Gas Station Etiquette

During my trip home on Sunday, I had an experience at a gas station that has been rankling ever since, so naturally I am writing about it. When road tripping by myself, I often stop at Love’s Travel Stops because official “rest stops” often don’t come up when I need them, and at Love’s I can count on clean bathrooms, hot sausages, and petrol if I need it.

So on Sunday, while driving through Arkansas, my gas gauge was very low and I pulled into a Love’s which was very busy. All the pumps were occupied. I lined up behind a car which was empty, leading me to believe that the occupants had filled their tank and gone into the store to buy drinks and snacks.

Boy was I wrong. After I had waited for over fifteen minutes, a couple did return from the store with drinks and snacks. They knew I was waiting because they had to walk right past my car to get to their car. They spent several minutes talking and rearranging stuff in their car. Then the husband turned to the pump and started filling their tank.

I waited patiently, despite the fact that my quick stop for gas had already become much longer. Finally they finished fueling. Another conversation ensued, and then the husband strolled back (right past me) to get the window washer squeegee thing. He leisurely washed all the windows on their car. More talking before he finally got into the car. By the time they pulled away from the pump, I had been waiting for over half an hour (during which time the other pumps were always occupied and with lines behind them too).

Now here’s the thing: I would never make someone else wait like that. If the gas station is busy, I always pump first, then park my car somewhere else before going into the store because I hate to hold anyone up. And that is what I did on Sunday. As soon as I had filled my tank, I re-parked the car before going in to use the facilities and buy a drink. To me, that is only common courtesy. In fact I thought it was one of those unwritten rules of the road. What say you?

A Belated Summation

Until two and a half years ago, my only exposure to class reunions was occasional episodes of TV shows that depicted class reunions. I’m sure you’ve seen some of those episodes. I found them horrifying. They mostly featured aging characters who were trying to look youthful while bragging about their accomplishments, getting drunk, and flirting with former classmates. Depending on the show, there might also be a murder. The reunions all seemed to be short events lasting one evening, and were a prime example of what I refer to as “introvert hell.”

Not that I expected my high school classmates to act like that—but even so, I waited forty years to dip my toe in. Those of you who’ve been with me for a while may remember my report on my 40th year class reunion back in June of 2017. That was the first high school reunion I’d ever attended (I’ve been to two grade school reunions), and I was terrified. I was so afraid of so many things, to the point where I actually drove past the entrance to the property and continued on for a couple of miles before getting a grip on myself.

This time was quite different. First of all, I was dependent on others for transportation, so there could be no chickening out. Julie had cleverly invited me to help with the pre-reunion cooking, so once I arrived at her house the die was cast, as it were. Secondly, despite considerable anxiety ahead of time, I knew going in that it was silly for me to even have any anxiety, because my class is nothing like those TV classes. My class, to be honest, is the kind of supportive community that so many people long for and aspire to in our disconnected world.

For example—I was not able to detect a single person dressing to impress the rest of us, let alone rubbing our noses in their career success, although some members are certainly very successful. There were no insults or veiled put-downs—just a little gentle and friendly teasing. I heard no arguments about politics, although we as a group no doubt land on both extremes and everywhere in between. No one had to be asked to help in the kitchen with cooking or cleaning chores. People just showed up and pitched in to help. When someone mentioned a difficulty, everyone in earshot jumped in with offers of help.

Conversations I participated in or overheard were rarely of the “small talk” variety. When you’ve known someone for over forty years, what’s the point of small talk? We jumped right into talking about the things that matter to us. Admittedly, this is a pretty standard MK trait, and one that I adore. If you only see someone once every few years, why waste time talking about inconsequential stuff? I’d rather jump right in to finding out what’s really going on with my friends. We participated in some fun activities together, but the best part was really just enjoying each other’s company.

Now I realize my high school experience probably differed quite a bit from yours. Boarding school is not the norm here. Boarding school puts you in a position of forced intimacy with a host of other people you might otherwise never even talk to. And because you’ve all been separated from your families, your classmates become your surrogate family. You not only attend classes with them—you also have all your meals together, go to Sunday School and church together, sleep in the same dormitory, and attend all the same social events.

What this means, twenty or thirty or forty years down the road, is that these same people understand you on a level that no one else can, because they shared that rather intense experience of growing up with you. I have many wonderful friends that I’ve made as an adult—but there are huge parts of me I can’t share with them because they have no frame of reference for my childhood in Africa. My boarding school friends (from both primary and secondary school) are different. I don’t ever have to explain myself to them. Conversations are so easy. We may have ended up in different destinations, but on some level we came from the same place and that fact has to a large extent made us who we are.

What I’m trying to say is that maintaining relationships with my grade school and high school friends has been by far one of the most satisfying aspects of my adult life. Sure, sometimes it seems like I’m the one putting forth most of the effort—but that’s okay, as long as my friends are still glad to hear from me. Those efforts have been very well spent.

What concerns me as I talk to other people is the discovery that lifelong relationships like mine are no longer the norm. Almost everyone I talk to is a little mystified by my efforts to go to reunions (out of state!) and stay in touch with childhood friends. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said to me, “I’m not in touch with anyone from high school. Or college. I have no idea what happened to my best friend from school.”

That saddens me. You may not have gone to boarding school and therefore may not have developed the intense relationships such an environment tends to produce. However, everyone grew up somewhere, with someone. And those people, whether classmates or neighborhood friends or cousins surely know you in a way that others do not and never will. I believe there’s a great deal of value in maintaining youthful friendships, even while making new friends at every stage of life. Therefore I challenge you to track down one of your childhood or teenage buddies that you haven’t heard from in years. Maybe they aren’t interested in reconnecting, and if that’s true—well, what a shame. But if they are interested, think of what delight may be just around the corner. What have you got to lose?

