The Devil’s Friend

I have been planning to write about this topic for months, and I’ve put it off because it’s a hard thing to write about. Then this week, I learned some unexpected news that made me realize I can’t put it off any longer.

Let me start by telling you about my friend Matt. I met Matt during a period of my life when I was overcome by despair and grief. I had returned to the USA from Africa and had lost everything I cared about. Furthermore, I was going to a very strict university that felt like a prison and the man I thought I would marry had dumped me in a craven and cowardly manner. And then, the one close friend I’d made there ran off to get married. I felt utterly bereft and alone in the world.

One of the quaint features of that school was that we had assigned tables at suppertime. We would get our table assignments and would have to sit at that table with those same people for three weeks, at which time we’d get a whole new assignment. We all complained about it, but I met some interesting people that way, and Matt was one of them.

I learned he was an art major, and I loved art, so we talked about that a lot. He was so knowledgeable and thoughtful and unassuming. He had a different way of looking at the world, which I’d never encountered before. He turned many of my naïve assumptions upside down, yet at the same time he was the most “normal” person I’d met there.

I was so sad when I had to change table assignments. I knew chances were slim that I’d ever see Matt again. But as luck would have it, shortly after that the school had what they called “Reverse Courtesy” weekend. This was a weekend when girls were allowed to ask boys out instead of the other way around.

Now remember, I was deeply grieving the loss of a relationship. I had no romantic interest in anyone. However, I was very interested in having a chance to talk to Matt again, so I asked him out. There was a very rigid system in place that required dating to be arranged by notes. So I wrote him a note asking to eat lunch with him during Reverse Courtesy weekend.

As it happened, I had several casual friends in the dorm who were also art majors, and one of them asked me if I had asked anyone out, and I said that I had asked Matt. And she and her friends literally gasped in horror. They then told me how incredibly clueless and stupid I was. Matt was a senior. I was a freshman, and therefore beneath his notice, and not just because of my youth. Turns out he was basically considered the king of the art department. The other art majors were so intimidated by his prodigious talent, they would never dream of approaching him to ask a simple question, let alone for a date. “He won’t even answer your note,” they said.

But he did answer, and he accepted my invitation. I was wracked with insecurity. Maybe he had no idea who I was. Maybe he thought he was accepting an invitation from someone who was actually worthy of his company. I almost chickened out, but when the day came I walked on shaky legs to the agreed-on meeting place.

He greeted me with his quirky smile and I immediately began apologizing for my existence. I specifically mentioned the fact that I was a lowly freshman, whereas he was a senior. He just grinned and said, “Everyone’s got to start somewhere.” That was the perfect thing to say. After that, I could enjoy our conversation.

Our conversation ranged over a huge variety of topics, but art of course came up often. He invited me to come up to the art department sometime and look around. He had some paintings on display there, and he said he was usually up there painting in the evenings.

Shortly thereafter, I couldn’t resist going up to the art department to check it out (it was on the second floor). Because my departed friend had also been an art major, I actually knew quite a few people up there. I looked in on people creating etchings, sculpting, and shaping ceramics in a room full of potter’s wheels. I saw no sign of Matt.

Finally, there was one room I hadn’t yet looked into, because the door was mostly closed. Cautiously, I pushed it open a few inches and peeked into the large room. On the far wall hung a huge canvas, and Matt sat on a stool in front of it, painting. There was no one else in the room. I wasn’t sure what to do. If he was busy, maybe I shouldn’t interrupt him.

Before I could withdraw, he turned around and saw me. His face lit up with a smile, and he invited me to come see what he was working on. He pulled up another stool so I could sit beside him and watch him paint.

This might be a good time to mention the fact that he was primarily an abstract artist. Before I knew that, I had blurted out that I didn’t like or understand abstract art. He was not in the least offended. He didn’t argue with me. He did something so much better. He spent many hours over several months letting me into his world and making me fall in love with what he did.

From that very first night, he kept up a constant dialog explaining to me what he was doing, what the painting meant and why he made the choices he did. I was gobsmacked. I had always thought abstract art consisted of aimlessly throwing paint at a canvas and then charging obscene amounts of money for it. Now I saw how much thought and care went into every stroke. Watching him work was an escape from all the grief and stress that filled my life during that time.

After that first visit, I went back to the dorm and my art major acquaintances wanted to know what I had been doing up in the art department, because a couple of them had seen me there. I told them I had been watching Matt paint, and they had a group conniption about it. “You can NOT disturb Matt when he’s painting!” they said. “No one ever goes into that room when he’s in there working. You cannot disturb a genius at work. Don’t ever do it again.”

I did do it again. And again. I was hooked. I had to go to the art department almost every night, because I had to see the progress on whatever project Matt was working on. I raced through my homework so I’d have time to go watch Matt paint. He always greeted me with joy and kindness, and he always kept up a running commentary on what he was doing. We talked about many other things too, of course, but mostly about art. Looking back on it now, I’m stunned that he was able to be such a good conversationalist while creating art at the same time. I mean, nobody better try to carry on a conversation with me while I am writing! But he did it without any apparent effort.

In all the hours I spent watching him paint and listening to him talk, no one else ever dared to come into the room. I am so glad I was too clueless to know it was an unwritten rule that Matt could not be disturbed. I have no idea what he thought of me and my interest in his painting. If I annoyed him, he certainly never let on. In fact, I think he might have been kind of lonely. Maybe he even welcomed my company.

