Tag Archives: friendship

Where are you?

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Can I just let you in on a little secret? I have never liked women’s events, whether at work or at church.  Girl’s night out? Not a big priority. Honestly, Barry and I such great friends that I never saw girl time as an urgent need. Besides, women can just be so…complicated. Am I right?

Lately, though, I’ve come to see how important girlfriends are. There are some things, for instance, that my girlfriends understand instantly, while I could spend hours trying to explain the same thing to Barry—and he still might not get it. (Don’t get me wrong. I’m crazy about this guy. But, let’s face it, he can’t be my girlfriend, and it isn’t fair to expect him to be.)

But friendships are costly. I have to be real, let someone see my warts, and open my heart to risk. I have to deal with other people’s stuff too. Truthfully, I’d rather sit on my couch!

But friendship is worth the price of undignified pursuit. In the story of the garden, God shares a perfect friendship with Adam and Eve until they betray him and hide. But God leaves all sense of personal pride behind and bolts after them, searching through the garden, calling “Where are you?”  It is a picture of loss. The trust, ease of friendship, and sweet companionship enjoyed between man and God is gone, replaced by shame, awkwardness, division, mistrust, and fear. Anyone who has suffered a divorce or even a falling out between friends can relate. We say to ourselves, “It wasn’t mean to be this way.”

And we’re right. It wasn’t! We were designed to share friendship with God and one another. After all, God himself declared of’ Adam’s solitary state, “It is not good.” Barring those momentary times when hiding under the covers sounds perfect, we all know that we need friends. We need family. We need soul mates.

Ecclesiastes puts it this way:

Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up…And if someone overpowers one person, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.   Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

If friendship is such a good thing, why do we sometimes avoid the effort? Could it be that our ability to give and receive is in direct proportion to our ability to trust God? Is is possible that if we trust God completely to be all we need, we free those around us from the tyranny of our expectations, and free ourselves to just love people where they are and receive whatever they have to give?

The Faces across a Table

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There are few things more satisfying than scanning a dinner table or looking across my kitchen counter to see the faces of people I love.  Even when it includes those oddball characters no one quite knows what to do with (you know who you are).

You know the ones. They have a real knack for artfully–almost poetically–saying exactly the wrong thing.

Yeah, even them.  Maybe especially them.

In fact, those are the very people who usually make things more interesting. Like the other night when one of my son’s friends went off on a rant about anti-depressants. He said, “Not to be graphic” (so we braced ourselves), and then he went on to describe scientifically (and graphically) why antidepressants take all the umph out of orgasms.

Really?  Hmm.  Didn’t know that.  “Coffee anyone?”

Or there was the recent dinner when my nephew was home from college with two friends. I overheard one family member  talking about the politics of homosexuality with one of the friends. (To his credit, the young man maintained a remarkable poker face. Didn’t even flinch.)

I sat for a moment that night taking it all in. I scanned the table, watching everyone joke and gesticulate, while they stuffed faces full with pizza and somehow still managed to share stories, tall tales, gross exaggerations, good-natured ribbing, and belly laughs—all without bringing soda up their noses.

Somehow it was all so….glorious.  So wonderfully and beautifully imperfect. No matter what is being served or where, if I can look across a table or a room into the eyes of someone I love, it is all so very, very good.

Encouragement in a "New York Super Fudge Chunk" Minute

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On Monday, I was at a Christmas party where I somehow ended up talking with my friend Jeanne about our first jobs. I laughed when I recalled my first job at Baskin Robbins where I quickly gained 10 lbs.!

“What was your favorite flavor?” she asked, awaiting my answer with the eager anticipation of a 10-year-old.

“Pralines and creme.”

“No way!” she said, “Me too!”  We were fast becoming secret ice cream buddies. I had to admit, though, that I’d moved on from Baskin Robbins:
“As far as I’m concerned, there is no greater flavor this side of paradise than Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk.”

“No way!” she said, “That’s my favorite too!” she gasped. We soon forgot everyone around us while we gushed about the rich, dense dark chocolate ice cream filled with dark and white chocolate gobs, as well as huge fat chunks of walnuts. Ah…divinity.

