“Easter, Old and New,” April 16, 2019

This is an Easter story. I’ve told parts of it before. But sometimes, to tell a new story, you need to repeat an old one.

A few days before Easter, when I was 4, God sent me a miracle that would break my heart, fill it with joy and teach me things I needed to know.

His name was Joe.

My parents divorced when I was 2, and my mother took up with a man she hoped to marry. But when she became pregnant with his child, he left her, and we moved in with her parents.

Born premature, Joe spent almost two months in an incubator. After he was released from the hospital, my mother was told he had cerebral palsy and might never walk.

“Don’t worry,” I told her, “I’ll teach him to walk.”

“Can you teach him to see?” she said. “He’s totally blind.”

“He can’t be blind,” I said. “He smiles at my face.”

“He smiles at your voice,” she said. “He’ll never see your face.”

I began praying for a miracle, asking God to give my brother eyes that could see. I prayed for years. It never happened.

I also tried to teach him to walk, but he was too stubborn to let me. He took his first steps when he was 5. My mother called it a miracle. But it was not the miracle I’d prayed for.

When I was 10, sitting in church on Palm Sunday with Joe by my side, I heard a preacher say the miracle of the resurrection was not a one-time event. Miracles happen every day, he said, if we believe in them, and expect them.

I looked over at Joe. He was grinning. I was sure I believed in miracles. But maybe I hadn’t expected one hard enough?

“Dear God,” I prayed, “I expect this Easter you’ll give my brother eyes that can see. Sorry I didn’t expect it sooner.”

I expected hard that week. Easter morning, I ran to the kitchen. Joe was patting the table trying to find his Easter basket. Still blind. I waved my hand in his face.

“Are you sure you can’t see?” I said. “I prayed for a miracle that God would give you eyes….”

“He did!” Joe said, swatting at my hand. “He gave me yours! Can you find my Easter basket?”

Over the years, I have prayed for all sorts of miracles. Answers have varied widely. Some were what I hoped for. Others weren’t even close, though they often proved to be what I needed. And for a few, well, I’m still waiting.

The miracle of prayer is not that it always grants what is asked for, but that it changes the one who prays. It turns our fears into hope, our doubts into faith, and our worries into peace.

Anne Lamott, one of my favorite writers, puts it far more simply. There are only, she says, three prayers. The first is “Help.” The second is “Thanks.” And the third is “Wow!”

I pray those three prayers often. Especially the first one. I keep asking for help, for myself, for my friends and loved ones, for my country and the world. Lord knows we need it.

Miracles happen everyday, not just at Easter. But this Easter — on a day that celebrates the greatest miracle of all — I’m praying for help, once again, for my brother. Not for his eyes this time. For his legs.

Four months ago, Joe broke his ankle and spent two months in a rehab facility. Since then, even with using a walker, it’s getting harder for him to walk.

“Sister,” he said recently when I phoned, “I’d sure appreciate you praying for my legs. They’re not working like they should.”

He fears most of all losing the independence he has fought to keep throughout his life.

“I’ll pray,” I said, “if you promise to call your doctor.”

Easter is an old story that becomes new each time it’s told, in every heart, young or old, that listens and believes and expects.

Here’s wishing you and yours an Easter filled with family and chocolate and miracles.

“Forever Friends,” April 9, 2019

Seeing her name in my inbox made me smile. Patricia and I grew up together. We were friends through high school, then went our separate ways to marry and raise our children thousands of miles apart.

We reconnected years ago at a high school reunion. I liked everything about her, except for the fact that she hadn’t aged a bit. Not that I’d hold it against her. We now email once in a while, the way we once passed notes in class, like this:

Pat: “Can you come to my house tomorrow after school?”
Me: “Will your mama be making chocolate pudding?”

I’m not saying we wrote those things. I’m just saying we would have if we’d thought of them.

I was happy to see her note, until I read the reason for it. She wrote to tell me that Thelma, one of our former classmates, had recently passed away.

I didn’t know Thelma well, but I surely remember her. There were only 80 or so in our senior class. When you grow up in a small town, spending 12 years in a small school with the same 80 classmates, you get to know and be known by everybody and their cousins. You don’t have to know them well to “know” them, and to feel a kinship for them.

I once interviewed the late Pat Conroy after he wrote “Prince of Tides.” When he realized we both were Southerners, he said people who grow up in the same place know a lot about each other even if they’ve never met.

“Girl?” he said. “We’ve just met, but I know things about you not everyone would know.”

That’s what I felt for Thelma, not a close friendship, but a kinship. We were classmates and I took her loss personally. But she and Patricia were close.

“I will miss her!” Patricia wrote. “She always made time to call and check on me. She was a sweet friend.”

I wrote back to say I was sorry to hear about Thelma. I added that I treasure the friendship Patricia and I shared when we were young, and that I’ll always think of her, just as she thinks of Thelma, as a “sweet friend.”

That prompted an exhange of childhood memories. Patricia remembered coming to my house to talk for hours. I remembered going to her house to eat chocolate pudding.

