Timeless Advice from a (somewhat dated) Chick Flick

One of my favorite all time romantic comedies is You’ve Got Mail starring Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks.* Even though the technology featured in the film is now dated, there are some timeless ideas and advice in the movie that have stuck with me through the years. Okay, I also have to add that it has stuck with me through the numerous times I have watched this movie.

picture of a manual typewriter with some stuck keys
Photo by Leah Kelley from Pexels

Near the end of the movie, just after a significant turning point, Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) visits Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) at her apartment. He says to her in a half-hearted attempt to apologize for putting her out of business, “It wasn’t personal,” he says “it was business!” She respond by saying, ‘Well, it was personal to me! It was personal to a lot of people. Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

I wrote in a previous post about Friendships and types of friendships and pretty sure I just scratched the surface. It seems to be me that most relationships ought to be personal at some level. Long gone are the days when items like milk and bread were delivered to our doors. But mail is still delivered. And many of us still shop “in person” for groceries and other necessities. I am one of those fussy people who prefers to pick out my own food and clothing.

There was a period of time when my then favorite store stopped carrying women’s dress clothes in the store, but there were plenty of “misses” or “Women’s” size casual clothes available. I was told by a compassionate cashier that I could always order online and if an item didn’t fit, I could return it through the store. “Or,” she said lightly, “you could return the item by shipping.” I was crestfallen at best and slightly depressed. While I am not one to try to decide what someone is thinking without their saying so, it felt as if the store were saying to overweight women everywhere, ‘You can’t possibly need dress clothes, the sweats and jeans are…over there!”

Pcture of a woman ina store hanging clothes on rack
Photo by Ksenia Chernaya from Pexels

I pleaded my case with a couple of cashiers, fighting back the tears. It was an hour’s drive, to get there and to my way of thinking, picking out something to try on at the store, is more efficient than ordering online, waiting for the item to arrive to try on and then having to go through the work of returning the item. Much quicker to put it back on the rack in the store; without paying postage or shipping.

I prefer the personal contact. I always engage cashiers in the briefest of conversations, in the hope that I can add something to their day, a moment of pleasantness or even compassion. If you want or need a cynical reason for a personal contact with a cashier, it helps to keep their attention on me and my money or credit card while the transaction is taking place. Rather than them talking with another associate, while ringing up my purchase. I think the personal contact is crucial.

The isolation and social distancing imposed by the COVID-19 virus have made this that much more important to me, and I think, to others. In small towns people tend to wave at each other, even strangers. Sitting on your porch and someone drives by, wave. Walking down the street and someone drives by, wave. And don’t forget to smile.

picture of a woman in a store paying with a credit card
BUt most important is the smile on the cashier
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Does it matter if you smile if you are wearing a mask? No one can see your smile! I recently arrived at a meeting a few minutes early, with the intent of checking my hair and putting on some lipstick. I do not wear much make-up. I realized when I saw someone else who had arrived for the meeting already had their mask on and then I realized that the lipstick was superfluous, but smiling is not. I am pretty sure when we smile, it exercises all of our face muscles and shows around our eyes. Life is tough and has recently gotten tougher. Soften it with a smile.

Beyond that, part of my concern is that fear of the virus and the potential spread and the need for social distancing, has made limited personal contact an imperative. I think, not to sound alarmist, that we are in danger of losing something vital in our society. It has been weeks, months since this all began and there are some things that will not go back to the way they were; in person connectivity should not be one of them. “Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

PLAN B for “Brave

Earlier in the story, after an unsuccessful protest and media campaign fails to turn her business around, Kathleen makes the dreaded decision. She shares this with her mother’s friend Bertie and when she tells her she has decided to sell the store, Bertie tells her it’s a brave thing to do. “You are daring to imagine that you can have a different life.”

picture of suggestions pinned to a bulletin board
Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

What happens if your heart is set on a goal that cannot happen? So many factors apply, aptitude, talent, education, but also job market, economy, etc. I got my college degree at 49 years old in 1999. I was already a pastor and headed to seminary. I settled for a liberal arts degree, for reasons that don’t matter here. But I had two academic loves in college; History and English. I had significant credits and course work in those subject areas and it was tempting to either do a dual major or shift from liberal studies to major in one of them. I did not want to teach and I was eager to finish college and get to seminary. But there was also a joke making the rounds at the time: “What did the History major ask the English major?” The answer was, “Do you want fries with that?”

As a much younger person, I started out at nursing school, right after high school. From the time I was ten years old I wanted to be a nurse. I read every youth nursing series that was popular at the time (Cherry Ames, Kathy Martin, etc) and I had been a ten year old surgery patient. It didn’t take more than a few months in nursing school to realize that I did not have the maturity or other necessary attributes.

In Kathleen Kelley’s case, closing the store gave her the opportunity to consider what else she might do with her life. One can have a retirement Plan B, or a career Plan B. It may be good to have a few additional letters in your option basket.

Retirement Plan B

There are some ways I/we did not do a great job of retirement planning. What younger person can think ahead to financial needs 40 years in the future? But I did begin in my last year of full time ministry to begin to prepare, especially prepare myself emotionally; I had watched some friends really struggle with retirement. The planning I did was partly financial (we bought a house) but it was mostly spiritual and emotional. To paraphrase a song from another movie (White Christmas)** “What do you do with a pastor, when she stops being a pastor?” That took a lot of soul searching.

Of the pastors that I know who have served over 30+ years and many longer, many seem content to stop and go onto life fulfilling retirement goals. I had only been a pastor for 22 years and I wasn’t ready to stop, just cut my hours back. The full-time expectation for United Methodist Pastors is 55-65 hours a week (emergencies included) and the closer I got to 65 years old, the more I knew in my bones that I no longer had the energy for full-time ministry. (Slight disclaimer here, this picture was taken at my retirement party and while I may look really tired, I had been crying – a lot!)

Picture of myself and Roger at my retirement party. Interesting, not sure why the dates is wrong in the picture!
Retirement Celebration 6/23/18 ~ Photo by Jean Barber

But I only took 6 weeks off and have been serving part time (about 30 hours a week) for two years. It is not unusual for our pastors to go back to work part time, and it fulfills a need, both for pastors and churches. I am not ready to stop yet, but I am finally at a point in life, when I can imagine something different. I am hoping for another full year. But I know it is getting near time to be brave. Time to develop a Plan B. Time to imagine a different life.

There is one other thing. When I first entered the work-force, the average person expected to retire from the same company they began working at, or at least the same occupation. So where a person my age may have begun a career with that expectation, I think people entering the work force now have different expectations and perhaps begin working with several different letter options in their baskets.

What about you? Have you ever had to rely on your Plan B? or Plan C? Or are there other timeless movie quotes that have become a part of your life?

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

* You’ve Got Mail. Director: Nora Ephron. Performers: Meg Ryan, Tom Hanks, Jean Stapleton, Greg Kinnear. Laura Shuler Donner Productions. 1998.

** Song “What Do You Do With a General?” Bryan Darcy, Irving Berlin in White Christmas. Director: Michael Curtiz. Performers: Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney, Vera Ellen. Paramount Pictures. 1954.

A Sideways Look at Life in Lockdown

I feel compelled to begin with something of a disclaimer. I realize the weight of the pandemic that has caused much of the world to grind to a screeching halt and retreat into a science-fiction-like version of society.

I am embarrassed to say that all this, our time in lockdown, has snuck up on me. Like many, I saw it coming on the news and watched with the wariness that one watches weather forecasts of massive amounts of snow, or none, if the cold front moves in exactly the right way; or a hurricane, unless it moves out to sea. (Or some other natural disaster.) We try to prepare, stock up and pray or whatever one does to get ready for an unwanted event. I am often struck by the messages that people write on the plywood they use to board up their windows in preparation for a hurricane. Go ahead and write, tell the weather where to go and what to do, but please do evacuate when that is called for; do not however, expect plywood or painted words to keep you safe.

Picture of a lighting strike at night, dark sky, black water
Photo by Philippe Donn from Pexels

Just so, I thought the news media was fear mongering and maybe they were doing just that. I do not think we need a steady diet of stirred up emotion, “Just the facts ma’am.” Then our Bishop urged us to close our churches for two weeks in March in an effort to “Do no harm” in the face of the growing pandemic. “Do no harm” is not only an important part of the Hippocratic Oath that Doctors take, but an oath that others take as well.

