A small gesture, with great meaning

“No, no, no! I’m fine,” she insisted when he stood up to offer her his seat. But he had already vacated it, and was moving out into the aisle of the lurching commuter train to make way for the pretty young woman.

He gestured to it. But she hesitated. He was old; what was left of his hair was thin and grey. And he was stooped. He held his left hand aloft, his left elbow bent at a 90 degree angle as if it was hurt. Maybe it had been – in an accident or as the result of a stroke at some point in his past. She must have noticed.

But he was also dapper – if ever the word applied to a man it applied to him – dressed in a tidy, if mildly ill-fitting (ever so slightly over-sized) jacket, button down shirt and tie that looked like they might have fit him 20 years ago. When they would have been fashionable. When he wouldn’t have been stooped. When he wouldn’t have favoured that arm.

“I insist,” he said gently, but firmly. And even as he swayed with the rocking of the train, his voice was steady, solid, resolute.

And so, she weakened. “Are you sure?” she asked, probing, inviting, no – willing him to renege on the offer. But he merely nodded, and reached out for something to grasp, steadying himself.

So she sat.

It was the simplest of exchanges, the smallest of gestures, all over in the span of less than a minute of measured time. But I watched it happen.

And I marvelled. Was it my imagination, or was he standing just a little bit taller and straighter than he had been a moment earlier – before she had accepted his modest act of chivalry?

Or was it just that all of the other men on that train, the younger men than the one now standing solo in the aisle gripping the handle on the seat back for support, seemed to get a little bit smaller? To shrink down in their seats. To stare straight ahead, or out the windows, or at their phones. Anywhere but at the man who, through a kind gesture, had reminded us all of another time. A time when self-sacrifice was valued above self-interest, and when things like manners and gentility mattered.

***

“Either life is holy with meaning, or life doesn’t mean a damn thing.” – Frederick Buechner

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Counting the cost

Is there anything you would give your life for?

I’ve been mulling over my personal response to that question recently. With Remembrance Day fast approaching, it’s a timely one to ponder. Because, of course, I might not have the luxury of being here to ponder it in the freedom that I do, had others not given their lives to preserve that freedom.

Today, there are lots of people who give their lives to things—namely, other people, ideals, or causes—that they think worthy. There are far fewer who give their lives for things.

That is as it should be. Life is a priceless gift and we’re only given one. The relative scarcity of time we are each allotted should alone make us aware of the gift’s inestimable value. You don’t voluntarily give up something so precious.

But over the past few weeks, I’ve been learning about some people long ago who determined that they valued truth more than life itself. And when faced with a choice to renounce the truth and live, or testify to the truth and die, they chose the latter. They were martyrs.

While researching stories of Christianity’s earliest martyrs for a course I am taking, I learned that the Greek word for martyr originally meant “witness.”

Today, the word “martyr” connotes everything from a person who pretends to suffer as a strategy to gain sympathy, to a person who commits an act of terrorism—killing them self and others—as a strategy to gain paradise. (Although one expert I read said that to apply the word martyr to terrorists, “is to evacuate the meaning of the term in any Christian way of understanding.”)

But at the dawn of Christianity, a martyr was simply a person who professed that they acknowledged Christ as Lord of life, and therefore refused to offer sacrifices to Roman gods. Because of that refusal, they were seen as atheists and dangerous subversives. Untold numbers of Christians lost their lives when they openly confessed their faith, and were put to death as a result of that confession. It was those innumerable Christian witnesses (many of whom were subjected to the cruelest of tortures and humiliations as they died) who were responsible for giving the word martyr its traditional association with death. They were flayed, beheaded, devoured by wild beasts before stadiums filled with roaring spectators, crucified, and nailed to stakes before being burned alive.

Those same witnesses would also become the first people to be revered as saints, so much so that in the earliest days of the Church, the words martyr and saint were almost synonymous. Admired for their courage and boldness in proclaiming their faith (even when they knew that doing so would mean paying the ultimate price) the martyrs were mere human beings like us who lived, loved and who were loved. But they chose to sacrifice their lives rather than their convictions—even in the midst of grave suffering. As a result, they were held up as examples for others to emulate.

