Parsing It Out: Sacrifice or Duty? SheLoves

It’s time to write for SheLoves once again, and the theme this month is “Willing Sacrifice.” This one gets pretty personal and you can finish it by clicking on the link.

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My beautiful mama, picture taken  yesterday, week three on hospice care.

What is it that makes a sacrifice truly sacrificial? Seems to me it has to be the modifier chosen for this month’s theme at SheLoves — willingness. I’m not sure that one idea can ever be successfully separated from the other, to tell you the truth. Choosing to give something up for the sake of someone else is what makes a sacrifice real. If the giving-up is not chosen, but forced — by pressure, either external or internal — then it becomes a demand, a duty or an expectation. And that is not the same thing at all, is it?

But sometimes, learning how to parse out that difference is one of the hardest parts of our journey toward becoming mature, loving, insightful and empathetic human persons. I have spent a good portion of my later adult life trying to peel away the multiple, nuanced layers of my own story, looking hard at the motivations behind a lot of my choices over the years. This business of learning to own your own crap is hard work!

I suppose the most central piece of the story for me is my long and complicated relationship with my mother. I’ve written about the last decade of our journey together in multiple places on the internet, including here. The hard, sad loss of this once vibrant woman is filled with pain and sadness, yet even this last stage through dementia has shed some light on who she is, on how her childhood both nourished and scarred her and how those scars had an impact on me. The act of writing things down has involved some hard, deep work and none of it has been easy. My mom was the very best mom she could be, loving me and my brothers well, providing care, concern, fun, beauty, color and laughter for us all. I am deeply grateful for her and to her and love her very much indeed.

But she was far from perfect. No big surprise there, right? Only been One person to walk this earth in perfection — the rest of us muddle along, wounding and being wounded, falling and getting up again. Just today, in the midst of her confusion, I heard these kinds of phrases: “I’m trying to be a good girl.” “I hope it’s not my fault.” “I think I did it right.”

Breaks. My. Heart. These are the wounds of early childhood, worming their way to the surface of a 95-year-old, deteriorating brain, even when nothing else she says makes any sense whatsoever. How can this be?

From about the age of seven, my mother took on the responsibility of protecting her mother from her father, who was given to binge drinking and gambling. Mom cleaned up his messes, stood up to him in her 7-year-old righteous indignation, and worried over her younger brother and sister. She had an older brother, too, but he was the crown prince of the family and apparently could do no wrong. It fell to mom to be the family guardian and watchdog.

And she passed that message, that burden, that responsibility . . . but not that sacrifice . . . to me when I was about seven. “Daughters take care of mothers, “ were her words and they came right into me, body and soul. I’m here to tell you that age seven is way too young for anything to be ‘chosen.’ Instead, the act of care-giving becomes part of your very DNA. Seven-year-olds are not, and cannot be, willing participants. Assumptions are made, expectations are parceled out and burdens are borne.

But for too many years, none of that was what I would call a willing sacrifice. . . 

Read the rest of this essay by clicking over from this link right here. 

Baby Steps — For SheLoves, March 2017

It must be the second Saturday of the month because I’m live at SheLoves again today! You can start this reflection here and then follow the links over to that good place to join the conversation. Our theme for March is “Be Bold for Change.”

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Several members of our family taking ‘baby steps’ on a hiking trail near Palm Springs last week.

Bold is a great big word. Only four small letters, but oh, my! — such freight. I don’t use it often, to tell you the truth. About 90% of the time, my use of the term is limited to clicking Command-B on my computer keyboard! I seem to be more willing to occasionally make a written word stand out than to actually be bold in my day-to-day life.

