Long Spoons Living

I once received an e-mail forward telling the story of a fictional tourist who wandered through heaven and hell. I typically don’t much care for forwarded e-mails, often finding them shallow and sappy. This one might be both, but for some reason it stuck with me and came around to mean something deeper.

So the story goes, our tourist arrives in hell and is surprised to see a large table around which is seated a group of people. A  large pot in the middle of the table contains plenty of food for all of them. But the only utensils the people have are spoons, as long as yardsticks, strapped to their arms. As the diners try to bring food back to their mouths, it slips off their long, clumsy utensils, leaving the people starving and emaciated.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and salsachica

To the tourist’s further surprise, heaven contains almost the same scenario: table, pot of stew, long spoons. But the people there are well-fed and happy, laughing and talking as they share the meal. Why? Because they are using their long spoons to feed each other, reaching across the table to supply one another’s needs, and in turn having other people meet theirs.

Giving is a two-way street. Growing up in a community-oriented family environment, I guess I never really questioned having my needs met by them or my responsibility to contribute to the family. The needs at stake weren’t only food, shelter, and clothing, but also love, community, and affirmation. When I went to college, I took this mentality with me: your roommates, friends, classmates, even professors, are human beings who deserve your respect and need your care. It works excellently when people in community with each other share this perspective.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and alexkalina

However, not all people do. In college especially, I met some people who were intent on using their spoons to feed only themselves, no matter how clumsy and inefficient the effort. Many were single, reasonably affluent, living on their own for the first time, and absorbed in their own education experiences. Their resources of time, money, energy, were completely consumed by activities they found fun, their own personal goals, or relationships that got them ahead. There was nothing left over to give to others. I, too, tried feeding only myself with my spoon for a while, and it left me feeling tough, yes, self-sufficient, yes, but still gnawingly hungry.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and mzacha

But constantly feeding other people with your spoon while they continue to feed only themselves is a recipe for straight-up starvation. Long-term, one-sided sacrifice and service lead to burnout and loneliness. Giving to your community is a good thing. In fact, in the short term, sometimes the best and most needed giving is to people who can’t give back. But if you’re constantly feeding others and no one reaches out to feed you back, you’ll end up malnourished, not to mention exhausted and probably disillusioned.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and LoganCale

Successful, mutual relationships are about people using their long spoons to feed each other–parents and children, husbands and wives, church communities, friends. When you look at your resources and, instead of using them all up on yourself, sacrifice some for someone else, you risk not having enough. But the most satisfying feeling in the world is when the math doesn’t add up. You give away something you want or need (affection, time, money, energy, etc.). But instead of being left hungry, someone else comes in and provides for your deficit, making up the difference.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and juliaf

It’s called love, I think. It’s looking at this enormous, awkward spoon you’ve been given to eat with and, instead of seeing it as an ill-formed impediment because the goal is feeding yourself, seeing it as the perfect tool because the point is to feed someone else.

Zucchini Cake

I don’t know what’s up with the baking analogies. I don’t even like to bake. But I have this thought that people are like cake.

So, this is a hard admission: as you may have deduced by now, I’m a people-pleaser. I’ve always wanted to be a chocolate cake.

Free image courtesy of stock.xchng and nosheep

Since childhood, I’ve tried to be the “good kid”–pleasing parents, Sunday school teachers, kids I wanted to be friends with, kids I didn’t want to be friends with, college professors, people at church, random strangers at Starbucks. My code of conduct went something like, “Fly under the radar, don’t irritate people, do what you’re told, appease.” Because people only want chocolate cakes, right? Chocolate cake people make the best friends, students, children, right?

Chocolate cake people: plural noun. Punctual, humble, not only faithful in but excited about prayer, churchgoing, service activities. Don’t talk too much, don’t talk too much about themselves, modest, demure, good grades, walk the straight and narrow. Also hospitable, good conversationalists, and don’t go outside looking frumpy. Ever.

So if people only want chocolate cakes, I have to be one, right? To get approval (and what else could be worth getting?) I’ve aimed for perfection, or as close to it as possible. Other people’s displeasure was my fault, my failure.

