Grateful

[a momentary pause before I finish my alphabet challenge]

The other day I got a call from a friend that I hadn’t heard from in a while.

“I’m gong to visit my brother and thought I would reach out to some of my friends while I was driving,” she said.

I was so honored. We hadn’t talked in a long time. At one point we were going to try going for walks together wherever we were and talk on the phone, but it only happened once or twice before it fell by the wayside.

Life has a way of pulling us away from the very best of ideas.

The truth is I need more perseverance, more stick-to-itiveness, in my own life.

The other night I was so frustrated with my job that I went for a walk afterwards and mentally drafted my resignation letter. I thought through the commitments I had made there and when would be an appropriate time for me to give as my last day. I came up with a plan and was heading home to write the letter when I made a quick stop at the grocery store.

After I had picked up my bananas and bread, I headed to the checkout. Lately I’ve been using the self-checkout because I am peopled out by the end of the day, but I recognized one of the check-out people and went straight to her line. It was not the shortest or the fastest, but she was someone I knew from my job at the gym.

During the summer, she and her friend had been part of the early morning crowd. I loved the way they spurred each other on, sometimes only coming because the other was expecting them. M and D were both from Cuba and worked in housekeeping at a large hotel in town.

One day in the fall, M didn’t come, but D did. “Where’s M?” I asked.

“She’s packing and repacking her suitcase with food because she’s going to visit her family in Cuba,” D told me. “She wants to fit as much in as she can but she can’t go over the weight limit.”

“When does she leave?” I asked.

“In the middle of next week,” D said, “but she gets very anxious about her trips so that’s why she didn’t come this morning.”

All week I would ask D how M was doing. She was anxious. The next week, the day before she was to leave, when I asked D, she said, “Everything has changed. M heard from immigration and can apply to bring her children back with her.”

To make a long story short, M came back to Cooperstown with her children several weeks later. Despite hurricanes and glitches with visas, they made their way through the process incredibly quickly. I met her daughter in October, a beautiful girl who didn’t yet know any English.

That night that I was ready to quit my job and had stopped at the store, I saw M working the checkout line, her second job to make ends meet. She looked exhausted, but she brightened when she saw me.

“How are you?” I asked as she was scanning the groceries of the person ahead of me.

“So tired,” she replied.

“How are the kids doing?” I asked.

“We went to the gym Saturday and went ….” I could see her searching for the word. She paused and made an arm movement to show me.

“Pickleball? Racquetball?” I guessed. Pickleball is so popular these days that my mind immediately went there.

She shook her head and did the gesture again.

“I think it’s bowling,” said the woman ahead me.

M nodded vigorously. “Yes! We had so much fun. We want to do it again!”

When it was my turn, we talked a few minutes. It was so nice to hear her enthusiasm for having her family together. “Next week I take my citizenship exam,” she said. “That would be so wonderful to be a citizen.”

I wished her well and went home with a lighter spirit.

My petty complaints about my job seemed just that — petty — in comparison with all that M had gone through and was still going through.

I told a co-worker the next day, “M saved my job. Seeing her last night put everything in perspective.”

I’ve made a list of people that I see at work for whom I am thankful. M is near the top of that list.

She’s teaching me about perseverance, hard work, and joy.

eXamination

(I feel like I’m cheating for the letter “X” by using a word that really begins with E. Please forgive me. I had a scathingly brilliant idea for a new series of posts. Okay, maybe not scathingly brilliant — I had an idea for something I wanted to write about, but I want to finish what I started first — An A-to-Z of things I like and don’t like.)

X is for eXamination — something I both like and dislike.

Let me start with the dislike part. I don’t really like going to the dentist or the doctor or the optometrist –anyone who is going to examine me physically. Even haircuts are a thing I put off until it’s an absolute necessity and I’m at the point of seriously considering asking the woman to shave my head so I can go longer without another visit. Weigh myself? I think not.

My youngest daughter is in her first semester of dental hygiene school. Next semester she begins working on real patients.

Life with a dental hygiene student

“Will you be my first patient?” she asked me.

I didn’t even hesitate. “Of course, I will,” I said.

Some things outweigh my dislikes — like the love I have for my child.

