Surrender

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At the age of thirty my mother was left alone with three small children in an era when women were still mostly housewives, not yet integrated into the work force. She was faced with raising her little family with no money, not even a life insurance policy to ease her worries while she quickly learned how to make ends meet and provide safety and security for herself and her family. A little more than then years later she would have proven her mettle and determination to make things work, but her troubles were far from over. The symptoms of her bipolar disorder revealed themselves in full force with a psychotic episode of paranoia that would make her life even more difficult in the years to come.

Her hospitalization and treatment would weigh heavily on her mind for the rest of her life. It was a frightening experience for everyone, but mostly for her. The nurses carefully checked her belongings to be certain that she had no objects with which she might harm herself. They spoke of great fear that she might be suicidal. Of course no such thoughts were ever present in my mom’s mind. Her faith in God and profound belief that he would always love and protect her insured that she was never going to consider such violence upon herself. Even in the worst episodes of her illness suicide was not part of her frightening thoughts. The psychiatrists who took the time to know her well all insisted that she was never at risk of killing herself. Somehow her profound faith was like a protective shield of armor even in her most confused moments.

This past Easter season I found myself being reminded again and again of how much my mother loved God. She was one of those persons who proudly displayed the palms that she received at church on each Palm Sunday. During Holy Week she virtually lived at the church beginning with Holy Thursday and culminating with special services on Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter itself. She seemed to have a very special relationship with Jesus, and she found great comfort in the story of his short life here on earth. She often spoke of how he protected widows, and she sincerely believed that he was actively caring for her from heaven.

Good Friday was a particularly moving occasion for my mother. She seemed to understand the message of Jesus’ death on the cross far more clearly than most Christians. She often cried at the very thought of the pain that he endured and the injustice of his execution, but she saw it as the ultimate sacrifice that anyone might make for his/her fellow human. She also thought of it as a model for the kind of suffering that each of us will experience on earth. She felt that such challenges would ultimately be a passing thing when our time here reached an end and we are reunited with God in heaven. She was so unswervingly convinced of the truth of her beliefs that she literally glowed with joy on her deathbed in the knowledge that she was about to receive the ultimate reward for all humans who have done their best to live good and decent lives.

I admittedly often felt sorrow for my mom. It seemed to me that she had convinced herself that the tragedy of her life was not nearly as bad as some seemed to think. She focused on the prize and never once wavered in her beliefs. She often spoke of how blessed she was and how good God had been to her. Not poverty, nor illness, nor the loss of those that she loved ever led her to question that love that she was convinced he had shown her. She daily read her bible and made it from one difficulty to the next with an optimism that sometimes annoyed me. It was only at the very moment of her death that I felt that there was something bigger than the challenges of humanity at work in our lives. In the years since she left this earth I have found myself remembering just how much comfort she found in the words and deeds of Jesus. I have recalled how she actually felt privileged to have suffered a bit like he did. She found so much joy in the spiritual relationship that she had with him, and she truly believed that he was the reason that she had made it.

My mother was a very special and saintly woman, a tower of strength in spite of the illness that rose up to threaten her again and again. Where I became angry about her fate, she saw it as life unfolding just as it was supposed to be. Somehow she found virtue even in her own imperfections. Her interpretation and understanding of the message of the Christian gospels was one of great exultation. I on the other had often over thought and focused on the horrors that I saw in the world, particularly those inflicted on her. Unlike my mother I wanted to know how she could be so content when she seemed to have been give so little. I had a hard time accepting her belief that she was fortunate and blessed.

In the years since her death I have found myself pondering her life and realizing just how carefree and generous she always seemed to be. While I was worrying about worldly things, she was viewing life through a far more spiritual lens. She did not need the trappings of humanity to feel good. She was truly like the lilies of the field in her innocence and her willingness to find beauty and peace in small things. She needed little more than her bible to feel safe and secure.

Somehow this past Easter season I began to truly understand her life, and mostly her faith. I had moments when I was overcome with emotion in the realization of how powerful her relationship with God had been. I felt her presence in my heart and it allowed me to feel closer to her and to God than ever before in my life. I realized that I too have been the beneficiary of God’s goodness even when it was not apparent to me. Somehow I began to have a clearer understanding of his message to us. While I cannot explain it to the extent that I wish, I now understand that it is about surrender, the same kind that Jesus demonstrated when he allowed himself to die on a cross. It is not about rules or judgements or the kind of things that we humans have added to virtually every religion on earth, but about love and trust. That is the secret that my mother discovered, the truth that kept her untroubled even when her story seemed to be so unfair. I’m working on becoming more like her. I still have a long way to go, but I can see a ray of light that has never been there before.

