Passages and Paths, Obvious & Obscure

Yesterday afternoon, a room full of young Americans in every color young Americans appear, raised their hands and swore alike , “… So help me God”, to uphold the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Raising his right hand and swearing with them was Paul’s grandson, Levi. “… So help me God…”  he swore, and passed from teenager to U. S. Army soldier in a heartbeat.

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Proud Grandpa & Levi

Most of them were so young! Watching my daughter-in-law’s video of the ceremony, I was again amazed and thankful for people willing to devote portions and sometimes their entire lives to the service of our country.

(I might be biased, but Levi was clearly the handsomest male in the room and will no doubt look smashing in his dress uniform.)

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They swore their oaths and were duly shipped off. When Levi awoke this morning, he was in a different state and a different life. A month ago he crossed a stage and received his high school diploma: today he is a soldier in the U. S. Army.

I hope, despite the nerves and excitement, the crazy family vibe of parents and friends saying a temporary goodbye, that he was able to be truly present in the moment, that he recorded the sights and sounds of the ceremony that will forever be a point of demarcation in his life, a clear starting point for whatever comes next.

Would that every passage was so clear! Christenings, confirmations, bat mitzvahs, and quinceaneras; weddings, graduations, and funerals. Every culture creates helpful, symbolic markers along our varied paths through life. Growing up in Southern California, I tended to mark personal milestones by the most recent large earthquake or natural disaster, which is why I always know when we buried my grandfather: one week before the 1971 Sylmar earthquake. (Slightly related aside: all my Jewish relatives said the earthquake was a good sign, it meant that Papa was at rest and I’ve never figured out that logic.)

And yet, it’s often only after years and much soul searching has passed that I see other, but no less real, moments when for me everything changed, and I passed from one life to another in a moment almost ridiculously banal.

Keep your high school graduations; I think one’s actual passage from child to adult might be as devoid of fanfare as choosing to stay in and do one’s laundry on a Friday night while tackling the staggaring amount of reading one’s History professor has assigned. Sometimes, a career ends not because one was bad at it, but rather with an awareness of having nothing left to give it; one notices how a client has become a good friend over months of conference calls and working lunches; a new love is born across a fast food restaurant table, when she notices, with a bit of a start, she can no longer imagine a life without him in it.

Many are the blessings of retrospection, however much I bargain with God for prescience instead.

In the coming weeks, information will be blasting those new soldiers like a firehose. Some won’t make it through Basic Training and may struggle to find meaning for this particular passage in their lives. Unbeknownst to them today, their paths lay elsewhere. For some, the next four years will be a junction, or a stepping stone to another path. A small set of truly remarkable recruits will dedicate their careers to serving our country and us, their fellow citizens; yesterday will always be their first autonomous steps on their path through Life. Which of those, or a path I can’t even imagine, is Levi’s?

The beauty is, it’s his life to make and live. I believe he’ll be a good soldier; he’s determined, intelligent, physically fit, and in possession of a first class, loving heart. I’d want him beside me in a foxhole, and I know if he serves in a foreign country he will show the best face of the American Soldier. What will he learn, and lose, and love along his path? Levi, like all of us, has endless choices scattered along every possible path through Life, though I hope he’ll learn also that every choice has consequences, and closes doors behind him even as they open other, previously hidden ones, ahead.

Have you ever found, in retrospect, a moment where everything changed, one that maybe you didn’t see at the time? Do you ever see such passages when they’re occurring? What have you learned about yourself or others from the significant passages of your life?

Setting the World on Fire, One Flame at a Time

Once upon a time, in a far-away galaxy known as Southern California a little blonde-haired girl thought one day, she would set the world on fire. Her mother encouraged this, assuring her that if she were pretty enough, skinny enough, and okay, maybe also smart enough (like her cousin Randy, who got straight A’s every report card) she could indeed set the world on fire.

But the planets spin on in their orbits, years pass and the little blonde-haired girl found it is harder than one might imagine to actually set the world on fire. Waitresses, bank tellers, secretaries, and even contract managers seldom set the world on fire, but they do pay rent and taxes and buy groceries. The little blonde-haired girl wore all those different hats over time, got married and raised a brilliant daughter of her own; she taught Sunday School and headed the Cup O’Noodles & Goldfish Crackers Ministry at a troubled High school. She sent ripples out through the great Universal Pond and hoped for the best.

If you’ve ever served at a homeless shelter and known the infinite blessing of caring for people who are deeply, profoundly grateful for a meal and your presence you will have experienced the little internal flame of doing something good, of sending out a positive ripple into the Pond. I liken the feeling to putting on a winter coat that has been stored through the hot months and finding money in the pocket. It feels unearned or, like an illicit kiss, it is something wanted but that can’t be shared with anyone; it’s a secret which loses all power if spoken, warming one from the inside out. It’s hugging a co-worker when you know she is struggling, or doing a favor without being asked, like reaching for the strawberry yogurt on the top shelf of the Dairy case for the tiny lady a foot-and-a-half shorter than oneself. At it’s simplest, it is intentionally practicing random acts of kindness.

