The Infinite Benefits of a Grateful Heart

 

Do you have a heart filled with gratefulness, or one that’s always in search of a pity party?

Don’t get me wrong, I like a serious pity party as much as the next person. I’ve been known to stay at one way past closing time, reveling in the melancholy, sipping the bitter dregs from the bottom of my bottle and searching for tiny crumbs of misery. But I never leave those parties with a smile on my face and confetti in my hair. I walk away with a solitary balloon dragging behind me on a string.

 

 

I’m constantly tempted to compare my own meager portions with someone else’s feast.

But comparison is a thief. It robs us of contentment and joy and drives a wedge in relationships.

So, I have to ask myself often. Am I grateful for what I have or striving for what you have?

It’s easy to avoid comparison when someone achieves success in a way that doesn’t threaten me. For example, if you open a restaurant and are booked solid every night, I will be thrilled for you. Not only do I have no plans of opening a restaurant, but I have zero desire to cook. Your success is not a threat to me.

But, what if your success is my dream?

Not long after Steve and I were married, we had our first beautiful baby. Ashley was our delight and after a short time, we decided to expand our family further. Year after year, we tried to have another baby. Over ten years passed and I had all but given up hope. During those years, friends and family had babies, and more babies, and even MORE babies while we prayed for another child, went through fertility testing and suffered through a failed adoption.

With every year that passed, I longed for what I didn’t have and struggled to be grateful. I held back the tears each time someone announced a pregnancy. I forced myself to attend a seemingly endless parade of baby showers. But pity cast a dullness over each and every celebration.

Over time, God revealed to me that His love and grace are infinite and his gifts are chosen specifically for me.

I finally found peace with our little family of three, became grateful for the gifts I was given and was truly happy whenever a friend announced another baby on the way.

So, imagine our surprise when thirteen years after the birth of our first daughter, we welcomed another daughter, Rachel, followed two years later by our boy Sam. The joy and light that our friends and family beamed onto us, with the birth of each of our children was nothing short of dazzling.

It’s been nineteen years since I last gave birth and these many years later, we now know the endless bliss of grandchildren. Our hearts are full.

Here’s the thing. It’s hard for the light in others to reflect back on me when my own gleam is gone.

It’s like looking into a mirror and refusing to smile, because the image staring back at me isn’t smiling either. 

In the past few years I have come to realize that the more I practice gratitude and send love out into the world, the more it multiplies. When I am grateful for the gifts I’ve been given, I can celebrate with you when you succeed.

Love and gratitude are infinite. There isn’t a Scrooge McDuck vault out there somewhere with a miserly, finite supply. It’s endless and multiplies the more it’s given away.

I’m not saying I’ll never throw another pity party. But the next time, I may not stay quite as long.

 

The Day I Heard God’s Voice in the Words of a Stranger

Steve almost died.

By almost, I mean he had a major heart attack and went into cardiogenic shock. His heart stopped beating and he flat-lined. So, technically he did die. But, between God and the skill of a cardiovascular surgeon, he returned to the land of the living.

Three days later, he lay in a hospital bed, on the road to recovery, and I was at a baseball field.

“What on earth am I doing here?” I thought.

It was January 14, 2006.  The sun was bright and warm – one of those picture perfect Southern California winter days.  It was also Little League sign-ups and that’s why we were there. Our son Sam talked about nothing else for weeks.  This was his first year playing baseball and he couldn’t wait to get started. I stood still and looked up at a brilliant blue sky. The smell of freshly mown grass mingled with the enticing aroma of popcorn. The chatter of voices and the laughter of children filled the air.

baseball glove, green grass

I could have asked my dad to bring him, but I was desperately trying to pretend everything was normal and maintain some semblance of control.  As far as Sam knew, dad didn’t feel well, had a problem with his heart, and was in the hospital for a few days. He and his sister Rachel hadn’t yet been told about Steve’s brush with death, so when Saturday morning rolled around, he was excited and chomping at the bit to go.

