Sunday, October 30, 2011

Making a context for spilled milk

Oct. 30, 2011

Dear friends,

Last week’s milk story was something like the quilt story from the week before. In both instances the story was more interesting than my postscript.

This week events in my life provided an additional postscript for the milk story that I think merits its own space, however.

Two women (sisters) with whom I have a long-time relationship came to visit me this week. We shared laughter, good food, hours of talking, and joyous music. We shared epiphanies, those places in our individual life journeys where seeing God’s shadow in events startled us, times when we knew His wordless comfort, and those times when we were suddenly delighted with a presence we sensed but did not see. And we talked about our relationship with each other stretching over nearly thirty years. Saying goodbye was difficult. We do not know when (or if) we will be together in this way again.

When they had gone, I thought about the richness of the experience, the strength and nurturing goodness of the relationship we share. I decided that the weekend itself was a much better postscript to the milk story than the one I wrote last week.

In the hours we three were together, we did indeed pay attention to wants and needs, theirs and mine. We had Italian pastries. They shopped while I rested. They found tiny Christmas lights with which to decorate my cane. We had dinner at a quiet old neighborhood restaurant we all enjoy, and lingered very long over dessert. We sang together. We talked about the changing shape of community in a digital world.

But over and around and beneath the hours we spent together flowed a love that spoke presence with each other, that shared the markers in our life journeys, and steadied each others’ steps. Be brave, we said to one another. Keep clear, we admonished each other. Spilled milk has little eternal importance. Do what you can with what you have. Be brave.

Perhaps a good relationship is one that gives spilled milk no more attention than it rightly merits, and that fosters courage to do what we can with what we have, particularly in those circumstances when doing so produces messy consequences.

Thinking with you this week that on the long road home what we most want and need are relationships that provide a eternal-sense context from which to view spilled milk together with love wise enough to insist on the courage to move on.

See you next week.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

How You Stand is Important

Oct. 23, 2011

Dear friends,

She cast a patrician shadow even from her wheel chair. No one who encountered her keen glance doubted the active intelligence that shaped her sharp appraisal of the world around her.

Her hands could no longer obey that mind’s commands, however. They trembled. They dropped her napkin. Her uncertain spoon spilled pudding on her bib. And when she attempted to lift her glass of milk, her shaking hand overturned the glass on her tray.

Those sharp old eyes did not miss the irritation that just for an instant crossed the aide’s face as she glanced down at the puddle of milk spreading from tray to blanket to floor.

Without hesitation, the woman spoke directly into the anger with which she was confronted.

“Young woman,” she said. “Sometimes it takes a great deal of courage to spill a glass of milk.”

In “Being a Person,” William Stafford wrote,

How you stand here is important. How you
Listen for the next things to happen. How you breathe.

Thinking with you how to stand, how to listen and breathe so that I respect courage whatever its face.

See you next week.


See William Stafford, "Being a Person," Even in Quiet Places (Confluence Press, Lewiston,Idaho, l996). P.89.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

What shapes the bottom line?

October 15, 2011

Dear friends,

I agree. The quilt story was more interesting reading than the postscript.

So—here is a “do-over” or, rather, a “say-over.” Improvement (not perfection) hoped for.

I am unconvinced that the source of all objections to last week’s postscript result from writer-awkwardness, however. The fact is none of us are fond of the idea that the postscript contained, and would be displeased with the idea if John Updike himself wrote it. [Updike did, in fact, write an idea something like this in Rabbit and the people in his book didn’t like it either.] Whether found in Updike’s prose or in a rather pedestrian blog, criticism of the culturally endorsed idea of entitlement is not welcome. We want to be told that we are entitled to have our wants/and needs satisfied—and on our terms.

I set out last week to count the number of times I could find the idea “you deserve it” in some form in advertising slogans. It was so easy to find that I was bored by Tuesday, and gave up the project entirely on Wednesday. By Thursday, however, I had revised the question, and found the new question interesting. Thursday’s question ran: “Is the idea, ‘you deserve it’ ever used to suggest that some individuals at least deserve greater responsibility because of greater gifts? Greater obligation to share because of greater resources?

This question has continued to be an interesting one. Up to this point I have not discovered the idea of “you deserve it” used in any way other than encouragement to consume materials that were likely to require credit to purchase and whose value was likely to melt at the rate of ice at a summer picnic.

I wanted my postscript to the quilt story to raise two hard questions.

One: In people or in things, how do I respect and value characteristics and qualities that do not directly feed my personal sense of satisfaction?

Two: Does the idea “you deserve it” apply only to the getting process?

Thinking with you about the radical notion that what I give in relationships (including tolerance and mercy) may paradoxically serve me better in the end than the effort I invest in getting what I want/need.

See you next week.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

The story of the quilt

October 9, 2011

Good afternoon, friends,

This is a story about a quilt. In the end, I think it is a story about relationships too.

My friend is the speaker in this quilt story. My role is simply that of storyteller preserving my friend’s story. I do not want its voice to be lost in the ocean of human forgetfulness.

My Friend Tells the Story of the Quilt

This is my story about a quilt. I am not at all comfortable with having Gay speak for me. She uses words in ways that I do not. But the story is the thing. I trust that as Gay re-speaks this story that what I think is important will become plain. I think there will be something of what Gay sees as important as well.

My part of the story began at an estate sale. It was the kind of estate sale where after family have chosen items that they wish to keep, an open house is held and the remaining items in the house are ticketed for sale to the public. I was browsing through the house, thinking about the family that had once lived in the house, those people whose possessions were now simply objects for sale to any stranger who became interested.

