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“I had to break away from her,” my friend Alice tells me over the phone about someone she once called a friend. Alice isn’t the only one. Lots of folks lately seem to be dealing with toxic people. You know them. We meet them everywhere in the jungle of life. Some are outright predators; others hang back, like vultures, waiting to sink their talons into the weak and weary. The hardest part of dealing with toxic people is that maybe only you see that person for what they truly are. The rest of the gnus keep grazing, blissfully unaware. Yet God commands us to love everyone. It may take time to find a way to love our enemies — difficult things always do — but it also demands of us a certain primal common sense. To wit, the following poem:

This is not a litany of sins.
You have taught me things,
a veritable National Geographic
special. Some creatures,
for whom all touch is enemy,
strike — even if the stroke
is light, a caress.
Some people know pain,
and let it go, others
grow it and sow it,
sweat it from their pores
like tropical frogs or
hold it in their craws
like komodos who will
pursue you, slash you with their claws,
consume you or, in a pinch, lick you,
(a flick of the tongue, breathlessly quick),
let the poison in their maws do its work.
Whichever way they come for you, you die.
How do you love a komodo?
From afar, perhaps, and pityingly.

There’s a commercial making the rounds (for an investment firm, I believe) that asks, “How do you measure success?” The point being, you ought to be saving for your retirement so that you can do bucket list-y things like climb rocks or volunteer teach. But there is a finer point to be discussed: What makes a life successful?

Is it the accumulation of money or things? As nice as things can be, they cannot be taken with you after you shuffle off this mortal coil. (Unless you’re a pharaoh, and even then, tomb robbing can really put a dent in your feline sarcophagi collection.) People talk about “successful businessmen.” I assume they mean a person who has made more than he’s lost. But often that’s not really the case. The “successful businessman” has often accomplished his feats through financial manipulation, the sweat of other people’s brows, or outright chicanery. That doesn’t spell “success” to me. More like “not caught in the act and appropriately punished.”

So what is success? I posit to you that it means being a good person. Specifically, if you were to die tomorrow, could others remember one good deed you did? It’s not as easy as it sounds. Start digging and see what you come up with: “I loved my parents” (except when you didn’t); “I gave to charity” (sometimes, and maybe only for the tax break); “I cared about the environment” (unless you’re that one young woman who hasn’t created any garbage in three years — and you’re an American — you probably flunk this one outright); “I wasn’t actively hurtful to people” (congratulations, you’ve lived up to the minimum requirement for morality). The list, disappointingly, goes on.

I don’t say these things to make you feel bad, Unspecified Reader. I put myself through this test and came up with a review not much to my liking. Most of us have not done one shining, unselfish deed in our whole lives. Mostly we do good because it makes us feel good. But is that enough?

Is it enough to require of ourselves that we more often do right than wrong? Will our lives be summed up on an old-timey scale, balancing the good against the bad? Will it take more than a preponderance of evidence to convict or acquit us in the final scheme of things?

I think we were put on this earth to be our best selves, to live up to our God-given potential not as athletes or businesspeople or celebrities, but as fully functioning, empathetic, loving humans. And whatever we do that does not push us closer to that goal is probably a diversion at best and a trap at worst.

So, I put it to you: Are you a success? Have you done one good thing? Name it.

In a dream the other night, I was given some sage advice. I was told, “It’s not solve the problem. It’s resolve the energy. How do you get from down to up. That’s what matters.”

That’s been true in so many situations in my life.

When the Great Gatsby came out a few years ago, I was really looking forward to seeing it. I got my ticket and found a seat in my local theater. About two hours into the movie, I noticed it was sapping my spirit and affecting my energy.  It’s not that it was a bad movie, but it got so sad that it was really bringing me down and I felt like I wanted to ditch it. I held off, thinking that others in the audience might look askance at me if I did.  

Due to health issues, I was using a crutch. I’m visually impaired. If I were to leave, I’d have to find my way down the steps in the dark, tap-tapping as I go, drawing attention to myself.  Should I stay and feel deflated by this bummer of a movie?

As I was pondering this question, a character said, “Sorry you have to be going.”

I thought, hm. Is that for me?

The other character replied, “Yes, sorry, I have to be going.”

Does that confirm it?

“Here, let me show you to the door.”

Okay, God. I get it.

Later, Leonardo!

It’s okay to decide that how you feel matters. We spend so much of our time pre-processing our potential actions to run them through the filter of norms and expectations that we don’t even put our own state of mind on the list.

