My Sister-Daughter

When my daughter Caroline gets in a goofy, giggly mood, I see my younger sister Amanda in her. When we’re at my parents’ house, I sometimes slip and call her by my sister’s name.

Amanda and I are close in age, just a smidge less than two years. These days, she’s pretty serious and straightforward, but when we were kids, I’d do little things to make her laugh, and, once set off, she’d take a good while to return to sobriety after cackling, snorting, and falling out of her chair.

“Now, don’t get your sister wound up,” Mom might say. But it was already too late.

Similarly, when Caroline cracks up, long after we’re done laughing, she’s still carrying on, wiping tears from her eyes. Several times, I’ve mistakenly called her by my sister’s name when she gets super-silly. Something takes me back to third or fourth grade, and my daughter is suddenly my little sister.

We see Amanda often these days, which I love. But at times I treat my sister like a child, telling her how I would do things, offering opinions in order to put her out of the misery of indecision. To her, indecision isn’t miserable. And my two cents are worth just that.

And I’m not her mother.

Is this big-sisterly feeling toward a child a common flashback? Is the maternal feeling toward Sis the culmination of big-sisterhood?

Or is this garden-variety senility?

I remember my Aunt Ernie’s confusion in old age, calling me by my mom’s name in an otherwise lucid conversation. As she aged, she found it hard to keep the generations straight. At a certain point in adulthood, time doubles over on itself like one of those old, fold-up yardsticks.

It wasn’t that long ago I was tickling my little sister until she cried. But that was so many years ago. See, there’s the yardstick folding up.

Watch the hinges; they can pinch.

amanda & liney

Goofballs, left to right: Caroline & Amanda

“If only my mother had known I was her sister instead of her daughter,” Terry Tempest Williams wrote, describing a new sense of kinship realized after her mother’s death. The things they shared in common made more sense in terms of sisterhood. I didn’t understand this sentence until I called Caroline by my sister’s name.

I couldn’t pass for my daughter’s sister; I was nearly thirty-three when I had her and she looks like her dad. But when I try to make her laugh until she spits out her drink or nag her when she doesn’t answer a question directly, at that point, time folds up and she is my little sister.

Maybe these brief flashes are about me wanting to make up for her not having siblings. Or maybe sisterhood is a type of relationship worth aspiring to, even for folks who are already otherwise related. Anyway, this I know: my daughter is blessed to have my sister who is like her in so many ways—and who loves her every which way.

Thanks for reading! Ever call your child by the wrong name? I’d love to hear from you. And if you have friends who might like this, please share it with them. Take care, Em : )

Winner Winner, Sunday Dinner

I’m not much of a cook. I really do try, but my meals tend to be disappointing. Edible, for the most part, but lackluster.

Fortunately, one of my daughter’s favorite meals is Red Baron supreme pizza and a cup of applesauce. That I can do. She also likes cooked broccoli with salt and butter. Momma can do that! Not to brag, but I’m pretty good at cutting up an orange. Still, meat loaf is a gamble, spaghetti is a letdown, and I’ve pretty much given up on chicken of any kind except rotisserie.

Last week I had a rare success with tacos. I used ground turkey instead of beef and stand-up shells instead of fall-over-and-break shells. The difference was dramatic. The turkey tasted great. Stand-up shells take the stress out of eating tacos. Caroline even ate two whole bites before saying, “I’m full.”

However, on Sundays we eat really well. For many years now, my mother-in-law Natie has had us over for Sunday dinner. It used to be just Phil, me, and my brother-in-law Jay. Now we have Caroline, whose main goal at Sunday dinner is to make everyone laugh. We also have Jay’s wife, Amber, and sometimes Aunt Dezie. Next year, there’ll be a high chair at the table for Jay and Amber’s little one.

My mother-in-law is a very talented cook. She enjoys it, and it shows. My job, matched to my skill level, is to clear the centerpiece from the dining room table and place seven hot-pads down the middle like a landing strip. One hot-pad is for the rice cooker, and the others are for main dishes and sides and salad and sliced mango and avocado.

We realize how lucky we are to have this Sunday feast. Natie cooks Filipino classics—pork sinigang, chicken adobo, afritada, puchero—for her sons and herself, and she also prepares more Americanized dishes for the daughters-in-law and Caroline, like mostaccioli, chicken curry, scalloped potatoes, and salad. Hence, seven hot-pads. (I sometimes bring a foolproof pan of brownies or store-bought salad: staying in my lane.)

