I stopped going to church when I couldn’t answer the question “How are you doing?” honestly.
When a nice outfit couldn’t distract people enough from the anguish I was experiencing inside, honesty became involuntary. Sure, I let a few trusted individuals know that life at the time was quite stressful – heck, everyone these days understands stress! Unable to find the words that could accurately explain the toll that stress was taking on my body, I finally broke down. No cute outfit or casual talk could cover up the wretched results of unaddressed stress. I was a mess. Even weeks after regaining some strength, I just couldn’t put on a face for the church folk. The act was over.
Dressed in a red top (my grandma’s colour) she was an unexpected blessing. Looking to purchase gifts to bring home to family and friends, I shopped around through piles of slightly organized souvenirs as my husband stood at the entrance of the beach hut. A British shopper asked him for a price of an item. He politely replied, “I don’t work here.” Patsy, the owner, tucked away towards the back of the hut heard the conversation and joked with my husband, “You’re not very good at your job. If you hope to make a living, I’ll have to teach you how to price the items.” We had a good laugh.
The souvenirs didn’t spark my interest like Patsy did. A lively 66-year-old local to the island had a mesmerizing tone to her voice. It was the kind of voice that makes you want to curl up on the couch and listen for hours. Her voice was wise and motherly.
She told us to face the ocean and glance across the waters to various sized landforms. From where we were standing we could see four different countries. She pointed to Montserrat, the largest of the islands where the volcano erupted in 1995. “A lot of people suffered.” There wasn’t a couch to curl up on but we knew Patsy had more stories to tell us. Wearing our casual beach attire, we stood with our feet in the sand listening to Patsy. She tackled the problem of evil, God’s distance to tragedy and poverty. She was much more than a simple shop owner – much like our ‘vacation reads,’ she made sense of life by examining the deep inner desires and struggles of being human.
Without realizing it she acknowledged a concern we’ve had for years and why we aren’t quick to share pictures from family vacations on social media. She said, “You know, people may not see how long you’ve saved for this vacation – how many nights you had to eat noodles for dinner so you could put money away.” She went on to say, “Your co-workers may even say, ‘We make the same amount but why can you go on vacation and I can’t?'” With her sharp sense of humour she said, “Don’t bother with them. Enjoy!”
She went on to say, “People are quick to judge but don’t see how people struggle.” Isn’t that true? I know social media is a showcase for highlights. Sure, I could post a nice beach shot and yes, that was one of my many highlights. However, my trip also involved quietly suffering through an anxiety attack on the plane with passengers around me glancing as I tucked my tear-soaked face into my husband’s neck, some much needed soul searching and of course, taking in all the joys of a beach vacation (including wise words from a local).
As our conversation came to an end, Patsy pointed up at me and said, “Don’t let others get you down!” I understood it as, “Stop worrying about what others think of you. Enjoy life!”
I went looking for souvenirs and found Patsy. A wise local that closed the miles between us – turning strangers into friends.
It doesn’t matter where you live, people have the same problems. We all struggle. – Patsy
Unbeknownst to me, I found myself searching for all that makes me Me. I realized this interest came to me after spending time at my childhood home. Unlike my current city, my childhood neighbourhood bears a rich catalogue of memories that are uniquely mine. Each block of pavement a playground: directly to the left of my home we sat on the pavement collecting and trading stickers. The scratch and sniff were the most sought after ones (my favourite the buttery popcorn one). Just a few houses away, my best friend’s house – a place of adventure where science and math were put to the test. Sliding down the staircase at record speeds in a cardboard box and crashing into a barricadeof couch cushions.
A five minute walk away was the community pool. A place of endless hours of summer fun. I’ll never forget the day the whistle blew, “Everyone out of the pool!” A summer rain shower was on its way. Gathering our things we began our walk home. Half-naked in our swimsuits and sandals with our towels draped over one shoulder we found ourselves caught in one of the most magical storms. Nature opened its window with an invitation to experience its splendour through and through. The pavement was steaming hot and gave off a smell of earthworms. Our walk home turned into a dance. Joining the rush of pitter patter, our bodies moved to and fro. Our feet moved in unison with the bursting droplets. Opening our mouths and stretching out our tongues we tasted its wet drink one drop at a time. We lifted our heads in surrender to its artistry. With shuttering lashes we watched the droplets descend upon us. A vision of heaven. A symphony of senses. A magical moment. Washing, cooling and massaging our summer skin.
