Tag Archives: Peace

Safe

I’ve long known that my comfort zone acts like a box with moveable sides which I must regularly push out, or they will slowly move in on me. One of the more profound times I pushed out had an amazing payoff, though I look back now and realize it wasn’t entirely safe. I ask myself, if I had it to do again, would I?

I needed to meet up with the team in rural Romania for a project; they’d been there a week already, and I was traveling alone. Traveling in Eastern Europe is very different than traveling in Western Europe…few natives speak English, and signs and menus don’t have the familiar Latin roots which can help you muddle through. I landed in the chaotic Bucharest airport, withdrew 200 Romanian leu to get me to Podari, a farm town over two hours away by train, and knew to avoid all of the shouting men harassing me with calls of “taxi” in favor of the official taxi stand. Not everyone who takes one of those unauthorized taxis makes it to their destination whole. When I got to the hotel, I learned that my train would leave bright and early the next morning at 08:00. I also learned that my 200 leu wouldn’t go go very far, when an email from the project lead said their American, non-chip credit cards were not working in the card readers at most places. His note was dire: “Bring cash, lots of it.” The concierge told me there was an ATM a couple of blocks away, so I set out on foot. As I wound my way alone through a quiet residential neighborhood in Bucharest, I realized that if anyone wanted to accost me, no one would ever know what happened to me. I could just disappear. I walked faster and finally found the ATM twice as far as what a “couple of blocks” is to me…to no avail. I walked hurriedly back to the hotel and wondered just how dire our financial situation was.

I got up at 05:00 the next morning heavily jet lagged and hopped into a cab for the train station. Here’s where the adventure really began. As we flew through the dark streets of Bucharest (and “flew” is not a literary exaggeration), I began to wonder, again, if my goose was cooked. My first fear was that I was going to die at the hands of a Romanian-speaking cab driver’s erratic driving (I soon learned that seat belts are an unnecessary cost in 2nd-world Romania). But after Formula One racing through the streets of Bucharest for the 15 minutes the hotel told me it would take, with no train station in sight, a new fear took hold. Was he just pulling the universal taxi scam of taking me for all the fare that he could? Did he really know where I needed to go? Did he intend to take me there at all? Once again I felt all of the vulnerable, lone female traveler that I was. As 30 minutes went by, and my adrenaline level climbed pretty high as I pondered my limited options, we suddenly stopped (again, “suddenly” is not a literary exaggeration)…in front of the train station. I got out hugely relieved and feeling a little guilty for my thoughts about my driver. But my ordeal was not over.

Trying to buy a 2nd class train ticket (to save my meager cash reserves) without speaking the language was tricky (I guess she thought my two fingers were some kind of haggling ploy). I finally managed to get my ticket bought after some ridiculous pantomiming, and went into the station. It was a foreboding place. Dark, dirty and neglected, it was busy and active with the same bootleg tax drivers at the airport and ordinary Romanian commuters. Covered but open to the outside, I was grateful it was September and warm. I quickly found a clean and bright beacon in a blessed McDonald’s (it looked like it had a halo over it, I still hear angels sing when recalling it) in the center of the station. It wasn’t busy, likely out of the financial reach of most of my fellow commuters. I nursed my Coke in its safety for well over an hour. The downside of the Coke and the time, however, had me looking for a water closet, thinking I’d be better off in the station than on the 2nd class car on the train. I was wrong. After descending the dark, narrow steps into the basement restroom, I found I had to pay a couple of leu for a dark, dank concrete stall with no light on the women’s side. It would have made a perfect prison cell in any B grade horror movie. I did my business as quickly as I ever had, while trying to touch absolutely nothing (in the dark, I couldn’t even see what I wasn’t touching, likely a small blessing). When I emerged back into the dim light, I felt literally liberated. As I found my way to my train line, I saw an ATM and tried my luck again:  still no luck and sure that I’d be filing a fraud claim with my credit card company when I got home for trying to use it in such a safe public place.

I was beyond relieved to finally board the train. I’ve written about the rest of this trip before…it was a highlight of my life. This is the way life often is:  you must be willing to get outside your comfort zone to have some of the best experiences. You must risk getting hurt, or it was never a risk in the first place. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. The Belgian member of our team had a European chip credit card and ended up with an enormous expense report. I didn’t need to file a fraud claim on mine. And I saw amazing sights and ate wonderful food and met interesting people, none of which I will ever forget. And I pushed my box walls out again, at least for awhile.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”  –Neale Donald Walsch

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Junior High

I hated junior high. Based on my unscientific survey, I believe that makes me part of approximately 99% of the American population. It’s such an awkward time…an in-between age, with none of the maturity or true independence that makes older ages more tolerable.

I have just two positive memories of junior high. We’d moved to a small Kansas farm town at the end of 4th grade. By the time I got to junior high two years later, my classmates, who’d been together since kindergarten, had decided this city girl didn’t fit in, and I’d gone from a confident leader in my old school to a withdrawn, fragile girl with only a couple of other social outcast friends. I did find my old self by the end of high school, even becoming class vice president that year, but that was still six long years away and a distant dream.

