Category Archives: Friendship

A Mother’s Day Bargain?

Ash's Grad

I once made a Mother’s Day bargain with God.  Well, we didn’t exactly shake on it, but my heart was in the right place, and I was thinking about that whole ask and you shall receive thing, so at the time I thought it was a deal.

My daughter was three years old, and my marriage to her father had ended.  I was still in that angry stage—where almost everything was his fault.  We promised to be amicable for our child’s sake, agreeing to share custody but to have her live with me.  The dissolution of our marriage was surprisingly civil because we both adored our child.  But in my head I believed that I was the only one who could help her navigate the tortuous path of childhood.

I pleaded, God, just please let me live until she’s an adult!

And I did.

Pretty pleased that God was keeping the bargain, I looked forward with joy to my daughter’s senior year in high school.  The year began with all the excitement of senior year and college visits and planning for her future.

But just before Homecoming, at the beginning of October, I realized that the lump that I had long felt in my breast—the one that had never shown as anything on my yearly mammograms—wasn’t just another of those lumps I felt all the time.  I had once said to my doctor that I did self-exams but that my breasts always felt lumpy to me.  She told me she understood but that I should keep doing them because one day I might feel a difference.

And I did.

But not until it had time to grow much larger than the others.  I went to the doctor, and she ordered a mammogram and a sonogram.  The sonogram showed that it was cancer, and by the end of October of my daughter’s senior year, we knew it was early Stage 3, and I began a course of therapy that would end two weeks before my daughter graduated.

I was terrified.  Yes, the cancer was scary.  But even more scary was the thought that God was calling in the chips on the mom’s bargain I had made when she was three.

I didn’t tell anyone my fears for a couple of weeks.  As my daughter and my husband kept assuring me that I was going to be fine, I had a sinking feeling that I was done for.  I thanked God for keeping the bargain and asked for the strength to get through what lay ahead.

Finally, on the night before the surgery, just before I fell asleep, I turned to my husband and told him why I was so terrified.  He listened quietly while I sobbed and told him about my deal with God.

Then he hugged me to him and made me laugh for the first time in weeks.  “Honey,” he said, “I think you’re confusing God with a character in ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster.’”

Now for those of you who don’t remember that story from your literature classes, Stephen Vincent Benet tells of a farmer who, after a string of bad luck, sells his soul to the devil.  When the devil calls in the deal, the farmer is defended by a fictional version of one of America’s most famous lawyers, Daniel Webster, who bases his defense on the fact that the farmer is an American while the devil is a foreign prince.  The devil points to numerous examples of his presence and citizenship on American soil, and so Webster argues for all the beautiful things, ending with “the new day that’s every day when you’re a child.”  The jury sides with him, and Webster twists the devil’s arm behind his back and makes him promise to leave the farmer alone.  He also asks the devil to tell him his own future, and the devil tells him all the disappointments he’ll face.  Webster just wants to know whether our country, in spite of all its flaws, will prevail, and the devil grudgingly admits that it will.  Webster laughs and kicks the devil out of the farmer’s house.

On that night as I prepared for the loss of so much, I prayed a very different prayer than I usually prayed after my husband reminded me that life isn’t fiction.  I thanked the Spirit for a presence with me in the muck and asked for courage for myself and my loved ones who would take this journey with me.

It’s been nearly ten years since the night I offered that prayer—a Mother’s Day I didn’t expect back then to see—and over twenty years since I thought I was making a bargain with God.

On this Mother’s Day, I offer a prayer of thanks—for the chance to see my daughter grow up to be not only a fine young woman but a wonderful friend.  And unlike that Mother’s Day so long ago when I thought I was certain about the nature of God, I’m thankful, too, for the opportunities to learn that I’ll never have a Mother’s Day when life is a crystal vision of clarity.

Tomorrow after church my daughter, her boyfriend, and my husband will make brunch for me, and we’ll spend some time savoring what it means to be a family.  And I’ll thank God for whatever bargain landed her in my arms almost 27 years ago.  It’s a bargain I can’t even begin to understand but one that fills me with awe and joy.

So tell me of your grand bargains.

What Can I Do to Help?

Each spring, the curriculum required a poetry unit to end the year.  Most of my tenth graders groaned every spring until the year I had them write their own poems and choose their favorite for a class anthology.  I think it may have been my best use of copy paper in 30 years of teaching.  On the last block day before exams, I handed out the stapled booklets, and some students eagerly read their poems to the class.  The students proudly autographed one another’s poems, and some asked me to sign their copies.

