Name-Calling

A lesson in humility, confidence and grace.

When I started college, there was another freshman who by all accounts looked exactly like me. Or me like her. Same height and build, same hair color and cut, same bounce when we walked up the stairs. Evidently, the resemblance was striking enough that several of my friends – as well as hers – frequently mistook one for the other. I initially ignored people shouting “Hey Debbie!” at me, not realizing they were trying to get my attention. More than once, a friend complained to me that I had rudely ignored them when, in fact, it was my look-alike they had encountered.

As the experience repeated itself, I realized that her friends genuinely thought I was Debbie. At that point, I would turn, wave and say, “Sorry. I’m not Debbie.” But this reaction still felt awkward. Eventually, I surrendered – as did she – to friendly folks calling me her name. It was more affable, and frankly more natural, simply to smile and wave. I responded to the name “Debbie” for the next four years, even though we didn’t know each other. Never had a class or coffee together. It wasn’t even that big a school, but we never seemed to be in the same place at the same time. Until we finally met at a party our senior year about two months before graduation. We saw each other in the crowded room and broke into mutual grins and a hug. No introduction required. We already knew each other’s names.

Charlotte was not an easy name to grow into. As a young girl, the only other Charlottes were grandmas and ancient aunties. I was, in fact, named after a grandmother. My other grandmother was Gladys. As old-fashioned names go, I prefer Charlotte. For a little girl, however, it felt like a very big name. That’s a lot of bubbles to fill in on those scantron standardized test sheets. Only rarely were my Valentine’s cards spelled correctly. “Sharlet,” “Sharolette,” “Charlit.” There are so many creative ways to misspell Charlotte. There were a lot of spider jokes. There was no baby princess.

Even as an adult, I often tell the barista that my name is Sam simply because Charlotte is too difficult. Too long to fit easily on side of the cup and too hard to spell. Thanks to the young princess, most baristas can now spell Charlotte, so I use it more often. Because the fact of the matter is that it is lovely to be known by name. A name means identity and individuality. To call someone by name is to invite connection. But once in a while, to be called the wrong name is a gift of grace.

Tim’s first wife was Debbie, and when Tim and I started dating, lots of people accidentally called me by her name. In all fairness, Tim and Debbie were high school sweethearts. So when Debbie died from cancer at age 41, Tim and Debbie had been “Tim and Debbie” for 25 years. That’s a hard habit to break. But still, it stung, and I was grateful to those friends and family who made a concerted effort to call me by my own name. It did strike me that of all the names I could have been called, Debbie was the one I was accustomed to. It might be coincidence, but I consider it a small grace.

I’m not advocating calling people the wrong names. There was that one notably wretched occasion when Tim inadvertently called me Debbie. Regrettably, there were one or two more when I accidentally called him Sam. We found our way through those missteps. But there are rare circumstances, I have learned, when being called the wrong name is actually a compliment.

There is one person who flatters me by calling me by a name not my own. Debbie’s mother. The first time she called me by her daughter’s name, I don’t know if she even realized she had done so. She was choreographing a family photo, and she directed me right into the frame with the rest of her brood. I was slightly unnerved, but she seemed completely natural. It doesn’t happen very often, but when she calls me Debbie I am honored. She includes me as her own. That Debbie’s own mother is comfortable enough to call me by her daughter’s name is truly a grace.

On my run this morning, a cyclist passed me and – clearly mistaking me for someone else – waved, smiled and yelled, “Hi Debbie!” I smiled and waved back at her, because people have been calling me Debbie for 30 years.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And small graces.

Conversion

I grew up in a faith-filled home, but our particular brand of Christianity did not practice baptism in the traditional, splishy-splashy sense of the word or eucharist in the sense of actual bread and wine. I was raised with a great deal of love, reverence for the Word, joy in song, and lots and lots of prayer, but minimal ceremony. Water, bread and wine were present metaphorically. There were absolutely no snacks in church. Or even in the portico after church. Of course, all the efforts to be free from ritual – or above it – yield peculiar rituals in and of themselves, which has provided hours of entertainment and a virtual annuity for my therapist. At this point in my spiritual journey, however, I find comfort and meaning in the ritual. And the snacks.

If you know me at all, you know I am passionate about my snacks. And my Tim.

When Tim and I first started dating, I was not on speaking terms with God. I was firmly in the God-can-take-His-own-flying-leap stage of my faith formation. I had done all the things I thought a good little Christian girl was supposed to do. I read the Bible. I prayed a lot. I went to church fairly consistently, even volunteered as a Sunday School teacher, Executive Board member and substitute pianist. But my husband got sick and died anyway. Some say suicide is a choice, not an illness, but I don’t see it that way. For the first time in my life, instead of turning to God, I turned on Him. I refused to darken Her door. I called Him a lot of names, and let’s just say that “Jesus” wasn’t one of them. I knew that a lot of people were praying for me, and the best I could do was let them.

