A Nod to the Church Cat Lady

A feast of articles and blog entries await any reader who wants to consider singleness in a corrected way or a more compassionate way or just a more complaisant way. He can read about the value of the single community; how ideal singleness is according to Paul; and the really steely ones can read about pouring their lives into the lives of the married and married with children.

I maintain that singleness is just another piece of the pie that is life in the church, and every piece has its sweets and its bitters. Because singleness happens to be my own piece of the pie, I am aware that I am more sensitive to slights and dismissals that befall singles. There isn’t a piece of the pie that hasn’t been mishandled, thanks to our fallen nature, but if you want another peek at the sweets and bitters of a single woman in the church, step this way.

One evening, several years ago now at one of my old churches, I was helping out with babysitting at church for the “date night” we provided for parents in the church. The pastor would sort of wander from post to post, making himself available without tying himself down too tightly to any single duty. As I played with some children in the hallway, he began to say something about how he had a hard time knowing how to pastor singles. “I just don’t know what you folks need,” he sighed. As he walked away, I thought, “Good doctrinal preaching?” but didn’t completely understand what a real problem we were to our pastor until after I had left the children and found some time to ponder what he had actually implied. We were, to him, not just Christians, but single Christians. Before our identity in Christ could be addressed, he wanted to address our identity within the Social Security Administration.

My older sister is a counselor in several ways to all the rest of us sisters as well as to various other young women. She has invested many years in her church and its middle school-aged children. She has known the people in her church for nearly her whole life and is one of the most grounded and circumspect believers I have ever known. However, when in conversation with someone in the church leadership, if she mentions a deeper spiritual theme, she is accustomed to finding herself brushed off and dismissed, as if the discussion is above her pay grade and she really need not trouble herself with such things.

When I moved to North Carolina, it was the first time I had ever lived in a state without another family member anywhere near. My classroom was in a dark corner of the gym, and my home was on a farm in a rural corner of Wake Forest. The people were all kind, but fully occupied with their own families. I had looked forward to getting to know some other singles, but I couldn’t find any—none in my age range, anyway. The ladies were moms and focused on their kids; the men were (rightly) protective of their testimonies and avoided serious conversation with me, concerned about what people might say. I starved for fellowship and suffered acutely for the first year.

These things, my friends, are the bitters we have known. We have been chuckled at, patronized, and forgotten. Without asking, they have prayed for husbands for us and yet have laid heavy expectations on our availability. They have considered our homes to be where our moms are, not where we have intentionally planted roots. They have been skeptical of our decisions to purchase houses, wondering at our not “waiting” for . . . something. They have been sorry, very sorry, that we are, in their estimation, unfulfilled in life.

Let us turn to the sweets. We must keep in mind that, just as anyone in any status can feel unfulfilled, one person’s sweet may be different from another’s. Be understanding. Be compassionate.

Home. After solitarily navigating the job, the traffic, the vehicle problems, the home repair issues, the church involvement, the domestic responsibilities, and the bank accounts, home is our hospital and our sanctum. It is a little shield from the meanness of the world. No partner deflects its harshness for us; we must absorb it all ourselves. No one asks if we are ok; we must just be ok. We need our home time to preserve peace, heal hurts, and arm ourselves to go out there again tomorrow. If we are grieved at losing time at home, perhaps with some compassion it can be understood just why.

Pets. To someone who does life alone, being the apple of someone’s eye–being needed and waited for each day is a true comfort. Until you are as overjoyed to see us each day as our dogs are at six or seven in the evening, don’t roll your eyes at our affection for our pets. They are providing a very simple daily dose of companionship and affection whose need you may never even have considered. We know they are not our kids. But your kids aren’t our kids either. If we lavish love on our pets, just agree that it’s natural and right. Maybe it’s time to reconsider how we talk about the weird cat lady?

Routine. Just as a print looks better in a frame, certain times of day are given purpose and repay with comfort when they are set upon a familiar structure. Mornings and evenings are the general favorites. My routine is met with indifference, at best, to most people, but its disruption can set the whole day askew. In fairness, one’s routine has generally no priority over relationships, but a healthy relationship will certainly include respect for a routine.

Thoughtful questions and interest. “Have you been hiking recently?” “How is your car running?” Do you have any nonfiction book recommendations? “Is there anything you could share that God has been teaching you recently?” “Do you have a philosophy of missions?” “Could we come play with your dog sometime?” “Is there anything you need help with at your house?” It’s not difficult, but it does require just a bit of knowledge and a sense of what is important to a person. These questions and others that affirm are not forgotten, but long remembered and loved. Someone knows me and cares about what goes on under my roof. It really is quite uplifting.

