Saturday, August 18, 2007


Today I drove down roads I know so well that I find comfort in the pavement itself. For as long as I can remember, I've traversed these roads each winter and summer, always with excitement and comfort in the depths of my being. The roads, which have changed little over the two decades I've traveled them, are as familiar as the lines on the faces of the people they carry me toward. I venture along them through the green, rolling hills and low, rugged mountains of West Virginia to the home where my grandparents have lived throughout my lifetime.

My earliest memories of the roads are colored by incredible excitement. I remember riding on seemingly endless car trips knowing that Christmas awaited me at the end of the road. When I ran out of art projects and games to play in the car, I would fall asleep, but I always insisted that my parents wake me in time to go through the one tunnel that marked the highlight of the drive for me. Once we had passed through the tunnel, I'd wait impatiently for the moment when we pulled up to my grandparents house and tumbled out of our minivan into Grandmother and Grandaddy's waiting arms. Those were the holidays where my biggest concern was that my uncle would eat too slowly on Christmas morning and keep me from opening presents, when I was the youngest person in the house and delighted in charming everyone in the family. I thought the stairs down to the basement were the greatest toy ever invented and I loved to bounce stuffed animals and run Slinkies down the staircase, much to the chagrin of my safety-conscious parents.

The closing of the single tunnel on our route marked a new chapter in my journeys to the hills. I began to enjoy the drives through the hills in addition to the destination. I loved pointing out Christmas lights and singing carols in harmony with my family during the long car rides. I started to treasure the long drives with just my mother when we came in July to pick blueberries, singing along to Patsy Cline and discussing things I never expected to discuss with my mother. I became fascinated by the grandmother clock and fireplace that lent what I imagined to be southern grandeur to my grandparents house. Those were the years that I was finally old enough to spend a week at my grandparents' house each summer away from the rest of my family. Those summer weeks were filled with trips to the pool with Grandmother, golf lessons with Grandaddy, playing Scrabble and Battleship, watching Murder, She Wrote, and sitting on the porch playing bocce ball and watching the fireflies on warm summer nights.

As I got older, the house and the loving people in it became a refuge on long road trips and a place to ease my homesickness for the mountains after ASP summers came to a close. I could always count on a spectacular meal, love, and a cozy bed as I drove through on visits to colleges, grad. schools, and visits to friends. My visits became shorter, the time dearer. I learned to talk with my grandparents, to listen to their stories and hear the guidance and wisdom of their years.

Their house will in my mind be forever linked with memories of food. It is where enormous Christmas feasts of ham, turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, frozen salad, fudge, and pie were shared at tables crowded with relatives and punctuated by loud conversations. It is where I knew I was loved from the second I walked in because I could smell my grandmother's gifts made specially for me, favorites like potato casserole, tomato soup, buttercream jets, and lemon meringue pie. I spent countless hours at the kitchen table, chatting with family members, playing games, and enjoying Grandmother's love made tangible to my tastebuds.

I'm sitting now, looking out at the garden Grandaddy has tended for so many years, peaking at Grandmother tidying the kitchen after serving a delicious dinner, and trying to fathom saying goodbye to this place. It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember, a place that seemed never to change, even as I grew and transformed within it. I took for granted that this haven, the site of so many cherished memories, would always be here, exactly the same. I know, now, that it is changing. There is a sign in the front yard and many of my favorite things that usually sit around the house have disappeared into boxes. In a few months, the house will be emptied completely and I will return here no more. The cherished items and, more importantly, the beloved people who lived in the house will move somewhere else and I will have a new place to visit. Still, I grieve for the loss of this place, which is a sacred space for me.

Tomorrow I will drive away. I'll turn down the road and I may never return here again. I will tuck this house, this sacred place, into my heart and take it with me because I cannot bear to leave it behind.

Friday, August 10, 2007


For me, this summer has been about hands. When I entered my chaplaincy internship, I thought it would be about spiritual connections and serving people and gaining more self-understanding, and it has been, but it has mostly been about hands.

First of all, I fidget. I am constantly moving my hands, doing things with them. I have great difficulty holding them still. That was what first drew my attention to them this summer. In our first few days at the hospital, I discovered that I was fidgeting more than usual. My hands were the outlet through which I was expressing all the anxiety I was feeling about being in a new environment and taking on a new role.

Out of that, I began to think about what I’m holding, both in my hands and in my heart. I began working on a pastoral theology of holding things with open hands. I concentrated on holding and letting go, clinging to things and lifting them up.