One day in the spring of my freshman year, I received the news that my grandfather had died. I had always been close to my grandfather, and he had made it very clear to me that I was his “favorite.” Now I am not in favor of the practice of having “favorites,” but it’s not too bad when the favorite is you!

I was devastated by this news. I cried out to God. “How much more are you going to take away from me?” I’d lost my home, all my friends, the man I loved, my one new friend, and now even my grandfather. I dragged myself through my classes that day blinking back tears. All I could think about was getting through everything I had to do so I could go see Matt and tell him about my grandfather. Matt was the only person I felt “safe” talking to.

That evening I dragged myself up to the art department and into the room where Matt was working. He greeted me with his usual smile and his usual question: “How’s life in the academic world?” Although he was a college student, he didn’t see himself in any way as being part of academia.

We exchanged some trivial small talk. I was kind of waiting for a chance to broach the subject of my loss, but the chance never came. I believe Matt saw the pain leaking out of my eyes, saw how close to tears I was, and he took action. He talked as he painted, and he kept up a constant stream of words, leaving me no opportunity to say anything.

A funny thing happened over the next hour or so, as I watched and listened to my friend Matt. Somehow, he managed to pour peace and comfort into my soul without appearing to do so. The threat of tears receded. The magic of art drew me away from my grief and made me realize that joy still existed and could be found, and that I had been so blessed in so many ways. By the time I headed back to the dorm to beat the curfew, I realized that he had found a way to comfort and encourage me when I needed it most desperately, even though I never even told him about losing my grandfather.

I realized that somehow Matt had become my lifeline. I don’t think it’s exaggerating at all to say that for the second half of my freshman year, he kept me alive. I certainly had not wanted to stay alive for some time before meeting him. His unique point of view perked me up and forced me to look at everything with new eyes. What a gift that was.

The school year came to an end. Matt graduated, and I left for home without having a chance to say goodbye to him. I knew I wouldn’t be coming back, and of course he’d be gone anyway. There was no Facebook, no way of staying in touch unless you exchanged addresses, and we certainly never did that. I wasn’t even sure he knew my last name.

I stayed out of school to work a year, and then came down here to Texas to attend LeTourneau College (now a university) where my husband still works. The following spring, two years after I’d last seen Matt, my future husband flew me out east to attend his sister’s graduation from nursing school. I had the nerve to ask him to let me go a couple of days early, so I could visit friends at my old university.

I stayed with my former guardians and of course I couldn’t resist going over to the university and up to the art department. It had been my “happy place” during that dark, dark time in my life. I wondered if anyone I knew would still be there. It was the middle of the afternoon and not much was going on. There were a couple of ceramic artists at their wheels, but the floor seemed all but deserted.

The room where Matt used to paint was silent, the door ajar, so I knew there was no class going on in there. I couldn’t resist peeking in one last time. Imagine my surprise when I saw Matt there, sitting on his stool and painting a large canvas. I couldn’t believe it. He turned around and saw me, and welcomed me as he always had. He gave no sign he was aware that two years had passed. It was as if I had seen him the day before.

Like a girl in a dream, I walked in and he started his usual running commentary. He was working as a graduate assistant while doing graduate work at another university, which is why he still had access to the facilities. He was getting ready for his first big exhibition.

After talking to me about his current painting, he said, “Do you want to see the others?” Of course I did. He led me back to the room where all the paintings were stored upright in cubbyholes. He pulled out painting after painting, like a little kid excitedly showing off his favorite possessions. As he displayed each artwork, he explained it to me, and eagerly watched my reactions. It was like opening gifts on Christmas morning. Treasure after treasure.

That afternoon was one of the most joyful experiences of my life. How I wished I could afford to buy one of his paintings! They were dirt cheap back then, but I was also dirt poor, and could never scrape together even $30 or $40 to get one of his smaller paintings. It’s one of my big regrets.

After that visit, I never saw or heard from Matt again. Every now and then, I’d do some online searching to see if I could find out what happened to him. Nothing ever came up until last year, when I finally found his website and Instagram account. I was stunned to discover that he had spent a couple of decades painting in New York City. He had never struck me as a big-city kind of guy.

I scrolled through the photos of his paintings, wishing so badly that I could hear his voice explaining them to me. I didn’t try to contact him personally. I have no reason to believe that he’d remember me.

Early this week, I checked his Instagram account to see if he’d posted anything new. He hadn’t, but a comment on one of his pictures struck fear and dread into my heart. The implication was that Matt had died. It took days of fearful searching to find any confirmation. I hoped and hoped it was a baseless rumor. Someone else named Matthew Baumgardner had died recently. Maybe the commenter had got the wrong Matt.

But last night, I finally found the truth, posted by one of Matt’s own daughters. Matt did indeed die on November 20, and by his own hand. It didn’t surprise me, but it wrecked me. Oh, the tragic irony of discovering that the friend who kept me alive could not, in the end, keep himself alive. Even after all these decades, I’m devastated.

I’d guess that no one reading this has ever even heard of Matthew Clay Baumgardner, a kind and gentle soul, a gifted artist, and a radiant human being. Now maybe you have a tiny inkling of what the world lost when it lost him. Oh, Matt. I am so, so sorry. I’ll never not miss you.

