Who I Was Meant To Be

“Who I was meant to be” popped up in two separate songs recently on my favorite contemporary Christian station. The phrase grabbed hold of me and has yet to let go. It represents hope:  hope that I’m not forever destined to remain the wounded, stunted human being that I began as.

If I’m honest, I didn’t start out trying to become a better person. While I don’t feel like I was ever really bad, I cringe when remembering some of the things I’ve done, some of them not that long ago. I’m not totally sure how my journey of improvement started. A brush with mortality in my late 30’s was a catalyst, though that wasn’t all of it. Much of it, I think, was just getting experience under my belt:  I eventually realized, through thousands of interactions with hundreds of people over a couple of decades, that people are a desert, and in the desert you don’t need much water to make an impact. It’s not only more rewarding to make people feel good, it’s addictive. It became circular:  the better I behaved, the better I wanted to behave. It wasn’t intentional, but I was changing from the inside out. I now wish I could go back and do so many things over again, but that’s never an option, is it? All we can ever do is learn and go forward from here.

I suppose that’s one of the most comforting aspects of Christianity…that no matter my unique flaws, no matter my regrets, no matter how shriveled my heart started out…as long as I allow the water of love to help me bloom, I am welcomed as a beloved child returning home. I am grateful for that mercy, for I have needed every minute of my life until now to earn my meager, hard-won progress. I am still very far from who I was meant to be, but I am closer today than I was before. And I won’t give up. I like who I was meant to be, much better than who I was.

“He said ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.'”  –The Velveteen Rabbit



Luxury

paper towels

I remember a retail merchant sharing one of his learnings from a consumer focus group. A young mother shopper told them that paper towels were a luxury she simply couldn’t afford, as she struggled to put food on her family’s table. This was clearly a novel idea to the merchant. For me, it was a memory.

We married (very) young and poor. One of us worked and one of us went to school for the first 7 years of our marriage. Our grocery budget for the first couple of years was $35 for the week, and that also had to cover toiletries and paper goods. Not only were paper towels definitely not affordable, we didn’t buy paper plates, Kleenex, or any “frivolous” food. For our lunches, I cooked extra amounts at dinner and baked desserts. While my husband’s co-workers looked on with envy at his homemade goodies, he complained that I never bought Oreos. I couldn’t:  if I spent $40 one week instead of the budgeted $35, we struggled to pay for gas. Money was tight, and it took real planning to make it work.

We’ve since been financially blessed and no longer have to live on the edge like that, but of course many Americans do. There has been such a widening of the gap between rich and poor in our country that too many today have no idea what it’s like to view paper towels as a luxury. I worry that my kids won’t understand how blessed they are…they’ve lived with paper towels and many other luxuries their whole lives. We talk to them about how fortunate we are compared to many Americans and the rest of the world. We tell them that we’re blessed largely as a result of luck, having been born through no action of our own in a time and place of extraordinary circumstances. But there is no way for them to truly understand unless they live it. I want them to understand, yet I guess I really don’t, if it means they have to experience it first hand. I wish my children a lifetime of paper towels.

“Wealth is the ability to fully experience life.”  –Henry David Thoreau


Memory


My earliest memories are from when I was less than two years old. They say we don’t have memories at that early an age, but they are wrong. I was hospitalized with pneumonia at 18 months. I have only two snippet memories from that stay:  they are few, and they are short, but they are vivid.

My old-fashioned hospital room was straight out of Curious George Goes to the Hospital…a large room with 4-6 cribs and a play area. My very first memory is of my parents, grandparents, and aunt in that room bringing me an amazing gift–a stuffed bear as big as me! I loved that bear all through my childhood. I still have him, packed away in a plastic tote in the garage. He’s much smaller than I remember him, and he’s threadbare from love. Getting that bear, in that strange room surrounded by my family, is vivid memory number one.

The next thing I remember was waking at night in my crib in that strange room. My family was gone, and I was alone among the other sleeping children. I was scared and began to cry…I just wanted to go home. Except I wasn’t alone. A man was there, sitting in a chair beside a sleeping girl. He heard me cry and brought his chair over next to my bed. I remember him talking gently to me, though I don’t remember what he said. I only remember that him sitting there talking to me made me feel better. The memory then stops. I don’t remember waking the next morning, or leaving the hospital, or anything else until I was three. Just the bear and the man, both small comforts at a child’s time of fear.