This increased consciousness of my hands made me think more about how I use them in ways I hadn’t noticed. I found that, when I don’t have words, a gentle hand on someone’s shoulder can tell them that I’m present with them with compassion and comfort. Holding someone’s hand can say, “We’re in this together. You’re not alone.” I learned to listen with my hands. I discovered that I had an urge to fidget when my anxiety was high, and my hands became very still when I was comforting someone else’s worry or sorrow.

The greatest joy, however, came toward the end of the summer when I began to reclaim ways of expressing myself through my hands. When I was a kid, playing piano was a form of expression for me. Through years of piano lessons and competitions, though, piano became a stressful task rather than a joyful self-expression. My music became too constricted to hold my emotions, so it was no longer an outlet for me. I gave up playing and, for many years, did not try to express myself through my hands. In the last few weeks of my internship, though, my supervisor brought in drums for our group. At first I was a bit skeptical of the activity. It seemed too bohemian and strange to be a tool of spirituality. And yet, once we began to play, I found my feelings coming out in the rhythms. My hands, which had been so busy holding and working, could play and release the emotion and tension.

So I bought a drum. It’s a small djembe, not fancy or stylish, but perfect for me. It is an African instrument, a style played for centuries by people in West Africa. Now I can pick up my drum and play the rhythm of my mood, my day, myself as I am in this moment. I can play a prayer or meditation, I can drum out the things I can no longer hold in my hands. I know it sounds cheesy, but it works for me.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Headmasters' Portraits

“Imagine you’re in a room, a large room, decorated however you like. It’s your space. Now you notice that around the walls there are pictures. Looking closer, you see that these are portraits of people who have been important to you, people who have inspired you and touched your life. Think about who is on your walls. They are with you, a part of who you are…” - a supervisor in my program.

When I was given this exercise to do, an image of the headmaster’s office at Hogwarts leapt to mind. Granted, I altered it a bit, gave it a deep burgundy plush carpet, put in some big, cozy armchairs and added a few more bookshelves, but it was a large office with a big napping couch in the corner. And, as I was instructed, portraits covered the walls. They were too numerous to fit in a single line at eye level, so there were several rows with many, many pictures. However, while the supervisor only imagined still images, the room I imagined has Hogwarts paintings: pictures that can move and talk. The people who have influenced my life aren’t just silent memories, they are vibrant individuals who still affect the ways I think, act, and express myself.

There are people with great wisdom. These are teachers, relatives, people I know from church. They are people who share wisdom born of experience and reflection and steeped in years of living. Some are verbose, composed speakers, while others speak softly and say only a few words, yet they all have an impact, all have made a difference in my life.

There are people who provide incredible support. They are the people whose love and care give me the confidence to face the world each day. As I realized last year, I have been able to travel far away and do things that seem brave only because I knew that there were people, however far away, who were standing by me and cheering me on. These are the folks who see the best parts of me, even when I cannot recognize them myself.

There are the true friends, though some of them also happen to be blood relations. These are the people who are deeply attached in my heart that I cannot imagine my life without their influence. We have shared such intense experiences and conversations that they have molded my identity.

And then there are the challenges. People whose portraits I would not have chosen to include on my walls, but whose presence in my life has so altered me that I cannot leave them out. These are often people I dislike, people who have hurt me, but who have taught me invaluable lessons. I have been thinking a lot about those people lately, reflecting on things they said and ways they wounded me, and about the ways I have grown through healing from them. These are the people who called me names, shattered my dreams, tore apart my confidence, and criticized the deepest parts of me. Yet, from them I have developed a strength and resilience that is essential to me now. And so, they, too, are present in this room, impacting my life and identity. Most of those portraits are silent now, like Muggle photographs in the wizarding world, they cannot speak or move.

So as I continually refine my identity and redecorate that space, the portraits remain. I consult them when I’m struggling, think about what different people might have done or said, how they might have advised me. Sometimes the portraits inspire me to call the actual people they portray, but often they are just a reminder, a perspective or bit of wisdom to be considered. Many of them probably have no idea that they have such a place of honor, such an influence. They likely go through their days without knowing how grateful I am to have known them.

Max Lucado once wrote that if God had a refrigerator, our pictures would be on it. I don’t know about that, but I do know that your portrait is on someone’s wall somewhere, and probably on mine, too.