About Gretchen O'Donnell

Gretchen O’Donnell is a freelance writer and columnist for The Globe. In her column she discusses everything from her lifelong secret desire to be a DJ to the humiliations of skiing in Switzerland. Occasionally she talks about parenting and ornithology and the pressure of having an Irish last name on St. Patrick's Day. She and her husband and three children live across the street from Iowa, where she writes, cooks, drinks the occasional cup of coffee, and reads. From time to time she even dusts.

Destination

It’s windy. So windy. And has been for days. Sustained winds of 20mph and gusts of 35 or more. 24/7. Literally. I love to sleep with the windows open, but the noise of the wind and the blowing of the drapes defies my desires.

On many an evening recently, from our vantage point on the lake, we’ve watched novice kayakers struggle against the waves, their lack of experience clear as the wind pushes them further and further west. “Go west, young man,” they used to say. Only these guys’ destination was east.

This past weekend was supposed to have been the Windsurfing Regatta, held here annually on Lake Okabena. The second weekend in June was chosen as the ideal date to hold the event, when the winds and the weather averaged perfectly to present sailors and spectators both with idyllic sailing and viewing conditions. This year would have challenged the heartiest of participants, I think, but, like so many other events in this weird COVID world, the event had to be cancelled. “Postponed”, they said actually, for a year, with all the participants rescheduling for 2021. But “cancelled” is what it amounts to in the short-term. Another destination missed.

Sometimes we aim for something – an event, a location – and we hit it smack-dab. Front and center. Bulls eye. Other times we take aim but end up – whether by our own fault or by things beyond our control – missing the mark entirely.

My mom flew into Edinburgh, Scotland, many years ago, intending to meet up with her sister for a long weekend. Their parents grew up in Scotland, so this was going to be fun. A reunion not just with each other but with their roots.

Mom’s flight was delayed out of Germany. She missed her connection, arrived hours late. Her sister was nowhere to be found. Mom, having left all of the planning to her, had no idea where to meet her. In a series of near misses that would have been funny in a movie but weren’t at all in real life, Mom spent the entire weekend alone. There were no cell phones. Phone messages left back home went unheard as no one was there to receive them. Her destination was reached…but it wasn’t the destination she’d hoped for at all.

Point of fact: sometimes the wind blows us off course.

Point of mind: sometimes we get where we’re going but it’s not at all what we wanted it to be.

So what do we do then? What do we do when, despite our best efforts, we wind up at the wrong end of the lake? What do we do when, despite our success, we find that our reached goals aren’t all that we expected them to be?

What do we do, in short, when life doesn’t turn out the way we thought it would? When we planned, and maybe even prayed, yet still we beat against the wind? Do we panic? Do we pray all the more? Do we give up, throw in the towel, hop on the next flight home?

I suppose the answers to those questions are innumerable. But here’s what I witnessed out on the lake:

Those poor people – I don’t know their age or their gender or anything about them – when they found themselves out in the middle of the lake, being shoved by the wind in the opposite direction that they wanted to go, tried, ineffectually, to paddle. They waved their paddles about in a frantic “X” motion for a while until they realized that nothing they were doing was working. Then, finally, they sat back, reevaluated the direction of their boat in relation to the waves, rethought their paddling methods, worked out the kinks, and got back on course despite the wind working against them. They came safely into harbor, sorer and wiser than they were before they got themselves into that boat. Were they scared out there in the middle of the lake? Probably. Were they off schedule and out of sorts? Possibly. But they got themselves to safety.

Or, you can be like my mom in Scotland, all alone, all those years ago. She explored. She did a little shopping. She bought herself a kilt in the Fraser family tartan. She made the most of it. She did not want to be there by herself and she did not enjoy her trip as she thought she would, but she did not waste her time sitting alone in a hotel room, feeling sorry for herself. She got back on the plane at the end of the weekend wiser than she was three days before. Was she scared being there alone? Probably. (I can guarantee you that she did a lot of praying.) Was she disappointed and out of sorts? Possibly. But she chose to go out and see the city and it remains the only time she’s ever been able to visit the land of her ancestors.


