Spicy Encounter?

Hello Sound

Reaching the Currituck Sound in record time, we drove across the bridge, and I posted a picture of the waves on social media with my husband’s traditional greeting that still makes me laugh, though he’s been saying it for more than twenty years:  “Hear the Sound?”

(He also asks for a burger and fries at the ATM machine, but that’s a story for another time.)

As we neared the Duck sign that marks the turn to our street, I dug into my purse for the keys to our favorite place to relax.

Just as my fingers found the keys, Matt said, “Hey, look at that.”

“What?” I asked, looking up but seeing nothing unusual.

“There,” he said, gesturing to the delivery van in front of us.

And there it was—the image for my favorite Outer Banks Seasonings—a lighthouse surrounded by blue waves in a circular frame of golden yellow.

He grinned as the imaginary beams from the lighthouse logo lit up my face.  “You want to follow him?” he asked.

“Yes!” I exclaimed.  But I thought he was teasing me.  Born in the city, he is not one to speak easily to strangers on the street.  He’s grown used to his wife’s propensity to engage in gregarious conversations with strangers, but he’s not one to actively pursue a person he doesn’t know.

But he passed our turn and focused on the van, saying only, “I hope he isn’t going all the way to Corolla.”  Matt knew how much I loved those spices.  I’d been buying them for ten years, and one year I even bought them to put into a holiday gift basket for each of the secretaries in my office.

But the spices had recently disappeared from the shelves of the local seafood market.  I’d searched the Internet and found them only available in, oddly, the Duck Post Office.  I’d sent Matt to the post office, but he came back empty-handed.  For almost a year I’d been unable to find them.  I still have one bottle of garlic pepper on my spice shelf, but my favorite, Pamlico Bay Seasoning, was emptied months ago.  Matt has heard me mourn its loss every time I make Maryland crab soup, as I whine about the fact that ordinary bay seasoning just isn’t as good.

Luckily, the driver stopped at one of Duck’s most famous visitor sites, the Duck Deli, a little cottage that was once the only restaurant in town.  Matt found a rare parking space in front, and I jumped from the car and hurried toward the van, waiting for its driver to come back from the kitchen.

The driver returned, opened the door of the van, and tossed a bread rack into the back.  My face fell when I saw no spices in the van.

“Hey!” I said.  As he turned and looked at me warily, I hurried on, “I love those spices!  And I haven’t been able to find them in months.”

I blurted out my story, and he began to smile.  He introduced himself to me and told me that he and his son had recently opened Proof Bakery and that I could get the spices there—that they had changed the packaging.  When I told him how much more I liked his spice blend than that more famous seafood seasoning from Maryland and how my crab soup hadn’t tasted the same since, he laughed and told me that he was originally from Maryland, too.  He gave me his business card and invited me to visit, laughing when I told him my name.  “Well, now, that’s a mouthful of name, isn’t it.”

I laughed and promised to pay the bakery a visit.

“So did he think you were a stalker?” Matt asked as I slid into the passenger side of our SUV.

“Nah.  We’re in the south,” I grinned and told my husband the spicy story of my encounter.

Had we seen that delivery van at home, where a few years ago two snipers alleged to be in the same sort of van terrorized our residents for months, we would never have considered chasing the Spice Man down.

Don’t talk to strangers.  It’s the mantra we use to protect ourselves and our children.  But when I think of all the friends who started out as strangers to me, I’m reminded again that nothing is either/or.  We live in a both/and world, and sometimes it’s worth the risk to talk with a stranger.

And as we turned onto our street and drove toward the water, the Sound was perfectly silent.  But I could hear it, just the same, reminding me that life happens in the in-between.

So tell me your stories of silent sound.

Dancing Toward Christmas?

Creche

Dear Jesus,

You already know this, of course.  I’ve admitted it to you countless times in the intimacy of my whispered conversations with you.  But it’s something we Christians don’t like to say aloud, even if you know our thoughts before we know them.  You know that I believe in God—though I’m not convinced of the masculine.  When the Spirit hovers, I feel the strength and tenderness of both father and mother.

But…well…now that we’ll soon be entering another season of Advent, I’m going to put myself out there and just say that I have trouble sometimes believing that you were fully human, fully divine.  One or the other makes sense to me.  As the human Jesus, you leap off the page to me in the stories that have been recorded about you—passionate, giving, just, loving, and sometimes a little angry or a little sad.  As the divine Jesus, you dance into my heart, seducing me into believing in all the possibilities of a just and faithful and loving God.