I wonder now, ten years since the last time I made those anthologies, how many students still have them stuffed in a box of mementos in their parents’ closets.  I gave them lines from famous poems or ideas to get them started, and I always wrote with them, generally throwing most of mine away, though I kept one now and then to use the next year, mostly to show them that while I wasn’t a poet, I wasn’t afraid to try my hand at doing what I asked them to do.  I was always gratified as a teacher when, after hearing mine, they wrote poems that I liked more than my own.

I’ve kept a few of those anthologies.  And one of my own poems.  I remember it now, ten years later—a shadow poem about my alter-ego, the one who danced with confidence, who never worried she would get cancer.

I remember the poem because, at the very moment I wrote it, cancer had already invaded my breast and threatened to spill into the rest of my body.  I just didn’t know it yet.  That following October, I was diagnosed with early Stage 3 cancer.

And I can’t begin to count the number of times in the ten years since then that I’ve been contacted by women who were equally stunned to find themselves or their friends in the same situation.

Today—not by any means for the first time—a friend contacted me to say that her friend, a woman with young children, will be having surgery for breast cancer in the coming days.  “What kind of help can we give her?” she asked.

My mind returned immediately to those tenth graders, who made up a basket of their favorite things—a pink Beanie Baby from a girl whose mother had breast cancer, a book of Far Side cartoons, a copy of one student’s favorite classic movie and another’s favorite book and more—all accompanied by notes explaining their choices.

“Send flowers?” my friend asked.  “She’s not really a flower person.”

Some people did send me flowers.  And I loved them.  But it’s not the flowers I remember.  One friend went with me to choose a wig, and she encouraged me to spend the money to buy the wig I really wanted.  My colleagues and friends created a sign-up list and brought meals to our family twice a week for the eight weeks I was on leave from work.  And ten years later, I still remember my friend’s laugh when I tried on the Marilyn Monroe blonde wig.  I remember the specific meals my colleagues brought.  I remember the friend who offered to vacuum my house and clean the bathrooms, even though I assured her my housecleaner wasn’t the one who was ill.

So what kind of help makes a difference?  Tell your friend that you can’t really know how she’s feeling or what she needs from you.  Maybe it’s space.  Maybe it’s just your presence.  Whatever it is, encourage her to be honest—to let you know if there’s something specific she needs or if she just wants to be left alone.

A true friend is one she can ask to sit beside her while she has chemo to give her husband a break.  A true friend is someone who’ll tell her she’s still beautiful when she has no hair.  A true friend is someone who will take her kids so that she and her husband can have a date night and try to figure out their new normal.  A true friend is one who will reassure her when she says she’s afraid there will never be a day again when her first waking thought isn’t cancer.

So ask her.  Encourage her to be honest.  And then come back to this blog and tell your own stories of what kind of help you gave that came as a blessing at just the right moment.

True Friends?

Friends of Estelene

In my early 20s and planning a wedding that my fiancé and I could barely afford, I confided to a colleague that I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings but that we were paying for the wedding ourselves and couldn’t afford to invite the staffs of the two schools where we worked.

Nearly twice my age, my colleague laughed at my earnestness.  “Look,” he said, “think about which people will still be part of your life when you’re my age.  You’ll find you’re lucky to have three or four true friends in a lifetime.”

His advice was no help in putting together my guest list, and I lost touch with him a couple of years later.  But I’ve often thought about how he defined friendship.  And I think that I must be far luckier than he was to call so many people my friends.

But I’m not nearly so lucky as today’s 20-somethings, who have hundreds of friends on social networking sites, while I have only 169 after years on the site.  I could probably have more if I’d only broaden my definition to include the new verb defined in Dictionary.com:  “to add (a person) to one’s list of contacts on a social-networking Web site.”

Recently, I ignored friend requests from two people who I felt had treated me badly.  When I told my daughter about it, she said, “You’re right, Mom.  They’re mean girls.  But you and your generation take Facebook way too seriously.”