I thought, and perhaps others did as well, “I will do as I am asked, but I can’t wait until we get back to church and we will…celebrate, and have a party, and have a dish to pass dinner, and a hymn sing, and hug each other…” Then schools were closed for two weeks, and then the “Stay at Home” orders came rolling in, like storm clouds moving rapidly from one region to another. Now school was closed (In Pennsylvania) for the remainder of the school year, and our stay at home order was in place for 30 days and there was no going to church. But there could be church. Online.

I have often joked that I am ‘a-technical’, and so when I assumed the appointment to serve two churches in retirement and learned that it would be my job to prepare the power point each week for the smaller of the two churches, I was indeed stressed. I was glad to be serving a church where power point was expected, but in my recent years in ministry, I was able to expect someone else to do it. Someone who considered it a breeze, a snap, a walk in the park, a piece of cake!

picture of a slice of cake, chocolate, thick chocolate or peanut butter icing and blue berry tooping
Photo by Abhinav Goswami from Pexels

Yes, that piece of cake, comfort food with icing. That was what I wanted. I did not know for instance, how to locate lyrics online, copy and paste and make them fit the power point screen. Tasks that more technically minded people take for granted. You may be surprised to know that it takes longer to type hymn lyrics if you sing them when you type them! Trying to hold open a 2″ thick hymnal so you can see to type the words without the weight of the other pages flopping back down takes coordination and determination.

It took a while and even that “copy and paste” thing is not as user friendly as I would like, but it did help me prepare for bigger things. Now, to record a modified service on “You-Tube” and upload, download, reload, I am never quite sure which load it is. Figuring out which computer is the best option, my desk top or lap top, what room in the house has the best connectivity, and then the big shock. While recording on You-Tube is pretty straight forward, other options were more attractive. It took me at least 4 weeks to figure out that as a-technical as I am, I could learn to edit the mistakes out of the video. But that was more easily done in a different format.

Picture of a young woman in front of  a computer, looking like has a headache or is thinking.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The big shock was recording in a different format and then loading it onto You Tube or another option takes H-O-U-R-S. Meanwhile my stress level is increasing and all I can think of is Sugar, give me Sugar. Chocolate Chips, in cookie form or just poured into my hand. Skip the Jack Daniels, you can have a beer. Just give me sweets! Many of my blogging friends who are into healthy eating are probably cringing or at least nodding sympathetically and thinking, “Ah, Michele, this is why we are stressing health eating in lockdown.”

Then came the Sunday, as I was trying to learn the intricasies of getting a recorded service loaded so I could email the link to those who were not on Facebook and did not yet realize that this other different format was still not going to load in the 10 minutes I had allotted. Instead of a 10:30 a.m. service, some of the flock had checked out other online opportunities, while I sheepishly was unable to load my service until 3:30 p.m.

It has been a process made better by two younger, patient, technically savvy colleague/friends who were able to walk me step by step through the process to some success and talk me off the ledge of chocolate chip cookie overload. Did I say I stress eat?

Picture of a half dozen chocolate chip cookies, lots of chips on a board
Photo by Brigitte Tohm from Pexels

This has been a large part of my ministry-life in lockdown. Don’t misunderstand, I am grateful that I have been able to do this and other things to help the churches I serve stay connected and have some meaningful contact with their own church. Let me just add two words: Learning Curve.

I fully understand the seriousness of the situation we have been in and are not out of yet. While I am in a confessional vein though, I confess to savoring the time to simply be home. I was unable to stay put the first few weeks because of impending surgery, physical therapy appointments, pre-op appointments, and the like. So it has only been the last four weeks that I have been able to just savor being at home, except for needed food runs. This has been permission giving, and it helps me look ahead to a time when I will no longer be partly retired and see the possibilities. My husband and I live a quiet, simple life which I relish, when I am smart enough to stay home (ministry is generally not done long distance or only online).

Being at home more, has given me an opportunity to write or to be more intentional and dedicated in writing and reading. While often my “reading’ is actually listening to audio books while I drive to classes, meetings, services and other gatherings, I have been able to hold my Kindle or an actual book in my hands and read it.

Picture of our dog, Sheba, a tall, lean mixed breed, black and tan dog.
Sheba, checking things out

I was going to say something about healthy eating in quarantine, but that “Cat is out of the bag.” I will say, that I am not totally ignoring the advice of blogging friends and have been working at healthier eating, in the hopes that something is better than nothing and while I am not the least bit athletic, our dog Sheba, has to be walked three times a day and that is generally good for a significant amount of steps on my Fitbit.

Sheltering in place at home without going anywhere but the store, has been mostly good. I have not turned into a hermit and there have been a few days when I have been weepy for no apparent reason. Between writing, emails and phone calls I have had lots of social contact, though I miss hugs from friends. I have not accomplished some of the things that I had hoped to do. I haven’t given up on them, just have not gotten to them yet.

Picture of an "oen "ign
Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

As of this writing, I have no clue when we will be able to fully re-open churches. I am quite sure no one in my area does either. We want everyone to be safe. I want, for myself and my flock at least, if not our culture in general, to think more deeply about needed changes. Speaking for myself, I have not gotten all the way there yet. I thought I would have a few other projects done by now and I expected to be making loads of homemade bread, but then came shoulder surgery. What am I hoping to gain from what remains of this ‘lock-down time?’

I would like to gain some mastery of the technical tools I need to use in this season, and thereby reduce my stress level and increase my efficiency. I want to laugh more; I want to stay home more (while still earning my keep at church) and I want to bake that bread. Okay, and maybe some chocolate chip-peanut butter-oatmeal cookies too! Perhaps most of all, I hope to reason my way through needed changes before life in lockdown is history and I unconsciously go back to the way things were.

What about you? I would love to hear from you. What has been your biggest learning or gain from this time? Have you been able to use it to your advantage? What do you hope will change, or do you hope everything will change back, as though it had been a bad dream?

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

On Friendships

I am thinking about two different themes in this post. How do you, or does one, determine if a person is a friend? And then I also wonder, how do we help our children and young people determine or distinguish about types of friends?

And here is another question, can the category of BFF (Best Friends Forever) be determined in the first months of friendship, or is it something one can determine, only after years of solid history, looking back from the other end of time? Being someone’s BFF can be a lot of pressure.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

The best compliment anyone every gave me as a friend, came many years ago, more years than I want to count. They said that I was very accepting as a friend; that I did not judge them, but accepted them as they were. I liked hearing that, and tried to be that person to the best of my ability. My ability has not always lived up to the ideal described by my friend (what was his name?) so many years ago. See what I mean? I can be very “out of sight, out of mind.”

In addition to that, I procrastinate, and live with the “shoulds.” I should give “so and so a call,” but maybe later. Later, turns into much later until I am embarrassed. As I recently said to a friend of over 40 years, “Well, the phone does work both ways.” I really wish I hadn’t said that. It was immature and even if it is a truth, it does not excuse my failure to call a good friend with whom I have a long term shared history.

Oddly enough, Facebook has helped me to see the need to think about different types of friendly relationships. I think Facebook’s categories are useful, (Friend, Close Friend, Acquaintance and Unfriend), but I also think that is a starting place. To them I would add the following:

FRIENDS FOR A SEASON: I met Gloria in Spanish class at the then, Pensacola Junior College, when I was a lonely and confused Navy wife in Pensacola, Florida. She was also a Navy wife and our husbands were not in Pensacola. She taught me so much, made me laugh and cry. She was Lutheran and I was Catholic and we went to church with each other and bemoaned not being able to take communion in each other’s churches. We spent some real quality time together, but lost touch after I moved way. I am still grateful for her and miss her, but it was a relationship for a season.

Photo by Tobi from Pexels

WORK FRIENDS (Colleagues) I am an itinerant pastor, which means I go where the Bishop sends me for as long as I am sent. It is part of my ordination vows, and something I knew going into the process. I live and serve in a defined geographic area (Central Pennsylvania ~ from the Maryland Line to the New York border). It is not unusual for our moves to create a crisscross pattern, like a team building exercise where a group tosses a ball of yarn back and forth, creating an acrylic web. In the process, I have had some colleagues that fit all of Facebooks’ criteria, but that has also made me think of other criteria as well.

CONFIDANTS That is not a noun I use very often, but, ask yourself this question. Out of all the people you connect with in your life, especially if you are the gregarious, extrovert type of person, how many of them do you trust with your most personal thoughts, experiences, hopes and dreams? As far as I know I have never been burned in this area, but I know people who have been very hurt by a failure to be trustworthy.

