Thoughts on Longevity

Celebrating 33 Years of Marriage at a Gordon Lightfoot Concert

Doug and I had already made plans for our anniversary, but then I saw that Gordon Lightfoot was playing an intimate concert on our actual wedding date. Could we pass up that opportunity?

In my memoir I recount how Doug and I sang “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as we paddled about on Lake Superior in a canoe on the weekend we met. Those two crooning young people still live in our memory, even if they have passed into middle age! And can you believe that Gordon Lightfoot is still performing at age 78, even after life-threatening illnesses?

I cancelled our plans for a night in the Northern Neck and bought the tickets. The Birchmere is an unusual place, for true music fans. The seating is general admission so you have to arrive early. Once you’re in the venue, you’re seated at tables and can order food and drink, so there’s the conviviality of eating a meal together. I loved meeting the people around us. (more…)

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Targeted at Target

a conversation with a stranger

Yesterday I was at Target comparing brands of facial cleanser. I am super-cheap about this kind of stuff.

A woman said “Excuse me.” She was in her thirties, I would guess, a woman of olive complexion and dark hair, with an infant strapped onto her chest. She said, “I ask you in the name of Jesus.”

I must have looked confused, because she repeated it twice more. Finally I got it, and said, “Ask me what?”

She gestured to her shopping cart, which had 4 cans of Enfamil in it.

“Do you need money?” I asked.

“No! No! I need help buying these.” Her English was broken.

“Do you need help with your food stamps or something? With WIC?”

“I no have papers. I no ask for money,” she said. “I ask for my child.”

“Do you want me to take these to the register and buy them for you?” I asked. “How much do they cost?”

“Forty,” she said.

“Jiminy crickets this stuff is expensive!”

The baby started to squirm. She pulled a small bottle out of her bag. She proceeded to feed the baby, looking apologetic.

“Is that your baby?” I asked. “Can you nurse it?”

“No, I have Crohn’s disease,” she said. She gestured toward her breast, inviting me to notice that it was not full. She and I had full eye contact with each other. She looked tired and worried. The baby had a full head of dark hair, but was probably only two months old.

I thought: Maybe she is scamming me.

I thought: OK, maybe she is. I can live with that.

I told her: “Let’s go,” and put 2 of the cans in my cart. I wheeled to the register and paid for them. The clerk gave me a good coupon with the receipt — $7 off the next purchase of Enfamil — so I gave it to her, along with the receipt. We were both all teary-eyed. I said, “God bless you,” and she said, “Thank you Jesus.”

Then I was afraid she would ask more of me and I ducked back into the store. But I couldn’t stand it — I had to come back out and see what she did next. She put the coupon away very carefully into a wallet. Then she pulled out a scarf to cover the baby’s head, and went out into the sunny day. She walked with just a bit of a waddle to the very far corner of the parking lot, to where a minivan was parked under a tree. She put the baby into its seat, then drove away.

I have no idea what I expected to happen.

With tears rolling down my face, I texted my husband: “At Target. Spent $80 on baby formula for a stranger.” The phone immediately binged with his response. “Sounds good.” (Which is why I’m tagging this, “Why I still love my husband”)

I couldn’t think why she approached me. Then my hand went to my neck, to the small Jerusalem cross I wear on a chain.

I don’t think that wearing a cross ever cost me anything before.

What would you have done?

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Looking for Christ in the face of the Other

a tribute to a Muslim acquaintance

The “connectivity” of our world can bring such blessing. I received an email the other day from The Very Rev. Canon Dr. Gregory Jenks, who is the Dean of St. George’s College in Jerusalem. Perhaps you will recall that St. George’s hosted the pilgrimage which I wrote about in Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land.

The Dean wanted to let me know that one of their employees, Khalil Bassa, had recently died. Because I had included a conversation with Khalil in my book, he wondered if I would like to write a few words for their website. I was happy to do so here.

Rest in peace, Khalil.

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Conversations with Strangers, Hairdresser edition

While I waited for my hair appointment, I chatted with two women over the magazines. They mentioned they were sisters, so I said, “How nice to make your hair a family affair.”

“It is nice, but it’s not for a nice reason. Our mother died the other day.”