So what does it mean to call someone a friend?  I like Judith Viorst’s definition in “Friends, Good Friends—and Such Good Friends,” an essay she wrote for Redbook magazine:

There are medium friends, and pretty good friends, and very good friends indeed, and these friendships are defined by their level of intimacy.  And what we’ll reveal at each of these levels of intimacy is calibrated with care.  We might tell a medium friend, for example, that yesterday we had a fight with our husband. And we might tell a pretty good friend that this fight with our husband made us so mad that we slept on the couch.  And we might tell a very good friend that the reason we got so mad in that fight that we slept on the couch had something to do with that girl who works in his office.  But it’s only to our very best friends that we’re willing to tell all, to tell what’s going on with that girl in his office.

The best of friends, I still believe, totally love and support and trust each other, and bare to each other the secrets of their souls, and run—no questions asked—to help each other, and tell harsh truths to each other when they must be told.

I would never define friendship in the narrow terms of my former colleague.  But neither can I find it in me to feign friendship with someone who I feel has a track record of using people and casting them aside.

Friendship is sometimes fluid.  I have often found friends in unexpected places at the times when I needed them most—when I’ve been sick or weak or discouraged.  And I have been a friend to others in such times of their own need.  Accidental angels on gossamer wings, we drift out of each other’s lives when the moment of need is past.  And I’m truly thankful for those willing to be friends in moments of need.

In Luke’s version of Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer to the disciples, Jesus speaks of friendship in these terms:

Then He said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves ; 6 for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed ; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 “I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs. 9 “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find ; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 “For everyone who asks, receives ; and he who seeks, finds ; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.  (New American Standard version)

My dearest friends and I would give each other that loaf of bread on the first knock at the door.  My good friends and I would step in when the intimate circle of friends is not enough.  My friends and I would respond when we’re asked for help.  And even those Facebook friends and I who are really only acquaintances would offer our prayers and positive energy when one of us posts a need.

So friends?  I feel lucky to have them in whatever level of intimacy we can offer each other.

How about you?  Tell me a tale of a friend, a good friend, or a dear friend.

Afraid of the Madness?

Crab

Watching the sand crabs at the beach, I sometimes think I understand exactly how they must feel.  They creep tentatively out of their holes in the sand, their big bug-eyes darting this way and that, looking for danger in the world.  They do their work hurriedly, rushing back into their holes at the first sign of menacing humans who step threateningly close.

Held at gunpoint at the age of five, I know what it is to feel vulnerable. When I tell my friends in the Maryland suburbs about my early childhood, the stories sometimes leave them speechless, unable to comprehend being so close to such danger.

But as large as those scenes loom in my memory, they don’t frighten me nearly so much as the reports of random violence that fill the news on any given day.  When I talk with the many teenagers and young adults I know, I’m concerned about the long-term effects of a 24-hour news cycle that plays and replays scenes of violence.  And in the Washington area, where we hear endless reports of citizens who are arming themselves because they distrust our government, the possibilities for tragedy are omnipresent and oppressive.

While my exposure to violence as a child was not commonplace, even the most vigilant parent today finds it difficult to protect little ones from learning about evil early in life.  Anyone born after CNN became the first 24-hour news network in 1980 has never known anything except news all day, every day.  Think about that.  The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.  The massacre at Columbine in 1999.  The anthrax attacks of 2001.  The carnage in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania on 9/11.  The Virginia Tech shootings in 2007.  The Aurora theater shootings and the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings in 2012.

One need only look at the dates to see that these tragedies are happening with greater frequency and more massive devastation.  They are happening on a greater scale than in many war-torn third world countries.  Why is this happening in a country that has the world’s greatest share of wealth and creature comforts?

And according to the CDC, the number of people who were prescribed anti-anxiety medications has more than doubled since the mid-1980s.  And this statistic does not include prescriptions for anti-depressants or more serious psychotic drugs.  Nor does it include the number of people who self-medicate with alcohol or illegal substances.

What can we do to combat the madness and anger in such a world?  The problem is complex, and our needs are overwhelming.  But it would be a start to have leaders who don’t add to the vitriol and who can work together to tackle the problems that face us.  And it would help if the news networks would balance out reports of evil with stories of human kindness.

Yes, it would be safer to mimic that little sand crab, frightened of contact with the world.  But then we would miss the beautiful sunrises over the ocean, the play of the waves as they change each day, the feel of a loved one’s hand in our own as our toes make parallel prints in the sand.

