All posts by Minnie Lamberth

Searching through Lost and Found

On my morning walk, sometimes I’ll see coins. Pennies are common, a nickel is nice. Quarters are exciting – because they’re large and shiny and I can probably use them in a parking meter someday. If I see a coin, I’ll scoop it up and keep it without giving it another thought. But one day I saw something so unexpected that I was concerned. I was walking along a curb and came across a roll of bills that quickly counted out to sixty dollars.

An extra sixty dollars would be nice to have, I grant you. Who wouldn’t want another sixty dollars, but it was too large an amount to scoop up and keep walking. So I stopped to think. My best guess was that the dollars were associated with a particular house. I went to ring the doorbell. No answer.

I didn’t know who belonged to this money, but I did not lose this money for that person. I didn’t see it as my full responsibility to find the rightful owner, but I did see my responsibility thusly: I couldn’t walk away with someone else’s sixty dollars. After much deliberation, I opened the mailbox at the curb at the house where I thought the money was most likely associated, and I pushed the dollars inside. Then I walked away, having done the two things I knew to do to give the money a chance to be returned to its owner.

That was several weeks ago, and I do not know what happened after that. But what I gained from the experience was this picture of walking away having done the best I knew to do – while also accepting a general belief that in a divine economy of some kind, what is lost is found again.

Change of Perspective

I’ve been thinking about how a few changes to a story give it new meaning. Memories, impressions, fleeting notions – the stories you store and recall – give meaning to your experiences. So, therefore, you can alter the meaning of your experiences by taking another look at the stories you tell about what is taking place.

A change of perspective, in other words.

In May 1942, my father typed a charming letter home from World War II that involved losing coins on a bus trip across town and finding them again on his return. He begins, “The most entertaining, true story that has ever happened to me, this day at 12, during a typical Hawaiian day, extremely and almost unbearably hot, I boarded the Waikiki Bus, for the Waikiki District, on regular assigned work.”

At the time he wrote this letter, he was in a part of the country that had been bombed only a few months earlier. America was losing the war so far, and he was away from home. So, knowing of him from later in life when he experienced a lot of issues, I wondered if I could rewrite that story into something that would change its meaning for me. That’s how I came to:

The Father’s Fare
By Minnie Lamberth

Sometimes this world takes you places you don’t want to go.

When the plane landed, the ensign was in a crowd that lifted to its feet with a mix of unspoken uncertainty and “let’s do this” bravado. Jostled by the people around him, he stepped out into a tropical paradise, felt a wave of heat from the tarmac.

Breathtaking … and yet. You would hardly say “what a beautiful place” without being aware of the devastation that had spewed from earlier planes. Even if you did take notice of the blue-green water, you would still look up from time to time. You’d see the billowing clouds, squint at the piercing sun, and wonder what terrible thing might be just beyond the horizon.

He was so homesick he could barely breathe. And he was afraid.

Some days after he had settled in, he was sent on an errand across town. “With my luck this is the day the bombs come back,” he thought. He didn’t want to go.

As the bus pulled up to the stop, he stepped on, paid his fare, and the conductor handed him his change. He clasped the coins while squeezing into a tight space filled with silent men and women – civilian and military, locals and outsiders. Words were stifled by the unbearable heat and by thoughts of that unknown horizon.

He grabbed a strap with one hand as he tried to place the change in his pocket with the other. But easy things were hard to do, and when he released his grip, the coins missed their aim and fell to the floor. Two dimes, a nickel and a penny bounced and rolled away.

Every silent eye saw that the coins were out of his reach, and no one could help. He imagined everyone felt the same weight of helplessness and difficulty, as if the unknowns beyond the horizon were so present they couldn’t even tend to those coins on the floor.

Sometimes this world takes you places you don’t want to go. And you will find things there that you cannot repair, retrieve or undo.

The fares we pay for our journeys can be quite high. But here’s another thing to consider. If you tell the story that life is unfair and this world is unsafe, you will tell a true story that you will surely believe.

Or you can tell a different story that is also true.

This world is one of loss and restoration. That’s the system. When you give, you receive. When you hold things loosely, you feel more together. If you step away from a puzzle that cannot be solved, you will feel a sense of reconciliation from the simple act of letting go. When you walk away, there is a return. In loss, there is gain.

That’s what happened that day on the errand across town. After the ensign’s assignment was complete, he headed toward the bus stop for the trip back to the base. When the conductor opened the door, he paid his fare and turned to grab a strap. Then he looked down, and there on the floor he saw two dimes, a nickel and a penny.

He almost cried. Not over the money, for there would always be coins that fell to the ground, but from the idea that heaven had reached through that troubled horizon to offer the reassurance he most needed to hear: What once was lost will be found again.

Fifty years away, the ensign’s long journey has neared an end. By now his coins are few and far between, and he stares helplessly at the distance ahead. On his own he can go no farther, and, conceding defeat, he sees the battle is lost. There’s no way he can find his way home from here. And yet… from somewhere beyond that unknown horizon, a Father’s voice draws near: “Do not be afraid, my son. Your passage has been paid.”

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. Matthew 10:29-30 (NIV)

Listening for a Distant Lullaby

A couple of years ago, I started experimenting with art projects that incorporated pieces of debris that I picked up on my morning walks, and I added within these pieces inspirational phrases that generally came from scripture.

During that season, I was eating lunch at La Zona Rosa, and I saw a friend, Eileen, at another table. She crossed the restaurant to tell me, “I have a verse for you… ‘He will rejoice over you with singing.’” This verse from Zephaniah 3 had come to her mind that day, and she thought I might find use for it in my art projects.

I did not find a place, per se, in any of my projects, but I thought often of the verse itself – and what that might be like to have God rejoice over me with singing. This concept seemed pleasant but not necessarily available in my day to day. I thought of this verse again when I attended a Service of Remembrance last November.

On that Sunday afternoon, I was sitting at the end of a pew on the wall-side of the sanctuary at First United Methodist Church, listening to hymns, prayers and readings. I’d been to this service before, but this time I was overjoyed by my experience. The best part was the choral benediction. The choir recessed down those wall-side walkways, then lined up along the wall to stop and sing their final hymn. Choir members, including one of the earlier soloists, were right beside me as they sang this lovely benediction. It was almost like being surrounded by a great chorus of witnesses. I thought, this must be what it’s like to have the Lord rejoice over me with singing.

