Kissing Frogs Along the Way

Today was an auspicious day: the first time I turned down an invitation since I got to Los Angeles. Why is that auspicious? Because I am in a new city, a place where I have had to start over making friends. I’ve been in this situation before, several times; it is a challenging and also fulfilling place to be. It can be lonely, but it can also be fantastic, because I get to approach each new person with fresh eyes, and hopefully an open heart. Little by little, one makes a few connections, then comes an outing, a dinner, perhaps. And then one day, before you even know it, you have actual plans with a lovely person when another lovely person invites you to a cookout and you have to decline. That feels auspicious to me.

I have had some good training in all of this, as a kid. While not an “army brat,” one might call me an academic brat. My father, whose specialty was international politics, regularly took summers and sabbaticals in foreign countries. And the family went with. From nursery-school on, I lived in neighborhoods and attended schools where I not only knew no one, but often did not understand the language, nor have any familiarity with the customs. You never pay as much attention to the world around you as when everything is unfamiliar. It’s why so many of us love traveling.

What you wear, how you express yourself, the foods you eat, they all stand out when you are from somewhere else. At times you may seem exotic and interesting to people, but other times you are seen as simply alien. In nursery school in Oslo Norway, I may have been too young to know whether I was being ostracized or not. But let me tell you that first grade in Geneva, Switzerland made up for any past blissful ignorance. No, I did not speak French, but my parents chose to enroll me in a French-speaking school all the same. No, I had never used a fountain pen and inkwell to write with, but that was the only option and I made a mess of things. No, I did not get a new dress for the Parade L’Escalade that all the students marched in, while the most popular girl looked at me as though I were dressed in burlap. Yes, I got really used to eating chocolate bars sandwiched between bread for lunch. And yes, there was a really cute boy who carried my books as we walked home from school each day (Those French men start young)! So many stories, a lot of them difficult. And I would not change a thing.

There were many summers abroad of loneliness, alienation, and the overcoming thereof. Then I grew up (somewhat) and went to college, and mid-way through decided I needed to get out of Dodge. And perhaps, because it was more the norm for me than some, I moved to a city where I knew no one again (except my father’s ex-girlfriend who put me up for one night and drove me to the grocery store the next day to buy food for my new apartment I had found that morning). Tucson, Arizona. Capistrano Apartments. I wasn’t back in school yet (another story) so I was an oddball at this complex filled with students. I was very lonely at first, though I remember telling my dad on the phone that everything was great. And it was in a way. I was in a beautiful place, where mountains encircled me. (And I have finally gotten back to that landscape again)! I was far away from my origin story, which was a goal of mine. Plus there was a pool! Little by little I met some folks, even made a few close friends. I loved being just me, not my father’s daughter, nor my high school’s tennis player, nor even my road’s resident. No one knew anything about me, and that helped me re-see me.

I moved to Manhattan next. Lived with my sister. A whole new place. I mean really brand new. Then New Jersey. Made a new set of friends with whom I shared so very many things. What a gift to meet women at a time where we are all newly married and/ or new mothers, wondering what we are doing, and what we will do in the future. I am still close with a number of those women today. In fact, the reason I cannot accept the gracious invitation of my new acquaintance from church to attend his family’s cookout is because my dear New Jersey friend is coming to visit me. I am so excited to share my new world with her; she loves new worlds herself, and seeks them out quite often. We are going to explore my new city, get comfortable in my digs, and talk about things old and new. I even get to take her to church where I will introduce her to my new church family, a most beautiful group of saints that I am blessed to be a part of.

Yesterday I texted my daughter that my newest tennis date — it’s really like a blind date, trying to gather a few good tennis partners! — was a real fail. He was not a very good player, but more importantly to me he was an unpleasant person: a know-it-all, a mansplainer. (After I answered that African-American history was my specialty, he then proceeded to explain to me that African-American history began in the 1600s when the first enslaved Africans were brought over). Anyway, my daughter can’t stand when her mother spends time with anyone unworthy, one of the many things I love about both my children! But I reminded her that one has to kiss some frogs along the way.

I have met — and even kissed — a lot of frogs. That is necessary when you are the new kid in the pond so often. And it is worth the effort. Because what eventually is revealed to me is an intimate community of beautiful humans to share life with, and to love. And when I’ve gotten to the point in my new place where I have to turn down an invitation — a thing I long for so much at the start of each new adventure — I know I am in the right place, building that community slowly and intentionally. For that I am ever so willing to wait. And before I know it, I will have more invitations than time — instead of the other way around.

Legacies of Fathers

“If writing is thinking and discovery and selection and order and meaning, it is also awe and reverence and mystery and magic.”

Toni Morrison, Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir

Writing is the full experience of getting hit with an idea — or image, or sentence — and then getting all the way to the place where you put those items down in some sort of coherent order such that others might also see them. I write every day, if writing is thinking. I think about what I might write in my Sunday blog most every day of the week. And guess what? Just like other plans that we feeble humans make, the plans I have for my blog rarely turn out to be that which ultimately unfolds once I sit down after church to write. And church has a lot to do with that.

We have just started meeting in person at Friendship Pasadena Church. It’s such a gift to assemble again in a sanctuary. But, being a only a humble human being, I am already feeling some kind of way about having to wear a mask in the church. Not because I necessarily think they are wrong for keeping that rule, but just simply because I. Don’t. Want. To. How quickly we can move from gratitude to wanting more. Or at least I find myself doing that. It happens a lot because I have soooooo many things to be grateful for; I can always imagine how things could be even better. Now that could be a positive trait in some fashion, keeping me striving and all that. But if two weeks ago you were praying for a job, or a partner, or a new pair of shoes and then that thing came and you found yourself wanting more money, more attention, or more shoes then maybe you need to stay in Gratitude Arena just a little longer before heading over to Desire Destination.