I always tear up a little when I remember the man; this stranger’s kindness has stayed with me for nearly 50 years. I’ve since wondered if his daughter was ok…I’ve certainly hoped so. I now know that a parent doesn’t sit in a chair in a hospital through the night when everything is ok. I’ve also wondered if he remembers that night, whether he knows that his small gesture is remembered and appreciated. It’s a reminder that we all have the ability to make a difference in the life of another. But it’s also a reminder that even when we feel alone, Someone is always sitting next to us, ready to bring us comfort. We are never really alone.

“As a body everyone is single, as a soul never.”  –Hermann Hesse


Reading

books

I love to read. I taught myself to read before kindergarten so I could read the Sunday comics (I still read them). As a kid, I read everything I could get my hands on–books, magazines, even my mother’s childhood encyclopedias. They stopped at Ike, and Carter was then President, but I didn’t care. I even found two books by the same author in my small high school library which would impact my life in a profoundly unexpected way 30 years later. The Enchanted Loom and Red Giants, White Dwarves by the astronomer Robert Jastrow covered the incredibly complex subjects of how our brains and the universe work, but in such a way that a layman (or a 15-year old small town Kansas girl) could easily understand. I was awed at his gift of effectively conveying information in written form, planting a seed that lay dormant for decades.

Two years ago, I stopped reading. Megan was critically ill, and I switched into survival mode. It wasn’t that I didn’t have time for it…I didn’t have the “head space” for it. When you’re under extreme stress, you strip out everything in life that’s not absolutely necessary. Looking back, I now realize that I stripped out things that actually were necessary, either to my mental health or my relationships, but you don’t think clearly at those times. As Megan recovered, I’ve gradually added everything back to my life except reading. I’m not sure why – I do miss it. I miss it, but I’m still not ready somehow. I can’t explain it.

Maybe I’ve changed with Megan’s illness…I know my perspective has. I have a different view of what’s important, of how I want to spend my time, which is actually how we spend our lives. But it still doesn’t make sense, because what I’ve added back in its place is mostly “do nothing” time. One of the reasons I’ve always loved reading is that I love to learn, reading mostly non-fiction books. I still love to learn, but it feels like my brain gets “full” more quickly now, like the enormous stress of that time permanently destroyed a portion of my mental capacity. That makes no sense, but it’s how I feel. Otherwise, I feel healed.

Maybe I just need to force myself, like forcing yourself to get back on your bicycle when you fall off. I don’t want to give it up – I have too much of my life left, and I’m heading into an age range where I know I will need to constantly push my boundaries out, or they will gradually close in around me. Maybe all of you can help me: if you have a great non-fiction book to recommend, I’d be grateful. I feel like I no longer even know where to start. But I do know that I don’t want to be finished yet.

“I get sad every time I hear a person say ‘I don’t read.’ It’s like saying ‘I don’t learn,’ or ‘I don’t laugh,’ or ‘I don’t live.'”  –Alafair Burke


Bluegrass


Sometimes I just have to listen to bluegrass. Maybe it’s my Scots-Irish heritage. I still have kin living in the hardscrabble hills of Missouri whose families dress them in their finest overalls before laying them to rest. There’s likely more than heritage to my fondness for bluegrass, however, since I can’t stand its kissing cousin, country music; their common roots are unmistakeable in every twang.

Bluegrass takes me back to a simpler  time…not just to an earlier slice of Americana, but literally back to my childhood. The Ozarks were a repeat vacation spot when I was a kid. We camped in the mountains that I still consider the most beautiful in America, and I’ve seen the Rockies, the Smokies, and the Appalachians. We’d visit Silver Dollar City, the down-home theme park, watching craftsmen making horseshoes and lye soap and candy the same way our elders did, all against a constant backdrop of bluegrass music. For me, bluegrass is an instant, virtual time machine back to a carefree time.