It’s the both/and that I struggle with sometimes.  I suspect that a lot of us mere humans do.  You would know better than I, of course.  But I do know that it’s not something I’ve heard said aloud in most churches—which may be one of the reasons so many people say, “I believe in God.  I just don’t believe in organized religion.”

I can admit to you that some of the details of your story sound suspiciously like the making of myth—a baby born to a virgin in a manger—a story told in only one of the four Gospels.  But somehow I feel you’re okay with my sometime skepticism.  I like to believe that you’re happy that I continue to wrestle with the ambiguity of seeing you “through a glass darkly.”  I love that verse, by the way.  Mirrors weren’t very high quality 2000 years ago.  The reflected image was somewhat blurred and cloudy.  And that makes sense to me when I talk with you in the dim light of a quiet morning, just before the sun comes up.

But your people aren’t always so charitable.  “Don’t question.”  How many times have I heard that?  And in both the more conservative church where I was baptized and in the more liberal church I chose as an adult, if I wanted to join the group, I had to answer “I do” to the question, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?”  (And may I point out that you never tested anyone in such a way—that you simply beckoned and said, Come, follow me?)

To be part of the leadership team in my church, I had to answer an even more specific question: “Do you trust in Jesus Christ your Savior, acknowledge him Lord of all and Head of the Church, and through him believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?”  I answered those questions in the affirmative, as truthfully as I knew how, though not quite so loudly and boldly as some of the people who stood beside me.

But when I read the stories of the way you respond to people like me, those are the stories I love the most—not for the miracles but for your gentleness and generosity to those who grapple with doubt.

There is the man who asks for healing for a child who has been plagued by life-long convulsions. The father is powerless, and he cries out to you for help. You tell him that if he will just believe, his son will be healed. The man declares his belief, but then, in the same breath, he begs, “Help my unbelief,” which shows that he really isn’t sure at all. But the story says that you don’t hesitate, that you heal the child despite his father’s wavering faith.

And then there’s “Doubting Thomas,” who gets a bad rap from everyone but you. When he has trouble believing you’ve risen from the dead—and let’s face it, that’s a lot to ask of anyone who didn’t actually see it—you tell him, “Here, stick your fingers in these wounds and see for yourself.”  You understand, and you stand firmly next to Thomas as he reaches out for something more tangible than a ghost.

Then, too, there’s Peter, who wants to save his own skin and denies three times that he even knows you.  Peter, for heaven’s sake!  The one you save from drowning when he tries to walk on water and his faith wavers.  The one who sees you perform countless miracles.  You get impatient with him a couple of times, and yet you stick with him, human that he is, and he becomes a cornerstone for people of faith.

When I read these stories, I see beyond the noise of people who would tell me my questioning faith is unworthy of so great a God.  I see beyond their insistence that theirs is the one true faith and that those of other faiths have no access to God.  I see through a glass darkly, certain only that the mystery and magnitude of God are too great for any human being to fathom.

My very favorite hymn is written in your voice:  “I danced in the morning when the world was begun.  And I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun.  I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth….”  I’m thankful that I don’t have to fully understand how it is that you continue to dance among us to be able to experience the Joy of your Dance.

And so I hope you won’t mind if I dance in celebration again this year.  I promise to follow your lead—to follow your steps as best I can, to try to be the face and hands of your great Love in the world.

With all my imperfect love,

Your fully human servant

Still Got Hope?

Wordle Hope

“Hope,” he smirked. “I want to see him try to measure that.”

His colleague laughed.  “Well, at least no teachers will be fired because their students’ hope scores are so low.”

Engrossed in their conversation, these two school system employees seemed unaware of my presence as I passed them.

They were referring to remarks the superintendent made in his annual address about the state of the Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland.  Dr. Josh Starr has been much quoted recently in national publications for his firm belief that helping students learn and closing the achievement gap are about more than scores on standardized tests.

Here’s what he said in his speech this week at the Strathmore Theatre in Bethesda:

Hope is what gets us up in the morning and keeps us going all day. Hope motivates us to keep trying. Hope is the engine of innovation…. For students, there’s a direct connection between their success in school and their level of hope, engagement, and well-being….Hope matters. Hope travels from person to person….

We are working hard and we are collaborating in the face of new opportunities and longstanding challenges because if we embrace the new, if we innovate, our children will thrive in their future.

And that’s what I’m asking each of you to continue to do. Help us embrace the new, by giving our students and their families the opportunities, the help, and the hope they need.

