“The Fifth Freedom,” June 2, 2020

If Norman Rockwell could’ve painted this day, he might’ve called it: “An Average American Family in the Age of Covid-19 in Desperate Need of Haircuts.”

Instead, my husband snapped it with his iPhone: My younger son, his wife and their three little ones (Randy, 9, Wiley, 7, and Eleanor, 5, in her tiara) sitting in our driveway on the back of their SUV, beaming brighter than the sun.

I wish you could’ve seen them.

Rockwell might’ve included my husband and me perched on folding chairs six feet away. His work captured moments in the everyday lives of Americans for almost half a century in his paintings and illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post.

My personal favorite is “The Problem We All Live With.” It depicts a day in 1960, when a 6-year-old African-American girl, dressed like my Eleanor in her Sunday best, was escorted by four deputy U.S. marshals to an all-white public school.

Another of Rockwell’s best-loved works is “Freedom from Want,” in which an elderly couple present a roasted turkey to their family gathered around the table for Thanksgiving.

It’s part of a series Rockwell based on a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in which FDR cited four basic freedoms: Freedom of speech and expression; freedom to worship as we choose; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.

Those freedoms belong to “everyone, everywhere,” FDR said, and were not a distant vision, but were “attainable in our own time and generation.”

This morning, reading about protests and riots around the country, I realized a heart-wrenching irony: Nearly 80 years after FDR’s “Four Freedoms” speech — and 2,000 years after Christ commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves — we’re still fighting to ensure basic human freedoms for everyone, everywhere.

Even as we fight a pandemic.

Visiting with my kids in the driveway today seemed almost normal, except for keeping our distance. We’ve had several “distant visits” with family lately, including one from my husband’s son, who drove for hours to talk six feet apart.

Any of those visits could’ve been a Rockwell painting, along with our FaceTime calls when my husband reads to his granddaughter, Charlotte, or when I watch 1-year-old Jonah dance and snap his fingers.

But I doubt even Rockwell could have captured the pride in Randy’s face when he showed us a picture he drew for Papa Mark. Or the sadness in Wiley’s eyes when he realized he couldn’t hug me. Or the sound of Eleanor’s voice when she yelled as they were leaving, “How much do you love us?”

That’s a question I’ve been asking my grandkids since they were born. Elle knew the answer and grinned, waiting to hear it.

“All!” I shouted back. Because that’s the most anyone can love.

Like my grandmother, I tell my kids and grandkids that they are all my favorite. Is it possible to have more than one favorite?

My son explained it best, saying this about his children: “They are each ‘The Chosen One’ for different reasons. It’s a miracle to realize that we can love each one of them more than anything in the Universe.”

It would also be a miracle to realize — for ourselves and our children and all children — a world in which everyone, everywhere, is free to love and to be loved and to enjoy the same basic Four Freedoms.

There’s a fifth freedom that is equally miraculous: We need to feel free to hold our loved ones close — in times of grief and joy — not just in our hearts, but in our arms.

I believe in miracles. Do you?

“Giving Thanks, not Giving Up,” May 26, 2020

Growing up, I was often told by my mother and grandmother and all of my aunts — women who were world class worriers — that worrying is not only a sin, but a big waste of time.

Always hope for the best, they said, but make dang sure you’re prepared for the worst.

The difference, I realized, in worrying and being prepared is this: One lets you sleep in peace. The other keeps you awake and makes you a pain to be around.

I started worrying when I was 4, the day my brother Joe was born premature and hairless, like a fist with eyes. He spent weeks in an incubator, after which we were told he had cerebral palsy, might never walk, and was totally blind.

For Joe, things often seemed to go from bad to worse. Surgeries aimed at helping his legs only made them weaker. Going to school meant leaving home as a little boy to live with strangers in a dorm. Finding a job and a sense of independence would prove nearly impossible.

His life has been a litany of loss. More than his eyesight and the use of his legs, Joe lost four of the people he loved most. Our mother; his wife; our stepfather; and our younger brother.

