Lost/Taken/Found

One evening as I changed into pajamas, I noticed I had only one earring in. I kneeled down and searched the bedroom floor but came up empty handed. Mentally retracing my steps, I had no clue where the earring might have fallen out.

It’d been a busy day. Since the weather was nice, I walked to school, spent a few hours working, and headed out front to meet other staff members for the drive-by parade. After an hour of waving at students and their families, I walked home, this time taking a different route.

They were my favorite everyday earrings—small, simple hoops in a brushed-gold color. I’d worn them at least weekly since sophomore year of high school when I bought them at The Limited.

No idea why I remember that.

As I recalled all the places I’d been that day, I made a mental note to check the school’s lost and found bin, but I’d pretty much given it up as a loss.

I hate losing things. It’s been a few years, but I still pine for the gloves I left in a Chicago taxi cab. Losing things makes me feel forgetful and foolish and—maybe this is the heart of the discomfort—not in control.

***

I’m lucky that I haven’t lost anything more important than gloves, umbrellas, to-do lists, a fleece hoodie. We’re living in a time of great loss—of jobs, security, and, most sadly, lives. One day last week, the front page of The New York Times was made up of thousands of tiny-print obituaries of people who had lost their lives to the virus, a moving tribute to loved ones lost.

And while loss of life is awful, how much worse is the taking of life? The loved ones of Mr. George Floyd must feel a ghastly sense of powerlessness. My heart aches to think of that moment of taking, captured on video, of something precious that can never be found, never returned. A senseless taking, a tragic loss.

***

In infinitely more trivial news, I found the earring. The next morning I walked past the school and there on the sidewalk, one tiny earring shone in the sunlight. I paused, amazed that it was there—scuffed and scratched but intact. I took it home, wiped it with alcohol, and reunited it with its mate.

This minor drama of jewelry lost and found reminded me of this: Jesus is the God of lost things. He described his job as having come “to seek and save the lost.” He told stories about a lost coin, a lost sheep, a lost son, all of which are eventually found and celebrated and cherished.

In times of crisis, I must admit it feels banal to sing, “His eye is on the sparrow . . .” when so many sparrows end up smashed against pavement. Yet I’m compelled, in the sense that I must force myself, to trust the God of lost things will make everything found.

Which sounds very vague: somehow . . . someday . . .

True, we believers in miracles don’t have the logistics figured out, but we can’t just forfeit. We are caught between the losing and the finding, but in the meantime—and these are very mean times—I want to counter the losing with finding and the taking with giving. That is, finding the humility to listen, giving the benefit of the doubt, seeking justice, giving love.

Maybe that’s the start of how lost things are found.

Love, Em

A Chapter Ends

Lately, I’m the town crier of missed appointments. I’ll look at the calendar and say, “Tonight was supposed to be the spring band concert,” or “This would have been Book Fair week at school.”

I’m not sure why. There’s nothing I can do about the cancellations, and some things will be rescheduled. When I tell Phil or Caroline what they’re missing, they shrug. I’m not that torn up about most things, either.

The passing of March 31, however, felt different to me. On that evening, members of Women4given were supposed to celebrate our tenth year. We would also mark the end of the organization.

Women4given had a great decade, bringing together a group of women who each pledged a dollar a day to support nonprofits that cater to the needs of women and children. We gave away $200,000. And it all started with one woman who wanted to make a difference.

My friend KO approached me back in 2010 to see if I’d be interested in joining a “giving circle.” I had no clue what that meant, but the idea is that you gather a group of people who want to make the world a better place, ask them to donate a set amount, and then give annual grants to nonprofits.

It sounded okay, I guess, but the world of women’s groups and fundraising and nonprofits wasn’t really my thing. Fortunately, KO is relentless.

So I showed up to the first service project with a twenty-month-old on my hip and helped make sandwiches for a local summer lunch program. Before I could say no, I was Women4given’s first president. Later, I became the executive director, always glancing at KO to make sure I was doing things right — it was her dream, after all. For five years, W4G was my unofficial job. In 2015, I stepped down from leading, knowing my friends would guide the organization with great care.

Pooling our resources together, we were able to support outstanding projects like these:

  • We donated $13,000 to underwrite the “Brain Bin,” a computer suite with Chromebooks; an elementary-age library and quiet space; and the “Here We Grow” edible garden project for the Christian Activity Center of East St. Louis.
  • We gave $15,000 to purchase computers, printers, classroom furniture, and school supplies for the after-school program at Leu Civic Center in Mascoutah.
  • We granted $18,000 to completely renovate the kitchen and dining area, including new appliances, at St. John Bosco Children’s Center in Belleville.

