5 Cup Salad

If I close my eyes especially tight, I can still see my grandmother, housecoat covering a Sunday dress, leaning into the refrigerator’s light to pull out my favorite holiday dish, 5 Cup Salad. A simple concoction of mandarin oranges, pineapple chunks, maraschino cherries, and marshmallows, held together by a sweet mixture of sour cream and sugar, my mouth salivates at the sight. Sliding over the linoleum, she deposits the Corning Ware Cornflower baking dish in the middle of the holiday fare all boiled, baked and broiled with a master’s hand. I can still hear her drawl, a South Mississippi native, apologetically lamenting that the turkey was unbearably dry this year. I never ate more delicious unbearably dry turkey. Standing close by with plate in hand, I only have one goal: to extract all of the maraschino cherries from my favorite dish before my brother gets through the line. He loves maraschino cherries, but I love them more. I heap a generous helping on half my plate with only a small surface area left for something more healthy, turn to my brother to gloat over my sweet, red spoils, take my seat at the children’s table in the breakfast area, and cheerfully dig in while the warmth of that small, cozy home on Ruffwood fills me faster than my food; softening the edges on those memories so connected to the sights, smells and tastes of the holidays.

Life is not as sweet as 5 Cup Salad. Distance and time make those memories wane in the chill of winter. My grandmother’s perfectly coiled blue hair, done weekly, at a local beauty parlor set off her sparkly eyes and her sense of wit. If you were lucky, after dinner and dishes, she would sit at the piano and practice her hymns. With the bulletin from St. Luke’s Methodist in front of her, she would rehearse the selections for the weekend with a sweeping musicality. My love for music, in part, was born in those hours I would sit beside her on the piano bench watching her hands cross over as she extended the melody line beyond her five fingers. She was a masterful accompanist. Her hands would soften on the chorus of In the Garden, as her once beautiful voice, hardened by years and use, would softly sing along. After rehearsal ended, all subtlety was gone as she attacked the accelerating waltz, Blue Danube, using the whole keyboard in grand synchronicity. My childish wiggles would cease as I sat there motionless, entranced by her ability, listening for the harmonies and wishing my small fingers could move that way.

This afternoon, I took out the ingredients for 5 cup salad and placed them on my counter. I gently emptied and drained each fruit for an hour (the secret to a good salad), and I carefully combined the sour cream and the sugar, generously pouring the marshmallows in my Corning Ware dish . . . more than my grandmother would have approved of, I’m sure. Sitting in my refrigerator now, the temperature will bring each ingredient to the height of its flavor when it’s time for our Thanksgiving feast tomorrow. On that day, families will gather around all across this country gorging on their holiday favorites. The sweetness and the warmth of the holiday table warding off the pain and the grief that we often wear like a winter coat. Whatever worries and anxieties we carry pale in the bright light of those precious times. Through the dysfunction and the inevitable disagreements that emerge in these settings, we are taught loyalty and the power of forgiveness. We learn when to speak and when to stay silent. We learn that we are not always right, and we practice how to say, “I’m sorry.” We cut our teeth on adversity and take the best courses in conflict resolution. Most importantly, we learn the sweet refrain of redemption, and if we are fortunate, it fills our soul. Family teaches us strength. Family teaches us how to survive. Family endures. No, life is not as sweet as 5 Cup Salad. But memories are. Make some with those you love this Thanksgiving.

I Am Not Enough

Gangly and awkward, my beautiful friend Mary’s middle school self shuffles into her math class and takes a seat.  All around her the white noise and the adolescent maelstrom rages.  Stealthy and introspective, Mary’s wide eyes absorb it all, simultaneously hoping to and praying not to be noticed.  A few desks in front of her sits Kelly Jenkins, the classic middle school female godfather, who was able to gather her minions and manipulate them to do her bidding.  Mission:  to make every other female feel insignificant and small.  Success Rate:  100%.  Her biting and shrill voice squawks above the rest, piercing the atmosphere with teenage euphemisms.  The math teacher passes out the most recent tests, setting off a collective groan.  Kelly, unhappy with her grade, quickly conducts an internal audit, gauging the scores of the students sitting around her.  “What did you make?” she asks each person in her general vicinity.  Mary, sensing her question moving down the row, braces herself for her moment in the sun with the most popular girl in the school.  “What did you make?” the question hangs in the air as Mary struggles to take it in.  Just as she forms the response with her lips, Kelly dismissively scoffs, “Oh, never mind . . . it doesn’t matter.”  With a few simple words and a female godfather’s flip of her soft and shiny curls, Mary is left with a shattered pride and a mental recording that, for many years, played at maximum volume.