In the past two weeks, since one of my best friends lost her husband, I’ve been reminded of what’s best about being human.  Hundreds of mourners overflowed the church in honor of a man who devoted his life to helping struggling students that others had forgotten.  Close friends and acquaintances lifted up my friend and her son, crying with them, laughing with them, feeding them, holding them.  And my friend learned that she was stronger and more gracious than she had any notion she could be.  In the tragedy of my friend’s sudden death, I learned yet again that even when we’re surrounded by danger and sorrow, maybe especially when we can’t flee from danger and sorrow, it’s worth coming out of hiding.

So tell me a story of what’s good about our world, about us.

Are Our Views Changing?

Oceana Park

The small town where I grew up was—and still is—an anomaly, even in the surrounding county.  Though not everyone looked the same, everyone looked the same.  Some of us had blonde hair and blue eyes, some brown hair and green eyes, some black hair and brown eyes.  But all of us shared the same small range of skin tones, and at the time I graduated from the local high school, not a single African-American had ever attended the school.

The nearest Catholic church is still twelve miles away, in a town that also has some African-American residents.  The nearest synagogue is over 30 miles away.  White and Protestant throughout my childhood, my hometown remains so to the present day.  And yet that town has the same issues that face the rest of the country—unemployment, poverty, and drug addiction that is so pervasive it has become the subject of a documentary chosen to premiere at next month’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

In the absence of an intimate relationship with someone who is different, human beings tend to form their opinions by falling back on stereotypes.  As an avid reader in high school, I glimpsed characters whose lives were very different from my own.  I watched the Civil Rights Movement unfold on our television screen, but it seemed far removed from my own life in an all-white town.  And only as an adult did I learn that some of my childhood classmates were gay and lesbian.  That, too, seemed far away.  Though I grew up in evangelical churches, no minister ever felt the need to preach a sermon aimed at homosexuals because no one ever openly acknowledged a sexuality that didn’t conform to the social norms of the community.

This week the United States Supreme Court will take on the issue of same-sex marriage.  Journalists and commentators have speculated for months on the outcome of the justices’ deliberations, and while they disagree about how the justices may rule, they seem almost unanimous on one thing: Americans’ views on this issue are changing.

Just last week Rob Portman, a Republican congressman from Ohio, announced that he had changed his mind and now supports same-sex marriage.  Why?  Like a host of politicians before him, his views are changing because someone he knows and loves—his son—is gay.  It is impossible to hold fast to stereotypes when we know someone intimately who defies that stereotype.

Whatever the Supreme Court’s decision, it will not change the hearts and minds of people who make judgments from a distance—those who know not a single friend or family member who is homosexual.  We know this from history.  Giving women the right to vote and hold office did not lead to a flood of women elected to public office.  Granting African-Americans civil rights did not lead blacks and whites to live in the same neighborhoods or to come together in our houses of worship.  Granting citizenship to immigrants has not led us to understand that a person who is Muslim or Hindi has the common bond of humanity with us.

So even if the Supreme Court rules fully in favor of same-sex marriage, we still have a long way to go as humans living in concord and understanding with other human beings.

Since I left that small town to encounter people who have a wider range of differences than my hair and eye color, I’ve found that my life has been enriched almost every time I’ve been open to the colorfully diverse human beings around me.  Yes, sometimes they disappoint me by being very like the stereotypes.  But far more often, when I get past the surface of our differences, I’ve found something of myself in almost every person I’ve met.

Human that I am, I sometimes latch on to my first impression—not so much on appearances, but on the tone and color of the words that come out of a new acquaintance’s mouth.  I’m far more apt to judge that I don’t want to get to know someone whose views, rather than skin color, land far afield from my own.

And even then, when I don’t shut the door and pull down the shade of my mind before looking more deeply, I sometimes find that hearing others’ life stories can make a difference.  I don’t always connect in a way that makes me want to call that person a friend, and at times I still feel I have to oppose that person’s views in order to be true to my own conscience and sense of justice.

But I believe that if anything can make us live together in peace and come together to tackle the issues that face all of us, it is the power of personal narrative.  So invite us now to sit at your feet and hear your story.

Does God Make Mistakes?

Jordan's Drawing

Jordan’s Drawing

Returning to work today after the death of one of our family’s dearest friends, I gave myself a pep talk, trying to convince myself I could make it through this one day before the weekend.  I flipped on the light switch to my windowless office, and the first thing my eyes saw was this drawing by my friend Wayne’s grandson.  I smiled, as I do every time I look at the picture, but this time the smile was seasoned with sadness that Wayne would never again show up at my door with one of Jordan’s drawings in hand.

