Uncommon Mercy

Uncommon Mercy
FacebookTwitterPinterestLinkedInEmailShare

 

I looked up from my hymnal to see bright, brown, innocent eyes peering back at me from two pews up. Fresh-faced and beaming, most likely of Chinese heritage, she looked about fourteen. My heart stopped, and I gasped out-loud.

I didn’t recall ever seeing her at St Augustine’s and have not seen her since. Looking back at the day, I am not sure I physically saw her.

The night before I watched a movie called “The Flowers of War.” I was drawn to it because my favorite actor, Christian Bale, was in it. I got a great deal more than I bargained for; the story had a profound effect on me. Six months later I feel compelled to tell the story.

Nanjing City

The movie was about the Chinese city of Nanking, the setting of one of the most horrific war crimes in history. I had never heard this story, and I needed to be very clear of it’s lesson, and for it to settle in my heart..

Now known now as Nanjing, (It has had many names during China’s long history.) it is the second largest city in the Eastern side of China. It has been a prominent city of the Yangtze River Delta area for more than one-thousand years; a city of culture, education, and prosperity. It boasts a population of eight million.

nanjingoverlook

In 1937 the Empire of Japan invaded China, which began the Second Sino-Japanese War. Peking and Shanghai were taken, and the Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek ordered Chinese Nationalist troops to defend Nanking. When the battle went very badly, he ordered all troops except for a small force to leave Nanking, in fear they would all be killed.

The Imperial Japanese Army tore through Nanking. With little military presence, the citizens were left to defend themselves. All who were able fled the city in any way possible, including a sizeable number of Western expatriates and clergy.

Over a six week period, the Japanese army massacred more than 300,000 people, soldiers, civilians, men, women, children, infants, priests, nuns, and the elderly in what is now called “The Rape of Nanking.” (History.com)

China Map (2)

The novella, “Flowers of War”, Geling Yan, tells the story of an American missionary (Christian Bale’s character) who takes refuge in his church with a group of Chinese schoolgirls, a handful of wounded Chinese soldiers, and a group of young prostitutes. The novel was based upon historical accounts, and the diaries of Minnie Vautrin, an American missionary who ran Ginling Girls College in Nanjing. Ms. Vautrin is said to have saved more than ten-thousand lives by sheltering them in the college and refusing to back down, despite threats to her own life. (“Terror in Minnie Vautrin’s Nanking, Diaries and Correspondence 1937-1938”, Minnie Vautrin)

Girls

The movie is a fictionalized account of the novel, portraying the missionary as an American mortician posing as a Priest. The students were virgins coming of age in the midst of this horrific scene. The story unfolds through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old-girl, not unlike the young face I saw in church that day. The movie depicts the school girls perfectly, sharing secrets, and shocked but giggling, at the behavior of the prostitutes. The prostitutes were played as flamboyant, vulgar, crude and egocentric. The American was not much better, drunk and opportunistic.

Japanese soldiers are said to have raped more than twenty-thousand women and girls during the siege as they burned, looted, clubbed, drowned, and decapitated their way through the city. Although the movie depicts some of the actual brutality, thousands of crimes took place too grotesque to portray.

War is horrific at any time in history, and in any country. We can all recount stories of brutality. And yes, even by Americans. What causes men to lose their humanity and carry out unthinkable savagery? At what point do sons, fathers, and uncles decide the life of a fifteen-year-old girl has no worth? That an entire race or nationality has no worth? Are the urges to control others and inflict pain during war somehow linked to the behavior we see lately around the world? The dehumanization of those different from us did not die in the 1940’s; it is still taking place.

Victims

During the time the American took shelter with the students and the prostitutes, they all softened toward each other, remembered their humanity, and worked together to get through. The mortician was instrumental in getting the group rations and began to repair a truck on the church compound with an idea to save as many school girls as he could.

One day a Japanese Colonel promised to post guards outside the church compound for protection if the schoolgirls sang for him. He was pleased with their performance, but days later came back with an official document announcing a command performance for the girls, to sing at the Japanese victory celebration.

