A Day in the Life

She’s a little old widow, and I used to see her every day when she came for milk and bread, walking from her house around the corner. Now she lives in town, and it’s probably been a year since I’d last seen her. She looked well, but sad, and in her own world. Was she too old and forgetful to remember me anymore? “Carol!” I said. “I haven’t seen you for ages! I have to give you a hug!”*

I rushed around the counter to her, and as I held her for a quick moment, she murmured against my shoulder, “Oh, I love a hug!”

Then we chatted quickly, because there were other customers waiting, and as she went out the door, she said, “And thanks for the cuddle!”

Oh, Carol, that was the easiest thing I’d done all day.

Later, I was watering the flowers outside and Tony, an older gentleman, a family friend, came up and chatted and told me crazy stories like he always does, and made me laugh and laugh.* Just before he left, his voice softened and he told me of his sixty-eight year old brother who’s an alcoholic and not been well for years. And now the brother met a twenty-five year old girl in the far East, and he’s dead set on going to see her, and Tony is worried for the brother and himself, because there’s substantial money and risk somewhere in there.

Tony loves to share his sail boat with his friends, and promised he’d be in touch later in the summer. “When I get the mast back on her, we’ll take her on a spin to the next harbour,” he said.

Listening to his stories, crazy and sad ones, in exchange for a ride on a sail boat? An easy trade, I’d say.

Shop keeping isn’t always that delightful, but these two people came in on the same day this week, and made me smile and made my job easier.

A line from Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God often inspires/paralyzes/convicts me. It is when he’s talking about his friend who wants to see God, and asks for visible proof that God is there. Philip says his friend will likely never see God’s hand writing in the sky, or some other dramatic move. He will only see me, Philip says.

How can it be, that the infinite God allows fallible earthlings to tell each other that He exists, that He’s not a figment of imagination, that He is the giver of good things? I wonder if Carol and Tony know that God is real, and that I love Him. They will probably never hear His voice thunder from a cloud. They will only see me.

This is why there is dignity and purpose in being a store keeper.

*Names have been changed.

Happy Returns

I crack up every time I think about it. About six months ago, I was at work, and a business man was outside talking with my dad. I guess they were talking about their families, as family men do, and then they came in and dad introduced me to the man as his oldest daughter.

“Oh, nice to meet you–how old are you?” the man asked me.

In this country, you don’t ask a lady her age, and if you have the audacity to do so, she would still never tell you. So his question took me aback because I’m not used to the question, plus for a couple seconds, I honestly couldn’t remember my age.

So I stammered a little bit, and finally remembered which of my thirties I was in, and because I don’t always abide by protocol, I didn’t mind telling him I was thirty-five.

And then he stammered and hemmed for a couple seconds, poor man. I guess the men had been comparing children and ages or something, and he explained that he thought I was in my upper teens. Which of course was very flattering if unbelievable.

But now every time the big man bustles in, I want to giggle at the funny, awkward memory. But I think I’ve refrained so far.

So yesterday I couldn’t say I’m thirty-five anymore. I still quite enjoy birthdays, and think June is the best time of year for them. I like the chance to look at a milestone and try to take stock of the year, and think about what I’ve learned in the last twelve months, and what I want to aim for next year. I proudly count two new white hair, which I’ve gained by honest means. I’m glad I’ve learned uncountable, intangible things that will shape me for life, and hopefully I unlearned other things.

It was a lovely birthday. My sister worked for me in the afternoon and freed me to go to town and meet two friends for a long, leisurely coffee. In the evening, four of us went to Dunmore, got locally-caught fish, and chips (with salt and vinegar–ahhh!), and ate them on the cliffs in the wind and song of the sea. Back home, we took a good long walk then played a fun round of Scrabble, and at the end, a family from church walked in, carrying a strawberry-decorated bun with a lit candle, singing Happy Birthday, once in English and once in Polish.

I think it will be a good year, being thirty-six. Even if someone asks me how old I am.

A Re-read

Books are like friends. You get attached to them, and keep going back to the ones who tell you things you need to know.

On Sunday, four of us took a picnic out to the cliffs to enjoy the sea and the sunshine. We watched a sailboat sit for awhile for lack of wind, and it reminded me of Sheldon and Davy Vanauken’s fanciful plans for their “Grey Goose.” Together, my sister and I recounted for our friends the gist of the story of A Severe Mercy which was fun because she remembered details I’d forgotten.