My two good memories were being in a play in 7th grade, a memory now badly tarnished by my adult perspective. The other was being in track in 8th grade. I have no idea why I joined the team (in a graduating class of 34, there are no tryouts). You see, I’m not athletic. At all. However, back then our league wonderfully had a C class for girls below 100 lbs, a criteria I met. Our coach put me in the maximum number of events each meet, each of which I was equally terrible at. I was a generalist, competing in any event which required no real skill (hurdles and pole vault were out of the question). My “specialties” were the long jump, shot put, and the mile. The last two were particularly ironic. I was literally the 98 lb weakling pitching the shot all of a few feet, and I was an asthmatic who usually had to walk the last third of the mile. I remember a classmate once asking me at the end of a race why I didn’t just run the rest of the way? I was too busy wheezing and gasping to answer her. Yet those were my glory days! You see, in our tiny 2A league, most teams put up few or no C class competitors. I took 1st or 2nd place in all of my events all year. We took first place in league that year, significantly helped by my performances (the league abruptly eliminated C class the next year). It was my first step back on my journey to finding myself.

But the bad memories vastly outnumber the good ones. Struggling to find someone to sit next to at lunch or on the bus. Being asked to exactly one dance at homecoming, by my best friend’s boyfriend—a pity dance. It didn’t go well. I tried to lead, not knowing that I was. And one day in English, taking a couple of minutes of kids laughing to realize they were laughing at me, and a couple of more minutes to figure out why:  someone had put a “kick me” sign on my back. I never learned who.

I’ve come out on the other side. Within a few years, I realized that my own self-absorption of that time, which made me agonize over every “stupid” thing I’d said or done, was matched by equal self-absorption of the others, who forgot anything I’d done within minutes. And I met the love of my life who helped rebuild my confidence by loving me for who I am. I long ago forgave whoever taped that sign on my back. More importantly, I’ve forgiven me.

“And if I asked you to name all the things that you love, how long would it take for you to name yourself?”  —Unknown


Gift


This week I found myself again passing along a piece of wisdom and advice to a new friend from a wise old friend. Years ago after major surgery, my friends and colleagues were showering me with food and gifts and loans of books and videos to help me pass the time in recovery. While my friend was making a drop off, I protested how unnecessary all of this was. She stopped me dead in my tracks, asking me what I’d have wanted to do if it was one of them? “Help”, I had to sheepishly admit. Well, she said, then this was my gift to them…letting them help me. I had no good rebuttal.

Exactly a decade later, I again had the chance to practice being on the receiving end when Megan became ill. This time I got my friend’s advice right. So many people, even strangers, stepped forward to help us get through that time that it was almost overwhelming. But I let them. Showers of cards and gifts arrived at the hospital, from as far away as Europe. Peoples of literally every faith prayed for her. A dear friend’s sister-in-law, who I’d never met, became my first and only friend in Little Rock. She offered me clean clothes and a shower, to bake in her kitchen if I wanted, and the healing love of her golden retriever. Though I couldn’t bring myself to tear away from the hospital to take her up on it, it was deeply comforting to not feel alone in that strange city. That generosity repeated itself when another stranger had a care package and helpful advice waiting for us when we transferred to Cincinnati. Another friend texted me nearly every day for the four months in the hospital, just to check in; I’ll never forget that she was always there if I needed someone to talk to. An old friend from my hometown asked if there wasn’t some familiar treat she could send me. My instinct was to say no thank you, I’m fine. But I knew she just wanted to do something, anything. For the next several weeks, I was warmed by her kindness every time I broke into a box of the world’s best cashews. I’d learned my lesson. The year Megan was sick was by far the hardest of my life, and I’d undo all she’s had to endure in a heartbeat if I could. And yet I look back on that traumatic time with some measure of reminiscence for the love that so many showered on us. It’s an incredible reminder in this often ugly world that good and love will always win.

It’s now my turn to pray for and do what I can to support my new friend as she goes through her significant trial. And I’ll continue to pass along to others in need the wise words given to me all those years ago. It’s now my turn to receive the special gift of giving.

“Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.”  –H. Jackson Brown Jr.


Weary


The older I get, the more weary I get.  I don’t know how to fully explain it, and I don’t mean that I’m more tired (though that’s true, too).  I mean weary, like not just in my bones but in my soul, too.  It’s not a good feeling, yet somehow it’s not totally bad, either.  It’s almost familiar, even though it’s new, like somehow it was inevitable.  I’m at the stage now where I’m working to decide what it means, and more importantly, what to do with it.

While I think that a small part of it has to do with the realization that I’m now unquestionably in the back half of my life, this isn’t a mid-life crisis.  I have a precious family that means the world to me and a meaningful job I love.  I’m healthy and active, and I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life spiritually.  No, it’s more than that.  It feels the most like more of a vague realization that life is just flat out a struggle, and there’s too much suffering in the world.  This loony election season hasn’t helped any, but this is way bigger than any political outcome.  I just get weary.

