Drop your button.

My dad was a storyteller.  A tall, barrel-chested man with a soft voice and a slow smile. My favorite stories he told were about being a Marine.  He would paint a picture of his time at Camp Lejeune, in the swampy heat of a North Carolina summer, and I could see it all right in front of me. The barracks, his friends, the drill instructors–it was all so vivid.  Some of his stories about boot camp we heard more than once through the years. The story about the toothpick was one of those.

When dad first arrived at boot camp he found a toothpick on the ground. I guess he must have had a pretty good idea of how his own psyche worked, because he picked it up and took it back to his bunk with him and hollowed out a little place in the wall where he could hide it. Then, during those long months when his drill instructor was screaming in his face, or waking him in the middle of the night for hours-long workouts, or making him clean latrines he would keep his mind focused on that little wooden toothpick and it carried him through.  He told us no matter what they were doing to him he knew he had something they couldn’t take. A secret they didn’t know about.

Yeah, that would definitely work for me too.  Probably, as the drill sergeant was screaming at me I would have a slight smile on my face that would infuriate him.  Probably, I would clean bathrooms a lot. Probably, it’s a good thing I never went into the Marines as I intended.

Fast forward to many years later when I was reading a book from my church library.  I came across a story about a POW that was held captive for many years.  He was beaten and starved and kept in isolation.  But, somewhere along the way, he found a button.  Just a button.  But, he kept it hidden in different places and it helped him.  When he was going through far worse things than my father endured, he would concentrate on the button. It was something he had that they couldn’t take. It was his.  The only thing that really was. And, it brought him great comfort.

I got excited at this point.  I couldn’t believe the same thing that had worked for my dad was working for this poor man. I kept reading hoping to get to the moment when the man was released and he could throw the button into his captor’s faces and walk away triumphantly.  Silly, immature me.

One of the things the captors did to torture the POW was to move him continuously so that he could never get his bearings. The way they did this was to strap him upside down underneath a truck and transport him for hours with mud and grit splashing continually into his face. Never a stop and never a break. Finally, on one of these trips,  the man cried out to God pleading for deliverance–asking what else could be required of him.  What more could he possibly give?  And, the answer came back clearly, God wanted him to drop his button in the mud. To leave it behind.

I don’t know how you reacted when you just read that sentence, but it made me angry. When I first read it, I threw the book on the floor and paced my living room.  I just didn’t think it was necessary to make this poor man give up his button.  What could it possibly hurt for him to draw comfort from a button given everything he was experiencing?  Why  on earth would God even ask that of him?  Frankly, I thought it was a terrible, inhumane thing to ask.

It took me a long while before I could return to the story and when I did the prisoner did it.  He dropped his button.  Opened his hand and let it go. Watched it splash into the mud and then disappear as he left it behind and traveled further down that dirty, unpaved path with nothing but the Lord. To this day, every time I think about it, I get the chills. Who is this God we love? Why would he ask for that man’s button?

I have chewed on those questions for years and I’m still figuring out the answers.

I can tell you I have been asked to drop some buttons of my own through the years. Things I thought I absolutely needed to live. My folks for instance.  I sure couldn’t have imagined a life without them. But, here it is. Holidays and birthdays and new babies keep coming and neither of them are here to see it.  Also, some really dear friends.  Friends that were  here on Tuesday and then weren’t on Wednesday–that kind of thing.  Thought that would knock me down for good, but it didn’t.  Neither did finding out I had Lupus or watching my daughter move away or selling a house I loved.  None of it has been the end of me.  I am still traveling down this road with mud splashing in my face.  Hurt and broken but alive.  And, still looking for God at every turn.  Hoping for him really.

By the way, the story in my book ended well.  The POW was eventually released. If I could remember the name of the book that spoke about him I would happily tell you. I have spent hours looking for it on the internet to no avail.  Probably, I can’t find it because I would become obsessed with the man and his story instead of God’s. That seems to be the way I roll.  Clutching those buttons with both hands and wishing I was smart enough to let them go. Drawn to this big, huge God that knows what’s best for me even when I don’t. A God that I adore and yearn for even when He confuses and shocks me.   A God that truly is everything to me even as the world and my attachments try to convince me otherwise.

Maybe, a God who is so good He won’t let me be satisfied with a button when I could have him?

