I'm often intrigued by the pieces we leave behind.
I moved a few months ago. As I hurried to get everything packed, I knew I'd leave some stuff behind that would end up in a dumpster. I was moving to a much smaller place and knew that my future places would probably be smaller, as well. I still took too much stuff. Even so, I got rid of a lot and left some behind.
At the last minute, I grabbed a painting off the wall depicting a wooded area with a small stream running through it. It always reminded me of the scene behind the neighborhood I lived in for the first eight years of my life.
The painting was my mom’s. She picked it up at a local furniture store many years ago. I stored it in my garage until recently, when I took the time to hang it on one of my walls. When I mentioned it to my mom, she said her great-grandmother painted it.
"What? I thought you said you got it at a furniture store?"
"No, she painted it."
I took a closer look at the signature and read her the name.
"That's her. I don't know much about her, though."
I started running the numbers in my head. My mom's grandmother died maybe fifteen years ago at the age of 98. If her mother painted this when her child was in her teens, then this painting would be somewhere around 100 years old.
"That sounds about right," Mom said.
"And you don't know anything more about her?"
"Not a lot. She had mental health issues and took her own life. That's all I know."
I cringed when I thought that I nearly allowed my great-grandmother's creation to be tossed into a dumpster. I would've been kicking myself forever. But I guess I would've never known anything about it.
In the house I moved from, someone had carved the initials L.B. into the windowsill in the kitchen. I always wondered who might have done that. The house is 103 years old and has had numerous families live in it over the years. Was L.B. a kid who wanted to leave his mark on the house he grew up in as he moved away to college? Was L.B. an elderly person who was dying and wanted to leave a piece of herself behind? Was L.B. a lonely middle-aged man who feared being forgotten to the point that he felt compelled to carve his initials into the windowsill?
I'll never know the answers to any of these questions, but it's hard not to think that whoever left the carving wanted to be remembered. The truth is, most of us won't be. I wrote an essay about this in Higher Grounds: When God Steps Into the Here and Now.
Here's what I wrote:
"I had lunch with a group of friends a while back, during which we discussed the timeline of Genesis. One of the guys did a little studying and came back the next week, saying only one-hundred and twenty years had passed between the flood and the Tower of Babel—making the 'how quickly humans forget' point.
"It reminded me of a three-hour conversation I had with my niece and her boyfriend about how quickly generations in our own families are forgotten. Not only do we not know the sacrifices they made, the lessons they learned, or the triumphs they celebrated, but we don’t even know their names."
That last point is proven by the fact that I've never even heard the name on my great-grandmother's painting, let alone know her story.
But now I have a piece of her, and I’m grateful for that. I just need to figure out what happens to it after I’m gone.
“Traditions are the stories that families write together.”
If that sounds like a cheesy line from a Hallmark Christmas movie, well … guilty as charged. It comes from a Hallmark movie called “Reunited at Christmas.” And if the cat wasn’t already out of the bag, yes, I’m a Hallmark Christmas movie junkie.
In this particular movie, a grandmother passes along the tradition of placing a star on top of the Christmas tree to her children’s children while she repeats the line about traditions to them every year.
"Jingle Around the Clock" another Hallmark Christmas movie produced this gem of a quote: “Traditions are really just honoring the love and the effort that someone put in before you, and even if that person who put in the effort isn’t here anymore, we repeat traditions to keep them a part of us.”
This made me think about my own families traditions. My grandmother made the best chocolate chip cookies in the history of the world. While mine pale in comparison, I got up early Christmas morning and made a big batch. My niece devoured several handfuls after she arrived. And she took a container home with several dozen more. So I must’ve done something right.
She’s barely old enough to remember that my grandmother used to make chocolate chip cookies for Christmas, but I’m hoping that it honored my grandmother’s love and effort she put into her family all those years ago. At the very least, it prompted a conversation about those days with my niece.
I’m thinking I need to start other traditions throughout the year. Maybe go to the same fireworks show on July 4 with my niece every year. Or go to the same park every year with her for the free Memorial Day concert. Or maybe declare every Labor Day to be UNO (the card game) day.
I know I’m just the lame uncle, but by engaging in these traditions, maybe one day, long after I’m gone, she’ll still want to keep me as a part of her.
How about you? I’d love to hear about your own traditions (Christmas or otherwise) that you’ve carried on from loved ones who have passed away or the new ones you’ve established to make your connections with loved ones deeper.