There are other sweets, but these are fairly common ones, I believe. I pray that your compassion is met with the same from unselfish, joyful singles in the church.

Any Day with You Is Still Better Than the Best Day without You, RJ

Somewhere we have a Polaroid that my dad took when I was seven. I am in a stair-step line with three of my sisters, and sitting up in a hospital bed behind us is Mom, smiling and holding her sleeping fifth daughter. After one looks at the photo and processes that much, he then laughs at the realization that my mom is the only one out of the six people actually smiling. Frown after tearful frown marks the faces of the four girls in their hospital visitor gowns.

We were not unhappy with our new sister. I had objected to the notion of a fifth at one point, when I realized that frozen pudding pops and some other treats came in multiples of six, and another mouth would throw off this neat symmetry. Eventually my gluttonous nature took over and soothed me with the thought that having to buy two packages meant that there would be food left over. Maybe it would occasionally filter down to me.

No, we were all very pleased. Just that morning, I had been pulled from my very heavy sleep by Daddy and the girls, who had gathered around and kept repeating, “Annalisa, it’s a girl! It’s a girl!” At least that point of symmetry had been left intact, to our relief. We would have loved a brother, but we would not have known what to do with him. We scrambled off to the hospital to meet our long-awaited caboose, as yet unnamed.

The baby was soft and precious, with reddish golden hair swept into a soft, wave-like curl on the top of her head. I had never seen a nurse fix a baby’s hair before, and it struck me as being astounding that she could already have such beautiful hair. The nurses were kind and obviously enjoyed our excitement. Our parents were cheerful but cautious, and herein lies one reason for the frowns. Based on previous experiences, they decided not to ask the nurses to allow us to hold our sister, leaving us to only imagine the joy that that would eventually bring. Imagined joy is incredibly different from experienced joy for a child. We were stunned, but this was followed by another blow. When they learned that Mom could have another night in the hospital to rest, our parents took advantage of it. Devastation ensued. Our mom wasn’t coming home? Our baby wasn’t, either? We were crushed. Apparently, Daddy was too happy with his new girl to notice our grief, for this is about when he took the photo.

We slogged home and struggled through a dinner that someone from church had generously brought us, thoroughly mourning the circumstances to my poor father, who tried to soothe us a bit. But really, our whole family was soon together, and we did all the holding, rocking, kissing, dressing, and changing that we had longed for. Without that photo, I’m not sure we would remember that minuscule sorrow, but now it always brings a chuckle and the first enjoyable memory of our baby sister.

Number 18

Families are rising, pulling things together, checking lists, donning minutely planned outfits, fixing hair, and taking photos. Moms are occasionally sad, always surprised, and often relieved. Dads are universally cheerful. Teenagers are uncharacteristically alert and ready to drive themselves majestically to school for the first time. Children are simply electrified. Teachers are the slow movers this morning, or they can be. I sit here with books and coffee, not moving at all. I know exactly what to do and what it will all feel like. It’s no big deal; it’s just the 18th first day.

Tianora

Now that we are sitting comfortably with our popcorn and Enya station, I’d like to tell you about Tianora.

When I moved to North Carolina and into Grandma’s house, her sister was making an extended visit. Both ladies were Southern belles, octogenarians, and just delightful, but Tianora was a little different from Grandma. Perhaps it was that she was healthy and Grandma was dying, but really, I think it was both the way she glowed with affection and love for Christ as well as her ability to be adorably funny.

Tianora was blind except for a little place in one eye in which she could see light gleaming and perhaps a shadow if someone walked by. She “tsk”-ed away most efforts people made to assist her and rather sought for ways to help them. Since Grandma didn’t get around much, Tianora vigilantly watched for opportunities to help me find everything that I needed in the house. It must have been very early in my stay when I asked her where the silverware was. I saw her hesitate, and then she drawled, “It’s in this drawer, but…it’s not silverware.” There was a heavy pause as she reached for the handle and pulled. As she did so, her face beamed. “It’s GOLD ware!” It was indeed. I made much of it, of course. Though she couldn’t see it herself, she must have been used to its making an impression on narrow-minded guests like me.

Tianora’s blindness did nothing to prevent her from taking a bit of exercise, as she told me one day. This turned out to be her walk of twenty yards to the mailbox every afternoon. I enjoyed seeing her at it, because it was more than a walk. She would swing her arms nearly all the way around and stretch her neck and maybe her back. It was a significant part of her day, and I think she always felt healthier and stronger after her little workout.

