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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