As somebody who is both introverted and shy, I'm not the best at initiating conversation with strangers. But that's not because I don't want to.
Shortly before Christmas, I was standing in line at Walmart with my Christmas gifts when I noticed an elderly man place maybe three dozen individual cans of Fancy Feast cat food on the conveyor belt behind me, followed by a box of 30 more cans of the same food, different flavor. He had a couple of other items, but I was drawn to the cat food, especially since my cat loves the same brand.
"Whoa, that's a lot of cat food. How many cats do you have?" I asked.
The problem I have when initiating conversation with strangers is, many people don't actually want to have a conversation with strangers, especially in Walmart. They just want to get in and get out as quickly as possible. As an introvert, I can totally relate.
"We have two. My wife and I rescued one about a month ago. About a week after we got him, he got sick. We took him in and the veterinarian said he had digestive issues and needed surgery. We spent $1,000 to get him taken care of. He can really only digest this." He pointed at the Fancy Feast.
"Bless you for taking such good care of him."
I wish I would've asked the man the name of his cats. Hearing a name is so much more personal.
"The place where we got him said he was abused as a kitten - locked in a basement without food for long periods of time."
No wonder the poor thing has digestive issues. "I hope the person who did it has to face the music."
It was my turn to check out. I did so and then turned back toward the elderly man with a giant heart. "I hope your kitty's health keeps improving."
He smiled and thanked me.
In times like this, I'm reminded that it's not all that difficult to make a connection with a stranger. All you have to do is pay attention and look for a connecting point - something you can latch onto. It can be cat food, diapers, a necklace, a team jersey, a certain make or model of car or anything else you can bond over.
If you're shy and/or introverted, you might wonder why you should make such an effort. I would say that if you don't, you are missing the dual blessing of human connection.
The elderly man smiled about our connection. Maybe it even made him feel noticed. I don't know. But I do know that it made me appreciative of the fact that a man like him exists to care for animals. And that animals exist to bring joy to a man like this. That was nearly two weeks ago, and I'm still thinking about that encounter. It was simple and lacked depth but that doesn't mean it wasn't real.
We live in a world in which avoiding eye contact feels like the norm.
In the gym where I walk on the treadmill most days, the only people I have a conversation with is a guy named Joshua who works there. He tore his MCL and has been on crutches since he started working at the gym. He's a giant of a man but as gentle as they come. We've shared injury stories (I ruptured my Achilles tendon years ago) and recovery stories. But nobody else at the gym seems to want to engage on any level. I understand that to a degree.
The gym isn't the only place where people avoid eye contact. Doctor's offices, restaurants, bookstores, coffee shops - you name it. People seem skittish. Maybe it's because we've grown suspicious. Everybody seems to want to sell something. Or maybe it's because we're not trusting of people we don't know. A healthy fear is probably a good thing. But part of me wonders if we haven't moved beyond a healthy fear of one another into paranoia.
This time of year, many of us are drawn to Christmas movies and novels that depict small town settings where strangers help one another. If we really want to live in that type of environment, we have to be willing to talk to one another. I say this to myself more than anybody. Talking to one another comes with the risk of rejection, no doubt. But not talking to one another comes with the risk of feeling isolated.
The first of every month.
The Gregorian calendar (the one we currently use) is designed to allow for fresh starts. We get a new one every year, every month, every week and every morning.
We’re often in need of fresh starts and new mercies. Thankfully, Lamentations 3:22-23 says, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
As you think about and plan for 2019, don’t lose sight of the fact that you can always start a new workout regimen, reading habit, eating plan or writing routine. Waiting until the beginning of the year to start anything new, healthy or positive isn’t necessary.
Most years won’t turn out the way you hoped or planned. My 2018 certainly didn’t. My mom fell ill twice and I was one of her primary caregivers for extended periods of time. It set me back on my yearly reading and walking goals, but that’s okay. Reaching my goals wasn’t nearly as important as making sure Mom got what she needed. And I always knew I could start anew.
The odd thing is, I didn’t. I track my yearly goals on an app called Persistence. As I glance at my statistics for 2018, I’m currently only at 49% of goal for reading and 84% of goal for walking. The app easily allows users to start new goals at any moment. Why didn’t I?