I think for many of us at least this is, and probably should be, a very small number, compared to all of the other people who we relate to in various capacities. Twice in twenty years, I responded to a colleague’s question by saying, ‘We do not know each other well enough for you to ask that, or for me to answer.”

I read somewhere that there is a limit to the number of sustainable friendships a person can manage. That makes sense to me. While one can have a lot of acquaintances (should they be forgotten?) close friendships require an investment of time and the development of history. I am not talking about those relationships that are sometimes, truthfully or callously referred to as “high maintenance.”

PROFESSIONAL FRIENDS (Mentors, mentees and others.) Not splitting hairs, but I see this category as a little different than work friends. When I was going through my process toward ordination, I had several very good mentors. At the time we worked together they seemed like friends, and I suppose they were. But our friendship and relationship had time and content boundaries. When that stage was over, and it was a relationship that was assigned by our supervisor (District Superintendent), it was time to move on to the next phase and the next mentor.

Pastors are in a slightly different situation than other professionals, like doctors or counselors. For instance I have had many people say to me in recent years, “You are not just our pastor, you are our friend.” Pastors are, hopefully human, and we are expected to have good boundaries and we are expected to love the people we pastor. We are also expected to move on at the end of our time, and that makes the ‘pastor/friend’ category somewhat challenging.

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

FRIENDS YOU LEAVE BEHIND:

Every move that I made as an appointed pastor, I cried the first two weeks in the new place, not because anyone was mean or unkind, but simply grieving the loss of the previous relationships. It was a little bit like housekeeping for the heart, making space in my heart for the new flock, meant setting aside the prior relationships. Not ceasing to love them but ceasing to relate to them for the most part. When I retired, I cried. A lot.

FRIENDS WHO ARE LIKE FAMILY: My brother whom I love, is only six years older than I, but I lived almost half my life in a place he never lived. We have seen each other through the toughest of times. I cherish our relationship. For most of our adult lives we have lived at opposite ends of the country. While that relationship is important to me, I am also very grateful for friends who are like family. Friends I did not grow up with or even know in the first half of my life. But they are a present and ongoing part of my life, work and daily experience. Every time I pray, I give thanks to God for family and friends who nurture and enrich my life.

BLOGGING FRIENDS: A new category! Strictly speaking I have only been blogging since just before Christmas, 2019, although I have been writing for years. I realize that it may seem premature to label the connections I have made with other bloggers as “friendships.” Yet, while these women and men are unknown to me personally, having read their thoughts and experiences and their having read some of my most personal and formational stories, provides an interesting sense of connection. I am grateful for their feedback on my writing and stories. Perhaps because writers need to be readers, and bloggers especially, need to read other bloggers, a new depth and richness has been added to my experience of writing and to my life.

PIVOTING TO AN EXTENSION OF FRIENDSHIP:

Even for all of the categories and types of friendship I have described, I have probably just scratched the surface and that is part of my argument against an early declaration of someone as a BFF. I am not, however, arguing against close friendships; I think that we need them. Further, I think that close, trusted friendships are part of our mental health and are genuinely good for society.

Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

I do want to suggest before closing though, that the best qualities of friendship can be part of healing the world. We do not have to be friends with someone in order to treat them with respect, honor and kindness. We do not even have to agree with them politically, religiously or otherwise. When I shop, I try to engage the cashier in a brief conversation, ask about their day and how they are being treated during the busiest seasons. I admit to having favorite cashiers, but I never mistake those relationships for friendships. Just simple humanity. A simple opportunity to help make someone’s day better, because it can affect everything that follows.

CALLED TO KINDNESS: My friend Donna says that she sees herself as “Called to Kindness,” during this Pandemic especially. She says that it is not that she is trying to impose that on others, but it defines her understanding of who she is called to be, especially now. There was a movement a few years back, perhaps more than a few years, encouraging people to practice “Random Acts of Kindness” I think now, we need more than Random Acts, but Intentional and Frequent Acts of Kindness. It can make such a difference and it is not superficial. Kindness won’t cure illness or disease, but it undergirds compassion. It seems to me that kindness and compassion ought to be the middle names of a group of people known as humankind. Kindness fueled by compassion and simple respect can be part of healing the world. I.M.O.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

Last Call for Alcohol (Jack, Maggie and Alcohol)

One of my favorite childhood memories, in terms of my dad’s drinking, (yes I know how strange that may sound) was the sense of celebration when he got home. After the opening of the suitcases and the giving of presents was done and supper was started, he would go to the neighbors and invite them to “Stop in and have a drink with us, I just got home.” I remember going with him one time, young enough to be holding his hand and knocking on the same doors I would knock on a few years later to sell Girl Scout Cookies. Somehow it felt special to be part of the invitation crew.

Dad circa 1929

If there was any orientation or any preparation needed for living at the Union Villa, it was simply living at home. There would be people who cursed and used bad language at the bar. Dad was a sailor, check and check. There would be people drinking to excess and being drunk. Dad was a sailor, check and check. It was called ‘Celebrating.” In addition there were all the times I accompanied them making the rounds to the local bars, including the Glen Cove Hotel and the Union Villa and several other bars that are no longer in existence. Check and check again.

One thing that made this all bearable for me, especially after I was a teenager, was that I knew there were people who were mean drunks, I had witnessed it first hand, but not from him. Surprisingly, I never felt unsafe. Mom did all the driving, but she also drank. I marvel now, that there were no accidents (or tickets, as far as I know).

Jack and Maggie did not fight, and I am pretty sure she was never embarrassed by him either. There was one time that still makes me sad to think of it. We were out at a restaurant and there was some kind of local community meeting. They were attending the meeting after dinner, and he had already started to drink with dinner. Maybe he had already started before that. At some point during the meeting he got the microphone, but between the hiccups and slurred speech, it just wasn’t pretty. Somebody said (out loud) “get that microphone away from that drunk.” and Mom, was not embarrassed by him, but for him. I still wince to think about it.

Photo by Chris F from Pexels

I have talked about some of this in an earlier post and said that dad drank when he came home (celebration) and when it was time to leave (the goal of feeling “no pain”) and mom would say of those times that she “poured him” onto the train or plane. It was how they celebrated and how they coped. Yet, neither of them were inclined to sit alone and cry in their beer. Drinking was always a social event.

Dad “celebrated” when I graduated from High School, I was the first person in my immediate family to do so. I did not see him before graduation, but after the ceremony, it was clear he was celebrating. I wasn’t worried about any of my friends noticing, but in the picture that someone had taken of him, he was clearly “three sheets to the wind.”

It is not that I never got upset. I learned at an early age that you cannot reason with someone who has had too much to drink or have an intelligent conversation with them. We played a game of sorts when I was in high school. I was old enough to stay at home when they went out, this was in the winter when the bar was closed. I put two Alka Seltzer packets on my mom’s pillow and three on my dad’s. When they came home, they played along. Mom would say, ‘Michele, I’m drunk, hang up my coat, and Dad would say, “Michele, I’m drunk, hang up my jacket.” I coped too.

Photo courtesy of Lynda Ames

We had drop in company when the bar was closed, and it was often invited. I am pretty sure that the fellows who came to visit knew that the drinks were free, and the conversation, jokes and laughter would flow too. In addition, they were good paying customers during the season the bar was open, as well as people who were considered real family friends. The most frustrating thing that happened during that time was the time that one of the guests got so sloppy drunk that he fell into the Christmas tree, knocking it to the floor, hitting it hard enough that the oranges in the Christmas stocking were smashed. I was not happy, to say the least and while it could have ruined Christmas for me, I loved Christmas too much to give it up that easily.

Several years ago, when my children were 8, 9 and 10, they came home from a family visit with their grandparents and my former husband. One of the kids shocked me by saying, “Daddy said Grandpa Jack was an alcoholic.” It does take a lot to make me angry. I was on the phone fast and I was furious. It may, or may not, surprise you to know that I never even considered that as an option. Maybe it was all the euphemisms. It never occurred to me that all of that drinking was something other than normal. It was normal in our house.

I talked about this with my brother shortly after that, and again a few years later and he suggested, and we concluded that mom and dad were “functional alcoholics” and that seemed to fit. After all, in spite of everything else, they worked hard and dad did not drink during the busy season, and mom did not drink at all, not that I was aware of, when dad was drinking at the bar. In spite of this, I believe that my parents were fairly well respected in the community. They worked hard, they contributed to the community and the local economy. And, they were sociable!