He lives alone now in public housing, where packages get stolen off his porch. Does his own cooking and laundry. Goes to church every Sunday, if his legs don’t hurt too much.

But for every heartache and disappointment, Joe has said thanks. Thank you, Lord. Thank you, family. Thank you, friends. He has taught me by example that gratitude builds hope. If we are mindful of all the ways that we’ve been blessed, it’s easier to believe we’ll be blessed again.

I live in California. Joe and our sister live in South Carolina. We keep in touch by phone. When I called Joe yesterday, I said, “Hey, darlin’, how you doin’?”

“I’m OK,” he said, “I guess.”

Joe is never just OK. He could be on fire and insist he’s fine.

“What’s up?” I said.

“Well, I’ll just tell you. My legs are burnin’ and hurtin’ bad.”

Joe wears braces that help him walk, but they sometimes cause problems, even infections.

“Did you call your doctor?”

“Not yet. Maybe tomorrow.”

I think he was stalling so he could listen to a rebroadcast of a Clemson football game on TV.

I never nag him. I leave that to my sister, a retired nurse who inherited the nagging gene from our mother. I called her next.

“His legs are hurting bad,” I said. “Don’t tell him I told you.”

“Oh, Lord,” she said. “I’ll call you back after I talk to him.”

Minutes later she called again.

“He needs to go the ER,” she said, “but he won’t listen to me!”

She would drag him to the ER if she could, but she can’t see well enough to drive at night.

“He never listens,” I said. “He’ll go when he’s ready.”

Hours later, when he couldn’t stand the pain, Joe called 911.

My sister phoned me this morning with a full report. Joe was in the hospital getting IV antibiotics for infections in both legs. He’ll probably be there for a few days. So far, in 12 hours, he’d had three trays of food.

I called him right away.

“Hey, darlin’, how you doin’?”

“Hey, Sister!” he whooped, “I’m doin’ fine, considering!”

Yes, he was on pain meds. We talked about everything and nothing. Finally, Joe said this:

“Don’t worry about me, Sister. I’m just thankful the Lord was looking out for me and gave me all these good people — the EMTs and doctors and nurses — to take such good care of me.”

I’m thankful for all of that, too.

Now, more than ever, in the dark of this pandemic, we need to see clearly, like my brother, not with our eyes, but with our hearts. Gratitude is a light that shines in the soul, turning worry into hope, fear into joy, weakness into strength and worriers into warriors.

What are you thankful for?

“The Hiding Place,” May 19, 2020

Do you recall the first time you climbed a tree? How old were you? How did you feel? Scared? Proud? Happy? Free?

Tree climbing is a formative experience. There are countless others, of course. Jumping in a pool, hoping your dad won’t let you drown. Riding a bike with no training wheels. Waving goodbye to your mom the first day of school. Opening your mouth to let a dentist poke a metal tool around your teeth.

Most every day in a child’s life brings a new adventure, a new demand to boldly go where that child has never gone before. It’s no wonder parents of small children seem to age overnight.

One day, when I was 6 years old, I crawled beneath the low-hanging limbs of a tree I would later learn to call a hemlock. Inside that tree, much to my surprise, the limbs formed a giant canopy under which I could hide from most of the cares of the world.

I wish you could’ve seen it.

Child or adult, we all need a hiding place once in a while. That tree became my childhood refuge. It still shelters me in memory. Its trunk was so big I couldn’t hug it and its branches grew spaced like a ladder.

I’m not sure all this happened exactly as I will tell you, but it’s the way I like to remember it. I heard a voice like the rustle of leaves and the ripple of water whisper, “Go on. You can do it.”

“But what if I fall?” I said, “or rip my dress, or get stuck on a limb and no one can find me?”

“You can’t answer every question,” said the voice. “Take a step and trust where it leads.”

So I stepped on a branch and reached up for the next. It was easy. I kept going. Halfway up, the tree began to sway to and fro in the wind and the voice said, “That’s far enough today, child. You’ll go higher tomorrow.”
Then I sat for a long while, resting in the arms of a tree and in the palm of God’s right hand.