Dr. Starr came to our county in the wake of a superintendent who reveled in data and often used it to publicly humiliate principals of the lowest performing schools in the county—schools that score higher than most others in the nation on high stakes tests and on indexes that rate schools across the nation.  And not even the closest colleagues of the former superintendent were invited to call him by his first name.

Now the same people who abhorred the previous superintendent for his zealous pursuit of data poke fun at Dr. Starr because he asks every one of the county’s 22,597 employees to call him by his first name and to see ourselves as his equals in being the bearers of hope.

Hope.  It’s what made my father toil in a coal mine to ensure that his children got the education he didn’t have.  It’s what made my mother tell us every day that school was important—and what made her go back to classes to earn her GED when she was in her 40s, though she would never use the diploma in pursuit of a career.

Hope.  It’s what made our founding fathers and mothers risk their lives to board ships and set sail for an unknown land where their children, if they survived the trip, might start a new life in the land of the free.  It’s what made them build one-room schools in the center of every fledgling town.

Hope.  It’s what makes people of every faith continue to search for a just God in a world that sometimes seems bereft of hope, bereft of divinity.

Hope is one of the Big Three—faith, hope, love—and it’s second only to love.

While we may not be able to measure hope, we can be sure that each of our children gets a full measure of hope—the most that we can give.

And Josh is right:  Hope does travel.  He passed it on to a teenager, appropriately given a name full of hope—Blessed.

Here is Blessed Sheriff “On the Definition of Hope.”  Pass it on.

A Wonderful Life?

Crocheted Snowflake

Each December, the American Film Institute’s historic Silver Theatre, where my husband runs the educational programs, screens holiday classics.  The favorite is always Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, where an unlikely guardian angel named Clarence Oddbody convinces businessman George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, that if he commits suicide, the world will feel his loss.

It is the sappiest of sappy movies, and yet it is #20 on AFI’s top 100 films and #1 on 100 Years…100 Cheers, their list from the first 100 years of movie-making that most inspire us.  Since it isn’t among my favorite Christmas films, I’m surprised each year when the theater offers at least a dozen screenings and so many people flock to the AFI Silver that the film is perpetually one of their biggest box office draws of the year.

Though I sometimes watched the film as a child, when it was one of few Christmas films on television, I can never watch the film all the way through as an adult.  It’s just too saccharine for me—so sweet and so sentimental that I roll my eyes and pick up the remote at home, where it also runs on television over and over again, to switch to another channel where the plot is less predictable and the characters more complex.

But last Sunday afternoon, while my husband was out playing soccer, I stood in the family room, running my fingers through my hair and trying to figure out where I’d misplaced a book I’d been reading before I was called to my mother’s side by a Wonderful hospice staff.  Life didn’t feel so Wonderful.  I’d been trying to remind myself that I’d had my Wonderful mother for 57 years of my life, while some have theirs only for a twinkling of time.

As I stood in my family room, feeling scattered and lonely in the complete stillness of the house, I heard the crisp tinkling of tiny bells.  Confused, I looked for the source of the sound.  Perhaps it was the wind chimes I’d bought for my father that my mother had given me after his death fourteen years ago.  But those wind chimes hung from the branch of a tree outside on the other side of the house.

Convinced there must be a rational explanation for the sound, I walked around the house, considering all the possibilities—my cell phone, the clock on the coffee maker, the alarm clock in the bedroom.  I found nothing.  Even my father’s wind chimes were still.

I smiled.  Mom just got her angel wings, I thought.  And though I hadn’t yet been reminded by AFI flyers or ads on television of the advent of Jimmy Stewart, I suddenly saw the scene in my head, the one where George stands with his wife in front of a Christmas tree with his daughter on his shoulder.  His little one, in that sweet child voice, points to a jingling bell ornament and says, “Look, Daddy, teacher says every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”  George looks at his daughter with that movie star grin and says, “That’s right.  That’s right.”  And with a look toward the heavens, he offers an exaggerated wink to the angel who has saved him from himself.

Sometimes in our lives, we experience a Wonderful that is perfectly explainable—the help of colleagues when we drop our work for family, the embrace of people who comfort us in our loss, the gathering of loved ones to say goodbye to a Wonderful Angel who has been here for too brief a time no matter when we’re forced to give her back to the Universe.

And sometimes we experience a Wonderful that defies explanation.  A mother who has been unable to speak intelligibly for a year who can suddenly say “I love you” again the way she has hundreds of times when you have left her behind.  A sunny November day when God defies the forecast with a blue sky, a gentle breeze, and radiant trees on a mountaintop to sing a Wonderful mother to heaven.

