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The Heart Knows

I was thinking of nothing in particular yesterday.  My mind wandered aimlessly through thoughts about work and home.  My morning mental list of menial tasks grew rapidly as I sat, gazing at my hands, folding my fingers, deciding where to begin.

Then my eyes focused on the ring; my grandmother’s ring.  The diamond sparkled, surrounded by yellow gold, and I was mesmerized for a few quiet moments.  How long had it been now?  A year and a half?  No, it had to be over two years now since the funeral.  “Time moves too quickly,” I thought.  I studied her wedding ring for a few minutes, looking at the details, turning it on my finger.  I had been wearing it on my right hand now for almost two years, and I found that it gave me a kind of quiet comfort.  I recognized that as the days rolled by, a cursory glance at the ring brought me peace, kept me grounded, and reminded me of the unending circular, spiritual, eternal parts of life.

Grandma.  She was important to me, and her ring had become a reminder that the important things are not things.  The true diamonds in our lives are people.  I pulled the ring from my hand and turned it over, taking in its smooth round shape, its beauty, its quality and its sturdiness.  The ring had endured my grandmother’s labors.  She canned beans and kneaded bread.  She washed clothes, and cleaned, and gardened.  Oh, how she loved to garden!  Her flowerbeds thrived under her care.  If only this ring would bestow the power of that green thumb!

I smiled while continuing my inspection.  It was a simple design with the diamond set inside a smooth square of gold.  The wedding band and the engagement ring had been soldered together for comfort and convenience.  I held it between my two hands and called forth the image of this ring on her boney fingers.  I could still see her hands.

For no particular reason, I did not return the ring to my right hand, as was my habit.  Instead, I passed it to my left hand, gave a little push, and placed it on the finger next to my own wedding band.  Why not wear it there?  Now there were two gold rings sitting side by side, gleaming in the light, “keeping each other company,” it seemed.

A few hours later, I learned that Grandma’s sister left us that very morning.  Aunt Opal.  She had always been a sweet spirit, a jewel among women.  I realized that I had passed Grandma’s ring from one hand to the other- not knowing that here, too, passed the spirit of her sister.

Now, they are keeping each other company, in the never ending presence of God.  Now, I know that Grandma’s ring will continue its work.  It is a remembrance of God, family, and eternal love.  The important things are not things.  Jewels will pass from one hand to another, but the true diamonds are the people who touch our hearts.

Somehow, yesterday, my heart recognized well before my mind that Opal had passed from one realm to another.  Something important happened yesterday.  Someone important moved on.  And, somehow, the heart always knows.

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God’s Taxi

When travelling from place to place, I love to ride in taxis! My conversations with cab drivers are often the highlight of a humdrum trip. They are so multicultural, so interesting, and have such wonderful stories to tell. I am rarely in need of a cab, except when taking my youngest daughter to her orthopedic specialist in Philadelphia. Over the years, my most memorable cab encounters have included parlés with an African exile, with a Middle Eastern émigré, with a naturalized citizen from Russia, with a Hispanic gentleman, and with an American family man. Because I am a very curious being, I am truly interested in their situations. What brought them to their present career? Where are they from? And so before long, we are exchanging stories. I ask how long they have been driving a cab, if they have a family, when they came to the city or to the country, and why. I always come away feeling blessed to know them, if only for a small moment. I take a mental snippet, a snapshot, of each driver as we pass into and out of each other’s company for the first and last time.

 

The young African cabbie who drove us out of Philadelphia one autumn afternoon had been in the country for over five years. He was a student at a college nearby. We spoke to each other in French and English. He and his brother came to the United States for a better life, and they would often send money to their mother, to their family, who still resided overseas. When I asked if he missed his family or how he could bear being so far away, he smiled and said that his life without them was a small sacrifice that he was glad to pay in order to give them a better chance at living. He and his brother planned to bring their mother to the States very soon; then afterward, a few family members at a time. Where he had come from, the government was very corrupt and there was little hope for the common people. Most of the drivers I have spoken with are seekers. They are seeking out peace and personal liberty, which makes me realize that despite our differences in backgrounds, we are all searching for the same things.

