Skip the small talk

I have breakfast most mornings in a local coffee shop. A long, narrow historic building on the corner of Main Street, the café has a long counter, several tables lined up on a scuffed wooden floor, painted two-story-high tin ceiling, big glass jars full of glossy coffee beans, and the best bagels in town (cooked on a grill, smothered in real butter). Anna has my Americano ready in my regular mug by the time I get to the counter. I usually sit near the back, wedged in a corner at a small table with my laptop (or Bible study book, or journal, or a friend). I’ve been doing this long enough and routinely enough that people know where to find me any given weekday between 8:15 and 9:30. At least a couple days a week, one of my girlfriends will show up and plop down across from me, coffee (or mocha or iced chai) in hand. But whether or not someone shares my table, I’ve noticed that nearly every day three or four different people stop to ask what I’m writing, comment on my Facebook status from that morning, show me pictures of a daughter at prom or discuss their latest run or vent or ask advice or laugh and tell stories or even hold hands and pray. I know them by name, or at least by sight. I have some idea where they work or what they do or if (and where) they attend church or if this is their normal day to come in (and where they normally sit). I know who’s working on a sermon, and who’s doing schoolwork, and who hangs out together on weekends. I’m comfortable there, in “my” coffee shop. It feels like home. I know these people.

But do I really? Settling in to pray the other morning, I found myself feeling uncomfortable. The words were stilted, the conversation seemed awkward, and I was self-conscious. I pray, and I study, but my life has been out of control for several weeks and I haven’t given God the time He deserves. I felt like I’d been away for so long that I didn’t remember how to be with Him. At that moment, God brought to my mind these relationships. They seem real, and they are in fact genuine friendships with really great people. But do we know how to go deep? Small talk is fine, and easy, in a large room full of people. But what would be it be like if there were just two of us, sitting alone in a room, trying to express our most private thoughts? It hit me that I’ve become guilty of letting my relationship with the Lord become superficial. I’ve been doing the social thing, talking about Him, saying hi when I happen to bump into Him — but claiming He’s my dearest friend. He has been that before, and He is willing to be that again — when I’m ready to sit down with Him and close out everyone else. When I’m willing to go deep, expose my emotions, and confess my secrets. When I want to spend time getting to know Him again, not in a public way, not in the way everyone else knows Him, but in my own way. When I want to be a true friend, and not just an acquaintance. When I’m ready to drop the small talk and meet God Almighty face to face. He’s already waiting at my favorite table. All I have to do is sit down.

Writer, writer and writer

On Friday night, my friend Lisa and I had the chance to hear Elizabeth Berg speak, read from her latest, The Last Time I Saw You, and sign our books. She was as delightful in person as her writing, characters and observations are in her books. Of course. Someday maybe someone will show up to hear me do a reading from my latest book. It could happen.

It was also the night I found what may very well be the perfect journal. A new kind. The brand name is ecosystem, and it's approx. 7.5 x 10", about 1/2" thick, in an obnoxious watermelon pink color with a matching elastic strap, quirky patterns printed in the same color on the inside front and back covers, wonderfully smooth paper with narrow, delicate lines, and it even has a pocket in the back. The cover is flexible and satiny-feeling. Oh, and the pages are even (very subtly) perforated. It just feels good to hold. Even though it's not green (either it doesn't come in that size or they were just out at the moment), I think they've achieved journalistic perfection with this one. Trust me, this is a spiritual thing for me.

So now... well, I guess I need to get busy writing.