So what am I writing about today? Well, Father’s Day. And Church. And Legacies. And the Bible. But not necessarily in that order. And as the best Baptist preachers say, I’ll keep it short. (And then they/we don’t). So it’s Father’s Day and some beautiful family portraits are showing up on Facebook and Instagram. There are old-time black and whites, colorful images of recent celebrations, and grainy pictures of loved ones long departed. But what I notice most are the posts that don’t appear today. And this connects to a point Pastor Smith made in today’s sermon, in my opinion anyway. (I have been known to draw connections between things that make some folks wonder what I really think a connection is). Pastor Smith was preaching some “Father’s Day Advice” this morning that included a point on listening to the hearts of our children. As in, look not just at what they do — or don’t do — but also pay attention to what may well be brewing below the surface.

Like jazz music, made up of the spaces between the notes as much as the notes themselves, our lives often speak volumes in that which we refrain from saying and doing. So today I noticed that my friends who usually post quite regularly on social media are not doing so today. And I am one of them. Sure, I thought about sharing another photo of my late, handsome father, but I did that on his birthday in December. I think about him a lot on his birthday. Father’s Day is different. I think of him today, too, but as with so many people, his fathering was a complicated experience. It’s easier for me to think of him as an admirable individual than perhaps that Dad you buy a tie for every year. My friend, Tish Hamilton, wrote a lovely piece about complicated fathering if you’d like to read it.

There are a lot of fathers in the Bible. Makes sense, of course. And the story featured in today’s sermon, about the prodigal son, reminded me of the story that we looked at last Sunday, that of King David and his son, Adonijah. In 1 Kings 1 it reads, “King David never corrected his son Adonijah, and he never made him explain his actions.” That’s not much of a dad, most of us would agree. While we have to “let them learn,” as Pastor Smith advised us today, kids can’t learn anything if we don’t teach them something in the first place. Well, King David suffered the consequences of his passivity: some of his kids were brats. They lived easy, played hard, and wanted everything. David had a lot of kids (that’s a lot of ties) and didn’t seem to care too much what direction they took. But of course, some children always make it in spite of things: Solomon turned out pretty well, after all.

Now when we look at the father in Luke 15, told as a parable by Jesus (now there’s a man who looked after his “children”), we don’t know exactly how that father raised his kids but we do know he “let them learn” by giving them their inheritance early (their legacy, as per the sermon today). One of them took the money and run. But as most of us know, this son came back, tale between his legs, and was rewarded for his repentance. But his bro got jealous, complained that the squeaky wheel always got the grease whilst he was quietly toiling away in the fields with nary a fatted calf to show for it. His Dad explained the situation to his angry son, and things hopefully fell into place eventually for that family. (We don’t know how it turned out exactly, Jesus kept the disciples in suspense about that). My dad probably would have taken me back had I wanted to return. But I took off (sans monetary legacy) and didn’t look back for quite some time. Sure, I’d go visit now and again, but I was living my life intentionally distanced from family. And I think that served me well at the time.

Now, I said I’d write about Father’s Day, church, legacies and the Bible. Today is as a good a day as any to think about my father, to be grateful for much that he did for me, like keeping a roof over my head, which if you read Tish’s abovementioned piece you’ll see is not to be taken lightly. Dad did not “believe” in church, deriding religious folks in general as weak. But I still went off with the Thompson family each Sunday morning to their toaster-shaped Protestant church downtown. That was actually part of my father’s legacy, that doing of something I believed in no matter what. It’s really the gift I think I am most grateful for from my dad, following and speaking truth. I said as much at his memorial service, between tears. I mean that is really worth more than a financial inheritance — which it did not occur to him to provide. I have invested my legacy of truth, sometimes less wisely than other times, and it has paid off in dividends.

My father’s name was David, and he was probably named after that king in what would have been for his parents the Torah. But this David corrected his children non-stop, and we were made to explain actions we sometimes didn’t even know had been enacted! He was on us —not necessarily gently — but certainly we must have known he cared if he spent all that energy training us up. And believe me, it was a lot of energy. I learned from my father, and my mother, many things not to do as a parent — and a couple of really important things to do. I walk this life with my father’s legacy as a thinker, activist, and truth-teller, and for that I am grateful. And, because I’m growing up a little more every day, I do not even wish for more.

Onion or Fortress?

Last week I said I would write about fear this week. We’ll see what happens…

Most every morning I read the devotional, Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence by Sarah Young. Last Thursday it read in part, “Let trust and thankfulness stand guard, turning back fear before it can gain a foothold.”

I had an arrogant moment, thinking I didn’t really fear things. I mean people tell me I’m brave a lot, they’ve done so for years. Apparently I have made some decisions in life that others would not have, and that seems to be called bravery. (Or people might just be using it as a euphemism for crazy, stupid, irrational, or irresponsible)! After my arrogant moment passed, however, I did think of a few things that I feared.

Another book I have been looking at recently is DailyOM: Inspirational Thoughts for a Happy, Healthy and Fulfilling Day. On that same Thursday, DailyOM was likening the process of moving past fear to the peeling of an onion: one goes through our own layers to find the cause or origin of said fear. I saw those readings as conflicting, if not exactly contradictory. As in, Believers ward off fear, while Spiritual Seekers seek out fear? Which one was I supposed to do?! Was I an onion or a fortress?

