One Last Good-Bye

 

It’s been a weekend.

Yesterday, we held a memorial service for my mother. My brother was well enough to travel south and as soon as he, his wife, Sandy, and their daughter, Rachel, arrived at our home on Friday night, I put the women to work creating this wonderful photo montage for the reception after the service.

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Both of them are talented artists and I was relieved to pass along this last task connected to what was a grand day of celebration and thanksgiving. About 75 of us gathered in the chapel at The Samarkand. Together, we worshiped God and celebrated mom’s life. It was a gift and a privilege to share stories, to laugh, to tear up from time to time, and to mark the passing of this valiant, vibrant woman, the last of her generation to leave us.

I’m including the words of remembrance that I shared yesterday so that family members who could not be there can read and remember with us. Some photos from the day, too.

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A lovely collection of snapshots covering several decades of mom’s life.

“For the first few years of my life, she was ‘mommy’ to me. From about the 3rd grade on, she became simply, ‘mom.’ And during these last, hard years, the name that most often came to my lips was, ‘mama.’

“I think that choice was the natural one because she had become so very frail and ‘mom’ seemed far too robust to use. I also think it came naturally because it has a tender sound, a diminutive feel. She became smaller and smaller over these last four years at the Samarkand. With each move, we re-distributed more and more of her material belongings until little was left. Her life, her surroundings, became smaller and smaller. And she herself began to shrink away from us. As she stopped even wanting to eat, she gradually became quite tiny, almost wraith-like.

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Eileen, Harold, Ruth, Al, in the back. I think Mom was about 12 in this picture.

“The irony in that, of course, is that it was her lifelong desire to be smaller than she was! Oh, how she wrestled with her weight. And she passed that wrestling right on down to me, in all kinds of ways — some of them undoubtedly genetic. But some of them, having a lot more to do with appearances, with wanting to please others, with a deep yearning to be something, someone, other than who and what she was.

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Days gone by (long gone by!)

But here is what I have I learned as I have walked with my mother through this last, long part of her journey on this earth: the truest thing I know about my mother is that she was BEAUTIFUL, in every way I can think of. The saddest thing about my mother is that she never really knew that.

Oh, how I hope she knows it now!

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Al passed away in his early 50’s, but mom and Harold and Eileen lived long and stayed close.
Mom was the last to leave us.
My dad’s distant cousin, Jan Baylor (whom we called Earleen – her middle name, after her father Earl), was a fun friend for mom, especially during the middle decades of her life. She’s in the bottom left photo and the very bottom one,  which you can barely see — in identical swimsuits (unbeknownst to them until mom visited Jan at her trailer near the beach!)

My mother radiated light. At her best, she was the most fun person I’ve ever known. She had a bawdy sense of humor and a great laugh; she took delight in her children and her grandchildren, adored her husband — even when he frustrated the daylights out of her — and she particularly loved seeing and creating beautiful things. She had an artist’s eye for color, enjoyed a minimalist, mid-century sense of décor, and could become rapturous over a sunset, a seascape, a forest or a tiny baby.

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See that look of delight on her face? Yeah, we saw that a lot at Christmas! That’s my brother Tom, back in the day . . .

Every once in a while during these last years, I would catch a glimpse of that great sense of humor and it always delighted me. Here are two small stories I recorded in my journal, one from Christmas of 2014, the other from April of last year:

Story number one, from Christmas Lunch in Heritage Court at the Samarkand:

“After lunch, we went back to her room, and she asked the same set of questions that she’s asked the last few times we’ve talked. And when I answered I tried to speak clearly. But her hearing is so bad, that she struggled to understand. Finally, the third time she asked me to repeat myself, I spoke very loudly, very slowly, very distinctly, and she looked at me, smiled and said, ‘THANK YOU,’ at the top of her lungs! It struck me as something the ‘old’ mom would do. And it made me laugh out loud. I was so tired and emotionally vulnerable — I got started laughing and couldn’t quite stop. And I remember thinking, ‘well, it’s better than crying.’”

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Goofing it up at a Christmas spent in Tom and Sandy’s cabin in Julian CA

And another story, from a year ago April, during one of our twice-weekly lunches out:

Today’s theme song was, “The Old Rugged Cross” and she sang pieces of it through our entire time together. I was able to find a couple of versions of it online and play them in the car as we drove south toward the water.

She does love taking this drive. She comments on the cars, on the houses, on the large numbers of people. The confines of her world these days are very restricted, very limited. When I take her out into the wider world, she is struck with wonder.

It is good to see where I live through her eyes, as I too often take it all for granted. We ate at Longboard’s, overlooking the harbor. And there was a cruise ship in town today, unloading its throngs of people to sit on various tour buses and populate the local seaside restaurants. The wait staff was extremely slow because of the increased numbers, and as we were waiting for our food, she said, rather than sang these two lines from the day’s theme song: “so I’ll cling to the old rugged Cross, and exchange it someday for a crown.”

And then she said, “And sometime between now and then, I’d really like a little something to eat!”

And we both busted up. These sweet moments are flashes of the mama I have always known, and I am so grateful for them.”

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There were two of these glorious arrangements for the service. We left one for the chapel service this morning and took this one home to re-use it as table decor for the family dinner that came after the reception at The Samarkand.

She was, as I told the staff here and at Hospice, the most flaming extrovert I have ever known. She loved people, was a caring neighbor and built friendships that lasted for decades. A friend reminded me the other day that on that first Valentine’s Day after my father’s death in 2005, she went to CVS and picked up a half dozen small boxes of chocolates to take to all the widows she knew at Hillcrest, their retirement community in La Verne CA. She knew their sweethearts would not be remembering them on that day. She kept up the chocolate-giving until she had to move into assisted living in 2012.

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Each of mom’s grandchildren participated in reading scripture for her service. Our three are in the top photo, doing the Old Testament readings — L to R, Lisa, Eric, Joy
The bottom picture includes Jacob Gold and Jeremy Morgan, my brother Ken’s two sons, and Rachel and Dylan Gold, Tom and Sandy’s two children.

The disease that took her life is a cruel one, a thief with no mercy, slowly stealing memory, cognition, discernment, even personality. But in my mother’s case, dementia was never able to destroy the core of who she was.