We have writers to thank for much of this state of affairs, because an entire literature developed—beginning in the second century—that was intended to keep the memory of the martyrs and their trials alive. Known as Acta, these written accounts recorded bits of the judicial process to which the martyrs were subjected, bits we can still read today.

Scholars say that these accounts have been edited, dramatized and embellished—although the extent to which they say so differs. Still, it is impossible to read the Acts of the Martyrs and not be moved. Through their stories, we see in these ancient men and women qualities that the early Church valued and wanted to teach, like: courage, integrity, truthfulness, trust in God, forgiveness for their tormentors, and a steadfast belief that death was not the end, nor was it to be feared as if it were. But the stories also reveal a fact that persecuted Christians around the world today know to be true: martyrdom is not something to be sought or wished for. It is an evil, wretched, bloody business.

And so when I read the following headline a couple of weeks ago, it made me pause: “Cairo bishop urges Church to be ready for martyrdom.” It reminded me that the founder of the Christian faith counselled people to “count the cost” before determining whether to follow him.

And it reminded me that for too many people, even today, that cost continues to be very high indeed.

“To love and to be loved”

A former colleague appealed to his Facebook friends yesterday to offer their thoughts about an important question. Diagnosed with stage four cancer some months ago, he has transparently shared the highs and lows of his life since then through social media, with good humour, courage, and characteristic sass. Yesterday’s comments though, were uncharacteristically solemn.

He recently learned his cancer is dormant. “I got to thinking about what all this means,” he wrote, “and I believe it means that I have been given more time.” He went on to invite his friends to share their views on how he might make the best use of that gift. “Is it solely for me to carry on with all the things I hold dear? … Or is there something greater that I should do with the added time?”

I thought about whether I should respond – we were not, after all, intimates – and I wondered if I even had the right to speak into his life on such an intimate question. But he was the best boss I ever had. What made him so were simple things: his obvious love and enthusiasm for what he did, his approachability, his genuine trust in and care for the people who reported to him, and an ever-present twinkle in his eyes that said no matter what kind of chaos was erupting, everything would be alright.

So when some words came to mind that seemed fitting, I shared them. I’d read them recently while studying the life of Mother Teresa as part of the requirements for a course I’m taking.

The diminutive nun taught: “You must live life beautifully and not allow the spirit of the world … [to] make you forget that you have been created for greater things – to love and to be loved.” 

To love and to be loved. The words resonated when I came across them, so much so that I wrote them down in a journal I keep of favourite quotations. But they make life’s aim and purpose sound so simple. Could loving and being loved really be the greatest thing? After sharing the quotation in response to my former boss’s query, I pondered that question for the rest of the day.

*

I was still thinking about it last night, when my 84-year-old mother came for dinner. I’d promised to help her hem a pair of pants she’d recently purchased. I admit I almost called her to reschedule, because there was a paper I needed to research for school, and I knew she’d understand. But thinking about that question prevented me from picking up the phone.

Our meal over and cleared away, my mother asked, “Am I keeping you from anything you need to do?”

I thought about that other question, the big one, before answering hers. “No mom. Not a thing.”

We sat shoulder-to-shoulder in my kitchen, working with our needles and thread, each stitching one leg. For a while we chatted. For a while we stitched in silence.

As we worked, I thought about how my mother taught me to sew when I was just a girl. For a year, we both had part-time jobs doing piecework for the same company, sewing patchwork aprons, placemats, oven mitts and things. We must have spent hours back then, shoulder-to-shoulder, working on projects together. But I hit high school and developed other interests. Mom continued to sew, but it’s been years, decades even, since we’ve done anything like that together. Throughout my entire adult life (until five months ago when she sold her house and moved to town) mom lived in another city. During all those years, our times together had focussed on visiting, not projects.

So working alongside her last night felt special. The complete task lasted less than an hour, but I felt my entire spirit expand during those minutes, the way your lungs do when taking a long deep breath of fresh, cool, mountain air. I sensed it was a gift.

Pausing to re-thread her needle at one point, mom told me how much she was enjoying her evening and asked, “How long has it been since we worked side-by-side like this?”

“It’s nice for me too, mom,” I said. And it was. Really, really nice.

And in that moment I realized I’d found the answer to the question that had been rolling over in my mind all afternoon.

 

Gratuitous and intentional insult

I am not a political animal. But there are some things that happen on the political stage that just cannot be ignored. Donald Trump’s self-described “locker room” talk is one of those things.