The American mortician knew this was not only a death sentence for the innocent girls but that they would suffer rape and myriad atrocities at the hands of the soldiers before they died. Before the Japanese Colonel leaves, he counts the girls to make sure he gets them all the next day when he comes to pick them up.

Nanjing Shoes

In a profound act of self-sacrifice, the prostitutes ask the mortician to cut their hair and apply makeup to make them look like the young girls so they can be taken in place of the girls. They all know it will be their last act of kindness.

The next day the Japanese soldiers pick up the 13 Flowers of Nanking posing as schoolgirls and drive them to their destiny. The final scene shows the mortician hiding the girls in the truck and driving out of Nanking.

Although the movie is a fictionalized account, the events did take place just as the novelist wrote it, and the true diaries of Minnie Vautrin reveal hundreds of accounts of heroism and sacrifice.

There may come a day when our lives require unthinkable decisions.  Who are we? Who would we become? Let us remember, there is a cruelty in the best of us, and mercy in the worst of us.

 

 

 

 

 

Are You Ms. Letters?

Are You Ms. Letters?

“At Midnight, even bad days come to an end.” —MsMoem.com

 

Ninety-nine percent of the time I am not naked when I write my blogs. I guess that begs an explanation.

With meticulous detail, I dressed this morning, a new blouse, my cutest crème colored jacket with the cool belt that ties in the front, and my best Antonio Melani slacks. I took extra time with my eye makeup, careful to enhance my blue eyes. I even wore my best bra, not that anyone ever sees one of my bras, but I just wanted that extra confidence boost you have when you know the girls are up in the general vicinity where they belong.

When I arrived at the restaurant where I was meeting my manager for lunch, I jumped out of the car eager to be on time. The only parking place was on Sheridan Avenue, after all, it was Bricktown, Oklahoma City; there is never any parking. A man in a big truck squeezed into the last shaded spot; I inched into the last sunny spot.

West 50

Read the rest of this entry

Searching for Our Better Selves

Searching for Our Better Selves

For those who lost their lives,

those who suffered unspeakable loss,

and those who were forever changed.

 

In this sacred garden, I walk among the pines, saplings not long ago. I look toward the Journal Record building and realize it was long ago, twenty-one years ago. For residents of central Oklahoma however, the memory is still fresh. Those who stood exactly where I am standing on April 19th at 9:01 that morning back in 1995 cannot walk among the pines.

Pool

I had been on vacation and was on my way back home to Oklahoma City. It was a romantic getaway to Key West Florida at a picturesque bed and breakfast, with peaceful beaches, fresh seafood, fancy concoctions of dark rum, pineapple, and coconut, and badly needed relaxation. Read the rest of this entry

Suppertime, and the Livin is Easy

Suppertime, and the Livin is Easy

Food, glorious food!
Hot sausage and mustard!
While we’re in the mood —
Cold jelly and custard!
Peas pudding and saveloys
What next is the question?
Rich gentlemen have it boys, in-di-gestion!

Food, glorious food!
Eat right through the menu.
Just loosen your belt
Two inches and then you
Work up a new appetite.
In this interlude —
The food,
Once again, food
Fabulous food,
Glorious food.

Oliver! -Lionel Bart

I love to eat. Constantly. If I am not eating I am thinking of food. You too? I figured. Eating makes us happy in a way nothing else can. Dining not only fuels our bodies and senses but is a superglue binding our memories and emotions. Those endorphins are furrowed right into our little taste buds.

When that combination of hot peach cobbler and sweet ice cream hits my tongue I am right back in 1966, huddled around Grandma Sander’s kitchen table with my sister Jan and Roger and Howard Sanders. We are playing a game; I don’t remember it, just the flavor of her cobbler and ice cream, like I have a bowl of it right here. I can feel the affection of those old friends and hear the music we sang. “Make the world go away, get it off my shoulder.” Cochran, Hank 1960

Unknown Coffee

Read the rest of this entry

A Valentine to My Younger Self

A Valentine to My Younger Self

“God asks us to jump from our secure perches, to stop calculating the risks. Jesus bids us, “Take up your cross, follow me. . . . Don’t insist on knowing exactly what comes next but trust that you are in the hand of God, who will guide your life.”  Henri Nouwen —Turn My Mourning into Dancing

 My niece Jessica turned thirty recently; seems like she should still be my little four year old shadow. Her birthday takes me back to the thirty-year-old I was. Sometimes I think about that naive girl and wish I could tell her what only time and maturity can.

