There But for the Grace of God

“Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.”

Wm. Paul Young

One afternoon this week, my seven-year-old and I drove down a city street lined with mansions. We stopped at a traffic light, and my daughter screeched, “Mom! What is that man doing?”

I looked up. A middle-aged man was pawing through a garbage can, grabbing food that was most likely thrown away by students from the nearby magnet high school.

I grew up in New York City in the seventies, so homeless people have been part of my consciousness for long as I can remember. Women covered in dirty blankets, shuffling through Grand Central Station. Shadowy men huddled over burning trashcans along the Bowery. Mothers clutching babies, elderly men begging. I remember them all.

But my daughter is growing up in a different kind of city, in a different type neighborhood, in a different type of school than mine back in 1976 when I was seven years old.

I told her that the man was looking for food.

“Why doesn’t he go to a food kitchen?” she asked, thinking about all the sandwiches she’s made at school for the homeless over the years.

I explained that you can’t live in a food kitchen all of the time. And then I said something I haven’t said in ages: “There but for the grace of God, goes you, goes I.”

I learned these words from my Irish grandmother, Mary. Mary never said a bad thing about anyone. Other people’s business was none of her business. If she didn’t have anything nice to say, she just didn’t say anything at all. And most of all, There but for the grace of God . . .

My daughter understood. “We’re very lucky, mom.”

I agreed.

“Mom, maybe we should make some more sandwiches and bring them to the pantry,” she replies.

“Yes,” I say. My life is filled with so many graces. Mary Oliver wrote, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

Little graces rise out of the darkness, tiny pinpricks of color and light. Without the darkness I would hardly notice them.

Thanksgiving: Not the Day For

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.

Tomorrow is not the day to worry about my feisty, independent aunt with the beautiful hair and perfect posture who went into hospice yesterday, defeated and hunched over, and received her last rites today. Tomorrow is not the day to feel bitter because she is dying of lung cancer but never smoked a day in her life.

Tomorrow is the day to be thankful that I visited her two days ago, one day before she took such a terrible turn. Tomorrow is the day to be grateful that I’ve spent quality time with her during the past two years and that she has told things to me straight when no one else would.

Tomorrow is the day to be thankful that one of my children got to see his great aunt several weeks ago when she still felt well and appeared her vigorous and vivacious self. Tomorrow is the day to remember my son sharing barbecue pizza with her and telling her that he loves math, just like her. It is the day to remember her famous tins of homemade Christmas cookies and how she never met a child she didn’t love — and who didn’t love and adore her right back.

Tomorrow is not the day to dwell on my father’s other sister and how she will have open heart surgery in a week. It is not the day to worry about the health of a man in his seventies who is watching his two sisters struggle between life and death. It is the day to be thankful for this man in our lives — a man who worked his entire life selflessly to provide for his family, and who finally retired, only to spend all of his free time taking care of his daughter and providing for his grandchildren when their father falls short.

Tomorrow is not the day to worry about divorce finances and declines in standards of living, and looking for a job after staying home for years, and children leaving schools they love. Tomorrow is the day to be grateful we are in our family’s warm house, all together, with children running around and spilling milk and getting into a lot of trouble.

Tomorrow is not the day to wonder why God throws everything at us at once until the stress and utter unfairness of it all starts sitting in your chest like a physical pain and makes you start wondering if it has affected your health in insidious and permanent ways. Tomorrow is the day to search for gratitude and things to be thankful for. It’s the day to realize that no one can sail through life unscathed. And mostly, for me, tomorrow is the day to remember that this too shall pass. Nothing lasts forever, and as my aunt told me recently, “Unlike me, you are about to turn a corner. Your divorce will eventually be over. And you’ll hardly remember it in a few years.”

So tomorrow is the day to be thankful for happy and healthy children, cousins and grandparents, snowflakes, mashed potatoes and stuffing and hot gravy, crackling fireplaces and green-and-red M&Ms in jars, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and knock-knock jokes, a warm house and great books, funny uncles and creative aunts, football and fantasy football, Christmas music before we all get tired of it, big California cabernets with apple and blueberry pies, the puppy down the street, silly dancing and LEGOs and Zengo, and the hope that we might be able to scrape together enough snow to make a snowman before it’s all over.

Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you, God, for everything!

by Edith Rutter Leatham

“Gorgeous, amazing…

“Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention: mangoes, grandnieces, Bach, ponds. This happens more often when we have as little expectation as possible. If you say, “Well, that’s pretty much what I thought I’d see,” you are in trouble. At that point you have to ask yourself why you are even here. […] Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Let it be. Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business.”
― Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers

It got cold here overnight. Finally! We dug out the hats, mittens and scarves for the first time. One child loves the cold; the other would prefer to huddle inside until spring arrives. But all three of us went outside this morning, and the cold air felt exciting and new.

I thought this quote was perfect for this gorgeous winter Sunday.


There’s freedom…

There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin, because when you’re still in the state of trying to fix the unfixable, everything bad is engaged: the chatter of your mind, the tension of your physiology, all the trunks and wheel-ons you carry from the past. It’s exhausting, crazy-making.

Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through.

It is the first great prayer.

— Anne Lamott, “Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers”

I was taught that if I worked hard enough, I could do anything. If things weren’t working out, I needed to work harder. When I started having marital problems, I went into overdrive trying to fix the situation: individual therapy, marital counseling, reading, researching, snooping, obsessing, fixing the unfixable. I lived in a state of constant fear, hyper alert to the tiniest changes in my soon-to-be-ex’s demeanor or routines.

It worked for a while. I was exhausted. I nearly drove myself crazy by trying to control things. I became the kind of person who kept secrets. I carried around so much shame that sometimes my chest felt like it was caving in. But I thought this was all worth it so that my children wouldn’t have to grow up in a broken family.

I didn’t give up willingly. I hit the wall, the rock bottom. The situation was simply not fixable — there was no hope it would change. And ultimately I learned that my soon-to-be-ex didn’t really want to change. Not for me, for his children, or himself. It’s then that I realized that my family was already broken.

Admitting you’re powerless to change or fix someone else. There is freedom in that. You can finally let go. It’s traumatic, like a death. But then you begin to breathe again. The restoration begins.

And you start taking care of yourself. You start looking for a job. Music makes you smile instead of weep . You dance with your kids and know that they will be okay. You have come through, and it feels like a miracle.