Beasties and Besties

Let me see if I can explain how great this moment is.

I’m sitting in our family room with my son watching a movie that my friend the soon-to-be-priest asked us to preview for a class she’s teaching. Any time that one of my now-taller-than-me sons will sit with me for pretty much any reason is both notable and joyous. They have social lives of their own, which evidently are much more engaging than hanging around with their mother, unless I am playing Banangrams with a glass of Pinot Noir in my hand, but I’m not at liberty to tell you more about that particular scenario.

We are a blended family, but my husband and I don’t make a distinction between “his” and “hers” as far as the boys are concerned. They’re all mine. All of my boys litter the floor with their athletic socks, borrow each other’s chargers with abandon and genuinely believe that they are the dog’s favorite human being. Not one of them wears his retainer. They refer to each other as “my brother,” even the two who share the same first name, and we all count this development a grand success. They call me “Mom,” “Mama,” “Charlotte,” or simply “She.” Even our dog is male, so if the “B-word-that-rhymes-with-itch” is uttered, it could really only mean one of us, but that doesn’t happen often. Not anymore, that is. Blending a family requires effort, commitment and a vibrant sense of humor.

So this movie. The protagonist is just beginning his senior year of high school and – like most 17-year-olds I know and love and have been and have mothered – finds his mother’s counsel supremely irritating. “My mom,” the lead character explains to the audience, “is basically the LeBron James of nagging,” which makes us both laugh out loud.

Within a few minutes, my boy tells me to check Facebook. You should know that I am fundamentally a Facebook flunky. I’m more of a face-to-face girl. And I can really only do one thing at a time, and sometimes not even that, which, now that I think about it, is probably a compelling reason to play Bananagrams without the wine. In any event, to watch a movie while checking my Facebook is out of my wheelhouse, as well as counterproductive for my later conversation about the film with my priest friend.

But as I may have mentioned before, if any of my teenage/young adult sons wants to engage me, then the answer is yes. At least it should be. So I set aside my misgivings, pick up my cell phone, and open my Facebook to find that my son has posted his status as this: “My mom is basically the LeBron James of nagging.” And then he tagged me.

I can only speak for myself, but my own inner teenager is alive and well and occasionally peevish with her parents, even the dead one. In fact, his death completely annoys me. I mean, her. So even though in this context I am the mom whose most annoying qualities have now been posted for God-and-all-my-friends-plus-their-friends to see, I can’t help myself, I click that laughing-haha-emoji button.

We watch the rest of the film, we laugh some more and cry. Or rather, I cry. We curse cancer, the beast that has taken away grandparents, friends, cousins, my boy’s own mother. We do our best to answer the questions on the study guide even though it’s late and we’re tired. He dictates his answers while I type, and then I add my feedback as well.

The next morning, we start talking about the movie again, which bodes well for the use of this film in the classroom, and he adds a few more comments on loss and love to include in our response. As I’m about to hit “send” with our responses, my soon-to-be-priest friend sends me a text message. The study guide is the least of her concerns. She saw my boy’s Facebook post and, she tells me, “I cried actual tears.” I should explain that we have been friends for a long time. She knows my struggles and my heart, and these are happy tears – happy because she gets it, happy because she adores her own step-father with a passion that transcends biology (even though she herself might have called him a few less-than-complimentary names when he first came into her life), happy because love does win. She knows that the most significant part of my son’s status post is not the phrase, “the LeBron James of nagging.” The most significant part is not my sisters-in-law who rally to defend me and my mothering, although I confess that their supportive comments are gratifying. The most significant part is those first two words: “My mom.”

Sometimes, I just have to take a moment to let those two words sink in.

The so-called little brother says, “She’s more like the Michael Jordan of nagging.” It’s an argument our boys have from time to time, which super star is the super-est star. As brothers will do.

No, blending a family is not so easy, but these moments are awesome.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And awesome relationships.

 

Funeral Attendance

I grew up in a family that wasn’t big on attending funerals. It’s not that they don’t care. On the contrary, they care deeply, but they are very clear on their understanding of life’s eternal nature. So much so that they really, truly view “death” as a blip on the radar that we might not get at this moment, but will someday completely understand. Which sort of renders a funeral service incongruous.

I am reasonably clear on the eternal life bit, but my heart lives here, along with the other broken hearts remaining after the death of a loved one. Broken-but-still-beating hearts that often benefit from the ritual and ceremony and community of attending a service. Funerals can be heart-wrenching or heart-lifting. A good funeral is both. And I am now firmly in the never-misses-a-funeral-if-she-can-help-it camp.