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Fashion

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A good twenty years ago one of the principals with whom I worked was complaining about a shopping excursion with his middle school aged daughter. He described how she had begged to purchase a pair of jeans with an acid wash that made them appear to be well worn. The jeans were expensive due only to the brand, so he was appalled by the idea of paying so much for something that looked like it had come from a rag bag. He asked the girl why they didn’t just go to a thrift store and find a pair of used jeans that cost maybe one sixth of the price. He wondered if I had ever experienced what he saw as the ridiculousness of fashion or if he was simply out of touch.

I laugh even to this day as I recall his concern, and wonder what he may be thinking if he has walked through the women’s and teen’s clothing sections lately. Trends have gone from washed out colors to purposefully placed holes in jeans. Sometimes the legs are even lopped off  to create shorts with stringy edges. Even I have gone from being an ardent supporter of the vagaries of fashion to wondering if procuring some very old jeans at a thrifty cost might make just as much sense as paying premium prices in the name of fashion. It would not take much skill to create the same looks that are on display in expensive boutiques with far less expense.

Fashion has evolved in so many directions over time. My husband was only recently longing for the days when women showed up at church on Easter Sunday with lovely pastel dresses accessorized with hats and gloves. He spoke of how elegantly his grandmother dressed even for Saturday shopping excursions. Now at church on Easter Sunday we will saw everything from jeans with sloppy t-shirts to shorts that seem more appropriate for a day at the beach. There are only a handful of ladies who still adhere to the idea of dressing up for services complete with wearing beautiful hats that compliment their lovely suits and dresses.

We have become a more casual society and I don’t mind that at all. I personally don’t like to wear hats. Most of them don’t fit right on my head and leave me with a headache after a few minutes. I am actually quite happy that I no longer have to worry about finding one that suits my features. I also hate the upkeep of those white gloves that we used to wear. I say good riddance to such things, but I miss others like the requirement of wearing hosiery for more formal occasions. There are very few women over the age of forty whose legs look good without stockings. The queen is correct to insist that all royals wear hose. They really do look nicer than pasty old legs and they aren’t all that uncomfortable.

I once looked into the possibility of wearing the same brand and color of hosiery that Princess Kate wears because she always looks so natural. I found out that I can even order a pair on Amazon. I was quite excited about the prospect of hiding the always and veins of my legs in a way that appeared to be almost invisible until I noticed that one pair costs forty five dollars. I knew that with my luck I would find a way to put a run in them on the first outing, so I decided not to even experiment with a pair. The problem is that finding an alternate source that does not look funny in today’s stockingless world is not that easy, so I just go with the flow of the current trend even though I would prefer to somehow camouflage my legs.

I’ve seen crazy things come and go. I was once part of the mini-skirt revolution back when hiking skirts was shocking to my elders. I loved the look and showed off my slender gams quite willingly. My girls wanted parachute pants and Vans which I never purchase for them because I thought that the price of those things was ridiculous. I still feel a bit guilty for not indulging them with looks that were popular at the time. My grandmother wore dresses that trailed down to her ankles and my mother got by with very short skirts by claiming that they were little playsuits. Women of every era try different ways of wearing clothing, some of which are actually stunning and timeless and others that quickly become dated.

I have settled into more classic looks in accordance with my age, but I actually appreciate the trendier styles for the younger set. It’s fun to try different styles and to determine what works best. I suppose that my mother was right whenever she told me to create my own looks by choosing the colors and the cuts that enhanced my figure rather than going with the flow. Each person indeed has skin tones and body issues that can be made to look lovely with a bit of care in choosing. The women who master such techniques are always beautiful and not obsessively worried about how they appear to the world.

Fashion is a superficial kind of thing, and yet I truly enjoy attempting to create a look for myself. I’ve lost two inches in height so I have had to change the way I pick clothing. My mid section is no longer long and slender so the sleek tower look doesn’t work for me like it once did. I do my best to hide my flaws and accentuate the things that are best about me. Mostly I now just want to blend in nicely. I sometimes have to remind myself that seventy year old women don’t have to look dowdy, but they should not look ridiculous either. There’s a fine line between staying modern and seeming to be a bit daft.

My granddaughter was recently invited to attend a military ball at her school. She wisely chose a very understated and classic dress, one that would work throughout the ages. I suppose that in the end the styles of women like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly are defined by their timelessness. A photo of Coco Chanel looks as lovely today as it did decades ago. Perhaps the key to fashion is to have some fun now and again but always remember that in general less is more.

Forgiveness

lent-easter-2780As a young Catholic girl I observed lent with earnestness but not much thought. I received ashes on the first Wednesday of the season, abstained from eating meat on Fridays and made the grand sacrifice of giving up sweets of all kinds. In reality it wasn’t that difficult to do because we never had sugary things around our house. Anything like a piece of chocolate or a bag of cookies was a rare treat. The truth was that I simply carried on as usual but gave myself a pat on the back for being good enough to totally insure that no sweets would pass through my lips during the forty days before Easter.

