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Tears and tissues…

There’s a powerful quote that unexpectedly surfaced this morning as I quietly sobbed about the news of two more mass shootings within hours of each other: “There is a sacredness in tears.  They are not a mark of weakness, but of power.  They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues.  They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love…”  ~Washington Irving~

While tears are literally a body fluid serving to cleanse and lubricate our eyes, more importantly, they are often formed by the crying associated with strong internal emotional responses.  Modern culture is more forgiving of crying because of the known health and mental well-being benefits, but many cultures still consider crying undignified or even unacceptable forms of response.  So why tears and tissues?  Beyond the tragic news this morning, several recent situations have shed powerful personal light on the sacredness of tears.

We often joke in our family about the emotional responses evoked from advertising.  Take those Hallmark commercials (“when you care enough to send the very best”) and most of their movies; they get us every single time.  There are a couple of TV shows stimulating emotional responses because the characters are somehow living out our lives on the little screen.  Daily news events, poetry, short stories, novels, magazine articles, cards, letters, emails, social media, and more…all can awaken and summon unexpected emotional responses through shared human connection.

These days, it’s quite unusual to see my dad cry anytime.  His emotions and responses are fairly stagnant due to his advancing Alzheimer’s.  He’s not easily moved to great JOY or deep sorrow because he takes most news and situations with little-to-no reaction (this is how I know he’s not really processing all life throws his way). Gratefully, his witty sense of humor and teasing are still intact, thus we can “spar” with one another on his good days.  A couple of weeks ago, though, he had an emotional meltdown when the reality of my leaving on a short trip came to pass.  I talked him through the plan with his white board, handed him tissues, hugged him up tight, and did my best to reassure him his “team” would be with him every step of the way in my absence.  His favorite caregiver took over and I gingerly climbed into my vehicle to leave for the airport.  It completely broke my heart to experience this surprising response from him, thus I quietly cried clear across the country on the plane until I fell asleep exhausted (sorry, lady in the seat next to me).

My family knows, in an ironic twist quite outside my comfort zone, I cry more now than ever before in my life.  It’s not unusual for me to wipe tears of JOY or sadness on a daily basis.  This new phenom entered my world exactly three weeks to the day after mom’s passing three years ago, when the reality of losing her physical being (long after losing her mental and emotional being from Alzheimer’s) finally surfaced in a powerful delayed response.  I was quietly participating in the Anglican Evensong service at York Minster Cathedral in York, England.  Our little group was sitting in the beautiful choral loft on the opposite side of the chorus and vicar leading worship.  The dam of emotions suddenly broke and a profound flood of quiet but ugly, messy crying ensued.  My traveling companions vividly recall the bizarre scene of continuing to sing the liturgical responses and helplessly scrambling to find just one tissue, a scarf, or anything to help me stop the continuous flow of fluids.  Once the service ended and I managed to somewhat reign in my quiet sobs, the vicar approached our little group.  He quietly handed me his personal handkerchief along with the invitation to walk with him.  The two of us strolled leisurely along the magnificent handcrafted stone structure with its stunning collection of medieval stained glass, talking about loss and hope in this journey we call life.  The vicar ended our conversation by gently reminding me how “shedding tears as Jesus did is a powerful emotional release when dealing with all this season of your life evokes; simply embrace and celebrate the process in all its forms…” 

During a recent lunch with a friend of mine, we commented on the fact we’ve both cried enough tears in the past year to possibly resolve a saltwater shortage.  (Fun fact:  Research shows humans make 15 to 30 gallons of tears each year on a normal basis).  Often times, and in both our cases, the physical aspect of our tears clears the way and helps us gracefully move forward in hope.

I have a wonderful friend who enthusiastically collects and carries bandannas with him each day.  Because of him, I’m always on the lookout for unique designs to gift to him, knowing if I needed one at any time, he would have one for me.  Yes; you guessed it; he recently gifted me with one, thus starting my own collection by emotional default.

