all of the selves we Have ever been
On Bagels and Blessings
“Keep looking where the light pours in.”
Morgan Harper Nichols
Well, I passed the wellness exam--
and failed the mammogram.
Things really got rolling a few days later during the ultrasound. The radiologist stood at my bedside as I asked some questions. While she was careful NOT to say what it was, she was very firm about what it was NOT. I left with an intuitive understanding that it was something. This would be confirmed soon enough by a pathologist.
In the interim, I was referred to a surgeon, a brilliant and energetic young woman who loves science and trendy shoes. At our brief visit, she remained optimistic that it could still be nothing. Nonetheless, surgery was scheduled, even as I prepared for a biopsy the next morning.
I left the surgeon’s office with a busy mind and a tight schedule. I was due at work shortly, not really enough time to settle in at home, and maybe not a good idea even if I had had the time. It seemed to me that an asiago cheese bagel was in order. I took the advice attributed to the early Greek physician Hippocrates, and I headed to my local Panera to fill his prescription: Let thy food be thy medicine…
As it turned out on that day, my local Panera was not so much a dispensary as it was a most unusual monastery. In what would become a reversal of my misfortune, I found myself standing at a counter with the bread of life stacked on metal racks behind it. A holy man graciously took my order. Just as I was about to insert my debit card into the card reader, the monk said, “There will be no charge for you today.”
“Why is that?”
“It is Halloween.” And as he said this, he looked so deeply into my eyes that he seemed to take hold of me. So moved was I by his gaze that his eyes could have been the eyes of The One. And then he said, “God bless you," and the light poured in. While doctors had looked inside my body and proclaimed me ill, he looked inside my soul and proclaimed me blessed.
I moved to a table where I enjoyed my bagel and counted my blessings, among them excellent health and good medical insurance, wonderful friends who infuse me with laughter, the company of countless women who have gone before me and those who travel travel with me now, the remarkable emerging science and technology that makes the treatments our mothers received seem barbaric and my own treatment seem like science fiction, a specialty breast cancer treatment center practically at my doorstep, and a lifetime grounded by a faith tradition promising that there is something greater than me, and that when this life is over, I will be gathered to my people. How lucky am I to live with so many resources and so much hope?
Yes, the Paneran monk was a messenger: I am blessed.
More to come.
Of this I am sure.
For Goodness Sake
As we have opportunity, let us do good to all.
- Galatians 6:10
I am a woman on a mission. I am looking for a few good men. Well, not just men. I am looking for good people of any sort.
Two stories have taken up residence in my head launching me on this mission. The first story is about Edmund Burke, a respected member of the British Parliament in the 18th century. The words, all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing, have frequently been attributed to Burke. While those exact words have not survived fact checking, in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770), Burke is recorded as saying: When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
The second story on my mind is the Bible’s tale of the destruction of Sodom. The Lord tells Abraham that the city will be destroyed due to wickedness. Abraham’s nephew, Lot, lives there with his family. Abraham beseeches the Lord to consider saving the city if fifty righteous men can be found. The Lord agrees, but Abraham continues to negotiate. They settle on a final number, and the Lord says, “For the sake of ten, I will not destroy it.”
We all know how the story ends: the city burns, everything is destroyed. Lot escapes, but his wife disobeys God’s instructions. She looks back as she flees and turns into a pillar of salt.
It has been impossible to escape the daily news in 2021. Dare I look back? The year began with a pandemic threatening our health, weather events threatening our planet, and angry politicians threatening our democracy. People have remained uneasy and some have given voice to a fear that we are approaching the end of times.
I am not a prepper. I have no fortified bunker. I do not stockpile nonperishable foods or practice survival skills, but I do want to be ready. If the Lord offers me a deal, I want to have list so that I can name names. In a country of 334 million people, I pray I can find fifty good ones.
So far, I’ve got Ed, the homeless gentleman I wrote about on November 16th. A week later, I encountered a nameless and faceless truck driver, but I jotted down his license plate number. God will know the driver by his deeds. I encountered the truck driver as I headed out of Columbus via Interstate 71 North. The urban traffic was heavy and aggressive, moving much faster than the legal limit. My entire body was brittle with tension as I held my breath and I merged from the city ramp onto the highway. Traffic continued to whiz past me even though I was going the maximum posted speed. Feeling anxious and looking forward to getting beyond the city limits, I tucked myself in behind a Wooster Motor Ways truck. Remarkably, the driver maintained the speed limit and slowed for vehicles merging into the heavy traffic. I felt a rush of relief in finding this personal escort, a guardian angel. I followed the semi out of town and through the countryside. We traveled a good sixty miles together before parting ways at the Route 30 exit. While it is a small thing to obey the traffic laws and show consideration to other drivers, it is not without significance. Maybe God will see it as a test of character, a measure of goodness.