In fact, as I thought about writing for this month’s theme, I began to wonder if I have ever been a bold person, someone who steps out and speaks up and makes a change. I know I am not bold physically — I KNOW this. I don’t like high places, I am terminally uncoordinated, any size or shape of sports-ball coming my direction is a source of terror. I have a friend — one of my dearest friends — who is brazenly, maybe even crazily, bold physically. She learned to kite-surf in her 50’s and is now an expert. Last year, she and a friend hiked from the Alps of Switzerland to the shores of the Mediterranean in France. This week, she left for Nepal to climb to the base camp of Mt. Everest. Yes, really. The base camp of Mt. Everest.

Uh, no thank you. Much as I love and admire her, that kind of bold feels cray-cray to me. Just plain c r a z y.

Then I began to broaden my horizons and think about other bold women I have known. I soon realized that there are lots of different ways to step up, to step out, to take a chance, to risk failure, to make a difference. Some of those other bold women are the ones I’ve met here at SheLoves — Idelette, Tina, Kelley, Kathy, Helen, Bev, Erin, Cindy, Claire, Heather, Sarah, Michaela, Bethany — too many to list. Each of them, women who have had the courage to dream and the stick-to-it-ive-ness to realize those dreams — often despite fear, hardship, and loss.

Guess what? There are lots of ways to be bold. And every single one of those ways begins with a single step. One decision. One moment of courage. One instant of recognition that this — this idea, this project, this act of grace, this stand-up-and-be-counted moment — is do-able. These women — and so many others — believed in possibilities and then they walked those possibilities into reality.

Every bold step begins with a baby one. Dramatic change does not happen overnight. Sometimes, it takes a lifetime — even more than a lifetime. Really bold change only happens when lots of different people take lots of different kinds of baby steps, all of them heading in the same direction.

Come on over and read the rest of this piece and tell me about some baby steps of your own, okay?

Opening to the New Year — SheLoves

One of the great privileges of my life these days is my association with the wonderful people at SheLovesMagazine. Today is my monthly day to write for them. You can begin that essay here and follow the link at the end to finish it over there. Please do join the conversation!!

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Stepping into Epiphany is always a mixed bag for me. January 6th means that Christmastide is finished for another year. Now we are headed for Ash Wednesday, which comes quite late in 2017. In some ways, this shift in seasons is a relief — all the red around my house comes down and is packed away for another year. The ornaments are gathered off the tree, the candles are stored in a cool place, the nativity sets are stacked into a plastic bin, each baby Jesus safely secured in a corner somewhere.

Although I don’t relish the work of lugging Christmas bins from house to garage, I do enjoy seeing the cleaner edges of my usual living space emerging from the red, green, silver and gold lavishness of the holiday season. I love Christmas, truly, I do. But I’m glad when it’s time to turn away from the celebrating and re-enter a more ordinary season. My capacity for holiday decorating seems to have diminished with time!

This time, however, it feels like something important is missing as I move more fully into this new year. Since my retirement from parish ministry six years ago, I have gladly embraced a more open schedule and relished the monthly visits from an ever-changing list of people seeking spiritual direction, either here in my small study or via Facetime or Skype. I have also appreciated my monthly opportunities to write for two magazines, one online, and one in print. Occasionally, I even try to fill my own blog space with reflections both prosaic and photographic; the introduction of a monthly newsletter has been a welcome addition to my writing life.

But at this turn of the year, with 2017 opening before me, it feels like my capacity for the good work of direction and writing is larger than the demand for either one. People I thought were committed to my one-on-one work chose to drift away, usually without any formal farewell. A possible temporary job situation didn’t pan out. Both the inner drive to write and the outer call for it seem to have fled the scene.

So what I’m left with at this moment in time is a noticeable sense of emptiness. Maybe openness is a better word; I am open for more in my life . . .

Come on over and offer an encouraging word to those of us talking about this at SheLoves today!

Longing for Home: An Advent Journey, 2016 — Day Fourteen

This is my scheduled day to write for SheLoves Magazine, and the theme for the month of December is, “Pause.” So you can start today’s reflection (which is in a very different format than usual, and is longer!) right here and then follow the link to finish it over there. Thanks for being flexible.