As soon as we arrived, doubts and second thoughts bombarded me. I clutched Sam’s registration forms in my hands and stood still, watching everyone rush by as my mind reeled with these thoughts.

What if Steve never recovers?

What if he has another heart attack and dies…while I’m here?

What if I’m left to do this day and all the other days on my own?

All the emotion and worry of the previous three days spilled out of me, right then and there.  My composure and confidence disappeared and I started sobbing.  Sam looked at me with concern in his eyes and tried to reassure me. “It’s all right, mom.”

It wasn’t all right.  I wasn’t all right. Steve wasn’t all right.  I didn’t know if any of us would ever be all right again.

I stood there blubbering and gasping for breath, when I felt a hand on my shoulder.  “Do you need help?  Is everything ok?” I turned to see the face of a stranger and shook my head no as a fresh wave of tears spilled out in a flood.  

He stood there quietly, with one hand resting softly on my shoulder and the other hand reaching out to Sam. I struggled to regain my composure. “I have no idea what I’m doing. Steve should be doing this. He would know what to do. He’s not here. He’s in the hospital. He should be here. I shouldn’t be here. I should be at the hospital.”  My words spilled out between gasps for air.

“It’s okay,” he said softly. “I can help. Everything’s going to be fine.”

As he introduced himself to Sam and asked him his age, he gently reached over and took the crumpled registration forms from my hands.  

I breathed deeply and brought my panic under control while he guided us over to the correct field. He took the time to introduce me to the coach and connected Sam with the other boys on his team. Sam ran off with his newfound friends. The stranger turned back to me. “Karen, can I pray with you?”

His words provoked another round of tears and I stammered out the whole story. I told him about Steve’s heart attack – the 911 call – open heart surgery – my worries about our future.  

He nodded his head as he listened. I’m sure he had somewhere else to be, but he made no attempt to leave and just stood there nodding while I blubbered and rambled.

I finally ran out of words.

He took my hands, bowed his head and prayed.  

Right there, in the middle of a baseball field, on a beautiful January day, with kids yelling and the sun shining and my boy happily playing the game he loved, and my dear husband lying in a hospital bed, he prayed for me, a perfect stranger.

He prayed for our family, for Steve, for his healing. A supernatural peace settled over me, as he petitioned God on our behalf.

He finished his prayer, squeezed my hands, smiled and walked away. I knew right then that when I needed it most, God’s hand touched mine, in the skin of a stranger and no matter what the future held, He wouldn’t let go.

Summer Days, Blue Jeans and Grand Theft Auto

Have you ever wanted something so desperately that you would do almost anything to possess it?  Was there ever an object you coveted so dearly that you knew you could NOT live without it?  I get it.  I’ve been there.

Years ago, I went to some extreme measures to get what I wanted.  The object of my desire?  A pair of jeans.

The year was 1976.  I was 14 years old.  Our family had recently moved from Toronto, Canada to the California Central Valley. My dad was the new pastor at a church in Modesto. You would think, coming from a bustling metropolis filled with subways and freeways, hippies and high-rises to a small cow-town surrounded by orchards and ranches, that the social advantage would be mine, but you would be oh, so wrong.  In that rare and strange kingdom known as adolescence, I knew I was a fish out of water the moment we arrived. 

For starters, we were Canadian.

Add the fact that my dad was a Pentecostal preacher and you start to get the picture. Conservative, modest, polite – these are a few of the words that would accurately describe my parents.  They weren’t stuffy or strait-laced.  On the contrary.  They were warm, friendly and fun to be around.  But, still…Canadian. 

I had mixed feelings about our move.  On the one hand, I was excited.  The lure of California, palm trees, beaches and celebrities was definitely on my mind.  I had no concept of the miles that stretched between Modesto and Hollywood but, how far could it be?

On the other hand, I was just starting to come into my own with my friends in Toronto and didn’t relish the thought of breaking into a new social group. “Didn’t relish” is my way of saying I was obnoxious and whiny throughout the whole move.