Do you recall the last time you climbed a tree? How old were you? How did you feel? Scared? Proud? Happy? Free? Were you trying to rescue a cat?

A few years ago, when my grandson Henry was 5, he asked me to climb a tree with him in his back yard. It was easy. We used a step ladder to boost ourselves up, straddled a sturdy limb and sat there together, talking about birds and clouds and the meaning of life.

It was the first tree I’d climbed since Henry’s mom was his age. I told him about the hemlock, how it became my hiding place.

“I like to hide up here, too,” he said, staring at the ground, “as long as I don’t climb too high.”

Henry has a new tree now in his new backyard, and he climbs it every chance he gets. I haven’t climbed it with him yet. It’s a pretty big tree.

Maybe I can do it with a ladder when the virus quarantine is over.
Until then, I can’t even hug Henry and his cousins, let alone, climb trees with them. I’m not sure how we’d keep six feet apart on a tree limb.

In the months since the quarantine began, I sometimes find myself asking questions that have no answers: Are my loved ones safe? How long will this last? What will our lives be like in the days to come?

Do you ask questions like that?

I think about what I learned as a child, what I tried to teach my children, and hope to teach my grandchildren: We can’t answer every question. We just need to take a step, and then another, and trust where it will lead.

The step I’ve learned to take first, before any other, is simple, but not easy. I pray to be at peace, to stop asking questions that I can’t answer. Then I close my eyes and picture myself in the palm of God’s hand and the arms of a sheltering tree.

And for a while, I’m no longer a woman fearing for her family and her friends and the world she loves. I’m simply a child at play. And life becomes not only a bold adventure, but the boundless joy that we long for it to be.

“My Happy Mistake,” May 12, 2020

Sometimes it’s good to be wrong. I should know. I am wrong a lot. Ask my husband. He loves to correct me. It’s not his most attractive quality, but it proves helpful on occasion.

Before I tell you the following story, I want to be clear: I am fine, thank you. As fine as I ever get. But I was not fine yesterday.

Have you ever thought you were dying? I don’t mean some day. I mean now. It’s a sobering experience. It can make you see more clearly what matters, and what you might do differently, if given another chance.

When I was 8, my dad rented out the pasture to a neighbor’s bull and warned me not to go near it. Back then, I had a tendency to do as I pleased. I still do. But when I climbed over that fence and saw that bull coming for me, I had only one thought: “Run, fool!”

That was long ago. I’ve since had a lifetime of practice as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend, praying for strength, caring for loved ones, calming fears, facing dangers head on. Now it seemed it was time for me to do those things for myself. Here’s how it all began.

Like many of us, my husband has been reading quite a bit about the coronavirus, how to avoid it and identify symptoms and early warning signs. So he ordered a pulse oximeter, a clothespin-like gadget you clamp on your finger to measure your pulse rate and the level of oxygen in your blood. It arrived yesterday. He tried it first, and his rates were normal. I was busy (playing FreeCell) and told him I’d try it later.

When he went out to the garage, I clamped the gadget on my finger and read the results, certain they’d be fine. They weren’t. I tried it again. And again. My oxygen level seemed so low that, according to one website, I needed to go straight to the emergency room.

For a moment, I pictured a bull galloping across a pasture. But I told myself I’d been sitting too long, not breathing enough, just needed some exercise. So I got on a treadmill for 20 minutes then checked the numbers again. Still too low. I didn’t dare tell my husband. I didn’t want to alarm him, or worse, have him take charge.

Instead, I made a plan. First, I’d shower, wash my hair, do my makeup and pack my essentials. If I didn’t make it through the day, at least I’d have clean hair and a charger for my phone.

Then I would tell my husband I love him, and that thanks to the stupid gadget he ordered, I was planning to drive to the ER alone, without him or my kids, because I didn’t want to risk exposing them to the virus.

That’s when it hit me. I might never see my loved ones again.