I found a worn photo from my thirtieth birthday; I worked for KATT radio in Oklahoma City then. I was holding my birthday cake with a sleepy KATT mascot iced onto it. The clock above her head read 8:15; I was supposed to be at work by 8:00. Still don’t like that morning thing.

30 B-Day Cake (3)

My expression in this photo clearly says “bite me”. I was newly divorced, on my own for the first time, and had just begun a new commission based sales job. I was poor, persnickety, and pale. Also a smidge insecure and overwhelmed.

Read the rest of this entry

Have You Seen a Snow Goddess?

Have You Seen a Snow Goddess?

Wakonda high school, hats off to thee.

And our colors, true to thee we’ll ever be.

Firm and strong united are we!

Hoorah rah rah, Hoorah for Wakonda high school!

 

When I was a kid we lived in the Tundra for eight years. The incessant cold all but atrophied my grey matter; the above is what is left in the memory bank of our school song, a cloudy memory from the second grade. This Christmas season brings back memories of that time, and my parents, whom I miss more than I can say. This was a divine time in our lives, a time of innocence and possibility.

Our first years as a family were fairly idyllic in small town South Dakota, Wakonda, population 405. Wakonda is an Osage Indian word meaning “Great Creator”, an abstract, omnipresent spirit. Curious that my awareness and seeking of God began when we lived in Wakonda.

SD House Sized (2)

My folk’s first home was actually their dream home; they paid less for it than you would a used car now.  It was on a corner two acre lot with cherry trees, apple trees and crab-apple trees. This place was an absolute marvel for a kid!

Read the rest of this entry

Mary and the Teeth Gnashers

Mary and the Teeth Gnashers

 

It seems to me that if there is a bad taste in your mouth, you should spit it out. You don’t constantly swallow it back.”  Amazing Grace, Michael Apted, 2006

 

Hours on end we sat on those hard pews looking up at the minister.  We listened, my girlfriends and I.  Week after week we learned and prayed and wondered why.  And, why not?

The Good Book was read to us and by us, stories that left us out. We felt less than. God was male, disciples were men, preachers were all men, deacons were men, and choir directors were all men. We felt less than.

So few examples to look to, to emulate. Women were revered because they were obedient and docile. From the bible, it seems the only way for a woman to redeem herself as worthy was to give birth multiple times and preferably to male children.

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERA

I am grateful for the bible stories that do tell other stories of women.  We see the perseverance and divine insight of Anna, the faith of Mary Magdalene which lead to healing of her chronic illness, Pilot’s wife warning her husband of her powerful dream about Jesus, “this innocent man”(which he ignored).  The story of Priscilla was encouraging, as she was chosen by Paul to shepherd a church he left behind, and Miriam who questioned authority and helped Moses lead the Hebrew people to the Promised Land.

There were too few of these stories and unless you excavated them, you never even heard them.

It’s sad when you remember where value was placed when many of us were girls. It was accepted as just the way things were. Girls grew up understanding their worth, and later as adults hid the hurt because mentioning it brought on not just opposition, but wrath. Not only from men, but sadly from other women.

Read the rest of this entry

Where We Came From

Where We Came From

“The rain to the wind said,
You push and I’ll pelt.’
They so smote the garden bed
That the flowers actually knelt,
And lay lodged–though not dead.
I know how the flowers felt.”
― Robert Frost

 

In the late afternoon I walk out in the garden and step under the Weeping Balsam trees; feathery very low hanging branches brush my skin and I marvel the trees do not fall forward. True to form, the Morning Glories have shriveled back into themselves and the Hydrangeas look like they could use a long drink.