The breed of teenager our family discovered in Modesto was vastly different from any variation of the species we encountered in the past, as though we had stumbled upon some wild, lost tribe.  At the time, I thought this was a reflection of all California teens but, in hindsight, I think this particular group of kids was unique to that place and time.  It wasn’t long before I felt like I belonged – a long-lost feral dog finally reunited with her pack.  But those first few months were awkward, to say the least.

We arrived in town during Easter Break so our first encounter with locals was the youth group at our new church.  My sister, brother and I nervously walked in – the new pastor’s kids.   We dressed as we always had at church back in Canada, with Kathy and I in sweet, modest dresses and Karl in slacks and a button-up shirt. 

When we walked into the youth group, that first Friday night, I looked around and sized up the other kids.  Not a single girl in the room was wearing a dress.  The uniform of choice for male and female alike was t-shirts and jeans or shorts with a few pairs of overalls thrown in here and there.  Sandals, Vans and even a pair of bedroom slippers were the footwear options.

Immediately, I sensed how out of touch we were.  But, in spite of our awkwardness and differences in clothing choices, the group of kids we encountered were unusually friendly. Not Canadian friendly, in that ‘nice to meet you –  let’s shake hands’ kind of way we were accustomed to but in a singularly American way with big smiles, hugs and loud laughter.  It was heartwarming and I felt like we were being greeted by a roomful of over-eager puppies.

That night, after we arrived home from church, Kathy and I laid it on the line with mom and dad.  We would-not, could-not humiliate ourselves by wearing (gasp!) dresses one more time to youth group.  We emphasized the fact that we would “never go back again” if we couldn’t wear jeans like the rest of the kids.  My parents, thank God, shrugged their shoulders, muttered something about “when in Rome…” and gave in to our demands. 

Maybe now you are starting to get the picture of how, in my desperate attempt to fit in, I needed The Jeans.  I discovered them that summer. 

I am not talking about any old run-of-the-mill jeans.  The pair I coveted were the pinnacle of 70’s disco-era attire – Chemin de Fer bell-bottom, lace-up jeans.  These were the jeans that every Farrah Fawcett wanna-be, Studio 54 diva and Cosmo model wore.  In other words, they were as essential as feathered hair and Dittos to any teenage girl in the 70’s. 

This was a non-negotiable issue.  I had to make them mine.

farrah-fawcett-on-skateboard

There was one major hurdle in acquiring these jeans. My mother.  She did not share my sense of urgency regarding this necessary purchase.  When I showed her the must-have pair at the store in McHenry Village, she shook her head and said, “You already have a couple pairs of jeans and I’m not spending $35 on that pair!”

It still boggles my mind, how my mother could have been so callous and neglectful of my most essential needs but, there it is.  I don’t think she meant to be cruel but she clearly didn’t get it. No amount of pleading and begging was going to change her mind.  It was clear that I would have to take matters into my own hands.

The opportunity presented itself a few days later.  Mom and dad were out of town for the night, attending a conference and they left my brother in charge of Kathy and me, which basically meant, we were on our own. I knew I had to act fast.

I discussed the options with my new friend Tam.  The one part of this memory that’s fuzzy is where I procured the necessary funds for my purchase.  I didn’t have a job.  My parents were not overly generous with allowances and I never saved any money I was given.  So how, exactly, I ‘found’ the $35 to buy the coveted jeans is anyone’s guess.  Let’s just leave it at that.

Money in hand, we had to get to the mall.  Now, Modesto isn’t that big and I was used to riding my bike or walking wherever I needed to go but for some reason, on that particular day, I felt that we should be transported to the mall in a car.  Maybe it was the importance of the task at hand.  What to do?

I opened the door to the garage and there it sat.  My parent’s 1972 baby blue Lincoln Continental.  This vehicle was more boat than car.  Not exactly the sporty race car I would have preferred but reliable transportation nonetheless. 