Then on November 29th, I met Ahmal. After several days of cold, rain, sleet, and snow flurries, the sun came up. By mid-afternoon the thermostat registered a sunny 42 degrees, and I headed outside for a walk. A half a block from home, I saw two obstacles blocking the narrow path ahead. One item appeared to be a bulging gym bag about three feet wide. Bright orange extension cords poked out from the top. Next to the bag was a Shop-Vac. As I came closer, I saw a man standing on the curb studying his smartphone. “Do you know where West Fifth Avenue is,” he asked.
“It’s about a half a block straight ahead.” The man looked so relieved, I thought he might cry.
“That’s good. That’s good,” he said as he picked up his things.
“I’m headed that way. I’ll walk with you.” The man refused to let me carry a thing even as sweat poured from his scalp and dripped onto his shoulders.
A few steps in, the man sat the items down in an attempt to re-adjust his load. At that point, I insisted, “hand me the Shop-Vac.” As we made our way to the bus stop, the man told me his story. He had gotten a ride to a local business to detail a food truck. The splattered grease stain that covered his white tea shirt corroborated the story. He told me that he had loaned his rent money to a family member with the promise that the money would be repaid by the time the rent came due. The borrower had not repaid the loan. With just two days remaining, this desperate but determined man was taking every odd job he could find to meet the first-of-the-month deadline. He told me how he had lost his regular job doing yardwork and landscaping when the weather turned cold. Perhaps there was more to the story, but I would not look for fault in a man willing to work this hard to pay his rent on time after sacrificing for a loved one. Slowing down, the man squinted and looked ahead, “I don’t see it. I don’t see no bus stop!”
Feeling his exhaustion, I encouraged him to keep going. “The sign is hidden by the trees. We’re almost there.”
We took a few more steps. “I see it! I see it now! I got about a two hours bus ride to get home and change so I can get to my next job.”
As I set the Shop-Vac down on the sidewalk next to the bus stop sign, the man asked me my name. “Lilli,” I said.”
“I’m Ahmal,” and he threw his arms open wide, embracing me with the gratitude of a man whose life had been saved.
I felt entirely unworthy and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the sun and the mild temperature that propelled me onto the bike path and into his arms, for the strength to share the mental load and to carry his Shop-Vac to the bus stop. And because I was fortunate, my rent was paid.
In this time when everything is askew and the headlines warn of more doom and gloom to come--the end of democracy, the end of decency, the end of the earth, I am buckling down on my mission to find fifty good people. I add Ahmal to the list.
The holiday season is a good time to embark on this exercise. In the Christian tradition, Christmas marks the birth of a savior. It is a story of hope, a season of second chances. For Christians, that is not fake news, it is the Good News. But good does not triumph easily. Because it comes into the world quietly and with humility, it risks being overlooked and demeaned. Sometimes there is no room for it at the inn. But a light shines upon goodness for those who seek it. Wise men travel far to find it.
In the secular tradition, Christmas is about a jolly old man who sees us when we’re sleeping. He knows when we’re awake. He keeps track of our deeds with his own list of who is naughty and who is nice. He checks his list not once but twice. The nice are rewarded on Christmas morning.
I had the good fortune of being born in the post-war era, a time of growth, abundance, and opportunity. I never questioned that I lived anywhere but in the greatest country on earth. Despite our history and our difficulties, I always believed that we would keep growing, and that, in the end, good would triumph in this homeland. The past few years have challenged my beliefs and sense of national identity. COVID has rattled the nerves of everyone on the planet and arrived at a time when democracy was already under grave threat all around the world. News of the day can make it hard to keep believing.
But it is Christmas. Whether you celebrate in the Christian tradition or the secular, Christmas is an important reminder of hope, a message that God, or the Something Greater, does not give up on us. Goodness matters and good can be found in surprising places. Mankind is an imperfect lot, but also an unfinished one. There is still time.