Honor how you feel. If something/someone is bringing you down, catch the bus on out of there. You’ll thank me for this public service the next time you’re in this situation. Just do me a favor – send me your Milk Duds when you leave the movie! 🙂

Since we lost our cat Bella two weeks ago, the house seems empty. The irony is, we still have three cats. They are elderly, quiet, less active than they used to be. They are also the last three of a “pride” that once numbered eleven. Going from 11 to three is a dramatic decline. We feel like empty nesters.

Two feelings have arisen in me simultaneously: A desire to adopt more cats plus an equal desire to never adopt again. It is difficult for me to not want to help every stray and needy animal that’s out there. On the other hand, every time we lose one, it hurts dreadfully. I don’t want to hurt again, even though I know I will as three becomes two becomes one becomes zero. Each of our adoptees filled a special space in my heart. They taught me about patience, nurturing, joy and love. As they leave the earth, they take that piece of me with them.

I’ve had to analyze why it is I want to reopen what’s left of my heart to another animal. I think it’s because it’s easier to love animals than to love people. Cats appreciate the smallest luxuries, especially after a life on the streets: a warm bed, plentiful food, a clean box. But people? They’re complicated. Jealous. They come with baggage. It’s harder to please them. It’s harder to show them love. There’s no guarantee that they’ll purr in response to your efforts.

I clearly have a lot of love to give or I wouldn’t have adopted so many animals in my lifetime. What makes it so difficult to transfer that loving from animals to people? Maybe it’s because I understand cats. I can communicate with them. People, not so much, even though we do share a species, language and culture. You’d think it would be the other way round.

And it brings up the following question: Why can’t we accept the simplest acts of love from one another? Why do we look into every gesture, every word, for subtext, motive, hidden agendas? Probably because we’ve been hurt by those things before. If we could give and receive love as easily and freely as animals do, we’d probably be a lot better off. If all it took to restore someone’s good mood was a scratch behind the ears, I’d be doing a lot more scratching. And those good moods would be creating a mountain of good will.

So don’t be put off if some lonely looking woman comes up to you and offers you a sardine or rub under the chin. It’s just me, looking for connections in a simpler, stranger language. Take it as a compliment. Or hand me a kitten. Either way, I’m good.

When my niece was just a tiny thing — four, maybe five — we went to Disneyland together. Spotting a cast member (that’s Disney-speak for “employee”) dressed up like Jack Sparrow from “The Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, surrounded by (mostly female) fans, Sami piped up, “Captain Jack has quite the entourage.” Of course we laughed. What child that age says “entourage”? But of course she was right.

The other day, a lady I met at church phoned me about a party she was hosting. “Bring your girlfriends!” she suggested. I found myself conjuring up a fantasy life for myself, one where “me and the girls” went places together (possibly even during the week), drank wine liberally, chatted about the latest twist on our must-see TV shows. This vision lasted all of three seconds. Then I found myself awkwardly explaining that this was not, in fact, my life. Unlike Captain Jack, I do not have “quite the entourage.”

My friends are long-term and loyal. And few. One of them has been my “BFF” since fifth grade. Another has seen me through 30 years of living — I was the first person she called after she had her first child. My sisters-in-law are fully sisters to me. Our closest “couple friends” are, and have always been, my brother and his wife, Jennifer (parents of the aforementioned Sami). I consider Ruth and SueBE, with whom I share this blog, some of dearest friends…and I have never met either in person. The friend I talk to most lives in Indianapolis. I live in Kansas.

I often think it would be nice to have an ebullient, enthusiastic pack of friends who wanted to go out into the world with me and just have fun. But I realize I was not built for such things. I’m a homebody. I prefer books to parties. Like Greta Garbo, I “vant to be alone.” And that’s okay. Having fewer friends doesn’t mean I prize them any less. In fact, I cling to them.

You know who did have “quite the entourage”? Jesus. Mounds of people followed him. But he designated just 12 as apostles. And of the 12, we hear mostly of a chosen few: Peter, John, James, Andrew. Even fewer actually have speaking roles in the Gospels. Mostly, it’s Peter, the lug-head, who says something profound followed immediately by something profoundly stupid. And yet Christ built a church on him.

Jesus accepts us as we are, introvert or extrovert, mystics and simpletons. But what’s beautiful is that we all have the opportunity to be close to him — as close as any human beings can possibly be and more so. Your relationship with him can be deeply intimate. So can mine. With Jesus, there’s no need for an entourage. You’ve got all you need in one person.

Human beings are such touchy-feely creatures. I think that’s why God gave us friends. Certainly, all of my friends have moved my spiritual journey along in wise and wonderful ways. They are, in a word, good people. They are of God. Maybe that’s not the litmus test for everybody’s friendships, but it is for mine. Maybe quality, not quantity, counts in the end. Anyway, I’m grateful. Thanks, friends.

axel-antas-bergkvist-18363

Just wondering. Ladies, why did we decide painting our fingernails would be a thing? Why not our kneecaps? And why do we pluck our eyebrows, yet embellish our eyelashes with mascara? Why the eyelash favoritism? What, do eyelashes have a louder lobbying group? Payola going on in some back room? Hmmm?