I know some people who think the story is about two spoiled children. Maybe it is, but I still liked it from the first time I read it, fresh out of high school. Our discussion on Sunday inspired me to go back to it again for the umpteenth time, and now I’m enjoying it again. There’s nothing like revisiting words that delighted you before. This time, I can understand how it could be seen as a spoiled child’s story, but it is still a powerful account of love, faith, and grief, beautifully told. I don’t mind admitting that Sheldon’s way with words completely charms me.

Back at age fifteen or sixteen or so, I didn’t know what he meant when he said that beauty has an ache, a pang. I couldn’t follow all the British terms from their time in Oxford and friendship with C.S.Lewis. The years have increased my understanding and experience, and now I comprehend more of what he says. “Severe Mercy” was Lewis’ phrase in a letter between the two men, referring to the grief that deepened Sheldon’s faith and love for God.

Vanauken’s second book, Under the Mercy recounts more of his professor days in Lynchburg, VA after Davy died, and shares some papers he wrote in those days. I’ve frequently gone back to the chapter on “The Bachelor” because he writes so eloquently of the historical place in society and the dignity of the single person. He writes about feminism and political protests in DC, and eventually of his “crossing the English Channel” and becoming a Catholic. The second book is good, but doesn’t carry the immediacy of the first.

This is an excerpt from A Severe Mercy that has become part of my world-view:

…we have not always been or will not always be purely temporal creatures…we were created for eternity. Not only are we harried by time, we seem unable, despite a thousand generations, even to get used to. We are always amazed at it–how fast it goes, how slowly it goes, how much of it is gone. Where, we cry, has the time gone? We aren’t adapted to it, not at home in it. If that is so, it may appear as proof, or at least a powerful suggestion, that eternity exists and is our home.

Lengthening the Cords

This article from Boundless this morning rang a deep chord in my soul. The themes of travel, the far horizon, passport stamps, and ethnic food makes my heart sing. And I love how the article wraps up with a picture of heaven. There is something timeless about exploration and sharing food with people. We were created for this, and will continue to enjoy it in heaven.

It is always a dramatic moment for me to fly trans-Atlantic with two passports in hand. One maroon, one navy. American and Irish. It is a huge gift to me, and nothing that I have earned. When the ticket agent in Pittsburg asked me to confirm that Dublin is my final destination, my friend thought it was an amazing idea. Another friend emailed me later: “Really, Ireland must be a novel place to live.” I have lost some of that wonder; some of the novelty has disappeared into the mist. But I hope I never lose the awe of being handed this gift.

The wanderlust comes from generations before me. I have two grandfathers who had the same kind of itchy feet that I inherited. One learned Spanish in middle age, took his family to El Salvador and would happily have stayed for the rest of his life. People there still call him “Papa Juan.” All his children have spent time in service in foreign countries. My other grandfather loved to tell us minute details about his globetrotting in Australia and Russia. My parents love to travel and explore new places. Their open, interested minds shaped me and made my world big.

Now my generation, my cousins, are living and serving in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Ghana. My sister teaches school in California, which is like another country too, isn’t it? And this summer another cousin goes to Liberia, and I go to Poland.

We make our own choices, but we are products of our background. I want to say here how proud I am of my grandparents and parents whose life goals were not to stay comfortable and build up the family farm/business, but who valued people who looked and spoke different from them, and who cared about them enough to pour out their lives in their behalf.

This kind of living is not pleasure-driven, but there is pleasure in it. There is delight, joy, and “ah-ha” moments where we realize again that all people on the globe share the Creator’s stamp, and at the deepest level of our beings, we hunger and long for the same things. We’re not so different from each other after all. The cords on this tent enclose a big family.

Recommended Christmas Story

It’s been a frantic week of shop keeping and baking and carol singing. It’s been good, but frantic, and during yesterday’s duties I felt particularly as if I was moving in a slow, creaking gear. “Little smiles and little tears are all we’ve brought” was the line that repeated itself in my brain. It was my line, the only thing I could offer to anyone.

It’s the line from the poem “How Far is it to Bethlehem?” by Frances Chesterton. The line is the one Elizabeth Yates uses in her lovely Christmas story “On That Night.”

This morning I was part of the city market crew, to sell cakes, bread, and scones. I learned again that I am solar powered, and can sell things well. If the sun shines, anything is possible and everything is wonderful. And I can talk people into buying things because I’m enthused and happy.

