Aging alone

Back when I was teaching, we took a field trip to The Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. There were these cool machines with cameras that would age a photo depending on life choices. Are you a smoker? Do you spend a lot of time in the sun? And so on went the questions.

One of my junior highers got me to pose for the camera. My mistake was not taking over the controls afterwards. Having already gone through the process once, he knew all of the answers to age my photo as much as possible. He ignored my protests as the screen spun out an image of a worn out old lady who eerily resembled me.

Thanks, kid.

I remember that photo sometimes when I find a new gray hair or a neck wrinkle or an age spot I never noticed before. The realization that one is aging is hard for many people; however, as a single, I wonder if aging alone is different. Not harder, but different.

As a single, there is no togetherness in disintegration. It’s just a party of one who watches the body in the mirror stoop and droop a little more each year. A party of one who gets pitied as she grays because there go her chances to snag a husband and, if she doesn’t have children, she can’t even attribute the grays to the honorable occupation of child-rearing.

His eyelids sag and he gets an extra roll of fat at his waistline.

There is no together giggling at age creeping over two bodies become one. It is just her facing irreversible doom as she watches those creeping spider veins.

There is no one to notice that mole on his back slowly changing colors. No one to miss that tooth except him.

Those freckles that once were becoming are overcome by age spots and they’ve scattered farther than she ever imagined. Her body is no longer what it used to be. And sometimes she’s glad she doesn’t have to share it.

I read through 1 Peter recently, about beauty being internal rather than external. Because remember, these bodies were not made to last forever. Whether one is aging together or aging alone, that truth is comforting.

Now it’s your turn. I’d love to hear other perspectives. What has it been like for you to age alone, man or woman, single or widowed? Or what has it been like for you to age beside someone else? Maybe you’ve had both experiences. What are some things you’ve learned over the years?

5 things I learned about hospitality last week

Hospitality creates a resting place for those you love… and even those you’re still trying to love. It’s not boundary-less, but true hospitality grows our understanding of boundaries, sometimes stretching and sometimes reinforcing. About a year ago, I wrote an essay on this topic, drawing from the experience of others, experience I hope to acquire as time goes on. Maybe another day I’ll share some of those thoughts.

But today, I’m writing about what I learned last week in Córdoba with my Pakistani friend and her family.

Although the week had its ups and downs, I savored their hospitality. Hospitality is not cultureless and sometimes those hiccups caught me off-guard, like when someone ordered for me at a restaurant instead of letting me choose for myself. Still, hospitality transcends culture. It is resilient because love is resilient. 

Here are five things I noticed about hospitality during my stay in my friend’s home:

  1. Hospitality is selfless. The family adjusted their sleeping arrangements in the tiny bedrooms so that I would be most comfortable. The fact that the door didn’t close because the foot of my roommate’s bed was in the way was irrelevant. It really was the best arrangement and they were less comfortable for it.
  2. Hospitality is sharing the fullness of self. I heard a lot of stories. These women weren’t pretending to have it all together; they were vulnerable. On the lighter side, they also shared the specialness of their culture and background.
  3. Hospitality gives space for love to grow. It doesn’t demand love or care, but it shelters a space for them to grow. Time was protected. My friend’s mother took the day off of work just because I was there. We went out for churros instead.
  4. Hospitality wants you there. I’ve both hostessed and been hostessed out of obligation, but that’s not hospitality, at least not in its fullness. On this visit, I was welcomed and I was wanted. They delighted in my presence as I did in theirs. My friend’s little boy came calling my name whenever I was out of sight: “Come play with me!”
  5. Hospitality accepts as well as gives. The family refused to let me pay for our tostadas or bus fare or anything else. But they happily accepted the gifts I had brought them. Hospitality doesn’t expect reciprocity, but it graciously receives.

How have you seen hospitality in others? Have you noticed any cultural differences? How has hospitality transcended culture, even sub-culture? What are some bits of wisdom that you have gleaned along the way? I’d love to hear and learn. 🙂

What I love about you, small boy

Your face fills with bright delight when you spot me, unexpected in the park. “The look he gives you! He’s in love with you!” says Mommy. I know and so do you. Your arms swing open as you barrel toward me. I stoop to meet you, and you press your face close to murmur the secrets of your day–the joys and sorrows of a life well-lived, however young. I understand nothing, but you don’t mind because I listen and that’s enough.

