Several weeks ago a participant in one of our Elder Care Ministries Zoom coffee chats shared about a course in which she and others are learning to use round words instead of cactus words.
The image of cactus words has stuck with me. It brings to mind those sharp or prickly words. The ones that are barb-like and pierce so easily. The ones that often roll off our tongues or our keyboards just as easily.
While I also appreciate the image of round words, I find it more difficult to explain what I think it means. When someone asked me to name some round words, I was unsure how to answer in that moment.
But I’ve continued thinking about how to describe round words.
Here are some things I think they’re not. They’re not words that simply allow us to go around difficult topics—words that are so soft or squishy that they convey nothing concrete or meaningful. They’re also not words that cause us to go round and round in circles—words that are not defined well enough that we can share a common understanding when we use them.
Instead, it seems to me that round words have substance without having sharp edges. They invite conversation rather than inflict wounds. They communicate meaning not malice, hope not harshness, sincerity not sarcasm, and openness not obstruction.
Several years ago the editor of the local newspaper emailed me, along with a number of other folks, to ask about my New Year’s resolution. I thought about responding with a carton that hangs on the bulletin board in my office.
The cartoon is from the comic strip Non Sequitur and features Danae, a precocious girl with a pessimistic view of the world, but not of herself.
Several frames of the carton show Danae sitting at a desk, working on her New Year’s resolutions. In the fourth frame, she’s whistling as she walks away from the desk, leaving behind a list that has a single entry: “Don’t mess with perfection.”
When the local newspaper arrived and I noticed my resolution highlighted on the front page, I was relieved I hadn’t gone with my initial impulse. I still love the cartoon, but I’m glad I went in a more serious direction.
Here’s what I actually wrote in response to the editor’s inquiry: “I resolve to live more in the present. I hope this will help me notice and appreciate the things of beauty, wonder, and joy that offer themselves each day.”
As nice as that resolution may sound, the question still remained as to how I would begin to keep it.
A number of years ago I did something I’d wanted to do for a long time—I took ballroom dancing lessons. Every time I’d see couples floating across a dance floor, I’d think, “I wish I could do that.” So when I saw a listing for a beginning ballroom dancing class, I decided to enroll.
The first Thursday night was pretty scary. There I was with this group of strangers—sure that I would make a fool of myself. We were a pretty motley crew of would-be dancers. And we were bad—really bad.
But once we discovered that we were all equally bad, we relaxed and began to talk and laugh with each other. And, almost in spite of ourselves, we even learned a few basic steps during the course of those weeks.
Toward the end of our lessons, a friend in the class decided that a group of us should go to a real ballroom dance on a Friday evening. So we mustered our courage and went. Talk about scary. As soon as we entered the room, we realized that these people knew how to dance—really dance. What they were doing didn’t look anything like what we’d been doing in class. They moved around the dance floor with sheer grace. And not one of them was counting, “One, two, three . . . One, two three . . . One, two three.”
We found a table and sat down. We had a plan—if we stayed away from the dance floor, no one else would know how bad we were. What we didn’t count on was that some of those other people would come and ask us to dance. When it happened to me for the first time, I heard myself saying, “I’m really horrible. You should ask someone else.” But my soon-to-be partner wasn’t easily discouraged.
Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that
if you just show up and try to do the right thing,
the dawn will come. You wait and watch and
work: You don’t give up. – Anne Lamott
If Anne Lamott is correct, then the past year has been filled with countless opportunities for hope to begin. Darkness seemed to wait around each corner—and yet there continued to be the possibility of new dawns.
Let me share just a few examples from what I’ve come to refer to as the year of the four Cs—canine, COVID, cancer, and change.
In February my canine buddy Wilbur ruptured a disc. I had to decide about surgery that might or might not restore the use of his hind legs. The first two weeks of Wilbur’s post-surgery recovery were pretty dark. He was unable to walk—much less run, jump, or navigate stairs. But hope began to emerge as Wilbur slowly returned to his old self. Each time he seemed to reach the limit of his recovery, he would surprise me. And through it all, he never lost heart. He reminded me almost daily about the importance of not giving up.
It was an Advent Sunday twenty years ago. We’d just finished a hanging of the green service at the congregation I served in Washington, D.C., when a friend with whom I worked at the church walked down the center aisle and quietly said,
I think we need to go home.”
Before I could ask what Paul meant, he added, “There may have been a fire.”
“Home” was the co-op development where Paul and I both lived. Other members of our congregation also lived in the development. When they arrived home that Sunday, they saw fire trucks outside my building. After asking some questions, they figured out the fire had been in my unit. That’s when they called the church and spoke with Paul.
The fifteen-minute car ride home remains something of a blur in my memory. Paul and I had ridden to the church together that day. As he drove my car toward our development, I sat in the passenger seat and wondered aloud how the fire might have started. But more than anything I kept voicing the hope that my dog Max was OK.
Paul parked the car in my garage spot, and we took the elevator up to my floor. As soon as the elevator door opened, we could smell the smoke. Soot marked my front door, which we opened it to go inside.
Although the fire fighters were finished, signs of their work were visible throughout the unit—windows broken out, a hole chopped through a wall, furniture shoved out of the way, pools of water on the floor. There, however, was no sign of Max.
As Paul and I walked back toward the elevator, we saw a building maintenance person. Paul quietly asked if he knew anything about the dog who’d been in the unit.
Although the fire fighters hadn’t been able to save the contents of my unit from smoke and water damage, they’d been able to rescue Max. He was waiting for me in the co-op office.
As Max and I walked with Paul to his unit that afternoon, I had no idea that it would be six months before I’d be able to return home.
Since June I’ve been working with a congregation that is searching for a new pastor. It’s been an honor and a joy to travel alongside them this summer.
By the time I arrived, members of this community of faith already were making their way through this time of pastoral transition, as well as through the unknown territory of being the church during a global pandemic.
Given all of that, it would be easy for them to want to cling to how things have always been. No one would really blame them.
I’m guessing many of us can relate to that longing. So much has changed and continues to change around us that returning to how things have always been would be comforting. So much has been and continues to be uncertain that returning to any sense of normal would be reassuring.
Gracious God, thank you for goals and dreams—both old and new—and how they can change as we travel through life. Thanks for:
Gracious God, thank you for opportunities to look back at our lives and reflect on the things about which we can feel proud. We’re grateful as we recall:
Life is uncertain.
If we didn’t know that six months ago, most of us now are certain about that uncertainty.
We live more by probability than certainty. We’ll probably wake up tomorrow morning. We’ll probably still have our job. Our children probably will be healthy. But we know that probabilities can—and do—fail, so we’re left feeling uncertain.
And that uncertainty makes life messy. Unexpected things go wrong. Our careful plans fall apart. Bad things happen to good people. We want guarantees, but what we get is uncertainty.
All too often we have trouble dealing constructively with that uncertainty. We try to avoid its harsh reality by what one writer describes as “negative coping strategies,” such as:
But what else can we do? How might we approach uncertainty as we attempt to redefine our reality?
Gracious God, thank you for the days, the moments, the seasons that stand out in our memories as the best times in our lives. Thanks for: