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What will you be known for?  Last night, a friend and I were talking as we attempted a new craft.  While we worked we chatted about family and how we remember various people.  She mentioned that in all of the photos, her great-grandmother looked incredibly stern and that’s actually how almost everyone thought of her.  My grandmother was all over smiles with a great sense of humor.

Just then, my friend dropped a bead which she managed to trap against the table.  Proud of her accomplishment, she showed me the bead with a flourish which was when she smacked the open tube of beads across the kitchen table.  The patter of tiny beads raining down is a very distinct noise.  We laughed until our sides hurt.

I’m fairly certain this is how we will be known?  Laughter.  In fact, I’m sure of it.

On Sunday, we met our choir director’s husband.  “She’s told me about everyone but which one are you?” he asked me.  “Soprano.  And I laugh at everything.”  He looked confused because truly that describes both my friend and I.  I pointed at myself.  “I’m inappropriate laughter.”  “Oh, I know who you are.”

Yep.  That’s me.  My friend?  Over the top laughter.

Even when tiny green seed beads are raining down in my kitchen.  The sugar bowl.  I forgot to check the sugar bowl.

–SueBE

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My friend Maria, who hails from Taiwan, tells me that in her culture it is believed that friends are souls who find one another, lifetime after lifetime. Though I’m not a fan of reincarnation (it sounds terribly tiring), I like the sound of this conjecture. After Ruth opined that she thought the three of us really ought to get tattoos so that we can find one another in the next life, it all clicked together.

The sky appears daunting, swarming
as it is with bright and twinkling things,
still: We will find each other,
unerringly, though lifetimes,
on this or any astral plane.
We will coalesce into constellation—
The Sisters, they will call us, or something Latinate —
we will laugh, knowing we are we, not stars but souls,
bound by something more grave than gravity,
beats of light that blink out occasionally,
only to reappear, newborn but ancient,
in yet another freckled sky.

(Or: In Which Lori and Ruth Pen a Poem Together)

You may not know that one of my very favorite poets is our own Ruth. As you probably have gleaned, she has a way with words. So when she emailed me with a premonition most poetic — Rows and rows of grown things. And it came from the pain. — I had to respond.

Oh Gardener, you surely tease:
what can grow from this blighted, salted soil
but stones and brush, blunted and stunted as bonsai?
What takes root in blood and mud but dashed dreams
and creeping evil? This ground has shown no promise,
not in all its years of sunward striving. Still, you laugh.
Crucifixion turns into Resurrection. Do I not recall?
And I see — rows and rows of grown things,
green shoots rooted in pain, turning new blooms
toward heaven. When will it come? You simply smile.
I carry no timepiece. Only wait for the rain to cease.
And you throw me an umbrella: a friend.
I resolve again to wait.

Lori’s post, “Who Walks With You?” and SueBE’s post, “If Only…” were uplifting to me and I was reminded yet again of the way the three of us who write this blog sustain each other from afar on a regular basis. Lori’s comment that “people are amazed when I tell them we’ve never met in person” made me ponder: What is it that makes people connect and form into a community?

It also made me wonder: what if we met and were not at all what we expected? Would the community come apart?

For example, I seem to be the Kindly-Auntie type on this humble blog, but who knows? Maybe in real life I’m an obnoxious loudmouth who stands so close that you have to hold your breath — for some reason, I’ve always just eaten onions.

Not really. I actually am the Kindly-Auntie type. (Plus I don’t eat onions.) I’ve got the bona fides: cat’s eye glasses, knitting, Lifesavers in handbag. I used to have a cat. That’s another Kindly-Auntie thing — remembering lost loved ones in regular conversations. KitKat is still a part of the household in that way, and a part of our hearts.

Kindly-Aunties are able to shift gears from lighthearted to deep-rooted on a dime. We still carry change purses (speaking of dimes). And I am not on board with this push to eliminate pennies. Oh, and we’re also known to go off on tangents.

Of course, I use the Kindly-Auntie lexicon — “handbag” not “purse.” I call everyone “son” or “dear heart” and have pocket packs of tissues available if anyone sneezes.

