Helpless Against the Storm

Peony

Here, in my suburban yard where peonies lie thrashed on the ground, battered by weekend winds and storms, I am grateful to have peonies, rooted to the earth, beside a house, strong on its foundation.

I collected strewn branches this morning, filled a bag with switches from the river birch. Each bending of my body was a prayer for survivors in Oklahoma whose lost trees are the least of their concerns, who have nothing but their own shaken foundations.

Each time I snapped twigs and added them to the compost bag I mourned for broken bodies, those buried yesterday in rubble and, closer to home, our dear friend Leonard lying in his hospice bed.

My body stooping, straightening, snapping, stuffing.

My liturgy to remember, to ask that the ravaged can bear the suffering, find relief, have hope.

Lord, have mercy. And grant us your peace.

Remembering Brennan Manning, Part 1

Sally's eggs

Friday night at a potluck dinner with friends, I bit into a potato latke that one of our guests had brought, and I started to cry. I blame those tears on Brennan Manning.

The crispy pancake slathered with chunky applesauce took me back to the Fridays of my childhood, when my Catholic family fasted from meat. I saw my dad grating potatoes in our cramped kitchen, mixing in the eggs and milk and plopping lumpy batter into spitting oil. Dad didn’t cook much. He sizzled bacon for Sunday breakfasts, grilled meat for summer dinners and fried potato pancakes for Friday suppers.

The bite I took this past Friday connected me with Dad, whose physical abilities are now limited and who I only get to visit a few times a year. The memory pricked, and the sadness over Dad’s lost abilities and our separation spilled out. My ability to feel myself bleed is because of Brennan Manning.

Brennan was an alcoholic, turned priest, turned husband, turned speaker to evangelical Christians, whose brokenness brought him to Jesus again and again. He knew the audaciousness of God’s grace, and 15 years ago his words helped crack open my calcified heart. He taught me to stop beating myself up and to love and accept myself for who I am, Beloved of God.

Brennan Manning died Friday. I hope to honor him in the next day or so by writing about that discovery, but today I remember him by quoting from the introduction of his book The Ragamuffin Gospel in which he explains who he was writing for:

The Ragamuffin Gospel was written for the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out.

It is for the sorely burdened who are still shifting the heavy suitcase from one hand to the other.

It is for the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it altogether and are too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.

It is for inconsistent, unsteady disciples whose cheese is falling off their cracker.

It is for poor, weak, sinful men and women with hereditary faults and limited talents.

It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along on feet of clay.

It is for the bent and the bruised who feel that their lives are a grave disappointment to God.

It is for smart people who know they are stupid and honest disciples who admit they are scalawags.

Brennan Manning wrote for himself. He wrote for me. And I’m extremely grateful.

What He Said, What She Heard

He said, She said

“You’ve spent the whole day in that same spot,” Craig said to me Saturday night around 9.

The spot is my reading corner, a cushioned chair and ottoman beside the fireplace, bookshelves at my back, my computer or newspaper on my lap, a coffee or Diet Coke on the table beside me.

Craig was right. I sunk in at 6:30 a.m. with the newspaper, struggled for hours to design a new webpage (check out our new Art Library) and prepared for the discussion from the book of Genesis I was leading the next morning. At 9 p.m., the newspaper was back in my hands; I was determined to conquer the Saturday crossword puzzle.

Craig was also wrong. We walked three miles together that day. We ate dinner with our daughter and her friend. We cleaned up the kitchen together.

What was Craig really saying? Was he simply making an observation or was there a deeper message? Perhaps he meant:

  1. “You sat in that chair all day while I did all the work. I ran errands, bought groceries and made dinner. Why can’t you get anything done?”
  2. “After a long week of travel and going straight back to work, I’m glad you had a day to relax.”
  3. “I’m amazed at how you can focus for hours and not give up until you’ve worked through your problem.”
  4. “You’ve been working all day, and I wish you’d spend time with me. I’m lonely.”

My immediate thought – still, STILL, after years of knowing better – was No. 1: I was being criticized. Inwardly, I fended off the attack with anger: “I built the webpage you wanted for displaying your art. I planned tomorrow morning’s discussion because you were burned out and needed time away from leadership.” It was an instantaneous, fully formed defense.

Despite my thoughts, I responded with something like, “I guess so.” Then I returned to the puzzle, 20 Across, a four-letter word for “graceful genie of myth,” _ _ R I.

What fueled my internal assault? Why did I assume he was calling me lazy? How is it I blame him for the lashings I give myself?

