Coffee or Quarters?

It’s Boston hot.* With high humidity even mid-eighties feels uncomfortable. As it goes to the high eighties you’re dripping.

Give me the dry heat of Phoenix and 122 degrees any day. Really.

With the beginning of summer the visible homeless population has increased ten-fold. On my three-minute walk from subway to office I pass by 12 homeless people in varying stage of wakefulness. Some groggy eyed; others loud, ushering in the morning light with raucous interactions helped along by the strong smell of marijuana; three of them curled up, asleep in the doorways of nearby businesses.

It’s never easy. I don’t know much about the homeless, but I do know that there’s nothing simple about it. I do know that the issue is multifactoral and my response is shaped by the complexity of the issue.

quarterI’ve discovered something in the past couple of years as I daily see the faces and slowly learn names of some of the homeless in this area. I’ve discovered that giving quarters doesn’t work well for me. Because a quarter is too easy.

What’s hard is stopping and offering coffee.

“No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” That’s hard for me.

“No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” means a couple of things. It means I’ll get to work later than I wanted. It means I may have the inconvenience of waiting in a line. It means I need to pay attention as I ask what kind of coffee — Cream? Sugar? Hot? Iced? It means they become a person. It means I have to engage the humanity of the person.

And a person is much harder to ignore than a body.

A body is just a body. But a person has a name, likes, dislikes, a personality shaped by life and their response to life, a temper, a mouth, language and more.

A person challenges me to see through the eyes of God, something that isn’t easy. A person is my equal. When I begin to see someone as a person, not a body, not a statistic, I move into uncomfortable and necessary relationship. It forces me to face my prejudice and privilege.

Seeing someone as a person reminds me that “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” 
― C.S. LewisThe Weight of Glory

So offering coffee is my new response. I don’t always offer it, and even when I offer it, it’s not always accepted. But overall, “No, but do you want a cup of coffee?” is teaching me far more than giving out quarters ever could. 

What do you think? How do you, or would you, respond? 

*I qualify heat by describing it as Boston hot as opposed to Djibouti hot which I’m learning defies imagination.

The Underbelly of the Blogging World

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAll the reader sees is the finished product, punctuated by  a picture that reflects the theme of the post. It’s well-groomed and ready for display.

But while housekeeping, indeed spring-cleaning, my soul I was struck by what I will call the ‘underbelly’ of the blogging world. I was convicted of how caught I have been in this underbelly – like a floundering insect entangled in the beautiful but deadly web of a spider.

For those of you who are not bloggers, which is most of my readers (and for that I am so grateful!) bear with me as I take you into this underbelly for just a moment. For those of you who do blog – I’m speaking our language.

It can be summarized in three words: Statistics, Link-ups, and Shares.

Statistics: No matter what platform you use, be it WordPress, Blogger, or another hosted site, there is an administrative page that gives you statistics. This page has numbers, graphs, data, and charts. It’s this page that will tell you how many views you have, how many unique visitors, where readers are from in the world, who read, how long they stayed, how many posts were read that day, that week, that month. It can be a fun page – when viewed in moderation and taken with a tall glass of confidence. But if not taken in moderation – this is an underbelly that sucks you in and bleeds you dry. At its most lethal, it makes you question your worth. You begin to believe that your worth is based solely on how many people have read your blog that day. This is a terrifying thought.

Mentions & Link-ups: CS Lewis in one of his writings speaks of something called “The Inner Ring”. He describes this as the hierarchies in the world and in the areas of expertise where we find ourselves. Every time we think we have reached the pinnacle, the highest place, the inner circle, we realize there is yet one more circle to penetrate. And so it goes – we never feel we will be inside that inner ring. It begins in elementary school with the popular kids, takes different forms as you get older, but always and forever it remains exclusive and feels elusive. It is capricious, this inner ring. One day you may be in it – and the next day you are outside of it.