I am a Canadian. And U.S. politics have, typically, engaged me even less than the politics of my home and native land.

But I am a woman. And I have two daughters. And if writing about my experiences can in some way contribute to a wider conversation about the need for human beings to treat one another with courtesy and respect – regardless of gender – and for our political leaders to be people of integrity who model that kind of respect, then they will be words well written.

I was 16 the first time a man “moved on” me (to use the words of the U.S. presidential candidate). The man was in his 40s, and in a position of authority. He had offered to give me a ride home and while en route, he reached over and took my hand. I didn’t like it. But I didn’t pull away. I was confused; why would he want to hold my hand? He was married. I didn’t understand. But I didn’t pull my hand away. I remember being afraid I might offend him.

At the end of the ride he leaned over and kissed me. On the mouth. I remember getting out of that car as fast as I could, and wiping my hand across my mouth as I walked away. I remember feeling like I’d been covered in slime. But I told no one. I doubted myself, wondering if I was just misinterpreting his actions. I blamed myself for not pulling my hand away. But I tried to avoid being alone with him after that.

I was 18 the next time it happened. Just walking down the street in Toronto. A busy street. A teenaged boy walking with his friends approached from the opposite direction. I remember he was obviously younger than me. Maybe 14, 15. But as he passed he reached out and grabbed my crotch. I remember hearing his laughter. We were just two people, passing each other on the street. It was all over in a heartbeat. But I felt humiliated. Embarrassed. Horrified. What made him think he had the right?

The next time I was 23. A colleague at work – another married man (also well up into his 40s), made a pass at me. Shocked and revolted, I lashed out. I pushed him off of me. But I remember feeling betrayed. I had liked the man, trusted him. I avoided him after that. I doubted my own judgement. I wondered if I was too trusting.

Three separate incidents, each of which I’ve told myself over the years, was not a big deal.

And yet each one of those incidents is stamped on my mind, because each one left me feeling just a little bit violated. Those men (and that boy) deliberately “moved on” me, taking something from me – even if it was only a little bit of innocence – that they had no right to take. Apparently, your mind doesn’t let you forget things like that.

It causes me to believe every single one of the women who are coming forward now, saying that Donald Trump once made a “move on” them.

If he did what he is alleged to have done to each of these women, he may have long since forgotten about it. But they haven’t.

*

“The human body is sacred. Most of us understand, even if we don’t think about it, or have a vocabulary to talk about it these days, that the human body is not just a piece of meat or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a different moral status than a cow’s body or a piece of broccoli. … Because we have this instinctive sense, we feel elevated when we see behavior that fuses the physical and spiritual. … We feel repulsed — a little or a lot — when the body’s spiritual nature is gratuitously and intentionally insulted.” – David Brooks

 

 

 

 

31 things I’ve learned from 31 years of marriage

Wedding day photo

My husband Doug and I mark 31 years of married life today.

This, less than 24 hours after hearing about the split of one of Hollywood’s power couples. Social media has, apparently, been filled with weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the demise of #Brangelina. So for those who might be tempted to give up on the idea of love and marriage because of that demise, I’d like to offer hope in the way of sharing some lessons I’ve learned from married life. One lesson per year.