May goodness find you this Christmas. Prepare to name names.
It’s eight o’clock on a Friday.
The out-of-town crowd shuffles in.
There’s an old friend sitting next to me
waiting for the show to begin.
She says, “I hope he plays me some memories,
something I’m sure how it goes,
the sad and the sweet that I knew complete
when I wore a younger girl’s clothes.”
Then he says, “I’ve got nothing new to play for you,”
and the crowd whistles and cheers with delight.
We agree it is sweet that we know them complete
‘cause that’s what we came for tonight.
It’s a pretty good crowd for a Friday
and every face young and old has a smile
because it is he that we came here to see
to forget about life for a while.
He sings us his songs our piano man.
He sings us his songs all night,
and we’re all in the mood for his melodies.
It is time for some things to feel right.
The atmosphere is a carnival
as the crowd slowly sips on its beers,
and we sit in the stands and clap with our hands,
and say, “Man it is good to be here!”
And then, just like that, it is over.
We wait for Brother Joel to return.
And he steps on the stage with an encore arranged,
and he plays ‘til a new day is earned.
On the eve of 9/11/2021, the 20th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, I attended a revival. Our tent was the Great American Ballpark on the banks of the Ohio River. Take me to the water!
The leader of this traveling salvation show was not a preacher. He was a musical storyteller, a piano man. We arrived to the event weary and worried, pulling ourselves from the rubble of a global pandemic and reminders of the life-shattering events of 9/11. Then the Piano Man stepped onto the stage. He put his hands on the baby grand, and we were all born again.
He rocked us awake from our COVID sleep and out of our painful 9/11 nightmares. His old songs became our medicine, pain relief in a time capsule, taking us back to simpler days and better places: high school dances and college dorms, first concerts and first loves, songs on the road and songs in the shower, the ages of vinyl, cassette, and CD. There was joy and happiness, togetherness and hope. In a crowd of thousands, each person sang from the same page in a shared and familiar songbook. Bass or soprano, alto or tenor, it didn’t matter. There was harmony.
The Piano Man delivered the sermon in lyrics as familiar and reassuring as old psalms. By the time the night was over, we were all converts. Rising from the ashes of our sorrows, we found that we could survive the burns. Hallelujah!
On the eighth day, after some rest, God said, "Let there be music." And there was. He sent us a piano man. 'Cause even God's in the mood for a melody. He wants us feelin' all right.
Our Better Halves
“The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (1 Samuel 18:1)
I treasure this ancient and beautiful description of friendship and the image of souls knit together into one fabric, a cloth fashioned from threads that are soft and strong and deep. A similar description in the book of Mark describes marriage: “and the two shall become one flesh” (10:8).
Like Davidandjonathan, we all know relationships that share one name in our mental directory: Rickyanddennis, Maryandbill, Betsyandjoe, Bobbyanddenise, Momanddad, Nanaandpop-pop, brotherandsister, husbandandwife, parentandchild. When one dies, our minds struggle to compute.
For the surviving half, the ache of loss can become like phantom limb pain. It is not psychological, as in “all in your head.” It is not “unresolved grief,” or “complicated bereavement.” As the brain continues to remember the missing limb and continues to try to communicate with it, so the soul still speaks, activating emotions, trying to connect with the missing member.
Dr. Gordon Livingston who experienced the deaths of two sons, one from leukemia and one from suicide, writes in his book Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: “Like all who mourn I learned an abiding hatred for the word “closure,” with its comforting implications that grief is a time-limited process from which we all recover.”
During this year of 2020, we have experienced so much tragedy. The pandemic alone has generated a landslide of loss. Add to that disaster the unprecedented wildfires, a record hurricane season, increases in violent crime and murder, and deaths from drug overdoses and suicides. There are so many who have been ripped apart from their other halves, carrying on with aching, missing limbs. And there are the thousands of health care workers who were present as the threads were cut who will forever carry the memories of those moments and the grief absorbed.
A vaccine is coming. This viral-crisis will end, but words like “let the healing begin” or “getting closure” will be inadequate. There is not a starting line and a pistol shot to mark the beginning, and there is no finish line. The effects of this difficult year will be felt not just individually, but in our national soul forever.
In Greek mythology, Pandora opened a jar containing sickness, death, and evil. Before she could close the container, all of that darkness escaped into the world. Pandora hurriedly closed the container, and all that remained in the jar was hope.