She also loved to go to church on Sunday morning, but the sisters did this only a couple of times while we shared the house. I recall asking them once if they wanted a ride to church, and Grandma said she wasn’t feeling up to going, but Tianora might go if she wished. Tia sat still and thanked me, but quietly explained that she wouldn’t leave her sister. I’m sure it was a sacrifice. They did go out to get their hair done once or twice and perhaps to lunch a couple of times. When I opened up the front door, I always knew if they were going to be leaving soon, because they would both be wearing brilliant lipstick as they sat in their living room chairs, waiting for their ride.

The few times they had visitors were also lipstick occasions and provided a bit of amusement. In my first few days there, three or four relatives sat visiting in the living room with a few refreshments and small glasses of wine. Grandma immediately offered me a glass in her efforts to be a good hostess, but I didn’t think much more about the wine bottles on the top of the refrigerator until we had a very different kind of guest. One afternoon Tia informed me with simmering excitement that Pastor and his wife would be visiting that evening. I was invited to join them in the living room, but could I do them a small favor before Pastor arrived? Yes, I was happy to move the wine to a much more discreet location for them, but I had a good laugh to myself afterward. It seems that some sheepishness we never grow out of.

Grandma occasionally showed a marked kindness to her sister in return. One day before I set out with Grandma’s shopping list, I read it back to her to make sure that I understood everything she was asking for. When I read off the Sara Lee coconut cake, Tia, who had been listening closely, gave a tiny gasp and said with affection that Grandma knew that that was her favorite. Grandma smiled a little awkwardly, and I felt sorry that I had spilled the information, but now I’m glad I got to see the surprise and warmth on Tia’s sweet face at her sister’s effort to please her.

One day Grandma sent Tia to the store with me. They made up a reason, but I think it was because I had erred on the shopping trip before. However, I was lonely and therefore quite happy to have her company. Without Grandma to hear, Tia talked about how Grandma had become a worse and worse driver, and one day, when they were out, Grandma had started feeling quite ill. Tianora, desperate to help her sister, had proposed that she her (blind) self should take the wheel, and Grandma should simply tell her where to go. Picturing that exchange still makes me laugh and feel relieved that Grandma did not agree to the scheme. But what a fearless lady.

Tianora was eventually taken back to her own home in Georgia, and Grandma died a few months later. Tia had my phone number and called a few times, just to ask how things were in the house by myself and to inquire about my family, whom she sincerely cared about, because she felt she knew them, even the distant ones. She will always be my model of selfless love and ready affection.

The Time I Went to Cameron

Only one of my friends here in the Triangle area knows that I have been to Cameron Indoor Stadium to watch Duke beat some poor team from Georgia last winter, and I suspect that she has forgotten by now. I have learned that attending one of these games is something to be pleased about, and though I am not a Duke fan, I am sort of pleased that I have experienced it; but I am even more pleased that the occasion is long past, and I’ll try to tell you why.

The Duke fan who took me to the game is a tidy Southern gentleman who is a successful businessman in a field that always prompts an awkward chuckle. I must be vague about that, but I also must try to be vague about three other items that are important. A few years ago, he was appointed by someone in a high office in North Carolina to be commissioner of a certain board that raises revenue for public education. Second, he enjoys notable company. I believe I still have a casual photo he sent me of him eating ice cream with the lieutenant governor earlier that week. The last item is his name, and we are going to call him Tony Jamesson.

Tony arrived at my house at the perfect time, of course, and looking just a bit too dapper for youthfulness in his collared shirt and navy sweater vest. We climbed into a huge, gleaming Ford truck and were off. I remember trying to find a speck of dust or smudge inside the truck cab, but I failed. It looked factory fresh. Conversation was no problem, since he has many charming and colorful anecdotes and clearly enjoys hearing them. I relaxed a bit as he told his stories, since his occasional afterthought inquiries into my life clarified that this wasn’t a budding relationship. I could dismiss that question and just enjoy the experience.

One story involved his nephew, who had just started driving. The boy’s father, Tony’s brother, had told Tony that he planned to get his son a car for Christmas. Tony told him that he would help him out with it, and together they bought a car that is, I’m sure, the envy of all that young man’s friends. The presentation of the car to the boy was vividly described by his Uncle Tony as we sped along 540 to Durham.

