Archive for the ‘Portraits of Friends’ Category
Spring is here. Ribbons of yellow daffodils are growing on the side of the road. Robbins are hopping around, their red breasts puffed out in front of them. And soccer season has begun. My weekly schedule is suddenly an ink smear of places I need to be. I’m having a hard time keeping up with it all. In fact, I’m NOT keeping up with it all. Last Friday I completely forgot about a music evaluation my son, Hunter, had for piano. It was an exam of sorts, including sight reading, performance, theory, and technique. He’d been working toward it for months. And I forgot. So did he. We both felt terrible. Tears-on-our-cheeks TERRIBLE.
First thing Saturday morning I called his teacher, Rebecca, to apologize. “I don’t even have a good excuse,” I confessed. “We just forgot.”
Hunter’s piano teacher is one of the kindest, most gracious people I know. But even so, I expected her to be frustrated. Disappointed at the least. I would have been. Instead, she responded by saying, “I am so happy to know that everything is okay. I was worried that Hunter was sick.”
Before I had a chance to plunge into an even deeper state of guilt, our sweet teacher went on to say, “Now, Janessa, I’ve had this sort of thing happen to me many times. I wish I had been gentler with myself. Please. Be gentle with yourself.”
There wasn’t much I could say to that, especially not with the tears welling up in my eyes. I shared her words with my son, Hunter, and saw a wide-eyed look of gratitude and adoration appear on his face.
Be gentle with yourself. What a valuable lesson. I hope Rebecca knows she is teaching Hunter so much more than how to play the piano. And I am learning, too.
I know I’m a little late for a Thanksgiving post, but tonight our family had an experience that left me feeling profoundly grateful for the gifts we are given each day.
To start off, the week before Thanksgiving, my 3rd grade daughter brought home a poem she wrote and illustrated at school. I loved the poem. Not just because my daughter wrote it and I enjoyed reading her thoughts, but also because the poem was a wonderful exercise in learning how to find gratitude. My daughter’s teacher had the students in her class think of eight things they wanted. After each longed-for wish, the students wrote something they already had that they were grateful for. For example, here is my daughter’s poem:
I wish I had another puppy, but I’m grateful I have one.
I wish nobody would get sick, but I’m grateful I don’t get sick a lot.
I wish I had all the books I wanted to read, but I’m grateful I get to read some.
I wish I never had hard times, but I’m grateful I have friends and family when I do.
I wish I had a job with animals, but I’m grateful I can when I’m older.
I wish I would never grow up, but I’m glad I get to stay little for a while.
I wish the day would last forever, but I’m grateful it lasts 24 hours.
I wish I could do whatever I want, but at the same time I’m grateful that I don’t.
I could add a few of my own: I wish my husband liked 19th century British literature, but I’m grateful he’ll watch Jane Eyre with me anyway. I wish I didn’t have to wash the dirty dishes, but I’m grateful I can feed my family. I wish I had more time to write my book, but I’m grateful for four children who keep me busy and make my life purposeful.
It really is a wonderful exercise – finding what you are grateful for in the moment you are longing for more. Tonight’s experience was all about that. My husband and I took our kids to a special event organized by a dear friend of mine: a concert by children for children. She and her family organize the event each year, inviting friends to come and participate in a night of holiday music. Children perform, sharing their talents, and at the end of the night donations are accepted for the One Heart Bulgaria foundation, which aids orphanages in Bulgaria.
At the beginning of the concert, we were shown a slideshow of orphaned children living in Bulgaria. I found myself drawn toward the children’s dark, quiet eyes as they looked into the camera, inviting me to see the world from their point of view. It allowed me to step away from the long hard stare I fix on the things I think I want most, both for me and for my children, and to appreciate the most basic and important elements of our lives: love, faith, and family; food, health and home. There are so many gifts that have already been given, so many wants that have already been met. And so many opportunities to give instead of receive.
I just returned from a four day trip to Cincinatti, Ohio with my eight year old daughter. Our reason for taking the trip was to visit some old friends of mine from Italy who are here in the United States seeking medical treatment for their six-year old son. While in Cincinatti, they are staying at the Ronald McDonald House. They are well taken care of by the volunteers at the McDonald House, and by the nurses, doctors, social workers and translators at the hospital. But they don’t know anyone in Ohio, and don’t speak any English, so I took my daughter with me to spend some time with them, and to give them what moral support I could.