A childhood memory so vivid and consuming. A memory that revived my adult curiosity. In a search for ‘Me’ I discovered that nature has not stopped handing out invites to experience childlike magic. The next time nature catches your attention, let the glance become a gaze. Let the background become the backdrop. Take a seat. Prepare your senses. The play is for you.
“God’s glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon. Madame Day holds classes every morning, Professor Night lectures each evening. Their words aren’t heard, their voices aren’t recorded, But their silence fills the earth: unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.” Psalm 19:1-4 MSG
I may have been seventeen years old when I held an under-nourished baby. Seated by a large glass window in a rocking chair in the corner of the room, a very small baby boy was placed in my arms. My heart instantly invited him in. I peered down at his tiny hands, thin arms and gaunt but lively face. Joy overwhelmed me. Life was placed in my arms. We locked eyes and immediately it felt like we were the only ones in the room. As I cradled this tiny baby boy, I whispered prayers to God. “Thank you for this precious little boy. Protect him from harm and watch over him. Amen.”
We rocked back and forth, and time stood still. I became love, care and protection for him – a gift given to his parents yet placed in my arms for a short time. What may have come natural for me at seventeen years old was not as natural for his parents. Poverty and a deficit in parenting skill is what led this baby boy to my arms. While I cared for him, Mom and Dad attended a required parenting skill class.
Many years have past since holding the tiny baby boy. Although his name has left my memory, the deep love and desire for him to live a safe and happy life has not.
Love came to me that day wrapped in a blanket.
Curious as to why this memory surfaced after so many years, I allowed time and space to reveal its meaning.
Days later it came to me: Cradling a tiny baby boy at a volunteer program was possibly the first time in my life where I felt a deep connection to my life’s calling. It was a seed inside me that started to bloom, framing my core beliefs about humanity – to understand that life is difficult and complex, so suspend judgment and give comfort and care to anyone in need. For this is the love all of us desire – the one that is free from judgment, attentive to all needs and requests nothing in return but simply finds sheer joy in us. It’s a love found in God and experienced through the kindness and generosity of others who truly see us as we are.
“Because the poor are plundered, because the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the LORD; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs.” Psalm 12:5 ESV
My life is far from perfect but it’s pretty good. I’ve felt shame and the feeling of being trapped before, but nothing prepared me for what I was about to hear from a stranger.
It was late evening on a Saturday night. We were dressed to impress and ready to party. Birthday celebrations were in order: upscale Indian food, a crowded bar filled with other party-goers, and a small dance floor in front of a live band. We reminisced over dinner and later took our kitchen dance moves to a whole new level on an actual dance floor. With busy adult lives, we made sure to soak in every moment.
As the evening came to a close, our bellies were full and sore from laughter, and we took to the streets of the “big city” for our final walk to our cars. The moon was bright and just shy of being full – perfect conditions for impromptu side-walk conversations along the way.
As we approached our parked car we were stopped at one of the many busy intersections. A man sitting on the ground slouched against a concrete block, un-showered and holding a beverage of sorts, started up a conversation with my friends: “Do you have money for a smoke? Any spare change? Can I do something for you so you’ll have more time for you’re lady? Anything?” They bantered back and forth for a bit, but what came out of this man’s mouth next hit the deepest cord in my consciousness.
“I’ll be your slave. I’ll do whatever you want for 5 dollars.”
Unable to express my shock and sorrow, I swallowed my sadness in that moment.
In a free country where we have the privilege to an education, health care, social services and work opportunities, this man identified himself as a slave, willing to do ‘whatever’ for 5 bucks. Even if it was addiction talking, no human being should feel that he or she is worthless – a slave to another.
This man did not see himself as an equal to my friend. He viewed himself as less than human. Worthless. To be used. Overcome with the need to numb his pain, addiction was traded for any sense of his self-worth. His worthlessness, I’m sure, wasn’t something that just happened overnight. One negative thought, one broken moral promise and one more line he swore he would never cross, until he’d do ‘anything’ for 5 dollars.