That concept was not far from mind this month as I toyed with the phrase, “The Father’s Lullaby.” I have been working on a series of parables, and I wondered, what can I do with the word lullaby… I thought about The Daughter’s Lullaby, The Creator’s Lullaby, The Warrior’s Lullaby… Then: No, wait, what about The Father’s Lullaby? Where can I go with that? Here’s how I found my answer.

On June 11, 1862, my great grandfather wrote a letter home from a difficult battlefield. This was his closing paragraph:

Mother and Sisters, I want you all to pray for me that I may live to fight through the battles and come out untouched and return to my family. And Mother, if I should fall in the course, I want you to remember my daughter for she feels dear to me as a lovely daughter. My wife is teaching school at Wessobulga and my daughter is going to school. You all must write to her at Wessobulga.

Manuel Lamberth had had terrible experiences in battle – grave illnesses and injury, near starvation, truly troubled times. So I wondered, what if this lullaby were somehow related to him and his daughter – to their an earthly separation that stretched for many miles that, now, a century and a half later still has a message to remember.

That’s how this parable came to be.

The Father’s Lullaby
By Minnie Lamberth

He lay on a cot in camp, feverish and ill, wondering what his missteps would mean to his little girl. He couldn’t have loved her more if he had pulled out his heart and handed it to her with his last breath. But he was here, and she was there.

That night in camp, sick unto death, he thought of this dear daughter, and in his grief, a mournful dispatch eased slowly from his broken spirit:

In my mind, I see you there
And everywhere
A mirage of memory
That never goes away
Be assured
I did not leave
You are not gone
We are together, still.

Far away from this battlefield, his daughter awakened from unsettled sleep. A celestial light peeked through an open window, and she felt welcomed by the sight. The moon had always been her friend –  steady, quiet and present on any dark night.

The loft was warm this evening. Throwing off her cover, she rose, looked out and looked up as the stars blinked their greeting. The land was still, the night air did not move. In this moment all her own, she opened her heart to distant thoughts as a melody that only she could hear floated down from the heavens:

Sleep, my child, in comforted pose
Dream, my child, released from your woes
For love is greater than fear
Whenever your heart draws near
To hear your father’s lullaby

She had heard these words before, having been stored in long ago memory. But sometimes in quiet moments they found their way into her waking hours. The melody continued:

Stand firm in the face of any dismay
Journey on in the light of the one true way
The battle is not your own
You know you’re never alone
When you hear your father’s lullaby.

She took these words in as a treasure beyond what her eyes, ears or mind could comprehend, and as the melody moved around and settled within her spirit, she said with a sigh to the endless sky, “Thank you for this song.”

Two hundred miles away, the cot that held her father sagged from the weight of his helpless estate. He could not move. Even so, his feverish mind stirred up the strength of a love that would not end, and he found the breath to voice his deepest plea:

I was born into the life I knew
during these terrible days
Everywhere I look, I see
others just like me
Each person here
misses someone there
as we lift the ones we love
into the heart of God above
In need of sleep, I cannot rest
until I make this fervent request
If I do not return from here
do not believe I left you there
My love was real
We are together, still
Always.

In the distance between them, his daughter bid farewell to the moon and stars, as she voiced her prayer into the sky: “Take care of those we love, this night and always.”

And she returned to her bed, where she gathered herself in peaceful slumber.

Change of Perspective

The idea that underlies this parable is: what if I look beyond a sense of abandonment and despair and see instead connection, love and care? How would that shift in perspective change how a story is stored and recalled?

I’ll be telling more about this idea in the coming days.

The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves. He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17

Why Did the Writer Cross the Room?

My experience within the proximity of Alabama politics began when I was in third grade. My mother and I were visiting relatives in Montgomery. We went for lunch at the Morrison’s Cafeteria on Lee Street, and there we saw a man who was at that moment former Governor George Wallace. This was after his first term, after his late wife’s abbreviated term, and before his second. My mother’s aunt introduced us, and as Governor Wallace greeted us, he pulled out a picture postcard of himself and gave it to me.

How did he know that I would take this postcard to school the next Monday? He must have had a sense even then about word-of-mouth marketing strategies, for I surely did. I took the postcard to school and showed it to my teacher before the bell rang. Her little boy, a first grader, was in the room at the time. She said, “Show it to him. He’ll know who it is.”

Frankly, I thought that was a crazy suggestion. How could a first grader know the identity of the man on the picture postcard if I had only learned it myself two days ago? The little boy studied the card and finally, with hesitation, asked, “Is it Nixon?”

See? I told you he wouldn’t know. But it was sort of impressive that a first grader could pull the president’s name out of the hat like that. I don’t think I’ve seen that little boy since third grade, but I understand that when he grew up he entered the political communications field. So, in hindsight, this exchange makes sense.

The next time I met a man about to become governor, I was a young copywriter working for a Montgomery ad agency. We were responsible for a big event in Atlanta, during which Governor-elect Guy Hunt, George “Goober” Lindsey and the tourism director were to speak about Alabama’s attributes as a tourist destination.

As I sat at a table in a convention hall, anonymous among 3,000 people, I took note that I had written all of the remarks that the people read from the podium that day (except the invocation). I was marveling that everyone was listening to words I had written. But what I remember especially is thinking that it should be more of a pinnacle than it was. It was one of those moments where an amazing experience was matched by a general awareness that whatever was happening was not enough to bring meaning to my life.

During my work at the ad agency, changes in the office of Governor had affected who was selected for state contracts, which affected workload. I had hoped to avoid the political ramifications of having (and losing) state contracts following elections. So I took an opportunity to move into a job in state government. In which I stepped even deeper into political ramifications. “It’s one of the most political agencies there is,” I was told of my new agency. “Every year there’s a bill to abolish it.”

Still, the role itself was easy to manage, and I had a supervisor who treated me well.

We had lots of governors during my time there. Guy Hunt was removed from office, so we shifted direction during the brief Jim Folsom Jr. term, then we shifted again when Fob James came back as he defeated Folsom.

