Tasting Life Twice

Archive for the category “Quotidian: The Grace of Daily Life”

The Secret of Gene Norris

In My Reading Life, Pat Conroy pays tribute to his high school English teacher who, in addition to being an important mentor, ended up becoming a very close friend. In their final phone conversation, as Gene Norris was dying with cancer, he said to Pat:

“Tell me a story,”he commanded, and I did.

Those were the last words he ever spoke to me, and they formed an exquisite, unimprovable epitaph for a man whose life was rich in the guidance of children not his own.  He taught them a language that was fragrant with beauty, treacherous with loss, comfortable with madness and despair, and a catchword for love itself.  His students mourned Gene all over the world, wherever they found themselves.  All were ecstatic to be part of the dance.

One student who was part of the dance of Gene Norris’ life was a young lady who showed up at the reception that followed Norris’ funeral. Conroy writes,

“As I walked along a side street, a beautiful young woman called out to me, ‘Mr. Conroy?’

I turned and this pretty woman kissed me and said, “You don’t know me, but we met when I was three years old.  You were the May king and my sister was the May queen.’”

“Ah!  Your sister is the lovely Gloria Burns,” I said.  “But why are you here?  Did you know Mr. Norris?  You’re too young to have been a student of his.”

“My first year at Robert Smalls,” she said, “I was such a mess.  In trouble.  Boys.  Drugs.  That kind of thing.  They sent me to Mr. Norris.”

“He was good, wasn’t he?”

“Mr. Norris told me to come to his office every day at lunch.  We could talk and get to know each other.  I went there for the next two years.  Two years. Yet he didn’t even know me.”

“You got the best of Gene,” I said.

“He saved my life.  He literally saved my life.”

“Come on in,” I said, putting my arm around her.  “I’ll introduce you to a couple of hundred people who’ll tell you the same thing.”

“Mr. Norris acted like I was the most important girl in the world,” she said.

“You were.  That was Gene’s secret.  All of us were.”


The World Within Earshot of Mother’s Stove

We all have received untold gifts from people who are now dead and the many who are still alive.  In My Reading Life, Pat Conroy pays tribute to Thomas Wolfe and his novel, Look Homeward, Angel.  Wolfe helped Conroy to honor the particularity of one’s time and place. 

“Boys like me – you know the ones – we’re the boys from the families no one knows, from schools that few have heard of, from towns defined by their own anonymity, from regions unpraised and unknown, from histories without stories or records or echoes or honor.  Thomas Wolfe taught me that if looked hard enough at the life I was living, the history of the world would play itself out before me within earshot of my mother’s stove.”

“Waiter, there’s a…..

cicada in my soup and pizza and pasta.”  The regional office of the Missouri Department of Conversation recently sampled a variety of cicada offerings.



We all Buzz for Ice Cream

Here in America’s middle-earth, we’ve been hearing the buzz from the plague of cicadas and trying to intercept their kamikaze flights into our airspace.  The Hannibal Courier Post recently posted some pictures of these subterranean visitors who emerge  in intervals of thirteen and seventeen years.  The photo below is of my father, a retired conservationist  (photos by Danny Henley).  I’m going to suggest he start collecting more of them.  A local ice cream shop here in Columbia, Sparky’s on 9th Street, has added cicadas to the menu.  The cicadas are de-winged, boiled and dressed up with brown sugar and chocolate. 

Dad and cicadas



Goodness is Still Out There

clip_image002One of my students has a collection of letters from her mother. That, in and of itself, is not unusual. Most of us probably have some keepsake like that from a parent – birthday cards, a piece of jewelry, a meaningful gift. But what makes this present so special is that Stephanie’s mother died back in 1999, and yet, every year, she still gets a birthday card from her mother.

Andrea, her mother, had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) a few years earlier and knew that she was running out of time. Reminiscent of the movie My Life and years before the movie P.S. I Love You, she set down to write letters to her children – Stephanie, Nikki and Steven – who were 6, 4 and 2 at the time of diagnosis. While fighting against a degenerative illness, and often in great weakness, a loving mother committed to the project of writing these notes that would survive her death.