My belly was full and my heart was happy, but the world isn’t all about my satisfaction. God directed my attention to a man who felt worthless. A man that I shared my humanity with. A man that I did nothing to help, other than empathize with and pray for. A man that reminded me that I am his equal and I too have felt the way he has felt (to some degree)…
My experience was not unlike what a wise man who spent his last years walking the same streets I walked that night, “…that only by entering into communion with human suffering can relief be found.” – Henri Nouwen
“The rich and the poor shake hands as equals – God made them both!” Proverbs 22:2 MSG
As red spots appeared all over my skin I replied with, “No, I’m not! This happens every night.”
“Look, it’s going to get better!”
I stood there, unable to convince my audience that it’s not a matter of attitude but a medical reality. As the red spots rapidly raised my skin into amass of hives, I felt defeated on two accounts: first, the hives are taking over. Second, being misunderstood and muted.
“You’re fine!” is a response I’ve heard far too many times in my life. To my uneasiness, I always reply with, “I’m fine! It’s okay!” all the while knowing that it is not what I genuinely feel or think. I get it, “You’re fine!” is supposed to snap you out of negative thinking and, in a weird way, encourage you. Heck, I’m just as guilty of using “You’re fine!” as a dose of medicine to the worried. What else can you say?
It’s only recent that I realized how ignorant, “You’re fine!” can feel. Through personal reflection I’ve discovered that when I hear, “You’re fine!” what I really hear is, “Ignore your gut-response, stuff your emotions in a tickle-trunk and don’t speak of it anymore.” I’m cautiously navigating through the years of socially-appropriate agreement, “Yes, I’m fine!” by asking myself, “Am I truly fine?”
I’m doing this by learning to trust the gut-response. It’s the “Wait! Something isn’t right here!” kind of sensation. I have the right to feel angry, upset, sad, disappointed, and so on. The gut-response initializes action in one of three ways: ignore, react or plan. Ignore is the ‘I’m fine!’ pill you swallow. React is impulsive and seeks immediate gratification, usually in the form of vengeance or wallowing. Plan is I will feel and I will decide.
The next time I hear, “You’re fine!” I won’t be quick to glaze over my feelings or the feelings of others. I will get better at listening and simply ‘being-present.’ I will ask, “What is needed?” and “What is the best way to move forward?”
There’s no pretending “I’m fine!” when I’m covered head-to-toe with amass of ever-spreading hives. No matter how much positive self-talk or hearing the words, “You’re fine! It will get better!” A good cry and silent comfort from loved ones is the best medicine. I know someday I will be fine but pretending it’s fine right now is a lie and a revolt to what I’m genuinely feeling. I will feel and I will decide.
“let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;” James 1:19b
After a soupy late-August heatwave, the peaceful morning brought promise of a perfectly sunny day with a much desired breeze. Half-way through my morning walk with Winston (my furry friend), he paused to give a specific patch of grass a thorough sniff. My tendency most days is to tell him, “Come on! You’ve already sniffed every blade of grass in the neighbourhood. Let’s get on with it!”
Learning to slow down is a constant discipline. This was one of those moments I was practicing pace and welcoming reflection. Paused by my friend with paws I detected something quite out of place. In a ripened sea of green grass I spotted a thin fleck of soft cream colour. At first I thought to myself, “Could this be a sign of fall?” Perplexed by the possibility that a lone cream-coloured leaf drifted so far from its mother tree was troubling. While my dog was busy sniffing around, I had to get a closer look. As I bent down, the ‘leaf’ twittered as if wind was blowing, though there was no other evidence of wind. Gripping to a blade of grass making subtle but very elegant movement, I discovered a beautifully delicate butterfly camouflaged as a leaf.
I grinned with gratitude as I welcomed the hidden treasure. Hidden treasures are nature’s gift to us, and within them can be revealing truth. I have found more often that God uses these moments to teach me.
As the pup and I continued on our walk, leaving behind the petite butterfly in a deep sea of green grass, I thought to myself, “Why would such an elegant insect disguise itself as a common leaf?” To this I quickly answered, “to avoid harm of course.” Sadly, hidden for fear of harm the petite butterfly also hides its beauty.
At the end of our walk, I continued on with my day all the while pondering the significance of this early morning exchange with nature. Days later, it came to me: When out of my element, to the passer-by I am disguised to avoid harm. But to those who are willing to lean in and look closer, I reveal my true vulnerable self. They see me not as what I try to avoid but as who I truly am.
“If people can’t see what God is doing, they stumble all over themselves; But when they attend to what he reveals, they are most blessed.” – Proverbs 29:18 MSG