Something to think about

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. ~Gandhi


I, like many women, love shoes. Unfortunately, I’ve reached a point in my life where comfort matters. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still find cute shoes. My husband doesn’t understand why I have so many, or why I need more. To him, black shoes are black shoes, end of story. (He has one pair.) But to me? The black high-heeled mules go with many of my suits. The Land’s End black sandals have a wonderfully comfy sole and are great to wear with jean shorts in the summer. The black flats with the pewter trim are good for dressing up jeans but still staying comfy, although if I’m going to do a lot of walking I switch to the worn-out black Skechers with Velcro straps. The black and gray slip-ons are kind of quirky; the black sandals with the ankle strap are professional-looking but cool and I can walk miles on the flat 2” heel; and the black sandals with woven straps and wedge heels are great with summer dresses but kill the balls of my feet if I wear them too long. The black Clark’s Mary Janes with the colorful stitching and leather flowers are my most fun (but almost too small) pair. And I haven’t even mentioned the four pairs of black boots — knee-high with spike heels for wearing with certain dresses; ankle-high with pointy toes for certain slacks; casual, cowboy-boot-style for jeans; and warm, soft cable-knit winter boots. My house slippers are even black.
In the natural world, I can justify the “need” for a bunch of different pairs — as long as buying them doesn’t take the place of food or paying bills or providing the needs of my family. But in the spiritual realm, I’ve noticed many of us put on shoes that were never meant for our feet. We put on shoes of unbelief; strap on division and strife and disloyalty; walk around with unforgiveness or resentment or untruth or deception or hate. We put on all these shoes, but we really only need one, for the Lord says we must shod our feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace (Ephesians 6:15). We need to let peace carry us through our days — without pain, without blisters, without vanity. The footprints we leave behind should be gentle and unobtrusive, yet distinct and memorable. The shoe may not be what we’re used to wearing, and it may take some time to break it in. But when we put these shoes on, we discover something surprising — there is no longer a need for any other pair. No matter how much we try to justify it. Not even if they’re on sale.

A tribute to Mah

I wanted to write something about her — not filled with platitudes, and not pretending she is suddenly a saint because she is no longer with us — but simply with a whole lot of love and sadness for what we’ve lost. People use many words to describe her — feisty, spunky, witty, independent, stubborn, strong-willed, interesting, forthright, bright. All those things are true, but she was so much more than the woman we saw these past few years.

She loved to play games. When I was younger, we would sit at her dining room table, kitchen lights off, dishes washed, with Jeopardy or the news on TV. We’d probably had catfish and macaroni and cheese, or cheese soufflé and chipped beef gravy (Kerry’s and my favorite) for dinner. Dutch apple pie for dessert. And after bowls of grapefruit and orange sections, meticulously peeled the night before, we would have homemade mush and bacon for breakfast, or maybe cowboy coffee cake, baked in metal ice cube trays. Lunch might be hunky noodle soup, or maybe grilled Havarti sandwiches on thinly-sliced Pepperidge Farms bread. With cut-glass trays of celery and carrot sticks, and big glasses of milk. The chairs we sat on had flowered needlepoint cushions she’d made herself. Moose and Jet, two sweet-tempered, loving black labs who slept under the dining room table, occasionally woke and snuffled our bare ankles. She played Solitaire after she’d worn us out playing Kings in the Corners or Yahtzee. Always frugal, she hated to roll a Yahtzee with sixes. She thought it was much better to get the 50 points from 5 ones, or to roll a large straight in a single roll, but if we happened to get lucky and roll one she wouldn’t hesitate to call us, emphatically, a fink!

The whole time I was growing up, when she lived in her house in Decatur, she was always hot, probably because she worked so hard. All the time. She wore lightweight cotton sleeveless dresses in colorful patterns – flowers and vegetables – that she made herself. She wore many of the same dresses my whole life — they still held together, they still fit, and they still suited her.  Mah hated my long hair being in my face – the very sight of it made her too hot. She fanned herself and pulled her dress away from her body to cool off, but she rarely slowed down. Mom says she used to dread her mother’s visits because she knew how much work they would do — cleaning windows with ammonia, conditioning her antiques with linseed oil, scrubbing and planting and cooking.

Unlike my mother growing up, we didn’t have to wear homemade clothes, but instead got to shop for school clothes with her every summer. We would have to squat, showing the corduroy pants weren’t too tight to sit in, and button the scratchy wool coats, stretching out our arms to show we wouldn’t outgrow the sleeves anytime soon. Dot would sit in his wheelchair outside the entrance to the dressing room and give us a thumbs up or thumbs down, and when we got back to their house we’d put on a fashion show for him.