Ugh. I don’t know.

Honestly, this whole blog is making my brain hurt.  And I want a cookie. And I don’t think I’m ever going to have all of the answers.  Welcome to my life as a Christian.

 

Harvey.

Because, once again, our body is hurting.

yellowlamplight

My whole body is feeling the pain of Harvey.  I wish I was just talking about my hip I hurt mudding out a house or my head that is killing me from all of the wet, moldy life- piles in front of every house.  But, no, I am talking about my body of people that I love.  They are all feeling the pains of this super storm that shook us all up and then dropped us like so many pick-up sticks. Lives are now scattered and jumbled and tangled.  Everyone is trying to find a way to pick through the mess that is left in a way that gets us all past this.

There is my friend who recently found herself single through no choice of her own.  She spent an entire night by herself in her house trying to keep drains clear and water out of her house.  And…

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To my friend I won’t name.

Not to be trite, but I see you. I see you even though you don’t want to be seen. All the good things you do that nobody ever hears about.  The jackets bought, the lunch dates scheduled, the babies rocked.  I don’t see them because you talk about them or post about them or, heaven forbid, brag about them.  I see them because, sometimes, they just catch up with you on a day that I am there.

Someone stops by the table where we are eating messy hamburgers with toasted buns– working diligently to keep the juices under control.  The person will stop and speak to you and you will put your hand up to cover your mouth full of food and smile warmly at them.  Ask them how they are doing.  Found a job yet?  How’s the baby?  Did y’all make it back from your trip ok?  Then, just before the person walks away they will say quietly, “Thank you.  We wouldn’t have made it without you.” You will duck your head quickly and put your hand out to touch their arm.  Smile and send them on their way.  We will continue fighting the battle of our hamburgers and one or the other of us will take a long pull of our Dr.Pepper.  Anything to keep from having a conversation about what just happened.  But, I will grin– happy to have you as my friend and happy to be eating lunch with you even though I have lost the battle with the juices and they are running down my arm.

Sometimes, I won’t be there on that day, but I will hear about it another way.  My phone will ring.  A mutual acquaintance calling and I will answer wondering what’s up.  An excited voice will ring back, “You won’t believe what she did for us! It was just so nice and it made our whole day.” I will answer with a laugh in my voice. “She’s a keeper that’s for sure.” Then I will hang up the phone and sit down to say a quick prayer for you and to wonder.

Wonder how many kind things you have done on the sly.  How many needs you have met without any expectation of thanks or recognition.  How many groups you’ve led or rides you’ve given or hospital visits you’ve made.  It’s one of the things I’m looking forward to in heaven. That day when we all settle in with popcorn and watch the movie of your kindness.  I really can’t wait.  What a joy that will be!  I’ll clap and cheer and probably get popcorn everywhere.

I will do this because you are a guidepost.  I don’t know if you know that, but you are.  When I feel the urge to do something nice, I always think of you.  How would you handle it?  What would you do for this person in need or hurting?  How would you show Christ to them?  Some answer always come back. Sometimes, I am smart enough to follow through and sometimes I am not. (I don’t think it’s a secret that you are nicer than me!)

But, always, your example is there.  Floating in front of me.  Do nice things and keep your mouth closed about it.  Do them because they reflect your heart.  Because love is always a good choice.  Because you are on the path to becoming more like Christ and loving people quietly is a good way to make some progress on that journey.

I have been a part of so many Bible studies.  Mark this.  Color that yellow. Memorize this.  And, I have learned from all of them.  But, I have learned the most about what it means to be a Christian by watching friends like you.  Friends that love people.  Naturally and honestly and with their cars and kitchens and spare change.

So, I have this little hope.  I hope that someday one of my own good things catches up with me while we are eating lunch somewhere.  Maybe, a salad for a switch, and I will have lettuce stuck in my teeth as someone stops by to tell me thank you.  I will reach out and touch their arm and when they leave you will be grinning at me and taking a long draw of your Dr. Pepper.  My face will flush because I won’t know how to handle it gracefully, but you won’t say a word and neither will I.  Because, you have taught me that to talk about the good things we do is to cheapen them. Instead, let them swirl and journey until they find their way back to a lunch table with a blue checked tablecloth and mismatched salt and pepper shakers.  Then, they will land safely and do the job they’re meant to do.  To encourage someone further back on the path to keep trying.  To follow. To understand that there are good people doing good things for absolutely no glory. No glory except to follow our Christ and to share His love with the world.