And the core of my mother was her faith.

From about the age of fifteen, my mother was an ardent follower after Jesus, wanting to go deep, to learn, to practice resurrection from day to day. Even though her background was conservative, she and my dad somehow managed to grasp the truest things about the Christian faith and to let go of much of the judgment, fear, simplistic jargon, and insider/outsider mentality that has come to characterize too much of the modern church.

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It was a beautiful and VERY WARM afternoon for an early dinner, planned and executed by my three kids and their spouses — thank you, thank you, THANK YOU to each of you.

She was grateful for her roots, for the women at Trinity Methodist Church who befriended her and encouraged her leadership skills, even paying for her to go to a special training event put on by Henrietta Mears, one of the first women leaders in the Presbyterian church of the 20th century. But she was always searching for more – and she read widely and well in order to learn more. She was not a perfect person — who is? But, man, she was a good one.

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Our funky but fun covered atrium entry greeted guests with bright colors, wooden signs . . .

I believe, in the deepest part of me, that what I saw in my mom as she slowly faded away from me, was a reflection of the light of Jesus. She always let it shine. Always. Just about 40 hours before she died, she reached out to kiss my hand as I straightened her bedding. Days before she left us, she offered that beautiful smile and those kind words — ‘thank you so much!’ ‘You look so beautiful today.’ ‘I love your hair.’ By that point, almost nothing else she said hung together with any kind of sense. But those short, kind compliments? They remained. They remained.

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. . . and some glorious blossoms, too.

Now Tom and I could tell you tales of tears, of anger, explosive and sharp, of deep-seated insecurities that often made her fearful and sometimes harsh. But you know what? As hard as those days were for us — and they were — over the span of our lives and hers, they amounted to so little. As she grew in her faith, as she and dad grew more deeply in love over the years of their marriage, and as she experienced more and more of the Love with a capital “L” that she and I believe is the power that sources our entire universe, those hard days became less and less frequent.

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My dear brother, Tom, with his amazing and talented wife, Sandy.

I had the gift of a good home and that enabled and instructed me in creating what I hope was a good home with Dick for our kids. Over these last years, I have been struck again and again by how central my mother was in my own formation and ultimately, in the formation of my kids, and now my grandkids. She came from such a place of damage, with an alcoholic father and a mother who worked full-time. But she was found by God and loved by the aunts who helped to raise her, by those women at Trinity Methodist, and then by my dad. And that made all the difference.

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Although our brother Ken passed away in 2009, his kids were part of the day — R to L,
Christina and Jeremy Morgan (I had the great gift of marrying these two five years ago; they have an adorable baby boy who did not make the three hour drive with them); Jacob Gold and his fiance, Kevin Herrera. 

Of much deeper importance than the scars I bear from my early life, are the graces that mark me because of my mother. She was the primary spiritual influence on me for many years and I am so very grateful for that truth. She modeled the honest, searching spiritual journey. She also modeled loving hospitality, and a great sense of fun and creativity.

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Our eldest grandson Ben, who arranged for some fun home movies to run on the TV in the reception hall at The Samarkand and made a video of the service, catching up with our son-in-law, Marcus

What rises to the top is her goodness. Her generosity. Her great good humor, her searching intelligence, her love for us. My brother Tom said it on Facebook this last Mother’s Day, “Ninety-five years with us. Loving, smart, funny. Give me a choice of all the mothers in the world and I’d choose the one I had.”

Yup. Give me the choice of all the mothers in this world, I’d choose the one I had.

In a heartbeat.

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Several long-time friends from Pasadena made the drive north and stayed for dinner.

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A gaggle of granchildren

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I discovered this sweet note which I believe was created by the 11-year-olds and signed by a couple of the older grandkids. And late last night (after I had collapsed into bed!), my youngest granddaughter had her mom send me a text telling me she was sad that my mama died and that she loved me. I discovered it on my way out the door today to lead in worship — another story I’ll post about later this week. It was a rich, rich weekend. But. . . we’re really, really, REALLY glad it’s over now.

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One of the best things about memorial services is the reunion piece. It was wonderful to see cousins re-connect at three generational levels, to sit and visit with old friends, and to savor the beauty of a life, well-lived.

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We miss you, Mama. But we had a GRAND time saying good-bye. You would have loved it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

31 Days of . . . Paying Attention

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Almost a year ago, I was invited to bring the morning devotions at a retreat for retired pastors and their spouses. When the schedule for that retreat arrived in my inbox about three months ago, I knew immediately what I needed to do. We were gifted with great teaching, excellent workshop opportunities, great meals to eat together, even a concert from a grand male quartet. What I did not see was any deliberate space for quietness, for solitude, for prayer.

So rather than give a mini-sermon immediately following breakfast those two days, I chose to offer two different kinds of prayer experiences. I described each briefly and then gave out printed guidance sheets and sent everyone off to find a quiet space for twenty minutes before our morning teaching session. The first day’s assignment was to pay attention —  to take a walk or find a bench somewhere and look, really look, at something (or things) nearby. I invited them to take some slow time to offer deeper-than-usual attention to something round about them and then to breathe out sighs of gratitude, maybe write about what they saw or draw a picture of it. Or take a photo.

I so enjoyed doing this myself that I vowed to do some deliberate attention-paying going forward. I invite you to go along with me this month as I, once again, join the invitation to write a post every day in October on a single topic. Most of these will be short, all of them will feature at least one photo. But then you knew that, didn’t you? For me, photography is a primary means of entering into both prayer and gratitude — which are so often the same thing.

Let’s pay attention together, shall we? Leave me a brief comment and tell me what YOU’ve been paying attention to as we move through this month together. Looking forward to this!

The Seven Sorrows

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I snuck in through the back gate, carefully closing it so that the family of deer grazing nearby could not enter the enclosed garden. Miraculous rain had fallen during the night and the air was crisp and cool, with a slight breeze from the west. The small labyrinth on the grounds of Mater Dolorosa Retreat Center was my first target that morning — I love to walk and pray, and if there is a dedicated pathway for such walking and praying, I head straight toward it. These deer were just to the east as I slowly wound my way to the center of that stone-marked pathway and back out again. They were lovely – young, strong, alert.

