About ten years ago I was up against a deadline: I had two hours left to deliver groceries and “Stocking gifts” to the local Christmas project and food bank in the valley where I lived. The donor parking spots at the building were full, as was the agency parking lot. Driving up the unfamiliar street in my hulking minivan all I saw was No parking signs. No room anywhere. I pulled into the agency parking lot half blocked with orange cones and No Parking signs, hoping to ask one of the volunteers if they knew where I might park. I’m in luck, I thought, when I recognized four of the five folks there.
I rolled down my windows and before I could say, “Hi, Mrs. X,” she snapped, “You can’t park here.”
The man I didn’t know approached the passenger window. “You can’t park here,” he yelled. Then Mr. X pushed his way forward also yelling, “You can’t park here. We’re expecting a truck.”
Shocked by the yelling, surprised they didn’t recognize me, I said, “I just need to turn around,” and shaking inched my minivan forward, pulse thumping in my ears.
Then a woman I call Ma yelled to Mr. X, “She can’t park here.”
“I’m just turning around,” I said loudly at the same time he said, “She’s going to turn around.”
“No, she’s not,” said Ma, “she’s going to hit the posts.”
My fight or flight response kicked in and said Fight and Flight! I put the car in reverse and in my nastiest most facetious voice, I shouted as sweat dripped from my armpits, “You know, your welcoming attitude really makes it easy for people to make donations!” I punched the gas pedal, zoomed backward into the street, where thankfully, there was no oncoming traffic, and then took off up the road, named, believe it or not--Love Creek Road. In that moment it should’ve been named Anger and Shame Creek.
I desperately wanted to go home, but I had to deliver the groceries and gifts then. I parked several blocks away, clutched my heavy bags in my arms and marched down the street, chest heaving, gulping between sobs. I was deeply ashamed of my outburst and walked past the parking lot as fast as I could, staring straight ahead. I delivered my bags inside to an unmanned counter and instead of ringing the bell to summon a volunteer, I set my bags on the counter, filled out my donation form in silence, and left the building thankful the episode was almost over.
As I walked back to my car on the far side of the street, Mrs. X called out, “Hi there, Cathy!” cheerfully as though greeting a long-lost friend. I was shocked. How could she possibly, after she and her husband and the other volunteers had just yelled at me?
“Hi,” I said without slowing or looking her way. It was a mean bitter hello, with no trace of friendship or forgiveness.
Driving home I tried to figure out how decent people––the volunteers and me––Christians who were out to do good deeds for strangers, failed to extend care and compassion to people not on our lists of the needy.
I needed a little grace in that parking lot, a little understanding, a little room to maneuver, a little time to think. Who knows why I didn’t receive it, maybe I was the fiftieth car that’d disrupted their preparations. Maybe they were cold and hungry and the long-expected truck was late in arriving.
I thought about complaining to the project coordinator—whose name graced all the appeals for gifts and food mailed to my home and church—or writing Mrs. X and telling her why my “Hi,” had been so malicious, but I wanted to get beyond my hurt without blaming others. I didn’t want to hold onto the wound and to the way it made me feel sick in the bones. I needed to extend a little grace to others and myself, so I prayed and took my Relaxed Wanderer Chinese herbs and calmed down eventually.
Later I called my prayer partner and after I recounted the incident, she said with her usual wisdom, “God always reminds us that we’re human.”
When I think about Christ’s coming, I think of a line in Joy to the World, “Let every heart prepare him room.” If Christ was there in the parking lot, and I’m sure he was, I did a rotten job of preparing room. I was reminded painfully of my human failings. Thankfully God has more hands and feet in this world than mine, and thank God I’m not alone in falling short—in sin.
Our ancestors in the faith were just as human and imperfect. Back when Jesus arrived folks were expecting a different kind of Messiah and overburdened innkeepers were turning away lodgers left and right. Joseph and Mary, tired and hugely pregnant, needed a little grace when they arrived in Bethlehem to pay taxes. And that’s what they received a meager scrap of grace, a tiny bit of room, a cow stall out back. It was the best that innkeeper could do, and because God can take our pittance and make it suffice, it turned out to be enough.
As we journey toward Christmas with all the busyness and stress even our desires to good can bring, let every heart prepare some room, and may that some be enough.
Prepare the Way
“Prepare the Way of the Lord,”
cry the prophets that we might
heed their words and repent
that we might join our voices
and our hands and hearts and feet
with the faithful calling out
in the wide wilderness
of our cities and towns--
“Prepare the way of the Lord!”
Prepare the Way of the Lord
and the way for all God’s servants--
Make their paths straight
and their rough roads smooth
fill the valleys of despair
and level the mountains of inequity
feed the hungry, clothe the poor
heal the sick, pray for one another
that all people near and far
may see and hear, know and touch
the salvation of our God.
Highway 106, Union, WA, November 16, 2018, 3 p.m.
My hiking boots pad along the asphalt
a rhythmic and steady thwap thwap accompanied
by the swish swish of my arms swinging
in my stiff slippery coat and the tinny
twang of my zipper head rattling against
the bottom snap as my legs stretch forward.
I step onto the shoulder and gravel
crackles and crunches under my feet
as I make way for the vehicles that whir
and whoosh, engines throbbing, tires rumbling
toward me from ahead and behind--
steady tone droning that peaks in volume
then recedes as machines speed by
one after another: school bus, pickup, SUV.
In the quiet gaps between cars other sounds
reveal themselves—though it hasn’t rained in days
water flumes down the steep hillside
tumbling forceful as a waterfall
through an open troughed pipe
into the drainage ditch sluicing alongside the road.
Below the armored embankment alongside Anna’s Bay
the water glugs and gurgles against the shore
rising to cover the stink of rotting marine life
and sea grass uncovered in the morning’s low tide.
An eagle, unseen utters its stuttering cry
from the evergreens towering above--
high pitched staccato that belies its commanding
appearance. The tiny belted kingfisher ricochets
from power line to cedar to pier piling
with voice bursting loud and rapid fire like bullets.
Seagulls float in the water ar-ar-ar-guing
their squawking frantic, insistent and grating.
I turn to walk back toward home
sun slanting low in the sky illuminating
all I’ve just heard.
Clouds scudded at high speed coating the sky gray. Branches bent and bowed, leaves surrendered to the gusts, empty trash cans rolled into drainage ditches. Jets on departure from SeaTac sliced the clouds silently overhead, their engines no match for the noise heralding the coming storm.
I am a writer who, in December 2011, fortified by a new MFA, empty nest, and changes in my husband's employment, relocated from my native California to Washington state to see what would unfold next.