I received a couple of history lessons, which I particularly enjoyed, and he was able to answer my questions easily. He proudly described the longstanding tradition of the Duke fandom. Rooting for Duke appeared to be about as North Carolinian as vinegar barbecue, tobacco fields, and sweet tea. Many elderly people, he assured me, were the truest of Duke fans. As we walked from the parking garage to Cameron, he leaned in close to me and didn’t quite whisper, “Don’t be surprised if you see some fur coats heading in to watch the game tonight.” I prepared myself for fur coat sightings as well as I could, but a few minutes later when we passed a golf cart transporting a few older people, I was a little irritated to see that, indeed, at least a couple of the ladies were wearing furs. Tony elbowed me in triumph, and I gave him his due. He had called it.

Inside, we settled on some burgers for dinner and got in line. I don’t know what story he was telling me when he suddenly stopped a man who was walking past. He gestured to the man’s shirt, which bore the logo of the board on which Tony serves as commissioner.

“I noticed your shirt,” he said and held out his hand. “I’m Tony Jamesson.” The man took his hand but looked confused. “Commissioner Tony Jamesson.” At this moment, I cannot recall if I tried hiding behind Tony as he tried to drop his own name to a stranger, but it is definitely something I would do. The man recognized him, or pretended to, and they conversed, but I was in too much anguish to notice what they discussed.

My anguish was completed a few minutes later, as Tony led us to a place in the crowded lobby to eat our burgers. I’m working on blocking this out, but I do still recall that an employee asked us to take our burgers somewhere else, since we were crowding another worker and her line. With a smile and a drawl, Tony bravely indicated that as a fan who was paying their salaries, he’d eat wherever he liked. He didn’t say it quite like that, and after being countered, he responded in a way that sounded as if he were cooperating. I began to gather my burger wrappings so that we could move, but he told me quietly to take my time, stay where I was, and just keep eating. After a couple more bites, I found my appetite fairly satisfied.

I don’t fake cheer well, and I don’t try very hard. I’m sure this was disappointing to my companion, who found more comradeship in his other seatmate than in me. The game wasn’t close, and we were bored with it long before it was over. I was pleased that Tony suggested we leave early since he had a decent drive ahead of him anyway.

The stories continued, and some even doubled back. He found himself describing his gift to his nephew again and wrapped it up by grudgingly apostrophizing the boy, “You’re WELCOME!” I decided that this bit of posturing was a reminder to me that he had put out money for a really large gift, and I felt a little sorry for the teenager out there whose uncle will never let him forget that his car was a present.

More stories flowed on the way back to my house, and I learned that Tony is good at handling confrontation, getting attention, and saying memorable things to angry people. Remembering the parable of his nephew, I thanked Tony several times for all aspects of the evening, not forgetting the expensive burger and the uniqueness of an evening spent in an iconic venue. He received my thanks graciously, and soon I was free. Well, almost.

Two days later, I received a text:  “I hope you had a good time at the game!” Of course, I once again thanked my generous benefactor. He knows nothing, however, of my gratitude for a story to make my sisters laugh!

 

The Dignity of Duty

If I really applied myself, I could perhaps find a way to find some excitement in the Bible's references to duty, but that seems less than genuine somehow. After all, the word is duty, and to attempt to make it exciting is to use a temporary polish and make something pretty that isn't really supposed to be. When God's Word mentions duty, the reference is full of mundane obligation. A man has a job to do, he knows it, and he doesn't need to be reminded. The job is probably menial and rote, as are the duties that we have been given. If we polish up the concept and serve it for dessert–if we call it by another name–we are cajoling ourselves into doing what must be done regardless of its menial nature, which remains. Worse, though, we diminish its value.

Inherently, duty is a word that needs no polishing because its value lies in its strength. There is a thread of iron in a duty that is done every day, and there are two threads of iron in a duty that is done without resistance. The man who can do his duty when it is ugly or unseen is a man who is fulfilling his purpose. The man who can do so without complaint is master of the proud savagery that lies within himself.

Without duty, a man has no purpose, for leisure and refreshment do not endow him with significance as will a duty accomplished. Why counterfeit its significance by replacing it with a more palatable word? Certainly, let every man do his duty. Moreover, let him enjoy the dignity that lies in doing it with a resolved and satisfied mind.

The Gray

I follow Christ, but not through a garden. When I look around, I see the carnage of selfish ambition and wasted years. Transient lusts, missed opportunities, and regretted words are the stench of this battlefield. And yet, through the mist from the latest conflict, a figure looms. My King isn’t returning for me. He is pressing on, and so must I.