I’m going to have to refer once more to the message provided today at Friendship Pasadena Church. Pastor Nick Sherman gave quite the sermon today, braiding together the experience of graduation with the ongoing revival of Friendship. And he differentiated between renewal and revival. Kinda like, are you just trying to extend your stay on the farm team for another season, or are you ready to move on to the majors? (The LA Dodgers fever out here is contagious)! Pastor Nick also reminded us that every era ends. Which can be scary, right? Even — or maybe especially — when something amazing is sitting right ahead of you.

I once learned that runners in a race often slow down once the finish line is in sight. I use this metaphor a lot to encourage my students to keep going at the end of the semester when they — and their professors! — are pretty much over it. Apparently, in the book The Big Leap: Conquer Your Hidden Fear and Take Life to the Next Level, by Gay Hendricks, he makes reference to this principle. Note that I said “apparently,” which means I did not read the book, which is what I am trying to help my students understand: you can’t say you read a book when you didn’t! But I did find an article that references that book, which references the principle in question, and because this is a blog and not a college paper that will suffice. On a website called 99 Walks, the unnamed author writes:

“…author Gay Hendricks theorizes that we all face what he calls an ‘upper limit problem.’ He believes that each of us has a level of success that feels comfortable and that when we reach that upper limit, we will subconsciously self-sabotage to stay there.”

Whoah. But then think about it. Ever stopped short of some stuff? Maybe you don’t even know what you missed. Or maybe you slowed down in one proverbial race, but the next time you powered through and got that “success.” When it comes to churches — and so many other organizations — there are certainly folks who become more fearful as that finish line approaches. Or should I say that start line. Because, as Pastor Nick reminded us, endings can really be beginnings. So if we are to “live in revival,” as Pastor Smith is exhorting us to do, then there can be no slowing down, but only the speeding up of our commitment, our excitement, and our faith. How are we going to “discover our gifts” if we stop before the race is over and just say, I’m good over here. I don’t really want to know what else I am capable of. Thanks anyway.

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.”

2 Timothy 1:7 

Even if you don’t think (a) God has provided you with what’s inside you, do you think we humans are on this planet to be afraid? I mean humans created societies, figured out out to hunt so we could eat, even figured out how to have kids so there’d be more humans! There’d be no us if our ancestors had lived with spirits of fear.

And here’s where I’ll finish up, where Pastor Nick really got me. You know those words you hear that kinda shoot right through you? Like, “how’d you know to say that” kind of words? Well he did this great history lesson about Passive King David, his selfish son Adonijah, and finally the wise (and somewhat wistful) Solomon. He summed it up with a great parallel to Pastor Smith as King David, but you really had to be there. More generally, Pastor Nick noted that one generation fights battles so that our next generation does not have to. It’s what we parents tend to do for our children, sometimes without even knowing it. My daughter recently explained to me that the way I handled a particular issue as a woman was why she was able to navigate the same issue she faced in her young life. I was over there apologizing to her that I hadn’t spoken about the subject enough and it turns out that the fact that I fought/was fighting that (inner) battle, provided her a level of peace I had not had. So, yeah, there are a lot of ways to fight a battle it turns out.

Fear. Do we ward it off with faith, or do we look within to see where it came from? I think the important thing is to acknowledge it. We spend too much time trying to avoid fear, performing around it, turning away from it… While fear is there because we are human, also because we are human we have the free will to face it, and to move forward. That’s usually scary. But the pay-offs can be oh so handsome.

Running To and From

Run-fromming. This is a word that Pastor Smith spoke in his message today. He said he mis-spoke it, but I am wondering if God didn’t just “drop that on his spirit,” as he is wont to say. Because, I mean, run-fromming is amazing, and an awfully useful term when you think it about it. It’s a verb, obviously, and one that seems to imply a sort of regular habit of running from things. That’s part of what Pastor was speaking about today; and it is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. As in, when do you fold and when do you hold? When do you insist that your gifts be received, and when do you “shake the dust off your feet?”

Friendship Pasadena Church (MY church now!) chooses a weekly prayer based upon a piece of scripture. This week it comes from Isaiah 43:18-19

“Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?

Do you not perceive it? Do you not perceive how badly I want this organization to succeed? How much I want our project to receive support? How vibrant this ministry could be? That you could live a more peaceful life?! Take. My. Gifts! (Does this sound familiar to anyone else)? As Pastor reminded us this morning, we all have gifts (Romans 12:8). And we get told this a lot. Sometimes our parents say so, other times our friends, coworkers — and even once in a while a supervisor tell us that. I guess that’s where the idea of Gifted and Talented Schools came from? Only I always found the idea somewhat confusing because not only did they express that every child was gifted (as in has some gifts) but it always seemed to be that the gifts in question were pretty limited. Like some gifts were more important to nurture than others. Of course (apparently like Pastor Smith) school was not my favorite subject so maybe I’m just being cranky right now.

So what happens when you offer someone what you think is a pretty fabulous gift of yours and they don’t want it? As Jill Scott sings in “Hate On Me,” sometimes folks are just too miserable to accept your offering. As in, one might make someone a peach pie – straight from their own peach tree, no less – and the recipient might just slap them out anyway. (Here’s the fabulous song: ). I am guessing we all know some people like that. And we probably even know ourselves to have gone back to some of those people with our peaches anyway. And that’s not always the wrong move. I mean, think of the story of Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14. (Shout out to Friendship Pasadena Kitchen Table Bible Study)!

