Friend-Like Strangers

I was thinking about her on my walk the other day, this woman whose name I do not know but whose path I cross from time to time on our mutual walks. I did see her in the grocery store once, but she didn’t seem to recognize me out of context, wearing lipstick and without my defective hunting dog at my side. It’s funny to call her a stranger when I see her regularly, but I don’t really know much about her, other than what the scarf covering her head seems to betray about her health. Several months back, I was happy to see her without the scarf, her thick, dark hair growing back. As usual, we were heading toward each other along a certain stretch of road but in opposite directions, and when we caught each other’s eyes, I couldn’t help but grin and say, “It’s good to see you looking so healthy!” She returned the smile, but then her eyes grew downcast, and she confided that she was fighting again.

I didn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know me. I don’t know her. Even so, I pressed my hands over my heart and told her that I would hold her in my prayers.

I didn’t see her again for months. The other day, as I was running along the stretch where I most often see her, I began to fear that perhaps I might not see her again.

I saw her the very next day. She was wearing her scarf again, but she was outside and on the move. I was with my most faithful running partner (second-most faithful if you count the dog), and I was so delighted to see her that I stopped to hello and chat for just a few seconds. I wish I had asked her her name, but I was too embarrassed. I’m not entirely sure why. There is a real comfort in knowing each other by name, and yet we can bless each other even in anonymity.

Never have I felt more humbled than one evening shortly following Sam’s death – before the “official” meal schedules had been coordinated – when a woman whose name I did not know stood on my front porch with dinner for my sons and me. I recognized her face; our children attended the same elementary school, but hers and mine were all in different grades and classes. She knew how hard it is to get dinner on the table under the best of circumstances, juggling work, sports, and volunteer schedules. She didn’t know much about me, other than that I had been suddenly widowed, and she showed up and offered her own family’s favorite comfort food. Grace personified.

I am resolved to ask my friend-like stranger her name when next I see her, and I hope I see her soon. But there is something about praying for a stranger that draws me into the very heart of prayer. I don’t know her history, the time she insulted her sister-in-law or embarrassed a colleague or broke a promise. I don’t know what she’s afraid of, why she consulted with her physician this week, or her therapist, or her lawyer. I don’t know how her mother abused her, or who her favorite author is, or who she voted for. Which movies make her laugh. I don’t know whether she hurls epithets at her ex-husband, or her kids, or at Jesus, or whether she reads picture books to her young nieces – or to struggling readers in an impoverished school district – every opportunity she gets, or all of the above, and none of that matters. I am not burdened by her offensive habits, and I am not influenced by her status. All I know for sure is that we are on this treacherous and beautiful road together. None of the details get in the way. My judgment stands clear of my intentions. I wrap her in my heart and lift her toward the divine.

On Sunday, I saw another woman whose name and story I do not know. I see her in church, and like my other friendly stranger, I hadn’t seen her in a while. She usually sits alone, often in the pew behind me and my puppy pack of boys. I do not know the nature of her personal struggles, but I pray for peace in our hearts. I turn to introduce myself, but she has left before the final blessing, before I could ask her name.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And the prayers of strangers.

Tuesday Light

I was going to take the day off. No real reason, just several lame excuses.

Then a friend asked me to be sure to post this week because her Tuesday gets off-kilter if I don’t. Truth be told, I feel the same.

So I tried. I started a half a dozen different starts. And deleted them all.

Then the septic pump broke.

Again.

I thought maybe that would be a good enough excuse.

But still.

I start again. This time with some constructive avoidance: I read a few paragraphs from a book I occasionally find inspiring, and there was a story about some dude – he’s like a chef on a cruise ship – and he’s made this gorgeous meal for everyone on board, about four thousand people, and no more than three minutes later his entire staff starts complaining that they’re hungry and there’s nothing to eat, except for one boring loaf of bread. And the chef-dude is completely flummoxed. The pastry chef is whining that the maître-D forgot to bring the appetizers, and everyone is yelling and bickering like children in the back of a station wagon with no air conditioning. And the chef-dude says, Seriously?

The entire staff stares back at him blankly, as if he’s speaking to them in Greek. And he says, Don’t you people get it? We are all in the same leaky boat.

But they don’t get it. So the chef-dude exhales a huge longsuffering sigh, and he picks up the one, woefully inadequate loaf of bread, and he says, Whatever you do with love and gratitude blesses everybody. And that’s enough. Even more than enough.

And then he goes back to his day job.

So now I’m thinking about how gratitude and love never get stale. I start writing down a few of the things I’m grateful for in my life – friends who motivate me and family and children and my silly dog and a pretty day – and while in the process I think of a few more – my favorite Tuesday yoga class and dark chocolate and and Pinot Noir and a sense of humor about my septic situation and a life partner who will spend Valentine’s evening together with me at parent teacher conferences featuring eleven accomplished and generous individuals who care about my kids. And I smile. And then I laugh out loud. Because there’s a lot of joy in this leaky boat.

***

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

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.

Mexican Food and Other Exercises in Faith: In Peter I Trust

At one of our favorite Mexican restaurants (as Southern California natives, we have several), the owner greets us by name: “Tim,” “Gorgeous” and the “Kiddos.” Before we even order, Peter hands my husband a Tecate and me a margarita — rocks, salt, just the way I like it. It’s lovely to be known and cared for.

My husband always orders the same dinner: a cheese enchilada with the verde sauce and a carne asada taco. I always get the same thing too: whatever Peter brings me. In our family with four sons, I spend a lot of time planning meals, grocery shopping and cooking, and while there is something deeply satisfying about feeding my family, there is also something wonderfully relaxing about letting somebody else feed me. I highly recommend it. Along with the margarita.

