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Be the Change #44: Keep a Sabbath

My mother and father-in-law were old fashioned people.  Raised on farms, they each lost a parent early in life.  Pop-pop was raised by his grandparents, who had been born in themid-19th century.  Muni remembered attending religious-revival camp meetings during her childhood in the 1920s.  Their manners were old-fashioned, their morals were old-fashioned, and, oh my, did they have a 19th-century work ethic.

Pop-pop worked as a contractor and then building inspector until his early 70s.  Then he volunteered teaching woodworking at a retirement home until he was past 80.  Muni had scaled back a bit on the home front by the time I knew her, because she had a full-time job outside the home by then. But during my husband’s childhood, she maintained a large garden and a small orchard, from which she canned hundreds of jars of fruits and vegetables every summer.  She home-sewed her children’s clothes were home-made and made ice-cream in a hand-cranked wooden ice-cream freezer (which Al and I still own but don’t use). 

Staunch Lutherans, they never missed Sunday church.  And when church was done, they continued to keep a Sabbath by doing…nothing.  The occasional Sunday family dinners were raucous affairs with a dozen or so children and grandchildren elbow-to-elbow around the dining-room table, all talking at once.  But most of their Sundays were very quiet.  Muni cooked meals, but they otherwise did no work and rarely left the house after they got home from church.  In the summer, cool breezes drifted the white sheers in billows through the open windows.  In winter, a fire burned in the fireplace.  They read the newspaper or the Bible, and chatted quietly about some newspaper article or the day’s sermon or news of friends from church. Pop-pop usually dozed off for a while to the soothing ticking of the 19th-century clocks they had inherited from ancestors (Al and I have one of those, too, and sometimes if he is patient and fussy enough, he can get it to run for a few days). 

What is most touching to me is that they could always be counted on to be THERE.  If we happened to be out their way and decided to stop, we could be sure they’d be home – and invite us to stay to dinner.  Their friends and neighbors knew it, too, and so they often had unexpected – and very welcome – visitors.  Because they had no plans for the afternoon, unexpected company was no trouble to them.  They were happy to see you and have you spend as much time sitting with them as you wanted.  Imagine that in one of our busy homes today, where mom has to get the kids to hockey practice and dad is catching up on email from work.  An unexpected guest would be an intrusion.  You wouldn’t dream of just dropping in on someone in this century. 

And I think that’s too bad.  There’s a lot to be said for living at a slow-enough pace that an unexpected visitor is a delight.  And there is a lot to be said for rest.  Muni and Pop-pop worked hard for most of their lives, but they rested on Sundays – and they both lived into their 90s.  Lately, I’ve been trying to keep our Sundays free of commitments.  We don’t always stay home all day.  Sometimes we plan a hike, or a trip to a museum.  But mostly, especially this winter, we just stay home.  After church, we make soup or stew, put some music on, and settle down on the couch with the newspaper – while, when it’s in the mood, that old clock ticks with its quiet 19th-century dignity.

Wendell Berry wrote:

“The mind that comes  to rest is tended

In ways that it cannot intend:

Is borne, preserved and comprehended

By what it cannot comprehend.

Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps  us by

Your will, not ours.  And it is fit

Our only choice should be to die

Into that rest, or out of it.” 

This week, take a day off.  Give yourself the gift of a Sabbath.


Be the Change #43: Grace

I just finished reading a wonderful book, Grace by Paul Lynch.  It’s about the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s, but, more deeply, it’s the story of everybody’s life.

14-year-old Grace is wakened by her mother in the wee hours one morning.  Mam cuts off Grace’s hair, dresses her in boy’s clothes and sends her out on the road to fend for herself.  She can no longer manager to feed all of her children, and she doesn’t like the way Grace’s step-father has started looking at her.

The horrors that Grace endures, and her stubborn spirit, make for a story that is hard to put down.  Just as the fields have been corrupted by the potato rot, Grace is corrupted by her experiences.  The Irish people as a community are corrupted, as the veneer of civilized behavior is worn away by privation and an every-man-for-himself ethos prevails. 

Grace’s salvation comes at the hands of a very flawed group of human beings.  Giving a clever double meaning to the book’s title, Grace is the beneficiary of grace, in an unexpected way. 