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The garden site took me to an entirely different place, one of tears and remembering, of death and dying, though there was beauty to be seen on all sides. The wisteria arbor pictured above was the first thing I saw as I clanged the gate behind me. Stretching out on both sides to form a circle, the entire 15-feet wide pathway fully enclosed a special, set-aside space: The Garden of the Seven Sorrows. This is a space marked for contemplation on the sorrows that Mary carried throughout her life as a mother, an idea new to me, and a surprisingly welcome one.

We Protestants don’t often think about Mary, do we? We tend to forget the depth of her spiritual maturity, her shocking availability to God. Would you be so open? Would I?

There are six niches around the circle, each with an exquisite and colorful mosaic depicting the sorrows that are mentioned in the gospel narrative. There are benches, a variety of both green and blooming plants, a fountain in the center, and a striking bronze statue duet, life-sized and haunting in its detailed depiction of mother and son locking eyes as Jesus drops the cross on his way to Calvary. That statue represents the seventh sorrow, and I saw it first from the back.

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I walked around, under the arbor, to begin my pilgrimage at the beginning, stepping into each niche in turn and then returning to the center magnificence to further contemplate that bronze tableau, this time from the front and from the side. I invite you to come along with me as I walk, enjoying a more distant view and then a closeup of each sorrow in turn. Take a moment to savor the detail, to reflect on the moment captured by the artwork. See what rises in you.

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It began in the earliest days of her motherhood experience, didn’t it? Taking her new little boy to the temple for blessing and dedication, Simeon had a hard word for her
“. . . and a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

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Joseph holds the infant Jesus and the heart of Mary beats almost out of her chest at Simeon’s heavy words. Eight days old and her heart is filled with foreboding.

The Second Sorrow focuses on the flight into Egypt. With a toddler in tow, Mary and her husband were forced to flee their homeland, not knowing exactly when they might return. This is, to me, a poignant picture of the plight of so many refugees in our world today — forced out, running away to a foreign place, uncertain about the future, wanting protection and safety for their family.

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Sorrow Three comes twelve years later, when Jesus remains in the temple, worrying his parents by his absence, and then by his response: “Didn’t you know, Mother? Didn’t you know where I would be?” 

Do we know where our children are? Can we?

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img_0634The artist has managed to capture Mary’s pain and confusion, using just small pieces of colored ceramic. Jesus is rapt, his hand raised and open. Always, his hands were open.

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And this is Sorrow Four — the only one not specifically recorded in scripture, but one that surely could have happened — Mary meeting her son on the road. I do not know who the artists were, for either the mosaics or the sculpture, but I am grateful for them and to them. This is one of the most moving sights I’ve ever experienced. Contemplate the detail on their faces with me, won’t you?

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Deep grief marks a person in every way — physically, emotionally, spiritually. Her tears elicit my own.

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And Jesus turns to look at his mother, his mama. How difficult this entire event must have been for both of them. The gospel writers give us tiny glimpses; artists take those glimpses and give us wider, deeper vistas.

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I think he must have been a strong man — I like the musculature outlined here. But he was also a very weary man at this point in the journey, a heartbroken man. And all of that shows in that face. All of it.

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Though I do not subscribe to the Catholic doctrines about Mary, I completely understand how they developed. The mother-son bond is a strange and wondrous one, and like it or not, we moms are of primary importance to and a strong influence on our children, daughters and sons alike. While I believe the Catholic church has overplayed the importance of that bond, I fear we Protestants have seriously underplayed it. 

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And here is the one we are probably most familiar with — Sorrow Five — Mary watching her beloved son die on that tree. The apostle John appears to the right, turned away from the sight; Mary looks, but weeps. What must that have been like?

img_0642The Sixth Sorrow is the one made famous by Pietas across the ages — Mary holding her son as he is taken down from the cross. “Has there been any sorrow like unto my sorrow?”

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The final sorrow comes at the gravesite. The women are all there and it is hard to know which one is Mary. Who do you think it is?

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The rose bush effectively hid all of their faces, but I snuck my camera around the blooms and thorns and got each of them:

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As I walked this beautiful, yet somewhat strange new circle, I found myself saying, ‘thank you,’ over and over again. Thank you to the Son, yes, of course. Of course. But also — thank you to the mother, the dear mother, the one who said ‘yes’ to the mystery, who opened herself to unspeakable pain, who loved her child with her whole heart. She was not perfect, but she was deeply good and I am grateful.

As I turned to leave this glorious space, I noticed a flash of color just off to my right. Two colors, to be exact — two colors of the church year, in point of fact: red (this one was pinkish) and purple — red for sorrow and purple for royalty. Seemed fitting, somehow. Perfectly fitting.

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We will return to this same retreat center in 18 months. You can be sure that the Garden of the Seven Sorrows will be a part of my own meditative experience in 2018. It will be springtime then. How lovely!

Giving Thanks, for All of It


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I sit on our lanai, looking out over the bay beneath us, surrounded by tropical mountain tops, colorful flowering plants, and the gentle sound of doves.

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This is a paradise, a gift to us all on this summer morning, and I am grateful. More grateful than I can say.

Those I love are well and happy, playing tennis or golf, doing jigsaw puzzles, playing marathon games of Monoply, taking hikes or bike rides, enjoying the warm, turquoise sea.

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We’re heading out to a special anniversary dinner tonight, and we’ve collected a few things to share while we’re all around one table. A love letter from Dick’s mom to his dad, one of our loveliest discoveries while sorting through 50 years of accumulated stuff the past six weeks. And a letter from his dad, after our trip to this same island 35 years ago to celebrate their 50th. A small photo album from my parents’ 50th anniversary venture to this same place is in that pile, too, along with a letter from me to Dick on our 45th. We have small gifts for everyone to say ‘thank you’ for completing our family circle and to mark this time away together. Yes, we’re all feeling blessed, grateful, and glad to be here.

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Not that it’s been an easy journey to this time, this place. No. Not easy. We lost someone we loved very much on this family journey, although I see him in his son’s faces, hear him in their inflections, their chatter with one another.