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Tomorrow is the third Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of joy. All of the assigned readings for the day reflect that spirit, that ineffable whatever-it-is, that deep-down sense that all is right with the world, even when things may not be objectively right in any way.

I can’t think of a better Sunday to take a . . . pause. A deep breath in and a deep breath out; a re-setting of the old internal clock/barometer/gut-sense/compass; a deliberate step away from the noise, the hustle and bustle of shopping, decorating, baking, planning.

So I offer you today a few small Advent gifts — a brief reflection on rejoicing, in response to the scripture readings for the day; a list of appropriate hymns and songs for this week of the liturgical year; and a few suggestions for small intentions or actions that you might incorporate into your day. All of it is designed to help us learn more about living in joy, even when the craziness of the season, or the frustrations and worries of our everyday life, conspire to push us in the opposite direction.

The readings for this day include a beautiful song from the prophet Isaiah (35:1-10), Mary’s Song from the gospel of Luke (1:46b-55), some encouraging words on how to live well as a Jesus-follower in James (5:7-10), and the powerful words of Jesus when questioned by an imprisoned John the Baptist in the gospel of Matthew (11:2-11).

 

Please join us over at SheLoves to read the reflection, see the song list and try out one of the practices suggested. Just click here.

A Legacy — SheLoves, November 2016

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She fell down yesterday. No one saw it happen, but when she winced while they were getting her dressed, they spotted the fresh bruising, all down her flank. What happened? everyone wondered.

Who knows?

I was in telephone contact with the nurse and the staff and in text contact with my son the MD. Yes, she can bear weight. No, she was never unconscious. No, the doctor has not returned our FAX.

And so we waited it out. And I had to make some hard choices during that long night. If she broke something, would I authorize surgical treatment? No, I decided. I would not. At age 95, with only fitful eyesight, hearing and balance, and no working memory, surgery would wreak havoc with her diminishing brain cells and would not improve either the length or the quality of her life.

So I decided. And I wept.

And then today, when I went to see her, to assure myself that nothing had been broken, I carefully hugged and kissed her and said, “Oh, Mama, I am so sorry you fell down!”

“I did?” she asked, with an extremely puzzled look on her lovely face. “I have no memory of that happening.”

She was right. She has no memory. Of anything.

BUT I DO.

I remember — and still see —

I’m up earlier than usual over at SheLoves this month. Come over and read more of the memories I try to carry for my mother, why she is the one I consider my ‘legacy’ champion.

Credo — for SheLoves, October 2016

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When I saw the topic for this month — ConfessionTime — I must admit that my heart sank a little. Most of what I write is, in one way or another, a confession of who I am, what I think, how I’m feeling. I don’t have any deep, dark secrets that must be brought into the light at this stage of my life — the dirty linen has pretty much been hung out there for anyone to see. I’ve written here and elsewhere about my struggles with food and weight, my mixed emotions on this journey through dementia with my mother, my wrestling through the powerful grip of anxiety in my life and the fact that though my 50-year marriage is good, solid, rich and wonderful — it is far from perfect. Somehow, admitting that I frequently play one too many games of solitaire or Block Puzzle or that I occasionally binge watch British murder mysteries didn’t quite seem interesting enough for 800-1000 words!

And then it hit me: there is another way to define the word ‘confession.’ There is such a thing as a confession of faith, and I remembered that I have one, written down — a piece that is always a work in process. Each of us who tries to follow in the footsteps of Jesus has one of these — there is a ‘list’ somewhere inside us of what it is we truly believe, what we stake our life on. This is mine:

I believe . . .

in God the Father Almighty,

God who is bigger than anything I can think or imagine; God who is small enough to become a human embryo; God who lives forever in community as three Persons,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

I believe . . .

that all truth is God’s truth; that nothing science can discover makes God any less than who God is; that human creatures were designed to reflect the glory, intelligence, compassion, creativity, beauty, tenderness, and strength of this Great God and that we are invited to partner with God in the life-giving, freedom-granting, sin-forgiving, brokenness-healing good, good work that is the Kingdom call of the church.