The Carryon Conundrum

All my life, I’ve aspired to be one of those savvy travelers who takes only a carryon for overseas adventures—no matter how long. I put forth tremendous effort into figuring out how to do it and what to pack for my UK trip last fall.

This more recent trip I had to also take a larger suitcase because of the bulky winter clothes I needed. And, as I mentioned, my new four-wheeled carryon arrived at the last possible moment. I was so glad to have it, especially in the Denver airport where all three pieces of luggage had to go with me everywhere!

Now here’s where I’ve been rethinking things a bit. Most glowing endorsements of carryon-only travel that I’ve seen make a big point of how you never have to go to baggage claim. You just grab your carryon and stride boldly into the world to have adventures. In fact, this seems to be the primary selling point of this approach to traveling.

Now imagine you’re a lady in the early stages of senectitude, and you also have restrictions against lifting heavy weights. I find it challenging and unenjoyable to drag my tightly-packed carryon down the tiny aisle of the plane, and then have to lift it over my head to get it into the overhead bin. Furthermore, because you’re only allowed one personal item, I have to stuff my much-beloved Sash handbag into my backpack at least until I get settled in my seat.

Thanks to an attack of extreme dizziness yesterday, and to the fact that Southwestern allows you to check two bags for free, I chose to check both my regular suitcase and my carryon for my flights home. My experience was so much easier and less stressful. I still had my backpack for anything I might need during the flight, and my Sash bag too, because my backpack was my official carryon and my Sash bag was my personal item.

As it turns out, I don’t mind at all going to baggage claim and waiting a few minutes for my bags to show up, especially if it makes other aspects of the trip so much easier. Another huge benefit of this approach is that you are not so restricted in liquids. I need a lot of potions just to make myself presentable these days! And if, like me, you think traveling with a pocketknife is necessary, you can safely do so as long as you pack the knife in your carryon and then check it. So in the future, although I still hope and plan to travel carryon only, I will check my carryon and collect it again at my destination.

Some exceptions to this new resolution:

If there is a fee for all checked bags but not for a carryon I will of course carry it on.

If I expect a lengthy layover during which I might need access to items in my carryon, I will carry it on.

But aside from those two exceptions, I think I’ll be checking my carryon bag most of the time. Anyone else have any thoughts or opinions on this?

Still Showing Up

A few Sundays ago I walked out of church a discouraged and disheartened woman. The rumor I had heard and hoped wasn’t true had been confirmed: the only two things I have enjoyed about attending this church have been or will be taken away.

Sunday School was nixed at the beginning of the summer, and it is not coming back. The pastor’s new plan to stop the church from continuing to bleed members is to force the congregation to attend more than once a week, in hopes that it will build “community” (a buzzword I’m a little tired of, to be honest). All classes that would normally be “Sunday School” are now going to be “Wednesday Night School.”

Small groups, which have been meeting on Sunday evenings, will now be moved to Wednesdays also. I love our small group. But, due to our work schedules, weekday evenings simply don’t work for us. I understand what they’re trying to achieve, and I approve of the desire to foster real relationships in the church. I hope it works the way they think it will—but we can’t be a part of it. Moving everything to Wednesdays leaves us even more on the outside than we have been until now. So far our small group is still meeting on Sundays, and I can’t help hoping that continues.

Now despite what it may sound like, I’m not trying to moan or elicit sympathy, and I certainly don’t expect or hope to be accommodated in any way. But this turn of events has forced me to ask myself, not for the first time, why I still go to church. Nothing ever happens in the Sunday morning service that would make me want to go back. Nothing. It has been many, many years since I experienced a situation where church was a meaningful part of my social or spiritual life.

Likewise, it has been many years since I had any expectation of getting something “out of” church attendance. In our last church, I at least was able to put something “into” it by teaching children’s church and then later doing the music (which I loved). At our current church I don’t see any place where I could contribute in any meaningful way at all, even if I had the time, which I don’t right now.

For most of my adult life, we have not had close friends in the churches we’ve attended. Yet we have doggedly continued going, even when our kids were being secretly (and then not-so-secretly) systematically bullied by the other kids, even when our kids were shunned and rejected by adults who should have loved and accepted them, even when church services made me want to weep because the music was so far from what I enjoy. I struggle with the number of Christians I know who have chosen to “step away” from church or who have told me that they’re in “a different season of life now.” Yet when so many have made the choice to just quit going to church altogether (a nationwide phenomenon), I still show up. Why? Am I just really stupid? Don’t answer that.

First of all, I can’t get around the Biblical admonition found in Hebrews 10:25: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another . . .”

My personal thought is that if the Bible says it’s important to gather regularly with other Christians, then . . . it’s probably important. I can’t think of anywhere in the Bible where it says that church is supposed to be fun or enjoyable (although ideally we should enjoy worshipping our God) or full of programs that we’re pressured to participate in. The important part is to spend time with other believers and to “exhort” one another. Exhort means to “strongly encourage or urge someone” to do something.

Now, I think my primary spiritual gift is one of encouragement. So, my second reason for continuing to go, even though I’m not close to anyone at church, is that someday, somehow, I like to think I might be a safe place for someone else to land. Someday, perhaps, I will see someone who’s hurting or needs encouragement, and will be able to step in and reassure them in some way, and in fact maybe that’s the only reason for me to be there at all. I think it’s an important reason, even if I have to wait years for that moment. Maybe a child will need help or encouragement. Maybe it will be an older woman who feels as left out by the worship service as I do. Maybe it will be an international student who is struggling with our culture. I don’t know. But I do know that being in the right place at the right time can make all the difference in the world to that one person who is in need of a safe person to talk to; and as an introvert I know how very important it is to feel safe when talking to someone else about the things that matter to you.