We join Paul and Barnabas preaching in Lystra. Well, let’s just say things got ugly (as they can in the Bible) and Paul was pelted with stones until the assailants figured he was dead. They dragged him out of the the city limits like yesterday’s trash. But other disciples came running to Paul, “gathered around him,” and don’t you know that man got back up and went into that self-same city again, the one where the folks wanted him dead. Turned out that was a good move because, “They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples” (Acts 14:21). That was their goal and they followed the “if at first you don’t succeed” method. They were not afraid, or at least the fear was not strong enough to keep them from marching straight back into the mouth of that proverbial lion. No run-fromming happened there!

What then of the counsel that the twelve disciples received from Jesus in the book of Matthew, when it was time for them to go out and do their rounds, canvass for the Lord? The disciples were tasked with finding “the lost sheep” and preaching and healing and doing all sorts of good stuff for those in need. “Freely you have received, freely give,” Jesus reminded them (10:8). I bet a lot of us could use that reminder, the one about receiving freely. Some of us — and by us maybe I mean just me — have a hard time receiving. I am way better at giving. Ooh, I love giving, and apparently I think I have lots to give. I have, as Pastor Smith encouraged us today, discovered many of my gifts. (I mean I better have, right? This gift-giving gig isn’t going to last forever). I love the act of giving. But receiving? Nah, I’m good. I don’t need that. Find someone more in need. (Or perhaps I mean more deserving)? Maybe I am afraid to receive. Fear is, after all, tied up in this gift thing but I’ll try to stay on point for the moment.

So back to the disciples, the twelve guys are to go out and perform miracles and preach the gospel. They are told to connect quickly with a “worthy person” in each town that they enter. I mean that’s what you do when you’re new in town, you introduce yourself to the folks who seem like they would be on your side, maybe even show you some extra kindness being as how you’re on your own and all. So Coach Jesus tells his team to go in with a positive attitude, to share their gifts of peace — and then some — as long as they are welcomed! But he doesn’t want them spinning their wheels either, following some playbook just for the sake of staying on task. “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town (10:14). I mean this is just about my favorite Bible verse. (And I guess Paul didn’t get the memo either, but we all have different paths to take with our various gifts so he was probably doing the right thing for his own personal journey). The twelve disciples weren’t run-fromming, mind you, they were simply turning on their heels and walking down their proscribed paths. Run-fromming is when you find yourself sprinting away from the scene. It’s when you start tripping over things, getting lost, screaming irrationally at the world because you’re hurt and lost… That’s run-fromming.

But my question remains, how do you know when to walk away and when to stay? When should we persist in offering our pies, and when should we take our beautiful one-of-a kind-baked-good and knock on someone else’s door? It’s about discernment, and that is something that takes a daily practice — and many years of days — to even get the hang of. If you’re me anyway. A lot has to do with the aforementioned fear thing. I am a strong believer that fear is the answer to why we do so many dumb, self-injurious things. I think I’ll probably write about that next week. My friends will recognize this theme immediately, as in there goes Katie with that “everything’s about fear” stuff. But my friends are good people, so they’ll probably listen to it again anyway.

For now I am still puzzling over discernment in terms of giving. I need to learn to recognize when I am withholding gifts for a good and right reason, and when, perhaps, I am simply leaving my gifts up on the shelf so as not to show off or bother anyone. In tandem, one also wants to learn to discern when it’s time to take their ball and go home, because the people they’re playing with aren’t playing with a love for the game. I mean I think we humans shake the dust off our feet prematurely sometimes. But I also think there are occasions when we just keep knocking on the door that’s getting slammed in our faces. Because sometimes it’s easier to receive rejection than approval; sometimes that rejection affirms our unworthiness, confirms our fears. But I’ll leave that for next week. So go give of your gifts. Ask yourself what they are. Tell somebody what they are. Better yet, ask somebody what they see as your gifts. Write them down, if you want. Just know this, we all have way more than we think.

*You may want to watch today’s powerful sermon:

Puzzling Over People

Wouldn’t it be great if there were practice runs for losing loved ones? Like they pass on but just temporarily, so that you can do the work that seems to come out of losing someone close, and then get to use those lessons you’ve gained towards a better relationship. I’ve been doing a lot of work on my relationship with my mom recently, but it seems slightly futile as she is not here for me to practice my newfound relationship skills upon. So I end up just writing down revelations and sighing a lot.

My latest mom-lesson was triggered by a string of things — which is how triggers work after all. I was applying to a writing retreat called Tusen Takk. I applied because of the name. Tusen takk means “thank you” in Norwegian. Here comes the string: I lived in Oslo, Norway for a year (not by myself, precocious as I was); my dad was teaching at the university, so the family accompanied him on his sabbatical. I attended nursery school at what I believe was called (a?) Børnehaven. It rained a lot and I remember a plaid rubber rain coat, how heavy and wet it felt against my little body. Anyway, when we returned home, my mother took to saying tusen takk for a while. You know how we return from big trips and try to hold onto some shred of what we just experienced as long as we possibly can? (Like the last time I was in Paris and I swore I would only wear heels when I went out for the rest of my life. Like French women. Before the pandemic. So, yeah). At any rate, when I saw a retreat with this Norwegian name — located in my home state of Michigan, no less — I felt compelled to apply. (I’ll let you know if I get it).

This all got me to thinking how whimsical my mother could be — and must have been so long ago. The research shows that the manner in which our very first years go can greatly affect the way our lives will progress as we grow older. If there is love to be had at the start, a whole lot can go wrong and yet we can prevail, because we stand upon this little child-size foundation of confidence that says we are worthy of being loved. (And so it goes to the contrary, apparently). I think my mom was pretty loving at the start. I have seen photos where she’s holding me or my sister and looking like a very loving mother, happy to have her children in her arms. I recall funny songs she would sing — mostly to our dogs, but I think to entertain us, as well. Like Popocatepetl. It does not seem to actually exist as a song, but it is most certainly a volcano in Mexico. My mom would sing, “Popocatepetl, Popocatepetl, mountain of looooove…” I can hear her intonation even as I write this. If you read, “The Legend of Popocatepetl & Iztaccíhuatl: A Love Story” you’ll see where the “love” part came from!