The next day, my husband and I received some long-dreaded disheartening news regarding a family matter.  Jeanne called me later to just say she was thinking of us and if I wanted to get together for coffee, she was available.  Later she called again, “I’d really like to stop by and give you something. Will you be home tomorrow?”

Today she showed up on my doorstep with a Christmas bag. Jeanne makes beautiful handmade jewelry, so I thought maybe she had brought me one of her creations.  She insisted I open it right away.  Inside were four pints of Ben and Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk Ice Cream. FOUR PINTS!  Do you know what GOLD this is? This, my friends, is love.

Never underestimate the power of New York Super Fudge Chunk.  More important–never underestimate the power of a thoughtful gesture, even a silly one, to bring encouragement. Jeanne didn’t help my waistline, but the fact that she took the time to go buy 4 pints of Ben and Jerry’s and bring it to me…well, how can you put a price on friendship like that?

© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

The Help

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The HelpThe Help by Kathryn Stockett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

No doubt, there will be those who will hate this book and say that Kathryn Stockett was presumptuous to write it in the first place. But I will not be one of them. Stockett’s story about “Skeeter,” a young white Mississippi woman in the 60s who decides to secretly interview the household help of her junior league friends so she can write their stories is brave and remarkable. The book provides a glimpse of Stockett’s own effort to understand what it was like for “colored women” to work for white families like her own. It is brave because she recognizes her own family’s lack of understanding and appreciation for the painfully unappreciated lives of swallowed pride these women led. And Stockett also sees and understands the irony in the inexplicable love that sometimes developed anyway between “the help” and their white employers.

At the same time, while Stockett does not give her white characters a pass for their prejudices, she also does not turn them all into one-dimensional villains. She reveals their foibles, pride, misguided thinking, and fears, and in the process she reminds us that they, too, are simply human—sometimes grand and sometimes pathetic. Stockett’s story is about so many white Southerners who grew up with prejudices that a new generation would take a lifetime to unlearn. Those who cherish those prejudices are hateful. Those who learn to discard them—well, it turns out they were just prejudiced, not hateful. There’s a difference.

I, too, grew up in the South, in Tennessee. While we never had hired help, my mother has often talked of the maid she had back in Alabama. Ruby was her name, and Mama, like Stockett, thought Ruby was family. No doubt Ruby had her own thoughts about that, but I am certain that my mother and grandmother loved Ruby the best they knew how, which, like all human love, very likely fell short of perfect.

My parents grew up and lived in Birmingham through the worst parts of the civil rights struggles, and they determined that their children would not grow up hating people because of the color of their skin. For all their efforts, I’m sure they unwittingly passed on prejudices they didn’t even know they had, but I love them for trying. Like the time they invited a black man to stay in our home. There was no talk, or even thought, of separate bathrooms and eating utensils. He was a bona fide guest and was served as such. I’m sure it was a big step for my parents—maybe for our guest too—but I look back and love the fact that I don’t remember that much about it. I guess I just thought it was okay, and I suppose that was the point. I have no idea what their friends, or my grandparents, thought about it. They never told me.

Stockett does a painfully beautiful job of portraying the reality of what it might cost to reach across racial barriers to extend a hand of friendship. It might mean you lose friends. It might mean you’re at odds with people you love—and you do love them, even when they are wrong. It means that too many times you aren’t sure if you are reaching across racial lines because you really do love color, or you just feel guilty for being white. Probably both. But the alternative is to live in a one-color world—and that just isn’t an attractive option.

The point of Skeeter’s book, and Stockett’s, is that we have more in common than not, so with this book she issues a gracious invitation to both sides to come to the table to find that common ground and, hopefully, find new friends. I applaud Stockett for making the effort. I hope she finds a lot of people willing to join her at her table.

Note: I listened to this book on my iPod, and I have to say this is a book worth listening to. The readers, Jenna Lamia, Bahni Turpin, Octavia Spencer, and Cassandra Campbell, bring Stockett’s story to life with such compelling voices, you feel as though you are sitting at the kitchen table with them, and you don’t ever want to leave. I highly recommend it.

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© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

What Difference Do It Make?

