Song of Peace

Fireworks behind statue of liberty

“This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.”
–Lloyd Stone, 1912-1992/3, written in the interval between WWI and WWII when he was only 22

This song is one that our choir has sung several times around the 4th of July. I love it because it reminds me that just as we in the USA feel strongly about our country, its beauty, and our patriotism, so do people of other countries love their land, its beauty, and they are patriots too.

Over the years I have come to appreciate the freedoms we so often take for granted in the United States. I love my country, despite many things I see that make me recoil. A few things that come to mind are racial prejudice, the rich lording it over the rest of us, crooked politicians, a callous attitude toward those who are less fortunate than we, an air of superiority, and insistence that one point of view is right while everyone else’s is wrong. But though there are a lot of things that are wrong with our country, there are also many things that are right with it.

Traveling outside the U.S. has a way of making you see our country differently. When my husband and I visited Spain for a couple of weeks in March, I thought it was interesting to watch the news. There wasn’t much about the United States on their news. Oh, my…does that mean America is not the center of the universe, as we sometimes think we are?

This was our second trip to Europe; the first was 30 years ago. When we got home after that trip, I was so thankful for many things I’d taken for granted: air conditioning, ice in drinks, clean public restrooms without having to pay an attendant, being able to communicate in a common language. After our trip to Spain, I realized my perspective has shifted. We Americans are often spoiled. We visit other countries and expect things to be the way they are here. Well, they’re not.

I enjoyed our trip to Spain. We found the people friendly and helpful. Of course, it helped that I was able to communicate in Spanish. Not fluently, but my conversational Spanish was passable and I understood most of what I heard.

I’ve often heard it said that people are reflections of the way you treat them. If they treat you kindly, perhaps it’s because you send out vibes of kindness. If they are nasty toward you, maybe it’s because they sense some ugliness in you. Or maybe they’re just kind or nasty on their own…I don’t know.

On this trip, rather than thinking about what I missed about home, I started thinking about the advantages of being in another culture. It’s good to experience a slower pace of life, to linger over a meal for a while, to be anonymous in a crowd, to not feel like everyone owes me something (I don’t think I have that attitude as an American, but perhaps some of it is engrained in me).

I did come to appreciate the virtues of toilet tissue and having a commode seat (we ate in a few restaurants in Sevilla where these “amenities” were not available). I was also glad I took along a purse-size package of Kleenex.

Well, I am getting distracted now because my family is in the kitchen, so I will close. No really deep thoughts here, just appreciation for our country and its freedoms and the right to express my opinion and the right for others to disagree with me and the prayer that we will learn to appreciate the differences of others and embrace diversity and learn to practice compassion, listen more and talk less, and be a little more tolerant and forgiving of those who “push our buttons.” That is all.

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Making Sense of the Senseless

Like many Americans, I am grappling with the tragic shootings at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this week. I heard President Obama making yet another comment about a mass shooting, the 12th one he’s had to make since he’s been in office. I’ve briefly watched news reports of the senseless murder in, all of places, a church sanctuary where people were gathered for Bible study and prayer.

Yesterday I was shocked to hear the news media report that Dylann Storm Roof, age 21, had almost changed his mind about killing the 9 people inside this African American church because they were so nice and welcoming to him. Almost changed his mind.

And meanwhile the city of Charleston and this lovely African Methodist Episcopal Church and our nation are reeling.

“We are not African Americans, we are not black Americans, we are Americans across the board,” Edward Johnson, pastor of New Vision Cathedral in Lincolnville, South Carolina, said. “We have to address what race is because what we are calling race now is a lie. It is evil.”

As a white person who has grown up in the South, I’m not sure I am even qualified to speak to this issue. I do not know the pain of my black brothers and sisters, nor can I really relate to all they have been through in their history and its aftermath.

As a Christian, I am so, so sad to witness yet another senseless shooting, and this one so racially motivated…and motivated by hate. I don’t have words to describe my feelings. Maybe my feelings are not that important.

But I do know it is high time we start to address the underlying issues that have caused this tragedy. I want to have dialogue with people of color whose experience is so different from my own. I want to understand where they are coming from. I want to do my part to end the hatred and racism that continually rears its ugly head. I want to do something positive, uplifting. But right now all I can do is grieve and pray … and look at the people of Emanuel AME Church and admire their brave, forgiving response in the aftermath of such a senseless, horrific event. The families of the victims have expressed forgiveness. Would that I could do the same, show the same grace that they have, if something like this happened to one of my family members.