Here’s the trouble. I’m not a chocolate cake. I think I might not even count as cake. I get this frequent, sneaking suspicion that I’m made of something else entirely–something green and lumpy that won’t stick together and certainly won’t fluff in the oven. Something like…zucchini.

Free image courtesy of stock.xchng and soultga

Zucchini person: singular noun. Lags just a few minutes late for every activity. Talks too much about self and sometimes snorts at own jokes. Sometimes doesn’t feel like praying. Wakes up without makeup and sometimes on the wrong side of the bed. Worries about job, friends, future.

Well, zucchini is obviously an unacceptable basis for the making of cakes, especially when all cakes are supposed to be chocolate. So my solution has been to slap some nice, thick frosting on top and smear it around. See? Picture-perfect cake.

Free image courtesy of stock.xchng and coachen

Then there’s the broiler.

A little summer heat is one thing; if your inch-thick coat of frosting starts to melt, you just patch the thin spots. You can still hide what’s underneath. But sitting under a 500-degree hot wire for long enough is more than any coat of frosting can bear. A hot wire like eleven months of caregiving, for instance.

Hard times have a way of stripping away your layers of fakeness. Insincerity soon melts under the flame. And what’s left for people to see is…zucchini. Embarrassing, un-chocolate, imperfect, vulnerable.

This is the point, in my imagination, where people scream and go, “Ew, gross! Someone get that unacceptable vegetable out of here!”

But, to my dumbfounded astonishment, that’s not what I’ve seen happen. The more I can’t hide my true substance, the more I show people that my cake is far from chocolate, the more I’m let in on a secret.

Other people’s cakes aren’t, either.

Vulnerability is like an amoeba. It multiplies itself. Numerous times in the last few months, I’ve had the shocking experience of hearing people–even people I regard as the gold standard of chocolate cake–reveal their failings, their doubts, their awkwardnesses, their fears. Almost no one sails through life in complete confidence (and those who do are ignoring some things). No one marches into battle without sweaty palms. No one looks in the mirror every morning, smiles a toothpaste-commercial smile, and whispers, “go get ’em, chocolate.”

Vulnerability also brings people together. I used to think, not very long ago, that I really had to be perfect for people to like me. What absolutely stuns me is the slow discovery that perfection intimidates–and honesty is true beauty. People don’t like you less when you show them your hurt, your awkwardness, your doubt. Honesty levels the playing field. It expresses trust, need, connection. The ugly green truth is what allows deep, real connection to bloom.

Free image courtesy of stock.xchng and kyra

So, here’s my confession. I’m not made of chocolate. Sometimes, with all my zucchini-greenness going on, I think I make a miserable excuse for cake at all. You don’t have to like it. But that’s what I’m made of. And now that that’s out in the open, I’m glad I no longer have to spend my life patching the frosting.

Ever felt like a zucchini cake in a chocolate-cake world? What have you discovered about revealing that to other people? 


What Car Shopping Taught Me about Relationships

Here’s an unusual factoid about me: I’ve never had a boyfriend. Yes, you heard me right, 5th-grade girls from summer camp. It IS possible to pass the age of 18 without hunting boys for sport. Promise.

But though I may not have much experience in the area of romantic relationships, it doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about them. Sometimes a 3rd-party perspective is the most credible, and I certainly have a degree of objectivity. So I’d like to share some things I’ve learned about relationships…from the process of buying a car.

Free image courtesy of stock.exchange

What do a car and a potential marriage partner have in common, you ask? One is a high-tech metal machine that takes you places, while the other is a human being, full of opinions and dreams, with whom you will spend the rest of your life learning to meld. But both cars and lifelong relationships are huge decisions. And most involved decision-making processes have things in common. So as I was learning about transmission fluid and PSI, the writer in me was noticing things that could be cross-applied.

So here are the results:

    1. Don’t start test-driving until you’re actually in the market to buy. 

    Though I’d saved enough money to buy a car long before this year, I decided not to start shopping until I knew I had the income to support it (insurance, gas, maintenance, etc.). Now I’m glad I did–because once I put my hands on Baby’s wheel, I was so dazzled that it would have been hard to let go, even if I’d been financially unready for her. You kind of have to stay away from Craigslist entirely until you’re ready for the possibility that you might buy a car. I think the same goes for dating and marriage. Yes, my dear 11-year-olds–I’m talking to you. Not in the market to buy, don’t start shopping. 