I brush my teeth at least twice a day, floss regularly, and generally attend to my oral health. Yet, as January draws nearer, I’m more and more anxious about what she will see when she looks in my mouth. Will I have bad breath? Are there places I’ve missed with my brushing? Is she going to find something terrible that will require another visit?

Pitiful, isn’t it?

I have a strong family history of breast cancer. Do I do breast self-examination? Partly — but that standing shirtless in front of a mirror part, nope.

When I reached colonoscopy age, I dragged my feet and bargained with my primary care provider. I managed to put it off for a good 6 years until she played a better card than I did.

Reading the eye chart at the optometrist is one thing, but when they invade my personal space to peer deeply into my actual eyeball — I hate it.

Gosh, I’m telling you all my quirks here. Why is this so much easier than that way-too-close one-on-one?

Exams I like are knowledge based. I’ve always been a fairly good test-taker. I think it has to do with being factual and logical.

Logical, that is, until it comes to something like the physician palpating my abdomen. Logically, I know why she needs to do it. I just don’t like it.

Now on to Y and Z.

Words

I like words.

If you think about it, they’re pretty amazing things.

I remember as a child being amazed at my father’s vast vocabulary. He knew a lot of words. I forget what the exact challenge was, but I was scouring the dictionary for a word he didn’t know. (Aside: I realized as I wrote those words that kids today don’t have that dictionary-searching experience. If they need to look up a word, they don’t pull out an enormous heavy book; they simply type the word into a search bar, or click on the word, and ~ poof! ~ there’s the definition.)

Anyway, I was searching the dictionary and found a word that I was sure he wouldn’t know: Quisling. He not only knew the word, he knew the origins. For the record, a quisling is a traitor who collaborates with an enemy occupying force for personal gain. Vidkun Quisling did just that in Norway in WWII.

That kind of word is called an eponym, a word that was a person’s name. In looking up the definition of eponym, I found that the word boycott is an eponym. Charles Boycott, an English landowner in Ireland back in 1880 treated his tenants so badly that they decided just to ignore him.

Fascinating, right?

Last Sunday, I was preparing for a class at church. For a year or more I’ve been attending an Episcopal church, but honestly, I still don’t know what I’m doing. All this standing, kneeling, sitting, genuflecting, making-the-sign-of-the-cross stuff gets confusing. I’m pretty sure that God doesn’t entirely care if I forget to genuflect before I enter the pew. Still, I’d like to understand the whys and try to be respectful. So the rector invited me to a book study on Walk In Love: Episcopal Beliefs & Practices (by Scott Gunn and Melody Wilson Shobe). The topic last week was the Eucharist.

It turns out that the prayer book has six different terms for this thing that we do in church. “The Holy Eucharist is called the Lord’s Supper, and Holy Communion; it is also known as the Divine Liturgy, the Mass, and the Great Offering.”

I love when other languages have words for which we have no English equivalent. For example, there’s Danish hygge (warm, fuzzy, sitting-by-the-fire feeling), German schadenfreude (getting pleasure from someone’s misfortune), and Hawaiian pana po’o (scratching your head when you can’t find something). I particularly liked discovering this Halloween-y word, vybafnout, Czech for jumping out and saying “Boo!”.

Back to Eucharist, though, I can’t help but wonder if we don’t have a human equivalent of what God intended in this sacrament. We don’t have one word for it. We don’t have even one way of doing it.

I’ve taking communion with matzo crackers and little individual cups of grape juice, hunks of leavened bread ripped from a whole loaf and dunked in juice, little round wafers dipped in real wine, and even Girl Scout cookies with a little milk. You may think that last one sacrilegious, but I’d go back to God looking at our hearts.

In the class someone asked about the elements becoming the body and blood of Christ. “Is it magic?” she asked.

“It’s mystery,” I blurted out, and Father went with that, expounding on sacramental mystery.

In preparing for class, I followed rabbit trails, as I am wont to do. I came across the word aumbry and looked it up (not in a dictionary, but in the search bar). An aumbry is a recessed cupboard in a church where sacred vessels and vestments are stored.

From there I found pyx, a small round container where the consecrated host can be stored.

And then I came across monstrance. Such a Halloween-y word with such a non-Halloween-y meaning. No monsters, but instead a vessel in which the consecrated host is displayed.

Monstrance

Words — they’re pretty amazing, right?