Mah had pantyhose that were older than I was. She had a penchant for costume jewelry that featured fruit and vegetables (when she wasn’t wearing beautiful “real” jewelry, custom-designed as a gift from her husband or bought in some far-off, exotic locale), and she gravitated towards sky blues and colorful patterns to fill her home. She loved to garden and hated the animals that nibbled on her plants and burrowed under her grass, and went to great lengths to try to foil them. In spite of the animals, the plants would survive, and she would slice bowls full of thin cucumber slivers fresh from the garden, soaked in vinegar with onions, and fill antique pitchers with red, orange, pink and yellow zinnias.

She taught me the difference between the words lay and lie and didn’t hesitate to correct my grammar. (The writer in me thanks her today.) She taught me the Lord’s Prayer one summer when I stayed with her and told me to pray it every night before I went to sleep. I still do, because she’s a force to be reckoned with. She made sure I washed my hands before dinner. She sent me care packages at college, boxes packed tightly with homemade lemon bars and lace cookies and wonderful peanut butter buckeyes. She wrote me long letters on legal pads and encouraged me to do my best (and in Dot’s later years, he signed them after her with a big, scribbled, laborious, emphatic “dot” in place of his name). There were no limits to what I could do, as far as she and Dot were concerned. They managed to make me believe that. And they were so proud of their grandkids and great-grandchildren.

They served as a real-life example of living the American Dream. They grew up in the Depression and had to borrow $50 to start my grandfather’s medical practice. But they were smart, and frugal, and they worked hard to save and invest. She did her nurses’ training at IU, and she defined herself by that, in spite of working very little in that role professionally. But she showed her abilities when she nursed her son Mike throughout his long battle with brain cancer, and again during the 13 years her husband suffered from ALS. Her determination could be seen in the way she got him in and out of bed several times a day, sat him at the table to read the paper (and turned pages for him), cooked for him, fed him, took him places, turned him, bathed him, deciphered his words, and showed her love for him in a selfless, committed way. And she did it all on her own, by choice, because nobody else could do it like she did. Her force of will probably added years to his life. He was strong and loving and wonderful, but she contributed a fierce determination that very few could top.

Which brings me to her marriage. As a granddaughter, I confess to being oblivious to the state of their marriage. As an adult looking back, though, I’m awed by the depths of love that were there. All I truly know, though, is that the force of their relationship was so strong, that to this day, whenever I talk about “her,” I find myself instead talking about “them.” I’ve been doing that here. My grandfather has been gone for 21 years, yet – partly because of her – he still remains somehow present. Just as she will remain present in our thoughts, opinions, and actions.

She taught me a lot about family, about the importance of building a life for them – about loving them, yes, but even more so about giving them the tools they need to succeed. She valued hard work above all else. She was content only when she knew that her family was all safely where they were supposed to be. She could relax when she knew what we were fixing them for dinner. She was one of the most patriotic people I’ve ever known, always mentioning at the top of the list of things for which she is thankful that we get to live in this country. Her husband served as a surgeon in WWII and her son served in Vietnam. She was fascinated by American Indians and I think felt a personal responsibility for the injustices they received. She fretted about politics because she wants there to be something left for her great-grandkids, a country to be proud of, a country that is not in debt, a place to live safely and with the freedom to be educated and to work hard to achieve success. She knew education made a difference in the quality of their lives, so she and Dot helped send people to school (we got a letter last week from another doctor we didn’t know they’d helped), sponsor students overseas, and donate generously to educational institutions. They established college funds for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and she set up a scholarship at Southmont High School to benefit students entering a medical field.

She lived through many hard times, but also good times. I’ve heard stories of tent parties in their yard, scrapple breakfasts, good friends, dancing, dining, entertaining, organizing the medical auxiliary, visiting the nuns at St. Mary’s, and going to the country club. They traveled extensively themselves — to Ireland, England, Scotland, Italy, Hong Kong and the Far East, among others — and she traveled to the Holy Land. Her life had been lived, and she was ready to go. I can’t tell you how many times I heard people try to inspire her with stories of Aunt So-and-So or a father-in-law who lived to be 96 or 103 — and I watched her shudder and say how sorry she was. So even though we’re sad today, we rejoice that she finally got her wish. She’s with One who adores her, One who will keep her free from pain, and she is probably dancing with her beloved Willie right now. And I’m so glad for her.

