Monday, January 21, 2008


A Call to Courtesy

There is something I just have to get off my chest. This morning my out-of-town guest marveled that I cooked breakfast for her as if I’d served up the world on a platter. Not long ago someone told me that she doesn’t write thank-you notes because she doesn’t have time. My recent revelation to a few friends that I routinely iron the pillowcases when I have overnight guests was met with slack-jawed expressions of shock and awe. At recent showers I’ve attended, we were all given envelopes to address our own thank-you notes for our gifts so that the new mother wouldn’t have to do it.

Gentle reader, do you see the same disturbing trend that I see in these things? Is it possible that we, as a society, have become so busy with God-only-knows-what that we don’t have time to extend common courtesy to our fellow man? I fear that this uncommon-ness of common courtesy is just one more growing component of the general coarsening of our culture

You know, when I was a kid, my mother harped on manners until I wanted to throw up. Christmas thank-you notes were sent out on 12/26, and I was made to write them as soon as I learned to write. My left hand had to be on my lap my lap at dinner, no elbows on the table, no slurping of soup, flatware was used from the outside in--and above all, no licking of that drip on the edge of the ketchup bottle. I was taught to look adults in the eye and to answer them directly when spoken to, and to say, “Yes,” and not “Yeah.” Then we moved to the South and I learned to say, “Yes, ma’am,” and “Yes, sir,” of course. Later, I learned how to sit (ankles crossed), how to walk (like I had a book on my head), how to make proper introductions, and how to dress appropriately for every occasion. I could go on and on, but you get the picture.

I am eternally grateful for that childhood training now, but at the time, I missed the point of it all. That is, I was left with the impression that courtesy was just a set of rules made up by bridge-playing, country club women wearing hats and gloves, who, while eating petit fours between hands, dreamed them up as a means of torture for their children. I thought, and to some degree was taught, that the point of manners was to appear well-bred, and even more importantly, not to embarrass my parents.

While these may have been at least semi-noble goals for a child, they were off the mark in the bigger picture. I was never actually taught that the real reason for manners is to honor and show respect for other people. Rather than making us look good, courtesy is for making people around us feel comfortable, welcome, respected, or whatever good purpose the occasion calls for.

Maybe this is why it is so troubling to see our culture drift away from basic acts of common courtesy. It’s a subtle indicator that we are not caring for each other as we should and perhaps becoming more self-centered. It says that what is most important is MY time and MY convenience, not the other person and his or her feelings, time or convenience. However, this way of life is not going to create the kind of world that any of us want to live in. Instead, this attitude will give us a dry, utilitarian world where there is no time for niceties and one’s highest goal becomes checking the next item off his to-do list. It could even take us down the dark path to a world like the one the Soviets created, where, for example, people hurried past each other on the street with eyes averted and aggressively pushed in front of each other in bus or store lines.

This, however, is not the American Way. Why not make a tiny bit of extra effort for someone else? If being served bacon and eggs makes a good friend feel “like a queen,” as she said, in my home, why should I not do it? If sending a heartfelt thank-you to someone—that I’ve written and addressed myself--lets her know I appreciated her gift and brightens her day, why would I hesitate? If sleeping on smooth, freshly ironed pillowcases might make my guest a little more comfortable and feel just a little bit pampered, isn’t it worth the 15 minutes it takes to do it? It’s little things like these that add texture and dimension to our daily lives and create a richer, lovelier environment.

With so much rudeness and crudeness in the world around us, why not lift the standard a little higher once again? If enough of us do it, we just might change the tenor of our times and get our civility back.

Monday, January 14, 2008


Last night marked the end of an era. It was the final meeting of that small group of women I wrote about here a few months ago (see “How Good and Pleasant It Is” from 9/12/07) who have been getting together in my home twice a month over the past year. During that time, we’ve shared food and fun, wine and worship, prayer and punditry, comedy and crises, you name it. In the process we have all seen how friendship was designed to work. Each of us has been enriched and changed for the better by the experience.

You may ask, “If this group is so wonderful, why are you quitting?” Well, because times change, and lives change. One beloved member of our group moved away. Another will probably soon be moving far away. Another is getting married. The rest of us are all experiencing major changes of direction or focus in our lives. All of us have a sense of being launched into something new with new priorities, demands and constraints. With that, we all know that our group has served its purpose of preparing each of us for our launch—spiritually, emotionally and mentally.

Significantly, none of us were, to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, “out of measure sad” to say good-bye to our Sunday night gatherings. Of course, we were sentimental about it and poignantly aware of what a rare and precious thing was passing. But we also felt celebratory, much as one would at a graduation. Although we won’t see as much of each other, we also know that we are taking away solid friendships that will last forever.

Even more, though, each of us is fortunate enough to understand a couple of life’s great truths that are sometimes not understood. One is that life, like each year, is made up of seasons that change just as surely as spring follows winter. There are planting seasons, harvest seasons, dormant seasons and seasons of rebirth. Each has its specific purpose, but none is random. God will surely accomplish His purpose in each season before leading us into the next.

The second truth is that we must let go of the old before we can take hold of the new. If we try to cling to what is passing, we can’t successfully make the transition to the new season and our next step forward. It would be like summer leaves refusing to change color for fall, or fall leaves clinging to their branches and refusing to let winter come.

If we’re tuned in to the voice and movements of God in our lives, we will sense the change of season coming, just like we sense the coming of spring in a fresh March breeze, even when snow still covers the ground. He gives us lead time to adjust to the idea of change. There is a lot of joy in learning to embrace and enjoy each season, but to know when its time to let go in order to take hold of the next one.

