Odd as this may sound, I love the storytelling that happens in the waiting rooms of hospital emergency rooms. We tell a certain kind of story when we are trying to keep the dragons at bay. The story becomes the calming device—the grown-up’s pacifier or blanket.
Sometimes the stories are recitations of routine. We recount, often in mind-numbing detail, the most ordinary kinds of activities, the things we pray we will be returning to soon. We walk through the new recipe for zucchini pancakes we tried last night; we go over the highlights of a baby shower; we describe exactly where we parked and how much it cost on a recent trip down to Fenway. It is the conversation of distraction, connecting us with the mundane. Made in the face of all that is dire, that connection has a surprising power to soothe.
The other stories we tell in hospital waiting rooms are stories of long ago. We transport ourselves back in time and put ourselves at farthest possible remove from the present emergency. This week, in the ER of our local hospital, one of my parishioners told me the story of how he learned to ski. George is in his late 80’s and we have talked about skiing before. It is not easy for lifelong skiers to give up their sport, an experience kin to having to give up your driver’s license. Although I had heard the story of George’s final mountain runs, I had never heard how his life on skis began.
We make assumptions. I presumed that he learned to ski in NH or VT or possibly back in the the Swedish speaking part of Finland from which his family hales. Someplace scenic and pastoral.
I wasn’t even close. I think George may be the only skier I know who learned how to ski in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. As a boy, George lived in the Highbridge section of the Bronx. “It was no big deal,” he said as he described how he used to strap on curtain rods, then barrel staves, and finally a pair of wooden skis hand-carved by his father, and go flying down the hills of his Bronx neighborhood.
I’m glad I got to hear this story. And even happier that the emergency that took us to the hospital turned out to be relatively minor. I wish it could have been that way for those in the ER in Colorado. Our prayers are with the people of Aurora.
A few years ago, the church I served in Manchester hosted the African Children’s Choir. I loved the athleticism of their dance, the vibrancy of their costumes and the spiritual uplift of their singing. We housed them for a few days and were charmed by the children, but also by their chaperones, “aunties” who had once been choir members themselves.
These chaperones had traveled to America several times and were honing their reflections on American life. One of the things they found puzzling was why Americans were so quick to color their hair. “For us,” they said, “White hair is a sign that you are becoming wise. Why would you want to hide that?”
We look for other markers, other indicators of wisdom. I’ve been thinking about wisdom lately, as it seems to come in concentrated form in Hancock. I don’t know whether this place attracts it or if the pace of life here gives it time to grow, but truly, I go home after some conversations and visits knowing that I live among sages.
So what makes for wisdom? Martin Copenhaver, one of the writers I’ve been working with in Minnesota this week, offers some thoughts on wisdom in This Odd and Wondrous Calling, the book he co-authored with Lillian Daniel. He describes wisdom in terms of a cluster of attributes:
- A clear-eyed view of human behavior coupled with keen self-understanding
- A certain tolerance for ambiguity and what may be called the messiness of life
- Emotional resiliency
- An ability to think clearly in a circumstance of conflict or stress
- A tendency to approach a crisis as an intriguing puzzle to be solved
- An inclination to forgive and move on
- Humility enough to know that it is not all about you
- A gift for seeing how smaller facts fit in within the larger picture
- A mix of empathy and detachment
- A knack for learning from lifetime experiences
- A way of suspending judgment long enough to achieve greater clarity
- An ability to act coupled with a willingness to embrace judicious inaction
Martin, who is a United Church of Christ minister in Wellesley, MA, writes that wisdom “has been called the woolly mammoth of ideas—big, shaggy and elusive.”
Maybe big, maybe shaggy, but not so elusive here in Hancock.
Most Sunday mornings, I spend an hour or so in church sitting on an oversized chair, a chair upholstered in sage green velvet .
When I’m perched to preach on that pulpit chair, I’m usually thinking, often obsessing, about the text and the topic I’ve chosen for the morning. Will the sermon I’m about to deliver be worth the time of those who listen?
But yesterday I was not in Hancock. I was not even in church. I was sitting in a different sort of oversized chair. One upholstered in pleather in an express spa/nail salon at the Philadelphia airport. No lofty thoughts yesterday morning. Just a slight obsession about which nail polish to choose and whether Miami Beet will be the color I want to see when I look down at my feet.
I expect to be looking at my feet a lot this next week. Like many people, I study the ground when I feel intimidated.
What put me in the Philly airport on a Sunday morning was a long layover on my way to Minnesota. I am spending this week at the Collegeville Institute on the campus of St. John’s University, in a workshop that is part of the Ecclesial Literature Project.
I feel like an imposter. Don’t tell anyone here, but I don’t actually know what “ecclesial literature” is. Never mind being able to produce it. I have read the writing samples of the other 11 men and women selected to participate and I am certain that they let me in by mistake. I feel the same way I did when I was a pre-teen and got my first phone call about a paying babysitting job. Thrilled to be asked, but terrified that when I showed up the couple would realize they had called the wrong girl and would decide not to go out after all.
So this is a week about moving out of my comfort zone. And going where God leads me. And knowing that even if my writing is ragged, my cuticles aren’t.
I bought some vintage apron patterns at the yard sale we had in the Vestry last month. It’s not that I really plan to make any of these aprons. It was a pure nostalgia buy. My mother kept an apron drawer in her kitchen and she had a similar assortment of pretty, but largely useless aprons. Aprons that didn’t cover up the places you were most likely to spill or splatter on. Aprons that worked best as domestic costuming.
I have been thinking about aprons this week, because while looking for materials for an upcoming event we are hosting with the Hancock Historical Society and the New Hampshire Association for the Blind, I came across the minutes of the Ladies Sewing Circle from 1900-1913.
I’m a sucker for beautiful penmanship and find old minutes oddly compelling. What I learned is that the ladies of the Hancock Church made and sold aprons. Lots of aprons. A typical sale might bring in $45.00. Run that figure through an inflation calculator and in today’s currency that works out to be over a thousand dollars in apron proceeds. We may see that as a quaint accomplishment, but these were women who weren’t allowed to vote yet, women who had access only to whispered methods of contraception, and women who lived in a town with a population of about 600 . They must have have been marketing geniuses to raise that kind of money. Exclusively from aprons. Before Etsy.
But what got to me was not the apron entrepreneurs’ bottom line, but how they chose to spend some of the proceeds.
Minutes from March 20, 1913
Maybe you can make it out in the photo. If not, this is what it says:
Special committee reported the purchase of four dozen oranges and one dozen lemons for cases of sickness in town.
You’ve got to love a group of women who decide that what their town needs is a shared stash of lemons and oranges. What binds me to these women across the years is not apron patterns or hours spent in the same brick Vestry or a penchant for Vitamin C. What we share is a faith and a Gospel that makes it our obligation to do what we can for those who are without. In 1913, that meant stitching for citrus. Ladies, I’d say you spent your apron money well.