This church has lost its pastor and three other pastors. Six of the nine who were killed were women. The dead include a librarian, a high school coach and speech therapist, a college enrollment counselor, a recent college graduate, and a government employee. Meanwhile the city of Charleston and others are looking for ways to “move beyond” this tragedy and help prevent recurrence of similar incidents.

How does one move beyond such an event as took place this past Wednesday? Many of us try to rush on, try to fast-forward through the news, not wanting to dwell on a dark, dark situation.

May each of us examine ourselves, our own prejudices, and rouse ourselves to action. But may that action be preceded by much thought, prayer, and conversation with others who have radically different life experiences and points of view.

May we all be humble enough to let others be our teachers.

God, help us all.

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Parting Words

I sent my love out the door
with a kiss and the words
“I love you. Be careful today.”

Some would say I fret too much.
I prefer to think that I am aware of
all the things that could happen…
and I want to leave my love with
words of blessing
instead of fussiness.

Too often I have rushed by him
barely brushing my lips against his
and casually saying, “See you later,”
or sometimes in anger,
“Have a NICE day” (if we have exchanged
some heated words that morning).

Later I think,
“What if these were the last words
I ever said to my spouse?”
None of us knows what could happen
during the day
to those we love.

I’ve had that truth brought home
to me too often.
One of my daughter’s friends
succumbed to depression
and took her own life.
A colleague fell ill about a year ago
and died.
The husband of one of my coworkers
was struck by a 30-foot limb of a tree
and was seriously injured.
Three people at my church have
had biking accidents in recent weeks.

So as my love goes out the door
and returns two or three times
to pick up a forgotten item
I smile and think,
“Yes, have a good day…
and be safe.”

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On a Crispy English Muffin

I forgot to check the setting on the toaster this morning
when I stuffed my English muffin in it.
It came out crispy and almost burnt,
reminding me of times my mother would fix toast
right before we left on a trip.
The toast popped out of the toaster
black and dry.
But Mom would never throw it away.
Her Great Depression upbringing
taught her to use every crumb,
for there might not be more.

I remember watching her stand over our garbage can
with a table knife, scraping the blackness from the toast
and wrapping it in aluminum foil.
That toast was never any good,
but I ate it anyway
because my mom had labored so hard to preserve it.

So now I eat my crispy…some would say burnt…
English muffin,
smeared with cream cheese and slathered with plum jam
and the sweetly crisp texture and flavor
take me back to days gone by…

Days when my mother worried about my getting carsick,
though to my memory I never did.
It was my cousin Jan who got carsick
whenever she was in the backseat,
and I guess my mom feared the same would happen to me
as we set off on a journey over winding roads
through the hills of Virginia, West Virginia, and finally Pennsylvania.

The aluminum foil-wrapped toast was my
antidote against carsickness.
And I guess it worked,
though it tasted awful.

I wonder what kind of antidote
my English muffin is for today.

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Relationships are messy.

What has led to this “insight”? you may wonder. I had a phone conversation with a relative yesterday after I had written her a note. I decided to write her a note as part of my daily writing practice, rather than e-mailing her or phoning her as I often do. Usually she is the one to initiate contact with me.

I have decided this relative is crazy, because I didn’t say anything I thought was offensive in my note. It was basically a cheery note telling her that I was thinking of her, hoping her eyes were better (she’s had cataract surgery recently and a longstanding problem with her eyes) and that life had settled down somewhat.

The response I got was basically a notice that she is no longer going to have contact with me or my family. She won’t send any more birthday cards or Christmas cards. I am not to give her another subscription to The Upper Room, the daily devotional guide that my workplace produces. It only complicates her life. I am not to e-mail her or call her. She then said, “Well, have a nice life.”

Well, damn. I try as much as possible to live out my Christianity, following the scriptural admonition “As much as possible, live at peace with everyone.” But sometimes I just want to throw in the towel when it comes to family relationships.

This is not the only relative in our extended family with whom we have little to no contact.

One of my relatives lost his wife several years ago and has since made himself unavailable to talk. He comes to family occasions such as weddings, but he doesn’t stay in one place very long, so it’s hard to have any conversation with him. He sends us a Christmas gift of oranges and grapefruit every year (supporting a teenager, I suppose, by buying the citrus fruit). I like citrus fruit, but every year we wind up throwing some away because we can’t eat it all. I’ve taken some to the office to share with others. Anyway, it kind of irritates me that he gives this gift when he won’t talk to me. At a family wedding about 3 years ago, I walked over to his table, and he kept moving away from me. I finally grabbed hold of his arm and said, “I would like to talk to you. Quit running away from me!” Of course the conversation was awkward, and it didn’t last long. I guess I should take solace in the fact that he deigns to answer my occasional e-mails to him, though briefly. I have started communicating with him briefly too. After all, I have made many efforts over the years to stay in touch. I recognize that he is grieving, and we all handle grief as best we can and in different ways. I respect that. I’m trying to give him the space he seems to need. I don’t like that the relationship is all on his terms, but I have come to accept that that’s just the way things are.