***

There’s a line in Don McLean’s classic song “American Pie” which says, “Fire is the devil’s only friend.” It sounds cool, but it’s not true. Fire may indeed be the devil’s friend, but it’s not his only one. Oh, no. The devil has many friends. Let me introduce you to a few of them. Have you met Hypocrisy, Ignorance, Cruelty, Sarcasm, Pride, Dishonesty, Envy, Greed, Bitterness, Lust, or Rage? They are all very good friends with the devil, along with all their loathsome relations.

In light of Matt’s death, however (and several others in the last two years), I’d have to say that one of the devil’s most powerful friends is Despair. The first thing you need to know about Despair is that she’s a liar. Everything she says is a lie, but she makes it sound so convincing. “You’re stupid. You’re fat. You’re ugly. You’re not good enough. You’ll never be good enough. Everyone knows you’re incompetent. You can’t do anything right. Everything that happens to you makes your life worse. You are wasting your time. Nothing will ever be better than the hell you’re living right now. You’ve never accomplished anything worthwhile. They don’t care about you. No one cares about you. The world would be better off without you.”

Sound familiar? Despair and I have been acquainted for a long, long time—but I never really questioned our unhealthy relationship until the day I shared my discouragement with an older friend who was also a spiritual mentor. She grabbed my shoulders, looked me right in the eye, and said, “Discouragement is a sin, Linda.”

Well, that was shocking. It had never occurred to me that I could refuse to listen to Despair and her lies. I never stopped to think that I had a choice. Now I understand that Despair is often invited in by Depression, and if you are suffering from clinical depression, as I often have, it may be impossible to see Despair’s lies for what they are. Why do you think the devil loves despair so much? She does so much of his work for him.

There have been many helpful things written about suicide prevention lately, and I am thankful for that. But what concerns me is that so many people are still falling through the cracks. Everybody says, “Get help. Call someone. Reach out.” Yet that is exactly what is so hard to do when Despair has moved in with you. When Despair is calling the shots, you don’t think anything can help. You don’t believe anyone could care. So you don’t reach out.

I’d like to see the burden of help shifted more to the people in a person’s life. How can you tell if someone is suffering from suicidal depression? Well, I’m sure it differs according to personality, but here are some things I’ve noticed. They may be very quiet. They may be kind and sweet, but if they are also quiet and withdrawn, that may be more than introversion. They may smile with their mouth but not their eyes. Most likely, they will not laugh, even when you think something is hilarious. Their energy will be low. They won’t be motivated to go out and socialize or participate even in activities they claim to like. They may not care about what they eat or what they wear. They may give away even valuable possessions with no sign of regret.

All of those characteristics are things that I experienced during that hard, hard time in my life. I believe that Matt, with his different way of perceiving things, somehow figured out that I was not only in deep distress but also in danger, and he took action. He befriended me, and opened up at least some of his private world to me. I may not have been all that important to him, but at the time I believed I was. I certainly was not important to anyone else in my life at that time. That one person made all the difference in the world. He never talked to me about depression, but he somehow managed to lift the gloom a little every time I talked to him. Oh, how I wish that someone had done that for him in these last few years. Maybe he’d still be around.

Maybe we could all put more effort into really noticing what’s going in our friends’ lives, and intervening with love and kindness when we see a cause for concern. Whoever you are, we need you. Please stay.

A Bucket List Experience

Have you ever been outdoors on a bitter cold day, and happened to look through someone’s window into an idyllic scene of warmth and tranquility? Fireplace, Christmas tree, adorable children—maybe someone playing piano and people drinking hot chocolate. And you felt more than a little envious, perhaps, of their warmth and social-media-perfect life? Last night, I felt as if I was transported into that magical fantasy, if only briefly. I can never belong to it, because I wasn’t born to it, but I’m still glowing from the warmth of it. It’s one thing to know about it, but something different to experience it.

It’s Sunday afternoon and I have at least a thousand things to do, that MUST be done, yet I want to stop for a few minutes right now and record my reaction to last night’s doings. Last night I checked an item off my bucket list. I participated in a small town parade.

I had agreed to do it without giving it much thought at all, but as the day grew closer, and I put a LOT of time into practicing the songs on my autoharp, I realized that I was a little nervous. Parades are not something I grew up with overseas. I mean, when I think back to my childhood, my primary parade memory is learning about King Caractacus of Britain being paraded and humiliated through the streets of Rome in the first century.

And because parades of any kind are not a part of my past, I never thought to take my kids to a parade. We don’t have television reception or cable, so we never watch parades on the screen either. Parades, then, have not even been on my radar at all.

Yet, there was that bucket list item. I had this yearning to participate in the community event that is a small town parade, to see what it was like—to find out what the appeal is. What I didn’t expect was to be reduced to tears by the beauty of it all.

I got into the only Renaissance garb that I can still wear without it falling off me, drove up to  Mount Pleasant, and arrived at the appointed parking lot while the float was still being assembled. I was told to set my chair right up against the Christmas tree that formed the front of the float, facing toward the back. I covered the chair with a blanket and a cloak so it wouldn’t look “modern.” I set up my music stand and brought my autoharp. I even had a little magnetic light on my stand so I could read my music in the dark.