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What difference do it make? - Stories of Hope and Healing What difference do it make? – Stories of Hope and Healing by Ron Hall

If you have not read Same Kind of Different as Me, the predecessor to this book, you can still enjoy this follow-up that continues the story of the unlikely friendship between millionaire art dealer Ron Hall and sharecropper-turned-homeless man, Denver Moore. This book details how their continuing journey and friendship have taken them to some very surprising places indeed–including a luncheon with at the White House! While that vignette itself leaves the reader feeling as stunned as they must have been, even more remarkable is the impact that Denver and Ron’s story has made on readers across the nation.

This book is as much about the readers as the writers. It seems there was a similar reaction among those, nationwide, who read of Ron and his wife, Deborah, and their journey to “the other side of the tracks,” where they volunteered to work with a homeless ministry in Houston. Ron and Deborah thought they were coming to help others, but they learned, as so many of us do, that the grace and presence of God is found in the strangest and most unlikely places, and that there are lessons to be learned from the most unlikely teachers.

Clearly, Denver Moore has been a teacher to Ron Hall. At the same time, Hall becomes our teacher through his willingness to expose his initial disgust, disdain, and pre-judgments for those he came to “assist.” His honesty provides just enough of a nudge to make the reader question,”Would I be any different?” For most of us, the answer is–probably not.

Hall goes further, though, to reveal how much more work he had to do, even once he had dropped his prejudices and learned to love the homeless without condition. Over time he realized that he freely offered them something that he had withheld from his own father for many, many years. In a surprising twist, Ron learns that loving homeless strangers can sometimes be easier than loving members of our own family, but his continued lessons in love are poignant, sometimes hilarious, and unforgettable.

Hall’s startling honesty and Moore’s simple humility and wisdom permeate the pages of this book. Along the way, we hear the stories of other readers whose lives were changed and moved to action after reading the first book: a young girl who opens a lemonade stand to raise money for the homeless; a marriage restored; an entire church challenged to “go out,” and much more.

Books are a dime a dozen these days, but the wisdom in this book and its predecessor make these two worth their weight in gold. There are lessons for a lifetime here; perhaps the most important from Denver, who reminds us, “You never know whose eyes God is watching you through.”

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© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.

My First White Friend

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Patricia Raybon

Patricia Raybon

Friendships that transcend color and culture barriers have always fascinated me, so when I first heard of Patricia Raybon’s book, My First White Friend, I knew it was a reading list priority. Normally, I would go into the book itself here, but my personal interest in the book will explain much of my reaction to it.

My parents, Alabama born and bred, were careful to raise my sister and me with the belief that we were no better and no worse than anyone else. They taught us to respect people of all colors and to appreciate differences, but as I was growing up, the South was still fairly segregated—not so much by law anymore as by choice.

When I was 18, though, I moved to Amsterdam where I worked with an international mission organization. I was smitten with cross-cultural life. I thrived on the discovery of living and eating like the locals, enjoying their traditions, customs, and quirky sayings. In turn, I learned to appreciate the quirks and eccentricities of my own culture and language in the process.

The fun of cross-cultural and interracial friendships is in the exchange. Once you get past all the little nuances, though, you realize that we’re all just people. The rest is secondary. Fun. Intriguing, Fascinating. Sometimes frustrating. But always secondary.

But when it comes to African American culture, I learned over the years just how hard it is to reach across the fence and find someone willing to reach back. I learned, in fact, that this fence isn’t so much about language or culture. Rather, this is a well-fortified wall of mistrust, hurt, and anger over any number of insults that African Americans have suffered. I also sense that there is, within the African American community, some sort of mantra that goes something like this: “Be polite. Be kind. But don’t trust.”

Eddie Huff

Eddie Huff

My black friends (those brave enough to reach back across the fence and such gold to me) taught me, through their stories, what racism looks like on a very personal level, and that’s what Raybon’s book does as well. I have heard stories like hers before from friends, colleagues and even students. It always shocks me. I know racist behavior happens every day, but because I am eager to transcend barriers, I’m still surprised when I hear about those who are not. It’s a shame. They miss so much.

