She Smiles at the Future

A cheery voice always greets me when I call my grandparents.

“Hi, Grandma, This is Danielle” I say–Figuring it is too much to expect her to recognize my voice among those of her five daughters and eight grand-daughters (not to mention grand-daughters-in-law, great grand-daughters, and whomever else).

“Well, what do you know!” She always says, as if she is both surprised and very glad to hear from me.

Phone conversations with my 97-year-old grandmother are always short. She was raised in the day when you paid by the minute; and as a child of immigrants, then a school teacher, and later as a missionary wife with six kids, every penny counted and she counted every penny.

My grandma—Frances is her name—was born in Pennsylvania after the milk man and the nanny to a wealthy family fell in love and got married.

I don’t know why, but her father never showed her affection. The only memories of him I’ve heard her recount are the rather painful birthday spankings he gave her and the stinging disappointment when he wouldn’t let her ride with him and a friend in his friends’ new automobile saying (in her hearing) “well, if we wanted to take a pretty little girl, we wouldn’t take that one.”

Whether he was joking or not, I don’t know. But ninety years later, she hasn’t forgotten those ugly words.

Grandma worked several jobs at a time to put herself through college at Wheaton. She attended at the same time as Billy Graham and recalls going a few times to hear him speak at the “Tab” as they called the Tabernacle.

I’ve heard her tell a few stories of her teaching years, first at a country public school and later at a private boarding school. At the country school, the students would take turns bringing the teachers meals as part of their pay. One of the students brought a live chicken which proved to be a little much for the two “city girl” teachers and their cramped living quarters. Fortunately, one of the other students’ mothers put an end to the indoor “chicken run” chaos by taking the chicken home and bringing it back fried on a platter.

At the boarding school, she counts Elizabeth Elliott among her students; but there were many others over the years she taught. As World War II drew to a close, my grandfather (whom she had gotten to know some at Wheaton) wrote to her from Japan and asked her to marry him. She wrote back and said yes.

Her students and fellow teachers were excited for her but the administration less so when they found out that she was leaving. The headmistress dropped her off with a single suitcase at the train station while the rest of the school was in a chapel service.  No thanks. No goodbyes. No well wishes.

“It’s probably for the best.” She told me. “Because I loved teaching. And the next few years would be fairly difficult ones.”  As I was, I never looked back.

She left everything she knew for what would soon be a fairly isolated life as a missionary wife in Japan—a several month boat ride away from anything familiar. She didn’t know Japanese. The Japanese didn’t know English. There weren’t grocery stores full of familiar foods or phones to call her family.

Before long, the couple had six kids, a budding church, and a historical opportunity to reach Japanese for Christ. And they did it with all their hearts for thirty years.

I love to hear my grandparents talk about their years in Japan and I love to tell their story—even though I know my knowledge of it is limited to a tiny window into a huge world. There is a lot I don’t know.

But the part that has really struck me recently is not what happened in the past for my grandma, but what is happening in the present. You see, after 30 years on the mission field, they “retired” to jobs in Florida—Grandpa as a property manager/maintenance man and Grandma as a bookkeeper. Then, just before Grandpa turned 80, they “retired” again to Penney Farms, where they volunteered in all manner of other ways—Grandma at sewing service, the resale shop, the dining hall, the assisted living center, and as a Sunday School teacher.

Slowly, in the last few years, Grandma has had to give each of those items up. Her vision got so bad she couldn’t see to sew. Eventually, her legs bothered her enough, she couldn’t do resale, Sunday School, etc. I think she still wraps silverware at the dining hall one morning a week, but things have scaled back greatly. For a while, she enjoyed listening to audio books, but I think now it is hard for her to stay awake for long periods to follow the story line.

Amazingly, Grandma still cooks and does laundry. But otherwise, she spends the majority of her time in her stuffed chair or her bed listening to the Bible on CD.

And her chair is beside the phone. And if I ring that phone, I will hear her cheery voice on the other end.

Because with each season of life, Grandma seems to have mastered the beauty of not looking back. She never whines about the ways her body has limited her activities. She will tell stories if I can get her talking, but she doesn’t longingly brag about who she once was and what she once did. She isn’t bitter about life being reduced to a two room apartment; she seems to embrace the simplicity of it and be willing to let go of the things she can no longer enjoy.

Another woman in my grandma’s shoes might be looking in the rear view mirror at the hard things: the father who was never affectionate, the growing years on a lonely island in the South Pacific, the need to work right up into her 80s. Her quiet life so far from her family.

But instead, with each passing year, I’m more and more amazed at how bravely Grandma looks forward. Praying for her children, her grandchildren, and her great grandchildren. Taking care of my grandpa. Listening to her Bible. Living in an ever-changing, always complicated world and yet letting life become more simple.