All of our parents are gone now, except my mom, who doesn’t remember ever being here — or ever being married, for that matter. Every one of us has had health issues of one kind or another over these years — it goes with the territory. But now, right now, we are well. And for that, we give thanks.

Not everyone we know and love can say the same thing this day. One friend has biopsies scheduled for tomorrow — brain tumors. Another is in ICU for the second week, recovering from a severe and terrifying health attack. One of my dearest friends is tending a scarily frail husband following a stroke. Another is recovering from radiation treatment, yet another facing into similar treatment very soon. One friend’s unborn child is carrying scary portents in his small body; another is living out the bittersweet reality of Downs syndrome. 

We are such frail creatures, and yet . . . Even bearing scars and infirmities, we are wonders, intricate and profoundly sacred. Image-bearers all, and so often those with the deepest scars are the ones who reflect the clearest image. 

So today, amid the blessings and the obvious gifts, I also give thanks for the scars, the wounds, the struggle. Because these things are what have formed and shaped us, like it or not. We are who we are because of what we’ve lived — all of it. The good, the bad, the beautiful, the ugly. And I will give thanks for it, with hands open and heart unafraid.

A small sparrow lands on the table before me, one talon missing. Standing on the tabletop, this creature is off balance, out of kilter. But as he swoops away, all awkwardness vanishes. And all I see is glory. Glory. GLORY.

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Pentecost — One Week Late!

DSC04430As I noted in today’s newsletter (you can subscribe below), this is a crazy-making time in our lives. We’ve got a major move underway and a big family vacation right in the middle of it all. And I’m still (at least, partially) in recovery mode from several weird medical experiences of the past few months. So this post is about a week later than I had hoped it might be.

Through it all, we keep on truckin,’ by the grace of God and a whole lotta stubborn determination. One week ago we traveled south to be present for our middle daughter’s oldest son’s confirmation. Wesley is 17, just finished his junior year in high school and is contemplating college, right around the corner. How in the heck did that happen? Wasn’t he just a tiny kid who looked almost exactly like his mama?

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While we were there, we managed to sneak in basketball games for each of Wesley’s two younger brothers and I had the shopping joy of browsing a JC Penney, a store which my town hasn’t had for years. They have definitely upgraded their women’s clothing section!!

But the true highlight of the weekend was that Confirmation Service. We always love worshipping at Knox Presbyterian in Pasadena CA, and are regularly inspired by their creative worship and solid preaching. It’s been a good home for our kids and that makes this particular set of parents and grandparents very partial and very grateful.

It was Pentecost Sunday — a great day for welcoming young adults into full membership of the church. Two of the five kids were also baptized — a wondrous splashing of water from a beautiful wooden font.

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But the standout surprise moment for us happened during the children’s sermon. Pastor Matt invited the confirmands and about 3 of the littler kids to take hold of round, disc like objects which he had stashed up front. They were in shades of red, orange and yellow and as the kids began to handle them, I could see that they were circles of crepe paper streamers.

And here’s what we did with them. The kids tossed them out as far as they could, then the congregants picked them up and tossed them behind themselves until the back pew was reached. Then the back row tossed them toward the front until all the rolls were completely unspooled. It looked fabulous!

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Then we were instructed to raise those streamers above our heads and stomp our feet as fast as we could. “And that,” said Pastor Matt, “is just a small picture of what it must have been like when the Spirit showed up at Pentecost.” Wind and fire. Oh, YEAH!

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It was the perfect set-up for the kids’ vows and the gentle reading of a piece of their own personal credos, each one reading a portion that wove together into a modern version — a confirmation student version! — of the Apostle’s Creed. 

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At the end of the service, some helpful ‘stage hands’ moved forward a large white easel and a table spread with colored (washable) paints. And during the singing of the last hymn, we were invited to come forward, dip our thumbs into red, orange or yellow paint and make a mark on the sketched-in flames drawn on the easel.

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Everyone was involved, a bodily experience of community that I found profoundly moving.

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It’s not the most gorgeous piece of art you’ll ever see, but it is a lovely representation of this particular fellowship of believers and their commitment to be in this thing together.

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In the quiet space after the service, I snapped a photo of the finished flames, set against the draped cross. And I thanked God for this motley, crazy thing called ‘the church.’ We are far from perfect, but sometimes . . . sometimes, we get it right.

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Joining this with Jennifer, Lisha, Laura.

The Negative Power of Scarcity Thinking

Sometimes, I wonder just how many of the world’s ills are attributable to the ‘not enough’ syndrome?

You know the thinking — it shows up in all its various permutations:

“I don’t have enough”
“I can’t get enough”
You’re not enough”
I’m not enough.”

All tolled, I reckon the answer is . . . a fair amount. 

We’ve been looking at the parables of Jesus in Matthew 18 and 20 the past few weeks, the ones about forgiveness and generosity, about the many ways we tend to keep score in this life and how truly pointless it is. 

Think back to our story about beginnings and you can see it even there. Adam and Eve figured they didn’t have enough and that they themselves were not quite enough, either. They listened to the sinuous voice of the Tempter and allowed it to rule over their better selves, the selves that knew and were known, the selves that saw all that God had made and knew it to be GOOD, the selves that assumed abundance.

That same thread can be seen weaving its sharp-edged, ugly way through so many of the stories of the Old Testament and so many of the word pictures that Jesus drew as he told his stories along the dusty roads of ancient Palestine.

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Right in the middle of some of those stories is where we find ourselves in the lectionary readings as we move toward the end of Ordinary Time this month. 

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about settling conflicts in the community, about how important it is to face into the hard things faithfully, openly, honestly. We followed that up last week with Peter’s question about forgiveness. “How many times, Lord?”

And the answer zinged back at him: “More times than you can count, my friend. An infinite number.” And to underscore that truth, Jesus told that story of forgiveness and generosity, the one that is paired with an equally powerful picture of what can happen if we are not forgiving and generous. 

Look at our altar pieces for that week and see if you can tell which story I mean. Yeah, that’s the one — the dramatically contrasting story of the steward who is forgiven much and then turns around and refuses to forgive a debt less than 1/10th the size of the one from which he had just been freed.