I felt surprised at this, and glanced at the other sister. Tears sprang from the woman’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She wiped them with the back of her hand. She said, in a still-stunned voice, “She was only 90.”

“You’re never ready to lose someone you love,” I agreed.

They told me all about their mom, how she had dementia, and had a cough that turned out to be Stage 4 cancer. How their father took care of her at first, but he’s 92, and had a broken neck himself. So eventually they moved Mom into one sister’s home. One sister quit her job in order to help with the care full time.

“We fed her well right up to the end,” one said.

The other nodded with satisfaction. “And we surrounded her with love.”

“That’s obvious,” I said. “It’s obvious how much you loved her.”

Fresh tears rolled down their faces. “I’m worried about Dad. What will he do without her?”

“At least they got to celebrate their 70th anniversary. It was last November, about the time she was diagnosed. Oh, she died too soon!”

“But she saw her new grandbaby, remember. She got to meet her.”

I watched them grieve, together and separately, finding bits of solace and offering them to each other, like a piece of music passing the melody line from soprano to tenor and back again.

Then it was time for my haircut. Jen put a cape around my neck. Jen’s an artist when she isn’t cutting hair, and a priest-confessor when she is. We usually talk about love and death and art. We ask each other the questions all artists should ask each other, but seldom do. Plus I get a haircut.

I told Jen: “The women over there are sisters who just lost their mother.”

Jen groaned and shook her head. “It’s always too soon,” she said. “Always.”

To think I get to inhabit the planet with such giants, these ordinary people who know what love is.

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Hold Up. Really.

Here’s another reason to do all your banking online. Just now I went to the bank to deposit a few checks — at the PNC on Hwy 7 in Sterling — and came home with the chore undone.

As I approached the bank I glimpsed some flashing blue lights in the front, so I took a shortcut and went around back. There were electrical trucks back there, so I assumed the power was off and the cops were directing traffic. I parked my car at a little distance and walked across the parking lot toward the bank. That’s when I noticed a deputy with his gun drawn, an M-16. He barked at me: “Ma’am, get back.”

Turns out there was a robbery going on at the Wells Fargo, right next door to the PNC. As I watched, people in business wear came out one at a time, their hands over their heads. There were six or so Sheriff’s deputies in their brown uniforms with bulletproof vests. Another couple of guys in full SWAT uniforms. A helicopter was hovering overhead.

I watched another Sheriff’s car pull up. A deputy got out, pulled his Kevlar over his head and grabbed a clipboard. I suppose there’s a lot of paperwork with this kind of thing.

A few minutes later, another guy dressed all in black pulled on black gloves as he walked toward the back entrance, very purposefully. Every few minutes one of the Sheriff’s deputies ran a loop around the parking lot with his gun drawn.

I talked to another woman in front of the Dunkin Donuts. She said: “How does somebody think they can rob a bank in this day and age?”

I said: “No kidding. You have to rob a bank from the inside, not this way.”

She sighed and said, “Well, all I know is, my husband really wanted a donut.”

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“I’ll give it to you for $2,” the mom said. “I am not carrying that home.”

My husband was holding a box of rocks. We were in the parking lot of our local high school, at a Yard Sale to benefit Project Graduation.

“But did you see this?” he said, holding up a hunk of petrified wood. “It’s a real beauty.”

“It can go,” she said.

Doug handed over the $2 with a gleeful big-kid grin, the one that reminds me why I married him in the first place.

At home he sorted the rocks: some into a baggie, some into a big tray, and others set out in a careful row. I asked him what categories he was using to sort. I assumed he would tell me the difference between igneous and sedimentary rocks. As I keep forgetting.

He said “Here’s my theory.” He held up the ziploc: “These were the first rocks the kid got, the polished kind you buy in a set.” He pointed to the tray. “Then he started collecting all kinds of rocks, not knowing what he was doing, just stuff he saw, or maybe mementos.” He showed me the rocks that were laid out. I saw many of them had numbers painted on them. “Then he started getting real specimens and putting them in geomorphic order.”

“Are they all there?” I asked.

“He’s missing #5 and #8.”

So if you’re friends with this kid, could you let him know we have the rest of his rocks?

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The Man in the French Blue Shirt: a grocery store encounter

The grocery clerk was swiping my last few items. A man dressed in a beautiful French blue shirt with white collar and cuffs, probably in his late forties, arrived behind me, rather breathless, and plopped a package of pork chops on the conveyor belt.