And another relationship is completely estranged. This has been going on for probably 7 years. We are dead to this family, and I’m pissed off about it, but again, there’s not much I can do. Except pray.

There. I’ve aired my dirty laundry. I am my mother’s daughter–she was always the peacemaker in the family. And as far as I know, she got along with everyone, except for her oldest half brother, who had no contact with the entire family of 11 children. I have tried to follow her example. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about a relationship. I’ve done what I could to make things right, and I just need to trust that God will work out the details.

But every time I read Matthew 5:23-24, I feel guilty. “If you are offering your gift and the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” And when I pray the Lord’s Prayer and get to the part “and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” I get a catch in my throat.

God, you know my heart. You know I want to live peacefully with others, especially those in my own family. How can I reconcile with those who won’t talk to me? Please show me how to be at peace with myself and help me do the right thing. Thank you for working in my life in ways that I can’t see to make things right…eventually. In the meantime, I pray for these persons with whom I have difficult relationships. Watch over them, soften their hearts, and help me to be patient. Amen.

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You Were Gone Too Soon

Today is Mother’s Day.
I remember how you used to wear a red rose
every year on Mother’s Day to indicate
that your mom was still living …
then a white rose after she died at age 96.
We had rose bushes out in our side yard,
on a little bank next to my aunt Reb’s garage,
so it wasn’t much trouble to find a red rose.
After Mamaw died in 1983, I don’t remember
whether the white rose you wore came from our yard
or if Daddy bought you a corsage at the grocery store.
I was in my 20s, in my early married years, living in Nashville,
generally oblivious of what went on in my parents’ lives.

I would have paid more attention
if I had known you wouldn’t be with us for many more years.
In the summer of 1984, you kept a persistent low-grade fever
and things generally weren’t well with you.
Daddy would tell me over the phone what was going on,
and I felt helpless to respond.
Oh Mom, I wish I’d been a little more in tune
and had encouraged Daddy more to relentlessly explore
what was going on with you.
We didn’t have the Internet then to look up symptoms
and fret over all the awful things that might be wrong with us.
Maybe it was just as well.

In 1985 you were diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease …
and you began your slow decline into tremors, forgetfulness, dementia,
all part of the cruel progress of your disease.
Too bad Michael J. Fox hadn’t yet been diagnosed with Parkinson’s;
when celebrities get ill, people seem to suddenly take notice
and often donate money to foundations that fund research.
Too bad they didn’t have the medical advances, research, and surgeries
that are available today.

I remember our last visit with you before Daniel was born.
It was Christmas 1986.
I cried and cried when John and I left Kingsport that year,
knowing somehow that I had to enter
this journey of motherhood largely on my own,
without your guidance, reassurance, advice, and cheering me on.

When Daniel was born, I wanted you, Mom.
You weren’t able to leave familiar surroundings by that point.
I got the postpartum “blues” in a bad way.
I cried and cried, overwhelmed by the thought
that I was responsible for this sweet, dependent baby …
and I had no idea how to be a mom.
I didn’t know then that one doesn’t suddenly learn how to mother.
It happens gradually, with experience and the support of friends and family, and often through trial and error.

I called my Aunt Reb from the hospital.
My obstetrician, a wise man, could tell I was
in bad shape emotionally, and, kindly, he approved
a longer hospital stay for me. (Those were the days when
insurance didn’t kick you out the door the day after your
baby was born.)
I begged Reb to come to Nashville and help out.
I knew that John would help,
but I needed a mother figure.
John’s mom was 80 years old. I felt close to her, but not enough
to depend on her for the emotional support I so badly needed.

Reb came to Nashville a couple of days
after we brought Daniel home.
Aunt Myrt and Uncle Paul drove her to our house,
and Aunt Myrt helped with Daniel’s first bath.
I was scared to death that I would drop Daniel and injure him for life!

Reb stayed for a week, and gradually my frayed nerves
began to heal, and my hormones calmed down.
When Aunt Myrt and Uncle Paul left with her a week later,
I watched out the window, holding Daniel, as their car rolled
down the street.
“It’s just you and me, baby,” I whispered to him. I may have
shed another few tears, but I figured I would be all right.
I was never alone — I had John and friends at church and work
and my mother-in-law to help encourage me
and teach me how to be a mom.