So, I’ll keep going. I’ll keep getting dressed up on Sunday morning and sitting through the service and keeping my eyes open for someone whom I could be of use to. I don’t begrudge or resent the fact that it may take some time, because whether or not opportunities to be helpful present themselves, I know I’m not forsaking something that, as a believer, I’ve been instructed not to forsake. How about you? Do you go to church? Why or why not?

Postscript: After working on this essay for three weeks and then reading through it one more time, it occurred to me that some might read it as an admonition of sorts to “tough it out” and stay in an abusive church setting. No, no, no. Please no. If you are in a congregation where you are being physically, emotionally, or spiritually abused in any way—GET OUT. Get out now. And then get help. If you are young and you ask for help, and you aren’t believed, don’t give up. Tell someone else. Fight for yourself. Keep going until you find someone who believes you and is willing to help you get help. And please believe that not all churches are like that. When you’ve had some time to heal, I hope you’ll be willing to look for a body of believers who will embrace and enfold you and pour grace and love into your life, because that’s what church should be like.

Nine Nights

Several years ago, I entered this essay into a contest, and it only came second, so I never published it. Today, before you read my next post, I’d kind of like it if you read this essay.

Nine Nights

“There goes Jonathan,” Dad said. He opened the car door and climbed out without another word. My mother also got out, but then leaned back in and told the three of us to stay in the car. “Do not get out of the car,” she said.

We sat there in stunned silence for a few seconds before realizing what must have happened. We hadn’t even noticed the sound of screeching brakes or the sickening thud my parents had heard. The reality hit all three of us at once and we screamed in unison. I was eleven, Matt was almost nine, and Greg was four.

We screamed for what seemed like hours before subsiding into tears, and then waited in vain for someone to come tell us what was going on. The huge double decker red bus behind us blocked our view of the street in the northern English town of Carlisle. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. “I’m going to go see what’s going on,” I said. “You two stay here.”

After getting out of the car, I ran down the sidewalk past the big bus. All traffic had stopped. My brother Jonathan, Matt’s twin, lay limp and motionless in the middle of the street in a pool of blood. I knew he was dead. I started running to my brother’s side, but a formidable bus conductor wrapped her arms around me from behind and jerked me back. I kicked and fought to get loose. “He’s my brother!” I screamed.

She hauled my writhing body back to the sidewalk. “Now then,” she said, “didn’t your parents tell you to stay in the car?” Sobbing with grief and anger, I had no choice but to let her drag me back to the car and shove me inside with my other two brothers. She stood guard next to the car, her intimidating demeanor a deterrent to any further plans of flight. I told Matt and Greg what I’d seen, and we all sobbed together, knowing Jon must be dead.

An ambulance arrived, and after what seemed like an eternity, Dad returned to the car and we followed the ambulance to the hospital. He didn’t have much to say, other than that our brother was still alive and that Mom had gone with him in the ambulance. I wondered if he said that to keep us from freaking out.

At the hospital, Dad disappeared and left us in the waiting room, but we didn’t stay there long because we kept hearing screams of agony and we couldn’t bear it. I led my brothers out to our rental car in the parking lot and we knelt down in the back seat and prayed like we’d never prayed before.

Dad found us in the car and explained that surgeons were operating on Jon in hopes of saving his life. He had broken both bones in his lower right leg and had a very serious head injury. No one knew what the outcome would be, but we needed to find a place to stay.

We ended up at a small family-run hotel. Dad got us supper and then took us to our room and told us to go to bed. Our room had three beds and huge windows to let in the light, which didn’t fade until after 10:00 p.m. We went to bed but not to sleep. Instead we prayed.

Long after darkness fell, the door opened to reveal my parents silhouetted in the light from the hallway.

Mother’s voice sounded shakier than I’d ever heard it. “He’s going to live, but he’s in a coma and we don’t know when or if he’ll wake up. When and if he does wake up, he may be nothing like the Jon we remember, because of his serious head injury.”

Lying in bed, I wondered what it would be like if Jon wasn’t himself anymore.

###

The next morning we began a new routine. We had breakfast at the hotel before my parents left for the hospital. Dad took me aside and explained he was entrusting me with the job of entertaining my brothers all day, and making sure we all were clean and in bed by 8:00 p.m. He would come at lunchtime to get us some food, and then leave again. I organized games and helped my brothers do puzzles from the hotel’s collection. We played with the resident Afghan hound and petted the pony that served as a lawnmower for the hotel’s lawn. The day dragged on as anxiety gnawed at our minds.

Nighttime brought a new challenge. I made sure we went to bed at 8:00, while the sunlight still streamed in through the windows and our parents kept vigil at Jon’s bedside. No kid could sleep in that bright sunshine, and certainly not kids whose brother hovered between life and death. Fear permeated that room as powerfully as the rays of the evening sun.

I knew, if we were going to make it through the next few days, I would have to come up with a powerful distraction. For some time, I had been telling my brothers stories at night when circumstances forced us to share a room. Now I knew the time had come to tell the story of all stories, a story so engrossing it would banish worries about Jon, if only for an hour or two.

I created characters rather like ourselves—four siblings traveling in England. At first, I stole shamelessly from the plots of Enid Blyton “Famous Five” books I had read, but I soon had to make up my own material, because my self-imposed task was to keep going until my brothers became tired enough to sleep. That first night, when darkness at long last seeped into our room, I left my intrepid heroes in a life-threatening predicament. My brothers begged me to keep going, but heartless big sister that I was, I insisted they go to sleep, after promising them another installment the next night.