We funded many other projects, like a dozen wells for villages in Africa, a mobile outreach program for grieving children, and a construction-business internship program to help young people earn a livable wage. I learned so much.

While the life of W4G has run its course, and I’m sad to see it go, I’ve reaped some lasting friends. Marsha Heffner succeeded me as president, then executive director. We made a great team, and I might have missed out on her friendship, if not for W4G.

KO has always had her ear bent toward God’s whisper, and I feel fortunate that she thought I might be interested in this thing called a “giving circle.” For everything, there is a season. There’s a time for every purpose under heaven. I’m thankful for the decade of Women4given. I think we made a difference – together.

-Em

 

In Like a Lion, Out Like a Squirrel

It was the scariest of times. It was the squirreliest of times. It was March 2020.

They say March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, but I’m pretty sure the lamb doesn’t fit this year. Is there another animal that fits my experience better? Yes. Squirrels.

I did a quick search of “squirrely,” to make sure it means what I think it means. Turns out it means “mildly insane,” “unpredictable and jumpy,” or “nutty.” So, yeah—in like a lion, out like a squirrel.

***

My sister and I have been taking walks around the neighborhood. On Friday evening, we noticed a squirrel out in the street flat on its belly. It appeared hurt. Both Amanda and I started talking to it: “Oh, poor little squirrel! Are you okay?” Etc. Etc.

As we approached, it hopped to its feet and stared back, alert.

Relieved it wasn’t hurt, we felt compelled to keep up the convo. “Oh, look at you, little squirrel! I’m glad you’re not hurt. What are you doing out in the street? It’s not safe to sleep in the street.” Etc. Etc. We kept up the small talk with the little creature as we walked on.

As we walked away, the squirrel said, “Arf,” like the one-syllable bark of a seal. My sister and I looked at each other in disbelief and asked, “Did he just talk to us?” I’ve had my share of one-sided chats with animals, but I’ve never had a squirrel answer me.

We laughed like a couple of idiots who don’t get out much and are beyond thrilled that a squirrel wants to talk.

Three days later, we were out walking the same route as on Friday, the evening of our fabled squirrel-whispering incident. As we crossed the street where we’d met our little friend, I glanced up at the tree and saw the squirrel flat on its belly, just a bored squirrel chillin’ on a bare branch.

Of course, we chatted him up. “Well, fancy meetin’ you here! How’s our little friend? Can you say Arf? Is that your home? I love your fluffy tail!” Etc. Etc.

He looked mildly amused, but not enough to move. Mostly, we wanted him to speak again — as confirmation that we’re not crazy. And also to fuel our dreams of hand-feeding a squirrel BFF, dressing him up in a red gingham shirt and denim overalls. Etc. Etc.

We gave him plenty of time to respond, but he didn’t even lift his head. We walked on. At the next corner Amanda and I parted ways, and I turned around to go home. When I approached the corner with the squirrel tree, he was standing in the sidewalk staring me down with sweet, little, beady, rodent eyes. I felt sure he’d thought of something to say and tracked us down.

“What is it, buddy?” I asked. Silence.

As I stepped forward, he darted up a tree trunk. Even so, I haven’t given up on the dream of making him our pet and dressing him in gingham and overalls.

***

Without a doubt, these are scary days. I recognize the immense blessing that cabin fever (and delusional squirrel-whispering) is the worst of our problems; for us, these have been squirrely days. And if I must lose my mind, I’m grateful to do so in a comfortable place among the people I love with the faith that this, too, shall pass.

March 2020 came in like a lion and went out like a squirrel, but I trust that “mildly insane” and “unpredictable” are not forever.

Know that I pray for your good health, friends. Take time to laugh in the midst of washing hands and sheltering in place. And if you can, take in the beauty of nature, especially the fluffy-tail parts.

Love, Em

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Our Own Mister Rogers

I recently watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the movie with Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. The striking thing about it was how quickly the details – those garish blue-green curtains, the gentle ding ding of the trolley, the cardigan closet – took me right back to my view from the braided rug in our TV room. I vividly remember watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood with my mom, whose love for Mister Rogers took root in me over the course of many episodes and is still going strong.