Our family Fraser tartan.

Life leads us on a merry chase sometimes. We can panic when it leads us into danger. We can throw a fit when it leads us into disappointment. Or we can sit back. Evaluate. Experiment. Explore.

And, in all of that, in all our decisions and promotions and set-backs, we keep on praying.

“My son, do not forget my teaching, but keep my commands in your heart, for they will prolong your life many years and bring you peace and prosperity. Let love and faithfulness never leave you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. Then you will win favor and a good name in the sight of God and man. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.”
Proverbs 3:1-6 NIV

Even a twisted path can lead us straight to God.

Taken for granted

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You might not think that getting one’s Wisdom Teeth pulled would be a terribly significant moment in one’s life but, like learning to ride a bike and high school graduation ceremonies, it’s kind of one of those things that everyone has done.

Or at least they did, pre-COVID19. Now many things that we took for granted have become giant hassles; but judging from the photo at the top of this post, we’ve proven that graduation ceremonies can be flexible!

Just as with commencement, it’s even possible to get Wisdom Teeth removed in this new era, though it is a bit more of an adventure including having temperatures taken and waiting out in the parking lot in 95 degrees instead of in the nicely air-conditioned waiting room.

Our middle child, Katie, had her Wisdom Teeth removed last week. Yep, a week after the rite of passage of graduation, she experienced the rite of passage of Wisdom Tooth removal. Four others of her friends, as it turns out, either got theirs pulled last week or will this week or next.

It’s the thing all the cool kids are doing right now.

Katie’s recovery has gone well and all of the ice cream, pudding, Jello and applesauce that she bought (note to self: give your kid a budget next time you send them out ((the day before their surgery)) for post-Wisdom-Tooth grocery shopping) has proven itself useful. In fact, I think that all of us have partaken of at least a pudding or two.

The last time that Katie had any sort of tooth situation, she’d fallen off of her bike, age 9, and chipped not just one but both of her permanent front teeth. The drama of this current dental situation was much lower – though also much more expensive – than that one. This drama was limited to the drive home afterwards and the wait in the pharmacy parking lot, when she asked us, “Why did they put a cardboard box in my mouth?” and then asked, “Isn’t it over? Why can’t I take it out now?”

She also was quite concerned about her spit.

“When do I get my spit back?” she asked. “My spit’s playing hide and seek. Did they replace it with glue? That’s super mean. I want my old spit back, please. Did they charge you extra for the glue spit?”

There was no break in this conversation. Just one thought after the next. And then, when I told her I wasn’t sure about the charge for the glue spit, she replied, “Let’s ask Dad. Oh, here he comes,” she said then, seeing him outside the car window as he approached from the pharmacy. “Maybe he has my spit injections.”

Her spit injections came in the form of a bottle of water – yay, Dad the hero! She dutifully took her medicine, tipped back in the passenger seat, and fell asleep for the hour-long drive home.

“Cardboard-box-mouth” notwithstanding, she came through the surgery well, and it was a relief to get home, relinquish the couch to Katie, and know that we’ll only have to go through this one more time with her little sister.

I remember when I had my Wisdom Teeth removed, in tenth grade. My doctor’s name was Dr. Shock. That’s a hard name to forget, for a doctor. My husband had his out a couple of years after we got married. Our son had his out three years ago. Like I said, it’s just a thing you do. A thing you take for granted.

But in this COVID19 world, nothing can be taken for granted any longer and that brings me to my point. Our church is opening this week. After three months, we can go to church! We’ll socially distance ourselves, we’ll bring masks, we won’t being singing, but we’ll be there. Together.

It is true that the church is not a building. It is God’s people. And I will be happy, indeed, to see those people again.

