Monthly Archives: December 2019

Gift of 2020

On the first day of each semester, I am filled with anticipation of the new gift I get to open as I enter the classroom. What will the students be like? What new insights will they share with me that I have never considered? Who will share their stories that I crave to hear? Who will open my heart to incongruences I’ve never recognized? Who will laugh at my jokes? 

I try to explain to students that they are offered an incredible gift in each class they take. They get to learn from a scholar who is filled with passion for the discipline. They get to witness teachers at their best doing their beloved life’s work. They get to meet people from all over the world, yet how many take the time to really talk to the shy boy from China or the serious girl from Saudi Arabia or the smiling exchange student from Germany? How many from Chicago ask the rural Indiana kids what it’s really like to grow up on a farm with daily chores of milking cows and weeding gardens? How many farm kids ask Chicagoans about hanging out in alleys and city parks or about the fear of sitting on the front porch in the heat of summer?

Philosopher Simone Weil wrote that the gift of attention is a miracle. Years ago, we studied her work in the freshman seminar course at Valparaiso University, and the conversations with students remain with me.  Skeptical pre-cellphone freshmen would view me as an idealist when I would argue that miracles occur in conversation. As evidence, I sight our friends who adopted a child from China as a result of hearing a similar story at a dinner party. To reiterate my point, I argue that my husband and I would never have married if we hadn’t spoken to each other. I also ask what sane person would make a lifelong commitment to another if not for the intervention of a miracle? 

Joy is a miracle. The birth of Christ is a miracle, and in it, the world rejoices. Joy is found in connection with others, with God, with nature, with art, with movement, with attention. At church a few weeks ago, the priest asked what gift we will give Christ this Christmas. I thought of the little drummer boy who thought he had nothing to give. That’s how I feel sometimes. How foolish is that? We’re blessed with opportunities to promote goodness just by being, not necessarily by doing. We have loads to give and it occurs in our interactions, our sharing of our talents, our quiet moments, and our attunement to others and the world around us. All of us have the potential to be there for one another.

My gift this upcoming year is to pay attention, to listen, to feel others, and to be wholly present. It is a practice, and it won’t be easy. I have a tendency to live my life looking in the rearview mirror. Any driver knows that you can’t drive that way without crashing. I also tend to live full-speed ahead in planning the next visit to see my children and grandchildren, preparing for the next party, considering the next syllabus or essay, or . . .  in the old days, training for the next marathon. 

What gift do you offer in 2020? 

Visit Again

On Monday, Kevin, Brendan and I visited my mother at Mercy Circle, the retirement home on the southside of Chicago where my mom lives. My mom is 92, and she was thrilled to see my sons.

“Well, you both have red hair!”

“Yes, we do, Grandma,” smiled Brendan.

“And yours is curly,” she said pointing to Brendan, “and yours is straight,” she indicated toward  Kevin.

“Yes, Brendan got the Scannell curls, and Kevin has Neylon hair,” I explained.

“I bet people say things to you about your hair.”

“Yes, they do,” Brendan confirmed. “A woman once stopped me on the street and asked me if my name was Conner. I said, ‘Close, but no.’ She said she was looking for her red-headed son that she gave up for adoption. She thought I might be him.”

“Hmm, I hope she found him,” replied my mom.

I witnessed this interaction as my wheelchair-ridden mom adoringly held each boy’s hand. They stood awkwardly accepting her praise for a family trait they did nothing to acquire. 

We stayed for awhile while Brendan repeated that he lives in LA, and Kevin reiterated that he lives in New York. She was intrigued that they came such a long way to see her. 

We wheeled her down the hall where fellow residents, mostly nuns, were watching A Christmas Carol.  My mom introduced Brendan and Kevin and explained that they live far away. Each woman reached out to hold the boys’ hands, and they complied with grace. 

One of the nuns said, “You both have red hair,” and I thought, here we go again. Brendan and Kevin smiled and nodded. My heart swelled as I witnessed the beautiful dance between elderly and youth, basic observation and welcoming acknowledgement, the quest for connection and the gift of presence. 

When it was time for us to leave, my mom wanted to escort us to the exit. At the door, she extended her boney, discolored hands, grasped Brendan and Kevin’s lily smooth fingers, looked into their eyes, and said, “Please visit again. Next time, you don’t have to bring your mother.”

She’s still got it. We doubled over laughing.  

Whah’d ya say?

Six months ago, Tim and I moved to “the lake,” the Chicagoland term for Lake Michigan. We love it in Michiana Shores, and we frequently see our friends in Chicago and Valparaiso. We are not lonely even though we have only made one real friend here – Reed, the man who lives next door.

This greatly concerns my ninety-two-year-old mother. She grasps that we have moved although she still introduces me to the women on her floor at Mercy Circle as her daughter from Valparaiso. I do not correct her. I’m grateful that she recalls that I live in Indiana.

Every time I visit my mom, she asks me how I like my new house. And I always respond, “I like it.” She asks, “How are the neighbors?” Until I met Reed, I said, “I don’t know. I don’t know anybody.” I explain that the house has a long driveway and is set in the woods. I describe how Michiana Shores is different from Long Beach, the beautiful town a mile away where my parents’ bought a second home in 1973 at Stop 14, the resident beach of many cherished memories.

Last weekend, Tim and I visited my mom. Sliding into our norm, my mom asked, “How’s your new house?” I said, “I like it. It is very quiet.” A few minutes later, she asked, “How’s your new house?” and I replied, “I like it. It’s quiet.” Two minutes later, she asked, “How’s your new house?” Deciding to mix it up a bit, I added, “Nobody comes down our street.”

With deep concern, she leaned back in her wheelchair and asked, “Whah’d ya say?”

I said, “The house is quiet. Nobody comes down our street.”

“Oh, I thought you said ‘nobody comes down our chimney.'”

She tried to explain, “With all these songs about Santa Claus . . ..” and she couldn’t finish her thought – not because of age but because of pure mirth. I laughed my head off, and she nearly careened out of her chair.

Apparantly, Christmas carols are played in excess at Mercy Circle.