True Strength

A strength taken to an extreme becomes a weakness.

This adage isn’t new to me but I experienced it in a different way on my latest pilgrimage to the Middle East. For the first time, Jordan was included in my itinerary. I’d wanted to visit this country for years, mainly because of Petra (a “wonder of the world” that first caught my attention back in 1989 when I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). My style, on these pilgrimages, is not only to tell the stories associated with each site, but to include at least one additional pedagogical element that ties in that particular experience with others of the day as well as those of the overall journey. It was especially important for me to establish this pattern of expectation on our first full day, which happened to be in Petra.

Not being aware of a biblical story that occurred at Petra, I chose instead to tell the story of Jesus giving Simon, one of his first disciples, the new name of Peter, or “Petra” (i.e. “rock”), because apparently Jesus intended to build his church on the firm, rock foundation of Simon Peter. When I finished telling that story, I encouraged everyone to be on the lookout while at Petra for a rock that would fit into their pocket. This would serve as a talisman or kinesthetic reminder throughout our pilgrimage that we, as spiritual descendants of Peter, are still expected to provide a firm foundation for the work of the Church in the world.

What I hadn’t planned on was how many stories I ended up telling in the next eight days that had rocks or stones in them. And each time I’d get to that point in the story, I’d reach into my pocket and pull out the rock I’d chosen for myself that first day in Petra. That frequent reminder allowed me to ponder the role that stones/rocks played in these various stories … and it wasn’t always as positive and heart-warming as “a firm foundation.” The woman caught in adultery, for example, is almost stoned to death. So the very characteristics (strength, impermeability, durability) that make rocks a good choice for a foundation are the very things that can cause damage, pain, and death. A strength taken to an extreme can become a weakness.

And then there was the story of Joshua, Rahab, and Jericho. The stone wall, which was strong enough to support a living space for Rahab and her family and to—under normal conditions—protect an entire city, was no match for Joshua’s trumpeters and the apparent God-sanctioned annihilation of its residents. This was a different kind of strength taken to an extreme that, in my mind, became a weakness, and it tapped into another epiphany I experienced on this trip.

A couple of years ago while leading my first such pilgrimage, I found that the ubiquitous Jerusalem Cross appeared to be speaking to me. I had no idea what it was telling me but it sure got my attention, jumping out at me every time I turned around, it seemed, and begging for its picture to be taken. I obliged, taking picture after picture of Jerusalem Crosses on flags, carved in stone, lit up with lights and forged in metal. I didn’t know what it all meant or what I’d do, if anything, with those pictures but I knew I had to keep snapping away so I did. I eventually made a poster collage with several of these images, which I’ve sold for a little extra spending money. That was nice but I still hadn’t really gotten a satisfactory answer to the greater question of what it was all about.

There are several traditions associated with the five crosses that make up a Jerusalem Cross: Jesus and the four Gospels; the five wounds of Christ from the crucifixion; the Gospel being spread from Jerusalem to the four corners of the earth … as a vocational and world-traveling biblical storyteller, this is the one that resonated with me the most. But it was this very interpretation that was the most potentially problematic.

The Jerusalem Cross is also known as the Crusaders’ Cross, being the primary image emblazoned on shields, flags, and military vestments when Christians literally went to war to “spread the good news to the four corners of the earth.” I’d always known this darker side of its story but was reminded of it more blatantly while in Jordan, where over 90% if the population is Muslim and whose ancestors were on the receiving end of the Crusaders’ efforts to spread this “good” news. I didn’t see any Jerusalem Crosses in Jordan, except worn around the necks of Christians. And the few times I saw the fleetingly troubled look in the eyes of our gracious Jordanian hosts when they caught sight of those necklaces and were ever so briefly reminded of what that particular cross had symbolized, I was saddened. [I’m guessing it’s perhaps a bit like how African Americans feel when they see the Confederate flag.] As a Christian, I do have a strong, beautiful message to share with the world—and I’ve devoted my life to doing just that. But any strength taken to an extreme can become a weakness, and that’s certainly been part of the Jerusalem Cross—and Christian—story, unfortunately.

I suppose one could say that this adage is really just a problem of imbalance. Strengths are good—that’s why they’re called strengths!—but only in moderation, somewhat regulated, checked and balanced. Well, this is a problem I know a little something about. I’ve said for years that if I were a Buddhist, I’m convinced that my lesson to learn this time around is balance.