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I love that our artists chose to use the image of breaking down a wall to picture this disparity. A giant mallet, contrasted with a tiny hammer.

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A massive pile of bricks juxtaposed with one tiny half-brick.

We get it so backwards, don’t we? The man in the story had received the gracious gift of a lifetime – he owed an incalculable debt. Huge. And yet he couldn’t spread the goodness, he was unable to ‘forgive’ the small amount owed to him, choosing instead to cast his debtor into prison, breaking up his family, destroying his life.

This story always makes me wonder where my own stinginess lies, where my fears about not having enough, about balancing the scales, about making sure everyone is paid up — where that ugliness hides itself in me. Because it’s there, I know it is.

Hanging onto hurt feelings over a casual remark when so many have forgiven my thoughtlessness over the years. Worrying that someone else will do it better or collect more friends or receive more invitations to fun events. Yeah, I’ve been in those judgmental, keep-the-upper-hand shoes.

Yesterday, the Jesus-story once again cut right through to the place I live, the one I hide inside my spirit. That score-keeping, compare-and-contrast, watch-out-that-you-don’t-get-cheated place that I must regularly pray my way out of.

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The story of the generous master, the crew-boss who goes out at regular intervals to hire workers for the field and then pays them all exactly the same wage. Exactly the same. Whether they started at nine in the morning or five in the afternoon, everybody got exactly the same pay.

Now, what, pray tell, is fair about that? Yes, that is exactly what I would have been saying. Grumble, grumble. “Say what? I’ve been sweating away all day long and that clown who came during the cool of the evening and didn’t even work up a sheen — they’re getting the same pay I got??”

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Envy is like that, isn’t it? Constantly keeping a mental tally of how much everybody else is getting and comparing it to what I have. Wanting to keep all things even. JUSTICE! 

Well, maybe not.

Because the landowner in this story is completely just, if you read it carefully and if you think about it at all. He promises the early workers a fair day’s wage. And he pays them exactly what was agreed upon. But by that time, they’ve seen that he’s given the late-comers that same wage and have convinced themselves they’ll get more.

No dice. They got exactly what was agreed upon before they began the job. And also? A small, kindly lecture from the landowner.

And you gotta love this lecture:

‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

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Now think about that for a minute. “Are you envious because I am generous?” Oh, ouch.

Oh, Lord, help me to celebrate your generosity at every turn, to recognize its beauty, to see your grace in every lovely gift bestowed by your hand. . . even when it doesn’t exactly match what I think I should have gotten!

Help me to cease this struggle for enough, for what is ‘fair,’ for what I think is rightfully mine. Remind me that every good and perfect gift comes from your hand and that whatever I have and whoever I am — is enough. Because you are so much more.

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To stop asking the incessant “Why?” and “Why not?” questions and to start paying attention to what is right in front of me.

To see the beautiful in the everyday, to look for the grace in every difficulty, to remember the loveliness of the small.

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To whisper, “Thank you” thousands of times more often than I cry out, “Fix this!”

To look for the color, the glorious color of generosity wherever I find my feet planted, and to stop living as though there is a scarcity of everything or anything.
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And help me to reflect your heart, to make space for cheerleading instead of comparison, for gratitude instead of grumbling.

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In the good, strong name of Jesus, whose generosity amazes and astounds me, day after day.

Amen.

Doing the Work

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Life is such an interesting, beautiful, terrible mix, textured and rich, sometimes overwhelming and difficult, but laced with grace and beauty, often in surprising ways.

I wrote a back-to-school blessing for my husband last week, and he is back at it full-tilt, bringing treasures to share, stories to tell, strong arms to push swings and build forts.

This morning, he brought this beautiful nest, discovered in a plant hanging outside our window. It held two lovely small eggs within, abandoned by their parents. For some reason, this loveliness was a powerful reminder to me that sometimes life doesn’t happen the way we plan or hope or imagine. Sometimes the eggs never hatch, no matter how beautiful they look.

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It’s been a week of gray days mixed with sunshine, extreme fatigue tossed together with energy spurts. I drove my car for the first time in three long months last week — and the adrenaline high from that joyous event carried me through two overly busy days that led to a crash-and-burn I’m still recovering from.

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The next day brought a sobering morning when my mood matched this sky. But the following day, there was a delightfully delicious morning celebrating this blond child, the one who now has her Poppy for a teacher two mornings each week.

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The pre-school hosts a Grandparents’ Tea the first week of school, so I hung out with Lilly for about 90 minutes, watching her agile body climb every piece of equipment in the play yard,

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enjoying her creation of an abstract water color delight, listening to “I’m a Little Teapot,” with miss Lil being the tallest student in the center of the back row of the ‘choir.’ We finished the morning by stringing colorful beads on yarn and then giving each other our creations. (We’re wearing them in that first picture.)

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The entire week felt a bit like this bowl of brightly colored beads — a mixture of bright and dark, shiny and plain, loud colors and quiet ones.

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The mixed-up-ness continued into Sunday, where the text for the day was one of my least favorites anywhere in the New Testament, Matthew 18’s admonition to deal well with conflict in the body. This is a text that has been sadly abused and misused, but it’s also a text that we need to ponder.

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It’s a tough thing, this conflict business. Often easier to avoid or ignore it than to face right into it and try and bring resolution, even reconciliation. There are those days when we feel like a broken pot or a string of barbed wire, and conflicts inevitably arise when one sharp edge meets another. It is never ‘fun.’

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Everything in me resists this topic — which generally means, pay attention, kiddo! — so I did.

I paid attention to the entire morning — the music, complete with a kids’ rhythm band, the prayer, even the announcements!

Fall marks a definite up-tick in events, programs, small group opportunities. The slower summer is good for all of us, but it’s always energizing to see the college students return, to welcome families home from vacation and to enjoy more opportunities to be together outside of Sunday morning.

Every section of the service served to underscore the wonderful/terrible truth that we do this work, this Jesus-following work, together. That’s the way it’s meant to be. When we say ‘yes’ to Jesus, we are invited into community life. And that means there will be wonderful and terrible things ahead. For all of us.