When I knock on your downstairs door, you wait for Mommy to unlock it but you are the one who pulls it open with that expectant grin as if it were only you I came to see. You take my hand and lead me inside. Or if I say, “Not today,” you keep my hand in your tiny one as you step out the door onto the round, red welcome mat. “No problem. We can play at your house if you prefer,” you want to say. When you toss Mommy a farewell glance, she says, “The look he gives you! He’s in love with you!” I know and so do you. I give you a hug and you smell like nothing, sweet nothing except maybe a bit of sticky and sometimes crackers.

When I pick you up, you quiet as if you’d like to stay in my arms forever. When you get too heavy, I slide you down my hip and then my leg, one jolt at a time, a game to make you giggle. But then you stretch your arms up again.

When I play distracted, you tug my hand or pat my face to remind me that you are the most important person in my life right now. Mommy says, “The look he gives you! He’s in love with you!” I know and so do you. But my heart still melts a little more when you wave your arms in the air as we sing “A, B, C, D, E, F, G…” Or when you shriek laughter during peek-a-boo and hide & seek. Or when you pick the chocolate chips out of my granola and leave Hansel and Gretel trails across the tile and between the couch cushions.

Small boy–for you are still small though you fancy yourself a man–you have stolen my heart, this sad auntie heart so removed from her biological adored ones. You too, far from most who love you, in me find a resting place for the big love of your mini heart.


Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

Her perception is her reality

It was happening again. Round two of the same problem, only this time her hurt was bubbling up in anger. As rage overpowered her tears, she clawed at her clothing as if wanting to rip it—to rip anything—to shreds.

But was her reality real? Ever since I had met her months earlier, I had never been able to determine exactly where reality and her misguided perception began to blur.

And yet, her perception was her reality because it was the filter through which she understood life. Pain and shame were just as real in both truth and misconception.

And the questions I have asking myself over and over are:

What does loving her look like? How can I help? How do I enter into her reality and walk with her through her pain to bring her to truth? What does that look like practically?

That night, I held her baby while she wept and spat out in anger. I prayed for her but after my amen, I still let her ask the question, “Where is God in this?”

When she had calmed down, she stood up to leave. Anguish still twisted her features into a frown, but she thanked me for listening and praying.

Most of the time, loving isn’t easy. I will probably spend the rest of my life learning how to do it well.

How do I love her?: North Africa part 2

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

I woke up early. If I had known all that the day held, I may have tried harder to fall back asleep.

“Do you have a friend to meet you at the taxi stand?”

It was the normal question taxi drivers asked whenever they took me to Aisha’s neighborhood. And I was a bit nervous about locating the house without wandering up and down the streets of this particular neighborhood.

“Do you want me to walk you to the door?”

Then I saw it. The taxi driver had pulled ahead far enough that I could see the doorway from the taxi stand. “That’s it!” At least I was 90% sure.

At the top of those countless concrete stairs, I found the family at home, bursting with a warm welcome.

But all was not well.

The tension I had felt in their home more than a year ago had only increased. Sporadic and often violent discipline left the children confused, angry, and out of control.

Aisha invited me to sit on the naked couches. She had washed the covers for my visit, she said. She shook her head and clicked her tongue. Someone had slipped over the roof and stolen them off of the line as they dried in the sunshine.

As Aisha cooked (she refused my help, which was fortunate since her kitchen can only fit one person at a time), I slipped out to the rooftop to pray and to watch the world from the 6th story. The neighborhood was a moving I Spy book: a man leans over a roof parapet with a paint roller on a stick, turning dingy white to barn red. He calls to the men on the roof below to move their things so he doesn’t drip paint on them. His daughter swings on the clothesline behind him, laughing in delight as the wire stretches wider and wider. Boys play cards on the street below. Across the way, a woman gathers laundry. Just next door, a teenage girl drapes a blanket over the parapet, stops to watch the world, and spots me doing the same. I am fascinated by the movement—a symphony of together-life, sometimes harmonious, sometimes not.

More family came for a lunch of fried fish. And then we went for a walk. Rivers of mud flowed through the dirty market, splattering our shoes as motorcycles roared by. We came to an open area of crab grass, where families sat on blankets and pieces of cardboard and peeled mandarins while the children ran wild.

Aisha and I peeled mandarins together and had the first meaningful conversation of the day. But something in her expression and words spoke of stale panic.

The explosion came a little later, on our way home. Slaps, a bruised eye, and suddenly wood pieces hurled through the air as mother and daughter screamed at each other. Onlookers interceded, patching the family’s distress with layers of shame.

In the taxi on the way home, I hugged my backpack that now smelled like leftover cigarette smoke. “God, help this family!” I prayed until the words felt worn out. But God knew the layers in those words. How could I– a long-distance friend– initiate the healing of a crushed and bleeding family?