Andrea gave the letters to a friend and fellow flight attendant, Tammy Wright. After Andrea’s death, Tammy faithfully has kept these letters and passed them on at the appropriate time. Stephanie, Nikki and Steven receive a message from their mom on birthdays and at graduation. They will continue to hear her voice on other special milestones, such as when they marry or have a child. And for years to come, at each decade’s passing, an inspiring mother will still be encouraging her children to remain strong and live well.

Stephanie shared with me her most recent letter from her mother and gave me permission to share it with you. The story is a beautiful tribute to a mother’s love for her children and to her grace and courage in the face of weakness and loss.


You’re in your twenties! Hooray, the teen years are fini! (Not that you’re out of the woods yet!) I’m wishing you sunshine, roses, and love!

I was pondering what to write in this note, and decided to tell you of several ‘random acts of kindness’ that I’ve been the recipient of since my illness. I choose this subject both because we often are unaware of the depth of human empathy and in tribute to those folks who engaged in the acts.

One occurred at Bell Helicopter. A dozen roses were delivered to my office. The card bore the name of no one I knew. After investigating, I learned they were from a fellow employee, a black woman I had never met. I took one of the roses to her as thanks. She told me she had seen me and was impressed with my attitude and strength and wanted to do something for me, so she sent roses. I was touched.

Another occurred when I discovered the business card of a jeweler I had briefly met a couple of years earlier at the Mt. Sunapee Crafts Fair. I bought 3 pairs of earrings there – unidentical, eg. rake and leaves, etc. – and told her how creative they were and that she should do more children-related ones. After finding her card, I had Noni call her for a catalog, and the woman remembered me! 2 days later I received the catalog w/a notation to take 25% off, a lovely, warm letter, and a beautiful pair of earrings w/3 pearl eggs in a nest on one, and 3 hatched baby birds on the other. They weren’t in the catalog and she knew from Noni I had 3 children and was ills, so I suspect she made them especially for me. It brought tears to my eyes!

So, goodness is out there!

With love, Mom

Murphy’s Laws of Shopping

A trip to Hy-Vee and Hobby Lobby got me thinking that I ought to start writing down my own collection of Murphy’s Laws (“anything that can go wrong, will”).  Here are two related to shopping:

1)  If I’m shopping at the grocery store, I will get the one grocery cart that has a bum wheel.  It will drive smoothly at first, handling each turn and negotiating the other traffic.  But then, when my cart is halfway full and I’m in the back of the store near the dairy section, a front wheel will lock up on me.  It will act like the brakes are stuck.  I’ll swivel the front of the cart and/or kick it but it won’t help.  If I continue to push the cart, it will make this loud screechingimage noise, scuffing the floors and inviting scornful looks from other shoppers whose ears are now ringing.  An otherwise sweet grandmother will threaten to throw a bag of frozen sweet corn at my head if “I don’t make it stop”, so that my only choice is to go through the store popping a wheelie while trying to buy groceries. Of course, when my shopping cart is unloaded, the cart will drive perfectly all the way to the return bin as if nothing ever happened between us.

2)  If I’m in the shortest check out line, it will invariably require the longest wait.  For example, if the store is packed with Christmas shoppers and there are ten registers that are five deep and I, being nimble and quick, manage to find a shorter line, the young couple in front of me will have purchased fourteen ceramics that each require protective wrapping before the sale is complete.  If, while holding too many knick-knacks in my hand and desperate to unload the said knick-knacks onto a counter because I didn’t get a cart of basket, if I should decide to change lanes to my next best option, the lady in front of me with just a few items will, of course, have one item that needs a price check.  The item in question will be a small, unmarked scrapbooking knife at the back of the store and the only clerk available to find out how much it costs will be a teenage boy breaking down cardboard outside by the recycle bins.  

Practicing Your Life


Every few months Miss Rollings, my son’s violin teacher, will host a group lesson at her home. On those Saturday mornings, her studio room is packed with students and parents, as well as Buddy her dog, a black cat named Moggy and some bright fish in the corner aquarium.