And so it is with blogging. There are those who we perceive as being in the “inner ring”. They know each other and promote each others work. They do weekly links to each other’s blogs and get thousands of shares and likes on Social Media sites. And if we allow ourselves to enter and get caught up in the underbelly of the blogging world, we want to be in this ring – but it remains just out of reach. We write about the wrong stuff. We are just so far outside of this circle that we will always be relatively unknown. Or we are too old (It’s rare to find a successful blogger over 35) and therefore irrelevant.

“I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”

It’s easy to begin thinking it’s all about that inner ring – the mythical inner ring of the blogging world. We compare ourselves to those who we perceive are there, and we find ourselves wanting as we realize we are outside the ring, and will probably never enter it.

Shares: This underbelly is exhausting and never-ending. A place where we begin to judge our work and our worth based on the number of shares we have received on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-in, Digg, Stumbleupon, GooglePlus, Pinterest, Instagram, Tumblr….it is the underbelly of underbellies.

So what is the solution to avoiding this underbelly?

Identifying an area that needs work and a redeeming touch is only the first step. I have to be willing to either resist the underbelly or stop blogging. It’s that important.

And so I begin. Since Ash Wednesday I have not looked at the statistics page – Not once. It is so healthy. I don’t have a clue how many or how few have been coming by Communicating Across Boundaries. This past week I looked at only two other blogs, I stayed away from reading those who I perceive to be in the mythical inner circle, and was the healthier for it.

And I began praying specifically about blogging and writing, what it means to me, why it means a lot, what I would like Communicating Across Boundaries to be and more. It’s a journey and I have not arrived. But I do know that underbellies suck you in and before you know it, you are compromising to fit a mold. And molds have a way of stifling us instead of freeing us.

So this was one of the hidden places that needed to be cleaned and aired this past week. I wish I could say I am alive in this new found freedom, that my writing will reflect that and honor those of you who come by. But I’m more sobered than alive, more aware that I don’t want to waste your time – instead offering a space of light, rest, hope, and thought in the midst of a world that offers all kinds of underbellies that can catch us.

Thank you for listening.

“The quest of the Inner Ring will break your hearts unless you break it. But if you break it, a surprising result will follow.” CS Lewis

Writing the Old Fashioned Way….With Pen and Paper

We’re ending the week with this great piece from Robynn! After you’ve read it, you may be compelled to pick up a quill and a scroll!

writing, blogging, pen, paperOur son Connor was recently inducted into the international honorary society, Quill and Scroll. The society exists to promote scholastic journalistic excellence among high school journalists. It was started in April 1926 at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa.

I love it that Connor gets to be a part of such a long-standing community of writers committed to good writing but it amuses me to think that it’s called the Quill and Scroll. Connor and most of his cohorts can hardly manage a pen and paper let alone a quill and a scroll.

Last week I was on my way home from Albuquerque and my flight was delayed. Here’s a little something that I penned in my journal:

It’s hard to write anymore with pen and paper. How did I become one of these writers that prefers the computer, the keyboard, the monitor? How did that happen?

I was always a pen and paper girl!

And now here I am stripped of laptop sitting waiting for a delayed plane, inspired to write and yet without my tools—like a knitter without needles or a mechanic without a wrench.

I criticize my own children for being paralyzed without their technology. They’ve developed an insane dependency on their screens. They constantly poke, swipe, tap on screens. They have phones. There’s Facebook and Pinterest and instagram. Games on the laptop. Games on the phone. Games on the Xbox.  Games on the iPod. Even the books they read are imbedded into their technology.

When we lived in India I was “sheltered” from modern devices. We did have a small box television and a VHS video player and eventually even a DVD player. Lowell took our laptop back and forth to his office. When it was at home the kids, considerably smaller then it’s true, had games they played on it…mostly reading games or math puzzles. Lowell had Riven and Mist which provided him some entertainment.

Life was busier there. The children were younger. I was kept occupied meeting their needs and really just living. When I was on the computer it was for the occasional administrative detail. I wrote letters on it, and kept up with our business accounts. I rarely did email–we didn’t have internet in our home in those days.

