Category Archives: Friendship

The Most Important Holiday?

“Easter is the most important holiday,” a friend said to me last week.

I raised my eyebrows in surprise.  My friend is an intellectual who values his cultural heritage—one that began shortly after the crucifixion of Christ and that is rooted in a much richer history than my own, which began only a few hundred years ago with the Protestant Reformation.  But this friend attends church only a handful of times a year, mostly during Holy Week.

Continue reading The Most Important Holiday?

Why Should I Forgive?

Pentecost w Artist Effects

“I’ve said a lot of things in my life that I wish I could take back,” she said.

I had run into her in a restaurant, years after we had stopped being friends, though we treated one other with civility when our paths intersected.  We had a lengthy conversation, catching up on each other’s lives.  In my mind, I can still see the scene—the tables in the restaurant and even the periwinkle sweater she was wearing.  But I can’t recall anything else in the conversation.

I remember it because it was an implicit apology.  Our friendship ended when someone repeated to me something deeply hurtful that she’d said about me at a time when I was vulnerable.  Continue reading Why Should I Forgive?

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.

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.

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.

Can Literature Save a Life?

Harper's Ferry Statues

Literature saved my life.  Not in the way science saved my life when I had Stage 3 cancer.  But, nonetheless, literature saved my life.

I wish I could point to a single dramatic moment when it happened—like that moment when I lay on the gurney, my body marked up by the two surgeons who would take me apart and put me back together in their eternal faith that they could give me life.

Watching as they scribbled on my skin and explained to my family and me what they would do in the next six hours as I lay in an anesthetized slumber, I had a fleeting thought about all the times I’d marked up essays and explained what needed to be done to bring the writing to life.

That was nearly ten years ago, and in that time I’ve come to understand that the doctors gave my body life.  But it was up to me to live.

I marvel at the advancements in science that have changed the face—and the force—of cancer.  But even more, I look at the stars and the moon now with more of a sense of awe.  I revel in the feeling of ocean waves lapping across my feet.  I treasure the time I spend with the people I love.  Like most people who survive a life-threatening experience, I’ve learned the difference between existing and living.

Literature has always helped me live—has always made my life about more than mere existence.

During a childhood marked by poverty, I traveled to other places long before I left the state of my birth for the first time the summer after ninth grade.  In a culture where religious practice was limited to evangelical Christianity, I understood the stories of people of other faiths.  In a town completely lacking in racial diversity, I talked with writers of other races who spoke to me from the printed page.

Nikki Giovanni dances forth as the most powerful memory.  I read her poem “Nikki-Rosa” in a literature class, which begins, “childhood remembrances are always a drag / if you’re Black.”  Though I was not black, Giovanni’s images, which could have come from my own early childhood, gripped me.  Like me, she had spent part of her childhood in a house with no indoor plumbing, and she took baths in “one of those / big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in.”

I remember closing my eyes after I read the first few lines, picturing the toilet in the back yard of a house we lived in for a few months when my father lost his job, thinking of my own baths in an aluminum tub in front of the open stove in the home my parents rented when Dad got his job back.  I opened my eyes and read on to discover that Giovanni and I also had in common that we had a father who drank, a sister we loved, and happy memories of birthdays and Christmases.

But I also learned from Giovanni that we were different and that those differences can loom large and make us angry at people we don’t even know—and maybe especially at people we don’t know.  She ends the poem by saying, “I really hope no white person ever has cause / to write about me / because they never understand…”

My blood rushed to my head and I held my breath when I first read those lines.  I was furious.  I felt as if she had lured me in with the secret story of the childhood we shared and then punched me in the gut.  She had hijacked my childhood and relegated me to a world of white people who couldn’t possibly understand her “hard childhood.”

When I could breathe again, I considered what might make her regard white people in such a way.  And in the days and weeks that followed, that poem sang in my head, and I began to understand that just as I didn’t know anyone who shared Giovanni’s skin color, she probably didn’t know anyone of my skin color who grew up in a house like her own.  And as I read more about her, I came to understand her a little better.