That’s why I want that day to happen.  I want you to know that you have made a difference in my life. That you have been a teacher in addition to being a friend. The way you live out your faith has changed mine and I will be forever grateful for that. I am so, so proud to call you a friend, but don’t worry I won’t name you.  However, I might pick up the lunch tab next time.  Chinese sound good?

Computer thingys.

My little grandson is sick.  My little grandson is sick and I had to leave him and come home.  Things are tough in my world.

To leave him on a good day is hard, but to leave him on a day when his little voice is raspy and his little body is hurting is almost more than this grandma heart can handle.  It’s strep and he will get over it.  Lots of little kids do.  But, those little kids don’t have my daughter’s eyes and her goofy smile.  They don’t have my husband’s birthmark or my mother’s temper.  This little man is so many parts the people I adore that I really have a hard time being rational when it comes to anything concerning him.

Really.  A very hard time.

So, on the morning I had to leave him, I got up the second I heard him cry. I met his mama in the hallway and waved her back to her temporary bed on the couch and I went into his room. Then, I tried everything I knew to make him happy.  No matter that it was 4 a.m.  No matter that there was no coffee in the house.  No matter that the only thing that quieted him was a Barney video.  I thought I had served my time in the world of people who have to watch Barney and was finally free twenty years ago. Alas, that was just life playing a cruel joke on me and I am once again drowning in I love you, you love me…like I mentioned…things are tough.

But, I persevered.  It’s my little grandson.  I would do anything for him.  Even tolerate Barney.  Thankfully, after thirty minutes of school yard songs and children dressed in sweaters looped over their necks and pink socks, my little guy started to calm down and get sleepy.  I was thrilled.  This meant rest for him and it meant I could leave knowing he was peaceful.

So, I sat in his rocker.  I arranged his favorite white blanket under his cheek the way he likes it.  I adjusted his chubby legs so they didn’t dangle and I pulled his blue, bull-dog pjs down over his little tummy.  I was creating the perfect scenario where he would feel how much I love him and go to sleep and have illness-smashing rest.  This was going to happen.

As the final touch, I asked Echo to play Amazing Grace by Alan Jackson.  Usually, I sing it to him as I rock him, but that morning I had too many tears clogging up my voice so I asked Mr. Jackson to fill in.

Now, I am going to tell you this next part only to prove my earlier claim that I struggle to be rational when it comes to this little grandson.  I sat there looking into his blue eyes, feeling my own eyes filling with tears again (I did mention I was minutes away from leaving him!) and feeling the weight of the goodbye hanging between us.  Knowing that it was going to be weeks or even months before I saw this little person again.  Knowing that he would change drastically in that time and knowing that he holds a lot of what makes me really happy within his sweet little self.  It was a very large moment full of love and emotion and sorrow.  And, in the middle of all of that, Echo answered me with absolutely no deference to what was happening.  She was as cheerful as if I had just arrived for the visit.  As if I had weeks to spend with him.  It made me angry.  I’m not kidding.  I felt a flash of irritation for the dumb little disk on his dresser that follows our commands and plays him music.

“You are a stupid machine.” I said, with what I’m sure was an inappropriate amount of derision, and then I glared at her. At it. At whatever it is.

All of this really happened.  I am not attempting to be humorous.  In fact, I am still angry.  I thought about it the whole nine hours home in my truck and, every time I did, I felt another little flash of irritation. It truly upsets me that so much of our life and relationships are shared by a tangle of wires and numbers and computer thingys that will never understand the emotion held in a single life moment.  That when you are holding your sick little grandson and rocking him to sleep and waiting for his eyes to flutter shut– it is one of the best and worst moments that has ever unfolded.  Best because he’s there in your arms.  The weight of him.  The way his breath slows as he fights sleep.  The worst because you know as soon as he loses the battle and goes to sleep you will have to lay him carefully in his crib, turn on his ceiling fan and closet light and get in a car and leave him.  Leave him. Your sick grandson.  Drive away.   Take yourself somewhere he isn’t.