My sorrow has sometimes taken my breath away this week, and every time it does, I know that I can’t begin to imagine the grief of my friend’s wife, his son, his grandson, and his 87-year-old mother who lost her only child.  The first time I spoke with my friend’s mother, she amazed me by thinking of my pain in the face of her profound loss.  “Sweetheart,” she said, “I can hear the hurt in your voice.  We both just have to remember that God doesn’t make mistakes.”

I shared this with a colleague today who asked how my friend’s family were doing.  My colleague said, “You know, I hear a lot of people in my own faith say that, but I’m not so sure about that.”  And we both paused to share stories of the things that shaped our respective views of God.

And I think for the first time this week I may have at least a partial understanding of why Jesus told his disciples that they needed to be like little children in their relationship with the Creator.  As a person who values intellect and reason, I’ve always struggled with that story in Matthew’s Gospel.  Does Jesus mean I’m supposed to be gullible and naïve? I ask myself.  I can’t quite accept that I’m meant to put aside my intellect and accept the ways of God without question.

But as I’ve struggled this week to understand why my friend would be taken from a world where he was still in the middle of doing so much good, I’ve decided once again that it’s okay to question God—that if I believe in a God who is bigger than my understanding, then I’ll never have all the answers in this life.  When I think about how little children face the unfathomable, I know that they often ask life’s big, unanswerable questions and accept it when there isn’t a clear answer.  They ask their parents questions and then run off to play with complete joy, even though their parents have just given them a jumbled explanation, an uncertain answer.

And so I grieve.  But I know that when I walked this morning, I still needed to enjoy the beauty of the stars.  And when I go to the beach, as we so often went together, I need to put my toes into the sand and know that my friend is now a part of the incredible universe that surrounds me.  He is in the waves that wash over my feet, the ocean breeze that touches my face, the horizon that seems eternal in the distance.

So I remember, yet again, the words of the playwright Thornton Wilder:

“We all know that something is eternal. And it ain’t houses and it ain’t names, and it ain’t earth, and it ain’t even the stars . . . everybody knows in their bones that something is eternal, and that something has to do with human beings. All the greatest people ever lived have been telling us that for five thousand years and yet you’d be surprised how people are always losing hold of it. There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.”

And so, my friend, I commend you to the eternal.  As long as I draw breath, I’ll give thanks that, for 20 years, you and I shared this earthly journey together.  It makes my grief a little less to believe that we haven’t seen the last of each other.

Does God make mistakes?  I think probably not.  And I have love and hope and faith that my friend and his loved ones will all somehow reunite as part of the great I Am–even if, like a little child, I’m not quite sure how that will happen.

So tell me your stories of seeing God through a glass darkly.

Have You Got This, God?

Wayne and MB

Wayne and Mary Beth

We were supposed to retire and write a book together.  It was going to be called Black and White: A Friendship, and it would have alternating chapters in two voices.  My chapters would be the serious ones, since I am terminally thoughtful.  Wayne’s were to be the lighthearted ones.  For as long as I’ve known him, he has joked about writing a book called My Life with the White Peoples, and it was to have chapters called “Hair” and “And They Call Us Cannibals.”

But Wayne’s gift was the spoken word—he filled the room with laughter and light.  I don’t think he ever had plans to actually write that book, but watching his eyes dance as he talked about it was a delight to me.  And when I started talking seriously about co-authoring a book, his wife Mary Beth, one of my best friends who brought him to me as a bonus friend, said, “Well good luck with that.  He can’t sit down long enough to write a book.”

I met Wayne when I was 36, my daughter was six, and I was newly married to my husband.  I had been offered a job as head of the English Department at Parkland Middle School, and I quickly became friends with his generous and gregarious wife, who was head of the Special Education Department.  When she went home and told him she had a new friend named Estelene, he asked, “Is she a sister?”

No, I wasn’t an African-American sister, but in the twenty years we’ve known each other, Wayne and I became what he has variously called his “soul sister,” his “West Virginia sister,” and his “sister by faith.”  We look at our Christian faith through very different lenses and accept each other’s views because we know each other’s hearts.