Strangely, until I’d seen the Tom Hanks movie and the recent documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I had forgotten about the music. Not so much the songs with words about “many ways to say I love you,” but those faint, jazzy piano chords that serve as the show’s backdrop. I hadn’t realized how hungry my ears had been for that gentle musical commentary.

Like so many people of my generation, my heart has a trolley-shaped place reserved for Mister Rogers. He was unique in his sensitivity to the feelings of others, children especially. I have known just a handful like him, such as my friend Mary Ann, a former kindergarten teacher with a special gift for relating to children.

Watching the movie, I remembered another Mister Rogers-type of guy, Rev. Bernie. Bernie was a salt-of-the-earth, joyful, soft-spoken man. He wore a small wooden cross around his neck and smiled with an endearing gap between his front teeth.

Years ago, Rev. Bernie would occasionally give the children’s sermon at church. The moment he took the microphone, the congregation would grin collectively, anticipating the hand-puppet that would soon appear.

It was a little, white cat with a high-pitched voice named Casey the I-Care Cat. I never thought to ask Bernie if he was inspired by Mister Rogers’ Daniel Tiger, but the resemblance, for me, was real. Casey had a single message, one moral for every story – a message that is useful every single day.

He would set up the sermon by talking with Casey the cat, who had managed to do something selfish or impulsive. See, the cat didn’t always take others’ feelings or God’s commandments into account before acting. Casey’s lesson was always the Five T’s: Take the Time to Think.

Rev. Bernie, I mean Casey, would say these slowly, as Bernie counted on his fingers to show there were not six, not four, but five T’s.

I don’t know if Bernie originated Casey just for children’s sermons or if he used the cat-puppet in his career as an educator. Either way, the message works, whether in church or school or anywhere. I bet those kids sitting at his feet remember Casey’s Five T’s all these years later.

I know I won’t soon forget: Take the time to think.

There’s a picture of Mister Rogers on the bulletin board above my desk. In it, he’s holding one of his puppets, King Friday, and entertaining a group of kids. Underneath is a quote from Fred Rogers, “Anyone who does anything to help a child in his life is a hero to me.” In Bernie’s unassuming, humble way, he was a hero of the faith to those who knew him. He was like our own Mister Rogers.

Rev. Bernie passed away last summer. My heart aches for his sweet wife Ann; how she must miss him.

Now he’s seen Jesus face to face. He doesn’t need to take the time to think. Now he knows.

Rev Bernie

Old Habits, New Assignments

For the past decade, I’ve kept a list of almost every book I’ve read. It grew out of the school-days habit of citing every source and became a fun way of remembering. It might seem excessive (or probably, obsessive), but I realized long ago that I can’t keep everything straight, and I didn’t want to lose any valuable ideas. Or insights. Or really great sentences.

I’m planning to change my reading habits in the upcoming year, so I was looking back at my decade of lists and notes. I’m so glad I saved this stuff.

In 2009, I read books about motherhood. The list contains only seven titles, possibly because I was busy being a new mom. In 2010, I was reading about creativity: Alain de Botton, Lewis Hyde, Twyla Tharp, and a weird biography of Emily Dickinson. It’s hard to remember those sleep-deprived months with a tiny Caroline, but I’m guessing it was at least comforting to read about creativity since I had no energy to create anything. Apparently, I also read Julie and Julia that year. Remember that movie? The book was better.

It appears I finally got around to Annie Dillard’s An American Childhood in 2011. Along with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and The Writing Life, it still sits on my bookshelf, having survived the great book purge of this past summer. That same year, I stepped into the inspirational vortex of the Christian literary industrial complex, reading books by Donald Miller, Ann Voskamp, and John Eldredge, among others. There are worse things to spend your money on, I suppose.

Wow, 2012 was a good reading-year: Marilynne Robinson, Martin Buber, Eugene Peterson, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer filled my free time. Also, I re-read two all-time favorites: The Life of Pi and Their Eyes Were Watching God. The high volume and quality of books here make me believe that 2012 is the year I got a library card.

The following year, 2013, I started blogging 1,200 words a week and, according to my list, found more time than ever to read. I also took a deep dive into nonfiction, with the poet Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss being the most impactful book I read that year. I plan to read that one again.

The remarkable thing about 2014 is the number of books I read and annotated, thirty-three in all. Many of these titles I remember as serendipitous finds at the public library—that is, books that found me. The star of 2014 was Philip Hoare’s The Sea Inside, a book whose lyrical language mesmerized me and deepened my love of the ocean.