Just to be clear, our float was to promote the Canterbury Renaissance Festival, which takes place in Mount Pleasant every September. The middle of the float had a table and benches, with an inflatable turkey dinner and a couple of candelabra on the table. At the back were two thrones for our king and queen.

There were some frantic preparations as the deadline approached. The king and queen got into costume and sat on their thrones. Then a rope barrier was strung up behind them so they couldn’t fall out! Which meant that I was trapped on the float for the next three hours, because the only way to get on and off was over the side rails,and I knew my knees probably couldn’t handle it. We moved into position in another parking lot, where we’d be waiting for an hour and a half until all the floats were ready to go, and until it was dark.

Rum and mead were being passed around but no one became obnoxious or incapacitated. We sang some carols and I realized that all my practicing had been in vain. The lights on our float were powered by a loud generator that was concealed under the table. No one could hear the autoharp at all, including me, so they certainly had no way of knowing what key I was playing in and I had no way of keeping up with them because I’m not skilled enough to find and match a key that someone is already singing in.

In a way, this was a huge relief. All I had to do was fake playing and the stress was gone. I could just enjoy the parade. I looked over the parking lot at the other floats. There was everything from a castle to a local high school Christmas “king” and “queen”standing in the back of a pickup. There was a high school marching band. It was wall-to-wall classic Americana. It was glorious. I choked up just looking around at all the floats and all the good people running around to help.

On our float we had eleven people and one dog, a very elegant greyhound with a chainmail collar and a green velvet covering that matched my dress. He was right beside me and was so well-behaved. We had a dozen or so others who walked along beside the float and passed out candy and free faire passes to the crowd.

Finally, we got going. We were toward the front of the parade. Mount Pleasant is a town of about 16,000 people. I naively thought the parade would be maybe five or six blocks long. I don’t know how long it actually was, but it took an hour and a half!

There were several hundred people in the parade, of course, but I’m pretty sure that all the other residents of Mount Pleasant were in the crowd lining the parade route. I was gobsmacked. I honestly had no idea. This is a facet of American life that I have had no exposure to—small, tightly-knit communities that come together for group celebrations like this. I bet everyone in the crowd knew at least one person who was in the parade. Everyone in the parade was trying to put on a great show for their friends and families. It was so charming, so heartwarming, so deeply American. I was in tears for much of it.

We sang Christmas carols, waved, cheered, and yelled “Merry Christmas” at the crowd—the wide-eyed little children, the young folks in the backs of pickup trucks and SUVs, the older folk with their folding chairs and warm blankets. One young girl who was with our float kept dashing into the crowd to pass out hugs and greet people. I was enchanted by all of it.

Sometimes lately, I’ve been very discouraged by the way some things are going in our country. The bitter dissension between different political groups and racial groups and income groups sometimes brings me to despair. I don’t understand it and I don’t see any “cure” on the horizon; certainly not a political one. Sometimes I wonder if what’s left of this great country is worth preserving, but last night I knew the answer was yes. Small town America is something precious and amazing and it deserves to be preserved and encouraged. Little towns like Mount Pleasant are, in my opinion, a national treasure—a treasure that should be fiercely defended and encouraged. Now I’m crying again.

If you, like me, have never gone to a small-town parade, you should.

Parting Shot:

My view of the float before it got dark.

Invisible

This morning at Aldi, I overheard a young mother explain something to her toddler. The little girl was curious about a young woman who was walking with crutches. The mom explained, “Sometimes people might have an owie that you can’t see, and they need help walking.”

I love that explanation. It was on the girl’s level, yet still encouraged compassion for someone who is hurting. As I drove home, I found myself thinking more about it. The reality is that we all have injuries that others can’t see, don’t we? I certainly do. The older I get, the more I value kindness and compassion, and the more I try to express those two qualities in my dealings with others.

I am getting better at reminding myself that when someone else treats me rudely or unkindly, it may be because their internal, “invisible” wounds are hurting them. Maybe they’ve gotten a devastating diagnosis from their doctor. Maybe they’ve lost someone precious to them. Maybe they’ve been betrayed by someone they loved and trusted, or been passed over for a deserved promotion, or had to watch a loved one suffer in some way. Maybe their spouse is divorcing them, or that letter they longed for never came. Maybe you happen to look like someone who treated them like dirt.

I don’t think anyone gets up in the morning and thinks, “I’m going to be rude and insufferable to everyone I meet today because I’m a bad person and I like hurting others.” The Bible says that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” If someone is causing pain with their words, then surely those words must come from a place of pain inside. So I try very hard to meet caustic words with compassion and understanding. Like the lady said—sometimes people have an “owie” that you can’t see.

In Which My Garden Preaches a Sermon

The kiss of the sun for pardon,

The song of the birds for mirth,–

One is nearer God’s heart in a garden

Than anywhere else on earth.

Dorothy Frances Gurney

I’ve been working on my rose bed for almost two weeks now. Early in the spring I enjoyed going out there and weeding my roses. The weeds were relatively small and sparse and it was enjoyable to be out there in the warm spring air.