Craig is naturally a doer. He readily helps others. He’s generous with his time and talents. I’m naturally a thinker. I readily sit and talk. I’m generous with my ideas and assessments. We know that and most times are comfortable with the other person’s way of engaging the world. The problem comes when I’m not comfortable with the way I engage the world.

If I feel small in the midst of his largesse, it’s not because of him; it’s because of me. It’s the voice inside me that says a good wife buys groceries and sets a welcoming table; she doesn’t get lost in an idea or challenging crossword puzzle. There was a time decades ago when he questioned the merit of me reading all day, but now he has more books on his nightstand than I do.

Craig is my greatest champion. The generosity he gives to others he gives first to me. He believes in me and my overactive mind, in the way it processes and analyzes. He loves to see me challenged. He wants me to be happy.

He shopped and cooked on Saturday because he saw I was occupied and knows I’d rather he love me by helping out than by bringing me a dozen roses. Plus he was hungry and couldn’t find much food in the house.

What he said to me Saturday was, “I love you.” By Thursday, I finally heard him.

 

Read other thoughts on love this Valentine’s Day at emilywierenga.com and her Imperfect Prose Thursday:

 

From Our Home to Yours

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”

– Edith Sitwell

Merry Christmas from our home to yours.
We appreciate all your thoughts and encouragement. We appreciate you.

Living the American (Girl) Dream

Remember that great scene in When Harry Met Sally? No, not that scene. The one where Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan are discussing high-maintenance and low-maintenance women. She asks him which she is, and he replies, “You’re the worst kind; you’re high maintenance, but you think you’re low maintenance.”

In this season of giving, I’m compelled to draw a parallel between that conversation and my parenting skills, not concerning how much maintenance I require but how indulgent I am. If I’m being honest, I’d have to admit that I’m the worst kind; I’m high indulgent, but I have always thought I was low indulgent.

My indulgence stares me in the face every Christmas. I don’t mean the stacks of presents under the tree, although there is that. I mean the 14 eyes watching me every time I walk through the foyer. There, lined  up the staircase, are the dolls. The magical dolls. All seven of them. Felicity, Josefina, Addy, Samantha, Kit, Tammy and Lindsay. Our American Girls, five historical and two modern, sparkling in their Christmas dresses, their hair combed and clipped, welcoming everyone who knocks on the front door.

They’re not always so sedentary. Some years they wear their parkas and skating outfits and play in a winter wonderland of pillow-fluff snow and a cookie-sheet skating rink. Other years they gather round their present-laden Christmas tree in their pajamas. Or they meet in their parlor for a Christmas tea and recital.

Technically, only one of the dolls is mine – my three daughters own two apiece – but my girls have abandoned theirs. They seem to think that women in their 20s are too old to play dolls. Thankfully, this woman in her 50s still lights up around them.

I blame my (tiny) obsession on Angie Provaznik. Until I was 8, I lived across the street from her. She was a year or two older but occasionally played Barbies with my sister Linda and me. Back then, girls had only one Barbie, one Skipper, one Ken and, if you were lucky, one Midge (Angie had one; Linda and I didn’t). The dolls fit snugly in a case we could carry to our friends’ houses. Linda and I also shared a Barbie house outfitted with boxy cardboard furniture. When Angie came to play, she brought her doll, her house and her wicker furniture. A real woven white wicker Barbie-sized sofa and two chairs. My Barbie longed to sit on those exquisite chairs, to lounge on the padded sofa, but Angie never shared them. Sadly, when we moved away, my Barbie was forced to covet the good life from a folded rectangle that posed as her bed.

My longing for luxurious doll living was reignited when my 1-year-old firstborn daughter began receiving the American Girl catalog. I had never seen such beautiful dolls, each from a different period in American history with outfits and accessories authentic to her time. Although new to parenting, I quickly picked up one of its main tenets: Our kids are here to live out their parents’ unfulfilled dreams.

It would be a number of years before we could afford American Girls, but we gradually collected an extensive array of dolls, outfits, furniture and accessories. Kristen loved horses, so her Tammy got the riding outfit. Later on we acquired the horse. Anna played soccer, so her Lindsay got the soccer uniform, complete with ball, cleats, shin guards and bag. Jessie wanted to be a writer, so her 1930s-era Kit got the typewriter. It came with the wheeled eraser once needed to make corrections. The dolls became a way for me to mark each girl’s interests and for them to live their American Girl dream.

Or was it really just me living mine? Kristen and Anna dressed their dolls and arranged their furniture, but only my youngest daughter, Jessie, ever really played dolls. Then she outgrew them, and if not for me at Christmas, the joy they radiate would be smothered year-round in plastic bins. And nobody would see their real woven white wicker sofa and chairs.