I also began to read more literature written by people of other cultures, and when I moved out of the state and became a teacher in the very diverse D.C. suburbs, I knew my students of color in a way that I would not have without Giovanni and Hurston, Allende and Anaya, and others.  And I understood that even the students who shared my skin color were often strangers to me.

Books are never a substitute for experience.  But great books can make a person who owns only a library card into a world traveler.  Great literature can lure us out of our comfortable co-existence into a jubilant celebration of the life we share on this planet.

Yes, literature really can save a life.  And in a time when we’re too often angry at those we don’t understand, perhaps literature can even save the world.

So tell me a story.  When has a great writer lured you into life?

History, Myth, or Story?

Kennedy Center

Engraving on the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC

I love stories.  And this week I was reminded again of just how important stories are to us.

I live in an “active adult” community.  I used to laugh to my younger friends that I could only live here because my husband’s age qualified us.  But now I, too, am over 55, and refer to all of us with affection as “the old folks’ community.”  I love it here because it’s the friendliest place I’ve lived since I moved from the small town of my childhood.

We moved here because the community lay just outside the congestion of the DC suburbs—close enough to drive in for the wealth of activities a city provides but far enough out to see the stars at night and to go for a walk in the early morning without seeing another human being.

This week our social committee arranged for us to take a small bus into the city to the Kennedy Center to see The Book of Mormon, a highly irreverent musical by the creators of South Park, about our penchant for attempting to create God in our own image.

I squirmed a little at the language—especially when the profanity was directed toward a God who allows pestilence and disease.  But I haven’t laughed so hard in a very long time.  I never watched South Park, but I knew enough about it to know that I’d be seeing an outrageous satire about the way we humans approach our faith.

My favorite line appears near the end of the musical when the first convert has become disillusioned by the flaws in her bumbling hero’s faith.  One of her neighbors says to her—and I may not have the line verbatim here—You didn’t really believe that sh#*that a man f—d a frogdid you? It’s a METAPHOR!

After reading Reza Aslan’s Zealot the week before seeing this play, I belly-laughed at that line.  For anyone who’s avoided reading about the controversy surrounding Dr. Aslan, he outlines what scholars know about the history of Jesus the man and draws the conclusion that Jesus the Christ is a myth.

And while I found Dr. Aslan’s line of reasoning thought-provoking—and not in any way an insult to what I believe—I have to say that I was more drawn to the story of Parker, Lopez, and Stone, the creators of The Book of Mormon.  It doesn’t claim to be history, and it pokes fun at the myths we create.

In short, it is a story—a story that makes much the same point as Dr. Aslan—that we human beings tend to see God in the image we want to see.

On the bus ride back home, I reveled in listening to the reactions of my fellow active adults.  Some were quiet, and I wondered whether they had known just what they’d see on that stage of joyful characters.

The chatter I enjoyed most came from the couple sitting behind my husband and me.  On the ride to the theater, we had talked with them about their tennis game and their children, and I’d listened to their constant stream of conversation with each other.  Though they are in their 80s, both are still vibrant, and they truly enjoy talking with each other.  I had whispered into my husband’s ear earlier that I hoped we’d still have as much to talk with each other about when we were their age, and my husband had responded that he hoped he could still play tennis.

On the return trip they talked about the language in the play, and though I’ve never heard either of them curse, they didn’t seem at all offended by the license of the playwrights in regard to profanity.  And then my neighbor talked about the play in terms of his own life.  “I used to cuss a lot, even after the kids were born,” he said.  And then he launched into a story about when he finally learned to reign in his tendency to blurt out a stream of expletives.

I smiled.  That’s what I love about literature and story.  We can’t read or hear stories in a vacuum.  We bring our own lives and experiences to the world that story opens up to us.

And, ultimately, our lives write the story of the God we want to believe in.

So tell me your story.