Then it got hot, and working in the garden was no longer so enjoyable. So I didn’t. I faithfully watered it, but I stopped weeding. You know what happens when you water every day but don’t deal with the weeds? They get bigger, and they invite all their friends to come and join the party. My beloved rose bushes all but disappeared, overcome by a jungle of weeds.

I’m not kidding.

7-10-18 rose with weeds

There is a rose bush in this photo.

And of course, once the weeds got really bad, it was hard to feel like doing anything about them because the task was so daunting—in fact totally overwhelming. Then I got shamed into it after my husband started on the weeding one evening. The roses are supposed to be my responsibility.

So, I’ve been going out there every morning before it gets too hot, and weeding as long as I can stand it. The weeds were incredibly thick and strong and deeply rooted. (I now have an impressive compost pile!) The roots were all intertwined so I had to pull one weed at a time. There were multiple weeds per square inch of soil. And once I pulled the bigger and taller weeds, there was another whole carpet of small weeds. It often took a full hour to weed about three linear feet of the rose bed, and I have removed at least a couple of cubic yards of plant material from that one bed.

It’s also hot, sweaty, backbreaking labor. As I dig and pull up weed after weed, I keep reminding myself that I would not have to be doing this if I had only continued to weed regularly since the spring.

Inevitably, the comparison to my own life struck me again and again as I worked. Bad habits are often compared to weeds. The longer we allow them to take root, the stronger they become and the deeper the roots grow. And by “bad habits” I mean anything from not cleaning up after yourself to harboring bitterness or envy in your heart.

Like weeds, once you allow these negative things to take root, and keep watering them with more negativity, the roots grow deep. And once the roots have developed and have begun to choke out your joy and optimism and kindheartedness, it becomes harder and harder to exterminate these “weeds” in your life, even if you recognize they’re there and that your life would improve dramatically if you could just find the will to tear them out one by one!

I have worked so hard over the years to maintain a positive attitude and find things to be grateful about even in difficult circumstances. But I also know that I have allowed some “weeds” to spring up, and I am trying to be faithful to uproot these inner weeds even as I tend to the physical weeds in my garden.

7-10-18 Rose bed

This is what my rose bed looks like now, after weeding, fertilizing, pruning and mulching. The plan is to do a “rose patrol” every morning, to find and eliminate weeds as soon as they appear. I’d like to do that internally too!

 

 

 

Music Memories

One of the great things about the community event I went to on Saturday night was the live music. I love live music so much, especially if it’s in an outdoor setting, which is one of the reasons I love going to Renaissance faires. Now when I say “live music,” I’m referring to mostly acoustic music played for a small, intimate audience. As I sat there listening in the warm summer air, I found myself wondering how this came to be such a passion for me.

My first music love was piano music, because my dad was a pianist. I still love piano music and enjoy nothing more than a truly excellent piano recital or concert. My dad has a very vigorous playing style and of course as a toddler I loved it—and I still do.

But when I was maybe four or five, I was exposed to a new kind of music. From time to time we would have dinner at my great-grandmother’s big white house, which she ran as a boarding house for many years. At the time I speak of, her son Fred (my great uncle) was between marriages I think, and he was living with her. I was too young to question why a man his age was single and living with his mom.

After supper one night, Uncle Fred said he had something to show me upstairs. I followed him up the stairs and into his bedroom. He lifted me up onto his huge brass four-poster bed, and then picked up his guitar, sat down in the only chair, and began to play and sing for me.

I doubt if I had ever heard anyone play the guitar before—and the music he played was nothing like the tunes my dad played on the piano. He played old popular tunes from the 40s and 50s, folk songs, hymns and spirituals. I was spellbound. I certainly had no concept of the fact that he had probably been ordered to entertain me so that everyone else could have an adult conversation!

One of the songs he played was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and it instantly became my favorite. On subsequent visits, he played and sang many different songs for me, but I never let him stop until he played “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” And I always had a big soft spot for Uncle Fred, even when I was much older.

Not long after that, my Aunt Ruthie married a man who played the ukulele. That was many decades ago, and I’m sure my memories are distorted, but in my earliest recollections of Uncle Jim, he always seemed to be playing the ukulele! I loved it. I don’t know if he even owns a ukulele anymore, and I certainly haven’t heard him play since I was very young—but it was another factor in my growing love of live music.

At the age of eight, I moved with my family to Zambia and the first friend I made at boarding school there was Gwennie (who is still my friend). She also played the ukulele, and she played it very well. She could play anything anyone requested if she knew the song at all. She carried her ukulele down to the river and played for us there. She played for me when we were on our home station too. And when she was ten, she received her first guitar as a birthday gift.

Gwennie was so tiny she could barely reach her little arm over the top of the guitar to play it, and of course she had to learn new chords for her six-stringed instrument. But within a few weeks she was playing like an old pro. In a way, her guitar playing was the soundtrack of my youth. When we were in high school, her roommate didn’t like to hear her practice (!!!) so Gwen would come to my room instead. She’d sit on the bed with her music spread out beside her, and I’d sit at the desk and listen. I never got tired of it.

As a teenager, I briefly tried learning to play the guitar myself, and I think one of the reasons I gave up was because I knew I had no hope of becoming as skillful as Gwen. After that I was quite content to listen to her. She really was a musical prodigy. I still love to listen to her play and sing, over fifty years later!