Now I have a granddaughter who can pick up the slack left by her aunts. Signs so far indicate Hazel will like balls more than dolls and my son and daughter-in-law have asked Craig and me not to indulge her with presents, but I can work with that. If I happen to get her a doll, I’ll just keep it at my house where Hazel and I can play with it. Any time she wants. Even the wicker furniture.

Dressing Down for the Holidays

Nature, by its very nature, undresses every winter and exposes itself to the wind and cold and people passing by. Stripped to its bones, it reveals the beautiful skeleton that’s masked in other seasons.

As I walked the other day, I saw birds’ nests in dozens of trees, where they’d been hidden for months in the crook of leafy branches. I noticed bark shredding off the river birch, moss covering the rutted wood of the ash, roots snaking just under the dormant grass, young switches of dogwood beaming red, the even-brighter red winterberries of a holly hedge.

I wish I were as comfortable revealing my core being this time of year. But my very nature is more apt to cover up. Even when I resolve to be mindful of the foundation of Christmas – Christ – and to expose myself to reflection and wonder, I drape myself in a flowing to-do list and layer on festivities. I humble-brag through a Christmas letter rather than admit struggles in personal notes. I plan a large party where short conversations skim the surface. I shop for things nobody needs.

Thursday night I hauled out decorations with only a few hours available over the next two days to put them up. I wanted the house merry for the brunch I was hosting Saturday. Thanks to visions from catalogs hip-hopping in my mind, I lost my usual nostalgia as I unpacked the boxes. I suddenly hated our mismatched Christmas stockings – some striped red and white, some blue and white, a furry one appliqued with a bear even though its owner is almost 21 years old, the toe of one forever stained and hardened with wax from the candle that melted as it hung above the fireplace years before. Did we really need to relive that Christmas memory one more time?

I was inexplicably seized by the need to get new stockings. Before Saturday’s brunch. The playful, pointy Whoville stockings I’d seen at a store across town. Never mind that it was too late on a Thursday night and that all of Friday was filled. I’d find a way to get them.

On our way to a fundraising auction Friday after work, I tried to talk Craig into detouring through the city to the shop, but his glare halted my obsession, or at least halted my talking about it.

I was still scheming as we arrived at the auction. This was not a black-tie high-society affair. It was a ’50s night of poufed hair and poodle skirts in the gym behind a red-brick community center in a low-income Kansas City neighborhood. Most of the crowd lived or owned businesses in the neighborhood. We were there, far from our suburban home blighted by tacky Christmas stockings, because our daughter Anna directs the center’s preschool program.

Craig and I met Anna’s co-workers and ate barbecue. We watched children play among the tables and parents bid hundreds of dollars for tickets to a Royals’ game, a DVD package and bicycles that would likely be donated back to the center. This center was theirs, and they wanted to make sure it had funds to operate throughout the coming year – money to continue the daycare program and ESL classes, to pay utilities, to grow the food for the lunch program.

Craig and I eventually shed our cloak of outside observers and wrapped ourselves in the spirit of the night. We entered the bidding and now have a play tunnel and floor puzzle to give our granddaughter for Christmas (the center didn’t need them), a new quilt on the guest-room bed and our old stockings dressing up the mantel.

Three Stops to Becoming Wonder Woman

I watched as morning sparkled both the Chicago River eight floors below me and Navy Pier stretching over Lake Michigan several blocks to the east. Sadly, glass and concrete jailed me from the streams of shoppers and sightseers being welcomed into Chicago’s holiday hospitality.

I was in the city all last week for one of the world’s largest trade shows. My Magnificent Mile(s?) was inside Chicago’s McCormick Place, where I listened to radiologists address the blizzard of changes in today’s healthcare climate and where I took my station in Exhibit Hall B, Booth 9141, for seven hours each day to engage passers-by and show them the medical search engine I am charged with marketing. At nightfall, I ate dinner with colleagues and returned to the hotel to respond to the day’s emails.

My task each day was clear: Stand tall, listen well, speak coherently, stay positive and learn more about the way radiologists work. Unfortunately, I’m not that talented, even when wearing my cushioned leather flats and following my remember-you’re-in-your-50s resolve to decline all post-dinner party invitations. (As I fell into bed that first night, I had already given up any hope of posting a blog during the week.)

Once home, rather than embrace the rest my body needed, I heeded my spirit. The blast of city life beyond my reach all week kept pulling me. Chicago’s lakefront and stinging winds were 500 miles away, but the sun and warmth in Kansas City led me to several of my treasured spaces.