And a tinkling sound of bells in the stillness of a quiet Sunday.

It’s a Wonderful Life.

Tell me your stories of Wonder.

Missing Mom?

Mom's Crocheting

Mom’s Beautiful, Crocheted Gifts to Me

I remember the first time I really missed my mother.  A freshman in college, I had the flu.  My roommate moved down the hall to a room that was unoccupied after another freshman fled for home earlier in the semester.  The dorm’s resident assistant came to the door to ask if I needed anything but spoke to me from across the room, reluctant to breathe in the air of a sick room.

I longed for my mother’s soothing hand stroking my hair, for the damp washcloth she always folded in thirds until it was just the right size for my fevered forehead.  Instead, I lay on the clammy sheets and pulled the blanket up over my own shoulder in a gesture that couldn’t possibly emulate the way my mother had tucked me in when I was sick.

Gleeful at being free from a mother I viewed as a sad martyr, I had packed my things and scurried away from her arms two months before.  She had done such a good job of stressing to me that I should be sure to get an education and have a life different from hers that I saw nothing in her life that I wanted to emulate.

To me, Mom seemed a slave to her children and her husband.  She spent her day cleaning a tiny house inhabited by seven people.  She did laundry nearly every day, and I came home from school to see her standing behind an ironing board with a heavy black and silver iron in hand.  Or I found her crocheting, indulging in her one pleasurable hobby as she watched soap operas, her hands working swiftly with scarcely a look down.

I muttered a greeting and hurried past her to my bedroom, dropping my textbooks and picking up a novel.  I escaped to a world of classics where characters like Pip and Jane Eyre were lucky enough to escape lives like mine and my mother’s.

When I had left for college, I found nothing in my mother’s home to miss.  But in that moment of illness, as I lay on my bed, I knew that my mother was the single person in my world who loved me enough to risk her health to enfold me in her arms.  And over the years of my young adulthood, she became the first person I wanted to call when something made me sad or joyful or triumphant.  I knew I could count on her comfort, her pride, her love.

It would be many more years before I saw my mother as a person in her own right—separate from husband or children or home.  Once her five children were grown, she went back to class and earned a GED, she learned to drive and bought her first car, she got her first job outside the home as a clerk in a department store.  And I remember feeling a little insulted when she chattered enthusiastically about how much she enjoyed the job, gesturing animatedly in a way I’d never heard her talk about her work as a housewife and mother.

In those years, too, she made her first friend who wasn’t a relative or a neighbor.  My dad complained to me about how Mom and Karen “kept the roads hot” while he continued to work in the coal mines during those years before he retired.

I belly-laughed when Mom told me the story of a shopping excursion with the woman who became her best friend.  The nearest mall was an hour away from my hometown, and Mom and Karen had left early in the morning on a day when snow was forecast for the harrowing Bolt Mountain, over which they would have to travel.

My mom told the story this way:  Karen dropped her off at home, and she entered the front door, weighed down by shopping bags full of Christmas gifts, to find Dad fuming in his favorite recliner by the door.  Dad made no move to help Mom with the packages.  She would find out later that he had called Karen’s husband, worried that they might have had an accident in the snow on the mountain.  But he wasn’t about to admit to fearing for her safety.  His only comment, Mom told me with a laugh, was to say, “Thirteen hours!  You all have been gone thirteen hours!  How in the hell could you shop for thirteen hours?”

The mom I knew in my childhood would have cowered in the face of Dad’s anger.  But she laughed as Karen came in behind her with more packages and said, “Oh, Roy, get over it.”

I had completely forgotten that story until Karen reminded me as we mourned the loss of my mother together.  Karen, who became a Presbyterian lay pastor after my mother moved away to be nearer to her children, officiated my mother’s memorial service.  But more than that, Karen told me stories that reminded me that my mother enjoyed her life after children.

Even now, I see my mother through the haze of my own need and loss.  I’m not sure it’s even possible to see her in any other way.  But I do love hearing the stories of those who knew her as Naomi Prichard Williamson—a woman of strength and spunk and humor.  And I’ll miss both Mom and the Naomi I only glimpsed more than I can possibly say.

So tell me your stories* of your own mother—your mom and the woman you see through a glass darkly.

*Add your stories by clicking on the Add Comment button below this blog on the main blog page.

Rest In Peace?

Mom's Commitment

She stood at the foot of the silver-blue coffin, an American flag waving gently behind her, the rolling Appalachian hills of four counties visible along the skyline.  She raised her arms, her hands open above us.