I remember when new people would arrive in our remote city how shocked they were at the lack of technology we had access to. It frustrated them. They were used to google searching everything. Weather.com had always helped them know how to dress. Allrecipes.com told them what to eat and how to cook it. Google told them where to find things and how to locate them.

But now? How were they to get along? Where could find plastic buckets? And how did they get there? In some ways we became their access to information. We were their search engine. We showed them how to dress, what to wear, how to cook, what to eat. We also encouraged them to engage their neighbours and community for what they needed. Aunties next door knew where to get buckets of every size and colour.

It was hard for me not to roll my eyes at the paralysis these new friends experienced without their technology.

That was before we moved back into the land of instant information! The shock of sudden access was almost as crippling. Almost every question I had was deferred to the internet.

Where do I find school enrollment information? Oh, have you checked the USD 383 website?

Where can I buy a whatchamacallit? You could try online.

How do I get a library card? Go online. Check the website.

How do I cook a turkey? Oh it’s so easy….just look online!

It was astounding. Bank online. Pay bills online. Listen to the radio online. Get news online. Get church newsletters in my inbox. Sign up online. Invitations sent via email. RSVP online.

At first it felt so disconnected and crazy to me. But how quickly I became that same person. I depend on the internet in ways I never did before. I’m used to it. I still have a flash of surprise when someone suggests getting information from there but it’s an “oh yes…I should have thought of that” kind of surprise not a shocking exasperation anymore.  I find recipes there and advice. The girls spilt dark purple nail polish on our light coloured carpet. No need to worry. The internet says apply rubbing alcohol and hairspray and rub like crazy. They did and it worked!! Thanks to the internet my carpet is restored and my anger diffused! I check the weather in far off places before I travel. I book tickets. I make reservations. I check on friends.

Now here I am. I wait for my flight and I’d like to write but I don’t have my computer. I feel the paralysis take hold. Do I even know how to write anymore? Can I still form the letters? Can sentences play out in my brain without a screen to dance on?

I pick up my pen determined. I can do this—

But before I start I better remove the laptop from my own eye before picking out the Xbox from Connor’s eye, or the Kobo and iPod touch from my daughters eyes!

Laced With Grace

Pizzelle - Italian waffle cookie

At Christmas time one of my favorite traditions is making cookies and bars. From Russian tea cakes to Spritz to sugar cookies, the buttery, sweet flavors taste amazing. There are the lemon squares that dust powdered sugar on your upper lip and your sweater; the cranberry butterscotch bars with just the right tart to cut the sweetness; the sugar cookies, light and buttery, frosting of bright colors staining hands and tongue.

As extensive as I think my cookie repertoire is, there is a cookie that I have never made, one that I look at in amazement.

This cookie is called Pizzelle. And it takes a special instrument called a Pizzelle Iron to make them.

They are wafer thin and lacy, fancy and decadent. Filled with butter and just enough sugar, they melt in your mouth. I have talked to those who make them and they confess that it takes hard work and commitment to make them. “The thing is” says one “they aren’t easy. You get really tired. The recipe is large. And it’s easy to burn your hands with the Pizzelle iron”

I listen in horror. I look at her hands and they have a red mark that resembles the marks on the cookies. She has flour and sugar traces across her shirt and her hair has that roughed look of the cook who needs to get hair out of their eyes but can’t use their hands for all the flour, sugar, and butter on them.

“But” she smiles “It’s so worth it! The minute you take a bite you forget all about what it took to get here.”

It’s so worth it.

Those words stick to me. I think of Pizzelles and of life – the hard work and commitment related to both of them. Some of us bear the marks of life’s hot iron and we have a rough and tired look around our eyes. The mess of what life sometimes feels like can’t be hidden – it’s on our clothes and our hands. But as much as we bear these marks, we also bear the imprint of grace and healing.

These lacy cookies are worth it. They are laced with grace. And Life with all the tired lines around the eyes that comes with it, despite the fact that we limp our way into the Kingdom, is worth it. It is laced with grace. 

There’s Something About That First Snow!