Why? Because we’re human, that’s why. And conflict is inevitable — just take a casual look at the New Testament and it becomes crystal clear that church struggle is nothing new — it’s built into the whole idea. And done well, it can nourish and replenish and bolster the ways we belong to one another.

That text I try to avoid? Well, it turned out to be the perfect one to dive into as this busier season moves into high gear.

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I was grateful that it happened to land on Communion Sunday in the lectionary rotation. That table that we share is all about togetherness, isn’t it? Unless we’re housebound and ill, we are meant to partake of the Lord’s Supper with the community, not by ourselves. And passing the bread, the cup? Offering the words? It’s tough to do that if you’re harboring bitterness or anger.

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Jesus tells us clearly that if we’re upset with someone else in the community, we need to deal with it. Directly.

We are not invited to tell others how p.o.’d we are, and we are not instructed to get someone else to make things right between us, at least not initially.

We are told to work it out between us. To talk, discuss, apologize as needed, and to forgive. If we can’t manage it privately, then we invite an elder or two to come along and help us. And if that doesn’t work, then the entire leadership team is made aware of the difficulty. And then? Well, this has always been the sticking point for me.

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Then. . . we’re to treat them as ‘pagans.’ I have always felt like that was an extreme and unexpected thing for Jesus to say! Until Pastor Don helped me remember that Jesus treated the pagans with a lot of loving attention and grace!

Tax collectors? Women? Adulterers? People on the edges? 

They all were offered grace. GRACE.

Those who continue to hold a grudge of some kind may choose to disassociate with the community. But if they do, they are still loved, still welcomed back whenever they are able to return, and held before God with tenderness and concern.

We welcomed new members on Sunday, as well — another piece of sweet timing. And the elders laid hands on them all, as the entire congregation affirmed our desire to support and encourage each one. A rich morning, reminding me of the mixed-up-ness of life together and calling me to do the work, to welcome others, to seek reconciliation wherever and whenever possible.

Streaming out into the warm sunshine after the service felt good and refreshing. And as the afternoon sun began to set, we came back and enjoyed a magnificent block party to kick off the new year. Bounce houses, taco truck, badminton, face-painting for the kids and a fun photo booth. 

This is life, and we are woven together as we live it together. Sometimes the work of weaving is painstaking. And sometimes it is glorious and exhilarating and fun.  ALL of it is good.

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Joining this with Laura Boggess’s Playdates with God, Jen Ferguson’s SoliDeo Sisterhood, and Jen Lee’s Tell Your Story – so grateful for these friends along the way.

Offering Welcome . . . Starting with Me

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The wisdom of illness for me always seems to come with the slowing down and staying present. I don’t believe these experiences come to teach us “lessons” as if God were some great schoolmarm in the sky. But out of our radical vulnerability arises an invitation to ever greater gentleness, to tenderness to the needs of our bodies. This is inner hospitality at its most intimate.
– Christine Valters Paintner, Abbey of the Arts

I am struggling with the truth of these words in a profound way these days. “Inner hospitality” is something I say I believe. And most of the time, I truly mean it. It turns out, however, that I am a desperately slow learner, one who ‘knows’ things in her head long, LONG before I know them in my heart and in the rigors of day-to-day life.

I am impatient by nature, anxious to keep moving forward to whatever the goal of the moment may be, and I’m finding it extraordinarily difficult to be patient in the midst of this particular period of waiting. Most especially, it is difficult to be patient with me.

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We heard a sermon this morning that reminded us of our primary identity as followers of Jesus. Underneath every other label we might choose to slap on our personal lapel, this one is the truest, the dearest and the most important: I am a child of God.

I will say that I am feeling peculiarly childlike (or is it child-ish?) these days. I feel small, markedly helpless, dependent on the wisdom, strength and availability of others. 

And I do not like it at all. 

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And I find myself wondering — what does it mean to be a child? I mean, besides the relative helplessness and lack of control over the ‘big things’ in life, what does it mean? What did (does) it feel like? What can I learn from remembering/observing what a child’s life is like?

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Here are a few things that rise to the surface as I ponder. I believe these things to be true for most healthy children growing up in caring, relatively functional families, where physical and emotional needs are seen and met and safety and security are the norm. Such blessed children can often be described as:

emotionally open
accepting
unself-conscious 
curious
eager
joyful

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This is not to say they are perfect. Far from it — children are humans, too, and they can be as belligerent, obnoxious, difficult and moody as the rest of us. But, on balance, there are some truly lovely things that emerge in childhood that so often get hidden away as the maturation process sets in.

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As I spent this afternoon reflecting on the sermon and on my life at the moment, I began to search for a spirit of welcome in me, a spirit of welcome for the person I am right now, hobbled by injury and fatigue, more dependent on others than at any other point in my long life since about the age of three.

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How can I reclaim that central identity, name myself a loved child of God, and extend grace and true hospitality to the me I am right this minute?

I’ve spent my entire adult life being ‘big,’ both metaphorically and literally. It’s been important that I be seen as enough — good enough, strong enough, smart enough, acceptable enough, big enough. And I’ve worked hard to earn the respect, even the admiration, of others.

So what does it mean that right now, right this minute, I am ‘small?’ I am ‘less than?’ I am dis-abled?

In the midst of that reality, is it possible that I can reclaim and cherish, the identity of child? That I can embrace the littleness, learn to tolerate the dependency, and then move through this particular slough of despond?

Maybe I can start by studying these pictures. Scroll through them with me again, will you?

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Can I stand still in the light? Can I pay attention to the life that is happening around me? Can I rest on one foot and ready myself for the next adventure?

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Can I enjoy the transience of things, the creation of moments, just moments, of beauty and delight? Can I choose to make the ‘dishwater’ a source of interest and creativity, and leave the dirty dishes aside?

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Every day, can I go on a hunt for treasure, looking for beauty and nourishment in unexpected places? Can I resist the urge to make it a contest — with myself or anybody else! — and just look around and see what I can find?

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Can I make room for, even welcome, all the emotions that are rising to the surface at this time? The pensiveness, the worry, the hilarity, the joyful abandon, the silliness, the wonder?