I’m reminded of this on an almost daily basis but I was hit between the eyes with it a few months ago at a gig (consisting entirely of female military chaplains, interestingly enough). I happened to be wearing my Jerusalem Cross necklace and had several of my posters on hand to sell. An African American participant cornered me at one point to ask about my apparent fascination with the Jerusalem Cross. I told her about how they had jumped out at me a few years ago, begging for my attention, and so I had obliged, not really understanding why or what it was all about. I confessed to her that I still hadn’t figured it out. She paused and then offered this piece of wisdom: “Well, the thing that strikes me most about the Jerusalem Cross is its equality, its symmetry, its balance. Each of the individual crosses is not a traditional cross shape but more like a plus sign, which is even, equal, and balanced. And the whole composition is, too. Fold it along any axis and the one side perfectly mirrors the other. Could that kind of thing be why you were attracted to it?”

DUH! If that’s not why, it should have been! But I think on some level it actually was. I’ve now been to the Holy Land six times. The first three trips I don’t even remember seeing Jerusalem Crosses. The fourth trip occurred at a time when my life’s imbalance had gotten particularly out of hand and that’s when the crosses “assaulted my senses.” (I’ve also said for years that I often have to be hit between the eyes with a 2×4 to really get a BIG message.) This past trip happened immediately after I’d intentionally made some major shifts in my life and, while I’m certainly not as balanced as I’d like, I’m MUCH better than I’ve been. As a result, I barely noticed the Jerusalem Crosses. Made a lot of sense to me.

And talk about redemption! I’ll never forget or ignore the Jerusalem Cross’s ugly past—nor should I—but what a beautiful reclamation of a symbol. Would that all who wear this emblem be about perpetuating opportunities of dialogue between differing sides, the kind of sharing that mirrors back to us more about our similarities than our differences. What if the Jerusalem Cross, rather than pushing a powerful message to the point it becomes a weakness, stood for experiences of balance and equality where give and take and compromise were not seen as diluting one side’s strength but empowering the whole?

Now that’s the kind of solid foundation the Church should be built upon. And, if perpetually practiced, could be as enduring as Petra.


It’s official … I’ve outlived my mother.

On November 28, 2010, I was the exact age my mom was when the cancer finally won the war the two of them had been battling for several years. Her “denouement” occurred on Feb. 2, 1973, and I was not quite eight years old. The day it happened, I was staying with Grandma Sophie. I’d gone down to the basement to get something and on my way back up the cellar stairs the phone rang. I froze, mid-step, knowing somehow that it was “THE CALL,” the one informing us that Mom had died. The conversation was brief and Grandma’s end of it was particularly cryptic. I don’t recall any of her words, but whatever she said confirmed what I knew in my gut. I don’t know how long I stood there, numbly, on the stairs, but when I finally made my way up the remaining steps it was as if on autopilot, someone else forcing my legs to move. The stairwell opened into the kitchen, and when I emerged I immediately looked to my right where the phone hung on the wall. A clock was directly above the phone; it was 4:10 p.m.

Sadly, despite my young age, this was not the first time I’d experienced “BIG LOSS;” a year and three months earlier my dad had died in a car accident.

I’ve had people tell me that I’m an old soul. I don’t know exactly what that means. But if it implies a lifetime of experiences “before my time,” then I’d concur. I learned at a very early age that we are not promised tomorrow—and I learned it twice. It probably explains why I’ve always tried to live life to the fullest, cramming as much as possible into every year, day, and experience. Granted, all this is aided by the personality I was born with (an Enneagram 7; our vice is gluttony—I’ve always said that if a little bit of something was good, why the hell wouldn’t you want a whole BUNCH of it?!). So, in most ways, I’ve embodied carpe diem to a fault … and sometimes it really has been a fault! I’ve run myself ragged, burned the candle at both ends, insert-your-favorite-metaphor-for-overdoing-it, all in the hopes of not missing out on anything. I’m the kind of person who once spent two months in Europe and in that time visited 14 countries, averaging 4 nights per country but only 2 nights per bed. (No wonder Europeans think we Americans are crazy!)

In my 46 years, therefore, I’ve experienced a LOT. Admittedly, some of those experiences of DOING have come at the expense of fully BEING in those experiences, but that’s a topic for another time. My point here is that while I haven’t lived in dread, with the Sword of Damocles hanging over my head, I’ve also never assumed I’d live to a ripe old age. I’ve been in numerous conversations over the years with folks who have talked about their good genes, how, if they follow the family “tradition,” they’ll likely live to their late 80s, mid-90s, or even past 100. I’ve listened, sipping my drink, and then stated matter-of-factly, “Well, if I follow suit, I’ve got about 10 more years” … or 5 more years … or, as in this past year, “I’m pretty much coming up on it.” Talk about a conversation stopper!