    2. Get plenty of advice from plenty of sources–especially some with credibility. 

    From the adult friend who coached me on used-car salesmanship techniques to my cousin who listened for rattles in the engine to the fellow Corolla driver who proudly declared that the trunk was large enough to fit 2 bodies…I got lots of advice before making my decision. Almost everyone over 16 has a story about buying, or at least driving, a car. No one person has all the answers, but by talking to lots of people, I got a big picture of some do’s and don’ts. Most helpful of all was the advice of my mechanic, a man who has made car health his profession for decades. When I got the go-ahead from him, I knew I could rest easy about buying this car. Similarly, when considering the possibility of a relationship, it seems sound to get all the input and advice you can, especially from those who are experienced judges of character. 

    3. Know the flaws you’re buying. 

    One of the people I asked for advice told me, “When you buy a used car, you’re buying somebody else’s problems.” Since I didn’t want to end up stranded on a highway somewhere, from the moment I saw Baby, I started to look for what those problems might be. Sure, it made me feel like a cynic as I cranked all the knobs, pushed all the buttons, and  made sudden sharp turns, but I didn’t want to rush into a purchase only to regret it later. Baby (even I will admit) isn’t perfect, but her flaws are mostly minor and cosmetic. I can live with those things, knowing I can rely on her to take me places reliably and safely. Likewise, evaluating a potential mate thoroughly at first can help prevent breakdowns on the highway later.

    4. Take time to make your decision. 

    Since Baby used to be a rental car, the company let me rent her for the weekend to do an “extended test drive.” Lesson learned: extended test drives are really, really good. I had time to discover Baby’s strengths and weaknesses, imagine myself driving her everywhere, and sleep on the decision before entering negotiations. I loved not being rushed or put on the spot. And I’ve had almost no buyers’ remorse. If taking time to make a wise decision is so important for a car that will last 8-10 years, how much more important is it for a marriage that will last a lifetime! 


    5. Sometimes you do buy the first car you test-drive. 

    People told me to expect to drive 10-12 used cars before finding “the one,” and to be ready to walk away if a car wasn’t right. I was ready to walk away. I honestly didn’t expect to find the ideal car the first time I called about a Craigslist ad. But all my prerequisites were in place: I was in a position to buy, I had lots of advice, and thanks to the extended test drive, I had a pretty good idea of what flaws I was facing. So when the first car that zipped into my life turned out to be perfect for me, I was ready to make an offer. It felt weird that I hadn’t experienced more options, but I know I would have been crazy to turn Baby down. Maybe it’s not necessarily about how many people you date, but about being ready when the right one comes along.

    Free image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono and Freedigitalphotos.net


    Fingerprints of God

    This is my Grammy. She will be 90 in three months. She has cancer. After she was released from the hospital with this diagnosis, she moved in with my family in early December.

    It was 5 years ago when she sat for this photo, the summer of 2007. She was also living with us then, but things were different. Then, she was in transition to a nearby retirement community.  She laughed often, had a Rodgers and Hammerstein song for everything we said, and took fastidious care of her makeup. Always an artist, she clipped pictures of interesting faces from the newspaper and used glitter pens to make and sell handmade cards. For my birthdays, I could count on gold ink on the inside of the card as well as the outside, bold loops in her confident calligraphy: Much love and luck. Grammy M. After she moved into her own place, I couldn’t stop by without being metaphorically lassoed and force-fed: I remember a day when she asked me at least 15 times if I wanted a sandwich. Her easel always in the corner, her walls were practically papered with photographs of her family: four children, their spouses, nine grandchildren, two great-grandchildren. It was easier to talk then. We talked about reading: biographies, mysteries, classics, the latest article in Time or Newsweek, interviews with the actresses of The Help. We swapped cooking tips and recipes, and I accompanied her to dinner in her retirement community a few times, enjoying conversation with some lively ladies who had experienced much of life.