I get weary of the polarization and seemingly unreconcilable divide in our country.  I get weary of the need to hand money and a blessing out of my car window to the homeless.  I get weary of seeing the photos and hearing the stories of especially children fighting horrific diseases for their very lives.  I get weary of politicians acting in what is clearly their own best interest over those who elected them to serve them.  I get weary of layoffs and domestic abuse and addiction and racism.  It becomes overwhelming.

Yet when it seems like just one more all-too-human story may knock me down, another story…an offsetting story of hope… shines through.  The amazing part is it usually only takes one of the good ones to counter many of the bad ones.  That’s the power of good, of love.  From those small, shining nuggets of hope, I get the strength to carry on.  Even though I am weary.

“And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”  –Galatians 6:9


When we need love the most


When our son–our oldest–was a toddler, our local newspaper included a parenting column. I got one of my most valuable parenting lessons there:  when a child is acting the least lovable is when they actually need the most love. It’s so powerful not just because I found it to be utterly true with my kids, but because I’ve also realized that it doesn’t apply only to children.

Children misbehave when they’re tired or bored or frustrated or scared. So do adults. This tip has helped me check my own reactions to others’ behavior on countless occasions. I can’t say it’s always worked, but when I remember it and respond with gentleness and love instead of anger, the outcome is usually dramatically better. Love defuses negative emotions; I’ve come to believe that it can fix virtually anything. In Disney’s Merlin, the title character called love “the most powerful force in the universe.” I believe it.

As I’ve matured in my faith journey, I think I know why love is so powerful:  God is, fundamentally, love. Showing love is a little like having our own super power. And there’s simply no downside to responding in love–it always leaves me feeling better when I do. It has taken me much practice and self-control, especially sometimes as the mother of two teenage girls. But it’s worth it, they’re worth it. And I’m worth it, for my peace and for my relationships.

“There is only one happiness in this life, to love and be loved.”  –George Sand


Hope


This Christmas was different. We did all the traditional family stuff:  put up our tree and the family momentos, made gingerbread houses and sugar cookies, and drove around to look at Christmas lights. It’s always been one of my favorite times of year, and it was again this year. But it was still different, with a whole new layer of meaning I hadn’t experienced before in my 50 years.

You see, I’ve never really understood Christmas. I can recite the familiar story about as well as anyone can. I understand its theological meaning:  that God Himself chose to walk among us, suffer for us, and in so doing, save us from ourselves. I understand all of that, but I still feel like I don’t really understand. It’s always been just a story to me, no different than other stories unrelatable by the great distance of time and an element of the miraculous. I’ve long understood the story only with my head, but never my heart.

But this year was different. For a lot of reasons, this year I came into Christmas needing hope. I needed to believe, that in spite of all of the dark and pain and ugliness, there will be a happy ending. I desperately needed hope…I was looking for it. But the funny thing is that the Bible says that that’s all we really have to do:  to look for it. There’s no magic key to life or to peace, only to have the desire to seek God. This year, simply by seeking Hope, I actually found it, and in so doing, I also began to understand the true meaning of Christmas.

“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh shall receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.”  –Matthew 7:7-8


Home


There were two especially dark times when Megan was ill. The first, unsurprisingly, was when she was sickest. You can tell when doctors aren’t sure your child is going to make it from their pained facial expressions and the careful words they choose when they answer your desperate questions seeking reassurance. The other bad time was after she came home the first time, when the worst of the crisis had passed for the moment.

For the first time in the two months since our wee hour race to Little Rock with only the clothes on our backs, we could all eat dinner at home together and sleep in our own beds. It was almost bliss, marred only by the knowledge that it could end at any moment. The next few weeks were a much needed relief, if not exactly normal. There were the grueling, twice a week Little Rock trips for chemo, including one sudden trip by ambulance:  a fever is dangerous in someone whose immune system has been wiped out. But otherwise, we were together and home, beginning to recover, physically and emotionally…until the call. I knew by then what a bone marrow transplant meant. It meant splitting our family in two again, only this time for up to a year. A year of significant uncertainty and risk. A year of juggling holidays and birthdays and school and work. A year of trying to keep things normal for our other daughter. A year of trying to keep myself together, shaky as I was after what we’d already been through. It was a blow that nearly knocked me down. But you do what you have to do, especially when it’s your child. I picked myself up and sadly packed for a year. We drove the 600 miles to Cincinnati and did our best to settle in.

A month later, with Megan improving, her doctor shocked us during a routine check – she could go home! This time the packing and long drive were joyous. We were home, together again. We ate dinner together. We spent the holidays at home. And I told myself that I would never take these simple privileges for granted again, though I sometimes have since then. On this second anniversary of our long drive into the frightening unknown, I am thankful. Thankful for my daughter’s remission. Thankful for the meals we eat together. Thankful for laughter and sharing the small talk of the day. Thankful to sleep in my own bed. My teenage girls already know, from having had their lives suddenly blown up, that boring is good. I am so very thankful for this boring day together.

“If the only prayer that you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.”  –Meister Eckhart