Have I seriously thought I’d die in my mid-40s? No. But it has been a little weird to be “forced” to think these thoughts way before my time. During a recent gig, I was hosted by a lovely elderly couple. The husband was the older of the two and, through various hints in our conversations, I pieced together that he was around 80. At one point he mentioned his dad had died at 83 and I detected a “pensive knowing” in the look that flickered across his face. But that’s normal. You would expect an 80 year old to be thinking that maybe he didn’t have much time left, especially when his dad died at 83. It’s not quite as normal to be thinking these thoughts in your early 40s or late 30s … or earlier.

In addition to the obvious, the thing I especially miss—particularly as I enter middle age—is having a biological point of reference for navigating milestones. When did my mom start menopause and what were her symptoms? Did either of my parents develop arthritis, hardening of the arteries, or dementia? At what point did they have to start wearing bifocals … and then trifocals? While none of these aspects of aging is particularly pleasant, it could be argued that not even being given the option to experience them is worse. Because it also means that they weren’t around to experience weddings, births, anniversaries, holidays, delicious meals, sunrises, an intimate dance, laughter with friends and loved ones, another day.

Obviously, any of us could get hit by a bus tomorrow. So, making the most of each day isn’t such a bad way to live life. But there’s a difference between jamming each day full of “life” and pausing at the end of each day to reflect upon, and give thanks for, what those days’ experiences provided for you. I’ve said for years that I find crow’s feet, or laugh lines, attractive. Why? Because they’re an indicator that that person has been around long enough to have experienced some LIFE. And while this certainly isn’t a given, hopefully they’ve gained some wisdom in the process, and maybe even done a fair amount of laughing as a result. A sense of humor, particularly borne out of life experience, is desirable to me. So, each day I’m given to gain and cultivate those things I see as a gift.

That’s the main reason, by the way, that I don’t color my hair. My parents were barely given the chance to get gray hair; and my mom, thanks to chemotherapy, didn’t even have hair in her final months to be gray. So I view every gray hair sort of the same way I view every developing laugh line – as a mile marker of (hopeful!) life wisdom, a badge of survival, a visible gift for each day I’ve been given. At least, that’s the ideal I’m striving for. I still spend way too many of these gift days spinning my wheels, doing instead of being, and complaining about one thing or another.

Ted and Pat (Dad and Mom) toasting each other with Tom & Jerries in front of the Christmas tree.

Maybe it’s significant—and no coincidence, therefore—that my recent mile marker of Nov. 28, 2010, happened to be the first day of Advent … a day signifying, among other things, the start of a new year, a new cycle, a new beginning. L’chai-im!

Be All You Can Be

No, this isn’t a plug for the army. Nor is it a plucky DaleCarnegieAnthonyRobbinsJackCanfield-esque attempt at motivation. It’s simply a helpful reminder.

Many neighborhoods in Baltimore, like most cities, set aside a certain night each month (especially during warmer weather) for organized revelry in the form of special deals, a variety of food, and/or live music. Indeed, if one took advantage of every First Friday, Second Sunday, and Third Thursday there would be plenty to keep one busy at least once a week, if not more frequently. One of my favorites in Baltimore is First Thursday in the Mt. Vernon neighborhood because it provides not only all of the above, but particularly good, non-Top-40 music, courtesy of our thoroughly enjoyable and eclectic Towson University-based radio station WTMD.

In October, the featured group for First Thursday’s concert in the park was Hoots & Hellmouth, a GREAT juiced-up-bluegrassy-Americana-roots band from Philadelphia that includes a harmonica, mandolin, and lead singer who looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman with glasses and a LOT of hair. According to their website: Hoots & Hellmouth see every show as an opportunity to help strengthen a sense of local community among their audiences. More than just a product, this music is at once a celebration and a mourning – championing the human potential to feel deeply and come together as a unified whole, while bemoaning the fact that much in modern life seems to work against just that. It’s a catharsis for damaged 21st Century humans and their environs. It’s new music for old souls.

How did they accomplish this at their October concert in Mt. Vernon? Well, besides providing an awesome playlist that had everyone up and dancing and grinning at the stranger next to them, about halfway through the event when things had really started to rock, the PSH-looking lead singer thanked us for our enthusiastic support and participation with this affirmation: “Balti-MORE?? Looks like Balti-MOST to me!! Whew! YEAH!!”

Besides making me cheer and give a proud fist pump for my adopted hometown, it reminded me of a catch phrase that many here in Charm City (i.e. Baltimore, or B’more) have started using: “B-more (fill in the blank).” B-more assertive; B-more creative; B-more against war … Not bad reminders for a town with a bit of a self-esteem issue due to TV shows like The Wire and Homicide, not to mention perpetually living in the shadow of more glamorous and worldly Washington, DC.