Some might ask why would I tell this particular story, or include it in the collection? For one thing, because this too, was part of life at the Union Villa, life in a barroom in a beach town in the 1960’s. Maybe something in this story will help someone else. I write about my own experience. I cannot speak for anyone else in my family or my father’s or mother’s families either.

I do not write this with any intended disrespect or desire to tarnish my parents’ memory. It was what they did, and not all the time, it was not who they were. I loved my parents and love them still. I am glad, grateful that they were my parents.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

I was a light social drinker in my 30’s. My husband still likes to tease me about the time I only had one glass of wine, but I kept refilling it and could not for the life of my touch my nose to my face without using my other hand to help. It was New Year’s and we were at home. Wine, cheese and crackers were our New Year’s tradition, until he became diabetic. I am not inclined to drink alone either, now our New Year’s tradition, when we remember is crackers, cheese and lights out before midnight.

When I was leaving home to assume my first appointment as pastor, my pastor told me that I would hurt my own witness if I drank at weddings, etc. Methodism is a dry denomination, (It’s in something called The Social Principles) although not all United Methodists know that. I haven’t had wine or anything else since, except for a few Anglican Communions in seminary. It is always a little startling if you are expecting grape juice, but get a warm feeling all the way down to your toes.

After I had been a pastor for a few years we were invited to a church family’s Christmas party. We walked in and I saw beer cans seemingly everywhere. Pretty sure I blushed. I thought I had not done a good job of teaching my own flock, but it was lovely of them to invite us and we had a good time and drank diet soda.

I know that alcohol can destroy lives and I don’t take that lightly. I often wondered why no one ever confronted me in my youth because all that alcohol my parents sold paid for much of what we had. For me personally, I think moderation may be more important than abstinence. I am much less comfortable around people who have been drinking than I was as a youth. There have been some special people in my life, both friends and parishioners who have worked very hard at their sobriety and I am proud of them.

Mom and Dad behind the bar at the Union Villa circa 1963

The waitress fishes in her apron pocket, pulls out a quarter and slips it into the coin slot in the juke box. I can almost hear the sound of the quarter as it slides into the coin box. She pushes the buttons, the machine retrieves the record and she sings along with Ray Charles, “I can’t stop loving you, it’s useless to try…” Dad grabs a bar towel, soaks it in the water and cleaning solution, wrings it damp and wipes off the bar in circles. He stops, looks at the remnants of the evening crowd and winks. He grabs the bell pull, gives it a tug and along with the ringing of the bell he cries out, “Last Call for Al-co-hol.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

{Song, “I Can’t Stop Loving You” written by Don Gibson, Produced by Sid Feller, release 1962}

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Birthday Blessings

I am a “Baby Boomer” and recently celebrated a significant birthday. Although I have not been greatly concerned about my age through the years (there are a few exceptions that follow), I admit I have been dreading this particular number. You can say, “It is just a number,” that is what my doctor said. I believed her for a while, but then it got the best of me. You can say, “You are as old as you feel.” But I have had arthritis since my mid-thirties. When I found out at the age of 40 that I needed to have hip surgery because my joint was in bad shape, the surgeon said I had the hip of an 80 year old woman. A friend told me to “give it back.” So, I don’t necessarily want to be as old as I feel somedays.

BIRTHDAYS OF MY YOUTH

My first birthday memory was sitting on the kitchen counter next to my mother, while she decorated my birthday cake. I was probably not more than 4. It had white satiny frosting and she used an aluminum cake decorating tube and used pink and blue frosting. I remember the colors. I would like to say definitely it was a blue border with pink flowers but that would be exaggerating the prowess of my memory.

swirly pink krose decorated birthday cake with three curly red and white candles and a bouquet of flowers
Photo by Jill Wellington from Pexels

We got to choose what we wanted for our birthday dinners, and I realize now, that was a lovely gesture on her part. She certainly did not grow up with birthday celebrations, when her father was wandering around and her mother was hiding from the bill collectors or the gas man.

I have a good friend who was born on July 4th and pretty sure no one ever asked her what she wanted for a birthday dinner, the menu was set by the entire culture, as if it were embedded into the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. In my husband’s family birthdays were an ordinary day, you did not get to choose the menu. My favorite birthday memory comes from the Union Villa. I do not remember if it happened more than once. But I do remember having a few friends over, sitting in the corner both with pizza, soda and birthday cake. Yum! And that was paying customer space.

Typical for her time, my mother did not reveal her age to many people, it was one of those things “a lady did not tell.” Truth be told she may have been sensitive about it, I am not sure. I remember turning around in the car and telling a woman my mom had given a ride to, “My mommy is 26 years old!” and considering mom was 40 when I was born, her passenger must have had a good laugh. A few years later mom started to color her hair, which she did until she was 82. I didn’t know how old my parents were until I was 9 years old. My dad was at sea and he sent a cable to my mom (1959) that said “Celebrating 49 today!”

TURNING 30

I am not sure I have my mother’s senstivity about age, except for two things. When I was approaching my 30th birthday, I did make a really big deal about it. I am sure it involved some whining and complaining on my part. I don’t remember the specifics, but my friends were extravagant, and took me to the National Theater in Washington D.C. to see “A Chorus Line.” I left myself a note on my desk calendar for the next day that said, “You don’t look a day over 29!” I whined and carried on a bit the next year, when I turned 31, and they gave me birthday cards.

picture of a calendar with writing at the bottom.
Photo by Bich Tran from Pexels

MY OWN GOOFY TRADITION

I am not sure how I started this, especially with my protests of not being sensitive or worrisome about my age, previous story excepted. Somewhere along the line, I began to celebrate or honor the day before my birthday as ‘the last day to be x years old’ and hanging on for dear life. It is something I have continued to do. But, not so much this year. This year, I have been distracted by the number. I envisioned myself as hanging on for dear life, not unlike a movie heroine, holding on to the railing of a cellar, while a tornado was passing by, trying valiantly not to get sucked into the whirlwind. And then, I gave up. About 3 months before my birthday I began to think as though it had already come and gone and I was already the dreaded age.

MOM in her 70’s

Mom in her 70’s was and is my hero. She finally started admitting her age, I think she realized that she did not look her age. And, it was a different time culturally; Mom was in her 70’s in the 1980’s. She continued to sew, and branched out in new areas. She made and wore her first slacks ever, making her first pantsuits, making blouses, and coats. She planned and organized parties for a group, covering all of the details and not getting (too) flustered. Location, menu, prizes and more. She did volunteer work and was always willing to pick up groceries for neighbors in need. She still drove to Massachusetts, from Baltimore, to visit friends and made a few trips to Washington State to visit my brother.

Mom,, not at 70! always young at heart.

She learned how to swim and started bowling all in her 70’s. I was a struggling single parent with three young children and she went overboard to help us. So much so, that I would be embarrassed to give details. In addition to all the other things she did to help, one day a week she picked up the kids after school, to help cut down on childcare expense. My kids loved her! And she had a wicked sense of humor. She was not a saint, but definitely pretty special.

One day, after I had remarried, she came to stay with the kids while my husband and I went out to a party. My youngest daughter, a sixth grader at the time, began telling mom jokes (dirty jokes) and mom wrote them down in shorthand. She was doubled over laughing and said she couldn’t wait to get home to share them with her friends!

FINDING THE BLESSING

I try to be a positive person and a grateful one. I try to regularly express gratitude to servers and cashiers, family and my friends. In my prayers I thank God every day for the family and friends who nurture and enrich my life and I try to be very detailed in listing out the many things for which I am grateful. I think it is a good practice. But something happened a few days before my birthday this year, that created a significant shift for me, in almost every way. I realized how fortunate I am because I “get to” be this age. Many people would have loved to have made it this far; there is no given or entitlement when it comes to age. And certainly many people wish their friends and loved ones had made it this far. My father was 60 when he died.

Realizing how fortunate I am, that I get to be this age, helped me shift the focus from my birthday, to my birth. The breath of life was breathed into me, the gift of life was given to me. It may strike some as being semantics, but I do not think so. Birthdays are about celebration, gifts, cards, parties and cakes; for those who are lucky anyway. But it seems to me that birth is about something deeper.

