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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.

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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!

As a child, I imagined a world of eventualities for myself. I would be a famous writer (of course). I would probably live in New York, because that’s where writers lived (or so I believed). When I was terribly young, I accepted the fact that I might marry and have kids, because that’s what people do. By the time I was teenager, however, I’d changed my mind: I would never marry and never have kids. I was a product of the late ‘60s and ‘70s — a proto-feminist, cultural daughter of Ms. magazine and Free to Be, You and Me. I was woman!

The one thing I never expected became the thing I got — a love story of the grandest and rarest sort. I met my (now) husband shortly after my 20th birthday, and married him at 23. We have, in many ways, grown up together. After 31 years together, we are still ecstatically in love. My husband is my best friend, my “happily ever after.” He is one of God’s greatest gifts to me.

Until we were well into our 30s, strangers would ask if we were newlyweds; we still walk hand-in-hand everywhere we go. When I finish a slice of pizza, he cuts me another of the exact size and proportion that I am craving — sometimes comprising just the crust — and when I cut him a quizzical look, he says, “Well, duh!” or “Like I’m a separate person from you!” We engage in mental telepathy on a regular basis, crack each other up with inside jokes that bewilder outsiders. We don’t socialize. We don’t go to parties. We prefer each other’s company over any other in all the world.

I know this is a terrifyingly rare and fragile gift. The idea of losing him, ever, leaves me breathless. I’ve sworn him, on many occasions, to a pact in which I get to die first. Ideally, however, we would die within moments of each other, when we are quite elderly, having lived out one of the world’s greatest romances. You know, the kind of thing they used to write up in newspapers, the sort of phenomenon that still makes a splash on social media.

I can also honestly say that my husband has brought me into closer relationship with God. His decision to convert to Catholicism (having spent most of his life as an agnostic) reengaged me with my own faith, made me fall in love with the Church all over again. My husband encourages me to follow my heart — to give money to strangers, even if they turn out to be disingenuous, to serve a community of women religious despite their geographical distance from us, to pray for other people because he believes my prayers are strong ones. I once heard a priest remark that the primary function of a marriage is to make sure one’s spouse makes it into heaven. If I ever achieve such lofty heights, it is due at least in part to my husband. (Though my mother deserves a big shout-out here, too. Thanks, Mom.)

A former co-worker once dismissed my marriage as “boring,” as compared to her “rollercoaster” of a union (which ended shortly thereafter). I tried to explain it to her: How I married Owen because he is a good person, and, as Socrates once explained, true love can only be love of the good. Good is enduring. Good is of God. Can a marriage really be both sacred and sanctifying? Yes. Yes, it can.

Happy birthday, honey.

The news I received this morning demolished all possibility of the post I was going to write: My friend Mary is dying. I heard it straight from her daughter Tracy, one of two foster children Mary raised and later adopted. She was a “single mother,” in her own inimitable fashion. Mary never wanted to get married. She is too feisty for that, too independent, too…Irish.

I met Mary at church. She walked right up to my husband and me (we’re not the most social types), introduced herself and started talking, drawing us out. Why? I’ll never know. Pretty soon, we were meeting for dinner after Mass, on the regular, chatting on the phone about our cats (she has several, all strays, like ours were) and life and her ever-expanding rock collection. Mary’s a storyteller; you can’t help but admire her gift of gab. It’s a gift I lack, and appreciate in others. Mary has it in spades.

It seems like just a few days ago — and it was — that we were last talking on the phone, making plans for a long overdue dinner together (the holidays had gotten in the way). She was regaling me with the tale of how she foiled a break-in at her house. She’d been sleeping when someone broke her bedroom window. I was aghast, terrified just listening to the story. “Oh, don’t worry,” Mary said. “I sleep with a gun under my pillow.”