The first funeral I remember attending was when I was in my early 20’s, for one of my college classmates, Russell. We always thought he was much older than we were, because he regaled us with these amazing tales that would have been impossible for someone our age. Some of these feats would have been impossible for a person of any age. We might have been known to mock him for this particular behavior, but he was also preeminently reliable, the sort of friend who was good to have in your corner. Maybe he was an old soul, or maybe he really was older, or maybe that’s just what he wanted us to think. Maybe he somehow sensed that his heart would give out long before his years, so he imagined a life beyond its natural borders. In any event, I happened to be traveling to Houston on business that week, so I tacked the weekend onto my travel plans for the funeral of an old, young friend. I attended more because it was convenient than because it was compelling. Besides, funerals are excellent occasions to connect with long-lost friends. As the Lyle Lovett song says, “I went to a funeral. Lord, it made me happy seeing all those people that I ain’t seen since the last time somebody died.” It does put the fun in funeral, but that’s not why I’m a funeral-attending convert.

Funerals can be a healing place, but they are hard. So first, a word on guilt: SushiTuesdays is a guilt-free zone. I will never tell you to miss your favorite yoga class for a funeral, because – believe me – I know that practice can be both grounding and sacred. There are a thousand reasons not to attend a funeral, and pretty much all of them are valid. Say, for example, your four-year-old niece has a ballet recital that day, or your nephew is pitching for his high school team. Go watch the little ballerina! Cheer for the baseball player! They need you now, and the dead guy will still be dead tomorrow. And the day after that. I’ve got news – even after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, especially after the community has turned its attention to the next local tragedy, the family of the dead one will appreciate your love notes, a handful of tulips or a large lasagna. There are so many ways and times to show support and encouragement, and attending the funeral is only one of them.

I attend funerals because people showed up to honor Sam at his funeral, and their presence was a gift to me and my kids. I didn’t know quite how many to expect when I was planning my husband’s funeral, and by “planning” I mean staring into space and nodding/shaking my head numbly in response to the questions of my many friends who did all the actual work of writing an obituary, confirming the date of the service, planning the service itself, printing programs, and coordinating the catering, the florist and the rentals for the reception. I talked to the cemetery and the rabbi. My friends did everything else.

You never know exactly how many to expect for a funeral, because there’s no RSVP protocol. By the time all those people show up, it’s too late to set out extra chairs and order more sandwiches, so it helps to have an estimate, even if you don’t have a clue. The element of suicide, of course, often has a repelling effect, and it was entirely possible that I would be left alone with dozens of turkey sandwiches and ten gallons of Chinese chicken salad at the end of the day.

The rabbi specifically asked me which chapel to reserve, and this was one of the few questions on which I had a definite opinion. He explained that there were three chapels, seating 100, 200 or 300 people, respectively. Before I could respond, however, there were a couple family members who answered the question. They knew Sam as the little brother, the baby, but they didn’t know him as a professional. They didn’t see him as a grown man, a father, a confidante, and they didn’t understand his community impact. They were deeply embarrassed by his suicide. Simultaneously, and with the same dismissive hand gesture, both of them stated that there would not be more than 100 people there.

The rabbi turned to me and waited for my answer. I shook my head, Give me the one for 300.

On the day of the funeral, I could not see people arriving from where I was waiting in the secluded alcove. I did not know whether the large chapel was empty or full. I could see a handful of my nearest and dearest seated in the front rows. They were all the support I needed. The rabbi called me to the podium to give the first eulogy, and as I walked toward the microphone, I lifted my eyes to see the pews. I gasped. The chapel for 300 was not just full, it was overflowing, standing room only, with more people filling the sidewalk outside. They had come to celebrate Sam’s life and to mourn his death. They were classmates, colleagues and clients. Friends and neighbors. Cousins in abundance. They had come, and the biggest chapel wasn’t big enough to hold them all. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for their presence. To be perfectly candid, a little bitchy part of me also thought, I told you so. But mostly, I was grateful. The fact of all those present was no small consolation, an affirmation of Sam’s life and his kindness.

In the midst of the day that was largely a blur, I can vividly remember only a few faces. I suppose I could look back at the guest book (assuming I could find it in its dust-covered box in the chaos that is my garage), but it doesn’t matter. Not everybody is comfortable going to funerals. The communion of hearts happens in a multitude of ways, and that’s a beautiful thing.

