy it for all of his days. He wanted the girls to know deep in their souls that his life had not turned out exactly as planned, and it was much better because he had been open to unexpected opportunities along the way.
I glanced at my daughter sitting on stage, hoping she was soaking up his words. She reminds me of myself, full of planning, strategizing, and analyzing. I know she won’t bob numbly through life floating on the waves of trends or friends, but I do wonder if she’ll notice open doors beckoning her if they are not listed on her grand plan. Gordy’s words made me think about how I landed in this gorgeous city and I feel the same way he does: only through strokes of wonder and grace, here I am.
My women’s group was studying “grace” a few years ago and had a loose working definition in our minds: Grace is an unexpected and unearned act of generous love. For homework one week we were looking for examples of grace in everyday life and reporting back what we found. I saw a grace-filled moment while at work. I show racks of gorgeous clothes to women and help them select the pieces that are right for their budget and body. I love my job and enjoy meeting new women through it, but most of the time it’s fairly straightforward and predictable. On this particular night, a woman came very late with her 12-year-old daughter in tow. She quietly shopped and didn’t need much help from me, but she conversed and took pointers from her daughter. When she was finished shopping and ready to pay for her selections she quietly said to her daughter, “Would you like to pick out something for yourself?” The daughter’s face beamed with surprise and gratitude as she rushed over and lifted the multi-colored cardigan she had been subtly stroking the whole evening. Watching this love-filled mother and daughter team, I realized I had fulfilled my homework assignment in noticing a moment of grace.
Gordy was telling my daughter that these kinds of grace-filled moments, the ones we are least expecting to see, actually point us toward the way.
On the last day of eighth grade, my daughter and a gang of friends left school and celebrated their final dismissal at a local burger joint. At the same restaurant sat a long ago friend of mine in a corner booth. My daughter was a little girl the last time she’d seen her and she had one of those moments of shock we all have when time rears up and slaps us across the face. You know what I mean, it happens when the niece we held in our arms becomes a bride, the neighbor we watched toddle across a lawn skates by on a long board and we notice he now has a beard. Our own kids grow so close to our face that it’s like watching water boil, but other children appear to be eating miracle-gro in their cereal. After receiving a message from my old friend, “OMG, I just saw Emma and she is so grown up and tall!” my cell phone rang. My breathless fourteen-year-old was shouting into my ear, “Mom, the weirdest thing just happened! I saw Mrs. Wishner and said hello when we first sat down, and then when we went to pay for our lunch, the manager told us that she had already paid for us. Mom, there are at least ten kids here and she paid for everybody. We need to call her right now. Can you text us her telephone number?” At bedtime that night she told me the story again and we tried to guess reasons why my friend had been so generous, but we came up empty. The only explanation is that she showered my girl and her pals with an unexpected and unearned act of generous love. That’s grace! That’s what my friend Gordy was trying to tell Emma to be on the lookout for. Expect to find grace. Don’t plot your life and assume you can control it all. If you do that, you’ll miss these moments of grace that come storming in.
Last Tuesday, I drove to beautiful Marin, a county just a few miles north of San Francisco, but a completely different climate and, some would say, culture as well, and attended a “Let’s celebrate that school is over Mom’s night out.” Our gracious hostess opened her home, hired valet parkers and delicious caterers and showered heaps of pampering on her girlfriends. I showed up that night thinking that the only gal in the room I would know would be my friend, the hostess. All of the other women there were in the same school community and were celebrating the end of a year spent together. I knew that I could only occupy the hostess for a few minutes and then I’d need to mingle and meet other women. My friend, Stephanie, introduced me to a few gals. “This is my friend, Joy, from the city,” and then I excused myself to free her up. I was standing in line for a drink when a woman started chatting with me. She looked like all the other Marin moms out on the gorgeous deck, perfectly highlighted hair just brushing her sun-kissed shoulders. I was feeling a little city-pasty-pale next to all the gorgeous warm weather gals and honestly wondering why I had come. I’d rather catch up with Stephanie at a lunch for the two of us, and this party just seemed full of people who were already connected to each other. I was beginning to wonder if the rest of the evening would be spent awkwardly trying to enter into conversations between close friends and if I was really up for the job of casual socializing that night. The woman who was talking to me in the drinks line figured out that I was a lone ranger and instead of just ending our chat with the requisite, “Well, nice to meet you,” she said this instead: “Listen, it was great chatting with you and if later in the night you find yourself on your own, please don’t feel awkward just coming and standing next to me. I’ll include you in any group I am standing in.” Seriously, that is exactly what she said to me – totally unexpectedly and full of generosity. I never saw her again that night because it turned out that I knew a whole gang of gals who were over-the-moon to see me and we giggled and caught up and celebrated another year of parenting under our belts. Even though I never had to call in my chit of grace with the beautiful Nicole, I am still thinking about her six days later and soaking up that feeling I get when grace is bestowed. I’m grateful, a little bewildered, and wondering how I got so lucky.
And that is exactly the path those eighth graders were being told to look for, and it’s the path I want to stay on. I want to hunt down grace, and go after those unexpected moments like a momma hunting food for her young. I want to expect that generous love will find me, and I want to bask in the glow of having been chosen for surprising gifts from above. Meeting Nicole, seeing my shopper, Ruth, bless her daughter (named Grace if you can even believe that!) and listening to Emma recount Mrs. Wishner’s generosity were tiny bits dropped into my lap. If I had been going too fast or planning for life down the road, I may have missed them altogether.
When I look back I can see that signs of grace have directed my path the entire time:
Unexpected Mercy, Next Right,
Surprising Love, Up Ahead,
Awe-inspiring Changes, ½ Mile,
T’was grace that brought me safe thus far… and grace will lead me home.
Where has grace shown up in your life?
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