I had been afraid that turning 70 would turn me into something else. Someone old, something less than vital; a caricature of someone who no longer had value. Someone considered “elderly” by my community. Someone to need to have help, and not someone able to help. Someone whose day, maybe even hours are numbered. Perhaps it was even in a sense of reticence that I have gotten to the bottom of this post before admitting, I am 70, now. As of Saturday.

a picture of me, the author with my favorite sweater that says 'One Starry Night"
Photo by Donna Lynne Vaux
Me, about 3 years ago, a favorite picture

EMBRACE EVERY MOMENT

I still know that life is a gift and that tomorrow is not given and that anything can happen in the blink of an eye. I have lost loved ones to cancer and seen my husband through a battle with cancer. But I choose a deeper level of gratitude than I have yet lived. In the many birthday wishes I received from friends on Facebook, in addition to cards and phone calls, one phrase stands out. A friend wrote “Embrace Every Moment,” and I chose to do just that. In gratitude.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

Things I Learned at My Mother’s Knee

There are three things I learned from my mother at an early age, Faith, Storytelling and stories, and the joys of shopping. I have written about her influence on my faith in other places, but let me share this memory. As much as I love shopping, and that is the confession at the heart of this post, it was always more than a little boring when she was pouring over dresses. What is a little one to do except go in and out of the dresses on the racks, back and forth, pushing the dresses aside as though they were a thicket of cotton, silk or wool? Or, standing on the base of the dress rack swinging back and forth asking the question, “When are we going to be done?”

picture of clothes on a rack in a store
Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

I asked a similar question as a young child in Catholic Mass, in between the prayers in Latin, standing, sitting, kneeling and standing again. I tugged on the skirt of her dress and asked in a hoarse whisper , “When’s it going to be over?” The fact that I am now a Pastor, I regard as evidence of God’s sense of humor. Church is never over!

I loved her stories and could listen to them over and over again. She told stories about her childhood, lining the bottom of shoes with cardboard, because the soles had worn out and there was no money for new shoes. In fact, there was no tradition of throwing out old stuff and buying new because you felt like it. Stories of hiding from the gas man, or the electric man who had come to shut off the utilities, because there was no money to pay. She told me Bible stories and stories of the saints. It always struck me as funny since in the 1950’s and even 1960’s Catholics were not encouraged to read the Bible for ourselves, but she had a good grasp of the story of the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12) and other Bible stories as well.

My favorite children’s book that she read was “The Pokey Little Puppy,’ it was a large Golden Book. (Written by Janette Sebring Lowery, 1942). The first books she bought for me to read were classics, “Jane Eyre” and others. I also read “Little Women” and “Gone With the Wind,” before I was 11. It didn’t make me an eclectic reader, but even back then, I could appreciate the drama in the narrative.

NEW BEDFORD BOUND

It was about a half hour drive from Onset, to the city of New Bedford, Massaachusetts. Mom’s favorite department stores in New Bedford were The Star Store and Cherry and Webb. (The Star Store, and probably Cherry & Webb too, used pneumatic tubes to send money and receipts back and forth between floors. I still remember the whooshing sound as the tubes were sucked up into the works, as well as the thud when the tube came back with her change and receipt. We also hit the Mill outlets, Arlans and the Fairhaven Mills. It was a pilgrimage. I have two trinkets or three that belonged to her, a vase and some smaller pieces that I am not sure if they came from the Mills or the Mediterranean from one of dad’s trips. I also loved going to Cornwell’s Department Store in Wareham, especially the housewares department.

A good shopping trip also involved lunch, preferably at the Star Store lunch counter, but there were other places as well. A good shopping trip also included one of her friends, Abby or Billie. She would call them in the morning, when she was thinking of shopping and ask, “What’s on your foolish mind?” which turned out to be mom speak for “Want to shop?” I don’t necessarily remember her doing a lot of buying, but mom sewed her own clothes and mine and it may be that she was looking for ideas.

picture of dishes, various types with colorful designs
Photo by Eneida Nieves from Pexels

One of the outcomes of shopping with mom as I got older, was a love of housewares, and especially dishes. Ironstone, bone china, it really did not matter. I took accordion lessons at DeRossi’s Accordion Studio (I was not very good and did not advance far). The Studio was very close to the Star Store, and if we got to New Bedford early enough, we would window shop at the jewelry store near the intersection and look at all the china patterns. I fell in love with Lenox China at a tender age. We never bought dishes, not in those days anyway, but we sure looked. I like housewares and dishes so much that truth be told, I would buy a new set of dishes every two years, if I thought I could get away with it. Time for a new pattern!

Maybe part of the reason I don’t remember the buying as much as the looking is that shopping was all about the hunt, the search for that one special something. For reasons that don’t matter here, I got to spend three and a half months with mom, in my early 20’s, the year after my dad had died. We went to Mass on Sundays and 3 days a week minimum, there would be shopping. Mostly in New Bedford, but sometimes we would go to Braintree to the Mall and I loved that too.

picture of a woman holding a and inspecting a winter coat.
Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom from Pexels

THE ART OF SHOPPING

We had set on two simple goals for the three and a half months of shopping, we searched for a soup tureen and a glass pedestal cake plate, both for me, with the understanding that I would know what I liked when I saw it, and there was no real hurry. I am pretty sure the soup tureen was mom’s idea and the pedestal cake plate was mine, but I was all about the hunt. And the companionship. It had been a hard year for both of us and shopping was a lovely diversion and quality time together.

All these years later, I still like to shop. And call me reactionary, but I prefer to shop in person. Admittedly, I buy some things online, mostly books but occasionally clothes that I cannot get any other way. I suppose it is not much different from the days when we ordered things out of a catalog. But I much prefer to make my own choices, to see the actual color, feel the fabric, try the garment on and see how it feels and fits and looks in the mirror.

I realize that shopping with children and youth is a whole other game that can be emotionally and physically draining, especially when it has to be fit in between work, rehearsals, practice, scouts and other pressing events. I have my own memories of the challenges of shopping with an infant and two toddlers, and later, with three middle school youth. There was the time when my young ones took great pleasure in trying to fill my grocery cart with frozen turkeys, faster than I could pull the turkeys out. “Lunch! they said with glee. “More lunch!” they said, grabbing another turkey. Middle school mischief makers!

I try to shop locally, or items that I cannot buy locally, within an hour drive. This has become even more challenging in the last two years as more and more chain stores and mall anchor stores have closed. I know it may sound very superficial, especially considering our current situation and need to wear masks, practice social distancing and get in and out of stores as quickly as possible. But, I still love to shop.

Partly, it is about the lingering, the free time to carefully choose and ponder the purchase. Lingering over a decision to buy is the opposite of caving into high pressure sales and instant gratification. That is one of the things that makes me sad at the moment, no time for lingering and socializing is not considered safe. A few weeks ago I saw a woman whom I know at the store and do not see her often. I wasn’t going to rush up and hug her, but I was clearly happy to see her. However, the expression on her face, as well as her body language seemed to say, “Hi-Bye, Stay where you are do not come any closer.” I understood, but admit to being disappointed to not have a six foot greeting and smile. This was before masks became mandatory.

If shopping is about lingering and careful choices, for me, it is also about the human connection. Several years ago I led a group in a prayer walk at a shopping mall during the Christmas Shopping Season. The point was not to preach, or be preachy, showy or pious. The goal was simply to walk around the mall and in stores, quietly praying for the shoppers and store employees and to ask, when possible and practical, how the clerks were doing, how there day was going and how they were being treated.

Because I want to practice what I preach, it is a tradition that I have brought into my every day life. I don’t expect to have a full blown conversation in the check out line or expect anyone to tell me, a stranger, their life story. But it doesn’t take a lot of effort to look the cashier in the eye, ask them how their day is going and during the busiest times of year, sales, holidays, etc. to ask them how they are being treated. Oh humanity! Because I am in the store way too much (eight miles away to the nearest Walmart) it forces me to be aware of the person on the other side of the register and not whisk through the line as they they were not human, or important.

picture of a cashier and a woman at the register
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

One day I was in a check out line and the cashier caught me off guard, she asked me the questions I generally ask the cashiers. I bit my lip just in time. I wanted to say, “Wait! That’s my line.” But I just smiled a grateful smile. It doesn’t take too much effort and it can make a big difference in the life of a busy, hardworking person who often may feel unappreciated and underpaid.

