Be the gift

How did I end up sitting on this metal bench next to a Customer Service desk? I just wanted two $25 gift cards, but instead the cashier rang up one $50 card and one $0 card. After talking to three different employees while nearly sweating through my Christmas red sweater and with no time to rectify the mistake because I needed to pick up kids from school, I left with what I thought was the $50 card, only to discover while sitting in the carline and finally examining the receipt that it was the other one.

 

I dropped off my kids at home and drove back to the store. My parting instructions from management were: “If you want to change this, come back and ask for me, (insert Assistant Manager’s name here),” so that’s what I did. I didn’t want to get in that long December return/exchange line, so at first I wandered around looking for my assistant manager friend.

 

“Do you know ______?” I would ask vested employees, as if I were searching for a missing child. “Have you seen her?” Finally, I found one of the employees who had been a part of the original purchase, and she helped me find the correct member of management. And that’s why I’m sitting here now, waiting while she checks the store log to find which card has what. As shoppers walk past me, I wonder if they think I’ve been caught shoplifting and that’s why I’m sitting here with no bags and no buggy. That’s silly, I tell myself, why do you assume people think you’ve done something wrong?

 

Other than being a slight inconvenience, this is really not a big deal. It’ll be worked out and I’ll soon be on my merry way, so in the meantime I’ll sit and watch the busy afternoon foot traffic. In spite of the festive decorations and the countdown to Christmas, generally-speaking, people look tired. They look stressed. They look not-so-Christmas-Spirit-like. A mom just snapped at her young son as he wailed for something she wouldn’t buy him. There’s some tension over a bike return at the Customer Service desk. No one is yelling, but there is a cloud of disappointment lingering over the participants in the bike return dispute. Everyone in that line looks they’d rather be anywhere else doing anything else at that moment.

 

I’m suddenly aware of an aspect of Christmas I hadn’t considered before. We (me included) get so caught up with the buying and wrapping. We can easily become consumed with lists and costs. So what if I were the gift? Not that I don’t think we should give each other presents! I’m not suggesting we eliminate any opportunities to be generous and kind. But as I sit on this metal bench on this busy afternoon, I can choose to be the gift. Nothing material. Nothing to be bought. Nothing to be wrapped. My smile, my understanding, my attentiveness can be what this stressed-out group needs this afternoon.

 

When the assistant manager comes back with my loaded gift cards, I can be the gift of calmness without a trace of self-righteous anger. When I get home, I can be the gift of patience with my kids while I try to juggle helping with homework, making supper and getting kids to ball practice. Hopefully, if I keep looking for ways to be a gift to others, it will become my natural inclination, then it might become contagious. Imagine what a pile of presents we’d have if we all endeavored to be a gift!

Famous

When I was 7 or 8 years old, my sisters and I were in Davis-Kidd Bookstore in Nashville, shopping with a couple who were friends of my parents. A woman approached us and asked the couple our ages and commented on our general cuteness. Although the woman might have seemed like any ordinary Nashville-area resident out running errands, I recognized her voice instantly. Even without her trademark straw hat topped with fake flowers and $1.98 price tag dangling to the side, I had watched enough episodes of Hee Haw to know it was Minnie Pearl.

 

I have a hard time imagining what it would be like to be famous. To be recognized by people everywhere I went. To be mobbed by fans and photographers. To have the ability to give people a lasting memory and a treasured anecdote to impress friends and strangers just by being in the same room with them and acknowledging their existence in the universe. No wonder so many are drawn to the pursuit of fame, especially considering that at our very core, one of the most basic human desires is to be known.

 

Even though Jesus’ friends had the ultimate example of humility standing in front of them, they weren’t exempt from this clamor for fame. They even argued about it, speculating who would be the greatest in the kingdom and right on the heels of Jesus’ exclamation about his imminent death.

