Ordinary Time?

Whatever Clock

A reminder from a friend that time is never ordinary

God feels distant—not absent, just a little farther away.  It’s okay, really, because the church bulletin last Sunday assured me that this is 25th week in Ordinary Time—one of those everyday weeks that isn’t part of Lent, Easter, Advent, or Christmas.

Twenty-five weeks of Ordinary Time so far this year—that coincides almost exactly with the number of weeks since I lost a close friend who died unexpectedly.  Easter came about a month after he died, and for that week, God felt a little more accessible in the rituals and reminders of why I practice my faith.

But in those weeks of Ordinary Time, when I usually feel a Presence hovering, I’ve struggled.

Are you there, God?

Of course, I hear.  But the sound is muffled.

I go to my women’s circle meeting, where we have two new members.  Both are grappling with why God would take their children—a 16-year-old son and a 26-year-old daughter.

Another member is exhausted from a string of debilitating challenges.  She rages at God, asking why, and in the next breath talks of how God used her to bring comfort to a teenager she barely knows.

When one woman apologizes for crying, a long-time circle member who recently lost her mother reassures her.  “It’s okay.  You get to cry here.”

I learn today of another member of the circle who lost her mother this morning.  I learn from social media that my friend’s 15-year-old daughter lost her grandfather, who was 92.  That wouldn’t be such a tragedy if this 15-year-old hadn’t lost her mother, my friend, last September—in the middle of Ordinary Time that was anything but ordinary for a girl who lost her mother.

In the face of their pain, I feel ashamed that I haven’t regained my balance yet from losing two close friends in a year.

I talked this week with an acquaintance who grew up in a faith tradition similarly rigid to my own childhood tradition.  After the devotion of her early years and the anger of her young adulthood, she chose meditation as a way of finding peace.  Like me, she’s living in Ordinary Time right now—and ordinary is satisfying.

Both of us acknowledged that when life is good, we tend to feel guilty in the presence of people who are in the midst of challenges.  And a little hesitantly, we admitted that when we’re loving life, there is a part of us that is frightened, that keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop—for that moment when we lose everything to a tempest too awful to contemplate.

I suspect we aren’t the only ones who are better at forging ahead when times are tough than we are at accepting the grace of life’s gifts.

One of today’s lectionary readings comes from Psalm 143:  “Answer me quickly, O Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me…” (7)

It falls among some of my favorite psalms that speak of a God who is gracious and merciful, who executes justice for the oppressed and feeds the hungry, who heals the brokenhearted and wounded, who gives refuge in the shadow of his wings.

I stand in awe yet again that, though the world has changed much in the thousands of years since these songs were written, human beings have not.

How is it that God executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry?  God doesn’t rain down manna from heaven these days.  But when people come together, it’s our wings that provide the shadow to a person in need until the storms pass by.

How is it that God heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds?  When I’ve been brokenhearted and wounded, it’s the people who’ve helped take care of me who’ve helped me glimpse the face of God again.

So, yes, all of us have times when God feels distant and maybe even absent.  But when we flail, it’s the strength of others that can help us feel the Presence of the Spirit that is in us all.

This I know.

And maybe, if I keep reminding myself, one of these days I’ll get better at knowing and accepting the grace of the Ordinary.

Tell me your stories of the Ordinary, the Extraordinary.

Road Rage? Or Just Rage?

Tow Truck 3

Sitting behind the wheel in the afternoon commute, I stifled my impatience.  Mourning the blue sky and balmy temperatures that I’d missed in my windowless office, I opened the sun roof.  Stop it, I said to myself, mentally checking off my many blessings.  You have a good job, you’ve survived cancer, and your loved ones are safe in a world where twelve people were killed by a madman a few miles away.

I braked for a stoplight and opened the windows.  As I looked up at the heavy-duty tow truck in front of me, I saw something fall from the passenger side.  My instinct was to call out, “Hey, you dropped something.”  But before I could say anything, a circular silver CD came sailing out the window, hovering in the air like a Frisbee before falling near my fender.

The light changed, and the line of cars started its slow crawl across a busy intersection.  I put both hands on the wheel and focused.  As we accelerated, the man on the passenger side of the tow truck put his hand out the window and, with a flick of the wrist, sailed a CD backward into my path.

I blew my horn.  “What the heck?”

One after another, the CDs came flying out the window, the flicking wrist faster now.