The reason we get along so well is that we just get each other and think the world of each other. We don’t need to be in the same place on the planet to be on the same wavelength. True blue friends like that are a blessing indeed.

So there I was, watching “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” yet again — as I have nearly every Christmas season except for that of its premiere (I wasn’t born yet), when it occurred to me (as it always does) that there are some serious flaws in the storytelling…most glaringly, with the subplot about the Island of Misfit Toys. (Whew! That was a long sentence. Take a breather, readers.)

The “misfits” on this island range from the slightly offbeat — a train with square wheels, by no means unfixable — to the ludicrous — a polka-dotted stuffed elephant (so what? I had a purple plaid stuffed dog). But what always got me, doll-lover that I was as a child, was the little ragdoll. Seriously, what was so wrong about her? She was adorable! She could say, “How do you do?” Why in the heck was she stuck on this island?

Okay, I realize I’m taking a children’s animated show a bit too much to heart. But isn’t that what children do? On the plus side, maybe it was repeat showings of this Rankin/Bass classic that caused me to side with the underdogs, the folks on the outside margins, to begin with. I still do, perhaps because it’s where I see myself.

Only here’s the thing: God doesn’t make misfits. In God’s great plan, there is a “fit” for everyone. It may take awhile to find it, of course. But it’s out there. I doubt my first grade classmates knew what to do with a girl who was already reading at a fourth grade level (at least — the test only went up that high), who made up rhymes instead of playing tag, who had (I kid you not) an invisible “thinking cap” that she mimed putting on before spelling bees.

It took a long while to find “my people.” But find them I did. Some of us are odd ducks (or geese or elephants), while some of us are simply extraordinary. I know some pretty terrific folks — SueBe and Ruthie, for two. My friend Susan is the most thoughtful person on earth. My friend Maria lives a life of quiet but radical spirituality. Caroline — who I have known since first grade — combines brash good humor with erudition…and has never, ever treated me like a misfit.

So for all you “misfits” out there, take heart. There is a slot out there for your distinctly shaped peg. And there are other people, too, who will embrace your particular brand of different. Because, like the residents of the Island of Misfit Toys, you are not wrong…only wonderful, in a way all your own.

People these days are scary. They’ve grown fangs and spew poison. Get on their wrong side (easy to do) and you could be punished in a number of vituperative and terrifying ways. There is no shame. There are no moral boundaries. There is only internet anonymity and anger.

I read an article by a journalist opining this very same theory. One of the comments on his article was simply “you suck.” Ah! Well met, my friend! Your brilliant repartee reveals you as a man of wit and ingenuity. You are the Sam Johnson — nay, the Mark Twain! — of our times. Sadly, considering the level of discourse these days, that last statement may very well be true.

On the other side of the equation: SueBe’s and Ruthie’s posts this week, celebrating friendship, specifically the friendship of the three of us that led to the creation of this blog. It’s true; we deeply love and care about one another. Also true — we have never met in person. Just the other week, SueBe mentioned something about being short, and I was dumbfounded. All this time, I’d been picturing her tall. I’ll say it again: We’ve been working together for the better part of ten years, yet we’ve never actually hugged. Or eaten a meal together. Or heard one another’s voices, except on the phone.

Yet our bond persists, will persist, through the tumult and turbulence life hands us. This essentially boils down to a choice: We chose each other. We continue to choose each other. It’s what every great friendship, every great relationship, is made of. And it may be the one and only cure for the pollution that swirls around us politically and spiritually.

I once taught a mini-course on “The Company of Women” — both the book by Mary Gordon and the idea that enduring friendships enable us to become our fullest selves, allow us to thrive in the most polluted of atmospheres. I still believe this is true. All I have to do is think of my fellow bloggers to know it is so. This blog — and its posts by my fellow bloggers — has become a haven for me. When the world seems just too awful to continue to breathe in, I come here. I listen to SueBe and Ruth. I feel better.

Let us cultivate our own fresh air. Let us seek out those of us who are willing to be patient, to listen and to love. Let us keep them close to us. When darkness closes in, let us cling to them.

Let us not let pollution overtake us. Take our hands. Join us.