A few days later, we met for a final goodbye, just Aisha and I. We talked about her daughter. After listening to stories of behavior problems and irresponsibility, I begged Aisha to love her daughter.

“How do I love her?” she asked.

How does she show unconditional love when she may have never known it? How can she pass on what has never been passed on to her?

As we parted ways, I tried to scrape together my broken heart and wished I could scrape together hers too.

Grandma

Grandma imagined a pump of cold, running water in heaven. She told me so as we sat side by side on the couch just before I left for Spain.

“What do you imagine?” she asked.

Heavenly mansions were on our minds, not the frailty of human life.

When I said goodbye, I hugged Grandma and then Grandpa. My voice was still cheerful as I said, “If I don’t see you again here, I’ll see you in a much better place!”

They both smiled.

But I couldn’t control that rush of grief. The memories, joys, sorrows, and love just landed in a heavy heap on my heart. I started to cry.

Like I am now.

Today is Grandma’s funeral and I’m an ocean away.

Grandma spent her whole life quietly serving others. She inspired almost subconscious admiration and love; she was the rock that we all leaned on but sometimes forgot was there. She always had time for her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren (and even our pets too!).

And yet, she loved to be alone, content to be still while the world marched by. She enjoyed life without needing to partake of all its luxuries, and contentment made her life richer. Her faith in God, her love for others, and her hobbies—collecting, organizing, couponing, gardening, reading— strengthened her for the hard things life threw at her.

On Friday, the hard thing was emergency surgery with very little chance of success. The family was stunned. We knew she was ready to meet her Maker, but we weren’t ready for her to meet her Maker.

And then she was gone. Before most of us had the chance to say goodbye.

It’s as if the book of some of my best memories has closed. No more melting plastic game chips on the threadbare carpet. No more sleepovers on crinkly pillow covers. No more poring over stacks of Berenstain Bear books. No more Keebler cookie snacks. No more tiptoeing around in the forbidden basement with cousins. No more strict “with soap!” hand washings. No more maneuvering the golf cart between the fragile fir trees at the risk of Grandma spotting us from the living room window. No more Grandma stories from when Dad was a little boy. No more of her French silk pie or other outstanding desserts and dishes. No more talks on the couch. No more phone calls or quirky, Grandma-style emails.

Her last email came the middle of October:

“Think I swept my time under the rug and now need to reverse that. All kind of things collect there under that cover up. That’s why some people insist on hardwood floors. Do you have hardwood floors or rugs with secrets?”

Her emails always put a smile on my face, no matter what kind of day I was having. Especially when they ended like this one:

“We don’t sweep love under the rug so you’re safe! Grandpa and Grandma”

On Saturday, I sat on the lonely beach, staring at the sea and trying to swallow the suddenness of her death. There’s just no easy way to say goodbye. No easy way to hurt. Friends from here and there and everywhere have decided to hurt with me and my family. Thank you.

Today we are grieving the loss of a beloved grandmother. And we’re also celebrating Grandma’s gain as she welcomes eternity.

I hope there’s a pump of cold, running water.

God doesn’t owe me results

The night was a failure. Even after a day of prayer and fasting.

No one noticed that my heart was beating in time with the Father’s. No one noticed that my soul was alive and refreshed.

People were out breathing in the cool night after the long, scorching day. Last week on my nightly strolls, I had met several women. Under the cover of dusk, we had sat on park benches and talked while children played around us.

But tonight there was nothing invigorating.

A stop at the local store made me wonder where the line between friendly and amorous should be drawn. And why was I always the one to draw the line?

And then there was that woman again. The shriveled Gypsy for whom I had once bought bread and eggs and now every time she saw me she snagged me with a long, anguished tale and a request for a couple of euros. How could I communicate love? Bread, eggs, and euros were not going to alleviate her poverty of soul.  Her granddaughters averted their blushing faces.

And that was all. No one else seemed open to conversation. Alone and discouraged, I finished my route and turned toward home.

That’s when truth started to sink it, settling between the churning waves of injured pride and self-pity.

God doesn’t owe me results. He doesn’t owe me deep, blossoming friendships and engaging conversations. If I cultivate a certain level of spiritual maturity, He doesn’t owe me the world on a silver platter.

My service is not qualified by my carnally-defined successes but by my faithfulness. Am I loving (and consequently serving) God with all of my heart? My soul? My strength? My mind?

Years and years ago, my Sunday school teacher gave me a quote that I have kept tucked inside of my Bible ever since. “There is no more powerful force for rebuking all evil things, whether of conduct or of opinion, than that of the quiet, strong, persistent life of a man or woman who goes on from day to day doing the duties of the day well, cheerfully, and with joy.”