Several long moments and a quick prayer later, when I finally told my husband the plan, his eyes got as big as hubcaps.

“Wait,” he said. “What was the reading on the oximeter?”

So I told him. And he looked at me the way he always does when I say something crazy. Suddenly we both saw it. I was wrong. I had misread the numbers. The lesser number was my pulse rate. The larger was my oxygen level. And both were perfectly fine.

I felt like I had just jumped a barbed wire fence and left a bull snorting on the other side.

Instead of going to the ER, I spent the day being thankful.

Thankful to be alive.

To be relatively healthy.

To be home, even under quarantine, not in a hospital.

To have loved ones who always laugh at my mistakes and are glad that I’m still here.

And to look forward to waking up tomorrow, come what may, just to see what happens next.

I hope you and yours are thankful for those things, too.

There are worse things in life than being wrong — even if you’re being chased by a bull.

“Finding Peace,” May 5, 2020

What do you do when you’ve done all you need or want to do? Before the coronavirus quarantine, I never asked myself that question.

My life was full. I wrote a column each week, as I still do, and traveled to speak in places around the country. When I wasn’t traveling, I hung out with my husband. I still do that, too. Nonstop, 24/7.

But we often went out to dinner or to the grocery store or appointments. We visited family and friends. He played in a band and I went to his gigs, taking our grandsons (ages 9 and 8) who think he’s a rock star.

Our kids often came to visit and we’d cook and laugh and eat as if there were no tomorrow.

Now? We keep in touch by FaceTime and phone. We read online to the older grandkids, laugh at videos of the little ones and e-visit with loved ones daily. Recently, my son-in-law left a pizza on our porch. My daughter dropped off plants for our patio. And my youngest brought his three babes to see us. We kept six feet apart. I never dreamed six feet could seem so far.

The only other faces we see are drivers who leave groceries at our door. We sit out most evenings watching the sunset. Neighbors go by walking their dogs and we wave from afar.

But no one comes in. And we don’t go out. It’s like solitary confinement. For two. Luckily, we like each other. Usually. And thankfully, our basic needs are met. But some days pass slowly and I have a lot of time to think.

I think about our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren. I wonder what the world will be like in years to come. I’ve been wondering about those things since I was a child and never find an answer.

Sometimes, to quiet my mind, I turn my thoughts into prayers. I’m not good at it, but I hope God hears me anyhow. Sooner or later, I go back to thinking.

Today, instead of thinking, I took a drive with my husband. Spring in California is hard to believe. Hills that were brown in summer, one spark away from bursting into flame, have turned bright green, lush with tall grass and speckled with wildflowers.

We stopped a while to watch a herd of deer grazing in a field thick with lupine and poppies.

I wish you could’ve seen it.

The green of the hills, the blue of the sky, the sound of the wind in the trees and most of all, the ease with which those deer went about their lives, filled me with a peace I’d not felt for days.

Nature takes a break in winter. Birds fly south. Bears hibernate. Plants and trees go dormant. In spring, it awakes, rested and ready to be truly alive.

Humans take vacations, but our minds keep working, even when there’s nothing to do.

My grandmother spent her last 20 years mostly alone. As a child, I loved to visit her. Every morning, we did chores. Picked beans. Fed chickens. Gathered flowers for the table. She taught me to read, play checkers, and crochet. And we took long walks on the mountain studying plants and birds and clouds.

Once, I asked her what she did all day when I wasn’t there.

“The same things,” she said, “except checkers. It’s not much fun to play checkers alone. I go for walks most days. If it rains, I sit on the porch. If I stay inside, I think too much. Nature always seems to soothe my soul.”

Some of us spend our lives inside self-imposed walls, keeping busy when there’s nothing to do, thinking about questions that have no answers.

If we learn nothing else from this quarantine, maybe it can teach us how to rest, how to be alone with ourselves and each other in the real world — not a world of TVs and computers and pointless thoughts, but one of green hills, blue skies and hope.

And we will awake, like Nature at the end of a long winter, rested and ready to be truly alive.