I enjoy these occasions for a number of reasons. To start with, I delight in hearing the music. The music is usually effective at lulling me into some moments of calm. But I also like the method of instruction. Resembling the old, one-room school house, the students have different levels of ability and experience. There is a small blond-haired boy in colorful glasses who has to be coaxed by his mother into standing up with the rest of the group. He is learning how to hold the instrument between his chin and shoulder and where to place his fingers on the string. On the other side of the room, there is a father who has decided in the middle of life to learn the violin, so he can make music with his ten-year old daughter who is also just starting out. Standing taller than the younger children, there are a handful of more advanced students who have been doing this for years. Their skills have been honed through thousands of hours of practice so that they make a complicated piece play beautifully. And here they all are, together in one room.

As Miss Rollings calls out a song, those who know the song remain standing. Those who don’t, sit down. When the few more accomplished violinists finish a rousing performance of Handel’s “Sonata”, then it is time for a more basic piece. Everyone will then stand up to play an introductory song from Book One such as “Go Tell Aunt Rhody.”

The song selections alternate between the familiar and the unfamiliar. When the novices cannot participate, they sit and listen, learning to recognize the sounds of excellence and the rewards of hard work. When the beginners can play a song, all participate, including the most advanced students. The “experts” learn that they are never too old to practice their scales or play the early songs. Join in they must.

Learning life is a lot like learning an instrument. It takes a lot of practice. There are a lot of missed notes. There are moments when you think you’ll never get past “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. And then, thankfully, there are times when your life actually sounds like music. Maybe not concert quality. Maybe not as well as you’d like it to play. But music nonetheless: beautiful, satisfying, rhythmic and passionate.

And here’s something else I believe. We’re all in this together. Some of us have been learning the ways of Jesus for a long time. Some of us are just starting out. But all of us need practice in the basic scales of gratitude and reverence, forgiveness and compassion. All of us need to watch and listen so we can remember how the song goes when things gets complicated. And most important, all of us need God.


P.S. I Love You


In God’s world, you never know when and where you’ll find a gift from your Maker. He spends a lot of time surprising us, leaving notes that say, “hello” and “thinking of you” and “I’m with you.” You might find one in a falling star or a chance encounter or on a hayride down a country road. Or you might see His wrapping paper in the lyrics of a song or in an unexpected smile. God has so much fun with this stuff that he has even been known to give gifts to people in their sleep (Psalm 127:2) and at those times when they feel unsafe and unwell.

It’s a little bit like the recent movie, P.S. I Love You, where a husband arranges to have gifts delivered to his grieving wife after his death from a brain tumor. Each gift and letter remembers the relationship but also encourages her to go on. Or, it’s like the ambitious series of art murals that I recently read about in Philadephia:

The heartfelt rooftop messages promise it all, from dinner and car fare to day care and everlasting love. But you have to read fast.

Designed to be spotted scavenger-hunt-style from the elevated train rumbling through West Philadelphia, the “Love Letter” series of 50 murals was an ambitious undertaking even in a city known for such public art.

The recently finished project, which teamed a former graffiti tagger with his onetime (friendly) nemesis, parallels nearly 20 blocks of track. It gives riders glimpses into an imaginary love story through colorful images and quirky phrases of longing, like “Your everafter is all I’m after.”

“It animates a neglected, ignored part of the city,” said Paula Marincola, executive director of The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, which funded the project. “It transforms a humdrum, everyday experience — riding the El — into something magical and wonderful and fun.”

God does something like that with us: painting a colorful landscape to our lives, diverting our attention from all the graffiti that can consume our minds, giving us glimpses into the love story we live in.

Let me tell you where I think I saw note from God the other day. I was having lunch with a friend at Chipotle. Each paper cup introduces you to a person you should know. And mine told of Wes Jackson, the president of a corporation, who is fond of saying: “if your life’s work can be accomplished in your lifetime, you’re not thinking big enough.”

That reminded me of a certain Jewish rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth who used to describe faith in such ways, saying it is a small thing – like a tiny seed or a pinch of yeast or a cup of cold water – that will eventually move mountains and change the world.

Keep an eye out for God today.

Love is in the Air


Congratulations to my brother and his fiance, Heidi! They were engaged last weekend in Chicago.  They took the train into the heart of the city and while they ascended in a hot air balloon for a panoramic view of the cityscape and navy pier, Troy got down on his knees, opened up a little box and popped the question somewhere next to cloud nine .  They finished their magical day with dinner and a U2 concert at Soldier Field.  A lucky man and a lucky lady found each other. 

Family Bonding in the Modern World


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