Yet bluegrass isn’t really feel good at its core. The skill required for Dueling Banjos is formidable, and one can imagine the camaraderie present at its composition. But bluegrass gospel lyrics are all pretty much the same:  climbing mountains and going home and escaping the difficult burdens of life. There is nothing in them to romanticize what was, and still is for many, a tough existence scraped out of the hills.

We may romanticize a simpler life and time as the technology and complexity and stress of our modern “life of leisure” underdelivers on its promise. I suspect we will eventually learn that life will never be easy, it will only become easier in some ways and harder in others. But we won’t be able to help ourselves, and we’ll still listen to bluegrass and yearn for a simpler, better time that never was.

“You know for most of its life bluegrass had this stigma of being all straw hats and hay bales and not necessarily the the most sophisticated form of music. Yet you can’t help responding to its honesty. It’s music that finds its way deep into your soul because it’s strings vibrating against wood and nothing else.”  –Alison Krauss


Perspective 

I met a remarkable young person recently. A friend of my daughter’s, we visited her in the hospital where she remains months after a horrific car accident which killed one parent and injured the other. In addition to this gaping loss, at 17 she now knows that she will not walk again. It’s more than anyone at any age should have to bear.

As someone who suddenly learned that there is an invisible subculture, hidden and present every day in every hospital in the country, I know what it feels like to have your life turned instantly upside down. I know what it does to your sense of safety and normalcy to spend every day in fear of the doctor’s next pronouncement. To live your entire existence in a 12×20 room which beeps incessantly, with constant interruptions which simultaneously wake you and allow you to sleep. Still, I was a little apprehensive at what we would find on our visit. What do you say to a young person who’s already lost more in her short life than I have in my much longer one?

What we found left me in awe. We visited a girl who has retained a wicked sense of humor, which she unleashes regularly. I met a girl whose smile lights up a room. I met a girl facing her altered future with strength and resilience. I have a new hero.

There is much to worry about in our world today, and I regularly weary of the headlines. But our future lies in the hands of our children. Our fate rests with the generation which includes this brave young woman and my own bright and caring daughters. I believe in them. In them, there is much room for hope.

Dear young people:  Do not bury your talents, the gifts that God has given you!  Do not be afraid to dream of great things!”  –Pope Francis


Dear Officer

ticket

Dear Officer,
I wanted to let you know what has happened since you issued me a reckless driving ticket April 2nd on 3rd and Walton for turning right from a left hand turn lane.

I was pretty stressed that day. I’d shared with you that my 12 year old daughter was acting like only a 12 year old girl can behave, but I didn’t tell you that I’d returned from Little Rock only the day before where my other daughter had major surgery as a result of a critical illness last year. I’m not telling you this to make you feel bad…we always have stress in our lives, but I now realize that I didn’t respond appropriately to that stress. I wanted you to know two things that happened after you stopped me for the ticket. First, I turned around again (safely) and went ahead and took my daughter and her dog to the dog park. She’s been stressed, too, with her sister’s illness, and she was terrified and crying when you stopped me, especially because she was painfully aware that her behavior had led me to turn around in the first place. But what I wanted her to take away from my getting pulled over was that what I did was my wrong choice and not her fault. I wanted her to see her (recently angry) mother acknowledge that I’d made a mistake and reinforce to a future driver how important it is to drive safely. I wanted her to see me blame myself for my mistake, and not the police officer who was only doing his job. I want you to know that she was smiling and playing within minutes of getting to the park.

The other thing that I wanted you to know is that since the ticket, I have been a different driver. Though I hadn’t received a ticket or been in an accident in over 25 years, I had to admit that I’d become an aggressive driver. While I hadn’t been caught before Saturday, I’ve driven unsafely too many times. I’ve taken getting the ticket to heart and slowed down; I’ve become a more careful driver. As a mom, I know the stakes. While I don’t know if I can quite bring myself to be grateful for a ticket, I am grateful for your brave service to our city and for the wake up call that you gave me by doing your job.

Praying for your daily safety and for God’s love for you and your family. Know that what you do makes a difference.
Kelly McCleary

Sent to the City of Bentonville with the fine for the ticket.


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