 

In another taxi experience, I hailed a cab to go from the airport into the city, and we were chauffeured by a Middle Eastern gentleman in a black turban. My daughter, Rowan, looked at him with big, curious eyes. He was a formidable figure dressed in black, speaking polite, broken English. At that moment in time, many Americans were feeling threatened by strangers in Muslim attire, but as I tried to talk with him, I noticed that he was feeling just as uncomfortable and awkward as many Americans felt. In speaking with him, we found a common ground and began to feel at ease. As humans from different world views, our basic needs were still the same- to be respected and understood.

 

As a foreign language teacher, I am always eager to practice and hone my skills. It is such a thrill to understand and to be understood in a foreign tongue. When riding with a Hispanic gentleman, we conversed in Spanish about the direction in which we needed to go. He was sure it was this way, but I was sure it was the other way. In the end, and one u-turn later, he had to concede that my memory for the best route was correct.

 

When speaking with a Russian driver, I was at a loss in speaking his native dialect. His eyes were wise, and his mouth curled at the sides in a calm and benign smile. I learned much about his culture and way of life in only a few minutes as he spoke very good English. For starters, I learned that there is a large Russian presence in a number of Northern cities. (There was also the question in the back of my mind about Russian mafia groups, but I convinced myself that a man with such a pleasant face could not be bad!) He spoke to me of his grown children, of his home, and he asked me about my travels and my family. At the end of our journey as the airport came into view, I believe we were both truly sorry not to have the time to learn more about the other.

 

Only once in about six cab rides have I had the experience of riding with an American driver! He enjoyed talking as much as I enjoyed listening. As we conversed, I learned that he had a daughter who was a teacher, like me, and he had grandkids about the same age as my own children. We seemed to have a lot in common, and I could tell that he enjoyed speaking with someone who was interested in more than just the destination.

 

As cab rides go, however, I never had a better experience than when God took matters into His own hands. I remember clearly how stressed and worried I was about our next trip to Philadelphia. I was not only worried about Rowan’s upcoming orthopedic appointment, but also about money. How was I going to afford the cab rides this time? I prayed about the situation, asking God for guidance to get us there safely and cheaply. I decided to go to the train platform at the airport. I knew absolutely nothing about the trains into the city, but it would cost less than half of the fare for a taxi. Rowan and I stood on the train platform for a few minutes, staring at an incomprehensible schedule attached to a concrete post. It was Greek to me.

 

I walked back toward the airport entrance where I had noticed an older gentleman sitting and chatting on the phone. He had an airport ID badge, so I assumed he could not be too dangerous. He was pleased to help, as I told him we would be aiming for the Ronald McDonald House downtown. The gentleman would not be going all the way into town, but he would go part of the way and point us in the right direction. Meanwhile, two businessmen had come down from the airport ramp and were milling around the train platform as I spoke to Mr. Airport ID Badge. My daughter and I walked toward the businessmen, ready to wait on the train. They were also staring at the train schedule, unable to make heads or tails out of the information. The taller one spoke a few words to me: “Do you know anything about these trains?” I had to confess my ignorance and mentioned my new best friend, Mr. ID Badge. He smiled and walked back to his colleague for a brief conference. They nodded their heads in agreement as they talked. Rowan and I stayed in the background a few steps away. The two men then approached me stating they had decided to hail a cab, and since they would be taking the fare as a business expense, would we like to ride with them??…A smile spread across my face as I thanked God for my rescuers!

 

Soon, introductions were made. Rowan and I were walking with two businessmen from Pittsburgh, Brian and Kirk, toward a line of taxicabs. Unbeknownst to them, they were acting as guardian angels to us that day. My fears dwindled, and I felt secure in God’s hands. Our angels from Pittsburgh were so helpful in getting us situated inside the taxi. Then, I turned toward the cab driver. As I have explained, I love talking to cab drivers. I am a student of culture, so I could not resist taking a long look at him. Our driver that day was very dark, sporting a white-toothed welcoming smile. He spoke broken English with a West African accent. Then, I spied something which was both astounding and comforting to me. The driver left a Bible resting next to his seat on the dashboard in plain sight. A thin devotional book accompanied the Bible, and I knew that my prayers had been answered that day. God had heard my need and filled it. He had taken care of me, a lone mother with a five year old daughter, in the big city. Both the Bible and the cab driver’s kind smile confirmed that I was not alone on the journey. Kirk and Brian took us to our destination, which was completely out of their way, refusing any kind of payment. May God bless them.