But I also don’t like when people’s words don’t match their lives (my own included).

I recently came across a quote from Thomas Fuller that I keep thinking about: “How easy is pen and paper piety for one to write religiously! I will not say it costeth nothing, but it is far cheaper to work one’s head than one’s heart to goodness.”

Surely somewhere there is a word for just that.

Vulnerable

V is for vulnerable — something I like and don’t like, if you know what I mean.

Try to follow me on this meandering story.

Last week, I had a couple of swimmers stop at the front desk and ask me if there was something wrong with the pool. It felt colder than usual.

One of my co-workers thinks that swimmers are the biggest complainers. “It’s always something with them,” she said to me one day. “How can they tell if it’s a degree or two off?”

They can. I know this because I swim in the pool, too.

Anyway — cold pool last week. I asked the Aquatics Director about it. Yes, it had been colder. A clogged duct or something.

“Some swimmers always complain,” she said, “but when the ones who don’t usually say anything tell me that the pool is cold, I pay a little more attention.”

I understood this, too. Maybe my front desk co-worker wasn’t totally wrong. Swimmers complain, but not all of them. Just like people in general complain, but not all of them.

Anyway — clogged duct. One clogged duct caused the temperature of this whole big pool to drop. Clogs can be huge issues. Clogged sinuses lead to sinus infections. Clogged bowels lead to … issues. Let’s just say that a family member recently had that problem and leave it at that. The clog eventually cleared.

Anyway — clogs. Bad. I’ve been struggling with a major clog for years now. Clogged emotions.

It’s not like calling a plumber to clear a duct, or taking laxatives to clear the bowels. I have a counselor who has been slowly chipping away this blockage of mine. She’s great.

We both agree that some of it may have to do with never being able to properly grieve my father’s death.

Last week was the anniversary of his passing. I planned out what I wanted to do. I found a bagpiper who would come and play at the cemetery in the evening. I picked up my father’s ashes from the funeral home. (He still hasn’t been interred.) I gathered poems and photos and blankets (it’s cold here now in the evenings) and a notebook and pen, and went to the columbarium where my mom’s and my brother’s ashes both now rest. I cleaned the bird poop off the marble bench there before spreading a blanket on it and setting out my other stuff. I wanted to sit alone with my dad and my thoughts and a bagpiper.

The bagpiper arrived a little before 6, dressed in black. He had asked me beforehand if it was important to me that he wear a kilt — it wasn’t. He brought his border pipes, which are smaller, quieter, and played with a little bellows that fits under the arm. We found a chair where he could sit.

He began to play.

A couple I see at the gym were out for a walk. They paused behind me.

“You’re welcome to stay,” I said, and started to clear some space on the bench.

“We’ll stand,” he said. They listened for a few minutes and then continued their walk.

The bagpiper played and played. I read the poems and looked at the photographs. He played. I wrote in my little notebook. He played. I walked to the corner of the columbarium where my mom and brother rest and cleared off the pine needles. I whispered to them both. He played.

I guess I could go on and on describing this whole scene and the songs played on the border pipes and then the ones he played on a low whistle. I wanted so badly to cry because I thought that tears would clear the clog inside.

I never cried.

Fast forward to the next morning at the gym. The man who had stopped to listen with his wife came in.

“What did you think of the bagpiper?” I asked.

“It was very nice,” he said, “but what was the occasion?”

“It was the anniversary of my father’s passing,” I said. I didn’t tell him about the clog.

“He must have been a remarkable man for you to do that for him,” he said.

“Yes,” I agreed. “He was.”

“Tell me about your father,” he said.

Immediately I could feel the tears. I swallowed, forcing everything back down, and babbled for a few minutes about my dad. He listened patiently.

“Tell me about your father.” That may be the unclogging agent.

Now to find a safe person and a safe place and a safe time to allow myself to be vulnerable enough to share all those thoughts and feelings.

And to cry.

Vulnerability is scary, but it’s pretty important, I think.

The Columbarium

Uniform

Whew! The home stretch is in sight — 6 letters left, 5 after today.


U is for Uniform, as in the one I wear to work.

I don’t think that I ever imagined myself saying this, but I like wearing a uniform to work. It saves me time.