“May the Lord bless you and keep you,” she said.  “May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you.  May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

It is a scene that happens every day.  But it was a first in my father’s family cemetery—a woman presiding over the commitment of a loved one to the earth.  My father’s frail brother, whom my parents called a “hard shell Baptist” preacher, stood in the background near his wife’s grave and watched in silence as a woman performed the sacrament he had officiated hundreds of times in the presence of women who were not allowed to speak in church.

Karen, the lay minister, was my mother’s best friend, and my siblings and I were relieved and comforted when she agreed to officiate the service celebrating our mother’s life.  She spent the day at my side, telling me stories that made me smile in the midst of my grief—like the time they traveled to Duke University for a check-up after Mom had a corneal transplant.  Midway through the trip that spanned three states, they realized that they’d both forgotten their “bloomers” and had to stop at a K-Mart to shop for undergarments.

Karen reminded me that before my mother’s first stroke three years ago, she had loved life.  And on the day of the funeral, she reminded me that, like all mothers, Mom had a life outside her family—something difficult to understand in a mother so utterly devoted to her children.  Karen described a woman I had never seen—a friend who made her laugh so hard, she said, “I had to pull over to the side of the road because I almost peed my pants.”

This had not been the only surprise of the day.  As the funeral procession drove behind the hearse, a four-wheel drive that could navigate the rutted dirt road that led to the cemetery, I had watched a real-life version of the movie I’d created in my memory.  We passed scores of unpainted hovels perched precariously on hillsides, punctuated occasionally by a well-manicured lawn or a neatly painted home.  I squirmed as we passed a number of sheds painted with the emblem of the Confederate flag.

Then, quite unexpectedly, two men standing beside a pick-up truck took off their caps and stood at attention until our procession passed.  I held my breath, moved to tears by their tribute to my mother, a stranger known to them only as a life worthy of respect.

Watching them recede in the distance, we entered a stretch of uninhabited hills, and I began to breathe again, focusing on the vivid yellows and oranges and reds of the fall foliage.  Grateful that the leaves had clung to their branches long enough to form a canopy over my mother’s last trip along these roads, I reflected on the service, which had been exactly the kind of celebration I wanted for her.

I held my breath again as the thought occurred to me that my preacher uncle, the sole remaining male among my father’s nine siblings, might not permit a woman to read scripture and lay my mom to rest.

I turned to my husband and blurted, “What if Uncle Junior won’t let Karen commit Mom to the earth?”

My husband glanced briefly from the winding road to me, his eyebrows rising in surprise at a thought that had not occurred to him.

I panicked, imagining the scene that might disrupt the last moments of my mother’s service.

Two of my closest friends rode in the back seat, city girls who had driven six hours to be with me on this day.  One of them, a skeptic whose parents were atheists, had been on her best behavior after I’d warned her that my father’s family believed that women should not cut their hair, wear make-up or jewelry or pants, or speak in church services.

Now she spoke up from the back seat.  “So what are you going to do if he won’t let her finish the service?”

I thought for a moment.  “Well, I’m not going to create a scene,” I floundered.

“Well, you need to at least anticipate a plan if that happens,” she pressed.

I talked through a plan to have my uncle commit her to the earth and to have Karen say the closing prayer.

But when we arrived in the cemetery and waited as the other vehicles lined up behind us, I stood at the crest of the mountain underneath a tree and watched as Karen held a Bible in one hand and, with the other, took my uncle’s hand in hers and guided him as he walked unsteadily among the tombstones.

She let go of his hand and came to my mother’s coffin, patting my arm soothingly as she walked by me.  Banishing my vision of darkness, she committed my mother to the Light.

Afterwards, I hugged my uncle, who apologized that the cemetery had not been tended in a while.  Then in a fragile voice he said, “I guess it’ll be a long time before I see you again.”  It was a gentle reminder that I hadn’t been back to this place in the fourteen years since my father had died.

I sobbed into his shoulder.  “Well, Uncle Junior, I’m thinking I’ll come back next summer.”

“Alright then,” he said.  “Now you know you and your family can always stay with me.  I have a big house.”

I nodded and patted his hand.  “Thank you, Uncle Junior.”

That spoken thank you brimmed with my unspoken gratitude that my uncle had defied everything he had been taught about God to allow my family to send our mother to heaven in our own way.

It is a lesson I learn again and again when I’m tempted to stuff complex human beings into the tiny box of my understanding of them—that everyone can offer grace and that love does, indeed, cover a multitude of sins.

Tell me your stories of gratitude and grace.