I blew my horn again, angry at the litter, angry at the careless disregard for the drivers behind him, angry at myself for being so incensed.

The shower of CDs stopped momentarily.  I got out my cell phone and asked Siri to note the license plate number.

As I put the phone down, we crossed a bridge over a tiny stream.  The hand appeared out the window again and flung a stack of CDs into the trickling water below.

I vowed to look up the company on the Web when I got home as the tow truck began to slow down.  As it turned into a long driveway, I noted the company phone number on the side of the truck.

At the next light, I put in my ear-bud, picked up my phone, and dialed the number, scarcely stopping to consider whether the company owned a fleet of trucks or just this one.  But I was so angry I didn’t stop to think that perhaps the men in the truck might answer the phone.

But they did not.  A receptionist listened to my account of the incident and asked for my name and number.  When I refused, she put me on hold and then connected me with the owner, who first denied having a truck like the one I described.  But when I told him I had the license number and that I planned to file a police report, he took the license number and told me he would address the driver.

I breathed and told myself that it wasn’t good to have road rage.  I ended the call and focused on the country road ahead of me, my favorite part of the drive home, where I’ve twice seen double rainbows.

When I got home, I ranted to my husband, who told me I could file a police report online.  I let it go and went for my evening walk, soothed by the carefree joy of our dog at the end of the leash.

Later that evening, I still couldn’t let it go.  I found the county police web site, but the nature of the incident was not among the categories.  I called the nonemergency number, which was answered by a lovely operator who was clearly an expert at managing irritated callers.

I apologized for reporting such a minor incident in a week when the DC area has demanded a lot from its police force.  She pointed out that what the truckers did was dangerous—that they could have punctured someone’s tire or caused a driver to swerve at the distraction.  She told me she could send an officer to my house, and I hesitated, not because I didn’t want to talk to an officer but because it suddenly seemed silly to be fuming when the police have far more serious concerns.

Apologizing again, I told her I didn’t mind talking to an officer but that I was certain this was not something they should be giving their attention to—not this week, maybe not in this lifetime.  She took my name, complimented me for having such specific information, and filed a report.  She said that I would probably get a call because I had such good information about a company that gets a lot of business from their office.  She told me that if such a thing happened again, I should call the police as it was happening.

Now, in the quiet calm of Saturday morning, I think about why I was so outraged.  And I realize that I was displacing my fury at the Navy Yard shooting and directing it to the careless disregard of the tow truck drivers.

That commute came at the end of a day when I had listened to teachers talk about how teens seem unmoved by the tragedy at the Navy Yard.  They said their students scarcely speak of it, and when they do, they speak from a safe distance—except for the two schools where a staff member and a student lost family members.

I don’t believe the teenagers I know are unmoved by violence.  I do believe many of them stifle their fear and displace their anger and some of them act out in violent ways that even they don’t understand.

We adults can’t seem to admit to ourselves that we are paralyzed to do anything to address the issues that face us because we’re so busy holding on to our own passions and beliefs.  I feel helpless.  And as I sat in my car behind those drivers, I wanted to do something to stop them.

And I want to do something to stop the madmen as well.  Perhaps I’ll start by voting in the midterm elections, not for the candidate whose views most closely align with my own, but for the person who seems most inclined to collaborate and cooperate and compromise in search of a better world.

Are those people out there?  I hope so.

Can you tell me a story of such a person?

What is Communion?

Dali Last Supper

Salvador Dali’s The Last Supper, National Gallery of Art

Today marks the six-month anniversary of my friend Wayne’s death.  My family will gather with his wife, his son, his mother, and a circle of close friends to place the marker and remember what Wayne meant to each of us.

My husbands’ parents are buried in the same cemetery, one where the gravestones are all at ground level for ease of grounds-keeping.  Rich and poor, black and white, Christian and atheist—all become anonymous and equal to everyone except those they’ve left to mourn them in this suburban cemetery.

After our remembrance, we will break bread together at Mary Beth’s home.  Both masterful cooks, Mary Beth and Wayne prepared every recipe with energy and creativity and served the meal to their family and friends with equal measures of love and merriment.  Both adhered to the principle that their guests should walk away satiated and carry home enough for another meal.