 

Jesus’ reply to their earthly ideas about fame was to bring a child to set in front of them. Then He said something that stopped their quarreling while also no doubt giving them a riddle to puzzle out during future fireside moments of quiet contemplation. “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my Father who sent me. Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.” -Luke 9:48 (NLT)

 

What did they think about this seemingly backwards path to greatness? How could accepting a lowly child give you access to the Prince of Peace and the Mighty King of the Universe? But Jesus was the master of these mind-blowing assertions about righteous living. He wanted them to understand the vanity of their kind of greatness. He wanted them to take a giant bite of the Humble Pie he had sliced up for them. It was as if He was saying, “Stop looking for ways to step on each other as you climb to the top. Instead, look down and notice these little children. Giving them your attention won’t make you world famous, but these actions will gain you fame in heaven.”

 

So strive to be famous—famously kind, famously generous, famously brave. Win awards for being the best listener, the most thoughtful, the truest friend. Hold the Box Office record for the highest-grossing number of encouraging words. Make the Fortune 500 list for the richest, most genuine friendships.

 

Paparazzi may not camp out in your front yard, waiting to take photos of you as you pick up your newspaper dressed in your bathrobe, but you will be on the real path to greatness.

Volunteer tomato plants

I aspire to have a magnificent garden someday. In my imagination, I grow heirloom tomatoes, delicate lettuces and beans with cranberry speckles. I know just what to plant and where to plant it and when to get the plants in the ground. I can identify any insect that might enter the domain of my beloved garden and the best way to eradicate the sinister ones. I can feel an approaching storm in the marrow of my bones, accurately predicting the rainfall my plants will receive.

 

Unfortunately, this is all in my imagination. If only dreaming were the same as doing. Instead I spend most of my outdoor time in the spring at soccer games. Someday…

 

In the meantime, I have been able to grow one thing abundantly—cherry tomatoes. There are few foods in this world that I love as much as fresh-grown tomatoes. In the summer, we eat a lot of BLT sandwiches and green salads with homemade ranch dressing and pasta tossed with sliced grilled chicken, olive oil, chopped garlic, ribbons of fresh basil, halved cherry tomatoes and a bit of sea salt. But I’m just as happy to eat a bowl full of sliced tomatoes topped with a big dollop of cottage cheese.

 

Because of this great love of the tomato, it’s such a thrill when I see a tomato seedling pop up which I didn’t plant. It’s a bonus plant, an unexpected gift. As I watered my little row of cherry tomato plants this morning, I found the little fella, trying its best to grow in the shade of its bigger and more productive brothers. I spoke to it (I’m that Crazy Tomato Lady you’ve been hearing about), and told the baby plant to keep on going so it could give me some of those ruby-like tomatoes which I crave.

 

This was a good kind of surprise, one that I didn’t see coming but welcomed with open arms (or, in this case, open mouth). It made me wonder if I had ever been the volunteer tomato plant for someone else. Wouldn’t it be nice to give someone a good surprise? How many times have I overlooked or ignored an opportunity to go out of my way to do something for a fellow human, not out of obligation or personal glory, but only because I had a chance to brighten that person’s day?

 

This week, let’s look for an opportunity to be an unexpected surprise for someone. It can be a stranger or a neighbor or a person you’ve known your whole life. Don’t let them know it was you, but do let them know they are loved. It doesn’t have to cost anything. It just takes a little effort and selfless motivation and a desire to bloom where you’re planted.

Same Species

I have found that the best way to get to know my kindergarten son’s friends and classmates is by making a weekly visit to eat lunch with him at his elementary school.

 

My go-to questions when meeting these classmates for the first time are usually: “Do you have any brothers or sisters? And if so, how old are they?” and “What did you do in Special Area (art, music, library, P.E., computer) today?”

 

I can’t get out of there without also saying something like: “You need to eat that fish sandwich or you’ll be really hungry later.” Replace fish sandwich with chicken ring thing or steak sliders or whatever else is on the menu, and you get the idea. You can’t take away my Mom-ness, even in a busy, ear-ringing lunch room with other peoples’ kids.