“Hands We See, Not Hear,” April 28, 2020

The first time I set foot in her classroom, I spotted it right away: She was born to teach.

I remember that day clearly. The school year had just begun, but her kindergarteners had already learned the routine. They sat quietly, no fidgeting, in a circle on the floor, waiting for their teacher to begin.

“May I join you?” I asked.

“Of course!” she said. “Class, let’s welcome Mrs. Randall!”

She led them in a round of applause for me as I sat cross-legged in the circle.

“Before we begin,” she said, “I want to remind you all. How do we ask questions? That’s right! We raise our hand. I only call on hands I see, not hands I hear!”

It was a small class, but I knew most of the students well. On my left, J.J. stared up at me without blinking. On my right, Tuffy kept licking my hand.

Along with a Cabbage Patch Kid and a Shetland sheep dog, the circle included a stuffed rabbit named Rabbioli, a scantily clad Barbie doll named Barbie, and a few heavily-armed G.I. Joe action figures on loan from the teacher’s big brother.

The teacher, my daughter, was a few weeks shy of turning 5, but had taken to kindergarten, as my mother would say, like a smart little piglet to slop.

Every day after school, Joanna would come home and run straight to her room to set up her circle of “students.” Anyone was welcome to join the circle, as long as they could behave.

That, of course, ruled out her big brother and all his buddies, but not his G.I. Joes. She tried to include her younger brother, who was 2, but he could never seem to resist wrestling with the dog and would always end up getting sent to the office.

Her dad, a high school teacher, liked to join the circle when he was home, but was forbidden to ask “annoying” questions, even if he raised his hand.

I so loved watching her teach. Both then and now. To see her focus on a single student, or an entire classroom. To hear her speak in that tone that seems to say, “I know you can do this. If you need help, I’m here.”

She learned those skills in part by watching a pro, her kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Novelli. But like her teacher, Joanna was born with an ability and a desire to bring out the best in everyone — dolls, dogs, boys, girls — even in her mother.

So she grew up to be a “real” teacher, both in the classroom and as a reading specialist, always with the same ability and desire to bring out the best, and to be the best, for every child entrusted to her care.

Do I sound like I’m bragging? My granddad used to say that bragging’s not bragging if you’ve got the truth to back it up. I’ve known a lot of “real” teachers. So have you. We need to brag more often about how much they mean to us and our children and grandchildren.

The most important part of every child’s education — after the support and encouragement they receive at home — is not the content of their curriculum, but the character of their teachers. We can’t “hear” a teacher’s hands, but we “see” their touch in the lives of their students.

Recently, when schools closed for the coronavirus quarantine, districts scrambled to find ways to provide “distance-learning.” Many teachers, like my daughter, are now teaching from home, meeting with students and parents online to explain assignments and answer questions as best they can.

Last week, when her wireless connection failed, Joanna came to our house (keeping socially distant) to meet with her third-graders online from our garage.

I wish you could’ve heard her.

I eavesdropped through a wall, didn’t get all the words, but the tone was crystal clear. Maybe I was dreaming, but I could almost hear her say, “Hands I see, not hands I hear.”

“Real” teachers find ways to connect with their students — even from their mother’s garage.

“Nana’s Top Ten Tips on Life,” April 21, 2020

It was the first birthday of my first child’s first child. That’s a lot of firsts. I wanted to spend it with my grandson and his mom and dad. But the coronavirus quarantine kept us miles apart.

A few days before Jonah’s big day, I realized I didn’t have a birthday card to send him and I couldn’t go out to buy one.

Jonah wouldn’t care. But his parents might. And I’d probably forfeit any chance of being named Nana of the Year.

So I decided to make a card for him. I started with a photo that was taken a few months ago. Jonah is wearing a t-shirt that says “I’ll eat you up!” (from Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are”) and grinning his gorgeous wild thing grin.

I wish you could see it.

If the boy could be any cuter, he’d be illegal. Yes, I’m his nana, but if you saw him, you’d agree.