Yearning to get away from Washington’s sweltering summers, Mary Beth’s parents bought a small house on the Cacapon River near Berkeley Springs in West Virginia when she was a child.  Magnanimous in sharing their blessings with others, Mary Beth and Wayne could hardly wait to show me their little piece of my home state, and they quickly invited us to spend a weekend with them and their son, who is two years older than my daughter.  We rarely allowed my daughter sweets, so Wayne promptly invited her to go down to the little store at Stony Creek and bought her Sour Patch Kids and a bag of chips.  I can still hear his belly laugh when she showed them off to me, already open and half-eaten.

And thus began a friendship that enriched my life in ways I can’t begin to describe in the space of a blog.  For you to really know Wayne, I’ll have to write that book alone, and even then I don’t think I could begin to tell you what a profound impact he has had on my life.  Our families have gone to the beach together nearly every spring break since we met, and when my husband and I bought a condo there, it became one of Wayne’s favorite places to spend a vacation, even though it didn’t have a television with a 60-inch screen.

Wayne told me just last week that he might just buy his own TV and bring it down to our place the next time he came.  It wouldn’t be this year.  Wayne was preparing to have knee surgery and in the tests leading up to the surgery, the doctors decided he had a small spot in his colon that needed to be taken care of first.  And so I told him that my husband and I could use some time with just the two of us this year anyway because our jobs have given us so little time together in recent months.  I worried that his feelings might be hurt, and he responded, “Estelene, what kind of a friend would I be if I didn’t understand that you need some time alone with your husband? You go on and enjoy yourself.  And you make sure Matt gets lot of attention.  You know what I mean?”

I laughed and thanked him for his great big heart.  And then the conversation turned serious, and he told me he was scared about the surgery.  He’s had some issues with his health and his heart in the last year. I brushed his concerns aside and told him that he was going to be fine—that we were going to be around for a long time together to write that book—but that I’d be praying for him all the time, just to be sure.  In a reflective tone that I had been hearing a lot in recent weeks, he said, “I’ve given this to God, and I know that God’s got this.”

We texted yesterday morning, just before they took him down to run some tests because he’d been having difficulty breathing during the night.  He told me he was tired and was going to rest.  An hour or so later I texted his wife so that I wouldn’t wake him, and told her to tell him that I was praying for him and envisioning God’s healing hands hovering over him.  I hit send, closed the door of my office, and bowed my head to pray that God really did have this.  And even then, I didn’t believe the prayer was necessary.  But in those hours when I had no idea his great big heart was failing, I offered a prayer in complete faith that Wayne would be okay.

When I shared this with another close friend today, he said to me, “I don’t talk much about religion or God, and for the most part I really don’t think it’s possible to say what God has in mind. What I believe and feel is . . . well, what I believe and feel. We are small and imperfect, and the mysteries of Heaven are unfathomable. I have faith and hope, and most times I have these in abundance.”

I think he’s probably right.  But I believe the power of stories can help us glimpse the face of God.  And I’m thankful that Wayne and I have travelled some chapters together.

Have you got this, God?  “Yes,” I hear Wayne saying, “We’ve got this.”

Who’s Your Bestest Friend?

Donut

Monday, ice that caused closings and delays. Tuesday, an accident.  Wednesday, another accident.  Thursday, flooding that closed two of the three routes I can take to work.  Today, I have no idea what the problem was, but it slowed traffic to a crawl and turned my 40-minute commute into a 70-minute pressure-cooker.

My blood pressure high, I greeted the secretaries with frustration: “That’s 70 minutes of my life I’m never getting back!”

But I still got a premium parking spot—on the end where I can park far enough from the next spot so that no one will ding my doors or scrape a bag the entire length of my car, which happens with frequency in a large office building where everyone is in a hurry.  That means that I was one of the earliest arrivals.  And yet when I arrived, all five secretaries in our office suite were already at their desks, cheerful and welcoming.

As the staff of teacher specialists and supervisors straggled in, the secretaries greeted us with unfailing optimism.  And once everyone had arrived, one secretary brought out heart-shaped donuts glazed in chocolate in celebration of another secretary’s birthday.  Another made a chocolate chip pie from scratch, which the birthday celebrant shared with everyone in the office.  At lunch, the secretaries all gathered around a desk in the center of the open space where they all work to have lunch together.  But they never left the office, as the rest of us do when one of us has a birthday, and they interrupted their lunch to take turns answering the phone whenever it rang.

When I worked in a school, I thought that those who worked in the district office took long lunches at fine restaurants.  I was wrong.  The last time my team went out to lunch, a distant memory at this point, we went to a chain sandwich place for a team member’s birthday and were back to work within an hour.  And even that is more time than the secretaries take—ever.