The dish everyone loves is Natie’s pancit—rice noodles stir-fried with cabbage, shredded chicken, mushrooms, and carrots, garnished with boiled eggs. Although Natie has shown me how to make it and written out a detailed recipe, my pancit is notably lacking. She’s probably keeping some key ingredient a secret. Eye of newt? Fish sauce? Never mind.

I try not to think about fish sauce.

pancit

Natie’s pancit. (Garnished by Yours Truly.)

Years ago, I watched Martha Stewart Living a lot, hoping to imitate Martha’s techniques for the perfect pot roast or tomato bisque. These days if I watch Martha, I have no intention of attempting the perfect soufflé — I just watch to be impressed. 

My mother-in-law’s cooking is just as impressive—even the aroma wafting from the kitchen is heavenly—but her efforts arise from a generous heart. She’s giving Caroline sweet memories of Grandma’s cooking for the days to come.

Her not-so-secret ingredient is love.

She cooks not to impress but to bless.

And so, every Sunday we are blessed.

Bless us, O Lord,

and these, Thy gifts,

which we are about to receive

from Thy bounty.

Through Christ, our Lord.

Amen.

As always, thanks for reading! It means the world to me. If you have friends who might enjoy this, please share it with them.  -Em : )

Apple Fritter Nightmare

Last summer, Phil, Caroline, and I took a trip to Hawaii. We arrived late in the evening to a dark, warm island. By morning, we were walking along the beach, finding Maui to be as magical as we’d imagined. Green mountains laced with white clouds hovered in the distance. Morning rays bounced off turquoise water. Cold, wet sand caked our feet.

We spent every day pretty much the same way: get up, eat breakfast, go for a walk, and hit the beach. We soon realized that this is how we’d spend our days if we were at any old body of water. But we were in Maui, so we added a couple Hawaiian highlights to the schedule, including a Road to Hana tour on the last day.

The Road to Hana tour entails a bus ride to the other side of Maui, largely undeveloped. We would see waterfalls and rainbow eucalyptus forests and black-sand beaches. All week we anticipated the Road to Hana tour—saving the best for last.

Finally, the day arrived. We boarded the shuttle, but before we’d even reached the official departure point I was nauseated from the bouncing bus. I swallowed hard and prayed for my stomach to settle. At the first stop, the tour guide offered a spread of donuts and coffee, so I scarfed down some food—anything to tamp down the queasiness. Caroline was also green with motion-sickness, but she followed my lead, eating an apple fritter and orange juice.

At the next stop, we saw her apple fritter and juice all over again and worse for the digestive wear—like a liquefied cheeseburger in paradise. Hoping the worst was behind us, we got back on the bus. It was not. Our girl threw up six more times as the tour covered sixty miles of winding roads. Kind strangers dug plastic bags and random napkins from the bottom of their purses for us.

By the end of the twelve-hour trip, I shed tears of happiness to be heading back to the hotel. Surely there was nothing left in her innards, I told myself. We were completely out of bags, lunch boxes, and paper towels, so she threw up one last time in the folds of my rain jacket.

It was like a perversion of the miracle of loaves and fishes: how can so much come from such a small breakfast?

We thought it would be beautiful—an experience to remember. And while we had a wonderful time on vacation, it was punctuated by one bad day: a day of vomiting and of catching vomit. I believe more firmly than ever that the esophagus should be a one-way street.

apple fritter

Anyway, I was reminded of our Road to Hana nightmare because of the prevalence of another kind of puke: word vomit. Technology allows us to publish our thoughts quickly, easily, widely, and sometimes without actually thinking. On social media or the news media, we are likely exposed to some degree of word vomit every day.

To some extent, words are symptomatic of one’s inner state. Jesus puts it like this: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Another version says, “The mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” One might even add, “The fingers type what the heart is full of.” When someone’s words show you what is filling up their heart—whether truth or deception, love or hate—take note.

And, whatever you do, don’t try to catch it with your jacket.

maui-cutout.jpg

Thanks for reading! And if it isn’t too gross, share it with a friend who might enjoy!

-Em : )

One Last Thing

Phil and I walk Caroline the half-mile to school in the morning. On the first day of kindergarten, we walked her to the classroom and lingered outside, not quite knowing how to leave. In first and second grade, we walked her up to the playground entrance and watched as she ran in to see her friends. This year, she likes to be dropped off at the telephone pole near the street. We stand there and follow her with our eyes ‘til she rounds the corner into the doors.

