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A week and a half ago, Sunday, the kids and I went to church. As usual we were late, and as usual I made my way to an empty seat during the worship part of the service. There were empty seats on both sides, and as I often do during worship, I sang and looked around the people gathered in the sanctuary that Sunday. (The sanctuary is amphitheater-shaped, so it’s easy to see the folks below and around you.) And yes, as usual, I saw families, couples, groups of people that I knew came there together. As I raised my hands high and bellowed out praises, I felt a pang of sadness seeing the empty seat next to me. How many times had I come to church alone? How many times did I long to share with my spouse the joy of worship, of that greatest communion of believers? I wondered if the couples standing and sitting below me truly appreciated what they were experiencing there, together, refreshed and united through word and song. Yes, sometimes my husband came. But he was not with me – he would often leave before the service began, or endure the sermon, fighting sleep and boredom. Sitting next to each other but desperately alone, abjectly looking forward, we did not feel any closeness.

I also thought about Eve and her curse. Two lines haunt me often: Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. That curse is as relevant today, as it was when it was first uttered. On a global scale, man continues to dominate over woman, holding most positions of power, violating women, killing them through war, political conflict, domestic violence. And on the level of each family, each couple, the husband more often than not dominates not only because of his sheer strength and cultural/ethnic traditions, but because the woman desires him . Her desperate need makes her vulnerable, and even if the man does not mean to do so, he has control over her. In the end, she is ruled by her own desire and her desperation. The tragedy of the curse is that both people become hostages – the woman needs from the man that which he cannot provide, the man feels inadequate because the woman’s need is too great. Of course the answer is simple: the woman needs to turn to God.

Only the Lord can fill that need. But how incredibly difficult it is to change focus! All we need to do it turn, and God would heal us (Matthew 13:15). But within the context of the intoxicating draw that women feel towards men (and vice-versa), this conversion seems to border on impossible.

The singing continued, and I imagined the possibility of another man standing next to me. What if there was someone out there, who would want to live worship together? Who would understand the importance of this shared experience, who would do it gladly, openly? I glanced at the seat again. It was still empty but suddenly I fancied that I saw Jesus there, smiling and worshiping, grinning at me. It’s like He was saying, “I’ll come – take me along…” And I imagined the various scenarios from the minutiae of getting to church – buckling the kids up in their car seats, me climbing in the driver’s seat, Jesus hopping in the passenger, popping Ella and Louie into the CD player, rolling down the windows… Walking to church, me holding Leo’s hand, Him holding Vierra’s. The pain lifted. I grinned back and sang louder.

Sunday came again, and again we went to church. This time my husband wanted to go, and we went together, all four of us, as a family. The kids went to their program and we went to the worship service. And so we sat there, peaceful in the eye of the tornado of our marriage unraveling all around us. The tethers and cords that held that frail entity in place were snapping, tearing off, breaking under the strain of so many hurts. But there in that warm and well-lit place we felt safe. My husband put his arm around me, and I instinctively huddled closer. Now we looked like that stereotypical, happily married Christian couple. Now I had finally received, after many years, that which I had yearned for. But I…

I didn’t need him there anymore.

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I had a great friend a while back, who was in the habit of thanking people. It was never a “thanks” tossed over the shoulder, but always a “Thank you”, said with an open smile while meeting the eye of the thankee. In this manner he would thank the Jamba Juice worker handing him his shot of wheat grass juice, the professor for congratulating him on a successfully published paper, or me, for giving him a tissue after a sneeze. Unknowingly I picked up the habit, and it grew exponentially to the point that now it is near absurd.

Still, please indulge me as I have some people to thank.

Thank you, Annie, for buying my little board that I painted with the traditional Russian khokhloma design several years ago. We had been visiting the fam in San Diego and you came over for tea. It was so great to see you again. And then, remember, I told you about the Russian boards that I was painting, and you said you wanted to buy one. You wrote me a check. I looked at it after you left – you paid $100 for a ten dollar knick-nack. The following year you sent us $200 for Thanksgiving, when you found out that there were cuts across our company and I was let go. Annie, I know how much community college instructors make. Your generosity has no bounds.

While I am at it, really wanted to thank that anonymous kind soul that paid for my toll. I was driving home in the grey and desolate Houston November, shaking from fatigue, marveling at the dissonance that never ceases to surprise me: full-time, intense and demanding work, and still not even enough change on me to pay the stupid road toll. Pulling up in the line of cars, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I would not even be able to coherently explain, since I had been interpreting at a deep-well offshore drilling workshop all day, where the US specialists were teaching their Russian coutnerparts how to use imaging software to determine which soil layers may potentially store oil deposits, yada yada. You sat in the car in front of me, and I saw you wave as you pulled out. The teller told me that my toll was already paid.

Thank you, kind farmer, for giving us two huge bags of collards and kale and mustand greens for free. I shared with our friends, and we all had dinner. You probably didn’t know, but it made my day. I know that you are no better off than we, but together, somehow, we’ll pull through.

Thank you, cook lady at the kids’ old daycare. You brought in several huge bags of clothes for my little ones. It’s been over a year and still 90% of my son’s wardrode comes from those bags of shirts and pants, pj’s and sweaters, all washed and neatly folded for us, total strangers.

And another kind teacher at the kids’ other preschool. I will never forget how after class, when everyone was gone and I was the last one picking up my kids because I worked an hour away, you came up to me and told me that you didn’t want to offend me, asked me not to take it the wrong way, and offered to buy my son a warmer coat. It was also last year, when suddenly, within a couple of days, it turned from summer to winter and we just hadn’t adjusted mentally to the change in the temperature, and Leo came to school with only a sweater on. Out of your poverty you wanted to give us everything that you had.

Sibling – you let me off the hook for a huge debt. For that, and for so much else, I am even more indebted to you. But in a good way. I feel compelled to find ways to pay it forward. Thank you.

Last one for today: you gentle, kind man from the poetry club. You were there at the open mic last night, where I dragged my spouse and offspring, hoping to get a chance to read something, hoping to get grounded as I felt the ground sliping from beneath me. “I haven’t seen you for a while” you said. “Yeah, I’ve been down and under” I told you, “But I’m here now…” I couldn’t say anymore, because the way you peered at my through your thick glasses reflected the pain you must have seen in me. “I know we don’t know each other very well, but if you ever need to talk…” Thank you. That’s what I told you. “Thank you.”

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
(Matthew 25:34-40).

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