Eventually I segued and began to work for Huntingdon College part-time while I prepared to write full-time. During my tenure there, a gubernatorial campaign was afoot, and one of my very favorite colleagues on campus was expressing dismay about the accusations that challenger Don Siegelman was making about Governor James. She was quite put out. Very put out. And I remember distinctly that she said: “Uncle Fob just wouldn’t do that.”

I had heard that she was the governor’s niece, but when you hear someone say “Uncle Fob” it really comes home. And this was, once again, a reminder of being careful about expressing political opinions – and social media hadn’t even been invented yet.

The Governor Next Door

After Huntingdon, as I began to work on my own, I rented an office space within a friend’s place of business on North Hull Street. He and his wife, early in their marriage, had lived in a really cute house on Perry Street next door to the Governor’s Mansion. They said there was great security, given that a state trooper was always sitting outside their house.

One day in a workplace conversation, I had suggested to my friend Adams, a writer, that if he had been keeping a journal when he lived there, he could have written a book called “The Governor Next Door.” That would have been cool. He did offer up one story of how the tall and lanky Guy Hunt used to ride his bicycle on the grounds. Sometimes they would look out their window and all they would see was the governor’s head floating above the fence. Fascinating tidbit. It would have been a great book.

So let me get to this part of the story.

When I began working in state government, I was renting an attic apartment in a single-family dwelling, and Kay Ivey was the family’s next-door neighbor. She and I became driveway acquaintances. Then she hired me on the staff at the Alabama Commission on Higher Education.

A couple of weeks ago, on Palm Sunday, I was sitting in church just a few minutes before the 8:30 service when I saw Kay sitting alone in a pew. I thought to myself, “I better get up and go speak to her.” She had a lot going on.

So I walked over and gave a big, “Hey, Kay,” and she responded with a friendly, “Well, Minnie Lamberth.” She has always greeted me that way.

I reached down and hugged her and said, “I will be praying for you.”

She said, “Thank you, and pray for the state too.”

We didn’t have a long conversation, but there was just something about taking a moment to acknowledge that something big was about to happen. At the same time, we come at these things from different perspectives. Kay has pursued political activity over her whole career, just as I have wished to avoid it to the extent possible in Montgomery. Yet the fact that this was church, where hearts are a little more open and often more vulnerable, made those few moments, for me, the sweetest exchange we’d ever had.

I was glad I walked over to her pew that Sunday morning. By the end of the next day, she was our governor.

Four takeaways from this story:   

Don’t commit crimes or abuses of power. Especially if you’re a governor. But, really, it’s not a good idea for anyone.

On the way up or down, be nice to everyone. Before I met the late George Lindsey I was told, “He’s not very nice.” This was surprising information as Goober had always seemed affable on camera. In any case, I had given him his script; he read it through. I asked if he wanted to read it again. He held up a finger and shook it at me as he said, “At these rates, you don’t rehearse.”

I remember thinking, “That wasn’t very nice.” His remark didn’t cause me any harm. It was one tiny exchange, but I have never forgotten that during that one encounter, he matched his reputation.

Cross the room to speak to people when you get that nudge to do so. I remember well in my mother’s last days that she and I had delivered a baby gift to one of her friends to give to that friend’s son – a well-positioned and successful man. And when that son saw my mother in a restaurant, he left his table and crossed the room to thank her effusively for the gift. In that experience, there were simple and lasting lessons about honoring someone above yourself, as Romans and often our mothers remind us to do.

Pursue your purpose over your tasks. Every job has lots of things to be done. But within each opportunity, there is an underlying purpose to be achieved. Stay focused on the purpose, because the tasks and sometimes the jobs will change and evolve. I was always a writer; I’m still a writer. But a lot has changed, even if I’m still doing what I always did.

What I Learned from 50 People

Over the last several months, I’ve been working on a project that has taken a good bit of attention and scheduling. Last August, or thereabouts, I had an email from someone asking if I’d be interested in a project. Yes, of course, I’m always interested in a project.

In this case, Auburn University at Montgomery was preparing to celebrate the passage of Act 403, which established the university in 1967, by recognizing the “Top 50 at 50” in a publication.  So, they needed someone to interview and write profiles of these 50 alumni.

I began the project in November. The first person I interviewed was an educator in Hawaii, the second an artist in Montgomery. The third managed a renowned stroke center, the fourth was a southern food expert. Next I spoke with someone who heads an office on the West Coast for the IRS Criminal Investigation Division.

Over the months of assignment, I talked to several high-ranking military officers who’d had responsibilities around the globe. There were also attorneys, investment advisors, accountants, office holders, medical professionals and construction professionals. One of the interviewees helped build the Atlanta airport terminal in the late 1970s, one lady was involved in real estate developments in downtown Chicago, and another gentleman was responsible for prestigious building projects in Philadelphia.

I went to campus to place a call to Argentina (though this was his cell phone number, and he was actually in Brazil when we spoke). On another occasion, I was at my desk when I took a call from the United Arab Emirates. I also talked to a man originally from The Netherlands. Incidental to other profile details, I found out that he was 6’11”. He had come to campus on a basketball scholarship.

I finished the project last week. And here’s just some of what I learned from the experience.

Everyone was very nice, easy to talk to and enjoyable to hear. I like to listen to people’s stories, and they all – every one of them – had good stories to tell. They appreciated being recognized, though they often downplayed the idea that they should have been the one selected.

For many of them, they began their college studies in humble circumstances. They lived at home, worked fulltime and attended classes at night. Several had to deal with “do-overs” when earlier attempts in school didn’t go so well. For most, their attendance was influenced by happenstance – a family’s move to Montgomery, a relocation during their career, a chance encounter with other Auburn Montgomery students. Or they were finishing degrees after completing military service, and they happened to be in this area.

Most remembered certain faculty members and could easily pick out something they learned in school that they continue to apply. And others would try to give me an answer to that question, even if they struggled with 40-year-old memories of a brief time in Montgomery during a military career.

Still, I cannot emphasize enough: everyone – regardless of circumstance, career field or global location – was very nice, easy to talk to and enjoyable to hear.

Figuring out how to manage the project – in light of my other duties – was also relevant to the experience, and here were several insights I picked up in that area.

