>It Might Be Lent If ….

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Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you enter into psychological or spiritual warfare—like seriously confronting an addictive or sinful behavior, or just trying to reign in some of your laziness or craziness—that it seems like adversaries come out of the woodwork to discourage your efforts?
Welcome to Great Lent. Many of the Church fathers talk about how Satan and his demons will go after the person who becomes more serious about their spiritual warfare. The Kingdom of Heaven can’t be won so easily, it seems. Flannery O’Connor knew this, when she wrote her novel, The Violent Bear it Away.

So here I am, on the second day of Lent, and have already experienced several “hits.” Nothing monumental, like a job loss (in fact, two friends just reported finding new jobs last week—thank God!) or cancer or death. But sometimes the small, irritating things can trip us up and disturb our peace.

Like Sunday night, right after we got home from Forgiveness Vespers, which officially kicks off the season of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, my husband sat down in the den and opened his lap top. He had a deadline for work that he needed to spend some time on.

“Shoot!” I hear the frustration in his voice.

“What’s up?” I call out from my computer in the next room?

“I’m locked out of my computer again!”

Apparently at the VA Hospital where he works, employees have to take their computers in every three months for some sort of updating. (He uses a VA laptop at home.) It slipped up on him this time and blap! He couldn’t get in to do his work. Again, not life-threatening, just aggravating.

Like our two leaky faucets—one in the kitchen and another in the master bathroom. The kitchen faucet was getting louder and finally pushed me to the point of doing something, so I called our home warranty company. The wait on the phone was lengthy, so I did what the recording suggested—I went to the website and entered our account number and put in a service request. Within a few minutes, someone called to schedule a plumber to come out, that afternoon! Wow. That was quick. Or so I thought.

The plumber was scheduled “between 12:30 and 5.” Too good to be true? Yep. He showed up at 5:30, looked at the faucets and said, “Faucets aren’t covered in your home warranty plan. But they’ll still charge you $60 for my visit.”

So, this morning I called (and waited for a real person) and talked with a service rep, and she said that if faucets had been covered in our plan, the word “faucet” would have been on the menu for me to choose from. Since it wasn’t, I had chosen the word “leaks” on the menu. But then I had described in detail that the leaks were the faucets in the kitchen and bathroom sinks.

“But the computer doesn’t read the comments,” she argued.

“Then why have the comment box on there?” I asked.

“Those comments are given to the contractor we send out. You should know that if the word ‘faucet’ didn’t appear in your list, it wasn’t covered in your contract.”

“How would I know that? It didn’t say that anywhere.”

But the plumber obviously knew. When he walked in the door and I showed him the faucets, he immediately said, without looking at a file or calling anyone, “faucets aren’t covered in your contract.” If he knew that, he should have refused to take the call. So I told the service rep that we aren’t paying the $60 for the service call.

She agreed not to charge us “this time,” but said we are only allowed one “false call” per contract year. And the faucets are still dripping….

My third “hit” also wasn’t disastrous, just a little disappointing. Another of my essays had been accepted for publication in the March issue of skirt! Magazine, but I hadn’t picked up a print copy yet, so I went online to link to the essay, and it wasn’t there. In fact, there were only 6 essays in the issue, and usually there are about a dozen. So I emailed Nikki, the publisher, and she said, “I was about to email you. We had to cut quite a few essays to make room for a special feature this issue.” I’m okay with that. skirt! has published three of my essays, and I’ll continue to submit work to them, because I think they publish quality prose. And don’t you love the artwork for the March cover? It’s by the artist, Brian Kirshisnik. Really, all the artwork for skirt! is good. Even the ads!

I had written the essay specifically to fit the magazine’s theme for March, and it’s not really something I would send somewhere else, so I’m going to share it with you today, at the end of this post. The theme was about luck, chance, timing, and the place those things play in our lives. The essay is called, “Playing the Hand We’re Dealt.”

While I’m on a positive note, I was thinking it might be fun to look at what I posted one year ago today, and it was the Creative Nonfiction Conference at Ole Miss. What a great time!

Also had a good time watching the season opener for my favorite TV show last night,
“Saving Grace.” Grace (played by Holly Hunter) has a new partner this season, Abby Charles, played by Christina Ricci, and so far I like their chemistry together.

And just read a good story in The New Yorker, “Brother on Sunday,” by A. M. Homes, who wrote The Mistress’s Daughter, which I reviewed in a blog post last May.