As I walked those final blocks home, my sense of entitlement slipped away. “What if?” I wondered. “What if in my day to day journey, I start counting each blossoming friendship and engaging conversation as a blessing rather than my entitlement? What if I named each interaction as a gift rather than my payment for growing in Christ?”

The neighbor man waved and smiled. “Good evening.”

I waved back. “Good evening.” And it was.

Guest blog- “Let’s be sisters forever”

I met her twenty-six years ago. No, I shouldn’t say it like that. It’d be more accurate to say, “She met me twenty-six years ago.”

When she looked into my squalling red face and squinting eyes (the world is an awfully hard place when bright lights and thundering noises hit you directly and not through the sound-barrier of your mom’s belly), she probably felt something similar to love…and regret that she wasn’t the baby girl anymore.

Still, I wish I could remember that moment when my then four-year-old sister peered into my eyes for the first time.

Even if she didn’t love me right away, I’m sure she must have learned to love me at some point, but it was years before the love went anything beyond obligatory sibling love.

Our relationship was unstable. I simultaneously loved and hated her—I didn’t do things by halves. I envied her cool poise and aloofness. I longed to be tall and lean like her instead of stocky and square like me. Years later, I found out that she envied my blue eyes and blonde hair. Life’s a funny thing, isn’t it?

She was a stubborn neat freak, me her bull-headed little messy sister, both trying to inhabit the same room without killing each other. I’ll let you imagine how that worked.

She introduced me to classic literature and ridiculed the fluffy books I sometimes read. Thus, she bullied me into reading good books. I’m not sure if I have ever thanked her for that.

When she went on grand and glorious adventures to Mexico, Ecuador, Africa, and Spain, I stayed home and got eaten up with jealousy and cheered her on.

Now she writes and works in Spain, where she has dozens of friends and cool adventures every day (and I’m not jealous at all).

She drinks coffee in exorbitant amounts. “The milk here has a funny taste so I use cream in my coffee,” she told us over a phone call.

“Maybe that’s a good way to wean yourself off of coffee,” my mom suggested.

“But—but I don’t want to be weaned off it.”

She has a hunger for yummy ethnic food and actually makes it, unlike me (hello, 5-year old bubble tea balls). Green and red curry, tikka masala, and egg rolls are nothing uncommon. Before she left for Spain, she bought a HUGE bag of rice (I think ten pounds). She was constantly volunteering to bring rice to things.

“Why don’t you make stir-fry?” she’d tell Mom, “and I’ll bring the rice.”

“Do you know what would be good with that?” she asked me as I pan-fried chicken breasts.

I looked at her blankly.

“RICE!”

She likes to make use of what she has, and is a shrewd shopper for what she doesn’t.

While I look at a rack full of clothes as overwhelming and hopeless, she carefully combs through each item and selects things I end up being jealous of.

She has long been a proponent of living with less, although I’ve never heard her refer to it as minimalism. To her, it doesn’t need a label. She spent years with monthly stashes beside her bed. “If I don’t use it this month, then I don’t need it!” She kept her drawers and closet on the bare side, while my side was stuffed full (I have since fallen in love with minimalism and my closet is beginning to look more and more like hers).

When it comes to being an aunt, my sister, like me, is in love with the little people. However, she is an infinitely cooler aunt than I ever hope to be, taking our nephew outside to “explore,” having him “catch” leaves, see the kitty (which he calls the “deeder-deeder”), and play on an old tricycle. She is a calm presence, not jumpy and flighty like me, patiently loving on the boys and, more recently, the girl.

When she asked me to guest blog for her, I suggested that I write about her. It’s not fair that all of her readers should see only a lopsided picture of her and never know what she’s really like.

She was worried. “Okay. But make sure you send it to me early so that if I want you to write something different, you’ll still have time.”

I laughed. “I won’t write anything bad!

Her voice was hesitant. “Just—just send it to me early, though.”

She shouldn’t have worried. I’m not mean. I won’t tell the embarrassing stories (well…maybe just one…hee,hee). I may be the little sister that she tormented, but I’m not a vindictive soul. I’ll let you simply wonder about all the things I could have said, but didn’t.

I sit here now, wondering how to close up an article about someone when they’re ongoing. I’m not a sentimental person. If I were, I’d probably say something trite about loving my sister and how wonderful she is.

But since I’m not sentimental, I’ll just say, “It’s been great. Let’s be sisters for forever.”


Michelle loves books, family, and working with the elderly at her job. She is passionate about making beautiful things, whether through writing, crafting, knitting, etc. She blogs about life at rhapsodyind.wordpress.com.