I’ve attended several funerals in the last six months, including services for a teenager, a young woman, and my own father-in-law. These sorts of sudden, tragic, altogether-too-soon deaths often draw a large attendance at the memorial service. In fact, my clearest recollection from Russell’s funeral was fact that the procession went on for miles. Literally. It’s probably true that some people (and a few ambulance-chasing lawyers) are there to watch the train wreck, but most people come because their presence is the most important gift they can offer that day. I believe that these types of funerals draw crowds simply because it requires that many hands to hold so much heartbreak. Indeed, we cannot make sense of the senselessness.

So instead, I leave the garage in its current state of disarray, neglect the dog’s morning walk, and forgo yoga. I dress in black and show up.

***

Light and strength.

Thanksgiving Tables

Thanksgiving is my favorite.

Not every year has been Martha Stewart perfect, of course. I can barely remember that first Thanksgiving after Sam’s death, which is probably for the best.

I grew up in a close-knit family with my parents and one sister. We lived in Southern California with our nearest set of grandparents on the east coast; the farther set was in Europe. More years than not, our Thanksgiving table featured place settings for four, and even though I loved our intimate, yet abundant, gathering, I also set my heart on having a big family.

The configuration of our Thanksgiving table has varied widely over the years, because that’s how it goes with families. Somebody comes home for Thanksgiving, but somebody else doesn’t because there are exams and expenses and LAX. Some years, distant family members are in town, and most years include “orphans” whose biological family lives too far away to break bread with. Some years are elegant, displaying antique linens and heirloom silver, and some are casual, featuring jeans, paper plates, plastic forks. Some years we have had double days, feasting early at one house and later at another. I have served as host, guest and orphan, and there are aspects I love about each, but at the end of the day the togetherness is what I adore. And the gratitude. Even on our darkest days, we have something to be grateful for. Usually several somethings.

Eight years ago, Sam’s family and mine limped to an aunt’s house to be together in both our sadness and our celebration of Thanksgiving. With heavy hearts, Tim and the boys brought a plate from Thanksgiving dinner to Debbie in her hospital room.

This year, our family will gather, as we have done now for several years, at one grandparents’ house. And by “our family” I mean mine, Tim’s, Sam’s and Debbie’s. Everybody. Unbelievable. I never imagined that there would be so much joy in this next chapter of our lives. But here we are.

We will have all eight of the boys’ grandparents together at one proverbial table. Not only do they bring their signature dishes and quirky behaviors, but more significantly they bring all their best qualities – their faithfulness and humor, patience, perspective and insight. They bring their tenacity and strength. And their gentleness and understanding. They bring their love and acceptance in that arms-open-wide grandparental way. A veritable feast.

I have my big family: my doting husband Tim and our four sons, my parents plus three sets of in-laws, an abundance of aunts and uncles, plenty of sisters-and-brothers-in-law and a plethora of cousins, nieces, nephews and goddaughters. I love it even more than I thought. It’s chaotic and messy and inclusive. It’s crazy loud. There are way more loved ones in attendance than we have silverware or crystal. Needless to say, the logistics require more than simply adding a leaf to extend the table. It’s exhausting. I’m so grateful.

A family football game, friends and food. Full hearts. Full plates. Full house. Gratitude. Thanksgiving is my favorite.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And a Happy Thanksgiving.

Dog, Agnostic, and Other Measures of Grace

The car ride to school is sometimes the most quality time I get with my busy teenager on a given day and not nearly enough time to connect and check in. But every now and again the mile drive is entirely long enough to create some serious mother-son angst. I was attempting to encourage my son to rely on me as he navigates the challenges of high school. What I meant was that I will do whatever I can for him. What I actually said was that I would throw myself in front of a bus if I thought it would help.

Yup. To the child whose father threw himself off a building.

In my defense, I will just say, Oh nevermind. There’s no excusing this one. It’s true that the suicide-related idioms run rampant in our culture. But his own mother should have behaved better.

Note to my mom friends: You might still be in the race for runner-up in the Mother of the Year contest, but I’ve just clinched the title.

I confess my maternal transgression to an agnostic, my dear and amazing friend Helen. She continues to love me and support me no matter what stupid shit comes out of my mouth, which – obviously – is no small measure of forgiveness. She is more accepting and open-hearted than many a church-goer, and I thank God for her daily.

Helen reminds me that holidays are on the horizon, including her own extended family’s particular brand of dysfunction and various Christmas-related anxieties, and that she might yet have a chance at the title. She’s right. This competition is going to be a sprint to the finish line.

With a little grace and some real fortitude, there’s still time to redeem myself. I lace up my running shoes, and I leash up the dog. The so-called hunting dog has placed himself strategically in front of the heating vents this morning. His sister is hunting quail in the Dakotas. Meanwhile he sits shivering in Southern California. We all have our strengths. Or not.