A few days before I was scheduled to leave for Ohio, I received a phone call from a woman in Cincinatti. Her name was Lisa. She had taken my friends under her wing, picking them up at the airport when they arrived, visiting them in the hospital, arranging trips to the Cincinatti Zoo for them, and bringing them to her home for dinner and respite. She knew their case worker at the hospital, was working with the Italian Embassy in Detroit on some problems they were having with their paperwork, and knew every detail of their son’s medical history and current treatment. The reason she called me was to invite my daughter and I to stay with her and her family in their home during our visit to Cincinatti. I accepted her invitation.
During our time with Lisa and her family, my daughter and I were given soft beds to sleep in and warm breakfasts made from scratch. Lisa’s nine and eleven year old daughters immediately adopted my daughter as a special friend. They pushed two twin beds together so she could “sleepover” with them. They shared silly stories with her and taught her how to play badminton. “Mom,” my daugther said to me, “They are so nice. And they never fight.”
I was equally impressed. Every night the family invited us to join them for family prayer. They played games together, happily drawing us in to share in the fun. Lisa’s home was spotless, even while taking classes at a nearby university and baking chocolate chip cookies for her daughter’s soccer team, which she helped coach. One night I asked if I could help do the dishes and she cheerfully replied, “dishes are no big deal.”
This was a family that had made service a fundamental part of their lives. They did it naturally, cheerfully, and tirelessly. Over and over during my time with them I thought of this passage from the 25th chapter of the gospel of Matthew.
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kindgdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
For I was an hungred and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
My daughter and I were complete strangers to Lisa and her family. Our Italian friends were strangers to them as well. But that didn’t matter. She took all of us in, fed us and cared for us. I remain so touched and grateful for all that she did and is doing for me and for my friends. I know I’ll never be able to pay her back, but I do hope that the next time I have the opportunity to help a stranger, I will remember her example and do my best to clothe, feed, and care.
I decided to wake up at 6:30 this morning to work on my novel. For the morning people out there that might not sound like a big deal, but for me this was a desperate measure. The last few days have just been too busy to squeeze out any writing time during more reasonable hours, and summer is coming soon. I’ll have all my kids home, which I am happy about, but writing will be hard. So 6:30 was my big idea.
Or, I should say, I failed. I was still in bed at 7:30 when my three year old came into my room, dragging his blanket behind him. So I recalibrated. I decided I would make time to write after lunch. But first I had to take my six year old to the pediatrician, buy crickets for our family gecko, fill the mini van with gas, and figure out what to feed all of us. With all of that accomplished, I put my three year old down for a nap and plopped my six year old in front of Yogi the Bear. Time to write.
There was the mess: dirty soccer socks, unwashed dishes, remnant Easter candies and wrappers spilled on the floor in my kids’ bedrooms. I knew I should write. I need to write. I get cranky and depressed when I don’t write. But I also get cranky and depressed when the house is messy, and believe it or not, laundry and dishes is much easier disaster relief than novel revision. So I started to clean.
Until my phone rang. It was my writer-friend, Jen. “I need a pep talk,” she said. She’d put her toddler down for a nap so she could write, only . . .
I could finish her words. We were in exactly the same place. So we complained and commiserated. We reassured each other that our novels do NOT suck. And we promised each other that we would hang up the phone and GO WRITE.
It was just what I needed. I left the messes behind and went to my computer. I tackled my novel. I even had a couple of ah-ha moments.
Thanks goodness for pep talks. And the friends who somehow know when you need one.
I missed posting yesterday because I fell asleep as soon as my kids were in bed. Derek and I took a quick trip to New York over the weekend and had to get up at 4:30 in the morning yesterday (2:30 a.m. here in Utah) to fly back home. The reason for our weekend get-away was the marriage of one of Derek’s college friends, an old fraternity brother of his.
The wedding was held in Bridgeport, Connecticut, at the Rodeph Sholom synagogue and was a conservative Jewish ceremony. It began with the Tish and the Bedeken. For the Tish, or “Groom’s Table”, male friends and family of the groom, or Hatan, gathered in a room to rejoice before the ceremony.
Many of Derek’s fraternity brothers and their spouses attended the wedding, but the groom is the only one of the group who is Jewish. When we were instructed to separate – men in one room and women in the other, there were a few stiff smiles from the women in the group – incredibly talented and successful doctors, surgeons, attorneys and businesswomen. I realized that it is unusual in our society to segregate ourselves in this way. But once the men had left for the Tish, and the women remained in the Bedeken to await the arrival of the bride, there was a change in the room. To me it felt like a lightness. A pause. Women turning to each other as women. When the bride arrived, glowing in her beautiful gown, it was like being in a room full of light.