Yellow Daffodil Tiny15

Feather Tree-tiny

The little red, citrine, melon, and blue, glass garden lights are glowing.  They bring a smile to my face, primarily because they are so pretty they make me feel like I have entered Fantasia, but also because I have failed twice at setting the timer for them to come on at night as they should.

I was well into my thirties before I ever planted a single plant. I used to kvetch to my Mom that she always wanted me to “grub in the dirt” with her. Gardening was just not my thing back then.  I was my thing back then.

Read the rest of this entry

Love You Tender Memphis

Love You Tender Memphis

Now, they’ve got catfish on the table

They’ve got gospel in the air

And Reverend Green, be glad to see you

  When you haven’t’ got a prayer

But boy you got a prayer in Memphis

   “Walking in Memphis”, Mark Cohn

 

We turned up the radio to be certain we heard the news correctly. It was 1977 and we were driving back from a beach vacation passing through Memphis. Elvis had died. It was so fitting that we were in Memphis when we got the news; I had just moved to Oklahoma from Memphis and had great affection for the city.Memphis

Only Memphis could have produced Elvis with that combination of southern charm, overt but easy sexuality, down home familiarity, polite respect and deep generosity. You have to have lived there to know it.

This former small town girl loved her four years in Memphis. I remember my first week there, making my brand new husband drive me around in the rain so I could see the blurry flicker of the city lights through the window of the Maverick. My first steeped exposure to a city of any size; I was entranced.

God does place us where we need to be. What a gift, Memphis in the 70’s!

We lived in Midtown right in the heart of the city, not far from downtown where I worked. Our apartment was on the third floor right over a city bus stop and two streets over was Methodist hospital. At first I woke so many nights to the sound of the bus stopping or the ambulances arriving at the emergency room. After a few weeks I never noticed it again. Each unit was huge and included a study; we paid $80.00 per month back then.  The Dunlap Apartments were built in 1923; there was actually still a little door with a latch in the kitchen where the ice man delivered a huge block of ice for the “Ice Box” back in the day.

Dunlap II

I was attending Memphis State University (now called University of Memphis) and he was at Southern College of Optometry, which was right across the street from our apartment. I worked at Goldsmiths department store, the main store downtown. What a wonder it was.

The store was on main street and occupied the space where the Gayoso, one of the old grand renowned hotels built in 1842 once stood. Goldsmith’s was enormous, with five floors and a full time elevator operator. The downtown store  included two restaurants, an employee’s cafeteria, a bakery, drug store, hat shop, appliances, furniture and art, clothing, salon, book store, houseware, furs, candy shop, drapery, luggage, personnel department, training department and administrative offices.  There was also a discount store in the basement, a fully operational display department and the “Enchanted Forrest”. Kids got out of school during the holidays to ride the bus downtown to see the Enchanted Forrest.

Each winter a section of the basement was transformed into a winter wonderland for kids. The white, snowy, magical décor with soft blue lights  transported kids to Santa’s world of wonder. Animatronic-like skaters and animals would spin delightfully, Santa’s elves would greet you and if you were good Santa would listen to your wishes. You could even make reservations for your child to attend “Breakfast with Santa”, an annual event held in the better of the two restaurants. Goldsmith’s was the standard department stores are still measured by today.

The things I loved then about Memphis I still do. I was there two weeks ago and felt the same quickening of my spirit I did when I lived there. It’s the city, the authentic southern values, the music, the food, the Mississippi river, the old, established neighborhoods with craftsman style homes, and that unique Memphis drawl. Memphis is an old city, founded in 1819 by John Overton, James Winchester and Andrew Jackson. Almost two centuries of both change and reverence for history have grown Memphis into a very unique city.

I stayed with my dear friend Deb while I was there, the woman who kept me sane in those early years of cultivating a career and new marriage. Just one of the things that makes Memphis stand out is that within walking distance from Deb’s home you can shop for antiques in cool old artsy shops, hear very good original music, and dine in any number and type of restaurant. You do see the bland cookie cutter chain business around town, but not as many as the unique independents. And, Deb’s neighborhood is only one of many like this.