And it is precisely this weakness that opens a space for me to breathe. The dog is almost everything his breed is reputed to be, except for his aversion to cold, wet feet, and we adore him. So it is with all of us, our vulnerabilities and glitches do not preclude us from being loved.

I’m going to run. I’m going to breathe. I’m going to forgive myself. I’m going to apologize to my son and try again to say what I mean: That I will do whatever I can to support him, and that I will love him no matter what.

On our run, the defective hunting dog and I turn up a little street that we don’t usually traverse. As we come around a curve along the route, we slow to a stop, for in the middle of the road there are four deer, a mother with her three young ones. They appear to be adolescents, still immature, even though they are almost the size of the mother, who stands tall and alert, almost regal, while the three skitter to the shrubs along the sides. She stays still, not taking her eyes off me and my coyote-size dog, as though assessing the risk, even though a car approaches and slows from the opposite direction. She does not budge until she is confident that her young ones have found cover, and only then does she shift – intentionally, gracefully, powerfully – out of harm’s way herself.

That’s the image I meant to convey to my son.

As the dog and I continue, we pass an open field where the deer now race, hurtle and spring, exuberant and unaware of threat or danger, and again I stop to look. They are breathtaking in their youth, energy and innocence. The young bucks (which almost rhymes with something I called my own kids the other day) are fast and strong and will soon overtake their mother. Yet she guides and protects them in whatever ways she can. I imagine she stops – as I do – admiring her young with pride and delight.

I pause, grateful for the reminder that I am not alone on the path that is motherhood, full as it is with both dignity and remorse, success and disappointment, hurting feelings where I intended to console, but coming back to each other still. I know he needs me less as he takes his faltering steps toward independence, despite my own parenting mis-calcs and his occasionally unfortunate, juvenile behavior. We re-create our relationship as the child achieves a milestone, and I step back to watch. I smile, continue on my way, and look forward to telling my son about the deer.

***

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

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.

With Gratitude

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I was all set to write about gratitude because I believe in its power. Plus there’s the whole November bit, what with Thanksgiving and all, which is honestly, truly my very favorite holiday. I love Thanksgiving because it’s about what it’s supposed to be about — family and friends, food, football and gratitude.

But I’m not feeling excessively grateful at the moment.

Well, that’s partially true. I am feeling distinctly grateful, but also overwhelmed, powerless, afraid, and exhausted. Maybe a tiny bit resentful. Underpaid. My inner perfectionist control freak is having an absolute panic attack because in the last three weeks she thinks I should have written more, cleaned out another closet, organized a file drawer in the office or paid the property tax bill on time, and purchased a few more Christmas gifts. As in, all of them. Or at least one. Instead, I’ve spent every day at home ministering to a child who suffered a head injury and is under orders not to do any exercise or schoolwork, not even to go to school, not to watch television, play video games or interact with screens of any kind, not even to read a book, which pretty much leaves me as entertainment. Unfortunately for the kid, I’m not that entertaining.

As for me, the less he is allowed to do, the less I seem to accomplish. Healing has become not only our primary, but almost exclusive, focus. As the schoolwork accumulates, the pantry empties and the to-do list lengthens, the two of us sit together. We discover that I can read to him without exacerbating the headache. Of course, we eat a lot of snacks. After a few days, we can even play simple board games. Emphasis on the bored. And we eat more snacks. It has been three weeks now since his concussion, and although he has not yet been cleared to return to school, he is making progress. For which I am extremely grateful.

What is weighing on my heart today is that my friend and her son are about to face their first Thanksgiving without dad. And I think it’s insensitive and trite to declare that family and food and football necessarily create a happy holiday, negating life’s tragedies with a golden crust on the apple pie and glossing over heartbreak with a red and silver ribbon. Because the fact of the matter is that day sucks.

Grief brings its own form of brain trauma. In fact, as I peruse the symptoms on the concussion evaluation form, many are the same: headaches, nausea, fatigue, vomiting, feeling mentally foggy, problems concentrating, irritability, sadness, feeling more emotional, anxiety, sleeping more or less than usual, trouble falling asleep. I experienced most of these when I was pregnant as well, but with a “due date” to mark an end to the time frame. Grief does not progress with a specific deadline; healing happens in its own time.