When I wasn’t able to get down to Penney Farms for her 97th birthday, she told me about it on the phone in a voice that rivaled a kid at Disney World. Because she is a contented woman with a beautiful life.

I want to be like that.

And maybe there’s hope for me. I can honestly say that I’m glad that God saw fit to keep me single for a longer-than-average length of time. Because it was here, in singleness, that I learned to love life for the beautiful gift that it is. Not waiting for the next season. Not fearing what is to come. Just enjoying the precious present. Because I too have a beautiful, fulfilling life.

Not quite as simple, perhaps. But beautiful just the same.  I can look at the future and smile.

Are there any happy people out there?

Yes, it has been three months since I’ve blogged.  I pretty much gave up blogging.

But recently, some friends encouraged me to continue.  The type of friends that I’m honored even take the time to read my writing–much less miss it when it isn’t there.

One kind soul even took the time to ask if I was “okay.”  So here is the short story:

October and November were difficult months.  I’m not gonna lie.

December was peaceful, pleasant, and even fun.  But with the peace came sort of a spiritual “dryness” that left me really with nothing to say and definitely, nothing to shout above the din of viral videos, cute cartoons, pithy comments, family photos, Christmas music, personal notes, and far, far better blogs than I’ll ever write.

My theory is, when I have nothing to say, I should be quiet.

Then there is a competing theory that there is never a perfect time to write.  Life will always be messy in some respect or another.  Sometimes, I just have to do it. Even when it is easier to just be quiet.

Anyway, so in December, I was kind of a cautious happy, not a confident happy.  I tried to blog a few times, but I wasn’t quite able to pull it off. And this week, my spirits seemed to be in a steady decline and by Tuesday afternoon,  I would listen to anyone who would tell me a tale of woe.  And when anyone else would listen, I would tell my own tale of woe.  Pretty soon, I felt like one unhappy person surrounded by a world of unhappy people.  6 billion unhappy people is a lot of unhappy people.

And we would all say, “Oh, and Happy New Year!”  at the end of the tale.

Like suddenly, the clock would strike midnight and we would all reset to happy.

Seriously, though, I found myself asking, “Are there any happy people out there?”  The poor aren’t happy.  The rich aren’t happy.  Students aren’t happy.  Working people aren’t happy.  Retired people aren’t happy.  Parents aren’t happy.  Kids aren’t even happy.  How messed up does a world have to be for kids not be happy? 

I’m willing to wager that if I had been at Disneyworld on Christmas Day, I could have found for you boatloads of people singing the blues to “It’s a Small World After All.” If the happiest place on earth is devoid of people living happily ever after, what hope is there for the rest of us?

I read somewhere that the key to happiness in a relationship is the constant belief that the other person is better than you deserve.  The more I thought about that, the more I have realized there is a lot of wisdom in that simple statement.  Perhaps because, whether they realized it or not, the author’s conclusion was essentially the biblical principles of humility and gratefulness…with a touch of contentment.

I’m convinced that the same truth applies to happiness in life.  Choose to believe that your life is better that you deserve.  And that is the truth—whether you believe it or not.

I don’t intend to be trite—I know that some of us were created to think constantly, feel deeply, and care passionately (not only about our own hurts, but about others’ as well). It can seem cold and even irreverent to cast aside feelings of hurt for feelings of hope.

But, nevertheless, it is never wrong to embrace the joy that humility and gratefulness bring. So, I started to do something new this New Years.  Not a resolution, but maybe a new tradition.  I decided to write down one hundred things I was grateful for—one hundred.

Some came quickly…and in no particular order: New Kitchen cabinets. Working heat.  Ministries I get to be a part of.  Grandparents.  My Sunday School class.  The Bible.  A working car.  Dish soap.  My phone.  Salvation.  Julie Anne.  Photos.

Some brought to mind a negative counterpart…my health (but not migraines).  My paycheck (but not taxes).  But I put a lid on that: no list of things I’m not thankful for.

My resolve was tested before I even hit 20.  My day included poorly timed reminders that all was not well in life—or at least not the way I want it.  But when you keep in mind that what you deserve is hell, that kind of puts a different perspective on things.  Life is good when it is better than you deserve.

I got to 50 without too much trouble. Then I started again:   Roses. Indoor plumbing. Nieces and nephews. A hope of heaven. The USA. Our troops. Sundays.

I named people God has brought into my life; current and past. The Lanes—who let me stay at their house and drive their car for free for 8 weeks while I studied for the bar exam. My sisters and brother – who let me buy annoying toys for their kids. Candi Grinder – my high school yearbook advisor who told me I was good at graphic design. The Kinzers – Clients who have come to be special people in my life.