In 2015, I stumbled upon the writing of Avivah Zornberg, a Torah scholar. Mind blown. The next year, I loved reading Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and Helen McDonald’s H Is for Hawk, books that opened up unfamiliar worlds to me.

My 2017 reading was a real hodge-podge of memoir and Bible history and Ta-Nehisi Coates and Brené Brown. Ilana Kurshan’s If All the Seas Were Ink was the highlight. It’s not only a brilliant memoir of her reading life, but it confirmed that the kind of book I want to write can be done. My 2018 list doesn’t contain a single novel. By then it was clear that I’m a nonfiction nerd, and I’m okay with that. Notably in 2018, Walter Brueggeman’s brilliant books revealed new ways of looking at the Bible.

This year, the eleventh of obsessive reading and note-taking, I read a record forty-six books, mostly in the genres of memoir and history. The one exception is a novel written for tweens: Cylin Busby’s The Nine Lives of Jacob Tibbs. My daughter insisted that I read it, and with every other chapter I finished, she’d be standing nearby asking, “What part are you on now? Did the ship sink yet?” (Note to self: we should have a talk about the concept of the spoiler alert.) While I never would’ve chosen the book—a novel about a heroic seafaring cat—I really enjoyed it.

Even the part where the ship sank.   

Plus, the novel was a preview of what I’ll be reading in 2020. A few months ago I started working in the school’s libraries, which serve Pre-K through eighth graders. A few times a week, a child will ask for my recommendation — most recently, for “a book that’s kind of long but not too long.” My knowledge of kiddie lit is limited to what I can remember (not much) and very dated.

After all, it’s been thirty years since I was in fifth grade, and as much as I loved Beverly Cleary’s entire oeuvre, I need to brush up on what the kids are reading this century. (True, they don’t know what they’re missing when they skip over Beezus and Ramona.) And so I will bend to the demands of tiny people who might just find the perfect book with help from the old lady behind the circulation desk.

In the years I’ve been out of school, assigned reading has lost its luster. I like reading whatever I want. Even when I was in a book club, I often failed to read the chosen book. “Sorry, I didn’t get around to it this month,” I’d say, although it was clear I was there mainly for friendship and margaritas. This assigned reading is different: technically, I’ll be picking the titles in hopes of understanding what the kids enjoy and will, fingers crossed, strengthen their reading muscles.

Phil is skeptical, thinking I’ll make this venture into children’s literature as esoteric as possible. He says, “You’ll be persuading kids to read The Diaspora of Winnie the Pooh, or something like that.” As far as I know, that’s not a real book.

But the title is intriguing.

Stay tuned for my adventures in children’s lit circa 2020, the year of assigned reading.

annie dillard quote

Sister’s Keeper, viii (One Thing Leads to Another)

Amanda and I are really good at imagining worst possible outcomes. Sometimes, mental gymnastics are required, but we were raised with a vibrant imagination for catastrophe.

I remember as a teenager calling home on a pay phone to let Mom know that dance camp (or whatever) was going fine. She was happy to hear that I wasn’t lying dead in a ditch somewhere, which was exactly where her imagination went.

I no longer dwell on possible calamities, but I’m still fairly skilled at catastrophic thinking. On Amanda’s surgery day, I thought: what if she dies under anesthesia? When her jaw was wired, I thought: what if she chokes to death? When she had severe nausea, I thought: what if she’s asphyxiated by vomit? When we left her to manage her own meds, I thought: what if she accidentally overdoses? What if she becomes addicted to these magic opioids that have ruined so many? And when she rode the awful roller coaster of pain, I thought: what if it didn’t work, this last-ditch surgical effort, and chronic pain is now a way of life?

One thing leads to another, which leads to catastrophe.

So far, in real life: no catastrophes. Slowly and steadily, Amanda is feeling better. By late July, she’s on her own again. When we all go out to dinner to celebrate her August birthday, she orders salmon and mashed potatoes—and savors every tiny bite.

At her next follow-up appointment, the surgeon releases her to work but not to drive. Because her house is in a cellular dead zone with unpredictable WiFi, she works from my house. For the next couple weeks, she sets up her laptop at my kitchen table. I pick her up around 7 a.m. and take her home in the evening.