I know that not everyone looks at shopping the way I do. Many people have recently celebrated the shopping plans that Walmart and other stores have introduced, shop online and pick it up at the door, or have your car loaded. It is a genuine blessing that our local grocery store in town has also started making that service available. That would never be my choice, but I have neighbors who have been rejoicing at the time saving factor. Perhaps that shopping program was introduced just in the nick of time for COVID-19.

picture of a woman looking at fruit
Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

I admit two things in that regard. I did get a bit anxious about shopping in person, even though we are not in or near the epicenter of the virus and our county has a relatively low number of cases, compared to other parts of our state and other parts of our country and the world. My husband managed to talk me off that particular ledge. When it comes to shopping for food, we both prefer to pick out our own meat, fruit and vegetables. Touch, smell and appearance are important.

My other admission is the fear or concern that this could become an irreversible trend, either shopping online or doing self-check out. I want the personal contact. I want to linger over my choices. Shopping for food or other items is not an area of my life that needs to be streamlined. The more limited my social world becomes as a retiree, the more in-person shopping I will want to do.

picture of mom, myself and my brother.
Big Brother, Mom and Me

It’s my mother’s fault, and of course she is not here to defend herself. She transmitted to me, the thrill of the hunt, the joy of the find, the companionship of the journey and the simple gratitude of human connection.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

On Languages, Accents and Being Home

I am from a small town just southwest of Cape Cod; On our end, the Cape Cod Canal begins in the waters of Buzzards Bay, just outside of Onset Bay. My husband says that people here “talk funny” but that is because I don’t have an accent, not a discernable one anyway. My mother wouldn’t allow it. She wouldn’t let us ‘Pahk our cahs.” For that matter, she insisted on being called “mother” not “mom or mommy.” She did not like nick names. She was from Baltimore, where people generally call everyone “hon” (pronounced ‘hun’ and short for honey) and they go “downey ocean” which means they are going to the ocean, literally ‘down to the ocean’ short cutting the articles and infinitives. Somehow those local shortcuts offended her sense of the English language. But please, don’t stop reading.

Light blue ceremaic mug with small bowl and plate, dark blue outlines and pink flower in the center
Made in Portugal

My grandmother was from Lisbon, Portugal and she spoke wonderful broken English, with a thick Portuguese accent. I loved to hear her talk. I loved my grandmother, I loved the sound of her voice and because of all those things, I learned to love the sound of all languages. She loved the soap operas which she called “her shtories” (that’s not a typo, but an attempt at her dialect) and she would point to a character who was especially bad and say, “Him no good! Him bashta!” Now, I am not sure if that is Portuguese or if it was her mangled English, but it meant that his mother was not married.  My husband though, has a different translation. When I tell him that he is a “bashta” after what I think is some genuine provocation, he turns to me and says, “That is Portuguese for ‘you sweet loveable man.”

I had a lot of opportunities to do overnights with my grandmother and I was enthralled with the slow, definite, way she would do things.  At night she would take the hairpins out of her long, grayish white hair and brush it, probably 100 strokes like many of us were taught. Her furniture was very modest. The couch was a bed with a couch cover and bolster cushions. She had at least one large wicker chair if not both. When I was very little and spent the night, after she tucked me into bed, she would push the wicker chair over to the side of the bed to keep me from falling out.

Picture of my an old woman, a young child holding a baby doll. My grandmother, Mary Perry Marcellino and me.
Grandma Marcellino (Mary Perry Marcellino) and me, circa 1955

I never learned Portuguese and my father who most likely spoke it, never spoke it at home. That worked out in my Aunt Myra’s favor because when I was at Grandma’s and Aunt Myra came over from her house next door and she began to rattle off in Portuguese and they would talk. I never knew what they were saying, although now I am pretty sure that the conversation started with Aunt Myra saying, “Is she here again? Why don’t her parents stay home?”  

I am not sure I can spell my mother’s name the way my grandmother pronounced it, but it was something like “Mahhhhhh ga retttttttttta, you got ‘em cup shugah? ” One of the best accent stories about my grandmother could get me in trouble here; It is the day my grandmother got in trouble with the bus driver. She was taking the bus uptown and wanted to be dropped off at the USO.  But what she said, from the back of the bus was, “Bus drivah, you let ‘me off UASSO?”   She really wasn’t calling him names; it was just how she spoke. And if you are reading this and thinking, that sounds like….you would be correct.

Grandma wasn’t the only one in the family to get in trouble or embarrassment over accents and languages. I recently checked into a unit for vacation and two men were discussing the best location to set the new thermostat. They were rattling away in a language I didn’t recognize, and so I asked them what language they were speaking and where they were from?  Imagine my embarrassment when one of them said, “we were speaking English!” He was polite, I was red faced. He said he was Turkish, and his friend was Albanian. As embarrassed as I was over this little international incident, it also made me wonder why we could come from 3 different backgrounds, have a conversation in which one of us had committed a social guffaw (that of course was me) and walk away peacefully without retaliation?

I can’t say that I have a studied ear for accents but when I hear any accent that is not native to the particular locale we are in, I generally ask “Where are you from?” and it can be a good conversation starter. When my husband and I made our first short trip to Massachusetts, after he ordered breakfast and the waitress walked away, he looked at me and said, “These people talk funny.” I really don’t remember what I said in response, but what I wanted to say was “Shut up and let me listen!” Because that accent sounds like home to me. 

Picture of the Cape Cod Canal, clouds reflected in the water.
The Cape Cod Canal on a Sunny Day in October, 2019

I recently made a phone call from home in Pennsylvania to a local businessman in Wareham to request his services. We talked for a bit about when he could do it, etc. and I wanted to say, “just keep talking.” I just wanted to listen, not so much for the sound of his voice, but to the sound of his accent. But I didn’t want him to think I was flirting, so I concluded the conversation and hung up. 

 Even though my husband says that I do not have that accent and therefore do not ‘talk funny’ he has said for years that when I get tired my “A’s” get a little broad. He says that when I am referring to the Lord, it would be spelled “G-a-w-h-d” and then there is the little matter of the liquid one uses to make tea, coffee and the like. It is probably not strictly a Massachusetts accent but something I picked up from the Philadelphia nuns who taught school at Sacred Heart, near Plymouth. “Wart-er” has crept into my conversation. In one of the churches I served, every time I would say “Wart-er” the youth in one of the families would nudge their parents, as if to say, “she is at it again.”  Indeed, I am. One night last October, I had dinner with 11 of my high school classmates, and to hear them talk! Really, you should hear them talk! It was wonderful, it was music to my ears and heart.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

Photo Courtesy of Onset Bay Association

On Toothpaste and Counting to Ten

I have always prided myself on being careful about what I say. I am not alone in having experienced the hurtful speech of others, so I try very hard to not point my sense of humor at anyone, to not make disparaging remarks or say things that might hurt. I try to never criticize anyone, friends, family or strangers. I do not always succeed however.

There was the time at a wedding rehearsal, when without thinking, obviously I was not thinking, I said to the bride’s father, “Well, if it’s a shotgun wedding, at least it’s a white shotgun!” (Formal wedding). Oh, my gosh, how he managed to not yell, swear or fuss at me, let alone managed to not write to the Bishop and complain, I do not know.

Then there was this “Marcellino Family” thing (or maybe it was jut a Jack and Maggie thing) that I brought into my second marriage. If I did something that my mother didn’t like, but it wasn’t something that was really going to get me in trouble, she would say to my father, “Jack! Speak to your daughter!” and he might say, “Hello, Michele.” Obviously, that was not what she intended. Or, if I had done something equally vexing, she might say to me, “You are just like your father’s people!” (Sorry cousins!)

Photo by Artem Beliaikin from Pexels

My husband quickly adapted to that tradition. One day the dog had done something that annoyed him (Sammy, our first beagle) and he said to me, “He is just like your side of the family!” Out of my mouth flew, “That’s right! He’s got hair!” Don’t feel too bad for him, thirty some years later, he has never let me live it down.

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, and possibly longer, when children’s feelings were hurt, parents’ usual reply was “Sticks and stones can break your bones but words can never hurt you.” We were taught to say that back to our tormentors. But now we know, it was never true.

Words hurt, unintentional words can hurt, and verbal abuse is genuine abuse. How many spouses, or significant others, have stayed in painful, destructive relationships because, “It’s only words. He/she never hit me.” But their mental health and self image have taken the hit. Words when they are out of our mouths, or keyboards, are not unlike toothpaste. You can get it out of the tube, but you cannot get it back into the tube.