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Can I re-learn how to be deliberate, to concentrate, to focus? Despite the fatigue of having to re-think every single thing I’m used to doing by rote, despite the lingering after-effects of anesthesia, despite the new demands that this season places upon both body and spirit?

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Can I give myself complete permission to take a break? To veg out, as needed, to pull away for a minute (or 30) and just rest? Not this enforced resting that is so much a part of the living of these days, but true rest — deliberate, well-chosen rest?

The very fact that I have found enough interior space to write this many words is a hopeful sign that maybe, just maybe, the answer to these queries is a quiet, but determined, ‘YES.’

As with so many things in this life, it’s a matter of waiting.

And seeing.

Shall we wait and see together?

 

The Age of Happy Endings Is NOT Dead

A small disclaimer as I tell you this story. This wonderful, happy story. One that I know comes from a position of extreme privilege, something for which I thank God every day. I do know how blessed we are. I do. And the loss described in this small tale is surely not anything grand or even close to horrific. It was, nevertheless, loss. And now it is not. And in the midst of living this story, we felt heard, we felt seen, we felt loved. I share it today because I think it’s amazing. I hope you will, too.

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It was an anniversary gift. An iPad Mini, handed to my husband over a plate of fine salmon as we celebrated #47. At first, he was dismayed: “What am I going to do with this?” he asked.

“You’ll figure something out,” I said, smiling shyly.

He is not a man of the technological age, you see. Not quite a Luddite — but close. He’s learned the basics of email and attachments, but refuses to own a cell phone or to explore his desktop computer any more than he has to.

But I knew something he did not. On a small iPad, he could read books. And he could play Scrabble. And once he had mastered those simple things, he was sold. I mean, that iPad accompanied him everywhere, to each room in the house, in the car when we drove down to the beach to sit and reflect, when we went on vacation.

Everywhere.

He put a great photo on the desktop — Poppy with his two grandgirls — and he became a grandmaster of internet Scrabble, playing only against the computer and usually winning. Definitely, winning.

So, yesterday was a busy day for us. Compared to most of our days since my surgery two weeks and one day ago, it was jam-packed. We had a beach trip in the morning and a doctor’s visit in the afternoon. See what I mean? Jam-packed!

And now that I’m temporarily sidelined, he must load the car with our various and sundry traveling equipment all by himself. So yesterday morning, he trudged out with our two water bottles, his own sunglasses (two pair are required — don’t ask!), his iPad. Then, I slowly wheeled myself out to the garage, carefully positioned myself just past the door opening, squiggled backwards a tiny bit and then plopped down into the front seat. He picked up my scooter and stashed it in the back of our Honda Pilot and then carefully backed us out of the garage.

Instead of reading at the beach, which is our usual pattern, we chose to talk yesterday, so neither of us noticed anything amiss. Then, when it was time to go to the doctor’s, I asked him if he would bring his iPad along for the wait time and we realized it wasn’t in the car. A cursory inspection of the house yielded nothing.

The doctor’s visit was good — cast is off, stitches are out, baseline x-rays have been taken. We could easily see the two, long narrow screws now permanently embedded into my heel bone.

We were, however, told that this healing process could take longer than planned and we were also informed that there might be a problem with the big toe because of what he had to do during the surgery. I remain committed to holding positive thoughts, however, and am trusting that things will go as initially stated — eight weeks without walking, then another eight weeks of physical therapy. Then walking, as usual.

We returned home with some very mixed feelings and Dick began to scour the house, looking for that crazy iPad. We sat down and talked through the day together at least three different times, trying to back-step our way through where it might have landed.

It was not to be found.

He began searching again this morning after we had yet another conversation about everyplace he’d been the previous day.

Nothing.

I prayed quietly. Fervently. “Lord, this is such a good man. His list of ‘pleasure’ activities is pitifully short during this particular siege. So, maybe, could you help?”

I had a phone appointment at 9:00 a.m. and during that call, someone else called through. I made the decision to answer it because I thought I recognized the number.

Wrong.

It was “David.” No clue who David is.

But this is what he said: “I found an iPad with your name on it and I’m wondering if you’ve lost one.”

Say, what?

You found an iPad with my name on it?

YOU FOUND AN IPAD? Where?

It was at the Salinas Street exit of the freeway.

THE FREEWAY, did you say?

THE FREEWAY??

He figured out how to get into it, went to the contacts list and plucked out my cell phone number.

And just like that, we received an airmail, special delivery love note from God. 

Just like that.

Dick hurriedly left to drive across town to retrieve it, I went back to my original phone call, and we were both wonderstruck that such a thing could happen.

Here’s a possible scenario for how it unfolded, given the scant information available to us: sometime during the morning get-in-the-car commotion, Dick put that iPad on the roof of the car near my door while he was helping me get situated.

It remained there all the way to the beach and back, all the way to the freeway on-ramp, only flying off as we began to accelerate. Salinas Street is the very first exit heading north, and that’s where it was found, a slight dent in the bottom, the stylus missing, but otherwise intact and operational

It didn’t go into traffic. It couldn’t have started out on the driver’s side of the car, or it would have been trashed. It didn’t fly off the back of the car, either.  

It was good and gone. Gone, I tell  you.

And then, it was found.

And so were we.

Not a grand miracle. But a very, very good one. Thank you, Lord.

Some photos from yesterday’s grand unveiling:

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Cutting through miles of bandage,

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a huge wad of cotton,

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to a swollen ankle, in all its glory.

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Two incisions, one at the way-back end for the bone breaking and stabilizing, one up a little higher for the tendon rearrangement.

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The two pins in my foot. Can you see them?

IMG_4194The only stitches to be removed were here on the back, at the back end of the two screws. See those darkish round spots? Yup, that’s it.

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Wrapped for protection from the inside of the boot.

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And into the boot for the next six (we hope!) weeks.