A moment like that deserves proper pathos and not a stupid cheerful computer voice.  All of these machines just don’t get it and yet we welcome them into our humanity.  Our most treasured moments.  And then, they don’t even behave properly.

Sigh.  I should have just sang Amazing Grace myself.  No slight to Mr. Jackson– who does it so well.  Maybe, if I had, my little guy would already be feeling better.  And, I wouldn’t be sitting here typing this for all of you and glaring at my own Echo who wasn’t even there that morning and is as innocent as a computer thingy can be.

And you thought I was kidding when I said I can’t be rational when it comes to this grandson of mine.

As I’m sure I mentioned, things are tough.

For Brad.

Algae slimed fish bowl,

drawers empty of clothes,

you with your nose running and

a hot hole in your seven-year-old soul.

I tried.

Me, with my twenty-five-year old mind

and not an apron to my name.

I vacuumed dead flies from the windowsills and

scheduled skating rinks for birthdays.

We edged around each other like

gentle boxers afraid to punch,

but still needing the purse.

It all hurt, but I tried.

Late nights listening for gravel crunching,

measuring your face’s twitching for trouble.

Loving, but without a real claim or permission.

Victory comes in the form of your

lanky body lazing on my couch.

Your voice speaking everyday things to my ear.

We are still a we.

Look what we made;

we made family.

My grief is a three year old.

I had that thought the other day–that my grief was a three year old.  I smiled.  I couldn’t help it.  The comparison was too humorous.  Too true.

My grief really is a three year old in every way that it can be.  It is headstrong and determined to have its’ own way.  It, no matter how much I beg or threaten, refuses to just sit quietly and not disturb anyone.  It picks the worst times to make a scene and, most importantly, it is something I never quite understand.  I try to make friends with it and get us both to a place where we can operate in cooperation, but just when I think we are making headway it surprises me by doing the opposite of what I expect. Then, in that moment, when I am exhausted by trying to control and manage it I have to just give in and let it do what it does.

Tears?

Anger?

Screaming with pure abandon at the unfairness of the world?

It does it all.

My only choice is to just be there with it and wait for it to pass.  I am not in control of any of it.  I am just the lady who exists for it to come back to when it is spent and ready to quiet down.

As I thought about my three year old grief, I realized my grief that is 14 years old this summer is sometimes a little easier to manage.  It doesn’t want much from me.  Just to be left alone.  As long as I peek in on it every once awhile, it is perfectly happy to live in that little corner of my brain I have allowed it to occupy.  But, if I want to poke it or stir it into doing something I think it should then it can be worse than the three year old on its’ worst day.  This grief has years behind it.  It knows all that has passed between us.  All that has been missed.  It fully understands that life has not been the same since we met and never will be again. It is too smart for my tricks and bribes.  If this fourteen year old grief gets stirred up, it is hurtful and vengeful.  It hurls promises I missed and days I wasted at me.  It goes for my heart.  Every time.

So, like everyone else trying to live a life with grief, I manage the best I can.  I manage my new grief with its’ unpredictability and immature needs and I manage my fourteen year old grief with it’s cynicism and it’s knowing.  And, I hope they both will learn from my older grief.  This grief has been around for decades.  This quiet, silent grief acknowledges that these youngsters will follow it into time and that someday, because life happens this way, the youngsters will have more competition.  They will have to make way for new grief.  New heart break.  They will be asked to step into the shadows and to become yet another part of what has fashioned me into who I am.

A person who tries to soak up every minute.  Every laugh.  Every memory.  A girl who feels frantic in her enjoyment of loved ones, because I know they can disappear.  In a car wreck. Because of a disease. On a Tuesday.  And, once they are gone, they don’t reappear.  Or at least not as we knew them.  Instead, they reappear as a new grief.  A grief that is mixed up with warm memories of what it means to love someone and take them for granted.

What a luxury that is.  To take people for granted.

I don’t do that anymore.  I can’t.

If I try, one of the griefs I give residence to will remind me otherwise.   They will make me cry when I hear a certain song, or pass a certain color of truck or even wake up to a sunshine day that feels a little empty.  They keep me on my toes.  They are unruly children assigned to me.  I must learn how to live with them and control them and, hopefully, turn them into something precious and fine that will add to my life and not destroy it.

Good luck to me.