Let me remind you, dear friend, that at 14 years of age I was still a long way away from obtaining a legal driver’s license or even a driver’s permit.  But I was not about to let technicalities get in my way.  After all, how hard could it be?

I had observed my dad for years, as he drove.  I started young, sitting in his lap with my small hands gripping the steering wheel while his big, steady hands guided the vehicle. As I got older, he taught me how to turn the key in the ignition, put the car in gear and had even let me get behind the wheel once or twice and drive from our cottage to the railroad tracks. 

I felt that he had given me all the necessary training and essentially granted me permission to drive whenever I felt I was ready.  I was tall and could easily reach the gas and brake pedals.  I was ready.  What could possibly go wrong?

Tam hopped into the car beside me.  I started the engine, put the car in reverse and slowly backed out of the garage.  Success!  This driving gig was even easier than I had imagined!  I could picture those jeans in my mind’s eye.  I was only a few miles away from making them mine.

Slowly, we made our way through town and eventually arrived at the store without a single hiccup.  I made my purchase, clutched the heavenly denim to my chest and made my way home.

Two blocks away.  Just around the corner.  Almost home.  We pulled up to a stop sign.  To my left was a van.  You know the type.  It had an awesome paint job with a wide pinstripe down the side and a bumper sticker that read, “If This Van’s A Rockin’ Don’t Come A Knockin’!”  This was no mini-van.  I slowly pulled forward to turn right when, out of nowhere, there was a kid on a bike.  I slammed the brakes!  Oops.  That was NOT the brake pedal. 

There he was, lying on the ground looking up at me with abject terror in his eyes.  I had knocked that poor kid right off his bike and onto the ground.  To make matters worse, Tam started wailing.  “Is he dead?!  Oh, dear Jesus!  My mother’s going to kill me!  What if the cops come?!  We are in SO much trouble!” 

“Just.  Shut.  Up!”  I screamed at Tam.  As I assessed the situation and tried to calm my friend and my nerves, the boy hopped back on his bike and pedaled away furiously. 

With my heart pounding in my chest and Tam still freaking out in the seat beside me, I drove the rest of the way home.  Slowly, I pulled into the driveway and eased the car into the garage.  That’s when I heard it – a high pitched “Screee!” as the driver’s side of the car scraped against the garage door frame, leaving a two-foot scratch in that beautiful baby blue exterior.

I had no idea what to do at that point so I did what every other conniving, spineless, lying teenager would do.  I closed the garage door, hid the jeans in the back of my closet and waited. 

I put the entire incident out of my mind when, two days later, I heard my parents in the kitchen. “Anita!” my dad called out.  “You scratched the side of the car getting into the garage.”

I’m not proud of this, but it’s the honest-to-God truth.  I sat in the family room and listened as my sweet, innocent mother protested and my dad blamed her for what I had done.  I sat there, with the flames of hell licking at my feet for surely, anyone who would let their mother take the fall for their sins was heading ‘down there’ on the fast train.

But my seared conscience held firm.  I never said a word. 

My list of transgressions related to those jeans was already long. 

  • Petty theft
  • Grand theft auto
  • Driving without a license
  • Hit and run
  • Destruction of property

I was in deep.

Two weeks later, I pulled those Chemin de Fer’s out of my closet and added to my list of sins when I lied to my parents and told them that my friend had given me the jeans.

Every time I looked at myself in the mirror, with those jeans on, I thought, “I am surely going to hell but, I sure look foxy!”

Over fifteen years later, when I was a mother myself, with my first teenage daughter, I remembered the incident and ‘fessed up to my parents. They sat there looking at me with jaws dropped.  My mom turned to my dad and said, “See, Albert, I told you I didn’t scratch the car!”

I’m still grounded.

****

Fess up! Do you have a favorite summertime memory or a childhood infraction you’ve never owned up to?  I would love to hear it and I promise, I won’t tell a soul. Leave your best behaving-badly story in the comments below. Confession is good for the soul!

Don’t Blink Or You’ll Miss It

“Cherish every moment, because you’ll blink and your kids will be grown up.”