Just when she’s feeling like a normal person, physical therapy begins. And . . . she’s back in the house of pain. The aim of the therapy is to trigger an inflammatory response that wakes up the immune system to do its healing. This inflammation hurts like the dickens.

One thing leads to another, which leads to more pain.

After a couple weeks, physical therapy gets easier. Amanda can drive herself to work. This is the new normal we’ve been waiting for. And . . . the headaches begin. Jaw pain is no longer an issue, but she’s having vision problems. She gets an eye exam and new glasses, but she’s plagued by cluster headaches.

Having taken off two months for recovery, she now has to call in sick. This is not the new normal she’s been waiting for. She doesn’t want to be known around the office as the one who’s always sick. She feels defeated and humiliated by the constant struggle to be well.

One thing leads to another, which leads to embarrassment.

Meanwhile, the hand that I stupidly cut open heals quickly, thanks to copious globs of Neosporin. All that remains is a tiny pink mark. Strangely, it aches now when the weather changes. One thing leads to another, which leads to a weather-forecasting knuckle.

The other day I stumbled across a verse in which one thing leads to another. Paul wrote in his message to the Romans,

“[W]e know that suffering produces perseverance; 

perseverance produces character;

and character produces hope.”

If this is true, by the end of her ordeal, Amanda will have unquestionable character and unquenchable hope. And although she’s embarrassed by unrelenting illness, there’s no reason to be ashamed: “[H]ope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts . . .”

We are not yet whole, but we do have hope.

Note: This is Part 8 in a series, which is ending soon. If you missed the beginning, jump back to Part 1. Thanks!

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Amanda & I at Legoland, January 2018

She Came Home

Earlier this June, some good friends invited us to meet up at the movies. It was part of the free summer movie series at the Lincoln Theater, so they kindly got there early and saved seats for Caroline and me. Good call on their part — the parking lot was packed and the theater was nearly full, too, with groups from kids’ summer camps, day care facilities, and day camps for people with special needs.  Lots of matching t-shirts.

I wasn’t that excited about the movie, but I was excited to catch up with Kelly and Abi after a couple weeks of summer vacation. The title of the movie was A Dog’s Way Home, and, to be honest, I thought the trailers would be the best part of the experience (especially with the sequel to Frozen coming out this fall).

The movie sounded like something I would tolerate more than like. When we were kids, my sister had The Incredible Journey on VHS. She nearly wore out the tape from watching it over and over. For me, the journey of two dogs and one cat was more stressful than incredible, with too many moments of animals in danger. I saw bits and pieces of it — it was unavoidable with only one TV in the house — but I’ve always found it risky to invest in an animal movie.

Anyway, as we watched the trailers before the movie, the crowd was already pretty lively. When Elsa appeared on the screen in the Frozen 2 trailer, I heard at least two little voices gasp, “Elsa!” Then the movie started, and I started to think of places where we could eat lunch with Kelly and Abi. Also, because the parking lot was full of buses and minivans, I’d parked in a semi-legal spot. A couple minutes into the movie, I was worrying about what kind of parking ticket awaited me.

But then . . .

Then the people sitting a couple rows back got invested in the stray puppy named Bella who was raised by kindly feral cats until the perfect man-boy rescued her. There was oohing at the cute puppy and awwwww’s at the motherly cats. The crowd was really into it. And so a movie that I might have dismissed as cheesy or sappy was getting to me.

The whole story bent toward the dog getting back home to her family. In all, the dog managed to travel from New Mexico to Denver, Colorado, with the help of other strays, benevolent humans, and a mountain lion kitten who’d lost her mother to hunters, reminding us that inter-species friendships may be the most heartwarming.

But the very best part was when Bella the dog, after many dangers, toils, and snares, found her way home. The audience burst into applause. Not polite applause but raucous clapping that came in waves, fervent applause with zero irony.

Eventually, after the applause died down to a few quiet sniffles, someone a couple rows away shouted tearfully, “She came home!” and, I kid you not, the applause started all over again, in waves, ebbing and flowing spontaneously through the dark theater.

It tickled me, this unabashed celebration, and I clapped and laughed at the wholehearted sweetness of it. The feeling of unity among the movie-goers was nearly tangible. We loved that dog, darn it, and we agreed one hundred percent that she would find her way home.

Pretty simple stuff. Also pretty deep, because, aren’t we all somehow trying to find our way home?

-Em

Coming next month: Caregiving Diaries    

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