 

Although I learned a little bit about Kirk and Brian on the drive, I did not get the chance to talk with the taxi driver this time. I would have loved to have gotten to speak with him, to ask him about his story, to tell him how God used him in a small but significant way that day. But then again, maybe he knows all about God’s grace. Maybe he knows God cares for us all. Maybe he already knows that God uses each of us to confirm His love and existence to other journey-weary people, even if it is just for a miniscule moment. A lot can happen in those small snapshot moments– when we pass each other once in life, never to meet again.

 

Thank goodness for people like Kirk and Brian who step up to the plate when a stranger is in need. Thank God for helpful people like Mr. ID Badge. Thank God for the little moments, and thank God for those taxi drivers.

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Ah, Reunions!

I just returned from my yearly family reunion where the whole clan comes together to eat, tell stories, and strum guitars for a few hours.  We adults spend time reconnecting with long lost cousins, catching up with new things in our lives and laughing at the retelling of old family anecdotes.  Meanwhile, our children are allowed to run wild for an hour or two, reacquainting themselves with 2nd and 3rd cousins, playing basketball, catching toads, and playing chase. 

 As with any reunion, hot dogs and ambrosia salads are plentiful.  Aunts and uncles hug nieces, nephews, and grandbabies as we all jockey for position in the food line.  It’s messy, it’s loud, and it’s chaotic, but I would not have it any other way!  This whirlwind of kisses, hugs, smiles, laughs, and pats on the back reminds me what is really important in life. 

 Forget the unpaid bills, the arguments, the hectic jobs, the heartaches, and the half-done projects.  Forget the rest of the world.  My yearly trip to Clarence, Missouri, (a tiny little town in the heart of America where my uncle lives) is the highlight of every summer.  This is the one place in the world where people love each other despite their faults (and who knows our faults as well as our own family, I ask you!?)  It is a comfortable place where my kids, my husband and I know we will be asked how we are, and an honest response is actually expected! 

The guests of honor are always my elderly grandparents, who are now 87 and 92 years old.  They are quieter and more subdued now than in earlier years, but they enjoy seeing everyone and hug them with as much vigor as they can muster.  Grandma sits in her wheelchair, and as she watches her great grandchildren playing, I see a wistful smile spread across her face.  I wonder what is going through her mind in these moments.  Is she remembering her own children playing?  Is she feeling as blessed as I do in this moment, realizing that our family has grown from two people into over fifty family members?  Does she see how important a role she has played in the lives of all of these little ones, now being taught the same values and commandments as she instilled in her own four children?  What a blessing she has been to so many! 

Grandpa loves the fact that we celebrate his birthday at the reunion.  He tells every person he meets on the street that his family is having a big birthday party for him, and why don’t they come by for a piece of his cake?!  Grandpa loves the attention, and we rise to the challenge by bringing our little ones to his lap, by kissing him as often as we can, and by bringing him mug after mug of black coffee.  We take scads and scads of pictures of him and grandma, surrounded by their children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.  Grandpa is excessively proud of his family’s accomplishments and is often heard bragging about one grandchild or another.  His faith is steadfast, and he often reminds us that the most important thing in life is to be saved by the power of God.  He often cries with a thankful heart when saying the blessing over the family meal.

These are memories I want to keep with me as I walk out into the world and go through life’s trials.  I want to remember the inimitable harmony of laughter created by my father with his brothers and sister.  It is one of the most joyful sounds in my world!  I want to laugh until I am breathless and feel the giddy lightheadedness I always feel after listening to my cousins recount ornery tales from glory days in the hay fields and farm houses of our youth.  I want to remember how to smile like I do on this day, how to take this love and mirth with me as a beacon through the dark times. 