The flakes started falling as I walked home from work. It was twilight and the street lights had just come on. The snow flakes reflected off the light and gave the length of the street a magical feel.

There’s something about that first snow.

It’s an all things new snow. It’s a start of the season snow. It’s a belief that wrong can be righted snow. It’s a before I’m bone tired of winter and hate anything that resembles cold snow. It’s an anything is possible and this is magic snow.

Footprints marked my way on the steps and a snow flake melted on my nose.

And I thought about all things grace, all things lovely.

Too often my thoughts go a completely different direction — a cynical inner social commentary on the world and all around me; thoughts of putting up the middle finger when no one is looking; diatribes against all I disagree with. These thoughts are not gracious and they are not lovely, and I have to constantly look to God to capture those thoughts.

But this first snow was a reminder that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things* – and I can somehow do that in this first, white, fluffy, pretty, first snow.

There’s just something special about that first snow…

*Philippians 4:8

Blogger’s Note: Those who know me will laugh at this post – I am known by most as one who hates winter. I mean Hates winter. Or at least I did …. and then 2 years ago I decided I would stop complaining in the winter and something significant changed.

A Heart of Wisdom

A Psalm comes to mind as I pass the Boston Common on my normal route to work. “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom”.

The city is in its normal chaotic Monday morning state with walkers and bikers bleary eyed and impatient. Disheveled and smelly homeless are side by side with Suits and Designer bags, because this is the city and its streets and potholes are no respecter of persons.

And I fear I don’t know what the verse really means. What is a ‘heart of wisdom’? What does it look like? How do I respond with a heart of wisdom? How do I live as one with a heart of wisdom?

Mondays are not a good time for this type of contemplation. I have that weekend hangover that longs for today to be Saturday and the beginning of days off instead of Monday and the ending. Today I would like to be Maggie Smith from Downton Abbey with her famous “What is a Week-End?” so immune is she to the middle class struggle.

But if not Monday, when? If I want to figure out this ‘heart of wisdom’ and I want to live it. I know that putting it off for another day is not wise.

And I may not know what it is, but I surely know what it’s not! A heart of wisdom is not rushed, nor is it apathetic. A heart of wisdom is not proud or narcissistic. A heart of wisdom does not speak before it thinks; does not jump to conclusions; does not boast; does not treat others poorly.

I’ve already fallen in three of these areas and it’s not yet 7:30 in the morning. Is there any hope? Hope is in the verse itself, for as I look at the brevity of life, I am sobered. A childhood friend from New Zealand lost her 19-year-old son to a tragic accident this weekend; cancer seems to be quickly claiming the bodies of people I know and care about; I have people dear to me who would give anything to be able to get up and go to a job. And a heart of wisdom would look through all this to see the big picture, would look through the chaos and pain and see the eternal, live according to the eternal.

“Teach me to number my days, that I may gain a heart of wisdom.” I repeat the verse silently in the elevator to the 4th floor. This today is my prayer.

Wrinkled Beauty

Female beggar at Haji Ali in Mumbai, wearing a...

She’s Wrinkled Beauty. It’s as though all the years multiplied on her face into wrinkles expressing and describing each year; the hard years defined by pain and tears, the good years adorned with smiles and laughter, the mundane years demonstrated by stubborn “I will not quits”.

As I age I recognize more and more that beauty is about life lived well. Beauty is about wrinkles born of love, wrinkles born of living through the pain and hard stuff. Beauty is about a mind that is ever inquiring. Beauty is about a face where a million stories live in the lines of the eyes and marks by the smile. Beauty is about a heart that knows how to love, how to forgive, how to live.  Beauty is about a faith that sustains and can be seen when looking at the eyes, reflections of the soul. Beauty is about wisdom.

Beauty must be earned. Earned through the wrinkles, earned through the years. 

Young women, with their fresh faces, perfect teeth, and ability to wear whatever they want may be pretty, stunning even…but beauty? Beauty must be earned.

And this wrinkled beauty? She’s earned it!

But I have to ask myself – if I truly believe she is wrinkled beauty – why do I spend so much money on face cream?