Phone Call Punctuality

I liked to set appointments for the interviews so that people would be ready to talk – so that their minds would be in focus, and they could think about the purpose of my call. Also, I wanted my mind to be in focus as well. It’s hard to keep 50 people straight. I needed to review my notes prior to the call to remember who I was calling.

The point is: if I set a call at 2 p.m., I would call at 2 p.m.

Sometimes the alumni would say, “You are calling right on time.” The fact that people commented on my calling “right on time” was interesting, but I didn’t know any other way to do it. I would wonder to myself, “Why wouldn’t I call right on time? When would other people call, if not right on time? Isn’t that why people set times?”

Time zone math is tricky. As I set appointments, I would have to figure out what time zone they were in and convert it to my own. I didn’t get the math wrong, as far as I know, but the gentleman calling from Abu Dhabi called an hour early.

Actually, I had an instinct that he might. I work at home, as some of you know, and I had worked on a project earlier that morning before taking my shower. The call was to be at 11 a.m., so I knew (or so I thought) that I had plenty of time. However, at 9:39 a.m., I was nearly dressed but still had to dry my hair when I had this sudden panicked moment: “What if he calls an hour early?” At 9:40 a.m., I thought, “I better get ready in case he calls an hour early.” So I dried my hair quickly, got to my laptop, reviewed my notes, and at 10 a.m., his call came in. When he realized the time mistake, he apologized, explaining that he was thinking Eastern Time. I said, “That’s not a problem at all. I am ready.”

Balancing Disruption and Scheduling

I have two models for taking care of business. One is the disruption model. People I work with routinely send me an email with a request, and I take care of it as soon as I can. The other is a scheduling model, where I plan preparation time, writing time and deadlines.

Part of the responsibility of taking on a new sizeable project that lasts for a season is keeping my commitment to existing clients who, I certainly hope, will stay with me during the seasons to come. So if I planned out my whole day, but then got a request in the middle of that day from an existing client who operates on the disruption model … well, that’s not someone I would want to tell, “I’ll get to you in two weeks.” That’s more of a, “Give me a minute, and I’ll see what I can do.”

Balancing these two models required a few extra hours at times, though it’s always a good idea to be loyal to loyal clients. That’s really the point.

Focused on the Project’s Purpose

The other thing that’s important about working on a project like this is always remembering: it’s not my project. It’s the client’s project. The purpose of the project was never going to be my interview techniques or my writing skills. Those are a means to an end. The purpose of the project is the client’s relationship with the one being profiled. Therefore, in assigning me this project, the client was allowing me access to part of their treasury. That’s why it was essential to be prepared, polite, punctual and professional. Those are really important qualities to have on hand when you are interviewing 50 people.

My currency is also relational. Good project management brings more projects through connections that are built during the previous projects. That’s how my work works.

As a matter of fact, in January, I had another inquiry about a big project. About six years ago, I worked with a client on writing chapters for a coffee table book focused on economic development in the State of Alabama. Now he’s publishing a version for Montgomery, and he needed someone to write profiles for the businesses that will be featured in the book. He asked if I would be interested in the project. “Yes, of course,” I said. I am always interested in a project.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Until next time,

Minnie

A Remarkable Week in the Neighborhood

It was an odd week on Planet Earth – the week at the end of November and beginning of December. But a remarkable one too.

I share a booth at Amy’s Antique and Flea Mall. On the last day of November, I was a little over $20 short of my goal for enough sales to cover my part of the booth rental, and I was disappointed. This minor issue seemed to be a judgment on me that felt like criticism. Clearly, I do not stock things that people want to buy. Rationally, I shouldn’t worry about it. The booth is a hobby, not a career. But who wants to feel as if nobody likes your shelves or stools?

This day brought rain storms, which meant surely nobody was going shopping in out-of-the-way antique malls, and I wouldn’t make rent. I had accepted this fate as I was eating lunch with my booth partner Linda Lee. She headed toward the booth afterwards, and I did too. Might as well. Maybe I could move a table or stool into just the right spot to make it irresistible to a passerby.

I was in my car behind hers. When we reached the traffic light to turn toward the building, Linda sailed through. I stopped. I could have pressed on through the yellow, but I braked instead. Then a strange thing happened. When I pulled up to the back where vendors enter, one of the people who works in the booth had fallen while removing items from a truck. When Linda had walked in, the lady was standing. By the time I pulled up after missing the light, she was on the ground and couldn’t get up.

I went to get help, and she is OK now. But I did recognize simple facts. If I had made rent, I wouldn’t have gone to the booth. Also, no one drove by while we were out there assisting her. If I had not missed that light, she would have been out there for a good while longer. It was not hard to draw the conclusion that going for help is a better outcome than improving my bric-a-brac sales.

Cast Bread and Connections

This was a Wednesday, and in this season I was practicing something my mother had once told me: “Cast your bread upon the waters and it comes back buttered.” I had a number of handmade, found-objects art pieces in my house; they weren’t doing anyone any good in here, so I started to send them out through various individuals. Later that afternoon as I headed to my volunteer work in the church kitchen, I grabbed two art pieces to take with me. One of these I gave to my pastor’s wife, Mary Ruth Wolf, when I saw her after the prayer service.

I am a copywriter, as you may know. That is my profession. The next day I had an amazing telephone conversation related to an amazing copywriting project. I am writing several dozen profiles of individuals for a client, and one of these individuals is by nature of his role within the top 10 U.S. military professionals. Gen John Hyten is head of USSTRATCOM based in Nebraska; he reports directly to the Secretary of Defense and to the President. So that’s a high rank. I felt some intimidation as I prepared for the call – which I believed was a reasonable state of being in this case – but I had heard the general was a nice man.

Also, someone on his staff had called earlier to ask me what year I graduated from Huntingdon – an odd way for them to prepare for my questions, but that did mean they checked my website. The caller said he knew someone who went there. In any case, during the interview, Gen Hyten was eloquent on matters great and small, and I was moved by his insights and experiences. As we closed, I prompted, “You knew someone who went to Huntingdon?”

“Yes,” he said, “Linda Crosby.” It took a moment to recognize the name of one of my dearest friends from my class year.