Now you might be thinking, So what if your mom sang funny songs. That’s what moms do. But, you see, this particular mom in question soon stopped the “silly love songs,” and in place of that music silence invaded our home. That kind of silence you can slice with a proverbial knife. An angry, resentful kind of hush that made us sure a shoe was going to drop, but of course we never knew when. That silence, that sadness in our home, is what I carried away from it. It is why I took flight as soon as I possibly could, why before that I spent more time at my best friend’s house in a subdivision than our quite charming home located on an acre of land. It’s why I did a whole bunch of other things that did not reflect a whole lot of self-esteem. I just hated the silence.

But now. Now I have had so much time to think over this past, almost three years of time spent far from my mother’s being — and all the varying requirements of those last decades. I am remembering the songs and the quirky art projects and wondering how they vanished so quickly — from our lives, and from the forefront of my memory. And that’s what I mean by suggesting how magic it would be to have a second chance to see my mom. I mean I forgave her all the anger a long time ago, but I did not really engage her as someone who sang songs about Aztec princesses and thought decoupaging kids’ lunchboxes was a fun idea. I responded to her as the woman she had come to be — on the outside anyway. But imagine if I had spoken to the playful, witty mom with a penchant for foreign languages and sword dances — even when the woman in front of me was deeply focused on the inequities of life. Might that have awakened those dormant traits in her? (Traits, I might add, that she shared with her grandchildren now and again. And for that I am so very thankful).

I do not know the answer to this question, of course. And now I cannot experimentally look upon my mom as that young mother, or ask questions about when things all went wrong. I don’t have the opportunity to encourage her to explain feelings, describe the process she engaged in of leaving her children behind in a certain kind of way. I know she knew that’s what she did, but I never gave her the space to say it. I was too busy combatting what was emanating from her spirit at the moment. There is just so much more room to think about people when they are not in your life anymore. Ironic, no? Absence makes the heart grow fonder, yes, and it also makes the mind grow broader. I see my mother — and my father — so much more expansively than before. I just wish I could talk to those expansive figures now, no longer spending time fending off old hurts from days gone by, or explaining my apparently alien self to them. But alas, that will not happen in this realm. And so I pray. And I write in my journal. And I bend the ear of a few good friends, lean on my children now and again, as I slowly put together these puzzle pieces that are producing a picture much more beautiful and radiant than I was able to see in those disarrayed pieces of mom, so many still in the box where she kept them.

Yes, I think we are all puzzles. We are formed with pieces of nature and nurture, jumbled together, ill-fitting at times, fully missing at other times. I have always admired folks who sit down to do a puzzle, impressed by their patience and the focus required. I think I am becoming one of those people in my own way, albeit a bit later in life than I would have liked. And because I cannot use this newfound wisdom on my mother, I am going to put it to use considering the other human beings in my life. I am going to step back and look at them more fully, missing pieces and all, and simply admire their unique images coming slowly to light in front of me. And for that lesson I must say, “tusen takk, Mom.”

Friends? Or Family? What’s it Gonna Be?

“You can choose your friends but you sho’ can’t choose your family, an’ they’re still kin to you no matter whether you acknowledge ’em or not, and it makes you look right silly when you don’t.”

― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

Is it friends ‘n’ family or friends versus family? Do we have to choose to invest in one entity over the other? Does one group take more work than the other, need more of our attention? What, if anything, should we do when family gets in the way of friendship?

Most of my friends care a lot about their families. I have friends who fly across the country — and even across oceans — to visit their parents regularly; I know friends who call their fathers every week, even when it’s often less than pleasant; and I have friends incredibly devoted to ailing parents, caring for them in a myriad of ways. And these people also have good friends.

I certainly care about my family, although it has dwindled these last years with the loss of my parents, and we did not start out with such a large family to begin with. I am quite intentional about keeping in touch with aunts, and cousins, and even an ex-husband — because he is family to my children, and so to me. And my children, well Fuggedabout. They are everything to me. But I still have friends. In fact, all sorts of folks I know stay connected to family — but also stay connected to friends. And that takes a lot of work.

I am thinking of a couple of friends who are so involved with family that keeping up their friendships is not a top priority. I am not saying this is in a critical way either, I am simply wondering about it. These particular people say they are my friend, for example, but I think we have different versions of what it means to be a friend. Maybe that’s the part that confuses me. Maybe what creates friendships is people who “friend” the same way. I truly believe it takes more work to keep a friendship going than a family connection in tact. (If you disagree, I would love to hear that take). Family will always be family. Certainly, there are numerous situations where members disengage from family, but even then that person you choose to remove from your life is still lurking around as your brother, mother, or cousin. But friendships on the other hand, well they can wither, and finally die, when no attention is being paid to them. Friends can disappear.

Probably in large part because I was raised in a small family, I have always relied on friendships as my network, my community. I have had all kinds of different friends: best friends, tennis friends, work friends, party friends… And these relationships have required nurturing from both sides. I could not call someone my best friend and then make a habit of ignoring her communications. That’s not friendly. And my tennis friends need me to ask them to play sometimes — it can’t always be on them to initiate a date. Work friends have to know that they can trust each other, that they can say things to each other that would possibly be used against them if those words fell into the wrong hands. Work friends are really important to cultivate, support, and encourage. My party friends? Well, thank God for them! They are the ones I can invite over for wine (my idea of a party is much broader than it once was), wherein they bring olives and crusty bread and I supply goat brie and a cozy venue for talking, relaxing, and enjoying each other’s company. Ya gotta bring something to the table with party friends, literally.