The Kauffman Memorial Garden was vibrating with light and color. Leafless branches exposed clusters of cherry-red winterberries and lavender beautyberries. Bare limbs imprinted the garden wall with tentacles of shadow. Even the girls sculpted of bronze and rising from the fountain seemed to enjoy having unobstructed room to dance.

I walked north through the Sculpture Park at the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum and rested on a bench overlooking the expanse of lawn. With only one person within speaking distance of me, we were both surprised to find we knew each other. This artist and pastor friend joined me on the bench, and our serendipitous catch-up built more connection than I had experienced during all the long days of conversation the week before.

My third and last stop was to see my daughter-in-law and 1-year-old granddaughter. While Jessi ran to the post office, I walked Hazel to the neighborhood playground – four swings, two of them baby buckets, and a structure connecting three slides. Her eyes and smile, her whole world, opened up. She rode and twisted down the slides and, enthroned in a bucket, delighted in the running, climbing, sliding and pumping of the three older kids (a 2-, 3- and 5-year-old) also at the playground.

Hazel’s joy was contagious, freeing me to see how wonderful – truly, wonder full – my day had been.

Thanksgivings Past and Present

The Thanksgiving table was ready, each place at the polished oak table sparkling with new stemware and china. So what if the official holiday was five months away? Ann Thomas’* gratitude couldn’t wait.

On this hot June day of 2007, in her village of Phoenix, La., 30 miles south of New Orleans, Ann walked me through her newly built home, fresh with the smell of paint and new furniture. This home replaced the one swept away when Hurricane Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in September 2005. After nearly two years of living with relatives and then in a FEMA trailer, Ann and her husband, Dymond, were finally home.

I was just one of the many volunteers from Covenant World Relief who had spent the past year helping the Thomases and other Phoenix residents rebuild. In the coming months, more houses were finished and more families left their cramped trailers to return home. By Thanksgiving, they were ready to serve up their gratitude and sweet potato pie to the volunteers fortunate to be there for the weekend. I was one of them.

The church-hopping that started the day – we worshipped at St. Joseph’s and then Zion Travelers – moved into table-hopping, a festive parade from house to house where each hostess served us a traditional Cajun feast. I vowed to approach this day as a progressive dinner – appetizers at the first house, salads at the second, entrees next, etc. – but my Midwest resolve disappeared when I walked into Ann’s kitchen and saw the counter laden with a Cajun-spiced turkey, dirty rice, gumbo, shrimp-stuffed peppers, and sweet potato pie. I tasted it all, and did the same at the next three houses. By 7:00, I reached my fifth house with a greatly diminished group and appetite. Two of us shared pie and stories with our 80-year-old friend Ellen.

At each stop throughout the day, the stories and laughter fed us as much as the oyster dressing and baked spaghetti. We learned how faith always trumped despair, how a devastated community remained hopeful and thankful.

It’s a lesson I’m carrying today as I head to the nursing home with Craig and my daughter Anna to pick up my dad and take him to my brother’s house, where 15 of us will be nourished by my sister-in-law’s turkey and stuffing as well as everyone’s stories and laughter. Our faith and gratitude this year are coupled with suffering and sadness. A year ago Dad was carving the turkey and telling the stories. He suffered two strokes this past year and is now weakened and unable to say what’s on his mind. Today he will listen and tire early. We’ll drive him home and laugh some more, letting him know how thankful we are for the rich way he continues to fill our lives.

 

* Thanks to Marianne, my traveling and feasting partner that Thanksgiving Day, for correcting my spelling of Ann’s last name. I’ve updated it from the first version.

When the Water Subsides

The stories of devastation and heroism in the wake of Superstorm Sandy remind me of Hurricane Katrina, particularly the residents of Phoenix, Louisiana, who I got to know during their rebuilding efforts. Despite losing almost all their possessions, people in this close community still shared riches with me. Here’s a story from my visits in 2007. 

 

“Why would anybody live here?”

It was the obvious question for a busload of Midwesterners unpacking our legs after a cramped 16-hour journey from Kansas to the tiny Louisiana town of Phoenix, a town trying to rebuild after Hurricane Katrina. Swarms of mosquitoes coated the windshield. Humidity fogged our glasses as we hit the heavy air. Lizards scampered for cover among the weedy fields. And this was December. What was July like?

Phoenix, once a town of about 300 and now less than half that, sits 30 miles south of New Orleans, a crater between levees holding back the Mississippi River and a marsh leading to the Gulf of Mexico. Katrina was not the first hurricane to fill the basin. Nor would it be the last.