So is it any wonder I became such a fan of live music? I had hundreds of private concerts when I was growing up!

At the End of the World

Today I finished reading The Lighthouse at the End of the World  by Jules Verne. It was published posthumously, and there is a fair amount of speculation regarding what changes he might have made to the manuscript had he lived longer.

I was more interested in the story as evidence of how western culture has changed since 1901, when the manuscript was written. The entire story is set on Staten Island. Not the one you’re thinking of—the one situated at the very tip of South America. Argentina sends a crew to build a lighthouse on the island so that shipping will be able to safely navigate the Le Maire Strait between the island and the mainland.

Three lighthouse keepers are left behind to man the lighthouse for three months, after which the ship will return with three new men to replace them for the following three months. Unfortunately, none of the Argentinians are aware that a gang of bloodthirsty pirates have been holed up on the other end of the island and have been luring ships to their destruction and gathering the spoil. A functioning lighthouse is not in their best interest.

The conflict begins when the pirates sail up to the lighthouse in their stolen ship and immediately kill two of the keepers. The third man witnesses the crime and goes into hiding to save his life. Now I think if this story were written today, this man would do one of two things. He would either try to figure out a way to get off the island and back to civilization, or he would try to kill the pirates, using guerilla tactics and picking them off one by one.

Vasquez does neither of these things. He lies low and tries to think of ways to prevent the pirates from leaving, so they will be caught in the bay when the Argentine ship returns. He is eventually joined by the sole survivor of a shipwreck (which the lighthouse could have prevented had it not been left unlit by the pirates). Both men are willing to give their lives if necessary to save another ship from wrecking and to keep the pirates from getting away free. They want revenge, yes—but not at the cost of innocent lives.

A lot of people die in this book, but the deaths are not described in detail and most take place “offscreen,” as it were—another thing that would be different today. I don’t care for gore at all, but in this case I thought a little more detail might have made me care more about the characters.  Also, there is not a single female character in the story, which might be hard to get away with today, even if historically accurate.

The book succeeded very well at one thing—making me curious about Staten Island. I read up on it soon after starting the book, and kept a tab open to Google Earth so I could consult the map whenever I had trouble visualizing something. Argentina has been on my bucket list for some time!

Walter and Jasper did their yard jobs today, while Lucy was working to get ready for an event tonight, at which she’d been asked to display some of her art. Late this afternoon we dropped her and her paintings off at the coffee shop in our church so she could set up.

Mercy and Daniel came for supper and then stayed for the evening to watch a movie. I left before the movie ended so I could go support Lucy at the coffee shop. They were hosting a community event that was really fun. They had food trucks, volleyball, live music and the art display. The first person I saw when I walked up was my son Spencer, who was there with several of his friends. One of the friends had not seen me for quite a while, and commented on how drastically I have “shrunk.” Made my evening!

Lucy got some positive comments about her paintings, all of which are lovely. I am glad she had a chance to share her talent with a wider audience.

 

Are You Safe?

In the past couple of years, I’ve given a lot of thought to my acknowledged status as an introvert. I’ve blogged about how for most of my life, I have been told that my introversion is a sin or a defect in my personality. I disagree very strongly with both of those points of view. My introversion is just a part of who I am, like my love of the moon or my dislike of oatmeal.

To a certain extent, I am a bit of an unconventional introvert. I don’t have a tiny circle of friends. I have a vast, far-flung network of friends, many of whom I feel “close” to and all of whom I actively love and adore. I invest considerable effort into maintaining those friendships despite the distance of miles and/or years. I am actively interested in my friends’ lives and I love to hear from them or better yet, see them in person. I don’t see friends as temporary but as permanent, and I mourn over every friendship lost.

Over the last year, I have become more and more aware of safety as a component of relationships. I’m not talking about safety from harassment or physical attack. I’m talking about the safety of being able to talk to someone and know that no matter what I say, they will still accept and respect me. I think this is a huge part of being an introvert. Introverts like me are not going to allow a conversation to become serious unless they feel certain the other person is “safe,” and the only way to figure that out is through lengthy experience and observation.

This is why, if you’ve only been around me in a group setting, you may assume I am all but mute. Unless I know everyone in the group well, it is not a “safe” environment for me and I am not going to venture to express my opinion. If pressed, I will be noncommittal.

There is one sure way to alienate an introvert, and that is to ridicule something that he or she holds dear. It’s bad enough if you do it unknowingly, but it’s virtually unforgiveable if you do it intentionally. From that moment, you will never be seen as “safe,” no matter how much time goes by. You are unlikely to succeed in getting to know that introvert on any but the most superficial level.

Extroverts react quite differently, in my experience. An extrovert will simply laugh it off: “Haha, you just made fun of my most favorite thing in the world. That is so silly. You’re such a joker, bro.”

An introvert doesn’t find it funny at all. To an introvert, disparaging or making fun of something important to him/her means that you are likely to make fun of his/her very identity, so therefore you can’t be trusted with it.

Because I am so much more aware of this phenomenon now, I have been interested to note the occasions when I have and haven’t felt “safe.” My class reunion last year surprised me by feeling very safe, despite the fact that I hadn’t seen most of those people for forty years—whereas people at church whom I see every week might not feel safe at all. I haven’t gathered enough data on them to know whether I dare speak my mind in their presence.