Photo by PhotoMIX Ltd. from Pexels

I often wonder in courtroom settings, when a judge addresses a jury and says that a particular statement by an attorney has to be stricken from the record and that it cannot be used in deliberation, how do you unhear something? In the television courtroom dramas, that often seems to be the point.

Now, when many of us, not only in the United States where I live, but many areas in countries around the world are in essential lock down, stay at home, social distancing protocols, our homes have become really small quarters. We are in close proximity to one another with very little chance for alone time. Especially if there are more than two of you. There is another old expression that can apply, but I pray that it does not, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

Photo by Designecologist from Pexels

Tempers are bound to flare, feelings are bound to be hurt. Now would be a good time to develop a strategy. How are you going to respond the next time your spouse, or child or significant other says and does something hurtful? Counting to Ten may help, but not if you are counting by tens! Each person in a house is going to have a different way to cope, but I want to suggest that this is important. Count way past ten. Take a deep breath, go outside if you are able, pray if that is your tradition. This might be a good time to start that tradition, no matter who you are. Color! Phone a friend. Do something nice. Forgive. Make a list, make it work, we are in this for the long haul.

Now, more than ever, you need each other. We need each other and the world still needs love. When I do premarital counseling, we always talk about the wedding ceremony, and plans about what that will look like. But in my counseling sessions and in my wedding homilies I always stress the importance of tangible expressions of love, practicing and expressing gratitude to your spouse. forgiveness and respect.

Photo by Kristin DeSoto Photography from Pexels

As I write, I can think of all kinds of song lyrics, but am frankly, too lazy to look up the copyright information, and out of respect for other writers and myself, do not want to quote things that would imperil my blog. But it might be worth checking your “go to” search engine for songs about respect (pretty sure there is at least one!), forgiveness, love, and choosing your words.

The things we say to those we claim to love, our families our friends may be more important than ever in the close quarters we call home. Saying we didn’t mean them is counter-productive and once our words are out, once the email has been sent, or the phrase tweeted, it is like toothpaste. It is out of the tube, and there are no “take backs” that can make up for it.

None of this is easy, but I know Someone who can help us through.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

A postscript for my readers: I try to do two posts a week. As it turns out I have a shoulder injury that requires surgery in a few days. I will try to get one post out a week in the interim. Don’t want to lose you.

Life with a Tentative Dog

When we brought Sheba to our house, she had not yet lived in a traditional home. That is, if the hoarding situation she had been rescued from was a home, it was a home filled with stacked dog crates. Then after she was surrendered/rescued she was in the local animal shelter for about two weeks. The staff was kind and gentle and it was a good transition.

She had missed the learning curve on a whole lot of things, relationships and, living in a house, just to name a few. When we took her outside she was scared; she stood still and shook. She did not attempt to sniff anything and did not move. I think, perhaps it was too much wide open space for her, even standing on our simple patio.

We had a crate for her in our room, but because of her background we didn’t want to force her to go there and we let her have the run of the house within reason. It didn’t matter much. She spent most of her time in the dining room. We had a large oval table and put a bed for her under the table near my chair. She spent most of the time there, unless she was eating or “doing her business.”

First night in the living room after being here for 7 weeks

We watch television in the evening and would routinely invite her to come in. She would stand in the doorway and look, and then went back to her bed. We put a dog bed in the living room too, but she wasn’t having any of it. She would allow (that is the right word) Roger to pet her, if he was physically close. If she saw him coming, he would not get the chance to get close.

He loves dogs, he is even more of a dog person than I am, which is probably why our first three dogs gravitated to him, although in theory they were mine. Finally one day, when she wasn’t looking, he got on the floor on the other side of her bed, so she was between my chair and him. He just lay there looking at her. Eventually she reached out her paw to him, very tentatively, and he petted her. Then he pulled back until she did it again. That went on for a while that day and for several days more. I have a picture of this, but as I have said in the previous post about Sheba, dark dog, dark bed, dark house, you can barely see her. But here is a slightly fuzzy picture showing Sheba reaching out to Roger. This was after her being with us for seven weeks.

First Contact

The truth is that Sheba had visited the living room several times before, but not to visit. We started paper training her, thinking that would be the best starting point. At the beginning it seemed like she was getting it and we thought she was about 90% there, when she started having accidents and/or failing to discriminate between the paper and the carpet. We soon had puppy pads on one-third of the living room floor, in addition to pads in the dining room and kitchen.

It was discouraging, to say the least, and a lot of clean up. Most of the traditional things that people suggested did not work “Move the pads closer to the back door, so she knows she needs to go out there.” Did not work. “Walk her around her yard.” Nope, not that either. “Spray part of the yard or use one of those incentive sticks so she gets the scent and understands.” We did, she didn’t. “Give her five minutes in the yard, if she doesn’t go, put her in the crate for thirty minutes, then take her back outside.” She just looked confused. Then, as summer went on, when my husband worked in the yard or in the garage, we would take her outside and she loved it. She would lay on the grass and stay there for hours while he worked. But she would not “go.” It seemed to us that she thought it was holy ground.

I admit, I briefly got jealous of my neighbor, who could take her little dogs out to the yard, tell them “Go pee!” and they did! But jealousy is not an attractive trait and Sheba would not go on command. After several months of this, we figured out that if we walk her, she “does what a good dog does” on her walks. We walk her three times a day and there are occasional accidents, but for the most part, the walks work. She likes long leisurely walks and now she sniffs everything; E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G!

Walking Sheba is an adventure on its on, at least for me. Truthfully, I dreaded having to do it in the cold winter, especially walking on ice and in snow, but we managed. I talk to her when we walk. I try to say encouraging things, praise her when she is good. Some days I say things like, “Come on Sheba, please!” (read that with a whiny voice). When she acts afraid I tell her I will not let anyone hurt her.

One day I did this and a lady I know was walking into the school building. I said, ‘She is not going to hurt you.” She responded by saying, “I am not afraid of her,” to which I said with a laugh, “I was talking to the dog!” Because Sheba is afraid of everyone, the football players that walk near our home on the way to the field, the teachers and staff going into the building, the children in the playground, the neighbor dogs, regardless of size, small dogs, everything and everyone.

She likes to be near me and in small spaces

I have received the largest amount of Sheba’s attention and affection. I have never experienced that before, and it does feel good. But there is a flip side to that that is hard and heartbreaking. Of all the things she is afraid of, it is mostly men, and my spouse ends up paying the price for something he never did. After Fourteen months of having Sheba with us, she consistently leaves the room when he walks in, or moves in the opposite direction.

Often she runs to me when I am here. When I am not, she lets him take her for walks, he can pet her, she will go to him to be petted when I am busy, but I know it hurts. Imagine if you had this experience with a person you lived with, who every day, every time you came into the room walked out. And yet, she gets excited to se him come, rushes to the window when she hears his truck, rushes to the door, then rushes to me. She backs up, but her tail is wagging happily. It is as if she wants to engage and play, but as with humans, the tapes of her negative experiences seem to be the louder voice.

I love this dog and cannot imagine my life without her. I believe she has found a good home with us, but I also believe that every day we live with the long term affects of her previous life, of someone’s thoughtless cruelty and it is frustrating at best. Life with Sheba is a delicate trust and a delicate balance for a tentative dog. She has come a long way, and maybe she has come as far as she is going to come. Sometimes she will shake for no apparent reason, and all we can do is pet her or talk to her. I wanted a dog that needed us and that certainly is her. We get to offer her love, security and the necessities of a dog’s life and I hope it keeps making a difference.

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

Faith Journeys

When I began my process to explore the possibility of becoming a United Methodist Pastor, I heard many people refer to a “Faith Journey.” “Tell me about your faith journey” the interviewer would say. I do not know if other traditions both Christian and non- Christian use a similar phrase, or if it is particularly Methodist phrasing, but it is one that makes sense to me. Before I tell you why, please don’t stop reading until you read this disclaimer. My faith is as much a part of me and who I am, as my heart is to my body. Yet, I am not writing these stories to convert you to Christianity, or Methodism, any more than I am writing stories about alcohol and bar rooms, to convert you to Alcoholism. They are just stories of my life and humanity that I hope might touch you in some way. Perhaps they are things you can relate to, or better yet, that bring to mind your own stories that have been on the back burner of your life.

picture of hikers on a forest path, tall green trees, moss and other green growth.
Photo by Ben Maxwell on Pixels

When I hear the phrase “Faith Journey,” I think of God’s call to Abram in Genesis 12, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you I will make of you a great nation, and I will less you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you, I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ So, Abram went, as the Lord had told him…” (Genesis 12: 1-4a) I also think of a twisting, winding trail, that darts in and out of thicket, near a lake or river and away from it. In other words, not a smooth, easy journey. What fun would that be?