There are people who I think consider themselves my friends but don’t nurture the friendship. Again, I am not saying this is a wrong, it is simply a choice. But it confuses me as to the definition of friend. Oxford explains that the word’s origins are from “an Indo-European root meaning ‘to love’, shared by free.” Now, if you have ever been to First Baptist Church of Madison, New Jersey, you know that love is an action. Rev. (Dr.!) A. Craig Dunn made a point of saying that, and it has stuck with me. So, if to have a friend is to love someone then it cannot simply be a passive feeling of love, but must be an active show of love. That’s my take anyway. The people who call us friends but who are forever involved in family projects, issues, and events might be confused about the definition — or the requirements — of friendship. Maybe they think you can just entitle someone a friend and poof they are your friend. But, unlike your Uncle Joe who, like it or not, will always be your uncle, a friend can easily stop being a friend.

I’m not proposing anything dramatic here. As a matter of fact, I’m simply observing life and wondering aloud about it. But maybe this will help a few people ask themselves about their friendships — or just give some extra praise for the friendships they cherish. My astrological sign is Cancer, and supposedly that means I am extra emotional about friendship. You know, I have that shell I tend run into and all. And now, get this, I am involved (and looking to join whenever they “open the door of the church”) with Friendship Pasadena Church. And I work at Friends In Deed food pantry, for goodness’ sake! Because friendship!

I guess what I’m saying is that I have witnessed some people lose themselves in family to an extent that they have no real friends, no one who truly feels that they can count on these people. Maybe that’s fine with them, too. But I do think that sometimes we humans can sort of default to family because it’s a lot easier (even when it’s hard) to track with family than to work at getting to know someone whose communication style, background, and even beliefs can be so different from our own. And yet sometimes those can be our best of friends. If we give them a chance.

I’m just going to check myself every once in a while, make sure I’m treating my friends the way I would want to be treated. And I think I’ll stop expecting Family People to be different than they are, even when they call me friend. I am wondering, do you have people in your life that you feel sometimes hide behind “family matters?” Or maybe you know the opposite, those who have abandoned family — for a myriad of reasons — and pour everything they have into friendship. What is a friend to you? In this pandemic that we’ve been living through, friends and family gets bandied about all over the place. But they are not one and the same; they come with different directions, and I’m wondering what your interpersonal recipes might just call for.

“But Girl, Don’t They Warn Ya? It Pours”*

It’s raining in sunny Southern California right now. (And they said it never rains here). I was supposed to play tennis today and it was cancelled! Do you know how few things get cancelled due to weather here? Whereas that was life on the East coast. We even had a phrase for it, weather permitting, an acknowledgment that all plans were contingent upon forces outside our control. Some, like me, might say contingent upon God. (Although I do wonder just how much God really cares about family reunions and soccer games going on as scheduled).

So what does one do in sunny Southern California when the rain falls? Well, here’s what you don’t do:

  1. The weekly plant watering. I have a succulent garden in its infancy, thanks to adopted cuttings from some co-workers at Friends In Deed Food Pantry. (See how I included a plug there? Donations always accepted as I have made mention in other posts). I do not seem to have killed these plants yet, and am hoping that part of my new West Coast life will include a better handle on growing things from the ground. What I do know is my cacti don’t need me to bring the hose out today.
  2. Take my newly discovered ArmorAll cloths to the yellow bird poop on my car. See, I got a new (to me, as they say) car last month and I find myself suddenly concerned with the paint job, small scratches, and errant leaves on the floor mats. I am sure there was also a point in time when I focused such attention on my Toyota Rav4 Sport, but I can’t remember that. What I do remember is hauling kids and their friends, furniture, and pets all around Northern New Jersey. And then, what would end up the Rav 4’s last big haul, driving across the country to my new home in sunny, Southern California. Thanks Rav4, but I have moved on. (If only I could let go of other relationships as cleanly).
  3. Feed the birds. Because who wants wet seed — and who wants to get wet putting bird food on a plate in their backyard when 98% of the time there would be no such risk involved? I can wait, so can the birds. (And yes, I see there may well be a correlation between the need to regularly clean the car and my Mary Poppins-like desire to “feed the birds, tuppence a bag.”
  4. Go for a walk behind the LA River. My usual one-hour loop is a good one, lots of hills and very few people. You would think after all this isolation I would be hungry for humanity, but I still feel pretty selective about human company and don’t think I’m going to make any new best friends in these neighborhoods of gaudy homes and high-end vehicles. Now this is not judgement as much as it’s simply an understanding, based upon over a half century of making friends. My friends have not lived in houses, nor driven cars, like those lining Royal Boulevard. Just saying.
  5. Go to the grocery store. Again, it’ll not be raining very soon and life is just easier running errands when it’s not raining. And, by the way, I noticed only days after bringing my new car home, that the back window has no wiper! It never occurred to me, but I guess when you move into a relatively sporty 2-door Honda Accord — with a V6, mind you! — back window wipers are no longer deemed necessary. So yeah, I’d have to get wet wiping down my back window if I went out now. (See #3).