It is the turn of another new year and I am grateful to see it. The last year has been unsettled and challenging, for those I love as well as for Paul and me. Still, I give thanks for being here to see another trip around the sun, when so many of my young-and-dumb decisions might have precluded it. Long ago I stopped expecting or even wanting to set the world on fire. But if I could wish for one thing this new year, aside from the obvious health, wealth, and well-being of all whom I love, it would be to spend this new orbit as one small flame among many, to get out of my own head oftener and recognize the needs in others of a kind word, a smile, something done without being asked.

At Christmas Eve mass we were all given candles that were lit at the end of the service, and slowly but surely the whole sanctuary was lit by this symbol of Christ’s light brought into the world. This is my thought: that each of us can be a candle in our pew of Life and together, through patience, attentiveness, and kindness, whatever our faith tradition, we can cast out the darkness in the world.

In the immortal words of the Human Torch, Flame On!

flame on


The Changing of the Guard

Have you ever seen the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace? Not just on TV, but actually witnessed it? It’s amazing and beautiful, a majestic combination of pageantry and precision. Every soldier knows his or her part, they have drilled for this innumerable times and there is no guess-work. It is, to the viewing public, perfect, every single time.

Perfection, every time.
Perfection, every time.

If only human relationships were so well-rehearsed. For all our anticipation, expectation, or preparation, it can be hard to recognize the changing of the guard when it happens in one’s own life.

Mr. Peabody, his boy, Sherman, and the Wayback Machine.
Mr. Peabody, his boy, Sherman, and the Wayback Machine.

Setting my personal Way-Back Machine way, way back to the late 1980s, I see my late mother-in-law, Betty, sitting in my old kitchen, smoking a cigarette and looking a little lost. It is Thanksgiving Day and I am at the stove, all burners blazing.  I had assumed the family Thanksgiving dinner the year before and my sister-in-law, Lynda, had claimed Christmas. For the first time in perhaps 30 years, Betty was not the hostess of the family gathering, and never again would be. I could see it all over her: with the best possible intentions we had gracelessly taken from her that which made her feel useful and alive and motherly.

“Hey Mom, would you mind doing the gravy? Mine is never as good as yours, and I need to do this thing… over here…  .” It was only a tiny lie and next day I would end up scrubbing out a half-pint of gravy she slopped into the stove, but making it seemed to give her a boost, make her feel useful. And she was a terrific cook, who knew her way around gravy.

Two and a half decades later, I am wearing Mardi Gras beads and a Venetian mask while frying pancakes at St. Christopher’s Fat Tuesday Pancake Supper, pouring tidy, uniform circles of batter from a giant measuring cup onto an electric griddle. “Here’s a spoon to use for that,” says sweet, tiny Jenny, proffering a large kitchen spoon. “That’s okay,” I answer her, “I’m good.”

Moments later, as I’m pouring the next round of pancakes neatly on the griddle, “You might want to use a spoon for that.”

“No really, I’m okay.”

“Here’s a spoon, dear,” more insistently and just as I feel annoyance raising its head – I’ve fried a pancake or seven thousand in my time – I turn to Jenny, lovely, silver-gilt, bright-eyed Jenny, a pillar of the parish and always, always sweet to me, and I realize this has not one tiny thing to do with pancakes or sloppage and certainly not me or her assessment of my mad, pancake-frying skills. So I smile, say “thank you!” and take the spoon, which use results in far more little raindrop splatters of batter, but makes Jenny happy. She’s helped this new person in the kitchen, this usurper of the griddle.

While helping with a funeral reception at my new parish, St. Simon & St. Jude, the kitchen conversation turned to “Church Ladies,” those stalwart women almost always found in the parish kitchen, plating deviled eggs and finger sandwiches for receptions and events. Everyone wondered aloud how we had become them? When did that happen, exactly? A collective, rueful laugh went through the room, acknowledging that most of us are women of “a certain age.”

Time marches on; the guard will again change and other folks will be in the parish kitchen, preparing egg-salad sandwiches or Fat Tuesday pancakes, and I will be offering spoons and suggestions based on my experience and a need to feel useful. Will I be kind about it, like Betty and Jenny? Will I be as graciously accepting as they? Were they my practice drills, so I may support, rather than hinder a newcomer to the kitchen?

Will the new guard be kind to me, and take the spoon? Let me make the gravy? I sure hope so.