Eddie Huff, now a talk show host, was the first black friend who reached across that fence to me. Actually, he jokes that I was his first teenage daughter.  I lived with Eddie and his wife Vickie while serving with the mission I mentioned earlier. Vickie, who is white, was a little nervous when I first moved in. Here I was, this young white girl from Tennessee that the mission had placed in their home. (Ironically, my roommate, yet to arrive, was a white woman from South Africa!) Eddie wasn’t home when I arrived, suitcases in hand. Vickie, a lovely, gracious woman, helped me move in and made me welcome. While we were lugging suitcases up the stairs, she suddenly stopped, turned around and looked at me, and said, “There’s something I need to tell you about my husband.” All kinds of scenarios raced through my head.  He’s a paraplegic. He’s deaf. He’s a paranoid schizophrenic!

I waited. After a beat or two, Vickie smiled sweetly and said, “He’s black.”

I laughed outloud. “Is that all? Geez, you scared me to death.” I was thrilled! Growing up in the South in the 70s was a long, long way from Bull Conner’s Alabama, but there still wasn’t a whole lot of interracial friendships in my schools. So this was my first chance to have a real black friend. Even better, I was part of their family. They had two small children—Talitha, who was 4 and Eli, who was about 3. I became the big sister, and I listened and learned.

I learned that though Eddie’s mother was a white German, the hardships he had faced in life had nothing to do with his white mother and everything to do with his black skin. He experienced the same snubs and insults that so many others have known before him. Yet, maybe because he had lived part of his life in Germany, maybe because his mother was white, maybe because he actually spoke another language for the first few years of his life—maybe all of that together made him a little more willing and able to reach across that fence to befriend anyone willing to reach back. I’m grateful for that.

Racial relationships have come a long way, but each time an African American is ill treated, it reinforces that mantra: Be polite. Be kind. Don’t trust. And sometiMy First White Friend Book Covermes the walls go higher. Raybon’s book provides deeper insight into what it feels like to be judged by your color. A dear Guatemalan friend once told me that she had experienced racist behavior from some of my colleagues.

“Really? I don’t see it,” I was genuinely surprised.

“Why would you?” she reminded me, “You’re white.”

Indeed. I had missed that very obvious fact. My corner of the world looked and responded to me differently simply because I am white. Oh sure, I’ve had my own share of insults for other reasons, but Raybon’s book provides just a taste of what it means to be targeted for no other reason than skin color, and this is a valuable perspective for white readers who have never experienced a similar prejudice.

But Raybon’s book is ultimately about forgiveness–which transcends all colors. Someone once said that unforgiveness is the poison we drink, hoping our enemy will die. Despite the ways she was treated, Raybon realized that if she did not forgive, she could never be whole herself. She began to see that her life was false and reactionary. A life all about proving herself to be worthy—no, even better—than those on the other side of the fence. After all, hadn’t her anger produced “good” things like career success, achievement, and recognition?

Remarkably, she finally named her behavior for what it was: bitter spite. And she courageously concluded that it provided a poor platform for an identity. She challenges us all with her willingness to do the hard work of rebuilding her identity on something far more profound—the grace of God. As a Christian, Raybon realized that the “love thy neighbor” bit included white people. Still, the reader feels the struggle and weight of the truth that Raybon slowly discovered: The journey of forgiveness is costly and lasts a lifetime.

OnBook Jackete sadness to me in this book was that the “white friend” in the title is barely a blip on the radar. I thought I would be reading a story about a wonderful journey of discovery and love between this writer and her white friend. Instead, the book is about Raybon’s growing awareness of her need to forgive and let go so that such a friendship would even be possible. I admit it: I was disappointed, but in fairness to Raybon’s very personal journey, I left the book knowing that as she embraced mercy, God would give her new friends of all shapes, colors and backgrounds. (Her latest book, I Told the Mountain to Move, does indeed reveal beautiful and moving glimpses of just how colorful her world has become.)

I’m not sure who Raybon had in mind for her reading audience: People of color? White people? I’m not sure it even matters. There are nuggets of wisdom here for anyone, and her considerable writing skills—powerful, rhythmic, lyrical, filled with a rich voice—make the reading a pleasure. We all have our biases, whether against another race, or another culture, or even another socio-economic group. The lessons of forgiveness cannot be taught enough, and Raybon’s willingness to reveal her honest struggles to forgive provide encouragement to us all that we can do the same.

 

© 2010 L. Kay Johnson, L is for LaNita. All rights reserved.