My recent trip also was a foray into safe and trusted relationships, which was one of the things that made it so enjoyable.

Which brings me to my point. I recently was mulling over my relationship with someone in my life, and I began to suspect that perhaps I had transgressed against a fellow introvert. I hadn’t verbally attacked or ridiculed something this person values, but I had perhaps managed to communicate my disapproval nonverbally by my use of body language or lack of outright affirmation. I had failed in my personal goal to always do the kindest thing.

It upsets me to think that to this person, I may no longer be viewed as “safe.” Knowing myself the way I do, I fear it may be impossible to move myself back onto this person’s “safe” list, and that grieves me. Since safety in relationships is so vital to me, I try to make a point of being a safe person for others.

What about you? Have you even thought about whether or not you provide a safe atmosphere for your friends to express their deepest desires, goals, and opinions? I find that I am less and less willing to openly ridicule even things that are patently ridiculous, because I’d rather not run the risk of permanently turning off someone who may be listening and who may need me to be a “safe” listener at some point in the future.

At a Crossroads

As I think I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, we have left the tiny, struggling church we’ve attended for more than a decade and are now looking for a new church home, a process my husband and I do not enjoy. We have chosen a church we plan to attend for a few weeks and see if it is a good fit for us, especially for Jasper.

This forces me to face certain truths I have been avoiding for some time, one of which is that I’m not going to find a church where I feel “at home,” soon or ever. The only way to achieve that is to change my definition of “home,” because the kind of church I’d love to attend does not exist in our community.

What kind of church am I talking about? I’m talking about a church that still believes in the participation model for congregational singing, led by a song leader instead of a worship band, using hymnbooks with all the musical notes in them, and accompanied by an organ and piano, and maybe augmented by the voices of a choir singing in four-part harmony.

The truth, I know, is that if I were to find a church like that, it would almost certainly be populated exclusively by people even older than me, and be waiting for enough of them to die off to justify closing down. (I know there are exceptions in other parts of the country, but I haven’t learned of any around here.)

But the point of this essay is not to decry the death of real congregational singing or the ubiquity of performance-based worship bands. This transition has already occurred, so there is no point in my searching for something I know I won’t find, and which is not even one of the essential elements of a “good” church.

So what else do I want from a church? I’ve had to think long and hard about the difference between my preferences and what is actually important. Obviously (I hope) I want to be in a place where the word of God is preached in a way that helps mature me as a Christian and deepens my understanding of God and His word. I want to be able to go home with something to think about and mull over and apply to my life.

I would love to see a congregation with a wide range of ages and ethnic backgrounds, with a vibrant community and a passion for reaching out to their neighbors, both locally and globally. A congregation where people volunteer willingly for kids’ ministries because they love kids, not because they feel obligated or pressured. A congregation where people form deep friendships and hang out with each other during the week as well as on Sundays. (This is an especially longed-for feature for me, after going for so long to a church where I never felt accepted and never formed a close friendship.)

Some of these characteristics are more likely to be found at large, mainstream evangelical denominational churches, yet I resist that choice because I don’t want my identity to belong to a denomination, especially if it’s one that believes its particular brand of Christianity is the only “true” one and that everyone else is hell bound. Or that its missionaries are the only ones who preach the true Gospel and all other sincere people sacrificing to minister in the same area are irrelevant. Most mainstream evangelicals hold to the same core beliefs, and I don’t understand why they won’t acknowledge this and can’t seem to appreciate each other’s efforts.

I’ve come to realize this is another loss experience for me. We all experience various losses throughout our lives. The really big one for me was losing Africa, having to face the reality that I am unlikely to ever live there again, which was all I wanted from my adult life. The grief has lessened, but it has never gone away—nor do I expect it to. The churches of my youth, the vibrant congregations with their sublime traditional music that I would love to find—they are even more unreachable than Africa is, and rather than exhaust myself searching for something that doesn’t exist, I mourn their passing and look for something different.

By “different” I do not mean “inferior” in any way. Last week, we went to Spencer’s church and I saw a vibrant, enthusiastic congregation with a real passion for reaching the community.  There is nothing inferior about a church like that, even if it is not an environment where I feel at “home.” It is a wonderful example of a living body of Christ and I am so glad Spencer is a part of it.

This week we went, as I said, to a church we are going to try out for a while. We know quite a few people there, if not many of the songs. It has some wonderful qualities. I don’t know if we’ll ultimately choose to stay, but I do know that regardless of where we end up, I’m going to have to set aside my grief and my longing for a vanished reality, and learn how to embrace something that is real and powerful and vital, even if it’s not what I’m used to.

Coffee Shops & Hospitality

If you know me or have been reading my blog for very long, you know I tend to shy away from controversy both here and in person. I have opinions, about which I am passionate, but I mostly keep them to myself, because I know it is extremely unlikely I will change anyone else’s opinion by airing my own. That said, I fear this essay might spark some thought or discussion—and if it does, it might be a good thing.

My kids and all their friends (and many of my friends too) love to go to coffee shops. It’s a habit, a hobby, a fixture in their lives. They think nothing of spending $4 or more every day for a drink of fancy coffee. The price, all by itself, would keep me from adopting this particular hobby—but this is not about the cost of fancy coffee drinks. I am willing to pay for the expensive coffee in order to spend time with my kids in the venue of their choice, even though I rarely order anything myself.