It occurred to me, as I neared the end of the book, that Grace’s basic story is everybody’s life story. 

Everyone is ruined in some way.  This life is a beautiful miracle, but it can also be brutal in big, tragic ways or  in slow, small ways that accumulate like a weight on your back.  Some of us had addicted parents or other traumatic childhood experiences.  Your heart is broken by someone you loved.  A career setback proves to be unrecoverable.  Someone you love dies far too young.  You are disabled, or stricken with a chronic illness, raped or mugged or your house burns down.  And then there are the everyday insults of having to make a living:  tedious work for 40 years, unkind bosses and co-workers,  long, miserable commutes, the sheer weariness of getting up at 6 a.m. day after day after day.  “Life has a way of breaking everyone,” Hemingway said.  We are all broken.   Most of us are more tired than we like to admit.

And, like Grace, we are saved by other imperfect human beings.  I’m a Christian, so I believe that our salvation is in Jesus – ultimately.  But, day by living, breathing day, our salvation is in each other.  You are ill or disabled, but your spouse sticks around and takes care of you.  Your work is tedious, but your co-workers make you laugh.  You are hungry and think you are alone, and a local church group delivers food to your door.  A friend betrays  you, and the next day a neighbor you barely know shovels your walk for you and you invite him in for coffee.  This is what happens to my main character, Leona, in The Saint’s Mistress.  She suffers an unbearable loss, and is only healed when an old friend re-enters her life and gives her a glimpse of God’s grace and a reason to go on.    In a hard world, God grants us the grace of each other.

Every single person you meet is broken in some way.  This week, be the grace in someone’s life.


Be the Change #42: Why I Marched

250,000 in Chicago.  600,000 in Los Angeles.  A total of more than 4 million world-wide.   Measured on volume, the 2018 Women’s Marches were a great success.  For those of us who participated, it was spirit-lifting to be surrounded by singing, chanting, sign-carrying men and women who care about many of the same things.  Civility.  Decency.  A return to a foreign policy based on careful diplomacy instead of impulsive, inflammatory tweets.   The right of all human beings, regardless of race or religion, to freedom and dignity.  The ideal of “liberty and justice for ALL.”

To be sure, many people marched mostly to protest the direction – and, for some, the very legitimacy – of the Trump presidency.  But, it’s not enough to be against something (or someone).  I think it’s important for the movement ignited by the 2016 election to be clear on what we are FOR.

For me personally the march was about protecting the basics of our democratic republic:  the First Amendment, voting rights, fair districts, and getting dark money out of politics.

Just as it’s not enough to be against something; it’s also not enough to be theoretically for something.  The “kumbaya” moment of the march was uplifting and inspiring, but it should be just a start.  That’s why I donate to the ACLU, and volunteer with the anti-gerrymandering group Fair Districts PA.  That’s why I’ll be involved in voter-registration efforts between now and the midterm elections in November.

Political involvement was not in my plans for my 60s.  My plan was to retire, do some more writing and gardening, travel with my husband, and enjoy my grandchildren.  But the 2016 election and the year that followed broke my heart, and I’m not willing to just sit and be broken.  Al and I want our children and grandchildren to enjoy the same freedoms that we and our parents did.  And that takes action.  Marching is fine and feels good.  It puts our current government on notice that there will be a price to be paid at the polls in November.  But we really make a difference with what we do after the march.

What will you do to help move our blessed and beloved country toward the vision of freedom, justice and dignity for all?


Be the Change #41: Do what the pope says

When I was young, I assumed that I would live a big, exciting life, full of great achievements.  Instead, at 62, I look back on a life of patient devotion to purpose:  to my 35-year marriage, to raising our children, to building a career and some financial security.  I didn’t always feel patient, devoted or purposeful, by any means.  I often felt confused, or wildly angry and resentful, or just plain tired.  The siren song of “living your dreams” frequently beckoned, except I didn’t really have another dream. 

I wanted the life I had, just easier. 

I wanted my devotion to be immediately and consistently rewarded.  Instead, I had to persist in the face of obstacles, problems and my own repeated small failures. 