We say our last words for the morning there at the telephone pole. She says, “Love you!” while Phil says, “You’re smart!” and “Be blessed!” And I say, “Love you!” and “See you at three!” and she turns to leave. I shout, “Have a good day!” and, if there’s a test that day, “Read the directions!” and “Take your time!” and “Do your best!” and “God is with you!” By then, she’s pretty much out of earshot.

This is how we say goodbye, with a volley of parting words. We hope they land in her heart.

Jesus’ parting words showed him taking care of last things with friends, strangers, his mother, his Father. But these last words from the cross were not his last. This is the reason we celebrate Easter: because death didn’t have the final word.

He said many other things after the Resurrection, like:

Peace be with you.

Receive the Holy Spirit.

Feed my sheep.

Go, make more disciples.

I’m always with you, even to the very end.

A volley of last words: where would they land?

sunset pic

I think back to the expensive perfume poured over Jesus’ head by a stranger and poured on his feet by his friend Mary. The aroma must have filled the air, clinging to the clothes and hair of all who were there. I bet it stuck in their nostrils for days. I wonder if it wafted from the tomb yet a week later.

Jesus spoke last words and everlasting words. He was both the messenger and the Message; the narrator of God’s words and the Word made flesh. And, like the scent of perfume wafting on the air, his words linger today.

Where will they land? May they land in our hearts.

Photo credit: Amanda Meyers

Do you know someone who might like this short essay? Please share it with them. Thanks! –Em

Thank You (7)

The day we call Good Friday was once a very bad Friday. By three o’clock, Jesus had suffered greatly and was dead.

The Seven Last Words from the Cross, Jesus’ final sayings recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, have been my writing topic these past six weeks. I’ve also been writing about my own seven “lasting words”–not my “last words” (too morbid), nor “everlasting words” (we’ll just leave those to Jesus)–but words that stick with me, sayings that rattle around in my head, or things I say to others. They are:

Lord, have mercy.

Did you know you’re special to me?

Take care.

I hope.

I need.

I’m just a person.

and Thank you.

I arranged my “lasting words” in an order that sort of dovetailed with Jesus’ Last Words, which worked out pretty well until now. My final saying is “Thank you,” while Jesus is giving up his life. My last word is a plastic shopping bag. Jesus, meanwhile, is dead at a young age under dark skies.

thank you bag

Still, I couldn’t omit thank you from my lasting words. I’m big on saying thank you, as my daughter can attest. I like to say thanks as a matter of courtesy and a spiritual practice—showing gratitude to people and to the Giver of all good things. But now I’m wondering how thanks fit with Jesus’ last breath.

The seventh Last Word comes from Luke, who gives us a time-lapse perspective of Jesus’ final three hours:

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:44-47)

Luke really packs a lot into these sentences—the solar-eclipse effect, the shocking incident in the temple, Jesus shouting out his last lungful. The thing that grabs my attention here is the darkness, how eerie it must have felt. The description of darkness covering the land takes me back to the opening poem of the Bible, when “darkness covered the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). Though I try to imagine the darkness of that moment, the world suddenly bereft of Jesus, I can’t fathom it.

In the very next sentence, Luke turns his gaze away from Jesus: “The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’” He’s talking about Jesus in the past tense, of course, but there is a light bulb over his head: Aha! In the darkness, the centurion suddenly realizes who Jesus really was. Even hardened Roman soldiers–the most endarkened–may be enlightened.

In the creation poem, darkness covers the face of the deep—until God speaks. “Let there be light,” God said. And there was light. In Luke’s telling and in the Genesis creation poem, darkness comes before light.

Before darkness comes the simple blessing of thanks. Jesus spoke seven times from the cross, yet he prefaced the whole ordeal with thanks. Sitting down to the Passover meal, Jesus picked up a glass of wine and thanked God for it. He took a piece of bread and thanked God for it. After these things, the mood darkened. It would become very dark indeed before the light reemerged.

I’m so grateful for the very bad Friday that precedes our very good Sunday–that makes our joy possible.

Darkness precedes light.

Thank you comes before Into thy hands I commit my spirit.

And thanks precedes all.