Every year, I learn something new about my family.  And every year, I learn something new about life through my family.  This year, I learned that a person can, indeed, fall in love at first sight at any age.  My five year old daughter immediately became enamored with one of her older (eleven year old) cousins.  When I asked her why she was following him around, she simply said, “Mommy, he has a pretty face and glasses, and he is wearing brown tennis shoes.”  I guess that was enough to hook her for life, because she cried when we had to leave him.

The other thing I learned this year is that everyone has trouble in life.  No one is immune, no one comes through the world unscathed.  So, as the years pass, family becomes more and more important for love and support.  Despite our differences, we have so much in common, so much to be thankful for, and so many people who love us through good times and bad.  And to think, we are all a part of the Grand Plan.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Jeremiah 29:11

16 your eyes saw my unformed body.
       All the days ordained for me
       were written in your book
       before one of them came to be.  Psalm 139:16

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Fortune Cookie Faith

My thirty-seventh birthday dinner at the local Chinese buffet felt more somber than usual, at least for me. Another year had gone by, and I was coming quite close to the big “4-0,” which moved my inner spirit into a quiet and self-pitying melancholia. The moo goo gai pan was great, the coconut shrimp, the chicken and broccoli stir fry…it was all just as wonderful as it could be. My vanity was the problem, not the food. This was one of my favorite restaurants, and of course, I tried to enjoy the meal for my family’s sake. I tried to talk myself into a better mood, remembering my mother’s wisdom on getting older: “I’d rather go on having more birthdays, considering the alternative.” I knew she was right.

Consider all the geezers in the Bible. God let Methuselah live something like 900 years. I calculated that I was only a small fraction of his age, which was a cheerful comparison. Thank goodness for small favors, right? “But is this as good as it gets?” I wondered. I began a little God versus me conversation in my head. “Hey, I’m pretty sure I don’t have anywhere near 900 years left.” I argued with Him. “Are the great parts of life already gone for me? Am I three steps away from arthritis and inactivity? Worst yet, have I lost whatever beauty I might have had?” He wasn’t giving me any comforting answers, and my faith crumbled a little more with each vain thought. I knew that I should have been talkative and congenial with my surrounding well-wishers, but I could not make myself pretend to be what I was not. (I have always known that acting is not my forte!)

Distraction seemed the thing to do in this case. I did not wish to spoil the evening for my friends and family who had so graciously come to wish me a bonne anniversaire. I played with my food using the gratuitous wooden chopsticks, trying my best to eat white rice without losing a single grain down my blouse. The placemat caught my eye, and out of habit, I looked up my birth year on the Chinese zodiac. My list of attributes read like any vague horoscope, but due to my ill humor and upcoming mid-life crisis, I added some of my own thoughts this time.

Ah, yes, the dog…faithful and loyal (code for boring), trusting (unbelievably gullible), a great friend who gets along easily with almost everyone (doormat, I thought.) Beware of the dragon and the monkey. (Don’t I know it!) That was a big joke in our family, as my husband, son, and youngest daughter were all under the signs of dragon and monkey. Score one point for the Chinese, we actually were true opposites in every sense of the word, I conceded. I continued to peruse my zodiac description: The dog is fierce in the defense of justice and fair play (unrealistic idealist, I mused), loving in relationships (hopeless romantic, I quipped), a hard worker and very forgiving (hmm, enabler, forgetful, pushover?)

My mood was definitely getting the best of me, so after scrunching my straw wrapper, wetting it, and watching it grow like a little white caterpillar, the only thing left to do was to grab one of the fortune cookies in the middle of the table, desperately hoping to pre-empt anymore birthday blues. I chose the imperfectly sealed cookie that was crumbling at one edge and a darker brown color than the rest. It was right in front of me. Its half- opened mouth called to me. I tore open the plastic and broke the hard shell in two. “Who eats these things?” I crabbed, as I popped a small, pointy, and unforgiving piece into my mouth. The tiny fortune was in my hand now. It read: “The best years of your life have not yet been lived. Lucky numbers 3, 7, 37, 38, 40, 45. Learn Chinese: river – “ku-wa.”