    A lot has changed in the last 5 years—really, in the last 5 months we’ve been caring for her. Now she spends her days in her recliner or in the backyard, watching squirrels or observing that all the trees are on the other side of the fence. Her routine is limited, but strict: eat Cream of Wheat and drink coffee, bathe with the help of a Hospice health aide, sit in the sun, nap, read, watch Jeopardy and Dancing with the Stars. Actions like climbing four stairs or pushing a chair into place sap her energy. Her physical limitations are growing but understandable; it’s harder for me to cope with the sunset of her mind. She asks to eat whatever she sees me eating and becomes fixated on issues that appear in commercials. A fog seems to be moving over her, limiting the scope of her vision, shrinking our range of conversation topics until often it’s just silence or us reading side by side at lunchtime.
    It’s hard to love the helpless. It’s hard when the relationship becomes one-way. Much of the time now, Grammy can only absorb, not give back. I get tired and frustrated, and sometimes I catch myself writing her off, treating her as a burden rather than a person with dignity and value.

    But when I find myself there, I’m basically saying that personhood is dependent on utility. Isn’t that often how we view people? We prefer the young, the beautiful, the intelligent, the rich, the witty, to those who don’t “contribute” as much to society. We’d rather discard them than care for them. It makes me think me of the young adult book The Giver, in which the helpless are simply disposed of—the elderly, the weak, the sick, the deformed, the disabled. Their worth is measured based on their abilities.

    But even as I scrape another morning’s gloppy Cream of Wheat leftovers into the garbage can or have another conversation about squirrels, I have to realize that personhood is not dependent on abilities. It’s a stamp on all human beings: intrinsic, irreducible, universal. It was there from the beginning, when God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Every person bears the image of God. Whether they can get up from a recliner or dress themselves or hold a lucid conversation is irrelevant to that. And thank God! Because one day, if I’m given the chance to grow old, even if I can’t walk, can’t hear, and can’t remember their names, I want my grandchildren to treat me with the respect and love that belongs to a fellow image-bearer.

    My Grammy was young once; she drove a car and did Tai Chi; she was an artist who moved to Mexico and learned Spanish from scratch; she went through 8 pregnancies, lived in 4 states and 2 countries, and loved to dance. But even if she hadn’t done all those things, she would still be a person of infinite worth because she is fashioned and designed uniquely by God. So is every person: the homeless, children, the uneducated, the unborn, the comatose, the disabled. All are valuable and worth loving, covered with the fingerprints of God. And how we treat them, regardless of their utility, is the litmus test of our faith.  

    And so I pray for love and for patience with my Grammy. I don’t always show her the kindness I want to. But even when she can’t do the things she used to be able to do, even when we just read side by side or settle in for another night of Jeopardy, she is a one-of-a-kind, irreplaceable child of God, never before seen and never to be seen again. And that makes her more than worthy of my love and respect.

    How do you love the helpless? What image-bearers in your life deserve your love and respect? 

    Rhinestones and Diamonds

    I am blessed to have some of the world’s finest girls as my friends. They volunteer with the deaf, they start small businesses, they cook up exotic dishes with unpronounceable names. They’re going to graduate school, writing books, getting internships around the world. But not only are they energetic and talented; they are kind, loyal, dedicated, and faith-full people as well. They won’t tell you about the time they spend behind the scenes, supporting tired parents, making cupcakes for church events, encouraging their coworkers, starting conversations with the “fringe kids” on campus. They are the quiet gems in their communities, and I am honored to know them.

    But here’s a mystery. Most of them spent a lonely Valentine’s Day this last week. I know that most of them came home that night to reheated leftovers, a movie by themselves, maybe some homework or e-mail. Why? While there’s certainly nothing wrong with singleness by choice, many of these girls haven’t even been offered the choice. In a world where their initiative and servanthood is exceptional, why on earth weren’t these young women of character, intelligence, and sincerity asked out to dinner by every available man on February 14?