They thought it was a good idea to tell me that while I was dealing with a teenager, a toddler, and a baby. While I was elbow deep in dirty diapers, bad attitude and laundry. When I was sleep-deprived and overwhelmed and at the end of it all.

“They” were lying. I was sure of it. The days were endless and there was no relief in sight.

In 1983 our oldest child, Ashley was born. Reagan was president.

Thirteen years later, we welcomed our daughter Rachel into the world, followed by Sam, two years after that.

For thirty-three years we navigated the joys and perils of childhood and for the past two years, we had only one child left at home. Today marked the very last childhood milestone for all our kids when our youngest boy Sam, graduated from high school.

Did I mention we’ve been doing this for over thirty years?

I’m kind of surprised by the amount of emotion this day has stirred up. It’s the end of a chapter for us but I imagined, after all these years, that I would be relieved and elated. Part of me is but I’m also a bit of a mess and find myself blinking back tears and reliving memories.

BLINK – Like the shutter on a camera, the image is captured.

BLINK – The doctor squeezes the cold, goopy gel onto my distended belly. I clutch Steve’s hand and smile at our girls. We squint at the screen as the shape comes into focus. “I have fathered a manchild!” Steve hollers with abandon.

BLINK – I’m sitting in our wooden rocking chair, in the dead of night. My feet are cold as ice. The rhythmic creaking of the chair breaks the silence of a still, black night. I cradle my son and nurse him and breathe in the sweet smell of him, intoxicated by the scent. I am smitten.

BLINK – He refuses to sleep. Ever. Not at night. Not during the day. This boy requires no sleep to sustain him. For years, this is our battle. The sound of his scream grates on me. He nearly breaks me. We have a love/hate relationship.

 

black and white photo, Sam Rutledge

 

BLINK – It’s my first day as a volunteer in Sam’s kindergarten class so I take my place in the back of the room as a silent observer. There’s a brightly colored rug in the center of the room, with squares in a rainbow of primary colors. One square for each child. They sit in rapt attention as Mr. Hunter reads to them. Except for Sam. He log rolls from one end of the classroom to the other, seeming to ignore the story. But as soon as a question is asked, Sam jumps to his feet like a jack-in-the-box. He knows the answer. He heard every word.

BLINK – Sponge Bob is blaring on the family room TV. Sam has removed all the cushions from the sofa. He lays on the stripped furniture and leans his head back to watch the cartoon upside down. Then he laughs with utter abandon and sheer unadulterated joy. My heart is full and I can’t help but join in.

BLINK – The bile in my throat rises as I pull a dead mouse out of his shoe. Don’t ask.

BLINK – As I describe Sam’s clothing to the security guard in IKEA, I sob uncontrollably. The store is on lockdown for twenty minutes but he is nowhere to be found. Terrifying images fill my head and I struggle to maintain my composure. Finally, my towheaded boy is found and I race to him. His Superman shirt is drenched in sweat and his heart is pounding like a drum. “I turned around and didn’t see you,” he cried.  “So I ran!” I hold him tight and swear I will never let him go.

BLINK – I walk into the principal’s office. Again. I’m so over these weekly phone calls from school. I am so over the nagging, the cajoling, the threatening, the pleading. I fondly remember when I had time to read a book.

BLINK – There’s an odor wafting down the hallway. Something’s died, I’m sure of it. I turn the corner and there it is – a room full of adolescent boys. Bright orange Cheetos crumbs are scattered over the sofa. Pizza boxes and soda bottles litter the counter. I have no strength for this so I go into my room, put on my headphones and escape.

Sam Rutledge

BLINK – Standing in the DMV with harsh fluorescent lights flickering above, I glance to my left. There’s a broad-shouldered man standing next to me, waiting to get his license. It’s my son.

BLINK – It’s graduation day. We survived. I scream and holler and shout as my boy, my son walks across the field with his head held high and his shoulders back.

BLINK – They were right.