I believe . . .

that the grace of God is grander than anything we know, broader than any idea we can conceive, wider than any ocean ever seen, and fully beyond our ability to comprehend. This means that anyone and everyone is welcome, that anyone and everyone is loved, that anyone and everyone is offered abundant, forever LIFE.

I believe . . .

PLEASE come on over to SheLoves and join the conversation. I’d love to know what things would be included in your own personal confession/credo! Just click right here!

Labels – SheLoves, September 2016

When I sat down to think and write about this month’s theme, I was feeling a bit blue and confused about a lot of things happening in my life these days. So this is what came out. I’m feeling somewhat better now, but I still stand behind this assertion. I’d love you to join the conversation over at SheLoves this fine Saturday (and beyond . . . )

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When I sit down and think about it, I must admit that I have carried a long list of labels across the length of this life. From the moment of my birth, two of those have been First Child and Eldest Girl. In early childhood, I earned the title Tall Girl — I was the student in the center back row of each of my elementary school classroom pictures. More painful was the lovely name Fish Skin, thrust upon me by a couple of nasty 2nd grade boys who observed a skin condition I was born with (and live with still — a condition that has brought its own special pain — both literal and figurative). Never-to-be-forgotten from those early years was the ever-present Good Girl. That last one hung around for a very long time and occasionally shows up even now, in my dotage.

In high school, I was known as Religious Girl and Brainy Nerd, both of which I owned with a small share of gratitude and grace. For a little fun and academic relief, I was happy to carry the title of Alto in every choral group available to me. It’s also true that I was known as Wallflower and Seldom Dates, titles I wore with some chagrin, but also a healthy amount of acceptance and understanding. Tall, Religious and Brainy do not usually merit Popular or Prom Queen, after all!

At church, during those same semi-awkward years of junior and senior high school, I discovered a set of very different labels, ones that surprised and pleased me. They included Leader, Bible Student, and Insider. That last one was a particularly pleasant and welcome piece of my own growing identity between the ages of 12 and 18.

I left home for University with an enormous amount of excitement and anticipation, eager to be away from my small town, plunging happily into the crowd of 34,000+ students at UCLA. I joined a small Christian living group, met the man who would become my husband, and moved with relief into a completely new set of labels and identity markers. I was nowhere near the smartest woman in the room and that was a huge relief to me; I released every desire to attain a high grade point average, preferring to revel in the joys of independent living and a deepening romantic relationship.

During those college years, I was Dick’s Girl, and eventually, Dick’s Wife and Married Student. I also grew into my full 5 feet 10 inches and began to appreciate the joys of seeing the world from that height. By then, I am happy to report, that childhood label Tall Girl no longer bothered or embarrassed me.

I was delighted to carry the label of College Graduate with me as we sailed across the Atlantic for two years of short-term mission work, teaching school in Zambia. I grew to enjoy being English Teacher, Drama Coach, and Sportsmaster’s Wife during our time there. I also learned to cook, though I never got quite good enough at it to merit a label of any kind in that department.

Five months before we returned home, I added one of the most significant and life-changing titles I’ve ever carried, one I relish to this day: Mommy. Our eldest girl was born in Africa, another followed two years later and a boy two years after that. For twenty years, that was my primary identity, one I loved and worked hard at, not always successfully. Along the way, I picked up a few more: Community Volunteer, Bible Study Teacher, Soloist, Worship Coordinator, Newsletter Editor, Little League Team Mom, Room Mother, Chief-Cook-and-Bottle-Washer, Laundress, etc., etc., etc.