I could barely breathe my way through that first Thanksgiving after Sam’s death, to weather the surreptitious glances and worried looks, to look into the teary eyes on the tilted heads of well-meaning family members who asked how the boys were. Several were aching to ask but didn’t muster the courage. I can’t blame them. It was all I could do not to bite off the heads of those who did with a “How the hell do you think we are doing?!” I might have, actually, but I can’t be sure. Anyway, if we had been doing well, wouldn’t that have been more alarming than the fact that we were falling apart?

Somehow in the midst of my emotional turmoil, I genuinely felt gratitude. Even on my darkest days, I had two good reasons to get up and going every morning. I was grateful for my education, the kids’ education, a roof over our heads and food on the table, often prepared by the hands of a caring friend. I was grateful that Sam hadn’t killed himself at home. I was grateful that I wasn’t the one who found him. And that the boys never saw him. I was grateful that Sam wrote me a note; not the love note I wanted, obviously, but it was better than silence. I was grateful that he had enough Vicodin in his system to dull the physical pain. I was grateful for 17 years together, even though it wasn’t long enough.

A conversation with the newly-widow is not for the faint of heart. It might be easier to turn on the football game.

I happen to believe that it’s entirely possible — even healthy — to feel both filled with gratitude and utterly bereft, all at the same time. Not only because the darkness makes me appreciate the little pinpricks of light, although that’s certainly true. But because the full range is richer and more accurate. Occasionally, I vacillate between gratitude and bitterness, swinging hard to the resentful side of the pendulum, but even then feeling the pull toward grace. Yet I find my stability when I can sit quietly, comfortably uncomfortable with all the pain and sorrow on the one hand, and all the blessings on the other. Tears and a smile together. Gratitude in the midst of the mess. Which is, I think, the real power of gratitude — not that it eradicates the darkness, but that it provides a toehold in the overwhelming darkness.

And if not, there’s always football.

I’m not the biggest football fan, but I do love the Bruins. Between Sam and me we had three degrees from UCLA, and yes, I am wearing blue and gold as I type. But there’s a Trojan “Fight On” sign prominently displayed in my kitchen. Tim’s first wife earned her degree from USC, and (much as my Bruin self is loathe to admit this out loud) “Fight On” is one of the great university slogans. It could even be a good personal mission statement. And an accurate synopsis of many a treatise on healing hearts.

Even when “fighting on” looks like this:  Sitting quietly, healing. Which is, my husband reminds me, the most important work I have to do right now.

Thanksgiving is coming, whether we are looking forward to it to or not. When I was nine months pregnant, I remember going to bed each night thinking, “If I wake up in the morning and I’m still pregnant, I just have to make it through the day.” The first grieving Thanksgiving is a little bit like that. Whether the turkey is dried out and cold, or catered. When the little girls twirl into the kitchen, knocking over appetizers, and the big boys throw a football across the lawn. Or the dining room table. When grandma says dad’s Mo-vember mustache makes him look like a 1970’s porn star. When we suffer through a holiday for the first time after daddy’s death, keenly feeling his presence in absentia. Breathe in. Exhale out. The day will pass, with its sadness and yes, even a little joy.

Now it’s Tuesday, and the Bruins will have won or lost and, in either case, will already be preparing for the next game. Because that’s what we do. We fight on.

By Tuesday evening, my house and my heart will again be full with my college boys home for the holiday, and I will be baking apple pies and all manner of Thanksgiving fare and favorite comfort foods. Because, after sitting quietly, crying, laughing, and eating my way through several years worth of family dinners, Thanksgiving has regained status as my very, most favorite holiday.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. Fight On.

No Contest

I was in traffic court a Tuesday or two ago. A serious violation of my sacred Tuesday rule. Because I live in Los Angeles, parking was so scarce that I was afraid I would get a parking ticket while defending myself against the garbage traffic ticket. Nightmare.

So I sit reading my book on a hard, squeaky bench and wait for the courtroom to open, feeling resentful and just a little persecuted. One by one, my fellow civilians arrive, then a few attorneys, and a little later a collection of officers, each prepared to present his perspective on our failings as drivers. The uniforms are armed and intimidating, with beautiful posture. One huge guy sports a flak jacket. I’m feeling very small. Partly I’m offended by this whole situation because I am that girl who defends police officers. I remind my children to do what the uniform says, because those men and women put their lives on the line every time they get dressed. Truly, I am grateful. But that’s also why I’m annoyed, because I don’t think that this particular suburban housewife is a marked threat to humanity, and don’t they have something better to do than pick on me? Not to mention that I myself am a Nag First Class to my sons about all manner of safe driving habits, and frankly I’m more than a little embarrassed.

