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Disheveled Theologian: I am what I am

I grew up in a quiet neighborhood, on a pot-holed dirt road, with retired people and sea creatures as my only neighbors. Well, other than my coincidentally-named friend Gretchen, who lived right across the street. Gretchen and I played together a lot, but there were times, of course, when I was left to my own devices. In those times, if I didn’t feel like playing alone, I often hung out with my elderly neighbors.

Our immediate neighbor to the right was an empty lot. He never threw loud parties or complained about Mom and Dad’s loud classical music. Abutting the lot on the far side was a retired science teacher from Seattle. She never married, had two exuberant and slightly scary dogs, and seemed to have endless supplies of cash to pour into her beautiful garden.

On the left side of our house was another single lady, a widow, who had lost her husband decades before in the Bataan Death March. I still dream about her house sometimes. She had this winding staircase up to a tiny loft that I adored.

Both of these neighbors were more than kind to me. They didn’t mind me playing in their yards, they never fussed when I knocked on their doors and they had endless supplies of candy.

The neighbor with the dogs, however, had a special deal with me. She would read out loud to me, do science experiments with me and spend time with me as long as I continued to come. “But,” she told me one day, “if you don’t want to keep on coming over, just tell me. Don’t just quit coming. Tell me you’re too old for this. Tell me you want to do other things. Don’t just stop. Keep me informed. Don’t just ditch me.”

I didn’t understand the intensity of her plea.

I remember thinking at the time, “Why would I not want to come over here? Why would I not want to visit your National Geographic room where every single issue of the magazine lines the walls like yellow wallpaper? Why would I not want to lie on your fainting couch and gaze out your circular window at the ocean while you read Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories” to me and I learn how, exactly, the camel got his hump? Why would I not want to walk along your pebble-lined garden paths and admire your gorgeous roses? Why would I not want to measure your amaryllis day to day and see how quickly it grows? Why would I not want to learn how to use a slide-rule? Why?

I am ashamed to say that I stopped wanting to do those things all too quickly. But I didn’t have the heart to tell her so.

She had asked me to warn her. She had told me about other children who had ditched her, ignored her, just quit coming. I became one of those kids because I didn’t know how to tell her I didn’t want to visit her any more. I didn’t know how to tell her that I wanted to ride my bike, go shopping, fix my hair.

So I just stopped showing up. I stopped opening the gate and crossing that empty lot. I just stopped.

Miss Berdan died a couple of years ago. When my sister informed me of her death, the first emotion I felt was guilt. All these years later, I still feel badly that I stopped visiting. But then, a moment later, I was overwhelmed with thanks. After all, she is the reason, in part, that I am who I am.

She is the reason my daughter and I measure our amaryllis every year. She is the reason I like shrimp cocktail and round windows. She is the reason I love winding garden paths and hidden pockets of flowers.

How thankful I am that I have had dear teachers and mentors and the Miss Berdans of the world in my life. People who did not send me away when I was a nuisance. People who loved me even when I stopped coming over to visit.

I am everything I have ever done. The good and the bad. What makes me who I am today is a combination of all of the things I have ever been, done, seen, heard, felt, experienced, tasted, smelled, accepted, rejected, believed, enjoyed, loathed, loved.

 “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” 1Corinthians 15:10a NIV

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