In truth, I had gotten my characters into a crisis I didn’t know how to resolve, but I had all the next day to work it out in my head. All day my brothers talked about the story and speculated about what might happen next. They asked me countless questions, but I only answered questions about the part of the story that had already been told. Their fascination colored our whole day and made everything about it more enjoyable. That night, I had no trouble getting them to bed on time. As soon as we snuggled down under our blankets, the boys implored me to continue the story.

With my head full of the new plot twists I had dreamed up during the day’s activities, I began to spin my tale again. My brothers hung on every word. Somehow, by the second night the story had become the world we all lived in after bedtime. Even then, at age eleven, I knew stories had power. When I was five or so, my Russian grandmother decided the best way to ensure I would never go near the furnace was to make me afraid of it. She told me a terrifying story of the evil man who lived in the furnace. If I even went near it he would jump out and grab me, pulling me into the furnace where I would burn to death in agony.

My five-year-old self believed every word. Not only did I never go near the furnace, or into my dad’s workshop, but going into the basement at all terrified me. My grandmother’s little story succeeded beyond her wildest dreams, and now I saw my own story working its magic during our family crisis.

###

On the fourth day after the accident, my brother Jon woke up from his coma, remembering nothing of his accident. We were not allowed to see or visit him. To some degree, we felt abandoned by our parents, who spent every waking moment at the hospital with Jon while we were on our own at the hotel. Jon got new toys and we did not. Our only consolation was the story we lived in every night. Every day as we participated in various activities, my brain went into overdrive planning thrilling plot twists for the story, and my brothers couldn’t stop talking about it. Every night when we went to bed I could hardly wait to take my spellbound audience with me to our world of adventure.

Jon remained in the hospital for nine days. For nine nights my other two brothers and I lived in a world of my devising, a world full of intrigue and adventure, and conspicuously lacking in serious injury. On the last night, when we knew Jon would be released the next day, I  gave our characters a happy and triumphant ending. When we reunited with our injured sibling the next day, the first thing Matt and Greg told him was that he had missed out on the best story of all time. This bothered Jon much more than his injuries did. The boys talked it up so much he felt bereft and deprived, and begged me to retell the entire tale for his benefit.

Matt and Greg talked about that story for years, even well into adulthood, and Jon continued to grieve over having missed it. It was far too convoluted for me to remember or repeat, but that never bothered me, because that particular story had one purpose. The story had been a weapon, a mighty weapon, the only weapon I had to fight against fear and anxiety for nine long nights. When the crisis ended, I laid that weapon aside.

Events like my brother’s accident change lives. It changed mine. Not only did I realize how much I loved my brother, but lying there in our light-filled hotel room every night, I learned how compelling words can be. My words created a world we lived in, a world where we shared the lives of the story characters. We cared deeply about them. When they were in peril (which was every night) my brothers worried about them all the next day. When the characters were betrayed, my brothers wanted to defend them, rush to their aid, and rescue them. When the characters succeeded at something, my brothers rejoiced and felt invincible themselves.

For nine nights, the darkness of fear was held at bay by nothing but the power of words, words that told a story. Stories are one of the most powerful things in this world. They bind us together as families, as ethnic groups, and as nations. Whether it’s a family telling the same old stories around the table at Thanksgiving, or a tribal elder telling the legends of his people, or an elementary school teacher telling her class about the winter at Valley Forge, stories are the threads that stitch our lives together.

There are some who believe that fiction is somehow not wholesome or edifying, and therefore not fit for those who follow Christ. Yet Christ himself used fictional stories to teach powerful lessons and deep spiritual truths. God made us in His image and that includes His creative power. Stories–good stories–teach us to care for others, because if it is a good story, we all but become the main character and want the best outcome for him or her.

Stories can make us brave and strong. There’s a reason so many stories are about someone who is small or weak and yet achieves great things. We read those stories and they give us courage to follow our dreams or to set right something that has gone wrong. At the age of eleven, after nine nights in a hotel room in Carlisle, I knew all of this. Most of all, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life telling stories.

The End

Blindsided

Grief is a strange and slippery phenomenon. By now we’ve all learned about the stages of grief, and we take note of them as we work our way through them. “I’m at the anger stage,” we remind ourselves. “I’m depressed.” “I’ve reached acceptance.”

And then we think (or maybe it’s just me) that once we’ve reached the “acceptance” stage, we’re more or less done. The ocean of grief that threatened to overwhelm us has been tamed. A membrane has formed over the surface, and before long, we find we can step all over that part of our internal scenery without even being consciously aware of the deep sea of sadness lurking below.

One day—it might be years or decades later—you have a dream, or you see a face that reminds you of that face; or you hear a laugh; or you smell a scent that brings back a memory; and suddenly, with no warning at all, that shard of memory falls like a dagger into your interior landscape and pierces the placid surface of your equilibrium. Now once again your soul is awash with sadness and you have no defense against it.

This happened to me this past weekend. I nobly offered to go to my brothers’ high school class reunion in Dallas, because it was close for me and because they couldn’t go, and I thought I’d go and take some photos for them and it would be great. And in a lot of ways, it was great. Most of the people in that room were people I hadn’t seen in almost 43 years. Everyone was so kind and friendly and made a real effort to include me even though I was from the class that graduated two years before theirs.