“You knew Linda?” I asked. “I loved her.” As the general explained, he and Linda had grown up together in Huntsville and were good friends. Their families were friends as well.

“Small world,” he said. Indeed.

I met my frequent lunch companion Jan for a quick bite to eat then headed to the McInnis Recycling Center way out on Norman Bridge Road with a trunk full of electronics to drop off. This was the only day of the week they accept this kind of recycling, and sometimes they charge for certain things – like CRT monitors. I had six dollars in cash and not enough time to get to an ATM and across town before the center stopped accepting recycling at 2:00. Maybe my items don’t require payment, I hoped.

The center is staffed by adults with intellectual, mental, and/or physical disabilities. When I arrived, there was a lady who directed me to drive my car into the warehouse to have the electronic items removed from the trunk. Her voice had a different tone – more staccato – compared to the general’s eloquence. But what I noticed was that I did everything she said.

Her instructions were basic: “Drive the car.” The workers took what I had in my trunk, and I was not charged for any of the items being recycled. But as the lady directed me to back out of the warehouse, she asked, “Do you have any money? Read the sign.”

I read the sign. It said, “Donations are appreciated for electronic recycling.” I delayed my departure as I opened my wallet, took out my six dollars, got out of the car, and walked into the office. The worker there asked, “May I help you?”

“I want to make a donation,” I said.

As I drove home, I thought about the authority of the general with the very high rank, and how the lady in the warehouse had her own unmistakable authority. I wasn’t going to disregard her directions for how to proceed and how to give; I complied with her instructions.

My thoughts meandered to the school crossing guard who in her official role is obeyed by people of every station of society. No one drives off and says, “I told that school crossing guard exactly what I thought about her ‘little traffic rules.’” For at that moment, the school crossing guard represents a community’s most tender values: the protection of children.

Then came Friday. That afternoon I had stopped in my booth and felt the familiar disappointment of stocking unpopular, unwanted items. After a heavy sigh, I thought to myself, “I am not going to let this good week end with a feeling of disappointment about a silly booth that represents a tiny fraction of my work life. I’m not going home with this feeling.”

What could I do instead? I said to myself, “I’m going to see Pat Stewart.”

My 85-year-old friend lived in an assisted living facility way out Narrow Lane Road. This was a pretty significant journey for Friday afternoon traffic in December, but I headed down the bypass and found Pat in her room. We had a nice visit. I told her about the phone call with the general, how he knew a friend of mine, and about the timing of my visit to the booth.

We both agreed that you never know what’s happening that you can’t see. I said to her, “I better head back home. It will take a while to get there.” And it did. With accidents amid Friday close-of-business drivers, it took me 45 minutes to get home. I remember not being too bothered by the delay, but trusting that – as I had learned – delays can set up important circumstances. You never know, you know?

Acts with Impact

Then it was Saturday. That morning I felt the familiar disappointment about that booth and my poor instinct for selecting items that anybody actually wants. But there were other things to do that day, and I pushed my inadequate mercantile abilities out of mind. Sometime in the afternoon, while visiting my sister Anne’s house to watch a football game, I checked my email. I had a message from Mary Ruth. It seems that she and Jay, my pastor, had been looking at the piece I gave her that Wednesday, and they were wondering about getting more of them for Christmas gifts… around 25 in total… and would it be possible to have them by Dec. 20.

So I said to my sister, “I’m going home for a moment to count my art pieces. I’ll be back shortly.” There were 14 at home, six in my booth. So, yes, they bought out all my stock, and with these plus a few more, I fulfilled the order.

If anybody else had done that for me, it would have been a very nice thing, and I would have been grateful. But a pastor and his wife have certain roles of influence by virtue of their roles in the church body. The Wolfs’ endorsement of me and my pieces was a large gift to receive, and it meant a lot to me to be the beneficiary of this request of theirs.

I know as well that influence comes within all levels of authority and in all kinds of roles. Life changes in the small acts as well as the big ones.

Many of you may have surmised that that Friday afternoon was the last time I saw Pat Stewart. Some days later, she had a stroke from which she did not recover, and the last few weeks were difficult for her. Then, on Christmas Day, she took her last breath on earth – leaving behind family and many friends, but joining a heavenly celebration with those who had gone on ahead, including a husband, a son and a baby girl who died at birth.

Pat did small things for me that made a big difference. She helped me find a place in Sunday school, for instance. And in her role of delivering juice and crackers to Sunday school rooms, collecting attendance sheets, preparing sweet tea for church suppers and answering the phone at the preschool desk, she touched countless lives over and over – and mine again and again.

So what lesson do I learn from this remarkable week? “There are no ordinary people,” C.S. Lewis wrote in “The Weight of Glory.”

“Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.”

Or said another way: Be a good neighbor, y’all.

Listen to that voice… the one that says yes, the one that says no, the one that says wait, the one that says slow, the one that says stop, the one that says go.

Happy New Year,

Minnie

When the Game Was Afoot

While watching the Auburn vs. Alabama game with my sister Jane and niece Natalie, we segued slightly to a conversation about technology. I was telling them that I am old enough to be amazed at what an iPad can do. I can hold this device in my hands and stream a movie or TV program. It’s not plugged in, not connected to any wires. It’s just entertainment that drops down from the heavens to keep me from being unoccupied. Or something like that.

This topic came up because I had made a recent purchase. As I explained to them, I had in mind what I would buy and pushed back on every tempting offer of upgrade even before the sales clerk could finish her statements. She eventually said, “And you’re probably not going to want…” And I said, “No.”  

But then, as she handed me my package, I asked a question that I quickly regretted – because it came right out of the 1990s: “Does it come with written instructions?” The salesperson looked at me oddly as my 20th Century question hung in the air. “No written instructions,” she said. “You can Google it.” Oh, yes. I had forgotten about Google. That was a helpful tip.

In any case, because Jane, Natalie and I were watching the Iron Bowl, I moved on to tell a story about a radio trivia quiz I had once answered. It was the first day of class for my sophomore year in college, and I was getting dressed in my dorm room when I heard the disc jockey ask, “What was the score of the Alabama-Auburn game in 1971?”