The Curative Taco

Who knew that Kroger’s at 4:00 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon is a freaking combat zone? Shouldn’t all those pushy/oblivious/rude people be home watching football? Did they not see us carefully staying to our side of the aisle and could they not do the same, instead of stopping dead center while sending text messages? And what was up in veggieland? Do they not restock the shelves? Is there a run on green onions I should know about?

Such were my self-involved, first-world thoughts yesterday. No one seemed friendly except the poor, harried clerks who are instructed to be so. It was easy to fall into, “They’re not as friendly as Texans!”

One of my Facebook friends posted a photo of a taco truck,  a successful new venture for someone she knows, and I pitifully commented that she needs to drive that thing to South Carolina, pronto, as I’m dying of taco deficiency. Yes, this is a serious medical condition.

But last night and more clearly this morning I put my finger on it: I’m homesick, but not for California, for Texas, my home of just over twenty years.

tacos the perfect food
Tacos: the perfect food.

I wasn’t a healthy enough human when I left California to recognize and process homesickness. Instead, it manifested in entirely, ridiculously unfair and frankly obnoxious comparisons between the two states.

The ocean, the beaches, the lazy, nasal drawling beach-speak of my youth will always have claim on my heart but Texas, as I’ve written before, burrowed into my heart without my knowledge or, truth be told, my permission. I miss the well-marked streets, the madness of the campus and all my “frequent fliers” – the kids who get into too much trouble and thus, became fixtures in my office (they’re the same ones who will hug you when they see you need one, by the way).  And I’m fruitlessly searching every street corner for a taco place. In Southern California, we’re basically weened on salsa and Mexican food, so tacos are pure comfort. Texas took that comfort and said, “Here, let’s wrap that in bacon and grill it over mesquite. Don’t you feel better now?”

“This too shall pass… like kidney stones….” I hear  Jeff calling to me from heaven, and a friendship made in Texas. I also know his next line would be, “It’s character-building and you’ll be a better person for it.” After he’d stopped snickering and had dodged my swing, he’d pointedly tell me, “You can get down off the cross – the job has been filled,” then gently remind me through the simple words of beloved St. Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” And as always, he would be right.

But I let myself shed a tear or two anyway, if only for the stunning lack of tacos here, and the horrifying discovery that Campbell’s makes “mild salsa,” apparently from whatever was scraped off the tomato soup processing plant floor. Some things can’t be unseen, and must be mourned.

Fortunately, I know the cure: open my heart to all the possibilities inherent in the phrase, “shrimp & grits,” schlep more boxes to the new house, and make it a warm and welcoming place not just for Paul and me, but for the friends as yet unmet, the family to visit, and in which the comfort of tacos and salsa are offered to all comers.

I wonder where I can get some mesquite?

For Cara, or, Comfort for Parents of Imminent College Students

For all the tea in China I would never be purposefully rude or hurtful to anyone, yet I so often am when unfiltered things come flying out of my face or occasionally, fingertips. For example, the other day a friend posted a heartfelt comment about her daughter going off to college, how she was already teary just in anticipation of the event, now mere weeks away. Because we share a twisted sense of humor I shot back a flippant, “Pussy” and, while I know she took it in the spirit intended, I’ve felt badly about it in the intervening days. Jesus, I’ve been there – don’t I have something better to offer than that?

So, for Cara and parents everywhere taking your only or last children off to college here is all the wisdom/consolation I have to offer on saying and surviving (a temporary) goodbye:

  • Don’t worry if your child seems focused only on dorm room, dorm roommate, welcome functions, etc., etc., noticing you only at cash registers; there are lots of cash registers in your immediate future, so you’ll get plenty of attention.
  • Speaking of cash registers, you’re about to hemorrhage money. No matter how much you’ve saved against this day, clever you, doubling it isn’t enough. Accepting this now will save heartache (and possible heart attack) later.
  • The independence your offspring is now asserting and which maybe stings just a wee bit if one is honest with oneself, is exactly what you were shooting for all those years. If your new college student seems to be navigating along just fine, you and your wallet trailing in his or her wake, well done, You. This was always the goal. (Except for maybe the wallet part, but baby steps.)
  • When you get home you will find no matter the size of its physical structure, in your absence your house has somehow grown exponentially, like a TARDIS, cottage on the outside, mansion on the inside. This illusory space is not as welcome as one thought it might be, not even on the day when the hat box containing not hats but three pounds of Mardi Gras beads, fell from the over-stacked top closet shelf directly onto one’s head.
  • The quiet; you will wonder, what’s up with the quiet?!
  • But, one day two or three weeks later, maybe four (if you’re stubborn), you will come home to that suddenly larger house only it won’t seem so very big and the quiet will be welcome after a tough day. You and your spouse will eat left overs directly from the Olive Garden containers in which you brought them home, perhaps without benefit of having passed through the microwave first. With no practice, rehearsal, game, or event to get anyone to or attend, no last-minute project supply dash to Walgreen’s, you and your partner will relax utterly into the couch, falling asleep holding hands while watching Big Bang Theory reruns, and it will be Good.
  • When your child comes home at Thanksgiving or Christmas he or she will be a child no more, and this is both unsettling and exactly right. With this new maturity also comes an appreciation for home, and you. No need to point it out, just pay attention and rejoice that your child is Getting It.