That brought to mind a story that I just have to share…I was in Kentucky by myself and the weather was an ungodly 1 degree. I needed to leave and I couldn’t get the car to start. It was bitterly cold—my brain was frozen and I couldn’t really think of what to do next.

Jerry Kinzer—one of the wealthiest men I know—happened to call and asked about something. I confessed that it wasn’t the best morning in the world and that I couldn’t get the car to start. Jerry could have done nothing at all. He could have said he was sorry. He could have given me the phone number of a tow company. He could have sent one of the 100 or so men that work for him to come and give me a jump.

But a few minutes later, he showed up in the 1 degree weather, hooked up the cables he brought with his ungloved hands and jumped the jeep so I could get on the road.

There are a lot of stories like that in my life. There are a lot of people like that in my life. And before I even got to 100—I was wholly convinced that my life is much better than I deserve.

Are there any happy people out there?

I don’t know. But there is at least one happy person.

In here.

The Other Side of Jealousy

I call it “In your face-book,” she told me. “I hate Facebook.”

I nodded, absorbing her reasons not to post updates on a given topic.

She didn’t say it, but I had to guess that perhaps her abhorrence of Facebook was at least partially related to the fact that God had not yet given her the desire of her heart in the form of a baby.

God knows that I know it’s impossible to get on Facebook without seeing “in your face” reminders of un-motherhood: pregnancy announcements, birth announcements…babies, grandbabies…videos, photos…funny sayings, cute faces…pajama pictures, pool pictures…ultrasound shots…maternity photos…My Little Pony cakes—you name it. Kids unapologetically brighten up the world and lighten up the Internet. And I’m glad they do.

Just the same, I could understand why my friend might avoid Facebook like the Gaza Strip. It was a constant assault on her deepest pain. Everyone else has what she doesn’t have. And it hurts.

It wasn’t Facebook’s fault exactly; deep down—deep, deep down—the problem was jealousy. I don’t know what it is about jealousy, but we do not want to call it that. I suspect jealously has worn more nametags than just about any other sin.

Admit it or not, of all the people who have told me they quit Facebook and of all the reasons they have given, I suspect that jealousy is the one unnamed deactivator of many an account.

Because other peoples’ lives tend to be perfect on Facebook. I confess there have been times I clicked through someone else’s photos and thought, She has everything: she’s beautiful, married to a good man, wonderful kids, nice house, nice vacations… and eventually closed the screen with an overwhelming sense of discontentment. My life stinks…

I’ve struggled with jealousy. It has chewed me up then spit me out in worthless chunks like a redneck, tobacco, and a country road. In fact, there have been full weeks—months—years—when the only times I wasn’t struggling with jealousy was when I had given up completely. It can still ruin a good day quicker than my alarm clock.

I know I’m not alone. I remember times when two of my friends confessed to me that they were jealous of me. I wanted to laugh. But they were serious. These were painful confessions for them.

I wanted to laugh because both came at particularly low times for me. I knew if they really, truly knew my life, they would be anxious to take their own set of troubles and go home. If they knew the tears I cried, the pressures I faced, and the mistakes I’ve made, they would probably be whistling on their way to work—thank God, I’m not her!

And when it comes right down to it, I wouldn’t trade with them either. Not even with the gorgeous girls with successful husbands and adorable kids. Not the movie stars; not the world-class musicians; not even the ice skaters.

There will always be someone out there—probably on the edges of my circle of friends—who is prettier, funnier, nicer, smarter, richer, and just happier than me. They will be young and interesting when I’m old and boring. They will be available when I am tied up. They will think of the right thing to say when words have failed my completely. They will make friends when I can’t even make hot chocolate.

But now that perfect girl is affecting me less.

I have a wonderful life. In fact, I am richly blessed beyond what I can ever deserve.

But that is beside the point.

The point is that I am learning the truth about jealousy. If you are jealous of someone, you either don’t know them well enough or you haven’t known them long enough. The fact is, their life either has troubles or will have troubles. Serious troubles. And unless they have chosen an attitude of gratitude, they probably think their life stinks too.

On the other side of your jealousy is a hurting, confused, lonely, and even scared girl that you just don’t know yet.

I thank God that even though I will always struggle, I’m coming to the realization that jealousy is me believing the lie that I would be happier if my life were different; when in reality it would only be…well…different. In the process, God has freed me to see Facebook as God’s brag book—budding romances, happy families, new opportunities, God’s creation, and, of course, God’s amazing gift of new lives in small packages. As friend after friend has gotten married and had kids, I’ve been able to genuinely say, “I’m so happy for you!” Because I am.

Just the same, if it causes you to stumble, or if you just don’t like it, there is no harm in staying away from Facebook. And unless you are truly ready for war, this would be a good time to stay out of the Gaza Strip.