Dr. Livingston offers some advice to other survivors of loss. He writes not about closure or healing, but about hope: “This is what passes for hope: those we have lost evoked in us feelings of love that we didn’t know we were capable of. These permanent changes are their legacies, their gifts to us. It is our task to transfer that love to those who still need us. In this way we remain faithful to their memories.”
Today, there are millions in mourning. We must call upon our better halves and transfer some of that love to those who need us.
The Agony of Defeat
It has been a stressful week.
Our citizen-selves seemed fully engaged. With all eyes on the presidential election results, it was difficult to get any shut-eye.
We all rejoice when we our team wins, but every American can relate to the agony of defeat. Each of us has a history of disappointments, losses, and experiences that wound and hurt. For all of us, it begins in childhood, and we navigate those waters throughout our lives. No matter our age or accomplishments, a loss can makes us feel like that scolded child who could never do anything right in the eyes of his father, or like the rejected school girl who never got picked for the teams, or, perhaps, like the humiliated teen who wets his pants as he runs from a snarling dog while his friends stand on the sidewalk and laugh.
We each have our defining stories. I can’t say we always get over them, but most of us get through them. Some keep reliving those experiences to feed their anger, hatred, and retaliation. Others become paralyzed with self-doubt, anxiety, and withdrawal. For most of us, the hurts eventually lead to insight, empathy, and resilience.
Thankfully, most of us lick our wounds in private. Our losses are not on public display for the entire world to see and exploit for entertainment value. I have heard President Trump poke fun at empathy, and yet, I imagine he could use some today.
The agony of defeat can cloud our thinking, but losing the game does not make us losers. Sometimes we have to put on our magnanimous hats to restore normalcy and reach for greatness. Each of us would like to be remembered not for those silly moments when we were real characters, but for the important moments when we revealed our real characters.
Most of us survive our falls by getting up before the bus runs over us. Even with our legs broken, we eventually find a way to put our best foot forward and keep walking. As Dr. Claire Weekes once counseled an anxious client who was afraid to cross the street, “Even rubber legs will get you there.” That has been my mantra in the thirty years since I first read those words.
I have tried many things in my life. None of them made me rich or famous. By objective assessments, many of them were failures. But all of them made me friends. That is the currency with which I measure my success, and friendship is the ointment that has healed all of my wounds.
If you are suffering some agony, Dr. Weekes would say, “It is never too late to give yourself another chance.”
* * * *
Some other tips for coping with anxiety from Dr. Claire Weeks in Hope and Help for Your Nerves (1990):
Hope and Longing
More than 78,000 servicemen
went missing during World War II.
Too many families were left to wonder.
One mother received the news that her son’s plane went down over the mountains of Europe. Neither the plane nor his body was ever recovered. For the rest of her life, that mother never moved from the house where she first received the news, and she never again locked the doors in case her beloved son should find his way home.
Some people might say this mother lived in a state of denial. Maybe a doctor or therapist diagnosed her with complicated bereavement, unresolved grief or depression. Over time, others may have grown frustrated at her unwillingness to accept the “truth” and at her foolishness in leaving the doors unlocked. Many people may have given up on her, getting on with their lives, and leaving that mother alone with her wishful thinking and her grief.
But the story speaks to me of love, the deep, abiding kind of love that does not end. It is spiritual in nature. I cannot but join her in hope that love might win and bring her boy back through that open door even though I know his return is unlikely.
Though the longing hurts, it says that love has lived in a heart now torn by loss. Longing is a terrible itch and an aching tear; hope is the salve and the suture.
There are plenty of gashes in me mended by the thread of hope. I have spent more than a few hours of my life negotiating with God, trying to get Him to see things my way, offering bargains. Some folks call those silent conversations prayer. Others call them denial. Perhaps they are a display of hope, a positive emotion that springs up in the face of fear and uncertainty.
In the Greek myth, after Pandora opened the box releasing evil and disease into the world, only hope remained. Sometimes hope is the only tool remaining in our tool boxes, too. Employing it does not mean that we are silly or stupid.
G. K. Chesterton wrote that “hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances we know to be desperate.” That kind of hope gives us the will and the courage to fight evil in the world and the determination and ingenuity to conquer disease.
So, let us stand with all those whose hearts are filled with longing, and leave our doors open for hope.