Whether it’s self esteem, town esteem, country esteem, gender esteem, race esteem, faith esteem, you name it, I’ve found that it’s been hard not to get pulled down lately. Actually, it’s not really been lately; this is something that’s been going on for over a decade. Much of it, I think, has to do with 24-hour news cycles that have to be filled with SOMETHING. And nothing makes news like bad news. So even events that might not be particularly positive, but aren’t, in the big picture, completely horrible, get blown up to “horrible status” and put in front of us (and often yelled at us) ad nauseam 24/7.


So imagine my delight a week or so ago when I heard this story about my 5-year-old niece, Sophia. She was riding in the car with her dad, who had the radio tuned to a sports station. The commentator was bemoaning the fact that many big Ohio teams had gotten beaten in the last few days. “It’s been a TERRIBLE week for Ohioans—Ohio State lost, Cleveland State lost, the Cavs lost … [he listed several others]. Like I said, if you live in Ohio, it’s been a bad, bad week!” Suddenly, Sophia (appropriately named!) piped up from the back seat: “Um … excuse me, Mr. Radio Man. But *I* live in Ohio, and I’ve had a great day and a great week. So you just need to be quiet … because you’re stupid.”

Out of the mouths of babes … I love that this five year old wasn’t about to let anybody bring her down or dictate how she was “supposed” to feel. But how often have the rest of us allowed those very things to happen to us? I sure have; and it’s made me less of the best I could have been. Too often, I’ve let outside forces make me surly and negative and divisive, turning me into a person I haven’t particularly liked. This goes way beyond a Pollyanna outlook on life (because, let’s face it, sometimes life DOES stink and righteous indignation, grief, or outright anger is the absolute appropriate response). It’s about seeing the world through realistic lenses, first of all, keeping everything in perspective. But it’s also about being the architect of our own lives, choosing attitudes, situations, and friends that will allow us to thrive rather than to get mired in a funky downward spiral. It’s about having the courage—when enough is enough—to speak up and say, “You just need to be quiet,” which may take the form of an actual quote to a person who can hear us or it might be more symbolic, nudging us to turn off the radio or TV and to take a sabbatical from the “stupid” 24/7 onslaught.

Another way to say it is in the words of Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Like I said … a helpful reminder, no?

Tell Me a Story

Are there sweeter words to a storyteller’s ear?

This past fall I performed at my sister’s church in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Among other things, I told a number of stories during the Sunday school hour to a group of pre-K through 5th grade kids. After three stories (one of which was Peter walking on the water), the preschoolers (which included my 4-year-old niece, Gaby) left to do other activities in their classroom while I finished up with a few more “older-focused” stories for the elementary-aged kids.

Later that afternoon we were all in the car and my sister asked what other stories I’d told (she’s one of the pre-school teachers so had also left after the first three stories). As I was telling her about them, Gaby, who had been busy watching a movie on her little portable DVD player in the back seat, perked up and said, “Aunt Tracy, tell me about Peter.”

At first, I took her comment literally, thinking she wanted more information ABOUT Peter. (Silly me … can you tell I don’t have kids of my own?!) “Well, what do you want to know?” But her mom quickly set me straight, “No, she wants you to tell her the STORY about Peter again.”

In all the years I’ve been telling stories professionally, and despite all the accolades I’ve received—and I’ve received many—I don’t know that anyone has EVER asked for an “encore;” or, perhaps more accurately (and touching), for a specific story to be repeated so immediately. It’s a storyteller’s dream come true, especially when it comes from someone you’re not even sure was paying attention.


So, it more than made up for the fact that during the entire time I was telling a story for the Children’s Sermon during worship, Gaby sat down front, before God and the entire congregation, sticking her finger down her throat gagging herself!

Always Be Prepared

The Boy Scouts may have made this pledge their own but it’s not a bad piece of advice for any of us. Over the years, I’ve often been asked if I’m afraid to live alone (particularly in inner-city Baltimore), to be on the road so much, or to travel by myself to foreign lands (especially ones where the perceived safety is questionable). The short answer is no. The slightly longer answer is that while I refuse to live in fear, I also strive to live intelligently—I’m aware of my surroundings, I don’t take unnecessary risks, and I try not to call too much attention to myself.  😉

Because I’ve now got decades (yes, it’s plural!) of living this way under my belt, it’s all sort of become second nature. When I enter a large crowd, I instantly turn my purse around so that the easy-to-access pouch faces in instead of out. When I get out of my car I automatically affix The Club to my steering wheel, no matter where in the country I am. And as soon as I enter my house or hotel room, without thinking, I lock the door.