Those were rich and exhausting years but as my children grew up and moved out into their own lives, it became clear that a few more labels needed to be added to the list that is my life. These, however, became much more than monikers. Like Mommy and Wife, the titles Seminary Student, Pastor, Preacher, Bible Teacher, Pastoral Counselor, Spiritual Director and eventually, Writer, became descriptors of parts of me that are deeply rooted, divinely gifted, and vocationally oriented. They are labels, yes, indeed. But they also tell a story, one that continues to unfold and evolve. They speak to the heart of who I am.

But now, right now, I am discovering a label that I did not ask for, do not want, yet cannot avoid, and it is this one:

Wanna know what it is? Well, please just click here and join us at SheLoves!

My Hair, Myself — SheLoves, August 2016

A fascinating theme this month — the single word, ‘hair.’ Well. What came to me, as I was traveling nearly 2500 miles on an epic road trip last month, was this bit of stuff about my grandmothers and me. I’d love to hear your thoughts/responses to that topic! Come on over and join the conversation!

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My paternal grandmother, Pearl Scott Smith Gold, at about age 80 (1960ish)

My Gran had long, thin, gray-and-white hair which she wore wound in a bun on the back of her head. It was a style reminiscent of the 1880’s or 90’s, and somehow suited her. For several years after my grandfather died, she would stay with us for two to three weeks at a time and shared my bedroom when she did. Every night of her stay, I would watch, fascinated, as she wound up chunks of that long, thin stuff around leather strips, which served as wave-setters while she slept. Then, in the morning, she would expertly comb and position every strand into a perfect loop, holding it in place with long hairpins.

My own hair at that stage of my life was the bane of my existence. It was almost as white as it is now, as my brother and I were complete towheads until we hit puberty, and it was thin and very, very straight. My mom thought it would be nice to have a curly-haired daughter, so she would periodically put me through the process of a permanent wave, which I considered to be nothing less than torture. The irony was, it never worked. Never. I would end up with frizz on half my head and stick straight hair on the other half.

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My brother Tom and I at about ages 3 and 5 – 1950ish — see?
Stick straight around the bottom, weird curls on top. Oy vey.

I think about us now, my elderly grandmother and my young self, and realize that what we think about, do with and understand about our hair say a lot about who we are and where we’ve come from. I come, on one side of my family, from that tall, thin, southern schoolmarm who married later than most and carried a lot of racial prejudice deep in her bones. On the other side, there was Nonnie, who was almost as wide as she was short (4’11”), lived with serious heart disease for half of her life (which extended 101 years despite that handicap), and began her own, very successful, business in her late 50s. She was an immigrant from Canada, and a very strong woman, though she hesitated to let that strength show, preferring to work underground in ways that were sometimes detrimental to the health of her family. While I knew her, Nonnie’s hair was short and curly.

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My maternal grandmother, Elsie Thompson Hobson, about 1980. She would have been 84 that year.

At this stage of my life, as I am staring at the last leg of my own journey on this planet, I remember with love and gratitude the contributions of those two women to the richness of my story. Gran would be shocked to discover that I served as a pastor in mid-life. I choose to believe that, after some thought and prayer, she would have been proud. She died when I was 18.

Nonnie, on the other hand, died the first year of my ministry life here in Santa Barbara. And as I commuted from the LA area for the first few months of that ministry, I would stop and visit her in the rest home which became her final stop. She grabbed my hand on one of those Thursday mornings and told me, through tears and with a fierce quality to her voice, that I was continuing the journey she never finished, a story I had never heard before that moment. She was headed to Winnipeg at the tender age of 19 to enter ministry training with the Salvation Army when she chose instead to marry the older, handsome man who had admired her singing on the street corners of Vancouver. That sweet moment of revelation provided one of the strongest benedictions of my life.

Each of my grandmothers survived difficult marriages, had their own particular set of strengths and weaknesses, carried within themselves deep intelligence (one educated, the other not) and pretty decent people skills. And Gran’s old fashioned hairdo and Nonnie’s more modern style said something about who they were.

I wonder, what does my own hair say about me?

Read the rest of this piece over at SheLoves today, won’t you?