We spend most of our youth wanting to be older. Boys can’t wait to shave. Girls can’t wait to put on make-up. Once we’re adults, we’re perpetually trying to look younger. What’s wrong with this picture?

When did we un-learn wonder? That feeling we had as children, looking with awe and astonishment at each petal on every flower.

One day my ex-husband’s daughter came to visit and saw a sponge on the counter. Just a toddler, she found this sponge to be the most amazing thing to behold. “This!” she exclaimed, surrounding it with her hands, leaning in to examine it. Eyes huge, she looked at me as if to say, are you seeing this too?!?

The adult in me was thinking, of all the mundane things to be amazed by, but the child in me understood. It’s an interesting texture, this sponge. It’s wet, but not really. It’s bouncy but it isn’t a ball. It holds water, until you press it, and then it spurts liquid into the sink. Really kind of a marvel, if you think about it.

Tapping into the wonder of childhood is something of a virtual fountain of youth.

I still feel wonder when I read a great line from a poem, like this one by Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you…”

Also, when I hear beautiful harmonies in this song from Alison Krauss and Union Station.

But I think it’s just as important to indulge in goofy fun to add quality of life to the day, like this video of NFL Bad Lip Reading on YouTube.

Maybe Your Second Childhood will become a thing, too. Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the next internet sensation. It’s a Wonder-ful Life!

7i9ylougop8-paul-morley

Every year around this time, Google reports a surge in this search term: “Superb Owl Day.” No, it’s not a gathering of bird-watchers in the foliage. It happens around the weekend of that big ole football championship game. You know. The Super Bowl.

It’s just a misplaced space (now there’s a tongue-twister) that yields a result that’s way off-base (oh, that’s a tiny poem), but it’s something of a metaphor. Sometimes in life we know what we’re looking for, and even have all the ingredients, but we’re just not sure how to put it all together.

Like something’s missing. That space can feel like a void. If you think of all the things we yearn for, they’re big ticket items. True love. Mega-million jackpot. Job with an expense account. Maybe it isn’t the thing we’re looking for, but what we think it will bring to us.

Just as there are many different versions of the Bible, I like to look at life through my own personal filter of faith. I’ll give it a name too, to make it official. How about this: Light-hearted Upward Version, or “LUV.”

Maybe if we strike it rich, we won’t have to worry about how to make it through each month. We’re really looking for sustenance and certainty. Verily, I say unto you, this is another way of saying “Faith.” Book of Ruth (No Relation) 2:6a LUV By the way, 2:6 is just today’s date. Nothing deep. 🙂

Maybe if we find true love, we won’t have to eat alone at the diner counter anymore. We’re really looking for a sense of belonging and a support network. Brethren and Sistern (Cistern?) I say unto you, this can be found in “Fellowship.” BoR(NR) 2:6b LUV

Maybe if we get the perfect job, we won’t have to spend the whole day at the copier again. We’re really looking for a sense of purpose and personal satisfaction. Yea, though I travel through challenging times, I can accomplish this through “Outreach.” BoR(NR) 2:6c LUV

There are many ways to find the missing pieces in life, and often, they’re already around us. It might be just a matter of stretching out, and reaching up.

There’s a weeping woman on the back of my door. Okay, actually it’s just a swirl in the wood grain that looks — to me — like a weeping woman. I know it’s not really there, but I see it anyway. In just this same way, people claim to see Jesus or Mary on a piece of toast or in a water stain. There is a compelling reason for this: We were born to do it. Babies are engineered to pick out faces, even when their vision is foggy at best. Why? Because if they can engage another human being, their needs are more likely to be met. Sorry, new parents. It’s not because your infant already loves and idolizes you. It’s a tick of nature.

But aren’t all ticks of nature preordained and planned by God for a purpose? I believe so. So why would God implant in us the predilection for finding faces in inanimate objects — even to the point where we think we see God’s own face? Maybe it’s not as random as we think.

We humans are social animals. We like to — crazed loners aside — have people around us that we can touch and see and communicate with. It is possible to die of loneliness. That alone should reassure us of our inner nature. But other than a brief 33-year stint on earth — a really, really long time ago — God has never been available for sensory input. We can pray to God, feel God’s love for us, but it’s in a way somewhat disconnected from our senses. We can’t actually hear God or touch God or smell God. But maybe we can see God…in a weird, profoundly human way.