Their style of cooking was very different from my own.  If we had four people to dinner, we made four steaks and four baked potatoes.  Not so in the Waits-Whigham home, where leftover steak became the protein Mary Beth ate for breakfast the next morning.  While I always followed a recipe the first time and varied it only on the second try, I watched them pour spices into their cupped hands and sprinkle it with a shake of the hand that looked like a gambler readying to roll the dice.

But the gamble never resulted in a bad meal tossed onto the table.  On the other hand, Wayne never let me live down the time we were on vacation and I made white-bean chicken chili that tasted nothing like the chili made by the person who gave me the recipe.  It was the only time in 20 years of friendship that Wayne stood up from the table and strode to the refrigerator in search of something else with the pronouncement, “I ain’t eatin’ that sh#@!”

I secretly agreed with him, but there was no way I was going to let him know it.  I ate the chili.  So did everyone else at the table, including our two very picky-eater children and their friends.  At the end of that meal, my husband, who doesn’t like to cook but doesn’t at all mind the clean-up, headed to the dishwasher without his usual compliments to the cook.

Usually, though, Wayne smacked his lips and pulled away from my table with satisfaction.  Over the years, no matter which of us cooked, the guest would bring some specialty that was a favorite of the host.  And though Wayne usually turned down dessert in favor of the main course, he often came away from the table saying, “Man, for some white girls, you sure can cook!”

I’ve missed those meals.  In our grief, we haven’t been able to bring ourselves to get together in quite the same way.

Though Wayne wouldn’t want to admit it, Mary Beth and his son Chris can probably replicate most of his recipes.  In fact, when she was on vacation a month or so ago, Mary Beth made Wayne’s famous barbecue sauce, giving it just a bit sweeter flavor than he liked to make.

And, Wayne, it’s delicious.  You’d be proud of her, as you always were.

As I’ve looked forward to our meal together this evening, I’ve come to understand that this is what communion means.  Too often, we think of communion as that small piece of bread we dip into the wine at church.  We enjoy the ritual, but we think little of what it means to commune with people who in their humanness may have let each other down or hurt each other’s feelings since the last meal we shared together.

We are so different, those of us who will break bread together today.  And it is precisely those differences that make the family we’ve created so wonderful.  We will gather in our friends’ home to laugh and cry, to eat and drink, to offer grace and share our love.

As I picture Wayne looking down at us today, I’ll be thinking about him sitting at God’s communion table and talking animatedly, hardly giving any of those other disciples a chance to get a word in.  He’ll tell the story of that chicken chili, but he’ll also brag about the wife and son he loves and the diverse friendships he has temporarily left behind.

So I’ll treasure the joyful eating and drinking and fellowship.  As we say in the Apostle’s Creed, we’ll celebrate the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  And I’ll understand that this is what Christ really meant when he told the people at his last table, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

Just War?

Ash and Friends Sketch

Frantic, I herded my daughter and her closest high school friends into a cove beneath high, perfectly trimmed hedges, surrounded by blood-red geraniums that were at odds with the smoke that was beginning to turn the sky a dull gray.

“No, not in there!” my neighbor shouted.  “That’s the first place they’ll target when they see people running from the street!”

She had served in the military, but this was the first time I’d seen her carry a gun—the kind with a magazine of ammunition that until now I’d only seen in war movies.

Pointing the muzzle of the gun in the opposite direction, she gestured with the barrel toward the beautiful brick mansion, painted white, that I’d always admired on my morning walks.

Thankful again that I’d become friends with someone so different from me, I allowed her to herd my precious young people toward the house.  She opened an unlocked door and directed the children inside, her eyes darting from them to the smoky sky.

Just as she gestured me in and reached to pull the door closed, a flash of fire exploded near the hedges, and I thanked God for our precarious safety.

My daughter and her friends stood in a huddle in the center of what appeared to be a giant ballroom as my neighbor sprinted toward the first of a series of tall windows that ran from ceiling to floor.  As I hurried toward the children to wrap them in my peace-loving arms, my neighbor reprimanded me.  “Help me close these drapes!”

I woke up panting.  “Oh, God, oh, God!  Thank you!”

Reaching over to lay my hand on my husband’s arm, I touched flesh to assure myself that I’d only been dreaming—playing out my anxiety about chemical weapons and the safety of the children I love, now all adults.