What I had forgotten, what I hadn’t even considered at all before driving over there, was that my brothers’ class was also my friend Jill’s class—my dear friend Jill who died the summer I graduated from high school, in August 42 years ago. And since I hadn’t thought about that, it never occurred to me that Jill’s roommate might be there—but she was.

I was already anxious when I walked into the room, but when I saw that M was there, it was like being sucker-punched in the gut. I had not known M well in school. I had known her solely as Jill’s roommate, to be honest. So when I saw her, all I could think of was Jill and how much I still miss her. The longer M and I talked, the more I wished I could tell Jill all about it, about seeing her old roommate and getting caught up on her life. I just wanted so badly to see and talk to Jill, even after all these years.

The situation was further complicated by the fact that M is herself grieving the loss of her brother, who died in a plane crash a few months ago. So I worked very hard to hide my own grief even as the waves continued to crash onto my internal shore.

This wound was so unforeseen, so unexpected, that it seemed like a fresh loss. I had planned to listen to an audiobook on the way home, but I couldn’t. I was, as my daughter likes to say, too “emotionally compromised.” It may take some time for that membrane to reform, but meanwhile, I’m learning to let the waves of grief wash over me instead of trying to resist them. Sooner or later, this too will recede and I’ll be left with the dull ache that is “normal” for anyone who has suffered loss. And the thing I always hang on to is this: I was so fortunate to have known her, to have been her close friend, to have walked all those miles at her side, to have succeeded in making her laugh out loud so many times. The grief is the price I pay for that. It’s worth it.