Eventually, the bailiff comes out, directs the uniforms into the courtroom and ushers the rest of us into the hallway for an orientation. His message is clear: “You may have your day in court if you wish, but you will almost certainly lose.” Innocent until proven guilty does not apply in this venue. If “your officer” (as if I want to have anything to do with that guy) fails to appear, it is your lucky day, and your case will be dismissed. Obviously it’s not my lucky day, because I’m here on a Tuesday. Oh, and my officer is here too. The bailiff urges everybody to plead “no contest” and take the traffic school option if it’s offered, because if you go to trial and lose (which, he reminds us, is the likely result), traffic school is no longer an option. One woman — so desperately wanting to be heard — presents her case in the hallway, pulling out photographs of the intersection in question. The bailiff remains unswayed.

He ushers us into the courtroom. I choose a seat in the back. And while the clerk begins speaking, I hear the voice of a pastor from a recent sermon: “Do you really want what you deserve?”

The readings that week included the parable of the vineyard, a story of an estate owner who goes to the marketplace early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. Those workers negotiate a fair wage with the estate owner, and off they go. Hi ho! Hi ho! As the day goes on, the vintner returns to the marketplace to recruit more workers — at 9:00am, noon, early afternoon and even late afternoon — and at the end of the day the workers line up to collect their wages. The vintner starts with the latecomers, and he pays them a full day’s wage. The early birds start to get really excited about this, until they realize that the owner is paying each and every worker a full day’s wage, which now doesn’t seem fair at all.

In a world full of injustices, this description of the kingdom of heaven is not entirely comforting, especially for those of us who are really trying to do the right thing. We get up early, work hard all day, and then the lazybones and lollygaggers end up with the same pay? It’s just not fair.

I think most people prefer to think of themselves as the hard workers who negotiated a fair wage and then got down to business. I do. But what if I am more appropriately associated with the slackers who spent the morning sleeping off a hangover? Or took a long lunch? Or spent an hour shopping on the internet? If I am completely honest about it, have I put in the entire day’s work, giving my best effort from sunrise to sundown? Really?

And the people who come late to the party? There may be more to their story than a malfunctioning alarm clock. Maybe one is a convicted felon without a high school diploma but with two children to feed who cannot find gainful employment anywhere until she finally stumbles upon this crazy vintner who doesn’t check her credentials. Or maybe it’s a gay man who, afraid of rejection — again — resists going to the marketplace until he is so hungry that the risk of rejection is less painful than the nagging hunger pangs. Or an addict who, exhausted and suffering, is willing to work in an attempt to find purpose and relief — even if only for an hour. Because it is a place to start. Or maybe it’s just a regular Joe who tries and falls short and makes the occasional mistake, because that’s what people do.

God’s justice isn’t justice at all. It’s grace.

Shortly after the clerk begins his roll call, a well-heeled gentleman walks in confidently. It appears that he has heard the bailiff’s orientation speech a time or two, as well as the judge’s frequently-repeated guilty verdict. He’s not an officer or an attorney. He’s an experienced visitor to this particular department. The traffic ticket muse sits in the back row, echoing the opinion that everyone should take traffic school if possible. He even advises the woman next to me that she should raise her hand and tell the clerk she has changed her mind. Only one chooses traffic school. It’s an interesting aspect of human nature that we so desperately want to tell our stories — and be heard by a judge and treated fairly — that most everybody risked a guilty verdict (earning a “point” on his record) instead of spending a day in traffic school (avoiding the “point”).

Not a single person in this courtroom wants what he deserves. That’s why we’re all here to object, to be heard, to plead our cases. It reminds me of Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, when he says of his fellow convicted criminals, “I’m the only guilty person in the whole place.” I look around me and smile. I may not like to think so, but these are my people.

In my thirty years of driving I’ve only been pulled over twice, and this was the first time I’d actually been issued a citation. The other time I was driving 29 in a 25 (honestly) en route between the elementary school and the grocery store in order to purchase quarters for the book fair. With the kids’ lunch hour approaching, they would soon be inundating the book fair, and we needed change. We had a certain officer in town with a reputation for being completely inflexible. I don’t know anyone who wasn’t pulled over at some point by “Officer Jones” during his tenure in town. He was even mentioned by name in the Driver’s Education course at the high school, so the fact that Officer Jones let me continue on my way without issuing a ticket was no small miracle. That was my lucky day.

The clerk calls my name. He informs me that traffic school is not an option because whatever the officer thinks he saw (which I still disagree with) was not so bad as to warrant a “point” on my driving record. If I plea “no contest,” I pay the fee and then go free. Or I could spend the morning waiting to argue about it and then lose. Nothing against the traffic court judge — I never even set eyes on the guy — but I’m glad he’s not going to judge me because I don’t think I would have enjoyed the process or the outcome.