For our little group, the season is changing and we all know it. In the old season, the Lord knit our hearts together in unity and allowed us to draw from one another during tough times. But He has used what we have gleaned from one another to prepare us for very different futures in the new season. We celebrate the new thing that God has for each of us and will be cheering each other on every step of the way. We also have a great reunion to look forward to next summer. Our friend who got engaged at Christmas asked the whole group to be her bridesmaids!

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

CHRISTMAS VIGNETTES: Christmas at Thraves Jewelers

NOTE: I know this is late, but consider it a jump on next year.

There’s no Christmas like a small town Christmas. A sparkling Harrod’s in London or skaters at Rockefeller Center in New York are wonderful, but for warmth and comforting tradition, you just can’t beat small town America. That’s why I love spending Christmas Eve helping out down at my brother Bill’s jewelry store in Seneca, South Carolina, which he has owned for some 35 years. Every year that I’ve been stateside during those years, I’ve been there wrapping gifts, answering the phone, making bank runs, and helping host the annual drop-in that Bill and his wife, Phyllis, hold for customers and friends in the store’s stock room. Since radical change has been the only predictable feature of my life, it’s become a wonderful tradition for me to come to the jewelry store on Christmas Eve, where the ritual and cast of characters never change. Here is how it goes every year.

By the time the doors open for business at 10:00 a.m., Bill has already carved the huge ham that he has cooked overnight at home and has set up the well-stocked bar in his personal office. Phyllis has set up the rest of the party food around the sales floor and stock room. Then she cleans the bathroom on her hands and knees, in spite of beautiful clothes and perfectly manicured nails, while grousing that no one ever remembers to take out the trash. Finally, she sneaks out to the Booksmith, a few doors down, and grabs a cup of White Christmas coffee and a few last-minute gifts before diving into the day’s sales rush, where she really shines. Janie, the store manager, is always there on Christmas Eve, even though she could probably beg off due to seniority. She’s been with the store since the beginning 35 years ago, and says she’ll stay as long as Bill does. She’s practically a member of the family.

Once the doors open, a cheerful chaos rules for the rest of the day. The aroma of sausage dip wafts through the store from a crock pot and canned Christmas music mixes with the constant electronic “ding-dong, ding-dong” that announces incoming customers. Last-minute shoppers come in waves. I’m the main gift wrapper, but the purchasing rush often finds several of us stumbling over each other for bows, paper and scotch tape while trying not to mix up the gifts. (After all, it would be a disaster if Mr. Smith's wife got Mrs. Jones' sterling earrings instead of the two-carat diamond ring he bought for her!) While rapid wrapping, ringing up of purchases, and chat with garrulous customers is going on, gazillions of kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews are running back and forth through the small swinging door between the work area and the sales floor. In the back, older relatives and friends are noshing on ham and homemade fudge amongst stacks of UPS supplies, bow making machines and tall shelves covered with every conceivable size jewelry gift box. They chat with Adam, the jeweler, who is working diligently at his bench to finish work promised by Christmas, and who is no doubt grateful to be removed from the fray up front. Pretty much anything goes at the store on Christmas Eve; however, neither all this confusion, nor having the public in his, well, less-than-elegant stockroom seems to bother Bill in the least. This is a man with more patience than Job and a heart as big as Texas.

Later, neighboring merchants steal away from their own shops during a lull to have a ham sandwich, offer Christmas greetings, and drop off gifts for Bill and Phyllis. Fellow Rotarians, wine-tasting club and sailing club friends, tennis and golf buddies, neighbors, everyone comes by. Tom, Bill’s jovial roommate from their bachelor days, always drives the 30 miles over from Easley and hangs out for hours in the stock room, availing himself of the bar and chatting up everyone. Janie’s husband, Jerry, saunters in about mid-afternoon for a drink, and everyone's out-of-town relatives start arriving. Phyllis's mother, Ruth, has become a traditional fixture on Christmas Eve as well, perched on the old sofa in the back, greeting visitors.

Finally, like clockwork, every year around 30 minutes before closing at 6:00 p.m., Fred (name has been changed to protect the guilty), usually in shorts and flip flops regardless of the weather and looking like he just got off a plane from Key West, comes in to buy a big ticket item for his wife. Major acquisition or not, he shops like a man--no agonizing, snap decision. He’s generally walking out the door with his attractively gift wrapped selection right at closing time. Then the front door is quickly locked and everyone utters a sigh of relief at the end of a pleasant, but tiring day. The staff pitches in to complete the day’s end routine quickly and they all rush out the door to their own families after final hugs, all yelling, “Merry Christmas!”

It’s not over yet for Bill and Phyllis, however. This is when they do their own Christmas shopping and wrapping in the store before heading off to the first of the various family celebrations. They are inevitably and invariably late for this first event. No one minds, though, especially the ladies, because they all know that Bill and Phyllis are selecting and wrapping their gifts of jewelry. Who would argue with that? Many of them have stopped by during the day to drop hints with me or the staff, or to be casually queried by Bill or Phyllis, “See anything you like?”

Finally, around 8:30 p.m., weary and with aching feet and backs, gifts and food loaded into the car, Bill, Phyllis and I lock up and head to the first Christmas event. Of course, Bill forgets someone's gift and has to come back. But that’s just part of the tradition of our small town Christmas.