This is the seventh post in a multi-post series for Lent. Find the most popular one here and the first one here. As ever, thanks for reading, liking, and sharing! -Em : )

Just a Person (6)

A while back I read Tig Notaro’s book, I’m Just a Person. That title really stuck with me: “I’m just a person.” It’s not an excuse. It’s not apologetic. It’s just one way of explaining why things don’t work out as planned. It’s become a regular saying for me when my genuine best isn’t good enough.

I used to say, “It is what it is.” Now I tell myself: “I’m just a person.”

clavicle square

In high school I was armed and prepared to defend against threats to my faith, whether real or imaginary. One year, the choir teacher had us singing a medley from Jesus Christ Superstar, and I was queasy about Mary Magdalene’s song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” It came down to this line: “He’s a man, he’s just a man.” I refused to sing it, determined to be some kind of musical teen martyr.

After class I approached the teacher with my reasoning, which was that Jesus was a man but not just a man. The problem was the word “just”—the diminution of it. The teacher patiently explained the character’s point of view in context and that it was just a Broadway tune, not Christian doctrine. Then she gave in, choosing new music for the spring concert.

I was using the tools I had, but they were none too sharp. I was just a person.

Kind of like Jesus was just a man. But he was also God. (God is big enough to be both.)

I think now of Paul’s letter, when he waxes poetic (no, really – it’s written like free verse) about Jesus, who,

Though he was in the form of God,
did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings. (Phil. 2:6-7)

Jesus didn’t claim his divine rights. Instead, he poured himself out to become “just a man,” like Mary Magdalene sings.

Paul continues:

When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,

even death on a cross. (2:7-8)

Emptied out, humble, obedient: that’s exactly how we find Jesus in this week’s Last Words from the Cross. After taking a sip of sour wine, “Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30).

The curious part of this Last Word is not his saying it’s finished but rather what comes next. Most translations say that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (or “gave up the ghost”). Recently I came across a version worded differently: “And, letting his head droop, he delivered up his spirit.” I like this wording because it feels truer to the circumstances of dealing with a failing body.

“Bowing his head” sounds as if Jesus is bowing in prayer, which gives the event too pious a sheen. He’s not bowing in prayer but surrendering to death. His body can take no more. His flesh-and-bone neck has given out. He’s yielded to human limitations. He’s just a person.

I don’t know which version is more faithful to the original text. My point is this: I don’t want abstract Lenten piety to eclipse the real, human agony of the man who was God—and also just a person. It’s easy to do — I’m just a person. And maybe — if I’m being honest — like Mary Magdalene, I don’t know how to love him.

I’m doing my best. But you know, I’m just a person.

This is the sixth post in a multi-post series for Lent. Find the most popular one here and the first one here. As ever, thanks for reading. -Em : )

I Need (5)

A couple years ago, I started attending writing conferences and learned how very much I need. I’ve listened to credible people with tons of clout in Christian publishing explain what is needed for success.

If you want a literary agent, you need at least 10,000 followers. If you want a book deal, you need a lot more than good writing. If you want your book to sell, your writing needs to satisfy a big need among readers.

Experts say these things not to dishearten but to disenchant. I guess you could say I’m now less enchanted with the prospect of publishing.

However, I do feel called to write, but my need to write is stronger than the need to amass followers or try to figure out readers’ big need. And so, I’ve been operating on the assumption that maybe readers need the same thing I need, which is a big need, which is Jesus.

Sometimes when I write the words come easily, and sometimes there’s a hole in the bucket and the well is dry. Like today. I’ve learned to ask for the words—words that are needed.

Not long ago, I remembered a song from my childhood that seemed like the perfect Invocation of the Muse. It’s a hymn by Gloria and Bill Gaither, and this is the verse I remember:

Come, Holy Spirit, I need you,
Come, sweet Spirit, I pray,
Come in your strength and your power,
Come in your own gentle way.

Lately when I sit down to write, I sing it. On days I’m too discouraged to sing, I whisper it.

Lenten rose

Weighed down by despair, Jesus whispered one last need from the cross: “I’m so thirsty.” They offered him a sip of vinegar. The only needful thing left was to die. So he waited. Meanwhile, the Holy Spirit waited in the wings. Jesus had already promised to send his friends someone to help them:

“The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you” (John 14:26-27).

In Jesus’ absence, the Holy Spirit brings us God’s presence. Of all the things I need–marketing prowess, intellectual clout, a social media miracle–that’s the main thing I need.

This is the fifth post in a multi-post series for Lent. Find the most recent one here and the first one here. Thanks for reading. -Em : )