The school system just paid Gallup to conduct a survey about the engagement of our work force.  When we filled out the survey, we all laughed at one question, which asked us to strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree with the statement, “I have a best friend at work.” When we talked about it, most people rolled their eyes and said that they stopped using the term “best friend” after adolescence.

I use the term—to refer to my husband and one or two very dear friends. But most of my colleagues, especially the men, said they didn’t use the term at all.  And while I found myself wondering how much the school system paid Gallup to do the poll, I was curious about the results.  As you can imagine, that question had, by far, the lowest rate of agreement.

So, no, I don’t have a best friend at work.  But this morning, I was grateful for the secretaries, who always ask how my morning is going and who gave me a heart-shaped donut with chocolate frosting on a morning when I sorely needed a pick-me-up.

So tomorrow it’s back to a healthier diet….as soon as I leave the pasta cooking class that I’m going to in the afternoon with three of my bestest friends—my daughter, my sister-in-law, and my niece.

But it’s nice to get through the week with colleagues who, while we may not be best friends, care about each other.

So tell me your stories of friends, good friends, and best friends.

Your Way? My Way? A Third Way?

Reunion

We attended school together for seven years, members of the same graduating class.  We both moved out of West Virginia as adults and settled in metropolitan areas.  We both chose service professions—law enforcement for him, teaching for me.  We reconnected at a class reunion two years ago and keep in touch through social media.  We share a love of Washington football and RGIII, consider our dogs members of our families, and treasure our vacations on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
 
But politically, we come from different universes instead of the same hometown.  And even though we respect each other and value our friendship, we sometimes try to change each other’s opinions.  When one of us posts political messages on social media, the other one often comments—though our children tell us this is an exercise in futility.  We have never changed the other’s mind, but we respect each other and value our friendship, and we both believe it’s important to talk about politics.
 
I am a storyteller.  And it’s stories rather than facts or unsupported opinions that make me think.  I challenged my friend to post stories instead of opinions, and he reminded me that, like me, he has an ethical responsibility not to tell the stories of the people he encounters every day on the job.  That leaves us both with only the choice of telling personal stories—more difficult for him than for me because, in addition to my work with students who are often poor, my views are shaped by having grown up poor and having received government help on more than one occasion.  His views have been shaped by dealing with criminals every day who abuse the government help they receive and who have learned to manipulate the legal system and avoid paying the price for their abuses—criminals whose stories he must keep to himself.
 
Yet we have still managed to make each other think.  He sometimes laughs at me and calls me Spunky Girl, but he has recently been posting links to the stories of others that he reads in the news.  He posted one story about a woman who shot an intruder who broke into her home and threatened her and her children.  And while I couldn’t understand how that might justify the right to assault weapons, I can understand the lengths a mother would go to in order to protect her children.  Then my friend posted a story about how people who receive assistance are using their government issued cards at ATM machines in bars, liquor stores, strip clubs, and porn shops.
 
While I don’t particularly care for the news source where he gets these stories, I do know that, just as there are good people who need government assistance, there are also people who do not use the help they receive wisely.  Two of my brothers took advantage of my mother’s all-consuming love for them and drained her life’s savings to support their addictions, and one died of an overdose in her guest bedroom.  Her love and support could not save him.  And my daughter, knowing from watching her uncles that it was never a good idea to give money to the homeless, went into a fast-food restaurant and bought a meal for a homeless man who asked her for money.  When she offered the meal to him, he took the meal but cursed her for giving him food when he’d asked for money.
 
These are stories my friend and I can tell.  And when my friend posted the two stories, he reminded me that love and compassion alone cannot save the broken.  My father turned his life around when he decided to give up drinking, and though we were still poor, we were not destitute as we were when he drank and gambled every payday weekend.
 
So what is the answer?  I don’t know.  I do know that the solutions my friend proposes haven’t worked.  Nor have mine.  Somehow we have to find a balance between extending compassion and demanding responsibility.  Somehow we have to stop operating from the two extremes when the politicians in office shift from one party to another.  Somehow our leaders must learn to find a third way that is better than the ways they champion.  And, perhaps most of all, we must somehow find a way to support our leaders when they give up a little of what they believe for a third way that just might work better.
 
And perhaps sharing our stories is a beginning.