Her daughter and other granddaughter became nurses, I’m sure in part because of the example she showed them. I didn’t get the nursing gene, but I’m realizing I did get something – a dubious honor, maybe, but one I won’t deny. When my friends are frustrated by my independence, my stubbornness, my strong opinions, or my political leanings, well, maybe, just maybe at that point Mah is living on in me. Because she taught me to use my mind. I do have opinions, and they are usually strong ones, and I reserve the right to tell you what I think. On the other hand, I also want to be informed. I may not be the cook she was, and I’m not a gardener or a canner, but I can appreciate a good meal as much as she did. She helped plant in me a love of giving and a desire to help people change their lives. I have a good education and want that opportunity for others. I understand the value of family, and I’ve seen how a strong, determined woman can make a huge difference in many people’s lives. So, although she may not have been perfect, she was an amazing woman, and I’m proud to say I’m her granddaughter.

Louise Walsh Smullen

July 11, 1915 - April 4, 2010

As much as I rejoice that she is no longer suffering, I'm sad that I lost my feisty, strong-willed, interesting, bright, witty, opinionated (but loving to her family) 94-year-old grandmother.

It's been a strange, sad week, just knowing she's not there — here — any more. My sister says she pictures her dancing with our grandfather, because they always loved to dance. (That reminds me of another photo I found yesterday, which I'll also attach.) I think she's busy looking around up there, thrilled to be able to walk again, full of life, healthy and strong, being led around by Willie, her husband who died in 1989, laughing all the way. At least that's what I believe.


Life is a wacky combination of sadness and joy, all mixed up together. And God is good, no matter which phase you happen to be going through at the moment. But I'm thrilled to also be able to report the wonderful news I got today — Mom's latest scans are clean! She's been in remission for about 4 months this time. I'm so thankful that even though I've lost my grandma, my mom is still in good health. God has already taught me that I can't believe numbers and statistics, so I say with much faith that I believe she'll be around for a long time. And that makes me really glad.
(P.S. The little one in the sunflower hat is my daughter Katie, who is now 16.)

Drink deeply

And he went a little farther, and fell on his face,
and prayed, saying, O my Father,
if it be possible, let this cup pass from me:
nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.
~ Matthew 26:39

In the Garden, Jesus prayed, “Let this cup pass from me.” Much has been written about the cup, and what it entails — the suffering involved with taking on all of mankind’s sins. But one day, as I was listening to one of my favorite worship songs, God showed me something new. In Kari Jobe’s song “The More I Seek You,” she says, “I want to sit at your feet, drink from the cup in your hand, lay back against you and breathe, feel your heart beat…”

Drink from the cup in your hand. It could mean many things — spiritual nourishment, for example. But the “cup” Jesus refers to is about suffering and temporary separation from the Father — in other words, the critical purpose of Jesus’ life. In order for us to come to a place so intimate that we can rest at the Lord’s feet, we need to be willing to drink from the cup He has for each of us. That doesn’t mean that we will necessarily have to suffer — some of us might, many of us won’t. But it does mean accepting what the Lord has for us.

He made each of us for a specific purpose. No one else could have fulfilled Jesus’ purpose. I can’t fulfill yours, and you can’t fulfill mine. But if we draw close enough to the Lord — if we offer ourselves to do God’s will, as Jesus did — then we will be drinking from the cup He has for us. We’ll be using our talents. Raising our kids with gentleness and kindness. Singing if we can sing, writing if we can write, loving, nurturing, praying, worshipping, hoping, helping, showing, shining. We’ll be drawing closer and closer to God, feeling more and more thankful that He drank from that cup 2000 years ago, understanding more and more clearly just what that meant. When He drank, He knew all that you would do, but He also knew what you are capable of overcoming. And who you are capable of becoming. He thought of you that day, overflowing with an unbelievable love for you. Yes, you. Honor Him today by accepting. Say, “Yes, Lord, I want what You have for me,” then drink. Deeply and fully and thirstily. Every last drop. You'll be glad you did.