So, we’ll see what the rest of “Clean Week” brings. Each day for me is definitely a struggle to embrace the fast, to pray more, and, as the Prayer of St. Ephraim says, to “see my own sins and not judge my brother.”

At the Lenten Compline service at St. John last night, the hauntingly beautiful minor key music to one of my favorite Lenten hymns began to draw me back to what’s really important: “O, Lord of hosts, be with us, for we have none other help but thee, in times of sorrow. O, Lord of hosts, have mercy on us!”

And now, here’s my essay which was cut from skirt! this month. Hmmmm, maybe it contains another message about dealing with whatever life gives us—computer lock-downs, leaky faucets, publishing disappointments and all.

Playing the Hand We’re Dealt

My parents taught me an early—and inadvertent—lesson when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s. They were serious bridge players, and whenever their bridge club met at our house, I was allowed in the den to watch the adults play, so long as I didn’t bother anyone. They often played duplicate bridge, which fascinated me. When each trick was played, instead of the winner gathering the other players’ cards into a stack, the cards remained with each player until the end of the hand. Then all of the cards were returned to four slots in a duplicate “board,” so that the original hands remained intact. When each hand was over, the couples rotated tables and played the hands that were waiting for them in the next board.

By the end of the evening, each team had been given the opportunity to play the exact same hands as everyone else. Final scores were tallied based on how each couple performed with this equalizing factor. In regular “contract” bridge, even experienced and gifted players at the master level can’t succeed without being dealt some pretty good cards in the course of a tournament. But in duplicate bridge, it’s not so much about the cards—it’s about how you play the hands you’ve been dealt.
Maybe this early childhood lesson colored my taste in games for the rest of my life. I’ve never enjoyed gambling, or any games that depend entirely on chance. In junior high school I learned to play Michigan Rummy—an interesting type of poker—during summer vacations at my best friend’s family’s vacation house on the Mobile Bay. Maybe there was some skill involved that escaped me, but it seemed like winning was all about the luck of the draw. But I guess even gamblers have to “know when to hold ’em.”
Or when to turn in all your Scrabble tiles for new ones, even at the cost of missing a turn, when you know you just can’t increase your score with all those one-point letters. Last summer, and during the Christmas holidays, our daughter was home from graduate school, and she and her dad and I spent many hours playing Scrabble. This could have been an intimidating pursuit for me, since my IQ pales in comparison to theirs, but surprisingly, I seemed to win as many games as they did. Sometimes I thought it was because I’m a writer and spend hours every day with words, whereas my husband is a scientist and my daughter is an architect, so their energies are more focused on numbers and shapes and statistics and lines. But it also takes a creative edge to do the kind of work they do, so at the end of the day, I often attributed my relative success to luck—I must have gotten better tiles. Is it really that simplistic? Or is it possible that I actually made better use of the tiles I was given?

When times are hard, and even when they’re good, it’s easy to chalk our successes or failures up to the cards. Lots of people are out of work right now—including some close friends of mine—and when I look at the skills, education and leadership qualities those unemployed friends have, it’s tempting to go to the old axiom, they’re just down on their luck. But doesn’t that mindset lead to feelings of helplessness, rather than opening the door for new opportunities? Unemployment could offer the “chance” to spend time with family members, pursue new interests, start your own business, or learn to look inward for validation and peace.

When I learned that I couldn’t conceive children, I didn’t waste any time dwelling on my “bad luck.” I set out (with my husband) to adopt children, and by the time I was thirty-six, we had brought three precious children home, one through a domestic adoption in Mississippi and two from South Korea. Thirty-something years later, I’ve learned to grieve the loss of the children I couldn’t carry in my own womb, and I’m learning to help my grown adopted children grieve their own losses, but I have a hard time thinking that the family I’ve been given is the result of something as arbitrary as “luck.” The lessons we’re learning together—and individually—are the results of the choices we are making as we evolve in our relationships with each other and in our individual lives.

We’re all faced with choices on a regular basis. The abused wife can choose to stay or walk away. The unappreciated employee can choose to accept her place with humility and find gratification elsewhere, or take a risk and leave during a time of economic depression and nationwide unemployment. The frustrated church member can hold her spirituality close to her heart, whether she chooses to work for change that she believes is needed, or to wait quietly in the wings. Maybe the gambler was right. Whether we believe that life is a game of chance or that there’s a higher power in charge of the cards, there are a few rules we need to know if we’re going to survive: We don’t just have to know when to hold ‘em, but also when to fold ‘em, when to walk away, and when to run.

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