Meanwhile, I met this wonderful, heartbroken man who held onto his faith. He, too, had done all the “right” things, and his wife still got cancer and died. Somehow he was comfortable with the fact that the Good News is not that good things happen to good people and that bad people get what they deserve, although there are days when I think this would be very good news, indeed. Tim’s confidence seemed to balance a deeper understanding with a comfort in sacrament. His faith seemed broad enough to include the sloppy, struggling traveler, to embrace the unknown, and a willingness to insult God. I liked his perspective and his combination of reverence and irreverence. Plus, he was really good-looking. Regrettably, he was also Catholic.

I started attending a local protestant church, which I loved for a lot of reasons (the music!) but mostly because the pastor was so honest about his own bruised heart. I felt welcomed, I knew many of the hymns and the “debts/debtors” version of the Lord’s Prayer, but when the pastor called the congregation to participate in the eucharist, he invited “those who have been baptized.” I hadn’t been. At first it didn’t bother me. After all, I had grown up without snacks in church, and I didn’t really see that a little bread and grape juice would transform me into a better human being. Gradually, however, week after week, when the others were coming to the table and I was still sitting in the pew, I started to feel left out. I wanted to be part of the community invited to Christ’s supper. I wanted the snacks.

I met the pastor of the church for coffee, and told him my life’s story, or at least the part where I used to have faith and then all this bad shit happened, and it didn’t seem right that the children should suffer so much. I hated that part. I also explained that I’d grown up in this faithful, educated, loving family that went to Sunday brunch after church, whose spiritual sustenance was beautiful, intellectual and metaphorical. I wanted to eat from the Lord’s table, but as I hadn’t been baptized, I wasn’t allowed, and I didn’t want to break the rules. I cried. He reached for my hand, and said “Let’s take care of this now.” For a minute I thought he was going to dump a cup of water over my head. Instead, he took his other hand, lightly tapped my wrist, and said, “Okay, that’s done. Join us for the Lord’s supper. If and when you decide to become baptized, that’s great. But for now, please, come to the table.”

He might have broken a few rules with that maneuver. But then again, Jesus broke a rule or two himself. I found I liked participating in Christ’s family dinner. I began to love Jesus in a way I never had before.

I also fell in love with Tim.

We started going to church together and dragging the boys with us, sometimes to the protestant service, sometimes to the catholic mass. Our Sunday standard became, “You have to come to the table, and we don’t care which table it is.” There were a couple days when, between the two of us and four competing athletic/academic schedules, we attended 7:30am mass, 9:30 church, 11:00 church and 5:30pm mass in order to get each of the four boys to the table. Truth be told, I enjoyed both services, the protestant pastor is a gifted speaker and educator, but I didn’t feel quite as comfortable with the liturgy of the catholic mass, in part because – once again – I was excluded from the snacks.

Tim fell in love with me. We found joy in each other and support in our shared faith. We met with a priest to talk about how to blend our families. The priest patted my hand and said, “Tim’s a good Catholic. There’s a two-year class. You’ll like it.” End of discussion. Not even a hint of rule-breaking. I married Tim, but I did not sign up for the class.

We continued attending a multitude of services together. The fact of the matter is that nothing brings me more peace and more strength than worshipping side by side with the love of my life. I need this foundation because we have four sons, and three of them are currently teenagers. This fact alone frequently brings me to tears, to my knees in prayer, and to the fridge. I depend on the community of the heartbroken, the struggling, the unruly and the joyful. I may not have converted for the most noble or theologically sound reasons, but eventually, I decided take the class, to be baptized, the whole soggy mess. On Easter Vigil a few years ago, I was baptized, confirmed and took (my not exactly first) communion.

Conversion is much more a lifelong process than it is a once in a lifetime event. Conversion is a daily choice. The Word and words, prayer, song and Psalms, combined with a love of silence, stillness, ritual, liturgy and my stash of dark chocolate – these comprise my daily sustenance.

I have learned, from participating in communion, that you do not have to be perfect to come to the table, you just have to be hungry. Jesus wants to feed us in both the symbolic and physical senses. Christ’s people are just as wacky as my own extended, beautiful, flawed, and consecrated family, and we will happily make room for one more at supper.