As much as I’d like to think that I’ve been a perfect driver for 30 years, there is undoubtedly something in my driving history that I should have been ticketed for. And so, no, I don’t want what I deserve. I’m not going to argue about my innocence or my culpability. Instead, I’m going to move on with my day and let my officer do the same. I’ve been fretting about the unfairness of this particular citation for three months, and now I’m going to let the whole thing go.

The traffic court guru in the back row nods his approval.

The court clerk issues my ticket to freedom, out of the courtroom and on to salvage my morning by walking the dog. Along my route, I think some more about that parable of the vineyard. I’m grateful that God doesn’t employ a point system. How blessed is that worker who, from the moment he wakes in the morning, feels a sense of purpose and place. Who has the health and capacity to work a full day. Who feels confident enough to negotiate with his boss for a fair wage. It is a gift he loses sight of when he focuses on the wages other workers receive.

Given the choice between justice and grace, I choose grace.

***

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

Lessons on Letting Go

Tim and I often quip that if we do our job right, our sons will leave us. Thing #2 graduated from high school last weekend and is heading to a university in Texas in August. Congratulations. And ugh. Senior year of high school, in case you might have forgotten, is an emotional roller coaster. Grouchy, surly, hormonal, college applications and deadlines, acceptances and rejections, excited about the future, anxious at the same time, looking forward to making new friends, frustrated with family, constantly on the verge of tears… and that was just me. My husband was a complete wreck.

I do not pray or journal or file paperwork nearly so regularly as I would like. I stack papers and notes on and around my desk in an attempt to keep track of ideas, receipts, projects, party invitations, but these items invariably get lost or neglected underneath more recent or urgent mail, bills, thank you cards and unsigned permission slips. When I do sit to pray or write, hungry creatures interrupt me. But one of the few things I do consistently – in addition to flossing, of course – is my morning and evening bowl meditation.

I read about this practice in the book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, in which the author describes a ritual she learned from a Tibetan nun. I have adopted this meditation practice for myself (with minor modifications). She fills a bowl from a running stream (or kitchen faucet) and places it on a sort of altar in a prominent location in her home so she can see it all day long. My “meditation bowl,” chipped in two places, sits adjacent to the kitchen sink. I have four kids, two cats and two dogs, all of them male. My cup runneth over. But the clean-up is easier if it runneth near the sink. At the end of her day, she empties the bowl pouring its contents back into the earth. I “dump mommy’s worries down the drain.”

Here’s the idea: “As the bowl fills, you receive your life openheartedly and unconditionally as your portion.” The bowl I use is large enough for me to spread one hand around each side of the bowl to hold its weight comfortably. It takes about a minute to fill my bowl to the brim, maybe less if I turn the faucet on stronger in my rush to get the kids to school. For me, there is a significant component of gratitude in this process. I’m really good at being grateful for the pleasant aspects of my life. I am less gifted at being grateful for the mess. It is counterintuitive for me to embrace, shall we say… Life’s continual unfolding. I would prefer to make my own selections off of Life’s menu. But grace grants me what I need, which is not necessarily the same as what I want.

Or maybe it is?

I thought giving birth to a 9-pound baby was painful, but the delivery of a 5-foot tall, 100-pound sad and angry pre-teen brings a whole new level of anguish. If you have been blessed with teenage step-children, you know what I’m talking about. I really could have used an epidural. When this boy was a freshman in high school I was in tears daily because I feared the child might never leave home. By his senior year I find myself in tears frequently because this young man is good and ready to go. He is going to leave a gaping hole in my heart when he does, as well as an empty bedroom which I intend to convert into a lovely, quiet study.

Accepting the invitation to use Life’s offerings – both good and bad – in the course of my day has demanded patience, compassion and trust. The ultimate goal is to move beyond categorizing life’s offerings as either “good” or “bad” and reach a place that transcends judgment. Obviously, I am not there yet. Hence the term “practice.”

The purpose of pouring the water back into the earth at the end of the day is to let it go and to rest. This process is not exactly my strong suit either. Sometimes I stand in front of the sink, holding my bowl with both hands, still fuming at an unkind word or other unfairness. I replay toxic conversations in my head, wishing I could rewind and take the opportunity to issue a vindictive or witty response that I hadn’t thought of earlier in the day, hoping for some kind of recompense or retribution, holding tightly to my own self-righteousness. Sometimes – with closed eyes and the brimming bowl cupped in both hands – I stand paralyzed by a frightening diagnosis, gripping the fullness of my fears. I yearn for control which is not mine, unwilling to yield. I know that my release will be in letting go but am still reluctant to do so. I make the conscious effort to relinquish power to Life itself, hoping that the Divine will not blink on His watch. Finally, with a long exhale, in a display of exhaustion and surrender, I tip the bowl toward the drain, close my eyes and spill its contents into the sink.