GROWING UP CATHOLIC

I was raised Roman Catholic, and although I have chosen a different denomination to live out my life and faith practice, it was foundational for me. It was not an easy decision to leave that Church behind, but it was made easier by the fact that I was divorced but wanted to remarry. Some of the things I gained from my Catholic childhood and youth are a love and appreciation for the sacraments. I like liturgy (the formalized process of prayers and ritual in Sunday Church Services). There were three things that especially marked my life as a child growing up Catholic. Two of my mother’s sisters were Catholic nuns, members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. They were teachers and they wore habits, (What the dresses and head pieces were called) broad, starched head covers that were lined with white. (See picture). In addition to my two aunts, there were two cousins who were also nuns, members of different orders (organizations of Catholic sisters) and my mother’s brother was a Priest as well as one of her cousins and one of my cousins.

Black and white picture of my family, circa 1952.
Mom’s family including Uncle Jim (Fr. O’Hara, Sister Hilaire SSND and Sister Lucitta SSND) and others

I am a baby boomer, so I was young when the Catholic Mass was still in Latin, and I remember when the Catholic Church was making the transition to dialogue Masses. We had cards that had the Latin printed on one side and the phonetic phrases printed on the other side, (transliteration), so that the people could respond to the priest’s statements in Latin. We could read them phonetically, even if we didn’t understand what the words meant.

One of the changes in the Catholic Mass that I especially appreciated in the 1960’s was the Folk Mass, the introduction of Guitars and more contemporary songs instead of hymns and by that time the Mass was said in the language of the people.  There were things of course that I did not understand, and things that later in life I came to disagree with, but one thing my background as a Catholic helped me see is that I am a “denominational kind of chick.” What I mean by that is that I value the structure and accountability of denominational life. In addition, I suppose that part of that structure and accountability that is important to me is the inclusion, practice, and understanding of Communion and other sacraments.

BOARDING SCHOOL

It didn’t take my parents long to figure out that perhaps living at the Union Villa 24/7 wasn’t the best environment for a young girl, and so while I was visiting family that summer in Baltimore, mom got me registered for boarding school. I attended Sacred Heart School, in Kingston, Massachusetts, not far from Plymouth, from seventh grade through tenth grade. When you hear the phrase “Boarding School” you might think “Rich girl prep school” but you have to substitute the words “Catholic Boarding School”, in order to get a clearer, more accurate picture.”

There were lots of things I did not like, but one of the big benefits was that it was a life that was book-ended by prayer. Not only did we pray in classes, every Friday we got up early and went to Mass, we went to chapel for rosary after supper before going back to study hall and in the evening after we were ready to bed, we padded our way down the hallway to the choir loft of the chapel for evening prayers in our pajamas, robes and slippers. In addition to all of that, the whole school had Mass in the auditorium the first Friday of every month.

Looking back now I would say it was not so much the specifics of the services and the prayers, as much as it was the sense of a life of prayer that is my “take away.” One other important “take away” came from a visiting priest who told us in a retreat that at some point in our lives the faith we were given by our parents, had to become our own, but not without thinking it through, growing to a mature faith that was accepted as an individual choice, but not forced. Faith is chosen, not inherited.

picture of a rosary, white beads, gold chain light colored wood background.
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

I went to Sacred Heart from September of 1962 until May of 1966. We wore uniforms, black and white saddle shoes, Navy blue knee socks and Navy blue jumpers in 7th and 8th grade. We felt really grown up when we graduated to navy skirts and blazers in high school. Although it didn’t really happen often, I remember at least once when the nuns lined us up in the hallway and measured our hems. Some girls would roll the waistbands of their skirts to make them shorter.

Things like going steady, teasing one’s hair and the wearing of paten leather shoes were not allowed. Going steady could get one thrown off of student council, should the infraction be discovered. And then, there was this rumor that during school dances, the nuns would gather and watch the dance from the mezzanine of the gym and if they saw couples dancing to close, they would point it out to the sister on the gym floor, who would tap the couple and the shoulder and remind them to leave a foot of space between them for the Holy Ghost. “Foot, foot for the Holy Ghost,” we would say to each other and smirk.

LESSONS FROM MY MOTHER

My mother did not get her driver’s license until she was about 43, maybe a little older. All those trips that we left on, to take dad to work in Hoboken, New Jersey, to go on to Baltimore, Maryland to visit with family, were nerve wracking for her. I learned how to be a white knuckled driver from her. Truly! There are some times after a long trip when I wonder why my hands are so sore. my first thought is arthritis, but the reality is “White knuckled driver!” There were times when mom was driving and she would second guess herself, think she had missed an exit or got anxious about something that I would shake my head.

picture of heavy traffic 
on a highway with on and off ramps, city in the background.
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Because of all that nervousness though, she prayed. As we left home, she would pray and as we crossed from one state line to another she would pray. Now, because we were Catholic, the prayers that she prayed were The Our Father (The Lord’s Prayer to us Protestants), the Hail Mary and maybe the Glory Be. But at the end of those prayers she would say, “Thank you dear Jesus for bringing us safely through Rhode Island, please bring us safely through Connecticut.” I have adopted that prayer in my own fashion and love it when I am traveling with a friend, even for a shopping trip, or to a seminar or conference when we begin that journey with prayer.

The other two major faith lessons my mom taught me were in her example. She had open heart surgery at the age of 82 to have a valve replacement. I was able to be with her in her room before they took her to surgery and accompanied her to the outside of the OR. When the attendant stopped her gurney so we could say good bye, she sat up and said, “What can I say but, Lord, Into your hands I commend my Spirit.” (Luke 23:46a). She did not remember saying that, but I have never forgotten that she did. Then two years later, the day before she died, I visited her, she told me to take her birthday flowers, she didn’t need them. She handed me her pocket book, and then most profoundly, handed me her prayer booklet that she used and said, “I don’t even have to pray anymore, I just have to wait.” Life lessons for me, for sure.

picture of a womans wriest with a bracelet with the word Faith encircled.
Photo by Kristina Paukshtite from Pexels

While I claim a love of liturgy, as a Protestant Pastor I also appreciate the potential for informality that exists in worship in my denomination. For instance there are some prayers and traditions that qualify as liturgy, because within a given Sunday Service, there can be some back and forth conversation between the pastor/worship leader and the congregation; laughter, joking and tears are all acceptable interactions. Yet there is an order, or ritual, to the service that includes prayers, readings from the Bible, singing of hymns or choruses, sharing of joys and concerns with the congregation and reading of written prayers but also spontaneous prayers. Because of all of that, the order of worship, with the potential for conversations, laughter, tears and other spontaneous happenings, I self-identify as “semi-liturgical”. I do not want to trade formality for the Spirit. Sometimes people even shake one another’s hands or greet each other with a hug. And the use of reason!

“Reason” maybe one of the reasons that I am United Methodist. Not that Methodists, or even John Wesley, the founder of Methodism invented reason. But Wesley held, and we still teach that there are four main ways we learn about God: Scripture, Tradition (the teachings of the apostles and early Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith), Reason and Experience. The fact that I can apply reason, question, doubt and understanding and question again to the teachings of my faith are priceless to me.

I have posters on every door in the church (including the bathrooms) with the church’s mission statement, and signs on the doors going out of the church that say, “You are Now Entering the Mission Field” The signs I should also put on the doors going into the sanctuary though, would say, “Please do not check your brain at the door.” Being able to question faith, preaching and the Bible are important. It is how we learn. There is a “song” that I “sing” often. I know many people will say that it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you do believe. For me personally, that is way too generic. My song is, “It is important to know what you believe, why you believe it and where it came from.”

If you have gotten to the end of this blog post, I hope in some way it has inspired you to give some thought to your own faith journey, the ups and downs, joys and frustrations, the times you have felt near to God or a higher Power and times that God has seemed far away. I hope that it has inspired you to think about what you believe, where it came from and why you believe it. And thanks for sticking with me to the end. Since I first wrote this post, the COVID-19 has become a pandemic, and each of us are trying to find our way through uncharted territory. Can there be a better time to think about what you believe, why you believe and where it comes from? Might this situation we find ourselves in be an invitation to do just that?

Not holding back the tide,

Michele