  1. No one really knows what goes on in a marriage except the two people involved.
  2. In marriage, character counts. Honesty, integrity, humility, loyalty, faithfulness, respect, good humour, the ability to forgive, and to persevere all matter. A lot.
  3. Character matters in both partners.
  4. No one is perfect. No one. But together, two imperfect – but committed people – can build something perfectly wonderful and deeply satisfying.
  5. Physical attraction never goes away. If the sound of his voice, or the look in his eyes, or the feel of his hand in yours makes your heart beat faster in your 20s, there’s a good chance it always will. (Providing that all of those other qualities I mentioned in point #2 above are also there.)
  6. Sacred vows are important: but only if you’re a person who believes in the inviolability of a sacred vow. Otherwise, I suppose they’re not worth much at all. (See point #2.)
  7. There are times in marriage when the ONLY thing that keeps you committed is your commitment to your vows. When you get through those times, you’ll be so very glad you stuck it out. (See point #5.)
  8. Prayer – alone and together – can be a lifeline. When you feel like you’re at the end of your rope and don’t know where else to turn, getting on your knees can bring help, hope and healing in a way that nothing else can. Getting on your knees together can bring about a level of intimacy that nothing else does.
  9. If you make each other laugh – and if you love each other’s company when you’re dating, chances are good that you always will. But it’s important to build in opportunities for fun and togetherness, to intentionally nurture the laughter. Otherwise, life can become dreary.
  10. If dancing together brings you joy, then dance! Dance in the kitchen or in the living room or the bedroom. Dance to music, or make your own.
  11. Love is a feeling, an emotion. But it is also an act of the will. When the intensity of the feeling diminishes – as it does – choosing to continue to love, and to act with love, ensures the feelings transform into something deeper, more resilient and satisfying.
  12. Trifling habits can make you make each other crazy. (He brushes his teeth in the shower. I perpetually use his hairbrush.) Some things just have to be forgiven – again and again …
  13. At a certain point you realize that some of the things that once seemed so important to do battle over, really aren’t that important after all. You learn to overlook those things, and find you’re both happier for it.
  14. There were times – in the early years of marriage – when I know we both wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into.  What got us through those times? See points #2, #5, #6, and #8 above.
  15. When children come along, marriage can take on a whole new depth and purpose. Suddenly there are wonderful, incredible, amazing human beings on the planet, born as a result of the love you share. It’s astonishing, and you realize you would do anything for these little people, which is good because the extent to which they need you is almost overwhelming. Having a partner who is truly a partner in the midst of all that neediness can be the difference between deep satisfaction and despair.
  16. Seeing your partner love your children well can make you prouder and more in love than you ever thought possible.
  17. There are years of sheer exhaustion when the demands of work and family life can take a tremendous toll. But things get better. And when you get through those years, it’s a gift to be able to look at each other and say, “We did it together.”
  18. Children grow. And leave. They make their own choices and build their own lives. The leaving can be excruciating. But if you and your partner are there for each other, it can make all the difference.
  19. Having a friend who’s been at your side – through thick and thin – for 31 years, who loves you in spite of all your failings and weaknesses is like winning the lottery. Only better.
  20. It’s important to have each other’s back. If you don’t, who will?
  21. It’s important to be each other’s greatest fan, loudest cheer-leader and strongest supporter. If you don’t, who will?
  22. While character is important going into marriage (see point #2), marriage is also one of the best character-builders around.
  23. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of loving, willing self-sacrifice in marriage. On both sides. (See point #22).
  24. Marriage brings more than just two people together; it brings two families together, which also yields challenges and joys. How to get through the challenges? See points #20, #22 and #23.
  25. At times, marriage can be harder than you ever thought possible. At other times, it can be pure bliss. If you’re lucky – if you’ve chosen a partner of good character, who shares your values and goals – then you’ll find that most of the time it’s better than you could have imagined.
  26. If you’re both completely committed to your marriage – even during times when you might not feel completely committed to each other – you’ll find there is no such thing as “irreconcilable differences.”
  27. I truly believe that in my marriage to Doug, I got the better end of the deal. The thing that astonishes me, is that he says he feels the same way. I’m not sure what lesson to take from that – but I know there’s one in there somewhere.
  28. If I had it to do all over again, I would.
  29. Becoming “Patti Paddey” – a name I’ve had to explain and justify, again and again since the day I said “I do,” has been worth it.
  30. Bodies change. Hair grows grey. Parts sag. Passion matures. And it’s all good.
  31. Over the course of 31 years, you build a lot of shared memories. Some are wonderful, some are painful. But the fact that you’ve shared them has a way of making you grateful for each one – and of intensifying your gratitude for each other.

*

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

                                                             — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

*

Preparing for more surprises

A shelf of textbooks

I’ve long believed “All truth is God’s truth.” The statement may have become a cliché but it accurately summarizes my thoughts. I believe truth resides in God and originates with God. Jesus claimed to be truth personified and said that truth would set people free.

Holding this conviction has been freeing. At times, when I’ve sensed others feeling defensive – particularly in situations where long-held beliefs, admired leaders or cherished institutions were challenged, I’ve felt emboldened by the certainty that we need not be afraid of questioning “sacred cows” because it’s better to know any truth, no matter how uncomfortable or difficult, than to believe, live with, or perpetuate a lie.