I’m not sure I’m up to this job.  Sometimes, oftentimes, I wish I was childless. And naive. And took everything for granted.  Maybe, even living life selfishly, thinking change would never come to my door.  Grief would never need to live in my heart.

If you are one of these people, you have everything the rest of us want.  Enjoy it while it lasts.  Because, grief is not a very fun housemate.  Especially, when it is sprawled in the middle of the floor kicking its’ feet screaming and begging for five more minutes, or one more trip to a favorite place, or even just for the briefest whisper of how things used to be.

Good luck on that day.

I would tell you what to do in that instance, but I’m still figuring it out.

My best advice is to hope your grief has the good manners not to have a melt down in public.  That’s when things really get interesting.

You know–in your favorite store, when the nice cashier is looking at you sympathetically and the guy behind you is jingling the keys in his pocket and studying the ceiling tiles. Both of them praying for you to gain control so they don’t have to be involved in your messy.  Your lack of control.  Your humanity.

Honestly, you will probably feel sorrier for them than you will yourself.  You’ll understand that it’s hard to watch and that it makes them uncomfortable.

So, you’ll do whatever you need to do to escape the situation as gracefully as possible. Put on your sunglasses.  Buy a piece of chocolate or some other brightly colored something. Crack a dumb joke.  Anything that will distract your grief until you are out of that big, brightly lit square of knowing.

And, when you are back in the hot car with your tears falling freely you will have a stern talk with your grief.  Make sure it knows that it should never act up in public. Remind it that it’s three years old now.  It can’t continue to act this way.  You expect more of it.

Then, in exasperation, you will drive home and binge watch your favorite show on Netflix.  Maybe even eat all the chocolate you bought at the store and follow that with a glass of wine.

Who cares?

You’re the boss of this whole mess.

Sorta.

Little bridges everywhere.

The place where I buy my coffee is closing.  It happens.  The online lure claims another victim.  Why keep a storefront open when you can sell everything from a tall, metal shelf?

Why indeed.

Maybe because I went to that store with my Mom.  We pulled up out front, our tires crunching in the gravel, and walked through that glass door.  My mom pushing the door every time–even though a big sign said pull.  I would laugh and then help her while she carried on about how she would have gotten it if I had just waited.

Then, we would go through the store with her having to touch every box and smell every coffee pod. Picking coffee was serious work.

When we were finally done, and had the perfect coffees in our little red basket, she would always have to make herself a complimentary cup of coffee.  This took even more time, because my Mom was mechanically challenged.  I’m not sure that’s really a thing, but if it is, I have it too.  We can’t work things.  Especially mechanical things.  Things that have buttons and levers and other buttons you’re absolutely not supposed to push.

We pushed them every single time.

It was always an accident and there was always hot water going somewhere it wasn’t supposed to.  Then, there was a wad of paper towels and both of us laughing.  It was a struggle and every time when we got back in my car she spilled the cup of cream colored liquid everywhere. But, it was all worth it.

It was worth it because it made her happy.  Made her smile. Made me smile.

Now that she’s gone, every time I walk through the door of that coffee place I am somewhere that she used to be. Those walls used to hold her sass, her humor and her soft hands that I loved.  Sometimes, I let myself pretend I will find her in the next aisle over trying to decide between hazelnut and Irish cream coffee. I know it’s not true, but it’s joyful for the moment that I let myself believe it.

It’s a little bridge back to when we lived on the same planet.

I love those bridges.  I guard them jealously.

It’s why I still have a certain ugly plaid chair that might stay with me forever.  It’s why, when my husband mentions selling our house, I balk.  If I sell this house, I will never live in a house, again, that my parents have visited.  I like houses that my parents have gathered round the table in. Or made Thanksgiving dinner.  Or looked at a craft magazine. I’m not ready to lay tinder at the foot of those bridges and burn them myself.

In fact, if I could, I would buy the coffee place and keep it open for other mother and daughter duos.  I would stand behind the shiny counter and watch them push on the pull door.  I would watch them wander through the aisles picking out new coffee flavors and, as they were leaving, I would advise them to keep every ugly old plaid chair and to guard their bridges carefully. I’m sure they would look at me slightly askance and have no idea what I was talking about and probably talk about me back in their car.  I would just smile and wave knowing I had just provided something you can’t find on a tall metal shelf.