Town was wonderful. I fell in love again with life and with Waterford City. The air was crisp and cold, and did I mention, bright? People met my eyes and smiled and/or waved and drivers were polite to each other. I rode the bus back to the bakery, to bake apple tarts and lemon tarts, thoroughly revived and ready to work for another week. This time as I worked, the little smiles and little tears were gone, and instead I sang and laughed and joked. Yup, I’m solar powered. The Romans used to call this country Hibernian. After 13 winters here, I understand why they did.

This evening six of us young ladies sang several songs as part of the carol service in St. Andrew’s Church in Dunmore East. It was a lovely evening of Nine Lessons and Carols, with a huge crowd of friends and neighbors packing the (drafty) pews. As we meandered out into the cold crisp night, I thought again of Yates’ “On That Night” and the magical, gentle night when the characters in the story left their prayer time, went out in the snow, and found what they’d lost. I hope we get snow now too.

Next week, hopefully things won’t be quite so frantic. I hope there’ll be an evening when we sisters can sit by my fire and take turns reading “On That Night” to each other. I love the wistful, gentle, worshipful story written by a gifted lady.

As far as Christmas stories go, I can’t choose my favourite between that one and “The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Twomey.” Both deal with love and loss, grief and miracles, and have parts where I choke up and parts where I smile every time I read them. Do yourself a favor and read at least one of them this week.

The Weekend Magazine

Part of my Saturday ritual is to read the Irish Times Weekend Magazine between taking care of customers. Today’s edition had an exceptional article of an Irish lady’s take on Thanksgiving. It made me laugh and nod in agreement several times. Enjoy!

Giving Thanks

“Is everyone unhappy?” the child Lovejoy was to ask Vincent in despair.

Vincent said, “Everyone,” but after a moment, when he had thought, he added, “That doesn’t prevent them from being happy.”

An Episode of Sparrows, Rummer Godden

For the last week I’ve been reading about people in the US who are gearing up for Thanksgiving. I feel far away and detached, an interested on-looker, fascinated by the movements and ruminations of people doing something I’m not.

When our family moved to Ireland in April of ’96, I was homesick now and then but the worst moment was on the first Thanksgiving Day. It had been my favourite holiday, because it was simple and happy, and now no one even gave a nod to it. I was devastated and felt sure that this was a heartless, cruel, God-less place to live.

Now, 13 years later, it’s ok. Thanksgiving as a holiday seems like a foreign entity, like part of another lifetime (which it is), like something I can be an observer in without being a participator. And, because I don’t have to be at work til this evening, it’s sort of like a holiday anyhow, only without turkey and cranberries, and I’m ok with that.

Part of the change of heart has come about because of the passing of time. Other people and priorities precede the importance I once placed on my favourite holiday. Now, Thanksgiving is something I try to observe daily.

Every night, before I let myself turn off the light, I harness my memory to eek out and write down at least one thing that I’m thankful for, one thing that happened that day in which I heard God say “I love you” to me. It is the best, most helpful spiritual discipline in my life. It is the one thing I urge everyone to do, and is required of my students in Godly Womanhood class. My Thanks Journal is a tangible record of many intangible things. It turns my mind to God instead of letting me dwell on all that makes me unhappy. It reminds me of God’s faithfulness and my dependency on Him. Sometimes I think a long time before deciding what to write but that’s not God’s fault.

Today I am thankful for:
-the toasty warm evening and sibling camaraderie last night at my brother’s house
-a pleasant job environment
-books and pens and my laptop
-sparkling good health after a year’s illness
-girlfriends who I can call whenever I need a sounding board and wise words
-Godly men who believe in my book project and support my calling to teach
-my parents who have ‘marinated’ me with life-priorities of love and service
-dreams and ambitions and plans
-grandfathers whose worlds are big, and who forged a path that led beyond their ‘back forty’
-God, who in all times and in all ways, showers peace and joy in dews of blessing

Tribute to Billy

When we first met Billy over 13 years ago, we said to each other: “He’s Captain Jim!” (from Anne’s House of Dreams) Billy really was like a story book character, and looked the part with his grizzled beard, knee-length britches, and long stockings. He grew up in Waterford, but spent most of his life in England, and developed a most impressive, distinguished English accent. He married Sarah from there, a most patient, smiley, competent lady. She must have heard the stories of his escapades a million times, but as we’d listen, she’d always sit there smiling and nodding knowingly at him and us. I would so like to know what kind of person he was in his days with the RAF and in the class room as a teacher.