By now, some of my East Coast friends may be fretting that I have quickly turned soft out here. They would be wrong. That is because I was always soft when it came to weather. Yes, I forced myself to go for long walks in 30 degree temperatures (at least the sun is shining, I would say, pushing myself out the door). I also ran errands in the snow; and swept off wet tennis courts in the spring, hoping that the rain would hold off for even just an hour. I detested those experiences. My dad told me when I was young that I was too sensitive to the weather, that I should not allow what was happening outside to affect my insides essentially. But Dad, science says that our environments shape who we are, so why wouldn’t howling wind or driving rain or pelting hail make me feel some kind of way? (If only I had been able to articulate such an idea back then. Instead I just felt I had let him down again, revealed my to-be-avoided weakness once more).

So until this rain is over, and the ground returns to its normal desert-state, I’m going to do indoor things. And, unlike most days, I will not feel the need to scheme in order to figure out how to get these things done outside, because, well, it’s raining right now in sunny, Southern California. But just for now.

*Albert Hammond – “It Never Rains In Southern California” (1973)

A Day Late: A Dollar Short

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. I want to talk about capitalism. (Might sound like a non-sequitur, but stay with me). Feeling so full today. Full of love — coming in and going out — filled with hope and gratitude and excitement. And a little sorrow. Missing my mother, even as I was so celebrated by my children yesterday. This cycle of life can be a rough one, can’t it? Babies are born, we become mothers, our mothers are grandmothers… Mother’s Day is a funny holiday for many of us. It certainly was for Anna Jarvis.

Anna Maria Jarvis “invented” Mother’s Day in 1908. She wanted something concrete to honor her mother who had died that year. In fact she wanted to honor all mothers, and even identified the white carnation (why is that flower so often reviled? could this be the answer?) as a perfect symbol for the Day. Well, things soon started going awry as far as Miss Jarvis was concerned. The floral and confectionary industries were banking big bucks on the back of her idea. Two years later Hallmark was born — coincidence?! Jarvis had had it:

“A printed card means nothing except that you are too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone in the world. And candy! You take a box to Mother—and then eat most of it yourself. A pretty sentiment.”[21][22]

Jarvis had lost control of this idea, she was no longer at the steering wheel of her original idea of mom-commemoration. So she worked to rescind it! How cool is that? She was like, if you’re going to take my idea and commercialize it into something no longer recognizable as mine, then I want take-backs. Well, we all know what happens when women and other power-minorities cry “appropriation”: a smear campaign ensues. Jarvis was eventually placed in a sanitorium, her stay funded by the nice “people connected with the floral and greeting card industries.”

So, yeah this is a blog about Mother’s Day, kind of, but it’s more a reminder of how for centuries those who are not at the top of the capitalist (social and economic) food chain have things snatched away from them on the regular. Why only recently did Jack Daniels, the Tennessee whiskey distiller, acknowledge that an enslaved man named Jack Green was the one who taught the good men there to make whiskey in the first place. He was even named “head distiller” for a minute, until the realization that that optic would not sit right with too many of the libation’s consumers. And yes, the man has been acknowledged now, but have his ancestors been paid for his labor? You know, the Reparations word. Doesn’t look like it.

Capitalism is pretty fabulous for those who have money to make money. You might notice that many of us suggesting a more expansive thinking on our country’s economic systems are not the ones at the financial top. (Though not always, thanks Bernie Sanders)! I do understand that I participate in, and benefit from, capitalism in a myriad of ways every day. I’m just saying, imagine if financial power was not our country’s top religion, its measuring stick of success, the lofty goal we have been inculcated with. Maybe Miss Jarvis could have kept her day to commemorate all mothers as a simple ceremony of white carnations. (The flower industry actually ran out of white carnations at one point and so introduced the idea of red ones to compliment the holiday bouquets)! And imagine if Mr. Green had a place at the table from the start of the now billion dollar spirits industry, commensurate with his contributions. His family could have enjoyed the benefits of wealth passed down through generations by now, like so many of the White families associated with this particular industry.

Maybe you have an example wherein the love of money (because the Bible does not say that money is the root of all evil, it specifies, “For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:10 KJV). Seems like lots of folk get pierced through by money-lovers. Has there been a time that you, someone you know — or know about — has had their humanity removed in the name of capitalism? I’d love it if you shared that story.

Anyway, Happy Mother’s Day to all. (For some of us lucky ones, most every day feels a lot like Mother’s Day anyway). Peace, love, and white carnations.

Ode to Odes

I just need to say some stuff about poetry and what a medicinal cure it can be. It’s holistic, like poets are a fringe society of healers. Many of you have heard a poem — or even written one — and felt transformed. Like your molecules were rearranged. Or put back in order. Or floated to a grounded place. Whatever the experience, someone said something just right and you were seen, heard, and moved to live larger than you were living the moment before. That’s poetry to me.

My amazing daughter and her fabulous friends gave an online reading from her latest collaboration. The book is called b sides: loose translations in English. It is a collection of poems Kayla wrote, alongside her friend and collaborator Cosi Schietekat’s translations of these works — into her home language of Spanish. Buy it now:

An extremely talented poet, Tatiana, started off today’s reading with several poems of her own, and then Cosi read some of Kayla’s poems in English, as well as a few of her own works, both in English and Spanish. Kayla followed suit with several poems from the book (which is just a gorgeous production) and then some select others not included in the book. Sitting back against a pillow, taking in the magic — words painting thoughts and feelings and shadows — was ever so restorative. We could all use some restoring right about now. Here’s one of Kayla’s:

by Kayla Ephros

Lest you think I have tunnel vision when it comes to poetry and this is all just about one of the most talented and beautifully-spirited daughters anyone could ever have, well, there’s more. I read an article in the Los Angeles Times today about Marianne Faithful and the recordings she has made of old-school English poets like Byron and Keats. Who knew? There is this beautiful music by Warren Ellis that accompanies these powerful readings. Check it out:

The Bible has poems, too. Lots of them. This can really help us challenge what the definition of a poem even is. Where’s the rhythm and the rhyme, Old Testament!? These devices don’t appear too much in books of poems from the Bible, at least not in the translations we have access to. But oh there is most certainly poetry. Hebrew (the early language of the Bible) poetry is apparently big on parallels and opposites. Ecclesiastes was so poetic in its parallels and opposites that some folks a few thousand years later turned around and wrote a song to it.