That’s why I tend not to scoff at people who are certain that statues cry or bleed, or that Jesus is burned into the surface of their grilled cheese sandwich. It just proves we’re looking for God, all the time. And if we find God, who knows? Maybe God made us the way God did for a reason. We look for faces because God wants us to find God’s self. Sure it’s unlikely that God would appear to us on a sandwich. But stranger things have happened. And if it reassures us of God’s presence, whom does it hurt?

We really are children of God. And like all children, we look for support, for someone to hear us and care about our needs. Sometimes we find God in a place you might expect: In nature, in church, in other people. And sometimes we find God on the back of a door. Or on a waffle. Is it beyond belief that God might be reaching out to us in ways both sublime and ridiculous?

I think I’ll go make myself a grilled cheese…just in case.

hzg0vjhfyg0-gary-rockettTell me this. When, exactly, do the cows come home? They must be the Ultimate Party Animals. People always say, “We’ll stay out until the cows come home!” as if it’s a measure of the amount of fun they’re having. Now, I’ll get along with anybody, but if Elsie Moos and Mambos at five AM outside my window, I’m going to be pretty darn lactose intolerant!

I wonder why we phrase it this way: “Nightfall” and “Daybreak.” To me, they should be reversed. Night actually breaks, if you think about it. The sudden presence of pitch-blackness disrupts us as we’re going about our daily lives. Oh! Not even 5 o’clock. Night-time already! Well, better get the knitting. Warm up the cocoa. We’re in for the night!

But if you’re an early bird and have ever (voluntarily) seen the sunrise, you know it comes gently, gradually. Often beautifully. It doesn’t “break” upon the scene, no, it rolls in. Perhaps even strolls in.

It isn’t always clear why “things have always been done this way.” Sometimes it’s out of habit, or tradition, or maybe it was whoever won “Rock, Paper, Scissors.”

It may take a few years, but eventually, you’ll realize that it’s okay to be yourself. There was a time when I’d check in with friends to see what they’d be wearing to the party, or to make sure I knew where the action was later on that night.

Nowadays, I don’t get out as much as I’d like due to health issues, but as I sat in my sunroom and watched my cat watching squirrels, I realized something startling.

This is the peaceful life I always wanted. These are my druthers. Sure, there are things I’d like to do: it would be good to get out and explore the world more. See my friends in person. It would be nice to be able to “impulse-shop” once in awhile.

But I don’t miss the hustle and bustle, or the “schlepping” to get where you wanted to go – the place where you thought the action was.

Just as the church isn’t a building, but the people, the party isn’t the location, but the company you keep. Sometimes it’s the whole family, or just you and your cat. It’s all good.

My definition of blessings? A home that’s peaceful, prayerful and positive. Just like this blog.

Here’s to the good life!

There’s an old children’s rhyme (quoted famously in “Singing in the Rain”) that goes like this: “Moses supposes his toeses are roses, but Moses supposes erroneously.” It’s a bit of doggerel that keeps popping into my mind as I reflect further on the subject of forgiveness. For aren’t we all a little like Moses in this way?

We are quick to excuse, expunge, understand and let slide our own sins because they are ours. We know our own motivation. We think ourselves to be, at heart, good people. We cut ourselves slack. We suppose our toes — or our sins, in this case — are roses. But we suppose erroneously. All sins stink.

Imagine extending the kind of compassion we show ourselves to others! Instead of mentally berating the mother who is shrieking at her children at Walmart, perhaps we could recall the last time our own tone was harsh — understandably so, because of the day we were having! What has that mother’s day been like? Or among our own families: Do we not sometimes take for granted that our families will love us no matter what? And does this assumption sometimes carry with it the further assumption that we need not try as hard with our own kin as we do, say, with outsiders? Again, we suppose erroneously. Our families deserve our first fruits, not our leftover scraps.

I’m not advocating beating yourself up for every error you make. Rather, loosen the purse strings on your bag of mercy in the same way you would for yourself. You remember that you are only human. You know you get tired, frustrated, out of sorts. But you forget that other people do, too. You want your own opinions to be accepted and understood, but you’d rather others not express opinions counter to your own. If your own toeses need a little compassion, so do everybody else’s — whether or not they smell much like roses.

I am feeling my way around the subject of forgiveness because it seems to be a prominent need in my life. But it’s prominent for all of us. Forgiveness is not only a gift we give others, it is a gift for ourselves, a letting go of pain and anger that can drag us down and make us stink just as bad as the person who sinned against us. For the health of our own toeses — as well as the toeses of others — maybe we should remember: We are all sinners, and we all smell. Mercy, grace and compassion are just what we need to cover up the stench.

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