I pray that I won’t, in six months, or six years, take the opportunity to attend church for granted. I probably will. But I hope that I won’t. I hope that I will appreciate all that going to church gives me. And that, when I walk in its doors this Sunday morning, I will thank God, as never before, for the gift of my church family.

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” Ephesians 3:20,21 NIV

 

I believe!

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I grew up on an island in Washington State, in a cliff-top house with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the ocean. Straight across the water stood snowy Mt. Baker, which coughed up steam from time to time for our amusement.

Orca whales would breach in the water off our beach, their sighs loud enough to be heard from our deck. Bald eagles loved to sit in the dead snag on the edge of the cliff, and we’d watch seagulls dive-bomb them in a blatant display of gang warfare.

It was an amazing place to live, and I miss it.

As a result of that upbringing, vast expanses of view are as necessary as breathing to me. Luckily for me, I can find this on the prairie.

Unluckily for me, the prairie views don’t include mountains or whales. Though I do love catching sight of eagles from time to time.

More than once, in an insanely optimistic flash of joy, I have caught glimpses of mountains on my Minnesota horizon only to have my hopes dashed moments later when I realized that those mountains ranges were just clouds, heaped up like Trompe l’oeil paintings set out to fool gullible girls like me.

I have lived in Minnesota for 26 years. You’d think a girl could learn.

Recently I re-read Genesis and Exodus and I was struck by the thick-headedness of the Israelites.

“How we long for the leeks and cucumbers of Egypt,” the Israelites said over and over. “There is nothing to eat except this manna!”

This miraculous, God-given manna. What a total drag.

Did they not remember that they were slaves in Egypt! How easy it is to forget. How easy it is to disdain the miracles of God.

Am I guilty of forgetting? Do I scorn God’s provisions? Am I just like the Israelites?

Yes, I admit it. There are days I long for the leeks and cucumbers or, rather, the mountains and whales. I have scorned the flatness of the prairie, grumbled at the ever-present prairie wind.

My husband, Minnesota-born and bred, says I need to learn to find beauty in shades of brown. I say that takes more faith than I can muster up, some days.

But I’m learning.

Here, in the land where whales are rubber bath toys and Tide is a cleaning product rather than an oceanic process, I am discovering that fields of waving grass are simply a different kind of ocean. That the glory of a long-awaited spring is even more miraculous for the waiting.

I am discovering that I love watching the seasons pass in the furrows, seedlings, and eight-foot tall corn stalks. I can’t wait to see the mist of green sprouts spring up in the fields surrounding my house! I am choosing to find the beauty. Choosing to set aside my Israelite tendencies.

As it is said, “I believe! Help me in my unbelief.” Mark 9:24

Unexpected Blessings

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On a chilly morning early one spring, seconds after I waved good-bye to my husband and kids on their way to work and school, I received a text from my son.

“Pls get pics of moon! Dad says good camera not phone.”

“Oh, that’s right,” I thought, glancing out the window, “There’s an eclipse. And a blood moon to boot, whatever that means.”

Before I had time to remember what, exactly, that did mean, I received another text.

“Hurry! Setting.”

“Okay, okay,” I muttered – and texted – my reply. So while the moon proceeded on its downward course, I shoved on my shoes, decided I didn’t need a coat as it didn’t seem too cold, grabbed the good camera (decided to bring my phone along too), opened the door – ran back upstairs for the tripod – and then, slamming the door behind me, trotted over to the west side of the yard.

For several seconds I struggled to attach the camera to the tripod, but it was dark and I couldn’t get it. I finally gave up as the moon wasn’t stopping to wait for me, hopped for a steady hand, and began shooting pictures.

They turned out okay. Mostly it was neat just seeing the tail end of the eclipse in person without a viewfinder in the way.

Finally, feeling a little chilly and in need of some coffee, I picked up my gear and headed back to the front door. I turned the doorknob.

And discovered that the door was locked.