Anyhow, along with the photo I added “Happy birthday!” and “So glad you were born!” and “Nana loves you ALL!” (All is as much as anyone can possibly love.) Plus a few other things I thought he ought to know. Then I emailed it to his mom and dad to read to him for me.

I think he really liked it. When we FaceTimed on his birthday, he gave me kisses on the phone.

My husband and I share eight grandchildren. Our oldest is 9. Jonah is our youngest, so far. After I made that card for him, I realized that the things I wrote in it were things I want all my granchildren to know and to remember in years to come. So I decided to put those things, and more, in a column. Some people write books for their grandkids. Mine are lucky I don’t have that much to say.

“Nana’s Top Ten Tips on Life:”

  1. Decide what kind of person you want to be — not your career, but your character — and then, every day, be that person.
  2. Respect your parents and teachers and elders. Learn all you can from them. Welcome their advice. But in the end, make your own choices. You have your mother’s laugh and your father’s eyes, but your life is entirely your own.
  3. Try to like the people in the family you grow up in. Chances are, for better or worse, you’ll spend holidays together forever.
  4. Be kind — as kind as you can possibly be — to everyone, and most of all, to yourself.
  5. Be thankful. Nothing in life will make you happier, or more fun to be with, than keeping your heart filled with gratitude.
  6. Be wise. Use the brains God gave you and remember all the dumb sayings (“Pretty is as pretty does, money doesn’t grow on trees, and don’t count your chickens before they hatch!”) that I tried to drill into your parents, and your parents try to drill into you. Someday you’ll try to drill them into your kids.
  7. Forgive everyone, including yourself. If you hurt someone, apologize and try not to hurt them again. If someone hurts you, forgive them and move on. Holding a grudge will hold you back. Grace will set you free.
  8. Give more thought to your hopes and dreams than to your worries and fears. And spend more time looking at birds and clouds than at TVs and computer screens. Technology is important, but Nature is life.
  9. Listen closely to the stories people are longing to tell. And tell your own stories to anyone who will listen. Stories are how we get to know ourselves and each other and the world.
  10. Love with all your heart and soul and strength and time and money. Love your God and yourself, family and friends, neighbors and strangers and people you’ll never meet. Love the person you share your life with, the children you call your own and the grandchildren you’ll be given, if you’re lucky. Love the least lovable souls on Earth, but most of all, love life.
    Finally, know this: You are loved and will be loved every moment of every day by many wonderful people. But your nana will always love you ALL.

“Joe’s Birthday Alone,” April 14, 2020

My brother has seen a lot of birthdays in his sixty-plus years, but nothing quite like this one.

Actually, Joe has never “seen” a birthday. Soon after he was born — two months early and tinier than the Tiny Tears doll I got that Christmas — he was blinded by too much oxygen in an incubator that kept him alive.

Since then, he has spent every day in total darkness. And he has learned (the hard way, as he tends to be even more stubborn than blind) all sorts of lessons, such as how to blow out the candles on a birthday cake without singeing his nose hairs.

Joe also has cerebral palsy and needs leg braces and a walker to get around. Those needs slow him, but don’t stop him from living life as he chooses. He takes cabs to buy groceries or eat out on occasion. He uses Dial-a-Ride for appointments. And he counts on a Life Alert button to get help if he needs it, like when he broke his ankle.

But birthdays are meant to be celebrated and shared. Due to the coronavirus quarantine, Joe’s latest birthday was the first he has ever spent alone. He is not, of course, the only one. Countless individuals — whether single, elderly, disabled, homeless or, worse, infected with the virus — are in quarantine alone, with no one to comfort or care for them.

Joe would tell you he is blessed and thankful to have family and church friends and neighbors who check on him often to be sure he’s all right and that he has all he needs. I, too, am thankful he has all of that. I just wish he didn’t spend his birthday alone.

Joe lives in South Carolina, where we grew up, 3,000 miles from California, where I’ve spent most of my adult life. We keep in touch by phone. Our older sister lives 30 miles from him. She doesn’t like to drive anymore, but she offered to bring him to her house to celebrate his birthday.