How can we offer friendship if we don’t offer freedom? That’s right. We can’t.

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.

There are two kinds of people. Wait, that’s not true! There are millions of kinds of people. But I’m going to talk today about two of them: bowls and sieves. “Sieve” people, like their kitchen counterparts, like to force others through their net of acceptance, straining out their faults and foibles, whereas “bowl” people tend to accept others exactly as they are, warts, pips, lumps and all.

My BFF since fifth grade is a “bowl” person. She adopts stray people (like me), accepting them wholeheartedly, despite their flaws. She is outgoing. I am introverted. I didn’t know until the seventh grade that you’re supposed to look people in the eyes when you talk to them — she taught me that. I just figured people knew when I was talking to them. She loves everyone — well, with one exception (in grade school): In her nightly prayers, she would ask God to bless “everybody in the whole, wide world…except Sister Judith” — though to be fair, Sister Judith had it coming. My friend is an open book, a walking hug.

I, on the other hand, tend to be a “sieve” person. I pick people apart. I strain against the bits of them that make me uncomfortable. I judge. It’s not that I want to be this way — quite the opposite — yet I find myself analyzing others, shying away when I notice an area of prickliness or strangeness or radical difference from myself. Which is wholly unfair — I’m no paragon. Far from it. I wouldn’t want to be friends with me. Yet I find myself thinking, “She would be so great if she weren’t so conservative.” Or, “How can I be friends with a cat-hater?”

I know other “sieves.” They reject potential life partners based on lack of a common religious background, though spirituality is fluid and can radically change over time. They swoop down in judgment against random comments on Facebook. They want people without pits, without tough outer rinds, without seeds. And that can make them very lonely.

I’m not sure whether “sieves” can become “bowls.” It may be inborn, or perhaps tied to certain types of learned behavior. But they can — with prayer and patience — learn how to loosen up. They can learn to let go of petty differences. They can widen their nets.

It requires taking a page out of Jesus’ book. Jesus is the ultimate “bowl,” loving sinner and saint equally, tax collector and apostle, leper and scholar. It doesn’t come easily. It takes constant presence and awareness and willingness to be a part of someone else’s journey, no matter where it takes you. Do it enough, and it can so radicalize a person as to make them prefer the folks with the most pits and pips, lumps and seeds.

I’m far from this lofty goal. Though my current best friend is a cat-hater. And I’m okay with that. So is she. There are bigger things to love about one another. We just had to find them.

My friend Maria is something of a globetrotter, and everywhere she goes, she experiences miracles. From statues of Mary that appear to weep (and yes, she investigated for leaks or other scientific explanations and found none) to a recent trip to a shrine in Costa Rica that somehow gave her the spiritual fortitude to withstand a traumatic robbery shortly afterward, wherever Maria goes, miracles appear. You might call her a miracle magnet.

Why is my friend so prone to experience these intense instances of God’s love? I think the answer is quite simple: She looks for them. In the same way a person wearing 3-D glasses is capable of experiencing special movie effects, Maria’s eyes are attuned to God’s providence as it plays out in our everyday lives. She sees what others do not because she is gifted with an openness that the rest of us, whether out of busy-ness or cynicism, choose to ignore.

Think of infants. Everything must be a miracle to them. That they cry and their needs are met. That objects have such intense colors, shapes and textures. Even their own fingers and toes — miracles. We somehow lose this sense of wonder as we grow up. Objects become ordinary. Sunshine and rain turn into mundane weather patterns. When something wonderful happens, if we notice it at all, we attribute it to “good luck” or “hard work.” We fail to see it as the miracle it is.

I am blessed to know Maria because she keeps me on my toes, miraculously speaking. After we have one of our long, companionable chats, I see with new eyes. The world seems sharper and more focused. I remember to thank God for the relationships that sustain me. I marvel all over again at the God who, indeed (as Maria reminded me) knew us before we were born, who knows us right down to the cellular level.

My challenge for you this week? Try to break down the walls that prevent you from seeing the multiple, many miracles that surround you. Look with fresh eyes. Take a moment to feel how deeply you are loved. Think less about what is missing and more about what you have. May your week be truly miraculous!

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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