Mary may be petite, but she’s no delicate flower. It took cancer to knock her down — suddenly, and with great ferocity. The results of her biopsy aren’t even in yet, but she is fading fast. I want to be there with her, but I am battling an upper respiratory infection (again). Her daughter told my husband that her hospital room is like “Grand Central Station.” Everybody knows Mary and loves her. Her flow of visitors bears that out.

A light is going out of this world with Mary. It’s the kind of light that turns a group of parishioners into a family. This sort of light is badly needed in the Church now — in all churches. Young people are turning away from religion, not finding what they need there. Maybe if they could meet someone like Mary, a Catholic through and through, living by example what the Church teaches, they would begin to see that their faith can find a home.

Maybe one day I’ll be inspired to walk up to a couple of newcomers at church, introduce myself and invite them out to dinner. Mary would like that, I think.

 

 

I’m a serial murderer…of plants; my thumb more black than green. My singular success has been with weeds, which grow like, well, you know. But other, more personal gardens require tending, too — the care and feeding of relationships, for instance. I haven’t been terribly successful with this form of gardening, either, but I’m getting better. I hope.

Relationships need to be nurtured. I’ve lived on the assumption that, if we were once friends, even if you don’t hear from me over long periods of time, you understand that I still consider us friends. I think of you more often than you know. My silence holds nothing but sincere good feelings. But silence can be misconstrued. People often need more “upkeep” than I’m prepared to give, so used am I to living in silence and solitariness. Rifts may result. I regret this.

My best friend Susan is a marvelous caretaker of relationships. She is the queen of thank-you notes. She remembers to send you recipes for food you’ve enjoyed that she prepared. She writes letters — actual, bona fide letters — in a lovely, artistic hand. (When we both worked together in the Art Department of an educational company, Susan was the go-to gal for any photograph that required beautiful handwriting.) When you are sick, she will make you soup. Or an apple pie, artfully decorated with leaf cutouts.

Knowing Susan has made me a better caretaker of my own garden of relationships. (E-mail has been a boon, too, I’ll admit.) She is going through a difficult time right now, so difficult, in fact, that she has no time to write or call. We pepper one another with brief e-mails, mine mostly discussing how I’ve been praying for her, but we’ve not had time for one of our marathon long-distance chats. (She lives in California; I now live in Kansas.) Still, I feel her with me every time I remember to ask after another person’s welfare, or pray for their intentions. Susan is thoughtful. What a beautiful gift to bring to the world!

How is your social garden faring? Is it weed-choked from long neglect? Bursting with color and life? Take some time today to reach out to someone you’ve not been able to keep in close touch with, just to remind them that you treasure them, that their place in your garden is a permanent one, one that you cherish.

People need people. That’s why God made us in such abundance and multiplicity. And I’m betting that they who tend their relationships sit in good stead with The Creator. With God’s grace, perhaps one day I might count myself in their number.

Reading some of the blogs I follow, I’m getting the impression that everyone’s been having a rough couple of weeks.  Sometimes faraway friends will report to me via email that things have been hairy and hectic, and I think:  “There must be something in the air.”

The past few weeks have brought moments of joy and some intensely painful periods.  During a particularly bad stretch, I found myself resenting the role so many mothers have been assigned, one I call “The Okay Keeper.”

No matter what is going wrong, mothers are supposed to have at least some idea of how to fix it.

Why is it that we’re responsible for making sure everyone and everything in our worlds is okay?  Who do we turn to when we want someone to tell US it will be okay?  You know I’m going to say we should turn to God in prayer, or talk to clergy if you have a church or temple home.

But really, it’s our girlfriends – near and far – who keep our blood circulating, keep our minds percolating, and keep our feet navigating.  These are our Okay Keepers.

This is an ode to the girlfriends who make the journey bearable. Even if it isn’t possible to keep all our charges hermetically-sealed in MotherLove and safe from the world all the time, our friends are the ones who stand with us as we try valiantly and succeed sporadically.  Female friendship is a secret source of light and love that energizes us no matter what we may face in life.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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