I have found this practice of acceptance and letting go profoundly healing in my own life, yielding some unexpected results. From early childhood, I suffered from nightmares. I had one particular recurring nightmare, usually once or twice a week, as well as fresh and terrifying ones, all of which left me breathless, heart hammering, and panicky in the dead of night. Once I started this meditation practice with the bowl, the nightmares stopped. Overnight. The few times I’ve experienced nightmares since were when I neglected to empty my bowl at the day’s close.

My daily practice – all of the little lettings go – has strengthened my capacity for the bigger letting go. Admittedly, this process is eased by the fact that we have two more sons at home and by the time the youngest heads off to college our oldest son may well be living at home again. Ironically, the letting go of the high school grad would not be nearly so painful had I not welcomed him in to begin with.

Our sons’ high school has a tradition at the Baccalaureate Mass where each of the boys brings his mother a rose, a gesture of gratitude for the sacrifices that mothers make for their sons. The church is packed – standing room only – and although my husband and I have spotted our boy among his senior class, he has not yet located us in the crowd. One by one the mothers around me are receiving roses and hugs from their sons, but mine has not arrived. We are sitting in our usual pew in the church, but he has not found us. My heart sinks. Maybe this rose ritual is too hard on him, in light of the fact that his mother died when he was eleven. The music continues, as do the mother-son embraces, and the seniors begin to take their seats again. Still, I do not see my boy, and my own heart beats faster and aches, and I try not to cry. Where is that boy? My husband is wide-eyed. Our son has searched the entire circumference of the church, and finally he finds me. Ours has not been an easy path. It has not been traditional. It has taken a long time to find each other. We arrive at this moment with a red rose, a pipe-organ crescendo and a mother-son relationship. I love him with my whole heart, and now it is time to let him go.

We moms are not known for our prowess at letting go, but children come equipped with strategies of their own. The last week or so of each of my pregnancies, when it was impossible to catch a full breath, and, like my lungs, my other organs were displaced and bruised, I reached a point where I thought “There is only enough room in this body for one us. Baby, you are going to have to go.” Launching a teenager has elements of this same discomfort. They take up so much space, making their presence felt in every room of the house, their volume extending to every corner. I have a palpable urge to reclaim the entire place for my own, to renovate their bedroom, put up a few bookshelves, neatly populated by quiet, orderly books.

There were many mornings during the course of this boy’s high school career when I stood at the sink, with my heart in my hands, open to receiving whatever the boy would bring me that day. His pain and grief have transformed me into a more patient and compassionate mother. Some days his raw emotions reduced me to a raging lunatic, and other days his gentleness and contagious joy softened my own sharp edges. We have practiced acceptance and forgiveness and found our way to bridge the distance between us.

As I stand on the threshold of my today and fill my bowl, it is my favorite kind of morning, cool and foggy “May gray,” the perfect weather for a run. Inhale. This kind of morning opens up into a clear blue afternoon. Hopeful inhale. I am recovering from a month’s struggle with bronchitis. Grateful inhale. Final exams week for the younger boys. Anxious inhale. It has been a week since graduation and I’ve reached my limit of sitting around, belching, grunting and Xboxing before the summer internship begins. Sharp inhale. My husband assures me that we will miss the litter of puppies some day. Not today. Inhale anyway. Sigh … Grocery list, laundry, powerpoint and prayer, the significant, the unremarkable, the productive, the transcendent. Inhale. My share of Life’s portion is rich and varied, sturdy and fragile.

As for the library (formerly known as his bedroom), my plans include a nice, quiet shrine to the graduates, where I will smile and cry and proudly display their photos, certificates and art projects. Meanwhile, the cat just snagged a new blouse, and I might be willing to let him go away to college too.

I hold the brimming bowl over the sink, breathe in hopes and disappointments, fears and frustrations, joys and accomplishments. I inhale, hold on, tip the bowl and let go. The slow exhale marks the end of my day.

Tomorrow, I will begin again. I will embrace a chipped bowl, breathe in the spirit of that moment, and recite a blessing from an Irish poet:

May you stand sure on your ground

And know that every grace you need

Will unfold before you

Like all the mornings of your life.

(John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us)

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And grace for today.