I knew this score. 31-7. As I explained to Natalie, my early-20s niece, there was no Google then. This score was something I remembered. My other sister’s boyfriend was an Alabama fan, and after the game, someone had given him a jacket with the words “Alabama 1 31-7” screenprinted on the back. That’s why I remembered.

But the far more notorious or delightful score (depending on your view) was the tally that occurred the next year, 1972. Alabama had led 16-0 into the fourth quarter, and two blocked punts put Auburn on top. I had listened to this game on the radio, incidentally. As I explained to Natalie, there was no ESPN, no ESPN2, no SEC Network, no live streaming. Sometimes games weren’t televised, and you had to listen on the radio.

In any case, back in 1981, I was a young college student, but I hadn’t been born yesterday, and I knew the DJ was trying to throw people off by asking the Iron Bowl score for 1971. Probably the first ten callers were rushing to their touchtone and rotary dial landlines to say, “17-16!”  

Clearly, there was a game afoot. I found a coin and headed for the hallway. Again, as I described these primitive conditions to Natalie, there were no cell phones. I had to use the hall phone to call the radio station. When the DJ answered, I gave the correct score, and he said, “You’re a smart lady, aren’t you?”

I don’t know if he had been disappointed that I hadn’t been thrown off by a year. But still, I knew what I knew. He said he was going to put me on the air, and he told me to turn up my radio so I could hear the question when he asked it. Problem was, the radio was in the dorm room in a stereo case. I was in the hallway. I had to call out to my roommate, Lisa Baughn Bond, to turn up the radio. Problem was, standing in the doorway of our room, Lisa resisted this request.

As it happens, we were not supposed to turn up radios really loud, and Lisa didn’t want the dorm mothers to get upset. Lisa was always a very nice person and didn’t like to do things that were upsetting to people. Me either, you know? But there was a game afoot. I explained to Lisa that I was on the phone with the radio station, and I needed to hear the question. Fortunately, against her better judgment and with disregard for propriety, Lisa turned up the radio volume in our dorm room so that I could hear the station while standing at the hall phone.  

So the disc jockey came back to me, asked the question, and I answered, “I think everybody knows that score was 31 to 7.”

I heard a cheer or two in the dorm; others were apparently listening. Later, when I was on campus, three guys walked past me, and one asked, “What was the score?” As I told Natalie, that was a little like going viral back in my day.

She and Jane asked if I got my prize. No, I didn’t. I had won a Command Performance haircut. This was a new model for beauty salons; it was the kind of place where you could walk in to get a haircut – and you didn’t even need to make an appointment in advance. But at the time I only knew how to drive to a handful of places in Montgomery – for example, toward the two malls, the Super Foods, my other sister’s house, and which way was home. I didn’t know where the radio station was, and it’s not like we had Google Maps to guide me. I answered the question, enjoyed the moment, but skipped out on the prize.  

So anyway, about that iPad and why that purchase happened in the first place. I’ve been a Window-based, Android person to date. But I have this storytelling vision I am pursuing, and I need some apps for that. It’s sort of like a Mr. Rogers for adults – a lighthearted, whimsical voice with an underlying faith offering a moment away from a noisy reality. Basically, something’s afoot, and I look forward to telling you more about it. As soon as I figure out what I’m doing.

Until next time…  

Be not afraid, y’all.

Minnie

P.S. Speaking of things “afoot” … as many of you know, I pick up pieces of debris on my morning walks and sometimes turn them into small repurposed art projects. If you’re near Amy’s Antique and Flea Mall this season, be sure to check out my handmade ornaments. Thanks!

Life at the P.O. (and Beyond)

I’m not a postal employee, but my experience as a postal customer has given me a lot of opportunity over the years to be of service to others.

For example, I know that if the line stretches to the door in December, and there are three windows open, you’ll be fine. It’s just a 20-minute wait. You are better sticking it out than saying, “I’ll come back later.” Because no amount of “coming back later” will be less time than that 20 minutes ahead of you right now.

So that’s what I would advise people if I’m walking the route between my car and my P.O. box, and I see a look of dismay as they open the door. Or if I hear something like, “Ugh. That line.”

On the other hand, if two windows are open or only one, it gets a little more iffy. I can’t help you there. Because who knows.  

One time a young man had left the checkout area, returning to the lobby with a stunned, confused look on his face. At the moment, I was headed back to my car after checking my box, and our conversation started with, “Excuse me, ma’am.” He didn’t understand why he’d just spent so much money when all he wanted was a PO box and a roll of stamps.  

“Is that how much stamps are now?” he asked.  

I stopped, took a look at his receipt. “When you buy a ‘roll’, it is,” I explained. “That’s one hundred stamps. One hundred times 47 cents is $47 dollars. If you get a ‘sheet,’ that’s 10 stamps, or $4.70.”

“Shooo-weeee,” he said. “I better go take some of these back.”

Glad to be of help. Poor guy.

I don’t loiter at the post office. I’m just walking to my box from my car and back again as these opportunities to serve arise.

Usually these interactions are with strangers. On day last week, however, I was delighted to pull open the glass doors, step into the lobby and come face to face with my friend Marcia. It turns out she was interested in making a postage purchase but wasn’t sure how to use the self-checkout kiosk. A first-timer. So we stepped up to face the kiosk, and I showed her step by step how it’s done. We chatted, said “good to see you again,” went on our way. 

My trip to the post office is not a hobby. The contents of my box has implications for my life several days a month. But I don’t always know which days. It’s where I get my checks. I’ll usually have a sense in my head of when one is due, and if it’s there, that’s great. I get a lift. If not, I sigh and tell myself, “don’t worry.” But I still might feel a sense of dismay or disappointment. 

So the point I’m making is that I may be having a good day or a bad day at the P.O. when I see someone else’s need. And whether I’m going or coming, I may be having to call upon a sense of trust myself that all will be well.

That’s also why I know how important the contents of the boxes can be to the individuals who rely on them. 

This past Saturday, I had just pulled an envelope out of my own box when I turned to face a dilemma. Someone needed help, and he’d already left the post office. I could see five small envelopes on the floor, and I knew they were checks. Payments to a lawn service. Clearly, they’d fallen out of the owner’s hands when he pulled out his mail, and he was gone. 