So here’s hoping my friends, we remember to embrace the sacredness of our tears on our journeys…and please find a little comfort in knowing I’m making it a mission to have a tissue or bandanna ready to give you when your flood of tears flows.  🙂

Leading and power sweeping…

Even in his final moments, he led with his strengths…and he did it in a profoundly calm and peaceful way… St. M’s oldest beloved brother, Tom, passed from this life to his eternal reward today.  While we’ve spent the remainder of this day preparing, pondering, and sharing remembrances, this one particular story keeps resurfacing as an illustration of a man with extraordinary strengths and gifts.  If you will, please indulge me in a moment of personal reflection…and Tom, this one’s for you, big guy…

The legendary coach, Vince Lombardi, once hosted a four-day football clinic for coaches and devoted two full days to just one play, the Power Sweep.  If you know football history, Coach Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers won five league championships, including the first two Super Bowl Games because of that one play (see, St. M; I DO listen to your football lessons).  Everyone, including Green Bay’s competitors, knew the Power Sweep was coming, and yet, they still couldn’t stop it.  Coach and his team developed a strength that became an unstoppable force of positive momentum, and they led with this strength every time.

As a part-time coach of YMCA football for 24 years, Tom often visited with me about teaching and learning.  He was fascinated how educators (and coaches) find ways to be masters of not only their own strengths, but of those in their care.  Tom understood how focusing energy and practice, mastering fundamentals, and developing individual strengths created a culture of personal excellence on the field, and off.  The more time spent developing and leading with strengths, the more each person became successful in them.

After one particularly lively conversation with Tom during a Van Am family meal, St. Michael shared this extraordinary moment from his young life, perfectly demonstrating Tom’s very truth:

“It wGreen Bay Packersas August 20, 1966. In May of the year, I was struck by a car sustaining severe, life-threatening injuries.  Living within a full-length body cast for several months, my father sought to provide encouragement and motivation for powering through during the long recovery process.  As a member of the Dallas Salesmanship Club, he secured sideline game passes for the Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers game at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.  My oldest brother, Tom, wheeled me in my stretcher chair onto the field at the 40-yard-line (what an experience of a lifetime!).  Late in the third quarter, the Packers were driving down the field using their infamous Power Sweep on almost every play.  When they reached the 35-yard-line, we had a perfect view to watch each play develop.  Bart Starr handed the football to Paul Hornung, who followed a parade of blockers around the right end.  The Cowboys defended the play well, pushing the onrushing team of blockers and runners to the sidelines exactly where we were located.  Sensing an imminent collision, my brother Tom sacrificed his quarterback body (because he was the star quarterback on the high school team) to block the blow by diving in front of the onrushing Packers and Cowboys.  Thankfully, eighteen players ran around my location without injury or incident.  After the game, Bart Starr walked over and presented Tom with an autographed chin strap from his helmet, saying, “Bud, you had the best block of the entire game.” 

Now THAT is knowing your strength…mentally, physically, emotionally…and leading with it, even in the midst of possible defeat and bodily injury!

Tom often said, “We don’t need an average team or an average “you;” we need the best you…and when you lead with your strength, you share your best always.”  He never forgot the power of one simple, clear truth:  lead with your strength.

Thanks, Michael, for sharing this most personal of stories and heeding the advice of your big brother all these years; he’s a part of the reason you’re called Saint.  Tom, thanks for sharing the true spirit of brotherhood and love with the world by actively demonstrating how to lead with your strengths as a part of your profound legacy.  May we all take a moment in this season of hope, peace, joy, and love to pause and powerfully reflect on our strengths and how best to lead with them.  Just imagine the possibilities when we genuinely find more ways to create positive Power Sweeps of our own in the coming year…

Silent and Listen

SILENT and LISTEN…the same six letters spell these two words.  Stop for a moment to just be silent and listen.  Really, just stop!  Be silent and listen…

Most days I’m grateful to have the opportunity to stay aware of current events, but lately I find myself filled with profound sadness, grief, anger, and disappoint to watch or listen to news.  On the other hand, my dad (who lives with us) spends most of his waking hours watching and listening to news, regardless of what’s being shared.  While watching a national newscast just this morning the reporter was updating events and speaking with survivors from the Synagogue mass shooting in Pittsburgh when our local news interrupted with “shots fired at local high school.”  I froze; as a recently retired 34-year educator, my heart stopped and breath escaped my body. Silence and intense listening occurred.