Here’s the Bible version:

There is a time for everything,

and a season for every activity under heaven:

a time to be born and a time to die,

a time to plant and a time to uproot,

a time to kill and a time to heal,

a time to tear down and a time to build,

a time to weep and a time to laugh,

a time to mourn and a time to dance,

a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,

a time to embrace and a time to refrain,

a time to search and a time to give up,

a time to keep and a time to throw away,

a time to tear and a time to mend,

a time to be silent and a time to speak,

a time to love and a time to hate,

a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, New International Version

I’m just saying, go find a poem. Or write one. Be one: free verse, sonnet, epic. Look, I know National Poetry Month is over, but just like Black History Month most of us are way behind in the knowledge and experience of the month’s topic. So go for it, extend the month. Extend the months as a matter of fact and read a Black poet. Like this painful beauty right here, which I memorized as a kid:



(For Eric Walrond)

Once riding in old Baltimore,   
   Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,   
I saw a Baltimorean
   Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
   And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
   His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”

I saw the whole of Baltimore
   From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
   That’s all that I remember.

Destinations and Destiny

I want to write about today’s sermon. (So yeah, God’s gonna show up in this blog). I imagine it’s not easy to give an inspiring sermon from a screen. I mean you are literally flattened as a preacher, expressing ideas and observations through a medium that everyone is tired of looking at. But today “my” Pastor (I haven’t had a chance to officially join this church yet so I have to put that in quotes, I think) Lucious Smith of Friendship Pasadena Church gave a sermon!

Now a lot of times when we hear sermons –or TED Talks, or literary readings, or the like — that speak to us it is because, as much as anything, we were meant to hear it. I mean sometimes it’s a snippet of dialogue on a bus (remember buses?!), or a poem shared on social media, but when a preacher preaches well then it really travels deep inside you. Preaching, really preaching, in my amateur view necessitates humility plus passion. Take a moment to think of how many people you know who walk around with those two characteristics. Pastor Smith seems to be one of those people.

The sermon title today was The Road to Revival. Friendship Pasadena Church apparently has a history that includes a moment where friction turned to faction in the church. Friendship is not alone in this experience, as many churches undergo seasons of change. Pastor was briefly recounting, in his sermon, that particular history while also paralleling the moment with the times we are in now. “From Survival to Revival,” was the theme. As in, we’re not trying to “go back to normal,” but instead to go forward to what is yet to come, what we are yet to do. I love this right here. After all, no one I know really believes we should be going back to much of anything. Logistically, perhaps (like attending concerts), but not socially(racism), culturally(individualism), politically(nationalism), etc. We clearly have far, far to go.

Part of being revived, of participating in a revival, is following visions that we Christians believe emanate from God. It’s so cool to see visions, to imagine what could be. I am sure many of you have had such visions, and followed through on them. You may well be sitting in your vision at this moment. I am in one of mine, for sure: California living with a yard to call my own. I saw that. Thing is, it’s what we do with these visions that really matters, Smith reminds us. Like we need to be patient and not push to make the thing happen immediately. We also have to be faithful, to God, and also to the process, whatever that seems to be looking like. And we have to be diligent. Like you have stuff to do in order to facilitate that vision. As Pastor Smith said, and has repeated in the past several times, sometimes we are waiting around for God to do the thing God’s waiting around for us to do! Crazy to think about, right?

Another component of being revived — individually or collectively — is repentance. You’re about to see one reason I really vibe with this Pastor, because he’s interested in word origins, too! So, repent comes from the Greek for think differently. It’s not necessarily about rending your clothes so much as about changing your mindset. “…rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13). And by the way it’s much easier to tear a shirt than change a thought. Just saying. One of the things Smith suggests we might need to repent for? “Small expectations.” Yeah, like if we really want to learn to sew, as a friend revealed to me recently, then make a big plan. Sign up for a class because you have the goal of sewing a dress for your first day back at the office; or making shirts for all the kids on the team you coach. Whatever you do, don’t just say, “I’m going to learn to sew some day.” That’s kind of insulting to God, like going to the ice cream store and exclaiming how good everything looks and then walking out the door. (Top of my head metaphor, c’mon)!

Pastor Smith said that “God gives us everything in seed form.” Wow. I was thinking how impatient I am with planting seeds in my garden. How they just take too long to bear flowers and that I end up buying potted plants and herbs because I don’t want to wait! Yikes. Plant the seeds and do whatever it is you need to be doing while the seed grows. Prepare yourself for the fruit of the seed. For me that might mean learning how to garden in the desert after living for three decades on the East Coast. (Where I wasn’t such a Green Thumb anyway)!

There are things we just might not be able to do. Truth. But God can do anything. If I believed all the people who said I couldn’t do anything, that I was making a mistake, a dumb decision, I would be so far from my revival path. But I had faith that the visions would not have come to me in the first place if I was not supposed to see them, and act upon them. One can be “responsible,” explained Pastor Smith, that’s a good thing to be at times. But, “then there’s God…” That’s the supernatural stuff we don’t have the ability to create, but sure have witnessed in our lives. All I can say is, Can I get a witness?! Seriously, what are you reviving? In yourself? Your family? Your community? This weary world? I’d love to know. And peace be with you as you go.