Once the bride, or Kallah, had greeted her friends and family, she sat at one end of the room and waited for the groom to arrive, like a queen on her throne. When he entered the room, he was led by the men from the Tish, singing, dancing, and waving their fists in the air. It was such an entrance, full of celebration and rejoicing. Not just for the bride and groom, but for the families, the community, the people.
The groom was led to the bride’s seat, where he carefully pulled her veil over her face. The rabbi spoke to the wedding guests, explaining that the bride is veiled to signify that in spite of her beauty, what is valued most is her spiritual qualities, which will never fade. The veil also physically separates the bride and groom, reminding them that they remain distinct individuals even as they unite in marriage. I loved pondering on the significance of the veil, and the way it honored the bride in so many ways on her wedding day.
Following the veiling of the bride, we all went upstairs to the sanctuary, where the bride and groom entered the Huppah – a canopy with four open sides representing their first home. Once under the canopy, the bride circled the groom seven times, symbolizing the way her love will surround her home and protect it from outside harm. The blessings that followed, both spoken by the rabbi and sung in Hebrew by the cantor were beautiful. The songs, sung in their deep, reedy way, resonated throughout the synagogue and recalled other times, other people, who had made the same ancient promises the bride and groom were making to each other that day.
As Derek and I left the synagogue, walking out into the cooling October air of a Connecticut afternoon, I told him how much I had appreciated the traditions we had seen that day. “I feel anchored,” I told him. It didn’t matter that the religious beliefs behind the traditions differed from my own. It was the honoring of traditions that anchored me.
I thought more about it on our drive to the reception: the way an anchor falls through water, sending waves and ripples in a concentric path. On one side the ripples move outward, touching the past, on the other side they reach into the future. That is what tradition does for us. It connects us to the people who came before us, and to those who will come after. It centers us in time and space, resonating through us like ripples on the surface of the water, or the words of a cantor during the recitation of blessings to a new bride and groom.
On our recent trip to Pennsylvania and Washington D.C., we stayed five nights in Pittsburgh with my dear friend Nicolle, her husband Drew and their West Highland Terrier, Oban. One night during our stay, after settling my boys in their beds, I came downstairs to find my seven year old daughter, Hattie, curled up on her pillow with a happy little smile on her face. Nicolle was lying next to her and they were talking – sharing silly stories about Oban licking a toad, and the whispered words that come straight from a little girl’s heart. I could tell that Hattie loved her girl-talk with Nicolle, and that it made her feel important.
I knew just what she meant. I felt exactly the same way.
Nicolle made me feel just as important as Hattie during our time together. I admire her so much – her successes in her professional life, her laughter, her loyalty to those she loves. I hope she felt it. I felt her appreciation for me, or at least for my loud, crazy, happy bunch of kids – though that is perhaps more a testament to her patience than to my children! But her acceptance and admiration made me better appreciate my life – my family and my kids. Made me sure of and happy for the choices I’ve made, and I thank her so much for that.
Recently I heard a piece on public radio about the prevalence of bullying among girls. About ”mean girls”, and how they keep getting younger. I worry about Hattie, and how she will navigate the rocky waters of female relationships throughout her school years, and even beyond. So many factors can undermine our friendships: jealousy, competition, insecurity. Learning generosity and kindness can be such a challenge. But Hattie has something invaluable in help her figure all of that out. She has Nicolle. And the example of just how precious and good a friend can be.
Earlier this month I decided to acquaint my seven year old daughter, Hattie, with the infamous Anne-girl of the carrot
red hair. I just couldn’t wait any longer. I loved the Anne of Green Gables series when I was young, and any of L.M. Montgomery’s books I could find. Returning now with my daughter and finding Anne waiting for us in the pages of a book has been like reuniting with an old and dear friend.
At first I worried that Hattie might be a little young to understand the language and nuances of the book, but she follows closely along with every turn of the page. Tonight her eyes widened with horror when Josie Pye dared Anne to walk the ridgepole of Diana Barry’s roof, and when Anne broke her ankle and was bedridden, Hattie wanted to know, “Did Gilbert come to visit her?”
A favorite moment in our reading came the other night when we met Diana’s spinster aunt, Josephina Barry. In spite of Miss Barry’s boorish reputation and her imposing demeanor, Anne opens her heart to the older woman. This causes Miss Barry’s icy facade to melt away, and the two discover a surprising new friendship. That night when Anne returns home to Green Gables, she confides to Marilla, “Miss Barry was a kindred spirit, after all . . .You wouldn’t think so to look at her, but she is. . . Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”
Those words ended the chapter, and as I closed the book Hattie looked at me and asked, “Do I have any kindred spirits?” We talked about special friends she has had over the course of her life, and then I tucked her into bed. But as I left her room I asked myself the same question. “Who have been my kindred spirits?”