Every morning a series of alarms keep me on track — the first to make sure I’m awake, then to give me time to journal, to read, to ponder, and to get ready for work. I report to work at 5 AM — so my first alarm goes off at 3:30 AM. [I just did some extensive research (i.e. – a quick google) to find out what time dairy farmers get up in the morning. 4 AM. Yes, I’m up before the dairy farmer.]

The least amount of time each morning goes to getting ready for work. It’s a done deal — a black shirt and stone-colored pants. I spend a minute or so trying to mask the circles under my eyes and less than 30 seconds “fixing” my hair. (My hair is hopeless. It can’t be fixed.)

It was cold yesterday morning. I wore my black hoodie that is embroidered with my organization’s logo.

And my stone-colored pants.

Usually I wear a black polo (embroidered with my organization’s logo) and stone-colored pants.

The other day I went for a walk on my break — wearing my black polo and stone-colored pants — and caught my toe on the uneven sidewalk. I fell all the way down.

Alllllll the waaaaay dooooooown. I could see the whole thing happening in slow motion.

I broke the fall with my hands (which are still bruised and painful) and skidded my right side into the soft grass and dirt beside the sidewalk. The mud ground in to the pants. Fortunately, the scrapes on my knees didn’t bleed through. Stone-colored pants don’t hide blood very well.

I turned around and walked the mile or so back to the gym.

Because we wear uniforms, we have a bag in the back room full of black shirts and stone-colored pants from employees who have moved on. I dug through it and found a pair of pants that would work.

Not my style, of course. A wide-leg pant. A little too long. But, hey, no mud from a fall.

So, I like uniforms.

I like not having to put too much brain power into the what-should-I-wear question.

I like that we (co-workers) share with each other.

I really like my black hoodie.


I don’t like feeling used — but that’s probably not a story for a blog.

You know what I mean, though. The insincerity of being stepped on by another person.

Nope. Not for me.

Tidying

To say that I like tidying might not be totally true, but I definitely get some satisfaction from it.

I’m a cluttered person. I have a hard time throwing things away — especially things that may someday be useful — which is pretty much everything. I mean, I may need that receipt to return something. I may sometime be looking for that random screw that I picked up on the kitchen floor because I finally figured out what it went to.

I may need a black pen that barely writes because that’s better than a pen that doesn’t write. I guess I could throw away the pen that doesn’t write anymore.

And that free temporary tattoo that I picked up somewhere? Surely someone will want that.

What about candles in glass jars? Is that recycling? Or garbage? Or is there one last light and fragrance I can get from it?

You see my problem.

I tidied yesterday. I threw away so many old shopping lists and store receipts. I gathered the loose change from all the different places I had emptied my pockets and put it into a jar. I threw away a bunch of random notes from work and other reminders for myself.

I shelved books. All my Thomas Merton books are in a row, as well as Howard Thurman, Brian Doyle, and John Steinbeck. The Gaelic books and the books on Scotland have their own corner. I have somehow ended up with three copies of 100 Selected Poems by e.e.cummings. I suppose I could get rid of two, but I love that book so much that I would want them to go to good homes.

Uncluttered, semi-ordered bookshelves

I found so many quotes I had written down on slips of paper. Here are a few:

  • Henry Nouwen: In solitude we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness.
  • Nothing changes if nothing changes. — from a counseling session. My counselor told me to write this one down.
  • Face the worst. Discover the best.
  • Montaigne: The mind that has no fixed aim loses itself, for, as they say, to be everywhere is to be nowhere.
  • Thomas Merton: Every moment is rich in happiness.

I saved all the quotes. I even had quotes from television shows. Seriously. What kind of person does that?

I suppose I like tidying after all.

I just don’t like throwing things away. What if someday I need that thing?


On a side note, two Gaelic words that I keep getting mixed up are the word for tidying (sgioblachadh) and the word for writing (sgrìobhadh). It’s the “sg” at the beginning and “dh” at the end and the rest of the too-many-letters in the middle.

For me, writing is a way of tidying my mind, so I kind of like the similarity between the two words. Funny, isn’t it?

Serpents

I have COVID. Blech. But I’m looking at it as my opportunity to finish this silly alphabet thing.


S is for Serpents, as in Taking Up Serpents, which is a one-act opera that I saw this summer. It was my favorite of all the operas I saw.