Here is when you know you have Gotten It and will be Alright, and this may happen as soon as the first visit home or a subsequent visit a couple of years down the road (if you’re stubborn): remember how when they were teenagers and out at night and we waited up, only really going to sleep after hearing their bedroom door close? Old habits are hard to break and when they first come home to visit, you will do the same thing; however, there comes a time you will wake when they come in, swimming only to the surface of consciousness long enough to acknowledge, “Oh good, she’s home,” and this is a Good Thing.

Perhaps you’re shedding tears as you drop off your babies at college, because you’re thinking the heavy lifting is done and he or she doesn’t need you anymore. You couldn’t be more wrong; your baby will most certainly need you in all the years ahead but what that looks like will be nothing you expect. Just as when they were little and each age had its own wonders, so too will the milestones and events of your child’s adult years, and they’re going to provide you with more wonder, awe, and amusement than you can possibly imagine. So, congratulations! You done good; now, wipe your tears and start thinking about what comes next for you.

Texas: Popping Up and Being Awesome

My senior year of high school, I dated a boy named Robert. He was an unlikely candidate for the job, actually, but in the weeks preceding our first actual date, wherever I was, he just kept popping up, being awesome. For some time now I have realized that, like Robert so many years ago, Texas has gotten under my skin and has kept popping up, being awesome and now I’m leaving it, my heart is breaking a little.

I wasn’t easy to get, then or now. When we came here 22 years ago, my ex-husband and I told anyone within earshot how superior everything was in our native California. The people smarter, more urbane, the land more beautiful, the Mexican food more authentically Mexican. What was this Tex-Mex, anyway?

Delicious is what we discovered Tex-Mex to be, meat fired over mesquite and wrapped with peppers, onions, and salsa in fresh, warm tortillas. Some of the finest dining I have ever experienced can be found in our big cities, and spicy barbecue readily available in most any neighborhood. Anything scrumptious one might crave is here and you’re welcome for the Tex-Mex twist. But be advised, I believe it is a state law that one must, when making the drive from Dallas to Austin, stop at the Czech Stop in West for kolaches.

I was obnoxious about other things, but I quickly shut up about the food.

For years Charlotte and I complained of the blistering heat in summer until one day, we agreed it wasn’t helping and adopted the Texas way of saying, on a 114 degree day, “My, it did get warm today,” or simply, “Well, it’s August.”

A Texas Spring Tradition
A Texas Spring Tradition

But with Spring came spectacular thunderstorms with lightening crackling through the skies and rains to bring forth the wildflowers: bluebonnets, primroses, thistles, Indian blanket, and fields of sunflowers. Seeing cows grazing in fields lining the highways was at first amusing, then commonplace, and now I am sometimes a little sad when a familiar pasture has been paved over for another unnecessary strip-mall.

My child grew up here, from the kindergartner I placed in a field of bluebonnets along highway 114, to a middle-school spelling bee champion, co-editor of her high school newspaper, and University of Texas, Austin, graduate. I didn’t cry until they sang The Eyes of Texas are Upon You, with raised hook ’em horns.

Maybe what I’m feeling, on the brink of departure, is simply the attachment any parent feels for the place one raised one’s child. Almost every memory I have of Charlotte comes complete with a big ol’ chunk of Texas: the State Fair under a Remington sky of turquoise, eggshell, and pastel pinks; bluebonnets the color of her eyes; the day we ran through a parking lot in pouring rain and drenched to the skin, collapsed in unstoppable giggles in the car; breakfast at Kerby Lane or burgers in a dive bar in Austin; Sea World, the Alamo, and the rope swing on the old oak in front of our house. The charm and acceptance of people who overlooked my ignorance, and waited for me to open my eyes and see.

Grown and on her own, Charlotte wasted little time in getting out of Texas, but recently admitted to me she misses it. While teaching English in South Korea, Charlotte showed her fellow ex-pat teachers (Brits, Canadians, South Africans and Aussies) King of the Hill in an attempt to explain “my people”. She summed it neatly for me, “Texas has such character“.

Texas, you were an awesome boyfriend and I took you for granted a long, long time. I’ll take some of that Texas pride and character with me when I go, and I will try not to compare South Carolina too unfavorably with you, because the best gift Texas ever gave me is being open to people and places just popping up and being awesome.

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