A while back, some friends joined us for an evening at Peter’s, and my friend later remarked that she would never have the guts to let someone else order whatever he felt like bringing for dinner. As I recall, she used the words “control” and “risk.” The intensity of her reaction surprised me because I feel very little anxiety in letting Peter choose what to bring me for dinner. On the contrary, I enjoy not having to think or plan or open the menu. Besides, the food is excellent, Peter wants me to be happy, and he knows what’s especially good. Plus, I have a safety net. Worst case, if I don’t like what he chooses for me, I can swing through In ’n Out Burger (another So Cal staple) on the way home. It’s only dinner. It’s not as if it were my whole life, for Christ’s sake.

Which makes me think of the experience in an entirely different light.

I wonder what it would be like to trust Life the way I trust Peter?

Peter welcomes me with open arms, a smile and a favorite beverage. He prepares a spicy appetizer or a cup of hot soup on a cold evening. He surprises me with a new mole recipe. He feeds me and cleans up after my children.

After an evening in a corner booth, Peter starts to sound like the Shepherd honored in one of King David’s Psalms. My cup runneth over.

It would certainly appear that Life Divine knows the most sacred desires of my heart and has given them to me. I am blessed with the love of my life and four healthy children. As if that weren’t enough, there’s an abundance of icing (and in-laws) on that family cake, a lovely home, more pets than I deserve, a few steadfast friends and a gentle breeze. Surely goodness and mercy are following me these days.

But there was a fair amount of suffering and fear on the way here. Or more accurately an unfair amount. And that’s the part I don’t understand.

Seven years ago this month I found myself widowed suddenly, leaving my sons without their father. And while 7 years may be long enough to earn a PhD in some specialties, it has not quite been long enough for us truly to understand this whole suicide business, although each of us has developed a certain expertise in his/her own grief. Which even now lands us in a space where we wrestle with the Why?

For months, my sons insisted that dad must have fallen victim to a Dementor, a creature from the world of Harry Potter, who sucks the joy and hope and soul out of its prey. We still think that might be true. It seems more credible than what really happened.

Mental illness just doesn’t make sense. It’s not logical or rational. It cannot be reasoned or organized. And for a girl who likes logic and reason and order, sorting through this mess has been more than a little infuriating. Sam must have suffered some type of mental illness or depression (even though we didn’t know that at the time), which was just as fatal as a sudden heart attack or undiagnosed cancer. It just looks so much uglier from the outside. Actually, it must have looked pretty ugly from the inside. Like a Dementor.

Whatever voices had been clamoring for his attention drowned out the loving voices of his family and friends. I do not know what demons whispered in his ear. I do not know what he saw in his life that he feared would swallow him whole. I believe with all my heart that if he had been able to think for himself, if he had been able to find a realistic perspective, if he had been able to muster even a little faith or a few hours of sleep, that he might not have jumped to his death. The darkness must have been so overwhelming and so terrifying that he could not see a way out.

I have heard that when the devil really wants to sabotage somebody, he does not say “You can’t.” Instead, he sits down quietly, leans over gently and whispers “I can’t.”

The mental image I carry of Sam was like Moses at the edge of the Red Sea. His family and loved ones count on him, trusting him, and the Egyptians were hot on his heels. How hard it must have been for Moses to trust Life’s promise with Pharaoh breathing down his neck, a storm brewing, and his friends and family squawking. I will never know what demons were chasing Sam, what utterances voiced doubt in his ability, what darkness drowned his faith in Life. I picture Sam in this moment at the edge of the Red Sea, hearing the hooves beating and feeling the wind picking up, seeing the tired children of Israel in tears, and praying like mad for a boat.

After all, a boat would be the logical solution. And when his “boat” didn’t come, he jumped.

The unfairness of the whole thing — especially to Sam and our sons — makes my head spin. Sam would not have wanted to hurt anybody. Not his colleagues, his friends, the kids on the T-ball team he coached, and certainly not his parents or his cousins. I know that Sam would not have left me, but even if he did, he would not have abandoned his children. Never. If he could have known even a little bit of the pain his death would cause, he would never have killed himself. I drive myself crazy trying to figure it out, and all my mental gymnastics land me back in the same place: he was not in his right mind. He couldn’t have been.

But what I know to be true and what I understand are two different things.

Maybe the challenge is to become comfortable with what little I do know. To have a little faith right where I am. I cannot know all the answers, but I can cultivate trust even in the midst of the not knowing. I sift through the clamoring voices with awareness, discerning which messages bring me peace and stillness and which ones generate churning, mental anguish.

Sometimes I find comfort in scripture and sometimes in children’s fiction, and some of my friends would argue that these are one and the same. In either case, the answer lies in friendship, faith and love. I do not believe that Life sends bad stuff in our direction with an agenda to promote personal growth. But I do believe that Life brings us one another: a gentle voice that comforts through the long, dark night; a steady hand to grasp over slippery steps; a protective arm guiding through dangerous territory. After all, the promise is not that bad stuff won’t happen. The promise is that His presence will go with us, even through the dark, cold, isolated places.

After 7 years, I still don’t understand Sam’s death, but I will try to cultivate trust in Life. I will try to recognize that there is a bigger picture, to believe that the divine has my best interests at heart, to have faith that all will be well. And in the meantime, I will let Peter bring me dinner. Whatever he chooses.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And just a little faith.