I went to three shows at the Glimmerglass Festival this summer, my first time ever going there.

Glimmerglass Opera Theatre

First, I saw The Sound of Music, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is musical theater, not opera. It was amazing.

Next I saw their Double Bill, two one-act operas: Taking Up Serpents and Holy Ground. I’ll get back to this one.

Last I saw Carmen. Their live orchestra playing that prelude?! Amazing. I was in love — until the story started. Then I was confused, irritated, more confused, and, like, what-the-heck-is-going-on. At intermission, I asked my daughter who was working at the opera if it was supposed to be a comedy. She laughed and said, no, that it’s supposed to be a tragedy. The tragic part was how shallow and insipid the characters were. I wanted Don Josè to get a backbone and show a little moral fortitude. I wanted Escamillo to be more than a pretty boy who strutted across the stage in his bullfighter outfit. Maybe I’m not an opera person.

But maybe I am.

I saw Serpents twice. The first time I was quite taken aback but also awed. The second time, I took copious notes. The lyrics were full of imagery that drew me in — singing about moths being attracted to the light in the opening song. My scribbled notes won’t do it justice, but here’s part of what Kayla sang:

This parking lot’s a graveyard…
Same moths are drunk again on lamplight…
They know not what they do, Lord…
They keep going round and round and round…
A calling to be drawn like that to something you can never touch…
They’re longing for the light.

Kayla’s longing became a theme.

Light. Mystery. Brokenness. All were themes in a heavy opera that spoke volumes to me.

I like love Serpents.


In case you’re wondering about Holy Ground, I think it was meant to be a counterpoint to Serpents. I can’t really comment much on it. The music was amazing. The costumes were amazing. The story was, hmm, I don’t know. I closed my eyes to enjoy the music and fell asleep the first time I went to the show. The second time, I didn’t even stay.


On to what I don’t like that begins with S. I don’t like being sick. See paragraph #1.

Ugh

Ranunculus

Helen’s bridal bouquet

Helen’s bouquet was lovely, wasn’t it? I don’t know the names of all the flowers in it — roses (obviously), lily-of-the-valley (a nod to my mother — that was what she carried in her bridal bouquet), and ranunculus (that peachy-colored one that is dead center). I feel like I should know the names of the purple ones and the white ones but I don’t. (Anyone?)

Ranunculus is one of my favorite flowers. I first remember buying a few stems at the Farmers’ Market for my ikebana pot and delighting as they opened from small round balls to those amazing delicate layers-upon-layers of petals.

In the ikebana vase
Another ikebana arrangement

I bought fresh stems on every visit to the Farmers’ Market in my year of ranunculus-discovery. Until they ran out.

“Not even one last bud?” I asked, trying not sound whiny.

“No. Their season is past,” replied the woman at the stand, and I went away sad.

The next year I purchased them early and often.

Ranunculus. What an ugly name for such a lovely flower. It sounds clunky and awkward, not delicate and beautiful. The name derives from Latin for “little frog.” I don’t see the similarity.

A little frog that I photographed on a walk.

I do not like rude people.

Questions

I have a thousand questions.

Maybe more.

I think I’ve always been this way, too. I have two distinct memories of my mother expressing her frustration to me regarding all my questions.

One was when she was pregnant with my youngest brother and a button flew off her housecoat. I don’t remember the actual question I asked, but I do remember her response — “It’s because of the baby!” I suppose I should I have known that but I didn’t. Maybe I had already asked her 653 questions about her growing belly or maybe she had already tried to tell me 653 times about this new member of the family who would be arriving soon. In any event, it all became real when the button flew off her housecoat.

A few weeks after the housecoat fiasco

The second time was several years later. On the kitchen counter I had found this interesting looking plastic circle thing. I could spin it and I could see that there were little pills inside. My mother saw me playing with it and snatched it away.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s mine,” she said.

“But what is it?” I persisted.

“It’s so I won’t have any more babies,” she snapped, and she sounded so angry at me and all my questions that I learned to keep most of them to myself. I had a lot more questions about that plastic circular pill dispenser — but those questions wouldn’t be answered for many years.

But questions — I love questions.

I started gathering all the questions in the Bible into my journals.

Reducing a story to questions brings out a poignancy we might miss otherwise. Take these four questions, all asked by Isaac in the same chapter:

  • Who are you, my son?
  • How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?
  • Are you really my son Esau?
  • Who are you?