A woman ahead of me purchased a large mirror that she had found leaning against a wall. Like me, seeing the sale sign, she had simply walked in from the street to browse, and now found herself unprepared to carry home the mirror she had purchased.

The woman managing the sale picked up a quilt lying over the back of a nearby chair.

“I’ll sell you this quilt for $5.00,” she said, “and you can wrap the mirror in it.”

The woman inspected the quilt doubtfully for a moment, and then said, “No. I don’t have any use for this. No. I don’t want the quilt.” She paid for the mirror and then left.

After the door closed behind her, I said to the woman managing the sale, “I can’t believe she didn’t want that quilt for $5.00. Just look at the work that went into that. Why are you selling it for $5.00?” I have limited skills with a needle, but even to my untrained eye the tiny stitches and the carefully arranged blocks were beautiful, the work of an artist.

“My mother-in-law made that quilt,” the woman said coldly, “and I don’t want it. I don’t want it in my house.”

Something about the woman’s voice and the look in her eyes prompted me to act.

“I’ll take it,” I said, and paid her the $5.00 she had asked and left.

Driving away I thought, “Now why did I do that? My house is not a quilt kind of house, and those blocks are every kind of red. I don’t have red in my house. Now what on earth am I going to do with this quilt I just bought?”

Not long after, however, a solution presented itself. I had planned to drive back to see my father who still lives in the farm community where I grew up. I decided to take the quilt to Aunt Sally so that she could place it for auction in the annual church bazaar. I thought that people there would recognize and value those kinds of stitches. They would know about the pattern of those red blocks. And so I took the quilt with me to Aunt Sally’s as my contribution to the auction.

Aunt Sally was very pleased. We talked about the tiny stitches. “That’s better by a far piece that anything I can do,” she said. “Someone will be glad to buy this.”

She was right. At the auction, someone bid the quilt in for $250.00.

I was glad and not just because the church needed the money. The whole thing gave me a feeling of satisfaction that somehow I had been a part of the journey of that beautiful old quilt from a place where it was not respected and not valued to a place where it was recognized and prized for what it was.

I think it’s important that we watch out and value things for what they are, not just because we like them. I didn’t want that quilt--I suppose that in some ways I didn't even like it very much. But that quilt had value. I thought it should be cared for. That’s what I think is important in this story of the quilt.

Gay’s postscript:

Here is what I think is an important relational truth in the quilt story.

When we place an overmastering emphasis in relationships on attaining what we want as an individual, we risk the danger of failing to identify value (and beauty) in both people and things that are unrelated to satisfaction of our personal desires. We miss the opportunity of participating in the kingdom work of preserving the good and the valuable and the beautiful unless it has personal significance to us.

Thinking with you this week about another quasi-paradox: perhaps my capacity to live and relate fully is correlated not with my concern about myself alone, but rather with my willingness to live my life as an individual but as an individual committed to the common good.

See you next week.


Sunday, October 2, 2011

Living with both--and

October 1, 2011

Dear friends,

This whole "wants/needs" business remains muddled, no matter from which direction one approaches the puzzle.

Disregard of the importance of human wants and needs becomes at best a pretentious asceticism, a self-imposed deprivation that leads ultimately to a Scrooge-like emotional winter in the inner world of the self. At worst, indulgence of human wants and needs leads to a distorted understanding of the essentials required for being and significance, and, ultimately, to a quagmire of confusion in which comfort is entangled with safety, and never-enough becomes the idée fixe around which life goals are shaped.

In relationships we are faced with two aspects of the problem. We can, and sometimes do, behave as though in the relationship our needs and wants are of little or no concern, and, in a self-deceived mode of self-sacrifice, set ourselves up for growing anger and destructive discontent. In contrast we can (and sometimes do) permit our needs and wants to function as the emotional dictator of the relationship. When we do this, we come to value the “other” not for the individual persons they are but for what they can provide for our comfort and satisfaction. Then when, as inevitably happens, we find ourselves alone we tell ourselves that we have been unreasonably abandoned and betrayed.

Further, there is the frustrating difficulty in determining how-much-is-enough. How much of what I want and need is necessary for my well-being? Then, further complication, who is to judge this prickly question? I, or the “valuable other”? What does it mean to guard my heart in terms of satisfaction of my wants and needs? And how is disagreement to be arbitrated if the “valuable other” and I disagree about the impact of my wants and needs on my well-being or on the relationship? And, in contrast, how is the disagreement to be mediated when I think that the wants and needs of the “valuable other” are being self-denied (or, conversely, self-indulged), in ways that drive the relationship toward destructive goals?

My attention was caught again this week by advice the Apostle Paul gave the churches in Galatia.

Paul borrowed a metaphor for relationships from the experience of back-packing and hiking. Share one another’s burdens, Paul wrote encouragingly (Gal. 6:2, The Message); if you think you are too good for that, he added, you are badly deceived.

But then, in the very next paragraph, Paul writes:

Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life. (Galatians 6:3-5, The Message)

In the KJV, the text reads bluntly and somewhat paradoxically:

“Bear ye one another’s burdens. . . .” [Gal 6:2]

“. . . for every man shall bear his own load.” [Gal. 6:5]

Thinking with you about the challenge of living relationally in a way that both shares the burden of self-knowledge with the valuable other, while, at the same time, takes responsibility for doing the creative best I can with my own life.

See you next week.