“I appreciated her offer,” Joe said, “but I didn’t feel up to it. It’s just easier to be at home.”

Home, for most of us, is often the easiest and best place to be.

I wanted to send him a gift for his birthday — a new Clemson hat (his favorite team) or a birthday cake. But packages tend to get stolen off his porch. And his apartment complex’s office, where I can usually send him things safely, apparently was closed for the quarantine.

So when I phoned on his birthday, instead of a gift, Joe and I opened memories.

He recalled cakes our mother baked for him. I recalled candles that singed his nose hairs.

He remembered getting in fights at the school for the blind. I remembered picking him up to go home on weekends, how he’d come hurrying out, swinging his cane almost as wide as his grin.

His happiest memories were the 10 years he spent with his wife, the love of his life, Tommie Jean. She, too, was blind. They went everywhere together, Joe leading with his cane, while she followed holding his hand. He lost her 15 years ago to cancer.

In that loss, Joe learned — as we often do in losing someone we thought we could never live without — that being alone is not the same as being lonely.

We can’t always be with those we love. We are often kept apart by death or distance or disease. But we don’t have to be in the same room together to know we love them and they love us.

When Joe was 7, he spent weeks in a hospital recovering from surgery that was supposed to help him walk. A nurse told my mother he fell asleep every night singing “Love Lifted Me.”

Love still lifts my brother. It lifts us, one and all, alone and together, in the brightest of moments and darkest of days.

It’s the only thing that can.

“A Different Kind of Easter,” April 7, 2020

This is an Easter story. I first told it 20 years ago, but it’s still true. And truth bears repeating, now and always. Here it is.

I don’t need new shoes for Easter. But there was a time when I thought I did. Maybe I just wanted them. Is “want” so different from “need”?

The best thing about the small Southern town where I grew up — aside from its peaches, its views of the mountains and its interesting assortment of characters — was that it seldom let any of us feel truly poor.

A lot of us were, in fact, poorer than the red dirt beneath our feet. We lived, as my mother said, hand to mouth, from one mill paycheck to the next. But the families that were well off never flaunted their wealth nor allowed their children to do so.

We all went to the same school, played the same games and ate the same fried chicken in the cafeteria. We had most of what we needed, some of what we wanted and little awareness of anything we lacked.

On Easter Sunday, most folks went to church, rich and poor, saints and sinners alike. The difference, as I saw it, when I was 8 years old, was simple: Some wore new shoes, and some wore old, and we all tried to pretend we didn’t notice.

I sat in church that Easter Sunday dangling my legs from the pew, staring at my old shoes that my mother had tried to clean up with a coat of polish. They weren’t just old. They were ugly. I promised myself, next Easter, I would be wearing brand new, good-looking shoes.

Want to know how I kept that promise? I lied. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. I told my daddy my mama said I needed new shoes for Easter. She didn’t say it, but probably thought it. Ever since their divorce, if she said I needed something, he’d try his best to get it. The look on his face when he paid for those shoes told me they cost a fortune. But they were worth it –white patent leather with silver buckles. And the clerk threw in a pair of frilly socks. I wore them to church that Easter Sunday feeling fancy and free, saved by the blood of Jesus and a brand new pair of shoes.

Then my feet started to hurt. A little. Then a lot. I had blisters on both heels and all ten toes. After church, we went to my grandparents’ house for Easter dinner. My mother wouldn’t let me hunt eggs with my cousins because she said I’d ruin my new shoes. I didn’t argue. My feet were already ruined.

But the next day I smuggled the new shoes to school (I hid them in my sweater to get past my mother) and put them on before class. We played tag at recess and I was “it” the whole time because I couldn’t limp fast enough to tag anybody.

Then at lunch, I sat next to a friend who was wearing, I swear, a pair of old sneakers with holes in the toes. They were three sizes too big and smelled like her older brother. She kept staring at my new shoes and the longer she stared, the more my feet hurt.