I’m always working through a section of the Old Testament and a section of the New Testament concurrently — one OT question per day and one NT question per day. The same same few days when I was writing Isaac’s questions, I journaled these questions asked by Jesus in the book of Matthew:

  • Who do people say that the Son of Man is?
  • But who do you say that I am?

The very first question in the book of John is “Who are you?”

So many questions about identity!

When I was reading Howard Thurman’s books and books about Howard Thurman, I found that he had three questions he liked to ask young people. I scribbled them down on a post-it note that I keep handy

  • Who are you? Who are you really? (identity)
  • What are you for? Or, what do you want? (purpose)
  • How will you get it? (means)

Sometimes, in yoga, when I’m trying to relax into long pose, I ponder those questions.

I ask God those questions, too — sometimes about Him, more often about me. Who am I? Who am I really?

God hasn’t snapped at me yet.


Things I like: questions.

Things I don’t like: When people look at me like I just asked the stupidest question on the face of the earth.

People

Dear Kim,

One of the things I’ve learned in recent years is that I like people. I genuinely like people.

I like the varieties they come in. I like the get-my-ducks-in-a-row variety and I like the deadline?-what-deadline? variety. I like the spreadsheet variety, the clutter variety, the same-routine-every-day variety, and the but-we-did-that-yesterday variety. I’ll admit that I struggle more and more with the black-and-white-thinking variety, but I also can’t wrap my mind fully the there-is-no-right-or-wrong-everything-is-on-a-spectrum variety.

One of my sons has been working as a caretaker at a small village park this summer. I’ve been going out to help him occasionally, especially when he has school-related Zoom meetings, but sometimes just to give him a break.

The other day was a Zoom day. I was sitting in front on the Caretaker’s cabin while he was inside discussing philosophy or some such thing. A dad and a little girl came up from the beach and wandered past me a few times.

Finally the dad approached me. “Do you work here?” he asked.

I”m never sure how to answer that. “Um.. kind of?” I said. “I’m the caretaker’s mom.”

“My daughter cut her foot and she needs a bandaid,” he said.

I had her sit at the picnic table so I could take a look. When she took off her pink croc, I couldn’t really see the cut because of all the blood.

“Hold on,” I said, and ran into the cabin to get bandaids, alcohol wipes, and paper towels. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I called to my son as I zoomed in and out, interrupting his Zoom.

I handed the girl a paper towel. “I need you to wipe away some of the blood, so we can see,” I said.

“NoooOOOOooooo,” she cried, sounding remarkably like the coyotes I hear at night.

Her dad then tried.

“NoooooOOOOOOooooooOOOOO! NO-NO-NO-NO-NOOOooooooo!”

I took a few steps back, trying to think how to tackle the problem, when Frank, the red-tailed hawk man, came over.

Frank is a fascinating person. He’s been coming to the park with his current hawk, Bella. He told me that very few hawks live to adulthood in the wild so he captures young hawks, raises them, and then releases them.

“Do you do this for a living?” I asked him when I first met him.

“No, this is my passion,” he replied.

Back to the howling child — “Do you need help?” Frank asked. He saw the bloody foot and said, “Let me get my first aid kit.”

While he went for his supplies, the little girl sat on the bench and cried, the dad tried unsuccessfully to comfort her, and I tended to some other park visitors who needed easier assistance. When I got back to them, Frank was cleaning the cut. The girl’s wails had subsided to sniffles.

Frank purred his words while he worked. His skill of calming a frightened animal worked with this human child.

I stood back and watched the scene. It was really quite lovely.

Yesterday, when I went to the park, my son had this drawing on his table:

That’s me on the left looking on, and her father on the right doing the same thing. My son had come out of his meeting during the bandaging operation and told her funny stories about how he lost the whole toenail off his big toe at the park when he was a child and the Toenail Fairy (aka my brother) came to visit him, bringing him VHS Muppet shows.

But, you know, people. I remember standing there, watching, and thinking, “I really love people.”

The day before this we had the throw-rocks-at-the-ducks variety of people at the park — and I don’t like that variety.

But Frank makes up for it.

I hope you enjoy the varieties of people in your life today.

Love,
Sally