By the time Julie arrived, 3 years and 8 months later,
I felt much different about this experience called motherhood.
I welcomed Julie joyfully,
barely taking time to recover from her birth.
When she was 4 days old, my dad and I took Daniel to the park,
leaving Julie behind in her daddy’s care.
There was no time to stop and think
about all the changes in our lives.
And it was okay.
With a few years of experience under my belt,
I was comfortable with the thought of
being a mom,
no longer overwhelmed.

Mom, you held Julie for the first and last time
when she was 6 weeks old.
By then you could no longer talk much,
but you took pleasure in holding your granddaughter.
I captured the moment with our camera.

And when Julie was only 6 months old (and Daniel was 4),
you left this world.
I cried once again, the first of many times,
for I knew my children wouldn’t remember you
except vicariously through the stories I told them about you.

So it is in life:
we experience love and loss,
joy and sadness,
and somehow we manage to get through
with the help of faith, family, and friends.

I was fortunate to have you as my
mother and mentor
for 32 1/2 years.
You remain in my memories.
I will never forget you and your
positive, kind, funny, hardworking, dedicated, faithful example.

You live on, Mom, inside me
and in the lives of your grandchildren
through the many lessons you taught me.
I am grateful.

Though you were gone too soon,
You made a difference in our lives.

I might have worn a red rose a few times
while you were living (mostly during my childhood and adolescence).
Today I will wear a white rose to honor you
in my imagination.
We don’t have any rosebushes,
and I forgot the rose tradition when I went to the grocery store yesterday.

Yet, I will remember
and I will see your smile,
hear your voice,
and I will always love you
with all my heart.

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Pausing for Gratitude

This morning I awoke with a heart full of gratitude. My life isn’t perfect, but as we say in my native East Tennessee, it’s “purt near” (pretty close to) that. Allow me to explain.

First, my husband and I were fortunate to be able to go on a trip to Spain for two weeks this March, something we’d been saving for for over 2 years. Our daughter has been there since September 2013, assisting teachers at an elementary school. She graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, MS, in May 2013 with a Spanish major, a concentration in voice (in between a minor and a major; she had to give a junior and senior voice recital), and experience in theater. With all of her college activities and our financial status at the time, we were unable to work it out for her to do a study-abroad program. The one she selected was $12,000 for a semester (and that didn’t include tuition at Millsaps). We simply could not swing that financially. I told her at the time that though she was disappointed, I bet we could find a way for her to go abroad after graduation. She did a lot of investigation and discovered that for a fraction of the cost (around $2,500) she could go to Spain for an entire year with the same program that would have cost $12,000 for a semester.

Our plan was to go visit her the first year she was in Madrid. But in November 2013 my 90-year-old dad (almost 91) was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. We wound up moving him from Canton, NC to our home so he could be with us while undergoing treatment. He responded well to oral and IV chemo and lived with us for 13 months. When he went to the doctor in November 2014, his white blood cell count was in the normal range and the doctor used the word “remission” to describe his condition. He was scheduled for another infusion in January. Meanwhile, my husband (John) had been pushing me to find assisted living for my dad. Daddy had taken a couple of spills at our house…not serious falls that resulted in broken bones, but enough to alarm us a bit.

Ironically, we began our search for assisted living at the busiest time of year, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Daddy had been on a waiting list for a place in Canton, NC since November 2013 (he and I had visited a few places around Halloween and he decided that he liked one of them, so he paid a deposit to be placed on the waiting list). He got two calls from the admissions director while he was in Nashville, one in November, I believe, and another in March. At that time he was not strong enough (nor had he undergone enough treatment) to make the move, so he had to decline.

In early December 2014 John and I had narrowed down our choices to three assisted living facilities in Nashville. I visited one near our church the day of our Feast of Lights (our church’s big Advent concert) dress rehearsal and went home to tell Daddy about it. He was not impressed when I told him it was a high-rise, even though it was located near my work and church and he would have had a great view of downtown Nashville.

In the meantime, John visited an assisted living center a couple of miles from our house and was impressed with it. I went one day after work to check it out, and I too was impressed. We found out a guy who had gone to our previous church was a resident of this senior living community, and he seemed pretty happy with it. I called his daughter to see how her experience of dealing with the assisted living had been, and she told me she was happy with the way they had cared for her dad. We made arrangements for John to take my dad there for lunch one weekday and let him see the senior living community.