As I matured I learned that a far better exercise during the lenten season was to reflect on the way in which I was leading my life. After all, that is what Jesus did when He traveled into the wilderness. I realized that following His example was a much better way of honoring Him. I spent more time reading spiritual tracts and designing plans for becoming a better person. One of the things that I thought about a great deal is forgiveness. Jesus Himself made the ultimate sacrifice of His life to atone for our sins. Even as He hung on a cross He forgave those who executed Him along with one of the thieves who was crucified next to Him. It’s always been difficult for me to even remotely imagine the betrayal, abuse, brutality and pain that Jesus endured at the time of His death and yet His final act was one of compassion and absolution. In the death of His humanity He taught us how to be more Godlike.

It is so difficult to set aside our anger and hurt in a willingness to completely pardon someone for transgressions against us. We hang on tightly to our negative feelings, nursing them as though they somehow make us stronger. We are scornful of those who in their seeming weakness seek to bind old wounds and provide second chances. Ours is a world that seems to prefer unrelenting warriors over those who offer mercy. Peacemakers are not as much in vogue as crusaders. Diplomacy is trumped by force.

Our politicians only rarely dare to stand for what they personally believe to be right rather than adhering to a prescribed political platform. These days it is odd to see someone going against the groups to which they belong. We can’t seem to find enough understanding to realize that very little that happens in real life can be easily defined by hard and fast rules. We have all too often distorted the messages of the messiahs who created various religious sects. The idea of unconditional forgiveness is sometimes deemed to be hypocrisy, cowardice, a lack of real moral compass. Many among us have become judgmental people with unwaveringly self-righteous indignation. Thus is the root of so much trouble in the world today.

We insist that our republicans and democrats battle with one another rather than unite in common causes. Anyone who even suggests that they might find ways of compromising is cashiered out of the discussions. We prefer a stew of anger, distrust and sometimes outright hatred. We have religious groups who easily condemn and ostracize certain individuals and groups rather than attempting to demonstrate acceptance of differences. They preach a kind of ugliness that seems to counter good faith. Friends and family members turn their backs on one another, unwilling to forgive and forget slights and misunderstandings. They grow apart and turn unkindness into hatred.

All of the rancor and distrust is toxic and in its most extreme form leads to killing an innocent man on a cross for His thoughts or placing people in gas chambers for their religious beliefs. It leads to murder and war. It destroys relationships and rips families apart.

Perhaps the season of Lent was meant more than anything to be a time for forgiveness and mercy, a time when we work to repair rifts that have occurred in our lives. It is so easy to love and embrace those who think like us and agree with us. It is far more difficult to feel a sense of kinship with someone who has been cruel or in opposition and yet our challenge is to reach out to those very people.

Those of us who are Christians believe in our own redemptions, given as a gift to us from our Savior. Somehow we too often see ourselves as being exempt from a need to pardon our fellow men and women as well as ourselves from the imperfections that we all possess. One does not have be religious at all to understand the necessity of working together in the community of mankind. If we accept the complexities of living and admit that everyone makes mistakes we are more likely to demonstrate a willingness to embrace even those who have hurt us in the past.

We don’t have to be naive in attempting to reach out to our transgressors. There are certainly situations in which it is all too apparent that nothing that we do will overcome some evil other than imprisoning or extinguishing it. We had to defeat Adolf Hitler or he would have continued his murderous rage but there is little reason for us to push a former friend out of our lives simply because he or she has disagreed with our philosophies.

I have to admit to feeling unfiltered hate for George Wallace when I was young. He always seemed to be snarling and spewing the ugliest forms of racism. He was as despicable as anyone who ever governed others. I felt no sympathy for him when his wife died of cancer nor did I shed a single tear when he was gunned down in an assassination attempt that left him wheelchair bound for the rest of his days. Somehow I reveled in the karma that seemed to overtake his life with a vengeance. I hoped that he would rot away in pain and suffering but that is not how his story ended.

Wallace was unable to care for himself. That job was left to a black man of great faith and spiritual strength. He catered to the former governor’s every need and he also demonstrated a kindness of spirit that was unlike the ugliness of his boss. Day after day he treated Wallace with dignity and respect and in those interludes the two men began to talk and form an unlikely bond of friendship. Somehow the caretaker transformed the very soul of George Wallace until one day all of the former governor’s hate was stripped away by the love that had been accorded him. In a dramatic turn around Wallace asked his valet to take him to a church to speak with the very people whom he had once derided as being inferior and unworthy of even basic human rights. At that moment he wanted to apologize and so he ultimately did. It was unconditional love that brought about his stunning change of heart and it taught me that mercy often has the power of changing even the most hardened heart.

Goodness has always had more power than evil. In this season of lent rather than giving up something perhaps it is best that each of us make the biggest sacrifice of all, setting aside disagreements and forgiving someone who has heretofore been a source of anger and dislike. Think of how much change would occur in just forty days if every single one of us were to find enough compassion to mend even one relationship. Forgiveness is the sacrifice that we should all seek.