    A couple of weeks ago, I needed to clean a few pairs of earrings. I love shiny things, but I am a writer; thus, my jewelry is made mostly of tinfoil and rhinestones. To my chagrin, the Internet informed me that it is difficult or impossible to clean rhinestone jewelry. It comes down to the difference between rhinestones and diamonds.

    Rhinestones, according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, are imitation diamonds made from crystal, glass, or acrylic. They get their glitter from a reflective backing that refracts the light, creating sparkles and rainbows. They can be cheaply mass-produced, which makes them attractive options for impoverished English majors (and people looking for ridiculous stilettos):


    This budget glitz is all fine and dandy as long as its reflective backing doesn’t get wet. Water washes away the glitter, revealing rhinestones for the plastic they are underneath.

    Diamonds’ scintillating coruscation (dictionary break!), by contrast, will never wear out or wash away, no matter what they go through. That’s because their legendary luminescence comes from within one of the world’s strongest crystal structures, used for grinding metal tools or containing high-pressure lab experiments when it’s not perched atop engagement rings. Peerlessly beautiful and virtually unbreakable. I guess you get what you pay for.  

    So if diamonds are where the real value lies, why is it rhinestones are so much more plentiful? And in higher demand? And for that matter, why were many of the best girls I know single on Valentine’s Day?

    Cost, I think, is the answer.

    It’s definitely easier to be a rhinestone than a diamond. A nice haircut and new heels are far less expensive than a heart of integrity and sacrifice. Developing those is back-breaking work that will take every day of your life and constant prayer to build. And when just a little lipstick and a flirtatious smile seem to garner instant attention and admiration, why go the distance to become a diamond on the inside?

    Key word here is seem. To seem is to have one thing going on the outside and another on the inside, a double life—the opposite of integrity, being one person within and without. As women, are we all about the fragile falsehood of appearance? Are we nothing more than painted paper masks? Or can we say, with Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “I know not seems…I have that within which passes show” (I.2)?

    So if it’s more costly to be a diamond, why do the boys so often choose the rhinestones? This question is even asked in the 1936 novel Gone with the Wind (which I have at last begun reading; only 1,215 pages to go!): 

    Scarlett: “Why is it a girl has to be so silly to catch a husband?”

    Mammy: “Ah specs it’s kase gempmums doan know whut dey wants. Dey jus’ knows whut dey thinks dey wants.” 


    Cost again. It’s far easier—and seems more attractive—to accept the first girl who waltzes into your arms than to labor to win a woman who has a strong character and developed beliefs.

    But rhinestone beauty washes away under pressure. I know for a fact that life will throw you curveballs (if it hasn’t already). When you lose your job, when a family member is diagnosed with cancer, when you have to make a hard choice between the easy thing and the right thing, which do you want supporting you: glitter-backed acrylic, or the world’s hardest rock (which also happens to be one of its most beautiful)?

    I have met these women: those who choose God’s will even when it means laying down their own, who believe in His big-picture plan and are willing to wait for it, who sacrifice for their families, who show kindness to strangers. They may not always have time for makeup, but they make time to listen to friends in need. They practice the discipline of putting others’ good before their own and seize singleness as an opportunity to serve God. They are beautiful even through suffering, through service, through sacrifice. This is the kind of beauty that withstands hell and high water. Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. 

    Men, I’m not going to lie to you. You’re not going to win the heart of a woman like that easily. It takes a lot of work and prayer to become a person worth having—believe me, these women know. But set your sights high, because their value is beyond price. Diamonds, as the ad says, are forever. No water, no hardship, no struggle can wash away the radiance that comes from within such jewels. No amount of bad hair days or wrinkles can ever touch their beauty. Time cannot tarnish them; no storm can shake them. Many women do noble things, but such diamonds surpass them all. 

    So here’s to the diamonds, the ladies who are of such great beauty in God’s sight. Here’s to the single women who choose to spend their time giving, laughing, discovering instead of wallowing in self-pity. Here’s to you who keep on serving even when nobody sees; who keep on praying even when God doesn’t instantly say yes. To you who reject a superficial life of mask-wearing and take the hard road of integrity: your worth is far above rubies. 

    Happy Valentine’s Day.

    Who are the diamonds you know? What makes them so special?