I had no doubts about the catalyst for my subconscious imagination.  For weeks now I’ve anguished over the situation in Syria.  I’ve watched horrifying images of dead children lined up in rows, their skin melted.  I’ve read countless articles by pundits who argue both the merits and the pitfalls of engaging the U.S. military in another country’s civil war.  I’ve read posts by friends, nieces, and nephews my daughter’s age who rage against U.S. involvement.

They remind me of another war in another time, when I was the precise age they were in my nightmare.  A high school student who watched footage of napalm attacks in Viet Nam, I wore the bracelet of a soldier whose plane was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.  He and his pilot spent nearly six years in captivity.

Lieutenant Gary Anderson came home alive on my birthday in 1973, and I sat in front of the television and cried as he walked down the steps of the plane.  And in one of those crushing ironies of life, he died three years later in a military training exercise.

I still remember his name.  I still have the silver bracelet.  I remember feeling just the way today’s young people feel—helpless in the face of leaders in whom we have little trust.  Wearing that bracelet and watching college students demonstrate seemed all that I could do to protest a war that seemed far away from the bucolic town where I grew up, knowing no one personally whose boots marched the ground in that jungle on the other side of the world.

Certain then that we were not fighting a just war, I wish I could be so certain now.  Last week I posted a question I was asking myself—wondering whether future generations would ask, as my generation has asked about the extermination of the Jews, How could the world stand by and watch the slaughter of innocents?

Instead of finding certainty, I read about the complexities of the conflict—that many of the slaughtered are jihadists and the children of jihadists.

But they are children.  And many of the adults are innocent of any wrongdoing—parents who likely feel as helpless to protect their children as I felt in that vivid nightmare.

I don’t know where the answer lies.  I know that if enemies come for our children as they did in my dream, I want someone to be able to protect them as my neighbor did when I had no idea how to wield a weapon.

I do trust President Obama in a way that I did not trust Richard Nixon.  Our president seems sincere.  He’s smart.  He’s willing to anger the people who voted him into office if he thinks what he’s doing is right.  And come what may, I don’t think we’ll hear him say, “I am not a crook,” only to learn later that that, too, was a lie.

And I find myself hoping that Secretary of State Kerry’s remark about what Syria can do to avoid war was anything but an off-the-cuff remark.  I’m willing to grant our leaders some secrecy and some carefully calculated political dissembling if it leads to diplomacy that resolves this conflict in a way that allows everyone to save face.

Some loving parents’ precious children are dead.  And I can’t quite get past feeling that the murderers should pay.  But at this point I’ll settle for bringing a world together to ensure that the perpetrators don’t have the means to use chemical weapons again.

President Obama, members of Congress, I’m willing to wait a few years for you to tell me a story.  Just not the kind of story my mother meant when she was trying to get at the truth and insisted, “Now don’t you tell me a story!”

Tell us a story that isn’t a lie.  A story of how you tried your best to do the right thing.  A story that will make us believe in you again.

Sands Through an Hourglass

Starfish

“Do you know who I am?” I asked.

She closed her eye that no longer functions and considered me through her good eye.  Then she shook her head from side to side.

I swallowed the lump in my throat and smiled brightly, kissing her on the forehead.  “I’m Estelene, Mom.”

She grinned, slowly nodded, and kissed me on the cheek.

I pulled a chair up to her good side and took her hand in mine.  She sat contentedly in silence, offering none of her usual stream of mostly unintelligible chatter.

The television blared—a children’s show that someone on the nursing home staff must have thought would keep her attention.

Annoyed that someone viewed her as a child with a brain that no longer functioned, I searched for the remote.  But when I found it and hit the channel button, nothing happened.  I finally found the buttons on the side of the television and flipped through channels until I came across an old black-and-white romantic comedy.

I sat down beside her and stroked the top of her hand, the skin soft and supple in spite of a lifetime of housework.  She stared at the screen and drifted off to sleep.

I allowed myself a few tears before brushing them away and waiting for her to awaken.  Reaching into my bag, I pulled out the devotional anthology that held my first work as a published author—only eight pages in book with 51 other writers—but I wanted to show it to my mom.  I knew that if she had any awareness at all, she would be proud of me, as she always was at any of her children’s and grandchildren’s accomplishments.

When her eyes drifted sleepily open again, I waited for her to start chattering, but she simply listened while I talked about my family.  At one point when I talked about my daughter, she pointed to the picture of her on the top of her clothing cabinet.

“Mom, I finally got published,” I said, holding the book open and pointing to my name.