Across the Age Gap — SheLoves, May 2016

We’re talking about FORWARD over at SheLoves this month. And what came to me was the wonderful way older women ‘paid it forward’ in my life and how I want to be an older woman like that. Come on over and join us, won’t you?

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Lucille Peterson Johnston and her sister Betty Junvik MacCreight were the two women who paid it forward in my life (among others!).

I was in my early 30’s, a stay-at-home mom with school-aged kids, actively involved as a lay leader in our church, with more time and energy than I had enjoyed since the babies started coming. A woman who was a mentor to me called one day with an idea: “My sister and I would really like to see something happen for the young moms in our congregation and we thought maybe you’d be willing to head it up for us.”

“Interesting idea,” I thought. “And I’ve got some time these days.”

So we met together and made plans. From that meeting, a semi-monthly morning gathering began in the church basement. For the first two years we met, childcare and snacks were provided by the older women in the church. Can you imagine? Lovely women, who had walked the road of mothering babies years before, gave themselves to the younger women, helping us to start something new and life-giving for all of us. For me, it was a chance to stretch my leadership muscles; for the women who gathered, it was three hours of freedom and fellowship every other Thursday.

That group was called The M & Ms — for Mary and Martha, of course. This was a long time ago — the late 70s and early 80s — when about 90% of young moms could (and did) choose the stay-at-home route. I led them for about five years, then moved sideways into leading Bible studies for both women and men in the evenings, before finding the courage to enter seminary in 1989. The group continued to meet for about a dozen more years, with other slightly further-along-moms stepping into leadership, until the need for a day-time getaway-for-moms largely disappeared.

It was the right idea at the right time, and it started with older women ‘paying it forward.’ They saw a need, got creative about how they might meet it, and then stepped right into the middle of it with their own loving presence. What a gift!

This is just one story, one picture of intergenerational connection, about learning from and leaning into one another across the age gap. Even though sociological evolution has changed the dynamic of many families today, the principles that undergird this example are still valid.

We need connections to our past in order to move forward with wisdom and integrity. And we need connections with our future in order to be open to the Wind of God at work in the church. We need each other.

Please hop on over to SheLoves to finish this essay and to join the conversation about leaping across the age gap! Click right here.

Sisterhood — SheLoves for April, 2016

This piece was written several weeks ago, before the one that went live this week. Both are about this long, hard, sometimes beautiful, always exhausting journey with my mom. At the time this was written, she was just beginning to sing again, after many months of not doing any of it. You can finish this essay over at SheLoves.

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It’s a gray day today and I’m actually grateful for that. I love the sun. Love it. And we’ve had a winter full of it here in Santa Barbara. But somehow, the grayness is helpful today, soothing and calming, like a gentle hug.

I offer those kinds of hugs quite a lot these days, mostly because I need them myself. I think I’m lonely, to tell you the truth. It’s not overwhelming, it’s not even terribly sad, because overall, my life is rich and good. But there’s a part of me, deep inside, that is lonely.

I never had a sister. I raised two girls and a boy, and my mom had a sister, so I’ve seen real sisterhood up-close-and-personal, but I’ve never experienced it myself. I do know that for some, ‘sisterhood’ is more of a curse than a blessing, that sometimes personalities clash, or shared history is dark and dangerous, or jealousy inserts itself in an ugly and corrosive way. But the sisterhood I’ve watched in my own family? Well, it’s a lovely thing to see.

We lived near my mom’s sister for about eight years of my childhood — just three blocks away. We could walk to each other’s houses easily and often. My mom and my Aunt Eileen laughed with ease whenever they were together, sharing stories and jokes known only to them. I would watch them from a distance, feeling what I now know was a kind of nostalgia as I did so. A nostalgia for something I’ve never had and never will.

I wish I had a sister.

The content of this post surprised me. I sat down in a free two hour window to ponder the theme for this month over at SheLoves. . . and this strange piece is what came out. You can click right here to finish it over there.