Homes there sat in water for several weeks after Katrina hit in August 2005. Their owners rode out the storm in shelters and then moved to cities throughout the South. Residents couldn’t return for four months. When they did, they found trees and homes blocking their way. Houses still standing reeked from mold, mud and debris. While thousands of volunteers and millions of dollars poured into neighboring New Orleans, people in Phoenix slogged for FEMA trailers and relief funds and salvaged what little they could.

Our team arrived 16 months after the storm. Some houses had been cleaned out or removed and new foundations laid, but residents still lived in trailers and would for most of the next year. Not one to jump into home projects, I was surprised to be drawn back to Phoenix four more times in the coming year. I worked a bit on homes but mostly fed volunteers and talked with residents. I eventually felt comfortable asking them the question we asked the first time I arrived: “Why do you keep coming back?”

The answer was always the same: “Where would I go? Everyone I know and love is here.”

Some thought they had it easier than I did: “How much warning do you get before a tornado hits?”

I had to concede their point. Several years earlier, my 12-year-old daughter was forced to huddle in the restroom of a convenience store while a twister ravaged a field just across the highway. That night haunted her all summer. The year I traveled to Phoenix saw a record number of tornado touchdowns, with Kansas leading the tally. Two towns were leveled. Four people died.

Do I ever consider moving away because tornado sirens send me to my basement once or twice a year? No, never. I’ve lived in the Kansas City area for nearly 30 years. The people I know and love are here.

And that love is much more powerful than the power of nature. As I befriended a handful of Phoenix residents, I felt the force that drew them back, both to the people they have known their whole lives and to the land their families have owned for more than a century. Embedded in them is the simple truth that I first learned from the world’s most famous Kansas farm girl, herself a victim of nature’s wrath: “There’s no place like home.”

Six-Word Tributes

With our big families, there’s almost always a birthday or anniversary for me to overlook, with fall being a particularly busy time to disappoint people with my forgetfulness. Admittedly, I set a poor example for the wife of a greeting-card artist. But I’m thankful for a friend who told me about six-word memoirs, an initiative from the online SMITH Magazine. Her idea helped our families pay tribute to our parents for their most recent milestone birthdays.

SMITH Magazine began in 2006 as a website to promote personal storytelling and launched its six-work memoir project later that year. You can go to the site to post your own memoir and read thousands from others. My friend changed the idea of writing a memoir of yourself to writing a tribute to another; she and her kids used this poetic form to honor her husband, who loved to write poetry. Craig and I aren’t poets, but I’m an editor, and I love the concept of saying as much as possible with so few words. As my mom planned a family party to celebrate my dad’s 80th birthday, I sent out the call for all my siblings, their spouses and our kids to come with our six-word tributes.

Some people were apprehensive … until they started writing Then they couldn’t stop. Even grade-school-aged cousins had fun composing their thoughts. At the party, we gathered in the living room to eat cake and to read Dad our tributes. We let the time flow organically: One person read one, another person followed, usually with a related thought, and on it went until we had finished. We laughed, we cried, we remembered, we asked Dad to say more about the memories we had stirred up. We could never have anticipated how powerful our words would be in expressing a full picture of Dad and our love for him.

That fall, we repeated the tribute for Craig’s dad and mom, who were turning 80 and 75, respectively, and the next year for my mom for her 80th birthday. Each party had its own personality, as our parents do, but each was an evening of celebration, honor and love. Here are some examples:

To Lee’s Dad from Ed: Retired bowler, lawn bowler, Wii bowler.

To Grandpa George from Andrew: Thanks, Grandpa, for the bald gene.

To Lee’s Mom from Cathy: Best mentor ever for modeling hospitality.

To Grandma Rita from Rachel: Colorful shoes, colorful personality, colorful language.

To Craig’s Dad from Michele: Wonderful laugh, shaking shoulders, twinkly eyes.

To Grandpa Tom from Rachel: Outlined tools; everything has a place.

To Craig’s Mom from Craig: Complete compassion, family passion, ankle fashion.

To Grandma Joanie from Amber: Mom’s bed made; Grandma was here.

So today, Craig and I have written our six-word tributes, he to a mentor and former boss, me to a friend.

To Levi from Craig: Man within whom hope springs eternal.

To Julie from Lee: From powerful pen, discovery, growth, beauty.

Now we invite you to post a tribute in the Comment section below (and even send it to that person). We all want to matter to someone. Please take a minute to let another know how they matter to you.