“Hello!” he said, as if he knew me. “I just worked today, the first day in six months!”

I must have given him a look that told him to keep going, because he told me all about his new job, in tech sales, and how he got it through his Linked In profile, from a stranger, and he didn’t know a soul at this new company, he could hardly believe his luck.

“I’ve been praying and praying. You know you only pray this hard when you’re in trouble. I should pray this hard every day, grateful. I should thank God for my kids.”

I said, “You have kids?” (Yes, I’m really that brilliant with small talk.)

“I’m divorced, but yeah, I have kids, three of them, in college.”

We chatted a bit more, and I wished him the best of luck in his new position. I wanted to tell you about it, so you could be happy for him too, and send up a little prayer of gratitude. One person out there has a new job! TBTG!

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Overheard at Chick-Fil-A

This morning I took myself out to Chick-Fil-A for breakfast, clutching my coupon for a free breakfast entree. Yes, I’m like that.

The coffee was delicious. The Chicken Minis were much too mini. The counter guy was an extremely happy human being. The place was immaculate. The piped-in music was classical. For those of you who don’t know, Chick-Fil-A is owned and heavily frequented by evangelical Christians.

There was only one other occupied table. Using my trained writer’s eye, I would guess they were a family unit: Parents in their late forties, mother dressed in nice slacks and dressy top, father in a suit. Their son, about 18, good-looking and extremely well-groomed, with spiky dark hair, perfectly gelled.

I didn’t mean to listen in, honest, but they raised their voices:

Mother: I don’t care, I am not going to visit.

Son: You shouldn’t take it so personally.

Mother: She looks like a lesbian.

Son: So I can’t see my sister?

Friends, that is verbatim. What did I do? I said a silent prayer then me and my coffee cup just got up and left.

If you happen to be that family, and you happen to read my blogging: Please stop. Listen to yourself. It won’t be long before you lose your son too. Good grooming notwithstanding.

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In the Produce Dept with Dad: Conversations with Strangers

I went to the Customer Service desk at Meijers (a Michigan superstore) to return some bad lettuce for my mother. You know how sometimes it’s the idea more than the money? I went along with my dad so he wouldn’t have to walk so far, he’s 86 and has some arthritis.

The Customer Service clerk was a woman about my age, African-American. Here’s the dialogue, as close to verbatim as I can remember:

Clerk: (as she takes my lettuce) Now I want a salad for lunch!

Me: Salad is good. Is it time for your break?

Clerk: Ahuh, and I’m ready.

Me (noticing her nametag, which read “Cordelia”): So, were your parents big Shakespeare fans?

Cordelia: Nope. I didn’t know about King Lear until I was in my twenties. I was named for my aunt, who died while my mama was in labor. Story is her sister came into the room and told my daddy, “You have to name her Cordelia.” And so they did.

Me: It’s a family name, that’s great. Are you the oldest?

Cordelia: I am. My daddy always called me Dill. He used to say (sing-song), “I don’t like Dill pickles, but I like you!”

Me: Dads are great. That King Lear story is about a dad and a daughter.

Cordelia: I know, I read it and I see the movie.

(a little talk here about the movie versions, ending with:)

Cordelia: Oh! (getting teary), I miss my daddy!

Me: Cordelia was the favorite, wasn’t he? I think the name comes from the Latin for heart, doesn’t it?

Cordelia: Really?

Me: I’m pretty sure. Cordere. Heart. Daughter of the heart.

Cordelia: (wiping a few tears) Well that fits. Oh, I’m going to go eat a salad and think about my dad!

By now I had my money back. As I left, I saw my Dad strolling through the produce department with one of those itty-bitty cups of free coffee. He was wearing his “Grampy” ballcap and choosing a turnip. My Dad loves turnips.

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What U2 Taught Me About Discipleship

the 360 Tour, 2011

I was a late arriver to the world of U2. They’d been popular for decades before I realized that the band who wrote Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, also wrote other great songs.

U2 came to Washington, DC on the first leg of their 360 Tour in September 2009. My husband and I bought mezzanine seats and loved the concert. As the 360 suggests, the stage set-up includes a circular runway out into the crowd, which connects to the stage by moveable bridges. Thanks to the giant screens, I watched the fans adore Bono beneath those bridges, their hands waving in the air.