By the time I got home, I never wanted to see those shoes again, let alone, wear them. I finally gave them to my cousin Bad Linda, who wore them unbuckled because they were too small, and nagged me until I gave her the frilly socks.

I learned several lessons that Easter. First, salvation is like true wealth. It’s not about what folks see when they look at you; it’s about what’s in your heart.

Second, if you’re going to lie to your daddy about something your mama said, you’d best be sure he never talks to her.

Finally, no matter how good you look or how fancy you feel, if the shoe doesn’t fit — if it hurts your feet or your friend –you’ll be happier without it.

I don’t need new shoes for Easter. But soon? I hope we’ll all get new shoes that won’t hurt our feet and we’ll go out dancing together, hallelujah, like we have never danced before.

“Keeping Whole in Hard Times,” March 31, 2020

Before it rained, I stepped out on the patio for a breath of fresh air and to see how many plants had been eaten overnight.

Our patio has a fence that’s four feet high. But apparently four feet isn’t enough to stop deer or rabbits or anything, really, least of all, a virus.

We do what we can. To avoid the coronavirus, we shelter in place, practice social distancing and wash our hands more often than we blink.

And the patio? Maybe next spring we’ll build a bigger fence. But on this day, all was well. No plants had been eaten. Birds sang in the trees, looking for a mate and a safe place to nest. Flowers bloomed in profusion, pink and white and purple. Mountains were cloaked in clouds promising more rain.

I wish you could’ve seen it.

I’ve always loved the feel of rain on my face. When I felt the first drops, I smiled, took a long breath and went inside. That’s when I smelled it. Bacon.

My husband and I are in a higher risk age group, not just for coronavirus, but for lots of things. So we usually try to watch what we eat.

Years ago, we stopped eating meat. No special reason, we just thought it might be “better” for us. We eat fish and seafood, but no red meat or chicken. Lately, however, for some reason, I started missing bacon.

While sheltering in place, we’ve been fortunate to get groceries delivered to our door. Imagine my surprise when the last order I placed showed up with a whole pound of bacon.

This morning, I fried four slices, two for each of us, with hash browned potatoes and eggs. I don’t know if it was good for our health. But I assure you it was good for our spirits.

We all need to take care of ourselves and each other in any ways we can. I’m thankful that, as of this moment, all of my loved ones’ needs are met. But my heart aches for so many people who are struggling to feed their families, or grieving the loss of a loved one or simply trying to stay alive.

Along with all the frightening concerns for physical health, we also need to consider emotional, mental and spiritual well being.

In hard times, it’s easy to feel like we’re falling apart. Here are things that help me feel whole.

_ Kindness: I look for stories about acts of kindness, rather than ones that cause me to fear. My favorite lately is about a landlord who lowered the rent for a family that lost half their income. There are countless such stories. We need to hear them and share them with each other. Kindness heals.

_ Beauty: I spend time in Nature — with mountains and birds and half-eaten plants on my patio — and online with people I love. I talk to family and friends and read to my grandkids on FaceTime. I even got to see a video of Jonah, my youngest grandchild, taking his first steps. Beauty calms.

_ Faith: I pray for strength in weakness, for courage in fear, for hope in hopelessness and for joy in despair. Sunday morning, at home in California, in my pajamas, I visited Cleveland Drive Presbyterian Church in Cheektowaga, N.Y. I’ve known the pastor and his wife almost 50 years. When I heard their church hosts a “sheltering in place” service on Facebook, I tuned in to worship with them and was reminded we are all in the same boat, all God’s children weathering the same storm. Faith lifts us up, quiets our fears and gives us hope and joy.

Those are gifts we can claim for ourselves and each other. And years from now, when our grandchildren tell their grandchildren about this time in our history, they’ll recall not only hardship and despair, but a glorious litany of kindness and beauty, faith and strength, courage and hope and joy.

They’ll remember the stories we shared with them and marvel at how those stories never seemed to end, but were always … just beginning.