If we all are honest, we fight the voices of the past.  Ringing in our ears, those words, dripping with anger or sarcasm, oftentimes inform our present and disable our futures with both fear and anxiety.  No one is immune.  If we live long enough, there will be those who will gladly tell us we are not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough, young enough, old enough, engaging enough, relevant enough, mature enough, athletic enough, talented enough.  We will hear their words, sense their sideways glances, interpret their biting tones, and walk away in defeat, destined to replay those awkward moments mentally for years to come.  And here’s the truth.  Those people are absolutely, undeniably, unmistakably . . .right.  They couldn’t be more right.  We are not ENOUGH.  Not even close.  And here’s the better news.  That’s okay.  The real truth is that none of us are.  And many of us spend our days attempting to deflect that internal realization on anyone and everyone that crosses our path.  Covering our own failures by illuminating the weaknesses of others can become a sport, a strange contest, where we inhabit a universe dictated by comparison, not truth.

Humanity is not enough.  If we were, there would not be bombings outside of Jerusalem temples and riots outside of Ferguson.  If we were enough, there wouldn’t be genocides in Africa and random acts of violence on quiet street corners throughout the globe.  There wouldn’t be poverty and hunger, if we were enough.  Homelessness and child abuse would cease, if humanity were enough.  We’ve had centuries and more than enough laps around the sun to get this right.  Government policies and institutional mandates, legal codes and punitive consequences have proven that for as long as civilization has existed, mankind has been anything but civilized.  You cannot legislate the soul.  Ever.

Our world responds to this overwhelming evidence of a fallen nature by simply asserting that a strong dose of self-love will cover a multitude of sins.  “Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not good enough,” they will say.  And I completely understand that response.  Because if the world ever really acknowledged that our tragic flaws were fatal, the world might just need something to step in and save them.  And that something might just look a lot like a Savior.  And that would never be alright.

Today, I woke up from a peaceful slumber completely inadequate.  But my God never sleeps, and He is more than adequate.  So, I will rest in His strength and rejoice in His goodness, for in Him, I am a new creation.  In Him, I am enough.

Great Expectations

People will fall in and out of love with you all throughout your life.  Expectations rise.  Perceptions skew.  Attitudes sour.   Let’s be honest.  We know ourselves . . . every crack in the wall hidden by a pretty painting . . . every stain on the carpet covered by a well placed rug or an inviting couch.  It’s only a matter of time before someone accidentally bumps the vase to reveal the blemish hidden below.  When that happens, some people quietly place their hand over the stain in shared amusement at the fact that we really aren’t that much different.  Others, aghast with indignation, look away before we imprint our imperfection on their hearts.

It’s not in our nature to perpetually sustain the weight of someone else’s expectations for our life.  We can barely shoulder our own.  Most of us, unable to see ourselves objectively,  either creep stealthily in the shadows, waiting to be revealed for the fraud we feel we are or preen around in the light like we are something to behold, all the while trailing a torn piece of toilet paper from the bottom of our shoe.  It’s all smoke and mirrors, even on our best day.

And then the weariness.  The inevitable drain that comes when we are straining to manage our own images.  The inexplicable chess match that we are playing in our relationships, when all but those cherished few, will eventually arrive at checkmate.  And during those certain seasons of our lives, that betrayal can feel overwhelming . . . a rising tide of pain only playing by the rules of the moon.

Why do we place so much of our worth in the opinions of others?  Why do find ourselves emotionally shipwrecked when we fail to meet the unrealistic expectations of a friend?  Why do we consistently throw our anchor over the side of a sinking ship?  There is only one lighthouse in these shifting seas we call life.  There is only one who knows every crevice in our fractured hearts.  There is only one who turns our glaring imperfections into undeserved sufficiency.  No intentions or motivations miscalculated.  No games.  No fancy tap dances.  No pretense.  Just raw honesty and penetrating truth.  That’s what the relationship with our Father provides.  And  when we finally find eternal acceptance not in all that we are, but in all that we are not, we can navigate our human relationships with an unrelenting freedom.  We can re-arrange our furniture, re-hang our pictures on the walls and throw open our shutters.  Expectations are no more.  He has met them all.  Perfectly.