His turn of phrase and insight and story telling was unlike anyone I know. He was a perfect gentleman, tipping his hat when he saw me, asking how I was. When we asked him, he’d favour us with a song or poem. His scratchy, gravelly voice would recite “The Sea is a Dog” and make it come alive. Billy is infamous for having checked himself out of the hospital and walking 10 miles home. He did things his way. When the doctor told him he’d lose his legs if he didn’t stop smoking, Billy stopped smoking. To do it right, he walked all around Ireland as a fundraiser for the Life Boats.

Billy lived by the sea and in his boat. When he was diagnosed with cancer some years back, he kept his boat as long as he possibly could manage it. This spring, he and his wife came to church for a service, and I sat beside him. Instead of staying for tea afterwards, he politely told me he’s not feeling well, and left immediately. Billy died in July, and it was a huge honour that he had asked us to sing a particular plain chant rendition of Psalm 23 at his funeral.

My sisters and I sang it from the balcony of the little country church. We had learned the song from a recording Billy had made of himself singing it. The antiphon: “His goodness shall follow me always, to the end of my days.”

Billy and Sarah had a lively, lovely family, and Ben, the youngest, shared this story at the funeral. I share it here as I remember the account as a tribute to a rare soul who I was privileged to have for a neighbour.

When I was 11 or so, my siblings, along with our neighbour’s children, would meet the school bus at the end of our lane, and it would take us to the village to school. One morning I had the great idea that when we heard the bus coming, we would jump behind the hedge, and wait out of sight until it gave up waiting for us and go on without us.

It was a great plan and it worked. The bus came, waited, and waited, and waited…and drove off. And we were free from school for the day! But the eagle eye of the neighbour lady saw us and reported us to our mother, who was VERY cross with us. My mother told me that my father would have some words for me when he came home.

When my father came home, I was terrified, and as he walked toward me, I wondered which limb he would tear first from me. But all he said was, “Get in the car, son.” He drove to Dower’s grocery on the corner, and bought two cans of Coke and a packet of crisps. Now, a packet of crisps in those days was like winning the lottery!

We sat outside the shop at a table, and we ate our crisps and drank our Coke, and my father said, “So tell me what you did today.” I told him, and he said nothing. We finished our treat, got back into the car and went home. He never said anything more about the escapade, but I can tell you that I never again tried to skip school. That was the genius of my father. I never knew a man who could think outside the box like he did, and have a solution when no one else had one.

Strategies at the Job

This is the end of a marathon 3 weeks when 2 and sometimes 3 regular workers were gone from the store and bakery. I knew it was going to be a Big Job and tried to plan accordingly. I found a good book to read in spare minutes, which helped time go fast. And I asked God for nice customers.

In the 12 years of being at this store, I have never had a 3 wk stint when the customers were so super nice. The weather always makes a difference in making people happy and pleasant, but I know these good customers came because God answered my desperate prayer. The children were jolly and happy. The grown ups were polite and appreciative and smiley. They chatted and told stories and took time to let others go first. They were delightful and funny and happy. They made me laugh more than ever before.

Something I love about Irish people in general is that they are great story tellers, and can always chat about something. This used to annoy me, but no longer. I am fascinated and amazed at how they can talk and talk, and maybe it’s not about something profound or substantial, but they’re communicating more than we who are silent.

I would like to learn how they do it. What kind of thought processes it takes to be able to effortlessly talk forever about nothing in particular. Guess I’ll keep watching and listening.

Jetlag, MRI, and a book

It was a flying trip to the US, and I was going to take it in stride, but it has made me tired-er than I expected. But it was worth it. It was a significant trip in several ways. The focal point of the week was Oasis Ladies’ retreat at SMBI. A lovely, refreshing, inspiring one-and-a-half day. Other high points throughout the week were being with old and new friends and my aunts, singing with friends, brainstorming writing and art projects, hearing each others’ dreams.

It was also an amazing trip because I didn’t go to WalMart even once!! Thus, I have proved it is possible to live, yes, even to visit America, without shopping there.

Today I finished a lovely book: The Soloist, by Steve Lopez. A true story, gripping and beautifully and sensitively written. I was sorry it ended. I’m going to add it to my list on the book page. It makes me want to write a good story…

Also today I went to Dublin for my (last) MRI to assess the success of last October’s embolization. The dr. showed me the pictures then dismissed me, saying things are good, and don’t need further treatment until there are more symptoms–which I hope never happens. I thank God for Dr. Brophy and his amazing skills.

Then I trotted over to Trinity College and met Jenn whom I’d never met before, but who has just moved to Dublin with her husband. We found a cute little tea room and drank tea and ate cake and chatted easily and felt better for it.