The first to come to my mind was Teresa.
I met Teresa during my time as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I was twenty-one. She was sixty years my senior. A white-haired woman living in Trieste, an Italian city that borders Slovenia. A city with hills so steep and wind so strong that handrails line the sidewalks — thick chains strung between iron posts.
Teresa was a member of the Mormon church, but was too old and frail to make the long trek to church on Sundays. So I would go and visit her each week with my companion, another missionary my age, and we would bring a message to share with her. Something that we hoped would be uplifting, strengthening in some way.
I learned right away that if anyone had strength to share, it was Teresa.
She would watch for us out her window, waiting for our arrival on the rattling bus that transported us around the city. There was always a hot meal waiting for us inside, and mugs full of rich, steaming cocoa. I had just arrived to Italy when I met her, and hardly knew any Italian. She didn’t know any English. But we both knew the songs of Ella Fitzgerald, and we first bonded over those bright, bouncy tunes.
In a way, those melodies we shared were a reflection of Teresa. She was as buoyant as the notes that float so effortlessly in Fitgerald’s vocals. She never complained about her health or her lonely life in her small, squarish apartment. She had a brightness to her that lifted her above the mundane. But at the same time that she floated buoyantly above discouragment, there was a deepness to her. A penetrating thoughtfulness and an anchoring strength.
On one of our visits, I asked Teresa if I could sing her a song from our church’s hymnal. She said yes and requested the hymn ”More Holiness Give Me.”
I was confused. I knew the song well. To me it represented all of my inadequacies — listing all the ways I failed to sanctify my life, and give precedence to spiritual matters. I felt the song was written for people like me, not for people like Teresa. In her tiny living room, sipping cocoa, I felt that if I could just open the right set of eyes I would see wisps of heaven trailing through the room, and angels moving among us.
But I had asked and she had answered. I sang the song.
More holiness give me,
More strivings within,
More patience in suff’ring,
More sorrow for sin,
More faith in my Savior,
More sense of his care,
More joy in his service,
More purpose in prayer.
More purity give me,
More strength to o’ercome,
More freedom from earth-stains,
More longing for home.
More fit for the kingdom,
More used would I be,
More blessed and holy
More, Savior, like thee.
She listened quietly, with her face turned to the window. She seemed to find solace in the words that I sang. I was glad. I would do anything I could to make her happy. But I still didn’t understand.
Not until now. Not until I thought about kindred spirits that night with Hattie, and remembered my surprise when Teresa asked me to sing the hymn. I realized Teresa spent her life working to have that holiness, that purity, patience and love. It was what she valued most. She wanted to hear me sing “More Holiness Give Me,” for the same reason that I thought she, of all people, didn’t need it: because it embodied all that she wanted most in life.
And in thinking about Teresa, I found this truth: we are what we value. It’s a familiar lesson: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” But it became more poignant and meaningful when I recognzied it in the life of my kindred spirit.
This morning my neighbor Mary came over for a visit. She brought her two little boys, the same ages as mine, and didn’t even bat an eye when my two year old balled his little hand up in a fist and punched her two year old. Which is only one of the many reasons why I love her. The other reasons? Too many to name. But I’ll try to illustrate with a story:
Last January I was over at Mary’s house, picking up my boys. She had watched them for me so I could volunteer in my daugther’s kindergarten class. (Just another reason why I love her — but not the point of the story). We were standing out front talking, enjoying a moment of sunshine that was doing it’s best to thaw the outer layers of snow and ice that had frozen our mountain-community, when a man from our neighborhood approached. He was someone we both knew, neither of us well, but we were aware of the fact that he was struggling with ms. He was out on a walk, using a cane to navigate the snow packs. But the ice was everywhere, and the cane wasn’t enough to steady him. As he neared Mary’s house, he slipped and fell hard. While I stood there, processing what had happened, Mary was already running carefully toward him. She crossed the street, jumped through the snow, and helped him to his feet. All this despite the fact that she is tiny. Absolutely, exquisitely petite. The man tried to say he was fine and didn’t need any more help, but Mary ignored him, cheerfully taking him by the arm and leading him to safe ground.
I watched her in awe. Me who deliberates, who second guesses myself, who worries whether or not something should be done instead of just doing it. Me who is twice her size and really should have been the one to help him to his feet. But that’s the difference. She didn’t wonder if she should help, or if she could. She just saw someone who needed help and she gave it.
Afterward, when she returned to her house, her little Parker asked, “Who is that, Mom?” She answered so simply, “Our neighbor.”
I hope you all have a neighbor like Mary.