She reached out and took the book in her hands.  Again, she closed her bad eye and looked through her good eye.

I wondered briefly where her glasses were, but I wasn’t sure she could read the print now, even with her glasses.

Mom had once been a reader, and even when our family was at its poorest, she subscribed to Reader’s Digest, both the magazine and the condensed books.  After a corneal transplant when she was in her 50s, she changed the subscription to large text.  But after seven failed transplants in the other eye, she had given up reading in favor of afternoon soap operas.

Now, she stared at the page, awake the longest she had been since I got there.  At first I thought she was reading, but then I wasn’t sure.  She continued to hold the book in her hands, but she never turned from the page that bore my name.  Only after I took the book from her did she drift off to sleep again.

When it appeared she wouldn’t awaken again, I kissed her on the forehead and left to visit my sister, who faithfully spends time with our mother several days a week.  My sister lives five minutes from the nursing home, and before the stroke, she was my mother’s closest friend.

As always, I told my sister how much I love her and appreciate her for the way she takes care of our mom.  My sister listened to my account of my visit empathetically.  She had warned me beforehand that Mom was sleeping much more, but it was only at that moment that I allowed what she had said to creep into my consciousness.

I left them both for a week at the beach, feeling guilty that I couldn’t persuade my sister to join my husband and me for a few days.

Today, as I sat with my toes in the sand for our final day of vacation, I thought of my mom’s favorite soap opera, Days of Our Lives, which introduced every show with the mantra, “Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”

She simply referred to the show as Days, and when I’d call her, she talked about the characters as though they were people who lived in her small hometown.  I remember a time when I’d get off the phone with her and ask myself why I’d paid for a long distance call to have her catch me up on the plot that I’d missed.  Now I miss those phone calls.

And as I look across the beach at innumerable grains of sand, I give thanks for the days of my mother’s life, flowing back to me in waves, unconstricted by glass or time.

Lose Your Prada?

Prada

Walking the beach between thunderstorms, I found a pair of glasses.  Not just any glasses.  Prescription Pradas.

I picked them up and shook the sand from them.  I thought they might be reading glasses until I turned them and saw the Prada imprint on the inside.

“Honey, look at these!” I exclaimed to my husband.  “They’re Prada!”

Our streak continued.  Every summer we find sunglasses washed in by the waves—usually inexpensive lenses, often scratched up—but occasionally an expensive pair that I would never buy for myself.  This pair had not been in the water long—no scratches, no rust on the hinges.

I held the glasses in front of my eyes and gazed through them to look at the family in the distance.  The lenses were photogray, but because the day was overcast, they had only the slightest tinge of green.  The prescription was mild—nothing like my contact lenses, which allow me to read the big E at the top of the vision chart.

“I don’t want to just leave them here to be washed away by the waves,” I said to my husband.

“Take them up and put them on the railing of the walkway,” he advised.

I trudged through the soft sand and looped the glasses around the dune fencing, wondering whether the owner had another pair, ultimately deciding that the person who wore those glasses would not be nearly as debilitated as I would be if I lost mine.

Each time we come to the beach, I travel with a spare pair of contact lenses and my glasses, knowing that my vacation will be ruined if I have to see the world through my own imperfect eyes.

Without vision correction, I see only the blurry outlines of the world, like a hazy Impressionist painting, like a PowerPoint image with the soft edges maximized to blur out any details.

Scanning the beach, I saw no one who seemed to be searching for missing glasses.  It was late afternoon, and an earlier rainstorm had driven most people indoors.

I wondered, as I always do when someone’s possession washes up in front of my feet, about the history of those glasses.  What does she look like, the woman who lost them?  Was she knocked down by a sudden, unexpected wave?  Did the loss upset her?  Had she spent a week’s salary on this one indulgence?  Or was she like my colleague who has frames in a dozen different styles and colors, who tells me it’s her one vanity to be able to accessorize?

I’m struck again at how Nature is no respecter of persons.  Drought and rain, storm and sun—they belong to us all.  We can be obliterated by the hurricane, and we can be sustained by the gentle breeze.

But it’s good to know that we’re all in it together, even those people we never meet.  So I’ll go back to the beach this morning and check to see if those glasses are still hanging on the fence.  And I’ll hope that the owner, whoever she is, finds what she needs.

Tell me your stories of lost, of found.