 

A few weeks ago, I noticed one of the girls in my son’s class carrying her lunch tray while timidly looking for a place to sit. I watched as another student banished her with an outstretched arm and pointing finger to the far end of their table. The little girl smiled shyly, assuming they were teasing and tried to scoot back down to sit with the trio of her classmates, but she was instructed a second time to move away. With a broken heart for the crumbling kindergartener, I asked my son if I could go and sit with her instead of staying with him. He waved me off as if to say: “No biggee. I sit with you all the time,” and I headed to the other table.

 

By then, the little girl had pushed her tray forward and laid her head on the table. We chatted for the rest of lunch as I tried to cheer her up and remind her to eat: “That chicken patty looks good! And that corn? Yum! Come on and eat up!” But I was mostly sad for how poorly people often treat each other, even little kids.

 

Our family has been watching The Blue Planet TV shows recently. This nature series—like its forerunner, Planet Earth—shows amazing footage of animals doing unexpected things. The Blue Planet episodes are all set under or around water.

 

One thing I found remarkable was a segment about Sand Tiger Sharks. They pointed out that they are one of the few animals which may resort to eating their own kind. Sand Tiger Sharks will hunt other fish, but if things get desperate they will turn on each other.

 

This got me thinking about all of the times I’ve watched shows with animals in hunting parties—a pride of lions trying to take down a pack of gazelles, for instance—and even if they’re unsuccessful, they won’t attack each other. It’s like there’s something instinctive in their brains telling them not to eat a fellow lion but to keep working together instead.

 

I’d hate to think of humans in the same category as Sand Tiger Sharks, Praying Mantis, and Black Widow Spiders—all animals who are willing to throw away any connection to their same species when mealtime rolls around. I’d rather think that we can show kids (and other adults) the best version of ourselves. Not just because we’re stronger when we work together, though that is true, but because it’s the right thing to do. And because tearing one person down brings us all down a little bit.

In the absence of hate

I feel sick. The constant news cycle. The pictures and videos. The soundbites. The unequivocal, unapologetic, urgent call for hatred of people whose skin is a different color.

 

I think I’ve always been bothered by the unfair treatment of people who aren’t white. I was raised on Sesame Street-style diversity and after-school specials that called out bullies and bigots. But now that I’m a mother to a beautiful, brown-skinned boy, I can’t just turn off the TV and stay in my white privilege bubble.

 

Though you could argue I should’ve felt this strongly all along, for me, there’s a new reality to the recent violence. With the addition of our son to our family, I now replace every mistreated, overlooked, belittled black person with his face, his eyes, his tears, and I am undone. When I see a picture of a torch-bearing white supremacist, I can’t help but think of how this man hates my son, even though they’ve never met.

 

How to keep him safe? How to teach him when to stand up and when to stand down? How to keep moving forward when there seems to be so much hate? I can’t think of what to do except to go out and love on people.

 

Yesterday in the parking lot of Sam’s Club, I watched an older white man approach a black mother of four small kids. I held my breath. I braced myself. Then I heard him say that her children are beautiful and a blessing and can he get her a shopping cart? It was commonplace and magnificent, all at once. It was regular kindness, a step towards healing.

 

Kindness promotes trust. Trust makes room for understanding. Understanding creates empathy. And once we get to empathy it’s a lot harder to hate complete strangers.

 

In that same parking lot, I saw a different white man, feet planted widely apart with hands on his hips, stare down a woman wearing an Islamic headscarf. Maybe he had lost his car. Maybe he was elderly and confused. I’m still not sure, but my senses were on high alert. I picked up my pace to walk closer to the woman, wondering what I would do if he said something unkind. Nothing happened. It was probably a scene created mostly by my imagination, but I was ready because I’m tired of letting others do the talking for me. I’m tired of all this hate.

 

There’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to the recent events in Charlottesville. Everyone seems to have lots to say. I’m not in any way certified to speak about race relations, but I can’t say nothing at all. We can fight against racism. We can stand up for what’s right. In the space of one generation, we went from whites-only water fountains to an African-American president. Anything is possible.

 

As long as there are people willing to call out bullies and bigots, there’s hope. I will not be silent. Let’s see the glory that remains where there’s an absence of hate.