The same day John and my dad visited this assisted living near our home, I opened my gmail and discovered and e-mail from the admissions director of the assisted living facility in Canton where my dad had originally wanted to live. I couldn’t help but think the timing was more than just coincidence. When I told my dad later that day (after inquiring about how his visit went to the assisted living near our house and receiving a halfhearted reply that it was “nice”) about the e-mail, his eyes lit up. We talked some more and decided that we would move him back to North Carolina (though I had reservations about being 5 hours away from him).

On December 26 John and I left to take Daddy back to Canton. We spent the weekend at the house where he and his wife (who’s 96 and in a nursing home) had lived since their marriage in 1994. We went to Daddy’s church, First Baptist of Canton, on Sunday. Then on Monday the 29th we moved him to his new home.

So we got back to our life in Nashville and resumed our 3rd interval of the empty nest. We have had only short times of “empty nest” since our younger child went to college in 2009 and our son graduated from college the same year. The first period was from August to December of that year; then Daniel graduated and moved back home for two years. After he moved out in January 2013 into an apartment of his own (YAY! got that young adult launched!), John and I enjoyed a few months of empty nest until Julie’s graduation from college in May. She stayed in Jackson a couple of weeks after graduation so she could participate in her church’s musical production of some big work that I have since forgotten (maybe Mendelssohn’s Elijah?). Anyway, this little chick boomeranged back to our home in late May, and she lived with us until she departed for Spain in September.

All along I’ve had big plans…to turn Julie’s room into a guest room, to invite people to come visit (we’ve never had a spare bedroom because John’s office is in Daniel’s old bedroom), to redecorate our living room, to remodel our kitchen…well, actually, I just wanted new flooring in our kitchen, but that project has grown to a remodel thanks to John’s imagination.

But those plans have had to go by the wayside, because it seems that some surprise always intrudes. In this case it was my dad’s illness. So the next interval of empty nest lasted from mid-September until the end of November, when my dad moved here and took up residence in Julie’s bedroom.

Things got interesting last September when Julie came home for a 3-week visit. We prepared her for the fact that she would not have her own bedroom. We created a makeshift bedroom in our dining room, and she dealt with that quite well. It was good for her to get to spend time with her “Pepaw” (as she & Daniel call their granddad), and her 3-week visit was just long enough.

After my dad moved back to North Carolina, I noticed that over the next few weeks I started to feel more energetic. Now this is something I really appreciate, because I have two autoimmune disorders (I am the queen of weird diseases). For about the previous year and a half, maybe longer, I had been feeling exhausted and just barely getting by thanks to naps and walking and doing yoga.

Gradually I began to sense my spirits lifting. I started walking with a new spring in my step. I spent more time looking up and out at the beauty around me. It occurred to me that a heavy burden had been lifted from my shoulders. This does not mean that everything is perfect in regard to my dad’s health or my own. But for now things are good. Daddy is 92, and I realize he probably won’t be around much longer. While we were in Spain, he had a “spell” when his legs just gave out (collapsed), and the assisted living place called me to report that he had fallen in the bathroom. Turns out he fell twice more that day. My stepsister also called the next day or so to apprise me of the situation. I worried about Daddy, I prayed for him, and I decided there wasn’t a whole lot I could do from Spain besides pray. He improved this time. He has been doing physical therapy, and he is now able to walk again. My stepsister has taken him to a new oncologist, and they are watching him (without treating him with chemo) for now. Our oncologist in Nashville (actually the nurse practitioner, who has been marvelous about supporting us over the past 16 months) said that surveillance is not a bad practice for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

I feel like I have a new lease on life right now. I am grateful to have the energy to clean house. Never thought I would appreciate that! And while John and I were in Spain, I had the energy to walk and walk…at least two days I clocked over 11,000 steps on my pedometer. I returned home to spring in Nashville, indeed a glorious sight, with redbuds, daffodils, tulips, and dogwoods in bloom. I hear birds singing outside our window, and our cat welcomed us home with extra affection. Our son, Daniel, took great care of Lily the cat (I call her Lily Bo Peep because she has a little sheep toy that she just loves) while we were gone. He is now off on an adventure of his own, a road trip to Washington, DC and Philadelphia.

I believe it’s a good practice to pause every now and then (actually, this should be a FREQUENT practice…because it does one’s heart good) to say thank you to God for this marvelous, challenging, wondrous life. Thank you, Lord. My heart is full of love and gratitude for you, especially in the wake of Easter.

Praise be to God for the glorious gifts with which he blesses us each day!

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