Sixty Things I’ve Learned in Sixty Years

  1. I’ve learned to invest in my relationship with God. No other activity has yielded more beneficial results over the course of my life.
  2. I’ve learned that the church is very important—even if you don’t feel like you “fit in” to the one you’re attending. (I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like I’ve fitted in.) Finding a way to be an active part of the church’s ministry has brought me a great deal of satisfaction over the years. And when I’ve needed help, fellow church members have pitched in to help, even when they barely know me.
  3. I’ve learned the value of reading through the whole Bible. I’ve followed all manner of reading plans, but my favorite is still just to read it through from Genesis to Revelation. I always find things I didn’t notice before. I find I really enjoy reading the Bible with a specific goal—say, to find out everything that God has to say about ministry, or raising children, etc.
  4. I learned the importance of memorizing Scripture—and then I dropped the ball. I was forced to memorize five verses a week as a child, and I consider one of my most serious adult failures is that I haven’t imposed a similar discipline on my own children—or continued to memorize new passages myself. Nothing compares to having Gods’ word in your heart and mind, accessible all the time.
  5. I’ve learned to love and memorize hymns, and that love has only deepened over the decades. The old hymns of the faith are full of spiritual “meat” and have sustained me time after time when I found myself in deep waters. If you know them by heart, you will be able to hum those lovely old tunes and hear the majestic words in your head even if you don’t sing them out loud (although I often do sing them out loud anyway).
  6. I’ve learned that friendship is worth the risk. No matter how many times I’ve been hurt or betrayed, it’s still worth it to invest in friendships with others. My friends are among my most prized treasures. My Christian friends and family members have the unique distinction of being the only treasures I can have in heaven!
  7. I’ve learned that when I have a friend, it is most rewarding if I just assume it will be a lifelong relationship. I put effort into maintaining the relationship—even if most of the effort seems to be on my side. And now, after all these decades, I have a host of friends that I share a long history with. It’s so worth it.
  8. I’ve learned to cultivate kindness. From childhood, I tried very hard to be kind to others because others so often were not kind to me. Kindness does not cost anything. One kind act or word, however, can make someone else’s day! One of the best compliments I ever received was when a childhood friend told me the main thing she remembered about me as a kid was that I was kind.
  9. I’ve learned that a close sister of kindness is compassion. All of us, every single one, has hidden pain and I am learning to see it in ways I haven’t seen before. I’ve discovered that often someone who is quiet and reserved may also be miserable and lonely, and I want to reach out to that person.
  10. I’ve learned not to let people get on my nerves. The older I get, the more tolerant I’ve become. Not of sin or evil, of course, but of those little quirks that used to drive me crazy. I wish I had developed this skill earlier. People who are fussy, fearful, or boring used to really irritate me. Now I am usually able to look past annoying behaviors and just love and care about the person behind them. Life is so much more enjoyable this way. People are still just as irritating—I just don’t mind so much anymore.
  11. I’ve learned to forgive people who have hurt me (still a work in progress!). If they aren’t repentant and don’t desire a restored relationship with me, I still forgive them for my own sake. I can relinquish that pain to God and move on with my life.
  12. I’ve learned not to hold on to hurt or resentment from the past. If I allowed it to, it could poison my whole life. I have many things in my past that could have crippled me as an adult. No one would blame me if I still suffered from these past experiences. But that would be letting “them” win. No one who has hurt me in the past is going to be allowed to continue hurting me now because I can’t let go of the bitterness.
  13. I’ve learned not to let anyone steal my joy in the present either. If someone is scornful of something that brings me joy, I just remind myself that different people like different things and the other person’s scorn does not in any way diminish my worth as a human being. Why should I let anyone else make me feel ashamed about an innocent preference?
  14.  I’ve learned that if someone is cruel or unkind to me, I should resist the desire to lash back. I remind myself that people who act that way 1) are probably in pain themselves, and 2) really, really need a demonstration of God’s love, not human retaliation. I try to remember to pray for that person instead of responding in kind.
  15. I’ve learned to value loyalty in myself and others. A loyal friend is one of the greatest gifts on this good earth, and I can give the gift of loyalty to those I love. I try to make sure my friends and family know I will stick by them through thick and thin. I want to be the person they can always count on.
  16. I’ve learned something that so many people seem to have forgotten lately: that you can have opinions-even really strong opinions—and choose to keep them to yourself. And if I do keep certain opinions to myself, it allows me to remain friends with people whom I dearly love and who do not share my opinions on certain things.
  17.  I learned early on to avoid gossip. Every now and then, I pay attention to what I am actually saying about others when I get in a conversation. The two questions I always ask myself are: Is it kind? Is it helpful? When others start gossiping, I try to put a stop to it. I say something like, “Oh my goodness, I would really hate to think that anyone was talking about me like that!” Then I put in a good word for the victim. I now have a reputation as one who won’t listen to gossip.
  18. I’ve learned that reading is the greatest gift of early education. If you can read, you can learn anything else. If you don’t love reading, keep doing it until you do love it! Reading has enriched my life like nothing else.
  19. I’ve learned to read as much as I can, on any topic that interests me and also on topics that I thought would not interest me. More than once I’ve been pleasantly surprised!
  20. I’ve learned that the really great stories are worth re-reading. I would love it if everyone could read Les Misérables, for instance, at least twice in their adult life. There is so much meat and food for thought in that one novel that it’s worth wading through Hugo’s bloated prose.
  21. I’ve learned the value of reading aloud to my children, even when they were long past the age of being able to read on their own. I look forward to doing the same with grandchildren someday.
  22. I’ve learned to keep on learning. I’m not afraid to learn a new skill. In fact, I try to make a point of learning new skills! They say it will keep your brain young.
  23.  I’ve learned to stay curious, to ask questions. I’m willing to make some effort to find the answers.
  24. I’ve learned that I thrive on the mental stimulation of discussing things with smart people who are not at all like me and see things from very different viewpoints. I love my book club for this very reason. I love being made to think and re-evaluate my own beliefs.
  25. I’ve learned to hang on to my sense of wonder. So many things still amaze me, whether it’s the natural world or another person’s story.
  26.  I’ve learned to cultivate a sense of adventure (although to be honest I think I was born with it). I try to take every opportunity to go somewhere new and try something I’ve never done.
  27.  I’ve learned to appreciate other cultures, and to let go of the idea that our culture is not just “different” from others but also “better.” Different is interesting!
  28.  I am still learning to let go of perfectionism. If I enjoy something, it is okay if I’m not perfect at it. My watercolor efforts are a perfect example of this. And if it brings joy to my heart, then it is a valid thing to do.
  29.  I’ve learned to treasure my family—both the one I was born into and the one I gave birth to. They can and should be your lifelong best friends. I like to focus on what we have in common (including years of shared experience), not on what they do that drives me crazy.
  30.  I’ve learned to talk less and listen more. I like to ask people about themselves and find out what makes them tick. I have made quite a few new friends this way—and also gathered memorable material to use in my writing. . . .
  31.  I place great value in being dependable. If someone asks me to do something and I agree to it, I make it a priority and make sure it gets done. I am gratified that I have so often been told I can always be counted on to follow through on my commitments.
  32.  I’ve learned to say no—and I keep having to relearn it. I rehearse my priorities from time to time so that when I am asked to do something, even something “good,” I know when I can and should say no with a clear conscience.
  33.  I’ve learned not to allow myself to begin doing something that I know is habit-forming and unhealthful, even when I am pressured to do so. So I’ve never smoked a cigarette or acquired a taste for beer, for instance. And if you’ve followed my health journey, you know that because of my addiction, I can never eat food containing sugar again.
  34.  I’ve learned not to underestimate my own or someone else’s stupidity. I accept the fact that from time to time I will do stupid things. Possibly I will do some extremely stupid things. I’ve learned accept this fact and to laugh at my own stupidity and forgive myself for it. And when others are stupid? I forgive them too, because really, we’re all in this together.
  35.  Just because I do stupid things does not mean I am a stupid person, however, and I ignore anyone who tries to tell me otherwise. We all are entitled to regular and frequent withdrawals from our LSA (Lifetime Stupidity Allowance).
  36. I think I’ve learned—finally!—not to turn to food for comfort. No amount of food in the world will heal a broken heart, comfort a lonely soul or dissipate rage. Instead, I try to remember to pour my heart out in prayer or focus on doing something positive.
  37. I’m so glad I learned how to garden when I was young. There is something ridiculously satisfying about eating something you grew yourself or seeing a vase of your own flowers on the table. I’m glad I went to a school where “gardening” was actually a required activity that everyone had to do.
  38.  I’ve learned to make music part of my life. Not just popular music, but classical music that has stood the test of time. Some of this music is absolutely sublime, and it will enrich your whole life if you welcome it into your world. If my ship ever comes in, you’d better believe I’ll have season tickets to the symphony!
  39.  I’ve discovered that listening to music is wonderful (see above) but there is nothing like making it myself. I wish I had learned to play an instrument sooner!
  40.  I’ve learned the joys of creativity in every sphere. Creating something with my own hands satisfies a need that can’t be met any other way. I write stories, sew garments, knit, crochet, and create new recipes. I enjoy it all!
  41.  I’ve learned to treasure time spent with kids. I no longer have any young kids of my own, but I regularly borrow them from other moms in hopes of teaching them stuff. Kids are so wonderfully energetic and positive and enthusiastic and imaginative. They are an antidote to so much of what goes on in adult life. And childhood flashes by so quickly—when it comes to doing something with kids, you just can’t “wait till later.” When “later” comes they’ll be in college!
  42.  I’ve learned to work hard at being content—at “blooming where I am planted.” This is something I have learned from children, by the way. A child can be happy anywhere—why can’t I? I try not to live in the past, no matter how wonderful (or traumatic) it was, or in the future, when I hope all my dreams will come true. I try to appreciate the gifts and joys of each day while I’m in it.
  43.  I’ve learned that part of contentment is loving what I’ve got. Comparing my modest home and possessions to someone else’s is bound to end in dissatisfaction and envy. To remind myself of this, I sometimes walk around my house mentally saying, “I love our comfy old couch! I love our big dining table!”
  44.  I’ve learned to appreciate teenagers. In fact I adore them. Sure, they come with massive amounts of drama included, but they’re also smart and funny and curious and inventive and fun! They are my favorite age to teach because they really think about things and there’s nothing more exciting than engaging a young person’s mind.
  45. I’ve learned that gratitude is one of the most powerful forces in the world—and I’m so thankful to have Someone to be grateful to! But I’ve also learned that gratitude must be expressed in order to have any impact. So I have become very intentional about thanking people in my life, from wait staff to checkout clerks to friends and family. I’m so thankful for everything they do!
  46.  As a young girl in boarding school, I had to learn to write letters. I love modern technology and the immediacy of e-mail. But a real letter on real paper trumps an e-mail every time. Many people feel this way, so I’m trying to remember to take the time to sit down and write notes to people I care about from time to time. I know how much I love to receive mail!
  47. I’ve learned that a sense of humor can help you get through almost anything—but a joke at someone else’s expense is deplorable. I prefer humor that doesn’t hurt anyone.
  48.  I learned to be hospitable by growing up in a hospitable home—but it’s something that can, of course, be learned at any age. The Bible says we are to be “given” to hospitality. It doesn’t add, “but only if you’re rich and have a perfect house and are a gourmet cook.” I cringe when I think of how my house has sometimes looked when I invited someone over—but I still don’t regret it. And I never invite someone over with the expectation of a return invitation. I just pray I’ll be a blessing to everyone who walks through my door.
  49. I’ve also learned, actually, to make a point of having people over that I know will not be able to reciprocate—singles and college kids who are far from home and family. Or young families with multiple kids who virtually never get asked over for dinner. It’s an enjoyable way to minister to someone else and be a blessing. And it motivates me to keep my house from deteriorating any further than it already has.
  50. I’ve learned not to stop dreaming. I’m trying to be better at following through, at writing down the steps I need to take to reach some of my goals—and then doing them.
  51.  I’ve learned to never go anywhere without a pocketknife and a pair of scissors (the scissors can be part of the pocketknife).
  52. I’ve learned to not turn the TV on just to see what’s on. TV is an incredibly effective time waster, although I feel a little less guilty about it since I am always also knitting.
  53.  I’ve learned that video/computer games are in a league of their own when it comes to wasting time. I loathe them in all their permutations, but also understand that very few others agree with me.
  54. I have learned there is no gift on earth more precious than the gift of having your family together and watching them revel in each other’s company.
  55.  I’ve known for a long time that pantyhose are evil and I never wear them anymore.
  56.  I’ve learned that for me, sugar is both evil and addicting. I have proven repeatedly that I can’t eat it in moderation, so I avoid it completely now. No serious person would claim that sugar has any nutritional benefit. Its primary function seems to be to make food taste so good that you just keep eating and eating and eating . . .
  57.  I’ve learned that high heels are also evil, no matter how attractive they may appear. And they are so very bad for my messed-up, arthritic feet.
  58. I’ve learned to love spending time outdoors whenever I can, even when it’s hot, cold, rainy, or windy outside. God created this planet just for us and it is full of ever-changing beauty that I will miss if I just go from building to car and back again.
  59.  I’ve learned to stop and watch as many sunsets and sunrises as I can. God provides them for free every single day.
  60. I’ve learned that when all else fails, and even if nothing has failed at all, I can still make myself a cup of tea, and savor every sip!