I guess because it might’ve felt like cheating. Or maybe I thought I would catch up. I tend to overestimate, both professionally and personally. It’s one of my biggest weaknesses. And since I can’t afford to overestimate professionally (deadlines have to be met), my professional life bleeds into my personal life.
Do they make an app for that?
Yeah, probably not.
But I can use my current goal tracking app to start over when life intervenes. That’s one of my plans heading in 2019.
How about you? How early in the new year do you give up? How can you combat that? How often are you willing to hit the reset button and then keep going?
My small church group of maybe eighteen people stepped into the entryway of a nursing home during the Christmas season. The leader of the group handed out a packet of lyrics and we paired up to share them. Our nervous laughter probably told the residents that we had no idea what we were doing. But it was time.
Deck the halls with boughs of holly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
‘Tis the season to be jolly,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Don we now our gay apparel,
Fa la la, la la la, la la la.
Troll the ancient Yule tide carol,
Fa la la la la, la la la la.
Some of the fa la la la las were just a little too high for me to hit, so I exercised my right to remain silent in those moments. A few people clapped, including a woman who appeared to be a nurse. Later, I learned we had some competition. Someone in our group told me a Victoria’s Secret ad was on TV while we were singing “Deck the Halls” and some of the male residents weren’t exactly paying attention to us.
We moved down one of the hallways to where some of the residents live, and we were just about to launch into “Jingle Bells” when a woman approached us in her bathrobe.
“Thank you so much for coming.” She patted her hands. “Can I sing with you?”
Dashing through the snow
In a one-horse open sleigh
O’er the fields we go
Laughing all the way
Bells on bobtails ring
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to laugh and sing
A sleighing song tonight!
Seeing the joy in the woman’s face as she sang with us was a holy moment. Our group of eighteen became nineteen. She stayed with us for the remainder of our visit.
Doors began to open, and residents peeked out. I kept wondering if we were interrupting somebody’s favorite TV show, but other than during the brief Victoria’s Secret ad, we seemed to have everyone’s attention. Residents began to wave at us. We waved back and kept singing as we migrated down the next hall.
Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace
A door creaked opened behind the woman with whom I was sharing a song sheet. At first, I thought one of us might have leaned against it, but it was another curious resident. He waited until we were finished singing and then thanked us. Another holy moment. The power of music was literally opening doors and causing strangers to acknowledge one another.
“Let’s go upstairs! I have the code,” said the woman in the bathrobe.
Our leader nodded, saying her contact at the facility told us we could go up there. The woman punched in the code and away we went. She punched in another code at the top of the stairs and we began to fill the second-floor hallway. Before all of us made it, an alarm went off. Apparently, the door could only stay open for so long. We ended up setting the alarm off several times before all of us could make it through.
At any moment, I expected an angry resident to storm out of his or her room to tell us to keep it down or to go away. But that didn’t happen.
The first Noel the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay, keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep:
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel
“Thank you, thank you for coming,” a man said from his room. He sat facing us in a wheelchair. “Merry Christmas to all of you.”
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
We wish you a Merry Christmas,
And a Happy New Year.
Good tidings we bring to you and your kin
We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Somebody from down the hall told us we couldn’t go any farther on that floor because residents were sleeping. So, it seemed as if the Lord brought us to the second floor for the man in the wheelchair. Another holy moment.
And, as is so often the case, a funny moment followed the holy moment. We had to figure out how to get through the door without setting off the alarm again. The resident with the code punched in the numbers and six or seven of us at a time filtered through the door, shutting it before the alarm went off. When it went off toward the end of the line, we groaned in unison, but at least we improved.
We repeated a couple of the songs as we headed back toward the front door. We stopped in the entryway and sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” to the same residents we serenaded when we first entered the building. In God’s providence, the Victoria’s Secret ad was no longer playing, so we had the full attention of all the residents seated around the TV this time.
The man who was closest to us sat in his wheelchair and clapped along as we sang. When we finished, he smiled and applauded, along with the other residents. Another holy moment. Residents wished us a Merry Christmas and we wished them the same. But their wish for us had already come true for me. Seeing the joy they felt simply because we showed up to bring a little Christmas cheer made me teary-eyed.
It was as if the gift of music transported them to their childhood, when singing Christmas carols in school was still the norm. And the joy they felt on their trip down memory lane was infectious.
You'll find this essay and others like it in Higher Grounds: When God Steps Into the Here and Now.