I was stunned. I read the tiny paper again. “The best years of your life have not yet been lived.” A little smile curled at one side of my face. “You certainly have a sense of humor,” I whispered to the ceiling. “You even got the lucky numbers right- thirty-seven, thirty-eight, and forty.” The crowd around me was quite oblivious to my tête â tête with God. A few scriptures came to mind:

“All things work together for good, to them that love the Lord and are called according to His purpose.”

“Come, all you who are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

“These things I have said to you, that in me you might have peace. In the world you will have trouble, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

“Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” I felt my confidence in Providence grow for the first time in months.

The hot July air hit my face as I left the Asian sights and spicy smells of the restaurant. The whole birthday entourage was close behind me, and I felt as if I were a part of them again, more cheerful, ready to celebrate the day of my birth and look forward to the coming years. Upon arriving home, I taped my little fortune note to the refrigerator to remind me of my new promise. The best years have not yet been lived! Yes!!

I still had a few questions for Him, though. I read the parchment again, and asked, “Why isn’t thirty-nine on my lucky numbers list? And what on earth am I supposed to learn from the Chinese word for “river?” I am sure He was shaking his head and laughing at me. “And one more thing, God. Are you sure you should be talking to people through fortune cookies? I mean, it’s a little superstitious, isn’t it?” I hope He tilted His head back and had a good laugh. “Typical,” I am sure he said. Yes, it is typical of me to limit God. I suppose He can use synchronicity and tiny fortune cookies to teach lessons of faith and trust if He wants. You can bet I pay more attention to them now (in a good way, not in a weird, superstitious way, I promise.) As a matter of fact, a few months later, I got a fortune cookie with no fortune. It was a dud, a meaningless cookie.

Not to worry! I think I can get through life without depending on Chinese fortunes. For goodness sake, I already have the best one of all taped to the front of my fridge door at home!

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How Could I Ask for More

I was cleaning my classroom after Day of the Dead festivities one day.  My desk had been buried for weeks with worksheets and things I wanted to get to…but you know how it goes.  I finally found time to rid myself of some of the clutter, and unearthed my desk-size family photo book underneath a large, scary pile of French papers.  Thumbing through the pages, I smiled to myself:  “My children are so beautiful.” 

Then, I stopped and quietly stared at the baby pictures of my youngest daughter.  She had such a traumatic time coming into this world- kidneys that weren’t working properly, and nerve damage leaving her left arm limp.  Seeing her at 3 days old again in those pictures made feelings like a melancholy gratitude well up inside my chest. 

I am so thankful. 

Now she is almost four years old, so active, so daring, climbing everything in sight, giggling, talking, and ALIVE!!  Thank GOD. 

When troubles come, how can I be too downhearted? 

When doors close, how can I be too disappointed? 

When temptations come, how can I be too distracted?

When things don’t work out, how can I be too dissatisfied?

I have so much right here, right now, despite the shortcomings of my life.

As the Cindy Morgan song says, “How Could I Ask for More?”

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Nowhere

Well, here I am in the middle of nowhere (that’s what my husband calls my parents’ house in rural Missouri).  I love coming to visit my parents and my elderly grandparents, but I rarely get to do it, just twice a year or so.  With things being tight financially lately, it has been a real struggle making ends meet, let alone having gas money to go anywhere.  I am sure most Americans these days can relate. We could only travel sparingly this summer, and I chose “the middle of nowhere.”  But being nowhere is sometimes better than being at the beach, or at some amusement park, or even at home.  I have found that spending time with my family doing absolutely nothing and being bored senseless is the BEST time.  Only God knows how much longer we have together.  My grandparents won’t live forever, none of us will.  And so, we simply spend time with each other. We play cards, we watch the kids catch fireflies at dusk, chasing each other around the house. We remember how to giggle, we go fishing, we eat (a lot), and we generally do nothing. 

It’s not the adrenaline rush some people crave, it’s not much, but it’s EVERYTHING to me.

When was the last time you were “Nowhere” with the people you love?


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