Last August I had back-to-back gigs in the Chicago area. For one of them, I stayed in a hotel located in the heart of a thriving urban neighborhood. As soon as I entered my room, of course, I locked up for the night. Around 3:00 a.m. I was awakened by the sound of someone trying to open the door. It became clear pretty quickly that the woman was drunk. She was calling through the door trying to get her male companion—who was apparently in her room—to open it from the inside because she was obviously having no luck from the outside.  More than a little perturbed, I called out, “You’ve got the wrong room!” Hearing a female voice, and one she didn’t recognize, she immediately realized her mistake and, to her credit, started to apologize profusely. I heard her mumbling to a friend that they must be on the wrong floor and, thinking the problem was solved, I tried to go back to sleep.

Moments later, I again heard someone trying to get into my room. From the mumblings, I knew it was the same woman (she was REALLY drunk!) and when she knocked on the door I snarled from the bed, “WHAT?!?!” Realizing her double mistake, she apologized even more profusely and (finally!) stumbled down the hall to the elevators. Was I annoyed? Absolutely. Was I scared to be awakened in the middle of the night while sleeping in a hotel in the heart of a big city? Not really. Why? Because even if that drunk woman’s key card had managed somehow to open my door, I’d also used the “tuning fork-looking” lock which was added protection (and would have also bought me some extra time to figure out what to do next if it had come to that!). Always be prepared.

The next day I had a different gig about 30 minutes north of the city at a Catholic seminary that had converted part of its bucolic campus into a conference center. My room was in an older, clean but spartan dorm that did include a private bathroom, so I had what I needed. Upon settling in for the night I went into autopilot locking myself in. This door also had one of those tuning-fork locks and I did actually hesitate about using it. After all, I was way out in the ‘burbs, in a lovely serene setting at a conference center. Was this overkill? Perhaps it was due to the “excitement” from the night before … or the fact that I figured—despite the “safer” setting—the powers that be had included that kind of lock on the door for SOME reason … regardless, I used both locks that night. Always be prepared, right?

I’ve always been a sound sleeper, someone who could sleep well in most any bed (thankfully, considering all the beds I sleep in during a given year), and who enjoys sleep so much almost never wakes up before the alarm goes off. Well, some of that began to change last summer when I started having hot flashes. I’m grateful at this point that they’re really more “warm waves” and certainly not the extreme “bed sweats” I know some women endure. But they were warm enough to wake me up in some discomfort. The funny thing is, I think I was having these for a couple of weeks before I even realized what they were. Remember, Baltimore (like many areas) had record-breaking heat last summer and even under “normal” conditions, Baltimore summers are not particularly pleasant. This is why for the last decade or so I’ve simply left town for most of July and August.

Well, last year my schedule didn’t cooperate and I found myself in my uncomfortable, non-AC, third-floor home during some of the hottest days of July. So I finally broke down and bought a portable AC unit to cool my office during the day and my bedroom at night. The first time I was awakened by a hot flash, I just thought the AC wasn’t working very well. After all, we were having record-breaking heat, even in the wee hours of the morning. (The fact that the AC unit was RIGHT next to my bed and blowing directly on my leg, to the point where icicles were starting to form, wasn’t enough to alert me to the fact that maybe something else was going on!) I did eventually realize that I was having hot flashes and thus “prepared” for them the only way I knew how—to continue to sleep in the nude. (This is something I’ve done forever, never really seeing the need to wear pajamas, especially when living alone.)

So late last August, while sleeping in my bare little seminary-based conference center room on the peaceful outskirts of Chicago, I was awakened about 30 minutes before my alarm went off due to the discomfort of a hot flash. I kicked off the covers and lay there, in all my glory, waiting for it to pass. It was at that exact moment that I heard a key in the lock and the door to my room opened. Well, it opened as far as the “tuning fork” would let it. Obviously, as the lock indicated, the room was occupied so the door immediately closed and was relocked.

Had I not put that second lock on the door, I’m not sure who would have been more startled: me, or the intruder. But considering the fact that I later found out the intruder was a meek and mild, work-study seminarian making sure the room was clean and ready for the person he thought was to move in later that day, I’m guessing him. Regardless, let’s just say that it was a good thing I “prepared” by putting that second lock on—as overkill as it seemed—because, I must confess, while I do try to “always be prepared,” I wasn’t really prepared to have my hot, sweaty, naked middle-aged body be the topic of his next confession … or nightmare!