As an example, during my tenure I lived through numerous “newsworthy” events–some staged drills and others real-life events. Until retirement, I was truthfully on edge, constantly waiting for “when, not if.”  Educators and learners must train for events (shelter-in-place, evacuation, and lockdown), but until the situation calls for REAL action, there is no way to predict how anyone will respond in the moment.  I’ve been the teacher in the classroom with students in lockdown for four+ hours AND the administrator in charge at the command center until first-responders take command.  I was one of the fortunate ones, thankfully surviving real tornadoes, massive hail storms, torrential rains with a roof collapsing, gas leaks, a building fire, lightening strikes, and multiple active shooter DRILLS, but never a real shooter on campus. After any drill or real event, we did what’s called a “hotwash.”  It was my opportunity to learn…to gratefully be silent and really listen.

As another example, as one who sits in the choir loft looking into the congregation on any given Sunday morning, I’m constantly scanning the back of the church, watching anyone entering or exiting, and waiting for “the event.”  In fact, every time I enter any building, form of transportation, or anyplace other than my home, I’m scanning for the nearest exit and creating a quick plan for safety purposes.  SOOO much training!  My family has come to appreciate this about me because they’ve learned to just be silent and listen.

In the unfortunate age of mass shootings in the country I call home, it somehow still stuns me to face a constant barrage of talking heads on social media, TV news, radio waves, and other forms of modern communication.  They talk and act like they know and understand.  Unless you’ve lived through an actual situation, you do not know and understand.  You can appreciate the seriousness of the situation, but placing words into others’ mouths, speculating, wool-gathering, and more will not bring back human loss.  Just be silent and listen!

Love, encourage, uplift, and strengthen one another…these are words I gratefully grew up hearing from the adults in my life.  In these troubling times of more questions and few answers, it is more important than ever to respectfully be silent and listen.  There’s a time for talking, asking questions, building others up, problem solving, and finding solutions, but learning the fine art of being silent and listening first is critical.  After all, most of us have two ears and only one mouth. We are ALL part of the problem; we can ALL be part of the solutions and actions needed in moving forward  First, we must be silent and listen.

So…on Day #16:   What’s your personal plan to be silent and listen? 

I’m gratefully and lovingly continuing to work on this daily.

Grateful Game…Day One

I know; it’s been months since the last post.  So much life…

Today, however, marks 40 days until my personal favorite holiday of the year, Thanksgiving.  In an effort to jump start the season of thanks and giving, these next 40 days are all about GRATEFULNESS.  As a way to express appreciation, share kindness, and reflectively narrate on gratitudes of gratefulness, there will be one question posted each day (similar to prior years with Christmas Questions) so feel free to play along with the Grateful Game.

As you know, being grateful is an extraordinary feeling of appreciation for a kindness, a welcome experience of gratitude and thankfulness.  Being authentically grateful brings pleasure and contentment on a level we could genuinely use in our daily world.  The word itself comes from the Latin derivative, gratus, “showing grace, blessing, and JOY…” Just like daily physical exercise, we must create mindful ways to powerfully practice daily gratitude in order to benefit mind, body, and soul.

Day One:   What is ONE thing you are grateful for today, only today?

This is personally easy:  rest.  It’s been a challenging week of weather-related anxieties, preparations, cleanup, regroup, and more.  Being grateful for simple, comfortable rest, including deep sleep, rejuvenates all functions.  Purposefully planning an entire day of rest with little-to-no agenda is a self-care tool to gratefully embrace. My favorite Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau noted, “I am grateful for what I am and have…my Thanksgiving is perpetual.”   What’s your ONE grateful thing today?

Mommas…

My momma always told me the best sermon is a great example, thus she and daddy (for better, or worse sometimes) taught us daily by their example.  My sister and I know we “chose our parents well” because in the midst of everyday life, there were the daily lessons by example.

As I watch moms today in the grocery store or at the park, it occurs to me how moms must be as wise as Solomon, as smart as Socrates, as unconditionally loving as Mother Teresa, and as disciplined as Coach John Wooden.  My mom demonstrated daily who she was and lived by the legacy she created with sass, grit, humor, and a dash of humbleness.  She shaped our character, expected integrity, and encouraged us to dream big for the future.  We learned to control our attitude and effort because those are really the only two things in our constant control.  And just like her classroom, mom set the bar extremely high but provided a cushion when we stumbled along the way.  Our mom was our first and most important teacher, advocate, and disciplinarian; she set the rules and we followed them (mostly).