In the nine years of living in this house, this had never happened before. Optimistically, I tried all the doors – knowing full-well that they were locked too. Finally I sat down on the kitty house – the only dry spot on the deck owing to a light rain in the night – and sent a text to my husband.

After that I looked around the deck and felt the chill of the morning begin to sink in. I gazed longingly through the sliding glass door at the news, blaring away to an empty and warm house so close…and yet unreachable.

Seeing that only made me feel colder.

I checked my phone weather app. It was 39 degrees. I shivered and gazed around in growing despair. I had a moment right then. I could sit there and find things to complain about…or I could enjoy myself.

For a few moments I couldn’t decide which direction to choose – the way of self-pity or the way of hope. I looked around for the cats, feeling like their warmth might help me decide.

“Why do they always turn up underfoot when you don’t need them and when you do want a warm cat on your lap they’re nowhere to be seen?” I think I actually said this out loud.

Finally, I decided that cats or no cats, misery was dumb.

Then Colin texted that he’d be there as soon as he could. Okay. Awesome. I can do this.

I stood up and began walking around, snapping photos of frost on the grass and listening to the early-morning sounds. Cows in the field. Twittering birds. A Pheasant. Then a whole flock of ducks flew overhead, the sound of the wind through their wings filling the air.

I looked around my yard, across the street to the fields of corn, up at the blue, blue, sky. And I began to pray.

“Thanks that it’s not windy, God. That would have made this time pretty unbearable. As it is, it’s not so bad. Thanks that I grabbed my phone on my way out the door. Thanks for technology that can bring Colin back to rescue me without my having to walk a quarter mile to my neighbors in my pajamas. Thanks that Colin is not out of town like he was supposed to be this week. Thanks for the sounds, and scents, and beauty of this morning.”

I heard a car approach, heard it slow down. The garage door opened. One of the cats appeared.

I was saved.

But, really, I had been blessed already.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Why I go to church

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I grew up going to church at least three times a week. Sunday morning. Sunday evening. Wednesday night. In between those expected church times there was Good News Club, or rehearsals for the girls singing group I was in, or Christmas program practice, church work days, Vacation Bible School…you name it, I was there.

And I was okay with that.

I knew the building inside and out. I knew where the janitor kept the garbage bags, knew where the extra visitor cards were stored, knew how many choir robes there were hanging in the downstairs storage closet. I even spent happy hours up in the steeple (a fully sanctioned visit) vacuuming up dead flies.

I must admit that I even knew the exact length of time it took for a six year old to wiggle on her tummy beneath the pews down the length of the sanctuary – long enough for Daddy to be able to come down from the choir loft during practice and haul that six year old off the floor and plunk her down on the front pew with dire warnings not to budge until choir practice was finished.

I didn’t mind going to church because it was a place of safety. Of acceptance. I knew everyone and everyone knew me. They encouraged, acknowledged, and probably even reprimanded me. I felt secure there. Loved.

And yes, the stuff about God was fine, too. It was all part and parcel of the warm atmosphere of the building and the people.

I suppose that’s why it was such a shock to me when a friend asked me one day as we were playing if I intended to go to church when I grew up. I was probably about ten years old.

“What?” I asked, puzzled by her inquiry.

“Will you still go to church when you grow up and aren’t forced to go there by your parents?” she repeated, looking down at me through the rail of the loft in my bedroom where we were playing.

I looked up at her, uncomfortable with her question yet old enough to understand that she did not understand why it was that I went to church, why it was that my parents “forced” me to go with them.

I didn’t answer her question right away. I remember pausing to consider my words, thinking even as I did so that this was a great opportunity to explain to my friend why church was more than a building, why God was more than a concept, a cosmic being out there keeping His thumb on the world.

But I wasn’t very old, and I didn’t have the words.

I simply said, “Yeah. I’ll still go to church.”

“Why?” she asked from the loft, looking down on me in more than one way.

“Because of Jesus and stuff,” I replied, shrugging my shoulders.