I started to resolve the dilemma by stacking the envelopes in a neat pile, assuming no one would bother them, and they’d be there when he came back on Monday. But I couldn’t leave it at that. Didn’t seem like I’d done enough. So I walked back again, picked up the envelopes and headed inside to speak to a cashier. Two windows were open. One customer in line. “I can do this,” I thought.

When the first cashier completed a transaction, I held up the envelopes and explained that they had fallen out of someone’s hands. I thought the person ahead of me in line would grant me just a little grace at this interruption, given that I was only handing something over. The cashier listened to my explanation, understood the problem, and said she’d put them back in the box.

I left with my own mail and returned to my life. Which at this moment comes down to this one part of one verse in Psalm 37: “Trust in the Lord and do good.”

I don’t control much of anything else, but I do control my level of trust in God’s control, and I do control whether I respond to opportunities to serve.

We all need a little help, a little grace. And we need people watching out for others. Even, frankly, in the operation of government services. Mr. Rogers said his mother once told him, “When times are scary, look for the helpers.” Most times are a little scary. So be a helper. And look for them too. 

I have missed my mother in this season, though, the truth is, I miss her in most seasons. But I remember she often told me, “When you see something on the floor, pick it up.” Let me hasten to add, I NEVER liked it when she told me that. Nor have I ever forgotten her words. And I follow this instruction all the time – though not the “floor,” but the ground – when I’m out in the world and see little pieces of debris. Nails, screws, bolts and stuff.

treesornamentAs some of you know, I’ve created art pieces out of the debris I pick up on my morning walk, and I call it The Nail’s Pace Collection. Because I say, “I walk at a nail’s pace.” I suppose — given that I make art out of things I pick up — I could have called myself a “pick-up artist,” but that didn’t sound right for some reason.

In any case, I recently made some found-objects Christmas ornaments, and they’re at Amy’s Antique and Flea Mall, 849 North Eastern Blvd. Prices range from $9.95-$11.95. ornaments2

If you’d check them out for your gifts and your own tree, it’d be a big help to me. 

Just wanted you to know.

 

Take care,

Minnie

crossornament

Scattered Reflections

mirrorAlong my walking path this week I came to scatterings from a looking glass. Clearly, objects in the mirror were closer than they appeared. And somehow they collided.

In any case, I thought about those verses from 1 Corinthians 13, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror…” and how, for now, we only know in part.

This can especially be true in environments where we might feel like we’ve dropped in from another planet – like, for me, this past Sunday in preschool Sunday school.

At the art table, a 4-year-old sitting next to me was working on a picture. He turned to look at the art of the 4-year-old next to him, then turned back to me. With a nod toward his little colleague’s artwork, he asked, “Is that scribble scrabble?”

I didn’t know what to say – mainly because I didn’t know what was contained in his use of the term scribble scrabble. I figured it was something he had picked up at home, but I wasn’t sure the weight his family (and therefore this 4-year-old) gave to the term. Was it a negative or positive assessment? Should I embrace it or steer away? I tried to steer away.

“He’s drawing a pretty picture,” I said.

“Well,” the kid responded, “it looks like scribble scrabble to me.”

At that table a little earlier, a little girl told me she was drawing hearts. They were a kind of heart that a 4-year-old would draw – indentions at the top, but with rounded rather than sharp lines that meet at the bottom. The girl across the table from her was also drawing hearts, and in a desire to offer instructional assistance to her preschool colleague, she rushed over with marker in hand to show her how it’s done.

I had an instinct to protect the first girl’s art as one that was her own expression, though I appreciated the desire to help someone else get her heart right. That is a good instinct as well. All of our hearts are a work in progress, and we need lots of help getting them right. But … sometimes it’s more important to work on our own heart than try to fix someone else’s.

At the puzzle table, I have drawn different conclusions. With art, you can lean toward allowing someone’s personal expression to override correction and assistance. With puzzles, however, it’s about getting it right.

I figured out this much on my own: you cannot pretend that a puzzle piece fits where it does not belong. So, if a child has put a piece where it doesn’t belong, I’m not going to say, “Yes, you have gotten that right,” or “Just put the pieces wherever you want. It’s your puzzle.”

That’d be weird.

Art vs. puzzles – I notice they provide formats for early instruction of grace vs. truth. Grace is love, acceptance. Truth is reality, structure. We might prefer one over the other but need both (as modeled by Jesus “who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14)

I’m not a parent, and I’m not a teacher. I’m in the marketing and communication field. So I come at these tasks from that perspective. It’s as if I’m serving little 4-year-old clients, and it’s as if their time in this classroom is a “user test” of the church. They are becoming familiar with church – the buildings, the hallways, the stairwells, the chairs and tables, also the people and the stories from the Bible about God and His son Jesus.

Hopefully they are associating church with good things and not bad things, and this is a place they will want to stay connected to or to return later on.

I remember things from my childhood church experiences, but I’m more likely to remember chairs, stairwells and hallways than actual lessons. On a visit some months ago, I walked through and recognized the old preschool hallway, including the wooden door that opens at the top, stays shut at the bottom, so a parent can hand a child over. Though I remember very little in specifics, I associated the hallway with good feelings.

I suppose those were the early days of my journey toward grace and truth, and the balance between the two, but I don’t see it clearly. I’ve only got a little bit of the picture, fragments of memory. Even so, just as you can trust an uncertain future to a certain God, you can see the same in the days gone by and know for sure He was there all along, walking beside you the whole way.

Be not afraid, y’all.

Good Teachers and an Old Letter

CWletterI was thinking of who we are, how we learn things about ourselves, and how we learn what we can do. This brought to mind an old babysitting story.

When my niece Natalie was young, she was in my care for a short time. I don’t remember where we were, what we were doing or what age Natalie was. But here’s the part I do remember. While she was in my care, she ran into something (perhaps a wall) and hit her head. When I saw it (and heard it) happen, I felt fear – for a couple of reasons. First, I didn’t want Natalie to be hurt, and the impact sounded like this was going to hurt. Second, while I don’t know everything about babysitting, I do know there’s a standard protocol: don’t let the kids hit their heads. This was going to be my fault.

As Natalie wailed, I rushed to her side, held her tight and repeated, “You’re OK, you’re OK, you’re OK.” Then I pulled back to see how she really was. “Are you OK?” I asked.