While mom’s physical voice is now silent, the echos of her lessons ring strong inside my soul.  I’m grateful and thankful for the example of my mom.  At times I was so busy growing up and then raising two little women of my own, I often forgot she was growing older too, but mom was always smart enough to hold on, and then brave enough to let go on her journey…  I’m abundantly grateful and thankful for the example of my mom (and dad) who raised me well so I could one day be a mom to the two grown miracles who shower my world in JOY!  Happy Mother’s Day to all you moms!

Signs and Promises of Spring…

As spring brings new hope and promise from a long winter and the beautiful dogwood blooms slowly begin to open their petals in my backyard woods, I am reminded today of the powerful story my Granny B shared each Easter:

dogwood3

There is a legend, that at the time of the Crucifixion the dogwood had been the size of the oak and other forest trees. So firm and strong was the tree that it was chosen as the timber for the cross. To be used for such a cruel purpose greatly distressed the tree, and Jesus, nailed upon it, sensed this.  In His gentle pity for all sorrow and suffering, he said to it: “Because of your regret and pity for My suffering, never again shall the dogwood tree grow large enough to be used as a cross. Henceforth it shall be slender and bent and twisted, and its blossoms shall be in the form of a cross…two long and two short petals. And in the center of the outer edge of each petal there will be nail prints, brown with rust and stained with red, and in the center of the flower will be a crown of thorns, and all who see it will remember…”

While digging through some of Granny B’s writings recently, I came across a poem she penned in 1934:

  • In Jesus’ time a dogwood grew to a stately size and a lovely hue; 
  • Strong and firm, its branches interwoven and for the cross of Christ, its timber was chosen. 
  • Seeing the distress at this use of wood, Jesus made His promise still holding good: 
  • “Never again shall the dogwood grow large enough to be used just so…
  • Slim and twisted it shall be with blossoms like the cross for all to see;
  • As blood stains the petals marked in brown and the blossom’s center with the thorny crown. 
  • All who see it will remember Me, crucified on a cross from the dogwood tree. 
  • Cherished and protected this tree shall be; a reminder to all of My agony.”

When Granny moved from her beloved Tennessee to Texas in 1955, she brought a beautiful dogwood tree for replanting in her new yard.  On our recent move from Texas to North Carolina, I brought a sprig of the original tree (still on Aster Street in Dallas) as a poignant reminder of the legend, and of His loving grace in our lives… Happy Spring, y’all!

JOY…a simple three-letter word packing a whopping thirteen Scrabble points!

When was the last time your heart was lifted by a wave of pure JOY…when you felt so excited by an unexpected miracle you couldn’t stop yourself from smiling?  When was the last time in a busy day you found a way to spread JOY to someone else?

It’s no secret one of my all-time my favorite words is JOY.  My family and friends know this only too well.  Momma always told me I came into this world “singing robustly with great JOY” and have actively pursued JOY in simple, everyday ways as a constant quest.

This time of year, we see the word JOY all over the place.  You can find it on cute ornaments, in greeting cards, on wrapping paper, and especially on the smiling young faces of those whose eyes sparkle and marvel at the wonder of the season.

Days may be long, but years a far too short.  So why do we reserve JOY only for special occasions, holidays, or stolen moments?  If we want JOY to be the story of our years, JOY must really be the story of our daily lives.  JOY must be the way we choose and the habits we form as we travel on this journey of life.

JOY surrounds us, but we must actually teach ourselves and others the way to find it and how to share it with others, thus leading me to a couple of challenging seasonal questions for today:  How will you share JOY with those you hold dear during this JOYous season?  How will you convey JOY to others who look to you for guidance in finding it within themselves?

It is my sincere hope you give yourself and others the gift of JOY.  Catch, cultivate, and crave it!  If you make room daily for JOY, you may just find JOY is a strong magnet for more.  Invite just a little into your life and see how quickly a little JOY grows.  May great hope, peace, and love surround you and those you hold dear as you #SpreadJOY!