“Huh,” she said. “I wouldn’t if I were you.”

I remember that moment with mixed emotions. I felt like I’d failed God in some huge way, missing out on an opportunity to “witness”, whatever exactly that was. But I also recall feeling sad for my friend. Sad that she didn’t understand the good stuff about church, the nice people, and the truth of Jesus’ love.

I do go to church now that I’ve grown up. I’m not there every time the doors are open – and I sometimes skip meetings that I ought to attend – but I go because I still really like the people I find there. That and I still I love Jesus.

Some people say that religion is a crutch. I prefer to think of it as a hand to hold through the mountains and valleys of life. What’s the difference? Maybe there isn’t one. But it doesn’t matter. I go to church not because it’s a habit or anyone is forcing me or I’m trying to make someone happy or it’s the social thing to do.

I go because I believe.

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:8,9, NIV.

Hands

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Not too long ago it was my turn to help serve communion at my church. This always makes me nervous. I worry that my hands will shake and I’ll drop the plate. I worry that I’ll somehow be a distraction. I worry that I’m not worthy. Which of course I’m not but Jesus loves me anyway.

Usually we pass the plate from row to row, the servers facilitating the process as we progress up the aisles. But on this particular week our pastor shook things up a little and had the congregation come forward to receive the elements.

I stood, along with three others, at the front of the sanctuary, holding a shiny tray filled with tiny communion cups. I kept my eyes focused on the tray, silently watching as each person’s hands moved toward their chosen cup, seeing their fingers rise above my focus then move past me to the bread.

Seeing the variety of God’s people in their hands.

There were small hands, unlined, unsure, untaught. The owners of these hands hesitated before choosing their cup. Perhaps this one is better? These were hands that wear Band-Aids like badges of honor. That boast ink stains that don’t easily wash off because they used indelible ink even though Mom told them not to.

Where will those hands go, over time? How will they find ways to serve the Lord? Will they always make the right choice? So many possibilities.

There were middle-aged hands, more worn and rough than the previous ones, which reached confidently for their cups before moving on. They had found their place in the world. Found ways to prove their worth through the years, serving God, serving their families, serving communion themselves, in their turn. Sure, they have made wrong choices, but yet here they are, taking communion amongst their peers, knowing that God’s grace covers over a multitude of sins.

There were old hands. Thin of finger and skin, lined and freckled with age. These were knowledgeable hands, slowed by the wisdom that sudden decisions can lead to regrets. They were strong hands, once. Skilled hands. Hands that have seen their skills betray them through tremors and frailty and age. Cool, dry, hands that take yours in greeting each week and give you confidence to carry on.

And there were farmer’s hands. Calloused, they were, and bent. Marked by deep lines and sun. Gnarled. Thick. Strong enough to endure the rigors of life. Scarred and marred by the hazards of their trade.
Not unlike Jesus’ hands, I’d imagine. Scarred. Marked by his trade as a carpenter. Marked by Roman brutality. Yet gentled by the grace of His father.

I wonder, if I held the communion tray and His hands reached for the cup, would I recognize His scars? Would my heart leap as His hands came into view? Would I know, without looking up, who it was that stood before me?

Or would I watch His hands pass by as the others did? Just one more hand in the line. One more face in the crowd. Not drawing attention to Himself. Not wanting to distract. Only wanting to serve.

Yeah, this church thing…it works for me. No, we’re not perfect. Yes, we have quirks and do weird things. Sure, there are Sunday mornings when I’d rather stay in bed, have brunch, drink my coffee out on the deck to the sound of birds chirping and my neighbor mowing his lawn.

But when it all comes down to it, all that weirdness is done for Jesus. All those raised arms and ageless hymns and tiny plastic communion cups. For Jesus. All the committee meetings and baby dedications and Vacation Bible Schools. For Jesus. All the rote recitations and misunderstood motivations. Jesus. He’s why I do what I do.

This is where my story is leading me.

“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:28