My Diabetes Miracle #23: A New First

Last Tuesday, as I believe I reported, I had my book club meeting, followed by an open art session in the same location. The book club starts at 3:00 and the art time is scheduled to go as late as 7:30 p.m.

So, during the art time, we three ladies were busy with our painting, and our hostess asked me if I needed some food, because she knew I’d been there since midafternoon. I assured her that I was fine, and explained that I didn’t necessarily eat every day and in fact was currently fasting.

So the other lady piped up and said, “Oh! Is that how you stay so trim?”

Friends—I had a moment there. Never in my entire life has anyone ever described me as “trim.” Not once. Interestingly enough, you don’t tend to get that kind of comment when you are morbidly obese.

Now, I realize that my artist acquaintance was flattering me. I am not yet “trim,” but I’m the trimmest I’ve been in several decades. I’m still getting used to it. In my head, I usually still think of myself as obese. So I was genuinely staggered to hear someone refer to me as “trim.”

This tiny exchange was such a huge boost for me. Especially with Easter coming up, I knew I’d be sorely tempted to stick my toe over the lines I drew for myself two years ago. But I also knew that no treat in the world tastes as good as hearing someone else call me “trim,” let alone feeling so much better and having so much more energy to live my life. I honestly believe that eventually I will be trim for real, and that I’ll be able to stay there—and that is worth all the effort I’ve been putting forth for over two years now.

The Mint Lady

An experience I had a few days ago keeps bothering me, so I figured I should probably write about it. I went to Hobby Lobby to buy some beads I needed for my sewing project. I had Lucy with me, so I told her I’d be in and out very quickly while she waited in the car.