Memories of my years in Memphis include the streakers, Overton Square and nights out on the town, the Peabody Hotel and the daily duck walk, Beale Street and timeless blues, Rick Dees on the radio, the unmatched Rendezvous barbeque experience, Overton Park with its enormous old oak trees and free concerts, and Elvis at Graceland.

A walk down a grubby alley downtown still lands you in a huge basement haven for barbeque lovers, called the Rendezvous, with its open kitchen drawing you into the experience. The staff, many of whom have worked there their entire lives, greet you donning white shirts and black bow ties with white linen towels draped over their arms. There is truly nothing that matches the flavors, the ambiance, or the unique experience.

Small Sign

The first place we lived was just around the corner from Sun Recording Studio on Union avenue where the greats including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Charlie Feathers, Bonnie Raitt, Charlie Rich, and Jerry Lee Lewis, recorded their iconic hits.

I never met Elvis but do have memories of him. Rumors flew one day about the Cadillac dealership one block up. Elvis had been in shopping, bought himself a new Cadillac and also bought one for a lady who was shopping.

He called our Goldsmith’s Southland store one night before Christmas and told them not to close at 9 p.m. that he was coming to shop. Goldsmith’s accommodated him. He and his entourage spent upwards of $10,000 that night back in 1976.  I know I was young and everything seemed larger than life to me at the time. But there is still something incredibly provocative about Memphis and its rhythms.

If you are old enough, think back on that time. These were the days of Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell, John Denver, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Glen Campbell, and Minnie Riperton. They were days of protests, hippies, MASH, Watergate, returning Vietnam vets, Patty Hearst, pot, sit-ins, love-ins, emerging women’s lib and Peter Max.

Peace and Love

And the threads back then, nowhere in the country did you see peacocks struttin their stuff like in Memphis. Men sported stacked heels, hip-hugging, plaid bell bottoms and flare sleeve shirts. Women wore headbands and miniskirts. I still have a pair of very wide bell bottom jeans that Mom embroidered all the way up both legs for me. Can’t get my derriere in them, but still have them. Curly perms, sideburns and ‘fros were the rage, and sedans in Memphis were pimped out like crazy, driving up and down Main Street.

Memphis was about as much fun as a part cowgirl, part hippie, part serious college student, part closet writer could have. It also helped me say yes to independence, confidence, tolerance, and love for people who looked and spoke differently than I did. It was a time of discovery, creativity, questioning and revelation. It was-far out man!

Clouds, Go Figure

Clouds, Go Figure

“The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ― Rumi

 

The first hours of daybreak are not my finest. On the very rare occasion I am forced into wakefulness as the big shining orb begins to rise, my surly attitude can be transmuted by a spectacular sunrise.

Do you know what it takes to see a beautiful sunrise? Clouds. It takes more than just a couple higher clouds. Fall and winter months produce the best sunrises because the angle of the sun is lower. More violet and blue light scatters, causing the sky to be very blue. The sun’s rays pass through the cloud layers for a longer time and this enables us to see those glorious melons, blues, reds and yellows.

Clouds, go figure. Without clouds, there is nothing for the sun’s rays to reflect off of, to show us the beauty in our world. Struggling and suffering are clouds in our lives that can propel us toward strength and growth.

If we spend our entire lives doing everything in our power to avoid suffering we miss completely the power we e-a-r-n from the process. People go to such great lengths to avoid pain and suffering that they end up with lives lived on the surface. You know them, people who avoid having difficult conversations and allow their relationships to remain superficial, are so afraid of a job interview that they stay in the same job their entire career, never learn to swim or ride a bike, or never speak up for themselves at work. You never get what you really want out of life like this do you?

Balloon SunriseI When I was a kid in South Dakota I was scared silly to graduate from the “Tadpole” swimming class to the “Minnow” class. When it came time for the next class I spent a second term in “Tadpoles” because I was so afraid of what might be expected of me as a “Minnow”. Finally I put my big girl panties on, tried the next class and turned into a Mermaid, jumping off the diving board, turning flips off the side of the pool, diving into the water, and swimming laps with confidence.

Had I not moved through the suffering I would have missed the joy of the process, not to mention the mermaid stage of my life and that little green swimsuit that earned me the moniker of “pear butt”! The only way to get to the other side was to suffer.