We could’ve traded memories for days, but we said goodbye and signed off until next time.

Afterwards, I gave thanks for Thelma’s life, and asked for God’s blessings on her family. Then I spent some time thinking about friendship.

I am not what you’d call a good friend. Ask my friends. They’ll tell you. I want to be a great friend, and I try to be one sometimes. But in friendship as in life, good intentions and a C-minus effort are not enough. Friends like Thelma and Pat take time to stay in touch.

Over the years, I have known and loved and lost touch with people because I didn’t call or write or spend time with them. I’m not proud of it, but there it is. I can’t defend it. It’s not that I didn’t care about them. I’d say it’s because I’m busy with work and family — my husband, our five children and their others, plus seven grandchildren, with number 8 due any day.

But I know people with bigger families and jobs, who are a lot busier than I am, and they still make time to be a friend.

Lucky for me, I have big-hearted friends who know I’m not good at staying in touch, but seem to like me anyway.

I like those people a lot. I may not see them often. But when we connect — in person or by phone or with a quick note — we pick up where we left off, and it feels, at least to me, as if we have never been apart.

It’s a forever kind of friendship that lasts, no matter how many miles come between us or how much time we spend apart. We share an unspoken vow to see (or phone or write) each other “soon.” And if, God forbid, it doesn’t happen in this life?

We’ll look for each other on the porch in heaven in a section reserved for “Forever Friends.”

“Coincidence? Maybe Not,” April 2, 2019

Do you believe in coincidence? I like to think things happen for a reason, even if I don’t know the reason. Take that strange thing I saw on the mountain.

Recently we moved to Carmel Valley, Calif., to a small house with a big view of the Santa Lucia Mountains.

I wish you could see them.

Last week, I was sitting in my new living room, checking out the view — the horse farm across the valley, the clouds rolling in from the coast, the buzzards circling overhead — when suddenly I spotted it.

On a faraway ridge, something stood alone and tall. I grabbed the binoculars and focused on what looked like a lighthouse.

“Look at that,” I said, handing the binoculars to my husband, “what do you think it is?”

He stared for a bit and said, “I think it’s a fire lookout tower.”

A fire tower? Like the one I once climbed? I knew he was right. He always is. But I wanted more proof. An hour’s search online gave me the following:

The Sid Ormsbee Fire Lookout was built in 1948, in what is now the Santa Lucia Preserve, on a ridge that rises more than 2,000 feet above Carmel Valley.

It is named for 2nd Lt. Sidney C. Ormsbee, a 26-year-old forest ranger from Capitola, who died in 1943, when his plane was shot down on a bombing mission in World War II.

No longer used for fire observation, the site is equipped with a telecommunications tower for emergency transmissions for firefighters battling blazes in the area.

That’s a short version of Sid Ormsbee’s story. This is mine: Long ago, when I was a teenager in the Carolinas, with no clue of what to do with my life, I went for a ride with some friends and ended up at an old abandoned fire tower.

I remember standing on the ground, looking up to where the tower disappeared in the clouds. Somebody (not I) said, “Let’s climb this thing.” So we did.

We climbed for what felt like forever, rung by rung, never daring to look down. When my friend reached the platform, he yelled, “Dang! It’s locked!”

We clung there for a while, holding on for dear life, feeling the tower sway in the wind. After a bit, I opened my eyes and looked down at the silent, glorious world below. I felt a sense of peace and joy unlike any I’d ever known. And I said to myself, “I can do this. I can be a ranger in a lookout tower.”

That became my goal in life for several years. Then I went off to college. After college, I moved to California, married, and had three babies. And at some point, I realized I would never want to spend my life alone in a tower without the people I love.

So I gave up my dream of living alone in a tower. Instead, I learned to find peace and joy, not in isolation, but in a crazy, frantic thing called life.

I thought about all of that this week, sitting in my living room, looking out at that tower and giving thanks for a young man who gave his life for his country.

Here are ways our stories are alike: Sid Ormsbee and my dad were born on opposite coasts in the spring of 1916. Sid played basketball at Santa Cruz High, where 40 years later, I would keep score for the visiting team from Monterey. In 1941, both men enlisted in WWII. Both served in Northern Africa and Italy. Ormsbee’s plane was shot down on the eve of my mother’s 18th birthday. The tower that bears his name, and that I see from my living room window, was built the year I was born.

Coincidences? Probably. All I know is, after so many years, I finally have my own lookout tower. And I don’t have to climb it to enjoy the view, or to feel the peace and joy it brings me.

A coincidence may be nothing but chance. But sometimes, if you look closely, you might see an old dream coming true.

“Moving On in Life,” March 26, 2019

Moving is not for sissies. And that is what I am. I try to avoid things that can cause me pain. Especially things that require heavy lifting or hospitalization.

Ask my sister and brother. They call me “Sissy,” and not just because I’m their sister.

But even a sissy has to move on occasion, physically and emotionally, to a new home, a new job, a new relationship or a whole new stage of life.