Except that I wasn’t. I found my beads quickly enough, and made my way to the front of the store, only to find that there were very long lines at the two open checkout lanes. I took my place in the closest line, and found myself behind a lady who was quite obviously a church lady. You know the type—a woman of my own vintage, nicely dressed and radiating moral superiority. She was buying two bags of mints for a bridal shower, which she made sure everyone knew right away. I think maybe she was hoping someone would offer to let her cut in front of them, but no one did.

After explaining the reason for her mint purchase, she went on to complain about the fact that you can no longer get these mints in grocery stores. (I have also noticed this phenomenon and have wondered about it.) The complaining escalated from there. This woman did not want to have to wait any longer to buy her mints, and she let everyone at the front of the store know about it.

She loudly commented on the incompetence of the store manager. She criticized the courteous young clerks who were checking people out so slowly. Her frustration and displeasure leaked out in one toxic remark after another. My own desire to get out of the store increased considerably because I just wanted to get away from her.

A clerk who was about to go off shift saw the situation and opened up another lane next to my lane. She started picking people from my line that she thought she could check out quickly, since she had to leave soon. She did not pick the mint lady. She picked a couple of people who were in front of us, and then she skipped over the mint lady (who was now almost to the front of the line) and picked me.

While I was being checked out, the mint lady finally made it to the cashier and checked out about the same time. She flounced past me on her way out of the store, broadcasting her offended sensibilities all the way. My sweet clerk called out to her to have a great day, then turned back to me and rolled her eyes as she handed me my receipt. I think everyone in the front of the store breathed a sigh of relief when that woman walked out the doors, sparing us any more of her pernicious pronouncements. I’m kind of surprised no one applauded her exit.

I was tempted to apologize to the girl who checked me out: “I’m so sorry, but that lady does not represent me as a Christian, and I hope you don’t judge churchgoers everywhere based on her behavior.”

I returned to my car feeling discouraged. That woman, who should have been radiating God’s love and compassion, instead went into a mildly annoying situation and made it unbearable for everyone around her. People who had been patiently waiting in line became desperate people whose goal in life was just to get away from the mint lady.

Although I don’t think I’ve ever been as verbally obnoxious as this woman, I know there have been times when I have sighed in frustration when stuck in a long line. I now regret those times. It’s nobody’s “fault” when a bunch of people need to check out at the same time. Nowadays, I am more likely to let people in front of me if they seem to be in a hurry, because if it’s that important to them I’m happy to help them out. I’d much rather cheer someone up by letting them go first than have them simmering with impatience behind me.

The older I get, the more highly I value kindness, compassion, and patience. Did the mint lady’s mints taste any better because of the way she behaved in the store? Of course not. But a rather large group of people had to endure several very unpleasant minutes because she couldn’t just chill out and wait her turn.

Think how different the experience would have been if she had been positive and friendly; if she had been polite and appreciative of the young cashier instead of trying to humiliate him. She would have left a wake of smiles behind her as she exited the store, instead of disgusted eye-rolls. As I always remind myself—kindness and courtesy are free! It costs nothing to brighten someone else’s day. I hope I never am the “mint lady” in someone else’s life.

Christmas Club

Back in the Neolithic Age when I was a newlywed, my husband and I were very impoverished. I worked three jobs (and was a full-time student) and he worked two jobs and we barely were able to make ends meet. In fact we kind of had to force them to meet.

Our first Christmas we had no money to buy each other gifts, but a couple of years later we signed up for our credit union’s Christmas Club. This was a special savings account specifically for Christmas spending. We had a little booklet with payment coupons, and every month starting in January we paid $10 into our Christmas Club account. After nine months we had paid in $90. In November we got a check for $100 to spend on Christmas (the extra $10 was the interest). $100 was a lot of money for us back then. It enabled us to buy each other simple gifts and also to get a few goodies for Christmas dinner.

We continued to use the Christmas Club every year for several years, but eventually I realized I didn’t need the credit union to do that for me. It’s been several years since I explained my holiday savings plan, so I thought it might be time to go over it again before it gets any later in the year.

We have always had a budget that we have lived by. Always. As our kids came along, we gave up things we could no longer afford—but we always had enough to buy little gifts for birthdays and Christmas, and we always had a generous dinner for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Anytime our income or circumstances changed, I reworked our whole budget. One of the items on the budget is my “year-round gift fund,” and another is “holiday food savings.” Sadly, a little bit of math is involved, but it’s not hard. I add up the total number of family members (currently there are twelve of us), and then add in extended family and a few close friends that I buy gifts for. Then I figure out what we can reasonably afford to spend on each family member (it’s not much) for both birthdays and Christmas.

So, let’s say that there were only four family members, and I knew I couldn’t afford more than $25 each for their birthday and for Christmas. That would be $50 in gifts for each person that year, giving me a total of $200. Then I’d figure out what I could afford to spend on extended family and friends. Let’s say that with a few extended family members and a few friends, I could spend a total of $100. My total annual gift budget then would be $300. Starting in January, I would budget $25 per month for gifts. That money would accumulate in months that don’t feature a family birthday, but would be available when needed. I would be able to start Christmas shopping as early as July, taking advantage of sales and special deals. By the time Christmas rolled around, I’d have enough money to cover any gifts that I hadn’t bought ahead of time.

The holiday food savings work the same way. We eat very frugally all year (and we virtually never eat out), but each month I set aside a budgeted amount for holiday groceries. Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to be when we have the most family members here, and as you know, I hate the very thought of anyone going hungry in my house. By November, I have saved up enough to feed my family bountifully during the week of Thanksgiving and again at Christmas—and I don’t have to borrow money or go short somewhere else to do it.

If you find yourself going into debt at Christmas time, it’s not too late to start your own Christmas Club!