I wanted ego rewards, and instead had to learn to submit my ego to the needs of my family and the demands of my life.   

I don’t think I’m alone in this.  I think this is pretty much the life story of almost every decent human being on the planet.   

And I’ve just discovered a lovely phrase for it, courtesy of Pope Francis.  Here is what the Pope has to say about those of us who are deeply flawed, struggle against both our own wayward nature and the disappointments of life, and yet show up every day and do our best for our families and communities.  In his New Year’s Eve homily, the Pope said that he feels “sympathy and gratitude for all those persons who, every day, contribute with small but precious gestures to the common good, who seek to do their duty as well as possible.”  He calls these people “artisans of the common good.”

The theme of this blog for the past year has been Be The Change.  But, it’s easy to forget, when the world’s need is so great, that we don’t have to solve every problem.  Sometimes it is enough to do the work before you to the best of your energy and ability – and occasionally beyond the limits of your energy and ability, if needed.  Sometimes it is enough, as Mother Theresa said, to “do small things with great love.”

This week, be an artisan of the common good.  Maintain your devotion to your family, your community and the work that you do.  Be courteous and kind to the people God puts in front of you. 

But be compassionate to yourself, too.  Know when you are doing enough.   

NOTES:

I wasn’t able to find the full text of the Pope’s homily but here’s a LINK to a nice synopsis.

Also of interest is this DAVID BROOKS COLUMN that quoted the Pope and got me curious about the homily.  Brooks uses courteous driving as an example of being an artisan of the common good.


Be the Change #40: Dare to be Open

Raising children sometimes feels like a 25-year emergency.  You’re in the eye of the hurricane all the time, from sleepless nights with babies, to constant chauffering with tweens, to the college and post-college years when they’re moving in an out of your house every few months, with their mystifying electronics and 35 pairs of sneakers. 

Then, suddenly, they’re out on their own for good.  The quiet settles like dust, and many parents wonder what they’re going to do with themselves now.  Some people take up golf or bicycling.  Some just settle in front of the TV and wait for grandchildren.  Many find satisfying volunteer work. 

My co-worker Rick and his wife Carol chose to work on their spiritual growth via connections with other human beings.

Rick and Carol have been committed Christians all their lives, and in recent years, as their 3 children matured and left home one by one, Rick talked a lot about planning the next phase of their lives, often speaking wistfully of friends who were overseas doing missionary work. 

As it turned out, they didn’t have to cross an ocean to find their mission.  They are gregarious people, and also enjoy being “problem solvers” as Rick puts it.  They love being a shoulder to cry on, and helping if they can, when a friend is having trouble:  divorce, death in the family, wayward children, illness, emotional upsets.  They recently doubled down on that when a friend’s daughter, who has a physical disability, needed a place to live.  Rick and Carol welcomed her into their home, where she stayed for several months until she was on her feet again. 

Their experience with Rachel inspired them to want to reach out more, and they decided that they wanted to put a special emphasis on making friends with people who are different from them.  Shortly after Rachel moved out, a young African-American man was going door-to-door selling magazine subscriptions while Carol was outside raking leaves.  Carol not only bought a subscription, but had a long chat with him and ended up inviting him into their house.  Over the course of one conversation with this young man, these two white Christian conservatives learned some things about racism, mass incarceration and the private prison system that they honestly hadn’t known before.  They were shocked and appalled, just as those of us on the left have been appalled by those same things for a long time.  But they truly hadn’t known – until it was made personal for them by a young man to whom they had the courage to open their hearts. 

There is so much to learn from their experience. 

First, there is no substitute for person-to-person connection.  I’ve felt that for a long time, and Rick’s story just reinforces it.  Now more than ever, we must connect with others, and, like Rick and Carol, I believe we must make a special effort to connect with people who are unlike us or might disagree with us.

Second, when we make those contacts, we have to be open to being changed.  I would go so far as to say that it isn’t really contact if you go into it thinking that you’re going to have an impact on the other person but they aren’t going to have any impact on you.  Because Rick and Carol were committed to spiritual growth – which inevitably implies change – their hearts and minds were opened.  Yes, that can happen – but only when we put the human connection ahead of our ideology. 


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