 

A Granddaughter Remembers — A Guest Post from My Daughter

Visiting the blog tonight is my middle child, Joy Trautwein Stenzel. Joy is exactly what her name says she is – a joy to us. She and her husband Marcus are raising three good young men in Monrovia CA and are both special education teachers, working with blind students across the age span from pre-school to 22. (Our eldest daughter also does this good work.) Our children grew up with their paternal grandparents less than five minutes away and were often in their home, as you will see. I love the way this piece celebrates what some might call the ‘old-fashioned’ virtues. To me, there is nothing old-fashioned about any of it — it’s a heritage we are humbled and pleased to call our own. Interspersed throughout her lovely words are photos scanned for us today by one of our grandsons, Joel Fischinger. Here’s Joy:

IMG_0022Joy, Mama, Lisa – on vacation at Mammoth Lakes, an annual excursion for many years.

Solid, dependable, disciplined, hospitable, thoughtful, committed, consistent. 

My grandmother embodied these qualities.  In an increasingly chaotic and unpredictable world, such characteristics are on the decline.   And for an overly anxious and easily overwhelmed child, the unwavering reliability of my grandmother was a source of familiarity and comfort on which I knew I could rely.

IMG_0104The first in her family to graduate from college, at UCLA in the mid-1930s.

Mama was very steady and measured emotionally—quite the contrast to me.  She rarely (if ever) raised her voice, and I only remember seeing her cry twice—when speaking of a beloved brother who had died too soon, and when her only daughter and her family were pulling out of the driveway to move across the country.   Her level mood created an atmosphere of comfortable predictability for an emotionally volatile child—I knew exactly what to expect when I walked through her door. 

So solid.

IMG_0703Enjoying Crater Lake with Jean and Richard, early 1950s

I knew when I went to Mama’s that there would be no surprises in either her temperament or the physical environment.  Almost all of the furniture, toys, games, dishes, and appliances (no new-fangled microwaves for Mama!) stayed the same in their Wagner Street house from the time I was born until they moved to Santa Barbara. I played with my dad’s old toys, as did my children after me.  I took great comfort in the familiarity of it all. 

So dependable.

IMG_0113One of the last pictures of both Mama and Papa with all of their grandchildren, late 1990s

If we ever spent the night at Mama and Papa’s, we knew what we would find when we walked into the kitchen in the morning:  the two of them seated at their little blue kitchen table, drinking coffee, reading the Bible and praying for family, friends, and missionaries.

So disciplined.

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Same grandkids, several years earlier! On Kauai for M & P’s 50th Anniversary.
We hope to continue that tradition in the summer of 2015 – can you believe it?

We also knew that we would be well-fed when we entered their home.  Mama was a wonderful cook, and hosted frequent meals for family and friends.  She had a small but delicious repertoire of family favorites:  BBQ short ribs, lemon meringue pie, tapioca, homemade applesauce—terrific food served on the same dining room table with the same china, flatware and crystal goblets year after year.  To ensure that everyone would fit around the table, the piano bench served as a seat for the two smallest family members at one of the short ends of the table—no kids’ table at Mama Trautwein’s!  Every leaf of that table would emerge from the closet so that we could all be together.  That dining room set now resides in my own home, where I can only hope to entertain perhaps a quarter of the number of people she hosted so warmly over the years. 

So hospitable.

IMG_0556Gathering around that dining room table, about 1979 or 1980.

When birthdays rolled around, we knew there would be a dinner in our honor at Mama and Papa’s house.   Mama would let the birthday girl or boy set the menu.  We always picked our favorite dishes (which probably weren’t her favorites!):  orange jello packed with pieces of fruit, butter brickle cake topped with toffee pieces and hot fudge.   When we became teenagers, Mama made each of her grandchildren a treasured cookbook filled with handwritten recipes for the family favorites we all loved, complete with personal notes and anecdotes related to certain dishes—a gift we all cherish and use regularly.  My own children have even been fortunate enough to experience the anticipation of an unfailing Mama Trautwein birthday tradition—every year on their birthdays, she has sent them two dollar bills, the same number of bills as their age.  Needless to say, they have amassed an astounding number of two dollar bills! 

So thoughtful.

IMG_0174Not only did she host birthday dinners at her house, she also came to birthday dinners at our house.
We did birthdays up right in this family.
This picture cracks me up because the Birthday Boy almost got cut out of it.
And we just noticed tonight, he’s wearing doctor gear, of all things! And now he wears the real stuff. Go figure.

Mama established countless family traditions which were joyfully anticipated throughout the year.  Every Easter, we knew we would receive a heaping plate of bunny and lamb cookies decorated with pink icing with chocolate chips for eyes.  We dyed eggs every year at that little blue kitchen table, and Mama took us on annual Easter egg hunts at Descanso Gardens.  Mama decorated a Manzanita tree every Christmas with tiny ornaments, and she gave my sister and me our own manzanita branches when we were in college, with new ornaments for them every year.  Each member of our extended family had a stocking that had been lovingly decorated by Mama, unique to our interests.  Mama found a lot of joy in holiday traditions. 

So consistent.

IMG_0515This woman LOVED Christmas! 

IMG_0060And the Easter egg hunts at Descanso continued with the great-grands, too. The four oldest, about 15 years ago.

Mama and Papa also loved to travel.   They arranged annual extended family trips to Mammoth Lakes.  These vacations gave the cousins a chance to bond, and allowed Mama and Papa to share their love of fishing, jigsaw puzzles, and board games with their offspring.  Mama and Papa took exciting vacations without us as well, and invited us over for slideshows when they returned to share their adventures.  They always brought back trinkets and souvenirs for us and sent us postcards from around the world.  And Mama sent our own family off on road trips with boxes of cookies and wads of dollar bills to purchase souvenirs of our own.  She did these things every summer, without fail. 

So committed. 

D-68cMama, Papa & Jean visiting us in Africa, summer 1967.
I was 4 months pregnant with their first grandchild on this trip.

We will miss Mama, but many of the traditions she established continue in our own families, keeping her memory alive.  We have been blessed indeed to have such an amazing woman so actively involved in our lives, setting an example we all aspire to follow. 

Solid, dependable, disciplined, hospitable, thoughtful, committed, consistent. 

Old-fashioned qualities?  Perhaps.  But never out of style. 

Thanks so much, Joy. Beautifully said and right on target.

IMG_0103Kathryn Trautwein, in the early years at the Samarkand, before dementia.
A truly lovely lady in every way I can think of, a good, good woman.