The recovering attorney in me feels compelled to make this disclaimer: This is not to say that I am in agreement with all of the practices and doctrines of the church. Certain aspects of catholicism desperately need an overhaul – its exclusivity and cliquishness, for starters. All I can say in my defense is that some changes come from without and some from within. If the body of the church is anything like my own interior world, the most profound, authentic and permanent changes cannot be impressed from the outside, but emanate from within. When the church includes and elevates all of God’s people – which is to say, all of everybody – then it will be catholic in the best possible way. When the essence of the eucharistic meal is our Mother-God drawing Her children from beyond boundaries and barriers and gently, joyfully feeding each one, we will experience each other as one family. In the meantime, we stumble along, breaking bread together, and pulling chairs up to the table.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And snacks for the journey.

In Celebration of Love

“Hey Mom — What are you writing about this week? Death? Grief? Suffering? Misery?”

My kid thinks he’s hilarious.

Actually, I’m writing about “till death do us part.”

Which is completely different.

The gift of marriage is all over the news these days, and for good reason. Personally, I am delighted. I’m in favor of love, fidelity and equality. It is one of life’s sacred blessings.

The first time I was married, Sam and I were in our early 20’s. It was much easier to commit to “till death do us part” when death seemed a lifetime away. It was hard to fathom what sickness might feel like, especially chronic pain or mental illness, when we were both young and healthy. We could appreciate poorer, because we had nothing but student debt. Our net worth was a big red number. Which is not to say that “richer” is the key to a happy marriage, but we did think we might prefer it. The fact of the matter is that you have no idea what you’re getting into when you say, “I do.” Only that the two of you have promised to stick together through all of it. Until one of you dies.

Sam and I met in law school. We sat next to each other in Community Property, Wills & Trusts and Contracts. I understand intellectually the whole idea behind the prenuptial agreement, but I never wanted one myself. I don’t understand getting into a marriage from which I already think I might need an exit strategy. I appreciate emotionally the urge to control all the various facets, plan for future eventualities, to keep things neat and tidy and predictable. Like a flow chart, or an algorithm. But life isn’t like that. Neither is marriage.

I did a lot of things right and a few things wrong in my first marriage. We went out on date nights. We implemented a financial plan. We held title to our home in our family trust, which is only prudent in California. I trusted Sam completely. When he died, I had never paid a bill online, I didn’t know how much was owed on our mortgage, I didn’t know a single password to any one of our accounts. My mom literally handed me two 5-cent coins, because I did not know if I had two nickels to rub together.

She’s hilarious, my mom.

A sense of humor is key to life. And marriage. She has been married to my father for a long time, and they still seem genuinely to like each other, so they must know something about marital bliss. I’m happy, too — not just because I’ve benefitted from my parents’ example of love, commitment and faith — but because I am a girl who likes to throw a party. Just give me a reason. Or, as of next June, 50 reasons.

Or, better yet, 200.

In one of the quirks that is our blended family, my husband Tim and I have all eight of our collective parents and in-laws. Our children have four sets of grandparents, all of whom they call grandma and grandpa in one language or another. Each of these four pairs has been married once and is still married several decades later.

Two summers ago, we hosted a 200th wedding anniversary party for our parents and in-laws. That year my parents (the “newlyweds” among this group) were celebrating their 46th anniversary, Tim’s parents were at 48 years, one of our in-laws were at 49 years and the other in-laws were celebrating 56 years of marriage, for a combined two hundred years of holy matrimony.

That’s a lot of for better and for worse.

In case you’re counting, all those anniversaries only add up to 199, but we called it an even 200 and threw a party. Just for the record, the following summer it was 203, and this summer they hit 207. There’s more to marriage than math, but those are some compelling numbers. That’s a lot of love, honor and cherish. I’m not saying that marriage is always sunshine and champagne, but when storms are brewing and the chocolate is running dangerously low, these parents of ours believe and hope and pray and love their way through. Together. What an amazing legacy for our children.

And for us.

Because the second time around, Tim and I knew — even more so than our parents — what “till death do us part” looks like. In fact, the only thing we argue about consistently is which one of us will die first next time. We know a little of the for better and for worse of this life. And somehow, miraculously, we have found each other and committed to each other for a lifetime. When, during our wedding ceremony, Tim pledged “in sickness and in health,” I began to cry because here stood a man who knew exactly what he was signing up for. And he promised to love me anyway. It’s crazy, really, if you think about it.

Tim and I are much less likely to hit the 50 year-mark (an occupational hazard of having married in our 40’s), although I certainly hope we do. In the meantime, we will love and laugh and cry and pray and work and play together. Not every day is a party, to be sure, but we celebrate the little things along the way. We will have date nights and share passwords and a dark sense of humor. We will hold title to our home in a family trust and hold each other when Life kicks dirt in our faces.

Every once in a while, when I tell Tim “I love you,” he will pull me close and whisper, “I love you too.” Then he pauses, “Until the day I die.”

He thinks he’s hilarious, my Tim. And I do, too.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And love.