When U2 added a Baltimore stop to the end of the tour, we decided to go again, but this time as real fans, General Admission. We arrived at the stadium three hours before the doors opened and joined a zigzag line that had begun the previous night. The sun beat down while we chatted with other fans. A few were our age, but most were the ages of our children. It didn’t matter, they were all our new best friends.

U2 fans are family, someone said, and there was a murmur of agreement. A guy selling beer made frequent stops. A whisky flask passed by with regularity. Even with all this good cheer, the wait was interminable. I shifted side to side. When was the last time I stood in one place, in the sun, for this many hours? Now and then I changed places to wait for a stinky porta-potty. I wondered why we didn’t just buy mezzanine tickets like last time. Could the fan experience possibly be worth this? Why was I suffering for a man named Bono?

Eventually someone came to dispense the precious bright-green wristbands. According to the stamped number, we were within the first 500 people. The stadium holds more than 80,000. When the gates finally opened and we poured onto the field, I was incredulous that we could make our way around the circular runway, to the very edge of the stage. We were eye to eye with the security guy on the other side of the railing, so close we had to tilt our heads to see over the edge of the stage.

After the initial euphoria, there were two more hours of sunlight to endure, plus a warm-up band. A woman on my left asked me my name and said she was Bridget. Then she introduced me to her nieces, Irish beauties in their early teens with wavy brown hair and freckles.

Before I could even confirm the girls’  names in the noise of the crowd, Bridget got serious. She pointed two fingers at my eyes, then to the girls’ eyes. Girls! This is Ruth. You got it? While I get snacks, she’s here. You understand?

I was taken aback, so I teased: What, do I look like a mother?

Oh, I trust everybody at a U2 concert, Bridget said.

After she returned with French fries and water bottles, Bridget told me about her family. She had flown out of Colorado for this concert, and the girls had flown out of New York. The entire extended family was present, in various locations, which she pointed out around the stadium. Bridget said, My family can’t agree on a single thing. Not politics. Or religion. Or anything. But we all love U2. It’s the one thing that unites us.

One of the nieces piped up, U2 was playing when I was born. The other, not to be outdone, said, I was conceived to U2. Their freckles glowed. Or that may simply have been the sun, setting behind them.

Bridget continued to expand our little circle, bringing in a young man on her other side and the people in front of us. She was a natural evangelist.

Maybe the church parallels are obnoxious, but I can’t help them. I can’t help wishing we had more people like Bridget, spilling passion and warmth. I can’t help wishing our Presbyterian family could agree that, despite everything else, we all adore the band. And maybe that’s enough.

At last the warm-up band, Florence & the Machine, played. Then, after a total of six hours of standing, it was time. The U2 band members took their places. Adam Clayton, the bass player, was directly in front of us. A few yards to his left, Bono grabbed the mike. Further back, Larry Mullen was barely visible behind his drum set. On the other side of the stage I could see The Edge’s stocking cap.

The first number was Even Better than the Real Thing. The sound quality was incredible and the lyrics surprisingly clear:

Give me one more chance
And you’ll be satisfied
Give me two more chances
You won’t be denied
You take me higher . . .
You’re the real thing

I threw my arms overhead and waved them side to side. I had suffered to be here. I had united with my fellow fans. I had earned my place at the band’s feet. And now it was time for the adoration to begin, and I didn’t intend to hold back!

How can I say this without sounding ridiculous? Well then, I’ll just say it. The feelings I experienced were cosmic. The music transported me to another place, a place as close to the Kingdom of God as I’ve ever been. I felt mystically connected to the 80,000 other people in the stadium, strangers all. I didn’t want any song to end. Call me Peter, but I wanted to build a booth and stay forever.

Preachers like to say that actions precede feelings. Have you heard that truism? If we want to feel loving, we need to first act in a loving way. If we want to feel full of faith, we need to act faithfully. If we want to feel like a disciple of Jesus, we need to act like a disciple.

But it wasn’t until I was in that stadium with my hands in the air that the power of this really hit me.

One love
One blood
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
Sisters, brothers
One life
But we’re not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other
Note: This piece was originally published at Patheos.

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