It’s called change. I’ve made all sorts of changes in my time. Maybe you have, too. They all seem to unfold in three stages:

_ The first stage of change is letting go. It’s hard. Especially letting go of something or someone you love. But one day you realize that you can’t keep holding on to whatever is holding you back. It belongs in the past, not the present. So you give thanks for the gift that it has been. Then you take a deep breath, open your hands and your heart and simply set it free.

I did that for months, every time I winced with pain going up or down the stairs. My old house in Pacific Grove, Calif., was built nearly 100 years ago, with two staircases between the first and second floors, and a ladder to the third-floor loft.

I know those stairs better than I know the lines on my face. I used to jog up and down them with a baby in one arm and a basket of laundry in the other.

But lately, my knees have been yelling, “Enough already!”

I like my knees. They’ve served me well. I’d like them to keep serving me for as long as I need them. So I made an incredibly difficult decision to say goodbye to those stairs, and to the house I have loved almost forever.

_ The second stage of change is moving forward. You take a giant leap (or baby step) away from what was, and plant your feet firmly in the here and now.

More than hard, it’s entirely exhausting. But you pack up all your memories, the treasures you can’t part with, and take them to a new place, a new chapter of your life.

That’s what we did last week. “We” means me, my husband and a crew of very strong men who are our new best friends and seem to like heavy lifting a whole lot more than we do.

The move was a team effort. The crew did all the work, and my husband and I did our best to keep out of their way. We took most of what we own (and got rid of the rest) from the old house and moved 20 miles to Carmel Valley. The new place is half as big as the old one, with a thousand times the view.

View means a lot to me. I don’t climb mountains much any more. But I still like to look at them. The new place has lots of mountains. They remind me of the Blue Ridge, where I grew up, and make me feel at home. And there are no streetlights, so at night, the sky rains stars.

Best of all, it has no stairs.

_ The third and final stage of change is finding joy. For a few days after we moved, I kept searching for things I couldn’t find. Getting ready one morning for an appointment, I needed to wash my hair, but couldn’t find a hair dryer. Ditto for the pants I wanted to wear. And where were my favorite black flats?

I knew all those things were probably in one of a dozen boxes in our garage. But which box?

So I went to that appointment with dirty hair, in sweat pants and running shoes, with socks I stole from my husband’s drawer because I couldn’t find my own.

I’m glad you couldn’t see me.

We keep opening boxes. It’s like Christmas without the shopping. Meanwhile, we are surely finding joy:

The joy of living in the present.

The joy of welcoming family and friends to our new home.

The joy of delighting in simple things like quail and buzzards and sunsets and constellations.

We’re especially thankful for the joy of knowing that moving was the right decision.

Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll find my favorite black flats.

“Memories of Spring,” March 19, 2019

(NOTE: I’m taking off this week to pack and move! The following column is from March, 2015.)

A week isn’t much, my mother would say, but it’s something. Long ago, after college, I left the small Southern town where I grew up, to marry, raise three children and live my life in California of all places.

For years, I thought it was all one word, Californiaofallplaces. [Read more…]

“Pride Before and After a Fall,” March 12, 2019

What do you do for someone who seems weary? I do three things: I tell them to get some rest; ask them how I can help; and pray that they’ll feel better.

I like to think it helps. But for some reason, when I get weary, I ignore my own advice. Instead of resting, I keep going; instead of getting help, I get by on my own; and instead of praying to get better, I get cranky. [Read more…]

“The Power of Being Seen and Heard,” March 5, 2019

It happens to most of us at one time or another. We want to say something important. But no one seems to be listening.

Children need someone to talk to, someone to look into their eyes and listen to their stories, nodding and smiling in all the right places. But parents can be busy with jobs or chores or cell phones. And teachers have a classroom full of kids waving hands, begging to be heard. [Read more…]

“Memories with Butter and Jam,” Feb. 26, 2019

Memory likes to play tricks on us, taking us places we once loved, but haven’t seen in years. It was early morning, first light, drizzling rain and cold. Something woke me, a distant thump. Maybe the wind?

I was drifting back to sleep when I heard it again, clearer this time: Two little feet clomping down the stairs. I knew that clomp well. It was the sound my 7-year-old daughter would make heading down to the kitchen to “cook breakfast” for her brothers. [Read more…]

A Fundraiser for Fire Victims, March 7, 2019

Sharon will present “A Breath of Fresh Air,” a benefit for the Carr Fire Fund and other outreach ministries of First United Methodist Church, on Thursday, March 7 at 7 p.m., at the Cascade Theatre in Redding, Calif. Tickets are available at the box office or online at cascadetheatre.org.

“Four Mile Stretches,” Feb. 19, 2019

(NOTE: I’m taking off this week for the holiday. The following column was written in 1997, shortly before my first husband lost a lengthy battle with cancer. It was also reprinted in the October 2001 issue of “Reader’s Digest.”)

From my home on California’s Monterey Peninsula, there is no easy way to get anywhere. To go north, for instance, to San Francisco, you take Hwy. 1, also known as the Old Coast Highway, and proceed to 101, also known as the Freeway to Make You Lose Your Religion. [Read more…]