She touched her head and nodded. “I’m OK,” she said. Then she repeated. “I’m OK. I’m OK.”

I had seen how this worked. I spoke words into her state of distress. She believed what I told her and acted on that belief. But also, because I had been saying those things to her as much to reassure myself, something else happened. When she spoke that belief back to my frightened heart, I believed it too.

I wonder if that is what teaching is like, when it works. You have these opportunities to help someone believe something about themselves. When you see that they listen, internalize and begin to believe, you believe it even more.

Everybody remembers their good teachers, the ones who helped them believe.

When I was a freshman at Huntingdon College, I joined the staff of the campus newspaper, the Gargoyle. My first assignment was to interview and write an article about the new English professor, Dr. Ken Deal. Over the next 24 years, he would become one of those professors that people never forget. He passed away in May, and during a memorial service, former students provided testimony of his enduring impact. Their expressions were personal, on the order of “This is what I learned from him.” “This is what he did for me.” “This is what changed in my life because of what he taught me.” It was not general or broad, as in: “This is the impact he made on literature or higher education administration” or other areas where he participated. It was how “he” made an impact on “me” — one student after another in his 24 years at the college.

For me, Dr. Deal’s affirming comments in the margins of my papers were an English major’s version of trophies. I still have some of these trophies I earned in his classroom. On one occasion in particular, he wrote on one of my writing assignments, “Your command of juxtaposition is becoming formidable.”

With that comment, he gave me a belief I have held onto since that day: my command of juxtaposition is becoming formidable. You’d be surprised how comforting those words have been over the course of my adult life. Juxtaposition is where you put two ideas side by side for the purpose of comparison or contrast. I use this literary technique all the time — not because I’m ever looking for a way to juxtapose ideas, but because that’s what I do: I juxtapose ideas.

I’ve been doing that lately — juxtaposing ideas. I am in the middle of a project where a fictional person tells the story of a real person. In 1862, my great-grandfather took a nickel of wartime pay to buy a sheet of paper to write a letter home. The words in that letter are the launching point for a story in which a teacher tells of lessons she has learned in the classroom and in her life.

I wanted to know what a teacher might be able to tell me — someone like my Aunt Minnie, my Aunt Annie or my mother — of things she has observed. What would she say to children wandering their own battlefields about how to find a sense of home wherever they are? What would this teacher say so that children would say, “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay?”

So I wrote those lessons myself — juxtaposed with that letter home and stories about my great-grandfather’s experiences. I’ll tell you more as I progress on my project.

Until next time,

Minnie

P.S. There were a number of teachers in my family. My mother, my aunts, a niece, soon another niece, and apparently my grandfather, E.J. I found out about E.J.’s occupation on a visit last month to the house where he was born. I went there in search of inspiration for my story, and I was able to see where the author of that Civil War letter lived when he returned home. If you’d like to read about my visit to the house, it’s right here: http://minnielamberth.com/a-visit-to-an-old-home/

A Visit to an Old Home

20160605_154002_resizedI come from a long line of old people. My father was older when I was born, my grandfather was older when my father was born, my great-grandfather was older when my grandfather was born.

All of that is to say, my great-grandparents were living in this house in Tallapoosa County when my grandfather was born … this was during President Grant’s administration… and it came about that one Sunday afternoon in June I entered this old house, guided there by my cousin Grady.

He had showed me several spots of interest before we got here. Cemeteries, mostly, but some places where things used to be. One road was a dirt road. I was driving my Sonata, a reasonable car for most in-town treks. But like an old lake road, I did have a concern that someone might be coming the other way. It wasn’t a one way. But it did seem like a “one at the time” way. When we got to an old bridge, I asked, “Is this OK to cross?”

My cousin reassured me, “You’ll be fine. If there was a problem, there’d be a sign that said ‘bridge out.’”

Comforting for sure, but I was thinking, “What if a few minutes from now, I become the reason they decide to put a sign that says ‘bridge out?’”

I had another concern that I’d have to go back the way I came – recognizing the longer you go down a deadend road, the longer you have to come back. But that wasn’t needed; this was a road that went to somewhere. He said, “I’ll take you back on blacktop.” Which we reached soon.

The house we visited was in the back of someone else’s house. We pulled into the driveway so my cousin could go in and ask the owner if we could walk through. This he’s done before, and this was not a problem. You just want to tell people you’re walking through their yard.

First we came upon a structure that was my great-grandfather’s old store. Then we got to the house. We walked through an area with high weeds, and I watched every step I took. Then we got to the steps. As my cousin beat back some of the brush, he said, “There are a couple of things we want to be aware of before we enter.” I could anticipate what these things might be. “First, we might fall through the boards, but it’ll only be about a two-foot drop.” Check. “The other things are wasps and bees… and snakes.” I could have seen that coming a mile away.

20160605_153347_resizedBut we entered, walked carefully, and there was no problem. He showed me the room where my grandfather was born. I didn’t know him; he died about 30 years before I was born. I haven’t spent much time thinking about him, wondering about him. But in that room where he was born, I felt something profound. It wasn’t exactly a sense of the holy, or even something in the area of awe. But I was very moved. Perhaps it was a sense of the eternal, of people behind me and in front of me, in this long line of old people.

My cousin had told me my grandfather’s bedroom was just up those stairs, if I wanted to go see. After a few minutes, I said, “I’m not going to be able to go up the stairs.”

“You’re not?” he said.

stairs“No,” I said, “I’m not going to be able to do that.” Some things you just know. But I did use the flash to take a photo, and that seemed good enough.

We went to my great-grandfather’s gravesite after that, and to my great-great grandfather’s grave site after that. Grady said Aunt Minnie had told him a story of visiting the latter site around 1914. She remembered she was with her papa, she was about 7 years old, and they stopped to see a grave in the corner of a cow pasture. She asked whose grave it was. He said, “My grandfather’s.”

It’s still in the corner of a cow pasture; that is to say, a cow pasture is still beside the grave. And around 100 years ago, Aunt Minnie and her papa made the same stop my cousin and I did one Sunday afternoon in June. Perhaps that was a good day for them. I hope so. It was a good day for us.