What I’ve been noticing more and more is that coffee shops are where many people choose to do most of their socializing—including my own generation. When friends talk about getting together, they often agree to meet at one of the trendy coffee shops in town. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, except . . .

Except I am beginning to suspect these coffee shop excursions are more and more replacing actual hospitality instead of just augmenting it. A coffee shop is a neutral location, which sometimes, of course, is exactly what one needs. But I can’t help wondering, what kind of friendship blooms when all the interaction takes place in a neutral location? What happened to hanging out at each other’s houses and being present in each other’s lives?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, sure, you don’t like going to public locations because you’re an introvert, and you don’t like going to coffee shops because you don’t drink coffee! Both of those things are true, but they are not the whole truth.

Others of you might want to point out that coffee shops virtually always serve tea as a way of throwing a bone to tea drinkers like me. It’s a good thing you can’t see the face I just made after typing that statement. I have yet to have a single cup of tea in a coffee shop anywhere in the USA that even comes close to being as good as the tea I can make for myself with minimal fuss or expense at home. And drinking lukewarm tea out of a paper cup is just . . . not okay. For me, anyway.

When I want to visit with one of my friends, I invite her over for tea—at my house. Although I always make an effort to tidy up, she will walk in my door and see clutter. She may see a sock lying in a corner somewhere. She will see dirty dishes in the kitchen and possibly baskets of clean laundry lying around. She will see my current knitting project piled up beside my chair and maybe a sewing project and some junk mail too.

She will also see my smiling face and maybe get to say hello to a couple of my kids as they cruise past. She’ll get real tea served in porcelain or china cups, and it will be hot enough to be enjoyable. It won’t cost her a single cent, and she can have as many refills as she wants! We can have a private conversation, and we won’t have to shout over anyone’s loud music or listen to someone else’s phone conversation or worry about being overheard.

On rare occasions, one of my friends will also invite me over to her house. I always love to visit a friend in her own home, almost as much as I love having friends in my home. To me, it’s a vital component of participating in each other’s lives.

Not so long ago, visiting each other for coffee or tea was a common thing. People did it all the time. They did it in their own homes. Sometimes it was fancy. Sometimes it was just a mug in front of the fireplace or at a kitchen table that was piled high with stuff, with a little spot cleared so you could put your cup down. It wasn’t about showing off your pristine house. It was about sharing life together.

I’m not saying you can’t share life together in a swanky coffee house—of course you can. But I don’t think it is as personal or as likely to lead to a long-lasting deep friendship, which is why the trend is beginning to concern me. Over the last decade or so, people have often expressed surprise when they hear I still invite people over to my house, especially for meals. Apparently this is not “done” very much anymore. If true, I believe we have lost something we should have held on to—the joy of hospitality, of sharing our homes and our lives with others.

The past month has been greatly enhanced for me because we had dinner guests on five occasions (not counting family). On none of those occasions was my house “company ready” even by my very lax standards. I got over that hurdle decades ago. I do what I can, but I also assume that when people come for tea or for dinner, they are coming to see me, not critique my house. If I waited for my house to be perfect before inviting someone over, I’d never have guests at all, and my soul would be the poorer for it.

I’d like to timidly suggest that if you are someone who has a deeply-ingrained coffee shop habit, maybe you could try inviting a friend over to your own place for coffee once a month. Make the coffee yourself. Choose the mugs. Light a candle. If you really want to step it up, make cookies! But try it. Once a month, save the cost of a designer caffeinated beverage and share your homemade version with a friend. Maybe you’ll like it. Maybe you’ll want to do it more often. I hope so.

Disclaimer: After reading through this again, it occurred to me that some might think this essay is a thinly-veiled criticism of my grown kids and an attempt to spur them to be more hospitable. Actually, I am very proud of how open-hearted and hospitable they all are. They all regularly invite friends over to their homes and I can only hope they inspire others to do the same!

No Internet & My Unfashionable Opinion

Spencer works for the cable company now, which means he gets benefits, such as free cable and internet, so today he had to cut off our internet for a day so he could switch it over to his much faster employee service. It’s amazing how much we use the internet every day. I kept thinking of things I wanted to look up—but I couldn’t. It was such a relief when he came home from work and got things set up again!

Today, I had a brief errand to run, and I saw a couple of eye-popping outfits that I literally would not be caught dead in, and that made me think of the occasional fashion article I read or watch, where some of the clothes are so outlandish that I fear for the mental health of the designer. But on further reflection, I think the following scenario is more realistic:

Two famous fashion designers go out for drinks after a successful show and get thoroughly smashed.

Designer 1: “How long do you think we can keep doing this before people figure out we’re just trolling them?”

Designer 2: “As long as people have money and a fear of not being in style.”

Designer 1: “I bet you half a million dollars plus a week in Tahiti that at the next show, I come up with an outfit so hideous even I won’t be able to look at it, but I’ll get a model to wear it on the runway without laughing, and at least ten people will actually buy it.”

Designer 2: “You’re on. But I get to say if it’s actually repulsive enough to qualify for the bet.”

Designer 1: “Deal.”

In case you haven’t guessed, I have zero, and I do mean zero, interest in fashion . . .