Look around you. Those who do the work, earn the gifts. They have learned the dire truth of letting go of the safety net or moving outside their comfort zone to gain something much better.

Cheryl is no morning lark either. In spite of this, for as long as I can remember, the first thing she does in the morning is stretch and do some light weight bearing exercise. She makes no big production of it and few know she does this. (Well, up to now, sorry Churl.) Her reward for this dreadful morning sacrifice is some fairly chiseled arms, and more upper body strength than most women her age and size.

Lorna forgoes spending on unnecessary household items. Her gift is enough discretionary money to travel all over the world, and wonderful memories to take with her. She just chooses memories instead of things.

There is pain involved in good decisions more often than not. These decisions make our lives better, markedly better.

The safe way we have always done things is not always best. I might have remained in just one career and perhaps been closer to retirement than I am now. In no way do I regret the changes I have made. The gifts from my tenure at ten or so post college jobs over forty years are tremendous resilience, courage, friendships, communication skill, travel, an expanded world view, expertise in various fields, and the confidence that I can do most anything I intend to do.

Fear generally is the thing that halts the growth process, fear of suffering. We fear failure, rejection, embarrassment, financial trouble, loss, physical pain and the unknown. And yes, we have all experienced these. They are the real deal. Being rejected is humiliating, failing is frustrating, having your heart broken is devastating, changing jobs can scare the blonde off your hair, but suffering is the place we begin to earn the gifts.

Not particularly to my liking, suffering is also one of the ways we gain self-knowledge. We all know folks who have allowed themselves be taught by suffering, instead of immobilized by it. In her memoir “The Hiding Place”, Corrie Ten Boom recounts being held in Ravensbruck, a notorious Nazi women’s concentration camp as a Dutch Jew who aided other Jews during World War II. That desperate time taught Corrie who she was and who she was not. Most of all, it taught her gratefulness. What she had suffered during the war gave her the knowledge and empathy to run a rehabilitation center for concentration camp survivors after the war.  Like Corrie, we also learn reliance on God from suffering. Corrie was able to share with thousands how God’s love brought her through the ordeal.

A different type of suffering is that which we must allow. When we do not allow these sacrifices, not much life happens either. Want energy? Exercise. Want financial stability? Do your homework, seek the advice of a financial advisor, and follow it. Want to meet someone wonderful? Do the interior work to become someone wonderful. Want to love your work? Quit that job that sucks you dry of creativity and do something you have passion for!

Sunrise SmallOur spiritual lives are no different.

We want to feel close to God, to have discernment in our choices. But will we do the spiritual work to know God? I love my church, but just going to church on Sunday morning and expecting to grow in spiritual wisdom is like standing in the kitchen each day and expecting to become a great cook. We all know how that turns out. . .

You have heard the phrase “fruits of the spirit”. I believe those fruits of the spirit are earned gifts developed over time with consistent effort.

When I was a kid I turned to absolute stone when my Dad used the word “discipline”, the dreaded “D” word. Oh, he wore that tired word out! Talk about suffering, I wanted to just lob off my ears as he yammered on. As I have matured however, I have come to understand that applied discipline yields growth. This is also true in our spiritual lives.

Spiritual practice takes so many forms, prayer, meditation, reading and studying spiritual material, writing, sharing our faith lives with others, attending church or spiritual groups, going on retreats or quiet time in nature listening to God.  We utter a litany of prayers but we do little listening. Whatever path we choose, growth takes place when it is done with intention, consistency and discipline.

Here is the dismal truth folks; we must suffer to get to the really good stuff in life. Yes it is generally uncomfortable, painful, and sometimes downright frightening but the sweetness on the other side is like no other. Pain and sacrifice can mean a step closer to our dreams. People who do not make the leap suffer too because of their indecision; they just never reap the reward.

 

“Thirty-nine years of my life had passed before I understood that clouds were not my enemy; that they were beautiful, and that I needed them. I suppose this, for me, marked the beginning of of wisdom. Life is short.” ― Iimani David

 

 

).