But as a seminary student, I’ve been in for a few surprises. I’ve learned that questioning my own entrenched beliefs can be difficult; even more so when those beliefs are so deeply rooted that they have simply become a subconscious part of who I am. Learning something that challenges heartfelt convictions can be shocking, uncomfortable, even painful. First, is the awareness that I may have put my faith in something as being true, which may not be, and then there is the realization that an alternative – which I might have once dismissed or even never considered – could be closer to the truth.

As a person who likes boundaries, rules and definite answers, it can be discomfiting to confront the reality that my search for definite answers seems often to yield only further questions.

What we believe matters, for the content of our beliefs shapes and determines how we live. The Christian way presents itself as being both the right way of being human and as being revealed truth. I’ve built my life on my understanding of that truth as it’s been revealed to me. Having my understandings challenged and corrected can feel like the very foundations of my life are being shaken.

For almost five years, I’ve been studying part-time at seminary. As I prepare to begin another academic year I am reminded that I must approach Scripture and my studies in a spirit of humility and open-mindedness, being careful to put my faith not in my interpretation, nor even in anyone else’s interpretation – but in God alone.

And I must prepare for more surprises.

*

“All great spirituality is about letting go. I say this as an absolute statement. … Spiritual wisdom reveals that less is more. Jesus taught this, and the holy ones live it.”

– Richard Rohr

*

 

Of pickles, procrastination and promises

jars of pickles

I loved her from the moment I met her. Lois is at once kind, humble and sweet, yet also tough, strong and wise. At 84 and recently widowed, she is grieving. Her eyes will redden and rim with tears at inexplicable moments; you can’t live and love for more than 60 years with a good man and not have every aspect of life upended when he is gone. And yet, at a time when some people would succumb to self-pity, give up or give in, shy away from others or shrivel up in bitterness, Lois actively engages in life and in her work, seeking out opportunities to enrich the lives of others.

I know, because she has enriched my life.

The first time I met Lois, I came home and told my husband, “When I grow up, I want to be just like her.” She made me lunch that day. Everything was homemade: from sweet grape juice, to savoury casseroles, to buttermilk pie that melted in my mouth. And the pickles! I had never tasted such delicious pickles, and said so. When I left, she gifted me a jar of them. My family devoured them in one sitting. So the next time I saw Lois, I asked for her pickle recipe, and vowed to try my hand at pickle-making when the season came around.

Cucumber season came around a couple of weeks ago, and as I harvested a few tasty ones from my small garden I thought about pickles. I told myself I should get out and purchase the supplies I would need. I should visit a farmer’s market and buy the pickling cucumbers and the dill. But I can be a world-class procrastinator when I’m afraid or intimidated, and with only limited canning experience, the prospect of making pickles felt like an enormous hurdle.

Hearing of my stalling tactics, Lois took pity and said she would gladly mentor me through the process. And so it was that early yesterday I found myself touring her impressive flower and vegetable gardens as she wielded a spade, digging up the fresh garlic we would need.

Standing in her kitchen, sterilizing jars, scrubbing and trimming cucumbers, she told me stories from her life, and of lessons she’s learned. When at one point I commented on her impressive gardening, culinary and home-making skills she reminded me, with a story from her childhood, how she’d learned that we’re all given gifts, and it’s our duty to steward those gifts to the best of our ability.

Then, because it seems she will not receive a compliment without giving one in return, she said, “I couldn’t ever go to Africa and write a book.

Jars of relish and sweet pickles

Relish and sweet pickles in Lois’ kitchen.

We worked from 9:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. You can see some of the fruits of our efforts above. (The photo at the top of the page shows dill and bread-and-butter pickles, the one immediately above – sweet pickles and relish).

At the end of our day, I thanked Lois for her generosity and labour. I told her she’d given me a gift that would last throughout the year – and maybe even for generations to come.

“A labour of love,” she clarified with a hug, and a smile.

At lunch time today, my 20-year-old daughter sampled some of the relish.

“Mmmmm …” she murmured, licking the spoon. “How do you make relish, mom?”

“I’ll show you next year,” I promised. “We’ll make it together.”

*

“Use what talents you possess: the woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang best.” 

– Henry Van Dyke

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