Top Fives

Three Top Fives of 2018.

Top five books — Les Miserables, The Hate U Give, Imitation of Christ, Conscience, and the whole series of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place.

Top five places I visited — Ales Stenar (the sun-ship in Sweden), Troldhaugen (Edvard Grieg’s home in Bergen, Norway), kayaking in a fjord (Gudvangen, Norway), Laity Lodge (with my husband!), and Charleston, SC (with Mary).

Ales Stenar

Edvard Grieg’s composing house

Kayaking in a fjord

Threshold at Laity Lodge

Mary and her French toast at Toast! in Charleston

Top five encouraging moments. (I want 2019 to be the year where I practice encouragement, so I’m trying to learn from looking back.)

1. Andrew Peterson — at Laity Lodge (which is the nearest place to heaven I know in the United States). After insulting Andrew (I think I told him that he looked nerdy in his glasses — and then I wondered why on earth I said such a thing), I finally bolstered the courage (thanks in large part to my friend, Kim) to ask him about the possibility of a caregiving session at Hutchmoot.

“I think that’s a great idea,” he said. “Check in with Pete (his brother) in a couple of months when we’re starting to plan out the sessions.”

I’m an idea person — and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had ideas shut down right from the start. It can be crushing. Even if an idea is totally wacky, encouragers can see the glimmer of good in it and water the seed a little. Andrew did that for me.

I already knew that Andrew was an encourager. At my very first retreat at Laity Lodge, when I was saying my good-byes, Andrew touched my arm and said, “You have important things to say. Don’t ever doubt that.”

2. Rachel Speer Donahue — Well, I did the session at Hutchmoot.

I was so full of doubt about my tiny portion of it. I had sent the written text of it to my friend, Alyssa, who also is an encourager. Her words helped me go through with the whole thing. (Seriously — up to the last minute, I considered politely bowing out.) Afterwards, my mental replays of my portion were all of me babbling. (Side note: I saw a book recently called, “Your Inner Critic is a Big Jerk” and I wished I had read the book before Hutchmoot.)

Enter Rachel. After Hutchmoot, the guy who puts together the photo book put out a call for quotes. Rachel was an early responder — and she quoted ME. I was horrified and honored at the same time. The horror has long since subsided, and I go back to that moment over and over. Rachel sat in on my session and valued what I said enough to quote me. It was a HUGE encouragement.

3. Jonathan Rogers — I’ve taken a number of writing classes from Jonathan Rogers. The best thing about his classes are the critiques he gives to the submitted assignments. He is blunt and honest. Jonathan has told me when things I have written are unclear or, worse, boring. He’s always right on the money.

Jonathan recently started a subscription website of writing advice called Field Notes for Writers. I HIGHLY recommend it.

He asked me if he could use one of my pieces for an exercise he calls “Line Edits.” With great fear and trepidation, I gave permission, but when I watched the video of his edits of my piece, “Old Porch,” I was so touched. Seeing my writing through his eyes was such an encouragement.

You, too, can receive encouragement from Jonathan by taking any of his upcoming classes or attending his free monthly webinar.

4. Elizabeth Dunn — We’ve been attending Methodist churches for five or six years now (maybe more). I am NOT a cradle Methodist and honestly don’t understand the inner workings of the Methodist Church. I had never been to a “Charge Conference” until this year.

At the Charge Conference, Bishop Webb came and heard the reports from the various committees in the church. Then he asked for people to share what good things were going on in the Cooperstown Methodist Church. The first person to speak was Elizabeth. She said, “Sally Zaengle has been playing her flute during church and it really adds something special.”

Let me back up to say, yes, I play the flute, but not terribly well. It’s something I do for fun — and more, it’s something that helps me worship. I believe music is a language God speaks.

When Elizabeth acknowledged my playing and that it blessed her — that was so encouraging. Even with all my bloopers, it adds something positive to the worship.

5.Lisa Birdsall and Kristen Griger — My role changed with the swim team this year. With my father declining, I couldn’t commit to coaching again. It made me a little sad, but Lisa (the Aquatics Director) and Kristen (the head coach) found a new role for me — team registrar. As team registrar, I handle all the athlete registrations as well as all the meet entries.

I love my new job! I love learning new things and I can do much of the work from home. Additionally, I’ve been working to educate the new parents on the ins and outs of swimming by holding informational meetings and sending out regular newsletters.

Lisa arranged for me to have an email address with the facility. While that sounds like a small thing, it really isn’t. I’m the only part-time person with a Clark Sports Center email and the recipient of the last email address available on their server.

Not only that, but Lisa started referring to an empty office there as my office. My office. Of course, it’s not my office yet. Someone else needs it while some work is being done outside her office. But I’ve never had an office before. I may still never have the office. You never know.

But the thought of an office is an encouragement. And the email address is a reality — a real work email.

You really never know where encouragement will come from.

In 2019, I hope a little encouragement will come from me.

Small

One day
I found myself
Staring at the clear blue water
Of the pool
And marveling at the fact
That I could not see
A single drop

All that liquid
In front of me
And my eyes could not distinguish
One single drop —
Just water
En masse

So I did some calculations
Using my phone
And my head (only a little) —

I thought,
This pool is 25 yards long.
There are 3 feet in every yard.
Therefore, the pool is 75 feet long.

I figured,
I don’t know the width of each lane
But I know from swimming rules that
Each lane must be at least 7 feet across.
We have 8 lanes
So this pool is approximately 56 feet wide.

And I further reasoned,
The depth of the pool varies.
In the shallow end, it’s 4 feet deep,
And in the deep end it’s 8 feet,
But I’ll use 4 feet —
Just to be conservative.

So, I multiplied 75 x 56 x 4
To arrive at the number that
Minimally expresses the volume,
The number of cubic feet in the pool.

That’s 36,000 cubic feet of water —
Although I know there’s really more
Because of the way the depth changes.

Then, I looked up
How many drops of water
Make up one cubic foot:
566,336.93

So a conservative guess
At the number of drops of water
In that one swimming pool
Is

36,000 x 566,336.93 =
20,388,129,480

Let’s just call it 20 billion drops

And I still can’t see a single one.

Out of curiosity,
I looked up the population
Of the world

According to
The most recent United Nations estimates
In May 2018
There are 7.6 billion people in the world

If people were drops of water
My pool would be little more than 1/3 full

The pool at 5:15 AM

It made me feel small
And large
All at the same time
And I’m not sure why

Bruce

Seven years ago Bruce sat next to me on a flight out of Nashville. We both changed planes in Detroit and there I frantically wrote down as much of our conversation as I could remember. His heavy southern drawl forced me to listen to him carefully so I could mentally translate what he was saying as he spoke.

I remembered him, but my notes from that day sat unread — until this week when I pulled that notebook off the shelf while shelving last year’s journals. I leafed through and stopped on the page where I had written the heading “Bruce – Flight from Nashville to Detroit”. His story, even his voice, flooded back.

We had done the perfunctory small talk while waiting for take off. He told me he worked in aircraft manufacturing. I told him that I was a mother eight. I stared out the window at the other airplanes on the runway.

“I got me a Cessna,” he said, nodding toward a small plane that was in view. “One time I flew it out of Atlanta. That thang was like a wasp among eagles.”

I liked the imagery and smiled at it. Our plane took off. It’s my favorite moment of every flight — wheels leaving pavement.

“Lemme show you somethin’,” he said, pulling his wallet out of his pocket. He flipped through the pictures and stopped at a well-worn picture of a smiling little boy. “That’s my boy,” he said proudly.

“Very nice,” I said.

He tapped on the photograph. “17 years ago someone ran a red light and hit our car. He was six years old. Died instantly.”

“I’m so sorry,” I murmured, but it felt inadequate.

He flipped to another picture, that of a pretty young woman. “That’s my daughter. She’s a bad ‘un.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said again.  I didn’t ask for details and I couldn’t help thinking that 17 years before, she had been a little girl who lost her brother. Life is hard and sad — and we rarely know the other person’s story.

Bruce chatted with people across the aisle and in front of us. He was traveling with several people from his work.

He turned back to me. “You know, I just got done cancer treatments. Thyroid cancer. If I hadn’t taken this new job, probably wouldn’t have found it for a while. They found it on my pre-employment physical — and they still gave me the job.”

“That’s pretty amazing,” I said.

“My father died of lung cancer, you know. So the cancer — it’s kinda scary.”

Talking about his father led him to talking about him growing up. “We was dumb-ass poor growin’ up. Used to go haying with no driver in the pick-up.”

I used to help with haying here in New York, but it was purely for the fun of helping the neighboring dairy farmer. I loved riding in the hay wagon, but someone was always driving the tractor. I tried to picture haying with no driver.

Taking a few hay bales home. I’m the tough cookie on the right.

“You know what the Mason-Dixon line is?” he asked. I was worried that he was testing my knowledge as a northerner.

“Didn’t it divide the slave states from the free states?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said. “It’s the line that separates y’all and you guys.”

He laughed like he had just told a good joke. I laughed because I hadn’t expected a linguistics lesson from this burly southerner.

“You like sweet tea?” he asked, but he said it “swait tay.”

“I’m not much of a tea drinker,” I confessed.

“Northerners don’t hardly know how to make sweet tea. I once had a waitress tell me that I could just add sugar to my tea, like she didn’t understand that the sugar gits cooked right in with the tea.”

Frankly, I didn’t know that either.

In Detroit, I wrote it all down — about his son and his daughter and his cancer and his poverty and sweet tea. I tried to write the phrases exactly as I had heard him say them. Our flight had been less than two hours but he had shared so much with me.

I once heard Christian singer Jason Gray tell a story about a mentor that he had. Jason respected his mentor and wanted to be like him.  Jason asked him, “How did you become you?” His answer: pain.

The hardships in our life shape us but they don’t define us. Bruce had known deep sorrow and in our brief encounter had shared some of the difficult times he had known, but he also knew how to embrace life.

I’m thankful I got to sit next to him for that flight and listen to his story.